A black-and-white image of two male construction workers, wearing hard hats, in conversation.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.

Two weeks later, Frank and Dmitry were hanging the second-floor joists, one of those repetitive two-man jobs where you can have a decent conversation, sitting on top of opposite framed walls.

“Trog thinks your father was in the drug business, too,” Frank said. Trog had met Dmitry’s father Edwin in the 1970s, smuggling hash up from Morocco for the English market—Trog was smuggling hash, at any rate, and he suspected Edwin was as well, although Edwin never copped to it, and had a front as an importer of rugs and kilims and antiques, never letting on otherwise. On the ferry between Algeciras and Tangier, Trog could be mistaken for little except what he was, an American hippie drug dealer, but Edwin might have been a schoolteacher, an archeologist, a mining engineer. One day, the bartender in Trog’s local pub in Hackney whispered to him that some very square guy, reeking of Interpol, had been around asking questions. Trog decided it was time to close shop and head back to the hill country of Massachusetts. He packed up his British wife Catherine and a box of books and flew home. He grew a little weed behind his house but was otherwise retired.

“Franky, the simple fact is this: I know nothing about my father,” he said.

Having had a tough father himself, the kind of guy who would beat the crap out of you one minute and give you big hugs (and a sermon) the next, and who died young—his anger, Frank always assumed, causing an aneurysm to burst in his brain before he hit sixty—Frank was completely prepared for the I hate my father talk. And, frankly, where else do you go after I know nothing about him?

“What do you mean you know nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Was he a drinker?” Frank asked.

“No.”

“Angry?”

“No, mild-mannered to a fault,” Dmitry said. “He is like, I don’t know—he’s like the clerk at the shop where you buy your bread, or your auto parts salesman, excuse me salesperson, someone you don’t really take any notice of, a nonentity.”

They pulled the twenty-foot-long slabs of fir into place, their legs dangling into what would be the living room, slipping each board into galvanized hangers, and toed a few 10d nails into the plate and end joist, a task which always took Frank half the time it took Dmitry on his end.

“You’re killing me. You’re getting paid by the hour,” Frank said for the umpteenth time. “I’m getting paid by the house.”

Dmitry would then stop altogether, and say, “But, Franky! You own the means of production—for instance, you own this hammer —and my surplus labor is going into your pocket.” Frank had been telling him about Marx, his latest reading, and proud as he was of his autodidactic accomplishments, he also wondered how much of it he had wrong.

When Dmitry finally finished nailing, they grabbed the next joist and slid it in.

“I mean, he was a smuggler of some sort, right?” Frank said. “That makes him at least mildly interesting. Morocco in the ’70s? That’s interesting.”

“Perhaps,” Dmitry said. But he didn’t seem to be really thinking about it. He had lost interest.

They talked some other nonsense for a while, and then, out of the blue, Dmitry said, “I realize now that you are right, Franky, that my father would have been an excellent smuggler, because like any proficient spy he is so ordinary he would never in a million years be suspected or even noticed. You look at him and your eye is immediately drawn elsewhere, not because he’s hideous or repulsive or anything, but because he’s unable to inspire interest. Look at him a split second and you find yourself contemplating the picnic table next to him, or the yew hedge behind him, or the grass to the left of his shoe, all of which seem more engaging.” He thought for a moment, sank a nail. “And if he was a spy, it would explain everything…” He trailed off, but then, slipping the next joist in, said, “Yes, that’s it, Franky. My daddy is MI6. Hence the fancy electronic gear in the attic.”

“Seriously?”

“Deadly serious.” He wasn’t. “And perhaps this is true of all successful spies; there is no way of knowing whether he is one unless he were to be arrested. Then we’d all go on the telly, like the neighbors of serial murderers, and say, he was always so quiet.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Ask him if he’s a spy?” he said, with a half laugh, followed by a moment of hesitation. Why he couldn’t hit a nail while he was thinking Frank would never understand, and asking would just mean they’d waste more minutes while he explained. “You don’t understand, Franky. He’s not a man you ask questions. It’s not a psychological thing—well, it is psychological I suppose, but not about my psychology, and not his exactly—even if you intend to ask him a question, one look at him and you realize you can’t, any more than you could ask a tree, or a cow”—and here he let out one of his distressingly regular, long-burst farts, the result of eating a pound of Oreo cookies every day—“I mean you can, after all, ask him what time it is or whether he would mind passing the butter. You just can’t ask him a real question. It’s as if some force field surrounds him that transmogrifies every serious query into, Look like rain to you?—or no, not even that, that’s too ominous: Right, then? That’s all you can ask: Right, then? His answer, ineluctably, is, Yes, right, then. I’m not kidding, Franky. Somehow, alchemically, or like an invisible centrifuge taking your words and separating out all their meaning, conversation is drained of content. Right, then?” He paused in fake anticipation. “Right-o!” They slipped another twenty-foot joist into its hangers. “Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “He’s a perfectly pleasant chap. Perfectly pleasant.”

“I don’t know,” Frank said. “Maybe that’s not such a bad way for a father to be, kind of neutral.”

Dmitry sighed.

“Honestly, Franky, you have to get over your father, you really do. Yes, he was a little brutal, OK,” he said, and added, in his American guy accent, “Hey, really, it’s hanging you up, man,” and then, back in his own voice, “That stuff with your dad. Let it go. I’m so much younger than you and already I don’t really care about my father’s non-entityness. I don’t, Franky, it’s just that you asked.”

Frank was shocked, since most of the time whatever he said seemed to act simply as prompts for further tangential monologue on Dmitry’s part, and the last thing he expected was any insight. But Dmitry was right that he spent too much time pitying himself for his tragic youth. His father was complicated. He should get over it. He was careening toward thirty. It was time to let his dead father stay dead. They were lowering the last joist into place, a natural endpoint for the conversation.

“I don’t think I did ask,” Frank said.

“Yes, yes, Franky,” he said slowly, in the patient schoolteacher mode he reserved for whenever Frank didn’t get a joke. “I know you didn’t. Try to keep up.”

They tacked the last joist in place, stood up and stretched.

Paul was supposed to come after work each day and put in a few hours, but never did. Sometimes he had to work late, sometimes his wife made him come home, sometimes his kids were in a play or had a soccer game or a dentist’s appointment. Yes, it pissed Frank off: I may not be much, he thought to himself, but I’m an honest man, and Paul may not have been intentionally lying (except to his wife, Margie, about their business plan), but liar or not, he never came after work, except to check in for a half hour. And he did fairly short days on the weekends too, at most. Since he wasn’t much with a hammer, when Frank did the math, he figured it only cost the project a percent or two, Paul flaking off like that, but it still irked.

And the upside was that, until Dmitry arrived, he had the tent to himself. From sundown to sunrise he could read unmolested, a utility light hanging from the ridgepole. The setup was kind of perfect for that—no TV, no nothing, alone with his books. Even after Dmitry got there, he managed to read through the guy’s snoring an hour or so before falling asleep and an hour in the morning. He always read during lunch and he made Dmitry drive when they went into town so he could get a few more pages in. Struggling through the glorious The Sound and the Fury at night, and reading Beyond Good and Evil during the day, he was swirling in a world of coincidence—every line he read in Nietzsche seemed to explain Faulkner and vice versa. Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself, Nietzsche says, for instance, and all those characters in The Sound and the Fury, what else do they do? And when he says that distrust and doubt are healthy, that anything unconditional is pathological—Faulkner meant Quentin as perfect proof.

And Frank loved the idea that he was using such a tiny amount of fossil fuel energy. His entire home consumption consisted of a single lightbulb a few hours a night. He bathed in a small pond. He used the woods as a toilet. Yes, his tools used a lot of energy building the house, as did his truck, running to the lumberyard. But that was business. In his private life he was almost fossil-fuel-free. He was saving the planet every day.

The downside of the whole arrangement, aside from the mess Dmitry made of the tent, was Margie. On weekends she would show up on the site and be a general pain in the ass, like all career-less clients anywhere. He tried to tell himself that she wasn’t a real client, that she wasn’t going to move in anyway, but it didn’t help. She changed her mind and made him rip out perfect work and redo it slightly differently, like a lot of rich people do—make a closet six inches bigger, move a window two inches to the right—but more aggravating was the fact that her default expression was mild disgust, as if no matter what she was talking about, she was, at the same time, noticing that you smelled like a dead possum. Dmitry’s arrival helped; she had someone she found even more distasteful than Frank.

He knew it happened in lots of places—migrant farmers’ camps, people building roads in the High Pamir, all those guys working the mines in the Andes—but for an average adult American, living in a tent with another grown man is a little out of the ordinary. Even most homeless people don’t share their makeshift shelters. It’s hard enough putting up with another person when you’re having sex with them—to have to live in the same room with their dirty laundry and farting through the night and the rest of it and get no love or sex? Like prison.

And as with prison, he started to recognize a forced camaraderie, accidental bonding. He was almost ten years older than Dmitry, so felt like a mentor, a teacher to his student, and that gave him some satisfaction.

Every man has his price, people say,” he read out loud one night, sitting on a crate as Dmitry laid back on his air mattress, cutting his overgrown toenails. “This is not true. But for every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing. To win over certain people to something—you’re going to pick up that disgusting crud, aren’t you?—it is only necessary to give it a gloss of love of humanity, nobility, gentleness, self-sacrifice—and there is nothing you cannot get them to swallow. To their souls, these are the icing, the tidbit; other kinds of souls have others.”

“Wait, Franky,” Dmitry said. “Who is swallowing what?”

“He’s saying that we can all get suckered into anything if people appeal to some sense of self, or some vanity–”

“Yes, yes, Franky, but first he says a man’s price is a bait he can’t resist swallowing, and if he takes the bait, then you can get him to swallow anything—it’s like an improperly mixed metaphor.”

“But the point–”

“Yeah, the point—but what’s the icing, the bait they swallow or the stuff they swallow because they swallowed the bait?”

“The bait,” Frank said, but then he wondered. Maybe not.

It didn’t matter. These discussions, even when he was unsure, made him feel smart.

“What’s your bait, Franky?” Dmitry asked.

He thought about it. It was probably the desire to be seen as smart, well-read, like he was trying to do right then.

And his boat. His boat was his bait. Or his icing.

His idea had always been, during those years, that one day, after learning how to build staircases and bookshelves, additions and outbuildings for people, how to do kitchens and baths and cabinets, he would be able to fulfill his lifelong dream and build a big wooden sailboat for himself. He could live on it. He could go down the coast to Florida, up to Canada, again, fossil-fuel-free. The fact that he might never put the money together, that he knew nothing about boatbuilding, that he had yet to bend a board or use fiberglass, that the entirety of what he knew about sailing was based on an hour on a Sunfish in Lake Hopatcong when he was ten: these things didn’t at all diminish his enthusiasm. His boat—that was his bait. And the money he was going to make with Paul. And the love of a good woman. And a new truck with an extended cab. And—what wasn’t his bait?

“I think,” Dmitry said when he didn’t answer, “it is exactly what Nietzsche said: the gloss of humanity, nobility. That’s what you want. You want to be Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Not be them, actually, but receive the adulation they got. That, and your ocean-going sailboat. And pussy.”

“Pussy!” Frank scoffed.

“Oh, yes, Franky, you think you hide it, but you are an insatiable pussy hound. You can’t see a woman and not think about it.”

“That’s not true,” he said. “Margie, Tracy—the list goes on and on.”

“Yes, but that list is not very long, is it—it’s two—and we both know those two women scare you, and neither will have you. You’ve got no moral high ground there. I’m surprised you haven’t had an accident when you drive, the way you stare at even the most marginally attractive women walking down the street.”

“Like you don’t.”

“Of course, I do! But I know the value of pussy in my—what did you call it?—my hierarchy of human needs, Franky.”

“That’s not what Maslow’s talking about.”

“Well I think it is—in fact I’m quite sure it is—what I’m talking about. Or was. Now I’m going to sleep.” But true to form he wasn’t finished, and after three or four beats he went on. “I wonder if other people have people who read for them. Like literary servants, literary butlers, people who give them little digests of this book or that. It’s much more efficient than reading them yourself.”

“But you miss so much—reading isn’t about efficiency.”

“I’m not sure. We can check in two weeks. We’ll see who remembers more about Beyond Good and Evil—me or you. Or if efficiency isn’t the right word, tell me what is: the benefit remains the same, but the cost gets cut almost in half, two people get the benefits of reading and only one has to read. It’s remarkably efficient.”

“What about pleasure?”

“I’m all for it, Franky.”

“The pleasure of reading.”

“Ah, but it has to be weighed against other pleasures, does it not? After all, we are, as you say, condemned to reproduce ourselves as workers and manufacture surplus value for our evil capitalist masters—that would be you and Paul—and that only leaves so much time for the pursuit of pleasure. And ‘Time,’ I believe Quentin Compson’s father tells him, doesn’t he, Franky, ‘Time is man’s misfortune.’

He was an excellent student and had an uncanny memory for these bits Frank would read aloud out of pure exuberance.

Much later, after everything that happened, Frank no longer found much pleasure in the Great Books—he suspected they mocked him, that they, in a way, had written his own downfall, his own eventual exile. But back then he was elated by them, thrilled when he read one, and thrilled again when he read the best parts to his tent-mate or anyone else who would listen. Dmitry didn’t get the time quote exactly right: “Man is the sum of his misfortunes,” Mr. Compson says. “One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune.” Amen, Mr. Bill Faulkner, Frank thought, although he supposed Dmitry’s version was more efficient. Dmitry had berated Faulkner for another logical inconsistency, because elsewhere Mr. Compson says that “Only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Dmitry had a complicated argument about why both statements can’t be true, something to the effect that if they were, we could avoid all misfortune by watching the clock. And to top it off, Dmitry said, Mr. Compson was a pompous ass.

Maybe.

Not that it matters, in the long run.

Despite Frank acting as Dmitry’s teacher part of the time, they were basically fraternal. They spent almost every hour of ten weeks together, eating, sleeping, talking, working, drinking, going to the strip club, eating, talking, sleeping, working. They got confessional, on occasion, telling each other stories they didn’t often tell, even if they were somewhat plagiaristic, as Fitzgerald says, the dramatis personae borrowed from central casting and the plots marred by obvious suppressions. They had shared some of their dreams, however shopworn, however often they had been checked out from the local dream library before. They dissected their family lives and romantic histories. They got philosophical, speculative, utopic, dialectical. They got to know each other.

They were young men, eighteen and twenty-six, and therefore both still quite confused about sex, or maybe just Frank was. As in all male intimacies, there were vast, unmentioned continents, unspoken-for and unspoken-about territory. And at the same time, as in all male intimacies, they could sometimes indulge in unexpected, bitter honesty.

“My older sister, Franky,” Dmitry said, as they were falling asleep on their respective air mattresses one night in the moldy canvas tent, reeking by then of their dirty laundry, “was the constant companion of my puberty. As I was first sprouting mons pubis hair, she was there to point it out to me, and then—you can imagine, Franky, how thrilling this was for a twelve-year-old boy—she offered as a comparative study the observation of her own sparse, fourteen-year-old curls. As my erections grew more—because I know you value a certain amount of sexual politesse, Franky, I’ll just say, as they grew more insistent—she showed me a number of things that could be done with said erections. When I experienced my first orgasm, it was under her hand, as it were.” Frank didn’t say anything, and Dmitry looked at him sideways. “We live in a society that frowns on such things, Franky. One might even say that they are taboo.”

“Duh.”

“Yeah, no, really, duh. And yet you do not react with the disgust which, we are told by the anthropologists and ethnologists, the thwarting of such taboos should engender.” He was being parodic, speaking in some caricature of academese, some burlesque of learned discourse. Making fun of the way Frank talked about books, in other words. “Why do you think that is?”

“Freud says childhood sexuality is normal.”

“Ah,” he said, mocking Frank’s evasiveness. “But this wasn’t normal, was it, Franky?” He paused, then went on. “As we got older, I began to find it all quite confusing. She would come home from a date and tell me how in love she was with Micky or Jake, and how magnificently they had just made love to her in their car, or in the woods, and how wonderful it made her feel, and then she would grab me, find me aroused, and mount me. She would be especially wet at such times, Franky, and at some point I came upon the only reasonable and necessary conclusion available to me, the conclusion that me own sister was a bit of a hussy, perhaps even a bit of a who-er.” This was supposed to be funny, and he tried to toss it off lightly, but he couldn’t avoid betraying, Frank thought, a deep sadness.

Then again, whether this was revelation or bullshit, he couldn’t say. He knew nothing. He sure as hell did not see Dmitry’s future coming, could never have guessed in a million years that the Strange and Fantastical Life of Dmitry Heald, the whole stupendous, horrific, glorious mess, would turn out to be what it catastrophically turned out to be. He never thought he’d have any reason to deeply regret it all, to shudder whenever he reviewed the gory tale of their friendship.

2002

If you had asked Frank, at the end of that long summer, if he’d ever see Dmitry again, he would have said absolutely not. Dmitry had proven himself not just a lousy worker and a horrible slob, but a full-out criminal, and he had fucked over Frank in a half dozen ways—and, well, long story short, Dmitry was back in England, so chances were slim to none they’d run into each other. Frank had never been west of Pennsylvania or east of Rhode Island, so how would he end up in England?

When they finished the house in Connecticut, Paul and Margie moved into it instead of selling it, and that was Dmitry’s fault, too—he had completely tanked Frank’s relationship with Paul, everyone’s relationship with everyone, and by the time he left, all was fucked, and Paul wasn’t about to be reminded of the debacle every day by working with Frank. Paul’s excuse was that his wife had forced his hand, made him keep the house because she “fell in love with it”—and of course she fell in love with it, since it was tricked out with the best plumbing fixtures and surfaces money could buy: expensive tile, overpriced cabinets, the latest granite countertops, more bathrooms than a family could ever use. Paul never paid him anything, the scumbag, beyond the starvation wages he charged to their joint venture to feed Frank’s busted family and keep him in American cheese sandwiches for five months. When Frank ran the numbers, he ended up with a considerably lower hourly rate than he paid Dmitry. He knew that Paul was angry with him, that he blamed him for Dmitry’s various crimes, and that it gave Paul a certain amount of satisfaction to screw him out of his half. Frank walked away with a pile of credit card debt and Paul walked away with a house now worth a million dollars. And Paul was mad at Frank. Chief John Ross had it right, Frank thought: we never forgive our victims.

Tom Lutz

Tom Lutz is the author of, among other books, And the Monkey Learned Nothing, Drinking Mare's Milk on the Roof of the World, and Crying, which have been translated into a dozen languages, and several of which have been named New York Times Notable Books. His Doing Nothing won the American Book Award. He is the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Born Slippy is his first novel.

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