Hugh Sanderson remembered hearing things at the age of seventeen that he had not been meant to hear, words between his father and his big brother. William, twenty-two years old at that time, had just been preparing to take his seat among the company’s junior management, while Hugh had yet to decide between Yale and NYU.
* * *
When William and Dad walked out to the pool patio one warm evening, young Hugh had been napping in the darkness of a guest bedroom, and the sliding glass door that faced the patio stood open a crack.
The first words Hugh could hear were spoken by his father: “Sometimes you have to do these things.” He guessed right away that they were discussing what they called the “Filbert situation.”
Sanderson Tropical Timber had acquired a non-tropical subsidiary that harvested in California. Victor Filbert was a California state senator spearheading a bill that would have put limitations on logging in old-growth forests. The senator had convinced his committee to turn to the courts to stop the Sanderson subsidiary’s activities near the central coast.
“People attack you through the courts to take what you’ve earned,” his father said. “They use the press to smear you, and then they pay a judge to rob you while you’re weak.”
Hugh could see William nodding nervously.
“You get some prick of a state senator who decides to defend the raccoons so he can get the nature boys’ vote. And he probably gets kickbacks from other loggers who are just going to sneak in with their own saws later, when the tree fairies aren’t watching. He gets free advertising from eco-freaks who mention him in their books. He gets all this momentum in his campaign over some forest he doesn’t even give a goddamn about, and all of a sudden there’s a ruling that says you can’t harvest any more trees out in the middle of Bumfuck. You might even have to pay a big fine for the ones you’ve already cut. You see where I’m going with this?”
“I think so,” William replied.
“Good. Because when it’s time to fight your way out of this kind of thing, you need a friend like Lou Burr. You met him in Detroit when we drove around the Great Lakes, that year I was introducing you around to everybody.”
“The office on the docks, right?”
“I’m glad to hear you remember him. You made an impression on him, too. He asked about you the other day when I called him up. And you’re going to make sure he keeps on remembering you, so that you can count on him someday like I’m counting on him right now, right as we speak. Chances are you’ll need to. That’s why we send him gifts at Christmas, and why we’ll send gifts to his kids when they graduate, and when they get married and when they make him a grandfather. You’ll need to keep in touch with those kids, too, for when one of them takes over.”
“I understand,” William said.
“He’s not cheap. And sometimes all you get is a referral to someone more specialized, and that other service won’t be cheap, either. But keeping in touch with Lou and his family is like major medical insurance; you hope you never need it, but you damn well better have it. It’s worth every penny and every ounce of time we put into maintaining that relationship.”
The heavy talk impressed the eavesdropping, seventeen-year-old Hugh, but did not shock him. He would not even be shocked the next morning when he read that State Senator Filbert’s teenage son had been taken to the hospital with three broken limbs after being knocked off his bicycle by a hit-and-run driver. Nor would it shake his world to learn less than forty-eight hours later that, with no public explanation, Filbert had abandoned his feverish protection of old-growth redwood stands.
Hugh might even have forgotten that conversation on the patio, had it not been for what his father said next:
“Hugh doesn’t need to know about any of this.”
“I understand. He’s young yet.”
“It’s not just that, Will. Huey’s head’s in the clouds. Your mother’s got him filled with fantasies about living the life of a socialite, going off to the ivy league and meeting all the right people. She’s got him thinking those are the connections that count. When I try to talk him down to earth, it’s like he doesn’t even hear me. And if he does go off and have the kind of experience your mother thinks is so goddamned important, he’s going to come back when he’s your age without a clue about anything in the real world.”
There were other matters from which Will and Dad studiously excluded Hugh. There were the details of a buyout in Central America, and a multiple injured-worker lawsuit in an Indonesian court. But Lou Burr stood as a symbol of all the kinds of knowledge that William and Dad thought he could not handle.
At home he had listened for news of the Burrs and copied information from his father’s address books. He’d even gone to the Detroit docks and driven past the small-cargo service that Burr owned as a front. He’d gotten Dad’s secretary to give him birthday information for the Burr kids, and had begun sending them cards and gift certificates signed with only his own name.
Some day he would say to William, “Yes, I knew about it all those years ago. During the Filbert situation. Dad thought I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, but I never said a word to anyone, and you never even realized that I knew. If you don’t believe me, ask Lou’s daughter Jenn if she hasn’t been getting cards and magazine gift subscriptions from me since she was ten years old.”
* * *
That day had not come yet. Another had.
Sitting in his office in the French colonial mansion outside Prospérité, Hugh made his first ever phone call to Lou Burr’s people.