Trajectory by Richard Russo



  The Risk Pool

  Nobody’s Fool

  Straight Man

  Empire Falls

  The Whore’s Child

  Bridge of Sighs

  That Old Cape Magic



  Everybody’s Fool


  Copyright © 2017 by Richard Russo

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  “Horseman” originally appeared in Atlantic Monthly (2006); “Voice” originally was published as a novella, Nate in Venice (Byliner, 2013); and “Intervention” originally appeared as a novella, in Interventions: A Novella & Three Stories (Down East Books, 2012).

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Russo, Richard, 1949– author. | Russo, Richard, 1949– Horseman. | Russo, Richard, 1949– Intervention.

  Title: Trajectory / by Richard Russo. Other titles: Horseman. | Intervention.

  Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2016041261 (print) | LCCN 2016049202 (ebook) | ISBN 9781101947722 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781101947739 (ebook)

  Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Short Stories (single author). | FICTION / Family Life.

  Classification: LCC PS3568.U812 A6 2017 (print) | LCC PS3568.U812 (ebook) | DDC 813/.54—dc23

  LC record available at​2016041261

  Ebook ISBN 9781101947739

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Cover photograph by John MacLean / Millennium Images, UK

  Cover design by Kelly Blair



  For Steve Murtagh and Tom Butler



  Also by Richard Russo

  Title Page






  Milton and Marcus

  Reading Group Guide


  Whenever the moon and stars are set,

  Whenever the wind is high,

  All night long in the dark and wet,

  A man goes riding by.

  Though only four in the afternoon, it was already dusk outside and the wind was blowing hard enough to set the quad’s trees in motion, the nearest branches scratching insistently on the window of Janet Moore’s office. Was it the turbulence outside that had invited the horseman to gallop into her consciousness, or the silence of the sullen boy sitting across from her? The lines were from a children’s poem, the one Robbie read to Marcus, their son, every night before he went to sleep, and they haunted her with the force of a childhood memory, even though she’d never heard the poem until just over a decade ago, as a grad student. Now it kept her up long after Robbie had come in and fallen asleep beside her—All night long in the dark and wet—and sometimes she’d wake in the middle of the night with the verses still echoing. Had they been some sort of dream, repeating on an endless loop? Lately, the horseman had appeared in her daylight thoughts as well. When jogging in the woods behind the college, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence—Whenever the moon and stars are set—as if she were a horse herself. And then, when it suddenly seemed like she was clomping not through the woods but an endless cemetery, there came an even-more-familiar heartsickness.

  A moment before, she had been feeling both angry and self-righteous—easy, unambiguous emotions that in these circumstances she was entitled to. It angered her, and rightly so, that students were more likely to cheat in her classes than in those of her male colleagues, or to be tardier, to openly question her authority, to give her mediocre evaluations at the end of the term. Worse still, that they held her to a higher standard was actually unwitting. Had anyone asked if they were prejudiced against female professors, not one would answer yes. Hook them up to a lie detector, and every last one would pass.

  This probably included James Cox, seated before her now, sockless boat shoe balanced on khakied knee, still smug, even though the fact that she had him dead to rights was beginning to dawn on him. He was studying, or pretending to, the two typed pages she’d given him—one with his own name in the upper-right-hand corner, and another that had been handed in to her four years earlier—with feigned astonishment, as if the similarities between them were just the damnedest thing, amazing, really, like frogs, thousands of them, falling out of a cloudless sky.

  Next door she heard Tony Hope, her best friend in the department, bang his office door shut behind him. Earlier, she’d told him about this plagiarism case she had to deal with, and he’d offered to loiter outside, just in case. These days, all teachers were vulnerable. Cornered, female students would sometimes accuse male professors of making sexual advances, while similarly cornered males could act belligerently with female teachers. But James Cox had arrived late, no surprise, and Tony had already agreed to meet a couple of his seniors at the Hub Pub. When he paused, eyebrows arched, in her half-open doorway, she gestured that everything was fine and it was okay for him to leave. Probably it was.

  Tony shrugged and then, before she could look away, did the jockey thing that always gave her a shiver. At the beginning of the term she’d made the mistake of telling him about the horseman, how Marcus refused to go to sleep until Robbie had read him the poem, and that afterward Robbie, unaware how deeply those lines weirded her out, would appear in their bedroom looking forlorn and hoping for sex. At times he even pretended to be the horseman of the poem, straddling her on the bed, reciting melodramatically—Whenever the moon and stars are set. That was about as far as he’d get before she hissed, “Stop it!”—not wanting him to wake Marcus up, but also genuinely furious that he couldn’t see how creepy this scenario was as foreplay.

  As good as it had felt to tell someone, Tony Hope had been the wrong person to confide in. She might have predicted he’d turn it into a joke, and the very next afternoon, emerging into the quad after class, she heard her name shouted, and there was Tony bestride the library steps in a jockey stance, bent knees together, hands out in front, gripping invisible reins, his butt lowering and rising rhythmically. Over the course of the semester, this act had become a flexible metaphor—that it was time to saddle up and teach another class, or to grab some lunch at the union, or, as it did now, to lock up and head on out, See ya in the mornin’, sweetheart.

  When she heard the double doors at the end of the corridor clang shut, Janet turned back to her student, whose demeanor had changed dramatically. The feigned astonishment had evaporated. He slumped in his chair now, like a beaten fighter in the late rounds, with barely enough cognition left to recognize futility when he saw it up close. He met her eye for a split second, and if he’d held it a beat longer Janet herself would have been the one to turn away, but the branch rustling against the windowpane caught his attention and he stared outside at the tiny cyclones of the dead leaves whistling over the windy quad.

  Had he cheated before? she wondered. Was cheating the habit of his short lifetime? Even if it wasn’t, that didn’t matter; he’d cheated now, in her class, and she’d caught him, only after ransa
cking four years’ worth of files to find the essay he’d stolen. That had taken hours, time she couldn’t afford to waste, not two days before Thanksgiving. Knowing what she was in for, she’d almost let it go. After all, she hadn’t been certain. Cox’s essay felt familiar, but it was possible she was just recalling one with a similar topic and thesis. And even if she was right, what would her reward be? Proof that she had a good memory for ideas? She already knew that. Justification for not liking this particular student? By now, she had plenty of reasons. Hadn’t he vacillated, all semester, between sullen inattention and stubborn obstruction in class, then, out in the hall, plied her with half apologies and assurances that he didn’t mean to be a pain in the ass? But you are a pain in the ass. This had been on the tip of her tongue since September. Tony Hope would’ve just gone ahead and said it.

  Of course he would have handled the entire thing differently. When suspicious of academic dishonesty, Tony was fearless—even, in Janet’s opinion, foolhardy. She would never have dreamed of confronting a student without proof, whereas Tony—by his own admission too lazy to gather any evidence—simply put on his poker face and forged ahead as if he held the winning hand. He recommended asking the suspect two straightforward questions: Is this your own work? and Would you be able to reproduce this effort under my supervision? The second, he maintained, rarely needed to be asked because the offender usually folded his tent at the first. And to answer yes to the second required the kind of “brass balls” that most undergraduates lacked. Only the most hardened, adept cheaters slipped through his net. Tony was also different in that he never took dishonesty personally, which had aroused her own suspicions, so one day she’d asked on impulse if he himself had ever cheated.

  “Mostly in high school,” he replied, with surprising candor. “A couple times in college. How about you?”

  “No.” Not that Janet would have admitted it if she had.


  “You don’t believe me?”

  “I do, actually.”

  “You needn’t make it sound like a failure of imagination.”

  “Quite the opposite, in fact. At least in my case. I couldn’t imagine ever succeeding if I didn’t cheat.”

  “Do you feel guilty about it now?”

  “Not particularly. Should I?”

  “I don’t know. Should you?”

  “A little judgment, just a tad, in that question, sweetie, but I forgive you. For the record, I don’t cheat anymore.”

  “You don’t take tests anymore,” she pointed out.

  “An altogether superior arrangement, don’t you think? To be the test giver as opposed to the taker?”

  What she couldn’t reconcile herself to was that the few who escaped Tony’s net were the very ones she was most determined to snare—the habitual liars who could look you in the eye and tell a whopper, having coldly calculated the system and how much you could reasonably expect to exploit it, how the first suggestion of a lawsuit would spook you and your dean. Such students were cancers, and she figured James Cox might well be one of them, which was why she’d spent so much time making the case against him airtight.

  But maybe she’d been wrong, because now that he realized he’d been busted, he dropped the customary bravado. In fact, he looked like someone who’d been waiting so long in the doctor’s office that when the feared diagnosis was finally delivered, it came as a relief. “So,” he said, handing the identical pages back to her.

  She waited until it became clear he didn’t intend to elaborate. “Meaning what?”

  “You got me, right?” He made a pistol of his thumb and forefinger, put the barrel to his temple and pulled the trigger, his head then jerking as if struck by an invisible bullet. Sure, the gesture was a cliché, but she was still startled by the boy’s willingness to metaphorically off himself.

  Finally she said, “Do you want to tell me why?”

  “It was easy. My fraternity keeps files.”

  “So do professors.”

  Again he made her wait for him to say, “So, what do you want?”

  The question, so simple and direct, took her off guard. “What do I want?”

  He shrugged. “Well, this is where I get what’s coming to me, no?”

  “And what do you think that might be?”

  “Not up to me, is it?” he said, getting to his feet.

  How brash men are, she told herself. How controlled, even in defeat. “Whatever you decide.” At the door he paused, his back to her and his head tipped at an odd angle, as if he were listening for something. What he said then surprised her. “My advice? Don’t hold back.” Then he simply walked out.

  Moving pretty well, she thought, for someone with massive head trauma. And in the ensuing silence:

  By at the gallop he goes, and then

  By he comes back at the gallop again.

  What did he want of her, this horseman? That was the mystery. She knew, of course, and had known from the beginning, who he was.


  A decade earlier, on the other the side of the country, the day of her first conference with the great Marcus Bellamy, Janet parked in the dusty, unpaved X-lot on the farthest reaches of the university, the only place graduate students could afford a permit, and trekked across campus in the sweltering desert heat to Modern and Romance Languages. The faculty lot, which cost more to park in than she made as a teaching assistant, was right across the street, and Bellamy was just then arriving in his vintage roadster, which he parked, and then strode off, leaving the convertible’s top down, a breathtakingly confident move. After checking to make sure no one was watching, she walked over for a closer look. Amazingly, the front passenger seat was littered with cassette tapes, mostly jazz, and the corner of a box that likely contained others was visible beneath the seat. Did he have some reason to believe his music wouldn’t be stolen? Everyone knew Marcus Bellamy, of course, the department’s one true academic superstar, so maybe he felt protected by his reputation. Or perhaps the F-lots were guarded by cameras. She’d never noticed any, though it was possible. But afternoon thunderstorms were in the forecast. Did Bellamy believe his privilege warded off both petty thieves and the elements themselves?

  She had a full day before her, a comp class to teach, a Henry James seminar to attend and a stack of essays she’d have to get started on if the whole weekend wouldn’t be ruined, yet in truth she wasn’t able to think of anything besides the conference with Bellamy. At lunch Robbie remarked on how distracted she seemed, and as the afternoon wore on she felt increasingly light-headed, at times almost ill. Robbie was also meeting with him that afternoon, and Janet was glad the conferences weren’t back-to-back. No doubt Bellamy had already noticed they were a couple, but she preferred him to think of her simply as a young scholar. For their first session she saw no need for any context beyond the essay they would be discussing, she hoped, at length. She’d spent a long time on it, and there was a good deal to talk about. She’d signed up for the last slot of the afternoon so that, if needs be, they could run long.

  Bellamy’s office was the largest on the corridor, its most ostentatious feature a large fireplace. Seeing it, Janet thought that if things went well this semester, maybe by the holidays she’d be invited in for what—brandy and eggnog in front of a roaring fire? Probably it would never get cold enough in the desert to justify that, but it was a pleasant fantasy. The rest of the office was crammed with books and periodicals on floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves. In the unlikely event she ever managed to snag an office like this herself, she thought, she’d stay put. What possessed a man with such a cushy life to pack up all those books and move every couple of years? Bellamy had no sooner arrived on campus than the speculation began about how long he’d stay, where he’d go next and what salary and perks would be required to lure him away. It was a bull market for brilliant black English professors, as Bellamy was well aware, and it was whispered he was already receiving and weighing offers for the year after next. That was why she’d
wanted so desperately to study with him now, this term. His class in proletarian fiction was wildly oversubscribed, since even students in linguistics and creative writing wanted in. And thus far, the course had been electrifying.

  Bellamy’s smile was warm when he greeted her at the door, but she’d barely sat down when he said, rather ominously, “Ms. Moore, in conference I always like to be forthright.”

  To which she murmured something silly, pretty close to the exact opposite of the truth, like she assumed he would be, or hoped he would be or, worse still, that she was always grateful for honest, rigorous appraisal.

  “Excellent,” he said, handing back her essay, “because though there’s much to recommend here, I have serious misgivings about your work.”

  Apparently it was true, then. Yesterday she’d overheard a classmate claim that Bellamy was reading not only the papers they’d just turned in but also previous efforts from other courses, everything he could get his hands on. She hadn’t believed it—only a madman would take on so much extra work—but there it was on the desk between them, a big blue Graduate Office folder with her name on it that probably held a dozen essays from past semesters. These misgivings about her work—did he actually mean all of it? Work that had already established her as perhaps the most promising scholar in the program?

  She examined the essay he’d just handed her. There was no letter grade on the cover page, and Janet had marked enough freshman compositions to know what this could portend. She herself always put a poor grade on the last page, along with her reasons for giving it, to keep that safe from prying eyes. Though it was probably the wrong thing to do, she quickly turned to the end of the essay to see if Bellamy graded in the same fashion, only to discover that page was blank as well. As were all the others. If there was “much to recommend,” weren’t those things worth mentioning?

  “Misgivings?” she said finally, her voice sounding strange, distant, whiny and frightened.

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