Trajectory by Richard Russo


  Nate had done his best to soothe her. Julian was just being his stubborn old self, he said; eventually he’d come around. You couldn’t withhold forgiveness forever, especially when the person you refuse to forgive is the only one who was actually harmed. But his mother didn’t believe that stubbornness or forgiveness had anything to do with it. Her burns, she told Nate, were what Julian couldn’t bear: having to witness the shiny, hairless skin stretched taut along her neck and cheek. Julian was ashamed of her, she maintained—ashamed and afraid, as if her grotesque appearance were genetic, something he’d grow into himself over time. Nate didn’t want to believe it. After all, Julian was his big brother, once his defender against school-yard bullies. Julian, afraid? But when she died and Nate called to say that she was gone, her suffering over at last, he could hear the relief in his brother’s voice, as if now he could finally get a good night’s sleep. And when Nate mentioned it was her wish to be cremated, Julian’s response was a nasty chuckle. “Well, that makes sense, I guess. Might as well finish the job, right?”

  Unless Nate was mistaken, their own estrangement can be traced to this precise moment in time, though doubtless the seeds had been planted earlier, when their father left and Julian insisted they were better off without the bum. His brother’s angry defiance took the edge off the terrible longing Nate himself couldn’t help feeling. Julian seemed to intuit when Nate was most vulnerable, because out of the blue he’d say, “Who needs him?” and though Nate wanted to say, Me, he did admire his brother’s courage. Their mother’s passing, though, was different. What Nate had earlier taken for proud self-reliance seemed to have morphed into something darker, more akin to callous detachment than bravery. If Julian truly felt he was better off without their mother, then maybe it was only a question of time before Nate got written off as well.

  “Is there anything you want to say, well, before…?”

  “It’s all been said,” Bernard tells him.

  So Nate pours the contents of the urn into the lapping water, thinking as the ash sinks out of sight that in a sense Klaus was right. Just as predicted, one of their number has ended up in the canal. He’s not sure tapping the urn against stone to free the last of the grit is proper etiquette, but he does so anyway, then puts the lid back on and hands the empty receptacle to Bernard, who regards it sadly. “In the end,” he says, “we don’t amount to much, do we?”

  Nate remembers thinking the same thing when he scattered his mother’s ashes, so he’s about to agree, though it then occurs to him that Bernard isn’t just talking about people who have been reduced to ash by heat and flame. “I cheated on her, the poor woman,” he confesses. “Not just once, either. With a woman she knew. From our church. For a long time I told myself she didn’t know, but I’m pretty sure she did.” When Nate can’t think of an appropriate response to this unwelcome revelation, Bernard continues, “I know what you’re thinking. There were two women willing to have sex with this guy?”

  “I wasn’t—”

  But Bernard waves his unspoken objection away. “No, it’s okay. I had a hard time believing it myself.”

  “Did you love her?”

  “Which do you mean?”

  The one whose ashes I just poured into the canal, Nate would like to say, because the other man’s inability to perform this intimate duty implied not just sincere guilt but also love, didn’t it?

  “Same answer in either case,” Bernard tells him. “I don’t know. I should be able to say I did or I didn’t, but both feel like a lie. Maybe that’s why I say we don’t amount to much. Feel free to talk me out of that, if you want.”

  What surprises Nate most is how much he’d like to. Because face it, since Opal Mauntz he has harbored this same dark conviction, and there’s been no one to try to talk him out of it—no wife, no brother, no son or daughter, no friend. Now suddenly there’s Eve, and while it’s a heavy—not to mention unfair—burden to place on a woman he didn’t even know two days ago, she gives every indication of being the right woman for the job. Last night, talking to her at the wine bar, he felt as if he’d been taken off a ventilator he hadn’t even known he was on, capable once again of filling his lungs on his own. It seems only fair that he offer Bernard, another shallow breather, the same service. After all, they’re buddies, right?

  “Anyhow, I think we’re done here,” Bernard tells him. “I’ve already experienced an Italian hospital. I think I’ll skip the jail. If you’re up for coffee, there’s a little place by the bridge that opens early.”

  Nate tells him that sounds fine, and together they go back up the narrow calle.

  “I can’t talk, though,” Bernard reminds him. “I can walk…or talk…but not both.”

  That suits Nate fine. He can use the silence to marshal his evidence, plot his strategy. He might, for instance, tell Bernard about last night with Eve, how he’d looked in her compact mirror, his teeth ringed with black, a monster out of a horror film. But he thinks probably not. This morning the story feels too easy, its moral—that things sometimes aren’t as bad as they look—too pat. Because a man doesn’t have to be a monster, or even a bad man, to harm others, or to be a profound disappointment to himself. Better—not to mention braver—to tell Bernard about Opal, what he’d done and why, about her removal from the campus to a mental facility where her worsening condition could be treated and monitored, her college days over. Nate’s remaining ties to the college had been quietly severed midterm, another professor brought in to complete his seminar. He will tell Bernard all this, not because the story refutes his conviction that in the end human beings don’t amount to much, but rather because, as Nate has belatedly come to understand, life is, seemingly by design, a botched job.

  Halfway to the Accademia Bridge, Bernard stops, Nate assumes, to catch his breath, but his head is cocked, like a dog’s, listening. “What the hell is that dinging?”

  Nate, deep in thought, hadn’t noticed. “My phone,” he says, taking the stupid thing out of its holster.

  And there they are, his brother’s e-mails and voice messages, a good dozen of them, the idiot server having apparently seen fit to deliver them at last. Too late? Maybe not. Perhaps their belated arrival means that whatever the problem was, it’s now solved, that he and Julian can communicate, can hear each other’s voices at last, proximity no longer poisonous.

  “You need to rest a bit?” Nate asks Bernard.

  “No, I’m good,” the man assures him.

  “Okay, then. We’ll go slow.”

  Bernard nods. “You bet your ass we will.”

  Intervention

  Thirty-two degrees, according to the dashboard thermometer, so…maybe. In warm weather the garage door dutifully lumbered up and over the section of bent track, but below freezing it invariably stuck and you had to get out, remote in hand, and manually yank the door past the spot where it caught. Within a few degrees of freezing, though, it was anybody’s guess, so Ray pressed the remote and opened the driver’s-side door, prepared to get out if he needed to. When the door shuddered past the critical point and up along the ceiling, he closed the car door again, noticing as he did so that Paula, his wife, was watching him with her O ye of little faith expression.

  Pulling inside, he made sure to leave her enough room to get out. Two-car was how the garage had been described when they bought the house. Ray, himself a realtor and all too familiar with such dubious representations, had squinted at the phrase in the listing information, then at the garage itself. It was probably true it could hold two small sedans, but with anything larger you’d need to pull the first car in at an angle to have enough space for the second vehicle. He’d considered calling Connie, the seller’s agent, on this, but he liked her, in particular how she confessed right up front that she’d just gotten her license. She seemed genuinely terrified of saying the wrong thing, of disclosing something that by law wasn’t supposed to be mentioned or of failing to disclose something else that was mandatory. She’d gone into real estate, she claimed
, because she liked helping people find what they wanted, and she seemed blithely innocent of the fact that most people had no idea what that was, especially the ones who were defiantly confident they did. Ray doubted she would last long and wasn’t surprised when, a year later, he ran into her and was told she’d embarked upon a degree in social work.

  Anyway, Paula had loved the house and didn’t want to see the not-quite-two-car garage as a problem, though she conceded they’d probably have to find someplace else for the lawn mower and the other stuff they usually stuck in there. She argued they’d be okay if they went slow and paid attention, especially at backing out. When for the record Ray expressed grave doubts about this as a long-term solution, she asked, “What are you saying? That we’re careless people?”

  Well, no, but they were human and there was no app for that. A person could be careful most of the time, maybe eighty percent, if you really worked at it. The way Ray saw it, human nature was flawed, almost by definition, pretty much a hundred percent of the time, which left a sizable margin for error. For nearly a year, though, they waged a successful battle against such cynicism, until one day Ray misjudged and sheared off his side-view mirror. A month later Paula—okay, okay, she admitted, she’d been in a hurry—backed into the metal track the garage door slid on, warping the runner and taking out a taillight. The two accidents, in such close proximity, represented a genuine I told you so moment, but Ray’d given it a pass. He and Paula had been married for close to thirty years, thanks in large part to a mutual willingness to let an arched eyebrow do the heavy lifting of soliloquy.

  Tonight, though, as the garage door rattled closed behind them, palsying violently the last few feet before finally slamming down onto the concrete floor, he knew there’d be more than her eyebrow to worry about. His wife hadn’t spoken a word during the ride home from the restaurant, and when the garage light went off, plunging them into complete darkness, she made no move to get out.

  “You hurt Vincent’s feelings,” she said finally.

  “He had it coming,” Ray said, referring to how they’d tussled briefly and pointlessly over the check. After all, it was Vinnie’s sixty-fifth birthday they were celebrating, plus there were two of them and just one of him, and his halfhearted grab was really just an attempt to get in a final political dig. “This is the least I can do, bud,” he said. “From now on you’re paying for my health insurance.”

  “You forget we’re Democrats,” Ray responded, placing his credit card on the tray. “We think people are entitled to health care. We’re happy to contribute to that end.” A lifelong Republican, Vinnie had reluctantly voted for Obama but was now suffering buyer’s remorse. (The guy’s not a realist…another Jimmy Carter…doesn’t know how the world works.) It had made for a trying evening.

  “I’m not talking about the check,” Paula said. “I’m talking about his offer.”

  “Which I thanked him for.”

  “ ‘Thanks, anyway,’ was what you said. It sounded like ‘Mind your own business.’ ”

  “That’s how I meant it.”

  Truth be told, he’d been out of sorts from the start. They’d gone to La Dolce Vita, or, as Vinnie called it, Dolce Vita’s, his favorite place, pretentious and overpriced à la Vinnie. Ray and Paula had purposely arrived a few minutes early, but of course he was already there, ready to rise from his chair with a flourish and gather Paula in. “Hey, baby,” he said, as if it was still the fifties and they were all Rat Packers. “Is this stiff treating you right?”

  Paula tried gently to extricate herself from his embrace, assuring Vinnie as she always did that Ray was treating her fine, but with everyone in the dining room watching them, Vinnie wasn’t about to surrender either the pretense or the woman.

  “I only mention it because we could run away, just the two of us.” All of this sotto voce. “Someplace warm, with our own private cabana? Call me.”

  Vinnie in a nutshell: Call me. You need a table at Babbo? Call me. You need Red Sox tickets? Call me. You need to get your dog trained? Call me. You don’t have a dog? Call me. Because Vinnie always knew a guy. Sometimes from the old neighborhood, sometimes from prep school or maybe his university fraternity. Guys who normally didn’t do favors, but for Vinnie…

  Only when Paula promised to call if Ray turned into a lout did Vinnie release her and turn to the patient witness of this recurring lunacy, and Ray extended his hand. Vinnie swatted it away, offended, as if handshakes were insulting to guys who shared deep emotional bonds without getting swishy about it. “Get outa here with that,” he said, pulling Ray into one of his hugs. “How’s every little thing? You okay?”

  Ray, anxious to be seated, said he was right as rain.

  “We need to hit the links,” Vinnie said, making a Johnny Carson golf swing. “I’m not saying I’m giving you strokes, I’m just saying.”

  Then he spun back toward Paula, imploring, arms extended wide like a crooner’s, to take in the entire restaurant. “What do you think? Best table in the house? That’s how things would be every night if you were with me.”

  He’s just lonely since Jackie died was how Paula excused such outrageous behavior, to which Ray always responded that, yeah, sure, Vinnie was lonely. The mistake would be to conclude that he was just lonely.

  “He’s your friend,” she reminded him now in the dark garage. “He cares about you. If he knows a good surgeon—”

  “Not good,” Ray corrected her. “The best. Vinnie always knows the best guy. You’d have to be crazy to go to anybody besides Vinnie’s guy.”

  “But that’s how he is. He’s just being Vincent. People like to feel important. What’s so wrong with that?”

  Ray would have liked to tell her but couldn’t, though it did put him in mind of his uncle Jack, whom he hadn’t thought about in years.

  “Is this how it’s going to be, then?” she said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I just don’t see why you have to act like this. What does it get you?”

  By now his eyes had adjusted to the dark enough to see that hers were glistening. “Paula,” he said. “What are we talking about?”

  He knew, though.

  “What I’d like to get through to you is that in this particular circumstance…” She paused, seemingly poised between all-too-understandable fear and something closer to anger. “Being you, going about things the way you usually do, isn’t always a good thing.”

  “I should become somebody else?”

  “Yes,” she said, taking him by surprise.

  “How come Vinnie gets to be Vinnie, but I don’t get to be me?”

  “Vinnie’s not the one who—”

  “I already told you, I’ll do whatever you—”

  “What I want is for you to swallow your pride.”

  “Fine,” he sighed, because it was ridiculous to be sitting there in the cold damp garage, their visible breath fogging the windshield. “If he wants to put me in touch with this Boston guy, fine. Now, can we go inside?”

  He took her silence as permission to open his door, and he did—too far, dinging yet again the rear panel of his parked SUV.

  Which felt like what? Vindication was the far-from-comforting answer, but that’s what it felt like.

  —

  The following morning Ray was startled awake by a car horn, half-a-dozen loud, angry blasts as the unseen vehicle roared by the house and up the street, and for the second time in the last twenty-four hours he thought of his long-forgotten uncle Jack. Tall and thin (hungry looking, he seemed to Ray), Jack was straight haired, loose limbed and handsome, a contrast to their father, who was several inches shorter and thicker, his face dimpled (attractively, Ray felt at the time) from a childhood disease, his hair an unruly bird’s nest. Even when he wasn’t working in the mill, he always dressed in rugged work pants, coarse gray shirts with dual breast pockets and ankle-high, steel-toed boots, whereas his brother wore sharply creased slacks, white button-down shirts and shiny black shoes. Look
ing at the two men, you’d conclude that Uncle Jack was the more prosperous, but apparently he owed everybody.

  Though he lived in nearby Skowhegan, Ray and his brother, Bill, rarely saw their uncle, whose visits were as dramatic as they were unexpected. Their purpose was always the same—to get their father to invest in one of Jack’s many schemes, each pitched as the investment opportunity of a lifetime. Their father always listened politely and without comment, as if to the radio (no need to look at it, either), while his brother explained how this new deal worked, how it would make them both rich, how a small outlay of funds today would put him on the ground floor tomorrow. Hell, in a matter of months he’d be able to quit his sucker job at the mill and be his own boss for once. Their uncle’s cadences rose and fell in great waves, and at various points Ray would think he was winding down, but then he’d remember something else. “Hey! Wait, I almost forgot the best part!” Eventually, though, it was impossible to ignore his sibling’s lack of visible interest, and he’d say, “So what do you think, Big Brother?”

  What Ray’s father invariably thought, or at least said, was that, no, he didn’t think he was interested. Did he want to think it over? No, no, that wouldn’t be necessary. So his answer was final? Yes, it was. What was so perplexing was not that his father declined—he always did—but that he offered his brother so little in return for his wonderful enthusiasm. After all, it took Uncle Jack a good half hour or more to detail how great this idea was, how you couldn’t lose, really, if you thought about it. If their father had misgivings, small or large, why not express them? Or at the very least offer some general excuse. Why not tell his brother he was sorry but just didn’t have the money? How would Uncle Jack, who’d never had any himself, have known any better? Or he could’ve reminded his brother he wasn’t a bachelor, that he had a wife and two young boys to think about and couldn’t risk what little they had on an adventure, no matter how tempting. Instead, unless Ray’s memory was playing him false, the impression his father conveyed was that, yes, he did have money. He just wasn’t going to give any to his brother. His refusal to say why could mean only one thing: Uncle Jack was himself the reason.

 
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