Trajectory by Richard Russo


  Their uncle hadn’t been a man to take such rejection lying down, and this was where the drama came in. Nearly five decades after hearing the last one, Ray could still recall almost verbatim the furious tirades their father’s cool rebuffs always occasioned. What is it with you, Tommy? You like standing in lines? You like waiting for somebody to decide what your share is? Because while you’re standing out front with the schmucks, waiting for scraps, the smart people are slipping in the back, and taking what’s theirs. You were in the army, for God’s sake. You saw how things work. You know what this country we fought for is all about? It’s the land of back doors and secret handshakes. People didn’t stop drinking during Prohibition. They just stopped going in through the front.

  Another time Uncle Jack had grabbed the phone book and shaken it in his brother’s face. You know what’s in here, Tommy? The numbers they want dummies like you to know about. All the important ones are unlisted. There’s two kinds of people in the world, Big Brother. The ones who know the unlisted numbers and the ones who don’t. You know what they call the ones who don’t? Chumps. Your average chump spends his life wondering why his luck never changes. See, that’s what makes him a chump. He thinks it’s luck. But here’s the thing. If somebody gave your average chump an unlisted number, he’d write it down and call it. He might be a chump, but he’s not a complete moron. You? You’re no average chump, Tommy. No sir. There’s nothing average about you. Somebody comes along and lets you in on the score, offers you the unlisted number, you say, No thanks, I’ll just wait here in line with the other chumps. At this point, he dropped the phone book in their father’s lap. When you want something, you consult your damn phone book.

  Much as Ray and his brother Bill enjoyed their uncle’s riffs, it was his thrilling dismounts they really looked forward to. He always blew out of the house violently, as if on a sudden gust of wind, the door slamming so hard their mother’s figurines leapt on the shelf. Outside, he’d take the porch steps in a wild, imprudent leap, one time hitting an icy patch and ending up on his ass. Turning his key in the ignition of whatever beater he happened just then to be driving, he’d rev the engine until it screamed, then pop the vehicle in gear and lurch away from the curb on squealing tires, leaning on the horn all the way down the street, as if each blast were yet another insult.

  Except of course for the last time. What on earth had caused their father to explode that day when he’d always been so unflappable before? It had been August, Ray recalled, so maybe the heat? They’d been out on the porch—Ray and his brother, their father and uncle—all four of them drinking tall glasses of their mother’s fresh-squeezed lemonade. As usual Uncle Jack was holding forth about how rich they’d be, how you’d have to be blind not to see how much moola—one of his uncle’s favorite words—was waiting there to be made. And also as usual his father had said no, he didn’t think he was interested, and was promptly called a fool and asked—rhetorically, Ray now understood—what the hell was wrong with him. Did he like slaving away in the mill for peanuts?

  Here, though, came the memory glitch, everything fast-forwarding to Uncle Jack sprawled flat on his back and their father, who’d come flying out of his chair, on top of him, pummeling him with his fists and grunting Shut…up…shut…up…shut…up, the word shut timed to the impact of his right fist and up to his left. Their mother, who’d been in the kitchen when it started, was suddenly there on the porch (for some reason Ray remembered the faded floral pattern of the dress she was wearing) screaming for their father to stop, stop, please stop, you’re killing him. Neither Ray nor Bill had ever seen their father disobey a direct command of hers, but now he just kept punching, as if he were too far away to hear her pleading. He stopped only when Uncle Jack went limp, his eyes rolling back in their sockets. Had there really been as much blood as Ray remembered? There must’ve been, because Ray recalled feeling so light-headed that he thought he might faint. This, he also thought, this torn skin leaking blood, was what their mother didn’t want them to see when dogs fought in the street and why she sometimes turned off the evening news.

  “Hello?” Paula had materialized at the foot of the bed, dressed and ready to head into the gallery, staring at him as if she’d been standing there for a long time.

  “Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I was elsewhere.”

  “Here,” she said. “Right here is where I need you.”

  —

  Half an hour later, showered and dressed, Ray pulled into the driveway of the house where he was meeting his clients, the Bells, for what promised to be a wasted day. On the other hand, it had been months since he put a property under contract, and weeks since he’d even shown a house, so motion, however useless, was better than nothing. The juggernaut recession had landed the coastal housing market in the doldrums. A few million-dollar-plus properties on the water had sold to the sort of buyers who were immune to economic hardship, and some low-end listings were moving lethargically. The vast middle lay inert. According to his brother, who lived forty miles inland, it was even worse there.

  The first house he was showing, one of his own listings, was situated on a gentle rise two streets back from the ocean. Nicki, the reluctant seller, was a friend of Paula’s and had recently lost her job as an office manager at a nearby call center. The property offered what realtors euphemistically called “winter views,” an intermittent sparkle of blue water among the stark black trees. A two-car-garage sort of view, Ray thought, getting out of his SUV, and today, since the distant sea was the same gray as the sky and the patches of dirty snow, not even that good.

  He’d gotten here fifteen minutes early so he could bring up the heat inside and, more important, let some light in. Nicki’s house was dark, its murk intensified by too much wood paneling and densely flowered wallpaper. He’d urged her to steam off the latter and give the walls a coat of white paint, but she claimed—sounding like this was his fault—not to have the money. If the house didn’t sell soon, she kept warning him, the bank was going to begin foreclosure proceedings. For the moment she was living with friends in Portland while looking for work there, but she called at least once a week to wonder out loud what the problem was. “I don’t understand,” she kept saying. “It’s a nice house.”

  The problem was you couldn’t tell that by looking at it. The house wasn’t only dark, it was cluttered. A hoarder by nature, Nicki’d boxed up everything she owned and just left the boxes sitting there, as if their location would remind her of their contents and all those precious memories. What they contained, according to Paula, who’d spent the better part of a week helping her pack up, was a decade’s worth of impulse Internet purchases from QVC, Overstock.com and eBay. Though Nicki seldom cooked, her kitchen was equipped with a high-end pasta maker, a bread-making machine, a Mixmaster and a deluxe slow cooker, as well as several complete sets of expensive pots and pans and too many gadgets to count. She had an espresso machine the size of a snowmobile. Another room was full of gym equipment—treadmill, StairMaster, rower, ab machine—though she exercised even less frequently than she cooked. When her father, a well-known academic, died, she’d built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the spare bedroom and moved his whole library in, though she confessed to Paula that most of his books were highly specialized and on topics that held no interest for her. When Ray suggested culling rather than taking them all with her, she was mortified. “They’re books, Ray. Only Nazis throw books away.” He felt compelled to point out that “actually, Nazis burned books,” but Nicki proved deaf to this nuance. Also to his every attempt to explain the psychological effect of clutter on prospective buyers, how hard it was to imagine the absence of something you were staring at and had to figure out how to get around. “These are my things, Ray,” she objected. “You’re talking about my things.” As if when you looked up thing in the Oxford English Dictionary—one of the books she’d inherited from her father—you’d discover the word’s numerous sacred connotations. Last week, before heading to Portland, she’d relucta
ntly agreed to rent a small storage unit and move out some of these things so the property would show better, but Ray would have given odds she’d done no such thing.

  He was inserting the key to the mudroom door when his cell vibrated. “Okay, we’re lost,” Cliff Bell said without preamble, as if he’d known this was coming right from the start.

  The Bells were cultural refugees from Texas who’d apparently vacationed in Maine last summer and taken to heart the state’s license plate motto: THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE. That happened pretty often, actually. Something in the Zeitgeist, Ray supposed. “If things get really bad,” people said, “we’ll sell everything and move to Maine,” as if it were a foreign country. Liberals came fleeing conservatives, libertarians fleeing government, traders fleeing Wall Street, film people fleeing LA, everybody fleeing the nation’s collective culture, as if there were no cable TV or Internet access north of Boston, and by means of geography they could escape Snooki and hip-hop and Sarah Palin and bird flu. One rough winter, followed by a blackfly-rich June, was usually sufficient to send such folks scurrying back to wherever they came from. Not always, though. Vinnie, who’d fled Palm Beach with his wife nearly a decade ago, was still hanging in. After her unexpected illness and death left him all alone in their big house on the lake, Ray assumed he’d hightail it back to Florida to be closer to their grown children, but so far he’d shown no such inclination.

  How was it possible, Ray wondered, for his Texans to be both lost and fifteen minutes early? From where he was standing he could see the back of the B and B where they were staying and, up the street, a Taurus that was inching in his direction.

  “Are you in a red Taurus?”

  “Is this piece of shit a Taurus?” Ray heard the man ask, his phone somewhat muffled by his chest. Then, to Ray, “Yeah. How’d you know?”

  “I’m looking at you. Waving.” He waved.

  The car stopped abruptly, as if the driver feared he was being sighted through the scope of a high-powered rifle. “That you on the hill?”

  “That’s me.”

  “You’re joking, right? Four hundred K for that?”

  Ray heard the man’s wife offer a strong suggestion. That Cliff Bell should shut up was the gist of it. Either that or they had a pet named Fuck in the car, and it was the dog or cat she wanted her husband to silence.

  As soon as they got out of their piece-of-shit Taurus, it was clear that Cliff Bell and his wife were in the middle of an argument that had come up with the sun. “That’s not what I’m saying,” he was telling her as they approached. Then, extending his pudgy hand to Ray, he said, “You people ever hear of a grid? Go right, go left? That sort of deal?”

  “I’m Cheryl,” his wife said matter-of-factly, as if she’d stopped waiting for her husband to introduce her decades ago. She had the stronger grip and seemed to know it. She also seemed to understand that without even trying, or perhaps because she wasn’t, she still exuded sex. Another portly, balding man might have been grateful for such a companion, but Cliff Bell seemed to resent her. Probably thinking: How fair was it that other men still wanted to fuck his wife when no other women wanted to fuck him.

  “Cliff doesn’t like for things to go all twisty on him,” Cheryl explained, regarding the man in question sternly. “This isn’t the Panhandle, Streak. There are obstacles here that even you have to go around. Mountains. Large bodies of water. Things you can’t just put your hard head down and plow through, like you’re used to doing.”

  “Lordy, Lordy, Lordy,” he sighed, clearly hoping that Ray, by virtue of their shared gender, might commiserate. “Not even ten o’clock yet and already my balls ache like it’s four in the afternoon.”

  “The phrase ‘You can’t get there from here’ was invented in Maine,” Ray said, trying to extend the correct amount of sympathy. From long, bitter experience he knew better than to be drawn into a marital feud. “You might want to invest in GPS if you decide to move up here.”

  Cheryl chortled at this suggestion. “Really?” she said. “You think that would solve the problem, do you?”

  Having lived his whole life, except for college, in Maine, Ray had limited experience of Texans, but he’d never met a man from there he liked. The women, on the other hand, were invariably entertaining, having apparently concluded that only a well-lubricated sense of humor was likely to make life with such assholes bearable. Despite his small statistical sample, Ray was pretty sure the Bells wouldn’t require him to rethink this sweeping generalization.

  “How about I meet you around front?” he suggested, pointing. He hated to leave them alone, even briefly, fearing their argument might escalate, but he was determined to let some light into Nicki’s house before allowing them inside.

  “Stand out here in the freezing cold?” Bell said, pulling his jacket collar up against the wind. “Sure, we can do that.”

  Inside, even in the dark Ray immediately saw it was just as he’d feared: cardboard boxes—tall, wobbly towers of them—everywhere. Worse, the heat wasn’t set at the fifty-five he recommended, it was off; his breath billowed in front of him. When his cell vibrated, he hoped it might be an impatient Nicki wanting to know how the showing was progressing, in which case he could tell her to find herself another realtor. Instead he was greeted by Vinnie’s rich baritone. “Hey, bud. I’ve got the number for that guy in Boston.”

  “Thanks,” Ray said sidling among the boxes. “Can’t talk now, though. I’m with clients.”

  “Yeah, but you’re taking this seriously, right?”

  There was a light switch at the foot of the stairs, but when Ray flipped it nothing happened.

  “Because something like this is no joke.”

  “I’m taking it seriously.”

  “Be sure to mention my name,” Vinnie continued, as Ray knew he would. “When you’re the number one guy…”

  Ray put the phone in its holster and felt his way along the wall. At the top of the stairs there was another switch that didn’t work, nor did the one in the master bedroom. Therefore a blown fuse. That, as he’d told Nicki, was yet another problem with her nice house: the old knob and tube wiring, which would have to be brought up to code before new owners could get insurance. Where was the fuse box? The basement, probably. In the master bedroom, he groped for the cord to the heavy drapes and pulled them back, allowing in just enough gray light to make the room look sinister.

  “Or here’s a better idea,” Vinnie was saying, his voice barely audible in Ray’s holster. “Let me call Suzy, his wife. She and Jackie used to be tight, and she had a thing for me. Then he’ll be expecting your call. You still there, bud?”

  Back at the top of the stairs he took out his cell, intending to tell Vinnie he was still listening, when everything started spinning. For a moment he imagined he was falling, that the floor was coming up to meet him. Something thudded onto the carpet, it had to be his phone, because he was clutching the banister with both hands. Lowering himself to a sitting position helped a little, but suddenly his shirt was drenched with sweat. What the hell was this?

  “Talk to me, bud. You still there?”

  And then, as quickly as it had come on, it was over. The phone was in his hand again, and he put it to his ear. “I’m here—”

  “Hey, I can tell you got your hands full. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll run the number over to your place. Is our girl there?”

  Since his wife’s death, Vinnie had taken joint linguistic custody of Ray’s, as if Paula were the kind of woman it took two men to properly care for. Could his pretense be any thinner? If he wanted to give “their girl” a telephone number, he could call or e-mail the information. What he had in mind, of course, was to hand her a slip of paper with the number on it, to reassure her that—hey, baby—this guy was tops in his field, bar none. If you run into a problem, any problem at all, call me. No worries. He’d be right there with her, with both of them, every step of the way. Maybe even assist with the surgery.

  “If you leave now, you’ll j
ust catch her,” Ray said, though by now his wife had been at the gallery for at least an hour.

  “You sure you’re okay?”

  Ray stood warily, testing his legs, flexing at the knees. Check and check. He’d stopped sweating. The vertigo had passed. All was well.

  “So tell the truth now,” Cliff Bell said when Ray finally opened the door to the two shivering Texans. “You stay here all winter, or do you and the missus have a time-share down in Costa Rica or someplace?”

  “If you can’t stand the wintah,” Ray said, putting on a thick Down East accent, “you don’t deserve the summah.”

  Bell blinked, apparently trying to reconcile this new voice with Ray’s normal one. His wife smiled broadly, and Ray couldn’t help thinking, Damn, if she wasn’t, despite her age, still sex on a stick.

  —

  Paula was contemplating her computer screen and finishing a cheese sandwich in her windowless basement office when Ray stepped out of the elevator. “Hey, baby,” he said, doing Vinnie. “What do you say we ditch that old man of yours and go someplace warm. How about the Breakers? There’s a guy from the old neighborhood down there who can get us an upgrade under the rate. We’ll get naked, just the two of us.”

  “Speaking of Vincent,” his wife said, handing him a folded slip of paper. “You just missed him.”

  Which of course made sense. Once he discovered Paula wasn’t home, Vinnie, part bulldog, part terrier, would’ve made straight for the gallery. But, good Lord, how long had he stayed? Ray had been with the Bells all morning. How could he have just missed Vinnie?

 
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