Trajectory by Richard Russo


  Slipping the note into his shirt pocket unopened, he sank into a chair, feeling more than a little deflated by his wife’s lack of visible interest in the idea of getting naked with him in Florida. Was it Vinnie or Ray’s impression of him that she didn’t want to run off with?

  “I was hoping to take you to lunch,” he said, in his own voice. “I know a guy at the Chowder House who can get us the corner booth if somebody’s not already sitting in it.”

  “Sorry,” she said, pushing the last bite of her sandwich away. “I’m off to Portland.”

  “How come?”

  When she just looked at him, something tugged at his memory. Something from this morning. He tried, without success, to pull it into focus. “The…” He squinted, to signify genuine effort. “Some foundation.”

  “The Rormacher Group.”

  “Right. But you’ll be home for dinner?”

  “Noooo,” she said, as if to a child. “We’re fending for ourselves, remember? We’ve been over this.”

  “It’s all coming back to me.”

  “And there’s something else you’re going to do today.”

  He’d been thinking about explaining what had happened at Nicki’s but now decided against it. Because he didn’t want to worry her? Because he was annoyed with her for bugging him about Vinnie’s guy? Yeah, one of the above.

  “Ray?”

  He patted his pocket. “Got the number right here, baby.”

  She sighed, surrendering a half smile. “I’m sorry. Lunch would’ve been nice.”

  “Well,” he said. “At least I’ll be seeing you for dinner.”

  Bigger smile at this. “How’d things go with your Texans?”

  “Did I ever tell you that in my experience Texas males are—”

  “all dickheads, but you like the women. Yeah, you’ve mentioned that once or twice.”

  Really? When? Had all his material become threadbare? After thirty years of marriage, were you supposed to come up with new stuff all the time? How often? “See, if your memory was shot, too, everything would be fresh and exciting. Every day a new adventure.”

  “It would be nice if they bought a house.”

  “Who?”

  “Your Texans.” She knew better, surely, but couldn’t help herself.

  “What Texans?”

  “Ray. Please stop.”

  “I don’t think they’re going to,” he admitted. As the morning progressed, Cliff Bell’s mood had improved. He and his wife quit sniping at each other and they’d actually liked the last two properties he showed them. Unfortunately, both were at the upper end of their price range, and if they were going to spend that much they were clearly expecting more house. Last summer they’d scanned some real-estate guides, as people on vacation often will, and noted some great old farmhouses offered at what had seemed reasonable prices. Trouble was, they’d imagined these on or near the water, whereas in fact they sat ten or fifteen miles inland. What they wanted was available—back in his office he’d shown them a couple places that were perfect—but at twice what they were looking to spend. The recession hadn’t hit Texas as hard as the rest of the country, but from things they’d let slip Ray guessed the Bells had lost the same forty percent from their portfolios as everybody else, and with so little time since to recoup they were understandably cautious.

  Oddly enough, the house that just might’ve worked for them as a second home was Nicki’s, but Bell hadn’t even wanted to go inside. In fact, he’d stubbornly waited in the entryway while Ray and Cheryl, tacking among the boxes, looked at the kitchen, master bedroom and bath. Unless he was mistaken, she actually liked the house, admiring its ornate wainscoting and the lovely tin ceiling in the den, but in the end she’d had to give up. She could picture the place without Nicki’s furniture, and even the towers of boxes. But what refused to disappear, Ray understood, was Nicki herself. She’d broken containment, much like people who live alone sometimes do, spilling out of their skins and into their beloved possessions, the stuff that keeps them from losing heart. These are my things, Ray. She might as well have been there with them, red eyed and blowing her nose into a tissue, describing what each box contained, how much she hated to lose her home, how unfair it all was.

  Hoping the Bells wouldn’t themselves disappear, he’d told them that people in Maine often took their properties off the market in the winter, then listed them again in the spring. There might be more to see then. And another six months of watching their houses sit idle might motivate a seller or two to come down on price. But neither possibility seemed to cheer the Texans.

  “Where should we go for dinner?” Cliff asked as they parted company. “I want some of those clams you get up here. The ones with the little penises.”

  His wife opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, evidently deciding that just because it was teed up didn’t mean you had to hit it. “We’ll be in touch,” she said, her grip every bit as warm and firm as it had been that morning, though unless Ray was mistaken this time it meant goodbye.

  “If Rormacher says no,” Paula sighed, staring up at the low ceiling as if she could see right through it into the gallery above, “I’ve got thirty days, max, before I have to start letting staff go. We could close for the winter, I suppose, and save expenses, but if things don’t improve, why reopen? To go deeper into debt?”

  “No Palm Beach for us, baby,” Ray agreed, aware that the whole Vinnie gag was wearing thin, and switched back to his own voice. “What’s in our savings account?”

  “We have a savings account?” Okay, she was joking, but still.

  And now medical bills, she was probably thinking.

  —

  The parking lot of the Way Lame Chow, as Ray referred to the local Chinese restaurant, was empty, so he pulled in. There he’d be able to fill a plate, find a table in the corner and talk on his cell phone without disturbing anyone.

  The elderly Asian woman at the register, whose name he could never remember, took his money and made a sweeping gesture, indicating that he could sit wherever he wanted, as they were the only people there. “Where everybody? People all move to moon?”

  “It’s slow everywhere,” Ray commiserated.

  “Slow,” the woman repeated. “Ha-ha. Slow. Pretty funny. Ha-ha-ha.”

  The buffet was a dispiriting sight. Large stainless-steel pans containing small mounds of humid food. Half-a-dozen chicken wings in one. A few boneless, dyed-red spareribs in another. A beef-and-broccoli concoction from which most of the beef had already been harvested. A couple other items Ray didn’t recognize, heavy on the water chestnuts. A party of four could have grazed the entire spread in five minutes and gone home hungry. Not that it really mattered. What little appetite he had was unlikely to survive his unavoidable phone call to Nicki. Promising himself he’d go back for something more substantial later, he settled for a cup of egg-drop soup. A layer of skin had formed over the top of the soup, and gobs of it stuck to the ladle’s long handle when he stirred; what went into his cup, bright yellow, looked like a sick dog’s urine and was thick as clam chowder. He’d already managed to blister his tongue with the first spoonful when his cell vibrated. His ever-impatient client, beating him to the draw.

  “Hi, Nicki,” he said, completely wrong-footing her by saying her name before she’d identified herself. She was one of those people who had to go through every step of any process and got flustered if you tried to skip even the most obvious ones. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, Ray?”

  “It’s me, Nicki. The person you called. How are you?”

  The question seemed to stump her. “Oh, I’m…it’s Nicki. How did the showing go?”

  “I thought you were going to move all those boxes.”

  And just that quickly she was on offense. “Where am I supposed to put them? I told you I can’t afford a storage locker. What am I supposed to do?”

  “You have a garage.”

  “Then where would I put my car? It’s winter, Ray. When the hous
e is gone, the car will be all I’ve got left.”

  If only, Ray couldn’t help thinking.

  “I’ll need it to get back and forth to work. I can’t have it sitting out in the elements.”

  “You found a job?”

  “Not yet.”

  “I’m sorry. I thought that’s what you meant.” He was about to ask her where the fuse box was when the penny dropped. “Nicki,” he said. “Tell me you didn’t turn off the utilities.”

  Silence on the line now, then, a moment later, no surprise, quiet weeping. “I need to sell this house, Ray. I’m not sure you realize how…I don’t see what the problem is. It’s a nice house. Paula agrees.”

  “Nicki,” Ray said, “I agree.”

  “Then why…” but she couldn’t go on. “Oh God,” she said finally.

  “The husband wouldn’t go inside,” he told her. “He took one look at all your stuff and that was it.”

  “Men.”

  “Yeah, well—”

  “A few boxes.”

  “Nicki?”

  “I should burn it down. Collect the insurance.”

  This was not, he knew, a serious threat. She’d have to cull her possessions first, move everything out—the very thing she couldn’t do. He continued to listen to her snuffling.

  Finally she said, “Tell me what to do.”

  “I’ve told you. And you won’t do it.”

  “I will.”

  “There’s a kayak in the garage, Nicki, an expensive one. If you sold it you’d not only have the money to pay another month’s mortgage, you could also turn the utilities back on and there’d be enough left over to rent a small storage locker.”

  “That kayak belonged to my father.”

  “And before that to the store that sold it to him. For money.”

  More silence, until, “If I do what you say, what guarantee do I have it’ll make a difference?”

  “None.”

  “It’s all so unfair.”

  Ray knew better than to reply.

  At last she said, “I’ll do it. Whatever you say. It’s just…really hard.”

  “Nicki, have you ever considered the possibility that it might feel good to get rid of some stuff?”

  No response.

  “Look, I just sell houses, okay? Temperamentally, I have no use for people with clean desks. But I clean my own once a year. In order to see who I am, what I need, what I can live without…are you still there?” Because he knew from experience she was not above hanging up without saying goodbye.

  “Paula says you’re sick.”

  Now he was wrong-footed. He started to say it was nothing, then decided not to. She’d report the comment back to Paula, who’d turn it against him. “It’s just something I have to get through. Life’s full of stuff like that. This isn’t news, right?”

  “I wish I could be sick,” she said. “Bad sick.”

  Again, Ray held his tongue.

  “Every day I tell myself it’s all going to work out. The house will sell and I’ll find a new job, an even-better job. But most mornings I wake up and all I want to do is go back to sleep. If I got sick, people would let me sleep.”

  “Nicki—”

  “If I tell you something, will you hate me?”

  “Did you murder somebody? Molest a child? What am I promising here?”

  “I always thought I was special.”

  It was an odd, in some ways startling, admission. There were any number of people who clearly felt like this, but the sentiment was seldom given voice.

  “My father used to tell me I was and I believed him. When my husband left he said, ‘You know what your problem is? You think you’re special.’ And I remember wondering why he made it sound so awful. I mean, I was special, wasn’t I? Didn’t he think so? Wasn’t that why he married me? And anyway, why shouldn’t I think it? I knew it wasn’t nice to say that to people who weren’t special, because that would hurt their feelings. I mean, everybody can’t be special, and people who aren’t, well, it’s not their fault. But I never really questioned that I was. So now, for the first time, my whole life’s coming into focus. I’m fifty-seven years old, Ray, and every day I have to lie to myself just to keep going. Who’s still lying to themselves at fifty-seven?”

  Everybody.

  “You don’t have to say anything. There’s nothing to say, really.”

  “Small bites, Nicki.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Small bites. Chew thoroughly. Swallow. Repeat.”

  “You don’t like?” the woman said when Ray approached to pay his bill.

  “No, Pearl, everything was fine.”

  “Just soup? No wing? Usually you eat wing. I tell them in kitchen, make more wing. Ray here.”

  Her dour mood seemed to have lifted a little, maybe because he’d paid for the whole buffet and had only a cup of soup. But when the door closed behind him she’d be all by herself, except for whoever was in the kitchen making more wing, just for him. He was out in the car before it occurred to him that, without even thinking, he’d both remembered and spoken her name. Which lifted his own spirits.

  —

  It was late afternoon by the time he finished up at the office and drove inland to Winslow, where his brother, the local high school principal, lived in the same moribund mill town where they’d grown up. “Ray,” Bill said, picking up on the first ring. “You here in town?”

  “Just pulling in.”

  “Good thing I’m not in the Bahamas.”

  “You’re assuming I’m here to see you.”

  “Who’d you come to see, then?”

  “You.”

  “See? Right again. It’s been one of those days. You try like hell to make a mistake and just can’t. You know the kind I mean?”

  “Not really.”

  “Well, that’s because you’re not me. Let me toss some people out of my office and I’ll meet you at Ollie’s.”

  “That’s a tavern, Bill. You don’t drink.”

  “How would you know? We haven’t seen each other since Easter. I might’ve been drunk every day since Jesus rose from the dead.”

  “Then I’ll buy the first round.”

  By the time Bill slid onto an adjacent barstool, Ray had already drunk half a beer. “I have been to the Bahamas, you know,” his brother said, as if it’d be pointless to proceed without first entering this into the record. “I might not succumb to wanderlust like you, but I’ve been places.”

  It was an old joke between them. Both had spent their entire adult lives in Maine, but Ray had gone to college out of state and his brother to UMaine at Orono. Plus he still lived in the house they’d grown up in, which made him the brother who’d really stayed put. Ray, forty miles away, was still “gallivanting around.”

  “Last year, in fact,” Bill continued. “Jan and I went to one of those all-inclusive resorts. That one you see advertised on TV, named for some kind of footwear. Slippers? Thongs? Sneakers? Before you even check in, they sit you down in this big conference room—you and all the people you flew in with—and explain how everything’s free, all the food and drink, whatever you want, all included in what you paid up front. Thing is? This orientation takes about an hour, and the whole time you’re sitting there, you don’t get so much as a glass of water. You just had this hot taxi ride in from the airport and want to jump into your bathing suit and murder a piña colada, but first you have to listen to them go on and on about how great it’s going to be and how you can go ahead and put your wallet in the room safe because you won’t need it, even for tipping. Especially for tipping. That was one of the things they stressed. Ironclad rule: no tipping. Staff’s been specially trained not to accept gratuities of any sort. They wanted us to be totally clear about that, totally at ease. Like they knew how generous we’d be otherwise, handing out cash to everybody we saw. This whole time we can see out to the pool where people who arrived on earlier flights are splashing around or sitting at the swim-up bar and not tipping the b
artenders. It looks pretty great, all right, but damned if you can get there. Kind of like going to the lake with Mom and Pop when we were kids. Remember how it took forever? And it was like, what…three miles away? And then you’d finally get there and the other kids were all in the water and you wanted to run straight in, but first Mom had to rub on suntan lotion? And whoever she lathered up first would have to wait until she did the other? How time would stop dead in its tracks?”

  Ray motioned to the bartender for another beer.

  “Anyhow, this Flip-Flops place in the Bahamas. On the flight home, across the aisle, there’s this guy with beady little eyes, probably in his twenties—and enormous. We’re talking morbidly obese, and he’s telling these people who’d gone to some other resort how they’d made a major mistake. He explained there was no reason to even leave Loafers once you were there, because they had half-a-dozen different restaurants right on the premises, though he and his wife just kept going back to the seafood smorgasbord. You could fill your plate, take fifty oysters if you wanted, nobody was counting. Then get right back in line and take fifty more. Go as many times as you wanted and nobody’d say a thing. He couldn’t get over it. His one regret was that his wife—she was asleep in the seat next to him, in a diabetic coma by the looks of it—didn’t really get her money’s worth ’cause she couldn’t fill her plate more than two or three times. All and all, though, he still thought it was worth it.” Bill’s voice fell here, indicating he’d come to the end of his story, which, like all his brother’s stories, to Ray’s mind, left something to be desired. The bartender, who’d been hovering, offered to make Bill a piña colada, but he said no, just a club soda with a squeeze of lime.

  To Ray’s surprise, he was relieved. “And the point of that whole story is?”

  “Well, it made me wonder about us Americans. I don’t remember people being so hungry back in the day, do you? What does it mean that we can’t get filled up anymore?” He paused when he saw Ray shaking his head. “Why? What’d you think the point was?”

  “For starters, I couldn’t help noticing the whole middle of the story was missing.”

 
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