Trajectory by Richard Russo


  “What middle?”

  “Exactly. You went right from the orientation room to the plane ride home. What happened in the Bahamas? Did you have a good time?”

  His brother stared at him, clearly annoyed. “My point was I might’ve been in the Bahamas, okay? You drove all this way without calling first to make sure I wasn’t in the tropics. I wouldn’t even have brought up the whole Clogs business if I thought it’d give you some precious insight into my character. Next you’ll be telling me I’m like Pop.”

  “That was next, actually.”

  His brother nodded. “I tell you a story about what a world traveler I’ve become and it reminds you of a man who never went anywhere.”

  “If he’d gone, he would’ve left out the fun part, too.”

  Both grinning now, they shook hands. “What brings you so far inland?”

  “As if you didn’t know.”

  His brother nodded. “Paula did call, I won’t lie to you.”

  “It’s not as big a thing as she’s making out.”

  “That’s what I told her.”

  “Did she get as mad at you as she did at me?”

  “No, but Jan did. She was eavesdropping, as usual.”

  “Tricky location is all.”

  “But no metastasis?”

  “Not as far as they can tell.”

  “All right, then. They go in. Snick snick. You do a regimen for four or five months and you’re good to go. Or, in our family, stay.”

  “Except Uncle Jack. He went.”

  Given what an out-of-left-field allusion this was, Ray half expected Bill to say, Who? Instead, he nodded gravely, as if their uncle had been on his mind as well, which if true would’ve been beyond strange. “Ah, yes. Uncle Jack.”

  “I woke up thinking about him this morning,” Ray admitted. “You remember the fistfight? Him and Pop?”

  Bill rolled his eyes. “Mom is what I remember most. How furious she was at the two of them?”

  “I don’t think she spoke to Pop for a month.”

  “It made for a pretty quiet house. Even under normal circumstances he wouldn’t’ve said shit if he had a mouthful. And with her giving him the silent treatment…” There was just enough resentment in his tone to remind Ray they’d never seen eye to eye on their father. He’d been particularly hard on Bill, whom he regarded as careless and undisciplined, which was probably why his brother, even after all these years, often showed a bitterness that Ray couldn’t quite summon.

  “You remember what they were fighting about?”

  Bill shrugged. “Who knows? They couldn’t be in the same room without some sort of argument flaring up. Been at it since they were boys, was my understanding. Dad always claimed Uncle Jack was all hat and no cattle.” He chuckled. “Remember how Jack couldn’t stand still, always hopping from one foot to the other?”

  Ray shook his head.

  “Oh, come on. We used to make fun of him. Stand behind him where he couldn’t see us. Stand on whatever foot he was standing on and hop back and forth when he did. Pop thought it was funny, but Mom always made us stop.”

  “Are you making this up?”

  “Hell, no. And he always called Pop ‘Tommy-Boy.’ ”

  Like Ray himself, Bill was a gifted mimic, and as soon as he started in Ray could see and hear their uncle across the decades.

  “ ‘You know your problem, Tommy-Boy, you’re scared to take a chance. Somebody gives you a nickel, you put it in your pocket and that’s where it stays. Want some help turning that nickel into a dime or maybe even a quarter? No sir. Not our Tommy-Boy. He’s got his nickel, by God, and he knows right where it is. Save that nickel for a rainy day, right? Trouble is, Tommy, all your days are rainy. Sun ever came out, you wouldn’t know what to do.’ ”

  They shared an embarrassed laugh, the source of their self-consciousness unclear, at least to Ray. His brother’s spot-on mimicry? Its implied betrayal?

  “I guess that’s why we were so proud of him that day,” Bill continued. “Usually, Dad just sat there and took it.”

  “Whatever became of him? Uncle Jack?” Ray asked, mostly to shift the emphasis away from their father.

  “He went out west somewhere. I want to say Arizona. Made a shitload of money, Mom said.”

  When had she confided this? Ray wondered. How had the subject even come up? He decided not to inquire. The bond between Bill and their mother, always strong, had deepened after their father’s death. Bill was still drinking then and hadn’t yet begun to rise through the teachers’ ranks toward administration. Something about her older son’s struggles touched their mother deeply, and Ray suspected she confided things to him that she’d probably never told to anyone else.

  “Whatever he was into went bust and he lost it all. Then he made another bundle and lost that, too. Got in trouble south of the border and spent some time in a Mexican jail. When he got out people kept asking him what it’d been like, but all he’d say was, ‘Good tacos.’ ”

  “Is he dead?”

  “Oh, Christ, I hope so,” Bill said, but he looked thoughtful. “He did have a point about Dad, though. All his days were rainy, the poor bastard. You mind me asking what all this has to do with cancer?”

  “Damned if I know.”

  “Damned if I do, either,” Bill said, clinking his soda glass against Ray’s beer bottle.

  Later, out in the parking lot, Ray said, “So, when they finally let you out of orientation, did you drink a piña colada?”

  His brother shook his head. “I thought about it, but I was afraid that if I got going good I wouldn’t be able to quit. That’s always how it used to work when I was younger.”

  The two brothers parted then, shaking hands warmly in the parking lot, both wondering out loud why they didn’t make a point of seeing each other more often.

  Before Ray could turn the key in the ignition, his cell phone rang.

  “You’re married, so I assume you know what it feels like to have your balls in a vise,” Cliff Bell said. “Cheryl, light of my life, wants to see that first house again.”

  “Really?”

  “The things we do for love, right? Anyhow, while I got you on the phone, here’s a question. If we moved here? To Maine? Would we make any friends?”

  Ray tried to remember whether in all his years as a realtor he’d ever been asked that question before. It was a good one, if impossible to answer.

  “Take you and me,” Cliff Bell continued when he hesitated. “If I called you up some night and said let’s go get a beer, would you go?”

  “I don’t see why not,” said Ray, falling victim yet again to the same sort of charitable impulse that had led to his friendship with Vinnie.

  “All right, then. That’s good to know.”

  Hanging up, Ray thought about calling Nicki with the good news, decided against it, had a perfectly crazy idea, dismissed it, then had it again. Vinnie answered on the first ring.

  “How’d you like to do me a favor?”

  “Name it, bud.”

  Ray did and when he hung up there was a rap on his window.

  “You reminded me of something else,” his brother said when he rolled it down. About their father, Ray assumed, or maybe Uncle Jack. Instead his brother was back in the Bahamas. “The couple listening to the fat guy carry on about the seafood buffet had gone to this clothing-optional resort on the other side of the island from Moccasins, and according to them the experience was ‘liberating.’ They claimed that after a few hours, you didn’t notice anymore.”

  “Yeah, right.”

  “But here’s the funny thing. You know how modest my Jan is, right? She leans over and whispers maybe we should go there next year. She was sort of joking, but also sort of not. Kind of made me wonder about Dad.”

  Ray couldn’t help laughing. “You think he was secretly a dick-out kind of guy?”

  “No. But don’t you wonder sometimes if he ever got tired of just putting one foot in front of the other like he d
id every day at that damned mill. I’m not saying he should’ve invested in one of Uncle Jack’s scams, but…” He looked off, and even in the dark Ray could see his brother was choking on emotion. “Anyhow,” he continued, waving whatever memory it was away, “you had an insight into my character earlier, which means I get to offer one into yours. You remember what Dad always said about hospitals?”

  Ray nodded. “Never let the bastards take your pants, because—”

  “bare-assed men don’t get to make decisions,” Bill finished.

  Ray scratched his head. “That’s an insight into his character, not mine.”

  “You think?” his brother said.

  —

  When he pulled into Nicki’s an hour later, Vinnie was sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck Ray’d never seen before, drinking from a tiny snifter. Next to him sat a bottle of brandy.

  “Hand truck is what I said,” Ray told him, “not pickup truck.”

  Vinnie slid off the gate so Ray could see the dolly resting in the truck’s ribbed bed. “You thought I’d put it in the backseat of my Benz? On my leather seats?”

  Ray got out and extended his hand, which Vinnie, as always, slapped away. “Get outa here,” he said, pulling Ray into the obligatory embrace. “How’s every little thing?”

  Ray told him every little thing was fabulous.

  “This’ll make it even better,” he said, taking from the pocket of his parka another small snifter. “Napoléon,” he said, pouring. “The best. A guy I know from the old days sends me a bottle every year. If I told you the price—”

  “…you’d have to kill me,” Ray finished.

  They clinked glasses, and Ray downed his brandy in one swig for the pleasure of watching Vinnie flinch.

  “You can take the boy out of Maine,” he said, “but you can’t take Maine out of the boy.” When Ray declined a second nip, Vinnie put the bottle and both glasses on the seat of the pickup, then looked around. “So what are we doing here? Robbing the joint?”

  “Just rearranging it a bit.”

  Nor would it take long. The stuff of other people’s lives is problematic mostly for themselves. The disinterested eye sees where things go and in what order, not only where they belong but where they fit. Hauling the kayak out of the garage, they each had the same simultaneous brainstorm of hoisting it up onto the rafters. As they worked, Vinnie returned to the Boston surgeon, how he was the number one guy, how they’d been in the same fraternity and if Ray dropped Vinnie’s name he’d go right to the top of a huge waiting list. Ray let him ramble on. There were times when his friend’s boasting seemed an intentional provocation, its source their manifest philosophical and political incompatibility. But who knew? Maybe their differences amounted to little more than temperament. That or some childhood experience, like a well-meaning parent telling you you’re special and you taking them literally. Perhaps someday in a quiet moment he’d explain to Vinnie his contempt for privilege and its myriad handmaidens, but he felt little need to do so tonight as they loaded Nicki’s life onto the hand truck and wrestled it, without permission, out into her frigid garage.

  What amazed Ray was how early in life people started taking sides and how entrenched they became as a result. As a boy he’d taken his father’s part in most things, and to this day he disliked men who inhaled more than their share of oxygen and converted it into charm. Perhaps his father had lacked imagination, as Uncle Jack maintained. And maybe, as his brother had too readily conceded, all their father’s days had been rainy. But anybody who thought he liked standing in lines was mistaken. Nobody enjoyed that. Nor could he have enjoyed some minion telling him what he was entitled to when he finally made it to the front of that line. By the same token, though, could a man judge his own merits, reward his own efforts and call it justice?

  Vinnie, of course, wouldn’t be engaged by such abstractions. It would make more sense to explain to him that not all lines were bad. It was in a long registration line, sophomore year, that he’d met Paula. It’d been hot, and Ray was in a vile mood because the line wasn’t moving and everybody knew the campus Greeks had figured out how to beat the system and sign up early for the most popular classes or those meeting in the afternoon. He remembered going on at some length about the injustice of it all, taking yet again, in this new social context, his father’s part against men like his uncle, though of course he hadn’t realized then that this was what he was doing. He probably hadn’t even introduced himself to Paula, just launched right in. Why, he couldn’t help wondering now, would such a lovely girl have listened for as long as she did? When he finally let his voice fall, she’d arched an eyebrow and said, not mean-spiritedly, but as if she was genuinely curious, “Are you like this all the time?” Here, he recalled thinking, was someone who’d be good for him.

  They’d gone out a few times that semester—to movies, the coffeehouse, nothing serious. After all, why fall in love with somebody who was good for you? Was it even possible to do so? Maybe. Right before spring break, when he learned of his father’s diagnosis, he asked Paula if she wanted to come with him to Maine. For some reason he wanted her to meet his parents, see the house he’d grown up in, experience the tough grittiness of central Maine. But how would he have phrased the invitation? Come meet my father before he dies? Come see why I’m “like this all the time”? Actually, she seemed to be waiting for just such an invitation. When he returned to school, though, she told him that over the break she’d gotten engaged to a guy from back home and would be transferring the following year to be near him. The news had hit Ray harder than he wanted to admit. He told himself to be grateful he hadn’t fallen for her completely, and anyhow he had no business losing his heart when his father was terminally ill, but part of him knew he already had. Later, after his father died and he couldn’t get Paula out of his thoughts, he briefly considered trying to find out if she’d actually married the guy, but of course she must have.

  Except she hadn’t, and when their paths unexpectedly crossed again years later, in another line outside a concert in Portland, it turned out she’d been thinking about him, too, wondering what had become of him, if he still had that enormous chip on his shoulder, because otherwise he was a pretty nice guy. Vinnie would enjoy this story of their interrupted courtship. Chance. Dumb luck. These were things Vinnie’s personal philosophy could accommodate, at least in small doses and in the service of a happy ending.

  Yeah, his brother had been right to ask what the past had to do with his present tumor. But life was full of mysteries, large and small. They also tended to pile up. Boxes and boxes and boxes of the inexplicable, until you could barely move amid the clutter. Worthless crap, most of it, but when you took in the sheer mass and weight of it, how could you not be discouraged when the time came to clean house, and where did you begin?

  It took them just two hours, at the end of which all of Nicki’s boxes—eighty-seven of them, by Vinnie’s count—were stacked along one wall of the narrow, one-bay garage. It’d be a tight squeeze for her car now, but if he and Paula managed, by going slow and being careful, Nicki could, too, at least until the property sold. While Vinnie stowed the dolly in the bed of the pickup, Ray went back inside for one last look at what they’d done, feeling a sense of accomplishment that he knew perfectly well he wasn’t entitled to. The only justification he could think of for intervening in Nicki’s life was that someone needed to—which left the ends to justify their means as best they could. It was possible, of course, that she’d be pleased, but if she was outraged, who could blame her? Nor did it escape him that the conclusion he’d come to about her—that it was simply being Nicki that came between her and what she wanted most—was the same conclusion Paula had reached about him last night. Nor, apparently, was she wrong. After all, he’d promised to call Vinnie’s doctor today and instead had found other things to fill the hours. He could tell himself and Paula that he’d do it tomorrow, but would he?

  Ray still vividly remembered his mother’s anger when
his father meekly accepted his own diagnosis, refusing to seek a second opinion. “But you could be one of the lucky ones,” she pleaded, when he told her about the odds the doctor had given him. “I’m already one of the lucky ones. You don’t believe me, ask Bo Phelps. Dan Johnson. Your brother Rudy.” All dead in the war was his point. Of course Ray had been as mystified as his mother. What sort of man comes home from the doctor, calmly sits down in his favorite chair, the one that looks out onto the darkening street, and waits for his own death as if it would arrive like a slow-moving taxi, plowing dutifully through wintry slush? For that matter, what sort of man stubbornly refuses to consider the possibility that this need not be his fate, that in addition to snow and slush there existed in the known world both sun and clean, sparkling water? It made no sense.

  But he must also have been proud of his father, or why would he be emulating him now? It hadn’t been a conscious decision—I’ll do this the way my father did it—when he was informed about his own tumor. He’d simply concluded, as his father must’ve done, that he wasn’t special, that there was no reason such a thing shouldn’t happen to him. Like his father, he hadn’t protested that he was too young, or that he’d been cheated, or that life was unfair, or that he deserved an exemption. Okay, maybe it was true the old man wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful, but he never in his life cut a line, and the only regret Ray had ever heard him express was that in the end he’d violated his own rule and let the bastards take his pants.

  Ray was yanked out of this reverie when a dog yelped outside, then commenced howling pitifully. He didn’t immediately realize that the dog was actually Vinnie, who’d gotten into the pickup to escape the biting wind and sat on one of the snifters.

  —

  It was nearly midnight when Paula got home from Portland. Ray, standing at the kitchen window when she pulled in, watched her point the remote at the garage door, which jerked into motion, dutifully rattled upward that first couple of feet, then stuck, just as it had done a few minutes earlier when Ray himself returned from the hospital, where Vinnie’s ass had required stitches.

 
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