Trajectory by Richard Russo


  “Fucking thing,” Ray heard her mutter in the mudroom a minute later, struggling to get her boots off. “God, how did you know?” she said when he handed her a glass of red wine.

  “Well,” he said, trying to read from her demeanor how the trip had gone, “you don’t look any poorer.”

  Clearly exhausted, she collapsed onto one of the kitchen-island stools. “You know what we need? You and I?”

  “Nothing,” he said, his standard response whenever she asked this. “We have everything we need.”

  “No, you aren’t going to talk me out of this.”

  “Okay, what do we need?”

  She looked up at the ceiling fan, calculating. “Round figure? Fifty million dollars.”

  “One million is a round figure,” he pointed out. “Shouldn’t we start small?”

  “One million doesn’t help us.”

  He shrugged. “Okay, then, fifty it is.”

  “If we had fifty million, I wouldn’t ever have to ask anybody for money again. We could just fund everything ourselves. Education. The food bank. Disaster relief. All of it.” She considered the ceiling fan again. “Make it a hundred million.”

  “Better safe than sorry,” he agreed. “And Rormacher?”

  “They liked the proposal. Which means it goes up the chain of command. So for the moment we’re alive.”

  To that they clinked glasses.

  “I expected you to be asleep,” she said, really taking him in now—tired, dirty, the knuckles of his right hand skinned. “What have you been up to?”

  “Trying to get Nicki to fire me,” he said, explaining how he and Vinnie had moved everything but her furniture out into the garage. “Vinnie knew a guy with a hand truck. Normally he doesn’t loan it out, but as a favor to Vinnie—”

  “Stop,” she said. “He’s your friend.” She was smiling, though, so he returned the favor.

  “I know,” he said, and he did. Indeed, back at Nicki’s their friendship had deepened, or at least become more intimate, when Vinnie dropped his trousers and leaned into the cab of the pickup so that Ray, by the dome light, could first locate, then extract, a long, delicate shard of glass from his rump. But before he could relate any of this, Paula unexpectedly took his hand and said, “Since you’ve admitted to exceeding your mandate with Nicki, I might as well come clean, too. You have an appointment in Boston next Tuesday.”

  Ray nodded, feeling his throat constrict in…what? Anger? Panic? Closer to the latter, he decided. Not because he was afraid of the surgery, or even that it wouldn’t be successful. But rather that taking this necessary next step would accelerate matters. He’d have to give the bastards his pants. And that, as his brother had astutely diagnosed, had been the problem all along. He was about to become yet another bare-assed, middle-aged man, the kind who didn’t get to make decisions.

  He was rinsing their glasses in the sink, Paula having headed upstairs to bed, when his cell rang. It was far too late for anybody to be calling, which meant it was probably the Bells. They’d thought matters through and decided that in this market there was no hurry. They’d go back to Texas and return in the spring and see how things looked then. Serve him right, too, for intervening at Nicki’s.

  Except it wasn’t the Bells. “He’s dead,” his brother told him by way of hello.

  “Who is?”

  “Uncle Jack. I googled him. He died in Arizona. Some godforsaken place named Rio Rita, down by the Mexican border. He was the front man for some sort of land swindle, or that’s what it sounds like. Big story about it in a Tucson newspaper. A lot of people lost money. When things got thoroughly befucked, everybody absconded but Jack. Apparently he stayed on in the model home. The article made it sound like he lost his mind, claiming right to the end that everything was on track. He’d take people out and show them where the lake was going to be and the clubhouse and the golf course. It was all desert, of course, nothing to see but a few stakes in the ground. He was running his electric off a gas generator. It was dry when they found him and there was no gas in his truck, either.”

  “Rio Rita,” Ray repeated. And suddenly he remembered what had been different about the day the two brothers fought. Uncle Jack saying, Okay, fine, Tommy-Boy, if you want to be a chump, Godspeed. But why breed other little chumps. Look at them. What kind of shot are they going to have in the world? And that rag of a dress Rita’s wearing? A woman like that deserves—

  At the mention of their mother’s name, that was when their father came flying out of his chair. And with that understanding Ray could feel things click into place, like tumblers aligning in the moment before the safe’s door thunks open. The sensation was not unlike the vertigo he’d felt that morning at the top of the stairs, and he steadied himself against the kitchen counter now, suddenly weak-kneed.

  “That’s what it was called? Rio Rita?”

  “The name struck me, too. Probably just a coincidence, though. According to the newspaper he was married five times.”

  “Yeah, but it was Mom they fought about that day, wasn’t it? Uncle Jack must’ve been in love with her.”

  “Who knows? Maybe. I thought about asking her once toward the end, but I never did.”

  “How come?”

  “I don’t know. I guess maybe I thought she wasn’t put on this earth to satisfy my curiosity.”

  —

  “Everything okay?” Paula asked sleepily when he slid into bed.

  “Fine.”

  “Your brother calls you after midnight and everything’s fine?”

  “He wanted to tell me about this clothing-optional resort in the Bahamas.”

  “Bill—your brother—went to a nudie resort? With Jan?”

  “No, it’s just something he heard about. Thought we might be interested.”

  When he rolled toward her, she placed a warm hand on his waist. “It’s clothing optional right here.”

  Later, as he drifted toward sleep, Ray reexamined, in light of “Rio Rita,” his father’s strange equanimity when he was diagnosed. He’d always imagined his acceptance was rooted in deep conviction, but now he wondered if he was just worn out, tired of his life, of what it had amounted to, of how relentlessly it had thwarted him. He’d fallen out of love with their mother by then, Ray now realized. It was almost as if their uncle’s abiding affection for her, combined with his physical proximity, had been keeping the urgency of their marriage alive. Nor, Ray had to admit, had he felt any pressing need for his sons. Those last few years his father had seemed more abstracted than anything, both weary of life’s drama and puzzled by his own insignificant part in it, like a man who’d always believed the choice not to speak had been his, only to discover when he changed his mind that he was mute.

  And what about their uncle? Out in Arizona, did Jack think about his brother in Maine anymore? Had he been tempted to phone, to offer him one last opportunity to invest in a sure thing? Probably not. Even that day on the porch he seemed to know it was over. He returned to consciousness in surprisingly good spirits, Ray thought at the time, sitting down next to his brother on the porch steps, still astonished by what had transpired. “I guess you finally did it, Big Brother,” he said. “You shut me up good. I won’t be asking you for anything else, I promise.” Ray could imagine his uncle, alone in the desert, picking up the phone, maybe even dialing, then setting the handset back in its cradle, recalling his promise, yes, but also realizing that all his attempts to intervene in his brother’s life had ended badly and this one would, too. Because people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.

  It was all rather sad, but what Ray felt in the moments before sleep claimed him was the return of something he’d not even realized was missing—a cautious hope. Nicki’s house would sell at some point, maybe even tomorrow. So would others, eventually. They’d save Paula’s gallery somehow, or, if they couldn’t, they’d start another later on. In the meantime they’d have t
o exercise patience and care, qualities they possessed at least most of the time. He’d have the surgery—of course he would. As his brother put it, snick snick, and then you do the regimen. After which the bastards give you back your pants and you move on.

  Outside, it was snowing hard, the beginning of yet another long Maine winter, not his last.

  Milton and Marcus

  In the film business you hate for things to be fucked up at the start. They’ll end up there, it goes without saying. You’re a writer and you’re not stupid, so you know this. Nor is your own relative insignificance in the overall scheme of things in doubt. Films belong to producers for a time, then to directors, and in the end to stars. You? The writer? Forget the yearly Oscar speeches given by actors. Writers are hirelings.

  At the beginning, though, for a span of weeks or months, everyone pretends otherwise. Really, dude, it all depends on you. You’re wined and dined. If you write books as well as screenplays, you’re told that your last one wasn’t just a good read, it was fucking literature, though the person telling you this hasn’t read it and you know he hasn’t. If you’re not the first screenwriter on the project, you’re given to understand that the whole thing was a clusterfuck because it’s obvious you’re the right guy, the one who understands working-class people, or Ivy League professors, or returning Iraq veterans, or whoever the fuck this movie’s about. It’s all bullshit and you know it, just like you know that in due course you’ll be fired, though probably not by the people flattering you now. By then at least one of these smooth talkers, maybe all of them, will have attached themselves to a more promising project, its financing more secure, its star coming off a hit. Someone new will read your most recent draft and that person will send you an e-mail saying you’ve made real progress in this pass. Shortly thereafter, maybe even the same day, your agent will phone. It’s the call you’ve been expecting for a while, the one telling you the studio has decided to take the project in a new direction, because it turns out you’re not the right guy after all, the one who understands working-class people, or Ivy League professors, or returning Iraq veterans, or whoever the fuck this movie’s about. Now you can go back to your life, to the book you interrupted to take this gig, the one that people on your next film project will claim to admire, though they won’t have read that one, either.

  My point is that even though the whole charade is pretty tawdry and transparent, you look forward to it, or part of you does, the part that enjoys being flattered and lied to. The more cynical you are, the more you look forward to it. Which is why I was put off when it appeared we’d be dispensing with this ritual on Milton and Marcus. The initial meeting was supposed to take place in LA, where Jason, who was attached to direct, was shooting a pilot for cable TV. But then Regular Bill wondered if we could meet at his place in Jackson Hole, where he was cutting his recently completed film, Desperation Alley, which was rumored to be overbudget and behind schedule. Anticipating a yes, he’d already flown there along with Marty, his producing partner. Jason suggested that he and I both fly to Salt Lake, rent a car and drive to Jackson Hole. We’d worked together years earlier, when he was young and I was middle-aged. Now he was middle-aged and in another year I’d qualify for Medicare, which was good because I hadn’t worked in quite a while and consequently my health insurance had lapsed. The long, leisurely drive from Salt Lake to Jackson Hole would give us a chance to catch up and maybe talk a bit about Milton and Marcus before we sat down with Marty and Regular Bill. To me that sounded like a good idea. A man can only serve one master, and as far as I’m concerned that’s the director, even when the power behind the project is a Hollywood legend.

  Of course alliances between directors and writers are not perceived to be in the best interests of producers and stars, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that Regular Bill had gotten wind of our plan and talked Jason into flying to Jackson a day early, after his pilot wrapped, so he could view a cut of Desperation Alley. My own travel arrangements were left as they were, which meant I’d now have to make the long drive from Salt Lake alone. Marty apologized for the inconvenience, but insisted that once there I’d appreciate having my own vehicle. “Think of it as your getaway car,” he confided. “Bill’s a workaholic. You don’t want to be trapped.”

  I was halfway to Jackson when Jason called my cell. “You’re here,” he said, by which he seemed to mean that I was no longer in Vermont. “You’ve got GPS?”

  “On my phone.”

  “Good. Bill says come up for a drink?” The original plan had been for me to check into my hotel and meet the others for dinner. After all, I’d had an early wake-up call and was still on East Coast time.

  “Up?”

  “His place is on a mountaintop. Unless you’re too wiped out,” he added, apparently sensing reluctance in my hesitation.

  Before I could answer I heard, in the background, the one-of-a-kind voice of William Nolan, unmistakable, even over a tinny cell phone. “Tell him I’ll make him the best margarita he’s ever tasted.”

  “You catch that?” Jason said.

  I said I had and entered Nolan’s address into my cell.

  I was halfway up Nolan’s mountain, two hours later, when my wife called. “You okay?” I asked.

  “Of course,” she said. “I told you I would be.”

  “Is Cassie there yet?”

  “She just called from the airport. She’ll be here shortly.”

  “Did you eat?”

  “Some soup.”

  “Look, I’m on a windy dirt road.” At this elevation Jackson looked like a town made out of Lincoln Logs on the valley floor. “I’ll call you in the morning?”

  “I’ll be here. I promise.”

  Up ahead there was a place you could pull off, so I did. And threw up.

  —

  The woman who answered the door looked to be in her midforties. She was dressed in a leotard, her upper lip dewy, apparently from a workout. She introduced herself as Tina, and I recognized her from the tabloids as Nolan’s second wife.

  “There he is,” said the man himself, rising from the outdoor sofa when I was ushered out onto the deck. He and Jason and a third man I took to be Marty—we’d only spoken on the phone—were in fact drinking margaritas. Nolan was wearing a pair of weathered snakeskin boots, faded jeans and a coarse poncho over a T-shirt that was stretched at the neck. Marty wore a suit, white button-down shirt, no tie. Jason had on jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, not tucked in, boat shoes, no jacket. We were high up and despite the season it was chilly, which made me wonder if Nolan had noticed Jason’s discomfort and offered him a jacket. They were about the same size. Hard to accept a garment from an icon, though. We shook hands all around.

  “You arrange that just for me?” I said, because the sun was setting between two peaks, Jackson Hole in deep shadow now, lights in town coming on like jewels on velvet. The private road I’d ascended snaked down the mountain until it gradually merged with the darkness. I recognized the spot where I’d pulled over to be sick. On the railing sat a pair of expensive-looking binoculars. Not the best place to leave them because the deck was built out over the ravine, so if someone accidentally jostled them they’d free-fall a hundred yards before they hit anything. I made a mental note to not be the one to do that.

  Nolan held our handshake that extra Hollywood half beat. “I’m guessing you go by Ryan?” he said, my last name, and not guessing, either, since I’d told him that on the phone last week. Still, if he wanted to feel prescient, I had no objection. “You need to use the bathroom?”

  A man my age, did he mean, after a long drive? He was fifteen years my senior, though, so maybe he only meant to suggest that he understood if I did. “No, I’m good.”

  “I only mention it,” he continued, pointing at my shirt, “because you’ve got a little bit of…”

  Looking down, I saw what he meant: the word he was looking for was vomit.

  —

  By the time I returned, a wet spot the size of
a sunflower on my shirt front, Regular Bill had shaken my margarita and was pouring it into a salt-rimmed glass. “Tell me what you think,” he said, which I translated as Tell me what I want to hear.

  “Best margarita I ever tasted,” I told him, and no lie, either.

  “Small-batch tequila,” he explained, topping off Marty’s and Jason’s glasses. “I could almost tell you the exact agave plant it was distilled from.” He consulted his watch. “Time for just one, I’m afraid. We’ve got an eight o’clock dinner reservation in town.”

  I nodded, letting that sink in. I’d risen at five, flown from Burlington to Boston, from Boston to Salt Lake City, then driven nearly five hours to Jackson. Instead of letting me check into my hotel and catch a short nap, they’d had me drive another half hour to the top of Nolan’s mountain, only to turn around and drive back down again. Good tequila was supposed to make that all right.

  “Anyway, it’s not his fault,” Nolan said, returning to the conversation that my reappearance on the deck had interrupted. “The only acting the kid’s ever done is in front of a blue screen. Worse, he has no life experience.”

  Unless I was mistaken, they were discussing a well-known young actor who’d made his name in action movies driven by special effects. He’d taken a small but significant role in Desperation Alley. While I was driving from Salt Lake, Nolan evidently had screened the film for Jason.

  “Yeah,” Jason said, “but he’s what? Twenty-three?”

  “At twenty-three I spent a year backpacking across Europe,” Nolan said.

  “Alone?”

  “Nah, with this guy Renny. We both flunked out of Claremont the same semester. He’s probably still over there. All he wanted to do was bum around and smoke dope. Which, don’t get me wrong, was fun for a while.”

  “Anyway,” Jason said, circling back to the young actor, “he’s not that bad. In your mind’s eye you’re probably still seeing all the bad takes.”

  “That’s the other thing. The takes are identical. You say, Let’s try something different, and he says, Yeah, okay, but then he does the exact same thing.”

 
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