Trajectory by Richard Russo


  “Why did you cast him?”

  Nolan rolled his eyes. “There must’ve been a reason, or I wouldn’t have done it. Marty. Why did we cast him?”

  “You liked the fact that he wanted to be in a real movie,” Marty said. Apparently one of his jobs was explaining Nolan to Nolan. “Also, his name got us green-lit.”

  “See?” Nolan said. “I knew there was a reason. Two reasons. That’s one more than I usually have.”

  “Two more,” Marty corrected, finishing his margarita and setting the glass down.

  Nolan flashed him the smile that, even in his midseventies, still caused women to moisten their panties. “You, too, can be replaced.”

  The smile lingered on Marty for a beat, then fixed on me. I assumed the idea was to include me in the joke, but then I realized I’d heard too when he might’ve meant two. For his part, Jason had the look of a man who was fluent in a whole other language where two meant three.

  —

  Milton and Marcus, the project we were about to embark on, was only fourteen pages in its entirety. I’d written it a decade earlier for the great Wendell Pierce. Wendy and I had become friends when I did an uncredited rewrite of a screenplay that ended up getting him his seventh Oscar nomination. The script was based on one of those surprise literary best sellers that are all about the sentences. Several A-list screenwriters had taken a crack at it and had done about as well as you could, given that the book was all interiors, most of the interesting stuff taking place in the characters’ heads, with very few actual scenes to move along what little plot there was. All the dialogue had to be invented. I’d been hired to punch that up, which I did, but I’d identified another problem, as well—that an interesting minor character had been allowed to fade into dramatic insignificance, letting a lot of air out of the narrative balloon. In my draft I’d kept her alive and made a few other little changes that gave the story some much-needed torque going into the final act. Wendy claimed I saved the movie, but that was hardly the case. It had a gifted young director and a terrific cast. But I was briefly lauded as a script guru, and Wendy hired me to doctor two subsequent screenplays, though I wasn’t able to work comparable magic on those.

  Over the years we kind of stayed in touch, and when I had a new book out, Wendy always called to congratulate me. I think he must’ve known that my work had lost a good deal of its vitality by then. Each book sold fewer copies than the one before, and while the critics remained mostly respectful, many reviewers seemed to agree that my earlier books had felt far more urgent than these later ones. The sad truth is that some writers have less fuel in the tank than others, and when the vehicle begins to shudder, you’d do well to pull over to the side of the road and look for alternative transportation, which was what I did. I took a series of adjunct writer-in-residence gigs that allowed me to keep up the pretense of being a novelist. Living in Vermont, I wasn’t offered much script work, though every now and then Phil Gast, my Hollywood agent, would land me a rewrite. Over the last decade even those had dried up, and visiting-writer gigs began to disappear, too, at least in New England.

  When I heard a rumor that Wendy was ill, I sent him an e-mail saying long-time-no-hear, but not mentioning the rumor. An hour later the phone rang, and there was his gravelly voice on the line. “Hotshot!” he said, his favorite nickname for people he liked. “Listen, I’ve got this script I’d like you to look at.”

  When he told me the title, I recognized it as a nonfiction book that had been published a decade earlier. It seemed an odd fit for Wendy, and I said so.

  “Nolan wants to do it,” he explained, which made a kind of sense, given the book’s earnest, left-wing politics. Clearly he, Nolan, would play the book’s beleaguered protagonist.

  “What’s in it for you?”

  “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’ve been looking for something since The Monte Carlo Affair, and we’re not getting any younger.”

  Back in the eighties he and Nolan had made three enormously successful buddy pictures, the first and best about two Depression-era con artists. Wendy was already a huge star, of course, and Nolan was well on his way to becoming one. By the time they finished Monte Carlo—the last and thinnest of the three films, held together by little more than the extraordinary charisma of its two iconic actors—Nolan was the bigger star, and he went on to have one hit after another in the nineties, all important movies. By then Wendy’s star had begun to dim. After his daughter, a photographer, died covering a war in the Middle East, he began to look his age and was having an unprecedented string of flops. Toward the end of the decade, though, he made a major comeback playing compromised men—politicians and lawyers and gamblers—and suddenly he was a star again. And not just a star, either: more like a national treasure.

  Anyway, we left it that I’d have a look at the script and give him my thoughts. He made no mention of any illness. So, just a rumor then.

  The following week, we talked again. “I still don’t get it,” I confessed. “Where’s your role?”

  “Maybe one of the minor characters could be expanded,” he suggested. “Or you could invent somebody new.”

  “The book’s nonfiction,” I pointed out, not unreasonably.

  “Think about it.”

  That night I sat down with the source material, but the book, like the script, was a one-guy story. To make it a two-guy story you’d basically be starting from scratch, and even then it would lack the wit that had distinguished the other three films he and Nolan had done, and neither man wanted to make a movie that would pale in comparison to the others. Wendy had told me about a few of the projects that had come close. Interestingly, it was always Nolan who said no, they should wait for the right thing to come along.

  Yeah, okay, but this was the project they’d been waiting for? I guess I could see why Nolan wanted to do it, but why did he imagine Wendy would?

  Rather than trying to figure that out, I wrote Milton and Marcus, or rather half of the first act, about a couple of over-the-hill con men going in for one last score. A cliché, but so what? As I envisioned the narrative, it would play to both men’s comedic strengths. I would send the first act to Wendy, and if he liked it he could forward the pages to Nolan. Either that or I’d finish the script and we could offer it to him then. Before I could complete the first act, however, Wendy called. “Listen, Hotshot. Don’t bother.” About the other script, he meant. Nolan would make that one on his own and they would continue to look. But there was a catch in his voice—profound disappointment? hard-won acceptance?—so I said, “Actually, I have an idea for the two of you. A caper movie, like Monte Carlo.”

  “Yeah?” he said, sounding cheered. “Fax the pages to my office.”

  When I hung up it occurred to me that maybe this was what he’d wanted all along. Like all great actors, Wendy had a shrewd understanding of human nature, and he probably figured that if he presented me with a problem I’d try to solve it. He also knew that I was both grateful to him and fond of him. If he was playing me, I didn’t mind. I was a writer, after all, and as such I possessed the same basic skill set as actors—an insight into what makes people tick, that and a certain cynical understanding that what makes them tick generally isn’t what makes them good or even interesting. If actors are famously narcissistic, writers run a close second, and they generally have far less justification.

  After sending the Milton and Marcus pages to Wendy’s office, I didn’t hear from him for a week, long enough for me to conjure a pleasant scenario of what might be happening behind the scenes. Wendy had seen in those pages the project they’d been waiting for and forwarded them to Nolan, who’d in turn sent them to the head of Paramount, with whom they’d make the deal. (Did I mention the narcissism of writers?)

  But I was wrong, of course. Wendy called the next day.

  “Good pages, Hotshot.”

  I could feel myself smiling. “I thought you might like—”

  “But I’m finished.”

  “I’m
sorry?”

  “With movies.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “I never should’ve called you. That was selfish. I’ve known for a while.”

  “Known?”

  “I wish I could, though. The pages sparkle. And no one would’ve been better as Marcus.”

  “Wendy—”

  “Gotta go, Hotshot. You be good.”

  I remember hanging up the phone and just sitting there trying to parse my crushing disappointment. Much as I liked those fourteen pages, it wasn’t really about them. They’d taken me all of a day and a half to write. So was it about Wendy, then? He’d inspired them and, yeah, I did want him to have one last picture with his old friend. I also wanted him not to be sick, and I now knew he was. Why hadn’t I written those same pages a year or two ago when they might’ve done him some good? And yet, bad as I felt for Wendy, the feeling of hopelessness that descended on me felt completely out of proportion. Apparently I’d wanted Milton and Marcus for myself, as well. I’d begun wondering if maybe my tank wasn’t empty after all. Maybe I could get back in the game. Make a little money. Do meaningful work again. Like I said, what makes people tick isn’t neccessarily what makes them good.

  Fast-forward, as we say in the movies, a full decade. Wendy’s been dead for most of it. The phone rings and I don’t recognize the caller ID or the area code. The caller identifies himself as Bill Nolan. I don’t immediately twig to the fact that it’s William Nolan because I’ve never heard anybody shorten that famous first name, and besides, why would William Nolan be calling me? “It’s about Milton and Marcus,” he said.

  “Who and who?” I said, because really, after ten years? All of fourteen pages?

  “You’re the one that wrote it. Couple of con artists and a nun?”

  “Wait,” I said. “William Nolan?”

  “Did you ever finish the script?”

  “The man I was writing it for died.”

  “How about finishing it for me?”

  “Seriously?”

  “I was hoping you’d come out here and talk about it. Who’s your agent?”

  I told him.

  “What do you go by?”

  “Ryan,” I said, my last name. “You?”

  “Bill’s fine,” he assured me. “Just regular Bill.”

  —

  ESTABLISHING SHOT: A LONG, LOW-SLUNG BUILDING.

  IN THE F.G. IS A SIGN THAT READS: LAKELAND MEDICAL ARTS COMPLEX.

  It’s clear from the palm trees that we’re somewhere in Florida.

  INT. EXAMINATION ROOM—DAY

  CLOSE ON a man (THOMAS MILTON, mid ’60s, ruggedly handsome); his face is sideways (is he lying down?) and it practically fills the screen, and when we hear a SNAP, as of a latex glove, he flinches.

  VOICE

  How’s Mother Alma?

  MILTON

  Mean as a snake. You should visit sometime.

  WE GRADUALLY PULL BACK TO REVEAL that Milton is naked; he’s lying in a fetal position on an examination table. When the B.G. comes into focus, we see the physician is working her fingers into the latex glove for a smooth, tight fit. Her name tag says: Dr. Gweneth Overby. (Early thirties, olive skinned and attractive.)

  MILTON

  Don’t spare the lubricant.

  Her smile contains just a hint of cruelty.

  GWEN

  (her finger lubricated)

  Say ah.

  And inserts her finger.

  MILTON

  Ahhhhhh!…Shit.

  WE STAY ON MILTON’S GRIMACE until she finishes and he relaxes. As she removes the glove with another SNAP he sits up.

  MILTON

  How come you people always save that for last? Because you enjoy it so much?

  She’s making a note on her clipboard.

  GWEN

  No, we just assume you do.

  MILTON

  (pulling on his boxers)

  Go ahead, say it.

  GWEN

  Say what?

  MILTON

  That I’m still a perfect asshole.

  She smiles, a little ruefully.

  GWEN

  Well, there doesn’t seem to be anything amiss, if that’s what you’re getting at. Shall I call when I get the blood work?

  MILTON

  I don’t have a phone.

  GWEN

  Right.

  (smiling wryly)

  Same address?

  He’s at the door now. He nods.

  MILTON

  We done?

  GWEN

  I guess.

  MILTON

  Good. Once again you’ve raised my spirits. The worst part of my day is over.

  And he’s out the door.

  GWEN

  (to herself)

  Whatever you say, Dad.

  INT. CORRIDOR—SAME

  Milton COMES TOWARD US, just the slightest jig in his step to suggest the recently completed rectal exam. There are people seated in plastic chairs on both sides of the hall, and THE CAMERA REGISTERS that one of them is holding up a newspaper in front of his face. When Milton passes him, we hear:

  VOICE

  Milton.

  Milton stops dead, closing his eyes as if in pain.

  MILTON

  I spoke too soon.

  Now he turns around. The man who was reading the paper lowers it and rises to his feet. He’s a trim, dapper-looking fellow in his seventies (MARCUS FLEET).

  MARCUS

  How’s that?

  MILTON

  I thought a finger up my bum was going to be the low point of my day, but now I see I was wrong.

  MARCUS

  How come you never let bygones be bygones?

  MILTON

  Every time I think I’m about to, you show up again.

  WE HOLD ON MILTON for a beat, then QUICK CUT TO: EXT. MEDICAL ARTS BUILDING—SAME

  Milton explodes out the front door and across the parking lot, Marcus right on his heels.

  MARCUS

  Hey, my bad. I should’ve called first, but—

  MILTON

  (whirling around to face him)

  My bad? How old are you? Nineteen?

  MARCUS

  I try to stay young. Would you be happier if I said “my fault”?

  MILTON

  I’d be happier if you said goodbye.

  And he’s off again. Marcus is breathing hard now, but he catches up and grabs Milton by the elbow.

  MARCUS

  Look, I know our last adventure didn’t end well.

  MILTON

  It ended with me in jail. Five years. Three months. Two days. Seventeen hours. But who’s counting?

  MARCUS

  Hey, I had to leave the country myself.

  MILTON

  Yeah? Where you been?

  MARCUS

  (squirms)

  The Turks and Caicos.

  MILTON

  Yeah? And how was that?

  MARCUS

  Loved the Turks. Hated the Caicos.

  MILTON

  (after a long beat)

  Go. Away.

  This time when Marcus catches up to him the two men are standing next to a dumpster.

  MARCUS

  About last time? If we’d had these

  (he takes out a cell phone)

  we never would’ve got caught.

  Milton snorts, then plants his index finger in the middle of Marcus’s forehead.

  MILTON

  If you’d had one of these we wouldn’t have got caught.

  Marcus takes out another identical phone.

  MARCUS

  I got one for you. All your major criminals use them now. They’re disposable.

  Without turning around, Milton tosses the phone over his shoulder and into the dumpster.

  MARCUS

  What’re you doing?

  MILTON

  I just disposed of mine. And another thing. You were never a major criminal, Marcus. In fact, you were nev
er a major anything.

  There’s a ramshackle old pickup truck sitting nearby with a bunch of rakes and shovels and bulging green-plastic lawn bags in its bed. Milton climbs into the truck, puts his key in the ignition. He’s about to pull away when he notices that Marcus has gotten into the car in the next space: a vintage candy-apple-red Cadillac convertible, meticulously cared for. Milton, we can see at a glance, loves it.

  MILTON

  Nice ride.

  MARCUS

  (unwrapping a cigar)

  Ride? How old are you? It’s a car.

  MILTON

  I must’ve picked it up from Gwen. You remember my daughter?

  MARCUS

  Your daughter?

  MILTON

  Right. My daughter.

  MARCUS

  If she’s your daughter, how come she looks like me?

  MILTON

  She doesn’t. She looks like her mother, thank God.

  MARCUS

  Speaking of Mona, what’s become of her?

  MILTON

  You’re wasting your time, Marcus. She’s through with the life. We both are.

  MARCUS

  (lighting the cigar)

  Too bad.

  (inhales)

  ’Cause I’m going after Lonergan.

  When Marcus pulls away, WE HOLD ON MILTON for A LONG BEAT. It’s clear that Marcus has just said the magic word.

  MARCUS

  (calling over his shoulder)

  You’re gonna need that phone.

  —

  Wanting to touch base before our meeting in Jackson Hole, Jason had telephoned the week before, and he chuckled appreciatively when I told him about how Nolan had said to call him regular Bill. “These guys, these guys,” he chortled. Meaning movie stars.

  Perhaps because our shared laugh at Nolan’s expense felt a bit mean-spirited, and because he was a friend of Wendy’s, I relented and said, “He did sound sincere, though.” Of course, these words were no sooner out of my mouth than I could feel myself flushing with embarrassment. An actor sounded sincere? Even more than their good looks and charm, sincerity is their giraffe’s neck—the evolutionary advantage that allows them to nibble tender leaves that are out of the reach of the rest of us ground-tethered creatures.

  “He is a cut above the rest,” Jason conceded. “And he’s been good to me.”

 
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