Trajectory by Richard Russo


  I was pretty sure I knew what this remark referenced. Several years earlier Jason made a very expensive flop starring a Saturday Night Live alum. It wasn’t actually his fault, but when a studio head is forced to step down because of a movie you made, you don’t walk away clean. Since then he’d been directing episodes of CSI, along with the occasional cable TV pilot. Movie jail, it was called. A feature film with Nolan would spring him.

  “Did I read you were developing something else with him?”

  “A movie called Back in the Day.”

  “Is it green-lit?”

  “Amber,” he said, causing me to wonder if he was joking or if there really was such a term these days. “For the last year. More, actually.”

  “What’s the problem?”

  “What’s always the problem?”

  “Financing?”

  “Ding ding ding,” he said, game show for right answer.

  “What’s the budget?”

  “Twelve.”

  “You’re telling me William Nolan is having trouble attracting twelve million?”

  “Welcome to Hollywood, twenty-sixteen. The lower the budget, the harder it is to find the money. The script has already cost two.”

  “How many writers?”

  “Three they admit to, not counting me.”

  “Ouch.” Because I had a pretty good idea what that meant. Jason, attached to direct, had broken in as a screenwriter. Fearing the whole thing might head south, he’d probably done a freebie draft or two. Nolan could have ponied up, but these guys—whether a cut above or two cuts below—never spent their own money.

  “But it looks promising,” Jason was saying. “They’re in Romania scouting locations as we speak.”

  “That’s a good sign,” I agreed, meaning the location scouts, not Romania.

  “So tell me about Milton and Marcus. What’s the backstory?”

  I filled him in: about the original project Nolan had tried to involve Wendy in (which never got made, either), about my writing the Marcus character for Wendy, then Wendy getting sick. “He must’ve sent Nolan the pages. What I don’t get is how they surfaced after a decade.”

  “Probably Marty was cleaning out a file cabinet.”

  Possible. But how had they known who to contact? I didn’t remember even including a title page, so how could they tell who wrote it? “And I’m hearing Gene Handy as Marcus? I thought he was in rehab.”

  “He is, but the timing may be good. He seems to do all right when he’s on the set. He says he wants to work.”

  “What does he look like?” The last photo I saw of him—a mug shot—was horrifying.

  “A train wreck, but that could work for us. He’s got a small role in Desperation Alley. I hear he was good.”

  “Bill doesn’t think so?”

  “He makes these phlegmy, growling noises all the time. In between his own lines. When other characters are talking. He’s under the impression that people enjoy them. Anyway, they’re all crazy.” Actors, he meant. The species.

  “Unlike us.”

  “Right. Unlike us. How’s your Beth?”

  I’d been anticipating the question, so I was ready. “Terrific. She says to say hi.” My bravado sounded hollow to me, but if Jason noticed, he let it go. “Yours?” His wife, an actress, was also named Beth.

  “Great,” he said. “I don’t know why more men don’t marry up.”

  “They would if they could.”

  “You think?” he said.

  As we were hanging up, I’d heard my Beth’s car pull up outside and went over to the window. It was blustery, and when getting out, she put a hand on top of her head, apparently worried that her wig would fly off. I met her at the kitchen door. “You look exhausted,” I said.

  “I am,” she allowed, submitting to my embrace. These days I had to be careful not to squeeze too hard. “There are some things in the trunk.”

  “I’ll get them. Go sit down.”

  Outside, I grabbed two small bags of groceries, then closed the trunk. Glancing up at the window of the room I’d used as a study back when I was still a writer, I half expected to see myself standing there, a man of two minds about everything, neither of them particularly sound.

  —

  I’d hoped Jason might ride down the mountain with me, but since neither of us knew where the restaurant was, it was decided that Marty would ride with me, Jason with Regular Bill. “Take your time,” Marty advised. “Bill drives like a bat out of hell.” Indeed, by the time I put my rental car in gear, Nolan’s Jeep was already out of sight, though plumes of road dust rose like smoke in the darkness ahead. “Why I’m not lying dead at the bottom of the ravine is a mystery.”

  “How long have you guys been working together?”

  “Ten years.”

  “That’s a long time in this business.”

  “There’s no way he can fire me. I know too much.”

  “So,” I chuckled, “then I guess it is the bottom of the ravine. Tina didn’t want to join us?”

  “Tina who?” This was evidently a joke. “Nah, she’s a dancer. Seldom drinks. Body’s a temple sort of thing. Also, bored silly by movie talk.”

  I was remembering my conversation with Jason the previous week. “Okay if I ask you a question?”

  “Fire away.”

  “How did you guys come across those Milton and Marcus pages?”

  “Wendell Pierce sent them.”

  “Yeah, but that had to be ten years ago.”

  “That’s how long Bill’s wanted to do it. Then Pierce died…”

  I nodded. “And nobody else was right for Marcus.”

  “Yeah, that. At first.”

  “But then?”

  “In the end you have to order from the menu. You think Tommy Lee Jones, but he’s unavailable. Then suddenly he’s available, but Bill isn’t. You go through the same dance with Harrison Ford. The old story, right? Civilians only know about the movies that get made. For every one of those there are a hundred others that go from the back burner to the front and then back again.” I had my eyes on the road, but unless I was mistaken, he started to tell me something else, then thought better of it.

  “My turn?” he said. “To ask a question?”

  We were coming into a straightaway, so I risked a glance in his direction. He was studying me curiously. “Sure.”

  “Are you ill?”

  I assured him I wasn’t.

  “I only ask because we saw your car coming up the mountain. You pulled over…”

  “Turbulence on the plane,” I explained. “Then the windy road.”

  “We shouldn’t have asked you to drive up to the house,” he said. “You have to be exhausted, and we could’ve begun work in the morning.”

  “No worries,” I told him.

  “In fact, if you want to skip dinner—”

  “No, really, I’m good.”

  “Bill can come across as self-absorbed,” he said, surprising me, “but he’s really glad you’re here.”

  The restaurant was mobbed, but the maître d’ was on the lookout for Marty and led us to a private room, where Regular Bill was holding forth, Jason listening appreciatively. “Finally,” Nolan said when he saw us. He made a show of checking his watch. He’d ditched the poncho in favor of a linen sport coat but was still wearing the T-shirt with the stretched neck. “What the hell happened to you guys?” he said, indicating that I should sit next to him. They already had drinks, Jason a glass of red wine, Nolan what appeared to be a club soda.

  “I had to stop and throw up again,” I said.

  “Seriously?” he said, looking first at me, then at Marty, clearly worried.

  I waited for a full beat, then told him I was kidding. For consistency’s sake, I repeated the lie I told Marty about why my stomach had been upset.

  “But you’re okay now?”

  He looked genuinely relieved when I said I was. “But you were midstory,” I said.

  “Right,” he said, turning
back to Jason. “So Tina and I have been seeing each other for a while, and I’m wondering if maybe this is serious. Not thinking marriage, exactly, but yeah, serious. I can tell she’s got misgivings. Anyway, we’re shooting in Utah, so I invite her to the set. Moab, right? Where it’s over a hundred degrees. Everybody’s miserable. The good news? There’s a long weekend coming up. Memorial Day? The Fourth? I forget. And she wants to fly to Maine, where she’s got family, but I nix that. It’ll take a full day to get there and another to get back. Also, I’ve just bought this new Audi and I’m anxious to put the top down and see what it can do on the back roads between Moab and Santa Fe. So I’m telling Tina about this little hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint where they serve these incredible margaritas. Made with the same tequila we were drinking back at the house, but at the time I don’t know that. I just know they make the best margaritas on the planet. Anyhow, I’m trying to convince her to come with me to Santa Fe for the weekend, and the more I talk about these margaritas, the more I just have to have one. In my head I’m doing the calculations. I figure if we get on the road by six, we arrive in Santa Fe around dinnertime. Tina would still rather go to Maine, but in the end she agrees, which makes me wonder if she’s getting serious, too, because I’m really being kind of a dick here, wanting my own way.

  “So we’re just crossing into Colorado when the Audi throws a rod. Did I mention this is a brand-new car? And now we’re over on the side of the road. Midmorning and it’s already in the nineties. One bar of cell service. I look over at Tina and I know what she’s thinking—we could be in Maine—but she doesn’t say it. We lock the Audi, which is silly; it’s not going anywhere. We walk, we walk, we walk. The only other cars on the road are headed the other direction. Finally, at the crest of this hill, I have two bars and get through to Triple A, tell ’em where we are. They send a tow truck to haul us into Durango. This whole time Tina’s trying to make me feel better. She says it doesn’t matter. We’ll check into a motel. It’ll be romantic. It’s not like you can’t get a margarita in Durango. But I’m having exactly none of it. Yeah, sure they have margaritas there, but not the ones I’ve been telling her about. By the time we get to Durango it’s early afternoon and I’ve got a new plan, or rather the old one with new wheels. We’ll rent a car. Just leave the Audi there. Next week, after it’s fixed, I’ll get somebody from the set to come pick it up and drive it back to Utah. Except that by the time we finish talking to the mechanic and making all the necessary arrangements it’s midafternoon. No hope of making it to Santa Fe by dinnertime, even if I drive like hell. Tina is saying it’s fine, it’s fine, but it’s not fine. I’m tasting that first sip of margarita. So I call Marty and ask him to find out if there’s an airstrip nearby. There is. I hear myself say the words ‘private jet.’ Now Tina’s looking at me like I’m some completely new kind of crazy. I tell her not to worry, this is going to work out. I call the restaurant in Santa Fe to find out how late they serve. Ten o’clock. It’s gonna be close, but it can be done. We take a taxi to the airstrip. Two hours later, the plane arrives.”

  As Nolan was telling this story, I had the kind of out-of-body experience you sometimes get in the presence of people who are larger than life, or larger than yours, anyway. We’re used to seeing the William Nolans of the world on a giant screen, not sitting next to us in a restaurant. Close up, you can see what makes them stars and see that it’s no accident. But writ small, their particular magic feels more like a parlor trick. Clever, sure, and you have no idea how it’s done, but the part that gobsmacks you is that you’re there to witness it in person. When people talk of being starstruck, what they’re feeling is that something’s out of alignment, like they’re coming in contact with something they thought they understood, only to discover they don’t. The only cure, I knew from experience, is familiarity. Anything that happens often enough becomes mundane. If you had any doubts on that score, all you had to do was look at Marty, whose weary expression at hearing this tale for the umpteenth time suggested that indeed no man is a hero to his valet. Marty might be a Hollywood producer, but I was beginning to understand that his real job was to produce an easier life for Regular Bill—locate the nearest airstrip, make arrangements for a private jet at a moment’s notice, find someone to go to Durango to pick up the repaired Audi. In other words, to clean up messes somebody else made.

  “By the time we land in Santa Fe,” Nolan continued, “it’s almost nine-thirty and I still have to rent a car. I tell them to just put us in anything, I don’t care. The kid behind the counter wants to tell me all about this great special they’re running. For an extra thirty bucks a day they can upgrade me to an Audi. I say fine, whatever, I don’t care, just give me the keys. We do eighty all the way into town. Five minutes to ten we pull in. The parking lot’s full, but there’s a space between a minivan and a Range Rover. Or it looks like a space. Actually, it’s occupied by one of those little Japanese roadsters, emerald green, which I don’t see until I hit it. Plow it right up and over the cement guard and into the back wall of the restaurant. The rental Audi’s hood is pointed straight up, steam billowing out of the radiator. Tina has her hands up over her face and all she can say is ‘Oh…my…God.’ And what do I say to her, asshole that I am? I point to my watch and say, ‘We’ve got two minutes.’ ”

  Our waiter, who’d been patiently loitering nearby, came over then, wondering if we’d like to hear the specials. Nolan waved him away.

  “Inside, we order two margaritas, and that first taste? It’s everything I remember. I’m thinking, I swear to God, that it’s all been worth it. This is the best margarita in the world. This margarita’s so good you don’t even want another. A second would cheapen the experience. That’s how good it is.

  “Even so, reality’s begun to set in. In less than twelve hours I’ve wrecked two Audis and a Japanese sports car. I tell Tina to order us some food while I go look for the owner of the roadster. I go from table to table, my hat pulled down over my eyes. Anybody here drive a green sports car? No, no and no. Finally, this girl in her twenties says yes. So I tell her there’s been an accident and that I’m really sorry, I’ll pay for everything, but I think I’ve just totaled her car, and she says, ‘Yeah, okay, but aren’t you William Nolan?’ ”

  It was a good line and we laughed appreciatively. I thought about Wendy, who had always provoked similar reactions when he was recognized in public.

  “When I get back to the bar, I see Tina’s scribbling on a cocktail napkin. She’s barely touched her margarita, and this, I think, can’t be good. I put myself in her place and figure I’m way the hell up shit’s creek. Still, I do my best. I tell her everything’s going to be fine. I found the owner of the roadster. We’ve exchanged information. She’s not even that angry, I tell Tina, hoping she’ll see my logic. If this girl whose car I just totaled isn’t pissed at me, why should she be? Which is complete bullshit, granted, but it’s all I’ve got. So Tina’s just sitting there, incredibly calm now, scribbling away on this cocktail napkin, which is unnerving, but I keep on blathering until I run out of blather. When my voice finally falls, she asks me if I enjoyed my margarita. I recognize this as a trick question. Whatever I’ve got coming, here it comes. So I’m all sheepish, but even so I admit that, yeah, I really did enjoy it. She says, ‘Good,’ and slides the cocktail napkin she’s been writing on in front of me. ‘Because this is what it cost.’ While I’ve been going table to table, she’s been putting a price tag on my stupidity. It’s all right there. The cost of repairs to the first Audi, plus what somebody will charge us to fetch it back to Utah. The private jet. The replacement of the totaled roadster, plus repairing the Audi we just rented, assuming it’s not totaled, which it may be. By her reckoning, the margarita I enjoyed cost just south of a hundred grand. Much as I’d like to, I can’t find fault with her numbers, though I point out that in fairness she could at least have divided the total by two, because it was two margaritas we got for that price, not one. Not dividing by two makes me look lik
e twice as big an asshole.”

  We all chuckled again at what seemed to be the story’s conclusion, because it was funny, but it was also, at least to my thinking, an extension of Nolan’s on-screen persona, the kinds of characters he always played: simultaneously smart and stupid, self-deprecating, willing to make himself the butt of the joke. Jason immediately grasped the story’s intended moral. “But there’s a happy ending, right? She did marry you.”

  Nolan looked like he was about to agree, but he heard my chair scrape back and saw me get to my feet. “You’re leaving already? You just got here.”

  “I won’t be long,” I promised, showing him my phone, which had buzzed twice since I sat down. “My daughter.” Who’d left two messages.

  “Go,” he said. “We’ll order for you.”

  Outside, I didn’t bother listening to the messages, just pressed RETURN.

  “Daddy,” she said, picking up on the first ring.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “What’s wrong?” Her mother was dying, she meant. And here I was asking if something was wrong. What I’d meant, of course, was what else was wrong. Had her mother fallen? Been rushed to the hospital? “Cassie?”

  “I can’t bear it. Seeing her like this. She’s so sick.”

  “She’ll feel better tomorrow. The first couple days after the treatments are always the worst.”

  “She’ll feel better, but she won’t be better.”

  “I know.”

  “I wish it was me.”

  “No, you don’t.” Not with three kids and a husband. I understood, though. She and Beth had always been close, in certain respects more like sisters than mother and daughter. Still, she didn’t want to trade places, not really.

  “What I really can’t believe is that you’d do this.”

  “Do what?”

  “Just take off like this when she’s so sick.”

  “She’ll feel better tomorrow. It goes in cycles. Every day’s better until it’s time for another treatment. You’ll see. I promise.”

  “Two days is all I can give you.”

  “I know that.”

 
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