Trajectory by Richard Russo

Feeling only slightly less weary than I’d been when I crawled into bed, I rose and showered and put on khakis and a wrinkled shirt before calling home. It was Beth who picked up. “Good Lord,” she said, her voice sounding clear and pain-free, though she’d become a master at hiding her discomfort. “What time is it there?”

  I told her. “My internal clock’s still on the East Coast. I was expecting Cassie to answer.”

  “I think I just heard stirring upstairs. I expect she’ll be down soon.”

  “How are you feeling?”

  “I may skip the half marathon, but better. Did you meet William Nolan?”

  Beth, like every other woman in America, was a fan. “Sure did.”


  “Every bit as charming as you’d expect. He’s no Wendy, though.”

  “You know that already? After one evening?”

  “I could be wrong,” I admitted. In my wife’s opinion I judge people far too quickly. The flinty, wintry Yankee in me. “Coming here may have been a mistake, though. Turns out I’m the third writer on the script.”

  “How is that possible?”

  “The first guy’s been nominated for two Oscars, the second’s an Emmy winner who’s new to feature films. I seem to be their last resort. Should I tell them to go fuck themselves? Just come on home?”

  “You went all that way, so why not hear them out? If it still feels wrong at the end of the day, you can fly home tomorrow.”

  “That was my thought, actually,” I told her, though until she said it I wasn’t sure. Knowing my own mind only after speaking it to my wife was our marriage in a nutshell, in fact. “Cassie seems very angry.”

  “You know how she is. She wants everything to be fair. I haven’t done anything to deserve this is how she sees it.”

  “She seems pretty pissed at me, actually,” I said.

  “You should let me tell her about the insurance.”

  We hadn’t wanted to. She and her husband were doing okay, but they had a lot on their plates. We didn’t want them worrying about us. “Let’s hold off until I get back,” I said.



  “Do you want to do this movie?”

  “I don’t know,” I told her. Yesterday I would’ve said no, that it was all about the insurance. But last night? Being at what I thought was the start of something? Finding myself a part of something again? Now I wasn’t so sure.



  The sun is low on the horizon as Milton, seated atop a riding mower, cuts the perimeter of a vast expanse of lawn, passing a sign that reads: BISHOP COLLINS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. In the distance is a low, flat building and adjacent parking lot, where half-a-dozen school buses are parked in rows. The ROAR OF THE ENGINE is loud enough that Milton doesn’t immediately hear his name being called.


  Mr. Milton? Mr. Milton?

  A pretty young nun (SISTER LUCY, early 20’s) in full-flowing regalia is trotting alongside the mower. He shuts it down.


  Sister Lucy.


  I thought you might like something cold to drink.

  She hands him a plastic bottle. Inside is some kind of fruit smoothie.


  I guess people don’t drink Coke anymore.


  They took all the vending machines out of the cafeteria. Junk food’s bad for the kids.


  (taking a drink, making a face)

  Let me guess. Mother Alma.

  He offers her a sip of the smoothie. She shakes her head, nervous.


  I shouldn’t.

  (a beat, he’s puzzled)

  Your lips, then my lips. It’d be sort of like a kiss.


  It’s been a while since I’ve kissed anybody, Sister, but I think you’re wrong.

  (he drains the rest)

  I always have Coke in my fridge if you get desperate. You could have your own can.

  There’s a moment of awkward silence. He can’t help but grin at her shyness.


  So, what was your street name?




  I guess that’s not a saint’s name, huh?


  You’re funny.

  (a beat)

  You remind me of my dad.

  (serious now)

  He died.


  That’s the resemblance?

  (she looks mortified)

  Just kidding, Sister. But I should get back to work.

  He hands the empty bottle back to her.


  Me, too. If Mother Alma sees me talking to you, I’ll catch it.


  Too late.

  And he’s right. There, a hundred yards off, is the Mother Superior, glaring at them.


  She’s always accusing me of flirting.


  (eyebrow arched)

  Maybe you should stop.



  Bye, Mr. Milton.


  Bye, Tiffany.

  And off she trots, delighted, though she gives Mother Alma a wide berth. The older nun and Milton lock eyes across the distance until the mower’s engine roars back to life.

  Neither notices when the RED CADDY convertible glides by on the highway.


  Milton, his mowing done, rides the machine into a big tin shed at the rear of the school. When he turns the engine off and climbs down, there, backlit in the open doorway, is MOTHER ALMA.


  (with an odd, almost ironic inflection)


  When she takes a step toward him, we get a better look at her. Though it’s hard to tell, given her religious habit, she appears middle-aged; her face, discounting the scowl and the wimple, is not unattractive.


  Don’t mother me, Mr. Milton.

  He detaches one of the two grass hoppers and empties it into a large plastic barrel.


  You’re not to engage the younger sisters in conversation. Especially not the novices. You know this.

  Milton does the same with the second bin.


  I didn’t engage her. She engaged me.



  Nevertheless. You have sinned.


  No, I remember sinning, and that out there wasn’t it. Besides, I’m too tired.


  I hope you don’t think I’m fool enough to believe that.


  Well, we all believe foolish things, don’t we.

  They’re both FRAMED BY THE DOORWAY now, and the nun steps aside so he can leave the shed.


  (over his shoulder)

  Your favorite valedictorian says hey.

  WE REMAIN ON MOTHER ALMA while this registers. After a beat, she follows him out into the bright sunshine.


  (suddenly very sad)

  How is she?

  When he shrugs, they just stare at each other, until Milton does an unexpected little jig.


  Fucking thing.

  He takes the BUZZING cell phone out of his pocket. For some reason Mother Alma does not react to his language.


  Sorry. It’s set on vibrate.

  ON THE PHONE’S SMALL SCREEN: It’ll be like old times.

  Milton puts it back in his pocket.


  (herself again)

  Since when do you have a cell phone?


  Since today.

  Now she’s the one wearing a wry smile.


bsp; What?

  But she just chuckles.


  Milton’s room reflects a man who’s gone deeply inward, whose world is narrow by design. He’s also a complete Luddite. No computer. Nothing high-tech. There’s an old battery-operated transistor radio on a shelf, and his television sports possibly the last set of rabbit ears in existence. There’s a battered cassette player, and the shelves are full of old movies (cassettes only, no DVDs).

  Milton is seated on a ratty but comfy-looking armchair, his feet up on an ottoman, watching Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. He smiles wistfully, until…

  The cell phone BUZZES on the end table. He lets it. Goes back to watching Grace and Cary.

  The BUZZING STOPS, then immediately STARTS UP AGAIN, and this time it seems to intensify the snow on the TV screen. Milton crushes his beer can, beyond annoyed.

  CLOSE ON THE PHONE, vibrating toward the edge of the table. It’s about to tip over onto the floor when Milton snatches it.

  ON THE SCREEN, as he peers at the text message: You should think about it. Now we see the sender’s name: MONA.


  I’d finished breakfast in the empty hotel dining room and was halfway through the first of the two screenplays when Marty’s assistant called to cancel the morning’s meeting. “What about the afternoon one?” I asked. Because if there wasn’t one, I’d just head for the airport.

  “Marty’s on the other line,” I was told. “He’ll call you as soon as he hangs up.”

  He didn’t, though, not unless he was on that same call for another hour. When I finished the first Milton and Marcus script I called Phil, my agent. Given it was an hour earlier in California, I expected to get his machine, but he answered. “Did you know I’m the third fucking writer on this?” I asked him.

  “It doesn’t surprise me.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because nothing surprises me.”

  “Do we have a signed deal memo yet?”

  “I’m supposed to get that today.”

  “This is all beyond strange, Phil. This morning’s meeting was just canceled.”

  “Who told you about the previous writers?”

  “They did. Nolan actually gave me the scripts to read. I just finished the first.”

  “How is it?”

  “Good. Not where I was planning to go, but…” When I told him who’d written it, he whistled.

  “Let me see what I can find out,” he said, “because this is making no sense.”

  My table in the dining room overlooked the lodge’s main entrance. A man I didn’t immediately recognize as Jason was getting into a cab below. The driver stashed his suitcase in the trunk and slammed it shut.

  “You want to know what else makes no sense?” I said. “Jason appears to be leaving.”

  “I’ll call you back,” Phil promised.

  When I set the phone down, it buzzed. Marty, at last. “Are you at the lodge?”

  “In the dining room.”

  “Is Jason with you?”


  “I really need to talk to him, and he’s not picking up.”

  “Everything okay?”

  “In this fucking business? Collar him if you see him. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

  I had Jason’s number and thought about calling, but decided not to. Two minutes later my phone buzzed again. “What was the name of that other movie Jason’s doing with Nolan?” Phil wanted to know.

  “Back in the Day.”

  “There’s a piece in the Hollywood Reporter this morning. It’s just been green-lit.”

  Which made sense of Jason’s abrupt departure. By evening he’d probably be on a flight to Romania. Milton and Marcus was already in his rearview mirror. I felt a surge of something like envy, jealous of the adrenaline rush you feel when things long stalled suddenly lurch into motion. Not unlike the moment a woman unexpectedly says yes. To you. She wants you. Wendy told me once that it’s this very I get to do this moment that every actor tries to re-create, movie after movie. “Well, that’s the news he’s been waiting for,” I said.

  “Except the story names the director as David Miller.”


  “I shit you not. Says he’s ‘newly attached.’ ”

  Hanging up, I called Jason’s cell, not expecting him to pick up, but he did. “Bad news, pardner,” he said.

  “I just heard. What should I do?”

  “My advice? Go home and write a novel. Give your Beth a big kiss.”

  “I’m really sorry, Jason. This is about as shitty as anything I’ve ever heard of.”

  “Yeah, but it’s a shitty business. Always was, always will be. Speaking of which, I should’ve told you about the other two scripts before you ever got on the plane.”

  “Why didn’t you?”


  Right. These guys, these guys.


  “The Reporter wasn’t supposed to run the story until next week,” Marty explained.

  We were sitting in the hotel lobby, waiting for the valet to fetch my rental car. Marty didn’t seem particularly surprised that I was leaving.

  After hanging up with Jason I’d called the company’s travel agent and got her to book me flights to Denver and then Albany. I’d turn my car in here in Jackson Hole. These were probably expensive changes and I hoped I wouldn’t be the one paying for them.

  “Bill feels terrible.”

  “He should.”

  “No argument there.”

  The Asian guys from the elevator came by and recognized me. “Steer no hat!” one of them called, grinning. “Aw cat-oh!” cried the other. All three swung imaginary lariats in the air. Marty raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment.

  “Is it true Jason worked on Back in the Day for a whole year?”

  “Off and on. We didn’t ask him to.”

  “No, but you let him.”

  “He knew the score. There was no more money in the budget for script development. No script, no movie. He did what he believed was in his own self-interest.”

  “So you’re telling me that a guy who by his own admission can afford to pay a hundred grand for a margarita can’t finance a single draft of a screenplay out of his own pocket?”

  He just looked at me. “Please,” he said, as if the subject was orgies and I was a priest.

  “So Jason makes your script camera-ready, and instead of thank-you he’s out?”

  “It sucks, but he wasn’t supposed to read about it in the trades. The plan was to break it gently to him over the weekend, tell him we’d find him something else. And don’t forget we were attaching him to Milton and Marcus.”

  “Where the same thing could happen all over again.”

  Marty shrugged. “It’s the film business. You know Bill’s choice wasn’t all that different from Jason’s. Movie or no movie. With Jason directing, the investors disappear. With David Miller, everybody wants in. Believe me, we tried to make it work.”

  “If you say so. But here’s what I really want to know.”

  He sighed as you would when you know what’s coming next will be brined in naïveté. “If Wendy had lived, would Bill have done this movie with him?”

  “I can’t answer that.”

  “Because I don’t think so.”

  “Why is that?”

  “Call it a hunch,” I said, because that’s really all it was. “I think Bill only got interested after Wendy died.”

  “You could ask him.”

  “Yeah, but after he answered I still wouldn’t know.”

  “How about we fly you back out next week? Start over after all this plays out.”

  “No, I’m needed at home. My wife is ill, and between you and me, the only reason I took the gig is because we need the Guild’s health insurance.”

  “Doesn’t that mean you still need it?”

  “We’ll figure something out.”

  “Bill’s going to
want to know where we stand. What do I tell him?”

  “That he made a mistake not optioning the material when he had the chance.”

  “You’re saying it’s not for sale now?”

  “Maybe just not to him.”

  “Isn’t that kind of childish?”

  “I’m getting a childlike satisfaction out of it.”

  “On the other hand…,” Marty said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He was, I realized, a man who considered all the angles. “Maybe that’s the savvy move, at least as an opening gambit.”

  “Yeah?” The valet was pulling my rental car up to the curb.

  “You’re not in a bad position. As you say, it was a mistake not offering an option up front. The company’s already invested significantly. And you heard his margarita story, so you know the lengths he’ll go to to get what he wants. Play your cards right, you could end up in clover.”

  A smart man would’ve left it right there, but he didn’t seem to be around. “Has it ever occurred to Bill that sometimes you don’t get that special margarita, no matter how much you want it? That it’s better to hunker down in Durango with a pretty woman and drink the local version made with Pepe Lopez and count yourself lucky?”

  He chuckled good-naturedly. “That’s hilarious.”

  “I’ll walk you out,” he said, grabbing my roller board. “What time’s your flight?” When I told him, he said, “Jeez that’s almost four hours from now.”

  “I’m a nervous traveler.”

  My phone vibrated and I showed it to Marty. The screen said REGULAR BILL, which was how I’d entered him into my Contacts list. Marty allowed himself a smile. A moment later, his own phone rang: BILL. Then he put it back in his pocket.

  “You mind my asking whose side you’re on in all this?” I said.

  “My own, of course.”

  We shook hands. There didn’t seem to be any reason not to.


  Going through the tiny TSA station at the tiny airport, I realized my shoulder bag was needlessly heavy so I deposited the two scripts in the large recycling bin thoughtfully provided there. I probably should’ve felt guilty at treating the work of two other writers so rudely, but I didn’t. Once past security I bought a sandwich and coffee at the lone food station and found a seat in the small waiting area that serviced the airport’s two gates. My bag now contained just the novel I’d read the first half of on the flight out and my own original fourteen pages of Milton and Marcus. There wasn’t much point in reading them now, but I did so anyway, drawn in less by the two main characters than by how I’d seen them in my mind’s eye: Regular Bill as sensible Milton, determined to live out the rest of his life in the safety of obscurity, Wendy as roguish Marcus, equally determined not to let him do it, as much for Milton’s sake as his own. Good as the two full-length scripts had been, neither seemed to pick up that Marcus was goading Milton back into life. In asking what was really between these two guys and insisting it couldn’t be a woman, Nolan had gone right to the heart of the matter—that Milton was by nature an emotional conservative and Marcus a genuine anarchist, untamed even by old age. After his death a friend of Wendy’s told me that his great talent had been to make other people—friends, loved ones, other actors—better by getting them to risk more. He played characters who fucked up and took their lumps as a result. Either that or they got sucker punched by circumstance and had to take a standing eight count. As their losses mounted, their inner flame would gutter, and you’d wonder if they’d throw in the towel, because in their place that’s what you’d do. But always it remained, that flickering flame, waiting to be fanned. That was Wendy’s temperament, his films were invariably about his characters’ attempts to relocate the shed skin of a better self, about somehow slipping back into it, feeling at home in it once more.

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