Trajectory by Richard Russo


  By contrast, Nolan was the reliable, competent American Everyman, the Nick Carraway who would never understand or accept or like himself half as much as Gatsby did. The Milton of my fourteen pages was a lot like me, a man cautious by nature and experience, who knew himself too well to be much of a fan and, as a result, was often too grateful for the good opinion of others. This was precisely the sort of man Nolan understood and could become on-screen. Ironically, it was in real life that being “regular” had become unattainable. Had stardom done that? Had it rankled him that Wendy had somehow managed to remain himself? Was that what had come between them after Monte Carlo, the real reason Nolan kept saying no to a fourth movie? Pondering all this, I suddenly knew what I didn’t before—how the Milton and Marcus story had to end.

  “It’d make a good movie, wouldn’t it?” said a voice, and when I looked up, there stood Nolan. “Mind?” he said, nodding at the seat next to me.

  I took my bag off it and said the first stupid thing that occurred to me: “How’d you get past security?” Because that was my initial idiotic thought—that Marty had told him I was leaving and he’d followed me to the airport in the hopes of convincing me not to.

  “Same as you,” he said, showing me his boarding pass.

  “Oh,” I said, “right.”

  “That’s me boarding, actually.” His flight, he meant. The one to LA. “Marty tells me your wife is sick. I’m sorry to hear it.” That sincerity again. But who knew? Maybe it was real. Maybe the man was genuinely sorry to hear that a woman he’d never met was ill. The fact that his own needs and desires were generally trump didn’t mean he was devoid of empathy. “It’s too bad we didn’t hit it off,” he continued. “Wendy spoke highly of you.”

  “And of you.”

  “I gather you think I wasn’t a very good friend to him.”

  “I wouldn’t know. Were you?”

  “Well, we didn’t always see eye to eye, but one thing we did agree on. In the end nothing much matters but the work.”

  “I’m not sure he believed that, actually.”

  “You think he would’ve walked away from Milton and Marcus like you’re doing?”

  “If it meant making the movie with someone else as Milton—yeah, I do.”

  “I guess we’ll never know. Have a safe flight back to New Hampshire.”

  “Vermont,” I said.

  “Right,” he said, getting to his feet again. I rose, too. He didn’t offer to shake hands. “Who betrayed who, do you think?” I wasn’t sure if he meant Milton and Marcus or him and Wendy. When I started to ask, he held up his hand. “Don’t tell me. Put it in the script.”

  And then he was gone, the last one through the gate, the door closing behind him. Because, really, who gets to follow William Nolan onto a plane?

  —

  Two hours later, when my own flight was finally called, it occurred to me that I hadn’t let my wife and daughter know I was headed home. This time it was Cassie who answered the phone. “You were right,” she admitted grudgingly. “Mom’s better today.”

  “Is she there in the room with you?”

  “No, she’s in the garden.”

  “Really?”

  “Tending the tomatoes. She knows how much you love them.”

  Lurking in this observation, unless I was mistaken, was an accusation, so I said, “Darlin’, are you mad at me?”

  She took a while to answer. “Trying not to be,” she said finally.

  “Because I came out here?”

  “Not exactly.”

  “Then what?”

  “I guess it kind of feels like you’re…moving on.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Flying out there now, with Mom so sick? It’s like you’ve already come to terms with losing her even before she’s gone. Like you’re thinking about the future.”

  “You really believe that?”

  Again it took her a long time to answer. “No,” she said, crying now. “I guess not. I’m sorry. I just wish…”

  “What, darlin’?”

  “I wish there was a way to not think such horrible thoughts. Because once they’re in your head…”

  “I know,” I told her. And I did. Yesterday, driving up Nolan’s mountain, I’d remembered—God help me—a woman I’d met at a writers’ conference half a lifetime ago. Patricia, a poet. She had the kind of sad, intelligent smile I’ve always been a sucker for. Unlucky, she’d ended up with the mentally ill student—there’s always one—determined to poison her workshop. I should’ve kept my distance. Instead I invited her out for a drink and gave her the opportunity to vent or not, as she wished. The following evening she wanted to return my kindness. I should’ve found an excuse to decline, but I didn’t. By midweek the student causing all the trouble was asked to leave, but the pattern had been established and we continued to meet at the end of the day, Patricia and I, sometimes inviting other faculty to join us, but mostly not. Among other things, I learned that her husband had recently died in a car accident. When I expressed my condolences I was told there was no need. Their marriage had been loveless almost from the start. They’d been talking about a divorce before the accident occurred.

  The thing about confidences—the unsolicited opening of the heart—is that they invite reciprocity, even when it’s not a good idea, and so it was that I heard myself telling this woman I’d known only a few days how, a decade into our marriage, my wife and I were adrift, how Beth wanted children and it was beginning to look like that wasn’t going to happen, how it seemed to me as though her disappointment was the subtext of every conversation. This was right after my success with Wendy’s picture and I was gone a lot, taking script meetings in LA, and even when I was home I was often abstracted. I wouldn’t have described our marriage as unhappy. Indeed, we remained comfortable together, tolerant and affectionate, yet something vital did seem to have slipped away. “You’ll find it again,” Patricia said, putting her hand on mine. “I’m sure of it.” The perfect response, I thought, at once kind and generous, even as it brought to a full stop a subject I never should’ve introduced in the first place.

  Though we never saw each other again, I sometimes thought of Patricia, in part because her words proved so prophetic. Because Beth and I did find the elusive, vital thing we’d lost. In fact, I returned from that very conference to the news that she was pregnant, which she’d suspected before I left but wanted to be sure about before saying anything. I’d considered getting in touch with Patricia to tell her how prescient she’d been, but that would’ve been a bad idea, because in the heartbeat between the moment Patricia put her hand over mine and when she said, with such quiet confidence, that all would be well between Beth and me, my heart had lurched in my chest. Thanks to her our relationship had remained chaste and decent, but I knew I could make no claim to innocence.

  Patricia. Over the years I noted with pleasure when she had a new book of poetry coming out, though I never bought or read one, afraid to engage again, even at a distance, with a heart and mind so compatible with my own. On the back of her most recent book, however, there’d been an author photo that revealed she was still a lovely woman thirty years later, and of course she still had that same sad, beautiful smile that might’ve been my undoing if she hadn’t been so wonderfully corrective. It was that smile that had visited me, unbidden, in my rental car as I drove up Nolan’s mountain, just before Beth telephoned. Which I suppose meant that my daughter was right and some reptilian part of my brain was already preparing for my own survival in a future that might not include the love of my life.

  Hanging up, I felt worse for Cassie than myself. Because this brutal world simply will not spare you—even when you’re young—knowledge of the worm in the apple.

  —

  When the cabin door closed and it was announced that all electronic devices needed to be powered off, I was about to comply when my phone buzzed with a text message from REGULAR BILL: You know you want to. Marcus’s text to Milton at
Starbucks. Despite myself I smiled and texted back Eat your cookie before turning the phone off.

  God help me, he was right. I did want to. With little else to do, I’d spent the last two hours in the airport lounge outlining the rest of the script, slowing down during crucial scenes to block out some dialogue and giving special attention to how Marcus’s death in the third act would allow Milton to slip back into the shed snakeskin of his more adventurous self. It was Milton who had to end up with Mona, aka Mother Alma, Nolan had been right about this, too—though it would be revealed that Marcus, not Milton, was Gwendolyn’s father. I plugged away, telling myself I wasn’t committing to anything. I was under no obligation. The project was mine and I could take it to Jason if I felt like it, though it was Nolan who could get the movie made, just as it was Nolan who would find in Milton the ordinary guy he himself aspired to be, the young ne’er-do-well he must’ve been when backpacking through Europe on a shoestring with the boon companion that Wendy would later remind him of. In Milton he’d locate, just as he always did, that younger version of himself. The William Nolan he’d been before he’d discovered his gifts and the ambition to make them real in an unreal industry. Back when he’d really been Regular Bill.

  The very best thing about the film world, Wendy used to say, is its unreality. Nor was he really talking about the movies that were its end product. So many of Hollywood’s inhabitants were improbably beautiful, others implausibly wealthy, a few impossibly both. Add talent to that heady mix, and it becomes so illusory that it’s hard to imagine how ordinary rules of behavior might apply to people so ridiculously blessed. Who wouldn’t want to be one of them, living like they did on giant screens—their colors bright, their resolution vivid, their faces and taut bodies perfectly lit? What right did we ticket buyers have to hold such ethereal beings to standards other than the ones we ourselves defined and emulated? More than their beauty, wealth and talent, we envied their moral freedom, their ability to trade up and up again, while avoiding the consequences of doing so. It’s what we all covet, what I’d wished for at that conference when I briefly fell for a woman who was not mine, to have or to hold. Put simply, I’d wanted more happiness than I had coming. Wasn’t its pursuit my inalienable right? But of course that’s just another way of asking, Why shouldn’t we have whatever we want? The same question, if you thought about it, that was begged by Nolan’s margarita story.

  “These guys, these guys,” Jason had said, his voice full of genuine wonder, when I told him what Nolan said I should call him. How much of our precious faith we’ve always put in men like him and Wendy, in larger-than-life people in general. How pissed off we get when they don’t return the favor. Once, years ago, in a posh New York restaurant, I observed a tableau that I’ve never forgotten. Picture this. Two movie producers, straight out of central casting, one based in New York, the other ponytailed one just arrived from LA. Was anyone on the flight? the New Yorker asked. His companion, finding nothing strange about the question, just chewed his steak and shook his head no.

  An Alfred A. Knopf Reading Guide

  Trajectory by Richard Russo

  The questions, discussion topics and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about Trajectory, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Richard Russo’s masterly new short-story collection about the fragility of human nature.

  Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the childhood poem that is referenced throughout “Horseman.” Why does it unnerve Janet? How does its use throughout the story help to reveal Janet’s feelings about her family life and her self-image?

  2. The discussion of academia in “Horseman” reveals inequities in the way that male and female academics are treated. How does gender affect Janet’s authority as a professor? How does she experience gender bias on a structural level? Discuss her attempts to resist gender stereotypes or misogynistic behavior. When she does fight back, how is she perceived?

  3. Discuss the scene in which Janet visits Marcus Bellamy for her first discussion with him. What are her expectations for the meeting? How does their conversation shake her confidence? What does it reveal about her role as an academic?

  4. Describe Janet’s relationship with her husband, Robbie. How does she view her husband’s decision not to finish his coursework? How has parenting a son with special needs changed their relationship?

  5. How does Russo build tension throughout “Voice” in regards to Nate’s interaction with “the Mauntz girl”? As a reader, what did you initially expect of their relationship? How do the stakes change as the story progresses? Why do you think Nate takes a special interest in her?

  6. Nate’s volatile relationship with Julian underpins the action of “Voice.” How does competition factor into their relationship? Jealousy? Discuss the difference in the way they approach interpersonal relationships on the trip.

  7. On this page, Nate is described as “modest and thoughtful, unfailingly considerate and an excellent listener—all traits women are reputed to value in men.” Nevertheless, “he ends up disappointing them far more profoundly than Julian does.” How does the reader experience Nate’s failure with women throughout “Voice”? By the end of the story, does contentment seem possible for him?

  8. Discuss the fragility of the academic life as explored in “Horseman” and “Voice.” How do both Janet and Nate regard their careers, in terms of balancing their expectations for it versus the reality of their positions? How are the uncertainties of academia addressed in these stories?

  9. On this page, Nate refers to the “culture of carelessness” that many of his students have grown up inhabiting. How is academic integrity explored in both “Voice” and “Horseman”?

  10. Describe the relationship between Ray and Vinnie in “Intervention.” Would you describe it as a true friendship? How did you interpret Ray’s reluctance to see the doctor that Vinnie recommended?

  11. How is economic strife discussed in Trajectory? Consider the characters in “Intervention.” How does the economic necessity of closing the deal on Nicki’s home weigh on Ray?

  12. Discuss the scene in which Ray meets up with his brother. How does the shadow of their father loom over the conversation? How do both brothers interpret their father’s legacy? Consider the impact of their father’s death on the way Ray thinks about his illness.

  13. How is the screenwriting profession described in “Milton and Marcus”? How is the superficiality of relationships in Hollywood explored in the story?

  14. Discuss the import of the margarita story told by Nolan. Why do you think he tells this story, despite the fact that others can’t relate to it? What does it assert about his character?

  15. Discuss the theme of male egotism found throughout Trajectory. How does pride interfere in the relationships between Julian and Nate? Ray and Vinnie? The various characters featured in “Milton and Marcus”?

  Suggested Reading

  The Whore’s Child by Richard Russo

  Pastoralia by George Saunders

  My Father’s Tears by John Updike

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  Richard Russo, Trajectory

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