Trajectory by Richard Russo

  “That’s one of the problems,” Tony agreed cheerfully.

  “We have a student in common, you and I,” Newhouse said, leaning toward her as if about to impart a secret that must be kept from their companion at all costs, his elbow brushing against her left breast. Tony noticed and grinned, her predicament highly entertaining to his apparent way of thinking. “That one.” He was now offering his index finger for her to sight along, not that she needed to. Though his back was to them, she now recognized one of the students at the round table.

  “Cox,” Newhouse thundered. “James Cox. Wrote the best paper on Dubliners I ever read.”

  “Who do you think wrote it?” she said.

  “He could publish the damn thing,” Newhouse went on, an alcoholic beat behind. Then, finally, “What do you mean who wrote it? Cox wrote it.”

  “Well, okay, if you say so.”

  Now it was Newhouse’s turn to lean away. “Why would you suspect Cox?”

  “If you aren’t suspicious, fine,” she said, lowering her voice in the vain hope that he might as well.

  “I’m not suspicious. Why would you be suspicious?”

  “Do you get a lot of publishable work from undergraduates?” Tony, bless him, asked innocently.

  “You,” Newhouse said. “You stay out of this. I want this lady to tell me why I should suspect Cox.”

  “Maybe I’m wrong,” she told him.

  “You are wrong,” he said, pushing out of the booth and taking the mostly empty pitcher with him. His face had gone beet red. “You are wrong. You’re worse than wrong.” Then he turned to Tony. “And you.”

  “Yes, Tom?”

  “You aren’t even a good dancer. There’s no excuse for you.” And with that he pivoted and returned to the bar to drink alone.

  “What’s ‘worse than wrong,’ do you suppose?” Janet said when he was out of earshot.

  “Might it include being naïve? Intellectually lazy? Failing to comprehend that you’ve become a figure of fun?”

  She was studying the students at the coin table, seemingly oblivious to what had just occurred across the room. All except James Cox, something about the cant of his head suggesting he’d heard Newhouse say his name. Had he noticed her come in?

  “So, was he right?” Tony Hope wanted to know. “Are you a good dancer?”


  By the time she emerged from Modern and Romance Languages, the sky had grown menacingly dark and a hot desert wind, full of electricity, was auguring rain. Good, Janet thought. In the air-conditioning of Bellamy’s office she hadn’t sensed the gathering storm, which probably meant that he hadn’t, either. Otherwise, he’d be headed for his top-down convertible at a dead run. By the time his office windows started rattling, it would be too late.

  She was holding that old issue of American Literature, in which he’d turned down the opening pages of the articles he wanted her to read. One, he’d explained, was his first published essay, written when he was still a grad student, a careless effort containing, by his count, no fewer than six errors, all pointed out to him over the years by fastidious would-be fact-checkers who seemed to consider any mistakes, no matter how innocent or inconsequential, unforgivable. He hoped she’d see why, despite its flaws, this semi-embarrassing essay had been worth publishing. Though he hadn’t actually said so, her assignment was presumably to look for signs of the passion that led Bellamy inevitably to greatness, with the best office on campus and the vintage roadster right across the street. The other essay he recommended was by someone called Patricia Anastacio, suggesting—again, rather than stating—that its admirable if somewhat-minor and feminine virtues—industriousness, organizational skills, attention to detail—were predictive of a workmanlike but uninspired career. (“You read carefully, synthesize well and know how to marshal evidence.”) Really, the man’s arrogance was breathtaking. He’d cast himself as Tennyson’s Ulysses, fearlessly sailing uncharted waters, while she (like this Anastacio) would remain behind like Telemachus, blamelessly tending the household gods. Okay, Telemachus wasn’t a girl, but the gender prejudices at the core of Bellamy’s assumptions bordered on infuriating.

  At the bottom of the steps was a metal trash can, and it was all Janet could do to not deposit the periodical there. What prevented her was an even-better idea—to drop it on the driver’s seat of the roadster, where it would swell like the man’s bloated ego once the skies opened. If Bellamy said anything later, she could claim she’d xeroxed the essays immediately and wanted him to have his copy back.

  She was still so worked up when she arrived at the F-lot that she was flummoxed by what she saw there: standing next to Bellamy’s roadster was a young man dressed in brightly mismatched clothes. His large head was shaved bald, and he was flailing his arms wildly, as if battling invisible demons, and as she drew near he let out a startling howl. Had his eyes not been clamped shut he would’ve been looking right at her, which was why she briefly entertained the irrational notion that by walking up she’d caused this fit. What he looked like was some sort of demented, idiot genie summoned by her proximity for the express purpose of protecting Bellamy’s car and dignity.

  These were, of course, the impressions of an instant. Later, guiltily, she would try to reconstruct exactly what had happened and why. The young man was a frightening apparition, come upon so suddenly, his arms flailing about his head, as if he’d received an electrical charge from the approaching storm that set him dancing and windmilling. (Did he mean to share that electric jolt if she came within reach?) But by the time she took her first, instinctive step around him she realized that he was blind and the hot wind, gusting fiercely and carrying all manner of grit, had frightened and disoriented him. His white cane lay under the convertible’s wheel. Why, then, once she’d registered this truth, was it so hard to banish the original, clearly false impression of the young man as someone to be feared?

  And then, like a switch had been thrown, his howling and gyrations stopped and he cocked his head, as if to listen. Did he sense someone close by? Did he mean to cast a spell? Grant her a wish she’d later regret? Slowly, he turned toward her, and—if his eyes weren’t blind and still clamped shut, he again would’ve been looking right at her. The two of them stood there frozen, a couple feet apart, until he finally reared back his head and bellowed, “Pleeeeeease!”

  As if in answer, the rains came, the first fat drop hitting Janet on an eyebrow, releasing her, and she ran. She looked back just once, to make sure it was only his terrible howls pursuing her.


  Robbie looked up and smiled when she came in through the garage and hung her shoulder bag on the hallway hook. Marcus was sitting next to him on the sofa, where they were watching cartoons that Robbie, at least, seemed to be enjoying. Marcus’s face was blank, as usual, but he was caressing his father’s earlobe between his thumb and forefinger, as was his habit in calm moments. The significance of that gesture was one of many things they couldn’t agree about. Robbie thought it was sweet that their son found his earlobe comforting. Until recently, Marcus had strictly forbidden any touching whatsoever, so Janet supposed that, yes, this might be an encouraging sign, but it troubled her that he still didn’t like to be touched himself, and also that rubbing Robbie’s earlobe was the only sort of touching he seemed comforted by. When she’d pointed this out, her husband reminded her of their doctors’ repeated admonitions. “And besides, have you noticed it’s just the right ear? I’ve tried switching places on the sofa, hoping he’d reach for my left lobe, but no dice. It’s the right side or nothing.”

  “He doesn’t want either of mine.”

  “Hey, I’m the one who’s around. If you were here all day long, it’d be you.” When she replied that she didn’t think so, he added, “Well, I guess we’ll never know.” He said this without sarcasm, just a simple fact, one of many simple facts that made up Robbie’s life, none of which he seemed to resent.

  In graduate school, he’d been a year behind Janet. Though
universally well liked, he was generally conceded to be the least gifted student in the Ph.D. program. The others had all done their master’s work elsewhere, whereas Robbie was a holdover, admitted at the last minute after a more highly regarded Ivy Leaguer backed out. At least once every term he needed to be convinced not to just drop out. Once Janet accepted her tenure-track position, Robbie started writing grants for local nonprofits, a job he could do at home and still mind their son. The year before, when she was up for tenure and working long hours on the book she hoped would guarantee it, they appeared to be drifting toward divorce, but now that her job was secure, everything seemed a little better. They’d found a morning program for Marcus, which meant Robbie could finally finish his dissertation, though he hadn’t yet shown any such inclination. His rationale was that the college already had a professor in his specialty, so what difference did it make? Even if a better job at a research university came along for Janet, he’d still be considered baggage. She couldn’t fault his logic, but the idea of not finishing something you’d worked toward for so long was beyond baffling. Still, that was Robbie for you.

  “The grant came through,” he told her, turning down the TV’s volume and nudging Marcus gently. “Move over, sport. Let’s make room for Mom. She looks like she’s had a rough day.”

  And she’s late, was what he didn’t say. Late coming home on a day when she might have been expected to return early.

  “That’s okay,” she told him. “I need to change clothes. But which grant? And how much?”

  “The Contemporary Art Institute. Seventy-five K. They’re over the moon.”

  “They should be. Congratulations.” And how much did you get? Why do you let these people take advantage of you, making them look good and working for peanuts?

  In their bedroom she shed her teaching outfit and pulled on a pair of jeans. Outside it had begun to rain. The bedroom blinds were drawn shut, but she could hear rain lashing the window in wind-driven gusts. Why does he gallop and gallop about?


  Why had she circled back to the F-lot? She remembered telling herself that she just wanted to make sure the young man was all right. If he was still in distress she could call the campus police, who after all were paid to handle situations like this. But even then she’d known she was more curious than concerned. Had he tried to cross the street and gotten run over? (Would that be her fault?) Or in his literally blind rage had he assaulted the next passerby? (Proving how wise she’d been to steer clear?)

  At least ten minutes had elapsed, so she wasn’t surprised to see that someone had taken him in hand, though she hadn’t expected it to be Bellamy. He was holding the boy—who looked younger now, for some reason—by the elbow, about to help him cross the suddenly flooded street. She considered just driving by, but what if Bellamy saw her? Was it possible he’d recognize her car? She knew his, after all.

  “Janet,” he said, when she pulled up next to them, “you’re a lifesaver.” He led the boy around to the other side of her car and opened the passenger door, which seemed almost like an accusation. See how harmless he is?

  “God bless you,” the boy kept muttering as Bellamy, still out in the rain, got him situated, fastening his seat belt. “God bless you.” Was she included in this blessing? Facing straight forward, the young man might well have been completely unaware of her. Did he imagine the car drove itself? Or had he caught a whiff of her in the lot before she darted off and now remembered her scent? Another possibility also occurred to her. What if the boy was only partially blind? Maybe that’s why he was refusing to look in her direction.

  “Here,” Bellamy said, taking him by the wrist and slipping his cane in his hand.

  “God bless you.”

  “William here needs a lift to the Newman Center,” Bellamy said as he slid into the backseat, dripping wet. He already knew the kid’s name?

  “Where’s that?”

  “Turn right on Glenn. Two blocks, on the left,” Bellamy told her. Was he Catholic? Why else would he know where the Newman Center was? She tried to picture the Great Man on his knees, praying.

  It was raining even harder, straight down now, even though the wind had abated some. “Don’t you want to put your top up?” she asked, pointing at the roadster.

  Bellamy regarded her curiously, perhaps surprised she knew which car was his, then burst into laughter. “That’s hilarious,” he said.


  “Everything okay?” Robbie wanted to know. He was standing in the doorway, regarding her wistfully as she sat on the edge of the bed in her bra, and she felt a wave of something like nausea pass over her as past and present merged. “You looked like you were about to cry.”

  She went over to the dresser, took out a sweatshirt and pulled it over her head. “I’m fine. But I just had to deal with a plagiarist.”

  “Those are always fun,” Robbie said. “Did he come clean?”

  She nodded. “Then, just to make matters worse, I ran into Tom Newhouse.”

  She wouldn’t mention where this had happened. One of Robbie’s complaints, back in their days of estrangement, was that except for the rare dinner party, they never went out anymore. He loved live music, even garage bands playing loud, junky blues in the mill-town dives that ringed the campus, the kind he’d played in himself back in their university days.

  “Turns out my plagiarist is also taking a class with him, and Tom starts raving about this Joyce paper the kid wrote. Then he gets mad at me for suggesting he might want to look into it.”

  Robbie frowned. “Why’d you do that?”

  “Do what?”

  He just shrugged.

  “No, what are you saying?”

  “Don’t get angry. I was just remembering how in high school I always hated it when the nuns compared notes. If I got into trouble in one class on Monday afternoon, by Tuesday morning they were all pissed off at me. It didn’t seem fair.”

  “The solution to that problem, I suppose, would’ve been not to fuck up with the first nun.”

  He shrugged again, unwilling, as usual, to take the bait. “You want me to cook something, or just go out for pizza?”


  “Pizza, then. Marcus can come with me. He loves Pizzoli’s.”

  Really? How can you tell? Not saying this, of course. Because that probably wasn’t the real reason he wanted to take Marcus. It was better than leaving him alone with her.


  “It’s the greatest of mysteries, I think,” Bellamy said later.

  She’d waited in the car while he walked the boy into the Newman Center, then gave him a lift back to his waterlogged convertible. Though she’d run all the way to the X-lot, she was soaked to the skin by the time she got there, and she was aware now that her shirt was semi-transparent. But if Bellamy noticed, he gave no sign.

  “What it’s like to be another person, to be William,” he continued. “What it feels like, I mean. Literature. Life. They give us little glimpses, leaving us hungry for more.” When she said nothing, he finally glanced over at her, then away again. “I’m sorry I pushed you so hard today,” he said. “I like to know who people are, but I sometimes forget it’s none of my business.”

  Go away, she remembered thinking. Please stop talking and go away. His kindness to the blind boy had stolen her righteous anger, leaving her hollow, in need of another emotion, though she couldn’t think of one she was entitled to, unless it was despair.


  She was sobbing now, her body shaking so violently it frightened her, and for a long time she couldn’t stop. Only when she quit trying did she feel herself begin to come out the other end. How long did the jag last? She wasn’t sure, but probably no more than half an hour, or else Robbie and Marcus would’ve gotten back with the pizza. The face that stared back at her from the bedroom mirror was barely recognizable as her own—pale, swollen, naked. Not one she wanted Robbie to see, or Marcus, either, for that matter. Other than anger and frustration, their son s
eemed to have no emotions of his own, but when others showed any, it often upset him. She definitely did not want to be here, looking like this, when they returned.

  Backing out of the driveway, she had no idea where she was going. Didn’t know, in fact, until she got to the end of the street and turned left onto College Avenue. Was she losing her mind? What could she possibly hope to gain by going to campus? James Cox and his friends were probably long gone, the pub locked up. But she knew now what she wanted to say to him, what she should have said earlier. And suddenly the idea of postponing that until after the break was insupportable. The resumption of classes was simply too far in the future. She couldn’t bear forgetting, or risk the return of her sanity and equilibrium. Given time and opportunity, she’d reason herself out of saying the words. For her own sake more than his she needed to tell him what she believed, this very moment, to be true: that his dishonesty wasn’t a condition. It was nothing but a habit, and habits could be broken. Just because you cheated doesn’t make you a cheater. Not if you stopped. He could begin his new life by writing a new essay. Something by James Cox, not some long-forgotten fraternity brother. Maybe this time he’d discover a James Cox who wasn’t lazy, incompetent, sullen and belligerent. Possibly there was a better self he could be. Don’t hold back, he’d advised her, and she didn’t plan to. She would make him understand.

  But by the time she arrived back at the Hub Pub, Cox and his friends were indeed gone, and her disappointment was crushing out of all proportion. To make matters worse, Tom Newhouse was still sitting there at the bar. He hadn’t seen her come in, though. She could turn right back around and he’d never know. You could do that in life. Just slip away before you were noticed, no one the wiser. What was the term Tony had used? Effaced. You could become effaced.

  “Moore,” Newhouse said when she slid onto the stool next to him. “You’re back.” His smile suggested he’d either forgotten she’d recently pissed him off or had already forgiven her.

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