Trajectory by Richard Russo


  Whereas Nate himself is made of something stickier. Though modest and thoughtful, unfailingly considerate and an excellent listener—all traits women are reputed to value in men—he somehow ends up disappointing them far more profoundly than Julian does. Though they never explain precisely how he fails to measure up, they leave little doubt that he does. Apparently they prefer an empty vessel to one so full of whatever it is they refuse to name. The Mauntz girl was different, of course, but so was their relationship. She belongs in another whole category. In her case he knows exactly what he did wrong, though it’s of little use except to underscore that it’s probably a mistake to seek clarity when what’s vague are your own moral failings.

  Mulling all this over, Nate doesn’t immediately notice when Bernard, just as he did last night, falls behind. Even in this gimpy, long-in-the-tooth group, he is particularly pathetic. Though it’s nearly sixty degrees out, warm for northern Italy in November, he’s wearing a parka, and underneath it a tweed jacket, and underneath that a sweater and a shirt and an undershirt. What little remains of his hair is stirring, frondlike, in the breeze.

  “Are you okay?” Nate asks when he catches up.

  “Peachy,” Bernard replies. “Don’t worry about me.”

  But if something happens it’ll be Nate’s fault, so he calls to Julian and Renee, who are some fifty yards ahead at the crest of the next small bridge. The others are farther along, midcampo, clustered around Klaus, who’s paused to point out something architecturally or historically significant. “I’ll be right back,” he promises Bernard.

  When Nate trots up, his brother regards him in a way that suggests he’s been expecting just such an unwelcome intrusion and says, “What’s up, Prof?” His demeanor implies a firm conviction that nothing possibly could be.

  Prof. How the word rankles. For Julian it’s always been a term of gentle derision, the clichéd implication being that cloistered, academic life leads inevitably to an ignorant innocence in worldly matters. Teaching, his brother maintains, is a profession you gravitate toward if you’re modest and thoughtful and considerate and a good listener—a natural haven to old women of both genders. It’s possible, of course, that his mockery stings because it’s linked to Nate’s own self-doubt, his secret fear that he’s led a life other than the one he was intended for, following the wrong trajectory entirely. He’d put himself through college and graduate school working summers for a contractor named Handscombe, a surprisingly contemplative man who specialized in restoring old houses. For some reason he took a shine to Nate and, instead of having him hang drywall day after day, mentored him in the trade, teaching him carpentry and masonry as well as basic plumbing and wiring, marveling at his aptitude for all these tasks, especially since he’d grown up largely without a father. “Why don’t you stay on?” he suggested one summer a couple weeks before Nate would return to grad school. “You’re good at this. You seem to enjoy it.”

  Which was true, he did enjoy the work. There was something straightforward and appealing about driving a nail, fitting a pipe. You couldn’t pretend a job was well done if it wasn’t. In grad school people could and did argue that bad books were good and vice versa. Any persuasive case—no matter how wrongheaded at its core—was widely admired. Not so in Mr. Handscombe’s world, where shoddy work meant the pipe leaked or the wall fell down. Though Nate wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, the rhetorical tools he employed during the school year weren’t nearly as satisfying as the actual ones dangling from his tool belt in July and August. Even better, by the end of the summer his body was tanned and strong. Back then, naturally, these truths hadn’t seemed at all evident. What kind of man chooses physical labor over a contemplative life? It’s possible, though, now that he thinks about it, that Julian might have liked him better, or respected him more, as a maker of things you could touch.

  Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he was meant to live and followed the only trajectory that truly suits him, from start to finish. He’s sold cars, time-shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he likes to say, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and what they really want, and they’re yours. Julian tends to make a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine being in his cruel grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains, though apparently not the sort that bestows upon you a Ph.D. in English. Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for, but in Nate’s opinion it isn’t just algorithms he’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known the man a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

  “Bernard can’t keep up,” Nate now informs his brother.

  Julian snorts at this, seeming neither surprised nor concerned. “Morning of day one and already our vaunted buddy system’s come uncunted.”

  “Oh, dear,” Renee says, one avian hand fluttering up to her mouth, and for a moment Nate thinks she’s reacting to the vulgarity, but no, it’s the sight of Bernard trudging toward them with his head down, as if deeply apprehensive about his footing, the uneven stones still slick from last night’s acqua alta. Breathing hard, he pauses at the base of the bridge.

  “Bernard?” she says. “Are you feeling okay?”

  “I’m fine,” he insists, though it takes all his remaining breath to make this dubious assertion, and it’s a long moment before he completes the thought. “I just can’t walk as fast as the rest of you.”

  “It’s that goose-stepping German’s fault,” Julian says, unable as always to show sympathy for one human being without expressing contempt for another. “Where the hell did they all go?” he adds indignantly, surveying the now-empty square.

  Nate points at the alleyway into which the last of the Biennale group is disappearing. “They went thataway.”

  “Well,” his brother says, “somebody should run on ahead and get Herr Mengele to slow the fuck down.”

  “I could…,” Renee begins, but Nate can tell she doesn’t want to be the one.

  “Nah, let the professor go,” Julian says. “He’s the one who saw where they were heading.”

  Which is true, yes, though since he’d just shown them which calle their party entered, they’re all, from a purely informational standpoint, on an equal footing.

  “We’ll keep Bernard company,” his brother assures him, as if consideration for others were his raison d’être.

  And thus Nate is dismissed. Scuttling dutifully across the campo he feels the entire weight of the long history they share and how little has changed between them over the decades. Even when they were kids, Julian resented him tagging along. Often, at their mother’s insistence they would leave home together only to have Julian and his friends give Nate the slip. Later, of course, he would deny it, boldly claiming it was Nate’s fault they’d gotten separated. He’d been right there one minute and gone the next, impossible to keep track of and certain to disappear if you didn’t give him your undivided attention—already a consummate salesman, Julian’s protestations of innocence so convincing that even his brother half believed them.

  But other times, he has to admit, Julian wasn’t so bad. If not for him, what would Nate have done after their father’s desertion? “We’re better off,” his brother insisted every time Nate confessed how much he missed him. “He was a bum. Good riddance.” And when none of his own friends were around or he was bored, Julian played games with him and even helped with his homework. It was only later, in adolescence, that Nate began to discern a clear pattern to his behavior. What at first glance seemed to be kindness or affection on Julian’s part would later be revealed to be self-serving, causing Nate to wonder if he was capable of genuine empathy or if their father’s defection, their mother’s growing abstraction, hadn’t caused him to harden.

  Which probably explains his initial suspicion when Julian invited him o
n this trip. According to Julian, the tour was sold out, but if Nate was interested, he knew the woman in charge of the whole shebang and could have a word with her. But yesterday night in the lobby, Bea had greeted Nate as the tour’s savior. There’d been several unexpected cancellations due to illness and injury, she told him, and for a time it had looked like the trip would have to be called off. True, two other couples had come on board after Nate, but it was his participation that provided the necessary critical mass.

  Of course it’s possible she and Julian simply remembered things differently. Maybe she’s one of those women who like to make other people feel important. More likely, though, this was yet another instance of Julian being Julian. There was nothing his brother enjoyed more than giving the impression that everyone was in his debt when it was actually vice versa. Regardless, the discrepancy between these accounts immediately confirmed Nate’s original misgivings, and while he knew it was petty he couldn’t help wondering how many other people his brother had solicited before leaning on him. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Julian impatiently scrolling down his Contacts list and inviting Nate only after everyone else had been crossed off. And an even-more-cynical inference might be drawn: Julian is involved in some can’t-miss development in Florida or South Carolina or Arizona and wants to offer the other members of the Biennale tour an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise Nate to learn that the real reason Julian came on this tour is to pitch whatever he’s presently marketing to people with enough disposable income to afford a fortnight in Italy. Which would mean that as far as his brother is concerned, Nate’s just another mark.

  But why entertain such thoughts? Even if Julian has ulterior motives for inviting him, does it necessarily mean he’s totally without warm brotherly feelings? People have lots of moving parts, and trying to reduce motives for simplicity’s sake is always dangerous. The fact that Julian’s selling doesn’t mean Nate’s necessarily buying. The sad reality is that they’re both old men. Why not let past grievances go?

  Lost in parallel labyrinths—the maze of his own thoughts and Venice itself—Nate doesn’t immediately comprehend that he’s somehow managed to mess up even this errand. Rounding each subsequent corner, he expected to come upon Klaus and the rest, but entering another large, empty campo he realizes that he would’ve done so by now if he was going to. Somewhere he must have zigged when they zagged. Though he can’t understand how, they’ve disappeared. Which means there’s nothing to do except retrace his steps back to where he left Julian and Renee and Bernard, admit his failure and accept his brother’s silent scorn.

  But when he arrives at that campo they, too, have disappeared. In its center he stands by the statue of a man who appears to be sitting on a tall stack of books. Something is burning nearby, and its acrid taste burns like panic at the back of Nate’s throat. Then he remembers that after dinner, before turning in, he and Julian exchanged cell numbers. When he calls, though, he’s sent directly to voice mail, and in that moment he is visited by an awful certainty: he doesn’t just dislike his brother, he hates him. He imagines telling Julian, with Renee and Bernard looking on, that he is today what he’s always been—a selfish, arrogant asshole.

  Except the pleasure in doing so would be fleeting and the harm, at least to himself, long lasting. Renee would look at him with new eyes, and he’d see in her sad, frightened expression the belief that if she’d chosen him instead of Julian, he would’ve ended up hurting her. Even Bernard would turn away in disgust, just as his academic colleagues had done when rumors about the Mauntz girl began circulating

  The antidepression pill is still in his pocket, and he swallows it dry.

  The Mauntz Girl

  He’d noticed her in the gym the year before she enrolled in his seminar. Neither attractive nor unattractive, she wouldn’t have stood out except for how fiercely she swam against the current of campus life, steely will and bottomless need seemingly poised in Manichaean balance. She worked out early, sometimes arriving at the athletic center before daybreak, probably crossing paths with hard-core party types—the jocks and sorority girls—staggering back to their dorm rooms. Nate, who since retiring from full-time teaching had become increasingly insomniac, would occasionally get to the center a few minutes before it opened, and there she’d be, patiently shivering outside the entrance—her thin, thrift-shop clothes inadequate to the frigid early morning temperatures. Silently they’d wait for the custodian to unlock the doors, just the two of them, their nearness an intimacy. More than once Nate thought about introducing himself to this strange, seemingly friendless girl, so they could pass a minute or two in pleasant conversation before being allowed inside. But he was a man in his sixties, and a stranger to her. If he spoke it might weird her out. Still, it seemed a shame. Her willful unawareness seemed so purposeful it would’ve hurt his feelings had a terrible question not occurred to him: was she a mute?

  Unlike other girls who frequented the gym dressed in designer athletic outfits and expensive sneakers, the Mauntz girl actually worked out, training with the grim determination of a professional athlete. After forty-five minutes or so, her threadbare T-shirt, always the same dingy gray, was as drenched with sweat as an overweight man’s would’ve been. She never listened to music on headphones or watched television while she exercised, just plodded resolutely upward on the StairMaster, floor after imaginary floor. Nate felt sorry for her. Despite her dogged efforts, her body remained boxy and thick in the middle, much like his own had lately become. As a young man, working summers with Mr. Handscombe was all it had taken for him to round into physical form. How awful it must be for a twenty-year-old to be surrounded by others in the prime of their young lives, girls who could play drinking games with the boys into the wee hours, confident they’d be able to repair the damage on the lacrosse field the next day.

  That spring, about a week before the semester ended, she had an accident on the StairMaster. Nate was in the locker room when it happened, but he heard the commotion outside. “Some girl,” a guy explained when Nate inquired, had fallen and hurt herself pretty badly, though she was refusing all attempts to help her. Later that week he saw her moving painfully across the quad on crutches, the other students giving her wide berth as if she’d contracted something that might be catching. Then the following autumn, she turned up in his seminar.

  Her name was Opal Mauntz, and she must’ve decided to sign up at the last moment because it was penciled in at the bottom of his computer printout. Had she realized he was the man from the gym? (If she’d ever noticed him there, she’d given no sign.) His Jane Austen course was less popular than ever, its enrollment having declined incrementally through his semi-retirement, fewer students knowing anything about him. Those who took the class now were mostly majors who needed to fulfill a period requirement they’d been putting off. Next fall the department would probably offer it to the new nineteenth-century hire who’d apparently expressed interest.

  The young woman who belonged to the penciled-in name arrived after seven other females and one male had already staked out positions around the oblong seminar table. They were poring over the syllabus he’d just distributed, groaning over the fact that four papers would be required instead of the standard three and that these would be rigorously “workshopped,” when the strange girl from the gym entered without apology for being tardy. Rather than joining them at the table, she dragged a chair over to the far wall, angling it so that when sitting she wouldn’t have to look at anyone. Normally Nate wouldn’t have permitted such rudeness. On first days he usually took a few moments to remind everyone that seminars were different from other classes, their success dependent on each student’s investment not just in the topic but also in one another. He would not be lecturing. Discussions would go wherever the group took them. What prevented him from providing the usual drill had less to do with Opal Mauntz’s behavior than that of the other students, who’d shared a knowing glance when she entered. Nor were they apparen
tly surprised or offended when she isolated herself in their midst. Clearly, they knew something he didn’t.

  He got his first inkling as to what that might be when at the end of class, after the others had left, the Mauntz girl wordlessly presented him with a document from the health center, which stated that the bearer had difficulties with physical proximity and should be allowed to situate herself however she chose to in a classroom setting. Nor should she be required to speak. It was a medical issue, the document implied, and if he had any questions or concerns he should contact the dean of students.

  Nate, who had a history with Greta Silver, nevertheless called her as soon as he got back to his office. “What can you tell me about Opal Mauntz?” he asked.

  “Ah, right,” she said, “Opal.”

  Nate waited for her to elaborate. When she didn’t, he said, “She’s in my seminar.”

  “I know. I tried to talk her out of it.”

  “Thanks. May I ask why?”

  “To this point she’s taken only women professors.”

  “It’s come to this?”

  “Opal is a special case.”

  “All our students are special,” he reminded her. “It says so right in the student handbook.”

  “Opal…,” she began. “I have to be careful here.”

  “Can the girl speak?”

  “Yes, I believe so.” Greta sounded grateful to be asked a question she could answer.

  “You believe so?”

  “Yes, she can speak. I’ve just never heard her.”

  “You’re saying the problem isn’t physical, then?”

  “Umm…she’s had a difficult life.”

 
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