Trajectory by Richard Russo


  There’s only one thing to do and that’s head back to Saint Mark’s. At least from there he should be able to find his way back to the hotel. His lower back, he realizes, has begun to stiffen. Sciatic nerve, an old problem. In the next large campo he sees the ubiquitous bent arrows pointing toward major Venetian destinations—Ferrovia, Rialto, Accademia—and follows the one for San Marco into a dark, empty calle, then another and another, crossing ponte after goddamn ponte, his lower back now throbbing. Gradually the streets become crowded again, which means he must be getting close, though nothing looks even remotely familiar. Every time he rounds a corner he expects the calle he’s on to open onto the piazza, and every time he’s disappointed. Is he somehow going around in circles? He hasn’t felt so completely untethered—uncunted, his brother’s word, is suddenly a tiny malignancy in his unruly brain—since what happened with Opal Mauntz. Could the two be related? It’s a crazy question, of course, further evidence, were any needed, of a disordered mind. Yet he can’t help wondering if there was some lesson he failed to learn from that whole ordeal that might explain why he’s lost again now. Jesus, he thinks, his fucking phone is right. Physically he’s in Italy, but part of him—some ludicrous little Google-Schmoo self—is back home in Massachusetts trying to…what? Is this what it feels like to lose your mind? His eyes fill with hot, angry tears. Has he really traveled halfway around the world in order to come completely unglued among strangers?

  What he needs to do, and right quick, is pull himself together. Concentrate on the here and now. For instance, is he still on course for Saint Mark’s? How many campos has he hurried through without even checking the bent arrows? If he can just find the piazza, maybe he’ll be able to relocate the relaxed, confident Nate who’d sipped expensive cappuccino there. He’d gladly spend twice as much—no, ten times—to reclaim that emotional tranquility.

  In the next square there’s an attractive restaurant with outdoor tables, and seeing it Nate knows he’s finished. He can go no farther. His shirt is drenched with sweat, his sciatic nerve pulsing to the beat of his respiration. It’s hard to believe, but he’s been looking for the Trattoria Giacomo for over an hour. The others will already have ordered, and probably finished their first course. To show up now, in this condition, would be beyond humiliating. Better to have a quiet lunch alone. He’ll order a small carafe of prosecco and a simple plate of pasta. Gather himself.

  When he sets his phone down on the café table it rings, as if a flat surface is all it’s been waiting for. “About time,” he says, touching the green ANSWER icon. “Where are you?”

  “Bethesda,” says a familiar voice. “Where should I be?”

  “Brenda?” She’s the only person he knows who lives there, but why would she be calling him? Surprise, pleasure and confusion struggle for ascendance. “It’s good to hear your voice.”

  “So, how did it go?”

  “How did what go?”

  “He hasn’t asked you?”

  “Who?”

  A deep sigh on the other end of the line seems to sum up his long-ago fiancée’s myriad frustrations with him. “I’m sorry, I thought you were calling about Julian.”

  “But I didn’t call you.”

  “Right. My phone rang. It said: NATE CALLING. I answered and there you were. But if you claim you didn’t call me, okay.”

  “This new phone has a touch screen,” he explains. “I must’ve—”

  “Yeah, okay, but here’s my question. Why am I there to be touched?”

  It takes Nate a moment to understand what she’s asking. “They take the data from your old phone—”

  “You’re missing my point.”

  This strikes him as entirely possible. “You want me to delete you?”

  “No,” she says. “What I want is for you to…”

  He waits, curious as to how she’ll finish the sentence, but isn’t entirely surprised when she suspends the thought by saying, “Okay, you didn’t mean to call me. Fine. So, I can hang up now?”

  “Please, don’t,” he says, failing to keep the desperation out of his voice. He feels a powerful urge to tell her everything. That he’s lost. That his very reason is under siege. “I need to talk to you…to someone…I’ve—”

  “You’ve come all uncunted,” she says.

  Is his head going to explode? Because it really feels like it might.

  “Or so your brother claims.”

  “When did you speak to Julian?”

  “Last night.”

  Suddenly, a brainstorm. “Are you two getting back together?”

  “That’s hilarious.”

  “Oh,” he says, relieved. “I guess I—”

  “Leapt to an absurd conclusion?”

  “So, what does Julian want to ask me about?”

  “I promised I wouldn’t say anything until he broaches the subject himself. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure it’s a great idea.”

  “He’s barely said two words to me. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want people to know we’re related.”

  “Honestly, you two,” she says, and when he doesn’t react to that, turns the subject back to him, as if all this talk about Julian’s behavior is masking the real subject. “Look,” she says. “Did you ever see a doctor?”

  “I did. They put me on a mild antidepressant,” he says, trying to sound rational. He’s glad now that he hadn’t blurted out everything. “I’m feeling better now.”

  “You’ve been able to put it behind you, then? That business with the girl?”

  Has she, he wonders again, broken her promise? Last night, when Julian reported that he appeared “uncunted,” did she tell him about the Mauntz girl? Because that might explain why Julian’s treating him like this. “Sure. You bet. Water under the ponte.”

  She chuckles. “That’s pretty good, actually. Water under the ponte. You always did have a sneaky sense of humor. Women like that, you know. Are you seeing anyone?”

  “No, why?”

  “It would be nice, is all.”

  “You know, I’ve always wondered,” he says, feigning nonchalance. “After you and Julian split up? Was there any possibility for us?”

  “Nate.” The exhaustion is back in her voice.

  “Hell, we could try even now,” he continues, knowing all too well that he shouldn’t. The need is just too great.

  “Tell me something. Because I’m genuinely curious. What are you picturing right now?”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “In your head. How are you picturing me? Because I’m an old woman.”

  True, he wasn’t picturing an old woman. Not a young one, either, at least not exactly. Actually, now that he thinks about it, he hadn’t been picturing her at all.

  “Nate?” she says. “Are you still there?”

  “Right here.”

  “See, this is kind of what I was getting at before. On your new phone, which list am I on? Contacts or Favorites.”

  “Umm—”

  “Because I really shouldn’t be on your Favorites list. You see my point? What really worries me is that after all these years I’m still one of your Favorites. It’s balance I’m talking about here. Equilibrium. Okay?”

  And then she’s gone, the line dead. Has she hung up, or did the phone make another executive decision and disconnect her? Maybe it really is a smart phone. Maybe it knows that if it permitted the conversation to continue he’d only make things worse, that he’d begin blubbering like a pathetic old man. He just sits there, staring at the phone until a question pops onto the screen: RETURN TO FAVORITES?

  “Nate?”

  Bewildered, he can’t immediately source the voice, and when he finally glances up at the woman standing at his elbow he thinks for a lunatic moment it must be Brenda, his ex-fiancée, magically transported all the way to Venice to illustrate what she was telling him earlier—that she’s become an old woman. But then he blinks and sees it’s Evelyn, from last night. His sluggish brain had her back at the
hotel, in bed with a runny nose and a box of tissues, yet here she is.

  “Aren’t you coming in?” she wants to know.

  The depth of his confusion must be obvious, because when he doesn’t respond she sits down next to him. “Is it bad news?” she says, nodding at the phone he’s still holding.

  He’s about to say no, then thinks maybe it’s simpler and—who knows?—even more truthful to agree.

  “Someone died?”

  “Yes,” he tells her, surprised by this ridiculous lie, by his need to tell it. Yet another falsehood that serves no conceivable purpose.

  “I shouldn’t intrude,” she says, “but may I ask who?”

  “A former student,” he hears himself say, because of course the Mauntz girl is not water under the ponte. “A brilliant girl, but broken.”

  “Broken how?”

  “She couldn’t…” He stops, suddenly unsure of how to continue, somehow lost, simultaneously, in both the past and the present. “How did you find me?”

  Now Evelyn looks confused. “I just noticed you sitting here…on my way in,” she tells him.

  And just that quickly, some small vestige of order and sense is restored to the world. The sign for the restaurant, obscured by its awning until he sat down, comes into focus: TRATTORIA GIACOMO. Difficult though it is to credit, it appears he’s actually at the very place he’s been looking for so helplessly.

  “The conversation you were having looked so serious I thought maybe you’d come out here to take the call. But then inside, the others said they hadn’t seen you.”

  “We got separated.”

  She nods. “So I heard. They only just got here themselves. Do you need a few minutes? Shall I tell them you’re still on your call?”

  Nate thanks her, says he’ll join them momentarily.

  Rising, she says, “What was her name?”

  He considers telling another lie, inventing some other girl, but he’s too tired. “Mauntz. Opal Mauntz. She was the brightest student I ever taught. I feel…responsible.”

  Evelyn rises to her feet and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Nate?” she says. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

  “You think so?” Because honestly that doesn’t seem likely.

  “I do,” she assures him. “Can I tell you a secret?”

  “Why not?”

  Though there’s no need, she whispers, dramatically, “I wasn’t really sick this morning. Just hungover.”

  He finds himself smiling, mostly at her extraordinary kindness.

  “And you,” she continues, “are in charge of making sure that doesn’t happen again. You think you’re up to it?”

  “I’ll do my best.”

  “I’ll help in any way I can,” she tells him, “but, really, it all comes down to you.”

  When she’s gone, his phone vibrates. There’s a new map on the screen, a new teardrop, indicating his current location: Campo San Zaccaria, Venice, as well as the name of the restaurant he’s about to enter. And a message: YOU HAVE ARRIVED.

  —

  A place near the end of the long table is waiting for him between Evelyn and Bernard, across from Renee and Julian. Except for his brother, who greets him with his customary gruffness, everyone seems delighted he’s rejoined the group. Better yet, no one seems either alarmed by his appearance or to be harboring suspicions about his sanity.

  Over a first course of saffron risotto he learns what transpired that morning. Apparently someone from the main group noticed the missing four. Bea’s husband was then dispatched to find them while Klaus and the rest stayed put. Julian and Renee and Bernard were quickly located in the campo where Nate had left them, and together they waited for him to return, concluding when he didn’t that he must have linked up with Klaus and the others. When it turned out he hadn’t done that either, they had little choice but to resume the morning’s schedule of activities.

  Asked about his own morning, Nate explains that he spent most of it among the Tintorettos at the Scuola San Rocco, then sipping expensive cappuccino in the Piazza San Marco. He even mentions that his phone sent him on a wild-goose chase, though he plays the whole ordeal as comedy, which in fact is how he’s already begun to see it. By the time he finishes, however, he notices that Julian’s face has become alarmingly red. It looks like he’s either having a heart attack or trying to set a Guinness record for holding one’s breath.

  “Julian?” he says. “Are you okay?”

  He appears to give the question serious thought before saying, “Why don’t you just tell me to fuck off?”

  To the others, Nate can tell, this seems to come completely out of nowhere. They just sit there, slack-jawed. Nate is surprised, too, but in a different way. His brother has somehow managed to intuit the truth about his morning, that he actually spent it wallowing in a series of bitter sibling resentments, some of which reached back to their childhoods.

  “Because that,” his brother continues, “I could at least respect.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  “Fine,” Julian replies. “Be that way.”

  “Be what way?”

  But Julian apparently has nothing further to say, just applies himself to his risotto.

  And in a heartbeat Nate is as furious as he can remember ever being. “Julian,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady, “if anyone’s got a right to be angry here, it’s me. Why is your phone off? Didn’t it occur to you that I might be trying to reach you?” He holds out the Recents screen on his phone log, five calls to Julian’s number. “Look how many times I tried to call you.”

  “Bullshit,” his brother says, refusing to even glance at the screen. “My phone’s been on the whole time.”

  And indeed, when he shows Nate his own Recents log, there’s no trace of his calls. Which only proves, Nate concludes, that he’d somehow deleted them. But the performance? Nate can’t help but admire it. When it comes to faking righteous indignation this man has no equal.

  “Okay, how come you didn’t call me?” Nate says, trying not to sound peevish. The worst part of being around Julian is that he immediately reverts to being the little brother, a child who has to appeal to adults for justice.

  “I did. And left three different messages.” He turns to Renee here. “Didn’t I?”

  Nate now brandishes his Recents screen—no calls, no messages. This time Julian deigns to look, and when their eyes then meet, Nate sees that same dark thought—that the phone has been edited—occur to Julian. Not to be outdone, Nate entertains a new, contradictory suspicion, that his brother hadn’t really called at all, only pretended to, just so that Renee, overhearing, could verify it.

  “Try calling me,” she suggests now. Clearly, the heated conversation has unsettled her. “Maybe there’s something wrong with your phone.”

  Nate, thinking she’s speaking to him, is about to ask for her number, but Julian evidently already has it in his phone and is anxious to demonstrate there’s nothing wrong with his. He touches the screen, and a moment later Renee’s purse rings. To Nate’s surprise she fishes the phone out and actually answers it, as if the caller might be someone other than Julian.

  “Hi,” Julian says, in his best salesman’s voice, directly into his phone, though the person at the other end of the line is sitting right next to him. “This is Julian speaking. Tell my brother he never could lie worth a shit.”

  “Umm,” Renee says, and for a moment Nate thinks she’s going to do as instructed, but then he sees she’s looking at Bernard, who’s slumped over sideways in his chair. His fork clatters to the floor.

  By the time the water ambulance arrives, Bernard is conscious again. He tells the EMTs (with Klaus translating) not to worry, that this happens from time to time. He has low blood pressure and it’s been too long between meals. But his voice is not robust like it was this morning, and he’s very pale. The consensus is that he should go to the hospital and get checked out. Also that someone from the Biennale
group should accompany him. Nate presupposes that as the only one fluent in Italian Klaus will assume this duty, but then the rest of them would miss out on the afternoon’s exhibitions they’d all paid for. Bea offers to go, but somebody points out it should probably be a man. Everyone’s looking at Nate, who is, after all, the sick man’s buddy.

  And so when Bernard, assisted by two medics, is lowered into the bobbing ambulance, Nate follows, his stomach protesting audibly. He’d eaten only a few bites of risotto, which he now realizes was delicious. The next course was to have been grilled branzino, his favorite. Still, it’s perhaps just as well that he and Julian go to neutral corners and think things over. And that the others apparently consider him sufficiently competent and trustworthy is a vote of confidence that buoys his spirits. As the ambulance pulls away, he watches them file back into the restaurant. Evelyn and Renee pause to wave goodbye, and Nate wonders if his brother, under the circumstances, will relent and offer a conciliatory wave, but of course he doesn’t. Is it possible Julian was telling the truth, that he really did try to call him this morning? Doesn’t Nate owe him the benefit of the doubt? And what was it Brenda had let slip on the phone—that there was some mysterious subject that Julian was anxious to broach? What was that all about? She said she didn’t think it was a great idea, which probably meant it was just another of his financial schemes, but on the other hand, maybe not.

  Chastened by doubt, he calls Julian again, prepared to apologize for the misunderstanding, if that’s what it was, and to suggest they have dinner tonight, just the two of them, and hash things out.

  But the call goes directly to voice mail.

  The Littlest Dean

  A month into the term, Nate heard someone climbing his front porch steps late one afternoon, and a moment later the doorbell rang. The day before he’d seen two clean-cut young men carrying Bibles in the neighborhood, so when he answered the door he expected to see missionaries. So out of place was the dean of students on his porch that he didn’t recognize her until he saw her trademark red roadster parked at the curb.

 
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