Trajectory by Richard Russo


  “Greta,” he said, unable to conceal his surprise. She was carrying a split of red wine, which made him smile. A good dozen years younger, Greta Silver was still attractive. She might even have qualified as voluptuous if she hadn’t been so tiny. Arriving on campus thirty years earlier as an assistant dean for student affairs, she was immediately dubbed “Dean Barbie” by the kids, and the name stuck. To Nate she looked like someone who ought to live in one of those model homes where the furniture is scaled down to give the false impression of spaciousness. In her extremely small hand the half bottle looked regulation size. Only when transferred to Nate’s own hand did it seem comically minute. Who brings a split of wine as a gift?

  “Wow,” she said, taking a seat in his front room. “This is nice.”

  He understood her amazement, of course. This working-class neighborhood was in decline and had been from the time he’d moved in. His was one of the few cared-for houses on the block.

  “You were expecting…?”

  “No,” she said quickly, embarrassed. “It makes sense. I guess I never thought…”

  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know exactly what “makes sense” and why, so he let her off the hook. “Shall I open this?”

  “I don’t think you’ll be able to pour it otherwise.”

  He glanced at his watch. “Bit early?” he ventured, as it was four-fifteen.

  “Clearly you’ve never been a dean of students.”

  When he returned, she was standing next to his reading chair, browsing his bookcase, or pretending to. On an end table was the second batch of essays from his Austen seminar, the last of which he’d just finished marking up. Opal Mauntz’s was on top, and Nate had the distinct impression that while he was uncorking the wine Greta had been reading either the essay itself or, more likely, his copious comments. The topic of her essay was “The Overlooked Male,” and it was even more impressive than her first effort, almost as if she was determined to show him that he hadn’t been critical enough of that earlier paper, that she could do even better. At the top of the essay he’d emblazoned an A plus.

  “I’m sorry,” Greta said when he handed her a glass, and for a moment he thought she might confess to snooping. “You’d just made yourself a cup of tea.”

  He would’ve liked to deny this, but the cup sat there next to the essays, still steaming.

  “I didn’t mean to insult you before,” she said, returning to her chair. “It’s just…if you showed somebody this room and asked them who lived here, they’d never guess a bachelor.”

  “My brother claims I was born an old woman.”

  She nodded, her brow knit. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

  Nate opened his mouth to say something about Julian, then decided not to. “That car at the curb?” he said, trying a different tack. “Not many would guess it belongs to a dean of students at a liberal arts college. And a woman at that.”

  “Women don’t get to have midlife crises?”

  “Sure, but don’t you worry someone will report its present location to said dean’s husband?” Because frankly Nate did. He and Greta had dated briefly back in the day, but she’d broken things off before their relationship reached the point where he felt comfortable enough to ask her over. The reason she’d given was Barry, the head of campus security, whom she’d been seeing prior to Nate. According to some, it was Nate who’d provided him with the motivation he needed to propose. At any rate, not long after Nate had been given his unconditional release, they’d gotten married. That would have been the end of the story if Barry hadn’t been both jealous and inordinately curious about just how far things had progressed between the two of them. Nate suggested she put his mind at ease, but she apparently considered her husband’s jealousy “sweet.” The man put Nate in mind of a dog that belonged to a family that lived across the street when he was a boy. They’d assured Nate that he didn’t bite, but this evidently meant that he didn’t bite them. The first chance the miserable little cur got, he bit Nate on the ankle, and then every time Nate passed, always on the other side of the street, the animal regarded him darkly, as if the business between them was unfinished. Now, whenever their paths crossed on campus, Barry gave him that same look.

  “He’s in South Carolina,” Greta said. “Not that he cares much where I park these days.”

  Nate took a sip of wine and offered a fervent prayer that she didn’t intend to elaborate.

  “So, how are things going with Opal Mauntz?”

  Since this new subject was only slightly more welcome than the last, he considered carefully how and even whether to answer. From his point of view, things weren’t going well at all, the poor girl still alone on her island, ignored by her classmates and, Nate felt certain, in dire need of a friend. Worse, he was ashamed to admit he’d followed Greta’s hard-hearted advice about how to treat her.

  “It’s a simple question, Nate,” she said, when the silence dragged on.

  “I know,” he agreed. “It’s the answer that’s complex.”

  “I don’t see why it should be.”

  “Read this,” he said, handing her the most recent essay.

  Greta took it reluctantly, deepening Nate’s suspicion that she’d already taken a look, though it was possible she didn’t consider the girl’s written work germane to their discussion. To Nate, it was the heart of the matter. Noting the grade on top, she flipped quickly through the text, then lingered thoughtfully over his end comments before dropping the essay in her lap and studying him openly. “Is something amusing?”

  “Well, you did exactly what they all do. Students. They start with the grade and skip straight to the rationale for it, as if both were unrelated to everything in between.”

  “Nate. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you wanted me to read this so I’d know Opal Mauntz is brilliant and special. I already knew that.”

  “But she doesn’t speak.”

  “That’s not true,” she said, holding up the essay like exhibit 1. “She’s speaking in this. To you.”

  “It’s not enough,” he said. “You must see how wrong it is to have a voice and not use it.”

  “You want to hear her speak.”

  “Of course I do.”

  “Then she hasn’t?”

  “Not a syllable.”

  Greta actually seemed relieved to hear this, and Nate could feel his anger and frustration with her rising dangerously.

  “And you’ve had no contact with her outside the classroom?”

  “Of course not,” he said, but then realized this wasn’t quite true. “Some mornings I see her at the gym. She works out early. So do I.”

  “Is that a coincidence?”

  “That should go without saying.”

  “And you don’t…speak there.”

  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Greta,” he said, allowing his voice to rise. “What is this about?”

  “There’s been talk,” she said.

  The sip of wine he took was too large, and he felt himself nearly gag in swallowing it. “Remember when you first came to campus?” he said. He was crossing a line now, and he knew it. “You were only a couple years older than the seniors. There was talk then, too.”

  He expected her to be furious, but all she did was meet and hold his gaze. “In one instance it was true, in fact,” she said. “Repeat that and I’ll deny it.”

  They sat in uncomfortable silence for what seemed like forever.

  “One of your other students came to see me.”

  Nate didn’t have to be told which. Sarah Griffith. The girl who’d noticed his interest in Opal when he returned that first set of essays.

  “And I’ve reached out to a couple other students from the seminar.”

  “Reached out.”

  “You’re not accused of anything at this point,” she conceded. “But everyone seems to agree that something’s off.”

  “What does off mean?”

  “Amiss. Subtext was the word they seemed to be searching for. They s
aid it’s like you aren’t really talking to anyone else, just pretending to include them.”

  “Maybe they aren’t really listening. Just pretending to.”

  “Are you hearing yourself right now? How defensive you sound?”

  In truth he was, and only his justifiable outrage at her insinuations prevented him from admitting as much. Instead he asked, “Has it occurred to you that you could be wrong about this girl?”

  “Yes, it has. Has it occurred to you that you might be?” When he had no immediate response, she set down her wineglass, unsipped, as far as he could tell. “It may not seem like it, Nate, but I’m actually on your side in all this.”

  “You’re right, it doesn’t seem like it. But that’s hardly the point. It’s Opal Mauntz’s side we should both be on.”

  “I’m thinking about removing her from your class.”

  “You have no such authority.”

  “I’m responsible for the safety of all our students.”

  “And you think I’m a danger to Opal Mauntz?”

  “Has it occurred to you that she might be a danger to you?”

  This surprised him. “You said yourself she wasn’t violent.”

  “There are other dangers.”

  “What are you suggesting, Greta?”

  “How long have you taught here, Nate? Have you ever known another student who labored under so many challenges?” She gave him a moment to digest this. “Why is she here, Nate?”

  “She’s brilliant,” Nate said, now surprised by how naïve this sounded.

  “But why is she here?”

  “You tell me.”

  “Have you ever seen a list of the college’s mega-donors? No? You might want to have a look.” She rose now, smoothing her skirt. Nate knew he should rise, too, but he wasn’t sure he trusted his legs. “And while you’re in research mode,” she went on, her hand on the doorknob, “you might want to read up on Asperger’s syndrome.”

  “Are you saying that’s what’s wrong with Opal?”

  “I’m suggesting you open your eyes,” she said. And then she was gone.

  Fire

  The hospital is crowded and they have to wait forever. A physician finally listens to Bernard’s heart and lungs, and peers into his eyes. He speaks very little English but has the utmost confidence in his limited vocabulary, so after the physical exam is concluded, their ensuing conversation, at least to Nate, resembles a game of charades. He half expects each hard-won understanding to be celebrated by either Bernard or the doctor enthusiastically tapping the tip of his nose, then holding up two fingers for second syllable. The doctor doesn’t seem terribly troubled by Bernard’s fainting. Yes, his blood pressure is low, but not alarmingly so. After all, he is not a young man, and he has pushed himself physically more than is his habit, and he has just flown across the Atlantic, and he has gone too long without food. He recommends salt tablets, less exertion and frequent snacks (“fruit in-a the pocket”) in between activities. Nor does he rule out the possibility that the Biennale itself might have caused Bernard to faint. “Art?” he says, waving the exhibits away contemptuously. “Pah! Titian? Art. Bellini? Art. Giorgione? Art.”

  “Tintoretto?” Nate offers hopefully when the doctor’s voice falls.

  “Art!” the man thunders. “Biennale? Is no art!”

  It turns out that both the ambulance and the consultation services are provided to tourists at no charge. “Amazing,” Bernard says when they are so informed. “Our own government won’t pay for our health care, but the Italian government does.”

  In a water taxi back to the hotel, Bernard says he’s going to rest until dinner. Nate, too, is worn out, but after missing the morning’s exhibits he feels he should at least try to link up with the others. When he calls his brother’s cell, though, once more it’s voice mail. “Julian?” he says when he’s invited to leave a message. “It’s me. Again. I don’t know if you got my last message, but let’s have dinner tonight. I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset you. Let’s sort it all out, okay?”

  He hangs up as the taxi glides beneath the Rialto Bridge. “Question,” he says to Bernard, who was clearly listening. “You spent the morning with my brother. What do you make of him?”

  Bernard appears to give this serious consideration. “Well,” he says finally, “I’m trying to think if I’ve ever liked anybody named Julian.”

  There’s a farmacia across the campo from the hotel, so Bernard tromps off to buy his salt tablets. It’s now late afternoon, and Nate decides he’ll take a short nap, maybe dispel the last of his jet lag. According to the schedule, the others are due back at the hotel at six and are free to make their own dinner plans. Before he can head upstairs, however, he’s summoned by Giancarlo at the front desk, who lowers his voice confidentially, though only the two of them are in the lobby.

  “You…brother,” the man begins, his demeanor one of profound embarrassment.

  “Julian?”

  “Yes-a,” he agrees, apparently pleased that Nate doesn’t intend to deny the relationship. “He say…”

  And here he pushes a document, still warm from the printer, across the counter. It’s in Italian, of course, but Nate recognizes it as his brother’s hotel bill. They’d all paid half of their stay in advance, with the rest to be settled upon arrival. He and Julian each provided a credit card when checking in. Yet it seems—here Giancarlo shrugs—there’s a problem with his brother’s.

  “He say…,” he repeats, his face the color of Chianti.

  When Nate hands him his own card, the man lights up. “Grazie,” he says, beaming with delight and mutual understanding. “Perfetto.”

  Only when Nate is up in his room does it occur to him to be puzzled. Having more than once had problems himself with credit cards in Europe, he first assumed that Julian has failed to inform the company that he’d be traveling abroad. But he’s too experienced to have forgotten such a detail. He’s also vain about the sheer number of cards in his wallet, and all their impressive colors—gold, silver, platinum, black. Surely one of them would have worked for such a modest amount.

  But never mind, he tells himself. After all, it’s pretty far down on the list of things he and his brother need to get to the bottom of tonight, assuming Julian hasn’t already made dinner plans with Renee. That possibility would have troubled him if he weren’t so utterly exhausted. But he’s asleep before his head hits the pillow.

  —

  And for the second time, Nate dreams of fire. This time there’s screaming—his mother’s, of course, and his own, and perhaps even Julian’s. The fire itself has a voice, a high-pitched shriek so loud that when he jolts awake Nate can’t quite believe his ringing phone is the only sound in the room. Though the wooden shutters are open to the cool Venetian night, he’s in another flop sweat, his undershirt soaked through. He swings his legs over the side of the bed and shakes his head, trying to dispel the aura of the dream and unwilling to answer the phone until he does. According to his watch, it’s nine-thirty, but how could that possibly be? Judging by how groggy he is, he must’ve slept deeply—but for five and a half hours? Have the others returned to the hotel and gone out again without him? EVELYN CALLING, his phone tells him. When he says hello, there’s a slight hesitation on the other end of the line, as if the caller had been about to hang up. “Nate?”

  “Yes.”

  “Is Julian with you?”

  He wonders stupidly why Julian would be in this room when he has a room of his own, then says, “No, he isn’t.”

  “We’re afraid something’s happened to him,” she continues. “He said he was going to the gents, but that was over an hour ago, and the waiter says there’s no one in there. We don’t know what to do.”

  “I don’t understand. Where are you?”

  “At the restaurant.”

  “Which one?”

  “The Gondolieri. You were supposed to meet us here two hours ago. Julian said he e-mailed you the directions.”

  N
ate checks his phone. Three e-mails have come in while he slept, but none of them are from Julian.

  “And I sent you a text.”

  He’s about to tell her he didn’t receive that either when he notices there is indeed a text message. Not lost again, I hope? Forget the name of the restaurant? Gondolieri. Once again, the wine is flowing. Have you forgotten your promise to keep me sober?

  “I’m sorry,” he tells her. “I fell asleep.”

  “Nate?”

  “Yes?”

  “Can you tell me what’s going on? Your brother’s very angry with you. Did something happen?”

  She means now, today, in Venice, but because the fire dream’s still so fresh in his mind Nate makes a connection that might not have occurred to him otherwise. Yes, Julian is angry and has been forever. He was seventeen at the time of the fire, and he never forgave their mother her criminal carelessness. Even that first night at the hospital, when they didn’t know for sure—with third-degree burns over half her body—whether she’d live or die, he’d already made up his mind. In fact, he was so intent on blaming her that he didn’t even notice when the medication wore off and she cried out in pain. “It’s her own fault,” he insisted angrily. “You know she drinks herself to sleep every night. You’ve seen the cigarette burns in there. On the nightstand. The bedspread. Her fucking pillow. That’s how she falls asleep, night after night. It’s like she’s been trying to kill all of us.”

  What Nate remembers most vividly is that his brother’s anger seemed directed as much at him as their mother. As if Nate’s sympathy for her, his refusal to be angry, somehow made him her accomplice. “But she never meant for anything like this to happen,” Nate, then fifteen, had argued, because that, surely, was true. Okay, maybe she was depressed and maybe there were times when she wanted to die, but he simply couldn’t accept that she ever wanted them dead. That Julian actually believed she did was almost as upsetting as the fire itself. What he needed more than anything, he remembers thinking, was for Julian to stop acting like this. Unfortunately, you only had to glance at him to know he had his own needs right then, and Nate’s didn’t come into it.

 
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