That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  By the time they were invited to raise their glasses in a toast to the bride and groom, Harold’s glass was empty. Perhaps to emphasize this fact, after everyone else had drunk to the toast, Sunny rose to his feet, his glass held high, and proposed a toast of his own for table seventeen. “Here stop and spend a social hour in harmless mirth and fun,” he intoned, grinning, for some reason, at Griffin and then Marguerite. “Let friendship reign. Be just and kind and evil speak of none.” After which they all leaned forward to clink glasses, and Griffin found the ting of Harold’s empty flute against all the other full ones particularly rewarding.

  “What an odd toast,” Joy whispered. “Do you suppose it’s Korean?”

  “I don’t think so,” Griffin said. It felt not only familiar but recently so. He could feel the dim memory spooling toward the front of his brain, but then his cell phone vibrated and it was gone. “Again?” Joy said in disbelief when he showed her who it was.

  “I’ll take it outside,” he said, getting to his feet. “Mom, hold on, okay?”

  It took him a minute to get out of the tent, and when he put the phone to his ear, he realized that his mother, unaccustomed to being told to wait, had been talking the whole time. “Mom, I haven’t heard a word of this. Is everything all right?”

  “Of course everything’s all right.”

  “Then—”

  “Have you done it yet?”

  “Done what?”

  “Put your father in the drink.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Scattered his ashes. Laid him to rest.”

  “Not yet, no.”

  “I think you should put him on the bay side. He was that kind of man, don’t you think? Wordsworth was his favorite poet. ‘Emotion recollected in tranquility’ and all that nonsense, which all boiled down to being afraid of the surf. He hated being tossed about, feeling the power of something greater than himself.”

  The music from inside the tent ratcheted up now, and Griffin turned his back (as if that would help) and covered his other ear with his hand (which did help, but not much).

  “What is that awful racket?” his mother wanted to know.

  “Music. I’m at the wedding, Mom.”

  “What wedding? You told me you were there to scatter your father’s ashes.”

  “I told you several things. You remembered one of them.”

  “Somewhere on the North Shore, I think. Maybe Sandwich.”

  “That’s barely on the Cape,” Griffin said. “You hated Sandwich. We might as well put him in the Canal.”

  “I don’t know who you mean by we. I’m simply making a suggestion. The decision is yours.”

  “I’ll think about it,” he said, and should have hung up right then. Instead he asked, “Do you remember the Browning family? From the Cape?”

  “Don’t tell me you ran into them.”

  Which was surprising. He hadn’t expected the name to register, and that it did immediately made him curious. “Are we talking about the same people? I must’ve been eleven or twelve and—”

  “Twelve. They were in the cottage across the way. There was a horrible muddy playground in the center of things, and they were diagonal. Near Orleans, wasn’t it? Anyway, I wouldn’t put your father there. Think North Shore. Find some calm, brackish water and pour him in. He’d prefer it. Actually, the Canal isn’t such a bad idea—”

  “Mom, about the Brownings—”

  “You abandoned your father and me the entire two weeks. All we heard about was Steven Browning. Your father thought it meant you were gay.”

  “Peter,” he corrected her, annoyed that both Tommy and his father had leapt to the same erroneous conclusion. Was loneliness in a twelve-year-old so difficult to diagnose?

  “Don’t you remember how you melted down that last night when we insisted you spend it with us?”

  “You insisted?”

  “And the tantrum you threw at the restaurant? The Dry Martini? No, that’s not right. The Something Martini, it was called. Anyway, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how I sat up with you all night, trying to console you?”

  “You’re making this up, right?”

  “And the next morning you refused to get in the car. God, what a little pill you were.”

  “There was something wrong with the little Browning girl, wasn’t there? Peter’s sister.”

  “Asthma, I believe. Something respiratory. The sea air was supposed to be good for her, but she ended up dying. And then of course Steven in Vietnam.”

  “Mom, what are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about your friend Steven Browning dying in Vietnam.”

  “Mom, he’s Peter. And anyway, how in the world would you know what happened to him or his sister? We never went back there. We never saw any of them again.”

  “We exchanged addresses before we left, don’t you remember? Steven wanted to keep in touch. He wrote you several letters, but you refused to write back. We got Christmas cards for a couple of years. The mother wrote when the little girl died, and then later about Steven. You were gone by then.”

  “Why would you remember all this, Mom?”

  “Why shouldn’t I remember things?”

  “It’s unlike you. Especially people like the Brownings. You and Dad looked down your noses at them.”

  He expected her to deny this accusation, but she didn’t, which meant she either hadn’t really heard it or preferred not to. Maddening, the way she blithely shopped among his conversational offerings, as if she were at a fruit bin looking for an unbruised pear. “Wait till you’re my age and memory is all you have.”

  It was on the tip of Griffin’s tongue to say that, based on this conversation, he wasn’t sure she had even that.

  “Happy memories in particular you hold on to.”

  “That was a happy memory? That vacation?”

  “Well, it wasn’t unhappy The wheels hadn’t come off yet for your father and me. He hadn’t started the cheating yet.”

  “Of course he had. You both had.”

  “Not the really nasty, vindictive stuff. We were still in love, despite everything.”

  “That’s how you remember it?”

  “That’s how it was.”

  “I need to get back to the wedding, Mom.”

  “You haven’t told me what you think.”

  “About what?”

  “About the North Shore, though I have to admit your Canal idea is growing on me.”

  “Why would you care, Mom? Could you answer me that?”

  “Because if you put him on the North Shore, you can scatter me on the South.”

  “Mom, we’ve had a lot of ridiculous conversations over the years, but this is one for the record books.”

  “Remember how I taught you to bodysurf?”

  “Peter Browning taught me to bodysurf. Him and his dad.”

  “No. They all knew how, and you were embarrassed because you didn’t. You were scared to try. Your father was frightened of the undertow, so it was up to me.”

  “Gotta go, Mom.”

  “I’d just feel better if the Cape was between us, me on one side and him on the other.”

  By the time Griffin returned to the tent he’d missed the bride and groom’s first dance. Kelsey was now dancing with her father, clearly for the first time ever, and her new husband with his mother.

  “What now?” Joy said.

  He told her about his mother’s insistence about where all the ashes should go. “I think she’s losing her mind. She’s rewriting history. Inventing memories.”

  Under the table he felt Joy take his hand, perhaps in sympathy for having to deal with his mother, but more likely because Laura and Andy had joined the others on the makeshift dance floor, where they looked like what they were, two young people who’d waited what had seemed like forever to find each other. Now they clung tightly together in the understanding of how lucky they were, that in another equally plausible scenario they wouldn’t have met, still be a
lone, still looking. It was hard to take your eyes off them, and for Griffin the pleasure of watching them would have been pure and fully sufficient if Sunny hadn’t also been in his line of sight. He tried not to look at him, at least not directly, tried not to think of him as the boy standing by himself at that long-ago birthday party, pretending not to be alone. But somehow that opened the door to another unpleasant, totally unrelated thought. Was it possible his mother was right, that Peter Browning had been killed in Vietnam? Griffin felt something like panic rise at the possibility, a physical sensation at the back of his throat. But really, it was highly unlikely, he told himself. The son of two teachers, he’d have gone to college and gotten a deferment, as Griffin himself had done. By the time his own deferment ran out, the war was over, and it would have worked out the same way for Peter. His mother had sounded certain on the phone, but then she always did, never more so than when she was dead wrong. If somebody asked her tomorrow what the Browning boy’s name was, she’d answer Steven, and she’d be sure about that, too. Was it really possible that she remembered sitting up all night in that cottage trying to comfort him? When had she ever done anything like that? And they definitely hadn’t gone to the Blue Martini that night. What she was remembering was that that’s where she and his father had planned to go before he screwed things up. But asthma for Peter’s sister sounded right, and he supposed she might have died. But had Peter actually written to him, as his mother claimed? That was how it went with all her recollections. She’d get just enough details right to make you doubt your own memory, but in the end her stories never tracked. They played out like his still-unread student story, the one now with missing pages.

  When the DJ segued from the first slow dance into an earsplitting Bon Jovi tune, the lesbians, howling with laughter, as if this were the best joke yet, leapt from their chairs and skipped, their arms windmilling, onto the dance floor. “I hope you don’t imagine you’re going to be allowed to sit here on your hands, mister,” Joy shouted, rising from her chair. Across the table, Marguerite was prodding stolid Harold to his feet as well.

  “Okay, but hold on a minute,” Griffin said. Because if Marguerite succeeded in dragging Harold out for a dance, and he and Joy went, too, that would leave Sunny sitting there with the stroke victim, and he couldn’t bear for that to happen.

  But then their beautiful daughter appeared and took Sunny by both hands and was pulling him to his feet. He was shaking his head no, saying no, he was fine, but Laura wasn’t about to let go, so he had no choice but to be led onto the dance floor, where they joined Andy and the lesbians and the bride and groom and all the other fits and misfits.

  “I know. She’s wonderful,” Joy said, reading his mind, as they, along with Marguerite and Harold, joined everyone in the crowded center of the throbbing tent. “You worry too much, you know that?” she said, nodding at Sunny, who was holding his own with the other young people. A little stiff, maybe, but better than Griffin would have predicted. He’d unbuttoned his suit jacket and lowered his tie enough to unbutton the top button of his shirt. He probably would never do anything with abandon. Dancing was too much like instant messaging, and Sunny would always fear spontaneity. But he felt the music, you could tell, and he even had some moves. Had he anticipated this moment and taken lessons, studying fun much as he’d studied political science and molecular biology at Stanford, practicing, as he’d done as a boy at home, how to tell Griffin they had a lovely home?

  Griffin suspected that what Joy really meant when she said he worried too much was that he had too little faith—in the world, in her, in himself, in their good lives—and sometimes got important things wrong as a result. Searching for evidence of a fundamentally crappy world, he glanced back at table seventeen, expecting to see the stroke victim sitting there forlorn and abandoned. But the groom’s parents had come over and were wheeling their son’s old math teacher to their side of the tent. Griffin couldn’t tell whether the frozen grimace on the man’s face represented joy or pain, but decided, arbitrarily, on the former.

  The dance floor was now an official frenzy. Everyone under the age of thirty was shouting the song’s refrain: “Oh-oh! We’re halfway there!”—pumping the air in unison with defiant fists—“Oh-oh! Livin’ on a prayer!”

  Halfway there. Was this what it came down to, Griffin wondered, his own fist now pumping in solidarity with those younger than he. Was this the pebble in his shoe these last long months, the desire to be, once again, just halfway there?

  Later, back at the B and B, he and Joy made love. It had been a while, and by the time they finished, the panic Griffin had felt after his mother’s phone call had dissipated. Sex always had that effect on him—the release it offered—and he was grateful for it and also that his mother hadn’t called just then. He made a mental note to call her tomorrow and firm up his plans to pay her a visit, maybe even see if she wanted to come to the Cape for a few days later in the summer. How long had it been since she visited? More than a decade, surely. That would give her something to look forward to. Unless he was mistaken, there’d been something panicky in her own voice tonight, though she’d tried to disguise it. Why should she care, really, where he scattered his father’s ashes? He’d asked her and, naturally, received no answer. Of course, assisted-living facilities were table seventeens for the elderly, where virtual strangers were thrust into proximity by neither affection nor blood nor common interest, only by circumstance: age and declining health. No wonder she was going batty. With no one to say otherwise, she seemed to be revising her life so as to please herself. If so, fine. He didn’t object. Except that she seemed to be revising his as well and expecting him to sign off on it.

  Looking over at his sleeping wife, he felt another surge of almost painful affection, like the one he’d felt in the tent when Laura had validated their marriage, their love, with her great generosity and kindness. Joy was by nature a modest woman, quick to cover up, but sex always loosened her a little in this respect. She lay naked next to him now, lovely. Her body had thickened over the years, but it was still fine, and he desired her even more now than he had when they were younger and the sexual experience more intense. He watched her breathe for a minute, studied the trace of a smile on her lips, its source only in part their lovemaking. Back at the reception tent, when they finally decided to call it a night, Laura had detached herself from her friends, all of whom still crowded the dance floor, and come over to whisper in her mother’s ear that Andy had proposed during that first dance while they’d been watching. It took Griffin’s breath away to think that in the very moment of her great happiness, his daughter had remembered Sunny Kim and come to fetch him into the festivities. And he felt certain that he’d never in his entire life done anything so fine.

  As he lay there, growing drowsy, he became aware of sounds on the other side of the wall, as of a headboard, first gently nudging, then bumping, then roundly thumping the wall. Harold and Marguerite? Listening, he thought he could hear a woman’s voice, muffled but enthusiastic to the point of ecstasy. Was it even remotely possible that Harold could bring a woman—any woman—to such a climax? He doubted it. Halfway through the reception, he’d gone up to the hotel in search of the gents and had seen Harold sitting alone in the four-seater bar, watching a ball game. Feeling sorry for Marguerite, as he had the night before, he’d danced with her a couple times, and she’d given him her business card, making him promise that if he came to L.A. to write a movie and needed to buy flowers for some gorgeous actress, he’d come to her shop. And she’d know if he didn’t, she warned, don’t think she wouldn’t. It had been a great wedding, hadn’t it? Marguerite hated to think what it was costing Kelsey’s parents. Her one regret about the trip was that she and Griffin had never figured out what that sign in the restaurant meant, which they definitely would’ve if he hadn’t been such a party pooper and left early.

  Suddenly Griffin was laughing so hard the bed shook, waking Joy in the process. “What?” she said, pulling the sheet up ove
r her bare breasts, ten minutes of sleep sufficient to restore her customary modesty.

  “I’ll tell you in the morning,” he said. “I just thought of something. Go back to sleep.”

  What he’d remembered was Sunny’s strange toast: Here stop and spend a social hour in harmless mirth and fun. Let friendship reign. Be just and kind and evil speak of none. He’d thought at the time that the words were familiar, and now he knew why, picturing the sign on the back bar at the Olde Cape Lounge, plain as day but for the spacing.

  Griffin lay there in the dark, grinning. The sounds of lovemaking continued on the other side of the wall, and at some point it dawned on him that it had to be the lesbians, and shortly after that he was asleep.

  PART TWO

  Coastal Maine

  (Second Wedding)

  8

  Bliss

  How quickly it had all fallen apart. Even a year later, most of it spent in L.A., the speed of what happened after Kelsey’s wedding took Griffin’s breath away.

  For the first time in what seemed like forever he’d slept through the night and awakened to a sense of profound well-being, his funk, or whatever the hell it was, having finally fled. The morning breeze billowing the chintz curtains smelled of the sea, reminding Griffin of their honeymoon in Truro. Later in the morning they’d drive there, and this, too, made him happy. Joy was usually an early riser, but last night’s sex, together with too much to drink, had made her lazy and content as well. When he touched her bare shoulder she purred like a cat, which might mean she was amenable to a reprise of last night’s intimacy, though it was also possible she was just enjoying the special indulgence of sleeping in after the long, grueling semester. Or remembering that Laura was now engaged. Before Griffin could make up his mind which it was he’d drifted off again.

 
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