That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  “I’m not saying we’d start some heavy relationship, my mother and I,” Tommy tried to explain. “I’d just like to know if she’s alive or dead … if she’s, you know, okay.”

  “Isn’t that her job?” Griffin said, getting worked up on his friend’s behalf. “To wonder if you’re okay?”

  Now Tommy appealed to Joy. “Do you ever win an argument with this guy?”

  “Let… me …think,” Joy said, leaning toward Tommy so he could rub her neck, pausing just a comic half beat before saying, as if it had never occurred to her before, “Why, no.”

  Later that same night, though, when he and Joy were in bed, the discussion had turned more serious. “Why shouldn’t he yearn for his biological mother?”

  Okay, Griffin conceded, it made perfect sense that he should. But what made such yearning possible was that he didn’t know the woman. He expected Joy to object to his cynicism, but instead she snuggled up against him and said, “We hurt their feelings, my parents’. That’s why I apologized.”

  Who said she never won any arguments?

  Another buzz, another minute.

  Joy had known about Tommy’s crush on her, of course. How could she not? She just hadn’t expected ever to feel the same way about him, she told Griffin. One day she just woke up and realized she did. But what day? When?

  After Laura, was Griffin’s best guess. It was the birth of their daughter, together with Tommy’s divorce, that really changed the dynamic of their lives. It was then that he’d finally given in and accepted Harve and Jill’s offer of a loan. Which guaranteed, Griffin complained to Tommy, that he and Joy were now officially hitched to the parental sled. They’d have little choice but to obey every summons to Sacramento. Tommy took Joy’s side, of course. What could be more natural than for her to want their daughter to know her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins? She simply wanted Laura to grow up with the kind of family memories she herself cherished. Who wouldn’t? (Griffin, for one, but he understood his orphan friend’s question to be rhetorical.) Tommy, who desperately wanted a family, and Joy, who had one—they’d made an effective tag team. “Look,” she said, “we’re talking about a weekend every other month. I’m no fonder of their gated community than you are, but taking their money doesn’t mean we have to start voting Republican or something. Sacramento’s purely logistical. Where else is the family supposed to gather if not at my parents’? Our apartment?” Plus, she went on, the timing was right. Vietnam had been over for years. They were in their late twenties now, and it was time to start applying a salve to all those never-trust-anyone-over-thirty generational wounds.

  “Hey, talk to your old man,” Griffin said, because it was Harve who always brought up the war, Harve who stubbornly refused to admit it had been a mistake, Harve who loved to pronounce that the domino theory “had never been disproved,” as if the war’s detractors had failed at this, too. Besides, he thought but didn’t say, no such reconciliation was needed where his parents were concerned. As old-school lefty intellectuals, it never would’ve occurred to either of them that Asian adventurism could be anything but monumental folly. Better yet, they lived on the other side of the country, still completely involved with the continuing psychodrama of their own screwed-up lives. They neither demanded nor particularly encouraged visits. They’d never feigned any interest in children, and a grandchild was unlikely to alter that. When Griffin called to tell her Joy was pregnant, all his mother said was “So she finally got her way, then.” She. Unbelievable. By that point they’d been married for—what, seven years? And his mother still didn’t call his wife by name, just the feminine pronoun. Who could be expected to remember and use the names of people who hadn’t done graduate work? On the rare occasions when either of his parents phoned, Griffin always took the call in the den behind a closed door. “You don’t have to do that,” Joy would remind him when he emerged again, ten or fifteen minutes later, usually in a foul mood.

  “No reason to inflict them on you,” he’d reply, and she’d let it go because, of course, the intended implication was all too clear. A plague on both their houses was the bargain he’d tried to drive back in Truro, and he meant to keep up his end, even if she didn’t.

  The entire time Joy was pregnant, nobody had been more solicitous of her than Tommy. In honor of little Enrique (he was convinced it would be a boy) he’d quit drinking—to clean up his act, he claimed, to be worthy of his godson. Griffin remembered vividly the first time he held the baby, how reluctantly he’d handed Laura back, then turned to him and said, “Mr. Lucky.” And how right he was. Griffin had known it the moment he took his daughter from the nurse at the hospital, sensing in her ferocious, squirming little body reason enough for his own existence.

  But here was the thing. Tommy had known it all along, as Joy swelled and waddled, whereas Griffin, God help him, when he looked at his pregnant wife, kept hearing his mother’s disembodied voice: So she finally got her way, then.

  Yeah, it must have been around then, he decided, and who could blame her? How could Joy not feel affection for a man who’d happily drunk mineral water during her pregnancy so she wouldn’t be the only one abstaining from alcohol? Tommy’d called the house right after Griffin left for work that morning, Joy explained, and not even to speak to her, that was the ironic part. He’d heard about some writing gig he thought Griffin might be interested in. But then he’d asked her how things were going, and she’d just broken down. Her mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was beginning treatments that week, and now here she was on the other side of the country, with Laura growing up fast, becoming a young woman before she’d gotten her fill of her as a child, and, well, hearing Tommy’s voice on the line had made her realize that he, not Griffin, was the one she’d really wanted to talk to about everything, Tommy who would understand the sense of loss coming at her from all directions. He’d been, it came home to her as she sobbed there in the shower, her best friend. He might have been more if she’d allowed it. Maybe she should have.

  Buzz. Griffin watched the alarm clock’s minute hand turn over.

  At six, he rose and slipped quietly into a pair of shorts, an old polo shirt and sandals. He was pretty sure Joy was awake, too, that she’d slept no more and no better than he had, so he wasn’t surprised when she spoke.

  “Do you really have to do this now? Have you looked outside?”

  “I won’t be long. Go back to sleep.”

  Outside, Wellfleet was lost in dense, liquid fog. She was right, of course. The sensible thing would be to wait for it to burn off, but he was determined to disprove without further delay the most ludicrous of the charges his wife had leveled against him. By mid-morning they’d be back in Falmouth to pick up Joy’s car and head back to Connecticut, to the life they’d managed to undermine so thoroughly.

  It was far too wet to put the top down, but he did it anyway, hoping he’d be less blind. By the time he inched down the mussel-shell drive into the street, the inn was completely swallowed by the fog, and his shirt collar was cold and soaked through. Somewhere in the distance he heard the lonely tolling of a buoy, but he had no idea which direction the sound was coming from.

  The town dock was probably his best bet. There might be people around even this early, but anyone standing more than a few feet away wouldn’t even know he was there, much less what he was up to. This assumed, of course, that he could find the dock. But if he couldn’t, no big deal. Except for its outer tip at Provincetown, the Cape was narrowest here at Wellfleet, just a couple miles wide. You couldn’t drive very far in any direction without coming to water of some sort, an inlet or a freshwater pond. Creeping forward at a pace that barely registered on the speedometer, he squinted into the gray soup, trusting that he’d see what he was about to hit before impact. Because it would be ironic if he got in an accident while driving to scatter the ashes of a man so prone to them.

  Had he ever in his life been so exhausted? Not having slept was part of it, but the quarr
el itself, he knew, was what had drained him. He and Joy were no strangers to argument, of course. What couple married thirty-four years was? But usually their disputes were contained. They were about something, not everything. Yesterday’s had started out like that, focused on his wife’s admission that yes, for a time she’d been in love, or something like love, with his old friend. But that perimeter had quickly been breached by Joy’s claim that the issue between them now was about him, not Tommy. Since his father’s death nine months ago, she said, his dissatisfaction had become palpable, as was evidenced by how excited he’d become at the prospect of a screenwriting gig. What he wanted, she told him, was his old life back, to be young and free again. She understood how losing a parent could cut you loose from your moorings. She’d lost her own mother, hadn’t she? But moving back to L.A. (and that was his real intention, she insisted, next week’s visit being just the opening gambit) wouldn’t make either of them young again, nor, she was dead certain, would it make him happy.

  Griffin had laughed at the notion that he was “unmoored” (or even fazed, for that matter) by his father’s passing, and though he grudgingly conceded that the notion of moving back to L.A.—getting back in the game, for Christ sake—had its attractions, he denied categorically that he harbored any illusions about the place restoring his youth. If anything, the culture out there would have the opposite effect by making him feel his age even more acutely. But did the fact they weren’t young anymore mean they had to be prematurely old? Why spend the rest of their lives in curriculum meetings and eating in the same three or four local restaurants with the same bunch of dull academics? Did they have to be so settled? Wasn’t that the same as “settling”? They’d left L.A. because of Laura, but she was an adult now. By this time next year, she’d be married. Obviously, their circumstances had changed. Couldn’t their thinking and future plans reflect this?

  What would be so wrong with, say, dividing their time? This past winter had been brutal. Even Joy had to admit that. Why not keep an eye out for an apartment in L.A. where they could spend each spring semester? Okay, the college wouldn’t be thrilled by him going down to half-time, but before leaving on this trip, he’d floated the idea past the dean of faculty, who’d said that the school, rather than risk losing him entirely, would likely be flexible. Once they were back in L.A., Griffin could reestablish his contacts in the film world, and the money he’d make there would more than offset the loss of academic income. But for Joy settled wasn’t the same as settling. To her, settled just meant that they’d chosen wisely all those years ago. She happened to love the life they were living now; moreover, it was one they’d agreed on. And what would become of her full-time job when Griffin went to part-time? Was she expected to sit and watch while he had his middle-age meltdown?

  Thus far, Griffin had held his own. He’d always wielded superior rhetorical skills (Do you ever win an argument with this guy?) and over the last decade he’d honed them further in the classroom. But admit it, he wasn’t on his game. He never should’ve allowed their dispute to expand beyond her and Tommy, and even to his own ears, his voice, though he was careful not to raise it, sounded shrill, almost desperate. Usually, by this point Joy would have become frustrated and given in, yet the quarrel ground on. It was like a poker game where the wagering suddenly accelerated, each player raising instead of calling, then raising again, until all the blue chips were in the center of the table, more than either could afford to lose, or, maybe, in this case, to win. His father’s death, she kept insisting, was the true source of his current malaise, and her steadfast refusal to surrender this causal linkage had thrown him off his stride. Truth be told, the chronology did give him pause, because the idea of returning to L.A. had taken root not long after his father’s car was found at the turnpike rest stop. Since then he’d become more aggressive about looking for film work, checking with Sid every couple of weeks to see if he’d heard of any assignments he might be right for. He never made those calls when Joy was around, but of course they’d showed up on their long-distance bill, and she’d put two and two together. And he couldn’t really blame her for being angry that he’d sent up a trial balloon with the dean of faculty before broaching the subject with her. Why had he done that? Because he’d been pretty sure she’d hate the idea, maybe even veto it preemptively. So he’d gone ahead without her.

  Reluctantly, Griffin was forced to entertain the possibility that he was in the wrong. Maybe her case against him wasn’t airtight, but it was fundamentally sturdy, whereas his defense against her accusations was merely skillful, artifice teetering on the head of a pin. Panicking, he’d tried to retreat to more solid ground. If he had a few secrets about phone calls to his agent and conversations with his dean, what about the whopper she’d been keeping all these years? He wasn’t the one who’d fallen in love with somebody else; she had. And indeed it was this knowledge, the details of it, that kept playing on a loop through his brain, like a pivotal scene in a script (yes, Joy would hate the metaphor, but there you were) that was out of kilter, jeopardizing the whole.

  INT. TASTEFUL B&B ROOM: NIGHT.

  A man (mid-fifties, slender and moderately good-looking despite his receding hairline) is peering out the window, but his haggard face is reflected back at him in the glass. A woman his age, beautiful but despondent, is seated on the four-poster bed, her head in her hands. Clearly, they’re arguing and have been for some time.

  HUSBAND

  Is it over? Can you at least tell me that much?

  WIFE

  (looking up in disbelief)

  Over? Can’t you see it never even started?

  HUSBAND

  Okay, say I believe you and you never—

  WIFE

  Say you believe me?

  HUSBAND

  (ashamed of himself)

  Even if it never… My question is, are you afraid to see him again? Is that why you won’t go to L.A.?

  WIFE

  I don’t know …Maybe.

  He turns to face her now. Neither speaks for a long beat.

  HUSBAND

  Explain something to me. How come you get to be disappointed with our life and I don’t?

  WIFE

  (shaking her head)

  Don’t you see? I’m not disappointed. That’s why I’m not willing to risk what we have. We’re talking about something that happened a long time ago. It shouldn’t have, but it did. I let my feelings get the better of me, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry yours got hurt. But I chose you. Aren’t the last two decades proof?

  But he still can’t believe she was in love with someone else, ever.

  HUSBAND

  (petulant)

  Proof you love your daughter.

  WIFE

  I do love our daughter.

  HUSBAND

  (bitter)

  Plus, how would you explain to Harve and Jill and Princess Grace of Morocco that you loved somebody new? That would mean you changed your mind about something, and nobody in your family ever does that.

  CLOSE ON THE HUSBAND. He knows better than to continue in this vein, but he can’t help himself.

  HUSBAND (CONT’D)

  What is it your father always says? Nobody’s ever disproved the domino theory?

  WIFE

  At least we’re finally addressing the real subject.

  HUSBAND

  (incredulous)

  Which is?

  WIFE

  Our parents.

  HUSBAND

  Hey, my parents couldn’t be more out of the picture. They have been right from the start.

  WIFE

  (so sad)

  Can’t you see, you’ve got it all wrong. You always blame my parents for intruding into our lives. You think I’m spared when you take your parents’ phone calls in the den with the door closed.

  HUSBAND

  Let me see if I understand this. Are you really saying my parents are the reason you fell in love with Tommy?

  ON THE WOMAN NOW. S
he’s on her feet, facing him, gaining confidence. In all their married lives, she’s never so openly confronted him before.

  WIFE

  I’m saying that out of sight isn’t out of mind. You think you don’t let your mother into your life—into our lives—but you blame her when a bird craps on you. Think about that. You believe your father’s gone because he died, but he isn’t gone. He’s haunted you this whole year. Right now he’s in the trunk of your car, and you can’t bring yourself to scatter his ashes. Do you think maybe that means something?

  Griffin came to a stop sign, or what he assumed was a stop sign—something octagonal, possibly red. He listened for the approach of an oncoming vehicle, but there was no sound, nothing except the tolling of that far-off buoy. He took a left, recalling, or seeming to, that this would take him through the village and down to the harbor. But that was somehow wrong, because almost immediately the road was lined on both sides by dark, ghostly trees instead of houses, which meant he was heading away from the harbor. Never mind. It didn’t have to be the harbor, or even saltwater. All that had seemed to matter yesterday, but not today. The important—no, critical—thing was to dispose of the man and, in doing so, win the only winnable part of yesterday’s argument. That was the crux of Joy’s case. That his parents, despite their physical absence, had intruded on their marriage as much as hers had, that he perversely wanted them to. If he could prove her wrong about this, then maybe her whole argument would collapse.

 
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