That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  Outside of town the fog was, if possible, even thicker, and Griffin’s hair was now as wet as if he’d just stepped out of the shower. Turning on the wipers helped a little, but his headlights, even on low beams, just made matters worse. Every quarter mile or so he’d pass a mailbox that marked a narrow dirt road where he could turn around and head back into town, but for now, not wanting to appear indecisive even to himself, he was content to keep moving forward. A minute later he passed beneath a highway—Route 6, he guessed—which explained why he hadn’t come to the shore yet. In another mile or two, if this road was reasonably straight, he’d reach the National Seashore on the Atlantic side. Hard to imagine a more remote stretch, especially at this hour of the morning and in this weather. No chance he’d be interrupted there.


  You want this to be about one day—the day you found me so brokenhearted—but it isn’t. You’re unhappy every day, and it’s getting worse. You’re a congenitally unhappy man.


  (choking back his emotions)

  I’m never happy? I wasn’t happy last night?


  Okay, last night, for a few short hours, you were. But you always retreat, Jack. It’s like you’re afraid it won’t last. Like if you admit to being happy, someone will steal it from you.

  (A BEAT, while he considers this)

  Yes, there was a time when my heart went out to Tommy, and yes it got broken. But I mended it. I mended my heart.

  ON THEIR REFLECTION IN THE GLASS. His, in the F.G., goes OUT OF FOCUS as hers comes in.


  I’m sorry I haven’t been able to mend yours, because God knows I’ve tried. I’m exhausted from trying.


  (looking gut-shot)

  Maybe you should stop.


  (heartsick, looking away)

  I have. That’s what you’ve noticed these last few weeks. Me stopping.


  Congenitally unhappy. The word was not hers, of course. In thirty-four years he’d never known her to use it until yesterday. But Tommy loved it, even though Griffin always had to correct his spelling—congental or congentle—on the page. (“Think of genitals,” he’d advised, to which Tommy had responded, “I don’t like to think of genitals. I’d rather spell it wrong.”) No doubt he’d used the word yesterday when Griffin was in the shower and she called him back to explain why she wouldn’t be coming along to L.A. Griffin could imagine how the conversation had gone, Joy confiding how their marriage was deteriorating, how they seldom made love anymore, how his ambient discontent had deepened to the point of pathology, how he’d been driving around for the better part of a year with his dad’s ashes in the trunk of his car. And Tommy—because in the end he was Griffin’s friend—advising her not to be hasty. “This shit ain’t new, kiddo. The guy’s always been a congenital malcontent. He doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Remember the famous house categories, back when you guys were looking? Can’t Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift? Tell me that isn’t Griff all over. This is the man you married when you could’ve married me, Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky.”

  Griffin couldn’t help but smile at this imagined conversation, how he didn’t come off very well even when he himself held the reins of invention. But it was true that back then he’d adopted his parents’ mantra. Tommy and Joy had made relentless fun of him, even after he explained that he’d just been riffing on how his parents had classified at a glance every single property in the fat Cape real-estate guide, that his use of these same categories was meant to be ironic. But Tommy hadn’t bought any of that. “Explain irony to me,” he said. “I went to school, but that’s a concept I never really understood. Ironic guys like you confuse me especially.”

  When the trees fell away on both sides of the road, Griffin heard surf pounding nearby, though he knew how deceptive the sound could be. One summer (before the Brownings or after?) his parents had rented a place with a second-story deck, from which you could see the ocean beyond the dunes, a good quarter-mile away. Each night he fell asleep in profound stillness, only to awaken to crashing waves right outside his window, as if during the night the turning tide had breached the dunes. But when he rose and joined his father on the deck, the ocean was right where it had been the day before. His father had explained it, how the wind had changed during the night, now pulling the sound toward them instead of pushing it away, and this made sense, the way science always does, because you know it’s supposed to. But the next morning, when Griffin again awoke to the same thunder, the explanation felt inadequate to the experience. The sound was just too close, too loud, and again he expected to find the lower rooms of their rental cottage flooded. Only repetition—the same thing happening night after night—had diminished and finally banished the magic.

  But the beach was near. He could smell the salt, and this close to the shore, the fog had begun to dissipate. Squinting, he was able to make out a line of rolling dunes and beyond it a pale yellow orb, like a lamp with a forty-watt bulb covered by a sheet, near where he imagined the horizon to be. For a while the road he was on paralleled the shore, then abruptly ended in a large dirt parking lot. A lone pickup truck was parked there, probably some intrepid fisherman trying to get a jump on the blues.

  A weathered boardwalk ran between the dunes, at the end of which Griffin slipped off his sandals. Looming ahead was some sort of structure—a building on the beach, maybe, or a ship at anchor?—but he couldn’t tell which until he got closer and the ghostly shape resolved itself into a restaurant with a large wraparound deck and a ship’s mast growing up through the roof. A rear door stood wide open, and he could hear someone moving around inside. The owner, probably, someone swamping the place out before the other employees arrived. Possibly even a thief. If whoever it was saw him and demanded to know what he was up to, what would he do? Raise his father’s urn by way of explanation? He hurried along before any such embarrassment could come to pass.

  Almost immediately he could tell his plan was deeply flawed. From the boardwalk the waves looked to be breaking about knee-high, but now he saw it was more like waist-high. The restaurant had become just a gray silhouette in the mist behind him, and he was reluctant to go much farther up the beach. After all, the building marked the entrance to the parking lot, and if he allowed it to disappear completely, how would he find his car again? What he’d been hoping for, he realized, was a stone jetty or a pier, something that jutted into the water, something he could walk out on and, at the far end of, release the ashes into the churning sea. But there was nothing of the sort, which meant he’d have to wade out into the surf, submerge the urn and open it into the undertow. That would require dexterity, timing and, he feared, a good measure of luck. The lid was secured by two flimsy-looking metal clasps that would probably fly open if he got hit by a big wave before he was ready. It’d be more sensible to dig a hole at the water’s edge, pour the ashes in and cover them over. Later, when the tide came in, the push and pull of the waves would mingle the ash with sand and water, and his father would at last become part of the grit of the world. How different was that, really, from pouring the contents of the urn off the end of a dock or over the side of a boat?

  Well, it was different. Plus, now that he looked more carefully, he saw the tide was already in. The water might not come any farther up the beach.


  Is it possible you haven’t scattered your father’s ashes because you need him in some way?


  (stern, cold)

  Need him? My father? I didn’t need him alive. Why would I need him dead?

  He took a deep breath, kicked his sandals aside and, gripping his father with both hands, entered the surf.

  Driving back to Wellfleet, completely soaked, Griffin noticed what had been shrouded in fog when he was coming from the other direction. There, arranged in a horseshoe just as he remembered them, were the cottages where he and his parents and the Brownings had
stayed that summer. At first, he wasn’t sure he trusted his eyes. That he should stumble on the place now seemed beyond improbable, as if the physical world were suddenly and mysteriously linked to his own psychic necessity. Having passed the entrance, he pulled onto the shoulder and backed up, his tires grinding on the gravel in the stillness.

  On second thought, maybe it wasn’t the same place. The sign, OFFSHORE COTTAGES, WEEKLY/MONTHLY RENTALS, didn’t ring any bells, and in the center of the horseshoe, where the playground had been, there was now an in-ground pool enclosed by a chain-link fence. Beyond this were a shuffleboard court and several stone barbecue pits topped with heavy metal grates. But after more than four decades wouldn’t it have been even stranger if there weren’t significant changes? More difficult to reconcile was his memory of being able to walk to the beach that summer, which had to be a good half mile away. Had he conflated elements of the Browning summer with other vacations? Perhaps he’d added the detail of walking to the beach when he wrote about it as an adult, and it had been assimilated as memory.

  About half the cottages looked occupied. Otherwise identical, each was painted a different pastel color and named—Sea Breeze, High Tide, Quarter Deck, Scallop Shell. Did he actually remember his parents making fun of the kitschy names, or was this just something they would’ve done? It was still only seven-thirty, too early to call his mother and ask. Besides, even after talking to her, he still wouldn’t know.

  If these were the same cottages, then Dunwanderin would have been theirs—two-thirds of the way up the right-hand side of the horseshoe. It faced diagonally across the pool patio toward what would have been the Browning cottage. Feeling his sleepless exhaustion drag him down, Griffin put the car in park and closed his eyes, allowing himself to become again a twelve-year-old boy in the backseat of his parents’ car. The memory of their arrival here that first day was suddenly there, more vivid and detailed than ever before—his mother and father just staring at the cottage, neither making any move to get out. What they were doing, he knew from experience, was comparing the actual cottage with the description of it they’d been sent last January by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the brochure’s charming becoming tiny; rustic becoming dingy; fully equipped becoming attic furnished. In other words, crappy.

  “Good,” said his father finally, his voice full of false cheer, “there’s a deck.”

  “That?” said his mother, pointing. The warped, splintered boards weren’t even bordered by railings, and tall, spiky black weeds were sticking up between the planks. “You call that a deck?”

  “Hey, there’s a table and four chairs, right? Perfect for us. You, me, Jackeroo and Al.” Clearly, he’d come to a decision, and he meant to make the best of the situation. It had been a long drive from the Mid-fucking-west, and Griffin’s mother had been angry the whole way, failing to cheer up even when they crossed the Sagamore and his father had bravely broken into “That Old Cape Magic.” The New York State Thruway motel where they’d stayed the night before had been crappy, and this was going to be crappier still.

  A screen door banged on the other side of the compound, and a little girl, shrieking with delight, came running toward them, her brother at her heels. They both stopped near the swing set, heads cocked, taking the measure of the newcomers. (At the wheel of his convertible, some forty-five years in the future, Griffin could feel himself smile at the sight of them.)

  “Wonderful,” his mother said, no doubt envisioning an army of bratty kids, every cottage swarming with them. “Just great.”

  “Mary, it’ll be fine,” Griffin’s father said. “Next year we’ll do better. They never freeze salaries two years in a row.”

  “I like it,” Griffin piped up from the backseat, sensing his father needed an ally. There was a tiny window under the eaves on the cottage’s second floor, and he’d intuited correctly that this room would be his.

  His mother stared straight ahead, incredulous. “We’re paying how much?”

  “It’ll be fine,” his father repeated, “unless you prefer to be miserable.”

  “It’s like an oven up here,” she remarked when they shouldered open the door to the tiny room under the eaves. Not much bigger than a closet, it was only about five feet in height from floor to peak. His father, no giant, had to duck when he entered. “This is the kids’ room, all right,” he said when Griffin’s mother, shaking her head in disgust, went back downstairs. Three cots with thin, stained mattresses crowded the room, two along opposite walls, the third folded up behind the door. His father threw open the tiny window, and together he and Griffin repositioned one of the cots directly beneath it to catch any stray breezes. At the base of one wall, where the A formed by the roof was at its widest point, were built-in storage compartments.

  “Wanna bet that’s where they keep the games?” his father said, pulling on the stuck door. His parents never brought games of their own on vacation, preferring to see what each new rental provided, though they were usually very old board games with pieces missing, unplayable. When the door didn’t budge, he yanked it harder. This time it opened and his father yelped, pulling his hand back fast, as if from a fire, and then made the mistake of straightening up, the crown of his head smacking the low roof beam. “Ow!” he said, rubbing it with both hands. Whenever he injured himself, he looked betrayed, as if somebody else, maybe Griffin, was responsible. He complained of having what he termed a “low threshold of physical discomfort,” what Griffin’s mother termed “being a big baby.” He came over now, bending low so Griffin could examine his scalp. “Is the skin broken?”

  “Sort of,” Griffin said. An impressive knot was rising where his father’s hair was thinnest. The skin was abraded, a dozen tiny spots of blood just starting to form.


  “Just a little.”

  Now his father was examining his injured thumb, where a dark splinter had been driven under the skin. “This vacation isn’t starting very well, is it?”

  Griffin admitted it wasn’t.

  “Your mother …,” he began, but broke off in order to chew at the splinter.

  Griffin waited.

  “Damn,” he said, showing Griffin this wound, too. “It’s in there.” The thick end of the splinter was close to the surface, the slender end, a mere shadow, much deeper.

  “What about Mom?”

  “Right now she’s on the warpath, but she’ll calm down.” He seemed to be talking to himself more than to Griffin. “She just needs …” He let his voice trail off again, as if to admit that he had no idea, really, what his wife needed, then went back to gnawing on his thumb.

  They could hear her opening and closing kitchen cabinets downstairs. “No wineglasses,” she muttered. “Not a single goddamn wineglass.” Then, calling up: “Bill! You’re not going to believe this.”

  “Gotta go,” his father said, grinning sheepishly, and headed downstairs.

  There was no chest of drawers in the room, so Griffin laid out his week’s worth of vacation clothes on the extra cot and shoved his suitcase under it. When he thought he heard scurrying in the shadows of the storage cabinet, he quickly shut the door with his foot. Kneeling on the bed, he peered outside. Even with the window open, the room was still stifling hot, with barely enough breeze to flutter the curtain. On the sill a big green fly, dazed, was buzzing around on its back. It had been trapped between the window and the screen, but now, with the window up, its freedom was at hand. Its mind, though, if it had one, hadn’t adjusted, the old hopeless reality holding sway. Griffin watched the stupid thing spin and buzz until he heard a door open below and his mother emerged onto the deck, where she just stood with her arms crossed. When his father appeared a moment later, Griffin had a good view of the top of his head, where the tiny spots of blood had connected in a purple blob.

  “Look,” he said, bending down to show her.

  “Good,” she said.

  “This, too.” He was showing her the splinter now, and she winced—something about
this smaller thumb injury apparently touched her in a way the larger one hadn’t.

  “You’re a mess,” she said, not unkindly.

  His father lowered his voice then, but Griffin could hear him anyway. “She doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to me. You know that.”

  His mother shook her head in despair. “I thought we agreed we weren’t going to do this anymore. Either one of us.”

  “We did. I don’t know what comes over me. I hate myself. Really, you’ve no idea how much. I don’t know why you have anything to do with me.”

  His mother allowed herself to be gathered into his arms then, and they stood there for a long time without speaking. “Okay,” she finally said, as if surrendering something large, something she’d meant to cling to. “We’re on the Cape.”

  “And it’s great.”

  She nodded, surveying the cottage and the entire compound once again. Griffin could tell that while nothing had changed, things looked better to her now than they had ten minutes ago. She took his father’s hand and examined the splinter more closely. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go find some tweezers.”

  “Hello, Indiana!” came a hearty male voice, and when Griffin looked up, the two kids and their parents were coming toward them, waving enthusiastically. Apparently they’d noticed the out-of-state license. Griffin saw both his parents stiffen at being personally linked with the Mid-fucking-west. When they turned to greet the other family, he couldn’t see their faces anymore but knew they were offering the newcomers their most forced, rigid, unnatural smiles, the ones that convinced exactly no one, but, because they were identical, carried a certain authority. He noticed his mother had put her arm around his father’s waist, which meant that at least as far as these people were concerned, they were a single entity again, with the same contemptuous mind.

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