That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  Strange, Griffin thought, opening his eyes on the present. He’d used none of this in “The Summer of the Brownings.” He’d meant for the story to be about the Brownings and felt that his parents, or rather the parents of the boy in the story, had already taken up too much narrative space. He’d wanted to focus on his friendship with Peter, with a subplot on the crush he’d had on the boy’s mother, the dawn of something like sexual awareness in a twelve-year-old. Except this wasn’t what the experience had been about. The idea that there might be something seriously wrong between his parents had not been new that summer. Their unhappiness, together and separately, had been a given throughout his childhood. That was why they needed the Cape, even more each passing year, to make things right between them, at least for a while. The Browning summer was just the first when he’d begun to understand what ailed them. If he’d had a true sexual awakening that summer it was this: what was wrong between his parents was about sex. At the time, that was as precise as he could make it, and he yearned neither for additional information nor further illumination. Indeed, to keep these at bay he’d escaped into that other, happier family. The Brownings had offered the refuge he needed, though any happy family would have probably served the same purpose, which meant he hadn’t so much told the story of that summer as avoided telling it. That was why a puzzled Tommy had concluded it must be about a kid discovering he was gay. Poor fucking kid, he’d said, perhaps sensing the presence of the real story that never got written. Griffin looked up at the dark window under the eaves now, half expecting to see his own worried twelve-year-old face still framed there.

  The irony of all this, Griffin realized, was one even Tommy, who’d once jokingly asked him to explain irony, would appreciate. Because Griffin had attempted to do in the Browning summer story precisely what his wife was now accusing him of having done in their marriage: he’d tried but failed to keep his parents out. Right from the start (of the story, of his marriage), despite his best efforts, they’d managed to insinuate themselves. When Joy suggested they honeymoon on the Maine coast, Griffin convinced her that what they needed was a dose of the old Cape magic, that weakest of marital spells. In Truro they’d made plans for a life based on what they foolishly thought were their own terms, Joy articulating what she wanted, Griffin, tellingly, what he didn’t want (a marriage that even remotely resembled his parents’, as if this negative were a nifty substitute for an unimagined positive). Even as he rejected their values, he’d allowed many of their bedrock assumptions—that happiness was a place you could visit but never own, for instance—to burrow deep. He’d dismissed their snobbery and unearned sense of entitlement, but swallowed whole the rationale on which it had been based (Can’t Afford It; Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift). Joy’s contention that his parents, not hers, were the true intruders in their marriage had seemed ludicrous on the face of it, but he saw now that it was true. They were mucking about still, his living mother, exiled in the Mid-fucking-west (justice, that) but using seagulls as surrogates, his deceased father, reduced to ash and bits of bone, still refusing to take his leave.

  He’d tried. Joy probably wouldn’t believe him, but he had tried. Failed, sure, awkwardly and foolishly, but was he not his father’s son? He’d gone out a good twenty yards into the cold surf, turning his back to the waves as they broke, holding his father out in front of him with both hands like a priest with a chalice, as if keeping the urn dry until the precise moment of submergence were a necessary part of the idiotic liturgy. He’s haunted you this whole year, Joy had accused. 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? And so, by God, as soon as he was waist-deep, he’d put an end to the folly.

  Except that when he plunged the urn into the turbulence and positioned his thumbs under the latch that secured the lid, the sand beneath his feet gave way to the very undertow his father had always feared, and Griffin lost his balance. To regain it, he held his arms out to his sides like a surfer. Had he dropped the urn then, or had the next wave knocked it out of his hands? He couldn’t remember. One second he had it; the next it had disappeared into the churning froth. Lost, he remembered thinking as he lunged after it, feeling around in the surf with both hands like a blind man until the next wave, larger, knocked him flat. Regaining his feet, he thought, My father is lost. Hilarious, really. After all, he’d been dead for nine months. But he was lost only now, this instant, and somehow this was worse than dead, because dead wasn’t something Griffin could be blamed for.

  How long had he stood there, paralyzed, mortified by his clumsy incompetence, wave after wave leaping past him onto the shore? Do something, he thought, panicked, but what? How many times as a boy had he watched his father seize up in the middle of a room, a portrait of indecision, with no idea of where to turn, an angry wife tugging him in one direction, a pretty grad student who’d confused him with the romantic hero of some novel they’d been studying pulling him in the opposite? It was as if he’d concluded that if he remained where he was long enough, whatever he wanted most would come to him of its own volition. Griffin remembered willing him to act, to do something, because it frightened him to see anybody stand frozen in one place for so long, unable to take that first step, the one that implied a destination. Now, waist-deep in the roiling surf, the sands shifting dangerously beneath his feet, he finally understood. Because of course it was the doing that had brought him to this pass, and now, having done the wrong thing, the thing he never would’ve done if he’d been thinking clearly, there was nothing further to do but hope that chance, not known for compassion, would intervene in his undeserving favor.

  Which in defiance of both logic and expectation it finally did, the dreaded undertow returning his father’s urn in a rush of sand and water, banging it hard against Griffin’s anklebone, and this time his blind hands located it in the froth. He yanked the urn from the surf intact, its latches, somehow, unsprung.

  Found. That was the word that leapt into his consciousness, like a synonym for triumph.

  Back at the B and B Joy was packed and waiting. If she noticed the condition of his clothes, she didn’t say anything, nor did she remark on the fact that, when he popped the trunk and tossed in their bags, his father was still in the wheel well. Her silence alone was an eloquent indictment. He considered telling her that he’d stumbled on the very place where his family had vacationed when he was twelve and as a result he at last knew how to go about revising “The Summer of the Brownings.” But why should she care?

  They took Route 6 as far as Hyannis, then Route 28 to Falmouth, all of it in silence. His cell phone vibrated once, but he saw it was his mother and let it go to voice mail. He was simply too dispirited to talk to her, especially with Joy in the car. Old habits like taking her calls in private were the hardest to break. In Falmouth they transferred Joy’s bag into her SUV, an act disturbing in its symbolism, since both vehicles were bound for the same destination, their home.

  They headed in tandem for the Bourne Bridge, Joy in the lead. What he needed to do was think about the future, to figure out how to get back to the place they’d been the night of Kelsey’s wedding. Hard to believe, but that was just twenty-four hours ago. It felt like a lifetime, as if he and Joy had been traveling, lost, up and down the Cape forever. Odd that the future should be so difficult to bring into focus when the past, uninvited, offered itself up so easily for inspection. According to his mother, he’d pitched a fit, refusing to get into the car when it was time for them to leave the Cape that Browning summer, but that wasn’t how he remembered it at all. As his parents were loading the car, the man they’d rented the cottage from had come by to pick up the keys.

  “What’s this?” his father asked when he was offered a bright red folder.

  “Next year’s rates and availability,” the man told him. “You get first crack and a hundred dollars off because you stayed with us this year.”

  “I don’t think we’re interested.”
  The man glanced at Griffin’s mother, then, to see if husband and wife were on the same page about this, and finally at Griffin himself. “How about you hang on to it, young fella,” he said, perhaps sensing that returning to these same cottages next summer was what Griffin wanted more than anything in the world. “In case they change their mind.”

  No one had spoken a word by the time they got to the Sagamore. Griffin’s mother looked like she meant to say nothing all the way back to the Mid-fucking-west. His father’s thumb had seemed to heal, but the splinter had resurfaced, and he’d chewed on it until the thumb became infected. It was now swollen to twice its normal size, and when the car rumbled onto the bridge, perhaps remembering that this same splinter had elicited sympathy a fortnight earlier, he tried to show it to Griffin’s mother, but she just looked away. He should’ve quit right then, but knowing when to give up wasn’t one of his father’s strong suits. “Am I running a fever?” he said, leaning across the seat so Griffin’s mother could feel his forehead. “I’m burning up, aren’t I?”

  But she just continued to stare out the window.

  “Fine,” his father said, leaning back, his brow untouched. “Just great.”

  “Just great,” Griffin now echoed as the Bourne Bridge appeared in the distance. Feeling feverish himself, he put a hand to his forehead, but of course you really needed someone else for an accurate read. If Joy had been in the seat next to him, and he’d asked, she wouldn’t have refused him. He knew that much. But even though nothing in the world would have made him happier right then than the gift of her cool touch, he also knew he wouldn’t have asked her. Because even if he did have a temperature, it would feel like trying to elicit sympathy he didn’t deserve, his father’s son.

  A hundred yards from the Bourne, his phone vibrated again. Seeing who it was, he pulled onto the shoulder and answered, just as Joy’s SUV climbed up onto the bridge and disappeared from sight.

  “I think I found out what Sid had for you,” Tommy told him. “You remember Ruben Hand? Ruby?”

  The name rang a vague bell, but …

  “We were going to write that film for him back in the day, but the money went south? Anyway, he’s in TV now. He’s got this made-for-cable movie thing, some story about a college professor. Sid apparently pitched you.”

  “You know this how?”

  “My guy pitched me. If we could convince Ruby we’re right, we could do it together. Take six to eight weeks, ten at the outside. You’d be back grading your grammar exercises by Labor Day. Decent money. Possible series to follow if it works.”

  “Ruby Hand. The guy I’m remembering was an asshole.”

  “That’s right, a producer.”

  “I’m in the car right now. How about I talk to Joy and call you back when I get home.”

  “Not to influence you, but I could use the gig.”

  “Okay if I ask you a question?”


  “Are you still in love with Joy?”

  Not even a second’s hesitation. “Sure,” said his old friend. “Aren’t you?”

  Such a simple question. Such a simple answer. Yet somehow, sitting there in the shadow of the Bourne Bridge, he’d managed to twist it all around. To make it instead a question of whether Joy still loved him. If she did, he told himself, she’d be waiting for him on the other side. Years ago, finally leaving L.A., they’d made the journey in two cars loaded down with things they didn’t trust to the movers. That was before cell phones, of course, but after the first day they had it down to a science, each intuiting when the other was going to need to stop for gas or food or the lavatory. They tried to stay close, within sight of each other, and whoever was in the lead would periodically check the rearview mirror and, if the other car wasn’t there, slow down or pull over until it caught up. Would Joy remember? Had she seen him pull over? If so, she’d be waiting for him on the other side. Or, more likely, farther on. By now, he was sure, she’d have checked her mirror, and noticed he wasn’t there.

  Turning off his cell, he put it back in the cup holder. He didn’t want to talk to her on the phone. There’d been too much talk already. He just wanted to see her off on the shoulder, waiting for him, concerned for his well-being. If she pulled over, he’d know that whatever was between them could be worked out.

  Carefully pulling out into traffic, he climbed onto the Bourne, passing the sign—DESPERATE?—a group called the Samaritans put there to discourage leapers. From the elevated midpoint of the bridge, he could see a steady stream of cars that reached almost a mile down the highway, but none were off on the shoulder. Half an hour later he switched his cell back on, hoping to see that he’d missed a call, but none had come in.



  The rugged Maine coastline was stunning, Griffin had to admit, the light so pure it almost hurt. He couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if his parents had fallen in love with this part of the world instead of the Cape. Certainly it would have been more affordable, but that begged an obvious question: would they really have wanted something they could afford? After all, much of the Cape’s allure was its shimmering elusiveness, the magical way it receded before them year after year, the stuff of dreams. Coastal Maine, by contrast, seemed not just real but battered by reality. Where Cape Cod somehow managed to give the impression that July lasted all year, Maine reminded you, even in lush late spring, of its long, harsh winters, of snowdrifts that rotted baseboards and splintered latticework, of relentless winds that howled in the eaves and scoured the paint, leaving gutters rusted white with salt. Even the people looked scoured, or so it seemed to Griffin as he drove down the peninsula toward the Hedges, the resort hotel where Laura’s wedding would take place tomorrow. Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift, his mother informed him, in answer to his unspoken question.

  Since her death last winter, she’d become even more talkative than when alive, ever anxious to share her opinions with Griffin, especially, but not exclusively, during his long, insomniac nights. Proximity—she now rode in the left wheel well of his rental car—also made her chatty. With any luck this would soon end. The plan was to drive down to the Cape after the wedding, find a resting place for both his parents. He’d had many months to think it over, but he still had no better plan than the one she’d proposed this time last year, to scatter his father on one side and his mother on the other. Maybe that would shut her up. Fat chance, she snorted.

  All of Joy’s family and most of the other guests were staying at the Hedges so they wouldn’t be tempted to drive after drinking too much at the reception. Griffin had been offered a room there, too, but given the separation and the fact that he was bringing a guest, he thought it might be better to stay someplace nearby. When he suggested this, neither Joy nor Laura had objected, so he’d booked a room at a small inn half a mile up the peninsula.

  It hadn’t started out as a separation, at least not in the legal sense. After Wellfleet, they’d agreed that Griffin would go to L.A. for the summer and write the made-for-cable movie with Tommy, who had a spare room in his condo and was glad to have someone to help with expenses for a couple months. The time apart would do him and Joy good. Absence had been known to make other hearts grow fonder, so why not theirs? Though in truth they barely discussed what was happening, Wellfleet having drained them of words. When they got home, he’d simply gone online and booked a flight to L.A.

  “And I tell our daughter what?” Joy asked, as he stuffed two large suitcases with what he’d need for the summer.

  “Tell her I’ll be home as soon as we deliver the script.”

  “We’ve never lied to her.”

  “That’s a lie?”

  The following morning he’d driven to campus to finish reading the kids’ portfolios and put his academic life in some semblance of order. There was a summer program at the college, and his office would probably be used by visiting faculty. He put his father’s urn in the locked bottom drawer of his filing cabinet, promising h
imself he’d deal with it when he returned. Later that same day when he tossed the suitcases into the trunk, Joy noticed the urn was gone. “In your office?” she said when he told her what he’d done. “Why there?” she asked.

  “I didn’t think it was fair for you to have to look at it every day,” he said, registering her sad, defeated smile. He understood—how could he not?—that this sort of “consideration” was at the crux of what was between them, but he was at a loss how to do things differently.

  In L.A. the work had not gone well. It was clear from the start that he and Tommy didn’t view the material the same way. “Look,” his friend said. “You’re making too much of this. It’s Welcome Back, Kotter, except at college. The kids are smarter than their professor. They’re educating him. That’s where the laughs come from.” Never having taught, he seemed not to understand how arbitrary and artificial, how downright contrary to reality, this concept was. In the old days they’d been able to read each other’s minds, finish each other’s sentences, but more than a decade had passed and they’d lost the knack. Worse, Joy was now between them. Tommy seemed to know that not all was well in their marriage, but not much more. Griffin, who kept expecting to be cross-examined about what the hell was going on, didn’t know what to make of it when he wasn’t. It could mean Tommy didn’t have to because Joy, when she called him from Wellfleet, had already explained the situation in detail, but the opposite inference—that his friend was mostly in the dark but was respecting their privacy—was just as likely. To find out Griffin would have to ask, and this he refused to do.

  After he’d been in L.A. for a couple weeks, Tommy finally said, “So, you’re not going to call her?”

  “She knows how to reach me,” Griffin responded, both surprised and genuinely appalled by the bitterness and childish petulance in his voice. He’d been telling himself he hadn’t called her because he had no idea what to say. But the truth was uglier. What he was waiting for, he realized, was for Joy to blink, and with each passing day it became increasingly apparent that she wasn’t going to. In Wellfleet she’d told him as much, that his unhappiness had exhausted her, that it would be a relief not to have to deal with it anymore. Okay, if that was what she wanted.

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