That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  Except for the proscribed subject of Griffin’s marriage and not being able to hit their work stride, he and Tommy did all right. They both by nature were respectful, so they seldom crowded each other, and their mutual affection hadn’t waned. After that one remark about not calling Joy, Tommy made it a point to mind his own business, and Griffin returned the favor. His friend started drinking around five in the afternoon, just a glass of wine, no hard stuff anymore, but didn’t stop until he called it a night and went to bed. His color wasn’t good, and his paunch, while not large, was oddly asymmetrical, like it might contain a large fibroid cyst. For his part Tommy pretended not to notice that Griffin seldom slept for more than three or four hours. He himself got up to pee half a dozen times every night and sometimes poked his head into the living room, where Griffin would be watching television with the sound down. They were, that is, careful, as if consideration and not honesty was the bedrock of true friendship.

  In this fashion the summer limped along. When Griffin arrived, they’d moved Tommy’s desktop from the guest bedroom to the dining room, and it was here they convened each morning. Tommy always brought in a pot of coffee from the kitchen, and Griffin would print out two sets of the last couple of days’ worth of work, which for continuity’s sake they always read over before beginning a new scene. One morning Griffin looked up from his pages to see Tommy studying him with a mixture of sadness and irritation. “Griff,” he said, “do us both a favor. Go home.”

  “Another week and a half and we’ll have a draft.”

  “Fuck the draft. You’re miserable. And you’re hurting that woman.”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “I know her. And what about your daughter?”

  Laura, in fact, was not taking it well. She’d called him twice in L.A., wanting to know what was going on. What she’d worried about most of her life was finally happening, even as she and Andy were planning their own wedding. He’d tried to comfort her, saying that he and her mother hadn’t decided anything yet, but the only thing that would really comfort her was for him to go home and resume his old life, to pretend nothing had happened in Wellfleet.

  Two weeks later, in mid-August, he and Tommy turned the draft in to Ruby Hand. They both thought it stank but were of different minds about what was wrong with it, agreeing only about two things: that the script was unlikely to get better without additional input and that their producer was an even bigger dickhead than they remembered. Good luck getting valuable notes from him. He was prompt, though, give him that. He called the very next day, when Tommy was out. He’d read the script and thought it was definitely “a step in the right direction.” How about they all think about it for a few days and exchange notes later in the week?

  “That’s that, then,” Tommy said when Griffin told him about the conversation.

  “What do you mean?”

  “God, have you really been gone that long? That ‘step in the right direction’ jazz is code.”

  “You think we’re fired?”

  “No, I know we’re fired.”

  He’d always had an almost preternatural gift for knowing when the ax was about to fall, but in this instance Griffin wasn’t sure he agreed. “Our contract calls for a polish.”

  “He’s going to eat the polish, Griff. Trust me, we’re shitcanned. You might as well pack your bags.”

  Griffin decided to come clean. “I called the college last week,” he said, “and they’re granting me a year’s leave.”

  Tommy nodded, then shook his head. “Joy knows about this?”

  “Possibly. There aren’t many secrets in small colleges.”

  “But you haven’t told her.”

  “Not yet, though it won’t be a surprise. She predicted it, in fact. Also, I might’ve found an apartment.”

  Tommy just sighed.

  “I’ve stayed too long,” Griffin said. “If we land another gig, maybe we could rent a small office.”

  Later that week, both their cells rang at the same moment. Griffin’s said MOM CALLING, so he took it outside onto the patio. He’d been in L.A. a week before remembering his promise to visit and bring her the books and journals she wanted. “Maybe I can find what you need out here,” he’d offered, after telling her where he was and why, or at least the small part he wanted her to know. “August is soon enough,” she’d told him, confirming his earlier suspicion that she didn’t need them to begin with. Their conversation had been short, suspiciously so, he thought. It was almost as if she was relieved he wouldn’t be coming to see her as planned. Nor had she called him since, which was stranger still. For her, summer was open season for pestering.

  “Mom,” he said now, “how are you?”

  But it wasn’t his mother. The woman identified herself as Gladys, her next-door neighbor. She’d become concerned when Mary didn’t answer her knock that morning. They were on the buddy system, Gladys explained, which meant they each had a key to the other’s apartment, in case she locked herself out or something else happened. This was something else. She’d found Griffin’s mother in bed, still in her nightgown, the curtains drawn and the room dark in the middle of the day. She was staring at nothing and gasping for breath, barely conscious, unresponsive. A heart attack, the emergency people thought. They’d given her oxygen and just minutes ago taken her to the hospital. “She keeps your number on the refrigerator,” Gladys said. “I hope she won’t be upset with me for using her phone to call. I could’ve used my own, I suppose, but I didn’t think.”

  Griffin told her he was sure it would be okay.

  “She hasn’t been feeling good,” Gladys said.

  “I didn’t know that.”

  “She didn’t like to say anything.”

  Since when? Griffin thought. Were they talking about the same woman?

  “We aren’t really buddies,” Gladys admitted. “That’s just what we call it. The buddy system. When you’re all alone, you need someone close by.” Hearing this, Griffin swallowed hard. “I’m not sure your mother even likes me very much, but I didn’t mind bud-dying with her. She could be very nice when she wanted to.”

  Griffin thanked her and said he’d be on the first flight he could catch, then hung up and just stood there on the balcony until Tommy poked his head out to check on him. “That sucks,” his friend said when Griffin told him what was up, that he had to fly to Indiana.

  Tommy insisted on driving him to LAX. At the curb they parted awkwardly, like a married couple in the middle of a spat.

  “Okay if I call Joy about this?”

  “I’d rather you didn’t.”

  “I might anyway.”

  Griffin saw no reason to argue. “I’ll let you know what’s up once I get the lay of the land.”

  They shook hands.

  “I never told you I found my mother.”

  “No kidding.”

  He nodded.


  “And you were right.”

  The Hedges occupied the tip of the peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. The main building was a grand old structure with a huge porch bordered by eight-foot-tall yew trees that were painstakingly sculpted into a massive hedge. Farther down the sloping lawn, more hedges formed what Griffin guessed was a labyrinth. When he pulled into the gravel lot, he saw Joy’s sister June emerge from an opening in the hedge with a crying child in tow. They were quite a ways off, but it was incredibly quiet, especially after L.A., and he could hear her say, “Poor sweetie pie, did you get lost? Didn’t Grammy tell you that might happen?”

  It was still an hour before the rehearsal dinner was scheduled to begin. Griffin thought it would be good to arrive early, but now he wished he hadn’t. There were a couple dozen cars clustered near to the hotel. The lot was huge, though, big enough to handle a convention, so he parked in a remote spot. Joy’s family probably would regard this, too, as standoffish, but during his year in L.A. he’d had two minor but costly auto mishaps—one on the freeway, not really his fault, the oth
er in a mall parking lot, entirely his fault—and his insurance premiums were again on the rise. (Interesting, he thought, that his late mother yapped at him incessantly, whereas his dead father was content to communicate via crumpled bumpers and detached side-view mirrors.)

  The evening was cool, with a nice breeze off the water, so he decided to just sit in the car for a few minutes and gather himself for what promised to be an ordeal. But Joy must have had an eye out for him, because right after turning off the ignition he caught a glimpse of her in the rearview mirror, coming down the porch steps. On the dashboard was the literary magazine that featured “The Summer of the Brownings.” He’d brought a copy along with the idea of giving it to Joy, but he now realized the timing was wrong and left it where it was. All is vanity, his mother said, quoting whom? Shakespeare? Thackeray? The Old Testament? Google it, she suggested. Lord, Griffin thought. Last year, based on slender evidence, Joy had been convinced that his father was haunting him. What would she make of him losing arguments with his deceased mother? Not that he had any intention of telling her.

  “Joy,” he said, getting out of the car and giving her the best smile he could muster, “you look terrific.”

  Which she did. She’d lost some weight, which showed most flatteringly on her face. Her eyes, though, revealed the strain of the last year, and a wave of guilt washed over him, its undertow jellying his knees. He could tell she was registering the physical changes in him as well, and these, he knew, were even more pronounced. What he’d been wondering since leaving the inn was whether they would embrace. He didn’t want to presume anything and reminded himself to react, not initiate, though now the moment arrived and his wife of thirty-five years was in his arms before he could react. Then just as quickly she stepped back before he could even evaluate what kind of hug it had been. This, he told himself, was probably how the next twenty-four hours would go. One moment moving on to the next with a terrible efficiency, before it could be really taken in. Dear God, how would he ever get through it?

  “You look tired,” Joy told him. “Was it a rough flight?”

  “Not particularly,” he said. “The sleeping thing’s gotten worse.” He actually hadn’t meant to tell her that, but three decades’ worth of intimacy was a hard habit to break. Was he trying to elicit sympathy?

  “I’m sorry to hear it.”

  “It’s been a little better the last couple weeks,” he lied. Actually it was worse, but having received the sympathy he’d elicited he now felt unworthy of it.

  “Have you seen a doctor?”

  “I’ve got an appointment as soon as I get back,” he said, another lie. How many more would he have to tell to balance out the first true statement?

  “It’s been a rough year,” she said, quickly adding, “Your mother, I mean,” lest he conclude she meant their being apart.

  That first heart attack, back in August, had done serious damage, and the surgery necessary to repair it, the heart specialist had explained, was not without risk, especially for a woman her age. Without the operation she’d have only a year or two, maybe as little as six months. The upside of the surgery, assuming she didn’t suffer a stroke on the operating table, was significant. Years, they were talking, maybe a decade. “That idiot must think I’m enjoying my life, if he imagines I want another decade,” she told Griffin when they were alone. He tried to speak, but couldn’t. “That’s that, then,” she said after a moment’s silence, meeting his eye with what looked for all the world like satisfaction, as if this were the very news he’d been hoping for.

  “It’s okay,” he said now, trying to help Joy out. “I knew what you meant.”

  “Where’s … ?”

  “In the trunk,” Griffin admitted, feeling himself flush.

  Only when Joy regarded him as if he’d lost his mind did he realize she wasn’t asking about the whereabouts of his mother’s ashes. “Oh, you mean … sorry,” he said, flushing even deeper now. “She’s back at the inn.”

  “You could’ve brought her to the dinner, Jack.”

  And, incredibly, he again thought she was talking about his mother. Jesus! Was it going to be like this all night? Would he misread everything anybody said? “She thought it’d be easier on everybody if she skipped the rehearsal.”

  Joy regarded him doubtfully. “Are you going to be all right?”

  “Sure,” he said, feeling anything but.

  “A couple of things, before we go in,” she said.


  “Daddy’s in a wheelchair now.”

  “I didn’t know that.”

  “He fell last month. He says it’s temporary, but Dot says no.”


  “Jack. He remarried. You know that.”

  “I forgot, I guess.” Though it all came back to him now. Joy’s sisters had been furious. Marriage? At their father’s advanced age? It was beyond ridiculous. Joy had had to talk them out of boycotting the wedding.

  “Also, he doesn’t make sense all the time.”

  “That’s okay, neither do I,” Griffin said. Obviously.

  “He does all right in familiar surroundings, but—”

  “I’ll be aware.”

  “Just so you know—regarding us?—I’ve warned everybody to be on their best behavior. They’ve all agreed to be civil.”

  Back in the fall, when Joy’s family found out they’d separated and were probably headed for divorce, emotions had run high. Her twin brothers, Jared and Jason, had promised to do Griffin bodily harm when next they met. One of them (their voices, too, were identical) had somehow gotten his cell number and called him up, drunk, in the middle of the night. “I always knew you were a fucking asshole,” he said without bothering to identify himself.

  “Jeez,” said Griffin, who at three in the morning was watching an old movie. By this time he wasn’t living with Tommy anymore but rather in his own tiny efficiency apartment. Most nights he didn’t even pull the bed out of the sofa. “Always? I wish you’d said something.”

  “You better hope I never see you again,” the caller continued, music and barroom laughter in the background.

  Griffin knew it had to be either Jared or Jason, but which? “Oh, I do, Jason,” he said, taking a flier.

  “It’s not Jason, it’s Jared.”

  “Yeah, but same deal.”

  The other man was quiet for a minute. “What did my sister ever do to you? Why are you treating her like this?”

  “Listen, Jared—”

  “Because you don’t fucking deserve her.”

  “I agree.”

  “Yeah, well… you just better hope I never see you again,” he repeated. Griffin’s ready concurrence had apparently thrown him off track, and he was now trying to get back on as best he could.

  “Where are you these days? Just so I know where not to go.”

  “I’m stationed in Honolulu.”

  “Okay, then. That’s easy enough.”

  “I got a leave coming up, though. How about I fly to L.A. and kick your ass?”

  “I’m going to hang up now, Jared.”

  “You’re probably thinking I don’t know where you live, but I can find out. Don’t think I can’t.”

  “I live on Bellwood Terrace. The Caprice. Apartment E-217.”

  “I have my ways.”

  “Good night, Jared.”

  He hadn’t heard from either twin since, but was happy to hear they’d agreed to a truce during the wedding.

  “I told them if they didn’t chill, they couldn’t come, and they both promised,” Joy went on. “I just hope you can tell them apart when you see them, because it pisses them both off when people get it wrong. Especially now that Jason’s out of the service and has some hair.”

  “I’ll try to remember.”

  “There’ll be lots of kids. Try not to look like you hate them.”

  Yes, by all means, his mother chimed in, startling him. Pretend.

  Shut up, Mom.

  “And you know abou
t the ceremony, right? That there’s a minister? Nothing in your face, but God will be invoked.”


  The Protestant one. The god of gated communities and domino theories. Jesus. With a J, like the rest of them.

  Best to ignore her, Griffin decided. Telling her to shut up had never worked in life, either. “You don’t have to worry about me, Joy. I’ll behave.”

  “I know you will,” she said. “I just …”


  “Well, I guess I wish we could’ve found a way to …”

  “Keep it together one more year?”

  “But we didn’t, did we?”

  “My fault, not yours.”

  She looked off into the distance, her eyes filling, then gathered herself. “There’s one question I have to ask.”


  She took his hand lightly. “Are you going to be able to write these checks? Tonight and tomorrow?”

  “I said I would.” Though in truth he was a little worried. He’d taken twenty-five K out of his retirement, hoping that would do the trick and trying not to panic as the guest list grew. Last week he’d taken out another ten just to be sure.

  “You also said you weren’t working.”

  What he’d actually said was that writing assignments had been few and far between since he and Tommy had been fired off the cable picture, and of course there was his mother. After the first heart attack, he’d returned to Indiana several times, trying to make his visits coincide with her major transitions—from the hospital to a rehab facility, then back home with hospice volunteers and, finally, to the hospice wing of the hospital and full nursing care.

  In January he’d picked up a couple of film-school classes, adjunct status, so the pay was for shit, but it was something. He had a new agent, Tommy’s, but all she’d come up with was a quickie dialogue rewrite. This he’d done on his own. Since he’d moved out of Tommy’s place, they’d seen little of each other. They occasionally met for a drink, but Tommy always made some excuse to call it an early night. Griffin knew his old friend was at a loss to understand why Griffin didn’t just tuck his tail between his legs and go home and beg Joy’s forgiveness, as husbands in his circumstance invariably did, if they had any brains. “You want to end up alone?” he asked one night. “Is that it?” No, it wasn’t, but Griffin was hard-pressed to articulate what it was, exactly.

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