That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  “I just don’t want any embarrassment for Laura,” Joy was saying. “I can help if—”

  “No, I should be fine,” he told her. “Mom actually left some money.” Though this wasn’t true, either, really. Her insurance had just about covered the hospital and nursing-home expenses, the cost of cremation. He’d sold a few of her books and given the rest away. Her laptop and printer and a few pieces of furniture had netted a couple grand. His father had left the world in about the same financial condition. Not much to show for a life, he couldn’t help thinking, though Thoreau would have been pleased. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

  “Were you able to get Dad’s ashes from my office?”

  “Yes, but can we do that later?”

  “Of course.”

  Laura was waiting for them in the hotel foyer, her eyes full, Andy at her side. The expression on the young man’s face was frank puzzlement, and Griffin couldn’t imagine why until it dawned on him that halfway across the parking lot, without realizing it, he’d taken Joy’s hand.

  “Daddy,” his daughter said, choking on the word, and Griffin was glad he could think of nothing to say because he was incapable of the slightest utterance.

  “I don’t have a doubt in the world about that boy,” Laura assured him as they entered the maze.

  She and Andy had just parted as if it would be an eternity before they saw each other again, and she now turned to wave goodbye one last time before her fiancé and her mother disappeared from sight. His daughter’s idea that the two of them go for a stroll in the maze seemed to surprise neither Joy nor Andy, and that made Griffin apprehensive. Had they all thought further about Griffin’s presence at the wedding and decided against it? Did Laura plan to explain this to him among the tall yews, far from witnesses, in case he objected or broke down in tears? But of course he knew better than that, so he took a deep breath and told himself to relax. Laura’s need for a private, father-daughter moment wasn’t about him or the myriad ways he’d failed her and her mother since Kelsey’s wedding. She was just a bride, and fatherly reassurance was part of the program. Enjoy it. Who knew how long it would be before his presence was deemed necessary again?

  “Andy’s terrific, darlin’,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulder and feeling a wave of gratitude when she allowed herself to be drawn toward him. “It’s hard to imagine anyone more smitten, except for your old man, of course.” He meant this to elicit a smile, but it seemed to make his daughter even more thoughtful, and for a time they were quiet, turning first left, then right, then left again among the hedges, until he was good and lost.

  “I guess the one I worry about is me,” she finally said. “What if I end up hurting him?”

  “Why would you do that?” he said, feeling another wave of guilt. Would his daughter have harbored such self-doubt this time last year, or was it his doing?

  A park bench had been thoughtfully placed near what Griffin guessed must be the far end, and here they took a seat. It was darker in the maze, very little of the remaining daylight penetrating its black branches, and Griffin was visited by a childish, irrational fear that they wouldn’t be able to find their way out. Laura would miss her wedding and that, too, would be his doing. He took her hand, unsure whether he meant to dispense comfort or receive it.

  “Do you ever feel like you’re not who people think you are?” she said. “Like you’re pretending to be this person that people like? And the worst part is they all believe you?”

  “Only every day,” he admitted. “Unless I’m mistaken, that feeling’s what people mean by original sin. Only sociopaths are spared. Trouble is, if you take it to heart you’ll never do anything, never pursue any happiness, for fear of hurting people.”

  “I should ignore it?”

  “Everybody else does.”

  She seemed only partially convinced. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Grandma lately,” she said.

  That surprised him, and he paused before responding, half expecting his mother, who was, after all, right over the hedge, in easy shouting distance, to offer her own two cents’ worth. Perhaps the maze had confounded her. “Any idea why?”

  She shrugged. “Seeing her like that last December, I guess. All the tubes and the oxygen. She looked so tiny and all wasted away.”

  How well he remembered. It had been December when she visited, just a couple weeks from the end. By then, mentally and emotionally exhausted, Griffin had checked into an extended-stay motel near the hospital. The doctors had warned him that patients like his mother sometimes lived on for months after being put on morphine, but it seemed to him that his mother was dying as she’d lived, on the academic calendar. He doubted she’d begin another semester.

  The day of Laura’s unexpected visit had been a particularly difficult one. Several times during the night his mother had been awakened by nurses taking her vitals and talking noisily in the corridor outside her room. As a result she’d been irritable all morning, convinced she’d not been given her morphine, though both the duty nurse and her chart testified otherwise. At midday Griffin had gone back to his motel to shower and eat something. When he returned, he discovered that his mother had a visitor, her first, not counting himself. A woman was sitting on the edge of the narrow bed, her back to the doorway, holding his mother’s hand. Joy, he thought, and felt some ice dam in his heart break apart at the possibility. Back in November she’d called him in L.A. to say she had to fly to Sacramento the following week. She could stop in Indiana going or coming back if he needed her to. He’d wanted desperately to say yes, but he heard himself say no, he had things under control. When he asked if everything was okay in California, she said yes, that it was just some family stuff she had to attend to. And not his family anymore, was her clear implication, which he had to admit he had coming.

  His first thought was she’d decided to come anyway, but of course this couldn’t be Joy. His mother never would have allowed her daughter-in-law to hold her hand. “Look who’s here,” she said. Only when Laura turned to face him did Griffin recognize her. “Would you mind absenting yourself from felicity awhile?” his mother said after he and his daughter had embraced. “My granddaughter has come a long way to see me, and she can only stay an hour.”

  “It’s okay, Daddy,” Laura told him when he tried to object.

  “Yes, do run along,” his mother said triumphantly, pleased, he could tell, both by his reluctance and the fact that he would have prevented this visit if he could’ve.

  They’d had very little contact when Laura was a child. His mother had visited a couple months after Laura was born, “to help out,” but when Joy handed her the baby, she’d grasped her as gingerly as you would something unclean. Laura had regarded her grandmother with interest, smiled, then projected a stream of sour yellow milk onto her. Quickly handing the baby back to Joy, his mother had spent the next fifteen minutes at the sink, scrubbing her blouse with a dishcloth. She’d planned to stay for a week, but after two days, during which she never changed a single diaper, she made a flimsy excuse and flew back to Indiana. “Who changed your diapers, I wonder?” Joy said, finding the whole episode amusing, whereas Griffin had been homicidal.

  The two thousand miles separating them had been an adequate buffer during Laura’s childhood, but even after they moved to Connecticut, things didn’t change much. Only when Laura was a junior in high school and thinking about where to apply to college did her grandmother begin to show much interest. She thought Laura should go to Yale, of course, and turned up her nose at the small liberal arts colleges her granddaughter was most keen on, the same ones where she and Griffin’s father had once hoped to secure jobs. “Safety schools” was how she now regarded them. “Dear God, not Williams,” she told Laura. “Do you know the kind of people who send their progeny to Williams? Rich. Privileged. White. Republican. Or, even worse, people who aspire to all that.” Not so unlike your other grandparents, she meant. “Their kids aren’t smart enough to get into an Ivy but have to go s
omewhere, so God created Williams.” Griffin couldn’t imagine why, but Laura actually seemed to enjoy talking about all this with her grandmother (who called it brainstorming), and sometimes their phone conversations went on for forty-five minutes or an hour. It probably served him right that these all took place behind the closed door of his daughter’s bedroom. “Your grandmother has a lot of opinions,” Griffin told her. “That doesn’t mean they should carry much weight.” What he was doing, of course, was fishing, curious as to just how many and which opinions she was sharing with his daughter. “Oh, I don’t know,” Laura had responded noncommittally “She has some good ideas.” But she didn’t say what they were.

  Joy warned him not to press the issue. Laura was old and smart enough to sift ideas, and his mother needn’t be treated like a venomous snake. He’d reluctantly given in, but when his mother suggested she be the one to accompany Laura on the Yale-Columbia-Cornell swing of what they all referred to as the Great American College Tour, he put his foot down. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, managing, with great effort, not to raise his voice, but failing to keep the anger out of it, “but you don’t get to infect my daughter with your snobbery and bitterness. All that ends here, with me.”

  It had been a horrible thing to say, full of the very bitterness he was accusing her of. He regretted the words as soon as they were spoken, but there was no taking them back, nor could he quite bring himself to apologize.

  “You have to call her back,” Joy said when he confessed what he’d done.

  But he hadn’t. Nor did he soften and allow her to take Laura on that trip, managing it all by himself. They never referred to the matter again, but he knew his mother too well to imagine she’d forgotten. She no doubt saw her granddaughter’s hospital visit as a kind of revenge, or so it had seemed to him, banished to the nurses’ lounge, where he willed the big clock on the wall to move, damn it. At the end of the hour, Laura seemed fine, and he felt relieved that nothing too terrible had transpired, but as soon as they were in the car Laura broke down and sobbed all the way to the airport. Though it probably shouldn’t have, the intensity of her grief had surprised Griffin. No doubt she was coming to terms with the likelihood that she’d never see her grandmother again, but there seemed to be more to it, as if she was also mourning that someone who should’ve been important to her had remained a stranger. And whose fault was that? His mother’s, for being completely disinterested until so late in the game? It was tempting to lay the full blame on her, but deep down Griffin knew that if she’d shown interest in Laura any earlier, he would have just stepped between them that much sooner. He’d behaved as if she were a serpent because, God help him, he believed her to be one.

  “I thought she’d want to know all about the man I was going to marry,” Laura told him now, her eyes filling at the memory of that hour in the hospital, indeed their last visit, “but when I tried to tell her about him …”

  Griffin waited, but when his daughter seemed unable to continue, he completed her thought. “She wasn’t very curious?”

  “I don’t know,” she admitted, wiping her eyes on her wrist. “When I talk about Andy, all my friends say their gag reflex kicks in. They say we’re nauseatingly in love.”

  “Happiness sucks as a spectator sport, darlin’.”

  “I guess. Anyway, after I told Grandma a few things about Andy, she interrupted, saying, ‘You need to get tougher.’ When I asked her why, she said marriage is combat. Somebody hurts, somebody gets hurt. One does, the other gets done to.”

  “You know she was on morphine, right?”

  “It wasn’t so much what she said that got under my skin. It was the funny way she was looking at me, like she could see deep down and knew I had it in me to be cruel. That if somebody had to get hurt, it’d be Andy, not me.”

  “Sweetie, you say she was looking at you, looking into you, but I doubt it. Your grandmother was a narcissist, and they don’t really look outward. To them the world just reflects their own inner reality. She saw love as a trap. Therefore, you should, too.”

  She sat up straight now. “All I know is I don’t ever want to break his heart.”

  “You won’t.”



  Had he been writing this scene in a script, the conversation wouldn’t have ended there. His fictional daughter would have asked the obvious questions. How could he possibly promise that she wouldn’t do the very thing he was doing? Wasn’t she his daughter? But it wasn’t a script, and his real-life daughter was too kind to say what she was thinking, maybe even too kind to think it.

  “What I’ve been wondering is whether you’ll ever forgive me.”

  “Oh, I already have,” she said, shouldering him hard but playfully, then getting to her feet. Apparently the father-daughter segment of the program was drawing to a close. “I’m still pretty mad at you, though,” she admitted.

  “I know,” he said, rising as well. “Me too.”

  When they emerged from the maze, she said, “Grandma told me one other thing, actually. About you.”

  “What’s that?” he asked, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

  “She said you’d never admit it, but you’re just like her.”

  Damn right you are, his mother said, agreeing with herself.

  Everyone did seem to be on their best behavior, just as Joy had promised. He’d no sooner gotten himself a glass of wine than Jared—at least he was pretty sure it was Jared, given the shaved skull—came over and extended his hand, which Griffin saw no reason not to take. Whichever brother he was shaking hands with looked like what he was, a career marine: lantern jawed, thick necked, improbably muscled. “So,” he said, pumping Griffin’s hand in his crushing grip, “no hard feelings?”

  Jared, then. Note to self: Jared, skull; Jason, hair. Griffin said no, there were no hard feelings.

  The twins were a family enigma, born nearly a decade after Joy (Jane and June were older, the girls all spaced in two-year intervals) and completely different in temperament. As boys they’d worried Harve and Jill by fighting constantly and ferociously, neither ever seeking parental redress or justice. They fought until they bled, then fought some more. But suddenly all of that was over. Instead of wanting to kill each other, they had each other’s backs. With the leftover energy they took to bodybuilding and making gentle, sometimes not so gentle, fun of their father, first behind his back, later to his face. Neither had married. Now in their forties, they still liked heavy-metal music, strip clubs and the kind of women one met there.

  “Two sides to every story, I guess,” Jared said, a worm squiggling under the skin of one temple, evidence how costly, for him, such magnanimity actually was. “Push comes to shove, I have to side with my sister, but …”

  “I’m kind of on her side myself,” Griffin told him, because it was true, but also because it seemed like a good idea to suggest to Jared that pushing really needn’t come to shoving. Or punching, or stomping, or castration. All of which had apparently been on the table at one point. Brother Jason (not hair so much as stubble, really) was watching them from across the room, Griffin noticed, his expression, well, murderous was probably too strong a word. “I hear your brother left the service,” Griffin ventured, genuinely curious that either twin should do something so brazenly individualistic.

  Jared snorted, glancing over his shoulder at his brother and raising his voice enough to be sure he could hear him. “Yeah, well, Jason always was a pussy.”

  “We’ll see, J.J.,” his brother called back. This was short for Jared the Jarhead, the nickname he’d immediately picked up when he joined the marines. As if there weren’t enough J’s in the family already. “You wait.”

  Joy’s father was indeed in a wheelchair along the far wall. A tall, angular woman who Griffin assumed must be Dot stood sentry at his elbow, and when he approached, she bent at the waist to whisper, like a handler to a pol, in Harve’s ear. To remind him who Griffin was? That he and Joy had s

  “What?” Harve barked at her, and then, when she repeated whatever she’d told him, said, “Hell, I know who it is.” He extended a feeble, palsied hand, and Griffin felt an unexpected surge of pity. His father-in-law had always been a robust man, but no more. His pale blue eyes were watery, their lids outlined in bright red, as if with a cosmetic pencil.

  “Jack,” he said, “are you keeping your head down?”

  “Look up and all you’ll see is a bad shot,” Griffin replied. “It’s good to see you, Harve.”

  The man nodded. “You know my wife died?”

  “Yes,” said Griffin. He’d attended Jill’s funeral, of course, and thought about reminding Harve of this but decided not to. “Yes.”

  “He knows,” said Dot, unhelpfully.

  “Hell of a thing,” Harve said, unwilling to let go of the subject. “I hope you never have to go through it.”

  “Me too,” Griffin said, realizing that despite Joy’s warning he’d given him far too much cognitive credit. If he knew about their separation, he’d clearly forgotten. Either that or someone had informed him that Griffin was bringing a guest to the wedding, and it was this woman he was hoping wouldn’t die on him.

  “Hope you never have to walk into a room and find your wife in a heap on the floor.”

  “Harvey,” Dot said, “you’re going to upset yourself.”

  “Because that’s no fun, let me tell you,” he went on, ignoring her completely. “No replacing a woman like that.”

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