That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  “Mom,” he said, not all that anxious to testify to his present whereabouts. “I was just thinking about you.” A lone gull, perhaps concluding that he’d pulled over to eat something cheesy, circled directly overhead and let out a sharp screech. “You and Dad both, actually.”

  “Oh,” she said. “Him.”

  “I’m not supposed to think about Dad?”

  “Think about whomever you want,” she said. “When did I ever pry into your thoughts? Your father and I may not have agreed on much, but we respected your intellectual and emotional privacy.”

  Griffin sighed. Anymore, even his most benign comments set his mother off, and once she was on a roll it was best just to let her finish. Their respect for his privacy had been, he knew all too well, mostly disinterest, but it wasn’t worth arguing over.

  “I have my own thoughts, thank you very much,” she continued, implying, unless he was mistaken, that he wouldn’t want to know what these were, either. “And they are full and sufficient. I can’t imagine why your father should be occupying yours, but if he is, don’t let me interfere.”

  The circling gull cried out again, even louder this time, and Griffin briefly covered the phone with his hand. “Did you call for a reason, Mom?”

  But she must’ve heard the idiot bird, because she said, her voice rich with resentment and accusation, “Are you on the Cape?”

  “Yes, Mom,” he admitted. “We’re attending a wedding here tomorrow. Why, should I have alerted you? Asked permission?”

  “Where?” she said. “What part?”

  “Near Falmouth,” he was happy to report. The upper Cape, in her view, was strictly for people who didn’t know any better. You might as well live in Buzzards Bay, drive go-carts, play miniature golf, eat clam chowder thickened with flour, wear a Red Sox hat.

  “Marriage,” she sneered, what he’d told her apparently now registering. “What folly.”

  “You were married twice yourself, Mom.”

  When Bartleby died several years back, she’d hoped there might be a little something in it for her, at least enough to buy a small cottage near one of the Dennises, maybe. But an irrevocable trust let his rapacious children take everything, and they’d been unrepentant in their greed. “You made our father’s final years a living hell,” one of them had had the gall to tell her. “Did you ever hear such nonsense?” she’d asked Griffin. “Did they even know the man? Could they imagine he’d ever been happy? Was there ever a philosopher who wasn’t morose and depressed?”

  “The bride’s Kelsey,” Griffin told her. “From L.A., remember?”

  “Why would I know your California friends?” This was no innocent question. Though she wouldn’t admit it, his mother was still resentful of the years he and Joy and then Laura had spent out West, out of her orbit. And she’d always considered his screen-writing a betrayal of his genetic gifts.

  “Not our friend. Laura’s.” Though it was entirely possible, now that he thought about it, they’d never met. It had always been Griffin’s policy not to inflict his parents on his wife and daughter, who’d really gotten to know her grandmother only after they moved back East.

  “How does it look?”

  “How does what look?”

  “The Cape. You just told me you were on the Cape, so I’m asking how it looks to you.”

  “Like always, I guess,” he said, not about to confess that his heart had started racing on the Sagamore Bridge, that he still loved something that she and her hated husband also loved.

  “They say it’s too crowded now. I guess we had the best of it. You, me, the man occupying your thoughts.”

  “Again, what were you calling about, Mom?”

  “Fine,” she said. “Change the subject. I need you to bring me some books, and I’ll e-mail you the titles. I assume you’ll be visiting at some point? Or have I seen the last of you?”

  “Are these books I’ll be able to find? For instance, are they in print, or is this yet another fool’s errand you’ve designed for me?” Since Bartleby’s death, Griffin had become the man in his mother’s life, and she enjoyed nothing more than setting him the sort of impossible task, especially of the academic variety, that would’ve been easy if he’d done with his life what she’d intended instead of what he himself had preferred.

  “Just because you can’t find what I ask for doesn’t mean it’s a fool’s errand. You belong to a generation that never learned basic research skills, who can’t even negotiate a card catalog.”

  “They don’t have those anymore,” he said, for the pleasure of hearing her shudder.

  Which she denied him. “You think typing a word into Google and pressing Go is research.”

  There was, he had to admit, some truth to this. Back in his screenwriting days, he’d always happily delegated research to Tommy, who was genuinely curious if easily distractible. Confronted with his own ignorance, Griffin preferred to just make something up and move forward, whereas his partner, not unreasonably, preferred making sure their narrative had a sturdy, factual foundation. “You do know that when the cameras roll they’re going to be pointing at something in the real world, right?” he’d asked. To which Griffin would reply that the cameras were never going to roll if they kept getting bogged down in background.

  “The things I require are all at Sterling,” his mother continued. “I still have privileges there, you know.”

  It was entirely possible, Griffin knew, this was the real reason she’d called: to remind him of who she was, who she’d been, that she still had privileges at the Yale library. She might not actually need any books.

  “There are some journal articles, too. Those you can just photocopy. The library offered to provide that service, but it would be cheaper for you to do it. I’m not made of money, as you know.”

  As he had excellent reason to. Her TIAA-CREF retirement and university insurance covered a good chunk of her assisted-living facility, but Griffin made up the difference.

  “You can pick them up on your way here. Are we talking June, this impending visit?” she wondered. And clearly they’d better be.

  “I can come for a couple of days near the end of the month, if you need me to.”

  “Not until then?”

  “I haven’t even turned in my final grades yet. The trunk of my car’s full of student portfolios.” Not to mention Dad’s ashes, he almost added.

  “You actually read them?”

  “Didn’t you read yours?”

  “We had no portfolios, your father and I,” she reminded him. “We had exams. Our students wrote papers with footnotes. We taught real courses with real content.” Their metaphorical cameras had also been pointed, in other words, at something that actually existed. “Assigned readings. Rigor, it was called.”

  A car blew by, its Dopplering horn loud enough to startle him. “Are you sure I’m qualified to do your photocopying? What if I screw up?”

  “So, what were you thinking… about your father and me?”

  For a moment he considered telling her he feared he was becoming his father, that this was what his recent bouts of indecision, not to mention the fender benders, might be about. But of course it would anger his mother, and prolong the conversation, if he suggested he was more like his father than her. “I thought you didn’t want to pry, Mom. Isn’t that what you just said, that my thoughts are my own?”

  “They are, of course. Still, as a personal favor, couldn’t you arrange to think about your father and me separately?”

  “I was remembering how happy you both got on the Sagamore Bridge, how you sang ‘That Old Cape Magic’?” And how miserable you both were in the same spot going the other direction. “As if happiness were a place.”

  But she wasn’t interested in this particular stroll down memory lane. “Speaking of unhappy places, when you visit, I want you to look at this new one I’m at.” Her third assisted-living facility in as many years. The first was connected to the university and full of the very people she’d been tr
ying to escape. The second was home to mid-fucking-western farmwives who read Agatha Christie and couldn’t understand why she turned up her nose at the Miss Marples they thrust at her, saying, “You’ll like this one. It’s a corker!”

  “I mean really look at it,” his mother continued. “It’s certainly not what we imagined.”

  “What did we imagine, Mom?”

  “Nice,” she said. “We imagined it would be nice.”

  Then she was gone, the line dead. The whole conversation had been, he knew from experience, a warning shot across his bow. And his mother was, after her own fashion, considerate. She never badgered him during the last month of the semester. A lifelong academic, she knew what those final weeks were like and gave him a pass. But after that, all bets were off. The timing of today’s call suggested she’d been on his college’s Web site again and knew he’d taught his last class. He knew it was a mistake to get her a laptop for her birthday even as he bought it, but in her previous facility she’d been accused of hogging the computer in the common room. Also of hogging the attentions of the few old men there, a charge she waved away. “Look at them,” she snorted. “There isn’t enough Viagra in all of Canada.” Though she did admit, as if to foreshorten ruthless interrogation on this subject, that there was more sex in these retirement homes than you might imagine. A lot more.

  He supposed it was possible she really did need the books from Sterling. At eighty-five, her physical health failing, she was still mentally sharp and claimed to be researching a book on one of the Brontës (“You remember books, right? Bound objects? Lots and lots of pages? Print that goes all the way out to the margins?”). But he made a mental note to check her list to make sure he couldn’t find them in his own college library.

  When a semi roared by, he noticed a foul odor and wondered what in the world the trucker was hauling. Only when he turned the key in the ignition did he see the viscous white glob on his shirtsleeve. The gull had shit on him!

  His mother had made him a stationary target, and this was the result.

  2

  Slippery Slope

  By the time Griffin’s parents got divorced, each claiming they should’ve cut the cord sooner, that they’d made each other miserable for too long, he was in film school out West, and he’d thought it was probably for the best. But neither had prospered in their second marriages, and their careers suffered, too. Together, or at least voting together, they’d been a force to reckon with in English department politics. Singly, often voting against each other, they could be safely ignored, and the worst of their enemies now sniped at both with impunity. Of the two, his mother seemed to fare better at first. Openly contemptuous of the young literary theorists and culture critics when she was married to Griffin’s father, she’d reinvented herself as a gender-studies specialist and became for a time their darling. One of her old “guilty pleasures,” Patricia Highsmith, had become respectable, and his mother published several well-placed articles on her and two or three other gay/lesbian novelists. Panels on gender were suddenly all the rage, and she found herself chairing several of these at regional conferences, where she hinted to her large and largely lesbian audiences that she herself had always been open, in both theory and practice, as regards her own sexuality. And perhaps, he supposed, she was. Bartleby, who’d begun their marriage preferring not to argue and ended it preferring not to speak at all, remained philosophical when these innuendos were reported back to him. Griffin had assumed his mother was exaggerating his withdrawal from speech, but a few months before his unexpected death (going to the doctor was something else he preferred not to do), he’d paid them a quick visit and they’d all gone out to dinner and the man hadn’t spoken a word. He didn’t seem to be in a bad mood and would occasionally smile ruefully at something his wife or Griffin said, but the closest he came to utterance was when a piece of meat lodged in his windpipe, turning his face the color of a grape until a passing waiter saw his distress and Heimliched him on the spot.

  But his mother’s self-reinvention, a bold and for a time successful stroke, had ultimately failed. When the university, mostly at her suggestion and direction, created the Gender Studies Program, she of course expected to be named as its chair, but instead they’d recruited a transgendered scholar from, of all places, Utah, and that had been the last straw. From then on she taught her classes but quit attending meetings or having anything to do with departmental politics. Unless Griffin was mistaken, her secret hope was that her colleagues, noticing her absence, would try to lure her back into full academic life, but that hadn’t happened. Even Bartleby’s passing had elicited little sympathy. While she continued to publish, run panels and apply for chairperson positions at various English departments, her file by this time contained several letters suggesting that while she was a good teacher and a distinguished scholar, she was also divisive and quarrelsome. A bitch, really.

  Despite deep misgivings, Griffin had accepted the university’s invitation to attend his mother’s retirement dinner. (Joy had volunteered to go as well, but he insisted on sparing her.) There happened to be a bumper crop of retirees that year, and each was given the opportunity to reflect on his or her many years of service to the institution. He found it particularly disconcerting that his mother was the last speaker on the program. He supposed it was possible the planners were saving the best, most distinguished retirees for last, though more likely they shared his misgivings about what might transpire, and putting her last represented damage control. When it was finally her turn, his mother rose to a smattering of polite applause and went to the podium. That she was wearing an expensive, well-tailored suit only deepened apprehension. “Unlike my colleagues,” she said directly into the microphone, the only speaker of the evening to recognize that fundamental necessity, “I’ll be brief and honest. I wish I could think of something nice to say about you people and this university, I really do. But the truth we dare not utter is that ours is a distinctly second-rate institution, as are the vast majority of our students, as are we.” Then she returned to her seat and patted Griffin’s hand, as if to say, There, now; that wasn’t so bad, was it? What she actually said in the stunned silence was, “Here’s something strange. For the first time in over a decade, I wish your father were here. He’d have enjoyed that.”

  His father had fared even worse after the divorce. He, too, had attempted reinvention by attaching himself to the new American Studies major. He’d always been at least as interested in politics and history as literature, and the university had been willing to lend half of him to American Studies provided his colleagues in English had no objections (they certainly didn’t). His new office was one floor down in the Modern and Classical Languages Building, and Claudia, a big strapping graduate student, had offered to help him move his seventy or so boxes of books and periodicals. A lot of bending over was required and she wasn’t wearing a bra. Though he hadn’t really noticed her before, he did now, and his colleagues noticed him notice, remarking that it was clear which half of him was moving down to American Studies and which was remaining behind in English. Griffin was pretty sure his father had little desire to remarry and probably wouldn’t have but for the university ban on faculty-student fraternizing. Which was absurd. It wasn’t like Claudia was an undergraduate. She was twenty-nine, a grown-up (even by American university standards) who didn’t need any institutional protection, though several of her male professors wanted to know who would protect them from her. What Claudia did need, according to many in the department, was help, a lot of it, in completing her degree. She’d narrowly passed her doctoral prelims on the second and final attempt, one of her examiners abstaining, after which it took her a full academic year to come up with an acceptable dissertation topic, and like a prize heifer at a county fair, she had to be led (by his father) every step of the way. To Griffin, she indeed had a bovine quality. A full head taller than his father, she had wide hips and full breasts that always seemed to be in motion beneath the loose blouses she favored.
r />   And so it was that this distinguished senior professor woke up one morning to the realization that while his wife had retooled herself as an adventurous gender specialist, he’d reinvented himself as a fool. Naked Lunch, Griffin’s mother remarked, had finally won the day, showing poor Jeeves the door. Which may have been why, when an old graduate-school friend, who was now a dean at the University of Massachusetts, called to ask if he’d consider a one-year appointment replacing a professor who’d fallen ill, he eagerly accepted. Griffin’s mother, of course, had been apoplectic with fury when she heard. Amherst, after all, was—what—two hours from the Cape? He and the fat cow would be able to spend weekends there, or even on the Vineyard or Nantucket, while she was stuck in the Mid-fucking-west with a mute for company. But there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it, which she determined, according to Griffin’s father, by trying really, really hard.

  He and Claudia were gone a full year, returning to the university only at the last possible moment, on Labor Day weekend. Griffin, just then between scripts, had flown to Indiana for a couple days. He hadn’t seen his father once during his Amherst stint, and he looked as if he must’ve spent the whole time in a TB ward. He’d aged a good ten years. Always slender and concave chested, he was now rail thin, with shrunken cheeks, and his hair had receded. Apparently to compensate, he wore what strands remained long on the back and sides, making him look like a Dickensian gravedigger. By contrast, Claudia had become even more zaftig. During Griffin’s brief visit, she found numerous opportunities to insinuate her lush body near his, pillowing her unfettered breast against his arm or, if he happened to be sitting, the back of his head, gestures his father appeared not to notice.

  They’d returned with excellent news, his father said. Claudia had finished her dissertation, and to celebrate they’d gotten married. He smiled bravely in relating this, while Claudia’s bovine version was of a different sort altogether. Their marriage had to remain a secret for now, he explained, until she’d defended her dissertation and she had her degree in hand. Griffin wasn’t sure he followed the logic of all this, but it wasn’t any of his business, so he agreed not to breathe a word to anyone, especially his mother. Which was why he was surprised when he met her and Bart for lunch in the faculty dining room and the first words out of her mouth were: “So, did your father tell you he’s married?”

 
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