That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  “We discovered something else.” She pulled the Johnnie forward, exposing her left side and part of her breast, beneath which there was a three-inch gash. It hadn’t bled much, but it looked deep. “I’m going to need stitches.”

  Okay, it had been a bizarre day, Griffin thought, with its mazes and man-eating hedges and collapsing wheelchair ramps and dead ventriloquist parents, but this had to be the strangest thing yet. Think about it. He’d spent most of his adult life with this woman. He’d forfeited the right to admire her body, though it was even now—admit it—capable of stirring lust. How perfectly, ludicrously insane not to be able to take this same woman in his arms and at least try to comfort her, comfort them both. Why shouldn’t he? What possible reason could there be? Well, he could think of a couple. For one, another woman was waiting patiently for him back at the B and B. Maybe he wasn’t in love with her, but he did feel—okay, admit this too—great fondness, which meant he should not be drawing his Johnnie-clad wife into his not entirely innocent embrace. And there was knot-headed Ringo, who would appreciate neither the comfort he meant to provide Joy with nor its accompanying erection.

  “You might as well tell me what you think of him,” Joy said, as though she’d read his thought. Something in her tone suggested she had her own misgivings about the man, reservations his fainting had confirmed.

  Griffin shrugged. “He seems amiable enough,” he said. “Bit of a booster, maybe.”

  “That’s his job,” Joy said, and he knew immediately he’d said the exact wrong thing. “He sells the college. It helps to have an upbeat personality.”

  “Nice change of pace, too,” he added, sounding more bitter than he meant to, more the “congenitally unhappy” man she’d accused him of being last summer.

  “It has been, actually.”

  Feeling the wind go out of his sails and his earlier wooziness return, Griffin slumped into a folding chair. “I know it’s crazy,” he said, “but I can’t shake the feeling that all this is my fault.” Meaning, he supposed, not just his behavior on the Cape last summer and their subsequent separation but also tonight’s fiasco, most of which—the rotten railing; Harve’s injuries, whatever they turned out to be; Joy’s broken finger; the grade-A jumbo egg on Ringo’s noggin; his daughter’s swollen Popeye forearms—no reasonable person could have held him responsible for. Nor did it stop there. Whatever happened from this point forward would be his fault as well. When a big string of dominoes falls, you don’t blame the ones in the middle.

  From somewhere down the hall Harve, who’d apparently gotten his voice back, bellowed “No!” and a moment later, “No, goddammit!” as if he’d somehow been privy to his son-in-law’s confession and felt compelled, like a Greek chorus, to register strenuous objection. Griffin found himself smiling weakly, grateful for even the appearance of someone being on his side.

  “In fact, it’s not that crazy,” Joy said.

  “You think?” he said, genuinely surprised. He’d been willing, as an exercise in self-pity, to take full responsibility for the evening’s events, but he certainly hadn’t expected his wife to agree with him.

  “Where’s Dot?” Harve shouted. “Where is she?”

  “Our fault, I meant,” his wife clarified. “It wasn’t just you.”

  “Well,” he said, “I guess it doesn’t do much good to say I’m sorry, but I am. And …” He paused, not sure he could say the next part, though simple justice demanded it be said.

  “And?”

  “And if this Brian Fynch makes you happy—”

  “No!” Harve bellowed again, refusing to countenance any such suggestion. “I want Dot, damn it!”

  Dot damn it?

  Griffin looked over at Joy and saw that she, too, was on the verge of cracking up, and his heart leapt in recognition of the old mischievousness he’d so loved about her back when they were first married, all but extinguished now so many long years later. Could he himself be the one who’d put it out?

  “Either of you seen Dot?” said a voice, startling both of them. Jared’s shaved head was framed in the doorway.

  They told him they hadn’t.

  “He wants Dot, damn it!” he said, his mimicry spot-on, as always. “So what’s this about, then?” Meaning, presumably, their being so intimately sequestered.

  “Nothing,” they said in unison.

  He nodded, registering their denial, but continued to study them curiously, his mouth open one notch on its hinge. It occurred to Griffin that as a military cop he had to ask people all sorts of questions—How much have you had to drink tonight? You the one that gave this young lady the shiner?—and this was the look he gave people he suspected weren’t being entirely candid in their responses. “Jason,” he called over his shoulder, and then there were two heads framed in the doorway, or rather the same head twice, the second stubbled. “They say there’s nothin’ going on in here. This look like nothin’ to you?”

  Jason didn’t answer immediately, his jaw dropping that same single notch. “No.”

  “Jared.” Joy sighed. “Jason.”

  “It definitely looks like something,” Jason said, squinting, as if to bring the two of them into clearer focus.

  “Yeah, but what?”

  “Don’t know,” Jason said finally. “Don’t care. You guys seen Dot?”

  “They haven’t,” Jared answered for them.

  “He wants Dot, damn it.”

  “They know that.”

  “Then let’s go find the bitch.”

  When the doorway was empty, Joy let her chin fall to her chest. “Does it make any sense that this whole year, whenever I’ve been with my family, that’s when I’ve missed you?”

  “Not really,” he admitted. Why would she miss his snarky, all-too-predictable comments about her loved ones?

  “Brian actually thinks they’re all terrific,” she told him, and for the life of him Griffin couldn’t tell whether this mitigated in the other man’s favor or not. “Last December,” she continued, “that’s when I missed you most.”

  He tried hard to hear in this statement his wife’s undying affection but had to suspect she was trying to express something very different, maybe even the opposite. She was talking about when she’d needed him most. When he should have been there and wasn’t. “Back then you mentioned there was some family stuff going on.”

  She nodded, looking down at her lap as if she could see her broken finger through the Johnnie. “It was horrible. Dot found them.”

  Griffin waited for her to continue, not at all sure she would.

  “She was helping Daddy go through some of Mom’s things. Getting annoyed with him because he didn’t want to get rid of anything. Anyway, there was a locked box.”

  “Which she opened.”

  “It held a bundle of letters.” She met Griffin’s eyes now, her own spilling over.

  “An affair?”

  She nodded.

  “And she showed the letters to Harve.”

  “He called me up wanting to know what they meant.” She paused to wipe her eyes. “I told him they didn’t mean anything.”

  “Good for you.”

  “But he knew, Jack. He didn’t want to, but oh, God, he was sobbing. My father. The whole time I was growing up, I never saw him cry. He kept saying ‘Jilly-Billy,’ over and over. ‘Jilly-Billy.’ And it made me so … angry. I wanted to yell at him to stop, please, please stop calling her by that stupid, stupid name. There was my father, calling me up in the middle of the night, brokenhearted, wanting to cry on my shoulder, and all I wanted to do was to scream at him, to tell him whatever Mom did was his fault for being so … for being such a …” She stopped, unable to continue, until finally she said, “I was glad. Glad she found somebody.”

  “And you had an urge to tell him.”

  She shook her head, trying to rid it of the memory. “What kind of person …”

  “Joy. Stop. It was a perfectly natural reaction.”

  “You’ll never guess who
saved the day. June. Princess Grace of Morocco. She told him Mom was writing an epistolary novel. That the letters were part of that. Her pistolary book, he calls it.”

  “Ah,” Griffin said, now understanding the reference. “He mentioned it, actually.”

  “You always said we were messed up. All of us.”

  “Not you,” he corrected, but she wasn’t really listening.

  “And now look. We’ve come together here and totaled our daughter’s wedding. The part we hadn’t already totaled.”

  “It’s not totaled,” he told her.

  “What would you call it—a fender bender?”

  “Tomorrow will be fine.”

  He said this with as much conviction as he could muster, but of course a more convincing argument to the contrary was his grotesque appearance, which she now seemed to be taking in for the first time. “You know what I’m doing?” she said. “I’m imagining the wedding pictures.”

  “I’ve looked better? Is that what you’re saying?”

  “You look like you’re about to drop.”

  “I am,” he admitted, his limbs suddenly deadweight, his head impossibly heavy on his neck. But he didn’t want this conversation, this time, to end, not just yet.

  “Are you going to get that eye looked at?”

  “No, I just need some sleep. That and a handful of I-be-hurtin’s.” Their joke term for ibuprofen. It had slipped out naturally, unconsciously, like taking her hand earlier in the evening.

  When he rose to leave, Joy said, “I guess I’m trying to say I owe you an apology.”

  “What on earth for?”

  “Your mother,” she said. “I never should’ve let you do that alone. I told myself it was the way you wanted it, that it was just you going back into that room of yours, the one where I’ve never been allowed, and closing the door behind you. I told myself I’d come if you asked, but not until. That was wrong. And, just so you know, you aren’t the only one your daughter’s mad at.”

  “I’ll speak to her.”

  “There’s no need. She loves us both. I think she tried not to for a while, but it didn’t work.”

  “She’s her mother’s daughter.”

  “Before you go,” she said, handing him her purse, “open that, will you?” When he did, she fished around with her good hand until she located her keys. “Your father’s urn is on the backseat. Just leave the keys in the cup holder.”

  Griffin took them.

  When he reached the door, she said, “You wanted to know if Brian makes me happy?”

  He wasn’t sure he did, but nodded anyway.

  She started to say something, then stopped, and when she finally spoke he had the distinct impression it wasn’t what she’d started to say. “He doesn’t make me unhappy.”

  “Well,” he said, his heart sinking, “that’s something, I guess.”

  Did she call after him as the door swung shut? He paused in the corridor but heard no further sound from inside the room. In fact, in that instant the whole world was still.

  Down the hall Laura and Andy came out of another examination room and told him they didn’t want him driving anywhere, but he said he was fine, just exhausted, and offered to take them back to the Hedges, but Laura said they’d wait for her mother. Outside, he took the urn from Joy’s SUV and left the keys in the cup holder as instructed. After popping the trunk of his rental car, he paused, half expecting his mother to object, but it had been a long day and apparently even ghosts slept, so he slipped his father’s urn into the wheel well opposite hers. Then he got into the car, rolled the window down and just sat there. The magazine with “The Summer of the Brownings” was still on the dashboard. The evening hadn’t provided the right moment to give it to Joy, and he doubted tomorrow would either. He could leave it in her SUV, he supposed, but then decided not to. He was suddenly just too tired to walk back across the hospital lot.

  The night air was rich with the sea, and he breathed it in deeply, thinking how good it would feel to fall asleep right here. Again it occurred to him how different Maine was from the Cape. What would’ve happened if he and Joy had honeymooned here, as she’d wanted to, instead of Truro? Would they have drawn up a different accord? He was nodding off when he heard shouts coming from the direction of the hospital. Lord, he thought, what now? But it was just the idiot twins, Jared and Jason, expanding the search for their stepmother. In the voice of the man they still imagined to be their father, they shouted in marine unison, “Dot! Where are you, dot damn it!”

  By the time he got back to the B and B, the clock on the nightstand said 12:07. He undressed in the dark, as quietly as possible, and slipped between the sheets in stages so as not to wake the woman who now shared his bed. They’d been together for several months, but it still felt strange—and never more so than tonight—to be with a woman who wasn’t Joy. When she stirred he expected her to ask how things had gone at the rehearsal, if she’d missed anything good, but she didn’t and her breathing quickly became regular again. A minute later he was asleep himself.

  Then he was wide awake again and listening, for what he wasn’t sure. According to the clock it was just after one. The window closest to the bed had been cracked open a couple inches, and in the unnaturally still Maine night he heard the thunk of a car trunk below. Someone stealing his urns was his first, lunatic thought.

  Struggling out of bed, he padded barefoot over to the window and saw a taxi idling in the circular drive. Its driver pulled a suitcase from the trunk and handed it to his fare, a well-dressed young man who gave him some money. Apparently surprised by his generosity, the driver said, “Hey, thanks, pal,” and when the young man turned toward the inn, Griffin smiled, realizing it was Sunny Kim who’d just arrived.

  There was stirring behind him now. “Jack? Is everything okay?” Her husky voice was low and intimate in the dark.

  Yes, he told her. Everything was fine.

  “Good,” said Marguerite.

  11

  Plumb Some

  The night of his daughter’s wedding Griffin had a particularly vivid (no doubt alcohol-and anxiety-induced) dream in which he was driving over the Sagamore Bridge in a pouring rain that made the surface slick and treacherous. The bridge went on forever, and his was the only vehicle on it. Harve, for some reason, was in the backseat, instructing him. You’re never too old to learn to drive, he was saying, in the same tone of voice he used when telling Griffin how to play golf. You just have to keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.

  Griffin explained that he already knew how to drive, but Harve paid no attention.

  It’s not complicated, he went on. Just the two things to remember: hands on the wheel, eyes on the road. Hell, I taught my three daughters to drive, then both my sons. If those two can learn, so can you.

  Harve, Griffin said, listen to me. I already—

  Car! his father-in-law shouted, pointing in alarm, and Griffin hit the brake. Immediately the car’s rear end lost traction and came around, which meant, according to the dream’s curious logic, that he was now facing Harve, who was sitting in the backseat and saying, Both hands on the wheel. Griffin braced for impact against one of the bridge’s stone buttresses, but when it came, it was surprisingly gentle, like a boat nosing into a dock.

  I just wanted to test your reflexes, Harve explained. Without good reflexes you’re just an accident waiting to happen.

  When Griffin got out to inspect the damage, he saw that the trunk had popped open and both his parents’ urns had ruptured. The trunk was full of their mingled ash, about a hundred urns’ worth, it looked like, and the rain was turning it all to mud.

  Now you’ve done it, said Harve, who’d materialized at his elbow. How you going to figure out who’s who?

  Rather than contemplate the problem, Griffin woke up.

  It was raining out, less hard than in his dream but definitely coming down. The soft dream-collision had been occasioned in the real world by Marguerite getting out of bed. Not qui
te ready to face a new day, he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Marguerite adored weddings and after yesterday’s she would be, he feared, in one of her best and brightest moods, and he wasn’t sure he could confront either it or her just yet. He sensed her standing there, observing him, probably suspicious, but eventually he heard the bathroom door open and close, and when the shower rumbled on moments later he realized he’d been holding his breath.

  “Well, I think it was a lovely wedding,” she told him fifteen minutes later, her first words of the day, as if he’d expressed a contrarian view in his sleep. She was toweling off unself-consciously at the foot of the bed. It was amazing, really, how different she was from Joy, how confident and secure she was in her own naked, glistening skin. Even fully dressed, she always managed to convey that she was patiently waiting for someone to suggest a skinny-dip. Maybe her body wasn’t what it once was, but she remained confident there were men around who desired it and probably would be for quite some time. “Are you going to shower,” she said, “or did you have something else in mind?” That was the other thing. Marguerite loved sex, as fervently as you loved something you’d been denied when you were young and which you were now making up for.

  “Shower,” he said, because they had a long drive ahead of them and a task at the end of it—the scattering, finally, of his parents’ ashes—that was unpleasant enough to have wormed its way into his dreams. “How about tonight?”

  She was right, though, Griffin thought as he stepped under the burst of hot water. The wedding had been lovely—and, like all events that involved months of intricate planning, over surprisingly quickly. It had gone off without further melodrama, a well-earned blessing, all agreed, after the catastrophic rehearsal. Despite the scratches on her forearms, Laura had been, just as he’d promised her, a heartbreakingly beautiful bride. Drawing on some reserve of optimism that hadn’t been there the night before, she’d given herself over fully to richly deserved joy. Only once, just minutes before the ceremony was to commence, did she allow herself to express any fear. The bridesmaids and groomsmen were lining up at the end of the corridor for the procession, and she and Griffin were cloistered in a small anteroom. He’d told her how lovely she was and how proud he and Joy were of her, and she’d told him he looked very L.A. (he’d found a pair of very dark glasses to cover his still-hideous but not-quite-so-swollen left eye). But when Pachelbel’s Canon leaked into the room, she took a deep breath, looped her arm through his and said, “I don’t want you and Mom to get old.”

 
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