That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  Was Joy, too, feeling the same dispiriting sense of inevitability? Was that why she’d kept her distance at the reception? He wished he could ask her. Sliding in behind the wheel, Griffin again noticed the “Summer of the Brownings” magazine on the dashboard. He’d wanted her to see the story because he was proud of it, but also, he now realized, because it constituted evidence of—what? That he’d been trying for a long time to understand and resolve his almost pathological resentment toward his deceased parents? That perhaps he’d made some progress? The facts on the ground suggested rather the opposite. This time last year he was driving around with one parent in the trunk of his car, whereas now he had both. Far from resolving anything, the Browning story probably just explained how he’d come to be the husband and father he was instead of the one he meant to be. It was also possible he wanted to show Joy the story for even more selfish reasons. Tommy, puzzled by the story in its earlier incarnation, had been both surprised and impressed by the new version. “Jesus, Griff,” he said. “This is really … there’s fucking truth in here.” Maybe all he wanted from Joy was more praise.

  He studied the cover, where his name was listed along with eight or ten other writers, none of them household names, and felt the smallness of his accomplishment. Sure, he could use the story as an excuse to drive back down to the Hedges. Once there, if he screwed up his courage, he could ask Joy if this really was the end, if that’s what she truly wanted, but he already knew the answer, didn’t he? She’d told him at the hospital that Brian Fynch didn’t make her unhappy, and for her, given the last few years of their marriage, this was probably a step in the right direction. Besides which, he thought, tossing the magazine onto the backseat, he’d have to explain to Marguerite why driving back down the peninsula made more sense than just mailing the issue once they got back to L.A.

  But what the hell was taking her so long to check out, he wondered. He supposed he might go find out, but decided instead to stay where it was dry. After all, there wasn’t any hurry. No doubt the vague sense of urgency he was feeling was just residue from the wedding, which was now over. Laura and Andy were already in a limo headed for Boston, where they’d catch their flight to Paris. Had they agreed on that destination for their honeymoon? he wondered. Laura had spent her junior year in France and talked about returning ever since. But had Paris been Andy’s first choice, too, or had he been persuaded, the first tiny burr of resentment under the marriage saddle? Griffin banished the thought. They’d make their own marriage, not repeat his.

  Lord, it was raining hard, he thought. Would it let up by the time they got to the Cape or would the deluge intensify, preventing the ash-scattering yet again? Was that what he was hoping for, another excuse? What did it mean that he had so little access to something as straightforward as what he really wanted? He considered turning the key in the ignition so he could at least use the wipers and the defroster, then decided to just sit there in his watery cave, rain streaming down the windows in solid sheets. When his cell phone rang and he saw HEDGES on the screen, he felt his heart leap, thinking it must be Joy calling to suggest he stop by for a quick debriefing, a well-by-golly-we-did-it-despite-difficult-circumstances moment, just the two of them, Ringo and Marguerite off someplace. They were owed that much, right?

  Apparently not. It was only the manager calling to express his fond hope that the wedding had met or (yes!) even exceeded Mr. Griffin’s expectations. The resort had incurred a few additional expenses above and beyond the charges covered by the checks he’d already written (the mutilated yew?) but he didn’t feel it was right to pass these on. No, they were pleased to absorb any additional costs. He personally felt terrible about the collapse of the wheelchair ramp and the injuries it had caused. He hoped Mr. Griffin understood that such structures weren’t designed to accommodate so many people at once, all of them moving in the same direction, but still, he couldn’t help but feel responsible, if not in the legal sense, then in some other. “Moral?” Griffin helpfully suggested. Well, yes, something like that. Griffin told him that of course he couldn’t speak for the other guests, but he knew most of the people involved and doubted there’d be any litigation.

  He hung up, and a moment later Marguerite thudded into the passenger seat beside him, soaked to the skin but otherwise as happy as a schoolgirl.

  “What took so long?”

  “I was saying goodbye to Sunny. He’s in the breakfast room. Do you want to go in? I think you should. It’ll only take a minute.”

  “We said our goodbyes last night,” Griffin said. He liked Sunny a lot but had no desire to see him this morning, to yet again come face-to-face with his courage and optimism. He started the car, put the heater on defrost and waited for the windshield to clear, feeling Marguerite’s eyes on him. But when he finally turned to look at her, she was peering out the small patch of windshield that had defogged. “I think it’s going to clear,” she said.

  Ambiguous pronoun reference, his mother piped up from the back, her first critical observation of the new day. Is she talking about the weather or the windshield?

  “That’s not what the Weather Channel’s calling for,” Griffin said.

  Marguerite leaned over and kissed his cheek. “It’s what I’m calling for.”

  Oh, honestly, his mother said.

  Griffin turned on the radio, which sometimes silenced her, just as a car careened into the drive and rocked to a halt in front of the B and B. Jared and Jason, oblivious to the downpour, leapt out and began chanting up at the second-floor windows, “Suh-nee, Suh-nee, Suh-nee!”

  Griffin put the car in gear before they were noticed.

  “Can you see?” Marguerite said.

  “Well enough,” he told her.

  Go! his mother urged him, as if they’d just robbed a bank and he was driving the getaway car. Go, go, go!

  He turned up the radio.

  His mother chattered to the rhythm of the wipers all the way to New Hampshire, where the rain stopped as abruptly as if a spigot had just been turned off. Twenty minutes later, when they crossed into Massachusetts, the skies cleared. “Voilà,” said Marguerite, as if she’d just performed a nifty parlor trick.

  Oh, my, Griffin’s mother said, she’s bilingual.

  Having fled the twins earlier, he now almost wished they were around. Maybe he could get one of them to punch him in the head again and knock his mother out. And if he had to be knocked out himself, so be it.

  Marguerite switched off the radio. “Okay,” she said, “tell me about your mother,” as if she’d also been listening to her running commentary all the way down the coast and decided it was high time to acknowledge the bitch. “I want to know all about your father, too.”

  What she had in mind was to create personality profiles for each of them, so she’d know the right spot on the Cape when she saw it—a silly idea, Griffin thought, but he indulged her. After all, it wasn’t like he was wedded to a plan of his own. Moreover, when she’d proposed the idea the trunk fell silent, as if his mother (maybe his father, too?) was curious what he’d have to say about them. So, Marguerite began. What was her favorite color? Green. His? Blue. Where were they born? Buffalo (Dad). Rochester (Mom). And their favorite foods? Him, king crab legs; her, double-cut broiled lamb chops. Any hobbies? He collected P. G. Wodehouse first editions, vintage campaign buttons and Victorian pornography; she, after retiring from teaching, did thousand-piece monochromatic jigsaw puzzles and swore colorfully at the television whenever George W Bush appeared.

  Marguerite’s curiosity was so benign and well meaning that Griffin gradually became more expansive. What were their favorite times of the day? Well, his father had been a morning person, he told her, up hours before he and his mother, especially on their vacations. He liked to go out for pastries and the newspaper. “You missed a great sunrise,” he’d inform his wife when she finally shuffled out onto the deck, midmorning, for a breakfast with Al Fresco. (“Al Fresco? Who was he?”) “Like hell I did,” she always replied. His
mother’s favorite time of day was cocktail hour. She loved the sound of ice cubes in glasses, of jazz and gin-induced laughter, of lots of people talking all at once. So much better, to her way of thinking, than eavesdropping on smaller conversations where you could actually hear whatever stupid opinions people held. He told Marguerite about his father’s propensity for sudden, violent, rear-end collisions in parking lots, about his mother’s speech at her retirement dinner, even a little about the Morphine Narrative. And when she asked him, apropos of nothing, for a Christmas memory, he told her about their search, each December, for the perfect tree.

  Though they professed to hate the season for its hypocrisy, for all that trumped-up seasonal “goodwill toward men” crap, his parents demanded big, full Christmas trees. Finding one that passed muster took days, sometimes weeks. They had to visit every lot within a ten-mile radius and carefully examine all trees over seven feet. The lot attendants went from smiling and helpful to frowning and exasperated and homicidal. Other tree shoppers queued up and then gave up while every tall tree on the lot was hauled out, stood up, vigorously shaken and twirled for a full inspection. Sometimes, just as it seemed a sale was imminent, Griffin’s mother would sigh and say, “No, there’s a hole,” and his father would ask where, and she’d point and he’d cock his head and say, “Oh, right.” Most attendants, not knowing his parents, would sensibly suggest that the “hole” she saw might face in toward the wall, whereupon she’d sigh again and say, “Let’s keep looking.” Griffin remembered one old guy who said, after his parents had rejected a dozen trees, “Lady, maybe there’s something you don’t understand. Those holes you keep seeing’s the space between the goddamn branches. Wasn’t for the spaces, the tree would be solid fuckin’ wood.” He made a sweeping gesture that included the entire lot. “Every one of these trees got holes. It’s the holes that makes ’em trees. Now, you want one or not?”

  Other attendants, equally tired and frustrated, tried reason. “What kinda ceiling we looking at here?” Griffin remembered one asking, hoping at least to narrow the search. Of course his parents had no idea. A high ceiling was one of their requirements every year when they rented a new house or apartment, but as professional humanists it wouldn’t have occurred to them to actually measure. “Doesn’t matter,” his father would say. “We can cut a little off the top if we need to.” To which the man responded, “Look kind of funny, wouldn’t it?” At which point his mother might take the tip of a branch between her thumb and forefinger, give it a good tug and, if needles came off, complain, “When was this tree cut? Last August?”

  Griffin came to understand that the perfect Christmas tree was a lot like the perfect house on the Cape, first because it didn’t exist in the real world, and second because all the imperfect trees fell into two categories. The first was the all-too-familiar Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift, and the second applied to just one tree: Well, I Guess It’ll Have to Do. He couldn’t remember ever voicing an opinion about the tree his parents finally agreed would have to do. The search over at last, his father would hand the lucky attendant a length of gray, weathered clothesline so the tree could be hoisted onto the roof of their car and secured through its open windows. Sometimes the clothesline would snap when they rounded a corner, sending the tree into the gutter. One year they didn’t even make it out of the lot. Griffin’s father, leaning forward so he could keep an eye on the tree strapped to the roof, backed into a parked pickup, and their tree leapt as if by wizardry into its bed.

  Back home, they invariably discovered, by trying to stand the tree up, that it was indeed too tall, and with a curse his father would lay it back down on the floor. Some years the tree lay there in the middle of the living room for days while he canvassed his English department colleagues for a saw he could borrow. What he actually meant, they understood all too well, was a saw he could have, since he never once returned a tool. (The saw he’d borrowed the previous Christmas was no doubt hanging from a nail in the garage of last year’s rental.) Eventually, though, someone would come through, and that was when the real magic began.

  The first cut never took quite enough off—here again, no measuring for the Griffins—and the second usually didn’t, either. The third would be off by a mere half inch, close enough if you forced matters (they always did), and the freshly cut top of the tree would leave a moist, six-inch, greenish-brown streak on the white ceiling, which no doubt puzzled the owners when they returned home from their sabbatical. The broken toaster oven, the missing eighth chair from the dining room set, the red wine stains on the shag carpet—these things could happen, but how on earth had the Griffins managed to scar the fucking ceiling? And of course the tree did look funny with its top sawed off. Their Christmas trees always looked to Griffin like they’d grown right through the ceiling, as if what you were looking at was just the bottom two-thirds, and if you went upstairs, the top third would be growing right out of the hardwood floor.

  Once the tree was upright, Griffin’s father would pick the lock on the closet where the owners stored the stuff they didn’t want ruined or broken, see what they had by way of Christmas decorations and berate their bad taste. His mother thought the prettiest trees were decorated all in white, with maybe a little silver for contrast, but Griffin himself liked all the blues and greens and reds and was grateful for other people’s lack of refinement. She claimed garlands were especially tacky, but he liked those, too. He was allowed to help decorate, of course, but he couldn’t remember ever hanging an ornament or icicle that his mother didn’t adjust later. Once the tree was finished, his favorite thing was to crawl beneath it, lie on his back and peer up through the branches, imagining other worlds, himself miniaturized and climbing ever upward, from branch to branch, among all the blinking lights and shiny ornaments, until the whole world lay below him.

  One year—he must have been seven or eight—he’d crawled under the tree during his parents’ annual boozy Christmas party and watched the drunken kaleidoscopic proceedings from there. Over the course of the evening, two or three of their guests noticed him back there and asked his parents if he was okay, and they responded that yes, he was fine. He remembered feeling fine. His father had spiked the eggnog that afternoon, forgetting to reserve some for Griffin. His mother said he couldn’t have any of the spiked, but his father felt guilty about forgetting him and let him have a big glass before anyone arrived. During the party he kept wishing somebody would slide him a plate of Christmas cookies, but otherwise he felt warm and happy and tipsy tucked into his own private little corner. He’d fallen asleep there, staring up into the magical branches, and eventually one of his parents must have pulled him out because the next morning he woke up in his bed, the sheets full of pine needles. Which one of them had remembered him? he’d wondered at the time.

  “It’s okay,” Marguerite said, taking his hand, and only then did he realize there were tears running down his cheeks. He was pretty sure he’d never told that story to anyone before, not even Joy. He might have expected all manner of comment from the trunk, but there wasn’t a peep.

  After he’d gathered himself, he said, “Okay, enough about me. Tell me about your parents,” but Marguerite shook her head. “Let’s just say that if you knew them you’d understand how I ended up with a man like Harold.”

  It was the first bitter thing he could remember hearing her say, and it begged an obvious question, one he didn’t want to ask but did anyway. “And a man like me?”

  “Nobody’s ever been nicer to me than you,” she said, squeezing his hand. He appreciated the vote of confidence, he really did, until she added, “I’m going to miss that.”

  He started to ask her what she meant when her cell rang. It was Beth, the woman she’d left in charge of the flower shop back in L.A., with a question about inventory. By the time Marguerite hung up, they were rumbling up onto the Sagamore Bridge. “What’s that you’re humming?” she wanted to know.

  He’d been humming?

  They scattered his father in a cov
e near Barnstable. It was serene there, with views of a marsh redolent of bluish-purple wildflowers and the sunrise. For his mother they chose a tidal inlet on the Atlantic side, mid-Cape. Across the water, a quarter mile away, sat a posh restaurant with a huge deck from which the breezes carried the sounds of moneyed voices and the occasional pop of a champagne cork and, when the wind shifted, the sound of surf. An older couple, strolling past when he was emptying his mother’s urn, saw what he was doing and came over to Marguerite, who was quietly weeping (as she’d done for his father), and offered her their condolences. “You take good care of her,” the woman told dry-eyed Griffin, as if she’d taken his measure at a glance and doubted he was up to the task.

  Back in the car, Marguerite said, “Okay, I’ll tell you this much. My father hanged himself when I was a little girl.”

  Now it was Griffin’s turn to take her hand. “That’s terrible. I’m sorry.”

  “It’s okay. I don’t really even remember that much about him. Only what my mother said to me.”

 
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