That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  Griffin didn’t want to ask, but there was no way not to.

  “She said, ‘There. Happy now?’”

  When he suggested they splurge on a fancy restaurant in Chatham, Marguerite again scrunched up her shoulders and said, “I have a better idea. Let’s go back to that restaurant where we met.”

  Griffin couldn’t imagine why she’d want to return to the Olde Cape Lounge—when he’d left her there with Harold last year, she’d been in tears—but if that’s what she wanted it was fine with him. Spending the evening around there made sense, making the morning’s drive to Logan and their flight back to L.A. that much easier.

  Because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find it again, they decided to look for the restaurant first, then book a room nearby. He meant to avoid the B and B where he and Joy had stayed, which he remembered (correctly) as being about half a mile down the road from the restaurant, but thought (incorrectly) there’d be someplace to turn back onto Route 28 before he got there. “Oooh, that looks nice,” Marguerite said when they passed the B and B, so Griffin, unwilling to explain why he’d have preferred anywhere else, turned around and went back. The same woman who’d checked him in last summer did so again, though if she recognized him as repeat business—no reason she should, given his massive dark glasses—she gave no sign. When she showed them to the same room he and Joy had occupied, he considered asking for a different one but decided not to. Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.

  Exhausted by the day’s emotion and the long drive down from Maine, they took a nap before dinner. Marguerite awoke from hers refreshed and buoyant, while Griffin was slow and groggy, his already low spirits having ebbed even further. And why, for God’s sake? His daughter was successfully married and halfway to Paris by now. The checks he’d written weren’t going to bounce and, thanks to Marguerite, his parents were finally at rest. By rights he should’ve been ready to celebrate. Was he coming down with something? That would make sense. Like his parents before him, he often got sick whenever he could afford to, like at the end of the academic term. Back when he was writing movies with Tommy, he’d hand a just-finished script to their producer and sneeze in the same motion. So maybe.

  In any event, for Marguerite’s sake, he meant to soldier through whatever this was. In the bathroom he swallowed a couple of ibuprofen (vowing not to call them I-be-hurtin’s anymore, even to himself) for the headache he felt gathering behind his eyes, and took a shower, hoping it might wake him up.

  “Let’s dress up,” Marguerite suggested when he emerged.

  “It’s not a very fancy place,” Griffin reminded her.

  “Us,” she replied. “We’ll be fancy.”

  And Griffin, knowing she was about to scrunch up her shoulders again, purposely looked away.

  “Oh, good,” she said twenty minutes later when they slipped onto bar stools. “They’ve still got that funny sign.”

  The Olde Cape Lounge was as mobbed as before, and the hostess had warned them it would be a good hour before they got a table. Marguerite seemed to enjoy being overdressed. Her outfit wasn’t one Griffin had seen before, but it was very Marguerite, showing plenty of skin, the kind designed to make Unitarian comedians perspire.

  “How does it go again?” she said, squinting at the sign.

  “Drink a couple of these and it’ll make sense,” the bartender said, setting down her cosmo and Griffin’s martini. A communal joke, apparently, since this was a different bartender from the one last year. “You know there’s a law against spouse abuse in this state,” he told her and nodded at Griffin, who’d slid his dark glasses down his nose so he could look at the sign.

  “But he’s not my husband,” she said.

  “My mistake,” the man said. “In that case, do whatever you want.”

  “I can’t remember how you’re supposed to read it,” Marguerite said when the bartender was gone.

  At just such a juncture Griffin’s mother would usually chime in, wanting to know where this bimbo had done her graduate work, but she was mum. In fact, now that he thought about it, she hadn’t voiced a single opinion since they’d left Chatham. Was it possible that by scattering her ashes they’d silenced her? Forever? That possibility, while remote, should have raised his spirits, but somehow it didn’t.

  “Ignore the spaces,” he told her, putting his hand on the small of her back, where the skin was warm, almost feverish. “Let the words form themselves.” He was more determined than ever to show this generous woman the good time she’d earned. It wasn’t like she was hard to make happy. All she wanted was a little fun. “Where do you find such good-hearted women?” was how Tommy put it after they’d met, and he was right. Even after being married to Harold, Marguerite didn’t understand unkindness as an option, its myriad perverse satisfactions as foreign to her as the sign she was now laboriously translating (“Here … stop … and”) from English into, well, English. Next year, if they were still together and they were back at the Olde Cape Lounge, he’d have to teach her how to read the sign all over again, this despite the fact that the gist of it was her own personal philosophy of life in a nutshell.

  But tomorrow she’d get him over the Sagamore Bridge and onto a plane and back to L.A. and… then what? When he tried imagining what would come next for them he couldn’t, though of course that had less to do with her than himself. It was his own future, with or without Marguerite, that refused to take shape. With the help of his new agent he could continue chasing low-end screenwriting assignments, teach a night class or two and cobble together a kind of living. But that hardly amounted to a future, or for that matter a life. The only good work he’d done in L.A. was “The Summer of the Brownings,” and he’d been paid for that in contributor’s copies. Not even a check there, never mind a future. Quit, he told himself. Stop thinking. Get through tonight without moping.

  “Be … just… and … kind … and … devil …”

  “And evil,” he corrected her.

  “Oh, right,” she said, taking his hand and squeezing it. “Speak of no one.”

  None, Griffin started to say, then stopped himself. “Words to live by.”

  “And that old poop Harold said it didn’t mean anything.” She gave Griffin a kiss on the cheek, a kiss that might have been Harold’s, the gesture seemed to imply, if only he’d played his cards right. Marguerite enjoyed public displays of affection almost as much as the affection itself. Yet another contrast with Joy, who after their wedding had never kissed him except in private. He still recalled the keen disappointment he’d felt early in their marriage when it became obvious she wasn’t about to kiss or embrace him in front of her parents. Marguerite felt no such compunctions. She’d have kissed him (or Harold before him) in front of the pope, and the kiss would have been long and full of tongue. “Why do I feel guilty about being here and not calling him?”

  “Harold? Now that is a mystery.”

  She shrugged and went back to studying the sign, as if her translation had not unearthed all its secrets. “Imagine that boy figuring it out all by himself,” she said, then turned to face him. “It’s a shame he’s so in love with her.”

  Griffin was pretty sure he’d never mentioned Sunny Kim’s lifelong devotion to Laura, which meant Marguerite had done some figuring out of her own. “He’ll be fine,” he said, draining the last of his martini and trying to sound more certain on this score than he felt. He considered telling her about Sunny’s own marriage plans but decided not to, afraid that in the telling he’d betray his own misgivings.

  “I know. He’s smart and good-looking and he’s a lawyer,” she said. “It’s just a shame you can’t say yes to one person without saying no to another.”

  She was talking about Laura, Griffin thought. Of course she was. Except that her expression was unfamiliar to him, a strange combination of sadness and foreknowledge that made him desperately want to change the subject and
head off whatever she meant to say next. “I’ve been wondering what you meant earlier,” he said. “About how you were going to miss me being nice to you. Do you think I’m going to turn into that old poop Harold or something?”

  “No,” she said. “I just meant I’m going to miss that when it’s over.”

  “When what’s over?” But of course he knew, just as he knew that he hadn’t really changed the subject.

  “Us,” she said, causing his heart to sink. “When you and I are over.” She scrunched her shoulders then, her signature gesture of delight, though he’d never before seen her do it in anticipation of anything but pleasure. “It’s okay,” she said, her eyes spilling over. “Really. I’ve known from the start.”

  “No,” he said, shaking his head stubbornly like a child being told something he didn’t want to hear. Because if he accepted her conclusion, it meant that he’d failed yet again to accomplish a simple task, to get through the evening without making this woman cry and in so doing to outperform Harold. Was it possible to set the bar any lower? This was beyond demoralizing. Taking Marguerite’s face in his hands, he kissed her forehead, thinking as he did of that day so long ago, the first of the Browning summer, when he’d watched from the window under the eaves as his father drew his mother to him and told her that other women in his life meant nothing. Given their history of infidelity, Griffin had always assumed he was simply lying, but he saw now that in order to lie to his mother, he’d first had to lie to himself. How badly he must have wanted what he was telling her to be true. After all, his mother deserved that much, and if he could somehow make it true, that would prove he was a better man than he knew himself to be.

  “Look,” he told Marguerite, another woman who deserved this much and more, “it’s been a rough trip. I couldn’t have done it without you. Any of it.” By which he meant not just today, not just yesterday, but indeed the long months since his mother’s death. “We’re going to have a nice time tonight, and tomorrow we’re going to get on a plane and fly back home to L.A.”

  Home to L.A. He’d meant to say something simple, clear and true, but a minor falsehood had somehow slipped in, because of course L.A. wasn’t home. “You and me, okay?” he continued, a nameless panic rising. “No discussion.”

  Though here his voice faltered, because he knew as well as she did what came next, what words came next. If he could speak them, he might even convince her they were true, as his father had convinced his mother that Browning summer. It was the worst lie there was, imprisoning and ultimately embittering the hearer, playing upon her terrible need to believe. He could feel the I love you forming on his lips. Would he have said it if she hadn’t interrupted?

  “See?” she said, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand and smearing her makeup. “Right there. That’s what I’m going to miss.”

  He slept. It was after nine the next morning when he finally woke up, and perhaps because the last time he’d slept so long and so well it was in this same bed almost exactly a year ago, his first drowsy thought was that the preceding twelve months had been a dream. The door to the balcony was partly open, just as it had been the morning after Kelsey’s wedding, and on the other side of it a woman was talking on a cell phone, her voice low. Joy, he thought sleepily, talking to their daughter about her engagement to Andy, discussing the possibility of a wedding next spring. Later in the morning—there was no hurry—they’d drive to Truro and see if they could find the inn where they’d honeymooned. Which in turn meant that his mother was still alive in Indiana and that he’d not spent the last nine months in L.A. It meant he was a happily married man, that his wife had never accused him of being otherwise, that she’d never been other than happy herself. It was a fine narrative, plausible and coherent. He found himself smiling.

  He heard her say goodbye outside, heard the cell phone’s cover slap shut, saw the door to the balcony swing inward. In another split second Joy would appear, and he’d beckon her back to their bed. But of course it was Marguerite who stepped into the room, trailing cruel reality in her wake. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she touched his forehead with the back of her fingers. “Your hair’s always funny after you sleep,” she informed him. He was about to ask whom she’d been talking to when she said, “Tommy says thanks for being so predictable.”

  “Tommy,” he repeated. Why was it that every time a woman who was supposedly with him made a secret phone call, it was always to the same guy? “Predictable how?”

  She was now running her fingers through his hair like a comb, apparently trying to make it look less ridiculous. “We had a friendly wager. I had this dumb idea we’d be stopping off in Vegas to get married. He bet you’d end up back with your wife.”

  “What does he win?”

  She smiled ruefully. “He gets to take me out to dinner. He said the way he looked at it, he’d come out of this with a good woman no matter what. He just wasn’t sure which one.”

  “Tell him I said he doesn’t deserve a good woman.” As if any man ever did.

  “I also called the airline and got them to change my flight.”

  “Why?” Griffin said, suddenly alarmed. Had he hallucinated the proposal he’d reluctantly agreed to last night in the Olde Cape Lounge after it became clear that Marguerite’s mind was made up? They’d have a leisurely breakfast at the B and B, after which he’d drive her to Logan in plenty of time for her flight back to L.A. After that he’d drive down to Connecticut, to what had once been home and might be again. There, if possible, he’d reconcile with the woman he apparently still loved. If he failed, if it was too late to fix the mess he’d made, he still had his plane ticket.

  “Well, the next few days are supposed to be beautiful here,” Marguerite explained, “and Beth says the store will survive a couple more days without me, so…”


  “Oh, don’t look so mortified. None of this involves you.”

  “I don’t get it.”

  “I made one other call, too.”

  Griffin nodded, finally understanding. No need to ask who the other call was to.

  “I better not hear you been mean to her,” Harold warned him an hour later. He was studying Griffin’s still-swollen, now-yellow-green eye with interest. “If I do, I’ll make it so that’s your good eye.”

  He’d pulled into the B and B’s driveway just as they emerged with their luggage.

  “Harold,” Marguerite said, handing him her suitcase before Griffin could say a word in his own defense. “Quit. He wasn’t mean to me. Pay no attention,” she added to Griffin, who these days was paying close attention when anyone offered violence.

  “Because this woman and I go back a long way,” Harold went on.

  “On his worst day,” Marguerite elaborated, “he was nicer to me than you were on your best.”

  “And when her mouth’s not running like a whip-poor-will’s ass, I have strong, serious feelings for her.”

  “Go put the suitcase in the trunk, Harold, so we can say our goodbyes. Now, there’s a good man.”

  He consulted his watch. “Will these goodbyes be concluded in a timely manner?”

  “Are we on a schedule?”

  “Yeah, after here, we’re driving down to Westerly,” he told her, forgetting Griffin entirely. “I’ve invested in a condo on the water there. Practically on the water. I thought you might like to see. There’s a couple of spots we could skinny-dip and nobody would mind. Take some dirty pictures with our cell phones. Plus they got good fried calamari with hot peppers.”

  “Okay, fine, but go away for a minute.”

  Harold reluctantly did as he was told, but, remembering Griffin, he stopped halfway to his car. “Did I mention I better not hear you were mean to her?”

  “Ignore him,” Marguerite advised when Harold’s car door shut behind him. “It’s just how he is.” After she scrunched up her shoulders, they embraced one last time. “Write a movie with a girl like me in it sometime,” she suggested when they separated. ?
??With Susan Sarandon. She’d make a good me.”

  In Falmouth he gassed up at a 7-Eleven and he bought himself a sticky bun and a coffee for the road. He’d had no appetite back at the B and B, but after saying goodbye to Marguerite he was suddenly hungry and ate the pastry right there in the parking lot. It was ten-thirty, and normally it would’ve made the most sense to head straight up Route 28, cross the canal at the Bourne Bridge, then shoot across 195 to 95, but if he left now he’d almost certainly get home before Joy. The last of her family was flying out of Portland this morning, and there was no way she’d head back to Connecticut before they all were airborne. If he arrived before she did, he’d have an unpleasant decision to make: sit in his own driveway and wait for her or just use his key and go inside. The former would make him feel like the fool he was, but having walked away from that house last June he really had no right to enter it now without invitation.

  He needed to kill an hour or two and was too antsy to just sit around. If he got going now and crossed the canal at the Sagamore instead of the Bourne, he could head up Route 3 toward Boston for a while, then loop back down I-95. The idea of crossing the bridge of his unhappy childhood one last time was appealing. Now that he’d finally scattered his parents’ ashes, he doubted he’d be returning to the Cape again. He felt finished with both the place and its false promises. Also, on the Sagamore he’d likely find out if his mother was really through haunting him or was just waiting for Marguerite, his guardian angel, to depart. When he knew for certain that she was at rest, he’d be able to think about what he’d say when he arrived home without fear of her sarcastic comments.

  Wiping his fingers on a napkin, he adjusted the mirror, turned the key in the ignition and shifted into reverse. He’d have to apologize, of course, for everything he’d allowed to happen, but he knew it wasn’t really apologies Joy cared about. She’d been right all along that his parents, not hers, had intruded on their marriage with such disastrous consequences, which meant that he had to figure out how to convince her that all that was finally over, that they could begin again with a clean slate.

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