That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  Clean slate. Those were the exact words in his head at the moment of impact. The sound was explosive: the initial boom, then the shattering of glass and the shriek of metal on metal, as the back of Griffin’s head hit the padded rest. “Ow!” he said, rubbing his neck, just as he’d always done as a kid after one of his father’s rear-enders, all of which had occurred just like this one, completely without warning. Ow. A child’s word, and he’d spoken it in a child’s voice, full of grievance and resentment. He half expected to see a child’s startled, betrayed eyes, not his father’s knowing, sad ones, staring back at him from the rearview.

  The driver of the other car, a teenaged boy with an acne-ravaged face, appeared at his window. “You okay?” he said.

  Griffin couldn’t tell whether the boy was asking if he was hurt or why on earth he was laughing. Griffin rolled down his window and told him he was fine, just surprised.

  “I don’t see what’s so funny,” the kid said tentatively, as if, given the difference in their ages, he wasn’t sure he was entitled to this opinion.

  “Wait a few years,” Griffin told him, unlatching his seat belt and getting out.

  The other vehicle was a late-model BMW. The boy had also been backing out. Griffin identified the parking space he’d just vacated, saw in his mind’s eye the perfect arc in space and time that had resulted in their violent meeting, each blind to the other’s existence until the instant of collision. Both trunks had sprung and were standing up at perfect right angles. Griffin tried to close his, but the lock mechanism wasn’t properly aligned anymore, and it popped right up again. Both sets of taillights were smashed, both bumpers crumpled. It was the kind of wreck that would’ve cost his father a few hundred bucks to repair, but today would run into thousands. Otherwise, the vehicles looked drivable. “I guess we should exchange insurance information,” he said.

  At this the boy visibly wilted, as if the necessity were tantamount to admitting that, yes, they’d just had an accident, something he still hoped might be avoided.

  Griffin got a pen and a piece of paper from the car and handed them to him.

  The boy said, “Couldn’t we just…,” then lapsed into silence.

  The cops would have to be called, of course, but when Griffin went back to the car he saw that the cup holder where his cell had been sitting was now empty. He finally located the phone on the floor under the rear seat. Its screen was black, and when he pressed the space bar it stayed black. He pressed several other keys and was about to give up when the screen suddenly leapt to life with a message: CALLING JOY. Before he could hit the button to disconnect, he heard his wife answer, her voice sounding tinny and far away.

  “Joy,” he said. He was about to explain that he hadn’t meant to call when he realized that this might just be the moment of grace he’d been waiting for yesterday and had given up on. “Is this a bad time?”

  “I’m in the car,” she admitted. “I’m surprised to hear your voice. I guess I thought you’d be halfway back to L.A.”

  He decided on a jaunty tone. “No, I’m on the Cape. I called to tell you it’s official. I’ve become my father. I just backed my rental car into a brand-new BMW. We scattered his ashes yesterday, and I think this might be his way of telling me I won’t be rid of him so easily.” When she didn’t immediately respond, he realized just how forced the jauntiness must have sounded. “We did Mom, too,” he continued more seriously. “Near Chatham. Her favorite part of the Cape.”

  “Are you okay? Was anyone injured?”

  “No.” To both questions.

  Silence again. So why tell me about it? was what she must have been thinking.

  “And here’s the really weird part,” he said, unsure whether he was just talking to keep her on the line or, in some roundabout fashion, finally coming to the point. “Since yesterday, maybe for a while before that, I’ve been wondering…” He stopped here, unsure how to continue, though what he’d been wondering couldn’t have been simpler. “I’ve been wondering if maybe I loved them. It’s crazy, I know, but… do you think that’s possible?”

  “Oh, Jack,” Joy said, as if she would’ve liked to ask where in the world he’d done his graduate work. “Of course you did. What do you think I’ve been trying to tell you?”

  In the rearview mirror Griffin could see the boy, pen in hand, staring blankly at the piece of paper, as if he’d forgotten his very identity.

  “Jack?”

  “I’m here,” he told her, then, a moment later, heard himself ask, “Is there anything left, Joy, or did I kill it all?”

  She didn’t answer immediately, and he understood that the long, painful beat of silence was what he’d been dreading far more than the final verdict. “You came close,” she finally admitted, sniffling. “But no. You killed only the part that could be killed.”

  They talked for another minute or two, though only about logistics. She offered to drive down to Falmouth, but he told her that wouldn’t be necessary. In a town this size he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a bungee cord to secure the trunk, his father’s time-honored solution and good enough for now. It’d probably take him an hour or so with the cops, after which, if the car was drivable, he’d be back on the road. They left it that they’d meet just over the Sagamore. They could have some lunch around there, call the rental-car company and find out what they wanted him to do with the wreck, then drive home together.

  When he hung up, his mother said, There, was that so difficult?

  Yeah, he told her, it was.

  He expected a smart-assed retort but it didn’t come, and when it didn’t he became aware of an unfamiliar but extremely pleasurable feeling. How to describe it? Plumb. He was feeling plumb. Okay, maybe not completely, but no more than a half bubble off. Plumb some. As good as could be expected. He wondered if plumb might be another word for happy.

  I think maybe I’m going to be okay, Mom, he ventured. Still no response. I guess what I’m saying is it’s okay for you to be dead now. Both of you. In fact, he added, afraid he’d given them too much leeway, I insist.

  The boy was kicking impotently at the brightly colored shards of taillight glass when Griffin returned. He’d somehow written down all the necessary information, and his name was Tony Loveli. He was sixteen. “My father’s on his way,” he said. “He’s going to kill me. I just got my license last week.”

  “Don’t worry, Tony,” Griffin said. “We’ll tell him it was my fault.”

  The kid shook his head morosely. “You don’t understand. That’s not going to matter. He’s a divorce attorney. A complete and total fucking asshole.”

  “Not complete,” Griffin said, though of course he’d never met the man, who might well be an asshole. “Not total.”

  A fat gull circling overhead screeched a loud objection. Griffin watched it warily, but it was just a stupid bird, and after a moment, no harm done, it flew away.

  Acknowledgments

  Okay, I admit it. I had help. Many thanks to my agents, Nat Sobel, Judith Weber and Joel Gotler; to my editors, Gary Fisketjon and Alison Samuel; to Emily Milder, Gabrielle Brooks, Meghan Wilson, Russell Perreault, Kate Runde, Victoria Gerken and all the other good folks at Knopf/Vintage who sell my books; to my daughters, Emily and Kate, whose weddings inspired all manner of imagined catastrophe; to my wife, Barbara, who knows enough about marriage to write her own book but read mine several times without complaint. Thanks also to The Silver Lounge on Cape Cod for the use of their sign. And, finally, my gratitude to my mother, whose recent passing caused me to reflect more deeply on inheritance and all that the word implies. Not to mention love.

  THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK

  PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

  Copyright © 2009 by Richard Russo

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  www.aaknopf.com

  Knopf, Borzoi Books and the colophon ar
e registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Russo, Richard, [date]

  That old cape magic / by Richard Russo.—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-27330-7

  1. College teachers—Fiction. 2. Married people—Fiction.

  3. Cape Cod (Mass.)—Fiction. 4. Midlife crisis—Fiction.

  5. Reminiscing—Fiction. 6. Domestic fiction. I. Title.

  PS3568.U812T47 2009

  813′.54—dc22 2009020311

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  v3.0_r1

 


 

  Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic

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