That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  In fact, she was full of information. No, his father wasn’t ill, though she agreed he did look like death warmed over. What he was, she claimed, was exhausted, and why wouldn’t he be? During his year at UMass, he’d not only taught all his classes but also researched and—get this—actually written Claudia’s dissertation. When Griffin asked her how she could possibly know this, since neither his father nor Claudia was likely to have confided it to anyone, she just gave him a look. “And that’s not even the best part,” she continued. “She wasn’t even with your father.” When his mother dropped this bomb, Griffin glanced over at Bartleby Though he hadn’t yet gone completely mute, he shrugged, as if to say, Don’t look at me; I just live here.

  Claudia, his mother went on, had gone with his father to Amherst, that much was true. But she hadn’t stayed long. The tiny house they’d rented was almost twenty miles from the university, and since they only had one car, Claudia either had to go in to campus or else be stranded there in the boonies until he got home. “Work on your dissertation,” his father had suggested. Indeed, he may have rented this particular house in order to give her little alternative but to buckle down. Her response, apparently, delivered in her thick-as-molasses, blasé fashion, was “All day long?”

  In mid-October there’d been a cold snap, and after several days of frigid drizzle she’d announced to Griffin’s father one morning that she meant to go to Atlanta to visit a friend for a while. Even her pussy was frostbit, she claimed, to which he replied he’d have no way of knowing. Why didn’t they discuss things later that evening when he returned? But by then she was gone.

  His mother admitted to being a bit vague about exactly when he discovered this “friend” wasn’t in fact a woman and also that he (and now Claudia) wasn’t in Atlanta but in Charleston. Apparently she’d been trying to throw him off track—and here Griffin’s mother chortled—as if he came from a long line of tough cops and private eyes and was the sort of guy who’d give immediate chase and never give up, whereas in actuality what he’d done was sigh deeply and say to himself, So… she’s gone, then.

  That Claudia planned to remain gone for a good long while was obvious since she’d taken all her clothes, not just enough for a short trip. She took everything, in fact, except the materials she’d assembled, with his help, for her dissertation. These she left stacked impressively in the center of the dining room table, along with a sparse outline he briefly studied before wadding it up. In another man this gesture might have suggested he was through with her, that he’d seen and understood both the muddled writing on the page and the clearer writing on the wall. Unfortunately, all Griffin’s father had seen was a more sensible approach to the research and writing of his fiancée’s dissertation, so he took out a legal pad and started sketching out how things would proceed if the project were his and not Claudia’s. That way, he reasoned, when she returned in a week or two (he still hadn’t drawn the necessary inference from the empty clothes closet), she’d find that instead of having fallen behind, she was actually ahead. The once murky, bloated purpose statement was now a detailed, workable template, thoughtfully divided into manageable segments and subdivided into bite-sized pieces that required only mastication, a series of cuds that even the bovine Claudia could chew. Granted, this was something she should’ve been able to do for herself, but so what? It could be their secret. She’d be so grateful her frozen pussy would thaw.

  This, according to Griffin’s mother, was how the whole nightmare had begun, as an intellectual exercise in avoidance. That first night, when he’d come home, found her gone and substituted his own outline for hers, he’d have been mortified if anyone had suggested he might actually write any part of his fiancée’s dissertation. But a week went by and she hadn’t returned, and then another, and the materials still sat there on the table (though he’d moved them to one side to make room for his take-out meals), and he just hated for her to fall further and further behind. Of course Claudia, again according to Griffin’s mother, had predicted all of this. She might be dumb as a plastic Jesus, but she was shrewd. After all, how smart did a woman have to be to get the best of a man so ruled by his pecker? Anyone with an ounce of self-respect would have tossed her dissertation stuff right into the fireplace, or at least shoved it into a dark closet. Instead Griffin’s father had allowed it to sit there accusingly—yes, accusing him, not her—until one day, over mu shu pork eaten directly from the carton, a thought occurred to him, as of course it would: Maybe just a short intro. Where’s the harm?

  Because he’d been complicit, if only subconsciously, from the start. Hadn’t he made sure that the subject of Claudia’s dissertation was one that also greatly interested him? Hadn’t he known all along that he’d have to hold her hand through every last page? How different was actually writing the thing? Wasn’t it really just a question of efficiency? “Don’t tell me I don’t know how your father’s mind works, how he rationalizes,” his mother warned when Griffin objected. She understood all too well. Once he’d started down that slippery slope, he was a lost man. Writing the intro, he reconnected to the source material, making long, excited notes on cards for the body of the essay, its principal thrust and supporting arguments, until sometime during the holidays he slipped a fresh piece of paper into his IBM Selectric and typed: Chapter One.

  Then an interesting thing happened. Whereas before he’d been anxiously awaiting Claudia’s return, he now hoped she’d stay away. He’d always believed this would be—what?—a collaboration, in the best sense. She’d do the actual writing, of course, but he’d be right there to share notes and ideas, to make sure she didn’t lose her focus. And wasn’t that what all dissertations really were, collaborations? Otherwise, why have an adviser? But now he thought, Fuck it. He was making good progress, staying up late at night, neglecting, truth be told, his own teaching responsibilities. He’d hit his scholarly stride, and Claudia’s return would break it. Maybe he’d surprise her in Atlanta during spring break, he told himself. But when the break came he decided to work through it (just as well, Griffin’s mother said, since Claudia wasn’t in Atlanta anyway and never had been), figuring that if all went well, he’d have a draft before the end-of-semester crunch. She could help him revise it while familiarizing herself with his conclusions and methods, because of course she was the one who’d have to defend them (though he’d be there to throw her a rope if she needed one).

  All might have been well, except in April he’d come down with a toxic dose of the flu. At one point he awakened shivering and curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor with no memory of how he’d gotten there, though the commode testified eloquently as to why he’d needed to. Was he hallucinating or had Claudia called the day before, wondering how the dissertation was coming along? Had she laughed at him when he reported it was almost done?

  Eventually the flu ran its course, but he never fully recovered his strength or the weight he’d lost as a result of vomiting and skipping meals, but guess what? He’d finished, and wasn’t he proud? Only when Claudia actually returned in late August, just when he’d concluded she was gone for good, did the enormity of what he’d done come down on him like an anvil. Not so much the dishonesty of it, but rather that this could have been his book. It was quite possibly the best thing he’d ever written. Any good university press would be happy to have it, maybe even a mainstream trade publisher. It was possible that real money, as opposed to the bogus scrip universities routinely printed, redeemable only in the academic commissary, might change hands. But there was an obvious problem. How could he claim the work as his own when it was supposed to be Claudia’s? He could argue she hadn’t written any of it, and everyone who’d ever taught her would believe him, but that would mean he’d stolen her idea. He’d already signed off on the fact that it was her idea when he and two other colleagues approved the proposal.

  “Mom,” Griffin had protested at this point, “you can’t know all this. And don’t tell me Dad confided it, either. They aren’t the kind of things
he’d admit to anybody, especially not you.” After all, he’d just spent the last twenty-four hours with his father, who hadn’t dropped a single hint, even an oblique one, about any of this.

  Another woman might have taken umbrage at his especially not you, but his mother didn’t even slow down. “Pipe down,” she said gleefully. “I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Claudia was blackmailing him.

  “Well, not in the conventional sense,” she conceded. “It’s more like emotional blackmail.” Since they’d returned from Amherst, Claudia had taken to wondering out loud what his colleagues would think if they knew what he’d done. Had he always been so dishonest, she wanted to know, or was this something new? Was what he’d done a firing offense? Would the scandal make the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education?

  “But that’s an absurd threat,” Griffin felt compelled to inject. “She couldn’t expose him without exposing herself.”

  “True,” she said, “but he’s terrified anyway.”

  “He didn’t look scared to me.”

  “Trust me.”

  “But Mom, the story doesn’t track. Any undergraduate fiction workshop would tear it apart.” Well, okay, maybe not completely. It was more disjointed and inconsistent than unbelievable, and Griffin suspected he knew why. The academy was a small world, and his mother had friends, and friends of friends, everywhere. She’d no doubt been following her ex-husband’s year at UMass, or trying to, through half a dozen spies. She’d glean small bits of information from a wide variety of sources and stitch these into a single narrative as best she could, drawing inferences, pretending, as she always did, to be privy to everything.

  Nor did she appreciate him suggesting she wasn’t. “Undergraduate workshop,” she snorted. “Right. Now there’s a test.”

  “Okay,” Griffin conceded. “I’m not saying there’s no truth to what you’re saying. I’m just—”

  But she waved him off. “Do you want to hear the best part or not?”

  “The blackmail wasn’t the best part? There’s more?”

  She arched a sculpted eyebrow. “Get this. The whole time he was in Amherst?”

  He waited until it was clear she had no intention of going on without a specific invitation. He had to go on record as wanting to know what she had to tell him, which, unfortunately, he did.

  “What, Mom? The whole time in Amherst what?”

  “The whole time your father was in Amherst,” she said triumphantly, “he never even made it to the Cape. Not once.”

  In retrospect, his mother had been right about at least one thing. She’d given his father’s marriage another year. Not a full year, either, she insisted, an academic year. And that’s exactly how long it had lasted. The following May, Claudia had departed for good, and shortly after that his father had left the university to take a position as acting department chair at a small branch of the state university of Illinois. “He’s in a downward spiral,” his mother had reported. “In fact he’s circling the drain.” From there he’d become the dean of faculty at a small Christian college in Oklahoma, where he served until failing health forced him to retire.

  And now, Griffin thought ruefully, he was in the trunk of his car.

  3

  The Great Truro Accord

  By the time Griffin arrived in Provincetown it had warmed up, so he went to a café with an outdoor patio. In the foyer he noticed a stack of real-estate guides, so he grabbed one and leafed through it while he waited for his eggs. The listings, he quickly determined, were either mind-bogglingly expensive or little more than shacks. Can’t Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift. The old categories apparently still applied. Which begged a question. If he hadn’t given up screenwriting to move back East and become a college professor, would they have had the money? Hard to say. He’d made a lot more money in L.A., but they’d spent a lot more, too. It had been one of the great mysteries of his parents’ marriage that nothing they did or didn’t do seemed to change their overall economic outlook all that much. Near the back of the guide, looking completely out of place, was a full-page ad for a high-end assisted-living community near Hyannis, which sent a chill up his spine. His mother knew he was on the Cape. Was it possible their conversation had awakened the old dormant passion? He could easily imagine her Googling the assisted-living options here (like hell Google wasn’t research). It was even possible that out in Indiana she was at that very moment looking at the same image that he was studying here in Provincetown. A creepy scenario, and so utterly plausible that when his cell phone rang, he was surprised to see it was Joy and not his mother.

  “Where are you?” his wife demanded, sounding almost as annoyed as his mother had been earlier, though to her credit she’d at least said hello before wanting to know just how far he’d strayed from her expectation.

  “Provincetown,” he informed her. “I woke up early.”

  “If you don’t start sleeping soon, I want you to see somebody.”

  There was real concern in her voice now, for which he was grateful. It was true he hadn’t been sleeping well, waking up for no apparent reason in the middle of the night and unable to get back to sleep. The usual end-of-semester pressure, no doubt. He’d already had his standard academic-anxiety dream, the one where he arrived at his classroom only to find a note on the door saying his class was now meeting in another building across campus. When he arrived there, same deal. And no matter how he hurried to catch up, his students were always receding at the end of an impossibly long corridor. All of it would probably disappear when he turned in his grades.

  “Guess who I’m having breakfast with?” he said, anxious to change the subject.

  “Who?”

  “Al Fresco,” he said. It was an old joke, no doubt summoned to the front of his brain by being on the Cape and eating outdoors. His parents always made sure their summer rental had either a patio or porch so they could have breakfast outside and read the paper “with Al,” ignoring Griffin’s pleas to finish so they could go to the beach. He and Joy had used Al Fresco back in their L.A. days, but it wasn’t that great a joke and had naturally fallen into disuse.

  Still, he was a little hurt when Joy said, “Al who?”

  “I don’t know about yours,” he told her, “but my day’s begun poorly.”

  “I know,” Joy said, sounding exhausted now. “She called here, too. The semester’s officially over, I guess.”

  Griffin had put off introducing Joy to his parents for as long as possible, explaining that they were involved in a particularly acrimonious divorce. “But I am going to meet them, right?” she’d inquired, already suspicious. “I mean, they are your parents.” He suggested, “How about at the wedding?” and she’d laughed, thinking he was joking. Down the years she’d gotten on well enough with his father, though he could never quite seem to place her, even when she was standing next to his son. Living two thousand miles apart, they saw each other infrequently, of course, but each time they met, his father acted more delighted and charmed than seemed natural. “Is it my imagination,” Joy said after their second meeting, “or had he forgotten me entirely?” Griffin told her not to take it personally. At the end of each semester his father still didn’t know his students’ names, except the two or three prettiest girls.

  His mother was a different story. Though polite, she’d never made a secret of her low opinion of Griffin’s choice of a mate. “Where did she do her graduate work?” was the first thing she’d wanted to know when Griffin called to say he was engaged. For her there was no greater barometer of personal worth. Moreover, when she asked people this question, they generally asked her back, and she got to say her doctorate was from Yale; if they didn’t ask, she told them anyway. In Joy’s case, she’d been expecting UCLA or Southern Cal. Griffin had anticipated this question, of course, and reminded himself there was no reason to be embarrassed to answer it, though naturally he was. He’d taken a deep breath and explained that Joy had gone directly to work after getting her underg
raduate degree and that she had a good job, one she enjoyed. “Yes, but what sort of person doesn’t do graduate work?” His mother inflected the word person ever so slightly, as if to suggest that anyone who didn’t go to graduate school might belong to neither gender, or perhaps to both. Poor Joy had spent the first decade of their marriage trying to get her mother-in-law to think better of her, the next trying to fathom why that wasn’t happening and the one after that pretending it didn’t matter. Of late she seemed to favor getting an unlisted phone number.

  On their honeymoon, she’d paid him an unintentional compliment by asking if there was any chance he’d been adopted. Back then he bore little physical resemblance to either parent, though over the last two decades that had changed. His hair had thinned in the exact same pattern as his father’s, and his nose, delicate when he was a younger man, had started to dominate his face as well. He’d kept in reasonably good shape by jogging and playing tennis, and he didn’t weigh much more than he had when they married, but the weight had subtly begun redistributing itself, his torso becoming noticeably concave (again like his father’s), as if he’d been kicked in the chest by a horse. With the exception of the small mole that bisected her left eyebrow and had appeared on his own in his thirties, his mother’s genetic gifts were more temperamental, if no less disturbing for that, and Joy had conceded long ago that there was no chance he’d been adopted. “That’s your mother talking,” she was fond of observing whenever he was unkind or snobbish, especially about someone in her own family.

 
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