That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  “She wants me to visit,” Griffin told her now.

  “Of course she does.”

  “She doesn’t like her new place.”

  “Of course she doesn’t.”

  “She’s going to live forever.”

  “No, but she’ll make it seem like forever.”

  The first thing he’d done when arriving at the restaurant was to wash his shirtsleeve in the men’s room. Though he thought he’d done a good, thorough job, he could smell it again. “When she called, I pulled over onto the shoulder, and a gull took a shit on me.”

  But Joy had lost interest in the subject, just as she often did with stories at what he considered their most vivid and interesting point. “Have you called your daughter yet?”

  Your daughter, rather than our, usually meant that in Joy’s opinion he was shirking some important parental duty. “She doesn’t get here until this afternoon, right?”

  “She’s been on the Cape since yesterday. She’s in the wedding party, remember?”

  Well, now that he thought about it, he did. “I’ll call her when I get to the B and B,” he promised.

  “Good. She could use some reassuring.”

  “About what?”

  “She can’t understand why we’re arriving in separate cars. Explain that to her, will you? Then she can explain it to me.”

  Griffin sighed. He’d succeeded in deflecting Joy from her purpose by complaining about his mother, but now they’d circled back. Best to get it over with and apologize. “I should’ve waited for you,” he admitted, pausing a beat before adding, “Boston wasn’t much fun without you.” And, when she still didn’t say anything, “I meant to spite you and ended up spiting myself… Are you still there?”

  “I’m here.”

  “I hope you aren’t waiting for me to humble myself further, because that’s all I’ve got for you.”

  “No,” she said. “That should do it.”

  By the time Griffin drove back down the Cape and checked into the B and B, it was nearly noon. He brought his travel bag and satchel up to the room, leaving the trunk empty except for his father’s ashes. He’d passed a couple of peaceful, secluded spots, but there’d been a brisk breeze, and he feared that when he opened the urn a strong gust might come up and he’d be wearing his father. Also, he’d feel less self-conscious saying a few words in his memory if there was someone besides himself to hear them, so he decided to wait for Joy.

  His father had died of a massive embolism the previous September, and the circumstances were nothing if not peculiar. He’d been found in his car in a plaza on the Mass Pike. Like most rest stops, this one had a huge parking lot, and his father’s car was on the very perimeter, far from other vehicles. It was unclear how long it had been there before someone noticed him slumped over in the passenger seat, his head resting against the window. Except for the trickle of blood, dried and crusty, below his left nostril, he might have been taking a nap. But why wasn’t he behind the wheel? The glove box was open. Had he been rummaging around in it, looking for something? On the backseat the road atlas was open to Massachusetts, with Griffin’s phone number scrawled on the top of the page. The key was in the ignition in the ON position. The car had apparently run out of gas there in the lot.

  “Must’ve been coming to see you,” the young cop said when Griffin arrived on the scene to identify his father.

  “It’s possible,” Griffin told him.

  “He didn’t mention it, though? Coming to visit?”

  Griffin said no, that it’d been a good six months since he’d seen him and almost as long since they’d spoken on the phone.

  “That normal?”

  He wasn’t sure what this fellow was getting at. Normal for them, or normal for other adult fathers and sons?

  “I mean, you didn’t get along?” the cop said. He seemed less suspicious than saddened to consider the possibility that over time his relationship with his own dad might similarly devolve.

  “We got along fine.”

  “It just seems … I don’t know. What do you make of the fact that he was in the passenger seat?”

  “I have no idea,” Griffin said, though that wasn’t true. The inference to be drawn was inescapable. He’d been in the passenger seat because someone else had been driving. All his life he’d stopped for pretty hitchhikers, a habit that had infuriated Griffin’s mother. “Better me than somebody else,” he always argued, lamely. “The next guy might be a pervert.” (At this she’d roll her eyes. “Yeah, right. The next guy.”) The other possible explanation was that he’d talked one of his coeds into making the trip with him. Though he’d retired the year before, the university still allowed him to teach one seminar each fall. More than once he’d let on to Griffin that girls at Christian schools like this one were often interested in exploring a more secular approach to life and love, if this could be done discreetly. Boys their own age offered neither experience nor discretion. It had been a woman, possibly a young woman, Griffin learned from the cop, who’d made the anonymous call to the state police about the man slumped over in his car in the rest-stop parking lot.

  It was unconscionable he’d waited so long to dispose of his father’s ashes, Griffin thought as he unpacked, hanging his suit in the closet and placing his shaving kit in the tiny bathroom. He should have made a special trip to the Cape last fall. His father had left a will but no instructions on where he wished to spend eternity. But on the drive back home from the turnpike plaza, Griffin had come to what had seemed an obvious conclusion. His father hadn’t been on his way to see him and Joy, since if he’d meant to pay them an unannounced visit he would’ve gotten off the pike at the previous exit. No, he was headed for the Cape. Griffin advanced that theory to his mother when he called to tell her what had happened. “His suitcase was packed with summer clothes,” he told her. “He had two big tubes of sunblock.”

  She hadn’t answered right away, which made him wonder if she was trying to compose herself. “I could have told him he’d never make it” was all she said before hanging up.

  The B and B had a large wraparound porch, so Griffin brought his satchel full of student papers down and set up shop in a rocking chair in the sun, where he sat trying to remember how that famous Shakespeare sonnet about death went. “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun …” was as far as he’d gotten when his cell vibrated, Joy calling him back.

  “I forgot to ask,” she said. “Did Sid get ahold of you?”

  “No,” he said, sitting up straight. Sid was his agent back in L.A., in his late eighties and still a legend in the business, despite his shrinking client list. Griffin sincerely hoped he was calling about a job. Money had been worrying him of late. Joy, who kept the books and wrote the checks, insisted they were fine, but if Laura got engaged, as she’d been warning them might happen soon, maybe even this weekend, there’d be a wedding to pay for, and a quick studio rewrite would be just what the doctor ordered. “When did he call?”

  “Last night. He wanted to know if you’d turned your grades in yet. It sounded like he meant for you to drop everything, hop on a plane and drop into the Universal lot by parachute.”

  Joy, since they moved to Connecticut, had little patience with Sid, whose ongoing, albeit sporadic presence in their lives she considered vestigial, an appendix that was liable one day to rupture. He was also one of those Angelenos who never took time zones into account when telephoning. Four in the afternoon—seven back East, about the time Griffin and Joy usually sat down to eat—was when he took the bottle out of his desk drawer, unscrewed the cap and poured, then started calling people. She might have been less peeved, Griffin thought, if Sid was calling with work, but mostly he just wanted to reminisce about old Hollywood—Bogart and Mitchum and Lancaster and Holden—until nostalgia morphed into anger that the town was now overrun by “bitches,” his term for the current generation of young male stars, action-movie pretty boys pretending, not very convincingly, to be tough guys. “Not a one of ’em could take
Renée Zellweger in a fair fight,” he was fond of observing. “You did the right thing getting out when you did, kid. Who needs it?”

  Who needed him? was the better question, according to Joy. Why couldn’t he understand that they’d moved on?

  Toward the end of their conversations Griffin always reminded him that he was still a dues-paying member of the Guild and that if the right gig came along, especially in the summer … but before he could finish, Sid always interrupted. “My advice?” he said, as if he’d just extended such an offer. “Don’t lower yourself. You’ve got respectable, grown-up work now.” Joy had usually finished eating and was loading the dishwasher by the time Griffin managed to get off the phone.

  This sounded different, though, and Griffin immediately felt the adrenaline rush, his mind racing in that old, calculating, savvy L.A. way he’d all but forgotten. If Sid was so worked up, it had to be a feature film, maybe one that had already gone into production with a horseshit script. Wouldn’t that be sweet. Some A-list actor had probably come on board at the last second and to accommodate this dickhead’s busy schedule they’d agreed to start shooting early. That would explain why they were coming to Griffin, who worked faster than anybody.

  It took him about a second to invent this scenario and another to check it for holes, of which there were several. The most obvious was that nobody out there remembered whether he was fast or slow, because, face it, nobody remembered him. Still, it was a pretty entertaining sequence of events, sort of like imagining a woman totally out of your league falling in love with you. It could happen and, in fact, already had. Back when they met, every man he knew had been in love with Joy, who was not just beautiful but genuine, a quality in short supply everywhere and especially in Southern California.

  Okay, so suppose for the moment that Griffin was right. Sid had found him something. A feature film. Everything would immediately go at warp speed. He’d have the fucked-up script in his hands by this evening, Sid would negotiate the deal over the weekend and Griffin would be on a plane to L.A. by Monday. Or to wherever they were shooting. It’d be a laptop gig. Late nights. Chinese (probably Thai, now) ordered in. Early wake-up calls. Pay commensurate. Just like the good old days.

  “Universal?” Could that be right? Who did he know at Universal?

  “No, I was just using Universal as an example.”

  “But it’s a gig?”

  “I don’t know, Jack,” Joy said, clearly impatient. “It sounded like work. You can find out when you call him back.”

  “But what did he say, exactly?”

  “We didn’t talk. He just left a message on the machine. I called back and left him a message to call your cell.”

  “Then why didn’t he?” Not that he really needed Joy to explain. He hadn’t called back because he had a list of names in front of him and probably had already penciled through Griffin’s. At this all-too-plausible explanation Griffin’s heart sank, though it, too, was flawed. Why leave an urgent message to call back if you were already moving on?

  “You’re asking me?”

  “No, just thinking out loud.”

  “Have you called Laura yet?”

  “Joy. I will, okay? Right now, in fact.”

  Hanging up, he scrolled down his phone’s contacts list, pausing at LAURA before continuing to SID. Half a dozen times over the last year he’d come close to deleting Sid’s entry, but he’d been right not to, he thought, smiling. After four rings his agent’s machine picked up, inviting him to leave a message. Strange. Even with the three-hour time difference, he should’ve been in the office by now, or if not Sid himself, then Darlice, his longtime assistant. Had business slowed to the point where he’d had to let her go? Sid’s speed dial had once been a who’s who of Hollywood royalty, but one by one, according to Tommy, his important clients had moved on. Still, Sid answering his own phone? Impossible. It then occurred to Griffin that Tommy might know what Sid was offering. His old writing partner always prided himself on knowing whatever was in play. He was tempted to give him a call, except that every time he did the first thing Tommy wanted to know was whether he’d given up on “going straight” yet. To his way of thinking, screenwriting was a lot like stealing, and he’d warned Griffin that moving to Connecticut would be like Butch Cassidy’s going to Bolivia. When Griffin argued that he could just as easily write screenplays in New England and deliver them by e-mail attachment, Tommy just laughed and said, “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

  Before he could make up his mind, he received another incoming call, and MOM was the warning displayed on the screen. What in the world did she want now, he wondered, letting it go to voice mail. There was a roof over the porch where he sat, but he leaned forward and scanned the sky anyway.

  Laura answered on the first ring, sounding groggy, though it was nearly one in the afternoon. “Hold on,” she said, and he could hear her telling Andy, her boyfriend, to go back to sleep. “There,” she said, coming back on the line. “I’m out on the balcony. Last night we all stayed up to watch the sun rise. Alcohol may have been involved.”

  “You should take it easy,” he said, immediately regretting it. Why on earth should she? She and her friends were still in their twenties, an age when you could both work and play hard, before it all started catching up with you. It would be years, at least a decade or two, before any of them started greeting the sunrise for a whole different set of reasons. “How’s Andy?”

  “Great. Wonderful.” As if the words had not yet been invented to describe just how great, how wonderful. But then her tone immediately became serious. “What’s up with you and Mom?”

  Laura had spent much of her adolescence terrified that one day he and Joy would split up. Most of her friends’ parents had divorced, traumatizing their youth, so, she reasoned, what was to prevent the same thing from happening to her? He and Joy seldom argued, but when they did, the first thing they had to do afterward was console their daughter. Telling her they both loved her, loved her more than anything, wouldn’t do the trick. No, what she wanted to hear was how much they loved each other. Nor, at twenty-six, had she outgrown this old anxiety. Just last year she’d confessed to Joy that she still had the occasional nightmare about getting a phone call from one or the other of them to say they were calling it quits.

  “Nothing’s the matter, sweetheart. Your mother just got tied up with some meetings.”

  She was quiet for a moment, and he expected further grilling, but instead she said, “Are you still going to Truro after the wedding?”

  “Why would I go to Truro?”

  “Not you,” she said. “The two of you.”

  “Which two?” Perhaps because his mother had recently established a beachhead in his consciousness, his first thought was that Laura meant him and her.

  “You and Mom, of course,” she said. “Is there someone else?”

  Griffin assured her there wasn’t.

  “Well, she said you discussed it.”

  Griffin scrolled back through the last week’s worth of conversations with Joy, many of which, truth be told, had been at cross-purposes. But “Truro” did provoke the faintest of recollections, though far too smooth and slippery to grasp. “It’s possible,” he conceded. “But I might have to fly to L.A. right after the wedding. Sid may have found something for me.”

  “Sid,” she repeated. “That man frightens me to this day. Remember how he used to pretend to be a dog and bark at me?”

  Griffin chuckled. He hadn’t thought about that in years: Sid, down on his hands and knees, at eye level with a terrified Laura, barking and growling and refusing to quit, even after Griffin had picked her up and turned away from him as you would from an actual dog. And Sid, ignoring him, continued barking up at Laura, too much of a Method actor to stand up.

  “Why would a grown man do something like that to a child?” she wanted to know, as if it was one of those childhood riddles that growing up hadn’t solved.

  “I don?
??t think he knew any other children,” Griffin told her. “He was probably as scared of you as you were of him.” Which, oddly enough, had been his own parents’ clichéd wisdom to him about real dogs.

  Laura, still reliving the experience, wasn’t interested in explanations. “And after we moved here—did I ever tell you this?—he called one night when you and Mom were at a party somewhere, and he just barked into the phone. I’d have been like fifteen, and it still scared the shit out of me.”

  She giggled then, confusing Griffin until he realized Andy had joined her on the balcony and was making ruff-ruff noises. “Sounds like this would be a good time to let you go,” he said.

  “Why don’t you join us for dinner tonight? We’re all going to this martini-and-tapas bar in Hyannis.”

  “What time?”

  “Nine.”

  “I’ll be in bed by then. Asleep, probably.”

  He’d intended this as a joke, half hoping she’d say, “Oh, Daddy,” and talk him into coming along, but she apparently took him seriously, maybe even deciding that being asleep by nine was appropriate for a man his age. “Okay, then,” she said, “but we’ll see you in the morning? You and Mom will be attending the wedding together?” She was joking now, he was pretty sure.

  “Unless she meets someone along the way.”

  “Goodbye, Daddy.”

  Hanging up, he remembered what the Truro thing was all about. By way of apology for the end-of-semester cock-up, Joy had suggested they drive out to the Cape after the wedding and see if the inn where they’d honeymooned still existed, maybe check in for a day or two. It’d be kind of romantic, she said, threading her fingers through his. There’d been a time when that particular gesture would have meant romance right then. Lately, it had come to mean that she might be amenable to the idea in a week or so, under the right circumstances, if he played his cards right, if he didn’t do anything between now and then to fuck things up. Which had made him grumpy enough to go to Boston without her.

 
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