That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  The afternoon had grown pleasantly warm and, having slept poorly the night before, Griffin soon nodded off, the first of his student portfolios unread in his lap. A breeze awakened him an hour later, manuscript pages strewn all over the porch. Several had blown up against the railing, one slipping between the slats and impaling itself on a rosebush. After he’d retrieved the scattered pages and put them in order, three were still missing. He found one a block away, stuck to a telephone pole like a flyer for a lost pet. The other two were probably on their way to Nantucket. Jesus, he thought, his resemblance to his father wasn’t just physical. He’d been famous for losing student work, whole stacks of research papers going missing at once. “If you don’t want to read them, don’t assign them,” Griffin remembered his mother always saying when yet another batch disappeared without a trace and his father was forced to ask his students to resubmit their work. “I’d set the whole weekend aside to read them,” he said, feigning (she was certain) disappointment.

  Griffin’s mother loathed grading papers, too, of course. Who didn’t? But she was meticulous about correcting errors, offering style and content suggestions in the margins, asking pointed, often insulting, questions (How long did you work on this?) and then answering them herself (Not long, one hopes, given the result). But such industry was possible, his father always countered, only because her courses were about a third the size of his own. Only the bravest, most ambitious English majors took her classes, which she explained was evidence of her rigor and he cited as proof that she was a bitch on wheels.

  His father’s larger, more diverse classes made that laudable attention to detail impractical, or so he claimed. At the end of each paper he would affix a large letter grade and a general reaction like “Good” or “Could be better,” unless the student was a pretty young woman, in which case he’d suggest she come see him during office hours. With his male students, many of whom were athletes, he had an unspoken understanding. He would give them one letter grade higher than they deserved, and in exchange they were to leave him alone. His students enjoyed his affable, slightly distracted manner in the classroom, as well as his fondness for bad jokes and that he kept up on the issues of campus life, which other professors considered beneath them. He generally liked them, too, though at the end of the semester he wouldn’t have been able to pick a single one out of a police lineup, where, according to Griffin’s mother, most of them belonged. By contrast, she knew her students well enough to dislike them as individuals, for their intellectual laziness, their slovenly dress, their conventional instincts, their religious upbringing. They mostly disliked her, too, though a few wrote her after they graduated to thank her for the tough discipline she’d instilled. She always shared these notes with his father, remarking how little editing they required by comparison to the moronic screeds (often beginning Yo, Prof Griff) his former athletes sometimes sent him.

  Griffin, now entering his second decade of teaching, feared that as a teacher he’d inherited the worst attributes of both parents. He was popular, like his father, but then screenwriting courses always were. His students appreciated that he had real experience, that several of his and Tommy’s screenplays had been produced and that, if pressed, he could tell them cynical Hollywood stories. He liked them personally far more than he expected to. Except for the scholarship kids, they were the children of entitlement and privilege, but it turned out that just meant lots of books and music around the house, plenty of piano lessons and travel to shape their personalities. Their politics were mostly liberal, like their parents’. All that was fine, but by temperament he was more like his mother than he cared to admit. He offered his students far more comment and advice than they wanted, and the vast majority paid it exactly no attention whatsoever, given that their subsequent efforts were riddled with the same mistakes. Lately, he’d begun to wonder if his father’s indolence might in the end be more beneficial. Informed that his work “could be better,” a student of his might actually pause to reflect on how, whereas Griffin’s detailed analyses of various shortcomings simply caused the heavily edited pages to become airborne. This screenplay with the missing pages (airborne ahead of schedule) was typical. Its narrative, he felt certain, cohered about as well without them. It would take him a good half an hour to explain why, labor that was probably for his own edification anyway.

  It was so disheartening to contemplate, especially on such a lovely afternoon, that he stuffed it and all the others back in his satchel. When he redialed Sid’s number, it again went directly to voice mail. How disappointed was Joy going to be, he wondered, if there wasn’t time to go to Truro before he flew out to L.A.? Probably not very, he decided. It was nice she considered the idea romantic, but Truro, if she actually thought about it, was more likely to expand their recent conflict than to shrink it. Where they would honeymoon had been the first real disagreement of their relationship. She had favored the coast of Maine, where as a girl she’d vacationed with her family. Every summer they rented the same rambling, ramshackle old house, not far from where her mother grew up. It was drafty and creaky, its floors so pitched that if you dropped a Parcheesi marble off the kitchen table, you’d end up chasing it around the living room. But the place was familiar and had scads of room for her parents, the five kids and their weekend visitors. Joy had many fond memories of family dinners and evening excursions to a nearby amusement park, of all-day Monopoly and Clue tournaments when it rained. Even after her father got transferred and the family moved out West, they returned to Maine each July, never mind that its beaches were rocky and its water too frigid to swim in. Joy had even suggested the same house might be available for their honeymoon. Which begged Obvious Question Number One: why had Griffin talked her into the Cape instead? Given the opportunity to imitate a happy marriage—and there was no denying that Joy’s parents had one—why choose to follow his own parents’ miserable version?

  Still, they’d been happy in Truro, hadn’t they? It wasn’t like he’d bullied her. They discussed, finally agreed, and it had been fine. They spent the whole time making love and excitedly mapping out the rest of their lives. It was there, walking hand in hand among the Truro dunes, that Joy first talked about the sort of house she dreamed of them owning one day. It seemed to be a cross between the Syracuse house she grew up in and the summer rental in Maine: old, inconvenient, graceful, full of character, a house that had a rich history before you showed up and might even harbor a benign ghost or two. That Joy believed in ghosts was one of the more endearing things he’d learned about her on their honeymoon. She was certain the Syracuse house had been haunted. The whole family—even Jared and Jason, her much younger brothers—had sensed the ghost’s presence; it was, they all agreed, a woman. Only her father was immune, but he didn’t count, she explained, because he never noticed anything.

  The exuberant clarity with which she envisioned not just her dream house but also their futures back East was infectious. Griffin concurred with all of it, and why not? It would be nice to leave Los Angeles eventually, to live a saner, quieter life away from the clogged freeways and the ambient noise of what passed for culture there. He didn’t think he’d write screenplays forever, he told her, or maybe even for very much longer. He enjoyed the work, but it was hardly literature he and Tommy were writing. For some time now he’d been thinking he might try his hand at something more serious, a novel or collection of stories. But that, unfortunately, wouldn’t be nearly so lucrative, which meant they’d have to start saving; and when they made the break he’d probably have to teach. He’d been talking along these lines for a while when it occurred to him that he was lying. He hadn’t actually been toying with the idea of writing fiction for “some time,” and in fact it hadn’t occurred to him until he heard the words coming out of his mouth. Odder still, what he heard himself proposing was a life not all that different from his parents’. What had possessed him? Why give up screen-writing, something he was good at, even if it wasn’t serious work they might approve of? And who knew
if he could write anything that was. But never mind, he told himself. He wasn’t so much lying as dreaming, and what was wrong with that? Wasn’t Joy doing the same thing? He’d only meant to suggest there was more to him, or might be more at some future date, than was now apparent, that she needn’t fear growing bored with him, because of course he’d change and grow. They both would.

  But to Joy his dreaming might have sounded more like a promise. “A professor’s house, then,” she said, excited, when he mentioned teaching. That meant a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and comfortable chairs for reading, a big OED on its own stand, a small stereo for quiet, contemplative music. There’d be no “family room,” at least not like the one in her parents’ house, with its “entertainment center,” fake mahogany shelves lined with bric-a-brac purchased on cruises and at gift shops in state parks. The total absence of books in their home was the first thing Griffin had commented on, and he could tell she’d been embarrassed and hurt by the observation, though she’d gotten over it quickly. It reassured him, in Truro, to know that there was room for him in Joy’s dream house, that she intended it to be not just hers but theirs, a natural extension of who they were, of their marriage and, one day, of their family. And it thrilled him to know that in the important arena of values, she’d sided with him over her parents.

  Griffin didn’t dislike them exactly, but they had little in common. Harve had taken early retirement and they’d recently moved from Orange County to a gated community in a suburb of Sacramento, where they filled their lazy days with golf and tennis and bridge and visits from Jane and June—who lived nearby, on purpose, if you could imagine that—and their children. Jill (Jilly-Billy, Harve called her) had never had any interest in working outside the home. Ever since Griffin and Joy announced their engagement, her parents were forever badgering them to visit more, saying that even the twins, Jared and Jason, both in the service, got home more often. They seemed not to understand that Sacramento wasn’t a suburb of L.A., that Griffin often wrote under deadline, that writing was a job like any other. Even more inexplicable to Harve was Griffin’s aversion to golf, which Harve insisted was the sport of kings. “The prosecution rests,” Griffin told him, but it went right over his head. Griffin would love the game, Harve insisted, if he’d just give it a chance. After they were married, Joy’s first big gift to Griffin—at the suggestion of her father, who helped her pick them out, Griffin later learned—was an expensive set of clubs. The idea, she explained, was that the two of them could bond, and perhaps even find other commonalities, on the golf course. For a while Griffin dutifully took lessons, but he was a halfhearted student who never could master what Harve referred to as “the first damn rule of golf,” which was to keep your head down when you swung. “I’ll watch where it goes,” he barked every time Griffin topped the ball off the tee. “Just remind yourself in your backswing … If I look up, all I’m going to see is a bad shot.” The problem was that on those rare occasions Griffin did manage to keep his head down through impact, when he finally looked up, he always saw his father-in-law, two big paws shading his eyes, squinting down the fairway and saying, “Now where the hell did that go?”

  But they weren’t bad people and did try to establish a relationship. Unlike Griffin’s parents, Harve and Jill were duly impressed that he worked in the movies, though the former had a hard time grasping precisely what had to be written before filming started. Once, all four had gone to see a movie he and Tommy had written. Harve, who was hard of hearing, sat next to Griffin and asked loud questions throughout, ignoring his wife’s attempts to shush him. Every time one of the characters got off a good line, Harve said, “You wrote that?” as if he’d always assumed actors provided their own dialogue, much like a carpenter might be expected to bring his own hammer. Griffin replied that, yes, he’d written the line, or Tommy had. “How about that boat?” Harve said when one roared by, pulling a water-skier, in the background of the shot. “You didn’t write that part? Then what’s it doing there?” In other words, how could a real boat appear, unintended, in what Griffin insisted was a product of the imagination?

  His own parents at least understood that films were scripted. Unfortunately, to their way of thinking, this didn’t qualify as “real writing,” an odd opinion, he thought, to be advanced by people who wrote academic criticism. Once, he’d made the mistake of telling them how much he and Tommy stood to make on a quick rewrite of a horror movie, which prompted a lengthy discourse on America’s skewed values, whereby critical-care nurses were paid less than supermarket butchers. Griffin agreed about the nurses, but his parents also seemed to imply that the exorbitant fees he and Tommy earned for writing crappy movies were what prevented scholars from being paid fairly for their jargon-riddled articles and university-press books. Which begged Obvious Question Number Two: why was he more resentful of Harve and Jill, who really wanted to understand how he made his living, than his own parents, who had never, to his knowledge, seen a single film he had anything to do with? Was pigheaded disinterest grounded in quasi-morality somehow more admirable than rapt thickheadedness?

  The Great Truro Accord. That was how, in the years to come, Griffin jokingly referred to the future he and Joy mapped out on their honeymoon. At the time, deeply in love and drunk on sex, it had seemed they agreed about everything, as if they’d spend the rest of their lives excitedly finishing each other’s sentences. Still, it wasn’t just the love and sex. They really had agreed. They both wanted a family—okay, maybe not immediately, but someday. And when they had a family, of course they’d need a house, and there was nothing wrong with the one Joy dreamed of. And so what if Griffin had surprised himself by floating that trial balloon of one day turning his talents to something more worthy and real? Maybe it felt like a lie at first, but the more he thought about it, the more he wondered if the lie hadn’t tapped into some deeper, subconscious truth. After all, he’d gotten into screenwriting, at least in part, to thumb his nose at his parents and their insufferable pretensions. But what about him? What did Griffin himself really want? After telling Joy he might want to write a novel one day, he’d discovered he actually did. Moving back East made sense, too. Why live in L.A. if you weren’t working in the industry?

  Okay, maybe it should have been the Great Coastal Maine Accord, and perhaps, early in their marriage, he’d used his superior rhetorical skills to gain an advantage when he might have been more generous, more considerate of her desires. Sure, the time line had always been a bone of contention, and you couldn’t say Joy hadn’t been a model of patience. But when you looked at the original accord, as he’d been doing lately, the thing that jumped out at you was that Joy didn’t have much to complain about. She’d gotten everything she wanted, hadn’t she? They had Laura. He’d quit screenwriting. They’d moved back East. She’d gotten her house.

  But he had to admit there was something they hadn’t agreed on, something the Great Truro Accord hadn’t even addressed. With respect to their families, Griffin had hoped to invoke a simple, equitable policy: a plague on both their houses. Have as little to do with Harve and Jill, and with William and Mary, as decency permitted. And he was more than willing to make the first gesture. He had no intention of inflicting his parents on Joy or, when the time came, on their children. Was a little reciprocity too much to hope for?

  What he’d failed to comprehend in Truro was stark in its simplicity. Joy loved her family. Maybe she didn’t share their politics or their values, but she loved them still. Whenever they visited Harve and Jill in Sacramento, which he only did under protest, she slipped effortlessly into the old family routines, doing the complex ballet of kitchen and dining room with her mother and sisters, with children always underfoot, not to mention singing along with the songs on the oldies station that they made fun of back in L.A., banishing him to the family room to watch sports he didn’t care about with Harve and the idiot twins.

  Perhaps because Jason and Jared were both marines and because their father was so full of bell
ow and bluster, it had taken Griffin a while to understand the gender dynamic that ran just under the surface at these family gatherings: it was the women who charted every course, who made every decision. As military cops, the twins were enforcers of rules, but in civilian life they were trained to await instructions, and so was their father. When the dining room table was cleared, the dishes and pans washed and stacked, the dreadful board games came out—Monopoly, Clue and Life; Scrabble they refused to play because Griffin always won—and they were called back to the table whether or not the sporting broadcast had finished. They grumbled, of course, as men do, wanting to know why they couldn’t be left in peace, but it wouldn’t have occurred to them to decline the invitation, which, to their credit, they recognized as a command. It was over these ratty, faded board games, many of them held together with Scotch tape along the center fold, that all the old family stories, many of which originated in that old Maine summer rental, got trotted out and told at a decibel level that sent only-child Griffin out onto the patio in search of quiet, though he knew full well that this made him seem standoffish.

  At the conclusion of these endless visits, he always found a jazz station on the car radio for the trip back to L.A., during which he and Joy seldom spoke. It wasn’t the silence of argument so much as simple reentry. The drive was a long one, and just as well, too. Griffin could feel her exchanging—reluctantly, he sometimes felt—one suit of emotional clothes for another, one life for another. But the silence could and sometimes did morph into argument. One Thanksgiving at Harve and Jill’s, not long after they were married, having exhausted all the board games, they’d played Twenty Questions, and Joy’s sister Jane had stumped everyone at the table for the better part of an hour, Harve stubbornly refusing to give up. Finally, though, everyone else pleaded with her to surrender her fictional identity, which turned out to be Princess Grace of “Morocco.”

 
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