That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  That evening, when they pulled into the garage of their rented condo in Brentwood, Joy was still fuming because Griffin, instead of laughing along with the rest of the family at Jane’s goof, shook his head in disbelief, got up from the table and left the room, as if her mistake had been intentional or malicious and such bizarre mistakes could be assigned a moral value. Now, four hours later, when he turned off the ignition and started to get out of the car, Joy remained seated. When he asked if she meant to stay the night in the garage, she said, “I hate jazz.”

  “Apropos of?” he asked.

  “Apropos of I want you to know I hate jazz.”

  She later told him it wasn’t really true. She liked jazz. She just for some reason felt the need to tell him she didn’t. Something had gotten into her, she said. She had no idea what.

  4

  The Summer of the Brownings

  In addition to his students’ work, Griffin’s satchel also contained a long, unfinished story, “The Summer of the Brownings,” its precomputer pages yellowed and curled. A couple years after they were married, it had been his first attempt to implement that provision of the Great Truro Accord by trying to write something other than a screenplay. He’d come across the story when he was cleaning out his filing cabinets at the college in order to make room for the few things of his father’s that he wanted to keep. His father’s last years were spent in a small, cramped, university-owned flat, and most of the furnishings weren’t even his. There were lots of scholarly journals and books, including a pristine copy of Claudia’s dissertation, published by a good university press, that she’d proudly signed. Griffin found his father listed on the acknowledgments page, along with the other members of her doctoral committee. The book’s stiff spine suggested that the book hadn’t been opened, much less read. Of course if his father had written it, as his mother alleged, there would’ve been no need to. In a token gesture of revenge Griffin had given it away with the rest of his father’s library, keeping as mementos only a few of the P. G. Wodehouse and Henry Miller books he remembered him reading on Cape Cod beaches. He’d almost missed, in the recesses of a dark closet, the dozen shoe boxes full of campaign buttons and other political trinkets his father had continued to collect down the years, and he kept these as well. “Scoff all you want,” he remembered him telling his mother when he stopped at flea markets. “You won’t be laughing when we sell the whole collection and use it for a down payment on a house.”

  Was it worth anything now? Griffin supposed it might be and made a mental note to inventory the items and have them valued, but then he’d shoved the shoe boxes into the back of the filing cabinet and hadn’t thought about them since. The only real surprises among his father’s effects were a couple VHS tapes of movies Griffin and Tommy had written. He couldn’t remember sending them himself, so had his father bought them? Or had a colleague, noticing the screenplay credit, given them to him as a gift? They had been viewed, but by whom?

  “The Summer of the Brownings” had an interesting provenance. The writers had gone on strike that year, as they were forever doing, and he’d used the work stoppage to write it. “You’re shitting me,” Tommy said when Griffin explained what he was doing. Why not write a spec script, he argued, which every other screenwriter would be doing, because then they’d have something they could sell once the strike was over. Be in the driver’s seat for once, instead of having to take the first horseshit assignment they got offered. Griffin told him to go ahead and start something if he wanted, but he knew Tommy wouldn’t. He relied on Griffin for direction and wouldn’t even know where to begin.

  The story was about the summer he was—what—twelve? He and his parents had gone to the Cape, as usual. He couldn’t remember exactly where, only that it was pretty remote and they’d stayed only two weeks, which meant they weren’t flush. Their tiny, shingled cottage (Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift!) was set back from the highway in a stand of scrub pines along with eight or ten others arranged in a horseshoe around a brown, hard-packed children’s play area. To get to the water you had to cross the macadam road, then walk down a winding dirt road past million-dollar beach homes (Can’t Afford It!), between rolling, grassy dunes for a good half mile. Only one other cottage was occupied, so it must have been early in the season, probably the last half of June, because he recalled it had been warm.

  “At least they’re over on the other side,” his father said, indicating the two children playing outside that cottage. His parents never made any secret of the fact that they loathed children, and that the whole compound was organized around a rusty swing set and jungle gym they took as an evil omen indeed. Even before they were finished unpacking the car, Griffin, changing into his bathing suit in the tiny upstairs bedroom under the eaves, heard his mother say, “Good God, here they come.” And sure enough, the whole family from across the way was trooping through the playground, clearly intending to welcome the newcomers. Griffin hurried down to meet them.

  They were the Brownings, they said; the mother and father were both teachers from somewhere in western Massachusetts and roughly the same age as Griffin’s parents. The kids were a boy, Peter, and also a little girl. Mr. Browning wondered if they were thinking about buying the cottage, indicating the FOR SALE sign leaning up against the porch. “God, no!” Griffin’s father replied with a shudder. While the cottages were identical, the Brownings apparently took no offense, even though they themselves were part owners of the one they occupied, they explained, along with two other couples that taught at their school. The cottages were all individually owned, looked after in the off-season by a local caretaker, but most were rented for at least a month or two in the summer, and there was always a nice mix of people.

  “You must be teachers, too,” Mr. Browning said, indicating the institutional decal on the rear window of the Griffins’ car.

  “University professors, actually,” his mother said, clearly anxious to set them straight on this score.

  Mrs. Browning, a tall, beautiful, olive-skinned woman, touched her husband’s elbow then, saying they were heading to the beach, and since their boys were about the same age, would Griffin like to come?

  “Go on,” his parents said in unison.

  That was the beginning. By the end of the day he and Peter Browning had become fast friends. Every morning, when his parents were reading the newspaper (his father drove into town early to pick it up, along with fresh pastries, though he kept forgetting he was supposed to get a box of Griffin’s favorite cereal, too) and having breakfast with Al Fresco, they’d hear the Brownings’ screen door creak open on its unoiled hinge and Peter would shout across the playground, “Can you come over?”

  “Have fun,” his parents said, by which they meant, Leave us in peace.

  Except, wait, that wasn’t true, at least not at the beginning. On their second day, when Griffin was again invited, midmorning, to go to the beach, his mother had said no, that he should stay with them. They’d be going to the beach themselves, right after lunch. So off the Brownings had trudged, a big cooler swinging between the adults, the little girl (why couldn’t he remember her name?) skipping on ahead, Peter shouldering a big mesh laundry bag full of towels and colorful beach toys and looking devastated as he waved goodbye. When Griffin wanted to know why he hadn’t been allowed to go along, his mother explained that people like that always wanted something in return for kindnesses, and she had no intention of playing that game.

  Two interminable hours later, Griffin and his parents, not nearly so well provisioned, emerged from among the dunes, and he glimpsed the Brownings a hundred yards down the beach to the left. “Go right, go right, go right,” his father said, nudging him forcefully in the other direction and pretending not to notice the entire family standing up and waving. “They teach junior high,” his mother explained when Griffin asked why they weren’t being more friendly. “Do you know what that means?” He didn’t, but understood he was supposed to. Was it that people who taught, say, kindergarten didn
’t associate with people who taught seventh grade, who didn’t socialize with people who taught high school, who didn’t mix with college professors? It had to be something like that, he decided.

  Fortunately, though he had no idea why, his parents changed their minds about the Brownings wanting something, and the next day he was allowed, indeed encouraged, to go with them while his parents finished breakfast with Al. They never budged until after lunch (they hated eating on the beach, and his father’s pale skin was susceptible to sunburn), by which time most families with bratty kids were packing up, and they’d have a long stretch of sand to themselves. Without Griffin to nag them, they usually emerged from among the dunes midafternoon with their towels and books and a couple folding beach chairs and not much else. The Brownings typically set up camp to the left, which meant that his parents headed to the right. That embarrassed him, especially the day the Brownings (intentionally?) changed things up by making their camp right where his parents usually sat, so when they arrived at their usual time they took a couple of steps toward them before noticing, then quickly reversed course. Griffin saw the look that passed between Peter’s parents and felt himself glow hot with shame.

  “Aren’t they tired of you yet?” his mother asked over breakfast one morning near the end of their first week, as if to suggest that she couldn’t imagine what was taking them so long.

  If the Brownings were tired of Griffin, they gave no sign. Mrs. Browning always had enough sandwiches and Cokes in the cooler for everyone when they went to the beach. Of Italian descent, she introduced him to exotic new foods: fatty, spiced ham and hard salami, marinated mushrooms and artichokes, blistering hot cherry peppers, and a mouthwatering macaroni salad that tasted like nothing that came from the supermarket deli where his mother shopped. And in the evening, back at the cottages, there were always extra hot dogs and hamburgers and chicken on the grill. (Griffin’s father never grilled outdoors, not even on vacation, not since the year the flame from the smoking briquettes climbed up the stream of lighter fluid and torched his eyebrows.) Nor did the Brownings seem to mind that his parents took advantage of the free babysitting, driving into town most nights for dinner, just the two of them. “You should let us return the favor some night,” Griffin’s mother suggested, her insincerity clear even to him. “Give you and your husband a vacation from the kids.”

  “We think of it as vacation with the kids,” Mrs. Browning said, and he saw the remark land, but it was only a glancing blow.

  “If you pass someplace that sells ice on your way back, you could pick up a bag or two for the cooler,” Mr. Browning told Griffin’s father. “Save me a trip in the morning.” But they must not have passed anyplace that did, and the Brownings didn’t ask any other favors.

  Griffin had had friends before, but never one all to himself, and never one he liked as much. Peter was good at things. He knew how to bodysurf, something Griffin had long wanted to do but was too afraid to try. His father, who was prone to minor injury, was so afraid of riptides that he refused to even go into the water. His mother liked to swim, but she’d sidle gracefully through the waves until she was out beyond where they broke so she could do her languid crawl. Peter, a wave aficionado, showed Griffin how to get the maximum ride out of the smaller waves and later, when he grew bolder, how to keep the larger ones from bouncing him on his head. Despite being several inches shorter, the boy was a natural athlete and could beat Griffin at anything that involved hand-to-eye coordination, though he generously explained his victories as owing to genetics. “My dad’s good at sports”—he shrugged, as if that didn’t really amount to much—“so I am, too.” The heredity angle, of course, contained a veiled insult, and Griffin was pretty sure Peter and Mr. Browning, after watching his father’s daily struggles to unfold his beach chair, had sized him up as physically ungifted. “Your dad’s quite a reader, I see,” Peter’s father remarked one day, perhaps searching for a compliment that would have some basis in reality, and Griffin nodded, again glowing with shame.

  By the end of their two weeks together, he and Peter had developed an intimacy that was wholly foreign to his experience and made him wonder if this was what love was like. It wasn’t a sexual feeling, though it constricted his heart with a strange, purposeless urgency he didn’t comprehend. When he wasn’t with Peter, he needed to talk about him and, no surprise, his parents tired of this subject quickly, especially when Griffin began to lobby them about renting one of these same cottages next summer, so he and Peter could be together again. Having already sounded him out about the owners’ rotation, he knew that the Brownings would be on the Cape in July. Please, please, he begged, couldn’t they book a cottage right now? If they couldn’t afford the whole month, at least take it for the first two weeks of July, so they’d all arrive together. Otherwise, Peter might develop some new summer friendship before Griffin could get there.

  The reason he was so certain his attraction to Peter wasn’t sexual was that his feelings for the boy’s mother were precisely that. When Mrs. Browning wore a two-piece bathing suit, he had to lie on his stomach in the hot sand to conceal his erection. He didn’t let on to Peter, of course, not even daring to say something innocent like “Your mom’s really pretty,” but somehow he seemed to know anyway. Was it possible Peter harbored similar feelings for his own mother? Did that happen? Mr. Browning also noticed Griffin’s admiration, but instead of being annoyed or even angry, as Griffin imagined he might be, all he did was smile, as if he understood his wife’s charms all too well and couldn’t blame the boy for being taken with them. In fact, his kindness so shamed Griffin that for a day or two he tried his best to banish any dirty thoughts (as he’d characterized them) about Mrs. Browning, but it was no use. One afternoon, lying on her stomach in the warm sand, she untied her bathing suit top to take full advantage of the sun and then fell asleep. The waves were perfect that day, but Griffin told Peter he was tired of bodysurfing, whereas in truth he was intoxicated by the possibility that when Peter’s mother woke up she might momentarily forget the untying and rise up, bare-breasted. She didn’t, of course, but again Griffin felt that his friend knew what he was up to.

  Had he ever again felt quite so sick at heart as at the end of their Cape vacation that summer? Not in adult life, surely. During the first of their two weeks he’d fallen in love, however improbably, with the whole Browning family, and every day, even the rainy ones, was radiant. During the second week, though, everything pivoted, as each passing day moved relentlessly toward the conclusion of their stay. The thought of leaving the Cape and never seeing Peter or any of the Brownings again engendered in Griffin a dark, complex emotion every bit as powerful as love. Part of it he recognized as despair, a panicked anxiety that left him breathless and weak, certain that things would never again return to normal or, worse, that normal was no longer enough, that his previous life amounted to starvation. But there was something else that scared him even more than despair: the desire to … what? To harm himself. To hurt even worse than he was already hurting. To ensure that whatever had been broken was beyond repair. Though there was a word for it—perversity—he didn’t know it yet, wouldn’t for many years. He knew only the feeling, but that was full and sufficient.

  The evening before the Griffins were to leave, the Brownings invited him over for hamburgers and ice cream. Mr. Browning had some sparklers they were saving for their own last night, but since their new friend and his parents were departing, they’d decided to break them out early. Wanting desperately to accept their invitation, he instead told Peter that he and his parents were going out for a fancy dinner at the Blue Martini. It was very expensive, he said, but his parents had promised him he could order whatever he wanted, no matter what it cost, so he’d have to say no to the hamburgers. The look of disappointment on his friend’s face provided a kind of bitter satisfaction.

  It was true his parents had planned a fancy dinner out, but for just the two of them, and their surprise and annoyance when he told them what he’d d
one was pleasurable as well. “Why?” his mother said. “It’s your last night with Steven. For the last two weeks it’s been nothing but Steven this and Steven that.”

  “Peter,” he’d corrected her—shouting at her, really, and not caring if this meant trouble. “His name is Peter.”

  She studied him for a long beat. “Why are you acting like this?” she said, but her tone suggested that she knew perfectly well, as if she’d been wondering when this side of his personality would reveal itself. “You’re only hurting yourself,” she told him. “You know that, don’t you?”

  But of course that part was a bluff. He wasn’t hurting only himself. He was hurting her and his father, ruining their plans, and also disappointing Peter and the rest of the Brownings. That was the beauty of the thing, indeed its only beauty: the equitable sharing of unendurable loss and disappointment. There was another part of him, of course, that wanted to be talked out of this new, terrifying strategy, to subdue this vengeful, self-defeating emotion, and if his mother had tried harder to persuade him to, she might have succeeded. But she just gave him a wry smile and said, “If that’s the way you want to be.”

  “That’s the way I want to be,” he said, feeling something rip inside, because it wasn’t what he wanted, but rather what he needed. Later, he heard his father call the restaurant and cancel their reservation. They went instead to a family seafood place, where they ate at a weathered picnic table, their dinners served in paper boats.

  “I loath fried seafood,” his mother said, pushing her scallops away.

  “This wasn’t what I had in mind, either,” his father said bitterly.

  “We could’ve gone to the Blue Martini anyway,” his mother said.

  “Yeah, but what would be the point?”

 
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