That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  Two weeks earlier Griffin wouldn’t have understood the question, but now he did. Indeed, what was the point of anything? He’d never asked himself such a question before. After dinner, as darkness fell, they took a long drive with no particular destination in mind, as they sometimes did their last night on the Cape, breathing it all in, filling their lungs with the salt air, as if they could carry it back with them to breathe in the Mid-fucking-west. No one spoke. By the time they returned to the cottages it was pitch-dark except for the dancing sparklers in front of the Brownings’ cottage. Griffin paused when he climbed out of the car, waiting for Peter’s disembodied voice to call him over, so he once more could say no and derive that same perverse satisfaction, but no invitation came.

  Upstairs—in his tiny bedroom under the eaves—he undressed in the dark and crawled into bed. From his window he saw five distinct sparkler tracks writing their ghostly script, but how could that be, with only four Brownings? Was one of them waving two sparklers at once? In the last twenty-four hours several other cottages had become occupied. Had the Brownings already found someone to replace him? Feeling his throat constrict at this cruel possibility, he pulled the shade down. But even with his eyes clamped tightly shut, he could still see the Brownings’ joyous sparklers etching their collective happiness on the night.

  It had been the stuff of good fiction, Griffin knew, but he’d somehow managed to mess it up in the telling, and when the writers’ strike ended sooner than expected he’d pretended disappointment when in truth he was relieved. The story was already too long, but he had no idea how to end it, to resolve the conflict he’d never managed to clearly articulate. He’d hoped to capture what it felt like to be impossibly happy and miserable at the same time, to be held in the grip of powerful new emotions you couldn’t understand. But when he read over what he’d written, it all felt wrong. He wanted readers to fall in love with the Brownings, as he had, but as written they felt like a TV sitcom family, especially Peter. In the story, the two friends had taken long walks on the beach, just as Griffin and Peter had done in real life, straying so far that their parents became tiny specks among the dunes before disappearing altogether, leaving them alone and content in the world, talking about everything under the Cape Cod sun. Unfortunately, Griffin couldn’t for the life of him remember a single conversation they’d had, and when he tried to invent one it sounded, well, invented, an adult writer giving adolescence either too much credit or too little. He’d discovered that his memories of that summer were like bad movie montages—young lovers tossing a Frisbee in the park, sharing a melting ice-cream cone, bicycling along the river, laughing, talking, kissing, a sappy score drowning out the dialogue because the screenwriter had no idea what these two people might say to each other.

  Nor was it just the details of this friendship that he couldn’t bring to mind. Peter’s sister… there’d been something wrong with her, hadn’t there? Griffin vaguely remembered the little girl having episodes of some sort when she got tired or overexcited, but episodes of what? Not being able to breathe? Somehow that didn’t seem right, but there’d been something. He remembered seeing the child feverish and curled in her mother’s lap, and a look passing between her parents that contained both fear and sadness, a detail that hadn’t made it into the story. Nor had Peter’s father. In real life the man had been ambiguously fascinating. He’d had a very large head, Griffin recalled, and while he wasn’t exactly ugly—Griffin’s own father was better looking—he wondered how Mr. Browning possibly could’ve won a woman as beautiful as Peter’s mother. But he did have a kind of physical grace, a sureness of movement. There seemed to be a connection between what he meant to do and what he did. Griffin couldn’t imagine him ever standing in the center of a room unsure of his next step, his own father’s signature gesture. Peter hadn’t been scared of him, but was always respectful, as if he knew all too well that his father, for all his kindness, wasn’t someone to cross. How, then, had he become so two-dimensional in Griffin’s story, a surrogate for Wisdom, the voice of adult Truth?

  Even more embarrassing, he wasn’t even sure he’d gotten himself right. Griffin kept imagining studio notes: Who is this kid? What does he want? Or worse, the ubiquitous Why are we “rooting” for him?

  “The kid’s gay, right?” Tommy said. “That’s where you’re heading?”

  Griffin hadn’t wanted to show him the story, but Tommy was insistent.

  “And at the end he’ll commit suicide?”

  “No,” Griffin told him, dispirited, “nothing like that.”

  “Because that’s where it seems like you’re going, unless the little fucker’s going to get unreal lucky and bang the other kid’s mother.”

  “No,” Griffin admitted, “not that, either.”

  Of course it was possible that Tommy was still pissed at him for working on this piece of shit when they could have been writing a spec script. Because now the strike was over, and they were broke, they’d have to take the first crappy assignment they could get, just as he’d predicted. But he did seem genuinely puzzled by the story. “You gotta feel sorry for the poor fucking kid, though,” he admitted. “I mean, those asshole parents …”

  That, Griffin felt, was the most dispiriting thing about it. Tommy hadn’t said it in so many words, but he didn’t have to. The only characters in the story that rang true, felt real, were the kid’s parents. Griffin hadn’t really intended to include them, except as devices. They were only there because a kid that age wouldn’t be alone. Parents of some sort were necessary, and generic ones would’ve done just fine. Instead, it had all gushed out, the stuff he’d only half understood at the time—how glad the fictional parents were that their son had been temporarily adopted by this other family. Not glad for him, not pleased that he’d found a friend, but for themselves. Because now they could have a leisurely breakfast on the deck with Al (yes, he’d used Al Fresco), spend their long afternoons reading on the beach without being pestered to come into the water and then, in the evening, go someplace nice for dinner.

  Curious to revisit the story after so long, Griffin had stuck it in the satchel with his students’ work. Who knew? Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he remembered. Actually being on the Cape as he reread it might help him see the ending that had eluded him in L.A. If so, and if Sid wasn’t calling about a script, he’d revise it over the summer. Unfortunately, in the lazy afternoon warmth on the B and B’s porch, Griffin found it difficult to fully enter its fictional world. Part of the problem was that his earlier assessment seemed to be correct: the story just wasn’t very good. But what puzzled him even more was why he’d tried to write it in the first place. Would he have done so but for the Great Truro Accord? He doubted it. Some stories, even ones buried deep in memory and the subconscious, had a way of burrowing up into the light, of demanding conscious attention, until you had little choice but to write them. But “The Summer of the Brownings” hadn’t been like that. He’d remembered them only when the strike loomed and he was casting about for something he might work into a story or novella. But why write either? Why had he been so willing, even anxious, to concede there was something wrong with the life he and Joy were living? What was so wrong with being young and free? With running off to Mexico on impulse? With turning their cars over to an endless parade of envious valets? That’s what living in L.A. was, if you could afford it, and they could. It was unfair to blame Joy, of course. It wasn’t like she’d tricked him. If anything, he’d tricked himself. In a moment of weakness, besotted by love, he’d imagined himself a different sort of writer from the one he knew himself to be. Joy had simply reacted to his enthusiasm. All she’d done was love him, the man he was, the man he’d been fool enough to believe he might become.

  Maybe nobody was to blame, but the end result of the exuberant, love-inspired Great Truro Accord was that he and Joy were now out of plumb. Plumb. Griffin couldn’t help smiling. He hadn’t thought of that term in years. One summer he’d worked as a carpenter’s assistant on a road-
construction crew that built concrete footers. That whole July and August, in the blistering Midwest heat, he’d worked with the same two guys, Louie and Albert. Where conversation was concerned, they’d been minimalists. “Are we plumb?” Albert would ask after a good hour of silence. “We were a minute ago,” Louie would respond, placing his level on the two-by-four in question, cocking his head to look at the bubble. “We’re plumb some,” he’d tell his partner, shrugging, which Griffin understood meant close enough. “We’re not building a skyscraper.” As they explained it to Griffin, a half bubble off in a foundation was no big deal unless you were going up thirty stories. Of course, half a bubble, factored over thirty floors, was no small thing. That, he now realized, was how he’d been feeling two days ago when he’d packed that bag and headed to Boston alone—thirty floors up and half a bubble off. Plumb the last time they checked, but now, suddenly, plumb some.

  Stories worked much the same way, Griffin thought, shoving “The Summer of the Brownings” back into his satchel. A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation. That was the problem with most of the scripts in his satchel. Griffin knew that much without even reading them. They would end unconvincingly because of some critical misstep at or near the beginning. Over the next few days, despite his lack of enthusiasm for the task, he’d carefully examine every one of his students’ rickety narratives, figure out exactly where they went wrong and how to go about fixing them, should their authors want to. They wouldn’t, though. He knew this because he himself didn’t want to revise “The Summer of the Brownings.” As far as he was concerned, if the error was somewhere in the foundation, in some awkward place you couldn’t get at with the tools at hand, it could just stay a half bubble off. Better to forget it and start something new.

  He really did hope Sid had something for him.



  That evening Griffin went to a steak house not far from the B and B. The Olde Cape Lounge had a frozen-in-amber fifties feel, but it was mobbed, the line of people waiting for tables stretching out the door. There was, however, a vacant stool at the bar, so he climbed aboard and squinted at the sign above the back bar, which read, in ornate Gothic letters:

  The words, somehow foreign and familiar at the same time, sort of reminded him of The Canterbury Tales, which he’d read long ago in college. Pen, hand, ends, devil and no were all recognizable words and should have been helpful in deciphering the whole, but somehow they weren’t. Though devoid of meaning, smirt particularly appealed to him. When Laura was a little girl, she compiled long lists of words she loved, based purely on how they looked and sounded, as well as others she hated. On which list, he wondered, would smirt have appeared?

  “A couple martinis and it’ll make sense,” the bartender said when he noticed Griffin studying the sign.



  “How about Grey Goosely?”


  In the mirror that ran the length of the bar Griffin noticed an Asian man in his mid-to-late twenties. Wearing a well-tailored three-piece suit and a handsome tie, he also appeared to be studying the sign. When his eyes met Griffin’s in the mirror, he smiled and nodded, as if to say, Okay, got it. How about you? Griffin hoped his own look in return might be interpreted as, Yeah, sure, me too, then feigned interest in his cell phone until his drink arrived, unwilling to enter into conversation with some lonely tourist whose English might be marginal. As if on cue, the phone vibrated with an incoming e-mail, Joy writing to say that her meetings had run long, but she was finally on the road and she would stop for something to eat. Expect her around ten. Which was pure, unadulterated smirt. No way, on a Friday evening, with I-95 summer traffic heading for the Cape, would she get in before eleven.

  And speaking of smirt, he himself had hoped to accomplish just two things today—get a good start on those portfolios and scatter his father’s ashes—and he’d managed neither. Not scattering the ashes was more disconcerting, and he really should’ve done the deed, wind or no wind. Why drive the length of Cape Cod, out and back, with your old man in the wheel well and not do such a simple thing? He supposed the Cape itself and the memories it had evoked since he crossed the Sagamore were part of it. And whether he cared to admit it or not, the unexpected phone call from his mother (and being doused with birdsmirt) had rattled him. But was there some further reluctance, some unconscious, unacknowledged scruple, at work? Some reason not to put his father to rest?

  He supposed it was possible. Joy noticed his bouts of insomnia had begun right about the time his father was found on the Mass Pike, and claimed the two had to be related, as well as to what she described as his recent funk. He didn’t know what to call it, only its name was not Professor William Griffin. He had been restless, though, give Joy that much, and Sid’s call, together with Griffin’s inability to reach him, had intensified that. Trying to reread “The Summer of the Brownings” hadn’t helped, either. Suddenly it was as if his dead parent, his living one, his old profession and his boyhood self were all clamoring for attention.

  This was profoundly silly. After all, his parents hadn’t played a dramatic role in his life since the seventies. That’s what heading west instead of east for college, and later going to film school, had been about, and staying in L.A. and marrying a girl who hadn’t done graduate work. Like Huck Finn he’d lit out for the Territories at his first real opportunity. The problem seemed to be that you could put a couple thousand miles between yourself and your parents, and make clear to them that in doing so you meant to reject their values, but how did you distance yourself from your own inheritance? You couldn’t prevent your hair from thinning or your nose from taking over the center of your face. Even worse, what if he hadn’t rejected his parents’ values as completely as he’d imagined? Joy maintained, for example, that he was inclined to locate happiness not in the present, as she did, but in some vague future. “And this reminds us of whom?” she often wanted to know. But was this his nature, as she implied, or just nurture? When he was growing up, his family had lived in a different house every year, renting from professors who were away on sabbatical. That was the reason he hadn’t ever had a really good friend until Peter Browning. The Griffins were never in one place, nor he in one school, long enough. Often they hadn’t completely unpacked their boxes from one move before they had to repack them for the next. University living, his parents called it, as if it were superior in all respects to how other people lived, “trapped” in a single house.

  No doubt about it, they were born renters, his parents. And the houses of senior faculty were gracious and the rents cheap, at least until word got around how careless Griffin’s parents were with other people’s possessions. One professor returning from a European sabbatical would find that her china service for ten had become a service for seven, another that his favorite Queen Anne chair, now missing a leg, had been relocated to the damp basement. “When we left for Paris,” they’d say, “there was a blender on the kitchen counter.” To which Griffin’s mother would reply, “Oh, that piece of crap,” as if to suggest that its owner owed them a debt of gratitude for putting the offending appliance out of its misery. One year they’d nearly burned down a colleague’s house by starting a grease fire in a cast-iron skillet and trying to put it out with cold water. The worst had been the year they’d gotten a beautiful old Victorian rent free. The only thing the elderly professor who owned it had asked of them was to make sure the pipes didn’t burst during a cold snap. If it got below zero, she reminded them, they should leave the kitchen faucet running when they went to bed. She seemed fixated on that scenario, actually, calling twice from Italy to make sure the pipes were okay, because she’d heard the winter was brutally cold. “She doesn’t even realize she’s projecting, the frigid bitch,” Griffin’s mother remarked after hanging up. “Pipes my ass,” his father added. “What she wanted to impress on us was that she’s in Tu
scany while we’re stuck in fucking Indiana.” But that very night an arctic clipper had blown in, the pipes burst, and by morning the whole first floor was underwater.

  Eventually, people either refused to rent to the Griffins or required huge deposits and locked away anything of value in a closet. That last tactic didn’t work, though, because a locked closet was both an affront and a challenge, and his father’s one physical skill was as a picker of cheap padlocks. By the time Griffin was in junior high, his parents were reduced to renting damp, drafty, decrepit dumps on fraternity row, and even these they managed to leave the worse for wear. “Houses are nothing but trouble,” they told him over and over, every time something went wrong, though even as a boy he understood the more commonly held view was that houses were fine, it was the Griffins that meant trouble.

  The way his parents saw it, renting allowed them to remain flexible, so if a job came along at Swarthmore or Sarah Lawrence they wouldn’t be saddled with an unsellable house in the Mid-fucking-west. And, of course, the money they saved by renting would then be available for a down payment when the right property on the Cape finally came along. Except they never managed to actually save. Indeed, they exhibited the professional humanist’s utter cluelessness where money was concerned. They bought on impulse, often things that required assembly, saying, how hard could it be, then finding out. Bookshelves invariably had at least one shelf where the unfinished side faced up, its rough edge facing out. When you pulled open the upper-right-hand drawer of a desk, its lower-left-hand one opened in noisy sympathy. They gravitated to failed technologies like eight-track tapes and Beta recorders.

  This carelessness was amplified in automobiles. His father specialized in rear-end collisions in the parking lots of grocery stores and shopping malls. The crashes all occurred without warning. The first sign that anything was amiss came with the impact itself, followed by the shriek of metal twisting, the shattering of glass and a moment of deep silence before his father, studying the rearview mirror, would say, “Where the hell did he come from?” Griffin, as a kid, had actually been in the car for most of these accidents, never seatbelted that he could remember, and in childhood often had a stiff neck. “Do you realize that sixteen-year-old boys on learner’s permits get better rates than we do?” his mother complained to their insurance agent. “Sixteen-year-old boys have fewer collisions,” the man told her. The cop who’d talked to him at the turnpike rest stop had noted that his father’s dented trunk was secured by a bungee cord, testimony to a recent accident, and Griffin had to explain that it would’ve been far more unusual if the trunk had not been mangled, and also that the accident in question probably hadn’t been that recent. His father had been the sort of man who considered the bungee cord a permanent solution, at least as permanent as the car itself. “He was an English professor,” he explained.

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