That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo


  For the first several years of their marriage, with the Great Truro Accord temporarily on hold, Griffin and Joy had lived almost as nomadically as his parents, moving from apartment to apartment, as people often did in L.A. if they were young and worked in “the industry.” Sometimes they changed apartments to be closer to the ocean, other times to be closer to work. Or a new complex offering better amenities—a nicer pool, or Jacuzzi, or tennis courts—would open up. Once they’d even moved to be closer to a favorite restaurant. “This place is so much better,” they agreed after each move, settling into their new surroundings. “Why didn’t we think to do this sooner?” They didn’t have or want a lot of possessions, and friends like Tommy and his wife, Elaine, always helped with the moves, which was sort of fun, and of course they returned the favor. There were no trick knees yet, no stiff lower backs. Every other weekend, it seemed, there’d be a housewarming party somewhere. Back then, Joy also enjoyed feeling footloose and fancy-free, spending their money in restaurants and running off to Mexico when Griffin and Tommy landed a lucrative gig. She and Elaine were good friends, and they loved lounging around the pool while “the boys” banged away toward their deadline at the portable typewriter set up on the balcony above.

  But then Tommy and Elaine split up, and overnight things began to change. Little stuff, mostly. For instance, Joy had always worn her hair straight and long, which Griffin loved, but one day he came home and found her shorn and styled. “I can blow it dry,” she explained. “Ten minutes and I’m done.” He doubted it could possibly take that long. Then, other things. Instead of keeping one or two bras on hand for when they visited her parents, Joy’s top drawer was suddenly crammed full of them, and when he asked about this she replied that she couldn’t very well go through her whole life braless, could she? A rhetorical question, apparently. Not long after this she told him, “I woke up yesterday morning, and for some reason I was thinking about Truro.” Remembered, “for some reason,” that the life they were now living wasn’t what they’d planned. Okay, it had been fun, she admitted, but was all this moving around and jaunting off to Mexico natural? (Again, rhetorical.) The whole time she was growing up, she reminded him, not counting the place they rented in Maine, her family had lived in just two houses, the one in Syracuse and the other, after her father got transferred, in Orange County. “It’s time we stopped pretending to be your parents,” she concluded, “and started pretending to be mine.”

  If this included a gated community in Sacramento, Griffin wasn’t so sure. Still, until Joy put it into words, it hadn’t occurred to him that this was what they’d been doing. He’d always assumed that the way they lived was, if anything, a repudiation of his parents. Certainly that was how they viewed it. Their son choosing to live on the West Coast? Who wrote television scripts instead of books? Who’d chosen a profession where you didn’t get summers off? Why, he didn’t even own a decent tweed jacket. But okay, point taken. Yet, even if their nomadic ways were an unconscious reflection of his parents’ behavior, did that mean that it was now time to start consciously reflecting Joy’s? Worse, he suspected that his wife’s just happening to remember the Great Truro Accord “for some reason” wasn’t entirely credible. Her whole family loved to interfere in their lives, and he sensed their shadowy presence behind the string of changes. Was it her sisters—one newly overweight, the other newly religious—who’d convinced her it was time to start wearing a bra again, to get a more “grown-up” hairstyle? For years now Jill, whom Joy talked to on the phone every other day or so, had been wondering out loud, “Do you kids think you’ll ever settle down?” Or, as her father, who gravitated to sports metaphors, put it, “What’s your endgame, is what I’d like to know.”

  Griffin assumed that the true subject here was children. Joy’s sisters had started their families right after they married (or, in Jane’s case, according to his arithmetic, a couple months before), whereas he and Joy were pushing thirty without a breeding time line. But maybe it wasn’t just about kids. “You aren’t a real adult until you have a mortgage you can’t afford,” Harve liked to observe. “That’s when you find out if you can hit the long ball or if you’re just hoping to draw a walk.”

  Harve could speculate and philosophize all he wanted, but in one respect, real estate, the terms of the Great Truro Accord actually worked in Griffin’s favor. Joy hadn’t forgotten her dream house. Far from it. But that house simply didn’t exist, at least not in Southern California, and even if it had, given the breathtaking home prices in and around L.A., they wouldn’t be able to afford it. He would’ve sworn they were in complete agreement about this, but suddenly the whole house issue was on the table in a new and unexpected way. The outrageous cost of real estate here, Joy now argued, was actually a reason to buy something as soon as possible, even if it was a crappy tract house in the Valley (Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift!). Harve agreed, not that Griffin cared. Every year they didn’t enter the market put them that much farther behind the eight ball (Jesus, now a pool metaphor). It would be different, Joy conceded, if they’d been putting money aside toward a down payment, but here too they’d been imitating Griffin’s parents by meaning to save rather than actually saving. Maybe money did talk, as people claimed, but all it said to them was goodbye. Her parents, she said, were not only ready to help but anxious to. (They’d discussed this? When?) “They want to,” Joy said, exasperated, when Griffin categorically refused. “They loaned money to both my sisters, and they want to do the same for us. They don’t understand our reluctance.”

  His own parents understood perfectly. His mother was particularly adamant that borrowing money from Harve and Jill was a bad idea. “Good God,” she said. “Imagine owing money to people like them.”

  “That’s a bit harsh, Mom, given that you’ve only met them once,” he chided her, but thinking as he did so how strange it was that he always ended up defending Joy’s parents to his own, an impulse he otherwise kept under control. He had, in fact, imagined vividly what indebtedness to her parents would mean. In practical terms, every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Fourth of July invitation would have to be accepted. Nor would paying back the loan nullify such obligations. Worse was the attendant symbolism, because accepting their money would be a tacit admission that they needed it, and Harve would brag about “helping them out” long into the future. Griffin was pretty sure he made better money than Joy’s father ever had, but accepting this loan would cede to him the high economic moral ground. Harve could lay claim to a kind of fiscal virtue, and Griffin himself would become, by implication, the wastrel who needed assistance. This was, of course, an ungenerous view of his in-laws’ motives, one he didn’t go into with his mother. “They mean well,” he told her, damning them with faint praise. Though even this, his mother thought, was overly generous. “Boorish know-nothings” was how she remembered them from that single meeting. “Proud of their ignorance.”

  “Maybe you just know different things.”

  “Did you or did you not tell me they belong to a country club, that they live in a gated community?”

  Which was his mother in top form. Catch her in one unkindness and she’d quickly hopscotch to another. Attempting to corner her was like trying to put a cat in a bag; there was always an arm left over and, at the end of it, claws.

  “Call your father,” she advised. “He and I may not agree on much, but I’m certain he’d never want to owe money to anyone who plays golf. Bartleby would agree, too, if he ever said anything.”

  Actually, he happened to know that his father himself had taken up golf after Claudia left him. His doctor at the time, himself an avid player, had suggested it as a way to relax—strange advice, Griffin thought, since the sport had pretty much the opposite effect on him, though that probably had less to do with the game than that he usually played it with Harve.

  In lieu of offering to loan them the money herself—had Griffin actually imagined she might?—his mother continued to explain why he’d be wise to reject the of
fer of someone who had. “Remember your Thoreau,” she counseled. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”

  “That’s all well and good, Mom, but Joy’s talking location, location, location.”

  “Then save. When you have enough for a down payment on a crappy three-bedroom ranch out there, you’d have enough for a real house back East, maybe even a place on the Cape. I could visit you there. I’ve missed you.”

  Now this was a surprising admission, and Griffin immediately tested its sincerity. “You could visit us now in L.A.”

  “That’s all right. I can wait.”

  Save and wait. For a while at least, that’s what they decided to do. Dear God, he remembered thinking. Was he actually going to follow his mother’s advice? But in this case it made sense, didn’t it, to scale back and get real? Okay, maybe not Thoreau real, but real enough. For instance, there was no law that said screenplays had to be written on the balconies of expensive Mexican hotels (though in Tommy’s opinion there should’ve been). If they could rein in their spendthrift ways (yeah, Harve was right, they did spend too much and get too little for their money), Griffin made more than enough for them to live on. Joy, who worked part-time in the UCLA admissions office, didn’t make a fortune, but if they opened a savings account and deposited her earnings automatically and treated the money therein as sacred, in two or three years they’d have a tidy sum. If it wasn’t tidy enough, they could revisit the idea of a loan from her parents. By then maybe he’d be ready to quit screen-writing, which was, let’s face it, a young man’s game. He’d already been at it far longer than they planned in Truro.

  If it weren’t for Tommy, who’d be lost without him and needed time to get back on his feet after the meltdown of his marriage, he would’ve already said goodbye to the whole twisted life. Feature-film deals were getting harder and harder to make, and Griffin hated that the deals always seemed more important than the work that resulted from them. He could and often did riff on the subject. The “juice,” the creative surge, was all front-loaded. Talking up the deal, you were excited and the producer was excited and the young studio exec was fucking beside himself with excitement. Why? Because nobody had ever made a movie like this before. It was beyond quirky, it was fucking unique. It was fucking better than unique, it was one of a kind. Just go away and write it, the exec would tell them, because this was a can’t-miss idea. In fact, there was almost no way to fuck it up. After two years, a new producer and fifteen drafts (only three paid for) based on fifteen conflicting sets of notes, what you had, if you were lucky and the whole thing hadn’t been put in turnaround, was yet another standard-issue piece of shit that lacked a single compelling reason to shoot it, which was, Tommy was fond of pointing out, the best reason to think it would be. Fuck it, Griffin thought. Another two or three years, and he was out.

  Joy accepted his assurance, but for the record she expressed several explicit objections to his (or his mother’s?) strategy to save, scale back on spending and patiently bide their time. For one thing it flew directly in the face of human nature in general and their own in particular. The best way to save for the house they wanted back East, she (or her father?) argued, was to buy one here. They wouldn’t even have to save (something they’d never demonstrated much skill at), because the house itself would do the saving for them. It would appreciate in value, and when the time came to sell, the profit they made would provide the down payment on the house they wanted. Also, it was all well and good for Griffin to rail against the business of screenwriting and claim he was burning out, but there wasn’t ever going to be a good time to quit. Ten years from now Tommy would still be lost without him, and they’d always be in the middle of a project, unable to walk away. Even Tommy, ever the cynic, agreed with her. When it came to quitting, to getting the hell out, screenwriters were like stockbrokers. You could hate the job all you wanted but it remained lucrative, which fact hit home when you seriously considered the other options. Plus, he reminded Griffin, deep down, fucked up as it was, you loved it. A Stockholm syndrome kind of love, maybe, but real enough for all that.

  And Joy had one further objection, this one more personal than practical. If they followed his plan, it was she, not Griffin, who’d have to explain to her parents why they’d decided not to accept their generous offer of help. She did it, though, calling home over the Fourth, when the family always gathered for a patriotic celebration. This year Jason and Jared were both home on leave, and the family had been especially disappointed when Griffin and Joy had begged off, pleading, as always, a deadline. No, she told them, they weren’t ready to take the house plunge quite yet. They appreciated the offer, they’d talked it through, but this was what they’d decided. Maybe next year, or the year after that…

  Harve, at least, had shrugged it off. Hey, his son-in-law was proud—okay, hardheaded—but, hell, he could understand that, maybe even admire it a little. Just so long as his little girl understood the money wasn’t going anywhere. In the end, he assured her, Griffin would come around, and when he did, she could just let him know, and he’d write the check. Jill, though, was more perceptive. “I can’t help feeling Jack doesn’t like us,” she confessed to her daughter. (“Don’t be ridiculous,” Harve bellowed from the next room. “Why wouldn’t he like us?” followed by Jared and Jason, who shared a talent for mimicry and used it to devastating effect on their father, “Why wouldn’t he like us?”) Griffin had listened in on his wife’s half of the conversation and her patient attempt to dispel her mother’s misgivings (“No, no, that’s not true, Mom. He’s just afraid we won’t be able … I know, I know… He doesn’t mean anything by it… Of course he does, and so do I… Of course I’m happy …”). After Joy finally hung up, she was quiet, staring out the window at the courtyard below, where a young woman was shrieking with delight as two young men tossed her into the pool. Griffin turned off the radio, which had been playing jazz.

  He now had to admit that Joy had been right about all of it. It had taken him close to another decade to quit screenwriting and find a suitable academic position back East at a college that was adding a screenwriting component and a film series to their creative-writing major. He and Joy saved for a while, but not enough, and, just as she’d predicted, they raided the house account in emergencies. So in the end, when Joy got pregnant, he’d had to give in and accept the loan from her parents. He’d hated it even then, but it was the right thing to do. They bought a nice, modest house (though his mother Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift) at an immodest price in the Valley, and it was the equity from its eventual sale that paid for Joy’s dream house in Connecticut. It had also been the home of Laura’s childhood, and whenever she was in Southern California she drove by the old neighborhood to make sure it was still there, still being cared for.

  But Griffin couldn’t help remembering how, at the closing, as he signed his way through the mountain of paperwork, there’d been a little voice in the back of his head—his mother’s? his father’s? his own?—noting that he and Joy were no longer “flexible,” that if something better came along it’d be tough to pull up stakes and go. But of course he’d been right about a few things, too. Even after the loan had been repaid in full, Harve continued to remind them about what had given them their start, that they should’ve taken the money sooner. Jill scolded him when he went on like this, but Griffin could tell she, too, was proud of the part they’d played in making her daughter and son-in-law home owners, and of course she subscribed to Harve’s view that Joy and Griffin had had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into adulthood. “These two would still be hippies if it wasn’t for us, Jilly-Billy,” Harve chortled.

  Actually, his father-in-law’s boasting and the endless I-told-you-so’s had bothered Griffin less than he’d imagined they would, and to Harve’s credit, when Griffin repaid the loan, he hadn’t wanted to take the money. Jane and June and their husbands had never paid him back, he admitted, not that he’d wanted them to. That Griffin was even offering to was repayment enough. But Griffi
n had insisted, hoping against hope that the absence of debt would buy them some freedom.

  “Could we spend Christmas in Baja?” he asked Joy, driving back to L.A. after a particularly brutal Thanksgiving in Sacramento. Laura, then four, had been sick the whole trip. She’d been running a fever even before they left L.A., but no, even a sick child was no excuse.

  “Baja,” Joy repeated. “Why would we want to go to Mexico for Christmas?”

  “Okay, then you decide. Anywhere but Sacramento. Someplace where nobody will say, ‘How’s that house of ours? Tell me that’s not the best decision you ever made.’”

  She stared out the passenger-side window for a good mile before responding. “If we were going to visit your parents, mine would understand.”

  “I don’t want to visit my parents,” he said. “God forbid.”

  “So?”

  “I guess what I don’t understand is why we can’t have one holiday with just us.”

 
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