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That Old Cape Magic


A Finer Place

Though the digital clock on the bedside table in his hotel room
read 5:17, Jack Griffin, suddenly wide awake, knew he
wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. He’d allowed
himself to drift off too early the night before. On the heels of
wakefulness came an unpleasant realization, that what he
hadn’t wanted to admit yesterday, even to himself, was now
all too clear in the solitary, predawn dark. He should have
swallowed his petulance and waited the extra day for Joy.

It had been their long- established habit to flee the campus as
soon as Griffin taught his last class. Usually, they hopped on the
Freedom Trail (his term for I- 95), drove to New York and treated
themselves by checking into a good hotel. During the day he would
evaluate his small mountain of student portfolios while Joy shopped
or otherwise amused herself, and then, evenings, they’d catch
up on movies and go to good restaurants. The whole thing reminded
him of the early years of their marriage back in L.A. It cost a
small fortune, but there was something about spending money they
didn’t really have that made him optimistic about more coming
in --- which was how it had worked in L.A. --- and it got him
through the portfolios.

This year Kelsey’s Cape Cod wedding had royally screwed up
their plans, making New York impractical, though he’d been
willing to substitute Boston. But Joy, assuming that thanks to the
wedding all the usual bets were off, had messed things up further
by scheduling meetings on the day after his last class. “Just
go,” she said when he expressed his annoyance at the way
things were working out. “Have a boys’ night out in
Boston and I’ll meet you on the Cape.” He’d
squinted at this proposal. Didn’t you need more than one to
have a boys’ night out? Or had Joy meant it to be singular,
one boy celebrating his boyness? Was that how she’d
understood the phrase all her life, as singular? Joy’s
relationship to the English language was not without glitches. She
was forever mixing metaphors, claiming that something was “a
tough line to hoe.” Row to hoe? Line to walk? Her sisters,
Jane and June, were even worse, and when corrected all three would
narrow their eyes dangerously and identically. If they’d had
a family motto, it would have been You Know Perfectly Well What I

In any event his wife’s suggestion that he go on without
her had seemed less than sincere, which was why he decided to call
her bluff. “All right,” he said, “that’s
what I’ll do,” expecting her to say, Fine, if it means
that much to you, I’ll reschedule the meetings. But she
hadn’t said that, even when she saw him packing his bag, and
so he’d discovered a truth that other men probably knew
already --- that once you’d packed a bag in front of a woman
there was no possibility of unpacking, or of not going and taking
the damn bag with you.

Worse, Joy, who preferred to watch movies on DVD rather than in
a theater, as they were meant to be seen, had given him a list of
films he was forbidden to see without her, and of course these were
the only ones worth seeing. He’d spent an hour looking
through the restaurant guides provided by the hotel, but
couldn’t decide on one, or even on what kind of food he
wanted. Griffin had no trouble making these sorts of decisions when
she was around, but for some reason, when he had only himself to
please, he often couldn’t make up his mind. He told himself
this was just the result of being married for thirty years, that
part of the decision- making process was imagining what his wife
would enjoy. Okay, but more and more he found himself stalled, in
the middle of whatever room he happened to be standing in, and he
realized that this had been, of course, his father’s classic
pose. In the end Griffin had ordered room service and watched a
crappy made- for- TV movie, the kind he and Tommy, his old partner,
had been reduced to writing that last year or two in L.A. before
he’d gotten his teaching gig and moved back East with Joy and
their daughter, Laura. He’d fallen asleep before the first
commercial, confident he could predict not only the movie’s
outcome but also half its dialogue.

In order not to dwell on yesterday’s mistakes, he decided
to put today in motion by calling down to the bell captain for his
car. Twenty minutes later, dressed and showered, he’d checked
out of his Back Bay hotel. The whole of Boston fit neatly into the
rectangle of his rearview mirror, and by the time the Sagamore
Bridge, one of two that spanned the Cape Cod Canal, hove into view,
the sky was silver in the east, and he felt the last remnants of
yesterday’s prevarications begin to lift like the patchy fog
he’d been in and out of since leaving the city. The Sagamore
arched dramatically upward in the middle, helping to pull the sun
over the horizon, and though the air was far too cool, Griffin
pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and put the
convertible’s top down, feeling truly off the reservation for
the first time since leaving home in Connecticut. There was
something vaguely thrilling about not being where his wife thought
he was. She liked to know what people were up to, and not just him.
She called Laura most mornings, her brain still lazy with sleep, to
ask “So . . . what’s on the agenda for you
today?” She also phoned both of her sisters several times a
week and knew that June was having her hair done tomorrow morning
and that Jane had put on five new pounds and was starting a diet.
She even knew what new folly her idiot twin brothers, Jared and
Jason, were engaged in. To Griffin, an only child, such behavior
was well over the line that separated the merely inexplicable from
the truly perverse.

Zipping along Route 6, Griffin realized he was humming
“That Old Black Magic,” the song his parents had sung
ironically --- both university English professors, that’s how
they did most things --- every time they crossed the Sagamore,
substituting Cape for black. When he was growing up, they’d
spent part of every summer on the Cape. He could always tell what
kind of year it had been, moneywise, by when and where they stayed.
One particularly prosperous year they’d rented a small house
in Chatham for the month of August. Another year, when faculty
salaries were frozen, all they could afford was Sandwich in June.
His parents had been less wed to each other than to a shared sense
of grievance over being exiled eleven months of every year to the
“Mid- fucking- west,” a phrase they didn’t say so
much as spit. They had good academic careers, though perhaps not
the stellar ones that might have been predicted, given their Ivy
League pedigree. Both had grown up in the Rust Belt of western New
York State, his mother in suburban Rochester, his father in
Buffalo, the children of lower- middle- class, white- collar
parents. At Cornell, where they’d both gone on scholarship,
they’d met not only each other but also the kind of friends
who’d invited them home for holidays in Wellesley and
Westchester and for summer vacations in the Hamptons or on the
Cape. They told their parents they could earn more money there,
which was true, but in fact they’d have done anything to
avoid returning to their parents’ depressing upstate homes.
At Yale, where they did their graduate work, they came to believe
they were destined for research positions at one of the other Ivys,
at least until the market for academics headed south and they had
to take what they could get --- the pickings even slimmer for a
couple --- and that turned out to be a huge state university in

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if
Indiana was your reward? But they’d had little choice but to
hunker down and make the best of their wretched timing, so they
dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to
bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed
they’d be ready. They feared the Princeton and Dartmouth
ships had probably sailed for good, but that still left the
Swarthmores and Vassars of the world as safe if not terribly
exciting havens. This much, at least, was surely their due. And
before going up for promotion and tenure (or “promotion and
tether,” in their parlance) in the Midfucking-west,
they’d each had opportunities --- she at Amherst, he at
Bowdoin --- but never together. So they stayed put in their jobs
and their marriage, each terrified, Griffin now suspected, that the
other, unshackled, would succeed and escape to the kind of academic
post (an endowed chair!) that would complete the misery of the one
left behind. To make their unhappy circumstances more tolerable,
they had affairs and pretended to be deeply wounded when these came
to light. His father had been a genuine serial adulterer, whereas
his mother simply refused to lag behind in this or anything

Of course all of this was adult understanding. As a boy, the
reluctant witness to his parents’ myriad quarrels and
recriminations, Griffin had imagined that he must be the one
keeping them together. It was his mother who eventually disabused
him of this bizarre notion. At his and Joy’s wedding
reception, actually. But by then they had finally divorced --- even
spite, apparently, was not eternal --- and she’d narrowly won
the race to remarry. In an ecumenical mood, she ventured outside
the English department for her second husband, a philosopher named
Bart, whom she’d quickly dubbed “Bartleby.” At
the reception, half in her cups, she’d assured Griffin,
“Good heavens, no, it wasn’t you. What kept us together
was ‘That Old Cape Magic.’ Remember how we used to sing
it every year on the Sagamore?” She then turned to Bartleby.
“One glorious month, each summer,” she explained.
“Sun. Sand. Water. Gin. Followed by eleven months of
misery.” Then back to Griffin. “But that’s about
par for most marriages, I think you’ll find.” The I
think you’ll find, he understood, was of course meant to
suggest that in her view, his own marital arithmetic was likely to
be much the same. For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer
an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to,
though he did sigh meaningfully.

Griffin was about to respond when his father reappeared with
Claudia, his former graduate student and new wife. They’d
disappeared briefly after the ceremony, to quarrel or make love, he
had no idea. “I swear to God,” his mother said,
“if he buys that child a house on the Cape --- and I do mean
anywhere on the Cape --- I may have to murder him.” Her face
brightened at a pleasant thought. “You might actually prove
useful,” she told Bartleby, then turned back to Griffin.
“Your stepfather collects locked- room murder mysteries.
Death by curare, that sort of thing. You can figure something out,
can’t you? Just make sure I’m in full view of everyone
in the drawing room when the fat cow hits the deck, writhing in
excruciating pain.” She knew perfectly well, of course, that
Griffin’s father didn’t have the money to buy Claudia
(who was more zaftig than fat) or anyone else a house on the Cape,
of course. She’d made sure of that by beggaring him in the
divorce settlement, but the possibility --- what of, that he might
purchase a winning Lotto ticket? --- still clearly worried her.

To Griffin, now fifty- five, roughly the same age his parents
had been when he and Joy married, the Cape place- names were still
magical: Falmouth, Woods Hole, Barnstable, Dennis, Orleans,
Harwich. They made a boy of him again and put him in the backseat
of his parents’ car, where he’d spent much of his
boyhood, unbelted, resting his arms on the front seat, trying to
hear what they, who never made any attempt to include him in their
conversations, were talking about. It wasn’t so much that he
was interested in their front- seat conversations as aware that
decisions that impacted him were being made up there, and if privy
to these hatching plans he might offer an opinion. Unfortunately,
the fact that his chin was resting on the seat back seemed to
preclude this. Most of what he overheard wasn’t really worth
the effort anyway. “Wellfleet,” his mother might say,
studying the road atlas. “Why haven’t we ever tried
Wellfleet?” By the time Griffin was a high school freshman,
which marked the last of their Cape vacations, they’d rented
just about everywhere. Each summer, when they handed over the keys
at the end of their stay, the rental agent always asked if they
wanted to book it for next year, but they always said no, which
made Griffin wonder if the perfect spot they were searching for
really existed. Perhaps, he concluded, just looking was sufficient
in and of itself.

While he roamed the beach unattended, full of youthful energy
and freedom, his parents spent sunny afternoons lying on the sand
with their “guilty pleasures,” books they’d have
been embarrassed to admit to their colleagues they’d ever
heard of. They were on vacation, they claimed, not just from the
Mid- fucking- west but also from the literary canon they’d
sworn to uphold. His mother’s taste ran to dark, disturbing
thrillers and cynical spy novels. “That,” she would
say, turning the book’s last page with evident satisfaction,
“was truly twisted.” His father alternated between
literary pornography and P. G. Wodehouse, enjoying both thoroughly,
as if Naked Lunch and Bertie Wooster Sees It Through were intended
as companion pieces.

The only thing they both read --- indeed, studied as intently as
each year’s Modern Language Association job listings --- was
the real- estate guide. Unwilling to give the other a first look,
they always picked up two copies as soon as they arrived and wrote
their names on the covers so they’d know which was which and
whose fault it was if one got lost. A house here was part of their
longrange, two- part plan to escape the Mid- fucking- west. First
they would find real jobs back East, where they’d locate a
suitable apartment to rent. This would allow them to save money for
a house on the Cape, where they’d spend summers and holidays
and the occasional long weekend, until of course they retired ---
early if they could swing it --- and lived on there full- time,
reading and writing op- eds and, who knew, maybe even trying their
hand at a novel.

A single day was usually all it took for each of them to plow
through the hundreds of listings in the fat real- estate guide and
place each into one of two categories --- Can’t Afford It or
Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift --- before tossing the booklet
aside in disgust, because everything was more expensive this year
than last. But the very next day his father would set Jeeves aside
and take another look. “Page twenty- seven,” he’d
say, and Griffin’s mother would set down her Ripley and
rummage for her copy in the beach bag. “Bear with me,
now,” he’d continue. Or, “Some things would have
to go right” --- meaning a big merit raise or a new
university- press book contract --- “but . . .” And
then he’d explain why a couple of the listings they’d
quickly dismissed the day before just maybe could be made to work.
Later in the month, on a rainy day, they’d go so far as to
look at a house or two at the low end of the Can’t Afford It
category, but the realtors always intuited at a glance that
Griffin’s parents were just tire kickers. The house they
wanted was located in a future only they could see. For people who
dealt largely in dreams, his father was fond of observing, realtors
were a surprisingly unromantic bunch, like card counters in a Vegas

The drive back to the Mid- fucking- west was always brutal, his
parents barely speaking to each other, as if suddenly recalling
last year’s infidelities, or maybe contemplating whom
they’d settle for this year. Sex, if you went by
Griffin’s parents, definitely took a backseat to real estate
on the passion gauge.

Excerpted from THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC © Copyright 2011 by
Richard Russo. Reprinted with permission by Vintage. All rights

That Old Cape Magic
by by Richard Russo

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400030919
  • ISBN-13: 9781400030910