Dinner Along the Amazon
She changed, instantly. She stood up. She yelled.
“It was not his pride.”
She turned away.
“His pride was that he would do anything—be anything—for or to anyone—to get what he wanted. That was the genius in him. It had never been me to begin with. Just money. I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that. But it was. It was the money I had and the fact—the fact that we lived—could live—the way we did. And Jean-Paul’s money. When there was Jean-Paul, then there was Jean-Paul’s house. And the books. And ultimately, of course, Jean-Paul would bring him to Mexico. To Hart Crane’s old doorstep. They even went on a boat, for God’s sake, and threw roses into the water where Crane jumped.”
“I think that’s rather nice,” I said.
“Do you really!” she flashed. “Well, you would think that was nice, wouldn’t you!”
“Oh. Yes. I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean that.”
“Well, they never arrived anywhere. Because Brett gave Jean-Paul an overdose—by mistake—by mistake and Jean-Paul died on a train and Brett—Brett, the Beetle—do you remember, Davis? Hah! Brett went down to some crazy Puerto where the film people go and now he plays his metamorphosis under the beds down there. He sells his ability—you remember—his talent for change—to them. “
At the end I wanted to tell her not to talk like that—that she mustn’t talk like that because it would lead to the dangerous thought that she had not just been used by Brett, but that she had used him. That she had bought him for herself. And I knew that wasn’t true.
“And so you came here.”
“It was away. It wasn’t home. I had the money—oh, not so much as all that, once I’ve paid for all this—but enough. And so I’ll end up with children after all.”
She turned then. We smiled.
She poured another drink. I could tell that there was something else, but she did not know how to say it.
She looked into the glass.
I was glad to see that she was crying. It was better than the monotone—the stare—the twitch—the hardness.
“Davis,” she said.
“Now tell me the truth, Davis. The honest to God truth.”
“I will try, love.”
I watched, then, and as she began to speak, I didn’t watch, because at the first movement of words across her face I knew what it would be and I thought, “What an awful world it turned out to be, Diana, the world we thought was such fun.” And I loved her so, right then, from so far back—so long ago—that I could not look at her for fear of seeing the disappointed face, at last, of a child.
She said, “That night, Davis. That night. The three of you—all alone. Tell me…did you?” she said, looking at me, I thought, really unafraid of the answer. There was even the try for a smile. “After all—I mean…I was a good girl, Davis. And so…if you…”
The hair again.
“…what was it like? To belong to Brett?”
About a year ago I saw her mother, Mrs Galbraith. It was at the theatre in Toronto. I was not in the play—I was a member of the audience, for a change. (I was home for Eugene’s wedding to Mavis.)
She stood away, perhaps thirty feet away from where I was standing, with friends, in the lobby. It was intermission.
As I say, it was Mrs Galbraith I saw first, but then I saw that there was another figure beside her. It was the figure of a child who was dressed in drab brown—a coat cut straight with a little fur collar, and she wore brown cotton gloves. Her hair was cut very short, even for a child, and she wore a beret—one of the kind with the little tail of string on the top. She wore lisle stockings and flat-heeled, patent leather shoes with straps across the instep. I wondered whose child it could be. Perhaps it was a niece. This child was at least eleven or at the very least, ten.
I looked at her, wondering who it was—whose figure that could possibly be, so bent over (she bent in towards her middle, from the small of her back) and I was thinking that perhaps she was ill, or perhaps retarded, when all of a sudden one of the gloved hands strayed up to the string on the top of the beret. And I knew.
And I knew.
And I knew and excused myself from my friends and I crossed the foyer.
I said “hello” to Mrs Galbraith.
“Davis,” she said. “Oh, my dear boy. I’m so glad you’re here. In a letter four or five years ago, Diana said that she had seen you.”
I looked at Mrs Galbraith. I looked her straight in the eye, all the way back to my childhood. And she looked at me but her expression wavered on the verge of tears. She nodded.
I looked at Diana. It was almost impossible for her to look back. Her eyes were only able to open if she looked straight ahead, from a set position.
She said, from a seeming distance, “Is it you, Davis?”
And I said, “Yes. It’s me.”
She said, “Let me see you, then.”
I looked at Mrs Galbraith. Mrs Galbraith said, “Put her hands on your shoulders, Davis.”
I did so, and as I did the action lifted Diana’s head.
“That’s quite an extension,” I said.
Nothing will ever be as hard again as that. Looking back. Right into her eyes.
It mattered so.
I said, “Hello, Diana.”
And she let down her arms.
Her head fell, till all I saw was the top of her beret.
I made a hopeless gesture at Mrs Galbraith and simply walked off. I think I went to the washroom. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t go back to the play.
I haven’t been able to say it till now, but now I will and that’s the end of it.
What Mrs Felton Knew
On October the sixteenth a car pulled onto the shoulder of the road at about 10:45 a.m.
The driver was a man called Green, and beside him sat his wife and two-year-old daughter. In the back seat of the car, his mother, his father, and his aunt lay asleep, and his four-year-old son was stretched out across their knees.
The car could be described as beige, the colour of dust. The license plates were black, and the chrome of the fenders had worn away. It was the sort of motorcar you would call “serviceable”—but little else.
Neither of the children stirred or showed any sign of life, but Mrs Green was partially awake and she said, without opening her eyes, “Where are we now?”
Mr Green said, “This road is called the eleventh concession road of Horace Township, but I can’t tell you what county we’re in.”
And she said, “Oh. But I had a dream and I thought we were climbing.” It was at this point that she opened her eyes. “We’re not alone,” she said. “There’s a house right there.”
“Yes,” said Mr Green. “I’ve been looking at it. Wondering.
“Wondering what, Harry? What?”
“It looks lived in.”
“Yes, it does,” said his wife, “and there are flowers in the garden, too.”
“Those are Scarlet Runners,” said Mr Green. “Not flowers. Beans.”
“Do you think…?” said Mrs Green.
“I am thinking,” he said. “I am. Be quiet.”
Mrs Green watched him as he thought. Her eyes were a dusty colour and for some reason she had no eyelashes and no eyebrows. She was thirty. There was a sore on her hand. She was afraid to comb her hair. Her nostrils and the roof of her mouth were in constant pain. And she touched her daughter but her daughter did not wake.
“The children are hungry,” she whispered automatically.
“Be quiet, Verna,” said Mr Green. “Just be quiet.”
“But Harry. A house. Red Runners. A rocking chair, for Christ’s sake!”
“I know it.
They both sat quiet and listened.
A dog barked and Verna Green caught her breath.
“A dog, Harry. Oh, God—a dog…”
“I know,” said Mr Green. “I heard.”
Mrs Green gave a frantic look through the windows. They did not want a dog to find them. A dog could be very dangerous. Two weeks ago they had found a car by the side of a road with its doors standing open and three dogs…
“Get that out of your head,” said Mr Green. “Right now. This instant. Quit it.”
“Roll up the windows. Forget it. That isn’t going to happen. Tons.”
“Yes, Harry. I know it. All right. I’m fine.”
She watched him carefully. His eyes, like her own, looked terrible. His hands shook involuntarily. She wanted to touch him, to calm him, to calm herself—to let him know, irrevocably, that she was right there with him, but she knew that they mustn’t touch. That much she remembered. That much she knew.
Outside, the weather was calm and warm and brilliant. The sunshine hurt them, but it was beautiful if you squinted to see it. The road they had pulled onto rose and fell before them in a straight line, passing over hills and valleys with farms down either side.
“It’s a little like our own road was,” said Verna. “And our own farm. Eh?”
He didn’t answer.
Instead he tried to glance at his parents, aunt, and son in the back of the car. He had to use the rear-view mirror to see them because he could not turn around. They were gray-coloured and he was not certain this was because of fatigue. He thought of trying to force his way into some town.
And then there was an old man all of a sudden standing with a dog on the lawn across the road.
“We’ll have to move on now,” said Harry.
“No,” said Verna. “He has the dog on a rope. Wait and see what he does.”
The old man, whose name was Turvey, stared at the Greens and the Greens stared back.
“Shouldn’t we speak to him?” Verna asked. “Please? He looks so nice and quiet over there.”
“Don’t open the window,” said Harry. “The dog might smell us.”
“But I’m not afraid any more,” she said. “The dog is on a rope.”
“That man might let go of the rope. Do as you’re told and leave the window alone.”
“But Harry—the children. Move on? Jesus! Move? There are beans over there…”
“Look at the children,” said Harry. “Look at them.”
She did. “But Harry—please—move on is crazy anyway.”
“Look out the window. At that man.”
“He’s a nice old man is all…”
“Look at him. He knows what we are.”
Verna stared and knew that her husband was right. The old man had bitten off the look of compassion in his eyes and his lips were set with that awful resignation everyone knew about now. It was second nature to read this look and never to have to hear the words “get out—I can’t help you—I want to but I can’t.” You just considered all that said and moved on.
“Should we wave at him to say we understand?” said Verna.
“No. He knows we understand. See? He’s trying to find the right things to say…so—we’ll just go. Are you with me? Shall we leave?”
“Yes, Harry. All right. Yes. We’ll leave. I love you.” She looked down at the pale head in her lap. “If I was still a mother—but I’m not. So we can go…”
Harry Green looked at his wife. He broke the rule and touched her. “You mustn’t cry,” he said. “You’ll hurt yourself so bad.”
“I can’t help it,” said Verna. “After all, my God, I’m still human—whatever they say.”
She held their child and Harry started the car and they began to leave.
The old man across the road raised his hand and Harry nodded.
“The old man saluted us,” he said to Verna.
“Yes,” said Verna, “I saw him. He was a nice man. He understood.”
“Yes,” said Harry and they were driving now, back on the highway, with their eyes out for the tanker trucks or any other signs of danger.
“Did you notice,” said Verna, “the church at that corner? Across from where the old man lived?”
“No,” said Harry. “I didn’t.”
“Well, yes. There was a church. There really was. Isn’t that just crazy?”
Driving faster, Harry said yes, that it was crazy, and Verna held on tighter to the body in her lap.
“I wonder,” she said, “If it’s going to happen to them. There, on that road.”
“Of course it will,” said Harry. “It only takes time.”
Better they should kill themselves now, she thought. But I mustn’t say that. And I won’t. They just drove. And the next day was Sunday.
The first sign that it was happening to them, that it was their turn, came late on that Sunday evening.
An airplane flew over.
But not everyone was quick enough to leave.
Only Arthur King arose before first light on that Monday morning to set his remaining animals free in the valley. By four-thirty, rigid with silence, he had completed loading their truck with supplies and necessities and his wife had roused the children from the last ignorance of sleep.
At sunrise there was the putt of a motor. No one had spoken yet. Not even a child. Arthur and his wife gazed with stoic regret upon all that they left behind them—house and happiness, land and animals, and then, with their children beside them, they clambered into the cab of the truck and went away.
They did not say good-bye to their neighbours, knowing that whoever was left behind would understand their leaving and, hopefully, do likewise. At once.
The eleventh concession was exactly two-and-a-half miles long, corner to corner, and the Kings’ farm was located more or less centrally. All told, there were six farms and up west, near the highway, the abandoned church. Right by the highway you could not really say there was a. farm, but there was a small house and two acres and old man Turvey.
Perhaps Turvey was a Mennonite, because his house was unpainted shingle and on a day of winter sunshine it shone silver with age like a gray mirror in the snow. Turvey had only the dog—no wife, no children, and very little identity. No one ever saw him except on summer mornings when he would sit on his small green lawn, scratching the head of his dog. By late autumn, man and dog had retired into the house and did not emerge till spring. Like everyone else, Turvey had been dispossessed of radio, television, and telephone, but unlike everyone else, he did not fall back on gossip for news. People said that of all those allowed to live along the road, only Turvey had found the Secret of Life—which was silence. For all speech had become synonymous with Fear.
Moving east, then, from the old man and the church, you came to the Jewell place, Kings’, and Feltons’. Past Feltons’ there was a breach of wilderness which was cut by the river. On the west bank of the river were the Cormans, and beyond them, on the other side of the road, was Barney Lambert. By Lambert’s the road turned and was gone. It disappeared town-ward into the trees.
Monday at noon, the childless Jewells got into their station wagon and went away, leaving their farm to the whisper of mice—and there remained then only the Feltons, Cormans (by the river), and Barney Lambert—plus old Turvey.
At 2:00 p.m., Monday, the second airplane flew over. It cut a few high white lines into the sky and departed without making its presence more than obliquely obvious. It was there; it was gone. Its meaning remained a question.
Harvey Felton phoned Joe Corman and said, “Well, are you staying?” and Joe Corman said, “Yes, until we’re absolutely certain.”
But Felton was feeling more than mere apprehension now because his neighbours, the Kings, had already left. Through binoculars there was something very unnerving about their barn door standing wide open like that, and the horses gone and the cows gone and only the cat wandering lost
So, at four o’clock, Harvey Felton, his wife and two sons got into their truck and drove down the road to the Cormans’. One boy sat between them and Mrs Felton held the other on her lap. As they went along, Kate Felton stared quietly at the annual tragedy of the falling leaves and thought: this is so natural. It’s natural. Why can’t they just leave us alone with what’s natural like this?
Joe Corman’s house was particularly small, so the two families, replete with babies and dogs, held their meeting on the bridge, while the children threw stones into the water.
Felton had long, rustic bones and gray skin—except on his face, where the bones were feminine small and the skin remarkably pink. He had great thick fingers whose dried, cracked skin had not been flesh-coloured since he’d ceased, at twelve, to be a schoolchild—and standing on the bridge, he kept trying to jam these fingers down the closed collar of his denim shirt, or into the belt loops of his pants, or, fisted together, into his armpits. To no avail.
It couldn’t ever be right to leave, Felton’s erratic posture seemed to say. It was wrong. No matter what the Government said, or how many licences they issued or denied, these people had always been here—always—all of them—for generations impossible to tell—and it didn’t matter that they should leave or that they must, according to law—it was just wrong, and he simply could not get over that. He could not reason any more and his wife became afraid.
Mrs Corman, so large that she was semi-invalid, was not afraid but she was curious. She stacked her bulk against the stone abutment of the bridge and watched the laconic animation of the men and the stilled, waiting face of the only other woman—Kate Felton. Mrs Corman cleaned her fingernails with an old guitar pick of her son’s, but Mrs Felton was pale and catatonic, with a blanket thrown over her emotions.
Mrs Corman felt so sorry for Kate Felton that it was difficult to watch her and to stand so close to her. Stay or go. She herself was relatively relaxed in the knowledge that her own husband could make up his mind to act on a set decision. But poor Kate was caught in a terrific panic of wanting to go now—of having to get out clean without the delay of debate—even without the delay of thought—but her husband, Harvey, just stared with a reminiscent eye into the sliding water, not knowing what to do. Afraid to stay, fearful of going, Harvey Felton was beyond being able to save his wife and children—and Mrs Corman knew it. She wanted to say so, but it was not her place to speak. A family was a family; you simply didn’t interfere.