Dinner Along the Amazon

  Barney threw down the glasses and ran.

  And all this while, old Turvey and his dog had been ashes for almost half an hour.

  When he got to the barn, Barney threw open all the remaining doors, letting free the cow, the goats, and the burros, and he began to shout at the mule in such a peculiar way that he himself did not recognize the language. Perhaps there were no words any more. Perhaps there never had been and certainly there never would be again. He could not even gather the sentence of a thought. He was noise and movement and something that seemed furious, but was only afraid.

  The wagon slugged off toward the top of the hill and as it went it rolled so slowly, drawn by the mule and pushed by Barney, that all the animals, Barney included, had the time and misfortune to catch the smell of E.R.A., which is to say, the time and misfortune to begin to burn.

  There came screams, utterly unlinked to any pain that can be described—because as they pushed and pulled and dragged themselves forward, parts of them were already turning to ash.

  The clouds of E.R.A. mounted back along the road in the terrible beauty of their purity and they were rolling up like walls around them, hissing with the massive immolation of trees and grass and flowers and insects—birds, mice, and anything that lived that comes to mind.

  Barney only knew to push and the rest was all pain.

  Until he got to the top of the hill.

  And was saved. With his three geese, the old dog, the cow, three burros, two goats, and the mule.

  By the dying thought of green.

  But he had tried.

  There is no ending to this story. There is only what is and was and will be. How can I possibly say that any one of the survivors survived? For how am I to know? But you must have seen as many abandoned cars and trucks and trailers as I have. And heard as many packs of wild dogs. And come to as many “Detour: Road Closed” signs as I have.

  I, too, live in a house by a road.

  So, perhaps, do you.

  But I’m not fooled, as I fear many are, by the current propaganda.

  For instance, they recently moved the yellow tankers up to a station near us. Now they’re telling us (and certainly many have believed it) that these trucks are only oil tankers. Some new delivery system for a factory that hasn’t been built yet. How gullible we are. The other day I saw two men in green and orange suits and I actually heard some fool describe these costumes as a new snowsuit to wear skiing. And they’ve blown the Forestry signal constantly this last week and there hasn’t been a single fire—so why is that, I ask you? And last night there was a helicopter…

  But my neighbours are believing. They trust. Why, a government man was around here just last week selling bug killer. D.D.T. they call it.

  And my neighbour bought it.

  Now why, do you think, in the present scheme of things, would he do that?

  The People on the Shore

  In the summer of 1960, on a Friday, Mrs Lewis was brought down onto the sand by her daughter Elvira and by her Nurse, Miss Cunningham. She caught my image in the corner of her eye; turned to see me head-on; gave me a look of recognition and farewell; chose me to say good-bye to with her final glance—and died.

  The place I speak of—write of—where Mrs Lewis died, is an old hotel that sits above the sand in Maine. Every summer, since the summer I was born, we have gone down to this hotel from Toronto, just as all the summers since the summer he was born, my father went down before us. That is the sort of hotel—of place—it is.

  In front of the hotel, between the hotel and the sea, there is a stretch of sand precisely one-and-one-eighth miles long, on which the children play and the athletes run all summer. This sand is also walked by a variety of older people; some, like my father, life-time summer residents: and there is one old man who, every summer, stops each person in turn, to remark that, if he had the eyes of several hundred eagles and was facing out to sea, nothing should hinder his view of South America. But, of course, the distance does and there is nothing to be seen but the endless curve of the horizon. And there are the ships: an occasional tanker, or steamer, or Boston-bound freighter puffs away, always losing its balance and disappearing over the edge and there are sailboats on the weekends and lobster-boats whenever the traps are ripe or need resetting.

  At either end of the beach there is a promontory, each with descending stretches of sea-rocks that are prone to the tides. In the olden days, these were the scene of much shipwreck and disaster. Now, there is still the occasional fool, trapped out walking on the rocks, who will be drowned at high tide: but this is rare and there has been no death by drowning for the last three years.

  The hotel itself was built in 1855, though I have always thought it was older than that: as old as the trees themselves that were cut and planed and painted to make its clapboard sides.

  Like myself, Loretta Lewis had come to the hotel as a child, but we were not of the same generation: when she died, Mrs Lewis was fifty and I was twenty-five years her junior. “In her day,” as my mother was wont to say, “she was a great beauty” with dark hair and a flawless complexion; the marks, in those days, of incomparable good looks. However, as she aged and married, aged and had her children, Mrs Lewis grew larger until, in her latter years, she was one of those round women you cannot quite bring yourself to call “fat” because their beauty is somehow enhanced by the extra pounds. She shone with good health and exuded the sort of warmth that in the theatre would be described as “star-quality.”

  She was far from being a paragon. When she called her children, for instance, the whole beach turned and wondered what was wrong. And I once overheard her, myself, telling the venerable and much kow-towed to Mrs Hogan to “go to hell.” And then there was the terrible argument she had with the Ottawa Jacksons, (not to be confused with the Cincinnati Jacksons), which took place in the lobby of the hotel one evening before supper. Everyone overheard her, this time, and the Ottawa Jacksons were so mortified by the fury of Mrs Lewis’ anger that they didn’t eat in the dining room for the next two days, but had all their meals sent up on trays to their rooms. I forget what the argument was about, and I doubt that anyone—(with the exception of the Jacksons)—remembers that, except that we all remember Loretta’s terrific anger and the way she dominated the dining room that night, with her enormous back set against the whole room; and the tone of her voice, as she spoke to Mr Lewis and to the Lewis children, sharp and clear and precisely enunciated through ritual requests for “a little more salt” and “a little less fidgeting” from Elizabeth, Elvira and Angus, all of whom had somehow lost their appetite. But not Mrs Lewis. She ate all their dinners that night, as if in defiance of the room at large—knowing, I suppose, that everyone was watching her. She even ate part of her husband’s dinner and when, at long last their meal was over, Mrs Lewis led her family with ringing steps across the floor and out onto the South porch, visible to all, where she immediately broke through one of the older rocking-chairs, by sitting on it too suddenly.

  There was a quick and deathly hush, which seemed to pervade the entire hotel. It appeared even to invade the lawns, for not a single bird gave sound. The sea-flow could be imagined ceasing, while we waited. Knives, forks, spoons and napkins were poised between plates and open mouths. Mrs Hogan had been in the midst of pouring her laxative-salts, and even the fall and effervescence of these were dried up.

  And then it came.

  Loretta’s laughter: ringing out over the porches and in through the windows: pouring down over the lawns and through the dunes to the beach, where, for all we knew, it might even have reached South America.

  We could all look out and see Loretta being lifted by her family onto her feet, with the cane seat of the broken rocking-chair sticking out like a grotesquely mangled straw-hat or wicker halo round her behind and, at that, we all began to laugh. Us, the Lewises, even Mrs Hogan—everyone was laughing: everyone except the Ottawa Jacksons, who were ensconced far away from laughter, up in their rooms with supper-trays
balanced on their knees.

  No, she was not a paragon, but she had extraordinary virtues. One of these was an understanding of children that was beyond the normal everyday understanding you could expect from a parent. Loretta had some way of remembering what it was, precisely, to be a child.

  I was ten. Would that make her thirty-five or so? Approximately, yes—and she already had Elvira, who toddled, and Elizabeth in arms, though Angus was another three-four years away from life. Angus was born when it was said Loretta was getting too old for children—but, that isn’t part of this story.

  On the day I’m trying to remember, I could see my brother far off down the sands, in a white sun-hat and a black bathing suit. He was wading far out after some other child’s model sail boat that had got marooned in one of the tidal pools. Michael is older than me, and—at this time—he was on the verge of his adolescence. He was a worldly child, who read a great deal and he made a great fuss about being ‘shy.’ But, the fact was, he had a great many friends and, amongst them, he was always accorded the rank of leader. In fact, he was leading now, followed by a lot of children, out towards the model shipwreck. To me—his back was his most familiar feature. I just wasn’t a part of the world he was trying to create: neither was he, with the exception of his back, a part of mine. My world was a place devoid of other children, pretty well. I intended it to be so: something in me—possibly perverse—didn’t like other children: particularly of my own age. They seemed always to be something I was not—and to know something that was beyond my understanding.

  Along came Mrs Lewis, with spade and pail.

  I was sitting on the sand, with my feet and ankles covered with a towel and I believe there was a rise where I sat, a sort of hummock, perhaps created by an old, deflated castle. Mrs Lewis had lost Elvira.

  To have lost Elvira—even by the sea—was not so alarming as it might seem. There was always a life-guard, who kept his eye on the children: Elvira was probably with Miss Cunningham, anyway—or with her father and so, when Mrs Lewis spoke, she was merely curious:

  “Tiffy—have you seen Elvira?”

  “No ma’am.”

  She stood there, casting down shade over my shoulders and out-stretched legs.

  “Oh well. If she wants her pail and shovel, she’ll scream for them—” (Mrs Lewis smiled)—“and that’s always the easiest way of finding out where she is. Mmm?”

  She laughed.

  I looked away.

  There was a pause, behind my back, and I could sense that she was making up her mind about whether to stay or go away and leave me alone.

  She stayed.

  “My ankles sunburn, too,” she said. “Do you mind if I sit down—or, do you want to be alone?”

  “I don’t mind,” I said.

  She began to scoop out an indentation in which to sit. Nobody ever sat directly onto the top layer of sand. That was the sure sign of a novice on the beach—and ‘lifers’ knew better.

  Finally, Mrs Lewis sat down and placed Elvira’s pail and spade between us.

  “I had the most extraordinary dream last night,” she said, at once. “Would you like me to tell you?”

  “Yes, please.”

  “Well—we were all lined up, right here, on the sand, looking out to sea. There was something going on out there and we were all very carefully watching, trying to see what it was. It wasn’t a storm and it wasn’t a sinking ship. It wasn’t someone drowning—or any of the things you might think it was.”

  “Was it a submarine?” I asked.

  “No. It wasn’t a submarine. And it wasn’t an airplane crash, either: nothing at all like that.”

  Mrs Lewis lighted a cigarette from a package she carried in Elvira’s pail and, as she was waving the match out, and taking the first, deep puffs of smoke, old Mrs Hogan went by—(old even then—old always, I suspect)—down by the water, with her parasol tipped at the sun, a relic of her mother’s and another age.

  “There goes Mrs Hogan,” said Mrs Lewis: “all alone, as ever. But, not in the dream. Do you know, Tiffy, in the dream, Mrs Hogan stood right up here on the sand with all the rest of us—and, I guess you don’t remember him, but I do, from a long, long while ago: Mr Hogan was standing here with her. Oh! There were lots of people here. People you would remember—people you might not. Have you ever looked in the photograph albums in the library?”


  There were books dating way back to the 1800s and the earliest guests at the hotel.

  “Well, all of those people were here, too, dressed exactly as they are in the pictures: up here on the sand, in their photograph-clothes. And we still didn’t know what it was we were looking for. All we knew was—there it was out there, somewhere above, or on the water…”

  “Why not in it?” I asked.

  “Well, now: that’s a good question,” she smiled. “We didn’t even think of that one.”

  “I still think it might have been a submarine.”

  “No. It definitely was not a submarine.”

  She smoked for a moment and, when she saw that I was looking off towards Michael, who, by now had reached the marooned toy ship, she looked off towards him, too, and then she said:

  “I had a sister who was always saving things. And I always used to think—oh, dear—I’ll never, never be able to save anything—because she’ll always get there and save it first…” Mrs Lewis looked at me, very frankly, through the smoke from her cigarette. She met my gaze, as serious as any friend, without that autocratic-adult smile that children dislike so much: just looking at me—and then:

  “It’s just as good to want to be brave—just as good to get there second, you know, as it is to be brave and get there first.”

  I was so shocked by her understanding that I looked away, and I can remember thinking that if I looked at her, the meaning of what she had said would alter and that we wouldn’t understand one another any more.

  Mrs Lewis must have sensed this, because she watched, for quite a long time, a sea-gull, floating above us on the off-shore draught: and then she sighed and buried her cigarette in the sand and said: “the most curious thing of all, about this dream, was that here we all were on the beach—every single person you can think of, as I say, and more—Mrs Hogan, Mr Hogan, me…Elvira…Mr Lewis—the Jacksons—you—and your mom and your dad, Michael, Miss Cunningham, Joe—Frances—Joellen—Harry…Mrs Clarke: everyone you can think of, ever…”

  “Janet and Aunt Kay?”

  “Yes, yes: everyone. Bill and everyone. There we were—all of us, over and over again in all our different ages. Oh—I don’t mean one of us for every year of our lives—but, well…I was there as a baby, being carried and I was there as a little girl and—hah!—there in those terrible pigtails my mother made me wear when I was fifteen. And, there I was older, too—and married to Mr Lewis and then with Elvira and then with Elizabeth and then…”

  I waited.

  There was a very long pause.

  I looked at her.

  Her expression was curiosity itself: as if she truly couldn’t comprehend the numbers of herself there had been. Or that were possible. As if there might have been too many Mrs Lewises—too many Mrs Hogans—too many Elviras—too many of each and every one of us, so that she could not fit us all together onto the beach—so that the beach had become different, larger, wavering in size.

  “Were you there as old as Mrs Hogan?” I wanted to know…

  “No, I wasn’t,” she said, too quickly. And after that, she shook her head and looked at me and laughed out loud. “But, you were,” she said. “You were—and you were very, very old!”

  We both laughed at that and finally, I asked her what it was we were watching in the dream. But, she didn’t answer me all at once.

  I think the answer came in two parts, with something in between, so that I thought one thing was the answer and that the other was inconsequential. Only now, do I see that they were both the answer.

  “I had on a red dress,” she s
aid, evidently thinking of one of her ‘selves’ in the dream. “A red, redress. And I hate red. I mean—” she looked at me: “I never wear it—do I.” And then, she looked away and then she said: “Oh—look!” and she was looking out at the ocean and then, not making it clear whether this was what she had just seen, or what we had all seen in the dream, she pointed and said: “a seal. A seal. More than anything I can think of—what I’ve always wanted to be: and I would swim way out—a way, way out—and I could turn and look back at the people on the shore…”

  Her mouth was open, still open, as though there might still be more to be said: some concrete explanation—but, then Elvira was screaming: “Mummy! Mummy!” and Mrs Lewis was opening her arms to her own child, who was running across the sand and I was forgotten.

  Or—so I thought for fifteen years.

  It was cancer and she had asked specifically that she be allowed to come to the sea to die.

  Some of the guests had thought this request was grotesque, and they shunned her altogether. Some others (a very few) were so distressed, they cancelled their accommodations and left, taking up residence at another hotel, further down the beach. But, most of us stayed: a fact that I think stands best without any explanation.

  Still: there were moments when it was worse than difficult to watch her and to be there. She came down twice every day, either with Elizabeth or Elvira, and always with Miss Cunningham beside her and, until she had been seated, most people on the beach found some reason or other to look away. But, once she was down, with towels spread under and over her legs, and this great umbrella tilted to give her all its shade—and, once her back-rest was in place and her sun-hat readjusted—then, there would be a gradual return to the normal activities.

  Games of tag sprang up from the sand like pop-up tableaux from a children’s book and the swimmers ran yelling back into the waves, and all the old ladies with dogs let all their dogs off the leash and, instantly, there was dispersal, abandonment and chaos. Oh yes—one or two people would amiably pass her by, from a distance of about ten feet, making certain not to look away as they crossed her sight-path, and for a while, it was awful. It took Mr Lewis, coming up, from some other place on the beach, to bring one or two of his friends—or one or two of hers and, more and more spontaneously, as the days went on, the selected guests would be put at their ease by Loretta, and they would sit and chat with her, crossing their legs and leaning back in their chairs with every semblance of normal people. She was always so genuinely glad to see them, that, after a while, you knew you could count on the laughter. And, it always came. There was more genuine laughter from the Lewis enclave that summer, than from any other enclave on the beach: real laughter, never merely reassuring.

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