Dinner Along the Amazon
Elvira and Elizabeth each had a boy-friend that summer. Perhaps Elvira had two, although I think she was only ‘serious’ about the one. But, each of the girls would make a point of sitting with her—one all through the morning session—the other through the afternoon. Angus brought dogs and sea-shells to meet her.
But, curious things did take place.
The Ottawa Jacksons, for instance, who had long since reconciled their differences with Loretta, took up drinking on the beach. That is to say, they set up a bar and began their drinking at ten o’clock in the morning. Great show was made of this—the bar being decorated with a grass skirt from Hawaii and a cocktail shaker shaped like a flamingo. Music was added. A gramophone was brought down from the attic of the hotel and records entirely from another age—pre-War, distressing and confusing.
With the music, there was often ‘dancing’ and the dancing, one day, led to a piece of crude, unlikely exhibitionism: Mrs Jackson let the straps fall from her tailored Jantzen and exposed her breasts. No one knew what to do: after all, what could one do? She was a friend—she was a guest at the hotel. For a moment, Mrs Jackson stood there, defiantly refusing to cover herself and, when she turned, as if on purpose to show Loretta, she also smiled and there was just the flash of triumphant teeth—as if she had made an obscene gesture at Death.
Loretta looked away and someone, (I forget who it was), handed Mrs Jackson a towel and she covered herself and walked across to the bar, where she turned the record up and poured herself another drink. Later, that same day, Mr Jackson made a “speech to the seals”—which was meant to honour and glorify Loretta’s “undying beauty.” Loretta herself applauded when it was over. Nobody else did, not even Mrs Jackson: and for awhile, they retired once more to their rooms, as they had on the earlier occasion when Loretta had been so angry.
One other afternoon, very hot and lazy, the children were building moats with which to trap the incoming tide down near the shore. There was a single runner, sprinting the length of the beach, and I remember the red bandanna tied round his hair and the tireless beating of his heels on the sand and I was watching him as if he were a runner through a dream, when all of a sudden Loretta screamed.
It was not like any other sound I have ever heard, having nothing to do with fear, or alarm or even, so it seemed, with pain. It was more a shout, perhaps, than a scream and she gave it as one might shout at a distant sail on an otherwise vacant sea. It was a cry of such terrible loneliness, that it made the crowded sand seem empty.
Nobody looked around toward her: except the runner—who stopped and scanned the figures lying on the beach or sitting in their chairs. And he took off his red bandanna; made up his mind that nothing had happened and continued on his way.
She worsened. She had to. There was nothing to be done. Loretta knew this, but it was we who would not accept it.
She grew very thin; so thin that it was a marvel to see that she could walk. “How long it takes to die,” she said one day to Elvira, and I have often thought of her saying that. It really only took three weeks for her to die—but she thought it was eternity.
I remember Elvira kneeling at her side, with tears streaming down her face. That was once—once only. And I remember Angus burying himself in the sand before her eyes and calmly announcing that he had “dug his own grave.” I remember Elizabeth, too, kneeling there, carefully holding her mother’s chin—telling her not to move—putting on lipstick for her, powdering her nose. I remember Mr Lewis standing apart with the Chairman of the Ottawa Trust, each of them digging his toes into the sand—bellies in and arms across the old men’s chests, when some of the college girls, who served as waitresses, raced down to the sea in their bikinis. I remember Elizabeth’s boy-friend finding an old blue bottle, which Loretta said she would “keep forever.” And, I remember one last thing—and then the death of Loretta Lewis.
That August, they had put up some new kind of satellite and, since those were the young-years of space, the event of its passage through the sky was treated with the same excitement as the fall of a comet or the full eclipse of the moon.
It was planned that a “lookout” should be posted, and that when the satellite broke our horizon, the lookout would call us and we would all come running. It was expected that, if we were quick, we might have a view of the thing for just under a minute.
No one, of course, knew exactly what to expect, or what precisely to look for. Many envisioned a great, golden globe; while others expected a silver rocket, spouting stars. The children had all been allowed to stay up, and the lobby was filled with a large number of “space captains” that night—and with a great many rocketry-experts and a multitude of miniature Flash Gordons. Some of these were the children—and others were the old men who had been in the War.
Mrs Hogan and the rest of the Delphic old were arranged, as usual, by order of ascendancy in the dowagers’ corner. There, they were safely out of drafts and out of the path of running children. Each one wore a crown of blue hair and a cashmere stole, although one or two favoured a fur besides, because the nights on that particular arm of the seaboard can be as chilly as a night on the Sahara.
Out in the middle of the floor, stood the men: their backsides favouring the fire…
Everyone was present, except Loretta Lewis, Miss Cunningham and Angus.
I was standing over by the reception desk, with a view of the stairs. My companion was ‘Baby’ Frasier, a woman not many years my senior, whom I had known all my life. We were smoking, I remember, and drinking ginger-ale out of pale green bottles, and Baby had just said something about a movie we might go in to town to see, when Angus appeared on the staircase.
He was walking backwards, step-by-step, descending with his arms held out and up towards his mother, who was clutching his hands with her own—making her way down not one step at a time, but a quarter-step—an eighth-of-a-step at a time. She was talking to him all the way, telling him where to place his feet, smiling and laughing at him, while Miss Cunningham came down after them, holding Loretta upright by the back of her dress.
Baby, who had seen them too, went on in a sort of dead-voiced way about the film we might see, and I remember thinking “I wish she’d shut up about the god damn movie” and then Loretta made the last two steps to the floor of the lobby and Baby smiled at Loretta and said: “That should have been set to music: one of the nicest bits of dancing I’ve ever seen.”
Now, while we laughed at what Baby had said, this final thing happened and it happened all at once, with a great, chaotic rush of sound and movement, so that again, it remains as a picture, for me—or perhaps as a sequence of rapidly fluttering photographs that tell a story in a few, quick seconds.
The “lookout” rushed in from the porches and gave the alarm that the satellite had been sighted. And I guess my eye swept the lobby from group to group, because it seems, in retrospect, that I can see them all. The dowagers’ corner rose like a wave, with a flurry of cashmere and fur, and was joined at one end by children and at the other by what I can only describe as a “pack of mothers and fathers.” A whole flotilla of nannies, dressed in evening-blue, appeared from god-knows-what far recess and crowded after, waving and calling for their wards, who were far off in the forefront of the whole stampede.
A Major-General from Boston had the good military sense to perceive at once that the pass being blocked, he and his regiment of elder statesmen and businessmen would do better to circle round through the dining room and achieve the objective with a flanking movement.
All this in seconds, as I say, and then I was aware of the girl behind the reception desk muttering “Will you please excuse me?” and then I could feel, but not see her pass me—and then Angus was standing tip-toe, trying desperately to see past the general melee by the doors to the porches: and then Loretta was saying to Miss Cunningham, “quick—quick—take Angus and follow the General through the dining room! That way, I’m sure you won’t be too late to see it.”
That is: there was Loretta, standing at the very centre, and Baby and I, still standing near the desk.
Loretta, I think, had forgotten even the possibility that we were there. So far as she was concerned—everyone had gone off to see the satellite.
It can’t have been for long—but, it seemed a very long time that Loretta stood there, feeling herself alone. She sighed and reached out for the backs of some chairs—nearly tripped, but didn’t fall down: collected herself: stared at the ceiling: raised one hand to her lips: touched them very gently with her fingers:
turned—half-turned—and almost was already looking at the floor, when she saw us.
That lobby was so high and vast, while she had stood there ‘alone’—but as soon as she saw us, it shrank back down around her, and she smiled.
“You’ll miss it,” she said, and I thought she was going to faint, her voice was such a whisper and her colour so completely drained.
“Miss it?” said Baby: “Like bloody-God damn we will!”
And Loretta gave over completely to laughter.
“Your mother would kill you!” she said, and Baby said: “Let her! I don’t care. Come on!”
And “come on” we did. We seemed to float—I don’t know how we did it—but, all at once, we were across the lobby, Baby and me carrying Loretta all the way to the doors.
Outside, by the railings, we all three looked up with one glance and there it was: shining, floating as we had, silver in the sky, like a moon—the satellite.
Its pace was perfect: like something of glass—a small, glass hollow bulb, filled with an incandescent gas—tossed up, it seemed, or held through its perfect arc at the end of a string. We watched it in absolute silence—rising and sailing and passing over us—from the south-west, heading north-east—and, as we watched, we turned our heads and then our bodies round, to see it fall away into the dark of the horizon. But, when it was gone, we were met with the concerted gaze of the whole packed arena at the far end of the porches.
“What are you watching?” someone said, with faint amusement and chagrin.
“Why—the satellite,” said Baby, “of course.”
“But, my dear Baby,” said Mrs Trent, whose voice was all catarrh and eminence: “the satellite is over there.” And she pointed—and we stared—and she said: “Or it was. We have just all seen it pass.”
“Then, what have we seen?” said Loretta, staring back up at the sky.
“Oh—” said Mrs Trent, fumbling with her purple scarves and silver lame purse: “probably just another falling star—”
and she hurried away out of the dark, before she could be caught by the August chill.
There was a pause, and then Loretta said: “I think you people are remarkable”—addressing the rest of the guests, still assembled on the porches: “I mean, imagine! Mistaking a falling star for a satellite. How can you have? Why—”—and she made a gesture at the sky, as best she could—”—there it was, right there! And I guess we three are the only ones that saw it.” She paused and then looked them all in the eye.
“Isn’t that a pity,” she said.
The following day, Loretta did not come down to the sand. Her doctor had arrived from Montreal and, in fact, the only member of her family we saw that day was Elizabeth, who sat for about two hours at the sea-tip of the eastern promontory. No one bothered her, but I did notice that she remained seated even while the tide was turning and that it seemed a long time before she decided to quit the rocks and make her way back through the pools to the beach. Also, I saw, as she made her way past the Garrison enclave, that she did not stop, as she usually did, to speak.
It was the Garrison boy who had given Loretta the blue bottle.
Then the day came, and there is nothing much I can think of to add to what I’ve already written at the beginning, in the middle, at the end.
“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, created, perhaps, by some old, deflated castle. My brother, Michael, was saving someone’s sailboat, which had lost its balance and was slowly disappearing over the edge of our horizon. Down by the water, old Mrs Hogan went by, with her parasol tipped against the sun—relic of another age—and a tableaux of a children’s game and dogs popped up out of the sand. Someone was calling someone and the life-guard had his eye on the shore.
I looked up. I looked over.
It was so casual.
Baby Frasier was dropping a pale-green bottle from her lips and, once her elbow had descended far enough towards her waist, Loretta, who stood behind her, beyond her, was able to catch my image in the corner of her eye. One instant sooner—later—and our eyes might not have met. But they did, and she gave me the look of recognition and farewell: chose me to say good-bye to with her final glance and then Elvira was screaming: “mommy! mommy!” and Loretta was opening her arms to her own child, who suddenly was falling with her towards the ground and then—then only it was, that I saw:
She had on a red dress.
And all the people were on the shore.
Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye
Damn the bright lights by which no one reads, damn the continuous music which no one hears, damn the grand pianos which no one can play, damn the white houses mortgaged up to their rain gutters, damn them for plundering the ocean for fish to feed the mink whose skins they wear and damn their shelves on which there rests a single book—a copy of the telephone directory, bound in pink brocade. Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leeched from life that strength, malodorousness, colour and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.
JOHN CHEEVER, Bullet Park
I guess Thornton Wilder and John Cheever are the greatest living American writers: that is, if you’re talking about literature. With Cheever, though, there’s an odd and rather sinister problem. People have begun to live—to actually take up residence inside his books—forsaking New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, they’ve foundered in this place called Cheeverland.
NICHOLAS FAGAN, Essays and Conversations
At the end of the street there are stone steps leading down to a beach with a wide view of Long Island Sound. On the far shore, barely visible, is the home of William F. Buckley, Jr.
Everyone looks over there with envy—liberals spitting on the sand, conservatives quietly narrow-eyed and muttering the Platitudes. It is a large place, the lawns of which are encroached upon by rocks, some casual—deposited by the whim of Nature—others cast by the art of man. No one goes there: apparently not even a Buckley.
The street itself is not very long, with only about ten houses on either side. It has a ‘dead-end’ because of the steps and, once in the morning, once again in the afternoon, the maids trundle down to the beach with all the little children and sit on the sand drinking Pepsi-Cola. And the maids smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, lifted with chocolate fingers out of pilfered gold and silver Benson-and-Hedges packets; the ones with the cardboard sides that look like little whorehouses stuck in the sand beside the matchbox billboards advertising the tin-can restaurants next door.
Back in the proper houses, the real ones on the street, the wives are on the telephone, ordering this and that, looking out of their windows, wondering what time it is. And, if you could look down from the roofs or down from the sky, most likely you would see some others of the wives, drifting out into the sun with highball glasses in one hand and suntan lotion in the other. And there in the gardens these wives begin their daily disappearance-act: their bodies fading away behind the Coppertone and the Bain du Soleil; their minds fading away behind the gin, the vodka, and the scotch. And the sounds of the street are of music drifting from many open windows; of
Facing the Sound, at the end of the street, looking down at the beach, is a large white clapboard house with shade trees all around it and an adjoining smaller house that was once a garage or stables. In the large house can be found the Bakers and in the small house their estranged son Dennie, seventeen years of age.
Mrs Baker spends her days in New York, although she never uses the trains. The Bakers have lived in Cheeverland, on this street, since the late nineteen-fifties and the fact that Mrs Baker has never used the trains is quite remarkable. Everyone else in Cheeverland has been on the trains and it is thought that Mrs Baker has placed herself above the mass by refusing to do so. She and her sister (who has been on the trains) instead take turns driving one another into the City in a rented limousine. There is also a rented limousine chauffeur, and this man is thought to be Mrs Baker’s sister’s lover, and neither Mrs Baker’s sister nor the rented chauffeur has a name: they are simply known (and widely) as “Mrs Baker’s sister, dear, and her lover, the chauffeur.” As for Mr Baker, he has never appeared, although someone once claimed to have identified him, seen high up at a window on a rainy, wintry afternoon. Mr Baker has six million dollars—of his own, not his wife’s; for Mrs Baker only has two million—of her father’s, not her own.