Dinner Along the Amazon

  Late every afternoon, when the older children come home from school, the Bakers’ other son, whose name is Neddy, looks down over the beaches and out over the Sound towards the Buckley Place and, for an hour or so at a stretch, he will lace the air with unbridled obscenities. No one has ever found a way to stop him. Not even Dennie, his brother, whom he loves—for Neddy is twenty-three years old, with a mental age of five. He has a nurse, but the nurse sits up, under earphones, on the terrace, reading books and listening to “white sound”

  —unattentive, remote, and therefore highly regarded by her ward.

  Neddy weighs two-hundred-and-thirty pounds and he often has to be lifted to his feet if he falls down, or if someone pushes him, or if he sits down on purpose. His co-ordination is not the best and the obscenities he screams are often bawled through the tears of frustration and a flail of fists that once broke Dennie’s jaw. So far as he is able, Neddy runs from one side of the lawn to the other, pointing and shouting, shouting and pointing out to sea like a man who cannot make others believe he has seen a sinking ship or a hand that has waved and disappeared.

  On the other side, at the end of the street, way in behind a screen of trees and a veil of shrubbery, lives Professor Orin Dinstitch, late of Harvard, late of Princeton, later still of M.I.T., and a onetime resident of Chicago. Professor Dinstitch was “one of the originals” at Los Alamos, and as if to remind his neighbours of that fact, the trees with which he has screened his house are poplars and cottonwoods, which every spring give off the smell of heaven. He lives thus in aromatic seclusion with his sister—not at all like Mrs Baker’s sister, but the epitome of all that being the sister of an older man implies: meticulous to the point of madness, lifting every fallen leaf from the sidewalk with delicate bridge-player’s fingers, scrutinizing every visitor on the street for signs of decadence and dirt through watery, failing eyes. The Dinstitch couple are poor—a description admittedly relative; for anyone living across the road from a man worth six million dollars is bound to be thought of as ‘poor’. And someone once said, “That poor old gent. I wonder how he gets along now. Living there all alone with his sister…having given his all to his country, and now no visible means of support.” To which some wit had replied: “except his cane.” They were frugal and they refused to own a car. Miss Dinstitch is very proud of this latter fact. “The automobile pollutes, you know,” she will say, turning to her brother with a smile, lifting the dust from his lapels with a fingernail. The old are so strangely cruel to one another, with the things they say and the trees they plant and the dust they turn and the doors they close. And, as Orin Dinstitch once found himself thinking against his will: “With the way they will not die.”

  Of the rest of these houses, only one other has the importance of personality, and up to it one afternoon in May (observed beyond the poplars by Miss Dinstitch across the road) there drives a taxi.

  Out of this taxi gets a young man of about thirty-eight years, whose right to be called “young” lies in the extraordinary mask of his face—innocent of all experience save imagination. Nothing has ever happened to this young man that did not take place in his mind.

  Call him Ishmael.

  He carries a suitcase, a briefcase, and a paper-wrapped bouquet of flowers. He wears a fawn-coloured suit and a pair of highly polished boots. He is five-foot, ten-and-a-half inches tall. His eyes are pallid blue and the shape of his mouth betrays the fact that his mother fed him at her breast long after her milk had dried. He has come a long way to Cheeverland, from Toronto.

  Having paid the taxi-driver, Ishmael stands, unaware of Miss Dinstitch’s stare, watching the house before him as though to make himself believe that it is there. Books have been his life and he has only read of Cheeverland. He has never been. So now he is nervous, for here he is: he is here at last.

  The house is expensive, with an effective facade: pseudo-revolutionary, guaranteed rust-resistant, with antiqued pre-weathered wrought-iron fixtures such as carriage-lamps and railings and little ornamental spears sticking out of the ground around the cherry trees that line the rubbermaid walk. The cherry trees are real and he touches them one by one as he makes his way to the door, holding all his belongings and the paper flowers to one side.

  The people who live in this house are on their way up in the world of television: hoping to make it all the way up to the world of films. Their name is Anderson: Arthur and Alicia. Alicia writes; Arthur produces. Alicia says “A-lee-seeya” and has a very large collection of hats. Arthur is a shoe-and-boot man, being the owner of twenty-two pairs. Ishmael also writes—but novels and stories: a writer of books. He is here because Arthur is trying to raise the money to produce a “Film of the Week” (not the same thing as a FILM) based on Ishmael’s only successful book, a novel called Blackwater Falls. Alicia has written, or rather ‘concocted,’ the screenplay, and the author has come down to read it.

  Now Ishmael walks to the house with his things and he rings the bell. The door is opened. He steps inside and Miss Dinstitch loses sight of him. The door closes and the street is empty, too soon for the children’s return from school, too late for the taxi-cab to come back and take the young man away.

  Miss Dinstitch herself goes inside through the porch and closes all the doors, one by one, in order, all the way to her bedroom, where she lies down on the bed and stares at the ceiling. She is wondering what will happen and will not close her eyes for an hour.

  Mr and Mrs Anderson are both very large people; tall, with almost identical faces and oversized, beautiful heads. Long-armed and long-legged, they move with a good deal of care, very slowly through their low-ceilinged home. Their rooms are filled with books and paintings and musical instruments. Mrs Anderson is as highly strung as a violin, but she plays the cello. Arthur is more phlegmatic, drinking a great deal of gin, laughing a little more than Alicia does, making his way to the top of the television heap with chinless tenacity and the best pair of rubber-soled shoes that money will buy.

  The Anderson’s maid is black and her name is Rosetta Fillimore, and the day she came to apply for the job Alicia opened the door and said: “But…you’re a darky! And Rosetta just sat right down on the step and almost wet her pants with laughing, and ever since then she has been enslaved to Alicia’s charms. However, in 1968 all the coloured servants working the street, even Rosetta Fillimore, left off living in these houses and went downtown to live in the district. Now they come in only by the day. After the events in Memphis, a meeting was held and the decision was made to move out. It was one thing to work there and to eat there, but quite another to sleep there, and so their bedrooms on the top floors and in the basements were abandoned and their sheets and towels were given away to the Salvation Army. Rosetta’s lover, Clyde, was a leader of this movement and he has since convinced her to carry a Smith and Wesson .32 snub-nosed revolver. And why not? Doesn’t Alicia Anderson?

  In the present absence of both the Andersons, Ishmael is shown upstairs by Rosetta Fillimore to her own old room.

  (Miss Dinstitch’s eyes still seek the possibilities of this scene in the cracks and the corners of her ceiling.)

  “You want a drink? Perhaps some tea?” says Rosetta.

  “Some tea,” says Ishmael.

  “Okay,” says Rosetta and goes on down to the kitchen, where she puts on the singing kettle and pours herself the scotch refused by the man upstairs. “‘Rob ‘em blind,’ Clyde says,” she says out loud and lifts the glass into the sunlight before she drinks. “But Sweet Jesus, how I hates this crap…” and throws it down her throat. “H - agh!” and is nearly sick in the sink. Then she looks up towards the attic: So that’s the booby who wrote that book that Mrs A. adapted, hunh? Well, I guess Clyde says another drink on that…” and she pours a jigger and lifts it to the windows and thinks: I can’t do this—and pours it down the drain again and caps the bottle.

  Rosetta has read Blackwater Falls and has not been able to grasp it, quite; though somehow she liked it, ‘kind of.’ It h
ad seemed to be a true book, filled with real feelings—but the people were unknown to her, living in another time, and a place so far away it was not on her Map of America. Ontario. In Canada. And the lives described were lived before the war, before the war that was known as ‘the war’ and was the war that she herself remembered from her childhood—the one that ended with Dinstitch’s bomb. But anyway the hero in the book was a man whom no one had ever met before—a stranger who came to Blackwater Falls where certain things happened to him in 1910 and where he did things not understandable—and when he left the town the book was over. He was a saint, she guessed, but she wondered what on earth kind of movie it would make with its saint and its sombre darkness and its utter lack of people Rosetta could put her finger on (except a woman called Glorianna, who did not get killed). Oh well, the Andersons were both very clever, so Rosetta decided not to commit herself, but only to wait and see what happened, at which point she could properly say “I tol’ you so” no matter what the outcome was.

  Up in the attic Ishmael unpacks his suitcase; hangs a few things in the empty closet; sets out some underwear on the bed; pours himself a tumbler of vodka—taking both tumbler and bottle from the suitcase—and then sits down, without his shirt, to open the briefcase. There is just a moment, just a second, before he lifts the lid, and when he does, inside there are twenty, maybe thirty magazines. Ishmael closes his eyes. He wants and does not want to see. But must, and so he opens his eyes and lets his fingers down from his lips and he caresses the cellophane wrappers and these in themselves have such a sensuous quality that, after a moment, he rises quickly, selects a magazine at random, and walks across the hall, where he locks the vodka, himself, and the magazine into the bathroom.

  Downstairs, the kettle boils and sings.

  Rosetta watches it slowly boiling dry. And she listens to that boy at the end of the street—to that Neddy Baker kid shouting his afternoon obscenities at the sailboats on the Sound. It’s four o’clock and with a sigh she rises and once more crosses to the sink where she fills the kettle and puts it back on the stove. She leans against her forearm, resting her weight on the counter. This man has arrived. And he has asked her for some tea. Right? And he is still upstairs in the bathroom. And his hosts, the Andersons, have not come home to greet him as they said they would, and here she is, Rosetta, leaning in the kitchen, waiting for god knows what—for nothing—to happen. And he is alone and she is alone and they are alone and the kid down the street is alone and—great Jesus—what is it that makes these people so undependable, discourteous and…(looking from the window)…sad?

  Alicia Anderson, returning at long last from wherever it is she has been, stands, crouching slightly in the living room. She wears a plain cloth coat and gloves and she carries an attache case. Her hat is but a veil, pulled tightly to the chin, and her shoes must be called ‘eccentric’ because of their heels, at least three inches high, lifting Alicia, already attenuated, even further towards the ceiling.

  “Well…he’s here,” says Rosetta, standing askew in the doorway: “but, he’s locked hisself in the bathroom.”

  “In the bathroom?” Then, gazing off at the mail piled up on the desk: “Isn’t that strange?” Turning back: “And you invited him down?”

  “Sure did.”

  “Well. How very odd…”

  “Maybe he’s afraid of darkies,” says Rosetta.

  “Pah!” And they both laugh.

  “Anyways, I made’m a pot o’ tea, which he asked for and never come down for and so I drank it mysel’ an’ threw the tealeafs onto the roses like you tol’ me. Okay?” She began to depart the room.

  “Okay.” Distracted.

  “You people in or out for dinner?”

  Alicia uncrouches. “If we’re ‘in,’ I’ll make a salad. That should be all right. Shouldn’t it?”


  “What is there? Is there any lobster? Crab? Any squid? Anything like that?”

  “Like that, yeah. There’s shrimps in tins, I think.”

  “Then open the shrimps and put them in a bowl of ice and make sure you pour off all that liquidy stuff before you do…”

  “On the roses…?”

  “It’s poison, Rosetta. Poison. Okay?”

  “Okay. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. An’ oh…speakin’ o’ panic…”


  “I di’n’t say nothin’ about your sister comin’ t’morrow. Was that right?”

  “That’s right.” (How dare she?) “That’s right.” (How dare she?) “Don’t say anything just yet.” (You black bitch!)

  Rosetta, smiling earnestly, begins to go away. “Rosetta?” She turns, impertinent, but silent to the voice. “I want you to put a bottle,” says Alicia, “of Mr Anderson’s gin in the fridge. And…I want you…”


  Rosetta squints her gaze and sets her mouth. Alicia sees this and thinks: my god, I’ll kill her, but only says: “I want four fingers of scotch. In a chilled glass. With a single piece of mint.”

  Rosetta fishes around in her pockets for her false eyelashes, kept in a small enamelled box that she is always losing. It is nearly time to walk to the corner, catch the bus, and go home to Clyde. She makes a rosette of her mouth.

  “Now” says Alicia.

  “Yes, ma’am,” says Rosetta—and gets away with it and goes.

  Alicia straightens, meaning to continue on into the den and the desk where the mail waits, but she strikes her head, almost impaling it on the iron chandelier that mars the entranceway and she spouts: “Great bleeding Jesus!”

  She looks at the cello in the corner, wanting very much to kick it into the hallway, but she knows (having done it before) that afterwards she would regret that. Instead she throws a convenient paperback in its direction and misses it by a mile. She sits down, wanting to scream, perhaps, and the telephone rings. Alicia throws it across the room.

  Arthur Anderson is escorting Ishmael to the top of the steps above the beach. Each man carries a glass—the one of gin, the other of vodka.

  “That blue ketch there belongs to the Kileys,” says Arthur. “They’ll see we have a guest and insist on taking you out tomorrow, if you can bear it.”


  “I can’t. I get sick. But maybe Alicia would go with you.”

  “They don’t actually go to sea, do they?”

  “Oh, no…” and a laugh. “They never leave the Sound. But the Sound’s quite big enough for a proper sail. Do you know this place at all?”

  “No. No. I’ve never been…”

  “That place over there belongs to William F. Buckley, Jr.”

  Ishmael spits.

  Arthur puts one arm behind his back and they begin to descend.

  Several children play on the beach, including a token black boy with an Afro.

  “That’s our ‘token black boy,’” says Arthur with a smile. “We get quite a laugh out of calling him that.” Stepping downwards. “He thinks it’s funny, too, you know. We like his hair.”

  Ishmael nods: “Unh-hunh. What’s his name?”

  “I don’t know. He’s the son of one of the maids.”


  “But she doesn’t work this street anymore, so it works out fine. Nobody’s embarrassed that way. And boy, can that kid ride a bike! Fantastic!”

  “That person there,’ says Arthur, indicating the woman with a wave of his gin, “is Lydia Harmon. She’s a lesbian and she wants us to pay attention. That’s why she wears an open shirt.”

  They get off the bottom step and make for the tide.

  “That,” says Arthur, stepping from one stone to the next, as if he had them all by heart, “is a certain Mr Crosley. Beware.”

  He does not elaborate.

  Ishmael says: “I will.”

  They stop and stare across the water. Arthur sighs.

  “We call it ‘Buckley-ham Palace,’” he says, “and it’s really supposed to be rather dreary.” He lets the vision sink. “Not at al
l like Hyannis Port,” he sighs again and then walks on. “Do you know who I met the other night?”

  “No idea,” says Ishmael.

  “Truman Capote,” says Arthur and is disappointed when Ishmael only says: “Oh.”

  Now it is Ishmael’s turn to walk on the stones.

  “Oh, yes,” says Arthur: “and Johnny Carson and Linda Lovelace too. All the same night. It was a riot. Just a riot! Everyone got stoned and lay on the floor and played Monopoly. Linda Lovelace kept winning…”

  They cross on over the slimy greening stones that once made up retaining walls but now are fallen to the sand. Arthur gets some distance ahead of Ishmael here and then turns round and says, with a certain grave contempt: “Truman Capote wears a bracelet.”

  Ishmael stops. Then Arthur turns away again.

  “It was a private party, of course.”

  “Of course.”

  “But…we all had a pretty good time. It was fun.”

  “…I wish I’d been there.”

  Arthur now finds a dead fish and must avoid it by walking out into the Sound.

  “These shoes cost me forty dollars,” he says—apparently delighted by what he is doing. “Isn’t that a scream?”

  Over the shrimp, Alicia asks: “Did you get to the script at all?”

  “Not really,” says Ishmael. “I’ve read the first sixteen pages, that’s all. I’m sorry.”

  “Oh! Don’t be sorry, dear. I’m glad that’s all you’ve read, because,” she looks at Arthur, “I wanted to forewarn you.”

  “Forewarn me?” says Ishmael.

  “Yes.” Alicia waves her fork above the plates like a wand, but the food remains what it is—just shrimp salad, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, and radishes. “You know in the book, where what’s-his-name is lying in the barn and Glorianna is getting undressed beyond the windows…?”

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