Dinner Along the Amazon


  “And he’s lying there, thinking what a pity it would be to go ahead and kill such a lovely woman after all…?”


  “And in his mind he forgives her for what she’s done and he decides, right then, not to kill her, but to leave her alone?”

  “Oh yes.”

  “Well…on page 122 I have him get up and go in and kill her.”


  Supper is over. They stand on the lawn.

  “Who’s that?” Ishmael asks.

  A figure is wandering along the street, the epitome of another age: Edwardian and elegant and carrying a walking-stick.

  “That’s Professor Dinstitch,” says Arthur. “He invented the atomic bomb.”

  The allure of violence hangs in the air for a moment and then is gone, replaced by the faint and lovely odour of the lilac trees next door.

  “I think I will go to bed,” says Ishmael.

  “Sleep well,” says Alicia. “Yes. Goodnight.”


  After Ishmael has gone, Alicia takes Arthur by the arm and they hang there, two cadavers in the twilight. “Addie will be here, tomorrow,” says Alicia. “Oh dear,” says Arthur. And it gets dark.

  By morning spring has well and truly come. Rosetta comes up to the house without her coat—not even carrying it over her arm. She is full of news. There has been a fire in the night, downtown, and even now the soldiers and the firemen are sifting through the ashes for the victims.

  “Soldiers?” Alicia asks, hung-over.

  “Well, I said the same thing to Clyde,” says Rosetta. “But it seems they’s legit. Th’ army’s usin’ it as some kinda trainin’ program. Or something. You know? Like them games they play—only this one’s real.”

  “What’s it like out?” Alicia asks.

  “Warm,” says Rosetta. “Like lemonade weather.”

  When Ishmael awakes, he hears this distant narrative of fire and lemonade and he thinks it must be floating up to his windows from the garden. But when he looks, the garden is empty below him and nobody there but the cat, asleep in Alicia’s canvas deck chair.

  He can see the Sound, or part of it, beyond the roofs and the treetops, and already there is someone sailing: two white sails smack out in the breeze and he imagines he can hear them. Will he have to sail today? He hopes not.

  Suddenly a power-mower shatters the pristinity of the atmosphere. The usual unseen person is ruining Saturday.

  Ishmael leans on the bar of heaven and watches the world as he lights a cigarette. In the Baker House he perceives a figure in one of the windows staring out directly at him through a pair of binoculars. Hastily he remembers his robe is only loosely tied and he snatches it shut and kneels on the floor so that only his head and shoulders, together with his folded arms, can be seen. He slides his eyes back carefully, to see if he is still being watched and something in him, perverse, is sorry to discover he is not. The figure with the glasses is staring down, now, into a yard that Ishmael can only barely discern through the trees and the froth of flowering shrubs. The lawnmower shrieks and complains that it has hit a rock. The fingers holding the binoculars seem only to be bones, barely fleshed, with great knuckular rings of heavy silver and opals. Now Ishmael sees what the glasses are watching and watches it too: the naked thighs, the naked breasts, the naked buttocks of Lydia Harmon exercising in her garden.

  Ishmael bites his lip. He has been unnerved and now he forces his head forward, leaning further out, remembering that Arthur has said “She wants us to pay attention” and now sees a knotty little man in a sweat-shirt and walking-shorts working in a flowerbed. He is pulling up fistfulls of weeds, presumably; all the while he works he is apparently whistling, for the shape of his lips betray him. Then all at once the power-mower dies and Ishmael hears the tune: it is Beethoven’s ‘Seventh Symphony,’ the Apotheosis, and he turns away, already wondering how many victims have been sifted from Rosetta’s fire.

  In the bathroom, Ishmael stands before the mirror and regards his whole self. The vision is brief; having dropped the robe to the floor, he now reaches round and takes the largest towel and wraps himself out of sight from the waist down. Then he puts his finger to his lips and studies the contents of the shelves: colognes, blades, razor, brushes, combs, and that new, untried, but intriguing man’s deodorant: “Lash.” Then he commences, as always, with the tumbler of vodka and the running of the bath.

  In the kitchen the table is covered with tabloids, oily rags, and Q-Tips. Rosetta is seated, already at work, Alicia is standing by the counter, emptying the contents of her handbag over the arborite. Being terrified of any combination of drugs and alcohol, she has refused all offers of aspirin and Anacin and suffers the effects of her hangover like a pro: bad-tempered, mean, and nervous. Rosetta refrains from humming and from turning on the radio. There is only the sound of their mutual clanking, clinking, and cluttering—and then their conversation.

  “You got that oil-can there? That all-purpose oil?”

  “Three-in-One, Rosetta. It’s called ‘Three-in-One.’

  “Don’t throw it! My floor…! Jesus!”

  Pause. Alicia shuffles in blue slippers to the table and sits.

  “Do we have to do this every damn week?”

  “Clyde says if we don’t, the barrels gets musty and then they explodes in your hands…”

  “Well. I don’t want that to happen.”

  Another pause and the chambers thrown open, inspected, poked at with Q-Tips. Bullets laid in two neat rows over the headlines: “PULLING WIRES BEHIND THE SCENES” and “MAN’S WORST ENEMY: THE DOG.” Rosetta is nonchalant about her work, but Alicia gets right down to it with her glasses falling from the end of her nose.

  “This fire, do you think it was started?”

  “I think there isn’t a fire in this world, M’s Anderson, that isn’t started somehow…” Rosetta holds her .32 up and stares through the empty chambers at the pots of winter savoury on the sill. “Clyde says he’s sick o’ niggers startin’ these fires in the District. Clyde says to us: ‘Why not move up-town?’

  Alicia’s glasses fall at last. Rosetta flips her chambers closed with a snap.

  “But there’s nowhere for you to live up here,” says Alicia, whose policy is always reality. Her coffee is cold, but she drinks it. Rosetta grunts.

  “Oh, we ain’t gonna move,” she says. “It’s the gasoline that’s comin’ up.”

  This receives silence, so Rosetta says, changing the subject: “You want me to put them flowered sheets on your sister’s bed?”

  At about eleven o’clock from the Anderson household there is a short expedition to the shopping plaza, where the sun is reflected in over a mile of plate glass windows, causing Alicia to mutter the words: “Bloody sadist,” not making it clear whether her reference is to the designer of the shopping plaza or the sun itself. Here Arthur departs to purchase four bottles of gin and two of Alicia’s favourite scotch. Later he will have to pretend, as always, that he has bought the scotch by mistake—forgetting “Alicia’s problem.” This forgetfulness, which some might have called a tolerance, is not a tolerance at all, but only a symptom of exhaustion. The will to fight Alicia’s battles has been submerged in the need to forget his own.

  Meanwhile Alicia and Ishmael have visited the A and P where they have bought such items as half-a-dozen large bottles of Canada Dry ginger ale (“in honour of your lovely country, dear”) and a bottle of pickles and two dozen cans of Schlitz. Alicia has also bought some nippy English humbugs and when they all get home again they all dine standing up, from plates of gritty lettuce, cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, and a bowl of pretzels. At two o’clock there is target practice.






  Alicia: “What?”

  “Ishmael and I are going to the beach.”

  “All right, dear. When I’m through wi
th this—”


  “—I’m going to have a rest.”

  And so, Arthur thinks, no doubt, are the neighbours.


  “Goodbye, dear.”



  Rosetta would like to see Miss Addie before she leaves and so she hangs around, sucking humbugs and looking up the movies in the papers. Nothing is playing she likes and at three o’clock a cab arrives.

  Miss Dinstitch watches Addie’s arrival from between the bushes across the road.

  She sees the taxi-cab is not a local one, but a Yellow Cab from New York City, and this gives her curiosity just enough adrenalin to propel her forward under the trees.

  The girl who emerges is slim, but of ordinary height, with short blond hair only slightly longer than Lydia Harmon’s. She wears a dress so thin that it must be unlined, and its material is patterned, not unlike Miss Dinstitch’s view of the street, with pale, translucent leaves. Addie is barefoot and carries a shoulder-bag, and while she is paying the taxi-driver the bag slips all the way down her arm to the ground, causing her to laugh. Miss Dinstitch does not like this laughter: it cannot be heard and it must be caught in the girl’s throat, somehow—the way actresses laugh, and singers—or worse. And now the girl is saying good-bye to the driver, who has a strangely satiated smile. There are words and waves and then he is gone, leaving the stink of his exhaust behind him. Miss Dinstitch draws back, for the girl has done something inexplicably moving. All at once she has clasped her hands before her chin and closed her eyes and let her whole demeanour of ebullience escape through parted lips. Then she breathes it back in and picks up her bag and squares her shoulders and marches to the door.

  The stairwell is cool: a good place to stand and wait.

  Alicia is on the lawn, asleep in her hat, the very image of Virginia Woolf. Addie has seen her there through the mullioned windows of the den and has left her there, unspoken to, ungreeted. Rosetta has left, but has told her that Arthur and the house-guest are down on the beach and that, perhaps, the young man has gone sailing. And Addie smiles at the thought of this, for once when she was here a long, long while ago she too went sailing and Mr Kiley made a pass at her and she wondered if Mrs Kiley would make a pass at the young man whose name was…Ishmael?

  She listens to the house. Her sister will not be glad to see her here and, as always, Arthur’s smile will be cool and patronizing: “Nice.” Her fingers touch the banister. It doesn’t matter. Here she is: away. That’s all that counts—that matters: to be safely away somewhere else. The rest of anything is possible to deal with. Anything and anyone.

  She looks up the stairs. She closes her eyes. The house smells of safety and cut-flowers, of lemon-wax and musty-rugs, of her childhood. And Addie sits down, neither partway up nor partway down but exactly in the middle of the stairs. A vantage point from which she can see through the doors who will come to be with her first.

  Arthur is watching the ketch through his telescope. There sits Edward Kiley and Emmaline, his gorgeous wife. So far so good. They have not ascertained that the Andersons have a guest. For a change they are sailing alone. Edward Kiley has a strange expression on his face. Arthur adjusts the lens. Yes, fascinating. Fascinating. Is Edward Kiley…amazed? Or…desperate? Or…angry? Or afraid?

  He’s afraid.

  Arthur, in his own amazement, claps the telescope shut and then at once reopens it to see what Emmaline is up to. Below him, on the beach, Ishmael is reading Alicia’s screenplay, piling it page by page under the stones as he reads. He is a good deal over halfway through, and it passes through Arthur’s mind: I wonder if he’ll forgive her? And then, at once, he is searching for Emmaline Kiley.

  There. In a shirt, with her hair tied back and her dark, southern skin deeply oiled, almost black with her passion for the sun. Her face is flat and broad and her features wide: Ava Gardner’s chin. Her breasts have always been the cause of turbulence, of a wincing disquiet in Arthur’s soul. Her figure can truly be described as being made up of handfuls of flesh. Even now, as he sees her, his fingers sink round the phallus of his telescope, twisting it out of focus. Dear Jesus—that woman…But what is she doing? Here, now—something is very wrong. She too is angry and alarmed and she sits unnaturally forward (damn her breasts), with her hands full of halliard and her movie-star’s chin unsheathed and knife-like pointed at her husband—screaming. She is screaming invective—god!—the worst that a taxi-driver could think of—flailing at him with the words until the words are not enough and the forces behind them suddenly possess her hands and she leaps at him, driving him backward over the rear of the boat and the tiller snaps free and all the lines are let out and the ketch begins to make a crazy drunken course across the Sound that is so irrelevant to all the rules of sailing that everyone else on the shore begins to watch it, wondering what can be the trouble. And then, it must be, beyond the curtain of the sails, that Edward has regained his balance and has somehow fought her off, for on the next turn beachwards he is sitting there calmly, fitting the tiller back into place. And Emmaline has resumed her seat to one side of him, not screaming now, but adjusting her shirt and rubbing her arms.

  “Who’s winning?” says a voice behind Arthur’s right shoulder. He turns like a child caught stealing loose change from the bureau and sees that his fellow eavesdropper is Lydia Harmon. Not liking her makes Arthur’s predicament worse. He cannot share her smile, with its twist of lemon. He hates the way she stands, which is like a disturbingly seductive boy, hipless and smooth and wet. She is lightly beating time to the music of someone’s transistor, blathering rock from nearby.

  “Uhm…winning what?” says Arthur like a fool.

  Lydia makes a face and touches Arthur’s cheek with a deprecating pat. “Never mind, Sweetie,” she says. “I’ll find out later for myself.” Arthur grits his teeth at her touch. And then she says: “You and Ali going to the Powells’ tonight?”

  Arthur would be delighted to say no, they are not going. But the fact is they are going, and have to go, because Alicia would bring the house down if they didn’t. So he says: “Maybe.”

  Lydia smiles. “Chapter two, baby.” And she looks out towards the ketch. “And you wouldn’t want to miss chapter two, now, would you?” Her big toe caresses the leather instep of Arthur’s boot.

  “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” says Arthur. “And will you please take your God damn toe off my boot?”

  Lydia pouts and Arthur is not quite sure the pout is not genuine. Maybe she needs to seduce someone, he thinks. After all, there isn’t much game for a Lydia here on the beach. It must be difficult, not to have an outlet for all that…(looking away from her) whatever it is. And worst of all, he is disturbed. She has moved him, for no one has placed her toe on the instep of his boot for a very long time.

  He gathers up the telescope and makes to move away. But Lydia beats him to it. She has suddenly stripped off her jeans and gone running out to the water, which is shallow and will not hide her.

  “Does she call that thing a bathing suit?” Arthur says aloud, and turns at once to see if Ishmael is nearby. But he is not, and only the screenplay under its pile of stones remains to show where his guest has been seated. This afternoon, that should have been so lovely, has been ruined by the fact of everyone’s unfinished business.

  That argument, for instance, Arthur thinks as he picks his way through the slime revealed by the ebbing tide. Is the Kileys’ argument ever over? All they do—or certainly all they do in public—is rage at one another; batter one another with words and fists. Now, it seems that Edward and Emmaline want to kill one another. What, then, keeps them together? Edward’s money, bulging in Emmaline’s pocket book? Emmaline’s beauty, sagging from Edward’s arm? They’re the perfect age for divorce, Arthur thinks—and smiles. As I am. And Alicia. The Kileys will and we won’t, that’s what everyone thinks. The perfect age. Like the perfect age for marriage and the perfect age for giving birth
and the perfect age for heart attacks and cancer…

  Arthur—one foot lifted to begin his ascent—is confronted by the open mouth, the merry eyes and the filthy paws of Kileys’ dog. It has just come bounding down the steps to say hello to everyone: to anyone. Kileys’ dog is always looking for its owner; and its name. It is large and brown with one black patch on its back near its tail: a kind of square, curly dog—close cropped. Almost an Airedale. It has no name and is simply known as “Kileys’ Dog.” This does not suit the dog at all, who wants a proper name like any other dog. No one has ever been witness to how the Kileys summon it. for meals or for guard duty. Probably they cry; “here, Dog!” or “here, You!” or some such thing. Its lack of a name can be seen in the dog’s expression. It seems to be waiting—always—for someone to say; “your name is Spot.” Or George. Or whatever. Anything can satisfy the dog. It is friendly to the point of wretchedness. The expression in its eyes, the tilt of its head, the incessant movement of its tail are downright melancholy.

  Arthur moves toward one side and decides he will sit with the dog on the sea wall. “Poor old dog,” he says and lays his hand along the side of the dog’s head. “Poor old everyone,” he adds, surveying the crowded stones and all the people known to him by the numbers on their houses, by their license plates and the names of their phobias and manias and not much else. “Poor old us.”

  Slowly, the dog begins to fawn on Arthur’s hand and Arthur wonders how often any other hand, especially a Kiley hand (Edward’s with its dreadful rings—Emmaline’s with its sun spots) is ever laid this way, receptive of an ear to scratch and received so gently into the wet of that eager mouth to have its fingers chewed. Probably never.

  The first one through the door is Ishmael.

  Addie watches him. His hair looks wet, as though he’s been swimming. His hands are full of stones and paper, some of the paper enfolding the stones. He does not see her, lost as she is in the dimness of the stairwell.

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