Dinner Along the Amazon
Her eyes are yellow-green.
The stones are very hard to manage and Ishmael wants to put them all down and rearrange them into one hand, to make a package of them in the paper, but the table tops are all covered in the hallway with Alicia’s bric-a-brac. So he bends and kneels and places them, smelling of the dead sea-Sound, on the lower steps.
Outside there is going to be a storm and the sky is turning green with distant electricity and the smell of copper is lifted from the screens like dust and there is a long, long pause.
Ishmael smooths out the page of screenplay, and the words “CUT TO: INT: NIGHT: GLORIANNA’S ROOM” lean up at him, seemingly three-dimensional, off the paper. He begins to arrange the stones in the centre, leaving the corners foldable. One-two-three—twenty stones. Each different, but all a memento of Cheeverland.
Ishmael makes his package and rises.
A woman is seated on the stairs—someone he had not known was in the house.
“I beg your pardon,” he says and turns towards the doors. Crazily it goes through his head that somehow he is in the wrong hall, has wandered somehow into the house of a stranger. But then he recognizes the walk beyond the screens and turns again to Addie.
“Hello…uhm…do you live here?”
“No. I visit. You visit, too, I take it.”
Their eyes are locked so tight that Ishmael has to turn away.
“Don’t drop your stones,” Addie warns him.
Her feet are still bare, but she has changed her dress and now she wears something white and Mexican, with silver chains and rings.
“I have been sitting here, almost for an hour. My sister is asleep on the lawn. Alicia. Yes, I’m her sister. Addie—or Adele, if you prefer. I don’t prefer, I’m afraid. I think it kind of sounds stuck-up—or French—or something: I don’t know—I just don’t like it.” She is coming down the stairs and there is only the living room to go to. Or, the walk outside. “I suppose Alicia neglected to tell you I was coming.” Ishmael nods. She is backing him into the living room. “Well…” and a dazzling, broken laugh: “I forgive her. I forgive her.” More laughter. “I phoned her up once and I said: ‘This is Addie. This is Addie,’ and she said: ‘Addie who?’ Do you believe it? Believe it! You probably know that she writes. Well, people who write are a pain!” (Does she know what she’s saying? Ishmael blushes. But Addie knows what she has said and she turns to him and wins him over completely.) “Unless, of course, they write well!” Rosetta had told her who Ishmael was. “Do you drink?” He nods. “Then let’s. Here it is after five and I haven’t even started…”
They enter the living room and Addie attends to the record player while Ishmael attends to the bar. The stones, still folded in their paper, are laid on a sofa, where bit by bit the tension eases and the paper opens.
Page one hundred and twenty-two.
INT: NIGHT: (etc.)
THE STRANGER enters GLORIANNA’S ROOM with his KNIFE…
“Do you dance?” Addie asks.
“Oh yes. But…not well.”
“With me it couldn’t matter less.”
Johnny Mathis: “For the Good Times.”
On the lawn Alicia is sitting up, more Woolf-like than ever, one hand on the back of her hat, holding it down under the rising wind. Her expression is pained. Perhaps she has had a dream, or several, and she is longing to talk and she is talking to Arthur, but Arthur is not really listening. Arthur is wondering if the Kileys will be at the Powells’ tonight, but Alicia is saying something: “And yesterday, sitting there with Doctor Toffler—sitting there after so many sessions where nothing has happened, nothing has emerged at all—I suddenly realized, all at once, that for the longest time, I have had this…thing inside me: a desire—a wish—a need—a longing, Arthur, to forgive someone.”
Alicia looks at her husband and blinks and after a second it sinks in, apparently, exactly what she has said to him, for he turns and gives her a stare of grateful amazement.
“No, no, dear,” she says. “Not you. Not you. I don’t know why, but somehow this need is a desire to forgive some…stranger. Do you see? I have this desire: this need to forgive someone. And Dr Toffler says it doesn’t matter who I forgive as long as the ‘forgiveness’ emerges. It’s the feeling that matters. The feeling. Of having done something…” (searching for the word) “…magnanimous, gratuitous, and…lovely, for another human being.”
She was through. That was it. What Alicia had to say.
Arthur stares into the sky. He takes a deep breath.
“That’s terrific, dear. Terrific. Good for you,” his voice absolutely toneless. “I think you’re going to make it.”
“So do I,” says Alicia, fishing for, finding a piece of Facelle and blowing her nose. “And so does Dr Toffler.”
“Good.” Twenty-six miles away, there is thunder. Arthur knows it is exactly twenty-six miles because he has counted the seconds between the sound and the previous strobe of lightning.
The doors burst open and the dancers are interrupted.
“Will you, for god’s sake, come and help? Alicia’s hat has blown itself across the lawn and into the trees in front of the Professor’s house…”
Alicia stands in the kitchen and pours herself a glass of milk.
“I find if I line my stomach before a party,” she says to Ishmael, who sits in a handsome sweater at the table, “then the results aren’t nearly so devastating.”
“The results of what?” he asks.
Alicia blinks and smiles, ingratiating, not believing for a moment he can be serious. She crosses to the sink and rinses out the glass. Still letting the water flow, she turns and looks at Ishmael.
“I know you’re upset because of what I’ve done to your story,” she says and turns the tap off, flicks her fingers and reaches for the towel across the table. Then she sits down opposite him and removes her many rings with a sense of ceremony, staring at each one, laying them all in a row on the cloth, and one by one she dries her fingers, so many pieces of silver, knives and forks and spoons, laying them out like the rings for inspection—silver fingers and pewter nails. “I’ve only added the murder to the script because people insist on that. It’s an element of fiction they won’t forgive you for leaving out. In the movies, Ishmael, there has to be violent death—or people won’t go. Surely you must see that?” On with the rings. “It’s not that your book isn’t good. It’s just…”
“That it isn’t good enough.”
“No. No. You don’t understand. It’s different in the movies…” Arthur comes into the room and she corrects herself: “In films. It’s different. Isn’t it, Arthur?”
“The needs. The needs are different.”
“In what way?”
“In the movies…in the films…people have to be different. They have to…” She waggles her hands expressively.
“Kill one another.” (Ishmael)
“I think it’s time to go to the party,” says Arthur.
“And is Addie coming?” she asks, with her back to the room.
“I had thought so. Don’t you want her to come?”
Alicia shrugs. “It’s immaterial.” She lifts her handbag from the counter and turns to Ishmael.
“What do you think of her? Do you like her?”
“I don’t…know her.”
“You were dancing with her, for heaven’s sake.”
“Come on, Alicia.” (Arthur) “We’re late.”
“And you aren’t coming?” says Alicia to Ishmael.
“I’m afraid I’d feel out of place.” Arthur looks at him and Ishmael adds: “But I may come over later.”
Arthur smiles. “Through the back gate and across the alley. The Powells. I’m sure you’ll hear us.”
“All right. Have a goo
They go. Ishmael sits and listens to the crickets in the yard beyond the screens. The storm is over; the air is wet and fresh. It is nine o’clock: Saturday night. It is May and the whole of Cheeverland is poised on its toes: on the toes of its dancing shoes—waiting, as Alicia might have said—or as Ishmael might have written in one of his fictions—to be killed, or to be forgiven. It will depend whether, in Cheeverland as in the movies, the people have to be different.
Just after eleven o’clock that night, Miss Dinstitch comes out onto her porch to say “Goodbye…goodnight” to her departing guests and the guests are come for by a large silver-brown Rolls Royce. The driver is a uniformed person of either sex and indeterminate colour who declines to get out of the car or even to reach around and open the doors for the ladies on the walk, who comprise a-haggle of silver shoes and lame bags and shouldered furs. They cannot decide whether Maude will sit over here on this side with Grace, or over on that side with Theresa. The answer is, disappointingly, that she will sit up front with the driver, where Grace had been forced to sit on their arrival. Theresa, it seems, must be the owner of the Rolls. Miss Dinstitch watches all the shuffling and listens to the argument and dismisses it, along with the ladies, the moment they are gone. She wavers on the porch before going in.
There is someone hanging about the steps leading down to the beach, unsavoury pale and thin, in a tank-top shirt and a pair of white jeans. His hands are in his pockets—one hand out, now picking at something dark on his cheek, and she recognizes him. The profile gives him away. Dennie—that boy from across the street. That Baker boy with the broken jaw: waiting. Waiting. Always waiting for someone. Always hanging around in the shade, either of the trees or of the night. By day he hid away in his rooms, in his little house or out at the fringes of his mother’s lawns, where the trees swept down to the sidewalks. He was sad, she had always thought, but unsavoury, and then: oh well, she thinks—he’s young, resilient, pliable, and someone must love him. When you’re young, someone always loves you: a friend…or a…friend: or a friend. And then she turns away in the other direction. And then she thinks: oh—everyone, and, standing there in the amber lights, Miss Dinstitch is the very image of a giant Cecropia, trapped and pinned to the trellis with her Chantilly wings waving in the breeze and the dust of her Yardley’s powder scenting the air with despair.
And she hangs there for a moment more, wondering, wondering what to do. It is such a. fine night and all the houses have now the faint odour of music about them.
Yes: it is not to be disputed through her tears.
To be young and to be able to seek adventures is everything.
It should be stated here that Edward Kiley has a mistress whose name is Carol Careless and that, presently, Arthur is trapped in a dingy corner at the Powells’ party with this woman. She wears a cheap metallic dress and her wig doesn’t fit. She is drunker than anyone else in the room and she is prodding at Arthur on Edward’s behalf.
“But you’ve only been sailing once and once is no fair indication. Look, Arthur, honey—look, lotsa people are sick, are seasick the first time out, but…” she belches wetly, “that doesn’t mean they’re gonna be sick again. You don’t hafta be seasick!” she almost yells. “You gotta give the sea a chance’t. You hafta give it a chance to work ya.”
Arthur is searching the room above her head. Carol Careless clutches at his lapels and hangs there like a baboon.
“Listen,” she says. “Doesn’t it mean anything to ya? Doesn’t mean anything that a man like Edward has a sailboat? Owns one? Hunh?” Then she looks up, squinting through entangled lashes and beaded mascara. Arthur is not paying attention! “You shit!” she says. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“Now, Carol.” (Smiling)
“Don’t you now-Carol me, you cocksucker.” (Arthur is ashen now; fainting with horror at the epithet, heard by all and so…“Jesus, Carol!”…appallingly unfair, untrue and…) “…all he wants y’ to do—all he’s askin’ y’ to do is take a ride in his goddamn boat!”
Arthur has ceased to listen. And he is now afraid, utterly afraid of this hideous woman. Her hair smells of seaweed and she will not let go of him, won’t release his lapels, and he is certain they are going to rip, be torn, destroyed. He tries to fight her off, but she is very strong, in the way of drunks and ladies in metallic dresses.
“Carol, will you please let go of my coat?” (Oh God, will You please get me out of this corner?)
And then she is mustering all her height and, suddenly, letting go of him, she rears back, as if on rockers, and spouts in his face: “You crapless creep!” and she falls straight down to the floor, striking her head, which bounces.
Arthur adjusts his tie. No damage done. Carol rises to an elbow—to a knee—to both knees—to her ankles: to the bar. It is over. Arthur sighs. He hopes Alicia has not heard what Carol Careless has called him, and he wonders where Alicia is, where his wife is—something he only wonders at parties.
Ishmael went down and sat in the dark at the top of the steps with Professor Dinstitch, who was seated on the bench there, waiting for his sister to retire.
Neither one spoke. The old man rested both hands on the crook of his cane and Ishmael’s hands were deep in his pockets, fiddling with the lint. Here he was, in Cheeverland, with the inventor of the atomic bomb, and neither one had anything to say. It was the crickets who burred the air and the tree-toads who sang, and the records, the music, that provided the words, and the two men just sat. The flowers smelled, the cut-grass smelled, and the waters, curling in from mysterious darkness, and the breeze and the air itself and the cement—all smelled of summer coming.
Ishmael knew he was being watched. He was not sure from where, but he knew he was being watched. And then Professor Dinstitch got up and coughed and went away. That was the end of that. Clickety-click: the cane went up the path and along the sidewalks and under the poplars and onto the porch and into the house and beyond the door and was gone.
Ishmael waited. There was someone else.
“I’ve never seen you before,” says Dennie Baker, emerging, looming up through the darkness of the steps below.
Ishmael could not quite see him.
“I’ve never been here before,” he says.
“Well?” says Dennie, as if that meant something.
Well what? but Ishmael is silent. He wants to see this person before he goes on.
“Who sent you?” says Dennie, not moving, not coming further up.
“No one,” says Ishmael (appallingly naive, he will think, in retrospect). “No one sent me. I came here on my own.”
“Oh.” Disappointment? Chagrin? Even…anger?
And then: “Listen, I’m sorry, but…would you do me a favour and go away?” Dennie’s voice is a child’s voice now. Appropriate.
“Sure,” says Ishmael, rising. “Is anything wrong?”
Dead silence. The waves below them.
“No. But…I got to meet someone and…I have to wait, you see?”
“Okay,” Ishmael is backing off, not knowing where to go, but going. “I’ll see you ‘round.”
“Yeah.” Pause. “And thanks.”
“Not at all. I hope…” But Ishmael did not know what he hoped, what to hope for the boy (for it was obviously a boy, with that voice). “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.” And went away.
Kileys’ dog is standing out in the middle of the road with its tail between its legs and its head turned over its shoulder, looking back towards the corner where the Kileys live. The expression on the dog’s face is no longer eager or merry or friendly; it is frightened. It appears to have experienced some sort of shock and to have just escaped with its life. For a moment, as Ishmael watches the dog standing in the moonlike glow of the street lamps, it seems like a creature in the wild—like a photograph he saw once in the Natio
Ishmael wonders what he can do to help. Perhaps the dog has been hit by a car—though he hasn’t heard any cars. He approaches the dog slowly, holding his hands behind his back so they won’t seem threatening.
“Here, dog. Good dog…”
The dog wheels round, its neck and head leaning up in the direction of the looming stranger, who appears to have no arms—no hands. It whimpers and pads over onto the sidewalk near a driveway, where it can see that nothing is behind it but a large, blank house. It sits down.
“Have you been hurt?” says Ishmael.
The dog just stares.
“If you’d let me come near you, I could look at your collar and see where you live.”
There isn’t a collar.
Ishmael thinks: well, it moved, so there’s nothing broken…
The fact is, Ishmael is somewhat afraid of the dog. Its behaviour is so strange, he thinks it might attack him if he tries to touch it.
“I wish I knew who you are,” he says. “But I’m sure you must belong somewhere and maybe, if I leave you alone, you’ll find your way home.”
Having said this and having retreated slowly onto the other sidewalk, Ishmael goes his way, leaving the dog staring after him. When he gets to the corner, he notes the Kileys’ door (though he doesn’t know it is the Kileys’ house) is wide open and that all the lights in creation seem to be burning inside. The only sound is of a radio giving an account of a baseball game. Just as Ishmael is passing, Tommy Agee of the New York Mets hits a home run and the crowd in some distant stadium leaps to its feet with a roar you can hear as far away as the middle of the Sound.
Down the street, Kileys’ dog throws back its head and begins to howl, but his howl is lost beneath the howling of the baseball fans and the lapping of the waves. Now, it is truly night and the moon makes its move to the centre of the sky.