Dinner Along the Amazon

At this juncture Harper’s turn came.

  “Good morning, mother.”

  “Good morning, Harpie. You sit there like a good boy till I’m ready—then you can come in dear.”

  “All right.”

  He knew that he wasn’t allowed inside until she’d gone into the bathroom and shut the door behind her, he knew this explicitly, but for some reason or other she felt she must tell him again and again every morning and so he let her.

  After she had gone into the bathroom he would go into the bedroom and sit on the bed and look at the pictures in the paper and listen to the bath water running into the tub. Afterwards, when he heard the water running out of the tub he would go to the highboy (it had been his father’s) and open the middle drawer.

  Inside the middle drawer there was always the Colt revolver lying on a white tea towel—and beside it lay two boxes of cartridges. But the Colt revolver held no interest for him at all. He knew what it was there for and he respected this, but aside from respect he felt nothing. It guarded a treasure, which lay under the white tea towel, contained in two boxes—one which had velveteen on the outside and another which was leather. These were his mother’s jewel cases. This was the treasure.

  Although Harper had no idea, had no conception of the value of these jewels he believed them to be the most beautiful objects he had ever seen. Actually their value was enormous (but Harper wouldn’t have understood the meaning of value—he only understood that they were beautiful).

  There were earrings and finger rings and necklaces and brooches. There were strings and strands of pearls and an emerald on a golden thread. There was an opal ring and a sapphire ring of such gigantic proportions that Harper wondered always how his mother ever wore it. And there was a diamond set in the midst of emeralds and yellow sapphires that truly dazzled the beholder with its radiance.

  Every day, Mrs Renalda Harper Dewey wore either one piece or several pieces of this jewelry and Harper every day would take out the two boxes and stare at the contents trying to guess which piece or pieces she would choose. Very often he was right in his choice because he had a certain insight into the inflection of his mother’s voice which she employed when she called to him in the hallway.

  However—in the last two months this had become a source, not of pleasure to him but of anguish, for something was happening—an extreme mystery—which no one could explain to him no matter how often he asked about it. Certain of the smaller pieces of jewelry were disappearing.

  The first piece had disappeared over six months before, just after Christmas. It had been a small brooch of silver, studded with tiny diamonds. It was in the shape of a spider’s web and the diamonds had represented dewdrops. Harper had been especially enamoured of this piece and when he found it gone he was panic-stricken and searched the entire room for it. But then his mother said to him: “I sold it,” in a cold beautiful voice, and he was heartbroken. She said she’d sold it to finance a gift for her own mother. But she didn’t tell him what the gift was and he had never heard his grandmother mention it.

  Since then, other pieces had gone—none without immediate notice from his loving eye—but, as they went the cold beautiful voice delivered credible reasons as excuse—Granny’s insurance—Mary Flannagan’s wedding present—old Aunt Alice’s silver anniversary—and more.

  During the last two months there had been a marked increase in the loss which could not be ignored or brushed aside as more “expenses for gifts.” And since it was two months since the first note which read “Nine o’clock please” had appeared on the landing, Harper Dewey with a sinking heart (but with a mind that could not prompt him to an exact reason) somehow, perhaps instinctively, put two and two together and made four.

  As for Bertha Millroy, there was no mystery to her—whatever it was—she knew.

  So that now, when there lay between their cups of tea—between their two pairs of moving hands which drummed with speculation on the kitchen table—a note, which read “Ten o’clock, thank you,” their eyes could not meet and they could not voice their distress for they were filled with fear.

  Bertha Millroy wondered just how Harper would discover and she said a word to God asking him “not to make her do the telling.”

  At nine-thirty Harper Dewey was in the back garden with his pet guinea pig when he heard Mrs Jamieson, the lady from next door, knock on the side door of the house.

  He heard Bertha shut off the taps at the kitchen sink and a moment later Mrs Jamieson’s voice.

  She sounded angry and at once had to be subdued with an admonition from Bertha.

  “M’am, you must be quiet. Mrs Dewey is asleep.”

  “Asleep, is she? Well that’s more than I can say for myself thanks to her last night.”

  “Come in m’am and explain your trouble. Can I give you some tea Mrs Jamieson?”

  The side door slammed.

  Harper went inside through the sunroom and stood listening in the dining room to what was being said beyond the kitchen door. He still had his guinea pig in his arms.

  “That woman!” expostulated Mrs Jamieson—who had grey hair and an enormous Norman nose. “That woman!!”

  “Now, Mrs Jamieson, you must quiet down and explain yourself. There’s nothing we can do until you say your piece. Here’s a cup of tea. Here. Now say it.”

  Mrs Jamieson clanked a teaspoon around the inside of the teacup.

  “She came to me last night. Last night at two o’clock in the morning!”

  She paused, relishing her role as informer.

  “Last night at two in the morning? That don’t even make sense,” said Bertha.

  “You’re darned tootin’”—Mrs Jamieson was of the old school—“You’re darned tootin’ it don’t make sense. That woman.” She made a clucking noise in her throat. “Drunk!” she pronounced. “Drunk and disorderly and all unkempt…” She left off as though the spectacle was too much for her meagre vocabulary to deal with.

  Bertha heaved a deprecating little sigh. “Oh dear me,” she muttered.

  “You should have seen her, Millroy—I can only tell you. Why she didn’t even know where she was at. Drunk! Why I’ve never seen anyone so drunk. She had her hair all down around her ears and her lipstick all smudged and them pretty earrings of hers—why she’d lost one. You know the pretty ones of pearl? Well, almighty, if one wasn’t gone and the other hanging there like it’d drop any minute. And she smelt so of liquor I had to hide behind the door. She couldn’t focus neither. And the things she was trying to say. I could barely make them out but they was insults I wouldn’t like to think that boy of hers would ever hear. She thought I was a stranger, see? She thought she had her own house and that I was some fool prowler that’d gotten in to steal her things. Why, she behaved just like some—Well—I hardly like to say it Millroy—but she was talking and—she looked just like some harlot from over to New York City.”

  There was a short, empty pause.

  “Oh I felt so sorry for her,” murmured Mrs Jamieson in genuine distress. “I felt so sorry for her—but I just had to say it.”

  “Say what?” asked Bertha.

  “I told her to go to hell,” said Mrs Jamieson. “And I slammed my door.”

  Another pause.

  “I never used such language in my life. It was just awful.”

  “Well, what happened?”

  “Oh, then she staggered down the walk and I watched to make sure she got the right house and then I went to bed. But I never got to sleep.” Her voice rose. “And there she is—sleeping up there—almighty it’s enough to make anyone curse.”

  “Mrs Jamieson, she’s sick, you mustn’t get angry with her. She’s sick.”

  “Well, what’s she got to be sick about anyway—any more than any of us. Any more tea?”

  “I guess she grieves her husband. I don’t know.”

  Harper listened while Bertha poured out more tea for Mrs Jamieson.

  “I guess I grieve my husband—but I don’t tell the world that I do
. No, Millroy, she’s not got the right to…”

  Harper went upstairs.

  He listened from the top step to make sure that Bertha was still busy with the neighbour woman and then he tiptoed down the hall to his mother’s room.

  The door was closed and he had to shift the guinea pig in his arms to open it quietly. Just before he went in he said “shh” to his pet and muffled it against his thin chest.

  The light coming through the chiffon curtains was dense and murky and at first he could only see his mother’s shape roughly hewn out of bedclothes and shadows.

  All that Mrs Jamieson had said in the kitchen had not made sense to Harper. All of it he had not understood—but he had fathomed that his mother was sick and that she had been bad and he knew that he had to see her to set his mind at rest.

  He stepped to the bedside—but just as he did he heard Bertha’s feet upon the stairs.

  He went and stood in the corner.

  Bertha came into the room. She set the tray down on the highboy and smoothed her apron out like crisp brittle armour and, as she did every day, pulled the braided cord that sprung the curtains from the windows. The sunlight leapt into the room, and pounced, like a beast of prey, onto the big double bed—onto the candy-pink sheets and onto the figure that lay beneath them. Harper, who at that moment was frozen with terror at being discovered in his mother’s room, gave a startled cry—like a mouse being caught in a trap.

  Bertha took the situation in hand immediately.

  “Shut them eyes,” she said, stepping briskly to the side of the bed (like a nurse Harper remembered when he was in hospital, like a nurse going to save someone from falling out of bed, like a nurse going to pull the sheet off a corpse so that the doctor could look at it and tell why it had died). “Shut them eyes and don’t say a word.”

  Harper left the room. And all the while he sat in the hall, holding his guinea pig—all the while his mother was being helped into a sitting position—all the while the hair was being brushed and the lipstick spread and the tea poured out—Harper Dewey saw what he had seen—like a vile photograph forced before his eyes. His mother’s face pressed against the sheets—his mother’s mouth all open and showing where she had no teeth—his mother’s eyes which had no brows—and all of this, all of this ‘face,’ was the most insipid colour, a horrid yellowy white—pressed against the pink sheets like an advertisement for sickness.

  It was much longer that morning before Bertha Millroy left the room on her mincing feet, and shut the door with a click behind her. And after that there was a longer pause than he could ever remember before his mother said to him: “Good morning, Harpie.”

  And when she said it he didn’t reply. Instead he went back to the garden where he locked his guinea pig in its cage and put it out of the sunlight under the lilac trees.

  There was a morning a week or so later that pronounced the coming of summer with the vehemence of heat and the clarity of a clap of thunder.

  There was no sign of rain—there being not a single cloud in the sky—and yet the thunder came and went sharply, somewhere beyond the horizon of trees and rooftops. Harper had never heard thunder in the morning and he sat in the kitchen listening to it while Bertha went about brewing their tea as though nothing unusual was happening at all.

  “Thunder is clouds bumping,” said Harper looking out the window.

  “That’s right.”

  “What clouds?”

  “I don’t know, Harper. Must be one somewhere.”


  “Two then. Just ‘cause you can’t see them doesn’t mean they ain’t there. Drink it up.” She put his cup of tea on the table.

  “I’m going up today,” he said.

  “That’s right, honey, she’ll be glad you did that.”

  “It’s been over a week,” said Harper.

  “She’ll be glad to have you back then. But I wouldn’t say nothing. You know that every morning you ain’t been there she still went on saying ‘Good morning’ to you? Went right on saying it just hoping you’d reply. It’ll do her good to hear you say it back today.”

  “Did she mention me to you?”

  “No, honey, she didn’t say a word.”

  “But she said hello each day?”


  Harper fell silent.

  “I hope I don’t scare her by saying it back today.”

  Bertha laughed.

  “She’ll be delighted to be scared so. Just pipe up with it—don’t worry.”

  So at ten o’clock they went up and Harper said “Good morning” from his place in the hall.

  When she was gone into the bathroom and the noise of the bath water being run began and when she began to sing in there so that nothing could be heard through the door from the bedroom, Harper got off the little chair in the hall and tiptoed in to the highboy.

  He moved his hand towards the middle drawer.

  The key was gone.


  Everything was suddenly motionless.

  Never before had the key not been there. The drawer had from time to time been locked, but the key had never been removed. In fact, in the whole house there was nothing shut away behind locks. If they were, there was no key. And if there was, the key was always in its place.

  The moment of cataclysm passed, and there was a faint movement beyond the windows and the chiffon curtains parted as the breeze pushed its way gently into the room. Harper’s first sensual awareness was of scent—a light, almost itchy smell which came from his mother’s perfume bottles. He moved—and he began to wander, completely without direction, from one object in the room to the next—testing its openness with his eyes, and sometimes touching the handle of the drawer to see if there were any give to it. At the dressing table he lifted the tops from the bottles of scent. He stuck one of his fingers into the powder bowl and watched the faint pink dust explode into the air and settle in circular signals about the little round spheres and towers of glassware. It came into his mind that his mother would know by this that he had been there, where he wasn’t allowed: but it passed out again: he didn’t care: she had locked him out, and he had found his way in, as the wind had found its way back in through the windows.

  Harper went over to the bed and sat on it like an Indian. He pulled the covers up behind him so that they made a teepee over his head. He drank the milk out of the milk jug on the breakfast tray and waited.

  The door from the bathroom jerked open and a cloud of steam rolled into the bedroom. Out of this cloud, like a floating figure in a Japanese print, stepped Renalda Dewey, with the silence, the intensity, of a mime.

  She went towards the dressing table, trailing little licking tails of damp chiffon negligee, her dark Italian head held like something beautiful on a stick above the collar of her gown inclined towards the objective of her progress. After, in a trance of perfect silence, she sat before the mirror and let her eyes fall upon the compromise arranged before her. The manufacturer’s labels, of gold and silver, out of deference to expense, had numbers on them, one and two and three and four—with instructions for their application—and a touch of this, a daub of that, a trace of the other, finally a deft indication with a brush dipped in the fourth. She sat there, working, for a half-an-hour, but it seemed like a full hour or more to Harper sitting on the bed. Finally, however, she was finished and sufficiently clothed to let Harper see her.

  “You can come out of your tent now dear.”

  The teepee fell back from his head.

  She was pinning artificial roses onto her suit coat, three of them, grey and yellow.

  “Come along, dear, I want you to tell me how I look.”

  He stood up.

  “I think they’re very pretty, don’t you?” she said touching the roses.


  “I think I’ll wear flowers all this summer.”

  She looked into the mirror. It was as though she couldn’t find herself there. She had to go very close to it and
lean one hand against the table to steady herself and she had to almost close her eyes before she found what she was looking for.

  “Yes. And later on I can wear real roses.”


  “Harpie, look out the window, dear, and see if the car is there.”

  They passed each other in the middle of the room. He looked—but she didn’t look back—she seemed, instead, intent on finding something—something, he sensed, that she wouldn’t allow herself to see until his back was turned.

  “Yes,” he said from the window, “it is.” He stood watching the chauffeur, who was smoking a cigarette. His mother was in the bathroom running the taps at the sink.

  In a moment she came out.

  “Goodbye, dear.”

  “Mother—aren’t you going to wear…?”

  “You have a nice day with Bertha, dear. And don’t upset her. Oh—and if you play the piano for heaven’s sake close the dining room windows. I don’t care how hot it is, you mustn’t disturb Mrs Jamieson.”


  She was suddenly in the hallway—then halfway downstairs—then in the kitchen saying something to Bertha to which Bertha replied “I’ll try m’am”—and then she was at the door, where she called out:

  “Goodbye, dear!”

  She stepped along the red bricks of the front walk towards the car.


  She stopped.

  The chauffeur threw away his cigarette.

  She looked at the budding roses in the flower beds. She picked one and held it to the artificial flowers. For a second a look of displeasure crossed her face, and she made a gesture to throw the real rosebud away—but then she reneged and put it inside her handbag. Then she smiled.

  He had never seen such a smile and he knew suddenly that she was smiling because she was escaping him.

  She said something to the chauffeur and got into the car. Sitting in the rear seat she gave her attention entirely to the yellow rosebud which she had removed from the handbag—putting it this way and that in the air and holding it to her nostrils to catch its embryonic perfume.

  The chauffeur got into the front seat and started the engine. It gave a roar.

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