Dinner Along the Amazon
Arthur sees Alicia, spied by chance through a hole in the dancing, and she is seated in a chair, with a glass in one hand and the other hand held out, as if to touch someone, but the someone unseen, unrevealed, and Arthur stands on tiptoes, trying to see, but failing.
He averts his gaze, not wanting to admit he is furious, even remotely upset. Probably Alicia has a lover. Well—why not? People do these things. They live in a civilized world. She’s an artist. It can’t be serious. Certainly they aren’t going to bed together, whoever this man is and Alicia. That simply wouldn’t make sense…After all, he’d know, he could tell:
she’d be…different. When you have a lover, there are certain new things you learn, and Alicia had learned nothing new for…years. Not since she’d had that affair with that man Crosley—who’s here tonight, with someone else, I see.
Arthur starts to scan the room, hoping to see that Addie has arrived, or Ishmael, or anyone new. Anyone. New. But there are so many dresses, bodies, faces, arms, and legs—dancing, he presumes—that it’s impossible to sort the people out. Everything and everyone is swaying about the floor, falling back and forth between the walls, but Arthur cannot hear the music above the aviary of voices and the clinking of ice in glasses. Idly, or trying to make it appear so, he glances through the windows to a view of the terrace where his gaze is confronted by a man who is urinating in full sight of the whole room. Oh well—what else is new? Arthur thinks, and is just in the act of turning away, of looking away and shrugging, when a fat hand flattens his backbone against the wall, holding him almost off the floor.
“What the hell’s the meaning of your turning down my invitation, Anderson?” The face is very ugly, screwed up, desperate: not unlike its telescope counterpart of the afternoon. This is Edward: Edward Kiley, owner of the odious sailboat, husband of the luscious Emmaline—and lover of Carol Careless. The strength of his wrist is amazing, sustaining Arthur against the wall without the slightest trace of weakening. “You coming with us tomorrow, or not?”
“Not, ” says Arthur, choking only slightly, wishing he had gone home ten minutes, half-an-hour ago. Wishing he had not come at all. “They’re nice people, the Powells,” he remembered saying. “You’ll like them.” And now he realizes he hasn’t seen either Powell the whole night through—only the monsters they’d unleashed. “Put me down, Edward,” he says. “I can’t breathe.”
But Edward does not put him down. He grinds him further into the wall.
“Why does it have to be me that goes sailing?” Arthur whines. “What have I done that it has to be me?”
Edward looks blank. He doesn’t know. He can’t remember.
Arthur. Arthur Anderson. Yes. It has something to do with a telescope and Arthur Anderson. And Emmaline. Arguing. Fighting. Trying to kill him in the boat. And Arthur Anderson seeing—watching—seeing. “You’ve got to come,” he says. “You’ve got to. It’s got to be you.”
Arthur is now on the point of passing out. His trachea feels pulverized by the weight of Edward’s grip. The shouting, the breaking of glass, the violence of everyone’s odour seems to have gathered exclusively in this small corner of the room where no one seems to be paying the slightest attention to the fact that he is dying—being murdered up against the plaster. With a desperate effort he brings his mind into focus and his knee up into Kiley’s middle, thinking as he does so: Isn’t it strange? I haven’t seen Emmaline all evening…and then he pushes, but before he can push all the way into the gut, Edward Kiley has smashed his jaw, which is probably what he had in mind in the first place.
Falling, flying, floating to the floor, all that Arthur is aware of is the ridiculous fact that, at long last, he can see to whom it is that Alicia has given her hand so lovingly.
It is Lydia Harmon: and Arthur is paying attention, at last.
Mrs Baker sits on the sofa at one end of a very long room, staring off into the shadows where her favourite son Neddy has fallen asleep watching television. The Late Show is over and now there is nothing but a white screen giving off noise. Mrs Baker toys with her false fingernails and tears them off one by one, thinking: what an unfortunate choice of colour; thinking: this silver-blue fad will wear off, surely, after a while; and then: wondering why they never got back to the lovely old reds and oranges—the tangerines and fuchsias she remembered from the war. How long ago all that seems, with the men all in uniform and the women—all the women with their hair up and all those ghastly shoulder pads that kept on slipping forward until the forward sloping shoulder was forced to become a style in itself and a grace to be admired.
She looks up. Her husband is moving about the floor above her head, going from one room to another, never pausing—lights on, lights off—probably wondering where she is and why she isn’t where he wants her. Or has he forgotten I’m here? Perhaps he’s forgotten. I haven’t seen him for days. When was that? Tuesday? Monday? Oh well—I saw him in the hall. Wearing that bathrobe Sister brought back from the Bahamas. And Dennis…I haven’t seen him in a month.
She looks across at Neddy and smiles. The movie had been lovely. How Neddy had laughed and loved it—dancing with his feet. It had been from the war years, Betty Grable and John Payne—and why did one ever want to sleep with him?
Upstairs Mr Baker stops. Has she spoken aloud?
Afraid to tell her husband of her whereabouts, afraid to wake her son, Mrs Baker places her bitten nails against her lips and sits forward, reaching for another cigarette. Tyrone Power had been more her speed. And that John Payne: what perfectly awful posture, and she had always wondered how it was he avoided being drafted to the Navy. The Airforce was simple: no one that big would fit in an airplane. And the army had all the other stars. So the Navy needed someone and John Payne should have been in the navy; but wasn’t. Hasn’t been. Oh well, it is over now, and Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Veronica Lake, and all the others—they are dead and she is alone. Without them. Even Alan Ladd is dead…
Alice Faye has said it best, she figures. What in? What was that in?
Mrs Baker gets up and carries her glass and her cigarette and her fingernails to the far end of the room, looking down at her son, asleep in his father’s chair, which his father never uses. She tilts her head to one side and thinks: it is said of most men that when they’re asleep they look like little boys. Tyrone Power looked ‘little-boy-asleep’ in dozens of films, but…my son Neddy, when he lies here asleep in this chair, that’s the only time he looks like a man.
I remember. Yes!
And sitting down on the floor beside her son, she begins to sing: “You’ll never know just how much I love you. You’ll never know just how much I care…” But she can’t remember all the words and the song degenerates to humming and the humming to a sigh and the sigh to a sleep and the sleep to morning.
On the beach—two figures. Three o’clock a.m. One figure in a white dress—Mexican silver chains. The other—a tank-top, blue, and a pair of white jeans.
“Are you the man?” says Dennie.
“I’m the man,” says Addie.
“Jesus—I thought you’d never get here.”
“I’ve been here,” says Addie. “I’ve been here. But you’re not here alone, you know. You’re not the only kid I carry.” She opens her shoulder bag.
“You wouldn’t lay any Lipton’s on me, would you?”
“Don’t be so dumb. Come on—here…” She holds out the bag.
Dennie won’t take it: “I don’t know who you are,” he says.
“Look, the last time I was here you weren’t on the route. So come on. Take it or leave it. I’ve got to get off this beach.”
“But how do I know who you are?”
“Mr Dixon sent me. Okay?”
Addie puts out her hand and, taking the bag, Dennie pays her. She counts the money, puts it in her shoulder bag, and turns to walk away. “Will it be you the next time?” Dennie calls.
Addie stops on the bottom step.
Then she climbs out of sight.
At 4:00 a.m. Dennie stands on the Bakers’ terrace and stares in through the windows at his mother and his brother asleep. The room is filled with television light and is strangely beautiful. The walls, the furniture, and the figures on the floor and in the chair are aglow with the flicker of white-fire. Dennie leans one arm against the glass and presses his forehead to the arm. Neddy’s mouth is open. Mrs Baker’s false blue fingernails are scattered across the rug like confetti and the cigarette with which she fell asleep has burned a hole in her skirt. Upstairs, Mr Baker has seen his son on the terrace and has called the police. He will not be stolen from; he will not be robbed; he will not tolerate that anyone—that anyone—should take from him the precious view of his wife asleep. Not even through glass.
Ishmael is not in his room.
Still holding her shoes, not yet put on, Addie stands in the doorway waiting for the sun to come up. Her shoulder bag is empty now and droops from her wrist. She is chewing gum.
Her eye scans the room. A person’s things look so lonely, she thinks, when there’s no one there to be with them. A toothbrush especially, lying on a window sill.
She crosses to the bed and sits. She will wait. He will come. She likes him. In the room there is a special stillness and just the beginnings of light. And then the breeze, through the windows, begins to lift the corners of the magazines and there are
Downstairs one floor, Alicia lies at last in her bed, returned from the hospital; her beautiful black dress, soiled and bloodied, arranged against the back of the door. She can not close her eyes.
For sailing. For a sailboat ride. All over a sailboat ride, a ruined chin, a broken face, and—god—whatever would become of their film? Arthur will be in there for a month.
Don’t smoke in bed.
But he won’t press charges. Whether because he can’t talk, or can’t think, or is afraid, he won’t and hasn’t pressed charges. And Edward Kiley has walked away from the party, Carol Careless on his arm, saying Arthur has insulted her and that was why he’s beaten him. Oh, it doesn’t make sense. And where is Emmaline? No one has seen her. Emmaline has disappeared. Or perhaps just gone to another party. At any rate it was Carol Edward has defended. Carol Careless. Lydia thought she was tarty and probably didn’t wash. She called her a ‘blue-movies-lady’ and wondered where Edward Kiley found her, not knowing Edward Kiley found her adrift in a rowboat one Sunday off the Buckleys’ point. But that is all…immaterial. The thing is…
And the clock ticks and far away, in another room, another clock is ticking, but not in time and this is maddening. Maddening. Maddening. And here—I’ve left my rings on, every damn one, and my fingers are swollen—and I can’t get them off. Hah-hah! I can’t get my fingers off!
And Alicia reaches for the glass that sits on the bedside table, filled to the brim with her special whisky, pieces of mint and ice. She chews on the mint.
Don’t chew on mint in bed.
I must forgive someone. But who?
She ponders, wonders, turns. The windows are bright with the morning. Any minute now the sun would be nailed to the sky and that would be the end of sleep.
And she nuzzles the lip of the glass and she feels the liquid either of tears or of whisky softly soaking the pillows and she blinks and she blinks and she blinks: that hat thing was funny, wasn’t it? And she sees it in her mind, the way it flew across the lawn and across the street and up into old Professor Dinstitch’s trees and everyone racing out of all the houses to catch it, to catch Alicia’s hat, and all at once, she snaps up in bed, nearly choking on the mint leaves and saying aloud: “It’s him. It’s him! It’s him I’ll forgive! Professor Dinstitch, yes!”
And, lying back, she begins to concoct the scene. At church, perhaps, or on the sidewalk under the cherry trees, under the poplars or over by the steps, with a view of the sky and the thought of the sea. And I’ll say: “Professor Dinstitch, no one has ever forgiven you. No one has ever forgiven you for what you’ve done. But I forgive you. I do.” There.
And Alicia sleeps.
Ishmael enters. There is music in his room as he approaches up the stairs. He is wary. He has not left any radio going. He is tired. His trouser legs are caked with mud. He opens the door.
It takes him a moment to see that what he sees is what he sees. And when he sees it, he vomits. Right there, on the threshold, throwing up supper and lunch and anything left of breakfast. Over and over he retches until there is nothing left in his stomach but burning bile of a dark brown colour. Coffee-coloured, sour beyond all hope of sweetening.
And then both hands to his mouth, to his chin, to his nostrils, he sags against the doorjamb, feeling his testicles rise and a wretched tightening of his anus.
All over the walls—
All over the walls, every way he turns, wherever he looks, all over the walls, all over the ceiling, over the floor, on every surface, every table, chair, and curtain there are pinned and pasted, glued and plastered each and every page of picture, torn or scissored, ripped or razored from his twenty or thirty magazines—each one staring at him—every eye on Ishmael: eight hundred and fifty-two women, fingered, licked, explored, and spattered from every conceivable position. But there is nothing now left to bring up—either from his stomach or from his scrotum.
“I can’t move.”
“Of course you can. Come in.”
“I don’t want to come in.”
“You must come in. Come in.”
Ishmael reels round beyond the door in slow motion.
“What have you…what have you done?” he asks, beginning only now again to hear the music. “And why?” he weeps.
Addie is seated on the bed with a pair of scissors, her white dress mingled with the sheets.
The song is something John Lennon sings called “Imagine.”
“Don’t be afraid,” says Addie and throws the scissors through the open window. “I want you not to be afraid.”
Ishmael seems stranded in the middle of the rug, on top of Charleen Cheri’s face and jutting tongue—as if she would lick his toes.
“You’re standing on someone’s face,” says Addie, looking down.
Ishmael crosses to Felicity Fellatio, his heels on her thighs.
“Where were you?” Addie asks, lighting a cigarette and blowing out the match, which she holds in her fingers, letting the sulphur kill the stench of the vomit.
“I was out.”
There is a pause. He does not know where to look or what to do and he has to exercise the most stringent control to prevent his fingers from reaching for his crotch. The pictures, being themselves, bring on this automatic, auto-erotic response.
Then, cutting through the music, cutting through his desire to drop, Ishmael hears Addie’s voice, which is oddly tender and strangely sympathetic: “So you were ‘out,’” she says: “And did you find anyone?”
He waits and straightens and shakes his head: “There isn’t anyone,” he says. He looks at the floor, or what was the floor and is now a paper whorehouse. “Where is there anyone? I don’t know…”
“Right here,” says Addie. “But you have to promise me something.”
Ishmael lifts his eyes only, to see her.
“You have to promise me you won’t pretend I’m someone else.”
He can’t do that. He knows he can’t do that. But he doesn’t say so. Instead, he half turns away.
“Oh, why have you done this to me?” he says, and scuffles through the pages to his suitcase and his vodka.
Addie holds her knees in her hands.
“A paper love-life isn’t much,” she says, and wishes to God he would laugh or wou
“Maybe you just don’t understand,” he says and sits on top of Caroline Caress.
“I guess I don’t,” she says.
There is a moment in which Ishmael drinks with a shaky hand—in which Addie stares from the window and then, not turning around to look at him, she hears herself whisper, either to him or to herself, she is not sure which: “I don’t know why you want to live.”
It is more than evening, not quite night.
Addie has gone away and all afternoon Ishmael has been in his room, not even daring to look from the window. Suddenly she went away in another taxi, watched by Miss Dinstitch across the road, and the leaves all seemed to turn in her direction as she went. Ishmael only heard the closing doors and the wheels.
Alicia has telephoned the hospital and discovered that Arthur is under sedation. It is pointless to go there, nothing can be done or said. She has called up the stairs to Ishmael, but since he has not answered, she presumes he is out, and she goes to the den where she plays the cello.
And now it is evening, but not quite night.
Ishmael ventures to the door, to the stairs, to the door, to the walk, to the sidewalk, to the steps—but not to the beach. He wears his white sweater, white jeans, white socks, and his white shoes. Even his cigarettes are white and the coffee mug with his vodka.
It begins to darken and the lights begin to falter across the water. Miss Dinstitch on her porch, Mrs Baker on her terrace, Ishmael on his step, and the man who whistles Beethoven in his garden, all listen to the cello.’
It plays and plays. And then it stops.
On Monday, Rosetta comes up coatless in the early morning. All through the weekend, the fires where she lives downtown have been smouldering and giving up more victims. Soldiers have been standing on the corners of the streets, their rifles slung with a crazy nonchalance across their backs. Most of the soldiers chew their gum and watch the smoking ruins through slitted eyes, like people who have sat all night to watch a horror picture marathon. Nothing moves them but the thought of bed. Rosetta, too, is tired, not having slept a great deal. Clyde has told her they are standing at a crossroads. “This is the end of us,” he said to her, looking out at what the fires had done. “Either that or the beginning. I can’t say which. It’s just a moment in between a life and death…”