Dinner Along the Amazon
He looked, as best he could, at his collapsing wife, watched as the doctor called the Matron through the door (the other door), saw how they put her gently in a chair, folding her arms and arranging her hands, the Matron pulling down the skirt that had ridden up, unseemly, in the final slide towards the door.
Vivien, he thought. In white.
Shouting. Silent. Sleeping in nightmares, waking into dreams.
Yes: it is true, all we have seen is what we have seen together. Yes: it is true, I never wrote across your heart I am.
No: it is not true that you lived and died inside of me.
You lived and died inside yourself. And you will leave your life and death with me as if I was your safe deposit box. Damn you. Well, I will go home now and do the one good thing I think that I can do. I will turn on all the lights in memory of you. And listen to them sing. No death should go without its song. And when I’ve learned the song—your epitaph—I’ll write it down.
Dinner Along the Amazon
For Robin Phillips
Perhaps the house was to blame. Once, it had been Olivia’s pride; her safe, good place. Everyone else—including Michael—found it charming. Prestigious. Practical. North Seton Drive was a great location. Running out of Rosedale down toward the ravine, all its back yards were set with trees and rolling lawns. Autumn and spring, Olivia could happily walk or ride her bicycle to Branksome Hall, where she had been teaching now for six years. She really had no right to complain. Number 38 was handsome enough—its glass all shining; its paint unchipped.
Recently, however, Olivia had begun to balk at the physical act of arriving there; of being on the sidewalk and turning in toward the house, admitting that she belonged on that cement and was meant to walk through that front door. There was always something lying on the grass she would not allow was hers: a torn, wet Star or a bit of orange peel—(I didn’t put that there!)—something left by a neighbour’s child or someone else’s dog. And even, once, a sinister pair of men’s blue under-shorts.
Inside, the house gave off the smell of discontent; of ashes in the sink and slippers prowling through the halls at night; of schisms rusting like a set of knives. Also the odour—faintly underarm—of Michael’s petulance and Olivia’s silence hiding in the closets. Boo…
Today, on the twenty-eighth of April, Olivia entered the house with her arms full of flowers at five in the afternoon. The flowers were done up in green paper cones, but still the smell of them was rampant under her chin and she stood in the middle of the hall not speaking—only listening—dizzy with the scent of freesia.
Michael was in here somewhere. Up in the sun room, probably. Drunk. Conrad’s car was in the driveway, rubbing its already damaged bumper up against the garage. This could only signal they would both be drunk: not only Michael but Conrad, too. Old friends and empty bottles. Poor deadly Conrad, dragging the unwelcome past with all its frayed address books and stringy love affairs behind him, had come to “visit for a while”—i.e. to crash until he’d pulled himself together. God damn old friends.
It could not be borne. There wasn’t time for the past in their lives. Not now. Not ever. All it did was crowd you into corners and turn out the lights. Then it rattled you with guilt and regret and left you inarticulate and incapacitated. Who needs that? I’m taking enough of a beating from the present, thank you very much; Olivia thought. Damn you, Conrad. Much as I love you, if you hadn’t come, I could talk to Michael. Now. Tonight. I could tell him and get it over with.
No I couldn’t.
Olivia peered to her left, into the dim shuttered light of Michael’s den. She tried to imagine the thing in her belly running through that doorway into those shadows to find its father. It was impossible. He would slam the door in its face. Get out!
She knew this was only a coward’s excuse. Michael didn’t hate children: he hated the future—and that was different. He hated anything he couldn’t control: he hated anything he didn’t know. Certainty was the only ally you could trust, in Michael’s books. Certainty and literature. History—(maybe)—and a few poems written on the backs of envelopes. He wanted children, but he didn’t want their lives to run beyond his own. He couldn’t bear to inject them into the future—only into the past. Michael would like it best if his children had preceded him. Then he could say to them; “Everything I told you was the truth. I have never lied. It is all borne out by what you have seen: the known—the safe.” The future was his enemy.
In Michael’s den, there were piles and piles of notebooks and reams of paper. These were his diatribes—some of them four or six or ten years old. They were covered with marmalade fungi and peanut butter mushrooms. Olivia smiled. The rug was stained with his solipsisms. She had listened to him roaring there, amongst his books—knocking over his drinks—jabbing his fingers at her: “Just you wait, Olivia! Every word I say is true…” Then he would have to verify every word—dragging down all the pertinent books, drawing out all the pertinent pieces of paper, going crazy—ranting—when he couldn’t find what he wanted. In its way, it was a sad, dead room. Echoes hiding in the curtains. The roll top desk had pigeon holes that smelled, Olivia swore, of pigeons: all the pigeons flown away with their messages—the words that Michael couldn’t find. In a bowl, he kept all his paper clips attached to rubber bands—ready to fire at the passing parade or at any rash intruder who brought the future into his presence: man, woman or child…
No. There could be no child.
Olivia turned towards the kitchen, leaning her ear in the direction of the stairwell, hoping to hear the sound of sober conversation. Even of laughter. But there was nothing. Only the silence between drinks. Up there, sitting in the sun room, they were probably holding their breath: Michael and Conrad, hiding from Olivia. Don’t give away our secret, Connie. Mustn’t let her know we’re only ten years old, when she thinks we’re twelve, at least.
Olivia took a deep breath that left her gasping for another.
It was the house: its airlessness; its culs de sac; its bear pits waiting for the bears. It had lost its capacity to generate dreams. All it reflected, as you moved from room to room, was the tidy horror of what was really going to happen.
As Olivia entered the kitchen, the sun room made a creaking noise above her head. She looked up, thinking; they’re walking on tiptoe. How ridiculous. Two grown men…
She crossed to the sink, making sure her heels could be heard as she went. Still clothed in all her outer garments, her tweed coat; her three layers of scarves; her soft, rich sweater; her wool lined boots—she set her briefcase on one cutting board and the packets of flowers on the other. She turned on the tap for a glass of water and reached to the left for a thick, red tumbler with a crack in it. Habit. It was always there, the last of its kind. There had once been eight—a gift from Conrad. Pinned to the curtain above the sink was one of Mrs Kemp’s inimitable notes:
Mrs Penny I done the back room up for Mr Fastbinder and put a towl and a wash cloth on his burow. You run out of blue sheets so he only got one and the other ones yellow. Grennel is loss again. Hiden.
Olivia, reading, was holding the tumbler under the tap.
I could not find no more OLD DUTCH so have put down OLD DUTCH on the list. 4 large ones please as the bathroom really eats them up. Mr Fastbinder near creamed the garge. Dont let them tell you different. I will be in tomorrow to clean up after.
The cold water ran on Olivia’s hands, comforting, numbing.
Ps—Prof Penny did not eat his sandwhich. Toona if you want one.
All the usual digs at Michael were intact. Mortal enemies—
Michael Penny and Mrs Kemp. And Grendel. Grendel was Michael’s beloved dog and, like his master, he always hid from Mrs Kemp and her dreaded vacuum cleaner and her dreadful tuna sandwiches, the edges of which she always left in Grendel’s dish.
Olivia set aside the tumbler and took down the note, threw it into the garbage pail and replaced the pin in the folds of the curtain. As s
Poor old Grendel had a habit of lying dead in other people’s flowerbeds, but his favourite place of all was in behind the curtain of the shower stall, where he portrayed with alarming veracity the corpses of his master and his mistress—one and then the other. Michael and Olivia, dead.
Olivia’s hand went down to rest on her belly and the red tumbler, in the other hand, shook. Michael first and then Olivia—dead. I am not a murderer. Not. I am doing what is right. The only right thing: the only possible thing.
She began to cry—(oh why am I crying?)—her gaze shifting sideways, awash—(please: it’s so shaming)—toward the flowers—(and stupid: stop). What had the flowers been for, she wondered, setting the tumbler aside. To get her past the front door without throwing up? Not that. No. She could tolerate the tension one more week—so what had the flowers been for? Perhaps, she decided, they were for Grendel, always “dying.” Or for Michael, still alive. Or for the undug grave in her belly. Pick a card—any card. Now put it back in the deck. Just don’t tell me which card it was…
Olivia grabbed the sink and nearly fell before she turned.
Standing in the doorway was a man she had never seen before. A man—a “boy.” He was in his early twenties.
“Yes?” she said.
His arms were full of brown paper packages.
“Who are you?” he said, with casual, inbred impertinence.
Olivia was flabbergasted. “I’m…Olivia Penny,” she said.
And this is my house, she almost added. But didn’t.
“Are you Professor Penny’s sister, then?” The young man barged completely into the kitchen. The brown paper packages were clinking suspiciously like future toasts, and the young man was trying not to spill them before they could be proposed.
“No, I am not Professor Penny’s God damn sister. I am Professor Penny’s God damn wife,” said Olivia, stepping aside to avoid being trampled. “And who the hell are you?”
“I’m with Conrad,” the young man said. He laid his loot—eight bottles of wine, four bottles of scotch—beside and on top of the flowers and turned to smile at Olivia. “You’re a scream,” he said, and put out his hand. “Conrad didn’t tell me you were funny,” he added. “I’m Rodney Farquhar.” (His grip was like the proverbial vise.) “Or should I say I’m Conrad’s God damn lover?”
“Why are you here?” said Olivia.
Rodney Farquhar’s face was emptied of all expression. Perhaps he didn’t know the answer to the question.
“You’ve just set all your things on top of my flowers,” Olivia continued. “Would you please find some other place?”
Rodney moved in on the bottles and began to shift them, two by two, onto the kitchen table.
“Why are you here?” Olivia repeated.
“I was sent to get the booze,” he said. “I’ve just come back…”
“I can see that. Booze for what?”
“For the party,” said Rodney. His back was to her.
“What party?” said Olivia. Her eyes had narrowed. Her blood was rising.
“Conrad’s party,” said Rodney.
“Conrad is giving a party? Where?”
“Here, of course.”
Olivia ground her teeth and was speechless for a moment. Then she said, “Am I invited?”
Conrad was lying in the bath. The bathroom was full of steam and the steam was scented with Conrad’s favourite cologne:
Chanel 19. Michael was seated on the toilet, the lid down—its grey fur cover slightly damp beneath him. Conrad could barely be seen in the fog.
“Aren’t you going to boil yourself to death in there?” Michael asked.
“Never,” said Conrad. “The heat is wonderful. It spreads the alcohol faster through the system. Give me another…”
Conrad’s hand, with goblet, appeared from the steam.
Michael poured more scotch and the hand withdrew and then Michael poured more scotch into his own Waterford goblet and took a great, raw mouthful; “ahhhh…” He set the goblet on the floor, fingering its cut design. “Always drink the best from the best,” he said. “So, who have you invited?”
“Fabiana Holbach,” said Conrad.
“Yes. And who else?”
“Who cares who else? Fabiana Holbach. That’s all that matters.”
“So I gather,” Michael sighed. He lighted a damp cigarette, with a damp recalcitrant match. “Are you sure this is really a good idea? Inviting Fabiana after all these years?”
“All these years number precisely three,” said Conrad. “Give me a cigarette.”
Michael handed over the one already lit and lighted another.
“You realize, of course,” he said, “she’s married, now.”
“People can always be convinced their current marriages don’t work,” said Conrad.
Michael muttered ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ to this, but not loud enough for Conrad to hear.
“What’s her name, now?” said Conrad.
“Mrs Jackman Powell.”
The bath fell silent. Not a ripple.
“You don’t approve, I take it,” said Michael.
“It’s neither here nor there,” said Conrad. “Truth is, I always thought that Jackman had to be the most pretentious name a man could have. Isn’t his brother’s name plain old Tom?”
“Maybe their mother’s name was Jackman.”
“No. Their mother’s name was Tompkins.”
Conrad laughed. Then sobered. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he said. “So she married Jackman Powell.”
“That’s right.” Michael was watching all he could see of Conrad—the arm that lay along the rim of the tub; the shape of the neck; the thrust of the head as it bent to the glass to drink; above all, the tension in the hand that held the cigarette so hard against the tub, the cigarette broke and the lighted end of it fell to the floor. Conrad didn’t even notice. All he did was mutter: “sons-of-bitches.”
“All of them,” Conrad said with a kind of vehemence Michael had never heard from his friend before. “All of the God damn Powells. God damn sons-of-bitches.” Conrad sat disconsolate, still barely visible.
What, Michael wondered, could have happened to Conrad—usually so resilient and now, apparently, defeated by the mention of a mere name. They had spent all their school days laughing. Not that a person could go on laughing forever. Michael was perfectly aware of this and of the darker things that had affected Conrad’s life. But this was something new; unknown. As if the laughter had escaped and Conrad could not locate it.
“I suppose,” Conrad said, “this means Fabiana will actually bring him with her. Jackman. I suppose this means I’ll have to face him…stand there and actually shake his God damn hand.”
“I suppose so. Does it matter?”
“Yes. It matters.”
“Won’t go into it. Later, maybe. After they’ve gone. Not now. The son-of-a-bitch…”
“You’ve said that. Several times.”
“I know I have. Leave me alone.”
“You know I can’t leave you alone, Con…” (Michael was using a swishy, sibilant voice—the one he always used to tease Conrad.) “I adore you.”
“Don’t,” said Conrad. “This isn’t funny.”
“I’m sorry.” Michael lighted another cigarette and handed it through the mist to Conrad. Ever since Conrad’s father had died, three years ago, there were things you couldn’t talk about. Not always having to do with Fastbinder senior (whose name had been Karl). Sometimes with mysteries Michael wasn’t privy to. The causes of Conrad’s silence: the long sojourn abroad in Italy and Spain; his sudden reappearance; Rodney Farquhar; Fabiana Holbach Powell…God knew, any or all of these things co
“Change the subject,” said Conrad. “Help me understand what’s wrong between you and Olivia. Give me something to laugh about.”
“You think we’re going to laugh about that?” said Michael.
“Maybe,” said Conrad. “Is there another woman?”
“No,” said Michael. “I wish there was.”
“What do you mean? Is there someone you love?”
“Someone you can’t have?”
“Yes. I suppose you could put it that way.”
“Oh.” Conrad drank from his glass and took a drag from his cigarette. “Have you ever seriously thought of falling in love with me?” he said.
“I wouldn’t know how to behave in bed,” said Michael, trying to be funny: failing. “What do you do with Rodney?”
“I admire him, dear,” said Conrad. “He adores it. I tell him he has the most beautiful pudendum known to man or boy. A palpable lie of course. But Rodney believes it. Sometimes I pull it for him.”
“Don’t be so God damn crude. That’s disgusting.”
“It’s so childish.”
“Precisely. And Rodney is a child.”