Dinner Along the Amazon
“And you? What do you get out of all this?”
“Notoriety. Open doors. Rodney’s connections are quite spectacular, you know.”
“But you don’t need open doors, Con. Every door is open to you.”
Conrad was silent. Then he said: “was.”
“You mean to tell me you’ve taken up with that young man just to get through a few doors? It’s grotesque.”
“How the hell else am I supposed to get through? Who else would take me? I’m a forty year old faggot without a cent to my name.”
“That’s only temporary, Con.”
“You’re damn right it is. Any minute now, I’m going to be a forty-one year old faggot without a cent to my name. And stop laughing! Rodney’s getting restless. The young always do. They wake up one morning and they see you. That’s why I always insist on separate rooms. Never let your lover see you, Michael. It’s death.” Conrad held out his goblet. “If anyone turns up here tonight, it’s only going to be because Rodney Farquhar asked them. I may be the attraction—but it’s Rodney’s circus.”
Michael said, “That’s ridiculous” and poured more scotch.
“It’s not ridiculous. Alas,” said Conrad, lying back in the bath. “I overheard him on the phone. ‘Do come and see old Conrad again. He’s so amusing. Tells such wonderfully funny stories. Even gets drunk and falls down…but never loses consciousness. I tell you, it’s a scream. He once had a whole conversation with the Princess of Rheims lying flat on his back in the middle of the floor. The whole room flocked to him. People were actually introduced while he lay there. The footmen brought him drinks and got on their knees to serve him.’ I heard him, Michael. He could sell tickets. But I can’t. I’m the one they all come to see, lying down on the rug. You do have a rug, I hope.”
Michael could see Conrad, now. The steam was beginning to dissipate. His skin was alarmingly pale; his arms and shoulders lacked entirely the tension of muscles; his neck was like a girl’s, stretching to hold the tremulous chin in place and the large, round head with its dank, stringy hair seemed unable to contain his skull which pushed against the skin like a swollen melon about to burst. His hands were almost ridiculously fine; waxen, beautifully shaped and manicured…
“Please stop staring,” said Conrad. “Tell me about Olivia.”
Michael did not say all of this that follows. He only said the parts he could articulate. The rest—the precision and the syntax—were in his mind, but silent under a cloud of scotch and daydreams. Downstairs, he could hear Olivia setting the table in the dining room—telling Rodney she didn’t have anything that matched by way of crystal and china—all because Mrs Kemp had her own definition of the word ‘set’: “break eight and leave four…” Rodney could also be heard on the telephone, ordering food from Fenton’s. Grendel was found in the hall closet and came up the stairs to lie outside the bathroom door.
Michael said: “When you said you always insisted on separate rooms, I understood. Our bed—Olivia’s and mine—is divided down the middle by the Grand Canyon. We might as well live in separate hotels.”
Conrad glanced at Michael, huge and majestic, just a shape in the steam: backlit—hovering on the toilet seat—holding both the bottle and his goblet—his head turned sideways, looking for the words. Michael was six foot four and he had a club foot that no one ever talked about. It affected his walk, of course, but not outrageously and on the occasions when it pained him, he would remove the boot and rest the foot on a table or a chair. He was resting it now on the edge of the tub.
She’s gone away somewhere, Con: gone without going, of course.
Conrad waved his hand in the soapy water, watching it vanish.
Now what am I? A sort of bachelor, living in her house; always on the periphery of Olivia’s life. “Goodbye, Michael.” “Goodbye, Olivia.” “I’m going to the other end of the sofa, now.” Gone. Like that.
I saw a movie once. One of those “Nature of Things” on the CBC. It was a film about some tribe in Borneo. One of those primitive tribes—still living almost a prehistoric existence. Ceremonial killings. Sexual segregation. Ritual circumcision. Unbelievable savagery. The way they treated one another—slaughtered their animals—slaughtered their enemies. Three things stood out: three I will never forget. One was the pig thing.
The women with children lived in special houses—groups of women and children—until the children grew to be a certain age. And they had these pigs, you see, as pets. The women and the babies and pigs all lived together and, the way it was shown, they seemed to be quite happy. Then the men would decide it was time to have a nice feast of pork and they would come and drag away the pigs and they would kill them. The women’s pets, you see. The children’s pets. But it was only the men who got to eat them. Pork was supposed to induce some special kind of magic. So off they went—the men—to their bachelors’ quarters where they’d roast these pigs and sit around having magic dreams.
Another thing was the women killing their babies. But only their boy babies. Only their boys. But it wasn’t always…I mean, they didn’t necessarily kill every boy.
What you have to know is, the women did all the work. The only thing they didn’t do was hunt. But everything else was left up to them and they had to do it all with their babies on their backs and their children dragging along behind them. You could see it must drive them mad; all these children and all this work and, all of a sudden, there would be this moment when one of them would take off down to the river. Where she would drown her baby son. Not quite dispassionately—certainly with anger—but suddenly: coldly—methodically—without remorse. It was awful. You knew it was revenge for how the men had made them live and for what the men had done to their pigs.
And then there was this other thing—the third thing I remember.
This is about the bachelors. Even the husbands were ‘bachelors.’ And they moved in and out of the women’s lives—mating with them—not ‘making love’ but truly mating, animal style. And stealing their pigs and watching the women—always from a distance. There were these huts—retreats—high up in the mountains where the bachelors went. Also, there were these compounds where the growing boys were kept. Not just kept with the men—but, really, kept apart from the women. And this was some kind of privilege. Different, you see, from the dowdy huts and the little, crowded farmyards where the women lived with all the pigs and babies. The men and the boys had contests. They played games and laughed. They created a culture of male totems…
“Why?” said Conrad.
“Fear,” said Michael.
That was the basis of it. Fear. Partly disgust and a sort of mystical distrust of the women because of menstruation. But also a childlike fear of the power of women to give birth. And this fear was real and so tacit that, even though the men had segregated the women—even though they had succeeded in debasing them and disinheriting them, the women taunted the men. And they got away with it. They stood on the hillsides in groups and they laughed at the men in the compounds and they dared the boys to come out and have sexual intercourse. Dared them with all kinds of lewd, graphic gestures and always laughing. And, of course, the boys wouldn’t go. They were afraid. They backed off. They hid. Or else, they came outside the compound in an army and they’d kill the pigs. Sometimes, too, they made war on their neighbours. Anything, rather than go to the women.
“Are you sure it was really the women they were afraid of?”
Michael did not answer this.
Conrad pulled the plug and the water began to surge toward the drain. He lay back watching it ebbing, revealing his pallid, hairless body.
“Anyhow, that’s how I see myself now,” Michael said. “A kind of ritual bachelor, living in retreat. Taunted from the hillsides. Being watched and listened to. But silently…”
“What about her pigs?”
Michael thought of the yelling matches and the slamming doors and the undone, promised things. He also thought of the silence with which Olivia seemed to be rebu
The last of the water drew away with a great, loud sucking noise and was gone. Conrad lay there in the empty tub, with his goblet in his hand and his toes sticking up.
After a moment, he spoke and he said, “This is how they found my father. Just exactly three years ago. The twenty-ninth of April. With his wrists slashed.”
“Today’s the twenty-eighth,” said Michael.
Outside the bathroom door, Grendel threw up the remnants of Mrs Kemp’s toona sandwich. It was now 6:45. The guests would arrive at eight and still no one knew—but Rodney—who they would be.
“Conrad wants an egg.”
“But we’re going to eat in an hour-and-a-half.”
“I don’t think he wants it to eat,” said Michael.
“He’s going to throw it at someone, is that it?” Olivia was undoing the boxes from Fenton’s and setting the contents in bowls and souffle dishes. Rodney was arranging her flowers in crystal vases on the cutting board.
“All I know is, he wants an egg.”
“He wants it to lift his face with,” said Rodney. “If you have a pastry brush, you’d better send that up, too. And a nice little dish to separate the egg in.”
“Has he been doing this long?” Michael asked.
“About a year,” said Rodney. “And only at parties. It makes him look Chinese.”
“All we need,” said Michael. “The Empress of China.”
They arrived in the first warm rain.
There was a girl whose name was Louellen Potts who had once been one of Michael’s students. She was now out taking care of other people’s children in a daycare centre, wasting her talents as a first rate critic. She had come, this evening, ostensibly as Rodney’s “date”—but she seemed to have an ulterior motive: at least, in Michael’s view. She was one of those dreadful women who hound you with their beauty while they beat you with their mind. Michael cringed from the thought of what lay ahead: Louellen attempting to best him at every turn in the conversation, opening one and then two more buttons of her blouse and thrusting her breasts into the lamplight. If only she were less attractive, he could be sure of winning.
Olivia rather liked Louellen Potts. She was one of perhaps six students both she and Michael had encountered in the classroom and the lecture hall over the years. What Olivia instilled from Heart of Darkness, Michael destroyed with Frankenstein. Kurtz and the Monster, walking hand in hand: that was the future, according to Michael.
When Fabiana Holbach Powell arrived, she was not with her husband, but her husband’s brother Tom and Tom’s wife Betty. Fabiana’s husband, Jackman, was enigmatically “abroad.” The word “abroad” was delivered by Tom, while Fabiana looked the other way.
They had drunk for half-an-hour, waiting for Conrad to come downstairs. Michael put on some passable tapes (acceptable to everyone, that is, except Louellen) and the atmosphere was actually bearable. Under the influence of Cleo Laine, things loosened up a bit. The sailing voice cut through the dreadful, early chit-chat and very soon people were asking freely for “another scotch” or another glass of white wine. If only Louellen would stop exposing herself, life might be endurable.
Tom Powell was a cold-eyed blond who had just come back from Nassau. He had one of those infuriating tans and an even more infuriating physique. He didn’t say much. The eyes said it all. They never left Fabiana, unless they were turned on Michael (perhaps ‘through’ Michael would be more accurate) during the course of such questions as: “When was the last time we saw you?” and statements, such as the patently ridiculous: “You’re looking well, Mike.”
Betty Powell just sat on the sofa and rummaged in her pocket book for something she never found.
Fabiana, on the other hand, was radiant—as always. She carried with her—just as she had as a child—that wonderful and wondrous sense of someone always on the verge of imparting the secret of life, if only she could remember the wording. Her gaze would drift away towards the answer—beautiful and oddly heartbreaking—only to return yet again with the words; “no—that’s not it…” implicit in the wounded, blue confusion of her eyes. She had once been kidnapped and the ransom had been a million dollars. Lucien Holbach, her father, had refused to pay it—even though he had sixty millions and his wife twenty millions more. Fabiana had escaped, unharmed.
Or had she? Michael wondered.
At any rate, she had escaped and, shortly thereafter, she had been married to Jackman Powell—who was currently “abroad.” She claimed to have never seen her captors, having been forced to wear a blindfold the whole time. It was when, after hours of silence, she had discovered she was standing in the middle of an empty house that she made her escape. All of this had happened in Jamaica: a place to which Fabiana had never returned.
Years and years and years ago—when they were children—Conrad Fastbinder had fallen in love with Fabiana Holbach and, for a while—in later years, before the kidnap, it seemed that Fabiana might return his love. But three things had happened in rapid succession, dashing all those hopes forever: until now. Fastbinder’s father had died, leaving him penniless: Fabiana had been kidnapped and Jackman Powell—(“that son-of-a-bitch!”)—had married her.
Tonight, through some fortuitous twist of fate, she had turned up in Michael and Olivia Penny’s living room without her husband—and only her brother-in-law (“that other son-of-a-bitch!”) to watch over her.
Conrad waited for Cleo to begin singing “Traces” before he made his entrance.
“A faded photograph,
Covered, now, with lines and creases…”
Fabiana claimed not to recognize him.
Michael, never having seen his friend in lacquer before, tended to agree with Fabiana. Conrad, decked out in summer whites and with his hair plastered back, looked like someone trying to escape from a Somerset Maugham short story. His tie was a florid pink (admittedly, in fashion, if you glanced at the right magazines) and he reeked of Chanel 19. As for the face—it was true. Conrad Fastbinder had descended from the upper reaches in a Chinese mask.
The trouble was, he couldn’t speak—whether because of all the scotch he had drunk in the afternoon, or because of the strictures of his ‘face-lift’ or, perhaps, because of both. As a consequence, he merely bowed over Fabiana’s hand, and kissed it—after which, they all went in to dinner.
Michael sat at the head of the table, leaning back in his chair. He was turned to one side in order to accommodate his foot which increasingly troubled him as the evening wore on. He watched his guests—or rather, Conrad’s guests, through a haze of pain and liquor.
Far off, he could just make out Olivia seated at the other end of the table. She was smiling—oh rare event—and, though the smile was somewhat fixed, it appeared to be genuine. What could she be smiling about? Michael regretted he had not begun to count as soon as the smile had turned up—just to see how long it would stay. It was rather like a visitor: another guest at the table: a stranger. He should keep a little book, like Hamlet: “My tables—meet it is, I set it down…Olivia smiled today for twenty seconds.”
Michael looked around the table.
See who’s here; he thought. All the bachelors. This is a bachelors’ dinner. Rodney, Conrad, me. And Tom Powell—he’s a bachelor. So’s his wife. Look at them! I bet they touch each other with tongs. Or perhaps they wear gloves. Louellen Potts is a bachelor. (Damn it.) So is Fabiana.
So is Olivia.
Every damn one of us, living alone.
Here we are on the hillside—having killed the pig—and about to fall beneath the spell of the magic dream, perhaps.
Louellen Potts was sitting beside him: green eyed and green in tailored tweed. Breathtaking: youthful. Budding. Hair that falls—every hair in place and smelling of skin and flesh, no perfumes, only air and apples and sitting with one hand near his own, turned up—so innocent—or was tha
Not pockmarked. No. Do not go cruel into that good face. Be kinder. Kinder to yourself. Be kind.
Then, on the other side of the table, next to that blazered booby—Rodney Farquhar, pal and pudendum to the fallen Conrad—there was someone weeping.
Was it true? Was she weeping?
Tom had told the tale at dinner—the dinner just finished, the one whose little bones were scattered under the grape seeds even now mounting on the plates as the bachelors lingered over their wine.
Tom, without saying so, had made it clear that Fabiana was waiting for a divorce. Her husband, his brother Jackman, had disappeared. He was a civil engineer—or something—and, though Fabiana’s lawyers (working, of course for him) had told her he had “left her” and had gone somewhere, they would not say where. Not precisely. Only “into the Amazon region.” That was all. That was how they had put it to her: “Jackman has gone”—into roughly speaking one million square green miles of rain forest. Now, he had been gone eight months and the lawyers had said, “he is probably not coming back.”
So she could not get a divorce. She could only wait the mandatory seven years, after which she could declare herself a widow. Not that Jackman would be dead. He had gone there with her money. It was the money that was dead.
There was more, of course. Money. Enough for Conrad to cultivate, if he’d only take that egg off his face.
Michael watched Fabiana.
Just as Olivia’s badge was neatness, Fabiana’s badge was a restless wrist—her left—which she constantly massaged with her right hand, adjusting her watch and her bracelets and her bones, while the wrist turned slowly, this way and that. She also never looked at whoever was speaking, but set her eyes on those who were listening, watching perhaps for some clue as to the importance and meaning of what was being said. Now, it was Olivia who was speaking and Fabiana was watching Betty Powell, her sister-in-law. Betty Powell was cutting up an apple with a knife and there was blood on her napkin, of which she seemed to be entirely unaware.