Dinner Along the Amazon
Over and over again those final words were repeated—“all your mother has.” Harper awoke with a start, when his father stumbled and fell, pitching them both forward towards the ground.
He grabbed wildly at a branch and only barely managed to save himself. He hoped that he hadn’t cried out.
He re-established himself in the heart of the tree and sat there pondering over his dream. “All your mother has…” his father had said—but Harper knew that his mother had escaped from that, and that now she had something else which had taken his place.
Toward morning a policeman walked along, boldly and noisily below him, singing under his breath.
Just before it began to be light beyond the rooftops Harper fell asleep again. This time he awoke before falling, however. He took a long slow breath. The morning air was cool and a breeze flurried the leaves and began to waken the other tree residents: squirrels and birds and chipmunks and mice. Soon, all about him there was action, which he did not disturb (his fellow dwellers obviously having investigated his presence in the night and endorsed it) for they passed in and out of their home as though it was the most natural thing in the world to have a representative of the human species in their treetop midst.
Harper began to wonder if his plan had worked. Of course, not until Bertha discovered his absence would any reaction be set in motion. He regretted having to incorporate her despair with his mother’s, but he had to obtain some sort of notice and he felt that running away, even so near at hand, must bring some sort of attention to himself from his mother.
He only hoped that Bertha would hesitate for an hour or so before reporting his absence to the police. What he hoped for was that his mother would call out for him, find him gone and then take his absence into account and ask to have him back.
At what he judged to be about eight o’clock he climbed out of the tree and went to Miss Kennedy’s front door.
He rang the bell.
In a moment she appeared carrying Ming Toy in her arms, still dressed in the Victorian wrapper as though she had not even retired following their conversation of yesterday afternoon.
“Well, did you fallout?”
“Did you sleep?”
“Not much m’am. Only for a moment.”
“Well—you come in and we’ll have a nice big breakfast.”
She led him to the kitchen, where she had already begun to prepare breakfast and where the table was laid for two people and Harper smiled gratefully, happy that she had taken the trouble to be ready for him. He wondered idly why Miss Kennedy had never married. He decided that most probably no one had ever had the time to ask, she was so well organized.
He sat down and she served him some rolled oats.
He noticed with pleasure the absence of any sign of a teapot.
“So I guess you win your bet,” said Miss Kennedy pleasantly.
“Yes’m. I guess I do.”
“Were you scared, Harper?”
“No m’am. Only once when I nearly fell.”
“People used to always live in trees. It must have been very pleasant, once you discovered just how to keep yourself in. Did your rope not help?”
“Well—I forgot the rope.”
“Oh Harper!” she cried. “You might have been killed.”
“Oh well,” said Harper, “I wasn’t.”
Just as he was finishing his eggs Harper heard a police car going by outside, its siren blaring its urgent message down the length of the street.
His heart fell.
He looked at the clock.
It was nine-fifteen.
Bertha hadn’t waited.
For a moment he panicked. He heard the car stop further down the street, just, he guessed, exactly in front of his own house. He glanced at Miss Kennedy, who seemed oblivious of the racket the siren had created.
“Well,” he said, pushing away his plate, “I guess I’d better get home.”
“Oh, don’t you want some coffee?”
“No, no, oh no thank you—I’m not allowed coffee. I’d better go.”
“Well, all right, I suppose it is getting late.”
“All right. You run along. And good luck with your friends. And if you want me to speak up for you, you just come and say so.”
“Thank you m’am. I will.”
“Oh, and take your fan, dear. You went off without it yesterday. Here it is. I set it aside.”
“Oh, thank you. It’s very pretty.”
They went to the front door.
Miss Ming Toy snuffled at his heels.
“It’s going to be another beautiful day,” said Miss Kennedy looking out at the sky. “If only, when it rains, it rains at night.”
“Yes’m. I hope so too.”
“Well, you run along dear. And please, do come and see me again.”
“I will. Thank you.” He bent down. “Goodbye, Ming Toy,” he said.
“Say good-bye to Harper, dear.”
The little dog barked pipingly.
Harper and Miss Kennedy both laughed.
“And thank you.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss Kennedy. “Thank you.” There was a note of lonely finality in her voice. “It was nice of you to come.”
“Sit down,” said Bertha. “Now, where you been?”
“I ran off,” said Harper, betraying nothing.
“You ran off, is that it? You just ran off? Where to? You can go now,” she turned to the policeman. “I’ll take care now.”
“All right, Miss, just so long as he’s home, I guess it’s all right.”
“Thank you for coming so quick. But I’ll take care of him now.”
The policeman tipped his hat at Bertha and winked at Harper and disappeared out the side door.
She poured two cups of tea.
“You had me absolutely dying here this morning. I just didn’t know what to think.”
“I ran away.”
“I had to.”
“Had to? No one has to do that. Now why?”
“I want her to notice.”
“Who to notice?”
“What’s wrong? I suppose she didn’t even notice it,” said Harper in despair.
“Notice it?” snapped Bertha. “Notice it? I should think not. She done the very same thing herself.
“What do you mean?” said Harper. “What do you mean?”
“Just exactly what I said. She done the very same herself.”
“Yes, sir. She didn’t come home here last night neither.”
Harper stared blankly.
“Honestly,” said Bertha. “The pair of you.”
Harper went white.
“Now where was you?” she asked.
“In a tree.”
“Don’t joke. Don’t joke; this is no time for that, honey. This is serious. Now speak where you was.”
“In a tree,” he reiterated. “At Miss Kennedy’s in her oak tree.”
“Well if that’s true, then why was you?”
“I had to hide, Bertha. I had to make my mother take attention.”
“So you hid in a tree,” she paused—“You there all night?”
“You didn’t do nothing wrong there did you?”
“No m’am. What could I?”
“Well—so long’s you’re safe then. What about breakfast?”
“I had it with her.”
“With Miss Kennedy?”
“I thought you kids were all scared to the death of her.”
“No m’am, she’s all right. She gave me a Chinese fan.”
Bertha expressed no desire to see the Chinese fan, which Harper laid on the table between them as he mentioned it. Instead she rev
“Well, now, about your mother.”
“Didn’t she phone?”
“If she phoned would I be worried? No sir, I have no word of her, not a sign.”
She fell silent.
Then, after a moment, in which Harper stared at her unblinkingly, she began to speak under her breath.
“Of course, I figure I know just about where it is she’ll be and you are not to go and worry. I’m gonna go there and pick her up and then we’ll come home. But—” she ran her flat fingers in rows over the oilcloth on the table. She was, for a moment, unwilling to declare anything further it seemed, for she shot Harper a sharp glance as much as to say that she hoped he hadn’t heard what she had already said, but then she went on, even though it seemed to be against her will to do so. “…but I figure this has got to stop. An’ though I haven’t got it figured out how, I got it figured out that it’s us that’ll have to stop it.”
“You mean my mother and how she drinks?”
“Yes. No! Be quiet. I’m speaking here now.”
Bertha stared from the table out of the window before she went on.
“Now I come,” she said, “to the end of my rope—the end of it and there ain’t no more of it to pay out. That,” she said, “seems to be that. However, I have here an expression in my mind which comes from something which I heard somewhere which goes like this.”
She paused, recollected and went on, her voice going high into another register which Harper had never heard her employ before. She turned her eyes, which had been downcast, bark out the window and looked into the cloudless sky, which was burning itself out, over the house.
“It went like this. When you come,” she said, “to the end of your rope, and ain’t got no more to go—don’t do it in—but tie a knot and hang on.” She paused. “An’ that’s it.” Then she laced her fingers in a pattern on the tabletop and whispered, more to the sky than to herself, “an’ I just tied.”
For a moment she sat there, with her starched face turned away and with her taut hands on the table, but then she swung around and Harper saw that she was crying and that there was nothing to be said, so he watched her cry.
Bertha finally let her head go down and she put one hand on the back of her neck, while with the other she sought out her ‘hankie’—found it, and blew her nose into it.
“What are you going to do?” Harper asked her.
“Go an’ get her.”
“Soon’s I’m ready,” she said, getting up from her place at the table. She tucked the handkerchief back into her apron pocket. “An’ while I’m gone you straighten your room.”
“Why do I have to do that?”
“Because I said it. I want it all shipshape when I return.”
“But it’s not…”
“Listen! When I say clean up, I mean clean up. So get along now and don’t argue.”
“Well, all right.”
Harper got up too and went upstairs. When she was sure that he was gone, Bertha went into the hallway and to the telephone, where she picked up the receiver.
She dialled, and was answered.
“Hello,” she said, “have you got a Mrs Renalda Harper Dewey there? This here’s her maid.”
Twenty minutes later Bertha stood in Harper’s doorway in her coat and hat and she was pulling on her white cotton gloves with the black stitching.
“I gotta go now and see about your mother.”
“Where is she?”
“Nowheres. She’s fine. I just gotta go and see her. I may not be back until after lunch, so I want you to promise not to leave the house. I’m telling Mrs Jamieson to keep her eye out for you.”
Harper bent over his toy box. “She’s not sick, is she?”
“No. I told you, everything is O.K. But I gotta go. I fixed you sandwiches in the icebox and a thermos of soup is on the table. Save some for me.”
They looked at each other.
“An’ be good.”
She smiled, tears respringing to her eyes. All of a sudden she bent down and kissed him—something she hadn’t done since he was four years old.
“I’m just prayin’ all the time I’m gone,” she said, “you pray too.”
A moment later he heard the front screen door bang shut and he ran to his mother’s room to watch her going down the walk.
She was walking slowly and when she got to the gate she seemed unsure, for a second or so, of which direction she intended to step out in. Then she decided and was gone. Harper turned from the window and confronted the forbidden room. He hadn’t been in there for such a long time that he was surprised at how familiar and immediate all the objects were to him.
He looked at the highboy.
“I’ve got to get back in here,” he thought vehemently, “I’ve got to get back in this room.”
About an hour after Bertha had left to find his mother, Harper was sitting on the floor of his own room, surrounded by a number of old comic books and funny papers. He had taken them from a hiding place, well known to Bertha Millroy’s brooms and mops, under his dresser.
“What am I going to do with these?” he wondered. “I just can’t stand the sight of them any more. Old children’s stuff! I gotta get rid of it now I’m so old. I should trade them with Sally Davis, except that’d just mean more of the same and I don’t want any more of them. I ought to sell them.”
His mind began to turn upon the words. “Sell them. Sell them and get something else you’d rather…” He stood up.
“Why I could buy back some of that stuff of mother’s,” he said out loud, “I could buy it back and make her well again. I could buy it back and then I’d get up into her room again—that’s all it needs.”
“Comic books aren’t going to buy all that,” he realized. “How is it done?”
He went downstairs into the garden. He took the guinea pig’s cage from its place under the step and set it in the middle of the lawn.
“Come out,” he said. “Come out and have some grass for breakfast.”
He opened the cage door and the guinea pig snuffled its way slowly onto the open lawn. Harper watched it head towards the flower beds beneath the lilac trees and then he lay back on the grass and looked at the sky.
“That stuff she drinks,” he thought, “now if she sold the jewels to buy that stuff, it ought to be worth the same to sell it back.”
He had guessed that whatever it was that his mother drank was that same thing for which she wandered the house at night. He had guessed that whatever it was would be in the sun room, the dining room or the living room, and he had guessed rightly. He found no less than eight frosted bottles in all—two in the sun room, two in the living room, and four in the forbidden bedroom. One of these was partially emptied and he decided that it was safest to leave that one behind. The rest, he put into an old shopping bag from the kitchen cupboard, and hid them in the back of the garage under the tub that he used to wash the guinea pig in.
Then he went back to the garden, where he remained for the rest of the morning, nervously waiting for Bertha’s return with his mother, and frantically wondering what he would do with the seven frosted bottles he had just commandeered from his mother’s treasury.
At twelve-thirty he put the guinea pig back in its cage, lodged the cage in its place under the step and gave up waiting.
He went inside and was sitting at the kitchen table, eating his sandwiches and drinking his soup when Bertha returned.
She was alone.
It was obvious that she was in great distress, but she tried not to let on to Harper that anything serious had happened.
“She couldn’t come yet,” said Bertha, turning her back to him and removing her coat.
“Sure, she’s busy. You know she’s always out every day like this. How’s the soup?”
“Fine. You want some?”
She sat down. She was still wearing her hat and her white cotton gloves with the black stitching.
“I’ll get a plate,” he said.
Bertha studied the oil cloth.
“You still got your gloves on,” said Harper, putting a soup plate and a spoon down in front of her.
She pulled them off listlessly.
“And your hat.”
She let the hat stay. It had flowers on it. Daisies.
Harper poured some soup into her soup plate from the thermos and presented her with the spoon, which she took without noticing what she was doing.
“What’s the matter, Bertha?”
Harper sat down at his own place.
“Nothing, everything’s fine.”
Harper had always believed everything that Bertha said, but he didn’t, of course, believe this. He fished his mind for something to say that would draw out the truth.
“Is my mother coming home tonight?”
“I don’t know yet.”
There was a long pause, in which Bertha dipped her spoon into the soup and drank without a sound. Harper watched her. Her eyes were staring with a fixed, faraway gaze at the tabletop just in front of the plate. One of the daisies on her hat bobbled every time she tilted her head to drink.
“When you grow up, do you have to drink stuff like my mother does? I mean, is it something you’ve just got to do, I mean, like going to the office and all that?”
“It’s a choice,” she said. “You do or you don’t.”
“Will I, Bertha? Am I going to do it?”