Dinner Along the Amazon
She looked at him.
She looked away from him.
She sighed and put down the soup spoon.
“Honey,” she said, and she put one hand up to her face, the fingers massaging her left eye, “if you did, I can only tell you—it would break your mother’s heart.”
Just about sundown all the hoses were dragged onto the front lawns and boulevards along the street and the evening air was cooled and scented by their many spinning fountains.
The smell of wet grass at the end of a hot day was a particular summer pleasure to Harper Dewey. Tonight it mingled with the odours of the petunia plants and of the yellow roses that grew in the garden. Tonight, in fact, in every way was more sensuously beautiful than any other night he could remember. The sky seemed extra cool and to look at its distant blueness gave him a sense of well-being despite his growing fear over his mother’s whereabouts. Everything seemed at his command. How many were the birds that sang and how peculiar that he should understand their song. Distance too obeyed him. He could bring the faraway sound of dogs close into the shell of his ear, and at the same time sounds in his own front garden could be dismissed into the highest places of the sky. He felt, oddly, for the first time in his eight-yeared life, that he finally had something to say about the ownership of the world and of the right a person had to take action in it. There was a personal knowledge inside of him which was entirely his own, based upon a losing and a seeking which he conducted with his own devices and from his own resources. Perhaps he was turning from childhood—although he did not feel it going from him. His sense of loneliness was to determine this, beginning to become the loneliness of an adult, the loneliness defined by remembrance.
Harper sat on the front porch and thought over his bazaar. He meant to be rid of the frosted bottles by selling the contents mixed with lemonade. In that way, he figured that whatever the strange drink added in zest and originality to his lemonade, would also add to its worth. He could then claim more than a mere nickel per sale—and thus use the contents of the bottles to buy back what had been sold to purchase them. It seemed to be an eminently well rounded plan and he was extremely proud of it.
Bertha came out with some ice cream.
“You gonna sit here for this, Harper?”
“I figure I will too, then.”
Harper and Bertha sat with their legs stretched out and ate their ice cream from blue and white plates, the colour of the summer night.
“What’re you thinking, out here?” Bertha asked him.
“Come on now—something’s going on. What is it you’re up to?”
“Well,” said Harper, “I figured on a bazaar.”
“Say it again. A what?”
She ate and waited, slapping her feet together at the toes.
“It’s where you sell what’s no longer wanted by someone to someone who figures he can use it. Some call it ‘white elephant’.”
He looked at her to determine whether she had cottoned on to his meaning.
“I propose,” Harper said, “to sell them lemonade.”
“Lemonade, eh?” Bertha’s mind was elsewhere.
“I propose to sell them lemonade on account of this enormous heat-wave here in the city.”
“Well, well,” she said. “Lemonade. Think of it.”
“Mother—“he began—and stopped.
She turned on him.
“What’s this got to do with your mother?”
“Nothing,” he said, “it’s merely a diversion.” Diversion was his new word. “I look forward,” he added in clarification, just in case Bertha was unaware of his meaning, “to taking my mind off things.” He stressed the final word with an odd vocal twist. He almost choked on his ice cream.
Bertha, for her part, still looked a trifle bewildered. But she consoled herself with the thought that if he kept himself busy selling lemonade he would indeed be diverted from all that would surely now happen as a consequence of his mother’s errancy.
She looked over at him.
“You’ll need lemons,” she said.
“I’ll go tomorrow when the store opens.”
She smiled. “I thought you said a bazaar was where you got rid of what you didn’t want.”
He thought quickly. “Well—“he said at last. “We certainly don’t want the lemons.”
“Yeah,” she said, with a twinkle. “Maybe we don’t want ‘em, honey, but we ain’t got ‘em.”
“No,” said Harper glumly. “Not yet, anyway. Once I buy them though—we won’t want them.”
“No—I guess we won’t,” said Bertha.
Just then, as they were sitting there, a big black car drew up to the curb at the foot of the brick walk.
Bertha stood up.
“Harper, you go inside. Here take this.”
She thrust her plate of ice cream at him.
“Go in Harper—to your room.”
Harper sensed that argument was useless—so he asked for no explanation. He had no idea who was in the black car or why their presence (for it was obviously this) necessitated his departure, but he wasn’t fool enough to go to his room, where he might never find out. Instead, he went up to the top of the stairs and looked down, from the window there, at the scene below. He still held the two plates of ice cream in his hands.
Bertha moved down the walk and stood talking to a man who was dressed all in black. Several times this man directed a gesture towards the black car and Bertha would follow his gesture with her eyes and sometimes she would nod and sometimes she would shake her head—as though in sadness. Once she looked back at the house and almost caught Harper watching, but he ducked away in time to save himself from being seen.
When he looked again, the man dressed in black and Bertha had moved down into the boulevard near to the rear door of the car and it seemed that the man was giving Bertha some sort of instructions, for he gestured often into the air with his hands. Then he gave her something which she put in her pocket and he made a ‘three’ sign with the fingers of his right hand. Then he bent towards the rear door of the car as though to speak to someone inside. Bertha glanced nervously along the street and also looked towards Mrs Jamieson’s house next door.
Now, the man in black opened the car door as though to let someone get out, for he stood back from it. Then Bertha went forward and held out both her hands.
First Harper saw feet and then he saw a hand extended, which fumbled to grasp Bertha’s two. Then over the hands, a bowed head appeared of black and gray dishevelled hair. It was his mother.
She got out of the car and stood clutching Bertha; but she looked at the ground, not into Bertha’s face, nor into the face of the man in black. Then someone else, from within the car, extended a white arm and handed out a purse and a hat, which Bertha took, and a coat, which the man took. Harper knew this arm. It was the arm of a nurse. He didn’t have to see any more than its starched white sleeve to know that.
The man in black put the coat gently around the shoulders of Mrs Harper Dewey and spoke, again, to Bertha. As he did so, he left one hand on Mrs Dewey’s shoulder, very lightly and assuringly and Harper knew that he must be a doctor. Bertha nodded at the doctor, then, in a way she had of saying “thank you.” After that, the doctor got into the back seat of the car and the car drove off, driven, Harper supposed, by the doctor’s chauffeur. Of his mother’s chauffeur and of their own car’s whereabouts Harper could not guess.
Bertha and his mother came slowly up the front walk. They walked as though they had come from burying the dead—Bertha, as she would, with her head held high and his mother as she had, with her whole torso drooping as though gigantic weights had been tied to her shoulders. Suddenly, his mother did a very strange thing.
She stopped and she put her hands at her sides and stood away from Bertha,
Bertha stood quietly, still with her ramrod stance, behind her, looking off somewhere into the deepening evening sky.
At this juncture, Harper took the ice cream plates and locked himself in his room—just as Bertha had told him to do in the first place.
Later on I can wear real roses.
Quiet soon fell over the house, the deep quiet of loneliness.
Harper sat in his room and the ice cream melted, and it made two white pools in the middle of the blue and white plates. Harper set the two plates up on his bureau and put the wrong end of his spoon into one and stirred it around while he leant with his other arm on the top of the bureau, which was built low. He tried to make patterns, but they wouldn’t remain.
He listened to the house. An old familiar feeling came to him. It was a feeling that this particular home was a house of the past. Through it now, went a sensation of quietness that he remembered from other times—times when the three presences were single and when one did not acknowledge by any show of communication that the other two were there. He listened for his mother but he heard nothing—he also listened for Bertha but again there was nothing. He tried to ascertain by indication that his mother or that Bertha was waiting too, somewhere in the house, listening for him or for each other; but he couldn’t. It was as if he were entirely alone.
He made for the door of his room.
Just as he got there, however, he heard a sound. The sound came from down the hall and it was the sound of a key being turned with an effort towards quietness (he knew this because it was slow) and he guessed that it was his mother locking herself in her room. Then he heard footsteps. Bertha’s.
She came to stand outside his door. She put her knuckles against the wood and rapped gently.
“Harper?” She called him very quietly.
Bertha tried the handle.
“Unlock the door, honey.”
Harper let her in.
“Come downstairs, baby, we’ll finish our ice cream in the kitchen.”
She went to the bureau and got the plates.
“It’s all melted. Tch. Well—we’ll dish ourselves up some more. No reason we can’t do that. Come along, baby, and be quiet.”
It was as though someone in the house were sick and he was being given ice cream to make up for the attention being accorded to the sick person. Harper didn’t care for these tactics and he didn’t particularly admire Bertha for resorting to them. Also he distrusted and wondered at her return to naming him “baby.”
They went down to the kitchen.
“Your mother’s asleep,” said Bertha, standing at the icebox.
“I don’t want any more ice cream.”
“All right then. Neither do I.”
She shut the icebox door and came closer, intending to sit at the table, but they looked at each other.
“Let’s have a drop of coffee instead,” said Bertha, going immediately to the stove where she prepared the percolator. “I hadda give her some pill and this’ll make her sleep. Doctor says she’ll sleep all night and if she don’t I’m to give her another. But she ain’t to have more’n three all told. But one is best if it’ll work, so we gotta keep it quiet down here.”
Harper was silent, so she looked at him.
“You hear me, Harper?”
Harper nodded, looking out the window.
“There ain’t nothin’ I can tell you, baby. I don’t know it myself.” She sounded sad but it was as though he was the sadness.
Harper began. “When she wakes up…Will she be better, when she wakes up?”
“I surely hope so, baby. A good sleep is all she needs. She ain’t had that for too long, he says, an’ I guess you an’ I don’t hafta be told that one.”
There was nothing more said then. They listened, Bertha standing by the stove, and Harper sitting looking out the window, to the coffee percolating in the percolator. It began slowly, like raindrops falling from the eaves on metal and then sped along as their thoughts grew in pace and confusion until this sound came to reach an unbearable climax—such a climax as had to be broken.
Bertha turned the stove off. There was a sigh into silence.
“Maybe I’ll hafta stay in tonight, so I’ll drink a lot of this,” she said, “but you only gonna have a little bit in milk. Then I guess it’ll be time for you to go to bed.”
Harper said: “Bertha, where’s she been to?”
Bertha poured coffee into a cup and then into a glass of milk before she answered, with Harper watching her.
“Then who was that man? And that nurse in the car?”
Bertha looked at him sharply, but decided not to press the charges.
“He was a doctor.”
“But it wasn’t our doctor. It wasn’t Dr Peel.”
Bertha nodded. “That’s right. It was Dr Hamilton. Your mother’s doctor.” She looked away.
“But we’ve always gone to Dr Peel. Both of us—you too.”
“Nonsense. That’s only you an’ I who goes to Dr Peel. Your mother is frequenting Dr Hamilton these days.”
“I don’t believe you. I think Dr. Hamilton found her somewhere. This somewhere you had to go to this morning.”
“And where would that be, Mr Know-it-all?”
“I don’t know. Maybe in the street somewhere. I don’t know.”
“Now I told you Harper. Your Mother ain’t been nowheres bad and that’s that. Now she’s gone to sleep and so we’ll hear no more of it. I’m tired, you’re tired and it’s time you went to bed. I gotta stay up. So you go now and I’ll come up and see you in a minute.”
And then—“Go on, Harper.”
“You aren’t the same as you used to be,” said Harper after he had reached the doorway. “I don’t like you anymore.”
And then he ran, noisily all the way to his room, where he slammed the door.
In the kitchen Bertha pronounced the name of God.
The next morning, Harper went to the grocery store and bought lemons and sugar and paper cups. Bertha gave him the money.
As he was coming past Mrs Jamieson’s house on his way home, loaded down with his purchases and practically staggering under their weight, he heard a voice calling him.
“Oh, Harper! Harper Dewey.”
He stopped and listened.
“Harper, dear. I’m over here.”
He looked around and saw Mrs Jamieson standing under a tree in her front garden. She held a trowel in one hand and wore a large sun hat that had a ribbon hanging down the back. She beckoned him in.
He set the parcel of lemons and sugar and paper cups inside her gate and walked over her lawn.
“Good morning, Harpie. What have you got there?” she said.
Mrs Jamieson was the only person, besides his mother, who called him Harpie and he distinctly rebelled against it, as it seemed far too personal a name for her to use.
“I’m selling lemonade all afternoon,” he said.
“Oh! You’re going to have a lemonade bazaar. How nice. I suppose you’re trying to make some extra pocket money—is that it?”
“What for, dear?”
Mrs Jamieson went back to her trowelling, around the base of the tree.
“Just to buy something.”
“Well tell me what, dear? What is it you want?”
Harper was silent.
Mrs Jamieson looked up, pushing back the brim of her sun hat.
“Oh, I see. It’s a secret!” she said, “something for that naughty mother of yours? I’ll bet that’s it. You know, I saw her coming home yesterday. Oh, Harper, you must
She looked at Harper and smiled. He stood listening to her with his hands held behind his back.
“When you grow up, you won’t do that will you, Harper? You won’t let go and give in like that? God doesn’t want us to be like that, you know. He wants us to be strong and brave.” She went back to her work. “Tell me, Harper. Tell me something. Does your mother pray, dear? Do you know?”
“Bertha prays,” said Harper flatly.
“Yes, dear, I know—but does your mother? Do you know if she does?”
Harper looked off over Mrs Jamieson’s head towards his own house beyond the hedge and the fence. He looked at his mother’s window. Then he spoke, very quietly and almost with serenity, to Mrs Jamieson.
“I think God must hate having made anyone as silly as you are,” he said.
He left immediately, without looking at her, without pausing to determine her reaction and without any feeling of fear or of remorse. He picked up his package at the gate and walked, sedately and evenly, all the way to the side door where he rang the bell, because he was locked out.
At three o’clock Harper went down the drive and set up the orange crate and the chair and put out the paper cups and put on his white sun hat with the green eye-shade and rang the bell. The bell was the little silver one that Mrs Dewey rang at table when it was time for Bertha to clear. In the thick air of the afternoon it didn’t seem to make much noise—and for about half an hour there weren’t any customers. Then the first one came. Jo-Jo Parkinson—five years old—from across the street.