Dinner Along the Amazon
“Howdy Harper,” he said. He was all undone down the front and his hands were filthy.
Harper said: “You have dirty hands Jo-Jo—get in an’ wash.”
“I been in the sand pile at Sally’s. She’s coming across too—with two dimes. So set up.”
“When Sally Davis comes here I’m telling her to take you up to wash over them hands. You look plain disgusting and your pants are undone.”
“I just went.”
“Well do up.”
Jo-Jo giggled and did up.
“I went in the sand,” he confided. “Like our cat does. And then you bury it.”
Sally Davis came over.
Sally Davis was eight like Harper. They were both hard put to it to make up who was the more adult.
“This child here,” said Harper, “has got dirty hands and face. I’m not gonna sell no lemonade to a coalman.”
“He’s been in the sand.”
“I know,” said Harper. “He said that. Are you gonna wash him over?”
“No. I want two lemonades please. Why’s it so expensive. Ten cents is too much.”
“It’s gotta be ten cents.”
“It’s just gotta be. That’s all.”
Harper eyed Jo-Jo. “But I’ll remind you if he’s sick it’s not my fault. It’s those hands of his which are just purely revolting.” He dipped out two paper cups of ‘lemonade’ with a long-handled saucepan—and handed them over on receipt of Sally’s twenty cents.
He watched them drink.
Jo-Jo was delighted and immediately asked for more. But Sally was slightly suspicious.
“You call this here lemonade, Harper?”
“Read it on the sign.”
Sally read out: “‘Harper’s Bazaar of Lemonade 10c.’ Well I don’t know. Tastes peculiar to me.”
“Jo-Jo likes it.”
“Do you Jo-Jo?”
“Yes,” said Jo-Jo. “I like it an’ more thank you.” He set out his paper cup on the top of the orange crate.
“It costs you ten cents,” said Harper.
“I already gave you ten cents. Don’t come to me.”
“O.K. G’bye then,” said Jo-Jo and went off towards his own house at a run.
“I think maybe I would like another cupful please Harper,” said Sally Davis, fishing in the pocket of her shorts for a dime, “the flavour sort of grows on you.”
Bertha stood at the top of the drive and hollered out: “How’s sales going, Harper? Hello there Sally.”
Harper replied that sales were practically non-existent and Sally said “Hello.”
Bertha went in. Sally drank her second cup slowly.
“Harper…” she said. “How about for a little free trade—I drum you up some business and you give me two more cups in exchange?”
“Just where do you expect to find this business. It’s gotta be people off the street and there’s no one about. I guess it’s too hot.”
“Jack Parker and Tim are over in Tim’s back yard. I heard ‘em. I could sort of provoke ‘em over I guess.”
“How provoke ‘em?”
“All you gotta do is mention cold drink on a day like this.”
“It ain’t so cold right now,” said Harper—poking his finger into a stone jug of lemonade. “But go ahead and try.”
Harper had left the big pot in the garage out of the sun and brought down two stone jugs and the long handled saucepan to ladle with.
When Sally had gone Harper tipped back on his chair and looked both ways along the street. The high elm trees were like umbrellas up and down the sidewalks. Far away he could hear a dog barking at a car—and the car going away into the distance. He thought about his mother. He was glad, when he thought of her, that Sally Davis was going to drum up more business—because he wanted it all sold. After it had all been sold, he would take the money and buy back his mother’s jewels. The jewels had bought the frosted bottles—now the frosted bottles would buy them back. He had comfort in his heart.
Soon he saw Miss Kennedy coming along under the elm umbrellas—carrying her coat over her arm and looking very hot and depressed—and he prepared to make a sale.
She came up.
“Hullo Miss Kennedy.”
She began to rummage about in her handbag.
“I don’t seem to have a dime dear. But I have a quarter—can you change it?”
“Yes’m. I have fifteen cents here.”
“Then I’d like some lemonade, please.”
Harper dipped her out a cupful.
Miss Kennedy stood back and admired the view along the street.
“Oh Harper, how I do love summer. But for this heat I’d say that summer on this street is summer like nowhere else in the world.”
“Yes’m. It’s pretty.”
Miss Kennedy finished her cup of lemonade.
“That is a remarkable concoction Harper. Let me have another cup.”
Harper began to worry. If Miss Kennedy stayed too long the children might not come, they being so afraid of her.
“Were you going somewhere, Miss Kennedy,” asked Harper—as he handed her her third cup of lemonade.
“Oh yes, but I have lots of time. I thought I’d seek out some nice air-conditioned movie house and relax this afternoon. But out here—thank you Harper—out here it seems so tranquil and still—it’s very relaxing and this lemonade of yours certainly does help to take the edge off the heat. Oh dear—it was so hot. I thought I was going to suffocate up there in my house.”
She had a fourth cup—and then a fifth.
Jo-Jo appeared on the other side of the street. He had apparently seen Miss Kennedy and had decided to wait until she had gone. He sat down on the curb and stuck his dirty hands in the summer-dried leaves in the gutter. Every once-in-a-while he eyed Harper and Harper would smile and beckon him but he turned his head away and pretended to look somewhere else.
“Harper?” said Miss Kennedy.
“How would it be if you set up a chair here for me on the boulevard, under this tree—” She gestured vaguely towards one of the elms—and he could see that she was slightly bewildered.
“This stuff of my mother’s,” he thought, “certainly has a powerful effect on people.”
“—and you might do me the favour to bring me an umbrella from the house. I think I won’t go to the movies after all.”
As Harper went up the drive he thought to himself that Miss Kennedy “plonking herself down” right there would be the end of business—but when he returned with the chair and the umbrella it was obvious that precisely the opposite was to be the fact.
Miss Kennedy was surrounded by children. They had made a great circle around her and she was standing in the middle smiling, but he could see that she was somewhat confused. Popularity was strange to her. The children (Sally was there and Jack Parker and Tim—and Annabelle Harrison, the terrible rich snob from round the corner—and several others) were all silent. Jo-Jo still sat, immune to their curiosity of Miss Kennedy, poking his fingers into the gutter across the street.
“Thank you Harper,” said Miss Kennedy as Harper broke through the circle to set up her chair. “That’s just fine.”
They set up the chair—(it was a deck chair with orange and white candy-stripe canvas)—and Miss Kennedy sat in it and put up the black umbrella over her head. She looked like someone in the middle of Africa—a missionary surrounded by natives.
“Bring another cup of the delicious lemonade my dear.”
“Hey look,” said Sally, “let’s us all have lemonade. That’s what we came for.”
Harper was kept quite busy taking in the money and serving up and he had to go up to the garage to get more so that he didn’t notice at first what was happening between Mis
Jo-Jo was fascinated and rooted to the spot.
“Little boy,” called Miss Kennedy with her wistful voice, “why don’t you come across that street and have yourself some lemonade?”
The hot afternoon beat its heavy wing over the elm trees and over the front lawns along the street—and over the group of people at Harper Dewey’s front drive.
“Little boy,” cried Miss Kennedy.
The birds were silent in the trees. The lemonade drinkers paused to listen.
“Little boy—put down that dirty stick and come across to me.”
Jo-Jo put down the stick.
“Little boy—listen to me—I myself will buy you lemonade.”
Jo-Jo came across.
Harper Dewey watched with the rest as Jo-Jo stood at the foot of the deck chair and looked sheepishly into the witch’s eyes. Miss Kennedy smiled.
“Harper—bring this child a cup of lemonade.”
With a look at the others—at Sally Davis and Jack Parker and Tim and even Annabelle Harrison the terrible rich snob from around the corner—Harper Dewey drew a cup of ‘lemonade’ for Jo-Jo Parkinson.
“Now bring it here.”
“Give it to him.”
Jo-Jo accepted the paper cup without taking his eyes from Miss Kennedy’s smiling face.
“There you are, Jo-Jo,” said Harper. “That’ll be ten cents.”
Miss Kennedy paid him—and when, instead of going back to his booth, he stood there staring at her—she said to him: “Go on Harper—Go away.”
Harper went. He and the others grouped themselves in silence around the orange crate. Even Bertha came down to have a look.
“Drink it up.”
Jo-Jo stood still.
“Don’t you like it?”
Jo-Jo continued his position, like a stagnant pond about to have a pebble thrown into it.
“Who’s got your tongue, little boy? Old cat?”
Jo-Jo very slowly stuck out his tongue to show her that he still had it in his mouth.
“That’s right. Now put it back.”
He drew it back in.
“Do you know how to smile, little boy?”
Nothing happened. Jo-Jo looked at the lemonade in his hand.
“Harper—bring me another cup,” cried the witch.
Harper brought again—received his ten cents and dutifully returned to the selling stand, this time without being told. He was thinking of Mrs Harper Dewey—his mother—and how she had never wooed him.
“Now,” said Miss Kennedy, “you and I will take this drink together—and then we’ll have another.”
She raised her paper cup and Jo-Jo raised his.
Miss Kennedy smiled.
To herself Miss Kennedy said: “Afternoon children—dear God—never let them know what I have done.”
Dim beyond the curtains, which hung like stagnant fog across the windows, Mrs Renalda Harper Dewey’s bedroom looked, if one could have seen it by daylight, like a stage-set at the close of a slapstick battle that had employed everything from cream pies to flower vases.
Her clothing was strewn from one end of the room to the other and on into the bathroom. Three glasses had been broken, a hand mirror shattered, a bottle of scent had been splattered against one wall and the powder bowl from the dressing table had been emptied all over the rug. The telephone by Mrs Dewey’s bed had been disconnected (after a surge of anger at not being able to contact her lawyer), and the lamp there had been overturned and an enormous hole burnt in its shade by the light bulb.
Mrs Dewey lay on the bed face downwards with her arms clutched around the pillows, her lipstick smeared on the sheets and her negligee, all undone, caught around her waist in a tangle.
At about four-thirty in the afternoon she awoke.
She lay very still. She had no idea where she was and no recollection of where she had been. At first, she felt no sensation whatsoever, being almost numb from the effect of the pills that Bertha had given her, but gradually she became aware of her arms pulled tight around the pillows.
She mumbled something into the sheets and pulled the pillows closer. “Peter?” she murmured. “Peter?” Suddenly however her fingers became aware of the texture beneath them and she pushed the pillows away with lonely disgust. Presently she tried to lift her head but pain seized the back of her neck and stopped her. She groaned.
She focused her eyes on the bedside table and she saw the telephone and the lamp in their disarray.
“What on earth has happened?” she said out loud.
She rolled over painfully and dragged herself into a sitting position with her back against the head of the bed. She reached around behind her and pushed the discarded pillows into place and sighed back against them.
She closed her eyes. Sitting so still, she began to feel a little clearer and she reopened them.
The sight of the wreckage about the room drew a weak sound of bewilderment from her which again touched off the pain in the back of her neck. She put her fingers against her forehead.
Nothing made any sense. She recognized her own bedroom, but she couldn’t think why it was in such disorder nor why she was there at this time of day. Her bedside clock said four-thirty and she had never been still abed at such an hour in her life, unless because of sickness. She concluded that she therefore must be ill. She certainly felt ill—but she couldn’t define what, exactly, was the matter with her.
The thick smell of the perfume, from the wall where it had been splattered, made her feel sick to her stomach and she rose further to sit on the edge of the bed. The motion of swinging her legs over the side made her even more nauseous and she nearly fell forward onto the floor.
She attempted to stand, but this was even worse and she knew that she would have to be sick there and then. She lunged towards the bathroom but couldn’t reach the toilet or the sink and was sick on the tiled floor. “How disgusting,” she said. “How revolting.”
After a moment she recovered and took a towel from the towel rack and wet it under the taps in the bathtub. She wiped off her face and her hands and threw the towel into the corner, looking after it as though it were a discarded victim of the plague, then she took another towel, soaked it in cold water and returned to the bedroom, shutting the bathroom door behind her.
Back on the bed she put the cold towel behind her neck and lay back on the pillows. However, the smell of the perfume soon began to reattract her attention and she looked about her to see where it was coming from. Finally after scrutinizing the floor and the bed, and after holding her negligee sleeves up to her nose, she noticed the stain on the wall. She closed one eye to look at it, then she opened that eye and closed the other. But she couldn’t focus her mind on it. She stared at it—opening and closing her eyes—but she could make nothing of it. Finally she just sighed its presence out of her mind and decided to open her window.
At the window, the glare of the afternoon sun stunned he:
and she fell back into the shadows. In doing so she stepped on a piece of glass and cut the ball of her right foot painfully.
“Oh God,” she muttered, “what is happening? What is happening to me?”
She limped into the middle of the room and stood there swaying back and forth, looking from corner to corner, trying to make sense of what she saw.
“I’m going to get blood on the rug,” she thought. “There will be blood all over the rug. A—ll over the ru—g. All over this bea-u-ti-ful god damn rug.” She felt oddly as though she were dreaming, and so, with the callous recklessness of a dreamer, without the responses of reality, she abandoned her bleeding foot with th
From beyond the open window she heard laughter. Pulling her negligee around her she walked delicately across to the window, where she leaned weakly against the sill. She could only barely see through the chiffon curtain, but she was afraid to expose her eyes again to the flat glare of the sun, so that she peered almost blindly out through the gauze.
There was more laughter and at the end of the driveway she made out the black umbrella and the orange deck chair with Miss Kennedy sitting in it with Jo-Jo on her lap. Harper and the other children were gathered about her.
“What on earth is she doing?” she wondered. “What is she doing in my deck chair? And that umbrella—that’s Peter’s umbrella. No!” she cried out. “No. No. That doesn’t make sense even. No one’s ever touched that—that was Peter’s—that was Peter’s—that was his. No one has ever touched it.”
Perhaps she only imagined that she was calling to them because no one turned in her direction and there was no sign whatsoever that she had been heard. “I guess they know,” she said. “Of course they know.”
Relieved, she tottered uncertainly back in the general direction of the bed, but she missed it and found herself suddenly sitting in the middle of the floor.
For a second she was too stunned to react to what had happened but then a spasm of tears burned up towards her eyes from her throat and she wept, with her legs stretched out before her and her hands caught in the disorder of her negligee. She looked like a broken doll.
After the tears a wild confusion of images appeared before her—some real, some flickering in and out of the picture from the past, some, distortions of the actual. She saw her own tears where they remained upon her husband’s mute umbrella for a moment, and then she saw Harper as he stood with his back to her at the foot of the driveway. She saw the mess of powder and blood on the rug, a furious kaleidoscope of colour that was perhaps the drapery, perhaps an overturned vase of flowers, perhaps only the vaguery of madness, and then she saw her own prone self stretched upon the floor.