Dinner Along the Amazon

  It occurred to her to wail, as a child would wail, from the midst of some self-created ruin of shattered glass or fallen cutlery, but suddenly anger rose in her, the anger of private degradation and the fury of her fallen pride.

  She crawled in a splurge of remembrance to her dressing table and took from beneath it the half-finished bottle of gin, which was the bottle that Harper had left behind in deference to its near emptiness.

  She took a mouthful straight from the bottle, which gave her the strength to rise and cross to the bathroom.

  “Everything else is broken,” she announced to herself.

  In the bathroom the stench of vomit on the floor nearly drove her out, but she threw a towel over it, grabbed the tooth glass from its shelf and ran into the bedroom slamming the door behind her. “They were all broken, I had to,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

  She poured a full glass of gin and crossed to the window. She swallowed two mouthfuls without stopping, and for a moment she thought that it would make her throw up again, but it gradually burnt its way into her bloodstream and her stomach relaxed. After a moment she felt better.

  She watched Harper.

  He was standing alone and silent, a little to one side of the group of children around Miss Kennedy, and he had his hands behind his back. He seemed not to be listening to them talking; he seemed, instead, to be thinking of something private and sad of his own.

  She smiled and spoke his name quietly to herself, “Harper.” It gave her no comfort. “Harper Dewey,” she said. “Harper Peter Dewey.”

  She pulled back the curtain with her free hand and shaded her eyes with the hand that held the glass of gin.

  She blinked and looked at her son.

  “Harper Dewey,” she said, as though in conclusion.

  After a moment she took another mouthful of gin and swallowed it slowly and deliberately, almost meditatively. Harper, below on the sidewalk, turned to look at the house and Mrs Dewey dropped the curtain slowly, hoping that he had seen her. He stared at her window for nearly a full minute, pulling at the green eye-shade of his sun hat.

  “Harper Dewey,” said Mrs Dewey and she waved at him. But she knew he hadn’t seen her, because he shifted his stance and looked back towards Miss Kennedy and the children.

  Desperately Mrs Dewey finished her glass of gin and poured another which emptied the bottle. She looked down at her bleeding foot and said, defeatedly, with a broken sigh, “Peter,” and she lifted her glass. “Success! He’s as blind as a bat.”

  She pulled the chair from the dressing table over to the window and sat down. The children were laughing again at something Miss Kennedy had said to them and they laughed for a long time as though it must have been something very funny indeed that she had said.

  Harper, however, aloof from their amusement, walked over to the driveway and picked up a stone. He stood with his back to the house, with his feet apart, apparently listening to the end of Miss Kennedy’s story. The others continued to laugh, but Harper turned around and gave his mother’s window a long, slow, tearful stare. His hand went to his eyes.

  “Harper Dewey,” said Mrs Dewey. “Harper Peter Dewey. Blind as a bat,” and she smiled.

  After a moment she looked down at her glass and had just put her head back with it held to her lips, prepared to take a long swallow of gin, when the window in front of her was shattered by a stone that fell at her feet.

  She was holding it in her hand when they found her.

  In his bed in the dark, no more a cave, no more a safe place alone, he sat waiting.

  What he was waiting for he did not know—but he felt that there was action coming. This action, whatever it might be, could, he began to suspect, come from any side, even from some inanimate object right there in his own room.

  The windows might fly open of their own accord—(they were shut because the summer rain had finally come in a great cloudburst)—or the bureau might topple, or the pictures fall. God might put his hand into the room, even, and take him away and leave him somewhere on a hilltop or in the middle of some foreign and frightening field.

  If only he knew, or if he could at least guess, what it was that he was waiting for he might be able to prepare himself for defence. He could barricade the door or hide in the cupboard. He could even leave the room and ask to sleep with Bertha, his distrust of her aside. But he sensed that all of these resorts would be utterly useless, because he knew that what was there, waiting to happen, would happen in spite of anything that he could do to prevent it.

  He tried to think about Woolworth’s and about all the jewelry he had seen there. He pictured the prices and carefully went over, again, his accounts from the bazaar sales of the afternoon. He thought about the pane of glass from his mother’s window and knew that he must pay for that as well. He thought about Jo-Jo in Miss Kennedy’s lap and about his father’s umbrella.

  Above him in the attic Bertha shunted her flat form across dry sheets, grating it, as she did, to a sitting position on the edge of her bed. Harper listened to her crossing over to her bedroom door and heard her open it and descend to the second floor. She came and stood outside his door and he coughed to let her know that he was still awake. Then she went down the hall and stood outside his mother’s door listening, he could tell, to some mysterious noises beyond it, because she spoke, very quietly, Mrs Dewey’s name.

  Apparently, however, she was satisfied that all was reasonably well, because she came back down the hall and went downstairs to the kitchen, probably, Harper decided, to brew herself another of the inevitable cups of coffee.

  Harper began a half sleep. He was still aware of his room and of the storm beyond it and of his arms resting against the cold sheets, and yet he slept. He slept and he dreamed.

  Again, as in Miss Kennedy’s oak tree, he dreamt of his father and of his ‘Duty Letter’ and of his father’s voice. But this time instead of offering Harper the letter his father took it away from him and tore it up so that the pieces blew about in a funnel of wind just between them—obscuring and disfiguring his father’s face.

  After that he had a dream about ‘The War.’

  ‘The War,’ to Harper, was a big city where there were men running and also men driving in jeeps and men riding on horses—and all of them, all of these men, made wild shouts into the air and their faces were all puffed out with this shout.

  There were men, too, who were silent, but these men were lying on the ground or they were standing against the walls of the city with blood running from their eyes like tears and they moved their lips silently as though they were beggars who had voiced their cry so often that they had no voices left.

  ‘The War’ was very noisy though, all about these silent soldiers, and the noise was of running feet, and galloping horses, and of cars being driven so fast that you couldn’t see them, and of aeroplanes that flew so low that you could reach up and touch them with your hand. The noise was of a rushing—of everything being rushing onwards and there was no end, neither to the noise nor to the rushing.

  Then into the midst of this noise and into the motion of the rushing, came again the picture of his father’s face. Harper could see both his father’s face and also his father’s body—the face close to him and the body far away. Harper was trying to get past his face to the body but the face kept getting in his way. It spoke, over and over again, Harper’s own name, but like the silent figures on the ground and the bleeding figures against the city’s walls, no voice accompanied the speaking. The lips moved over his name, again and again, but no sound came with the movement.

  Soon, beyond the face, he saw his mother and his mother was wearing his own white sun hat with the green eye-shade and she carried the stone jug of ‘lemonade’ in one hand. She went straight to his father’s body and she poured the ‘lemonade’ into a cup and gave it to the body to drink. Then she hunched down on the ground and began to drink the lemonade herself.

  Harper knew that he must stop her—but he couldn’t get past his fathe
r’s face, which continued to blink at him, mouthing the shape of his name.

  Harper remembered the Colt revolver in his father’s highboy, which he saw sitting in the corner of his dream. He ran to it and pulled the drawer open. The gun was there and he took it out and ran back towards his father’s body and towards his mother hunched on the ground beside him. They were both drinking lemonade and they were laughing.

  He was about to reach them, about to throw the gun away, when his father’s face suddenly blanked out the entire picture and he shot at it, firing three times straight into the mouth.

  The face fell apart as though it had been torn like a piece of paper and the pieces melted into the air and ran, waxlike, down a pane of glass. After that, everything began to fade—the pictures and the noises together—rushing away into final darkness and silence.

  Harper lay awake.

  He listened, rigid and wet with perspiration. Someone was running down the hall past his door.

  He turned his head to listen. For a moment there was no further sound, until suddenly there was a violent knocking, he guessed at his mother’s bedroom door.

  Was someone trying to get in or to get out?

  He went to his own door, unlocked it and opened it.

  Bertha stood near his mother’s room, wrapped in a blue dressing gown, barefooted and wild-eyed.

  “Harper, get a key,” she said.

  “What key?”

  “Any key. Any key. Just get a key.”

  Bertha turned back to the closed door and knocked on it again.

  “Mrs Dewey!” she said. “Mrs Dewey you gotta let me in. It’s your Bertha, Mrs Dewey—you gotta open it up.”

  Harper, not being able to guess at all what was happening, ran back to his own room and got the key out of his door. He took it to Bertha. She put the key into the lock and turned it from side to side.

  “Oh Lord,” she said, “you gotta make this work.”

  The key, however, jammed in the lock and presently broke off in her hand. Instead of becoming angry Bertha turned to calmness. She came to Harper and spoke quietly.

  “Honey Harper, we’re gonna hafta break it down.”

  “What’s it about?” said Harper. “What’s it about, Bertha?”

  “I don’t know, baby, but something pretty bad’s just happened to your mother and we got to get her out. Come on now, what’ll we do it with?”

  Harper suddenly felt sick to his stomach. He turned away and sat on his little chair beside the door. Sitting there the sick feeling receded and he tried to think.

  “We could hit it with a brick,” he said.

  “That won’t do nothing. We gotta ram it right down. I know,” she said. “We take away the handle.”

  “It’s the lock that’s busted,” Harper reminded her. “Handle won’t count anyway.”

  “Dear God please tell me what’s to do.”

  Bertha prayed.

  They both fell silent as Bertha waited for guidance.

  After a moment she announced mysteriously: “He says we ought to use the phone.” She went downstairs, switching on the lights as she did, and took up the receiver in the hall.

  “Get me police,” she said. “Get me police. Don’t wait.”

  The stunned operator connected Bertha with the police station and the night sergeant answered her thickly.

  “Listen,” said Bertha. “Get here quick. She’s locked the door and you gotta come quick.”

  While they waited, Bertha telephoned, or at least tried to telephone Dr Hamilton, but she got many wrong numbers and irate answers before she finally reached him. All this while Harper stood, hands behind his back, standing silently by the front door.

  The situation having been explained, the first policeman, when he finally appeared on the verandah, carried an axe in his hand.

  Bertha was still on the telephone getting Dr Hamilton out of bed, so Harper let them in. “Please now, come quick,” she said and banged down the receiver. “The door’s upstairs,” she said to the policeman. “I guess she locked it first and then I broke another key trying to get it open. But we just got to get inside.”

  “All right m’am. We’ll try and be careful.”

  Harper followed at a distance behind them and stood at the far end of the hall while they broke the door down with the axe. Actually, all they did was hit it with the blunt edge of the axe-head and the lock and the doorjamb shattered, swinging the door wide on its hinges.

  Before they went in they set the axe against the wall beside Harper’s chair.

  “Is there a light?” one of the policemen asked Bertha.

  “Yes sir—over here.”

  Harper heard the light switch go on and then there was silence.

  Outside, the storm had broken and Mrs Jamieson had turned all the lights on in her house. Harper saw them flicker on through the window at the top of the stairs.

  Voices drifted from his mother’s bedroom and presently one of the policemen came out into the hall. He walked past Harper, patting him on the head as he did so, and went down the stairs at a trot.

  Presently Dr Hamilton came up the stairs in his black overcoat and hat, but underneath still dressed in his pajamas. He passed Harper and went straight to Mrs Dewey’s bedroom. The door closed.

  Harper sat at the top of the stairs. He was numb and cold and he could think of nothing to think about except Mrs Jamieson’s lights shining inquiringly forth from next door.

  In half an hour his mother’s door opened and another policeman came out and stood in the hall.

  “Harper?” he said.


  “Come here,” he said gently, “don’t be frightened.”

  Harper got up and pulled his pajama bottoms up tighter around his waist. He took a final look at Mrs Jamieson’s windows and went meekly down the hall. The policeman took his hand.

  “Your nanny wants to see you,” he said.

  Harper guessed that he meant Bertha.

  When they went in the lights had been turned very low and Harper could only just make out the shapes of the furniture in the room. It still smelt of the spilt perfume.

  Bertha was sitting on the far side of his mother’s bed and Dr Hamilton was standing on the near side. There were three policemen in the room, huddled over by the highboy. His mother lay on the bed under a blanket.

  The policeman took Harper around the foot of the bed to beside Bertha.

  Bertha took his hand now and the policeman went back to the bedroom door.

  Harper focused on Bertha.

  “Honey,” she said, “I guess we didn’t just pray enough—and now we’ll have to pray a whole lot more.” She was crying, but she pulled him close to her shoulder and looked right into his eyes and smiled. “God does a lot of funny things—he has a lot of funny ways for us to walk. I’m just awful sorry that I ain’t walked closer to your mother and to you these past few months or this might never have happened.” She blinked away some tears and looked down for a moment. She buttoned up his pajamas coat where it was undone and looked at him again. “We went and lost her, Harper” she said simply. “We went and lost your mother to the Lord.”

  Harper looked shyly at the bed.

  His mother was covered to her chin with a blanket, which was folded back down from her face onto her chest.

  She looked confused and her forehead was wrinkled as though in deep thought and conjecture. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was slightly open. There was dried blood at the corner of her lips. She was as pale as that other day, when Harper had come into the bedroom and had seen her asleep. He thought secretly—“She’s not dead now, but she was the other day.”

  Bertha held his hand lightly and looked at Mrs Dewey too.

  “I’m sorry,” said one of the policemen—“but you’ll have to come downstairs now please and answer some questions. Dr Hamilton, are you ready sir?”

  As they went out Harper saw one of the policemen carrying his father’s Colt revolver in a handkerchief.
  Bertha sighed and got up.

  Harper reached out and touched his mother’s lips with his finger. They were hard and cold. He stood rigid and still. Bertha waited. Then he put his hand in Bertha’s and went down the stairs and into the living room.

  Outside, Mrs Jamieson’s windows showed that her lights were finally going out, one by one, like sighs.

  The next day the house was full of people Harper had never seen before, people who drove up to the boulevard in big, handsome cars and who came to see his dead mother dressed in black clothes and carrying fur pieces over their arms or, if they were men, carrying black hats and umbrellas.

  Bertha put on her black uniform and held a Bible in one hand all day long. She met the people in the hallway and spoke quietly to them about Mrs Dewey and then led them upstairs to the spare room where his mother’s body had been laid on the bed dressed in a clean nightgown and one of the pink negligees of which she had been so fond. Bertha had put makeup on Mrs Dewey’s face so that it wouldn’t be so pale and she had tried to smooth the wrinkles from her forehead. She had also put a pretty ribbon around her hair. You couldn’t see where she had shot herself—that was all covered up.

  By afternoon flowers began to arrive, some of them addressed to Harper, some to Bertha and some to ‘Rennie’ or to ‘Darling Rennie’ from ‘So-and-So.’ Harper had some from people he’d never ever heard of.

  Also in the afternoon his two aunts, his mother’s sisters, arrived and his grandmother, who had been told only that her daughter had ‘passed away.’ His aunts had thought it best to keep the details of her death from their mother, because of her great age. She came in a wheelchair, his grandmother, and was carried upstairs by her own chauffeur together with Mrs Dewey’s chauffeur. No one came from his father’s family.

  At three o’clock Harper went into the back garden to feed his guinea pig.

  He reached under the porch and found the cage swamped in a pool of water caused by the storm. The guinea pig was dead. It had drowned. Harper took the cage in his arms and went and sat under the lilac trees with it. He took the dead pig out and laid it on the ground in front of him.

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