Dinner Along the Amazon
All around him the birds sang and the insects clamoured for attention. Far away the traffic moved steadily to and fro in the city, humming its monstrous mechanised song.
He tried to think, but nothing happened.
That was all he could grasp. Nothing. Everything was over—everyone went away—and finally you went away yourself.
He got up and went into the house where he got a spoon and returned after that to the garden. He dug a hole with the spoon and put the guinea pig inside and covered it with earth.
Then he stamped it down to a level with his feet.
Bertha came to the sun room door. “Harper, come and say good-bye to your granny, she’s going home now.”
“No thank you,” said Harper.
“She’ll be real disappointed,” said Bertha, fanning herself with the Bible. “You come and say good-bye.”
“No thanks. You tell it to her.”
“All right, Harper, you please yourself,” said Bertha. “There’s iced tea in the fridge.” She went inside.
Harper stood in the garden and listened to the birds.
He looked at the back of the house and counted the rooms by their windows.
Ten minutes later he was standing in the front hallway with Bertha. “I won’t be long,” he said. “I only have to go and then I’ll be right back.”
“All right then, if you got to. You didn’t disturb nothing up there in that spare room, I hope. There’s getting so there ain’t no room for flowers almost,” she said. “You didn’t shunt nothing around I hope.”
“No. I just went in and looked,” he said.
“All right. You go and come straight back.”
He looked at her.
“Bertha,” he said. “I take back that I don’t like you anymore” and then he opened the door and went down the walk.
Woolworth’s was crowded when he got there and he had a hard time making the saleslady pay attention to him because he could only barely see her above the counter and people kept pushing him away. But finally he had all that he wanted and he paid her and made his way home.
In the spare room he closed the door and stood at the foot of the bed.
The perfume from the flowers hung heavily in the air and there was a bee buzzing and banging itself against the screen at the window.
For a moment, Harper was afraid to go further into the room. The silence was terrifying to him and especially the silence that clung like something tangible to his mother’s form on the bed.
Harper began to sing and then, less conscious of the stillness, he went up and stood beside his mother.
He looked on her intently, humming the tune in short gasps of sound. When he finished the tune he brought a chair and sat beside her. Then he put the words to it. “Walking in the garden, walking with my Lord—.”
He felt as though she lay there listening to him; there was a peaceful expression on her face and she looked as though she only slept and could hear him in a dream. “Walking in the garden, talking with my Lord—.” Soon, he stopped singing and just watched her.
He held the Woolworth’s package in his hand. He looked at it and then back at his mother. She looked sad. The package was suddenly heavy and awkward in his hand and he stepped back from the bed, blushing.
He felt sorry and confused and ashamed all at once. He went to the door. He opened it, turned for a final look and then ran down the stairs and out into the garden.
Bertha sat in the living room with the Bible open on her knees, reading silently, but aloud, to herself.
“Will you come out?” he said. “I want to show you.”
Bertha stood up and put the Bible aside for the first time in the whole day.
“I want to show you,” he repeated.
They went out and he led her to the lilac trees. Harper looked up at Bertha and hung on tightly to her hand. “The guinea pig,” he said. “Went with her, I guess.”
They looked at the grave. Harper had studded it with the Woolworth’s jewelry and circled it with coloured beads. Bertha closed her eyes and a look of compassionate sorrow pinched the lines of her face.
“I bought them,” said Harper conclusively. “From my bazaar, I bought them. But I thought he ought to have them.”
He looked at the grave.
Suddenly he started to cry. It was the first time. Bertha held him in her arms.
“I wish she could see it,” he said.
“Yes, honey. Tell me honey.”
“Bertha it’s not…that isn’t all, is it Bertha? Is that all? Is it all really over?”
“No, honey,” said Bertha quietly. “That ain’t all. Not nearly. Why it’s only just the start here, Harper. There’s a whole lot more to come.”
“Will she see, Bertha?”
Bertha crouched down with Harper in her lap. “Sure she will, honey. She’ll see. I promise you. She’ll see just like you an’ me. So long as we are here.”
After that, they sang the song together and it got dark, and they went inside.
That’s my dad in the middle. We were just kids then, Bud on the right and me on the left. That was taken just before my dad went into the army.
Some day that was.
It was a Saturday, two years ago. August, 1940. I can remember I had to blow my nose just before that and I had to use my dad’s hankie because mine had a worm in it that I was saving. I can’t remember why; I mean, why I was saving that worm, but I can remember why I had to blow my nose, all right. That was because I’d had a long time crying. Not exactly because my dad was going away or anything—it was mostly because I’d done something.
I’ll tell you what in a minute, but I just want to say this first. I was ten years old then and it was sort of the end of summer. When we went back to school I was going into the fifth grade and that was pretty important, especially for me because I’d skipped grade four. Right now I can’t even remember grade five except that I didn’t like it. I should have gone to grade four. In grade five everyone was a genius and there was a boy called Allan McKenzie.
Anyway, now that you know how old I was and what grade I was into, I can tell you the rest.
It was the summer the war broke out and I went to stay with my friend, Arthur Robertson. Looking back on it, Arthur seems a pretty silly name for Arthur Robertson because he was so small. But he was a nice kid and his dad had the most enormous summer cottage you’ve ever seen. In Muskoka, too.
It was like those houses they have in the movies in Beverly Hills. Windows a mile long—pine trees outside and then a lake and then a red canoe tied up with a yellow rope. There was an Indian, too, who sold little boxes made of birch-bark and porcupine quills. Arthur Robertson and I used to sit in the red canoe and this Indian would take us for a ride out to the raft and back. Then we’d go and tell Mrs Robertson or the cook or someone how nice he was and he’d stand behind us and smile as though he didn’t understand English and then they’d have to buy a box from him. He certainly was smart, that Indian, because it worked about four times. Then one day they caught on and hid the canoe.
Anyway, that’s the sort of thing we did. And we swam too, and I remember a book that Arthur Robertson’s nurse read to us. It was about dogs.
Then I had to go away because I’d only been invited for two weeks. I went on to this farm where the family took us every summer when we were children. Bud was already there, and his friend, Teddy Hartley.
I didn’t like Teddy Hartley. It was because he had a space between his teeth and he used to spit through it. Once I saw him spit two-and-a-half yards. Bud paced it out. And then he used to whistle through it, too, that space, and it was the kind of whistling that nearly made your ears bleed. That was what I didn’t like. But it didn’t really matter, because he was Bud’s friend, not mine.
So I went by train and Mr and Mrs Currie met me in their truck. It was their farm.
Mrs Currie got me into the front with her while Mr Currie put my stuff in the ba
“Your mum and dad aren’t here, dear, but they’ll be up tomorrow. Buddy is here—and his friend.”
Grownups were always calling Bud “Buddy.” It was all wrong.
I didn’t care too much about my parents not being there, except that I’d brought them each one of those birch-bark boxes. Inside my mother’s there was a set of red stones I’d picked out from where we swam. I thought maybe she’d make a necklace out of them. In my dad’s there was an old golf ball, because he played golf. I guess you’d have to say I stole it, because I didn’t tell anyone I had it—but it was just lying there on a shelf in Mr Robertson’s boathouse, and he never played golf. At least I never saw him.
I had these boxes on my lap because I’d thought my mum and dad would be there to meet me, but now that they weren’t I put them into the glove compartment of the truck.
We drove to the farm.
Bud and Teddy were riding on the gate, and they waved when we drove past. I couldn’t see too well because of the dust but I could hear them shouting. It was something about my dad. I didn’t really hear exactly what it was they said, but Mrs Currie went white as a sheet and said: “Be quiet,” to Bud.
Then we were there and the truck stopped. We went inside.
And now—this is where it begins.
After supper, the evening I arrived at the Curries’ farm, my brother Bud and his friend Teddy Hartley and I all sat on the front porch. In a hammock.
This is the conversation we had.
BUD: (to me) Are you all right? Did you have a good time at Arthur Robertson’s place? Did you swim?
ME: (to Bud) Yes.
TEDDY HARTLEY: I’ve got a feeling I don’t like Arthur Robertson. Do I know him?
BUD: Kid at school. Neil’s age. (He said that as if it were dirty to be my age.)
TEDDY HARTLEY: Thin kid? Very small?
BUD: Thin and small—brainy type. Hey, Neil, have you seen Ted spit?
ME: Yes—I have.
TEDDY HARTLEY: When did you see me spit? (Indignant as hell) I never spat for you.
ME: Yes, you did. About three months ago. We were still in school. Bud—he did too, and you walked it out, too, didn’t you?
BUD: I don’t know.
TEDDY HARTLEY: I never spat for you yet! Never!
ME: Two yards and a half.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Can’t have been me. I spit four.
ME: Four YARDS!!
TEDDY HARTLEY: Certainly.
BUD: Go ahead and show him. Over the rail.
TEDDY HARTLEY: (Standing up) Okay. Look, Neil…Now watch…Come on, WATCH!!
ME: All right—I’m watching.
(Teddy Hartley spat. It was three yards-and-a-
half by Bud’s feet. I saw Bud mark it myself.)
BUD: Three yards and a half a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four yards…(Maybe his feet were smaller or something.)
BUD: Three-and-foot. Three and one foot. No, no. A half-zone. Of a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four! Four! Four!
BUD: Three! One-two-three-and-a-half-a-foot!!
TEDDY HARTLEY: My dad showed me. It’s four! He showed me, and he knows. My dad knows. He’s a mathematical teacher—yes, yes, yes, he showed me how to count a yard. I saw him do it. And he knows, my dad!!
BUD: Your dad’s a crazy man. It’s three yards and a half a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: (All red in the face and screaming) You called my dad a nut! You called my dad a crazy-man-nut-meg! Take it back, you. Bud Cable, you take that back.
BUD: Your dad is a matha-nut-ical nutmeg tree.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Then your dad’s a…your dad’s a…your dad’s an Insane!
BUD: Our dad’s joined the army.
That was how I found out.
They went on talking like that for a long time. I got up and left. I started talking to myself, which is a habit I have.
“Joined the army? Joined the army? Joined the ARMY! Our dad?”
Our dad was a salesman. I used to go to his office and watch him selling things over the phone sometimes. I always used to look for what it was, but I guess they didn’t keep it around the office. Maybe they hid it somewhere. Maybe it was too expensive to just leave lying around. But whatever it was, I knew it was important, and so that was one thing that bothered me when Bud said about the army—because I knew that in the army they wouldn’t let my dad sit and sell things over any old phone—because in the army you always went in a trench and got hurt or killed. I knew that because my dad had told me himself when my uncle died. My uncle was his brother in the first war, who got hit in his stomach and he died from it a long time afterwards. Long enough, anyway, for me to have known him. He was always in a big white bed, and he gave us candies from a glass jar. That was all I knew—except that it was because of being in the army that he died. His name was Uncle Frank.
So those were the first two things I thought of: my dad not being able to sell anything any more—and then Uncle Frank.
But then it really got bad, because I suddenly remembered that my dad had promised to teach me how to skate that year. He was going to make a rink too; in the back yard. But if he had to go off to some old trench in France, then he’d be too far away. Soldiers always went in trenches—and trenches were always in France. I remember that.
Well, I don’t know. Maybe I just couldn’t forgive him. He hadn’t even told me. He didn’t even write it in his letter that he’d sent me at Arthur Robertson’s. But he’d told Bud—he’d told Bud, but I was the one he’d promised to show how to skate. And I’d had it all planned how I’d really surprise my dad and turn out to be a skating champion and everything, and now he wouldn’t even be there to see.
All because he had to go and sit in some trench.
I don’t know how I got there, but I ended up in the barn. I was in the hayloft and I didn’t even hear them, I guess. They were looking all over the place for me, because it started to get dark.
I don’t know whether you’re afraid of the dark, but I’ll tell you right now, I am. At least, I am if I have to move around in it. If I can just sit still, then I’m all right. At least, if you sit still you know where you are—but if you move around, then you don’t know where you are. And that’s awful. You never know what you’re going to step on next and I always thought it would be a duck. I don’t like ducks—especially in the dark or if you stepped on them.
Anyway, I was in that hayloft in the barn and I heard them calling out—“Neil, Neil”—and “Where are you?” But I made up my mind right then I wasn’t going to answer. For one thing, if I did, then I’d have to go down to them in the dark—and maybe I’d step on something. And for another, I didn’t really want to see anyone anyway.
It was then that I got this idea about my father. I thought that maybe if I stayed hidden for long enough, then he wouldn’t join the army. Don’t ask me why—right now I couldn’t tell you that—but in those days it made sense. If I hid then he wouldn’t go away. Maybe it would be because he’d stay looking for me or something.
The trouble was that my dad wasn’t even there that night, and that meant that I either had to wait in the hayloft till he came the next day—or else that I had to go down now, and then hide again tomorrow. I decided to stay where I was because there were some ducks at the bottom of the ladder. I couldn’t see them but I could tell they were there.
I stayed there all night. I slept most of the time. Every once in a while they’d wake me up by calling out “Neil! Neil!”—but I never answered.
I never knew a night that was so long, except maybe once when I was in the hospital. When I slept I seemed to sleep for a long time, but it never came to morning. They kept waking me up but it was never time.
Then it was.
I saw that morning through a hole in the roof of the hayloft. The sunlight came in through cracks between the boards and it was all dusty; the sunlight, I mean.
I wondered what they were all doing. Mr Currie was standing in the middle of a lot of men and he kept pointing out the scenery around the farm. I imagined what he was saying. There was a big woods behind the house and a cherry and plum-tree orchard that would be good to point out to his friends. I could tell they were his friends from the way they were listening. What I couldn’t figure out was why they were all up so early—and why they had Bud and Teddy Hartley up, too.
Then there was a police car. I suppose it came from Orillia or somewhere. That was the biggest town near where the farm was. Orillia.
When the policemen got out of their car, they went up to Mr Currie. There were four of them. They all talked for quite a long time and then everyone started going out in all directions. It looked to me as though Bud and Teddy Hartley wanted to go, too, but Mrs Currie made them go in the house. She practically had to drag Bud. It looked as if he was crying and I wondered why he should do that.
Then one of the policemen came into the barn. He was all alone. I stayed very quiet, because I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from going through with my plan about my dad. Not even a policeman.
He urinated against the wall inside the door. It was sort of funny, because he kept turning around to make sure no one saw him, and he didn’t know I was there. Then he did up his pants and stood in the middle of the floor under the haylofts.
That was the policeman.
He said it so suddenly that it scared me. I nearly fell off from where I was, it scared me so much. And I guess maybe he saw me, because he started right up the ladder at me.
“How did you know my name?”
I said that in a whisper.
“They told me.”