Where are you going?
By Joyce Carol Oates
First published in Epoch, Fall 1966. Included in Prize Stories: O Henry Award Winners (1968), and The Best American Short Stories (1967).
Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.
“Why don’t you keep your room clean like your sister? How’ve you got your hair fixed—what the hell stinks? Hair spray? You don’t see your sister using that junk.”
Her sister June was twenty-four and still lived at home. She was a secretary in the high school Connie attended, and if that wasn’t bad enough—with her in the same building—she was so plain and chunky and steady that Connie had to hear her praised all the time by her mother and her mother’s sisters. June did this, June did that, she saved money and helped clean the house and cookedand Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams. Their father was away at work most of the time and when he came home he wanted supper and he read the newspaper at supper and after supper he went to bed. He didn’t bother talking much to them, but around his bent head Connie’s mother kept picking at her until Connie wished her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over. “She makes me want to throw up sometimes,” she complained to her friends. She had a high, breathless, amused voice that made everything she said sound a little forced, whether it was sincere or not.
There was one good thing: June went places with girl friends of hers, girls who were just as plain and steady as she, and so when Connie wanted to do that her mother had no objections. The father of Connie’s best girl friend drove the girls the three miles to town and left them at a shopping plaza so they could walk through the stores or go to a movie, and when he came to pick them up again at eleven he never bothered to ask what they had done.
They must have been familiar sights, walking around the shopping plaza in their shorts and flat ballerina slippers that always scuffed the sidewalk, with charm bracelets jingling on their thin wrists; they would lean together to whisper and laugh secretly if someone passed who amused or interested them. Connie had long dark blond hair that drew anyone’s eye to it, and she wore part of it pulled up on her head and puffed out and the rest of it she let fall down her back. She wore a pull-over jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out; her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—”Ha, ha, very funny,”—but highpitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms on her bracelet.
Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out. The restaurant was shaped like a big bottle, though squatter than a real bottle, and on its cap was a revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft. One night in midsummer they ran across, breathless with daring, and right away someone leaned out a car window and invited them over, but it was just a boy from high school they didn’t like. It made them feel good to be able to ignore him. They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for. They sat at the counter and crossed their legs at the ankles, their thin shoulders rigid with excitement, and listened to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.
A boy named Eddie came in to talk with them. He sat backwards on his stool, turning himself jerkily around in semicircles and then stopping and turning back again, and after a while he asked Connie if she would like something to eat. She said she would and so she tapped her friend’s arm on her way out—her friend pulled her face up into a brave, droll look—and Connie said she would meet her at eleven, across the way. “I just hate to leave her like that,” Connie said earnestly, but the boy said that she wouldn’t be alone for long. So they went out to his car, and on the way Connie couldn’t help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music. She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face just a few feet from hers. It was a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold. He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin. Connie slit her eyes at him and turned away, but she couldn’t help glancing back and there he was, still watching her. He wagged a finger and laughed and said, “Gonna get you, baby,” and Connie turned away again without Eddie noticing anything.
She spent three hours with him, at the restaurant where they ate hamburgers and drank Cokes in wax cups that were always sweating, and then down an alley a mile or so away, and when he left her off at five to eleven only the movie house was still open at the plaza. Her girl friend was there, talking with a boy. When Connie came up, the two girls smiled at each other and Connie said, “How was the movie?” and the girl said, ‘You should know.” They rode off with the girl’s father, sleepy and pleased, and Connie couldn’t help but look back at the darkened shopping plaza with its big empty parking lot and its signs that were faded and ghostly now, and over at the drive-in restaurant where cars were still circling tirelessly. She couldn’t hear the music at this distance.
Next morning June asked her how the movie was and Connie said, “So-so.”
She and that girl and occasionally another girl went out several times a week, and the rest of the time Connie spent around the house—it was summer vacation—getting in her mother s way and thinking, dreaming about the boys she met. But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July. Connie’s mother kept dragging her back to the daylight by finding things for her to do or saying suddenly, ‘What’s this about the Pettinger girl?”
And Connie would say nervously, “Oh, her. That dope.” She always drew thick clear lines between herself and such girls, and her mother was simple and kind enough to believe it. Her mother was so simple, Connie thought, that it was maybe cruel to fool her so much. Her mother went scuffling around the house in old bedroom slippers and complained over the telephone to one sister about the other, then the other called up and the two of them complained about the third one. If June’s name was mentioned her mother’s tone was approving, and if Connie’s name was mentioned it was disapproving. This did not really mean she disliked Connie, and actually Connie thought that her mother preferred her to June just because she was prettier, but the two of them kept up a pretense of exasperation, a sense that they were tugging and struggling over something of little value to either of them. Sometimes, over coffee, they were almost friends, but something would come up—some vexation that was like a fly buzzing suddenly around their heads—and their faces went hard with contempt.
One Sunday Connie got up at eleven—none of them bothered with church—and washed her hair so that it could dry all day long in the sun. Her parents and sister were going to a barbecue at an aunt’s house and Connie said no, she wasn’t interested, rolling her eyes to let her mother know just what she thought of it. “Stay home alone then,” her mother said sharply. Connie sat out back in a lawn chair and watched them drive away, her father quiet and bald, hunched around so that he could back the car out, her mother with a look that was still angry and not at all softened through the windshield, and in the back seat poor old June, all dressed up as if she didn’t know what a barbecue was, with all the running yelling kids and the flies. Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was, the back yard ran off into weeds and a fence-like line of trees and behind it the sky was perfectly blue and still. The asbestos ranch house that was now three years old startled her—it looked small. She shook her head as if to get awake.
It was too hot. She went inside the house and turned on the radio to drown out the quiet. She sat on the edge of her bed, barefoot, and listened for an hour and a half to a program called XYZ Sunday Jamboree, record after record of hard, fast, shrieking songs she sang along with, interspersed by exclamations from “Bobby King”: “An’ look here, you girls at Napoleon’s—Son and Charley want you to pay real close attention to this song coming up!”
And Connie paid close attention herself, bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest.
After a while she heard a car coming up the drive. She sat up at once, startled, because it couldn’t be her father so soon. The gravel kept crunching all the way in from the road—the driveway was long—and Connie ran to the window. It was a car she didn’t know. It was an open jalopy, painted a bright gold that caught the sunlight opaquely. Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, “Christ. Christ,” wondering how bad she looked. The car came to a stop at the side door and the horn sounded four short taps, as if this were a signal Connie knew.
She went into the kitchen and approached the door slowly, then hung out the screen door, her bare toes curling down off the step. There were two boys in the car and now she recognized the driver: he had shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig and he was grinning at her.
“I ain’t late, am I?” he said.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Connie said.
“Toldja I’d be out, didn’t I?”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
She spoke sullenly, careful to show no interest or pleasure, and he spoke in a fast, bright monotone. Connie looked past him to the other boy, taking her time. He had fair brown hair, with a lock that fell onto his forehead. His sideburns gave him a fierce, embarrassed look, but so far he hadn’t even bothered to glance at her. Both boys wore sunglasses. The driver’s glasses were metallic and mirrored everything in miniature.
“You wanta come for a ride?” he said.
Connie smirked and let her hair fall loose over one shoulder.
“Don’tcha like my car? New paint job,” he said. “Hey.”
She pretended to fidget, chasing flies away from the door.
“Don’tcha believe me, or what?” he said.
“Look, I don’t even know who you are,” Connie said in disgust.
“Hey, Ellie’s got a radio, see. Mine broke down.” He lifted his friend’s arm and showed her the little transistor radio the boy was holding, and now Connie began to hear the music. It was the same program that was playing inside the house.
“Bobby King?” she said.
“I listen to him all the time. I think he’s great.”
“He’s kind of great,” Connie said reluctantly.
“Listen, that guy’s great. He knows where the action is.”
Connie blushed a little, because the glasses made it impossible for her to see just what this boy was looking at. She couldn’t decide if she liked him or if he was just a jerk, and so she dawdled in the doorway and wouldn’t come down or go back inside. She said, “What’s all that stuff painted on your car?”
“Can’tcha read it?” He opened the door very carefully, as if he were afraid it might fall off. He slid out just as carefully, planting his feet firmly on the ground, the tiny metallic world in his glasses slowing down like gelatine hardening, and in the midst of it Connie’s bright green blouse. “This here is my name, to begin with, he said. ARNOLD FRIEND was written in tarlike black letters on the side, with a drawing of a round, grinning face that reminded Connie of a pumpkin, except it wore sunglasses. “I wanta introduce myself, I’m Arnold Friend and that’s my real name and I’m gonna be your friend, honey, and inside the car’s Ellie Oscar, he’s kinda shy.” Ellie brought his transistor radio up to his shoulder and balanced it there. “Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey,” Arnold Friend explained. He read off the numbers 33, 19, 17 and raised his eyebrows at her to see what she thought of that, but she didn’t think much of it. The left rear fender had been smashed and around it was written, on the gleaming gold background: DONE BY CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER. Connie had to laugh at that. Arnold Friend was pleased at her laughter and looked up at her. “Around the other side’s a lot more —you wanta come and see them?”
“Why should I?”
“Don’tcha wanta see what’s on the car? Don’tcha wanta go for a ride?”
“I don’t know.”
“I got things to do.”
He laughed as if she had said something funny. He slapped his thighs. He was standing in a strange way, leaning back against the car as if he were balancing himself. He wasn’t tall, only an inch or so taller than she would be if she came down to him. Connie liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed: tight faded jeans stuffed into black, scuffed boots, a belt that pulled his waist in and showed how lean he was, and a white pull-over shirt that was a little soiled and showed the hard small muscles of his arms and shoulders. He looked as if he probably did hard work, lifting and carrying things. Even his neck looked muscular. And his face was a familiar face, somehow: the jaw and chin and cheeks slightly darkened because he hadn’t shaved for a day or two, and the nose long and hawklike, sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke.
“Connie, you ain’t telling the truth. This is your day set aside for a ride with me and you know it,” he said, still laughing. The way he straightened and recovered from his fit of laughing showed that it had been all fake.
“How do you know what my name is?” she said suspiciously.
“Maybe and maybe not.”
“I know my Connie,” he said, wagging his finger. Now she remembered him even better, back at the restaurant, and her cheeks warmed at the thought of how she had sucked in her breath just at the moment she passed him—how she must have looked to him. And he had remembered her. “Ellie and I come out here especially for you,” he said. “Ellie can sit in back. How about it?”
“Where’re we going?”
He looked at her. He took off the sunglasses and she saw how pale the skin around his eyes was, like holes that were not in shadow but instead in light. His eyes were like chips of broken glass that catch the light in an amiable way. He smiled. It was as if the idea of going for a ride somewhere, to someplace, was a new idea to him.
“Just for a ride, Connie sweetheart.”
“I never said my name was Connie,” she said.
“But I know what it is. I know your name and all about you, lots of things,” Arnold Friend said. He had not moved yet but stood still leaning back against the side of his jalopy. “I took a special interest in you, such a pretty girl, and found out all about you—like I know your parents and sister are gone somewheres and I know where and how long they’re going to be gone, and I know who you were with last night, and your best girl friend’s name is Betty. Right?”
He spoke in a simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song. His smile assured her that everything was fine. In the car Ellie turned up the volume on his radio and did not bother to look around at them.
“Ellie can sit in the back seat,” Arnold Friend said. He indicated his friend with a casual jerk of his chin, as if Ellie did not count and she should not bother with him.
“How’d you find out all that stuff?” Connie said.
“Listen: Betty Schultz and Tony Fitch and Jimmy Pettinger and Nancy Pettinger,” he said in a chant. “Raymond Stanley and Bob Hutter—”
“Do you know all those kids?”
“I know everybody.”
“Look, you’re kidding. You’re not from around here.”
“But—how come we never saw you before?”
“Sure you saw me before,” he said. He looked down at his boots, as if he were a little offended. “You just don’t remember.”
“I guess I’d remember you,” Connie said.
“Yeah?” He looked up at this, beaming. He was pleased. He began to mark time with the music from Ellie’s radio, tapping his fists lightly together. Connie looked away from his smile to the car, which was painted so bright it almost hurt her eyes to look at it. She looked at that name, ARNOLD FRIEND. And up at the front fender was an expression that was familiar—MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS. It was an expression kids had used the year before but didn’t use this year. She looked at it for a while as if the words meant something to her that she did not yet know.
“What’re you thinking about? Huh?” Arnold Friend demanded. “Not worried about your hair blowing around in the car, are you?”
“Think I maybe can’t drive good?”
“How do I know?”
“You’re a hard girl to handle. How come?” he said. “Don’t you know I’m your friend? Didn’t you see me put my sign in the air when you walked by?”
“My sign.” And he drew an X in the air, leaning out toward her. They were maybe ten feet apart. After his hand fell back to his side the X was still in the air, almost visible. Connie let the screen door close and stood perfectly still inside it, listening to the music from her radio and the boy’s blend together. She stared at Arnold Friend. He stood there so stiffly relaxed, pretending to be relaxed, with one hand idly on the door handle as if he were keeping himself up that way and had no intention of ever moving again. She recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put into words. She recognized all this and also the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him. But all these things did not come together.
She said suddenly, “Hey, how old are you?”
His smiled faded. She could see then that he wasn’t a kid, he was much older—thirty, maybe more. At this knowledge her heart began to pound faster.
“That’s a crazy thing to ask. Can’tcha see I’m your own age?”
“Like hell you are.”
“Or maybe a couple years older. I’m eighteen.”
“Eighteen?” she said doubtfully.
He grinned to reassure her and lines appeared at the corners of his mouth. His teeth were big and white. He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick the lashes were, thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material. Then, abruptly, he seemed to become embarrassed and looked over his shoulder at Ellie. “Him, he’s crazy,” he said. “Ain’t he a riot? He’s a nut, a real character.” Ellie was still listening to the music. His sunglasses told nothing about what he was thinking. He wore a bright orange shirt unbuttoned halfway to show his chest, which was a pale, bluish chest and not muscular like Arnold Friend’s. His shirt collar was turned up all around and the very tips of the collar pointed out past his chin as if they were protecting him. He was pressing the transistor radio up against his ear and sat there in a kind of daze, right in the sun.
“He’s kinda strange,” Connie said.
“Hey, she says you’re kinda strange! Kinda strange!” Arnold Friend cried. He pounded on the car to get Ellie’s attention. Ellie turned for the first time and Connie saw with shock that he wasn’t a kid either—he had a fair, hairless face, cheeks reddened slightly as if the veins grew too close to the surface of his skin, the face of a forty-year-old baby. Connie felt a wave of dizziness rise in her at this sight and she stared at him as if waiting for something to change the shock of the moment, make it all right again. Ellie’s lips kept shaping words, mumbling along with the words blasting in his ear.
“Maybe you two better go away,” Connie said faintly.
“What? How come?” Arnold Friend cried. “We come out here to take you for a ride. It’s Sunday.” He had the voice of the man on the radio now. It was the same voice, Connie thought. “Don’tcha know it’s Sunday all day? And honey, no matter who you were with last night, today you’re with Arnold Friend and don’t you forget it! Maybe you better step out here,” he said, and this last was in a different voice. It was a little flatter, as if the heat was finally getting to him.
“No. I got things to do.”
“You two better leave.”
“We ain’t leaving until you come with us.”
“Like hell I am—”
“Connie, don’t fool around with me. I mean—I mean, don’t fool around,” he said, shaking his head. He laughed incredulously. He placed his sunglasses on top of his head, carefully, as if he were indeed wearing a wig, and brought the stems down behind his ears. Connie stared at him, another wave of dizziness and fear rising in her so that for a moment he wasn’t even in focus but was just a blur standing there against his gold car, and she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real.
“If my father comes and sees you—”
“He ain’t coming. He’s at a barbecue.”
“How do you know that?”
“Aunt Tillie’s. Right now they’re uh—they’re drinking. Sitting around,” he said vaguely, squinting as if he were staring all the way to town and over to Aunt Tillie’s back yard. Then the vision seemed to get clear and he nodded energetically. “Yeah. Sitting around. There’s your sister in a blue dress, huh? And high heels, the poor sad bitch—nothing like you, sweetheart! And your mother’s helping some fat woman with the corn, they’re cleaning the corn—husking the corn—”
“What fat woman?” Connie cried.
“How do I know what fat woman, I don’t know every goddamn fat woman in the world!” Arnold Friend laughed.
“Oh, that’s Mrs. Hornsby . . . . Who invited her?” Connie said. She felt a little lightheaded. Her breath was coming quickly.
“She’s too fat. I don’t like them fat. I like them the way you are, honey,” he said, smiling sleepily at her. They stared at each other for a while through the screen door. He said softly, “Now, what you’re going to do is this: you’re going to come out that door. You re going to sit up front with me and Ellie’s going to sit in the back, the hell with Ellie, right? This isn’t Ellie’s date. You’re my date. I’m your lover, honey.”
“What? You’re crazy—”
“Yes, I’m your lover. You don’t know what that is but you will,” he said. “I know that too. I know all about you. But look: it’s real nice and you couldn’t ask for nobody better than me, or more polite. I always keep my word. I’ll tell you how it is, I’m always nice at first, the first time. I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t. And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me ”
“Shut up! You’re crazy!” Connie said. She backed away from the door. She put her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible, something not meant for her. “People don’t talk like that, you’re crazy,” she muttered. Her heart was almost too big now for her chest and its pumping made sweat break out all over her. She looked out to see Arnold Friend pause and then take a step toward the porch, lurching. He almost fell. But, like a clever drunken man, he managed to catch his balance. He wobbled in his high boots and grabbed hold of one of the porch posts.
“Honey?” he said. “You still listening?”
“Get the hell out of here!”
“Be nice, honey. Listen.”
“I’m going to call the police—”
He wobbled again and out of the side of his mouth came a fast spat curse, an aside not meant for her to hear. But even this “Christ!” sounded forced. Then he began to smile again. She watched this smile come, awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask. His whole face was a mask, she thought wildly, tanned down to his throat but then running out as if he had plastered make-up on his face but had forgotten about his throat.
“Honey—? Listen, here’s how it is. I always tell the truth and I promise you this: I ain’t coming in that house after you.”
“You better not! I’m going to call the police if you—if you don’t—”
“Honey,” he said, talking right through her voice, “honey, I m not coming in there but you are coming out here. You know why?”
She was panting. The kitchen looked like a place she had never seen before, some room she had run inside but that wasn’t good enough, wasn’t going to help her. The kitchen window had never had a curtain, after three years, and there were dishes in the sink for her to do—probably—and if you ran your hand across the table you’d probably feel something sticky there.
“You listening, honey? Hey?” “—going to call the police—”
“Soon as you touch the phone I don’t need to keep my promise and can come inside. You won’t want that.”
She rushed forward and tried to lock the door. Her fingers were shaking. “But why lock it,” Arnold Friend said gently, talking right into her face. “It’s just a screen door. It’s just nothing.” One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle. “I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all, and specially Arnold Friend. If the place got lit up with a fire, honey, you’d come runnin’ out into my arms, right into my arms an’ safe at home—like you knew I was your lover and’d stopped fooling around. I don’t mind a nice shy girl but I don’t like no fooling around.” Part of those words were spoken with a slight rhythmic lilt, and Connie somehow recognized them—the echo of a song from last year, about a girl rushing into her boy friend’s arms and coming home again—
Connie stood barefoot on the linoleum floor, staring at him. “What do you want?” she whispered.
“I want you,” he said.
“Seen you that night and thought, that’s the one, yes sir. I never needed to look anymore.”
“But my father’s coming back. He’s coming to get me. I had to wash my hair first—” She spoke in a dry, rapid voice, hardly raising it for him to hear.
“No, your daddy is not coming and yes, you had to wash your hair and you washed it for me. It’s nice and shining and all for me. I thank you sweetheart,” he said with a mock bow, but again he almost lost his balance. He had to bend and adjust his boots. Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller. Connie stared out at him and behind him at Ellie in the car, who seemed to be looking off toward Connie’s right, into nothing. This Ellie said, pulling the words out of the air one after another as if he were just discovering them, “You want me to pull out the phone?”
“Shut your mouth and keep it shut,” Arnold Friend said, his face red from bending over or maybe from embarrassment because Connie had seen his boots. “This ain’t none of your business.”
“What—what are you doing? What do you want?” Connie said. “If I call the police they’ll get you, they’ll arrest you—”
“Promise was not to come in unless you touch that phone, and I’ll keep that promise,” he said. He resumed his erect position and tried to force his shoulders back. He sounded like a hero in a movie, declaring something important. But he spoke too loudly and it was as if he were speaking to someone behind Connie. “I ain’t made plans for coming in that house where I don’t belong but just for you to come out to me, the way you should. Don’t you know who I am?”
“You’re crazy,” she whispered. She backed away from the door but did not want to go into another part of the house, as if this would give him permission to come through the door. “What do you . . . you’re crazy, you. . . .”
“Huh? What’re you saying, honey?”
Her eyes darted everywhere in the kitchen. She could not remember what it was, this room.
“This is how it is, honey: you come out and we’ll drive away, have a nice ride. But if you don’t come out we’re gonna wait till your people come home and then they’re all going to get it.”
“You want that telephone pulled out?” Ellie said. He held the radio away from his ear and grimaced, as if without the radio the air was too much for him.
“I toldja shut up, Ellie,” Arnold Friend said, “you’re deaf, get a hearing aid, right? Fix yourself up. This little girl’s no trouble and’s gonna be nice to me, so Ellie keep to yourself, this ain’t your date right? Don’t hem in on me, don’t hog, don’t crush, don’t bird dog, don’t trail me,” he said in a rapid, meaningless voice, as if he were running through all the expressions he’d learned but was no longer sure which of them was in style, then rushing on to new ones, making them up with his eyes closed. “Don’t crawl under my fence, don’t squeeze in my chipmonk hole, don’t sniff my glue, suck my popsicle, keep your own greasy fingers on yourself!” He shaded his eyes and peered in at Connie, who was backed against the kitchen table. “Don’t mind him, honey, he’s just a creep. He’s a dope. Right? I’m the boy for you, and like I said, you come out here nice like a lady and give me your hand, and nobody else gets hurt, I mean, your nice old bald-headed daddy and your mummy and your sister in her high heels. Because listen: why bring them in this?”
“Leave me alone,” Connie whispered.
“Hey, you know that old woman down the road, the one with the chickens and stuff—you know her?”
“Dead? What? You know her?” Arnold Friend said.
“Don’t you like her?”
“She’s dead—she’s—she isn’t here any more—”
But don’t you like her, I mean, you got something against her? Some grudge or something?” Then his voice dipped as if he were conscious of a rudeness. He touched the sunglasses perched up on top of his head as if to make sure they were still there. “Now, you be a good girl.”
‘What are you going to do?”
“Just two things, or maybe three,” Arnold Friend said. “But I promise it won’t last long and you’ll like me the way you get to like people you’re close to. You will. It’s all over for you here, so come on out. You don’t want your people in any trouble, do you?”
She turned and bumped against a chair or something, hurting her leg, but she ran into the back room and picked up the telephone. Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.
After a while she could hear again. She was sitting on the floor with her wet back against the wall.
Arnold Friend was saying from the door, “That’s a good girl. Put the phone back.”
She kicked the phone away from her.
“No, honey. Pick it up. Put it back right.”
She picked it up and put it back. The dial tone stopped.
“That’s a good girl. Now, you come outside.”
She was hollow with what had been fear but what was now just an emptiness. All that screaming had blasted it out of her. She sat, one leg cramped under her, and deep inside her brain was something like a pinpoint of light that kept going and would not let her relax. She thought, I’m not going to see my mother again. She thought, I’m not going to sleep in my bed again. Her bright green blouse was all wet.
Arnold Friend said, in a gentle-loud voice that was like a stage voice, “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out. This place you are now—inside your daddy’s house—is nothing but a cardboard box I can knock down any time. You know that and always did know it. You hear me?”
She thought, I have got to think. I have got to know what to do.
“We’ll go out to a nice field, out in the country here where it smells so nice and it’s sunny,” Arnold Friend said. “I’ll have my arms tight around you so you won’t need to try to get away and I’ll show you what love is like, what it does. The hell with this house! It looks solid all right,” he said. He ran a fingernail down the screen and the noise did not make Connie shiver, as it would have the day before. “Now, put your hand on your heart, honey. Feel that? That feels solid too but we know better. Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?—and get away before her people come back?”
She felt her pounding heart. Her hand seemed to enclose it. She thought for the first time in her life that it was nothing that was hers, that belonged to her, but just a pounding, living thing inside this body that wasn’t really hers either.
“You don’t want them to get hurt,” Arnold Friend went on. “Now, get up, honey. Get up all by yourself.”
“Now, turn this way. That’s right. Come over here to me.—Ellie, put that away, didn’t I tell you? You dope. You miserable creepy dope,” Arnold Friend said. His words were not angry but only part of an incantation. The incantation was kindly. “Now come out through the kitchen to me, honey, and let’s see a smile, try it, you re a brave, sweet little girl and now they’re eating corn and hot dogs cooked to bursting over an outdoor fire, and they don’t know one thing about you and never did and honey, you’re better than them because not a one of them would have done this for you.”
Connie felt the linoleum under her feet; it was cool. She brushed her hair back out of her eyes. Arnold Friend let go of the post tentatively and opened his arms for her, his elbows pointing in toward each other and his wrists limp, to show that this was an embarrassed embrace and a little mocking, he didn’t want to make her self-conscious.
She put out her hand against the screen. She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were back safe somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.