Storyville: Dissecting "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates

I’m going to be doing something a little different this column. Instead of dissecting one of my stories, I’m going to dissect a classic short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” by Joyce Carol Oates. This may be one of the most heavily anthologized and taught stories ever, and that’s no exaggeration. It’s a beautifully written story, where the tension slowly builds, very creepy and distressing in its subtleties—surreal and dark, rooted in the real world, with hints of something supernatural at hand. And I think that’s one of the reasons this story was so successful, and is still read today. It takes the best of literary fiction and blends in the best of crime and horror to create a suspenseful and upsetting story. It’s a long story, so I won’t pick apart every word and sentence, but I hope you’ll enjoy the analysis and get some information on why this story is still talked about today.

FIRST, READ IT

Head over to the USF website to read it. Take your time, and really soak it up, and then come back here for the discussion.

HISTORY

A beautifully written story, where the tension slowly builds...

From Wikipedia: “The story first appeared in the Fall 1966 edition of Epoch Magazine. It was inspired by three Tucson, Arizona murders committed by Charles Schmid, which were profiled in Life magazine in an article written by Don Moser on March 4, 1966. Oates said that she dedicated the story to Bob Dylan because she was inspired to write it after listening to his song ‘It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.’”

PLOT

From Wikipedia: “The main character of Oates's story is Connie, a beautiful, self-absorbed 15-year-old girl, who is at odds with her mother—once a beauty herself–and with her dutiful, ‘steady,’ and homely older sister. Without her parents' knowledge, she spends most of her evenings picking up boys at a Big Boy restaurant, and one evening captures the attention of a stranger in a gold convertible covered with cryptic writing. While her parents are away at her aunt's barbecue, two men pull up in front of her house and call Connie out. She recognizes the driver, Arnold Friend, as the man from the drive-in restaurant, and is initially charmed by the smooth-talking, charismatic stranger. He tells Connie he is eighteen and has come to take her for a ride in his car with his sidekick Ellie. Connie slowly realizes that he is actually much older, and grows afraid. When she refuses to go with them, Friend becomes more forceful and threatening, saying that he will harm her family (while at the same time appealing to Connie's vanity, saying that she is too good for them). Connie is compelled to leave with him and do what he demands of her. The story ends as Connie leaves her front porch; her eventual fate is left ambiguous.”

TITLE

Some titles have more to offer than others, but this is a great one, hinting at so much, which is what you want a title to do. It prepares the reader for a journey, and in this story, that means physically, as in her family going out for the day, and her impending adventure with Arnold Friend, as well as the emotional, spiritual and mental journey and history that defines Connie, our protagonist. She hates her life at times, feels that she is special, above it all, and deserves more. Where has she been? Nowhere, she’s never gone anywhere or done anything, aside from heading down to the Big Boy to flirt with boys. But where is she going? Well, according to Friend, she is destined for greatness, even though most readers will assume that her getting in the car with Friend will lead to her impending doom, somewhere between abduction, rape and murder. It’s a great title. Can you see how it says so much more than simply calling this story, “Connie”?

OPENING LINE, PARAGRAPH AND HOOK

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.

While technically that very first sentence doesn’t offer us up much, if you take this entire first paragraph as the hook, and the tip of the iceberg, she’s done a fantastic job here, Oates, of setting us up. We get the name, age and a brief description of Connie, so we can picture her immediately, which is very important. So often I see authors who don’t tell us ANYTHING physical about their protagonist for paragraphs, even pages, often withholding the name as well. Oates also shows us the mother, and the drama that starts from page one—Connie thinks she’s pretty, or wants to believe it, that she’s special, but her mother knocks her down. So you get a quick history of them, too. One other note is the word “shadowy.” It seems like a minor thing, but as this story get more and more surreal, and darker in tone, there is a lot of language that ties into these nefarious aspects of her life, and Friend. It’s one of the first tiny bits of foreshadowing, but if you can look at a single word as being important, that’s a good one, I think.

FIRST SCENE

"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 cooked and 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.

All of this is part of the set-up, the history, leading up to Connie heading out to the shopping plaza, the movie theater, and the Big Boy drive-in restaurant. It’s important to show us the family dynamic—her mother is always on her, supposedly jealous of her fading beauty; her sister, June always perfect, doing chores; her father distant and quiet, her own mind filled with “trashy daydreams.” And that’s what I find most compelling about this story, published in 1966—that Oates is showing her protagonist to be flawed, to admit that she has these tawdry thoughts. We also get a strong sense of the community, which will be further rendered at the Big Boy, in the next scene.

THE DRIVE-IN DINER

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.

'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.'

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 high pitched 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 thing you get here is the dishonesty, Connie not telling the truth about what she’s actually doing on these trips to the mall, and the clothing she’d wear one way at home and another when out. I’m sure we’ve all been there, as kids, sneaking around, keeping the truth from our parents. But it shows that Connie is not above lying, not above taking chances, risks. So we don’t see her as this perfect daughter, like June, nor is she a total hussy, either.

Another nice aspect of this long scene is all of the little details. I imagine Oates has similar memories from her own childhood, and although she was in her 30s during the 1960s, the little touches about clothing and jewelry go a long way towards establishing an atmosphere of authority and believability. It’s something Stephen King also does well with his period stories. 

What Oates also does well is show the context of Connie’s life, how she wants to be noticed, all the girls do, they are desperate for attention. This will come into play later, when Friend shows up, and we scream at the page saying, “No, Connie, what are you doing?” and “Why would you do that?” It’s like watching a horror movie, that aspect of the story. Stay out of the basement! Don’t open that door! And yet, you know she will anyway. The music is playing and the boys are drawn to her, so Connie has this power, and she knows it, isn’t afraid to hold a gaze, or strike up a conversation.

We also get a weird phrase from the boy with shaggy hair who will turn out to be Friend. What does he say to her? Does he say, “Hey, baby, what’s shaking?” No, he does not. Does he say, “What’s happening, hot stuff?” No. Instead he says, “I’m gonna get you, baby.” How creepy is that? It’s Oates, once again, brilliantly setting us up. Everything about this story just a LITTLE BIT OFF, right? A little bit weird. Are we imagining it? That was weird, right, what he said? Yes, it was.

And finally, a few key words, that once again hint at the darkness, things to come. Oates describes the mall, without the music, later as Connie is leaving, as “ghostly.”

THE FAMILY LEAVES

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.

There is a brief intermission between the previous nights out and the family going on a little day trip. This is to give us a moment to calm down, breathe, and fully realize what kind of person Connie is before Friend shows up. That is going to be ONE LONG SCENE, which we’ll look at in a second. Connie thinks she’s above all of this, making fun of June, content to lie in the sun, basking and sweating in the glare of the hot orb, her mind drifting off to think about boys. Do you remember doing this as a teen? Practically naked, slick and covered in baby oil or suntan lotion, your mind drifting away, the peace and slight tension of desire unrequited. And at times, you get a little dizzy, the sun blinding you, stepping into the shadows, the cool of the interior, your eyes getting adjusted, everything a little off. It’s nice how Oates does this, pulls us in.

Connie is surprised to see a car show up, but she isn’t altogether upset by it, checking her hair, her heart pounding. It’s almost like she’d been WISHING for somebody to come by, to mix things up, for her life to get interesting, right? The car honking four times, and Connie noting it, “as if this were a signal [she] knew,” a behavior Friend has probably done before, yes, this strange mix of the familiar and foreign permeating this story.

One other note before we dig into the meat of this story, the long dialogue that sets us up for the shocking ending, is that even Connie notices the shaggy, wild hair, calling it “crazy as a wig.” In time, we’ll realize how prophetic that is, Oates no doubt doing that on purpose, giving us these hints, over and over again—Friend is not what he seems.

ARNOLD FRIEND, WELCOME DISTRACTION?

"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."

"What?"

"You're cute."

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?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Why should I?"

"Don'tcha wanta see what's on the car? Don'tcha wanta go for a ride?"

"I don't know."

"Why not?"

"I got things to do."

"Like what?"

"Things."

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.

"It's Connie."

"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?"

"Where what?"

"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."

"Sure."

"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?"

"No."

"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?"

"What sign?"

"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.

I cut this here to show you the progression from uncertainty and the possibly welcoming behavior of Connie to her feeling like maybe these guys were really creeps, and should go. She likes the attention, she recognizes him from the Bob’s Big Boy (see what Oates did there?) and they’re listening to the same radio station. This could be fun right? She likes being called cute. She laughs at his car, with the weird stuff drawn on it. She knows something is off but she can’t help checking him out, sizing him up, and she kind of likes what she sees, the tight jeans, the muscles. She’s been in the hot sun all day, right?

But something is wrong. She thinks he’s faking it, there to “gobble her up” (nice tie-in to the fantastical, right, to Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf). He says “my” as in a possession, which coming from the right guy, she’d dig, but from him, feels strange.

And yet, back and forth we go. He does know her name, and in fact, rattles off the names of all of her friends. This is brilliant. Oates has us, the reader, the audience, as unsure of what’s going on as Connie. Maybe he’s just a guy, maybe we SHOULD just go for a ride, it could be fun, yeah? Why not? Even if he’s got last year’s catch phrase on his bumper, is being current the same as being fun?

But things get strange, the “X” he marks in the air, lingering there for a moment. When she gets a good look at him, she thinks he’s older, not just eighteen, but thirty may, and her heart starts pounding. She notices little things, his eyes, the eyelashes, almost painted on. His big white teeth, back to the wolf, right? His friend, Ellie, old as well, a baby-faced forty, maybe a baby-faced killer, yeah? Maybe they'd better go away.

This is where it gets interesting. Oates has set this up, and we’re now in deep with Connie. But really, all she needs to do is send them away—do it Connie. But will she?

ARNOLD FRIEND, A DARK MYSTERY

"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."

"Hey."

"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 we’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.

"What?"

"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?"

"She's dead!"

"Dead? What? You know her?" Arnold Friend said.

"She's dead—"

"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."

She stood.

"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 sees him now for the magician and dark presence that he is. Or she’s starting to. She sees his hair as a wig for real now, and wonders where he comes from, if he comes from anywhere at all, if he’s even real. There is a thread buried in this story, one more layer of uncertainty, where Oates hints at the fantastic. Either Friend is just guessing, all of this just acting and research, or maybe he does have some sort of powers, abilities, maybe he’s not entirely human. He knows what her parents are doing, the people at the BBQ, the guests and what they’re up to. How? We aren’t sure.

Friend starts to get a little vulgar, calling her sister the “poor sad bitch, nothing like you—sweetheart” and saying about the fat woman, “I don’t know every goddamn fat woman in the world.” We start to see his impatience. It’s escalating. He tells her what to do, calls her his lover. She’s starting to panic now.

We start to really wonder who or what Friend is. He wobbles in his boots—are they filled with paper, to make himself taller, or maybe they’re cloven hoofs, the feet of a devil? She wonders if his foot is even in the boot! His face is a mask, one that Connie can see now, with all of its imperfections—the tan make-up stopping at his throat. What the hell is going on here?

To make things worse, Connie is falling under his spell. She looks around the kitchen as if she has never set foot in it.

One bit of dialogue I particularly love is the rambling passage where Friend rattles off all of the catch phrases of the day, one after another. It’s funny, or it would be in another setting. It’s hypnotic, to Connie, and to us—talk about grounding the story in the time.

When she asks him what he’s going to do, this is the biggest hint and clue to the ending we probably get—just two things, or maybe three. By not telling us, but leaving so much to the imagination, Oates allows us to insert our OWN fears here. Does he just mean a little hugging and kissing, maybe second or third base? Or much more? Are we talking about sex, or what is bound to come after, the violence, and the disposal of the body? You certainly don’t think this is going to work out, right, just a drive in the country? He promised it wouldn’t last long.

Connie has a bit of a mental breakdown here, she sees no way out. As strange and old and feeble as Friend seems, he is still a man, and the house is only wood and a bit of metal, a thin screen in the door. Would the police get there before Friend got inside? Probably not. Wouldn't he come back and get the family if the police did send him away, tell him to push off, because really, what crime had he committed—trespassing?  We get to the final paragraphs as exhausted and stressed out and confused as Connie.

THE ENDING

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.

The ending is so intense. We can’t believe that she’s doing it, giving in. He’s wrong, her eyes are brown, but she’s already gone, left herself, lost her mind, watching from far away, she has surrendered—and what will be, will be. Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true.

CONCLUSION

There are so many things that Joyce Carol Oates has done right with this story. She has created characters that are alive, the depth and emotion of Arnold Friend, of Connie, we care about them, we are worried, frightened, and invested. We are caught in a gray area between disliking Connie and rooting for her to get away, we are as uncertain as she is, up until the final moments, where we still think to ourselves that maybe she’ll be okay, maybe he’ll bring her back, maybe she won’t just be another number on the side of the car. But we know better. We have been hypnotized, we have been abducted, the world falling away as Oates has woven a magical tale with layers of imagery, and suggestion, so much to see and digest, so much to understand, our mind chasing the sentences to try and figure it all out. To this day, and I’ve read this story dozens of times, I continue to find new bits of information, one word or sentence sending the plot and outcome spinning. Ahead of its time, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates is a story to be read and re-read, and I hope you’ll do just that.

Image of Small Avalanches and Other Stories
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Price: $8.73
Publisher: HarperTeen (2003)
Binding: Hardcover, 400 pages
Image of Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Price: $14.60
Publisher: Plume (1995)
Binding: Paperback, 320 pages
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Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Price:
Publisher: Plume (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 192 pages
Image of We Were the Mulvaneys
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Price: $5.00
Publisher: Plume (1997)
Binding: Paperback, 464 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters November 25, 2013 - 9:39am

of course we also discussed this story last month in the community.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 25, 2013 - 12:48pm

^^thanks, avery, i was just going to post up that link. :-)

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick November 25, 2013 - 9:27pm

I'm posting here, lest people on the forum thread who have discussed the story to death find it tiresome if I post another 'yeah, it's great' posts in there after all the aspects were discussed.

I really appreciate this dissection series, it gives me all the connotation that I was looking for. I read the story long time ago, and it still lingered in the back of my mind, but I had a hard time picturing up Arnold Friend.

Thanks, looking forward to the next dissection.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones November 26, 2013 - 1:46am

I also read the title as a possible reference to Connie's deceit and dishonesty against her mother's questions. 

Maybe?

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago November 26, 2013 - 6:42am

This is a great story. I enjoyed the way you analyzed it from a writer's point of view.  Oates does a great job conveying the chilling revelation that nothing stronger than a screen door, some wire and wood, stands between good and evil, safety and danger.

I have often wondered if this story would be as creepy if Arnold Friend showed up at Connie's alone. The Ellie character doesn't do or say much, but I get the feeling he has to be there. I love a story that raises more questions than it anwers.

Good job Richard. Your columns are always an education.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 26, 2013 - 7:49am

@natso - great, glad to hear, i hope it does help, that you find it informative, in addition to entertaining.

@voodoo - huh, never thought of that, but sure, it can be seen as an accusation, right?

@tom - yeah, having Ellie there makes it even creepier, for sure. thanks for the kind words!