Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson


  “Left yesterday,” Mr. Babcock said. “Probably didn’t think you folks would stay on up there.”

  “But I told Mr. Hall . . .” Mrs. Allison started to say, and then stopped. “I’ll send Mr. Allison in after some groceries tomorrow,” she said.

  “You got all you need till then,” Mr. Babcock said, satisfied; it was not a question, but a confirmation.

  After she hung up, Mrs. Allison went slowly out to sit again in her chair next to her husband. “He won’t deliver,” she said. “You’ll have to go in tomorrow. We’ve got just enough kerosene to last till you get back.”

  “He should have told us sooner,” Mr. Allison said.

  It was not possible to remain troubled long in the face of the day; the country had never seemed more inviting, and the lake moved quietly below them, among the trees, with the almost incredible softness of a summer picture. Mrs. Allison sighed deeply, in the pleasure of possessing for themselves that sight of the lake, with the distant green hills beyond, the gentleness of the small wind through the trees.

  * * *

  The weather continued fair; the next morning Mr. Allison, duly armed with a list of groceries, with “kerosene” in large letters at the top, went down the path to the garage, and Mrs. Allison began another pie in her new baking dishes. She had mixed the crust and was starting to pare the apples when Mr. Allison came rapidly up the path and flung open the screen door into the kitchen.

  “Damn car won’t start,” he announced, with the end-of-the-tether voice of a man who depends on a car as he depends on his right arm.

  “What’s wrong with it?” Mrs. Allison demanded, stopping with the paring knife in one hand and an apple in the other. “It was all right on Tuesday.”

  “Well,” Mr. Allison said between his teeth, “it’s not all right on Friday.”

  “Can you fix it?” Mrs. Allison asked.

  “No,” Mr. Allison said, “I can not. Got to call someone, I guess.”

  “Who?” Mrs. Allison asked.

  “Man runs the filling station, I guess.” Mr. Allison moved purposefully toward the phone. “He fixed it last summer one time.”

  A little apprehensive, Mrs. Allison went on paring apples absentmindedly, while she listened to Mr. Allison with the phone, ringing, waiting, finally giving the number to the operator, then waiting again and giving the number again, giving the number a third time, and then slamming down the receiver.

  “No one there,” he announced as he came into the kitchen.

  “He’s probably gone out for a minute,” Mrs. Allison said nervously; she was not quite sure what made her so nervous, unless it was the probability of her husband’s losing his temper completely. “He’s there alone, I imagine, so if he goes out there’s no one to answer the phone.”

  “That must be it,” Mr. Allison said with heavy irony. He slumped into one of the kitchen chairs and watched Mrs. Allison paring apples. After a minute, Mrs. Allison said soothingly, “Why don’t you go down and get the mail and then call him again?”

  Mr. Allison debated and then said, “Guess I might as well.” He rose heavily and when he got to the kitchen door he turned and said, “But if there’s no mail—” and leaving an awful silence behind him, he went off down the path.

  Mrs. Allison hurried with her pie. Twice she went to the window to glance at the sky to see if there were clouds coming up. The room seemed unexpectedly dark, and she herself felt in the state of tension that preceded a thunderstorm, but both times when she looked the sky was clear and serene, smiling indifferently down on the Allisons’ summer cottage as well as on the rest of the world. When Mrs. Allison, her pie ready for the oven, went a third time to look outside, she saw her husband coming up the path; he seemed more cheerful, and when he saw her, he waved eagerly and held a letter in the air.

  “From Jerry,” he called as soon as he was close enough for her to hear him, “at last—a letter!” Mrs. Allison noticed with concern that he was no longer able to get up the gentle slope of the path without breathing heavily; but then he was in the doorway, holding out the letter. “I saved it till I got here,” he said.

  Mrs. Allison looked with an eagerness that surprised her on the familiar handwriting of her son; she could not imagine why the letter excited her so, except that it was the first they had received in so long; it would be a pleasant, dutiful letter, full of the doings of Alice and the children, reporting progress with his job, commenting on the recent weather in Chicago, closing with love from all; both Mr. and Mrs. Allison could, if they wished, recite a pattern letter from either of their children.

  Mr. Allison slit the letter open with great deliberation, and then he spread it out on the kitchen table and they leaned down and read it together.

  “Dear Mother and Dad,” it began, in Jerry’s familiar, rather childish, handwriting, “Am glad this goes to the lake as usual, we always thought you came back too soon and ought to stay up there as long as you could. Alice says that now that you’re not as young as you used to be and have no demands on your time, fewer friends, etc., in the city, you ought to get what fun you can while you can. Since you two are both happy up there, it’s a good idea for you to stay.”

  Uneasily Mrs. Allison glanced sideways at her husband; he was reading intently, and she reached out and picked up the empty envelope, not knowing exactly what she wanted from it. It was addressed quite as usual, in Jerry’s handwriting, and was postmarked “Chicago.” Of course it’s postmarked Chicago, she thought quickly, why would they want to postmark it anywhere else? When she looked back down at the letter, her husband had turned the page, and she read on with him: “—and of course if they get measles, etc., now, they will be better off later. Alice is well, of course; me too. Been playing a lot of bridge lately with some people you don’t know, named Carruthers. Nice young couple, about our age. Well, will close now as I guess it bores you to hear about things so far away. Tell Dad old Dickson, in our Chicago office, died. He used to ask about Dad a lot. Have a good time up at the lake, and don’t bother about hurrying back. Love from all of us, Jerry.”

  “Funny,” Mr. Allison commented.

  “It doesn’t sound like Jerry,” Mrs. Allison said in a small voice. “He never wrote anything like . . .” She stopped.

  “Like what?” Mr. Allison demanded. “Never wrote anything like what?”

  Mrs. Allison turned the letter over, frowning. It was impossible to find any sentence, any word, even, that did not sound like Jerry’s regular letters. Perhaps it was only that the letter was so late, or the unusual number of dirty fingerprints on the envelope.

  “I don’t know,” she said impatiently.

  “Going to try that phone call again,” Mr. Allison said.

  Mrs. Allison read the letter twice more, trying to find a phrase that sounded wrong. Then Mr. Allison came back and said, very quietly, “Phone’s dead.”

  “What?” Mrs. Allison said, dropping the letter.

  “Phone’s dead,” Mr. Allison said.

  * * *

  The rest of the day went quickly; after a lunch of crackers and milk, the Allisons went to sit outside on the lawn, but their afternoon was cut short by the gradually increasing storm clouds that came up over the lake to the cottage, so that it was as dark as evening by four o’clock. The storm delayed, however, as though in loving anticipation of the moment it would break over the summer cottage, and there was an occasional flash of lightning, but no rain. In the evening Mr. and Mrs. Allison, sitting close together inside their cottage, turned on the battery radio they had brought with them from New York. There were no lamps lighted in the cottage, and the only light came from the lightning outside and the small square glow from the dial of the radio.

  The slight framework of the cottage was not strong enough to withstand the city noises, the music and the voices, from the radio, and the Allisons could h
ear them far off echoing across the lake, the saxophones in the New York dance band wailing over the water, the flat voice of the girl vocalist going inexorably out into the clean country air. Even the announcer, speaking glowingly of the virtues of razor blades, was no more than an inhuman voice sounding out from the Allisons’ cottage and echoing back, as though the lake and the hills and the trees were returning it unwanted.

  During one pause between commercials, Mrs. Allison turned and smiled weakly at her husband. “I wonder if we’re supposed to . . . do anything,” she said.

  “No,” Mr. Allison said consideringly. “I don’t think so. Just wait.”

  Mrs. Allison caught her breath quickly, and Mr. Allison said, under the trivial melody of the dance band beginning again, “The car had been tampered with, you know. Even I could see that.”

  Mrs. Allison hesitated a minute and then said very softly, “I suppose the phone wires were cut.”

  “I imagine so,” Mr. Allison said.

  After a while, the dance music stopped and they listened attentively to a news broadcast, the announcer’s rich voice telling them breathlessly of a marriage in Hollywood, the latest baseball scores, the estimated rise in food prices during the coming week. He spoke to them, in the summer cottage, quite as though they still deserved to hear news of a world that no longer reached them except through the fallible batteries on the radio, which were already beginning to fade, almost as though they still belonged, however tenuously, to the rest of the world.

  Mrs. Allison glanced out the window at the smooth surface of the lake, the black masses of the trees, and the waiting storm, and said conversationally, “I feel better about that letter of Jerry’s.”

  “I knew when I saw the light down at the Hall place last night,” Mr. Allison said.

  The wind, coming up suddenly over the lake, swept around the summer cottage and slapped hard at the windows. Mr. and Mrs. Allison involuntarily moved closer together, and with the first sudden crash of thunder, Mr. Allison reached out and took his wife’s hand. And then, while the lightning flashed outside, and the radio faded and sputtered, the two old people huddled together in their summer cottage and waited.

  [1949]

  ISLAND

  Mrs. Montague’s son had been very good to her, with the kind affection and attention to her well-being that is seldom found toward mothers in sons with busy wives and growing families of their own; when Mrs. Montague lost her mind, her son came into his natural role of guardian. There had always been a great deal of warm feeling between Mrs. Montague and her son, and although they lived nearly a thousand miles apart by now, Henry Paul Montague was careful to see that his mother was well taken care of; he ascertained, minutely, that the monthly bills for her apartment, her food, her clothes, and her companion were large enough to ensure that Mrs. Montague was getting the best of everything; he wrote to her weekly, tender letters in longhand inquiring about her health; when he came to New York he visited her promptly, and always left an extra check for the companion, to make sure that any small things Mrs. Montague lacked would be given her. The companion, Miss Oakes, had been with Mrs. Montague for six years, and in that time their invariable quiet routine had been broken only by the regular visits from Mrs. Montague’s son, and by Miss Oakes’s annual six-weeks’ leave, during which Mrs. Montague was cared for no less scrupulously by a carefully chosen substitute.

  Between such disturbing occasions, Mrs. Montague lived quietly and expensively in her handsome apartment, following with Miss Oakes a life of placid regularity, which it required all of Miss Oakes’s competence to engineer, and duly reported on to Mrs. Montague’s son. “I do think we’re very lucky, dear,” was Miss Oakes’s frequent comment, “to have a good son like Mr. Montague to take care of us so well.”

  To which Mrs. Montague’s usual answer was, “Henry Paul was a good boy.”

  Mrs. Montague usually spent the morning in bed, and got up for lunch; after the effort of bathing and dressing and eating she was ready for another rest and then her walk, which occurred regularly at four o’clock, and which was followed by dinner sent up from the restaurant downstairs, and, shortly after, by Mrs. Montague’s bedtime. Although Miss Oakes did not leave the apartment except in an emergency, she had a great deal of time to herself and her regular duties were not harsh, although Mrs. Montague was not the best company in the world. Frequently Miss Oakes would look up from her magazine to find Mrs. Montague watching her curiously; sometimes Mrs. Montague, in a spirit of petulant stubbornness, would decline all food under any persuasion until it was necessary for Miss Oakes to call in Mrs. Montague’s doctor for Mrs. Montague to hear a firm lecture on her duties as a patient. Once Mrs. Montague had tried to run away, and had been recaptured by Miss Oakes in the street in front of the apartment house, going vaguely through the traffic; and always, constantly, Mrs. Montague was trying to give things to Miss Oakes, many of which, in absolute frankness, it cost Miss Oakes a pang to refuse.

  Miss Oakes had not been born to the luxury which Mrs. Montague had known all her life; Miss Oakes had worked hard and never had a fur coat; no matter how much she tried Miss Oakes could not disguise the fact that she relished the food sent up from the restaurant downstairs, delicately cooked and prettily served; Miss Oakes was persuaded that she disdained jewelry, and she chose her clothes hurriedly and inexpensively, under the eye of an impatient, badly dressed salesgirl in a department store. No matter how agonizingly Miss Oakes debated under the insinuating lights of the budget dress department, the clothes she carried home with her turned out to be garish reds and yellows in the daylight, inexactly striped or dotted, badly cut. Miss Oakes sometimes thought longingly of the security of her white uniforms, neatly stacked in her dresser drawer, but Mrs. Montague was apt to go into a tantrum at any outward show of Miss Oakes’s professional competence, and Miss Oakes dined nightly on the agreeable food from the restaurant downstairs in her red and yellow dresses, with her colorless hair drawn ungracefully to a bun in back, her ringless hands moving appreciatively among the plates. Mrs. Montague, who ordinarily spilled food all over herself, chose her dresses from a selection sent every three or four months from an exclusive dress shop near by; all information as to size and color was predigested in the shop, and the soft-voiced saleslady brought only dresses absolutely right for Mrs. Montague. Mrs. Montague usually chose two dresses each time, and they went, neatly hung on sacheted hangers, to live softly in Mrs. Montague’s closet along with other dresses just like them, all in soft blues and grays and mauves.

  “We must try to be more careful of our pretty clothes,” Miss Oakes would say, looking up from her dinner to find Mrs. Montague, almost deliberately, it seemed sometimes, emptying her spoonful of oatmeal down the front of her dress. “Dear, we really must try to be more careful; remember what our nice son has to pay for those dresses.”

  Mrs. Montague stared vaguely sometimes, holding her spoon; sometimes she said, “I want my pudding now; I’ll be careful with my pudding.” Now and then, usually when the day had gone badly and Mrs. Montague was overtired, or cross for one reason or another, she might turn the dish of oatmeal over onto the tablecloth, and then, frequently, Miss Oakes was angry, and Mrs. Montague was deprived of her pudding and sat blankly while Miss Oakes moved her own dishes to a coffee table and called the waiter to remove the dinner table with its mess of oatmeal.

  It was in the late spring that Mrs. Montague was usually at her worst; then, for some reason, it seemed that the stirring of green life, even under the dirty city traffic, communicated a restlessness and longing to her that she felt only spasmodically the rest of the year; around April or May, Miss Oakes began to prepare for trouble, for runnings-away and supreme oatmeal overturnings. In summer, Mrs. Montague seemed happier, because it was possible to walk in the park and feed the squirrels; in the fall, she quieted, in preparation for the long winter when she was almost dormant, like an animal, rarely spea
king, and suffering herself to be dressed and undressed without rebellion; it was the winter that Miss Oakes most appreciated, although as the months moved on into spring Miss Oakes began to think more often of giving up her position, her pleasant salary, the odorous meals from the restaurant downstairs.

  It was in the spring that Mrs. Montague so often tried to give things to Miss Oakes; one afternoon when their walk was dubious because of the rain, Mrs. Montague had gone as of habit to the hall closet and taken out her coat, and now sat in her armchair with the rich dark mink heaped in her lap, smoothing the fur as though she held a cat. “Pretty,” Mrs. Montague was saying, “pretty, pretty.”

  “We’re very lucky to have such lovely things,” Miss Oakes said. Because it was her practice to keep busy always, never to let her knowledgeable fingers rest so long as they might be doing something useful, she was knitting a scarf. It was only half-finished, but already Miss Oakes was beginning to despair of it; the yarn, in the store and in the roll, seemed a soft tender green, but knit up into the scarf it assumed a gaudy chartreuse character that made its original purpose—to embrace the firm fleshy neck of Henry Paul Montague—seem faintly improper; when Miss Oakes looked at the scarf impartially it irritated her, as did almost everything she created.

  “Think of the money,” Miss Oakes said, “that goes into all those beautiful things, just because your son is so generous and kind.”

  “I will give you this fur,” Mrs. Montague said suddenly. “Because you have no beautiful things of your own.”

  “Thank you, dear,” Miss Oakes said. She worked busily at her scarf for a minute and then said, “It’s not being very grateful for nice things like that, dear, to want to give them away.”

  “It wouldn’t look nice on you,” Mrs. Montague said, “it would look awful. You’re not very pretty.”

  Miss Oakes was silent again for a minute, and then she said, “Well, dear, shall we see if it’s still raining?” With great deliberation she put down the knitting and walked over to the window. When she pulled back the lace curtain and the heavy dark-red drape she did so carefully, because the curtain and the drape were not precisely her own, but were of service to her, and pleasant to her touch, and expensive. “It’s almost stopped,” she said brightly. She squinted her eyes and looked up at the sky. “I do believe it’s going to clear up,” she went on, as though her brightness might create a sun of reflected brilliance. “In about fifteen minutes . . .” She let her voice trail off, and smiled at Mrs. Montague with vast anticipation.

 
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