Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson

  “I don’t want to go for any walk,” Mrs. Montague said sullenly. “Once when we were children we used to take off all our clothes and run out in the rain.”

  Miss Oakes returned to her chair and took up her knitting. “We can start to get ready in a few minutes,” she promised.

  “I couldn’t do that now, of course,” Mrs. Montague said. “I want to color.”

  She slid out of her chair, dropping the mink coat into a heap on the floor, and went slowly, with her faltering walk, across the room to the card table where her coloring book and box of crayons lay. Miss Oakes sighed, set her knitting down, and walked over to pick up the mink coat; she draped it tenderly over the back of the chair, and went back and picked up her knitting again.

  “Pretty, pretty,” Mrs. Montague crooned over her coloring, “Pretty blue, pretty water, pretty, pretty.”

  Miss Oakes allowed a small smile to touch her face as she regarded the scarf; it was a bright color, perhaps too bright for a man no longer very young, but it was gay and not really unusually green. His birthday was three weeks off; the card in the box would say “To remind you of your loyal friend and admirer, Polly Oakes.” Miss Oakes sighed quickly.

  “I want to go for a walk,” Mrs. Montague said abruptly.

  “Just a minute, dear,” Miss Oakes said. She put the knitting down again and smiled at Mrs. Montague. “I’ll help you,” Miss Oakes said, and went over to assist Mrs. Montague in the slow task that getting out of a straight chair always entailed. “Why, look at you,” Miss Oakes said, regarding the coloring book over Mrs. Montague’s head. She laughed. “You’ve gone and made the whole thing blue, you silly child.” She turned back a page. “And here,” she said, and laughed again. “Why does the man have a blue face? And the little girl in the picture—she mustn’t be blue, dear, her face should be pink and her hair should be—oh, yellow, for instance. Not blue.”

  Mrs. Montague put her hands violently over the picture. “Mine,” she said. “Get away, this is mine.”

  “I’m sorry,” Miss Oakes said smoothly, “I wasn’t laughing at you, dear. It was just funny to see a man with a blue face.” She helped Mrs. Montague out of the chair and escorted her across the room to the mink coat. Mrs. Montague stood stiffly while Miss Oakes put the coat over her shoulders and helped her arms into the sleeves, and when Miss Oakes came around in front of her to button the coat at the neck Mrs. Montague turned down the corners of her mouth and said sullenly into Miss Oakes’s face, so close to hers, “You don’t know what things are, really.”

  “Perhaps I don’t,” Miss Oakes said absently. She surveyed Mrs. Montague, neatly buttoned into the mink coat, and then took Mrs. Montague’s rose-covered hat from the table in the hall and set it on Mrs. Montague’s head, with great regard to the correct angle and the neatness of the roses. “Now we look so pretty,” Miss Oakes said. Mrs. Montague stood silently while Miss Oakes went to the hall closet and took out her own serviceable blue coat. She shrugged herself into it, settled it with a brisk tug at the collar, and pulled on her hat with a quick gesture from back to front that landed the hatbrim at exactly the usual angle over her eye. It was not until she was escorting Mrs. Montague to the door that Miss Oakes gave one brief, furtive glance at the hall mirror, as one who does so from a nervous compulsion rather than any real desire for information.

  Miss Oakes enjoyed walking down the hall; its carpets were so thick that even the stout shoes of Miss Oakes made no sound. The elevator was self-service, and Miss Oakes, with superhuman control, allowed it to sweep soundlessly down to the main floor, carrying with it Miss Oakes herself, and Mrs. Montague, who sat docilely on the velvet-covered bench and stared at the paneling as though she had never seen it before. When the elevator door opened and they moved out into the lobby Miss Oakes knew that the few people who saw them—the girl at the switchboard, the doorman, another tenant coming to the elevator—recognized Mrs. Montague as the rich old lady who lived high upstairs, and Miss Oakes as the infinitely competent companion, without whose unswerving assistance Mrs. Montague could not live for ten minutes. Miss Oakes walked sturdily and well through the lobby, her firm hand guiding soft little Mrs. Montague; the lobby floor was pale carpeting on which their feet made no sound, and the lobby walls were painted an expensive color so neutral as to be almost invisible; as Miss Oakes went with Mrs. Montague through the lobby it was as though they walked upon clouds, through the noncommittal areas of infinite space. The doorway was their aim, and the doorman, dressed in gray, opened the way for them with a flourish and a “Good afternoon” which began by being directed at Mrs. Montague, as the employer, and ended by addressing Miss Oakes, as the person who would be expected to answer.

  “Good afternoon, George,” Miss Oakes said, with a stately smile, and passed on through the doorway, leading Mrs. Montague. Once outside on the sidewalk, Miss Oakes steered Mrs. Montague quickly to the left, since, allowed her head, Mrs. Montague might as easily have turned unexpectedly to the right, although they always turned to the left, and so upset Miss Oakes’s walk for the day. With slow steps they moved into the current of people walking up the street, Miss Oakes watching ahead to avoid Mrs. Montague’s walking into strangers, Mrs. Montague with her face turned up to the gray sky.

  “It’s a lovely day,” Miss Oakes said. “Pleasantly cool after the rain.”

  They had gone perhaps half a block when Mrs. Montague, by a gentle pressure against Miss Oakes’s arm, began to direct them toward the inside of the sidewalk and the shop windows; Miss Oakes, resisting at first, at last allowed herself to be reluctantly influenced and they crossed the sidewalk to stand in front of the window to a stationery store.

  They stopped here every day, and, as she said every day, Mrs. Montague murmured softly, “Look at all the lovely things.” She watched with amusement a plastic bird, colored bright red and yellow, which methodically dipped its beak into a glass of water and withdrew it; while they stood watching the bird lowered its head and touched the water, hesitated, and then rose.

  “Does it stop when we’re not here?” Mrs. Montague asked, and Miss Oakes laughed, and said, “It never stops. It goes on while we’re eating and while we’re sleeping and all the time.”

  Mrs. Montague’s attention had wandered to the open pages of a diary, spread nakedly to the pages dated June 14–June 15. Mrs. Montague, looking at the smooth unwritten paper, caught her breath. “I’d like to have that,” she said, and Miss Oakes, as she answered every day, said, “What would you write in it, dear?”

  The thing that always caught Mrs. Montague next was a softly curved blue bowl which stood in the center of the window display; Mrs. Montague pored lovingly and speechlessly over this daily, trying to touch it through the glass of the window.

  “Come on, dear,” Miss Oakes said finally, with an almost-impatient tug at Mrs. Montague’s arm. “We’ll never get our walk finished if you don’t come on.”

  Docilely Mrs. Montague followed. “Pretty,” she whispered, “pretty, pretty.”

  * * *

  She opened her eyes suddenly and was aware that she saw. The sky was unbelievably, steadily blue, and the sand beneath her feet was hot; she could see the water, colored more deeply than the sky, but faintly greener. Far off was the line where the sky and water met, and it was infinitely pure.

  “Pretty,” she said inadequately, and was aware that she spoke. She was walking on the sand, and with a sudden impatient gesture she stopped and slipped off her shoes, standing first on one foot and then on the other. This encouraged her to look down at herself; she was very tall, high above her shoes on the sand, and when she moved it was freely and easily except for the cumbering clothes, the heavy coat and the hat, which sat on her head with a tangible, oppressive weight. She threw the hat onto the hot lovely sand, and it looked so offensive, lying with its patently unreal roses against the smooth clarity of the sand, that she bent quickly and covere
d the hat with handfuls of sand; the coat was more difficult to cover, and the sand ran delicately between the hairs of the short dark fur; before she had half covered the coat she decided to put the rest of her clothes with it, and did so, slipping easily out of the straps and buttons and catches of many garments, which she remembered as difficult to put on. When all her clothes were buried she looked with satisfaction down at her strong white legs, and thought, aware that she was thinking it: they are almost the same color as the sand. She began to run freely, with the blue ocean and the bluer sky on her right, the trees on her left, and the moving sand underfoot; she ran until she came back to the place where a corner of her coat still showed through the sand. When she saw it she stopped again and said, “Pretty, pretty,” and leaned over and took a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers.

  Far away, somewhere in the grove of trees that centered the island she could hear the parrot calling. “Eat, eat,” it shrieked, and then something indistinguishable, and then, “Eat, eat.”

  An idea came indirectly and subtly to her mind; it was the idea of food, for a minute unpleasant and as though it meant a disagreeable sensation, and then glowingly happy. She turned and ran—it was impossible to move slowly on the island, with the clear hot air all around her, and the ocean stirring constantly, pushing at the island, and the unbelievable blue sky above—and when she came into the sudden warm shade of the trees she ran from one to another, putting her hand for a minute on each.

  “Hello,” the parrot gabbled, “Hello, who’s there, eat?” She could see it flashing among the trees, no more than a saw-toothed voice and a flash of ugly red and yellow.

  The grass was green and rich and soft, and she sat down by the little brook where the food was set out. Today there was a great polished wooden bowl, soft to the touch, full of purple grapes; the sun that came unevenly between the trees struck a high shine from the bowl, and lay flatly against the grapes, which were dusty with warmth, and almost black. There was a shimmering glass just full of dark red wine; there was a flat blue plate filled with little cakes; she touched one and it was full of cream, and heavily iced with soft chocolate. There were pomegranates, and cheese, and small, sharp-flavored candies. She lay down beside the food, and closed her eyes against the heavy scent from the grapes.

  “Eat, eat,” the parrot screamed from somewhere over her head. She opened her eyes lazily and looked up, to see the flash of red and yellow in the trees. “Be still, you noisy beast,” she said, and smiled to herself because it was not important, actually, whether the parrot were quiet or not. Later, after she had slept, she ate some of the grapes and the cheese, and several of the rich little cakes. While she ate the parrot came cautiously closer, begging for food, sidling up near to the dish of cakes and then moving quickly away.

  “Beast,” she said pleasantly to the parrot, “greedy beast.”

  When she was sure she was quite through with the food, she put one of the cakes on a green leaf and set it a little bit away from her for the parrot. It came up to the cake slowly and fearfully, watching on either side for some sudden prohibitive movement; when it finally reached the cake it hesitated, and then dipped its head down to bury its beak in the soft frosting; it lifted its head, paused to look around, and then lowered its beak to the cake again. The gesture was familiar, and she laughed, not knowing why.

  She was faintly aware that she had slept again, and awakened wanting to run, to go out into the hot sand on the beach and run shouting around the island. The parrot was gone, its cake a mess of crumbs and frosting on the ground. She ran out onto the beach, and the water was there, and the sky. For a few minutes she ran, going down to the water and then swiftly back before it could touch her bare feet, and then she dropped luxuriously onto the sand and lay there. After a while she began to draw a picture in the sand; it was a round face with dots for eyes and nose and a line for a mouth. “Henry Paul,” she said, touching the face caressingly with her fingers, and then, laughing, she leaped to her feet and began to run again, around the island. When she passed the face drawn on the sand she put one bare foot on it and ground it away. “Eat, eat,” she could hear the parrot calling from the trees; the parrot was afraid of the hot sand and the water and stayed always in the trees near the food. Far off, across the water, she could see the sweet, the always comforting, line of the horizon.

  When she was tired with running she lay down again on the sand. For a little while she played idly, writing words on the sand and then rubbing them out with her hand; once she drew a crude picture of a doorway and punched her fist through it.

  Finally she lay down and put her face down to the sand. It was hot, hotter than anything else had ever been, and the soft grits of the sand slipped into her mouth, where she could taste them, deliciously hard and grainy against her teeth; they were in her eyes, rich and warm; the sand was covering her face and the blue sky was gone from above her and the sand was cooler, then grayer, covering her face, and cold.

  * * *

  “Nearly home,” Miss Oakes said brightly, as they turned the last corner of their block. “It’s been a nice walk, hasn’t it?”

  She tried, unsuccessfully, to guide Mrs. Montague quickly past the bakery, but Mrs. Montague’s feet, moving against Miss Oakes’s pressure from habit, brought them up to stand in front of the bakery window.

  “I don’t know why they leave those fly-specked éclairs out here,” Miss Oakes said irritably. “There’s nothing less appetizing. Look at that cake; the cream is positively curdled.”

  She moved her arm insinuatingly within Mrs. Montague’s; “In a few minutes we’ll be home,” she said softly, “and then we can have our nice cocktail, and rest for a few minutes, and then dinner.”

  “Pretty,” Mrs. Montague said at the cakes. “I want some.”

  Miss Oakes shuddered violently. “Don’t even say it,” she implored. “Just look at that stuff. You’d be sick for a week.”

  She moved Mrs. Montague along, and they came, moving quicker than they had when they started, back to their own doorway where the doorman in gray waited for them. He opened the door and said, beginning with Mrs. Montague and finishing with Miss Oakes, “Have a nice walk?”

  “Very pleasant, thank you,” Miss Oakes said agreeably. They passed through the doorway and into the lobby where the open doors of the elevator waited for them. “Dinner soon,” Miss Oakes said as they went across the lobby.

  Miss Oakes was careful, on their own floor, to see that Mrs. Montague found the right doorway; while Miss Oakes put the key in the door Mrs. Montague stood waiting without expression.

  Mrs. Montague moved forward automatically when the door was opened, and Miss Oakes caught her arm, saying shrilly, “Don’t step on it!” Mrs. Montague stopped, and waited, while Miss Oakes picked up the dinner menu from the floor just inside the door; it had been slipped under the door while they were out.

  Once inside, Miss Oakes removed Mrs. Montague’s rosy hat and the mink coat, and Mrs. Montague took the mink coat in her arms and sat down in her chair with it, smoothing the fur. Miss Oakes slid out of her own coat and hung it neatly in the closet, and then came into the living room, carrying the dinner menu.

  “Chicken liver omelette,” Miss Oakes read as she walked. “The last time it was a trifle underdone; I could mention it, of course, but they never seem to pay much attention. Roast turkey. Filet mignon. I really do think a nice little piece of . . .” she looked up at Mrs. Montague and smiled. “Hungry?” she suggested.

  “No,” Mrs. Montague said. “I’ve had enough.”

  “Nice oatmeal?” Miss Oakes said. “If you’re very good you can have ice cream tonight.”

  “Don’t want ice cream,” Mrs. Montague said.

  Miss Oakes sighed, and then said “Well . . .” placatingly. She returned to the menu. “French-fried potatoes,” she said. “They’re very heavy on the stomach, but I do have
my heart set on a nice little piece of steak and some french-fried potatoes. It sounds just right, tonight.”

  “Shall I give you this coat?” Mrs. Montague asked suddenly.

  Miss Oakes stopped on her way to the phone and patted Mrs. Montague lightly on the shoulder. “You’re very generous, dear,” she said, “but of course you don’t really want to give me your beautiful coat. What would your dear son say?”

  Mrs. Montague ran her hand over the fur of the coat affectionately. Then she stood up, slowly, and the coat slid to the floor. “I’m going to color,” she announced.

  Miss Oakes turned back from the phone to pick up the coat and put it over the back of the chair. “All right,” she said. She went to the phone, sat so she could keep an eye on Mrs. Montague while she talked, and said into the phone “Room service.”

  Mrs. Montague moved across the room and sat down at the card table. Reflectively she turned the pages of the coloring book, found a picture that pleased her, and opened the crayon box. Miss Oakes hummed softly into the phone. “Room service?” she said finally. “I want to order dinner sent up to Mrs. Montague’s suite, please.” She looked over the phone at Mrs. Montague and said, “You all right, dear?”

  Without turning, Mrs. Montague moved her shoulders impatiently, and selected a crayon from the box. She examined the point of it with great care while Miss Oakes said, “I want one very sweet martini, please. And Mrs. Montague’s prune juice.” She picked up the menu and wet her lips, then said, “One crab-meat cocktail. And tonight will you see that Mrs. Montague has milk with her oatmeal; you sent cream last night. Yes, milk, please. You’d think they’d know by now,” she added to Mrs. Montague over the top of the phone. “Now let me see,” she said, into the phone again, her eyes on the menu.

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