Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson

  “Good-by,” she said.

  “Mrs. Hartford broke two of the blue cups, by the way,” he said. “Good-by.”

  As she hung up she was wondering, most daringly, if she might just possibly wear the black evening gown, but she knew that she could not afford to expose herself to his ridicule, particularly since the black evening gown was as familiar to him as it was to herself, and she decided reluctantly to put on again the dark-red dress she had worn away from home that morning.

  She slept again, for an hour or so, and read her mystery story, and did her nails in a new dark-red polish to match the dress, and brushed her shoes. At five minutes to seven—it would certainly do no harm to keep him waiting for a minute or so—she slipped on her beaver coat and went out of the door of her room; she left her housecoat thrown across the bed and her slippers awry on the floor and powder on the glass top of the dresser and a handkerchief on the chair; her mystery story lay open across the arm of the chair and her used towel on the bathroom floor; she turned as she went out and decided to pick up everything when she came home.

  She went down in the elevator as she had done before, very conscious that she was a lady who had chosen to dine out with a gentleman rather than having dinner sent up to her room, very much aware of the fact that for the first time she moved knowingly and of choice through a free world, that of all her life this alone was the day when she had followed a path she made alone; she walked across the lobby toward the outer doors with the feeling suddenly very strong that if she desired she might turn and without explanation to anyone leave the hotel by another door, or go even back to her room and refuse to answer the phone.

  Free and at peace, she thought as the doorman held the door open for her and she passed out onto the street with dignity and a half-smile for the doorman’s enforced kindness; free and at peace and alone and no one to worry me; she had not gone ten steps from the doorway when the nagging small feeling which she knew clearly now as fear and which had been following her cautiously for hours, perhaps for weeks and years, stepped up suddenly as though it had been waiting outside the door for her, and walked along beside her. The loving concern with which she put her feet down one after another on the sidewalk became without perceptible change, terror—was the cement secure? Down below, perhaps no more than two or three feet below, was the devouring earth, unpredictable and shifty. The sidewalk was set only upon earth, might move under her feet and sink, carrying her down and alone into the wet choking ground, and no one to catch her arm or a corner of her coat and hold her back.

  Above her, the neon signs swung dangerously, dipping down almost to her head, bringing their live shattering wires so close that she almost put up an arm to protect herself, and then remembered that a mere arm was no protection against live wires or the weight of the falling signs—could she run? A sign shortly ahead of her, advertising a delicatessen (and one knew how badly these places were cared for, a hand-to-mouth existence and let the insurance take care of the emergencies) was swaying dangerously and obviously loosening; carefully she estimated the direction of its fall, not daring to slow her steps for fear some slight change in timing might mean disaster, not daring to run, with no one to hide behind, no one to say “Watch out, there!” If she could pass under without looking up she was perhaps safe—but beyond, the shuddering of the traffic had shaken a sign reading SHOE REPAIR; was that a wire swinging wild?

  She pulled her coat tighter around her, looking from side to side. She was almost alone on this block, and she told herself that it was an hour when most people were at home or in restaurants or at least somewhere not on the streets, and then it came to her that it would be generally regarded as fortunate that only one woman was going down the street when the sign fell; suppose it had been during a heavy traffic hour, people would tell one another, shivering pleasantly and knowing that they rarely passed along this particular street, suppose it had been sometime when crowds of other people were near, suppose fifteen people had been under the sign when it fell instead of just that poor woman; well, they would say to one another wisely, lightning never strikes twice in the same place, at least that street is safe for a while.

  She saw herself turning and going back to her hotel, explaining to the desk clerk and the elevator operator that she had changed her mind about going out, that it looked like rain or that she had sprained her ankle or that she felt a cold coming on? She turned once and saw with sinking horror the precarious rocking of the signs overhead, the dangerous slipping sideways of the upper stories of the buildings, the final and unutterable emptiness of the street; what can I do? she asked herself, who will help me? She could hear in her mind the proprietor of the delicatessen berating himself for not having taken care of his sign when he first noticed it was insecurely fastened, explaining to the police and the doctors and the faces in the crowd that he never dreamed it might fall, telling the strangers looking with grim curiosity at the poor woman that it had been there without falling for twelve, fifteen years, and it seemed to her that she could hear the strangers in the crowd telling one another, “Well, that’s the way it goes—perfectly all right for fifteen years and then one day—it’s all over. Who was she, do you know?”

  What am I doing? she wondered abruptly; this is madness, this is idiotic; I am not supposed to be afraid of anything; I am a free person, and the path I have chosen for myself does not include fear. I am walking down the street because it is a pleasant walk to the restaurant where I am meeting a fascinating man for dinner. I have been down this street before and nothing happened to me or to anyone else, and if anything happens tonight it might just as well happen to the next person instead of me. How have I managed to stay safe this long? she wondered.

  She was struck by the thought of how suddenly visible she was. An enemy, hidden in a second-floor room, peering out through the half-open window, could shoot her easily even with a small pistol and most probably escape and never be detected; not even an enemy, but a stranger, mistaking her for someone else, never knowing until later that she was the wrong one, the one who need not have been killed. Or, even worse, a madman, chuckling and raising the gun and estimating, telling himself he would shoot the tenth person who came, or the first woman who walked by wearing a fur coat, or anyone who glanced upward at his window where he waited unseen, shaken with silent laughter. Then a window ahead showed movement; was he there? Perhaps in the car turning into the street, the red car slowing down not for the corner, perhaps looking out the back window aiming carefully to compensate for the movement of the car, and he would be finished and away while the strangers passing a block away stopped and stared, and screamed, and then hurried, too late to be of any assistance.

  What, on the other hand, was to prevent the red car, or any other, from driving up onto the sidewalk and crushing her against the side of the building? These things did happen, and perhaps the people they happened to had wondered, looking up, if the red car were not coming dangerously close to the curb, and then thought, that crazy driver ought to be arrested, and then, in the last second of sudden panic, tried to turn, seeing at the last the horrified face of the driver, pulling at the useless wheel and calling for help while the passers-by, useless against the weight of the car, watched in sickness, moving against one another and turning away their heads; or—suppose a pane of glass fell suddenly from a window and crashed shatteringly down onto her head without her ever seeing it fall? Or if she slipped suddenly while she was watching the red car and the buildings, turned her ankle in the high-heeled shoes and fell and smashed her face against the stone while people going by laughed for a minute before hesitating and then realizing . . .

  Or, see, the trolley coming. It swayed dangerously from side to side; was it going to fall sideways, its steel and glass construction bending out of shape against the ground; that whole heavy weight would have to be moved before they could rescue anyone trapped beneath it, and people tomorrow might tell one another, “Lucky there w
as only this one woman going down the street—suppose there had been a crowd? They say she screamed for half an hour before . . .” Unidentified explosions had happened before, many times. People went quietly down a street, on their way to dinner, not expecting anything except possibly being late, and suddenly—it might be a gas stove left on, or just one of those incredible coincidences, of air and pressure and a harmless household preparation left uncovered, and of course the manufacturers could disclaim responsibility and deplore the tragedy—and the world buckled top and bottom, there was only a convulsive, brain-splitting terror, and there was the restaurant ahead, and there was no other way to go except on and inside, hesitating only for a moment before the heavy doors which could so easily slip their hinges and instead of swinging docilely, fall flatly and with full weight . . .

  Don was there, waving tentatively from across the room. Suddenly the world fell into place outside, and she waved back; he was so wonderfully safe and familiar in the worn gray suit she had seen as many times as he had seen the red dress she was wearing; she waved and smiled and thought, I have been alone for so long.



  It was planned by Jannie herself. I was won over reluctantly, by much teasing and promises of supernatural good behavior; as a matter of fact Jannie even went so far as to say that if she could have a pajama party she would keep her room picked up for one solid month, a promise so far beyond the realms of possibility that I could only believe that she wanted the pajama party more than anything else in the world. My husband thought it was a mistake. “You are making a terrible, an awful mistake,” he said to me. “And don’t try to say I didn’t tell you so.” My older son Laurie told me it was a mistake. “Man,” he said, “this you will regret. For the rest of your life you will be saying to yourself ‘Why did I let that dopey girl ever ever have a pajama party that night?’ For the rest of your life. When you’re an old lady you will be saying—”

  “What can I do?” I said. “I promised.” We were all at the breakfast table, and it was seven-thirty on the morning of Jannie’s eleventh birthday. Jannie sat unhearing, her spoon poised blissfully over her cereal, her eyes dreamy with speculation over what was going to turn up in the packages to be presented that evening after dinner. Her list of wanted birthday presents had included a live pony, a pair of roller skates, high-heeled shoes of her very own, a make-up kit with real lipstick, a record player and records, and a dear little monkey to play with, and any or all of these things might be in the offing. She sighed, and set down her spoon, and sighed.

  “You know of course,” Laurie said to me, “I have the room right next to her? I’m going to be sleeping in there like I do every night? You know I’m going to be in my bed trying to sleep?” He shuddered. “Giggle,” he said. “Giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle. Two, three o’clock in the morning—giggle giggle giggle. A human being can’t bear it.”

  Jannie focused her eyes on him. “Why don’t we burn up this boy’s birth certificate?” she asked.

  “Giggle, giggle,” Laurie said.

  Barry spoke, waving his toast. “When Jannie gets her birthday presents can I play with it?” he asked. “If I am very very careful can I please play with just the—”

  Everyone began to talk at once to drown him out. “Giggle, giggle,” Laurie shouted. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” my husband said loudly. “Anyway I promised,” I said. “Happy birthday dear sister,” Sally sang. Jannie giggled.

  “There,” Laurie said. “You hear her? All night long—five of them.” Shaking his head as one who has been telling them and telling them and telling them not to bring that wooden horse through the gates of Troy, he stamped off to get his schoolbooks and his trumpet. Jannie sighed happily. Barry opened his mouth to speak and his father and Sally and I all said “Shhh.”

  Jannie had to be excused from her cereal, because she was too excited to eat. It was a cold frosty morning, and I forced the girls into their winter coats and warm hats, and put Barry into his snow suit. Laurie, who believes that he is impervious to cold, came downstairs, said, “Mad, I tell you, mad,” sympathetically to me, “ ’By, cat,” to his father, and went out the back door toward his bike, ignoring my frantic insistence that he put on some kind of a jacket or at least a sweater.

  I checked that teeth had been brushed, hair combed, handkerchiefs secured, told the girls to hold Barry’s hand crossing the street, told Barry to hold the girls’ hands crossing the street, put Barry’s mid-morning cookies into his jacket pocket, reminded Jannie for the third time about her spelling book, held the dogs so they could not get out when the door was opened, told everyone good-by and happy birthday again to Jannie, and watched from the kitchen window while they made their haphazard way down the driveway, lingering, chatting, stopping to point to things. I opened the door once more to call to them to move along, they would be late for school, and they disregarded me. I called to hurry up, and for a minute they moved more quickly, hopping, and then came to the end of the driveway and onto the sidewalk where they merged at once into the general traffic going to school, the collection of red hoods and blue jackets and plaid caps that goes past every morning and comes past again at noontime and goes back after lunch and returns at last, lingering, at three o’clock. I came back to the table and sat down wearily, reaching for the coffeepot. “Five of them are too many,” my husband explained. “One would have been quite enough.”

  “You can’t have a pajama party with just one guest,” I said sullenly. “And anyway no matter who she invited the other three would have been offended.”

  By lunchtime I had set up four cots, two of them borrowed from a neighbor who was flatly taken aback when she heard what I wanted them for. “I think you must be crazy,” she said. Jannie’s bedroom is actually two rooms, one small and one, which she calls her library because her bookcase is in there, much larger. I put one cot in her bedroom next to her bed, which left almost no room in there to move around. The other three cots I lined up in her library, making a kind of dormitory effect. Beyond Jannie’s library is the guest room, and all the bedrooms except Laurie’s are on the other side of the guest room. Laurie’s room is separated by only the thinnest wall from Jannie’s library. I used all my colored sheets and flowered pillowcases to make up the five beds, and every extra blanket in the house; I finally had to use the pillows from the couch.

  When Jannie came home from school I made her lie down and rest, pointing out in one of the most poignant understatements of my life that she would probably be up late that night. In fifteen minutes she was downstairs asking if she could get dressed for her party. I said her party was not going to start until eight o’clock and to take an apple and go lie down again. In another ten minutes she was down to explain that she would probably be too excited to dress later and it would really be only common sense to put her party dress on now. I said if she came downstairs again before dinner was on the table I would personally call her four guests and cancel the pajama party. She finally rested for half an hour or so in the chair by the upstairs phone, talking to her friend Carole.

  She was of course unable to eat her dinner, although she had chosen the menu. She nibbled at a piece of lamb, rearranged her mashed potatoes, and told her father and me that she could not understand how we had endured as many birthdays as we had. Her father said that he personally had gotten kind of used to them, and that as a matter of fact a certain quality of excitement did seem to go out of them after—say—thirty, and Jannie sighed unbelievingly.

  “One more birthday like this would kill her,” Laurie said. He groaned. “Carole,” he said, as one telling over a fearful list, “Kate. Laura. Linda, Jannie. You must be crazy,” he said to me.

  “I suppose your friends are so much?” Jannie said. “I suppose Ernie didn’t get sent down to Miss Corcoran’s office six times today for throwing paper wads? I suppose Charlie—”

  “You didn’t seem to think Charlie was so bad, walking home from school,” Laurie said. “I guess that wasn’t you walking with—”

  Jannie turned pink. “Does my own brother have any right to insult me on my own birthday?” she asked her father.

  In honor of Jannie’s birthday Sally helped me clear the table, and Jannie sat in state with her hands folded, waiting. When the table was cleared we left Jannie there alone, and assembled in the study. While my husband lighted the candles on the pink-and-white cake, Sally and Barry took from the back of the closet the gifts they had chosen themselves and lovingly wrapped. Barry’s gift was clearly a leathercraft set, since his most careful wrapping had been unable to make the paper go right round the box, and the name showed clearly. Sally had three books. Laurie had an album of records he had chosen himself. (“This is for my sister,” he had told the clerk in the music store, most earnestly, with an Elvis Presley record in each hand, “for my sister—not me, my sister.”) Laurie also had to carry the little blue record player which my husband and I had decided was a more suitable gift for our elder daughter than a dear little monkey or even a pair of high-heeled shoes. I carried the boxes from the two sets of grandparents, one holding a flowered quilted skirt and a fancy blouse, and the other holding a stiff crinoline petticoat. With the cake leading, we filed into the dining room where Jannie sat. “Happy birthday to you,” we sang, and Jannie looked once and then leaped past us to the phone. “Be there in a minute,” she said, and then, “Carole? Carole, listen, I got it, the record player. ’By.”

  By a quarter to eight Jannie was dressed in the new blouse and skirt, over the petticoat, Barry was happily taking apart the leathercraft set, the record player had been plugged in and we had heard, more or less involuntarily, four sides of Elvis Presley. Laurie had shut himself in his room, dissociating himself utterly from the festivities. “I was willing to buy them,” he explained, “I even spent good money out of the bank, but no one can make me listen.”

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