Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson


  “She’s wet,” the second young man said; the two young men stood one on either side of Miss Harper, presenting her, and the enormous woman looked her up and down. “Please,” Miss Harper said; here was a woman at least, someone who might understand and sympathize, “please, they put me off my bus at the wrong stop and I can’t seem to find my way home. Please.”

  “Hell you say,” the woman said, and laughed, a gentle laugh. “She sure is wet,” she said.

  “Please,” Miss Harper said.

  “You’ll take care of her?” the driver asked. He turned and smiled down at Miss Harper, obviously waiting, and, remembering, Miss Harper fumbled in her pocketbook for her wallet. How much, she was wondering, not wanting to ask, it was such a short ride, but if they hadn’t come I might have gotten pneumonia, and paid all those doctor’s bills; I have caught cold, she thought with great clarity, and chose two five-dollar bills from her wallet. They can’t argue over five dollars each, she thought, and sneezed. The two young men and the large woman were watching her with great interest, and all of them saw that after Miss Harper took out the two five-dollar bills there were a single and two tens left in the wallet. The money was not wet. I suppose I should be grateful for that, Miss Harper thought, moving slowly. She handed a five-dollar bill to each young man and felt that they glanced at one another over her head.

  “Thanks,” the driver said; I could have gotten away with a dollar each, Miss Harper thought. “Thanks,” the driver said again, and the other young man said, “Say, thanks.”

  “Thank you,” Miss Harper said formally.

  “I’ll put you up for the night,” the woman said. “You can sleep here. Go tomorrow.” She looked Miss Harper up and down again. “Dry off a little,” she said.

  “Is there anywhere else?” Then, afraid that this might seem ungracious, Miss Harper said, “I mean, is there any way of going on tonight? I don’t want to impose.”

  “We got rooms for rent.” The woman half turned back to the counter. “Cost you ten for the night.”

  She’s leaving me bus fare home, Miss Harper thought; I suppose I should be grateful. “I’d better, I guess,” she said, taking out her wallet again. “I mean, thank you.”

  The woman accepted the bill and half turned back to the counter. “Upstairs,” she said. “Take your choice. No one’s around.” She glanced sideways at Miss Harper. “I’ll see you get a cup of coffee in the morning. I wouldn’t turn a dog out without a cup of coffee.”

  “Thank you.” Miss Harper knew where the staircase would be, and she turned and, carrying her suitcase and her pocketbook, went to what had once been the front hall and there was the staircase, so lovely in its still proportions that she caught her breath. She turned back and saw the large woman staring at her, and said, “I used to live in a house like this. Built about the same time, I guess. One of those good old houses that were made to stand forever, and where people—”

  “Hell you say,” the woman said, and turned back to the counter.

  The young people scattered around the big room were talking; in one corner a group surrounded the two who had brought Miss Harper and now and then they laughed. Miss Harper was touched with a little sadness now, looking at them, so at home in the big ugly room which had once been so beautiful. It would be nice, she thought, to speak to these young people, perhaps even become their friend, talk and laugh with them; perhaps they might like to know that this spot where they came together had been a lady’s drawing room. Hesitating a little, Miss Harper wondered if she might call “Good night,” or “Thank you” again, or even “God bless you all.” Then, since no one looked at her, she started up the stairs. Halfway there was a landing with a stained-glass window, and Miss Harper stopped, holding her breath. When she had been a child the stained-glass window on the stair landing in her house had caught the sunlight, and scattered it on the stairs in a hundred colors. Fairyland colors, Miss Harper thought, remembering; I wonder why we don’t live in these houses now. I’m lonely, Miss Harper thought, and then she thought, but I must get out of these wet clothes; I really am catching cold.

  Without thinking she turned at the top of the stairs and went to the front room on the left; that had always been her room. The door was open and she glanced in; this was clearly a bedroom for rent, and it was ugly and drab and cheap. The light turned on with a cord hanging beside the door, and Miss Harper stood in the doorway, saddened by the peeling wallpaper and the sagging floor; what have they done to the house, she thought; how can I sleep here tonight?

  At last she moved to cross the room and set her suitcase on the bed. I must get dry, she told herself, I must make the best of things. The bed was correctly placed, between the two front windows, but the mattress was stiff and lumpy, and Miss Harper was frightened at the faint smell of dark couplings and a remote echo in the springs; I will not think about such things, Miss Harper thought, I will not let myself dwell on any such thing; this might be the room where I slept as a girl. The windows were almost right—two across the front, two at the side—and the door was placed correctly; how they did build these old places to a square-cut pattern, Miss Harper thought, how they did put them together; there must be a thousand houses all over the country built exactly like this. The closet, however, was on the wrong side. Some oddness of construction had set the closet to Miss Harper’s right as she sat on the bed, when it ought really to have been on her left; when she was a girl the big closet had been her playhouse and her hiding place, but it had been on the left.

  The bathroom was wrong, too, but that was less important. Miss Harper had thought wistfully of a hot tub before she slept, but a glance at the bathtub discouraged her; she could simply wait until she got home. She washed her face and hands, and the warm water comforted her. She was further comforted to find that her bottle of cologne had not broken in her suitcase and that nothing inside had gotten wet. At least she could sleep in a dry nightgown, although in a cold bed.

  She shivered once in the cold sheets, remembering a child’s bed. She lay in the darkness with her eyes open, wondering at last where she was and how she had gotten here: first the bus and then the truck, and now she lay in the darkness and no one knew where she was or what was to become of her. She had only her suitcase and a little money in her pocketbook; she did not know where she was. She was very tired and she thought that perhaps the sleeping pill she had taken much earlier had still not quite worn off; perhaps the sleeping pill had been affecting all her actions, since she had been following docilely, bemused, wherever she was taken; in the morning, she told herself sleepily, I’ll show them I can make decisions for myself.

  The noise downstairs which had been a jukebox and adolescent laughter faded softly into a distant melody; my mother is singing in the drawing room, Miss Harper thought, and the company is sitting on the stiff little chairs listening; my father is playing the piano. She could not quite distinguish the song, but it was one she had heard her mother sing many times; I could creep out to the top of the stairs and listen, she thought, and then became aware that there was a rustling in the closet, but the closet was on the wrong side, on the right instead of the left. It is more a rattling than rustling, Miss Harper thought, wanting to listen to her mother singing, it is as though something wooden were being shaken around. Shall I get out of bed and quiet it so I can hear the singing? Am I too warm and comfortable, am I too sleepy?

  The closet was on the wrong side, but the rattling continued, just loud enough to be irritating, and at last, knowing she would never sleep until it stopped, Miss Harper swung her legs over the side of the bed and, sleepily, padded barefoot over to the closet door, reminding herself to go to the right instead of the left.

  “What are you doing in there?” she asked aloud, and opened the door. There was just enough light for her to see that it was a wooden snake, head lifted, stirring and rattling itself against the other toys. Miss Harper laughed. “It’s my
snake,” she said aloud, “it’s my old snake, and it’s come alive.” In the back of the closet she could see her old toy clown, bright and cheerful, and as she watched, enchanted, the toy clown flopped languidly forward and back, coming alive. At Miss Harper’s feet the snake moved blindly, clattering against a doll house where the tiny people inside stirred, and against a set of blocks, which fell and crashed. Then Miss Harper saw the big beautiful doll sitting on a small chair, the doll with long golden curls and wide-lashed blue eyes and a stiff organdy party dress; as Miss Harper held out her hands in joy the doll opened her eyes and stood up.

  “Rosabelle,” Miss Harper cried out, “Rosabelle, it’s me.”

  The doll turned, looking widely at her, smile painted on. The red lips opened and the doll quacked, outrageously, a flat slapping voice coming out of that fair mouth. “Go away, old lady,” the doll said, “go away, old lady, go away.”

  Miss Harper backed away, staring. The clown tumbled and danced, mouthing at Miss Harper, the snake flung its eyeless head viciously at her ankles, and the doll turned, holding her skirts, and her mouth opened and shut. “Go away,” she quacked, “go away, old lady, go away.”

  The inside of the closet was all alive; a small doll ran madly from side to side, the animals paraded solemnly down the gangplank of Noah’s ark, a stuffed bear wheezed asthmatically. The noise was louder and louder, and then Miss Harper realized that they were all looking at her hatefully and moving toward her. The doll said “Old lady, old lady,” and stepped forward; Miss Harper slammed the closet door and leaned against it. Behind her the snake crashed against the door and the doll’s voice went on and on. Crying out, Miss Harper turned and fled, but the closet was on the wrong side and she turned the wrong way and found herself cowering against the far wall with the door impossibly far away while the closet door slowly opened and the doll’s face, smiling, looked for her.

  Miss Harper fled. Without stopping to look behind she flung herself across the room and through the door, down the hall and on down the wide lovely stairway. “Mommy,” she screamed, “Mommy, Mommy.”

  Screaming, she fled out the door. “Mommy,” she cried, and fell, going down and down into darkness, turning, trying to catch onto something solid and real, crying.

  “Look, lady,” the bus driver said. “I’m not an alarm clock. Wake up and get off the bus.”

  “You’ll be sorry,” Miss Harper said distinctly.

  “Wake up,” he said, “wake up and get off the bus.”

  “I intend to report you,” Miss Harper said. Pocketbook, gloves, hat, suitcase.

  “I’ll certainly report you,” she said, almost crying.

  “This is as far as you go,” the driver said.

  The bus lurched, moved, and Miss Harper almost stumbled in the driving rain, her suitcase at her feet, under the sign reading RICKET’S LANDING.

  [1965]

  THREE LECTURES, WITH TWO STORIES

  EXPERIENCE AND FICTION

  It is most agreeable to be a writer of fiction for several reasons—one of the most important being, of course, that you can persuade people that it is really work if you look haggard enough—but perhaps the most useful thing about being a writer of fiction is that nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something; you tend to see everything as a potential structure of words. One of my daughters made this abruptly clear to me when she came not long ago into the kitchen where I was trying to get the door of our terrible old refrigerator open; it always stuck when the weather was wet, and one of the delights of a cold rainy day was opening the refrigerator door. My daughter watched me wrestling with it for a minute and then she said that I was foolish to bang on the refrigerator door like that; why not use magic to open it? I thought about this. I poured myself another cup of coffee and lighted a cigarette and sat down for a while and thought about it; and then decided that she was right. I left the refrigerator where it was and went in to my typewriter and wrote a story about not being able to open the refrigerator door and getting the children to open it with magic. When a magazine bought the story I bought a new refrigerator. That is what I would like to talk about now—the practical application of magic, or where do stories come from?

  People are always asking me—and every other writer I know—where story ideas come from. Where do you get your ideas, they ask; how do you ever manage to think them up? It’s certainly the hardest question in the world to answer, since stories originate in everyday happenings and emotions, and any writer who tried to answer such a question would find himself telling over, in some detail, the story of his life. Fiction uses so many small items, so many little gestures and remembered incidents and unforgettable faces, that trying to isolate any one inspiration for any one story is incredibly difficult, but basically, of course, the genesis of any fictional work has to be human experience. This translation of experience into fiction is not a mystic one. It is, I think, part recognition and part analysis. A bald description of an incident is hardly fiction, but the same incident, carefully taken apart, examined as to emotional and balanced structure, and then as carefully reassembled in the most effective form, slanted and polished and weighed, may very well be a short story. Let me try an example.

  I have lifted this from a story written several years ago by a college student I knew; it has always stayed in my mind as the most perfect nonstory I ever read. This is how the plot goes: In a small town the people are having a church fair, the high point of which is the raffling off of a particularly beautiful quilt made by one of the local ladies; the quilt has been the talk of the town for weeks, and the admiration and envy of all the women; all of them want it badly. The raffle is held, and the quilt is won by a summer visitor, a wealthy woman who has no use for the quilt and no desire for it. She sends her chauffeur over to the platform to pick up the quilt and bring it back to her car.

  Now, this story written straight, as I just read it, is almost meaningless. It is a simple anecdote, and carries only the statement that the women in the small town resent the summer visitor, and dislike having her win the quilt; its only actual impact is the ironic point that the quilt should have been won by the only woman attending the raffle who really did not want it. Now, suppose this were taken apart and reassembled. We would then have to examine more particularly four or five people most concerned—the summer visitor, the chauffeur, the woman who made the quilt, the minister who raffled it off, and perhaps the one village woman—I believe there always is one—who was most open and loud in her disapproval; as things stand now, these people have no faces, only parts to play. Suppose we were to give them personalities, sketch in people, lightly at first, experimentally; suppose the summer visitor is actually a shy, friendly person who very much wants to be liked, and thinks that accepting the quilt will endear her to the villagers; suppose she is foolish enough to try to give the quilt back again afterward? Suppose the minister had intended this church fair as an attempt to make peace among the quarreling women in the village, and now sees their quarrels ended when they unite in hatred of the outsider? Then consider the chauffeur; as the story stands now he has the most agonizing two or three minutes of all—the walk from the car, through the people of the village, to the platform to take up the quilt and carry it back; if the chauffeur came from a small town himself, and knew what such people were like, how would he feel during those few minutes? Suppose the chauffeur were a boy from that town, hired for the summer to drive the wealthy visitor’s car? And, beyond all else, how do the men in the village feel at the feuding over the quilt?

  If the story is going to be a short one, it is of course only necessary to focus on one of these characters—I like the chauffeur, myself—and follow this character from beginning to end; in a short story the time would of course be limited to the actual moments of the raffle, with the background sketched in through conversation and small incidents—the way the village women look at the fancy
car, perhaps, or the minister’s nervousness when he comes to draw the number; the point of the story might be indicated early, telegraphed, as it were, if the story opened with the summer visitor buying a cake at one of the stands, while the village women watch her and make their private comments; I keep calling them “village women,” by the way; I do not mean by that that they are primitive, or uneducated, or unsophisticated; I think of them only as a tightly knit group, interested in their own concerns, and as resentful of outsiders as any of us.

  If it were going to be a longer story, these people would be examined in more detail, and there would have to be more incidents, all paralleling the final one, the characters would have to be more firmly drawn, and the scene of the fair made more vivid as a background. The longer story might open with the village ladies decorating the fair grounds in the morning, with their bickering and arguing over whose booth was going to have the best location, and the woman who made the quilt would have to be there, set in with a definite character—perhaps they all hate her, but will defend her and her quilt because the summer visitor is the outsider?

  It is almost silly to say that no one will read a story which does not interest him. Yet many writers forget it. They write a story which interests them, forgetting that the particular emotional investment they brought to the incident had never been communicated to the reader because, writing the story, they wrote down only what happened and not what was felt. In our story of the quilt, the girl who orginally wrote it had been, as a daughter of the woman who made the quilt, very much involved in both the excitement and the indignation, but there was nothing of that in the story. She only wrote down what happened when an outsider won a quilt at a church fair. She said she didn’t want the story to be autobiographical, and so she had kept herself entirely out of it. She had kept herself out of it so successfully, in fact, that the story was hopelessly dull; it had nothing in it except its one small ironic point; the rest of the story was waste, and padding. The village ladies were named Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones and it was not possible to tell one from another. Even the minister merged into the general flat landscape, recognizable only by his name. She pointed out that these were real people, and if she described them any more clearly they might read the story and be offended. And she couldn’t change any of it because that was the way it had really happened. What was the purpose, she thought, of changing the events when this ironic little incident had really happened, she had been there and seen it, and had always wanted, she said, to write it down because it seemed just perfect material for a story.

 
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