Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson

  “I fell in love with you right away,” Catharine told him afterward. “I never knew what hit me.”

  Once Catharine had asked her mother impulsively and injudiciously, “Mother, did you fall in love with my father?”

  “Catharine,” her mother said, letting her hands stand quiet in the dishwater, “is there anything wrong, dear?”

  High school had been worse for Catharine than any other time in her life. When the other girls wore sweaters or beer jackets and collected autographs, Catharine sat awkwardly under a badly designed wool dress. Once, with money her father borrowed from his brother, her mother bought Catharine a dark-green sweater and skirt, and when Catharine came into school that morning, one girl said, “What’d you do, rob a fire sale?” and another said, “Look at Catty, in the sweater she knit herself.” Years later, Catharine told Aaron, leaning forward with her elbows on the table and her cigarette smoke blowing into her eyes, “I don’t like clothes, at all. I think everyone makes too much fuss over them. I think the human body is too fine.” When the girls with high-heeled shoes and curly hair went to sophomore proms and senior balls, Catharine and her three or four friends gave little hen parties where they served one another cocoa and cake, and said, “You’d be cute, honestly, Catty, if you had a permanent and wore some make-up.” And Catharine, blushing, “My father would kill me.” “You’ve got nice skin, though. Mine’s always breaking out.” “No, it isn’t,” Catharine said, or, “You’re not fat, really. I only wish I looked like you, honestly.”

  A terrible thing happened to Catharine in her junior year in high school. One of her friends was to usher in a show put on by the local chapter of the American Legion. It was a performance of The Mikado and daughters of some of the members were going to usher, in evening gowns, with a chance to help with the make-up. Edna was the name of Catharine’s friend, and the third and last night of the performance Edna managed to get Catharine invited to usher in place of another girl who was sick. At seven o’clock Catharine, in a blue crepe dress of her mother’s which fitted badly and was cruelly improvised over the shoulders with a white organdy frill, met Edna in the lobby of the auditorium; Mrs. Vincent, who had come over on the streetcar with Catharine, said to Edna, “You’ll be sure and see that Catharine gets home all right?”

  “My mother and father are going to drive her home,” Edna said. Mrs. Vincent kissed Catharine good-by, gave one sweeping suspicious glance over the auditorium, and went out to take the streetcar home. “How do I look?” Edna asked. “Look at me.” She held out her skirt and Catharine, horrified, realized that Edna, with her bad complexion and straight hair, looked lovely. “I got a finger wave,” Edna said, “and I’m wearing lipstick.” Catharine realized even then that once or twice in any girl’s life there will be an evening when she looks beautiful; she was not used enough to being ugly to be content to wait until an hour or two of beauty could do her real service. “You look wonderful,” Catharine said sickly, “how do I look?” She held her coat open and Edna said, “You look beautiful, listen, we’re going to the party for the cast after.”

  Catharine stayed long enough after the performance to see Edna, with her finger wave uncurling damply and her wide skirts trailing after her, dancing dreamily in the arms of a stout middle-aged man who had been in the chorus; he giggled when he whispered in Edna’s ear, and Edna rolled her eyes and slapped his face lightly, while her mother and father, tired and proud, sat at the side of the room and greeted casual acquaintances eagerly.

  Catharine walked home, all the way, holding up the blue crepe skirt and not afraid that anyone would notice her. “It’s the ugliest thing I ever saw,” she was whispering to herself. “Daddy will be furious.” Then, only a block from her home, she thought she was a beautiful glorious creature, walking in a garden, her long skirts moving softly over the ground, graceful, with people thronging around her for her autograph. “Please,” she said softly, waving a fan, “please don’t say I’m beautiful . . . I’m not really, you know,” and a chorus of protests drowned out her voice, and she yielded, laughing softly.

  Her father forbade her to speak to Edna again, and wrote Edna’s father a sharp note, which was ignored. Her mother had to have the blue dress cleaned, because of the dirt on the hem.

  “I don’t think the ordinary run of person is able to recognize beauty when they see it,” Catharine told Aaron later, years later. “I think that your common person tramples on beauty because it is so far above him.”

  * * *

  “You always were an ungrateful, spoiled child,” her mother said, moving uneasily on the bed.

  “You’re living off me, aren’t you?” Catharine answered indifferently. “You eat, don’t you? Doesn’t the doctor come twice a week to see you?”

  “You never had a spark of affection in you,” her mother said.

  “Something must make me take care of you and feed you,” Catharine said.

  Her mother pulled at the blankets, her hands thin and powerless. “I don’t know what I did to deserve a daughter like you.”

  “You must have taken the Lord’s name in vain,” Catharine said. She was standing leaning against the doorway to the kitchenette, waiting for her mother’s oatmeal to cook. She had had a long and dismal day at the office, it was getting on toward winter (the winter when she could have had a cheap fur coat if her mother had not come) and her mother showed no signs of getting better or worse. She was almost completely careless of everything except that she was twenty-three years old, and still tied down; the romance and glory of her life waiting still.

  “If your poor father could hear that.”

  “My poor father can’t hear anything,” Catharine said, “and I’m happy about it.”

  Her mother tried to rise on the bed, tried to soften Catharine with tears in her eyes. “He was a good father to you, Catharine. You shouldn’t say evil things like that.”

  Catharine laughed and went into the kitchenette.

  When Catharine was twelve her mother tried to give her a party. She bought little invitation cards at the five and ten, and paper hats and small baskets to hold candies. She bought ice cream and made a cake, and bought a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. “The whole thing didn’t cost but about three dollars,” she told Catharine’s father. “I took most of the money out of my house money this week.”

  “There’s no reason why Catharine should have expensive entertainments,” her father said, frowning. “Her position as my daughter explains the absence of worldly frivolity in her life.”

  “The child has never had a party before,” her mother said firmly.

  “I don’t want a party,” Catharine told herself, alone upstairs in her room, lying on the bed. “I don’t want any of the kids to come here.” Her mother sent out the little invitations (Catharine Vincent, Thursday, August 24th, 2–5), and almost all of the twelve children invited had come.

  The party was a miserable failure. Catharine, in an old dress with new collar and cuffs, and her mother in the dress she wore to church, greeted the guests at the door and sat them down in the living room where the little baskets of candy sat around on tables. The guests took the candy one piece at a time, played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey as long as Mrs. Vincent wanted them to, and then sat quietly until one of them thought to say she ought to be getting home now. “But you haven’t had your ice cream,” Catharine’s mother cried with bright gaiety, “you can’t leave before the ice cream.” Catharine’s memories of that party were of her mother, working furiously, laughing and humming when she walked from place to place, her old dress showing constantly among the party dresses of the children; her mother saying “Well, don’t you look pretty!” and “You must be the smartest little girl in Catharine’s class.”

  Afterward, at the dinner table, her mother said encouragingly, “Did you enjoy your party, dear?”

  “I told you they’d act like that
,” Catharine said without emotion. “They don’t like me.”

  “Catharine has no business wanting parties if her friends don’t know how to behave to her mother,” Mr. Vincent said, devoting himself to a platter of liver and bacon. “You’ve worn yourself out and spent a lot of money to let the child have something she didn’t need to have.”

  “Remember the party you gave for me?” Catharine said to her mother lying on the bed. “Remember that terrible party you insisted on having?”

  “You are an ungrateful daughter,” her mother said, moving under the blankets. “You always were a cold thoughtless child.”

  One day when Catharine was about fourteen her mother came into the bedroom where Catharine was cleaning her dresser drawers. Sitting on the bed, her mother said to Catharine’s back, “Your father wants me to talk to you, Catharine.”

  Catharine, frozen, went on piling handkerchiefs and folding scarves. “What does he want you to talk to me about?”

  “He thinks it’s time I spoke to you,” her mother said unhappily.

  All the time her mother talked, apologizing and fumbling, Catharine sat on the floor folding and unfolding a scarf. “Have the girls at school been talking about things like this?” her mother asked once.

  “All the time,” Catharine said.

  “You mustn’t listen,” her mother said earnestly. “Your father and I are equipped to tell you the truth, the girls at school don’t know anything. Catharine, I want you to promise me never to talk to anyone but your mother and father about these things.”

  “If I have any questions I’ll ask Daddy,” Catharine said.

  “Don’t laugh at your mother and father,” her mother said.

  Catharine turned around to look at her mother. “Are you all finished?” Her mother nodded. “Then please let’s never talk about it again,” Catharine said. “I don’t want to talk about it again, ever.”

  “Neither do I,” her mother said angrily. “It’s hard enough to tell you anything at all, young lady, without having to talk about delicate subjects.”

  “You tell Daddy you told me,” Catharine said as her mother went out the door.

  “Did you love my father?” Catharine asked her mother lying on the bed, “did you ever love my father, Mother?”

  “You never loved him,” her mother said, moving against the pillow, “you were an ungrateful child.”

  “When you married him did you think you were going to be happy?”

  “He was a good husband,” her mother said, “he tried very hard to be a good father, but you only wanted to make trouble. All your life.”

  * * *

  Catharine sat on the edge of the seat; she was nineteen and her hands were neatly on the booth table, her books beside her, her eyes on the door. If only someone comes in, just this once, she was thinking if only one of the girls could see me, just this once.

  “You look très sérieuse,” Aaron said. “Coffee?”

  “Yes, please,” Catharine said.

  “Now listen,” Aaron said. “I ask you to come out for coffee with me because I think you’re interesting to talk to. You can’t just sit there and not say anything.” Catharine looked up and saw he was smiling. “Say something witty,” he said.

  She got a minute to think when the waiter came over and Aaron ordered the coffee, but when the waiter was gone and Aaron turned politely to her, she could only shake her head and smile.

  “Let me start a conversation, then,” Aaron said. “What was the book you were carrying yesterday?”

  “Did you see me?” Catharine asked before she thought.

  “Certainly I saw you,” Aaron said. “I see you every day. Sometimes you wear a green sweater.”

  Catharine felt that this had to be said quickly, urgently, before the moment got away from her. “I don’t like clothes at all,” she said. “I think everyone makes too much fuss over them. I think the human body is too fine.”

  Aaron stared. “Well!” he said.

  Catharine thought back on what she had said and blushed. “I didn’t mean to sound so vulgar,” she said.

  Another time, when Catharine knew how to answer more easily, Aaron asked her, “Why don’t we go to the five and ten and buy you a lipstick?”

  “My father would kill me,” Catharine said.

  “You could just wear it in school,” Aaron said. “I want my girl to be pretty.”

  Catharine carried that “my girl” around with her in her mind ever afterward; she bought a lipstick and powder and rouge and nail polish, and put them on inexpertly in the girl’s lavatory every morning before classes, and took them off each afternoon after leaving Aaron. Her father never knew; she kept them in a box in her pocketbook, and had a story prepared (“Gerry’s family doesn’t like her to wear make-up either, but she does anyway, and she asked me if I’d just keep these things—”).

  Aaron liked to sit with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth; he kept his eyes narrow when he talked, and the smoke from the cigarette went past his eyebrow. He smiled more than anyone Catharine had ever known, and she thought once that he looked satanic; she told him so and he smiled at her, smoke in his eyes.

  “The devil is the only true god,” he said.

  Once her father frightened Catharine badly by saying to her abruptly at the dinner table “You’re not running around with a young man, are you, Catharine?”

  “Catharine?” her mother said.

  “I was speaking to Mr. Blake this afternoon about a matter of business,” her father said ponderously, “and he mentioned that he had seen Catharine walking out of her business school with a young man. No one he knew.”

  “It was probably one of the instructors,” Catharine said in a clear voice. “I was probably asking about an assignment.”

  “I would not like to think that my daughter is associating with young men she is ashamed to introduce to her parents,” her father said.

  “Mother and Daddy have a great deal of faith in you,” her mother said.

  “It was probably Mr. Harley, our typing instructor,” Catharine said. “I had to ask him about an assignment and we walked down the hall talking and out the door. I did the wrong assignment and had to find out what to make up.”

  “You should have told him to go to hell,” Aaron said later when Catharine told him.

  “Someday I will,” Catharine said.

  “Yes, Daddy dear,” Aaron said in a high voice, “I am associating with a young man I am definitely ashamed to introduce to you, because he is a thief and a murderer. And he rapes young women. Even Mother wouldn’t be safe with him.”

  Catharine shook her head helplessly. “He’d die,” she said. “He’d just die.”

  When Aaron met Mr. and Mrs. Vincent he was very agreeable and Catharine was able to feel for a few minutes as though everything were going to pass off well. Aaron had escorted her home from school very properly and she had very properly invited him in. Her mother and father, sitting in the living room, watched Aaron and Catharine come in, and when Catharine said, “Mother and Daddy, this is Aaron, a friend of mine from school,” her father came over and took Aaron’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, my boy,” he said.

  “How do you do.” Aaron stood next to Catharine, comfortable in his yellow sweater.

  “Aaron is in school too,” Catharine said to her mother.

  “How do you like the school?” Catharine’s mother said.

  Conversation had continued without silences, they were sitting down, and Catharine met Aaron’s eye and he smiled. She smiled back, and then realized that her mother and father were silently waiting. Aaron said smoothly, “Look at Cara’s hands, Mrs. Vincent. They’re like white waves on a white shore. They touch her face like white moths.”

  Catharine met her father at the dinner table that n
ight, with a sort of sick resignation that left her unsurprised when he said immediately, “I don’t know about that young man.” He thought heavily. “Your mother and I have been talking about him.”

  “It seems like your friends ought to be finer, somehow,” her mother said earnestly. “With your background.”

  “He doesn’t seem quite right, to me,” her father said. “Not quite right.”

  “We’ll find some money somehow,” her mother said, “and see if we can get you another dress. Sensible, but pretty enough to wear to parties.”

  Sitting by the window with her mother’s trunk open on the floor and her old report card (“English, B–, History, D, Geography, D”) in her hand, Catharine, to spite her mother, thought about Aaron. Because the dull eyes of William Vincent and his wife were no longer on her, because she was loose, at least, from their questions (“Catharine, have you been seeing—”) and their sudden quiet when she opened the front door, Catharine went to the little cedar box where she kept all her most secret treasures, and always had, and took out Aaron’s only letter. In the box were a bright cotton handkerchief, and a tarnished silver charm bracelet. In her years in New York she had collected a match folder from a night club, and a printed note which read “We thank you for submitting the enclosed material and regret that we cannot make use of it.” It had come attached to some watercolor impressions Catharine had sent to a magazine; she kept it because of the word “regret” and because it had been addressed to her name and addressed by someone there at the magazine, some bright golden creature who called writers by their first names and sat at chromium bars and walked different streets than Catharine did, from her apartment on West Twentieth Street to her typist’s job on Wall Street. And at the chromium bars Aaron was sitting, and he walked quickly past the bright stores, and he might be in any taxi passing, smiling at someone with his quick sudden amusement, saying, “Catharine? I once cared for a girl named Catharine . . .”

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