Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
Joyce Carol Oates
Oates’ very scary, classic story (from the 1970 collection The Wheel of Love and Other Stories, and widely anthologized) features Connie, a teenaged girl who is susceptible to boys and music and hanging out. Connie is not an extraordinary girl. She argues with her mother and feels superior to her less-attractive older sister, and yearns, as most teenagers do, for freedom—the “haven” she finds on Saturday nights when she and her friends sneak across the highway to a burger joint where the “older kids hang out.”
Connie’s conflict seems at first simple youthful rebellion, until home alone one Sunday afternoon while the family is out, she encounters a stranger at her screen door. He’s a killer, menacingly named Arnold Friend, and having spotted her one night at the drive-in, has found out where she lives. Friend wants Connie, and so begins one of the creepiest and most haunting of encounters you’re likely to find in a short story.
I took a special interest in you, such a pretty girl, and found out all about you—like I know your parents and sister are gone somewheres and I know where and how long they’re going to be gone, and I know who you were with last night, and your best girl friend’s name is Betty. Right?
At first, Connie sees Friend’s overtures as nothing more unwanted attention. He’s smooth and careful, but she soon realizes something else is afoot. Friend cajoles and sweet-talks Connie until he verbally crosses a line, and in a prolonged exchange of dialog, offers a sinister version of the freedom she’s been after, the chance to spare her family if she’ll just take a ride in his car.
Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend erodes the world as she knows it, and the descent is finely drawn, especially in the way Oates uses the screen door that stands between them. At first Connie is outside the door, then she is inside, and just before she capitulates, Connie and Arnold stare at each other through the mesh. When at one point she tries to lock it, he says, “It’s just a screen door. It’s just nothing . . . I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all, and specially Arnold Friend.” Yet the screen door is all Connie has, and reveals how tragically vulnerable she is.
For unexpected scariness, take the boots worn by Friend, which by all lights have to be some of the creepiest shoes in all of fiction. They are greasy, black and scuffed, and as Connie eventually notices, “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it.” And later, “Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle.” This is all discomfortingly wrong. It’s also remarkable characterization, detail that tells us all we need to know about Friend yet at the same time renders him inexplicable. The detail also reverberates to Connie, in what we as readers fear for her, and the depravity she is subject to. Those boots as much as anything else are a threat, and that makes the story all the more terrifying.