A story by Joyce Carol Oates
She was laughing. At first he thought she might be crying, but she was laughing.
Raggedy Ann, she said. You asked about nicknames —I’ve forgotten about it for years—but Raggedy Ann it was, for a while. They called me Raggedy Ann.
She lay sprawled on her stomach, her face pressed into the damp pillow, one arm loose and gangly, falling over the edge of the bed. Her hair was red-orange and since it had the texture of straw he had thought it was probably dyed. The bed jiggled, she was laughing silently. Her arms and shoulders were freckled and pale, her long legs were unevenly tanned, the flesh of her young body not so soft as it appeared but rather tough, ungiving. She was in an exuberant mood; her laughter was childlike, bright, brittle.
What were you called?—when you were a boy? she asked. Her voice was muffled by the pillow. She did not turn to look at him.
John, he said.
What! John! Never a nickname, never Johnny or Jack or Jackie?
I don’t think so, he said.
She found that very funny. She laughed and kicked her legs and gave off an air, an odor, of intense fleshy heat. I won’t survive this one, she giggled.
He was one of the adults of the world now. He was in charge of the world.
Sometimes he stood at the bedroom window and surveyed the handsome sloping lawn, the houses of his neighbors and their handsome lawns, his eye moving slowly along the memorized street. Day or night it was memorized. He knew it. The Tilsons . . . the Dwyers . . . the Pitkers . . . the Reddingers . . . the Schells. Like beads on a string were the houses, solid and baronial, each inhabited. each protected. Day or night he knew them and the knowledge made him pleasurably intoxicated.
He was Reddinger. Reddinger. John.
Last Saturday night, late, his wife asked: Why are you standing there, why aren’t you undressing? It’s after two.
He was not thinking of Annie. That long restless rangy body, that rather angular, bony face, her fingers stained with ink, her fingernails never very clean, the throaty mocking voice: he had pushed her out of his mind. He was breathing the night air and the sharp autumnal odor of pine needles stirred him, moved him deeply. He was in charge of the world but why should he not shiver with delight of the world? For he did love it. He loved it.
I loved it—this—all of you—
He spoke impulsively. She did not hear. Advancing upon him, her elbows raised as she labored to unfasten a hook at the back of her neck, she did not look at him; she spoke with a sleepy absentmindedness, as if they had had this conversation before. Were you drunk, when you were laughing so much? she asked. It wasn’t like you. Then, at dinner, you were practically mute. Poor Frances Mason, trying to talk to you! That wasn’t like you either, John.
There must have been a party at the Buhls’, across the way. Voices lifted. Car doors were slammed. John Reddinger felt his spirit stirred by the acrid smell of the pines and the chilly brightstarred night and his wife’s warm, perfumed, familiar closeness. His senses leaped, his eyes blinked rapidly as if he might burst into tears. In the autumn of the year he dwelt upon boyhood and death and pleasures of a harsh, sensual nature, the kind that are torn out of human beings, like cries; he dwelt upon the mystery of his own existence, that teasing riddle. The world itself was an intoxicant to him.
Wasn’t it like me? he asked seriously. What am I like, then?
I don’t ask you about your family, the girl pointed
out. Why should you ask me about other men?
He admired her brusque, comic manner, the tomboyish wag of her foot.
Natural curiosity, he said.
Your wife! Your children!-I don’t ask, do I?
They were silent and he had the idea she was waiting for him to speak, to volunteer information. But he was disingenuous. Her frankness made him uncharacteristically passive; for once he was letting a woman take the lead, never quite prepared for what happened. It was a novelty, a delight. It was sometimes unnerving.
You think I’m too proud to ask for money, I mean for a loan—for my rent, Annie said. I’m not, though. I’m not too proud.
Are you asking for it, then?
No. But not because I’m proud or because I’m afraid of altering our relationship. You understand? Because I want you to know I could have asked and I didn’t—you understand?
I think so, John said, though in fact he did not.
At Christmas, somehow, they lost contact with each other. Days passed. Twelve days. Fifteen. His widowed mother came to visit them in the big red-brick colonial in Lathrup Park, and his wife’s sister and her husband and two young children, and his oldest boy, a freshman at Swarthmore, brought his Japanese roommate home with him; life grew dense, robustly complicated. He telephoned her at the apartment but no one answered. He telephoned the gallery where she worked but the other girl answered and when he said softly and hopefully, Annie? Is that Annie? the girl told him that it was not Annie; it was Cynthia Brauer; and the gallery owner, Mr. HelNutt, disapproved strongly of personal calls. She was certain Annie knew about this policy and surprised that Annie had not told him about it.
He hung up guiltily, like a boy.
A previous autumn, years ago, he had made a terrible mistake. What a blunder!
The worst blunder of my life, he said.
What was it? Annie asked at once.
But his mood changed. A fly was buzzing somewhere in her small, untidy apartment, which smelled of cats. His mood changed. His spirit changed.
He did not reply. After a while Annie yawned. I’ve never made any really bad mistakes, she said. Unless I’ve forgotten.
You’re perfect, he said.
She laughed, irritated.
. . . Perfect. So beautiful, so confident. . . . So much at home in your body. . . .
He caressed her and forced himself to think of her, only of her. It was not true that she was beautiful but she was striking red hair, brown eyes, a quick tense dancer’s body—and he saw how other people looked at her, women as well as men. It was a fact. He loved her, he was silly and dizzy and sickened with love for her. and he did not wish to think of his reckless mistake of that other autumn. It had had its comic aspects, but it had been humiliating. And dangerous. While on a business trip to Atlanta he had strolled downtown and in a dimly lit bar had drifted into a conversation with a girl, a beautiful blond in her twenties, softspoken and sweet and very shy. She agreed to come back with him to his hotel room for a nightcap. but partway back, on the street, John sensed something wrong, something terribly wrong, he heard his voice rattling on about the marvelous view from his room on the twentieth floor of the hotel and about how fine an impression Atlanta was making on him—then in mid-sentence he stopped, staring at the girl’s heavily made-up face and at the blond hair which was certainly a wig— he stammered that he had made a mistake, he would have to say good night now; he couldn’t bring her back to the room after all. She stared at him belligerently. She asked what was wrong, just what in hell was wrong?—her voice cracking slightly so that he knew she wasn’t a girl, a woman, at all. It was a boy of about twenty-five. He backed away and the creature asked why he had changed his mind, wasn’t she good enough for him. who did he think he was? Bastard! Shouting after John as he hurried away: who did he think he was?
I never think about the past, Annie said lazily. She was smoking in bed, her long bare legs crossed at the knee. I mean what the hell?—it’s all over with.
He had not loved any of the others as he loved Annie. He was sure of that.
He thought of her, raking leaves. A lawn crew serviced the Reddingers’ immense lawn but he sometimes raked leaves on the weekend, for the pleasure of it. He worked until his arm and shoulder muscles ached. Remarkable, he thought. Life, living. In this body. Now.
She crowded out older memories. Ah, she was ruthless! An Amazon, a Valkyrie maiden. Beautiful. Unpredictable. She obliterated other women, other sweetly painful memories of women. That was her power.
Remarkable, he murmured.
He looked around. His eleven-year-old daughter, Sally, was screaming at him.
Daddy, I’ve been calling and calling you from the porch, couldn’t you hear me?— Momma wants you for something! A big grin. Amused, she was, at her father’s absentmindedness; and she had a certain sly, knowing look as well, as if she could read his thoughts.
But of course that was only his imagination.
He’s just a friend of mine, an old friend, Annie said vaguely. He doesn’t count.
A friend from where?
From around town.
From around town.
A girl in a raw, unfinished painting. Like the crude canvases on exhibit at the gallery, that day he had drifted by: something vulgar and exciting about the mere droop of a shoulder, the indifference of a strand of hair blown into her eyes. And the dirt-edged fingernails. And the shoes with the run-over heels. She was raw, unfinished, lazy, slangy, vulgar, crude, mouthing in her cheerful insouciant voice certain words and phrases John Reddinger would never have said aloud, in the presence of a member of the opposite sex; but at the same time it excited him to know that she was highly intelligent, and really well-educated, with a master’s degree in art history and a studied, if rather flippant, familiarity with the monstrousness of contemporary art. He could not determine whether she was as impoverished as she appeared or whether it was a pose, an act. Certain items of clothing, he knew, were expensive. A suede leather coat, a pair of knee-high boots, a long skirt of black soft wool. And one of her rings might have been genuine. But much of the time she looked shabby—ratty. She nearly fainted once, at the airport; she had confessed she hadn’t eaten for a while, had run out of money that week. In San Francisco, where she spent three days with him, she had eaten hungrily enough and it had pleased him to feed her, to nourish her on so elementary a level.
Who bought you this? he asked, fingering the sleeve of her coat.
What? This? I bought it myself.
Who paid for it?
It’s a year old. I bought it myself.
It’s very beautiful.
He supposed, beforehand, that they would lose contact with each other when Christmas approached. The routine of life was upset, schedules were radically altered, obligations increased. He disliked holidays; yet in a way he liked them, craved them. Something wonderful must happen! Something wonderful must happen soon.
He was going to miss her, he knew.
She chattered about something he wasn’t following. A sculptor she knew, his odd relationship with his wife. A friend. A former friend. She paused and he realized it was a conversation and he must reply, must take his turn. What was she talking about? Why did these girls talk so, when he wanted nothing so much as to stare at them, in silence, in pained awe? — don’t really have friends any longer, he said slowly. It was a topic he and his wife had discussed recently. She had read an article on the subject in a woman’s magazine: American men of middle age. especially in the higher income brackets, tended to have very fewclose friends, very few indeed. It was sad. It was unfortunate. I had friends in high school and college, he said, but I’ve lost touch . . . we’ve lost touch. It doesn’t seem to happen afterward, after you grow up. Friendship, I mean.
God, that’s sad. That’s really sad. She shivered, staring at him. Her eyes were darkly brown and lustrous, at times almost too lustrous. They reminded him of a puppy’s eyes.
Yes. I suppose it is, he said.
On New Year’s Eve, driving from a party in Lathrup Park to another party in Wausau Heights, he happened to see a young woman who resembled Annie—in mink to mid-calf, her red hair fastened in a bun. being helped out of a sports car by a young man. That girl! Annie! His senses leaped, though he knew it wasn’t Annie.
For some reason the connection between them had broken. He didn’t know why. He had had to fly to London; and then it was mid-December and the holidaY season; then it was early January. He had tried to telephone two or three times, without success. His feeling for her ebbed. It was curiousother faces got in the way of hers, distracting him. Over the holidays there were innumerable parties: brunches and luncheons and cocktail parties and open houses and formal dinner parties and informal evening parties, a press of people, friends and acquaintances and strangers, all demanding his attention. He meant to telephone her, meant to send a small gift, but time passed quickly and he forgot.
After seeing the girl on New Year’s Eve, however, he found himself thinking again of Annie. He lay in bed. sleepless, a little feverish, thinking of her. They had done certain things together and now he tried to picture them, from a distance. How he had adored her! Bold, silly, gawky, beautiful, not afraid to sit slumped in a kitchen chair, naked, pale, her uncombed hair in her eyes, drinking coffee with him as he prepared to leave. Not afraid of him—not afraid of anyone. That had been her power.
His imagination dwelt upon her. The close, stale, half-pleasant odor of her apartment, the messy bed, the lipstickand mascara-smeared pillows, the ghostly presence of other men, strangers to him, and yet brothers of a kind: brothers. He wondered if any of them knew about him. (And what would she say?—what might her words be, describing him?) It excited him to imagine her haphazard, promiscuous life; he knew she was entirely without guilt or shame or self-consciousness, as if, born of a different generation, she were of a different species as well.
At the same time, however, he was slightly jealous. When he thought at length about the situation he was slightly jealous. Perhaps, if he returned to her, he would ask her not to see any of the others.
What have you been doing? What is your life, now?
Why do you want to know?
I miss you— missed you.
Did you really?
In early March he saw her again, but only for lunch. She insisted he return to the gallery to see their current show—ugly, frantic, oversized hunks of sheet metal and aluminum, seemingly thrown at will onto the floor. She was strident, talkative from the several glasses of wine she had had at lunch, a lovely girl, really, whose nearness seemed to constrict his chest, so that he breathed with difficulty. And so tall—five feet ten, at least. With her long red hair and her dark, intense eyes and her habit of raising her chin, as if in a gesture of hostility, she was wonderfully attractive; and she knew it. But she would not allow him to touch her.
I think this is just something you’re doing, she said. I mean—something you’re watching yourself do.
When can I see you?
I don’t know. I don’t want to.
They talked for a while, pointlessly. He felt his face redden. She was backing away, with that pose of self-confidence, and he could not stop her. But I love you! I love you! —Had he said these words aloud? She looked so frightened, he could not be certain.
Afraid! he laughed. Don’t be ridiculous.
One day in early summer he came to her, in a new summer suit of pale blue, a lover, his spirit young and gay and light as dandelion seed. She was waiting for him in a downtown square. She rose from the park bench as he appeared, the sun gleaming in her hair, her legs long and elegant in a pair of cream-colored trousers. They smiled. They touched hands. Was it reckless, to meet the girl here, where people might see him?—at midday? He found that he did not care.
We can’t go to my apartment.
We can go somewhere else.
He led her to his car. They were both smiling. Where are we going? she asked.
For the past several weeks a girl cousin of hers had been staying with her in the apartment, so they had been going to motels; the motels around the airport were the most convenient. But today he drove to the expressway and out of the city, out along the lake, through the suburban villages north of the city; Elmwood Farms, Spring Arbor, Wausau Heights, Lathrup Park. He exited at Lathrup Park.
Where are we going? she asked.
He watched her face as he drove along Washburn Lane, which was graveled and tranquil and hilly. Is this—? Do you live—? she asked. He brought her to the big red-brick colonial he had bought nearly fifteen years ago; it seemed to him that the house had never looked more handsome, and the surrounding trees and blossoming shrubs had never looked more beautiful.
Do you like it? he asked.
He watched her face. He was very excited.
But— Where is— Aren’t you afraid—?
There’s no one home, he said.
He led her through the foyer, into the living room with its thick wine-colored rug, its gleaming furniture, its many windows. He led her through the formal dining room and into the walnut-paneled recreation room where his wife had hung lithographs and had arranged innumerable plants, some of them hanging from the ceiling in clay pots, spidery-leafed, lovely. He saw the girl’s eyes dart from place to place.
You live here, she said softly.
In an alcove he kissed her and made them each a drink. He kissed her again. She shook her hair from her eyes and pressed her forehead against his face and made a small convulsive movement—a shudder, or perhaps it was suppressed laughter. He could not tell.
You live here, she said.
What do you mean by that? he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and moved away. Outside, birds were calling to one another excitedly. It was early summer. It was summer again. The world renewed itself and was beautiful. Annie wore the cream-colored trousers and a red jersey blouse that fitted her tightly and a number of bracelets that jingled as she walked. Her ears were pierced; she wore tiny loop earrings. On her feet, however, were shoes that pleased him less—scruffy sandals, once black, now faded to no color at all.
Give me a little more of this, she said, holding out the glass.
My beauty, he said. My beautiful girl.
She asked him why he had brought her here and he said he didn’t know. Why had he taken the risk?—why was he taking it at this moment, still? He said he didn’t know, really; he didn’t usually analyze his own motives.
Maybe because it’s here in this room, in this bed, that I think about you so much, he said.
She was silent for a while. Then she kicked about, and laughed, and chattered. He was sleepy, pleasantly sleepy. He did not mind her chatter, her high spirits. While she spoke of one thing or another—of childhood memories, of nicknames—Raggedy Ann they had called her, and it fitted her, he thought, bright red hair like straw and a certain ungainly but charming manner—what had been the boy’s name, the companion to Raggedy Ann?— Andy?—he watched through half-closed eyes the play of shadows on the ceiling, imagining that he could smell the pines, the sunshine, the rich thick grass, remembering himself at the windows of this room not long ago, staring out into the night, moved almost to tears by an emotion he could not have named. You’re beautiful, he told Annie, there’s no one like you. No one. He heard his mother’s voice: Arthritis, you don’t know what it’s like—you don’t know! A woman approached him, both hands held out, palms up, appealing to him, the expanse of bare pale flesh troubling to him because he did not know what it meant. You don’t know, don’t know. He tried to protest but no words came to him. Don’t know, don’t know. Don’t know. His snoring disturbed him. For an instant he woke, then sank again into a warm grayish ether. His wife was weeping. The sound of her weeping was angry. You brought that creature here—that filthy sick thing—you brought her to our bed to soil it, to soil me—to kill me— Again he wanted to protest. He raised his hands in a gesture of innocence and helplessness. But instead of speaking he began to laugh. His torso and belly shook with laughter. The bed shook. It was mixed suddenly with a gigantic fly that hovered over the bed, a few inches from his face; then his snoring woke him again and he sat up.
Her things were still lying on the floor. The red blouse lay draped across a chintz-covered easy chair whose bright red and orange flowers, glazed, dramatic, seemed to be throbbing with energy. Annie? Are you in the bathroom?
The bathroom door was ajar, the light was not on. He got up. He saw that it was after two. A mild sensation of panic rose in his chest, for no reason. He was safe. They were safe here. No one would be home for hours—the first person to come home, at about 3:30, would be Sally. His wife had driven with several other women to a bridge luncheon halfway across the state and would not be home, probably, until after six. The house was silent. It was empty.
He thought: What if she steals something?
But that was ridiculous and cruel. Annie would never do anything like that.
No one was in this bathroom, which was his wife’s. He went to a closet and got a robe and put it on, and went out into the hallway, calling Annie?—Honey?—and knew, before he turned the knob to his own bathroom, that she was in there and that she would not respond. Annie? What’s wrong?
The light switch to the bathroom operated a fan; the fan was on; he pressed his ear against the door and listened. Had she taken a shower? He didn’t think so. Had not heard any noises. Annie, he said, rattling the knob, are you in there, is anything wrong? He waited. He heard the fan whirring. Annie? His voice was edged with impatience. Annie, will you unlock the door? Is anything wrong?
She said something—the words were sharp and unintelligible.
Annie? What? What did you say?
He rattled the knob again, angrily.
What did you say? I couldn’t—
Again her high, sharp voice. It sounded like an animal’s shriek. But the words were unintelligible.
Annie? Honey? Is something wrong?
He tried to fight his panic. He knew, he knew. Must get the bitch out of there. Out of the house. He knew. But if he smashed the paneling on the door?—how could he explain it? He began to plead with her, in the voice he used on Sally, asking her to please be good, be good, don’t make trouble, don’t make a fuss, why did she want to ruin everything? Why did she want to worry him?
He heard the lock being turned, suddenly.
He opened the door.
She must have taken the razor blade out of his razor, which she had found in the medicine cabinet. Must have leaned over the sink and made one quick, deft, hard slash with it—cutting the fingers of her right hand also. The razor blade slipped from her then and fell into the sink. There was blood on the powder blue porcelain of the sink and the toilet, and on the fluffy black rug, and on the mirror, and on the blue and white tiled walls. When he opened the door and saw her, she screamed, made a move as if to strike him with her bleeding arm, and for an instant he could not think: could not think: what had happened, what was happening, what had this girl done to him? Her face was wet and distorted. Ugly. She was sobbing, whimpering. There was blood, bright blood, smeared on her breasts and belly and thighs: he had never seen anything so repulsive in his life.
He was paralyzed. Yet, in the next instant, a part of him came to life. He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her arm, struggling with her. Stop! Stand still! For God’s sake! He held her; she went limp; her head fell forward. He wrapped the towel tight around her arm. Tight, tight. They were both panting.
Why did you do it? Why? Why? You’re crazy! You’re sick! This is a—this is a terrible, terrible—a terrible thing, a crazy thing—
Her teeth were chattering. She had begun to shiver convulsively.
Did you think you could get away with it? With this? he cried.
I hate you—
Stop, be still!
I hate you—I don’t want to live—
She pushed past him, she staggered into the bedroom. The towel came loose. He ran after her and grabbed her and held the towel against the wound again, wrapping it tight, so tight she flinched. His brain reeled. He saw blood, splotches of blood, starlike splashes on the carpet, on the yellow satin bedspread that had been pulled onto the floor. Stop. Don’t fight. Annie, stop. God damn you, stop!
I don’t want to live—
You’re crazy, you’re sick! Shut up!
The towel was soaked. He stooped to get something else—his shirt—he wrapped that around the outside of the towel, trembling so badly himself that he could hardly hold it in place. The girl’s teeth were chattering. His own teeth were chattering.
Why did you do it! Oh you bitch, you bitch!
After some time the bleeding was under control. He got another towel, from his wife’s bathroom, and wrapped it around her arm again. It stained, but not so quickly. The bleeding was under control; she was not going to die.
He had forced her to sit down. He crouched over her, breathing hard, holding her in place. What if she sprang up, what if she ran away?— through the house? He held her still. She was spiritless, weak. Her eyes were closed. In a softer voice he said, as if speaking to a child: Poor Annie, poor sweet girl, why did you do it, why, why did you want to hurt yourself, why did you do something so ugly. . . ? It was an ugly, ugly thing to do. . . .
Her head slumped against his arm.
He walked her to the cab, holding her steady. She was white-faced, haggard, subdued. Beneath the sleeve of her blouse. wound tightly and expertly, were strips of gauze and adhesive tape. The bleeding had stopped. The wound was probably not too deep had probably not severed an important vein.
Seeing her, the taxi driver got out and offered to help. But there was no need. John waved him away.
Slide in, he told Annie. Can you make it? Watch out for your head.
He told the driver her address in the city. He gave the man a fifty-dollar bill, folded.
Thanks, the man said gravely.
It was 2:55.
From the living room, behind one of the windows, he watched the cab descend the drive— watched it turn right on Washburn Lane—watched its careful progress along the narrow street. He was still trembling. He watched the blue and yellow cab wind its way along Washburn Lane until it was out of sight. Then there was nothing more to see: grass, trees, foliage, blossoms, his neighbors’ homes.
Tilsons . . . Dwyers . . . Pilkers . . . Raiddingers. . .Schells.
He must have spoken aloud; he heard his own slow dazed voice. But what he had said, what words those were, he did not know. □