It’s a beautiful day at the height of summer. Connie, fifteen years old, is all alone in the garden, her parents having left her home alone for the day. The “sky was perfectly blue and still”. So, what could go wrong? Everything, of course.
In this story by Joyce Carol Oates there are so many corners at which you’ll be surprised, nonetheless you’re waiting and you’re dreading, always about to have your worst fears realised. The tension is notched up and up and up. The young protagonist, Connie, so adeptly drawn in the seemingly aimless opening, finds herself on the brink of something terrible when a stranger calls.
This stranger is both monstrous and normal. His name is Arnold Friend, which even by itself is creepy. And what follows might well be the best dramatization of the male sexual aggressor: the brow-beating, the oily sweet-talk, the intimidation, the magic of his patter: the gross implausibility and plausibility both. The story is compelling because it is terrible. And it’s terrible because this is just what happens every day. That’s the beauty of this story: it’s the same old story made new.
The way menace is built up in the story, so gently, is itself quite scary. The reader’s experience – not knowing what’s happening, but at the same time knowing all too well – mirrors the young girl’s experience. Just as we are compelled, so too is she. Just as she is caught in the inevitable ways of this world, and the way people are, so too are we. It works as sweetly as a well-tuned Greek tragedy. But the catharsis is contaminated, tainted by our own complicity.
It’s a great short story because it defamiliarises so expertly, showing that the great short story has great utility; great literature does a job; the world is given back to us anew. And it’s more than disturbing when we re-realise that we live in a world like this.
Chosen by Peter Ahern. Peter Ahern is a teacher and reader. Blogs about short stories, long stories and reading at www.onehundredpages.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter at @ahernahern
First published in Epoch, Fall 1966. Collected in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories, Vanguard, 1970 and widely anthologised