Four Summers

Joyce Carol Oates

It is some kind of special day. “Where’s Sissie?” Ma says. Her face gets sharp, she is frightened. When I run around her chair she laughs and hugs me. She is pretty when she laughs. Her hair is long and pretty.

We are sitting at the best table of all, out near the water. The sun is warm and the air smells nice. Daddy is coming back from the building with some glasses of beer, held in his arms. He makes a grunting noise when he sits down.

“Is the lake deep?” I ask them.

They don’t hear me, they’re talking. A woman and a man are sitting with us. The man marched in the parade we saw just a while ago; he is a volunteer fireman and is wearing a uniform. Now his shirt is pulled open because it is hot. I can see the dark curly hair way up by his throat.

A man in a soldier’s uniform comes over to us. They are all friends, but I can’t remember him. We used to live around here, Ma told me, and then we moved away. The men are laughing. The man in the uniform leans back against the railing, laughing, and I am afraid it will break and he will fall into the water.

“Can we go out in a boat? Dad?” says Jerry.

He and Frank keep running back and forth. I don’t want to go with them, I want to stay by Ma. She smells nice. Frank’s face is dirty with sweat. “Dad,” he says, whining, “can’t we go out in a boat? Them kids are going out.”

A big lake is behind the building and the open part where we are sitting. Some people are rowing on it. This tavern is noisy and everyone is laughing; it is too noisy for Dad to think about what Frank said.

“Harry,” says Ma, “the kids want a boatride. Why don’t you leave off drinking and take them?”

“What?” says Dad.

He looks up from laughing with the men. His face is damp with sweat and he is happy. “Yeah, sure, in a few minutes. Go over there and play and I’ll take you out in a few minutes.”

The boys run out back by the rowboats, and I run after them. I have a bag of potato chips.

An old man with a white hat pulled down over his forehead is sitting by the boats, smoking. “You kids be careful,” he says.

Frank is leaning over and looking at one of the boats. “This here is the best one,” he says.

“Why’ s this one got water in it?” says Jerry.

“You kids watch out. Where’s your father?” the man says.

“He’s gonna take us for a ride,” says Frank.

“Where is he?”

The boys run along, looking at the boats that are tied up. They don’t bother with me. The boats are all painted dark green, but the paint is peeling off some of them in little pieces. There is water inside some of them. We watch two people come in, a man and a woman. The woman is giggling. She has on a pink dress and she leans over to touch one finger in the water. “What’s all this filthy stuff by the shore?” she says. There is some scum in the water. It is colored a light brown, and there are little seeds and twigs and leaves in it.

The man helps the woman out of the boat. They laugh together. Around their rowboat little waves are still moving; they make a churning noise that I like.

“Where’s Dad?” Frank says.

“He ain’t coming,” says Jerry.

I am sitting close to him, facing him, and it surprises me what he looks like—he is like a stranger, with his eyes narrowed.

They are tossing pebbles out into the water. Frank throws his sideways, twisting his body. He is ten and very big. “I bet he ain’t coming,” Jerry says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

After a while we go back to the table. Behind the table is the white railing, and then the water, and then the bank curves out so that the weeping willow trees droop over the water. More men in uniforms, from the parade, are walking by.

“Dad,” says Frank, “can’t we go out? Can’t we? There’s a real nice boat there—”

“For Christ’s sake, get them off me,” Dad says. He is angry with Ma. “Why don’t you take them out?”

“Honey, I can’t row.”

“Should we take out a boat, us two?” the other woman says. She has very short wet-looking hair. It is curled in tiny little curls close to her head and is very bright. “We’ll show them, Lenore. Come on, let’s give your kids a ride. Show these guys how strong we are.”

“That’s all you need, to sink a boat,” her husband says.

They all laugh.

The table is filled with brown beer bottles and wrappers of things. I can feel how happy they all are together, drawn together by the round table. I lean against Ma’s warm leg and she pats me without looking down. She lunges forward and I can tell even before she says something that she is going to be loud.

“You guys’re just jealous! Afraid we’ll meet some soldiers!” she says.

“Can’t we go out, Dad? Please?” Frank says. “We won’t fight . . .”

“Go and play over there. What’re those kids doing—over there?” Dad says, frowning. His face is damp and loose, the way it is sometimes when he drinks. “In a little while, okay? Ask your mother.”

“She can’t do it,” Frank says.

“They’re just jealous,” Ma says to the other woman, giggling. “They’re afraid we might meet somebody somewhere.”

“Just who’s gonna meet this one here?” the other man says, nodding with his head at his wife.

Frank and Jerry walk away. I stay by Ma. My eyes burn and I want to sleep, but they won’t be leaving for a long time. It is still daylight. When we go home from places like this it is always dark and getting chilly and the grass by our house is wet.

“Duane Dorsey’s in jail,” Dad says. “You guys heard about that?”

“Duane? Yeah, really?”

“It was in the newspaper. His mother-in-law or somebody called the police, he was breaking windows in her house.”

“That Duane was always a nut!”

“Is he out now, or what?”

“I don’t know, I don’t see him these days. We had a fight,” Dad says.

The woman with the short hair looks at me. “She’s a real cute little thing,” she says, stretching her mouth. “She drink beer, Lenore?”

“I don’t know.”

“Want some of mine?”

She leans toward me and holds the glass by my mouth. I can smell the beer and the warm stale smell of perfume. There are pink lipstick smudges on the glass.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” her husband says.

When he talks rough like that I remember him: we were with him once before.

“Are you swearing at me?” the woman says.

“Leave off the kid, you want to make her a drunk like yourself?”

“It don’t hurt, one little sip . . .”

“It’s okay,” Ma says. She puts her arm around my shoulders and pulls me closer to the table.

“Let’s play cards. Who wants to?” Dad says.

“Sissie wants a little sip, don’t you?” the woman says. She is smiling at me and I can see that her teeth are darkish, not nice like Ma’s.

“Sure, go ahead,” says Ma.

“I said leave off that, Sue, for Christ’s sake,” the man says. He jerks the table. He is a big man with a thick neck; he is bigger than Dad. His eyebrows are blond, lighter than his hair, and

are thick and tufted. Dad is staring at something out on the lake without seeing it. “Harry, look, my goddam wife is trying to make your kid drink beer.”

“Who’s getting hurt?” Ma says angrily.

Pa looks at me all at once and smiles. “Do you want it, baby?”

I have to say yes. The woman grins and holds the glass down to me, and it clicks against my teeth. They laugh. I stop swallowing right away because it is ugly, and some of the beer drips down on me. “Honey, you’re so clumsy,” Ma says, wiping me with a napkin.

“She’s a real cute girl,” the woman says, sitting back in her chair. “I wish I had a nice little girl like that.”

“Lay off of that,” says her husband.

“Hey, did you bring any cards?” Dad says to the soldier.

“They got some inside.”

“Look, I’m sick of cards,” Ma says.

“Yeah, why don’t we all go for a boatride?” says the woman. “Be real nice, something new. Every time we get together we play cards. How’s about a boatride?”

“It better be a big boat, with you in it,” her husband says. He is pleased when everyone laughs, even the woman. The soldier lights a cigarette and laughs. “How come your cousin here’s so skinny and you’re so fat?”

“She isn’t fat,” says Ma. “What the hell do you want? Look at yourself.”

“Yes, the best days of my life are behind me,” the man says. He wipes his face and then presses a beer bottle against it. “Harry, you’re lucky you moved out. It’s all going downhill,

back in the neighborhood.”

“You should talk, you let our house look like hell,” the woman says. Her face is blotched now, some parts pale and some red. “Harry don’t sit out in his back yard all weekend, drinking. He gets something done.”

“Harry’s younger than me.”

Ma reaches over and touches Dad’s arm. “Harry, why don’t you take the kids out? Before it gets dark.”

Dad lifts his glass and finishes his beer. “Who else wants more?” he says.

‘‘I’ll get them, you went last time,” the soldier says.

“Get a chair for yourself,” says Dad. “We can play poker.”

“I don’t want to play poker, I want to play rummy,” the woman says.

“At church this morning Father Reilly was real mad,” says Ma. “He said some kids or somebody was out in the cemetery and left some beer bottles. Isn’t that awful?”

“Duane Dorsey used to do worse than that,” the man says, winking.

“Hey, who’s that over there?”

“You mean that fat guy?”

“Isn’t that the guy at the lumberyard that owes all that money?”

Dad turns around. His chair wobbles and he almost falls; he is angry.

“This goddam place is too crowded,” he says.

“This is a real nice place,” the woman says. She is taking something out of her purse. “I always liked it, didn’t you, Lenore?”

“Sue and me used to come here a lot,” says Ma. “And not just with you two, either.”

“Yeah, we’re real jealous,” the man says.

“You should be,” says the woman.

The soldier comes back. Now I can see that he is really a boy. He runs to the table with the beer before he drops anything. He laughs.

“Jimmy, your ma wouldn’t like to see you drinking!” the woman says happily.

“Well, she ain’t here.”

Even the music is ugly because it belongs to them.

“Are they still living out in the country?” Ma says to the woman.

“Sure. No electricity, no running water, no bathroom—same old thing. What can you do with people like that?”

“She always talks about going back to the old country,” the soldier says. “Thinks she can save up money and go back.”

“Poor old bastards don’t know there was a war,” Dad says. He looks as if something tasted bad in his mouth. “My old man died thinking he could go back in a year or two. Stupid old bastards!”

“Your father was real nice . . .” Ma says.

“Yeah, real nice,” says Dad. “Better off dead.”

Everybody is quiet.

“June Dieter’s mother’s got the same thing,” the woman says in a low voice to Ma. “She’s had it a year now and don’t weigh a hundred pounds—you remember how big she used to be.”

“She was big, all right,” Ma says.

“Remember how she ran after June and slapped her? We were there—some guys were driving us home.”

“Yeah. So she’s got it too.”

“Hey,” says Dad, “why don’t you get a chair, Jimmy? Sit down here.”

The soldier looks around. His face is raw in spots, broken out. But his eyes are nice. He never looks at me.

“Get a chair from that table,” Dad says.

“Those people might want it.”

“Hell, just take it. Nobody’s sitting on it.”

“They might— ”

Dad reaches around and yanks the chair over. The people look at him but don’t say anything. Dad is breathing hard. “Here, sit here,” he says. The soldier sits down.

Frank and Jerry come back. They stand by Dad, watching him. “Can we go out now?” Frank says.


“Out for a boatride.”

“What? No, next week. Do it next week. We’re going to play cards.”

“You said—”

“Shut up, we’ll do it next week.” Dad looks up and shades his eyes. “The lake don’t look right, anyway.”

“Lots of people are out there—”

“I said shut up.”

“Honey,” Ma whispers, “let him alone. Go and play by yourselves.”

“Can we sit in the car?”

“Okay, but don’t honk the horn.”

“Ma, can’t we go for a ride?”

“Go and play by yourselves, stop bothering us,” she says. “Hey, will you take Sissie?”

They look at me. They don’t like me, I can see it, but they take me with them. We run through the crowd and somebody spills a drink—he yells at us. “Oops, got to watch it!” Frank giggles.

We run along the walk by the boat. A woman in a yellow dress is carrying a baby. She looks at us like she doesn’t like us.

Down at the far end some kids are standing together.

“Hey, lookit that,” Frank says.

A blackbird is caught in the scum, by one of the boats. It can’t fly up. One of the kids, a long-legged girl in a dirty dress, is poking at it with a stick.

The bird’s wings keep fluttering but it can’t get out. If it could get free it would fly and be safe, but the scum holds it down.

One of the kids throws a stone at it. “Stupid old goddam bird,” somebody says. Frank throws a stone. They are all throwing stones. The bird doesn’t know enough to turn away. Its feathers are all wet and dirty. One of the stones hits the bird’s head.

“Take that!” Frank says, throwing a rock. The water splashes up and some of the girls scream.

I watch them throwing stones. I am standing at the side. If the bird dies then everything can die, I think. Inside the tavern there is music from the jukebox.

We are at the boathouse tavern again. It is a mild day, a Sunday afternoon. Dad is talking with some men; Jerry and I are waiting by the boats. Mommy is at home with the new baby. Frank went off with some friends of his, to a stock car race. There are some people here, sitting out at the tables, but they don’t notice us.

“Why doesn’t he hurry up?” Jerry says.

Jerry is twelve now. He has pimples on his forehead and chin.

He pushes one of the rowboats with his foot. He is wearing sneakers that are dirty. I wish I could get in that boat and sit down, but I am afraid. A boy not much older than Jerry is squatting on the boardwalk, smoking. You can tell he is in charge of the boats.

“Daddy, come on. Come on,’’ Jerry says, whining. Daddy can’t hear him.

I have mosquito bites on my arms and legs. There are mosquitoes and flies around here; the flies crawl around the sticky mess left on tables. A car over in the parking lot has its radio on loud. You can hear the music all this way. “He’s coming,” I tell Jerry, so he won’t be mad. Jerry is like Dad, the way his eyes look.

“Oh, that fat guy keeps talking to him,” Jerry says.

The fat man is one of the bartenders; he has on a dirty white apron. All these men are familiar. We have been seeing them for years. He punches Dad’s arm, up by the shoulder, and Dad pushes him. They are laughing, though. Nobody is mad.

“I’d sooner let a nigger—” the bartender says. We can’t hear anything more, but the men laugh again.

“All he does is drink,” Jerry says. “I hate him.”

At school, up on the sixth grade floor, Jerry got in trouble last month. The principal slapped him. I am afraid to look at Jerry when he’s mad.

‘‘I hate him, I wish he’d die,” Jerry says.

Dad is trying to come to us, but every time he takes a step backward and gets ready to turn, one of the men says something. There are three men beside him. Their stomachs are big, but Dad’s isn’t. He is wearing dark pants and a white shirt; his tie is in the car. He wears a tie to church, then takes it off. He has his shirtsleeves rolled up and you can see how strong his arms must be.

Two women cross over from the parking lot. They are wearing high heeled shoes and hats and bright dresses—orange and yellow—and when they walk past the men look at them. They go into the tavern. The men laugh about something. The way they laugh makes my eyes focus on something away from them—a bird flying in the sky—and it is hard for me to look anywhere else. I feel as if I’m falling asleep.

“Here he comes,” Jerry says.

Dad walks over to us, with his big steps. He is smiling and carrying a bottle of beer. “Hey, kid,” he says to the boy squatting on the walk, “how’s about a boat?”

“This one is the best,” Jerry says.

“The best, huh? Great.” Dad grins at us. “Okay, Sissie, let’s get you in. Be careful now.” He picks me up even though I am too heavy for it, and sets me in the boat. It hurts a little where he held me, under the arms, but I don’t care.

Jerry climbs in. Dad steps in and something happens—he almost slips, but he catches himself. With the wet oar he pushes us off from the boardwalk.

Dad can row fast. The sunlight is gleaming on the water. I sit very still, facing him, afraid to move. The boat goes fast, and Dad is leaning back and forth and pulling on the oars, breathing hard, doing everything fast like he always does. He is always in a hurry to get things done. He has set the bottle of beer down by his leg, pressed against the side of the boat so it won’t fall.

“There’s the guys we saw go out, before,” Jerry says. Coming around the island is a boat with three boys in it, older than Jerry. “They went on the island. Can we go there too?”

“Sure,” says Dad. His eyes squint in the sun. He is suntanned, and there are freckles on his forehead. I am sitting close to him, facing him, and it surprises me what he looks like—he is like a stranger, with his eyes narrowed. The water beneath the boat makes me feel funny. It keeps us up now, but if I fell over the side I would sink and drown.

“Nice out here, huh?” Dad says. He is breathing hard.

“We should go over that way, to get on the island,” Jerry says.

“This goddam oar has splinters in it,” Dad says. He hooks the oar up and lets us glide. He reaches down to get the bottle of beer. Though the lake and some trees and the buildings back on shore are in front of me, what makes me look at it is my father’s throat, the way it bobs when he swallows. He wipes his forehead. “Want to row, Sissie?” he says.

“Can I?”

“Let me do it,” says Jerry.

“Naw, I was just kidding,” Dad says.

“I can do it. It ain’t hard.”

“Stay where you are,” Dad says.

He starts rowing again, faster. Why does he go so fast? His face is getting red, the way it does at home when he has trouble with Frank. He clears his throat and spits over the side; I don’t like to see that but I can’t help but watch. The other boat glides past us, heading for shore. The boys don’t look over at us.

Jerry and I look to see if anyone else is on the island, but no one is. The island is very small. You can see around it.

“Are you going to land on it, Dad?” Jerry says.

“Sure, okay.” Dad’s face is flushed and looks angry.

The boat scrapes bottom and bumps. “Jump out and pull it in,” Dad says. Jerry jumps out. His shoes and socks are wet now, but Dad doesn’t notice. The boat bumps; it hurts me. I am afraid. But then we’re up on the land and Dad is out and lifting me. “Nice ride, sugar?” he says.

Jerry and I run around the island. It is different from what we thought, but we don’t know why. There are some trees on it, some wild grass, and then bare caked mud that goes down to the water. The water looks dark and deep on the other side, but when we get there it’s shallow. Lily pads grow there; everything is thick and tangled. Jerry wades in the water and gets his pants legs wet. “There might be money in the water,” he says.

Some napkins and beer cans are nearby. There is part of a hotdog bun, with flies buzzing around it.

When we go back by Dad, we see him squatting over the water doing something. His back jerks. Then I see that he is being sick. He is throwing up in the water and making a noise like coughing.

Jerry turns around right away and runs back. I follow him, afraid. On the other side we can look back at the boathouse and wish we were there.

Marian and Betty went to the show, but I couldn’t. She made me come along here with them. “And cut out that snippy face,” Ma said, to let me know she’s watching. I have to help her take care of Linda—poor fat Linda, with her runny nose! So here we are inside the tavern. There’s too much smoke, I hate smoke. Dad is smoking a cigar. I won’t drink any more root beer, it’s flat, and I’m sick of potato chips. Inside me there is something that wants to run away, that hates them. How loud they are, my parents! My mother spilled something on the front of her dress, but does she notice? And my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Joe, they’re here. Try to avoid them. Lucy has false teeth that makes everyone stare at her. I know that everyone is staring at us. I could hide my head in my arms and turn away, I’m so tired and my legs hurt from sunburn and I can’t stand them any more.

“So did you ever hear from them? That letter you wrote?” Ma says to Lucy.

His mouth is soft but wants too much from me.

“I’m still waiting. Somebody said you got to have connections to get on the show. But I don’t believe it. That Howie Masterson that’s the m.c., he’s a real nice guy. I can tell.”

“It’s all crap,” Dad says. “You women believe anything.”

“I don’t believe it,” I say.

“Phony as hell,” says my uncle.

“You do too believe it, Sissie,” says my mother. “Sissie thinks he’s cute. I know she does.”

“I hate that guy,” I tell her, but she and my aunt are laughing. “I said I hate him! He’s greasy.”

“All that stuff is phony as hell,” says my Uncle Joe. He is tired all the time, and right now he sits with his head bowed. I hate his bald head with the little fringe of gray hair on it. At least my father is still handsome. His jaws sag and there are lines in his neck—edged with dirt, I can see, embarrassed—and his stomach is bulging a little against the table, but still he is a handsome man. In a place like this women look at him. What’s he see in her? they think. My mother had her hair cut too short last time; she looks queer. There is a photograph taken of her when she was young, standing by someone’s motorcycle, with her hair long. In the photograph she was pretty, almost beautiful, but I don’t believe it. Not really. I can’t believe it, and I hate her. Her forehead gathers itself up in little wrinkles whenever she glances down at Linda, as if she can’t remember who Linda is.

“Well, nobody wanted you, kid,” she once said to Linda. Linda was a baby then, one year old. Ma was furious, standing in the kitchen where she was washing the floor, screaming: “Nobody wanted you, it was a goddam accident! A accident!” That surprised me so I didn’t know what to think, and I didn’t know if I hated Ma or not; but I kept it all a secret . . . only my girl friends know, and I won’t tell the priest either. Nobody can make me tell. I narrow my eyes and watch my mother leaning forward to say something—it’s like she’s going to toss something out on the table—and think that maybe she isn’t my mother, after all, and she isn’t that pretty girl in the photograph, but someone else.

“A woman was on the show last night that lost two kids in a fire. Her house burned down,” my aunt says loudly. “And she answered the questions right off and got a lot of money and the audience went wild. You could see she was a real lady. I love that guy, Howie Masterson. He’s real sweet.”

“He’s a bastard,” Dad says.

“Harry, what the hell? You never even seen him,” Ma says.

“I sure as hell never did. Got better things to do at night.” Dad turns to my uncle and his voice changes. ‘I’m on the night shift, now.”

“Yeah, I hate that, I . . .”

“I can sleep during the day. What’s the difference?”

“I hate those night shifts.”

“What’s there to do during the day?” Dad says flatly. His eyes scan us at the table as if he doesn’t see anything, then they seem to fall off me and go behind me, looking at nothing.

“Not much,” says my uncle, and I can see his white scalp beneath his hair. Both men are silent.

Dad pours beer into his glass and spills some of it. I wish I could look away. I love him, I think, but I hate to be here. Where would I rather be? With Marian and Betty at the movies, or in my room, lying on the bed and staring at the photographs of movie stars on my walls—those beautiful people that never say anything—while out in the kitchen my mother is waiting for my father to come home, so they can continue their quarrel. It never stops, that quarrel. Sometimes they laugh together, kid around, they kiss. Then the quarrel starts up again in a few minutes.

“Ma, can I go outside and wait in the car?” I say. “Linda’s asleep.”

“What’s so hot about the car?” she says, looking at me.

“I’m tired. My sunburn hurts.”

Linda is sleeping in Ma’s lap, with her mouth open and drooling on the front of her dress. “Okay, go on,” Ma says. “But we’re not going to hurry just for you.” When she has drunk too much there is a struggle in her between being angry and being affectionate; she fights both of them, as if standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips, bracing a strong wind.

When I cross through the crowded tavern I’m conscious of people looking at me. My hair lost its curl because it was so humid today, my legs are too thin, my figure is flat and not nice like Marian’s—I want to hide somewhere, hide my face from them. I hate this noisy place and these people. Even the music is ugly because it belongs to them. Then, when I’m outside, the music gets faint right away and it doesn’t sound so bad. It’s cooler out here. No one is around. Out back, the old rowboats are tied up. Nobody’s on the lake. There’s no moon, the sky is overcast, it was raining earlier.

When I turn around, a man is standing by the door watching me.

“What’re you doing?” he says.


He has dark hair and a tanned face, I think, but everything is confused because the light from the door is pinkish—there’s a neon sign there. My heart starts to pound. The man leans forward to stare at me. “Oh, I thought you were somebody else,” he says.

I want to show him I’m not afraid. “Yeah, really? Who did you think I was?” When we ride on the schoolbus we smile out the windows at strange men, just for fun. We do that all the time. I’m not afraid of any of them.

“You’re not her,” he says.

Some people come out the door and he has to step out of their way. I say to him, “Maybe you seen me around here before. We come here pretty often.”

“Who do you come with?” He is smiling as if he thinks I’m funny. “Anybody I know?”

“That’s my business.”

It’s a game. I’m not afraid. When I think of my mother and father inside, something makes me want to step closer to this man—why should I be afraid? I could be wild like some of the other girls. Nothing surprises me.

We keep on talking. At first I can tell he wants me to come inside the tavern with him, but then he forgets about it; he keeps talking. I don’t know what we say, but we talk in drawling voices, smiling at each other but in a secret knowing way, as if each one of us knew more than the other. My cheeks start to burn. I could be wild like Betty is sometimes—like some of the other girls. Why not? Once before I talked with a man like this, on the bus. We were both sitting in the back. I wasn’t afraid. This man and I keep talking and we talk about nothing, he wants to know how old I am, but it makes my heart pound so hard that I want to touch my chest to calm it. We are walking along the old boardwalk and I say: “Somebody took me out rowing once, here.”

“Is that so?” he says. “You want me to take you out?”

He has a hard, handsome face. I like that face. Why is he alone? When he smiles I know he’s laughing at me, and this makes me stand taller, walk with my shoulders raised.

“Hey, are you with somebody inside there?” he says.

“I left them.”

“Have a fight?”

“A fight, yes.”

He looks at me quickly. “How old are you, anyway?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Girls your age are all alike.”

“We’re not all alike!” I arch my back and look at him in a way I must have learned somewhere—where?—with my lips not smiling but ready to smile, and my eyes narrowed. One leg is turned as if I’m ready to jump away from him. He sees all this. He smiles.

“Say, you’re real cute.”

We’re walking over by the parking lot now. He touches my arm. Right away my heart trips, but I say nothing, I keep walking. High above us the tree branches are moving in the wind. It’s cold for June. It’s late—after eleven. The man is wearing a jacket, but I have on a sleeveless dress and there are goosepimples on my arms.

“Cold, huh?” he says.

He takes hold of my shoulders and leans toward me. This is to show me he’s no kid, he’s grown-up, this is how they do things; when he kisses me his grip on my shoulders gets tighter. “I better go back,” I say to him. My voice is queer.

“What?” he says.

I am wearing a face like one of those faces pinned up in my room, and what if I lose it? This is not my face. I try to turn away from him.

He kisses me again. His breath smells like beer, maybe, it’s like my father’s breath, and my mind is empty; I can’t think what to do. Why am I here? My legs feel numb, my fingers are cold. The man rubs my arms and says, “You should have a sweater or something . . .”

He is waiting for me to say something, to keep on the way I was before. But I have forgotten how to do it. Before, I was Marian or one of the older girls; now I am just myself. I am fourteen. I think of Linda sleeping in my mother’s lap, and something frightens me.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” the man says.

He sees I’m afraid but pretends he doesn’t. He comes to me again and embraces me, his mouth presses against my neck and shoulder, I feel as if I’m suffocating. “My car’s over here,” he says, trying to catch his breath. I can’t move. Something dazzling and icy rises up in me, an awful fear, but I can’t move and can’t say anything. He is touching me with his hands. His mouth is soft but wants too much from me. I think: What is he doing? Do they all do this? Do I have to have it done to me too?

“You cut that out,” I tell him.

He steps away. His chest is heaving and his eyes look like a dog’s eyes, surprised and betrayed. The last thing I see of him is those eyes, before I turn and run back to the tavern.

Jesse says, “Let’s stop at this place. I been here a few times before.”

It’s the “Lakeside Bar.” That big old building with the grubby siding, and a big pink neon sign in front, and the cinder driveway that’s so bumpy. Yes, everything the same. But different, too—smaller, dirtier. There is a custard stand nearby with a glaring orange roof, and people are crowded around it. That’s new. I haven’t been here for years.

“I feel like a beer,” he says.

He smiles at me and caresses my arm. He treats me as if I were something that might break; in my cheap-linen maternity dress I feel ugly and heavy. My flesh is so soft and thick that nothing could hurt it.

“Sure, honey. Pa used to stop in here too.”

We cross through the parking lot to the tavern. Wild grass grows along the sidewalk and in the cracks of the sidewalk. Why is this place so ugly to me? I feel as if a hand were pressing against my chest, shutting off my breath. Is there some secret here? Why am I afraid?

I catch sight of myself in a dusty window as we pass. My hair is long, down to my shoulders. I am pretty, but my secret is that I am pretty like everyone is. My husband loves me for this but doesn’t know it. I have a pink mouth and plucked darkened eyebrows and soft bangs over my forehead; I know everything, I have no need to learn from anyone else now. I am one of those girls younger girls study closely, to learn from. On buses, in five-and-tens, thirteen-year-old girls must look at me solemnly, learning, memorizing.

“Pretty Sissie!” my mother likes to say when we visit, though I told her how I hate that name. She is proud of me for being pretty, but thinks I’m too thin. “You’ll fill out nice, after the baby,” she says. Herself, she is fat and veins have begun to darken on her legs; she scuffs around the house in bedroom slippers. Who is my mother? When I think of her I can’t think of anything—do I love her or hate her, or is there nothing there?

Jesse forgets and walks ahead of me, I have to walk fast to catch up. I’m wearing pastel blue high heels—that must be because I am proud of my legs. I have little else. Then he remembers and turns to put out his hand for me, smiling to show he is sorry. Jesse is the kind of young man thirteen-year-old girls stare at, secretly; he is not a man, not old enough, but not a boy either. He is a year older than I am, twenty. When I met him he was wearing a navy uniform and he was with a girl friend of mine.

Why is a certain kind of simple, healthy, honest man always destined to lose everything?

Just a few people sitting outside at the tables. They’re afraid of rain—the sky doesn’t look good. And how bumpy the ground is here, bare spots and little holes and patches of crabgrass, and everywhere napkins and junk. Too many flies, outside. Has this place changed hands? The screens at the windows don’t fit right; you can see why flies get inside. Jesse opens the door for me and I go in. All bars smell alike. There is a damp, dark odor of beer and something indefinable—spilled soft drinks, pretzels getting stale? This bar is just like any other. Before we were married we went to places like this, Jesse and me and other couples. We had to spend a certain amount of time doing things like that—and going to movies, playing miniature golf, bowling, dancing, swimming—then we got married, now we’re going to have a baby. I think of the baby all the time, because my life will be changed then; everything will be different. Four months from now. I should be frightened, but a calm laziness has come over me. It was so easy for my mother . . . But it will be different with me because my life will be changed by it, and nothing ever changed my mother. You couldn’t change her! Why should I think? Why should I be afraid? My body is filled with love for this baby, and I will never be the same again.

We sit down at a table near the bar. Jesse is in a good mood. My father would have liked him, I think; when he laughs Jesse reminds me of him. Why is a certain kind of simple, healthy, honest man always destined to lose everything? Their souls are as clean and smooth as the muscular line of their arms. At night I hold Jesse, thinking of my father and what happened to him—all that drinking, then the accident at the factory—and I pray that Jesse will be different. I hope that his quick, open, loud way of talking is just a disguise, that really he is someone else—slower and calculating. That kind of man grows old without jerks and spasms. Why did I marry Jesse, then?

Someone at the bar turns around, and it’s a man I think I know—I have known. Yes. That man outside, the man I met outside. I stare at him, my heart pounding, and he doesn’t see me. He is dark, his hair is neatly combed but is thinner than before; he is wearing a cheap gray suit. But is it the same man? He is standing with a friend and looking around, as if he doesn’t like what he sees. He is tired, too. He has grown years older.

Our eyes meet. He glances away. He doesn’t remember—that frightened girl he held in his arms.

I am tempted to put my hand on Jesse’s arm and tell him about that man, but how can I? Jesse is talking about trading in our car for a new one . . . I can’t move, my mind seems to be coming to a stop. Is that the man I kissed, or someone else? A feeling of angry loss comes over me. Why should I lose everything? Everything? Is it the same man, and would he remember? My heart bothers me, it’s stupid to be like this: here I sit powdered and sweet, a girl safely married, pregnant and secured to the earth, with my husband beside me. He still loves me. Our love keeps on. Like my parents’ love, it will subside someday, but nothing surprises me because I have learned everything.

The man turns away, talking to his friend. They are weary, tired of something. He isn’t married yet, I think, and that pleases me. Good. But why are these men always tired? Is it the jobs they hold, the kind of men who stop in at this tavern? Why do they flash their teeth when they smile, but stop smiling so quickly? Why do their children cringe from them sometimes—an innocent upraised arm a frightening thing? Why do they grow old so quickly, sitting at kitchen tables with bottles of beer? They are everywhere, in every house. All the houses in this neighborhood and all neighborhoods around here. Jesse is young, but the outline of what he will be is already in his face; do you think I can’t see it? Their lives are like hands dealt out to them in their innumerable card games. You pick up the sticky cards, and there it is: there it is. Can’t change anything, all you can do is switch some cards around, stick one in here, one over here . . . pretend there is some sense, a secret scheme.

The man at the bar tosses some coins down and turns to go. I want to cry out to him, “Wait, wait!” But I cannot. I sit helplessly and watch him leave. Is it the same man? If he leaves I will be caught here, what can I do? I can almost hear my mother’s shrill laughter, coming in from outside, and some drawling remark of my father’s—lifting for a moment above the music. Those little explosions of laughter, the slap of someone’s hand on the damp table, in anger, the clink of bottles accidentally touching—and there, there, my drunken aunt’s voice, what is she saying? I am terrified at being left with them. I watch the man at the door and think that I could have loved him. I know it.

He has left, he and his friend. He is nothing to me, but suddenly I feel tears in my eyes. What’s wrong with me? I hate everything that springs upon me and seems to draw itself down and oppress me in a way I could never explain to anyone . . . I am crying because I am pregnant but not with that man’s child. It could have been his child, I could have gone with him to his car; but I did nothing, I ran away, I was afraid, and now I’m sitting here with Jesse, who is picking the label off his beer bottle with his thick squarish fingernails. I did nothing. I was afraid. Now he has left me here and what can I do?

I let my hand fall onto my stomach to remind myself that I am in love: with this baby, with Jesse, with everything. I am in love with our house and our life and the future and even this moment—right now—that I am struggling to live through.

Joyce Carol Oates Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over fifty novels, including Black Water, What I Lived For, and Blonde.
Originally published:
March 1, 1967


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