“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a short story written by prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates (A Garden of Earthly Delights), which was first published by Cornell University in the Fall 1966 issue of their literary magazine, Epoch. The work of fiction was based on the article “The Pied Piper of Tucson” written by Don Moser, which was published in Life Magazine on March 4, 1966. Moser’s article dealt with the murders of three teenage girls in Tucson, Arizona committed by Charles Schmid; a man who was so self-conscious about his looks, that he would stuff crushed beer cans into his boots to make himself appear taller. After murdering his first victim, Alleen Rowe, and getting away with it, Schmid killed his girlfriend Gretchen Fritz and her sister, Wendy. The braggadocios Schmid, showed his friend, Richard Bruns, the location in the Tucson desert where the bodies were buried. Bruns kept quiet until he felt his girlfriend was the next person Schmid intended to kill, prompting him to tell the authorities everything.

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The main protagonist of the story, set in the 1960s, is Connie, a fifteen year old girl, who comes across as self-absorbed and vain.  She compares and contrasts her looks with those of both her twenty-four year old sister June, and her mother. Connie admits, her mother used to be attractive, as evidenced by the pictures she has seen of her in old photos, but her looks have faded. Connie’s main drive seems to be wanting to escape the dullness of her home life. She is tired of her mother who is always on her case, for example, wanting her to clean up her room, and to stop using odorous hair spray; as well as the comparisons to her mature, responsible sister June, who her mother wants Connie to emulate. Conversely, her father, who is almost an afterthought in the story, is described by Connie as someone who works a great deal, comes home and reads the newspaper while eating, goes to bed, and then repeats the cycle the next day.

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One way Connie experiences freedom, in the story, is by going to the mall and the movies in the evenings, at least that is what she and her friends do some of the time. On other nights, as soon as they were dropped off, they would sneak across the highway to the drive-in restaurant, which is described as being shaped like a big bottle, only squatter, where the older kids, especially older guys, were socializing. As Oates describes in the story, everything about Connie had two sides to it – the way she dressed –  the makeup she wore, or didn’t wear – the way she walked – even her laugh, which was cynical at home, but nervous sounding when she was in the company of others.

One evening at the restaurant, while spending time with a boy named Eddie, Connie attracts the attention of another boy, a man actually. The following is the way Oates writes the brief encounter with the man, which sets up the second half of the story:

“A boy named Eddie came in to talk with them. He sat backwards on his stool, turning himself jerkily around in semicircles and then stopping and turning back again, and after a while he asked Connie if she would like something to eat. She said she would and so she tapped her friend’s arm on her way out—her friend pulled her face up into a brave, droll look—and Connie said she would meet her at eleven, across the way. “I just hate to leave her like that,” Connie said earnestly, but the boy said that she wouldn’t be alone for long. So they went out to his car, and on the way Connie couldn’t help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music. She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face just a few feet from hers. It was a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold. He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin. Connie slit her eyes at him and turned away, but she couldn’t help glancing back and there he was, still watching her. He wagged a finger and laughed and said, “Gonna get you, baby,” and Connie turned away again without Eddie noticing anything.”

The reader will learn that the man’s name is Arnold Friend. He and his pal Ellie show up at Connie’s house the day after he sees her at the drive-in. Opting not to go to a barbecue at her aunt’s house, she is home alone, outside sunbathing. While listening to music on the radio, she hears a car coming up the gravel drive, and knows that it is too early for her family to be returning home. When Connie opens the door, she sees Arnold and Ellie. Arnold lets her know that he has come to take her for a ride. He tries hard at first to put Connie at ease, but the more they talk, the more she notices things about him that increasingly make her feel uncomfortable.

“She could see then that he wasn’t a kid, he was much older—thirty, maybe more. At this knowledge her heart began to pound fast.”

In addition to Friend’s age, which he told her was eighteen, he appears to be wearing a wig, and there is something off about his style of dress. He is wearing jeans stuffed into his boots, like the teenage guys Connie knows, but he walks funny, making her think that he has put something in his boots to compensate for his height. After back and forth conversation, with Arnold trying to get Connie to come with him willingly, she refuses. When she tells him this, any pretense he had at charm, which she saw through anyway, is gone, replaced by a conversational tone that is forceful. Arnold lets Connie know that she can stay in the house, as long as she doesn’t use the telephone to call anyone for help. The second she picks up the phone and begins dialing, he is coming in. He also lets her know, several different times, that if she decides to stay in the house, waiting for her family to arrive and save the day, that once they do return home, he is going to hurt them.

Will Connie leave with Arnold? Does she take her chances and ignore his threats by waiting for her family to return home, or calling for help? If she does get into Arnold’s car will that be the last anyone sees of her? Perhaps none of those questions matter. Since the story was first published, literary critics, and those who read Oates’ work have speculated that Arnold Friend was nothing more than a product of Connie’s imagination. The story does contain a good deal of ambiguity, especially in the second part of the narrative. The following is a passage, that people who believe that the later portion of the story is dream, speaks to the fact that Connie never woke up, after she falls asleep sunbathing:

“Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was, the back yard ran off into weeds and a fence-like line of trees and behind it the sky was perfectly blue and still. The asbestos ranch house that was now three years old startled her—it looked small. She shook her head as if to get awake.”

Furthermore, while struggling about whether to get into Arnold’s car, in order to spare her family from getting hurt, those who speculate that the encounter with Friend is a dream, use this passage among others to make their point.

“The kitchen looked like a place she had never seen before, some room she had run inside but that wasn’t good enough, wasn’t going to help her. The kitchen window had never had a curtain, after three years, and there were dishes in the sink for her to do—probably—and if you ran your hand across the table you’d probably feel something sticky there.”

Oates, who is a five time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and winner of two O. Henry Awards, and a National Book Award, dedicated the story to Bob Dylan. She had been interested in exploring the evil nature of Charles Schmid, after reading about him, and his deplorable actions in the Life Magazine article, but it was Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,”  which inspired Oates to sit down and write what has become one of her most read and discussed pieces. I have not seen it, so I can’t offer my opinion as to whether it is good, bad or mediocre, but the 1985 movie “Smooth Talk”  directed by Joyce Chopra, which stars Golden Globe and Emmy nominee, Treat Williams (Everwood) and four time, Golden Globe winner, Laura Dern (Enlightened) was adapted from Oates story.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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4 Responses to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

  1. Jay says:

    It’s amazing how much you can get out of a short story. Oates is one of the best at the game. This is definitely worth the look.

  2. Emily Ross says:

    I adore this chilling masterpiece of a short story and it is interesting analyzing it in relation to the facts of the case. I did a lot of research on this case especially on Schmid, and looked at the Oates story with an eye to what she used from the case and how she changed it. You might be interested in my debut novel, Half in Love with Death (Merit Press 2015). It is also inspired by the Pied Piper of Tucson.

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