Smooth Talk

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home

All your reindeer armies, are all going home

The lover who just walked out your door

Has taken all his blankets from the floor

The carpet, too, is moving under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

—-Bob Dylan, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Yesterday I had time to watch another movie on The Criterion Channel so I scrolled through the offerings and found one I wasn’t expecting. It was called Smooth Talk and was made in 1985. It was directed by Joyce Chopra and featured Laura Dern in her first starring big screen role (a year before Blue Velvet).

I have no idea how I have missed this movie over all these years. You see it is loosely (actually not all that loosely) based on one of the most crackerjack of short stories – Joyce Carol Oates’ ” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.

I have been a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates for a long time and have written about her short stories a few times before. There was Where are You? and Heat – but especially Life After High School – an incredibly interesting, subtle, and complex story.

And there was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. I first read this as a teenager and it made a huge impression on me. I have re-read it every few years and it hasn’t lost its power.

You can read it here. Go ahead, it’s worth it.

The story is based on the true story of “The Pied Piper of Tucson” – a serial killer that seduced and eventually murdered teenage girls in that desert town. Oates read the story in Life magazine (she refers to the killer as a “Tabloid Psychopath”) and then wrote the story as “Death and the Maiden.” She was especially fascinated by the fact that the Tucson teens didn’t realize this monster was a man in his 30s attempting to look young and many went along with the killings, keeping his secret.

During revision she made the story less about the killings and more about the teenage girl. The ending is ambiguous, though you get the feeling that it’s not going to end well.

I remember thinking that the story was unfilmable – it has too many phantasmagorical elements, an enigmatic conclusion,  and too much inside the girl’s head. But it looks like I was wrong.

The movie follows the short story surprisingly well. Obviously, it has to expand on the story quite a bit. Rereading the story, there is a lot to it that is spread out in the first half of the film. The girl’s mother has a bigger, more nuanced part – though a lot of that may be due to the genius of Mary Kay Place. Laura Dern has the young, beautiful, flighty, 15 year old, self-obsessed, stubborn,  teenager-y, Connie down perfectly. The story moved up into the 80’s where it fits better anyway, and the setting of a mall and big teen hangout hamburger stand across a busy road is dead-solid right.

****Spoiler Alert****

But at its mid-point the story and the movie take a sudden, terrifying turn. An odd, dangerous man named Arnold Friend (A Friend) shows up in an old Gold landyacht  convertible with mysterious writing on it. He proceeds to talk to Connie, left at home alone, and tries to talk her into going for a ride with him.

That is the first big difference, to me, between the story and the movie. In the story Arnold Friend is a borderline supernatural force, odd and mysterious (Is he wearing a wig? What is it with his boots? How does he know so much?). It is that character that I considered to be unfilmable. Treat Williams plays him in the movie and he is a bit too good looking and slick – though he does convey his own aura of danger and dread. I guess seeing the devil made flesh was going to be a letdown – but the movie was still interesting and harrowing.

And then, at the end, unlike the story, you find out, sort of, what happened after Connie went off for a ride with Arnold Friend.  He doesn’t kill her, he brings her back. In both versions it is implicit that her going with him was an act of heroism – she went to save her family from danger. Once she returns she seems to have grown a backbone. She tells Friend firmly that she never wants to see him again and then has a reconciliation with her sister. That is not how the story is leading – but it is a valid take and an interesting, almost happy, ending.

One other cool thing is that I discovered a movie review of Smooth Talk written by none other than Joyce Carol Oates herself. There is something amazing about a great writer putting down her thoughts on a film made from her work.

She agrees with me on the short story being ultimately  unfilmable:

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion: Death and Death’s chariot (a funky souped-up convertible) have come for the Maiden. Awakening is, in the story’s final lines, moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waits:

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with [Connie’s] brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

—a conclusion impossible to transfigure into film.

And she acknowledges the choice used in the different ending:

The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine. I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision to reverse the story’s conclusion, turn it upside down, in a sense, so that the film ends not with death, not with a sleepwalker’s crossing over to her fate, but upon a scene of reconciliation, rejuvenation.

Serial killer inspires brilliant terrifying short story which is developed into a movie about a flighty young girl finding herself and her place and purpose. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Cheap Four Seamer by Bill Chance

“People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
― James Earl Jones, Field of Dreams

Nick crossing home plate at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. They let the kids run the bases after an afternoon game – we had to wait for hours for his turn. This would have been right after the Ballpark opened, probably 1995. It’s hard to believe he’s almost thirty years old now. The ballpark closed this year.

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#34). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

Cheap Four Seamer

Tyrone Gibblet hated the little town. He and his mother were there staying with her sister, helping out while she had surgery. They wouldn’t even tell him what she was getting cut on – it was too private.

He was missing summer baseball camp and it was killing him. He was the ace pitcher on his school team. He knew college scouts would be watching. He needed every edge he could get and didn’t want to be set back while stuck in this backwater town.

“A rest will be good for you,” his mother had said, “I’ve cleared it with your coach, he even agrees with me.”

Thinking of that made his blood boil. He was seventeen years old and did not need his mother living his life. Coach would tease him.

Today he was aimlessly ambling down the sidewalk. Everyone there always nodded and said a quick “hello” as they passed each other, their noggins bouncing like bobble heads on a bumpy road. They all knew each other and everyone knew that he didn’t belong there. Their eyes would fall on him and their mouths would screw into odd shapes.

It was driving him crazy.

Then he saw Audrey up ahead on the sidewalk, and his heart skipped a beat. Tyrone had been introduced to her at the church youth picnic last Saturday. He had barely been able to mumble to her, his brain suddenly scrambled by the cataract of blond curls framing oversized sunglasses.

He was trying to decide what to do when she turned and went into a store. His chest was heaving and he felt dizzy. He walked past and turned around three times before he worked up the courage to enter the store.

The space was long, wide, and low, and took up the whole ground floor of a decrepit brick building along Main Street. The ugly painted steel and particleboard shelves held a wild variety of items, from dusty cookware to piles of out-of-style clothes – everything sporting hand-written price tags in bright colors. The long tubes of flickering florescent lights sucked the life out of everything.

A popcorn stand near the entrance filled the air with oily rancid fumes. He looked at the people marching up and down the aisles and couldn’t believe they could stand the awful smell. He guessed they were just used to it – or didn’t care – or didn’t have a choice.

Tyrone had reached the end of one aisle and as he turned the corner to walk back the other way he jumped back, hiding behind a rack of shelves when he saw Audrey. She was studying some towels with her mother. He was afraid to talk to her with her mom standing there – that was for sure.

Tyrone decided to move over into the sporting goods and keep a lookout for Audrey.

His eyes moved over a bin of baseballs. They were cheap imports – the kind his team bought by the bucket for batting practice. He picked one up and turned it over in his hand. Tyrone had his first baseball before he could walk. He had spent thousands of hours gripping one – it felt like it belonged there.

Holding the ball behind his back, like he was waiting for the next batter, turning the sphere in his hands, comforted him. He pulled air deep into his lungs. He closed his eyes and felt at home.

His reverie was cut short by a loud clattering, followed by a sharp scream. He moved over an aisle and saw Audrey collapsed on the floor and a man shaking her mother with one hand grabbing the front of her dress.

The man was screaming a constant roaring rush of obscenity. Aubrey’s mother had given up and was limply letting him shove her around, simply sobbing, “Dan, Dan, please just let us go”

He looked a week unshaven and longer unwashed, wearing a pair of grease-stained denim overalls above a torn undershirt. One strap had come loose and the front flap was flopping around as he jerked at Audrey’s mother.

Without thinking, Tyrone walked forward toward Audrey and she looked up from the dirty linoleum into his eyes. A horrible scream came from her mother and Audrey snapped her head around in panic.

Everything was happening too fast.

He was twenty feet away when the smell washed over him. Old alcohol, mixed with stale sweat and evil filth – an acrid cloud that woke old memories, bad baggage he was always trying to forget.

Then the man’s right arm came up high and, to his horror, Tyrone saw that he had a huge ugly knife. It was a machete, heavy, with a big brush hook – evil and deadly. The man was waving it in the air, shaking, and holding Audrey’s mother tight with his other arm. Audrey saw the weapon and let out a long, horrible whimper.

Tyrone became calm and clear. He spun the baseball with his fingers and brought his feet together, sideways to the terrible scene. He rotated the ball until he could feel the long horseshoe bend of the seam under the tips of his first two fingers and the other curve nestled against the side of his thumb.

A four-seam fastball. That was his money pitch. He could throw it at over ninety miles per hour to any spot he wanted. It would shoot past those poor freckle-faced high school kids before they even had a good look at it. He would sneer as it pounded the catcher’s mitt – with a bang and a puff of dust – long before their bats could even move off their shoulders.

“Hey!” Tyrone shouted, his voice loud and cold. “Hey!”

As the man with the machete turned his head Tyrone began to raise his front leg, throwing from the stretch like there was a fast runner on first. By the time the man’s eyes focused on Tyrone his knee was already lifted up to eye level.

He felt his foot grip the grimy floor and knew he could drive it hard. His entire world was reduced to a tiny rectangle between the man’s eyes. He could see the ragged hairs and rough pores.

Like he had a hundred thousand times before Tyrone let his leg fall down, tilting his body forward. His arm contorted at an inhuman angle, bent like a steel spring, curving like a whip – and as his back leg pushed with all his strength he let the ball fly using every practiced muscle.

In a baseball game, the mound is sixty feet and six inches from home plate. It takes about a half second for a fastball to travel that distance. Only the fastest well-trained eyes can even see that.

The man was only twenty feet away. The ball took less than a quarter of a second to cover that distance. Even though it was hurtling directly toward his face he never saw it coming.

The ball struck him with a terrifically loud and sickening thud. A spray of blood, brain, and bone shot out in a horrific fountain. The ball thumped to the floor, followed by the machete clattering on the linoleum. For a second, the man stood stock still, his head bent back at a sickening angle – then he began to fold.

The man fell in a limp heap. His hand released Audrey’s mother, who tumbled away in a screech.

As his thoughts cleared, Tyrone realized that he had entered into a new chapter of his life, one he had never expected. Everything that had, until now, seemed so important began to fade in his memory. From now on, as long as he lived, he would be a man who had killed someone. He realized that this was an exclusive club, one that nobody really sets out to join.

He had killed a stranger at close range, with only his hands and a baseball. It wasn’t like he had been firing a gun across a war-torn patch or pushed a bomb release. He had been looking this man right in the eye and had been close enough to smell his fetid sweat.

The weapon that he used was the one thing that he was most familiar with, a toy from a child’s game. A toy that in skilled hands became something else. It became life and death.

His hand began to itch, suddenly. He realized that he didn’t have a baseball any more. Tyrone knew then that he would never feel whole again, unless he was turning that ball around behind his back, feeling for the four-seam.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 20 – Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty – Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, by Joyce Carol Oates

Read it online here:

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

or, if you prefer, a PDF version here:
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Well, after yesterday’s bloody and frightening short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I present you another one… even more horrific.

For some reason, I always associate these two stories with each other – there was a time I even conflated the authors a bit. Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates are very different people with very different backgrounds – but both are masters of the grotesque and bizarre realities concealed in this strange world we find ourselves wandering lost in.

I’m not sure which story I like better. Probably today’s – because of its supernatural and symbolic undertones.

The author said it was inspired by the case of the “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” – serial killer Charles Howard ‘Smitty’ Schmid, Jr. But the evil Arnold Friend with his gold convertible and shoes stuffed with newspaper is stranger and more ghastly than any mere human killing machine. He is a pied piper – a strange and mutated siren that draws the young, doomed Connie through the only protection she has – a flimsy screen door.

A while back I wrote about another Joyce Carol Oates story, Life After High School… and it was today’s, I suppose, that convinced me the purpose of that story’s protagonist’s murderous intent. He wasn’t as experienced, skilled, or evil as Albert Friend and he failed – his victim escaped into a life after high school.

Poor doomed beautiful Connie. It’s a shame what happened to her… whatever it was.

Does make for a good story, though.

Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out. The restaurant was shaped like a big bottle, though squatter than a real bottle, and on its cap was a revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft. One night in midsummer they ran across, breathless with daring, and right away someone leaned out a car window and invited them over, but it was just a boy from high school they didn’t like. It made them feel good to be able to ignore him. They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for. They sat at the counter and crossed their legs at the ankles, their thin shoulders rigid with excitement, and listened to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.