Copyright © 1995 by J. Alan Rice. (Reproduced here with the permission of the author.)
The story told in "Heat" could be written as a brief news article, accompanied by a sentimental obituary: "The mutilated bodies of eleven-year-old twins Rhea and Rhoda Kunkel were found near Whipple's Ice on Main Street. Charges of sexual assault and murder will not be pressed against the assused, Roger Whipple, because of his alleged diminished capacity." " Schoolmates recall Rhea and Rhoda." At times, in fact, Oates' arid style seems almost like a newspaper account, stripped of all ornament, each sentence in isolation as if an editor, pressed for space, had blue-pencilled every unnecessary word.
Oates' brief introduction to the story as anthologized in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories explains that this perception is justified:
For the author, the formal challenge of "Heat" was to present a narrative in a seemingly acausal manner, analogous to the playing of a piano sans pedal; as if each paragraph, or chord, were separate from the rest. For how otherwise can we speak of the unspeakable, except through the prism of technique? 
Oates means that the narrative has been pared down to its essentials. The prism image suggests elements separated so that one may see each of them individually. But the musical analogy is perhaps more useful. "Heat" is like a composition of chords and, to use another music theory term, cells (a figure of several notes, or in this case, words or images), thematically linked, but with no sustaining tones from one chord to another. This technique is used within blocks of several paragraphs, within paragraphs, and even within sentences. The cell, or word-images, may be presented wholly, or in fragments, as when in music one hears a figure of notes repeated in first the right hand, then the left, in a major then a minor key, an octave higher or lower.
The story may be best examined in four sections, which (in order to use the musical terminology consistently) I have called movements, and a conclusion, or coda. The "themes" to which I refer are spatiotemporal elements: what or who the narrator is talking about at any particular point in the narration. The term "chord" I lifted directly from Oates herself, and I use it to mean individual paragraphs or a group of closely linked sentences or phrases.
But the most important aspect of the structure of "Heat" is that the final chord, that which the story is about, is missing. Oates' technique is to prepare the reader for it, so that every "note" which would comprise that chord has been heard and every theme explored so that it should come as no surprise. But at the climactic moment, the narrator lifts her hands from the keys. It is this chord-like structure, and the playing each chord individually, that gives the piece its power.
This omission is brought out within the first seven paragraphs. The narrator orients the reader to the time and season in bursts, using stative, or non-dynamic, verbs , and noun clauses, modified by present participles:
It was midsummer, the heat rippling above the macadam roads, cicadas screaming out of the trees, and the sky like pewter, glaring.
The days were the same day, like the shallow, mud-brown river always moving in the same direction but so slow you couldn't see it. Except for Sunday: church in the morning, then the fat Sunday newspaper, the color comics, and newsprint on your fingers. (emphasis added) 
The effect is to give an stagnant, stifling feel to the scene. This motif, however, is broken with the next paragraph, or chord:
Rhea and Rhoda Kunkel went flying on their rusted old bicycles, down the long hill toward the railroad yard, Whipple's Ice, the scrubby pastureland where dairy cows grazed. They'd stolen six dollars from their own grandmother who loved them. They were eleven years old; they were identical twins; they basked in their power. (141)
At once, several of the main cells are introduced: the bicycles, the icehouse (which becomes the site of the nucleus of the fabula), their age, their identity as twins, and the last, intriguing clause: "They basked in their power." From the stative deixis, or orientation, of the first chord, we abruptly are given a dynamic one: went flying. The situation is fleshed out with an anachrony (Toolan, 50-55), or disruption in the temporal sequence: they had (past perfect tense) stolen money. The spatiotemporal orientation is further explained by the old rusted bicycles (these are not wealthy children), by the railroad yard near scrubby pastureland with dairy cows (clearly, a rural locale), by the presence of the establishment "Whipple's Ice" and the use of the term "macadam" as opposed to "asphalt," suggesting the setting that must be some time ago, perhaps the Depression era, before universal home refrigeration.
The rhythm of the paragraph itself suggests a meaning beyond the mere information imparted. The first sentence, with its simple verb, eventually drops even prepositions in favor of a series of noun clauses to give the impression of speed. Guilt, thrill, and defiance all are evident in their haste. But the last sentence, with its clauses of ascending importance, ties the chord together: their age - no longer old enough to be babies but young enough to be uninhibited; the fact that they are twins, of which we will be reminded often; and perhaps the most important cell, their power.
The narrator's empirical description of the twins somehow fails to give us a complete picture of them. We are given certain facts, but tying them together, we still do not see complete people. Their oneness is an enigma:
Rhea and Rhoda Kunkel: it was always Rhea-and-Rhoda, never Rhoda-and-Rhea, I couldn't say why. You just wouldn't say the names that way. Not even the teachers at school would say them that way. (141)
Together, they are a force. But individually, the twins have no particular personality. The narrator, who makes her first-person appearance here, reveals something of the mystique of the twins: some things just are that way, not meant to be comprehended.
The next chord marks the first of many temporal ellipses. (Toolan, 56) From the twins tearing downhill with their loot, suddenly the scene changes:
We went to see them in the funeral parlor where they were waked; we were made to. The twins in twin caskets, white, smooth, gleaming, perfect as plastic, with white satin lining puckered like the inside of a fancy candy box. And the waxy white lilies, and the smell of talcum powder and perfume. The room was crowded; there was only one way in and out. (141)
What is conspicuous is what is not there.
Something happened between the time Rhea and Rhoda were flying from their transgression, at the height of their power, and our new locale, the funeral parlor. Rhea and Rhoda are dead. They are now in twin caskets, the perfection of the caskets in contrast to the rusty bicycles. But it is the omission which is important, and for two reasons. First, the ellipsis, or jump forward, at this critical moment signals to the reader that whatever was left out must contain the nucleus of the story. This is to be about how the twins died, the reader realizes. Second, this break is no mere oversight. The narrator has lifted her hands from the keyboard for a reason.
Even the semantic structure of the paragraph is in curious parallel: the principal verb in the first sentence is went, but "We went to see . . ." as opposed to "went flying." Similarly, "we were made to" uses the passive voice, devoid of action. Though there is an implied link in the crowded, claustrophobic funeral parlor and the heat of the outdoors, the motif is one of stillness, of stagnation, as in the first paragraphs.
Then, there is a return to the "oneness" cell introduced earlier:
Rhea and Rhoda were the same girl; they'd wanted it that way. Only looking from one to the other could you see they were two. (141)
Had they "wanted it that way" in life, or in death? Or both? Either way, the sentence works as a link between the two chords: "They were identical twins . . ." "(They) were the same girl . . . ."
The heat was gauzy; you had to push your way through like swimming. On their bicycles Rhea and Rhoda flew through it hardly noticing, from their grandmother's place on Main Street to the end of South Main where the paved road turned to gravel leaving the town. That was the summer before seventh grade, when they died. Death was coming for them, but they didn't know. (141-2. Emphasis added)
The repeated reference to heat does more than remind the reader of the atmosphere. It is a bridge between the two themes which we are already seeing established: the referent of the funeral parlor (and, as we shall see, the information which arises from that referent), and the referent of whatever happened after the twins' frantic bike ride. The dominant verb - flew - is dynamic; Rhea and Rhoda break through the turgidity to arrive at their final destination.
That destination, of course, is the ice house, symbolically at the end of town, past civilization, past the safety of Grandmother on Main Street, to where the paved road stops. At this point, the last, crucial, cell is introduced: "Death was coming for them." The narrator uses the past progressive tense, as she will frequently in these descriptive pauses, preparing the reader mentally for an action which has yet to occur.
To summarize, the narrator has introduced two themes (Toolan, 36), or events, in the story, both of which will be taken up repeatedly. One is the existence of the twins prior to their death. The main cells are heat, power, oneness, bicycles, and death. The second theme is that of the funeral parlor wake. Its cells also include heat, oneness, and death. By the use of these cells, these repeated images, the narrator has oriented the reader to the spatiotemporal elements of the story.
At this point, the theme of the twins' character is developed.
They thought the same thoughts sometimes at the same moment, had the same dream and went all day trying to remember it, bring it back like something you'd be hauling out of the water on a tangled line . . . Sometimes they were serious and sometimes, remembering, they shrieked and laughed like they were being killed. (142)
It is axiomatic that identical twins share a bond much stronger than that of other siblings. That the narrator expresses the jealousy of her schoolmates indicates why it is that one can't put a distinct personality on the twins. There is something between them that they hold so tightly that it excludes any outsider. One can only watch them, somewhat detached from their true selves. Their sudden shifts in mood are as incomprehensible as the differences between them, and it has been established that this is as they wanted it. Even their mischief is a puzzle, not to be understood:
They stole things out of desks and lockers but if you caught them they'd hand them right back; it was like a game. (142)The theft-cell is reiterated, and the past probable mode, indicating habitual action, is used. But now, the idea of the "game" - a new note-cluster - is introduced, an element that like most of the others, will be elaborated on further.
The recollection of the twins' behavior is set in counterpoint to the locale in which it takes place: the funeral parlor. The narrator returns to it in the next paragraph/chord. It is worth looking at in some detail, in that it exemplifies the modulation from one theme to another.
There were three floor fans in the funeral parlor that I could see, tall whirring fans with propeller blades turning fast to keep the warm air moving. Strange little gusts came from all directions, making your eyes water. By this time Roger Whipple was arrested, taken into police custody. No one had hurt him. He would never stand trial; he was ruled mentally unfit and would never be released from confinement. (142)
We are reminded of the heat and closeness of the parlor. The perspective of the narrator (we gather that she is of the twins' age: "We were made to go"; "We were jealous. None of us had a twin") is that of a child, looking up at the fans, unable to see more because of the crowd of adults. Abruptly, there is a shift: "By this time . . ." denoting a past action, informing us of an event which has taken place elsewhere: Roger Whipple's arrest has colored the wake, and there is a sense of some finality. The deed has been done, and the killer apprehended. Then, a prolepse (Toolan, 50): The narrator jumps forward in time from the wake to something about that killer that would happen in the future, and yet has already occurred at the time of the telling: "He would never stand trial; he was ruled . . . would never be released . . ."
The last sentence, and the first of the next paragraph, forecast a new time frame, something closer to the narrator's present time. The narrator is recalling the events - the "functions" (Toolan, 14) - from a temporal distance. Already implied is a time when icehouses were still in use and when mortuaries were funeral parlors. Now, we know that the narrator has lived long enough to know about the death of one of the main characters, some time after the event:
He died there, in the state psychiatric hospital, years later, and was brought back home to be buried . . . Rhea and Rhoda Kunkel were buried in the same cemetery, the First Methodist . . . (142)Then, shifting back to the immediate orientation of the funeral parlor:
In the caskets the dead girls did not look like anyone we knew, really. They were placed on their backs with their eyes closed . . .
What had been done to them, the lower parts of them, didn't show in the caskets. (142)
The narrator now returns to a theme that has been only hinted at: Roger Whipple, the person who was arrested at the time the girls were waked. In language suggesting the news accounts from which her information was partly gleaned, the narrator informs the reader of Roger's background. We get a visualization from her mother's friend, Sadie, Roger's special education teacher:
A big slow sweet-faced boy with these big hands and feet, thighs like hams. A shy gentle boy with good manners and a hushed voice. He wasn't simpleminded exactly, like the others in that class. He was watchful, he held back. (142-3)
The use of free indirect discourse (Toolan, 122-125) aids the reader's picture. We are also given an impression of his strength, his isolation, the children's reactions to him, and Whipples' assertion that "he'd never been the kind to hurt even an animal".
Using the same technique, like a second musical theme played contrapuntally to that of Roger Whipple's, the next several chords develop the picture of the twins. The same cells are repeated:
People spoke of them as the Kunkel twins. Mostly nobody tried to tell them apart . . . (143)Their sameness - oneness - is, if anything, even more conspicuous in death. The narrator, now as we are focused from her perspective at the wake, brings us right up next to them:
I was tempted to whisper to them, kneeling by the coffins, Hey, Rhea! Hey, Rhoda! Wake up! (143; italic in original)And then, as if they would answer,
They had loud slip-sliding voices that were the same voice. (143)and immediately we are back in the retrospective mode, recalling past habitual behavior - "a sideways glance between them could do it . . . choking back giggles" - and using the progressive tense to create a scene: ". . . the principal up there telling . . . tears shining . . . like flames running . . ."
This movement closes with three striking chords, one signalling a theme to be taken up later, another related to an earlier theme, and a third to punctuate the closing of the movement. The narrator explains,
I never dreamt about Rhea and Rhoda so strange in their caskets sleeping out in the middle of a room where people could stare at them, shed tears, and pray over them. I never dream about actual things, only things I don't know. (144; emphasis added)
On the most obvious level, the reader is drawn back to the funeral parlor from a brief orientational digression. But the critical cell which is reintroduced is that of the dream. It was sounded briefly when it was mentioned how the twins would dream the same dream; now, it is the narrator's dream which is important. She tells us that her dreams are not based on a reality she experienced, or on something to which she was witness. Heretofore, everything she has related has, one may assume, been reliable. She was at the wake. She was a schoolmate of the twins, and observed their behavior. She read the newspapers and listened to the grown-ups. But something, we already know, is missing from the story.
The next chord takes up again the theme of the events immediately around the twins' death:
Rhea and Rhoda bounced up the drive on their bicycles behind Whipple's ice. They were laughing like crazy and didn't mind the potholes jarring their teeth or the clouds of dust. If they'd had the same dream the night before, the hot sunlight erased it entirely. (144)
The physical scene is back where we were in the third paragraph of the story: hot sunlight, dust, bicycles, speed, recklessness. The narrator uses the dynamic verb bounced to convey the movement, and the free indirect discourse like crazy to depict the twin's laughter. But the heat has suddenly obliterated one of the characteristics of their oneness. An aspect of their complete mutual understanding is suddenly gone.
That separation will prove fatal: the movement closes with the image of death:
When death comes for you, sometimes you know and sometimes you don't. (144)
In this movement, then, we have elaboration on the focalization of the twins: who they were, and how they behaved. In addition, we are shown the parallel life of the murderer, Roger Whipple. His theme coexists with the twins'. The information which was gleaned at the funeral parlor is expanded also, and we are given a new time frame, with the hint of some temporal refraction to a time long past the immediacy of the wake. But so far, the narration is staccato, moving choppily from one theme to another with only a word or two to connect one chord with the next. As the narrative progresses, and the narrator comes closer to the nucleus of the story, the segments become longer and more unified.
There are three distinct segments to this movement, each bridged by the echoes of familiar cells.
The twins went around behind Whipple's Ice, where - the next chord tells us - Roger worked by himself, in the barn. But the setting is not specific to the immediate action. Instead, it is an introduction to another analepse to show past habitual action, to explain the characters' behavior. "Kids went . . ." and "they'd tease him . . . for something to do." "He was happy with children that age . . ." This, we assume, is from the narrator's own experience. But should there be doubt as to her reliability, a reporter-like interjection tells what the newspaper had stated concerning Roger's learning abilities. The catalyst, as it has been, is the heat of unchanging, indistinguishable days.
The next paragraph/chord orients us again to the funeral parlor, and the adult conversation at and following the wake:
People were saying afterward he'd always been strange. Watchful like he was, those thick soft lips. The Whipples did wrong to let him run loose. (144; emphasis added)
The free indirect discourse is itself a temporal refraction as the townspeople recollect Roger. Then the narrative shifts to what they - the Whipples themselves - said about their boy.
Mr. Whipple portrayed Roger as never having been one to arouse the suspicion of potential violence. He was "a good gentle boy" (just as his teacher Sylvia had described him), collecting Bible cards (another reference to the church) and never making trouble. But then a new cell is introduced: Mr. Whipple disciplined Roger as one might "a big dog or a horse." The boy was "worked like a horse" in the sweltering heat ("98 degrees F. on noon of that day, my mother said"). His own sister will say that he was "built like a horse," referring to his genitals. Later on, his room will be depicted as being like "an animal's pen," and Rhea and Rhoda tease Roger as if he were a dog. But in particular, the narrator reveals the core of Mr. Whipple's method of training: "Not letting the creature know he has any power to be himself exactly." This is the second mention of power, and it is important.
The reference to heat is a bridge to the next section; the cell of religion and prayer is heard again. The narrator's recollection of a repeated event in the past - her mother's physical affection and tearful prayers - bridges the return to the theme of the identical twins. As she recalls how her mother prayed for her own safety, she wonders if Mrs. Kunkel prayed with the girls she repeatedly called "double trouble." Completing the transition is another allusion to dreams, to memory, and to heat:
In the long night you forget about the day; it's like the other side of the world. Then the sun is there, and the heat. You forget. (145)
With the recapitulation of the twins' theme, the tense again becomes past progressive, or the probable mode is used. The discovery of the dead collie is an isolated event, yet it occurs in the context of reiterating the cell of oneness: ". . . they screamed a single scream . . ." and of the image of death. Repeated occurrences, such as their gifts (paid for with stolen money) emphasize not so much their generosity as their power, their superior position which can accommodate prodigality.
The narrator also recalls in detail is when the girls forced her to take off her clothes in front of them. The imperative, Strip! is the only dynamic verb in the paragraph (one of the longest in the story!); the episode's impact comes from the creation of the scene using the progressive tense and present participles. "This is how it was when it happened," the narrator seems to say. And what happened, what was learned?
The twins, too, stripped, sharing in the thrill, the risk of being seen, but more importantly demonstrating their power and therefore their ability to condescend. But once their clothes were off a revelation came:
I was scared but I was happy too. Except for our faces, their face and mine, we could all be the same girl. (145)The potential for oneness is not unique to the twins. The fear, the nakedness, the vulnerability and the happiness are shared. Though the twins have but a single face, the bond between the three girls is undeniable.
Nonetheless, there is a fearsome note in all this:
You have power over others you don't realize until you test it. (145; emphasis added)
This is precisely what Mr. Whipple knew. Roger, because of his size, his watchfulness, and his lack, perhaps, of any sense of what was right or wrong but knowing only what might bring punishment, had power. But like an animal, he was never allowed to know he had it or given the opportunity to test it.
In the last segment of this movement, the narrator focuses on the Kunkel family. The shift is made possible through the locale of the Strip! episode; under the Kunkel's porch. This is pre-murder orientation, temporally parallel to the information we have received already in this section about Roger, and about the narrator and the twins. The images of summer - fireflies and heat - permeate the description. When another chord is struck, it is an analepse to the funeral parlor theme. Mr. Kunkel is in custody, and the grotesque Mrs. Kunkel is in tears.
As in the preceding movements, closure comes with a dramatic chord:
Did it mean anything special, or was it just an accident Rhea and Rhoda had taken six dollars from their grandmother an hour before? Because death was coming for them; it had to happen one way or another.
If you believe in God you believe that. And if you don't believe in God, it's obvious. (146)
The narrator doesn't answer her own question directly, but the implication in the following clauses is clear. The devout Christian - Methodist in this setting - would say, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." A time to live and a time to die. That is faith; everything in God's time. But the atheist would come to the same conclusion. It had to happen sooner or later, somehow or other.
That is why the episode of the stripping under the porch, and the sense of sameness among the three girls is so significant, though its full impact (just as the importance of the image of power) will not be made clear until later. It was simply fate, or God's will, that it happened to the twins, and happened when it did, and not to someone else, or at some other time.
Unlike the first two movements, the three themes of Roger, the twins, and the Kunkels are treated much more as independent units, and the narration is more straightforward. Bridges connect the themes, but other than the repetition of patterns of images - the word cells - the segments remain detached. It is as if the story, which first was recalled in, scattered, random bits, is now coming together, as the narrator prepares to fill in the ellipsis that was left in the opening paragraphs.
Three chords open the third movement, which is concerned with the murder itself.
First, the narrator pieces together the twins' visit to their grandmother's. In terms of reliability, we may assume their appearance there is empirically valid. We can even assume that it could be "proved" that it was Rhea who took the six dollars; the money would have been on her body. But the details of the theft is pure mimesis , reconstructed from what the narrator knows of the twins' personality (". . . they were like that"). Yet it is presented as factual. From establishing frequent past actions ("They'd bicycle down there . . . she'd give them grape juice . . . she was nice . . ."), the tense moves to simple past:
One was in the kitchen talking with her and without any plan or anything the other went to use the bathroom, then slipped into her bedroom, got the money out of her purse like it was something she did every day of the week, that easy. On the stairs going down to the street Rhoda whispered to Rhea, What did you do? knowing Rhea had done something she hadn't ought to have done but not knowing what it was or anyway how much money it was. They started poking each other, trying to hold the giggles back until they were safe away. (147)
Even in relating a straight-forward function - the twins stole money - the chord is loaded with cells from previous moments: the twins' knowing each other's thoughts, the giggling, and the conspiratorial "trick" and "game" motifs are all present. The chord following places the reader temporally to just before the first time they were introduced, riding downhill on their rusty old bicycles.
Then, crucially, comes a double reminder of the related themes of oneness and death:
Rhea and Rhoda always said they could never be apart. If one didn't know exactly where the other was that one could die. Or the other could die. Or both. (147)
The second segment of this movement consists of the next five paragraphs. First there is a reminiscence ("Once they'd gotten some money . . .") that both recalls what the twins were like living, and links that quality (that they were generous petty thieves) with their murder (as if they were on their way to spend the money they'd stolen on their friends).
Next, from the wake setting comes another reference to the newspaper, in the probable mode ("You could read . . ."); the narrator has gathered information from the adults, too, and explains that her own hypothesis may or may not be accurate. Unlike the preceding segment, she here admits her unreliability. Finally, the funeral parlor theme is closed with two seeming irrelevancies: first, the childlike thrill of being close to the center of something important - a real-live murder - and, at the same time, sorrow over the loss of friends. To put a complete closure on the theme, there is a postscript in the form of a prolepse:
Later, in tenth grade, the Kaufmann twins moved into our school district: Doris and Diane. But it wasn't the same thing. (147)
The narrator returns to the theme of Roger and uses his statement to re-establish the orientation to the ice house. With each chord, a little bit more empirical evidence is added, or elaborated on, as in a detective story: the doctors' examination, the bicycles at the foot of his stairway, and the mid-day bath, his habitual cleanliness and, as mentioned previously, his physical endowment.
The Roger-theme becomes the murder theme. This is the segment which the narrator omitted at first. We are reoriented to the hot, dusty driveway of Whipple's Ice. The twins are playing a teasing game on their bicycles with Roger. Behind the yard was the railroad yard. He gets them ice when Rhea complains of being thirsty. Roger is happy playing with them. He imitates a dog. All of these are cells which we have heard previously, but now we are getting a glimpse of their significance. The cells are joining together.
Roger invites them to his room to see some "secret things."
By now, it is clear that we are not dealing with empirical matter at all. Even if some facts could be established based on such evidence as melting ice in the drive, or the bicycles, or blood in the room, or horseplay overheard by Mrs. Whipple and her daughter, clearly nobody now living knows what was said, or how the girls were lured to Roger's room. The story is that which the narrator has herself created, and which she bids us believe.
As if to back off from her fabrication, the narrator returns to the oneness cell and links it to Roger: he was one of those who could not distinguish the twins. But immediately she returns to her role as histor, as if she has to explain how it happened that the two twins were murdered; Roger must have gotten them upstairs separately, somehow. And, in a descriptive pause, she halts the action and recreates the scene of Roger's pen-like room.
The action is still suspended as there is an anachrony about how Roger's weight ballooned after he was institutionalized, and how he died (another reminder of death).
The narrator returns to her story as she tells how Rhoda, left alone, debates whether or not to leave. The change in focalization is striking.
Rhoda shaded her eyes, watching her sister running up the stairs with Roger Whipple behind her, and felt the first pinch of fear, that something was wrong or was going to be wrong. (149)
Up to this point, our orientation is been that of one who was alive at the time the events took place, and an eyewitness to many of the things she relates. Now, that perspective has been abandoned, that the reader may more fully understand that happened that day. Abruptly, the focalization has become internal, and will remain so for the next several chords. With the narrator, we imagine ourselves privy to Rhoda's thoughts and fears, as well as her actions.
Simple past tense ("Rhoda bicycled...") is interspersed with the progressive ("she was thinking . . .") and free indirect discourse (". . . she hated Rhea! hated her damn sister! wished she was dead and gone, God damn her!") to emphasize the separation of the twins, the fatal act which would kill one of them. Or the other. Or both.
Even this close, however, the narrator can't quite continue. Another descriptive pause arrests the tempo of the movement. Then, we are back at Whipple's Ice, watching Rhoda circle in the drive, then hearing her muttering to herself, and feeling frightened:
She hated Rhea! She was furious at Rhea! But feeling sort of scared too and sickish in the pit of her belly, knowing that she and Rhea shouldn't be in two places; something might happen to one of them or to both. Some things you know. (150; emphasis added)
The same cells that were introduced in the first paragraphs reappear as we are told how Rhoda returns to the foot of Roger Whipple's stairway. There is the bond between the twins and the fear of being separated. It is significant that at this particular moment, we understand the twins better and see them more clearly now that only one is in focus. And last, the old, rusty bikes, like twins, are lying side by side, in the same position.
The first two movements jumped from one theme to another, and back again, with little warning, with no more than the echo of a particular cell to remind us of where we are in the narrative. The third treated each theme more individually, yet none was complete; orientation, rather than functions, dominated. With this movement, however, the narrator has been the most linear in her telling, starting with the twin's visit to their grandmother, and concluding with Rhoda's appearance at Roger's door. The digressions (if it's fair to call them that, as they all relate directly to our overall comprehension of the story) are fewer, and shorter. There is a greater sense of unity.
Even so, we have not arrived at the nucleus of the story: What happened when Rhoda got to the top of the stairs?
"Afterwards" is the crucial word in this segment, whether implied or used directly:
Afterwards he would say he didn't remember anything . . . Afterwards Mrs. Whipple kept to the house . . .(151)
Roger, unable to respond more intelligently than "a dog that's been bad," is carted off to an institution, and Mrs. Whipple dies, believing in her
. . . good sweet obedient boy and religious too and Jesus was looking after him and whatever happened it must have been those girls teasing him; everybody knew what the Kunkel twins were like. (151)The narrator herself has admitted that she knew what the Kunkel twins were like. But she has, in recreating Rhoda's tirade against her sister, shown greater understanding of the twins than Mrs. Whipple has; perhaps even than Mr. or Mrs. Kunkel have. The narrator was with them, naked, under the porch. The twins were not innocent, but none of us are.
Even Mr. Whipple, who discovered the bodies, is guilty:
He took it hard, too; he never recovered. He hadn't any choice but to think what a lot of people thought - it had been his fault. He was an old-time Methodist, he took all that seriously, but none of it helped him . . . . He believed, but none of it helped in his life. (152)
The icehouse remains, and its presence is a catalyst for the actual telling of the story, the fabula at hand. Years after the murder, after the wake, after Roger was sent off to an institution and the Whipple family had been dispersed, the narrator would meet her lover there, coupling fiercely, recklessly, in his car in among the weeds and scrub trees.
Just fuck and fuck and fuck, I'd whisper to him, and this went on for a long time, two or three years, then ended the way these things do and looking back on it I'm not able to recognize that woman, as if she was someone not even not-me but a crazy woman I would despise, making so much of such a thing, risking her marriage and her kids finding out and her life being ruined for such a thing, my God. The things people do. (152)
The long sentence, coming apart grammatically towards the end, imitates the love affair the narrator had, going on nonstop then suddenly stopping. She recalls from some temporal distance, some perspective that alienates herself from the scene, even as there is a remoteness in her depiction of the funeral parlor, the behavior of the twins - almost all orientation and practically no action - the slow, never-changing setting, the almost dream-like, "gauzy" quality of her narration more intent on trying to convey how it was as opposed to what happened. She tries to explain:
It's like living out a story that has to go its own way.
Behind the icehouse in his car I'd think of Rhea and Rhoda and what happened that day upstairs in Roger Whipple's room. And the funeral parlor with the twins like dolls laid out and their eyes like dolls' eyes too that shut when you tilt them back. One night when I wasn't asleep but wasn't awake either I saw my parents standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me and I knew their thoughts, how they were thinking of Rhea and Rhoda and of me their daughter wondering how they could keep me from harm, and there was no clear answer. (152)
She is looking back from her present perspective to then, when she had this fling with the man whose name she won't say. She remembers how she remembered. There's a double analepse. The theme of the funeral parlor returns, and the thought that prayer doesn't seem to help, and the implication that except for their faces, she and the twins could be the same girl.
But these aren't the most important images, even though they are "real," though they are actual memories. What is most real, the ontological basis for this narration, is what follows:
In his car in his arms I'd feel my mind drift, after we'd made love or at least after the first time. And I saw Rhoda Kunkel on the stairs a few steps down from Roger Whipple . . . . (152-3; emphasis added)Vividly she sees the scene which she did not see! And the reader knows she did not see it. Yet the attention to detail is cinematic, down to the sound of Roger's heavy breathing and the sight of "something on the floor tangled with the bedclothes." The narrator's explanation is almost glib:
I wasn't there, but some things you know. (153)
The line recalls her earlier observations: "I never dream about actual things, only things I don't know . . ." (144); "When death comes for you, sometimes you know and sometimes you don't" (144); and "Some things you know and some things you don't" (150). The twins, for whom death was coming, were separated. Their oneness was broken when one of them went upstairs alone, and they both died. There could be no other explanation. At the same time, it was their bond that caused them both to die; it was right, they wanted it that way. Their rusted twin bicycles, foreshadows of the gleaming twin caskets, lie in the dust. And it is in a dream that the story of their death is lived out.
Finally, the actual moment of the murder - the rape, the stabbing, whatever it was - is omitted. As Oates pointed out in her introduction, it is "unspeakable." How can one commit such an act to print? But there's a deeper and more important reason. All of the notes, the chords, and the themes have been given already. The narration has been carefully constructed so as to give the reader everything necessary to hear the last chord without its being played. To place one's hands on the keyboard would be anticlimactic. Therefore, it must sound in the reader's mind. As the narrator has pointed out, that is where one truly knows, anyway. The reality is dry, hot: "It's like the other side of the world." You forget. Imagination, however, fills in the places where one cannot speak the unspeakable. Oates tunes the reader's imagination's ears to hear what is too awful to be pronounced.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Heat." "Heat" and Other Stories. By Oates. New York: Plume, 1991.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Introduction to 'Heat'." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. by Oates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. 229-30.
Toolan, Michael J. Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Approach. London: Routledge, 1988.