Fiction

Adam and the Sleepless Beauty

Ladies don’t slam doors in faces. Mary was no lady. Gentlemen don’t snore. Adam was no gentleman

NARDA STOKES September 1 1948
Fiction

Adam and the Sleepless Beauty

Ladies don’t slam doors in faces. Mary was no lady. Gentlemen don’t snore. Adam was no gentleman

NARDA STOKES September 1 1948

Adam and the Sleepless Beauty

NARDA STOKES

DRIVING in the narrow one-way streets of the French Quarter, Adam Hunter had learned to his sorrow, required a sacrifice of either time or fenders. As his bruised coupé inched along behind the Desire streetcar, Adam indulged himself in some better than run-of-the-mill invectives against the earliest New Orleans city fathers. Why, with a million square miles to play around in, had they squeezed up together like a bunch of scared women, Adam asked, honking impatiently at the nonchalant trolley.

He glanced at his wrist watch—six-forty. One short evening in which to do three days’ work. Considering all the hazards involved, no junior architect in his right mind would have promised McNally the plans for the Lake Front Oyster Bar by tomorrow morning. Sheer bravado, of course, Adam had to admit. Just because Daisy Groves, the boss’ new blond secretary, happened, as usual, to be hanging around, her blue eyes giving out with that Oh - you - big - strong - wonderful - man look. Women. Nuisances, all of them.

Adam gazed dolefully at the brief case beside him, remembered the raise in salary so long overdue and then determinedly honked again.

At the corner he slithered off Royal Street onto Dumaine, trading the streetcar for a somewhat confused taxicab. He honked even louder at the cab because it was young and agile and should have known better.

With that raise, Adam promised himself, he’d find a place to live he didn’t have to crawl to. Four-lane streets all the way, free of garbage cans and old trash barrels. And there’d be a front yard, he vowed, with a tree. Make it two trees.

And no neurotic female poet in the next apartment, screaming for help and interrupting his work every time her divan collapsed, or her skylight stuck, or some harmless little mouse came down her chimney. In fact, Adam decided, it would be fine if no females of any variety were allowed on the premises. Then a man could get something accomplished.

TOST in the dream, Adam patiently followed the T^ cab’s slow progress along Dumaine Street. He was saying good-by to the screaming poet and his dingy one-room bachelor. He’d moved across town into a modern one with a kitchenette, complete with cross-ventilation and soundproof walls. But the apartment, aside from its alarmingly high rental, suddenly developed another and, to Adam, still more disconcerting feature. The feature wore a crisp ruffled apron when she cooked and something soft and clinging for more leisurely moments. She had soft brown hair and big blue eyes. No. Her eyes were brown and—

Glowering at the taxi, Adam bore down angrily on his horn. Safer to stay where he was and wait for the screaming woman to move to Chicago as she’d threatened to do yesterday. She, at least, wasn’t likely to wrap her bony frame in a clinging negligee and clutter up a man’s practical plans for the future.

The dream girl disposed of, Adam concentrated on his neighbor’s early departure. With a better salary, maybe he could afford to rent her room too, thus ensuring the crudely partitioned garret against any future influx of the opposite sex.

The new dream took root, grew and blossomed

Ladies don’t slam doors in faces. Mary was no lady. Gentlemen don’t snore. Adam was no gentleman

by the time he reached his block. He’d got. the raise, rented the adjoining apartment, knocked out the makeshift wall between and was settled in solitary at the top of the creaky old building. And he wasn’t lonely. Not in the least. Just peaceful. And very successful. “And now that you’re a partner in the firm, m’boy,” McNally was saying, patting Adam on the back in a paternal manner, “don’t you think it’s time you built a home of your own and married my daughter?”

Adam tried to picture McNally’s daughter. The image stubbornly remained double-chinned and paunchy and very nearly as bald as her father. A lucky thing for him, Adam thought with relief, that his boss had remained a bachelor.

The taxi was veering into a parking space directly in front of Adam’s apartment building, its hindside protruding just enough to block his way. Keeping his hand on the horn, Adam conceived a few phrases worthy of the situation. After seven o’clock already and the first raise yet to be cinched.

A grey hat was alighting from the cab, its red feather turning in Adam’s direction. Under the feather was a woman’s face. Maybe a girl’s face. Female, anyway. The face rose higher allowing a grey suit to follow, the suit indisputably con-

taining qualifications of the same gender. Grey sandals took easy strides to the sidewalk, circled two garbage cans and an overladen barrel and turned toward the driver. A red-gloved hand performed a speedy monetary transaction and gestured dismissal.

Adam took martyred inventory. One helpless woman. Two suitcases. Two boxes. The conclusion was obvious. He frowned, watching the taxi manoeuvre for a quick exit, and held a thought that the new tenant would settle on the ground floor. But she was moving toward the row of mailboxes. A red glove was opening the box next to Adam’s and, in an unmistakably proprietary manner, extracting what was undoubtedly a key.

That meant she was moving into the apartment next to his. He had lost one neighbor but gained another without respite. Good-by to peace and quiet. Adam worked his coupé into the minute parking space and collected his hat and brief case and locked the car. Do the gentlemanly thing just once, he cautioned himself, and you were trapped by another helpless, screaming female. The best way was to avoid her from the start. Pretend you didn’t see her. Get upstairs quick and shut yourself in.

“I’ll carry the suitcases,” Adam heard himself say.

But the suitcases had disappeared by now and she was advancing toward the boxes. “Thanks.” She was a girl, all right. A lean, sturdy, brunette girl, extremely quick on the draw. “Just, my paints and things,” she said, showing some nice teeth. “They’re quite light.” She picked up both bundles.

She stopped at her door and fumbled with the knob. A quick getaway was the thing. Before* she had you repairing furniture or trapping wild life. “I’ll open it,” Adam said, reaching out masterfully.

She already had the door opened and was backing through. “Thanks very much.” She was inside now, the boxes dumped on top of the suitcases. “Good night. You’ve been very kind.” She closed the door.

ADAM knew he should feel relieved. He continued to stare at the closed door, feeling, instead, somewhat frustrated. He scowled. It had been too easy, that was the trouble. But give her time. Just let him start to work and there she’d be. She’d need a hammer. Or a light, bulb. Or her sink unstopped.

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Adam and the Sleepless Beauty

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Adam shrugged his shoulders. After all he had that important work to do tonight. He opened his brief case and laid out rough sketches, compasses and slide rule. He sharpened pencils and sat down, pulled chair to desk, leaned on Ins hands and waited. Just give her time.

He pulled the rough sketches toward him gingerly. All he had to do was concentrate, lose himself for just a moment and there’d be a scream and a crash. No, the crash usually came first, he recalled, then the scream. Plaster on her head. Stray cats in her closet.

He made a few ineffectual changes in the sketches, drew a picture of a crocodile in the margin and then stared at the section of wallboard connecting the two apartments. No sound of anguish mingled with the muted tones of her radio. The heck with her. Adam leaned back in his chair, the soft music soothing him . . . relaxing him . . . making him drowsy . . .

Something like thunder brought him up short. His eyes found the clock, blinking hard. Ten o’clock. And if it hadn’t been for the storm he might have slept until morning. Stationing himself under the skylight, he breathed deeply, then blinked again at a night clear as an early summer night should be.

He was upset, that was the trouble. Nerves shot from too much night work and too many interfering women. What he needed, he decided, was some coffee to brace him. He made coffee on the small hot plate in the corner and gulped it, scalding his tongue.

The music was no longer discernible which meant, he hoped, that his new neighbor was safely in bed. Now a man could have some peace. Get some •work done. He held that thought stubbornly for an hour or so. But he was really weary. If he set the alarm, Adam thought, and got up at, say, five o’clock—his body, eager to accept the suggestion, was already climbing out of his suit and into pyjamas.

HE WAS sure he’d only just hit the bed when he heard the knocking on his door. Adam sat up. If never failed. Just let a man try to work, or try to sleep, or try to anything, and there was some woman in his hair.

“Oh, Mr.— Uh—” More knocking. “Hunter!” Adam shouted. “Adam Hunter,” he said, confronting her.

“Well, Mr. Hunter, uh—” She looked embarrassed. She also looked attractive, if you cared for tangled black hair and soft pink negligees at a time like this. Adam scowled at her sleepily, daring her to mention mice. “You see, it’s— ” Her eyes were wide and unhappy and, Adam decided, nearer green than brown.

“Come on in.” Adam couldn’t believe he’d said it.

“Oh, no thanks.” She wrapped the negligee more snugly about her. “It’s just— Well, 1 really hate to say anything, but—”

“All right,” Adam agreed, “then we won’t say anything. We’ll just go back to bed. Goodnight.” He was about to close the door.

“It’s no use,” she said firmly. “I can’t sleep.”

She couldn’t sleep. Well, that was tough. “It’s a coincidence,” Adam said, baring his teeth, “hut right now I’m having some trouble myself in that department.”

“You see, there’s wallboard separating our rooms and—”

“I’ve lived here a year,” he said. “I’ve noticed it, too.”

“Mmm hmm. Well, it’s very thin wallboard and—”

Adam remembered the alarm, set for five. He remembered the overdue raise. “Tell you what I’ll do,” he said sweetly, “I’ll build a brick wall between us. First thing in the morning.”

She stuck a pink satin toe in the door just in time. “But until then, if you’d just try not to sleep on your back?”

“I sleep on my left side,” he declared stoutly. Not that it was any of her business, anyway.

“Oh,” she said. “I see.”

Adam felt a vague sense of discomfiture. “See what?”

“Well, J jusf thought I’d mention the—the—”

“The what?” he said fearfully.

“The snoring. It’s so loud!”

Adam flinched, then straightened. “I don’t snore,” he said with dignity. The words lacked conviction so he tried again, using more volume. “I never snore!”

It was a tight little smile, as if somebody’d pinched her. “Then we’ve,” she said, “just had a terrible storm.” “You’ve had a nightmare,” he told her. “Strange place and all that. You’ll get used to it.”

“But I never have ni—”

Gently he propelled her toward her door. “Just don’t worry about a thing,” he said. “Go back to bed and relax. Get some sleep.”

“But—” Shewasa beaten woman and she knew it. “But—”

“Good night,” Adam insisted pleasantly. “Miss—uh—”

“Burgess.” It was a mere whisper. A hopeless, all-is-lost kind of whisper. “Mary Burgess.”

Adam patted her arm. “Good night, Miss Burgess. Sleep well.”

He felt as if he’d won a moral victory. Snoring, indeed. What women wouldn’t think of to annoy a man. He yawned broadly, stretched and got back into bed.

He lay dozing, on his back. Guiltily he shifted to his left side, waking himself. He breathed deeply. No sound, at all. Clear, quiet breathing just as he’d suspected. He lay on his side and slept fitfully until the alarm went off, after which he turned over on his back and slept peacefully until eight o’clock.

TT WA8 all Miss Burgess’ fault, of X course, that he’d failed on the assignment, but he couldn’t explain that to the boss. “Had a little trouble, Mr. McNally,” he said, grinning lamely. McNally’s look said “l-toldyou-so,” and Adam could see the raise sliding farther and farther out of reach. “That oyster bar’s a bigger job than 1 thought,” he added quickly.

McNally cleared his throat, always an ominous sign. “Bidwell has to have those plans by tomorrow morning at the latest. Sure you can handle it?” “Yes, sir,” Adam said, not sure of anything at all.

The tiny, cluttered office always made him claustrophobic, but it was at least, Adam told himself, sanctuary from Mary Burgess. He worked through until midafternoon. He paused, surveying his progress with satisfaction.

Missing the heavy traffic, Adam got home before five. He steeled himself at the foot of the stair. Ignore Miss Burgess, that was the thing. Pretend she didn’t exist. Looking neither to right nor left, Adam marched up the spiral stairs.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see that her door was open. If he walked softly maybe she wouldn’t notice him. A fine thing when a man had to hide out in bis own home. But she was moving soundlessly toward the door. Sneaking up on him, that’s what she was doing. In a white dress, with bare shoulders. Pretty shoulders. Adam turned his head slightly, in her direction. “Hello.” She looked a little tired, but pretty. Very pretty. And very unsmiling. Adam paused. “Did you get some sleep?” Well, why should he care? She’d disturbed him plenty. He frowned at her suddenly. The nerve of her.

“Excuse me,” she said, her voice icily polite. “There’s a draught.”

Well, that settled it. Any woman who slammed the door in a man’s face could shift for herself. Let her get a mouse down the chimney now. Or a tiger, for that matter. Tust let her yell when the divan collapsed. Let her break her neck.

He worked hard, spurred by indignation and stuck the completed plans in his brief case, knowing they couldn’t be right. He fell into bed and dreamed of somebody pounding on the wallboard with a hammer. He awoke suddenly. Somebody was pounding on the wallboard, only it sounded more like a shoe she was using.

Adam pounded back at her with his fist. Serve her right if he had been snoring.

HE WOKE to a feeling of impending doom, then realized he’d forgot to set the alarm. As he sprinted out still buttoning his shirt, Miss Burgess was sweeping the ball. She pretended she didn’t see him. Well, he’d probably get fired anyway and have to leave. He’d get on a freighter and go to South America, that’s what he’d do. He wondered why the prospect made him sad.

But McNally liked the plans. So did Bidwell. This was The Moment— made to erder. “Uh, Mr. McNally,” Adam said, swallowing hard, “about that raise you promised me—”

“Five dollars a week, m’boy,” McNally cut in with doubtful benevolence. “And you’re worth every cent of it.”

It was better than nothing. It was a start. Adam wanted to celebrate and celebrating alone wasn’t any good. Because Daisy was, as usual, close at hand, he asked her to dinner and a movie. In the theatre Daisy nestled close and pushed her arm against his. He held her hand but her nails, long and pointed, dug into his palm everytime somebody was murdered. After the third corpse Adam gave Daisy’s hand back to her and thought about Mary Burgess.

“Adam,” Daisy said, tugging at his coat. “It’s past where we came in.” Daisy wanted to dance and it was past midnight when he got home. He heard a radio playing faintly as he passed Miss Burgess’ door. He wondered as he lay in bed listening to the music how it would feel to hold Miss Burgess’ hand in a movie. To dance with Miss Burgess in bis arms.

Round and round they danced, and round and round and round and round and faster and faster and faster and the music getting louder and louder and louder until the wallboard was shaking.

“Hey!” Adam sat bolt upright, blinking groggily. “Wasmatter? Washappening?” Sudden, unreasoning fury carried him out of bed. He grabbed a robe.

“Open your door,” he said, “or I’ll break it down.”

She opened it just a little. She wore a paint-stained smock and her hair was tied high on her head like a little girl’sj “Go away,” she said. She looked as if she were going to cry. “Go away.” “Hah!” Adam said. He pushed past her and turned off the radio which, by now, showed every indication of exploding. He faced her menacingly. “You did it on purpose,” he accused her. “You’re trying to drive me nuts!” “Oh, you—you—”

Adam steeled himself against the tears which were imminent. “Night after night,” he said fiercely. “Knocking. Pounding. Radio blaring. Keeping me awake.”

“Keeping you awake!” She wasn’t going to cry immediately. First, it seemed, she was going to hit him. Adam ducked just in time. “What about me? Never getting any rest. Just look at my picture. Look at it!” She flung a cloth off an easel, unveiling a bunch of weary gladioli about to slide from a slightly lopsided vase.

Women always cried, Adam told himself, determined to ignqre the two tears which were racing for her chin.

“It’s very pretty,” he offered weakly.

“It’s not supposed to be pretty!” she said, stamping her foot. “It’s supposed to have vitality!”

“Don’t cry, Miss Burgess, please don’t cry.”

“I never cry,” she said, quickly turning away. “But if you’d saved up all year and—and only had eleven weeks’ vacation and—”

“I get two weeks,” Adam reasoned. “You’re lucky.”

“I’m lucky? Teaching algebra? When all you want to do in the world is paint?” The tears were drying up in the heat of her wrath. “So you skimp for nine months so you can come to the Vieux Carre and paint in peace and then somebody wears you out with their horrible snoring—”

She was gazing at him silently now, her eyes soft with sudden pity. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I—I guess you can’t help it.”

This was worse, far worse, than her anger or her tears. Adam opened his mouth to shout at her. To tell her she was crazy. ‘I’m sorry, too,” he heard himself saying in an abject tone.

She said, “That’s all right,” and managed the ghost of a smile. “Forget it.”

“But if you ever need any help,” Adam said. “I mean, if there’s ever a mouse or anything.”

“Oh, I’m not afraid of mice.”

“Well, there’s that divan,” he insisted. “It comes apart in the middle sometimes.”

“I know,” she said. “I fixed it.” “Well, good night, Miss Burgess.” Adam backed away, stumbling a little. “If there’s ever anything else I can do—”

“Please don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’ll be all right.”

ADAM HAD no intention of worrying about her. For two nights he propped books against his back. In the morning the books were on the floor and he was gazing at the ceiling. The third night he tried sleeping curled up in a chair, but he awoke at dawn, his back stiffly parallel with the carpet.

Miss Burgess was sweeping the hallway again when he left for work that morning. She smiled and said, “Good morning,” somewhat hesitantly, but with no trace of rancor.

“Mning,” Adam mumbled, unable to meet her gaze. Of course it was her own fault for stealing the room in the first place, he told himself all day, but the rationalization didn’t help. Until he could find another place to live there was, he decided grimly, only one possible course to pursue.

He worked late at the office, ignoring the ever-present Daisy. Then he went home, tiptoed to his room and read a mystery. That took him safely to two o’clock. Beginning to drowse, he made coffee strong enough to stand on its hands and drank it while he started another detective story. He paced up and down in his bare feet, fighting sleep.

Sudden rain beat against the halfopen skylight and fell in happy abandon to the floor. Adam tried the winding lever which, as was customary in such emergencies, came off in his hands. Employing the last of his waning energy, he moved the chest of drawers to the centre of the room and stood upon it, swaying back and forth as he reached high for the open skylight.

Adam couldn’t be sure whether it was the chest or the skylight which gave way first, but the prop pitched sidewise with a loud crash of splintering wood and Adam landed with harsh solidity on his apartment floor. He roared in protest and in pain.

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Hurried footsteps sounded along the hall. “Mr. Hunter!” Adam peered over the prostrate chest of drawers at Miss Burgess, who was by now framed in the doorway. “Are you all right?”

It was a good question. Adam pondered it hazily for a moment. The situation, aside from its unpleasant physical aspects, was beginning to take a discomfiting psychological turn. “Of course, I’m all right,” he declared with dignity. Using the chest of drawers as a brace, he attempted to* rise, whereupon the chest rolled over on its hack, plunging him headlong at Miss Burgess’ feet.

“Oh dear ! ” M iss Burgess commented.

Adam could find no suitable retort. He pushed aside a jumble of shattered wood and neckties and got to his knees.

Miss Burgess was beside him, her arms encircling his waist. “I’ll help you.”

“That’s not at all necessary,” Adam said, grasping her shoulders and pulling himself upward. He frowned into Miss Burgess’ worried face, which was in close proximity to his own. “You’d better go back to sleep.”

“Oh, I haven’t been asleep.”

Adam remembered the night’s painful vigil and its calamitous ending. He glared down furiously at her. “Why not?” he demanded in an outraged tone.

“Well, it was so quiet up here, I kept on painting.”

“Of course it was quiet!” Adam struggled angrily against the ignominious embrace. “That was what you wanted, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, hut—” She released her hold suddenly and stepped back, almost making him lose his balance. “What s that noise?”

Thunder rumbled like a mammoth drum and a flash of lightning illuminated the skylight. “Don’t look at me,” Adam said defensively, spanking dust off bis trousers with angry force. “There isn't a darn thing I can do about thunder.”

Mary Burgess stood motionless, her bps pursed thoughtfully, as the thunder wound up for another roll. The second blast and Miss Burgess arrived simultaneously. “Oh, Mr. Hunter! Adam stared down at her in unbelief. “Adam,” she said, her arms tightening about him in what could have been extreme fright.

He enfolded her protectively. “Just relax, Mary,” he said, finding the proximity increasingly pleasant. “You’ll be all right.”

“I guess I’m a little jittery,” she said, in a remarkably unjittery voice. “Being all alone up here for so long.” “You weren’t alone,” Adam reassured her. “I was right here.”

“You were?” Her tone was reproving. “Then why,” she accused him, “didn’t you snore?”

“You said it kept you awake.”

“Oh that.” She studied a button on her robe with exaggerated interest. “1 guess it sounds foolish, hut now that I’ve become used to it—” She paused, embarrassed. “I—I’m beginning to find it rather soothing.”

“You know,” Adam said happily, “sometimes we bave a lot worse storms than this. Particularly in the fall.” “I won’t be here in the fall,” she said, as if that fact bad just occurred to her. "I’ll be teaciur.g.”

“Oh, yes.” Adam released her glumly. “Algebra.”

“X equals A times B,” she said, and turned her back on him. “As if anybody really cared.”

“Then why don’t you—” The weight of what he was about to suggest hit Adam a telling blow. To an ambitious man, he reminded himself, a woman could he an awful nuisance. “What were you going to say?” “Well, uh—” The odds were against bim and he knew it. ‘‘I don t suppose you’d want to stay here.”

“Why not?” she challenged him. Adam looked at the sagging plaster. At the broken furniture. At the temperamental skylight, through which water was streaming. The place did have a certain dubious charm. “I'd thought of maybe combining these two rooms,” he said, making a last desperate stand for his freedom. “Knocking out that wallboard and—it would make a nice apartment for a couple a young married couple.”

Another holt of lightning swung at the skylight, sending Mary Burgess hack into the comparative safety of his arms.

“Of course,” he went on weakly, “it was just an idea.”

Her lips were disturbingly close. “Who knows,” she said, bringing them closer. “The idea might have all sorts of possibilities.” ★