LOVE GETS IN YOUR HAIR
She dreamed up a theory to rid her life of all male complications. It worked well enough till she met a young man who had no respect at all for theories
HE LOOKED absurdly helpless, standing there with startled eyes watching the washing machine spout suds all over the cement floor, but that wasn’t why Lydia Barton took pity on him. He was not an unattractive young man, in a rough and ready way; he had the rude approximation of good looks you’d find in a linoleum-block profile that had been cut by a fairly proficient Christmas card amateur. Yet under ordinary circumstances even that wouldn’t have got more than a second glance from Lydia. That was because she had a Theory.
One by one most of the bright young men among the tenants in the brisk new six-story brick apartment house where she lived—all modern conveniences, including coin-slot washing machines in the basement laundry—had approached Lydia. In the self-service elevator or before the well-polished brass mailboxes they had made their bids for acquaintanceship, using proved techniques. After even a casual glance at Lydia, you couldn’t blame them.
And one by one she made them understand the Theory. In few words, frank and honest and pulling no punches, she laid it before them and let them go their way. The chilled-off gallants got around to mentioning her to one another. They called her the Deep-Freeze Diana. She didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared a great deal. She’d have felt that they weren’t wise enough to appreciate the plain truth of the Theory.
It was a very sensible one. She had evolved it soon after she came to the city and found that even people who lived in neighboring apartments didn’t automatically say hello when they met, as next-door neighbors always did in Cobleskill. With characteristic straightforward clarity she saw the answer; the emotions are not limitless, and one person hasn’t a great enough fund of inner self to spread over a million or so neighbors. You’d wear your psyche thin trying. Therefore city people learn to save themselves for the few persons and things that matter. Lydia’s psyche was very sensibly concentrated on two things—her work as artist at Mercantile Engraving and her future. That future had room in it for Cary Armour, sales representative for Mercantile. It had nothing to do with other young men, especially one who stood in front of a furiously spuming washer with his big square chin hanging down.
This one glanced at her wildly once, as if for help. She had seen him before, but he had never tried to be chummy. Now at last he seemed about to speak to her, but he thought better of it and turned back to the lather volcano that was churning and spouting, spouting and churning. White froth ran ankle deep on the cement.
Then she saw in the pile of colored things, sorted out and waiting for his second batch, the little dresses.
“You put in too much soap flakes!” she called above the mumble of the machines. “Get the broom the porter keeps behind the door. You can sweep the suds down that drain.”
He hastened to obey, brooming froth vigorously until his rabid washer decided to stop foaming at the mouth and began chuckling over its rinse water. After a while he slid a sheepish glance toward the bench where Lydia was reading a magazine by the glare of the bare overhead bulb. In dark-blue
slacks, red sandals and a striped Basque shirt, with her honey-colored hair tied back smoothly in a tail at the nape of her neck, she was the one bright spot among blank walls and sterile white enamel, yet the eyes that looked up to meet his were almost as bleakly impersonal as the washers until she remembered. A young father. No great threat to the Theory.
He smiled gratefully at the change in her expression. “My first crack at this. I don’t know the ropes very well. Bess couldn’t come down, so I offered to take a hack at it.”
“Not ill, I hope.”
“Well, no. New baby coming, that’s all.”
“How old is the old one?” She nodded at the little dresses.
“Elbe? She’s two and a half. Cutest little rascal you ever—.”
He leaped from his bench. His washer had suddenly gone mad again; some inner fury was shaking it at a tremendous rate until the floor trembled with its jiggling, although Lydia’s machine went contentedly ahead with the placid mouthing of the cud of soapy clothes behind the round glass window.
“What did I do wrong now?” He hovered anxiously over the frenzied galoper.
Lydia laughed. “Nothing this time. It always acts like that; it’s spinning the water out of the clothes. Mine’ll do the same.”
“Oh?” He relaxed and grinned at her. “Boy, am I dumb about this! It’s not in my line.” He came and sat down on the other end of her bench, looking at her with a warm friendliness that included hair ribbon, red sandals and points between. She was suddenly aware that he had good strong planes in his face, well-muscled arms below the short sleeves of his sport shirt and the kindly, unworried approachability of a big, shaggy dog.
A little alarm bell rang in the back of her head. Keep out of my life, brother; No room ; She picked up her magazine and retire intod it inhospitably.
“Funny thing,” he chuckled, “I work for an advertising outfit—Clark, Satterthwaite and Clark —my name’s Davies -Tom Daviesand we’ve put on some big national campaigns for different washing machines; but I never dropped a dime in one in my life before now.”
She gave him a cool glance and returned to the printed page. The rebuff of her pointed silence was louder than the jigging machines. One more remark from him and she’d have to tell him, just like the others.
He looked at her with a curiosity that was neither abashed nor impudent. He said mildly, “If you intended to put the chill on me, why the devil did you speak in the first place? I didn’t ask you to.”
She flushed. The lovely head came up sharply. “I wouldn’t have, my dear man, except for the dresses.”
“I saw that you were that harmless type of humanity, the young father.”
He looked at her with quizzical speculation for a few long seconds. “I see. Otherwise you’d have remained the Deep-Freeze Diana.”
“That’s what the laddyhucks around here call you. Didn’t you know? Also Miss Dry Ice of 1949. And so on.”
She felt her lips twitch, even while the hot blood began to thump in her temples. “If one doesn’t choose to swap chatter with every Tom, Dick and—.”
“I know. One has a philosophy worked out. I heard about it. Big town stuff. One comes here from Coxsackie—.”
“Or Niskayuna or Breakabeen, and one hasn’t any time for the million. One has to conserve one’s emotional reserve and not expend it—.”
“On irritating blunderers!” Her voice crackled defiantly and her face flamed.
“Look, sis,” the young man said with maddening calmness, “just ordinary decency and politeness wouldn’t have cost you a tenth of the emotional expenditure you’re putting out right now. Check?” He got up from beside her. “I’m going to put my clothes into that drier over there. I’m going to figure out how to work it myself, with no help from anyone. Hereafter if I meet you down here you can say hello or not, just as you choose. I don’t care, one way or the other. I’m a friendly dope, within limits. But I mean limits
She read her magazine. Outside she w’as all icy composure; inside, a riot of mixed emotion.
SHE HAD to tell Cary Armour about it next day when he stopped by the cubicle where she was using an airbrush on the illustration of a refrigerator full of luscious food. As she finished her tale, his quick dark eyes brightened. She remembered that he boxed at his club gym every Saturday afternoon and was quietly proud of his Sunday punch.
“Now, wait!” she said quickly. “I don’t want you taking a punch at that smarty pants. I can’t spare any more bother with him.”
“Clark, Satterthwaite and Clark. Big outfit. Could give us a lot of business.” Cary rocked back and forth on his toes and heels, big and handsome and confident. “Well, it seemed at first like pretty small-town stuff, doing your own laundry—.”
“On what Mercantile pays an artist, darling, it’s a must.”
“—but maybe wash night is going to pay off. Anyone who could land the Clark Satterthwaite account could forget about economy à la Cofcleskill. If I could control that account, I could really make the boss—.” He looked cannily thoughtful, then squeezed her shoulder with a strong, cool hand. “How about helping you with your laundry next Monday night? This Davies might be an in.”
Lydia said swiftly, “Not him. I burned him up.”
Cary laughed. “You can have him eating out of your hand. Get him in line again, sweet child, and then let me at him.”
She caught up her airbrush and squirted a series of angry red dots on a piece of paper. But it was silly to feel cross. Cary was right. The future was what one had to think of. His and hers. Weren’t they practically engaged? Not formally, but with the sort of unspoken understanding that sophisticated people car reach without words. So if Tom Davies could be a stepping stone—.
“No, on second thought, forget about him. I’ll look up a better lead. Anyone who has to do his own laundry is too small calibre to be worth wasting time on.”
Lydia squirted a large, stubborn dot. She felt unreasonably irritated. “If there’s even a little chance, why not try?”
“A jerk copy writer?”
“What can we lose? You never know!” she said crossly.
Cary shrugged carelessly. “It’s your time you’ll be wasting.”
WHEN does an innovation become an institution? After four weeks Lydia found herself looking forward to Monday wash night. Tom Davies had been good-natured enough when she hailed him, on their second encounter in the basement, with, “Hello, enemy. Still sore?”
“Not if you’re not.”
“How’s the family?”
He was much more intelligent—as she told him frankly—than most young fathers. He didn’t bore you with snapshots and anecdotes of cute infantile sayings. He said, “Okay,” and then went on to chat about interesting things—the current exhibition of Matasso’s recent paintings, and raspberryred dogwood along the roads, and what Russia’s up to, and why intelligent persons read fewer novels as they acquire full experience of life at first hand.
His biggest fault, it seemed to her, was the way he wasted himself on little useless people.
Cary began to grow a little acid about the whole thing when she reported on it one Saturday night after he had seen her home. “What goes on?” His usually urbane voice had a little gravel in it. “Falling for the guy?”
“A married man?”
He raised an eyebrow wisely. “It’s been done—Have you found out what he can do for us over at Clark Satterthwaite?”
“1 haven’t broached it. I wanted to get on good terms first.”
“It’s a matter of laying the groundwork,” she explained quickly.
He smiled tartly. “Sure you’re laying it for us?”
Her face flamed as it had at Tom Davies’ censure. “No, I’m not sure at all! Is friendship nothing but a skeleton key? Does it have to be used only to pick locks? Can’t it do by itself once in a while?”
“Wait a minutel Don’t you remem-
ber? You insisted on this. You’r smart girl with a—”
“I know. A theory.” Rage died, left her feeling a little ridiculous. “Ot course I’ll find out what Davies can do for us, Cary.”
ON MONDAY NIGHT Tom Davies was pouring soapflakes into his machine and Lydia was getting her wash ready to put into hers, chattering animatedly about a Danish picture they had seen separately. Lydia began trying to frame the questions she would ask, the subtle, oblique, creeping questions to find out how she could use this good-natured young husband and father. A hot spasm of emotion racked her for a second. She recognized it wonderingly. It was hate.
For herself and Cary, on the prowl for personal gain? For the object of their stalking, cheerfully pouring soap flakes? For the Bess and Elbe she had never met—? She stopped at that
thought, with a sickish little feeling of shock. The Theory had taken no account of falling in love with a preempted, signed up, inaccessible...
She heard herself saying harshly and quickly, “Tom, do you swing any weight at Clark Satterthwaite? Could you throw any business to Mercantile Engraving?”
He looked up at her in surprise. “I write copy, Lydia. I haven’t any direct say about the contracts for engraving, but—”
“Then we’d better not see one another any more. There’d scarcely be anything in it for me.” It was like squeezing a sprained hand, just to make it hurt.
His face reddened. He said unevenly. “I don’t think you’re like that.”
“Oh, skip it, will you?” She reached blindly for her clothes basket, intent on nothing but getting away from here, never seeing him again.
He said, “Wait!” reaching impulsively to hold her by the arm. “If it’s because—.” As he stepped toward her, his foot skidded in the slop and automatically he clutched wildly at her to keep from falling. For a moment they were breast to breast, and she could feel his breath on her cheek, smell the spice-and-leather of shave lotion.
Cary Armour’s voice said from the doorway, “Charming domestic scene. I had a hunch something like this was going on.”
Lydia twisted out of Tom Davies’ arms.
“I don’t mind being two-timed— much,” Cary said, with a furious sandy crackle running through the words, “but I draw the line at being played for a mope.”
Lydia said, “Cary, just as I asked him if he could do anything about fixing us up at Clark—.”
“A stall, sweet thing, a stall of the first water. I finally got bright and looked everything up. You knew all along he was a buck private of a copy writer who couldn’t do me any good. But I followed my own lead and found a man who could do me some good. 1 sold Clark, Satterthwaite and Clark on giving Mercantile a trial order. How do you like that?”
“Cary, I’m awfully glad—.”
“You didn’t give a hoot. You
weren’t concerned with that. The
woman in you was having fun playing this lad and me, both ends against the middle.”
“I told you he’s married.”
“My foot. He lives with his sister Bess and her just-too-cute little baby girl, with another one coming. Her husband’s been sent to Winnipeg by Nelson Fuel Oil. Now try to tell me that you didn’t know that and weren’t lying. Lord knows I hate a liar.”
IYDIA’S eyes felt wide and strained J as she looked at Tom Davies, standing there with his back to the machine that was merrily spouting suds—floop, floop—all over his heels. Made a fool of me right along—out of me and Cary.
Davies said with his usual cheerful mildness, “So you hate a liar. I was the one who told the lie, Buster. Want to try hating me?”
“Why, I’d love it,” Cary said, coming willingly over the dry section of cement, his big hands ready. “I don’t like guys that chisel in on my women.”
Davies stepped sidewise to get out of the pool of suds. He said over his shoulder, “My fault, Lydia, for rot putting you straight on Bess. When you said you wouldn’t have any time for me if I weren’t—”
“So you blame me for forcing you to lie!”
“That’s telling him, Lyd,” Cary said. “I still hate liars, but I guess this guy’s the one that needs this—.” He finished with a grunt of effort as he followed a feint with a straight right.
Davies ducked and landed three quick blows—splat! splat! splat!—very fast. He moved smoothly and ably to follow up the advantage. Then his soap-soaked shoes slipped, and he careened, wide open for a second. Cary drove home a heavy hook to the unprotected chin. Davies went flat on his back in the pool of froth, striking his head against the base of the machine. It giggled out a dollop of foam that splashed on his upturned face.
Cary stood looking down at him masterfully before jerking his head at Lydia. “You coming?”
She picked up her basket. She could do her laundry some other night. Any other night. He took the basket from her. She followed him. At the door she glanced back. Tom Davies had scrambled to his feet and was fiddling with the controls of the washer. He glanced up at her with eyes cold and empty.
She turned her back and went to the elevator with Cary. He pressed the button for her floor. As the door closed she touched her finger to the button marked “1.” The car stopped at the lobby. She said, “Good night, Cary.”
“You’re not sore at me?” ’He was all amiable solicitude now. “For losing my head over the way that heel behaved to you?”
“I’m glad you gave him what he deserved!” Then she added more gently, “Good night, darling. And thanks.”
He kissed the side of her neck and went across the lobby, humming. She closed the elevator door, went up to her apartment, took her bath, put on a housecoat and lay on the bed with a book.
ALL AROUND HER was the sound of life but not a murmur of it that she could identify. Muffled voices were talking on the other side of the wall behind her head—a man and wife? Undoubtedly. Yet she had never bothered to learn their names or anything about them. Across the court, other neighbors prattled. They were as remote from her as if they lived in Baluchistan. Beyond was the mumble of the rest of the city, alien, uncommunicative.
A crushing, horrible wave of loneliness rode over her, chilling and suffocating. In all this horde she knew only one person. Cary. She tried desperately to think of his handsome, sun-tanned features. They would not form before her closed eyes. Instead she saw a face that was dazed and wet, with a silly pendant of foam on one ear and a lost, bewildered vagueness—.
Her feet groped for slippers, and she hurried down the hall to the elevator. It slid up and opened its door for her. As she stepped in, she saw him slumped in a corner of the car beside a damp bagful of clothes.
Her breath made a little sibilance. She caught up the bag, used it to prop the door open and tried to drag him out. After a few moments he was able to help himself, and she got him to her apartment, stretched him on the couch, ran to fill an ice bag with cubes from the refrigerator and put it to his head.
He opened his eyes. “Cold—The Deep-Freeze Dian—What happened?”
“You’ve had a concussion. Could be a fracture. I’m going to call a doctor.”
“Wait.” He caught her hand, drew her down beside him. “Something importent.”
“If it’s about the lie you told me, it doesn’t—”
“Oh, that. That was only—sort of foolish. I just couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing you again, of being lumped with all the others. This is something else—very important.”
“Him? He’s not important to you.”
She didn’t deny it. “What is?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.”
“About your Theory. Not having emotion enough to spread around the million. Know what?”
“If you feel dislike.and contempt for all of them—that’s emotion, isn’t it?”
She said in a quiet, small voice, “Yes.”
“It was big enough to cover all of them, wasn’t it? Would it be so much harder to try to like all of them? To spread a little interest around among ’em?”
She didn’t answer. His battered, soiled face, under soapy hair and the ridiculous crown of ice bag set askew, was so full of simple good nature that she couldn’t look at it. It was all mixed up with half-forgotten bits of gladness from days in Cobleskill—school picnics and ball games and house parties, where you liked everyone and were happy. This was coming out of a long wrong turning down a lonely dark street.
She listened again to the hum of sounds that dwelt in the air, a neverending part of it. It seemed warmer now, companionable.
“A million!” she said. “It’s an awful lot. Mind if I begin one at a time?” She laid quick, light fingers on his cheek before she sprang up to call the doctor from a few doors down the block.