There come those times in the life of every woman when she feels that she must wash her hair at once. And then she does it. The feeling may come upon her suddenly, without warning, at any hour of the day or night; or its approach may be slow and insidious, so that the victim does not at first realize what it is that fills her with that sensation of unrest. But once in the clutches of the idea she knows no happiness, no peace, until she has donned a kimono, gathered up two bath towels, a spray, and the green soap, and she breathes again only when, head dripping, she makes for the back yard, the sitting-room radiator, or the side porch (depending on her place of residence, and the time of year).
In this version of the writer’s big break story, Edna Ferber’s protagonist just wants to dry her hair, like she used to as a child in the country. Then a man shows up to spoil it all.
You’ll find this story and more like it in Ferber’s collection Buttered Side Down, hosted at Project Gutenberg.
Mary Louise was seized with the feeling at ten o’clock on a joyous June morning. She tried to fight it off because she had got to that stage in the construction of her story where her hero was beginning to talk and act a little more like a real live man, and a little less like a clothing store dummy. (By the way, they don’t seem to be using those pink-and-white, black-mustachioed figures any more. Another good simile gone.)
Mary Louise had been battling with that hero for a week. He wouldn’t make love to the heroine. In vain had Mary Louise striven to instill red blood into his watery veins. He and the beauteous heroine were as far apart as they had been on Page One of the typewritten manuscript. Mary Louise was developing nerves over him. She had bitten her finger nails, and twisted her hair into corkscrews over him. She had risen every morning at the chaste hour of seven, breakfasted hurriedly, tidied the tiny two-room apartment, and sat down in the unromantic morning light to wrestle with her stick of a hero. She had made her heroine a creature of grace, wit, and loveliness, but thus far the hero had not once clasped her to him fiercely, or pressed his lips to her hair, her eyes, her cheeks. Nay (as the story-writers would put it), he hadn’t even devoured her with his gaze.
This morning, however, he had begun to show some signs of life. He was developing possibilities. Whereupon, at this critical stage in the story-writing game, the hair-washing mania seized Mary Louise. She tried to dismiss the idea. She pushed it out of her mind, and slammed the door. It only popped in again. Her fingers wandered to her hair. Her eyes wandered to the June sunshine outside. The hero was left poised, arms outstretched, and unquenchable love-light burning in his eyes, while Mary Louise mused, thus:
“It certainly feels sticky. It’s been six weeks, at least. And I could sit here-by the window—in the sun—and dry it—”
With a jerk she brought her straying fingers away from her hair, and her wandering eyes away from the sunshine, and her runaway thoughts back to the typewritten page. For three minutes the snap of the little disks crackled through the stillness of the tiny apartment. Then, suddenly, as though succumbing to an irresistible force, Mary Louise rose, walked across the room (a matter of six steps), removing hairpins as she went, and shoved aside the screen which hid the stationary wash-bowl by day.
Mary Louise turned on a faucet and held her finger under it, while an agonized expression of doubt and suspense overspread her features. Slowly the look of suspense gave way to a smile of beatific content. A sigh—deep, soul-filling, satisfied—welled up from Mary Louise’s breast. The water was hot.
Half an hour later, head swathed turban fashion in a towel, Mary Louise strolled over to the window. Then she stopped, aghast. In that half hour the sun had slipped just around the corner, and was now beating brightly and uselessly against the brick wall a few inches away. Slowly Mary Louise unwound the towel, bent double in the contortionistic attitude that women assume on such occasions, and watched with melancholy eyes while the drops trickled down to the ends of her hair, and fell, unsunned, to the floor.
“If only,” thought Mary Louise, bitterly, “there was such a thing as a back yard in this city—a back yard where I could squat on the grass, in the sunshine and the breeze. Maybe there is. I’ll ask the janitor.”
She bound her hair in the turban again, and opened the door. At the far end of the long, dim hallway Charlie, the janitor, was doing something to the floor with a mop and a great deal of sloppy water, whistling the while with a shrill abandon that had announced his presence to Mary Louise.
“Oh, Charlie!” called Mary Louise. “Charlee! Can you come here just a minute?”
“You bet!” answered Charlie, with the accent on the you; and came.
“Charlie, is there a back yard, or something, where the sun is, you know—some nice, grassy place where I can sit, and dry my hair, and let the breezes blow it?”
“Back yard!” grinned Charlie. “I guess you’re new to N’ York, all right, with ground costin’ a million or so a foot. Not much they ain’t no back yard, unless you’d give that name to an ash-barrel, and a dump heap or so, and a crop of tin cans. I wouldn’t invite a goat to set in it.”
Disappointment curved Mary Louise’s mouth. It was a lovely enough mouth at any time, but when it curved in disappointment—ell, janitors are but human, after all.
“Tell you what, though,” said Charlie. “I’ll let you up on the roof. It ain’t long on grassy spots up there, but say, breeze! Like a summer resort. On a clear day you can see way over ‘s far ‘s Eight’ Avenoo. Only for the love of Mike don’t blab it to the other women folks in the buildin’, or I’ll have the whole works of ‘em usin’ the roof for a general sun, massage, an’ beauty parlor. Come on.”
“I’ll never breathe it to a soul,” promised Mary Louise, solemnly. “Oh, wait a minute.”
She turned back into her room, appearing again in a moment with something green in her hand.
“What’s that?” asked Charlie, suspiciously.
Mary Louise, speeding down the narrow hallway after Charlie, blushed a little. “It—it’s parsley,” she faltered.
“Parsley!” exploded Charlie. “Well, what the——”
“Well, you see. I’m from the country,” explained Mary Louise, “and in the country, at this time of year, when you dry your hair in the back yard, you get the most wonderful scent of green and growing things—not only of flowers, you know, but of the new things just coming up in the vegetable garden, and—and—well, this parsley happens to be the only really gardeny thing I have, so I thought I’d bring it along and sniff it once in a while, and make believe it’s the country, up there on the roof.”
Half-way up the perilous little flight of stairs that led to the roof, Charlie, the janitor, turned to gaze down at Mary Louise, who was just behind, and keeping fearfully out of the way of Charlie’s heels.
“Wimmin,” observed Charlie, the janitor, “is nothin’ but little girls in long skirts, and their hair done up.”
“I know it,” giggled Mary Louise, and sprang up on the roof, looking, with her towel-swathed head, like a lady Aladdin leaping from her underground grotto.
The two stood there a moment, looking up at the blue sky, and all about at the June sunshine.
“If you go up high enough,” observed Mary Louise, “the sunshine is almost the same as it is in the country, isn’t it?”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Charlie, “though Calvary cemetery is about as near’s I’ll ever get to the country. Say, you can set here on this soap box and let your feet hang down. The last janitor’s wife used to hang her washin’ up here, I guess. I’ll leave this door open, see?”
“You’re so kind,” smiled Mary Louise.
“Kin you blame me?” retorted the gallant Charles. And vanished.
Mary Louise, perched on the soap box, unwound her turban, draped the damp towel over her shoulders, and shook out the wet masses of her hair. Now the average girl shaking out the wet masses of her hair looks like a drowned rat. But Nature had been kind to Mary Louise. She had given her hair that curled in little ringlets when wet, and that waved in all the right places when dry.
Just now it hung in damp, shining strands on either side of her face, so that she looked most remarkably like one of those oval-faced, great-eyed, red-lipped women that the old Italian artists were so fond of painting.
Below her, blazing in the sun, lay the great stone and iron city. Mary Louise shook out her hair idly, with one hand, sniffed her parsley, shut her eyes, threw back her head, and began to sing, beating time with her heel against the soap box, and forgetting all about the letter that had come that morning, stating that it was not from any lack of merit, etc. She sang, and sniffed her parsley, and waggled her hair in the breeze, and beat time, idly, with the heel of her little boot, when——
“Holy Cats!” exclaimed a man’s voice. “What is this, anyway? A Coney Island concession gone wrong?”
Mary Louise’s eyes unclosed in a flash, and Mary Louise gazed upon an irate-looking, youngish man, who wore shabby slippers, and no collar with a full dress air.
“I presume that you are the janitor’s beautiful daughter,” growled the collarless man.
“Well, not precisely,” answered Mary Louise, sweetly. “Are you the scrub-lady’s stalwart son?”
“Ha!” exploded the man. “But then, all women look alike with their hair down. I ask your pardon, though.”
“Not at all,” replied Mary Louise. “For that matter, all men look like picked chickens with their collars off.”
At that the collarless man, who until now had been standing on the top step that led up to the roof, came slowly forward, stepped languidly over a skylight or two, draped his handkerchief over a convenient chimney and sat down, hugging his long, lean legs to him.
“Nice up here, isn’t it?” he remarked.
“It was,” said Mary Louise.
“Ha!” exploded he, again. Then, “Where’s your mirror?” he demanded.
“Mirror?” echoed Mary Louise.
“Certainly. You have the hair, the comb, the attitude, and the general Lorelei effect. Also your singing lured me to your shores.”
“You didn’t look lured,” retorted Mary Louise. “You looked lurid.”
“What’s that stuff in your hand?” next demanded he. He really was a most astonishingly rude young man.
“Parsley!” shouted he, much as Charlie had done. “Well, what the——”
“Back home,” elucidated Mary Louise once more, patiently, “after you’ve washed your hair you dry it in the back yard, sitting on the grass, in the sunshine and the breeze. And the garden smells come to you—the nasturtiums, and the pansies, and the geraniums, you know, and even that clean grass smell, and the pungent vegetable odor, and there are ants, and bees, and butterflies——”
“Go on,” urged the young man, eagerly.
“And Mrs. Next Door comes out to hang up a few stockings, and a jabot or so, and a couple of baby dresses that she has just rubbed through, and she calls out to you:
“‘Washed your hair?’
“‘Yes,’ you say. ‘It was something awful, and I wanted it nice for Tuesday night. But I suppose I won’t be able to do a thing with it.’
“And then Mrs. Next Door stands there a minute on the clothes-reel platform, with the wind whipping her skirts about her, and the fresh smell of the growing things coming to her. And suddenly she says: ‘I guess I’ll wash mine too, while the baby’s asleep.’“
The collarless young man rose from his chimney, picked up his handkerchief, and moved to the chimney just next to Mary Louise’s soap box.
“Live here?” he asked, in his impolite way.
“If I did not, do you think that I would choose this as the one spot in all New York in which to dry my hair?”
“When I said, ‘Live here,’ I didn’t mean just that. I meant who are you, and why are you here, and where do you come from, and do you sign your real name to your stuff, or use a nom de plume?”
“Why—how did you know?” gasped Mary Louise.
“Give me five minutes more,” grinned the keen-eyed young man, “and I’ll tell you what make your typewriter is, and where the last rejection slip came from.”
“Oh!” said Mary Louise again. “Then you are the scrub-lady’s stalwart son, and you’ve been ransacking my waste-basket.”
Quite unheeding, the collarless man went on, “And so you thought you could write, and you came on to New York (you know one doesn’t just travel to New York, or ride to it, or come to it; one ‘comes on’ to New York), and now you’re not so sure about the writing, h’m? And back home what did you do?”
“Back home I taught school—and hated it. But I kept on teaching until I’d saved five hundred dollars. Every other school ma’am in the world teaches until she has saved five hundred dollars, and then she packs two suit-cases, and goes to Europe from June until September. But I saved my five hundred for New York. I’ve been here six months now, and the five hundred has shrunk to almost nothing, and if I don’t break into the magazines pretty soon——”
“Then,” said Mary Louise, with a quaver in her voice, “I’ll have to go back and teach thirty-seven young devils that six times five is thirty, put down the naught and carry six, and that the French are a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines. But I’ll scrimp on everything from hairpins to shoes, and back again, including pretty collars, and gloves, and hats, until I’ve saved up another five hundred, and then I’ll try it all over again, because I—can—write.”
From the depths of one capacious pocket the inquiring man took a small black pipe, from another a bag of tobacco, from another a match. The long, deft fingers made a brief task of it.
“I didn’t ask you,” he said, after the first puff, “because I could see that you weren’t the fool kind that objects.” Then, with amazing suddenness, “Know any of the editors?”
“Know them!” cried Mary Louise. “Know them! If camping on their doorsteps, and haunting the office buildings, and cajoling, and fighting with secretaries and office boys, and assistants and things constitutes knowing them, then we’re chums.”
“What makes you think you can write?” sneered the thin man.
Mary Louise gathered up her brush, and comb, and towel, and parsley, and jumped off the soap box. She pointed belligerently at her tormentor with the hand that held the brush.
“Being the scrub-lady’s stalwart son, you wouldn’t understand. But I can write. I sha’n’t go under. I’m going to make this town count me in as the four million and oneth. Sometimes I get so tired of being nobody at all, with not even enough cleverness in me to wrest a living from this big city, that I long to stand out at the edge of the curbing, and take off my hat, and wave it, and shout, ‘Say, you four million uncaring people, I’m Mary Louise Moss, from Escanaba, Michigan, and I like your town, and I want to stay here. Won’t you please pay some slight attention to me. No one knows I’m here except myself, and the rent collector.’”
“And I,” put in the rude young man.
“O, you,” sneered Mary Louise, equally rude, “you don’t count.”
The collarless young man in the shabby slippers smiled a curious little twisted smile. “You never can tell,” he grinned, “I might.” Then, quite suddenly, he stood up, knocked the ash out of his pipe, and came over to Mary Louise, who was preparing to descend the steep little flight of stairs.
“Look here, Mary Louise Moss, from Escanaba, Michigan, you stop trying to write the slop you’re writing now. Stop it. Drop the love tales that are like the stuff that everybody else writes. Stop trying to write about New York. You don’t know anything about it. Listen. You get back to work, and write about Mrs. Next Door, and the hair-washing, and the vegetable garden, and bees, and the back yard, understand? You write the way you talked to me, and then you send your stuff in to Cecil Reeves.”
“Reeves!” mocked Mary Louise. “Cecil Reeves, of The Earth? He wouldn’t dream of looking at my stuff. And anyway, it really isn’t your affair.” And began to descend the stairs.
“Well, you know you brought me up here, kicking with your heels, and singing at the top of your voice. I couldn’t work. So it’s really your fault.” Then, just as Mary Louise had almost disappeared down the stairway he put his last astonishing question.
“How often do you wash your hair?” he demanded.
“Well, back home,” confessed Mary Louise, “every six weeks or so was enough, but——”
“Not here,” put in the rude young man, briskly. “Never. That’s all very well for the country, but it won’t do in the city. Once a week, at least, and on the roof. Cleanliness demands it.”
“But if I’m going back to the country,” replied Mary Louise, “it won’t be necessary.”
“But you’re not,” calmly said the collarless young man, just as Mary Louise vanished from sight.
Down at the other end of the hallway on Mary Louise’s floor Charlie, the janitor, was doing something to the windows now, with a rag, and a pail of water.
“Get it dry?” he called out, sociably.
“Yes, thank you,” answered Mary Louise, and turned to enter her own little apartment. Then, hesitatingly, she came back to Charlie’s window.
“There—there was a man up there—a very tall, very thin, very rude, very—that is, rather nice youngish oldish man, in slippers, and no collar. I wonder——”
“Oh, him!” snorted Charlie. “He don’t show himself onct in a blue moon. None of the other tenants knows he’s up there. Has the whole top floor to himself, and shuts himself up there for weeks at a time, writin’ books, or some such truck. That guy, he owns the building.”
“Owns the building!” said Mary Louise, faintly. “Why he looked—he looked—”
“Sure,” grinned Charlie. “That’s him. Name’s Reeves—Cecil Reeves. Say, ain’t that a divil of a name?”