Hit Tune for Two Hearts
Little Molly Meade had to find a way to show him that just being in love could be the greatest song of all
OHENRY ruined the reputation of the furnished room. Think "furnished room" and your mind sees stark interiors where the dispirited sit on sagging beds considering failure. Definitely, O. Henry did furnished rooms no favor, for the truth is they are lived in largely by industrious young people with steady jobs and reasonable ambitions. They like their world fine, for a world it is, as unified and real as any segment of society anywhere. The rooms range from frankly inferior to smugly spacious with wood-burning fireplaces that work, and a view. It would surprise you, even, how much some rooms are loved.
Molly Meade’s room had charm and sun coming in like a floodlight in late afternoon. Molly Meade leaned back in her chair, made a tent of her fingers and appraised her room. She liked the simple maple desk, the unassuming lengths of plaid at the window, the Agératum growing quietly on the sill. It was a good room for a girl who was the associate editor of a department store house organ and who expected with time and diligence to become the editor. Down the hall were duplicate rooms inhabited by three friends, Rhoda, Tom and Harry. Paths were worn daily on the fading carpet that problems might be solved and goodfellowship exchanged.
It was a good room, a good life—-except, for one thing.
He was a new roomer, a young man occupied chiefly with racing in and out, his camel’s hair coat a-fly behind him. In between racing he banged on the piano. He was banging now in the room next to Molly’s, and Molly Meade put down the copy she was correcting.
So far Joel Bannister had broken approximately four of the unwritten rules of rooming houses. He had not spoken to anyone— not, even “hello” across the hall. He had left his soap and towels in the bathroom shared by all. He had not pasted a label with his name on his bottle of milk in the community refrigerator, and he had, one Sunday afternoon, monopolized the telephone.
Last night over spaghetti in Rhoda’s room they had discussed him. Tiny Rhoda had tapped her high arched foot and called him: “Inconsiderate, unfriendly and undoubtedly”—Rhoda puffed furiously on her cigarette — “a snoh.”
“A glamour-hound,” Tommy had said looking up from his law books.
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“I know the type.” And then Harry, who was a character with the interesting talent for absorbing secret intelligence, had come up with this: He was of a royal family of knit ting-mill owners from some small-size town up state and he appeared to be, of all things, a songwriter.
“What did I tell you?” Tommy said profoundly. “He’s slumming.”
They had voted against him and the veto was entirely just. Then why
Molly sat bolt upright on beat with a crashing minor chord from Joel’s room then why had she suddenly blurted out: “You’re wrong, all of you. He’s not a snob. He’s just unhappy.”
They had called her tenderhearted. They reminded her how she worried about stray cats and dogs. They warned her that she was a nice girl, brought up so gently that she could not spot a phony at six paces with her eyes on opera glasses to boot. They told her, speaking with the best intentions, to let well enough alone.
Molly gathered up her dinner dishes from the coffee table and did not give Joel Bannister another thought. She took her apron from behind the door and put the young man out other mind. "Faking up her tray Molly went into the community kitchen and there he came not only into her mind but into vision.
"l’here was the white triangle that was his back encased in his linen shirt, his navy trousers, flawless in cut and miserably pressed, his pure silk socks with a hole in the heel, his real leather slippers originally intended to wear like iron. He was bending over the table, intent on what he was doing and when Molly’s dishes clicked precariously on the tilting tray he made no sign he heard. Only when she slid past him toward the sink did Molly see what so engrossed him.
For heaven’s sake he was trying to open a can of soup with a jackknife!
For wordless minutes Molly washed and rewashed her dishes, listening to Joel grunt over his labors. She turned the tap on hard, but this neither drew his attention nor shut out his mutterings, and just when the splashings and gruntings and clattering of dishes had reached the point where it was idiotic Joel Bannister uttered the first word heard by any tenant.
He said, “Nuts!”
Molly dropped her silver, shook the water from her hands, and without stopping to dry them rushed to her room. She came back to the kitchen with a can opener.
“Oh.” He looked surprised, guilty, and offender! by the can opener, the soup and Molly.
“Incidentally,” Molly said, swinging open the refrigerator door, “is this your milk?”
“It is.” He stood stiffly as if his reflexes were out of order.
“Then you’d better put your name on it,” Molly smiled. “Furthermore-” she pointed to stacks of wire baskets inside the icebox each locked with a padlock. “The empty basket is yours, you know. Everyone has his own basket. Get your padlock from the housekeeper.”
His voice said “Thank you, I’m sure,” but his manner said quite clearly, “Stop bullying me like a sergeant. I’m no private.”
He was not much handier with a can opener than with a knife. She could tell that he knew it and that he didn’t like the idea that she knew it too. It was clear that a kitchen was a conundrum to him and her eye fell on the stove.
Molly burst out laughing. "Good heavens, you aren’t going to heat that soup in a coffee pot, are you?”
It was precisely as if she had punched him in the nose. His hands made fists. He looked defeated and ready to explode and presently he did.
“Look, honey,” Joel said savagely. “Supposin’ you go your way and I’ll go mine?”
Her way was the way of gathering her dishes, arrogant to her toes, of exiting gracefully as a ballerina, of passing by him, not seeing him, exactly as if he weren’t even there.
OH MY, he was mad all right.
Molly picked up her copy and began to read but the print piled up on the page. She went down to Rhoda’s room, remembering then that Rhoda had gone up to the boarding school to see her children. There was a light under Tommy’s door, but he was studying for his new law exam. Harry was out. Back in her room Molly brushed her ink-black hair a hundred strokes, wrote a letter to her parents telling them how much she liked her independence, and thought: He’s mad, but. is he really mad at me? She put on her housecoat and took up a magazine and presently she acknowledged that she was doing absolutely nothing but listening for the sound of Joel’s piano.
It came. One, two, three, soft notes, sweet notes, sad notes.
“Now, Molly, now Molly,” Molly advised herself aloud. Then with all her movements quick and purposeful she took off her housecoat, put on slacks and a yellow shirt, made a new red mouth and went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. When it was done she knocked on Joel’s door. “Yes?”
“I’ve made some coffee,” Molly said so meekly it was almost a shame. “Would you like some too?”
He was so astonished that his mouth moved soundlessly and wooden as a marionette’s. When he had conquered that paralysis he said, with terrible urgent politeness, “Why yes, I would.” “Your room or mine?”
He cast a hasty glance over his shoulder at his room.
“Oh, it’s all right,” Molly said. “I mean morally it’s all right for me to come into your room—I mean, in rooming houses, it’s done."
“Oh,” Joel said and flung wide his door. Balancing the coffee tray Molly stepped into the litter of music paper, empty coffee cartons, overflowing ashtrays and the scarred upright piano that was Joel’s room. Joel began to race around gathering papers from the floor, shoving books off the studio bed, hiding crusts of sandwiches, his face growing pinker and more perplexed by the minute. Finally, hardly satisfied, but finished, he stood before Molly waiting, like a diligent puppy for his reward.
She gave him her nicest smile although the room was exactly the way it had been before—a mess. In her nicest voice she said “One lump or two?”
He sat down hard. “Two.”
She made a parly of it. She had brought her prettiest napkins and her two little sterling silver spoons, and she fell back on her experience at presiding at college teas. She brought out her wittiest dialogue and her most astute opinions and it was horrible. Not once did Joel pick up a cue. Clearly I his was not a situation in which he found himself at home. He was watching her in a brooding way as if she were not quite bright in the head and just as she was about to agree with him he put down his cup.
“Look. I was rude to you in the kitchen. I’ve been under a strain. I’m sorry.”
‘‘You work too hard,” Molly said.
*‘I have to. I have to make it in a year, and eight months are gone.”
‘‘Success, fame, The world,” Joel said and everything was as right as rice at a wedding. The taciturn Joel Bannister began to talk. He talked in a quick breathless voice as if there was not enough time for anything. He told her about writing the music and the lyrics for his Varsity show, and about his father’s little knitting mill which needed him so urgently, and his father’s struggle to keep the mill afloat against powerful competition, and finally about his father’s agreement to stake him—-at an absolutely minimum allowance for a year.
Molly sat with her feet tucked under her, feeling inanimate as a doorknob and liking the feeling. She listened, thinking of how confidently her own parents had launched her into the world demanding no tribute other than that she make her life as she saw fit, thinking what a shame about Joel and then thinking that it was not a shame at all, but wonderful for now he was talking about his songs.
He talked like a man in love with songs, thinking of them as an idiom of our day—pop tunes, the tunes of the people. He came and sat beside her, not stand-offish at all, but excited. She saw how young he was, how really young in the way men are and women aren't. She held in her hands a copy of a song, all the notes beautifully shaped and spaced on the heavy music paper.
“Did you do this manuscript yourself, Joel?”
He told her he had.
“Then you must be an artist, too,” Molly said.
“It’s a knack 1 have.” He brushed if aside and went to the piano. “Listen, do you like this?” He played the sweet notes, sad notes and he sang the ly. ics in a perfectly terrible tuneless voice. And then when he finished something happened. He lifted his hands from the keys and said in disgust: “Ballads!” Something had happened. He didn’t look young any more, only angry and not at her, but at whatever it was that made him so mad. “1 knock myself out writing ballads, and novelties is what they want,” he said, glaring at the floor, and Molly knew the visit was over.
Oh, he saw her to the door with all the good manners one reserves for chaperons and the infirm. There he hesitated and the look he gave her was the look of a man who stumbles on an orchid in a patch of weeds.
“You know,” he said humbly. “You know you’re the first person who’s actually spoken to me in this crummy joint?”
She did not, as she had every right to do, suggest that it was his fault. She excused him. He didn’t know the ways of furnished rooms. She had the picture. He was the only son of the small manufacturer. He had been reared to build on his father’s foun dations, to pump youth and vigor into the little factory and make its products a household name. From the moment his birth had been inscribed in the family Bible his destiny had been like that of so many sons, to realize the unfulfilled dreams of his sire.
But he had wriggled in the itch of talent and rebelled against his bourgeois environment. He had exchanged solid home comfort for poverty in his determination to express his ego in music. He had never been richbut now Joel had stumbled on the shocking truth that he did not know how to be poor.
BECAUSE she was the kind of girl she was Molly Meade lay awake into the early hours. “I’ll teach him how,” Molly thought. “Tomorrow' I’ll begin.”
Nothing happened. Rhoda came to her room, Tommy tapped on her door, Harry came with the thick pastrami sandwiches, but Joel, ascetic as a monk, locked himself in his room with his piano, and Molly concluded bleakly: Maybe everyone is right. Maybe he’s just a glamour-hound.
Then on Saturday while she was at work he called and left something of himself. A rose was taped to her door and with it a jubilant note: “The eagle .screamed today. How about dinner?” They went by bus. That was Molly’s doing. With her mind firmly made up to consider his budget Molly listened to him rattle off the names of the flossier restaurants as intimately as if they were his personal friends. She would have given her eyeteeth to eat in one with him simply to watch his way with waiters, but giving herself an A for being so angelic she suggested a cafeteria that had opened recently in a blaze of steam and neon.
“They have the most heavenly cheesecake in town,” Molly said.
“Oh, well, if you’d rather,” Joel said with magnificent indifference that was a pitiful mask for his relief.
She could tell by the way he blundered with the trays and forgot the napkins and didn't know where to go for water that he was used to service and she was amused. He dogged her footsteps and ordered exactly what she did to eat. He sat very straight in his chair watching her as if he were a slumbov who had never learned the forks.
“Look,” he said finally. “You go for this?” He waved his hard. “I mean living like you dorooms and cafeterias?”
He was so earnest it made her laugh. “Why not?”
“Don’t you ever think ofoh, minks and fifty dollar shoes, and vacations in Bermuda? I thought all women wanted things like that?”
“I’d adore them, every one.” Molly ate a pickle with pleasure. “What am I supposed to do? Cry my eyes out because I haven’t got them?”
He toyed with his meat loaf and baked potato. “No,” he said. “I see that.” He put down bis knife and fork. “I want them,” he said saying it in such a way that he dared her to refute him.
“All right,” Molly smiled.
“There is,” he said slowly and distinctly, “nothing wrong with wanting a lot. of money the quicker the better.”
“Of course not,” Molly agreed. She picked up a roll and I hen it dawned on her that he wanted her to disapprove.
“Listen,” Molly said quickly, “speaking of money, why don’t you send a song in to that new radio show—Song Search? You know, the Gus Warren Show.”
He guffawed. “Oh, come now!”
Distinctly she had not made a joke. “What’s the matter with the Gus Warrem Show?”
“That,” Joel said arching an eyebrow elaborately, “is for the homefolks, the tyros. Listen, did a single1 song thatwon a weekly prize ever make the Hit Parade?”
“Well, that was sheer stupid luck. Why the whole show’s just a lot of malarky.”
“If we’re not quarreling,” Molly said above the cafeteria clatter, “then why are we yelling?”
Subdued and a little astonished at themselves they filed past the cashier where Joel paid the check. Outside he gulped the city air. “Of course we’re not quarreling,” he said. “But let’s have no more silly chatter about I he Gus Warren show.”
It went like that. They saw a cheap movie because Molly insisted it was one she wanted to see and they argued after about, the plot. Walking neatly in step with one another they discovered they mutually admired Dixieland jazz, F. Scott Fitzgerald, hamburgers with onions and Valli. Then they fell, somehow, into a pointless little argument about women with careers. Rather, Joel argued and Molly, forced finally lo defend herself, argued too. For some blocks they did not speak a word. It was not funny. She had wanted it to be perfect and then for a moment outside her door it was perfect.
Quite solemnly he benl and kissed her nose. He leaned back, and squint ing to see in the dim-lit hall, he considered her as if she were a work of art.
“Molly,” he said smiling. “You’re like a bee, all industry and purpose. It wasn’t much fun for you, Molly. You didn’t have much of a time. But I enjoyed it. Thank you, Molly. I really did enjoy it.”
He was moody and argumentative and of course she loved him. She knew also that he wanted to love her. She knew it without smugness or vanity, but in the objective way she understood that her hair was beautiful and that she made excellent blueberry cake. But there must be room inside one for love, and Joel packed tight to the top with his ambition had no room for her. She wanted to rectify this as soon as possible. She wanted to do something magnificent and healing and miraculous for him so one day after work she went to the library and looked up the issue of a radio magazine that featured an article on the Gus Warren show.
GUS WARREN was a pixie-faced old man with kind lively eyes, and he had money he could well burn in bonfires on his Long Island estate. He was the writer of Lazy April and Slowpoke and Hippity-Hoppity Heart and fifty other hits and he was a Double A member of ASCAP for life. He had thought up the Song Search Show, ran it himself, not for the money in it, but because he was crazy about songs and he wanted to give some of the untried and struggling talent a break. Each week he picked a winning song, and the song was published by Gus Warren’s firm and given, even, some exploitation.
Molly closed the magazine slowly, carefully, boxed it with her hands and counted the windows in the periodical room mechanically while her mind tugged at the thought: It was not
a phony show. Not phony because Gus Warren was not a phony man. Joel was wrong. He was wrong and suddenly she knew exactly why he was wrong so arrogantly and with such conviction. Eight months of his year of grace were gone and his confidence was slipping. He was afraid to submit a song to the Gus Warren show - afraid simply that he wouldn’t win. Molly picked up her gloves and walked straight down the library steps and home and then into Joel’s room.
With a perfectly straight face she said, “Joel, would it be too much trouble or take too much of your time to make me a copy of your song—that one I like so much?”
“The one called Too Bad?”
“It’s like this,” Molly lied beautifully. “Mother plays, and I’ve told them about you. So—”
She bent over his shoulder watching how expertly he handled the drawing pen. In twenty minutes the blank music paper had been filled with Joel’s clean precise notes and the lyrics printed in as neatly as a professional copyist could do. She felt like a traitor. She stood there smiling up at him and thanking him, saying “Mother will be so pleased,” and in the next moment she scuttled back to her room, addressed the envelope to the Song Search Show and tripped down the stairs to mail it.
IT WAS something to wait a week. It was a week that was a cycle of minor disagreements with her editor, of not getting her laundry back on time, of seeing Joel only once. On the night the show would be broadcast she put a Do Not Disturb sign on her door, turned on her radio and prepared herself to applaud. She had lived the moment a thousand times: How she
would go to Joel bearing the good news like a courtier bearing gifts; how surprised he would be; and then in this order— how grateful, how amazed at her ingenuity and perception, and how voluble about how much he loved her.
Sitting forward like a rooter at a ball game Molly began to tremble with impatience. Critically she listened to the songs, frowned over the way the girl singer used a cornball interpretation when she really should have sung it straight. She stood up when the trumpet fanfare announced the winner of the week. After a long enduring minute she bent, turned off the radio and looked around her room. Because Joel’s song had nol won the prize her room seemed suddenly a bleak and utterly unlovely place.
Not until morning did Molly begin to fret over what she had done. She looked long and hard at her reflection in the mirror thinking that it would never do. It was touchy business, interfering with other people’s lives, and this she had doneOh, no use making excuses! She could not bear to think what Joel would say if he found out and then she forced herself to think of it. She wondered how when she saw him she would be able to conceal her guilt. Two days later she had convinced herself her fears were groundless. By Saturday she had succeeded in pushing her anxiety nicely back into a recess of her mind she rarely investigated. Because she had done this so successfully she was so very pitifully unprepared.
He stood before her with his hat shoved back on his head and his coat swinging open, swaying a little with what she could only interpret as grimness.
“It was you!” Joel accused. “You sent it!” His finger beat an incessant tattoo against the paper in his hand. “A fine thing to do,” he said clicking his teeth. “A nice snide trick to pull behind my back,” he said advancing on her. Slowly, because it took so long for her to put together his scowling brows, then his yipe for joy, his bursting smile, slowly Molly saw that he was happy.
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He was unreasonably, ridiculously happy. She stood perfectly still in the middle of her room with her hands knotted at her chest foolishly like an old woman made suddenly Queen of the May while Joel swung around her. He sent bis hat kiting through the air and then he pulled her to sit beside him and put his arm around her waist.
He called her “Girl.” Specifically he said “Wonder girl.” He praised her further. “You might say you’re responsible for my success. You might say—” “Well, heavens!” Molly said. “Then let me read!”
The letter trembled in his fingers so that she had to bold his hands to make them still, and she read what Gus Warren had to say:
“I was impressed by your manuscript and I have a proposition I would like to talk over with you. If you are interested perhaps we can work something out. I am in my office Saturday between eleven and three.”
They sighed, simultaneously, sighed in such unison that the understanding that came with it was as good as if they had kissed. Once more they read the letter, slowly, laboriously as if they were translating it from Latin. Finally Joel said, in a shaky voice, “Dumb, isn’t it?”
They did not dare to speculate, but they did, naturally. They suspected that Gus Warren would give Joel a contract. They agreed that it was too silly not to see that the man would probably sign Joel up for life and from there it was only a step to—
“A hit, a dozen hits, fame, riches and the world,” Joel said.
She straightened his tie, and brushed his coat, and advised him to take a cab. When he left he kissed her, fully and convincingly, but he made no promise to her yet except with his eyes.
When he was gone, unaccountably Molly sat down in the middle of the floor and bawled.
SHE WAITED calmly, so calmly that it was not like waiting at all. She filled in her time with a dozen small tasks she ordinal ily found a chore to do. There was an almost sinful pleasure in sewing a button on a blouse, in polishing her tall-heeled shoes, buffing them far beyond the point it took to get a gloss. It was important that she be all fresh and slick and polished for him when he returned.
When the dinner hour came she read her clock. It ticked back at her fretfully, the works going like crazy inside its white enameled box. She made up a scene about Joel and Gus Warren having dinner, for she understood that the glittering business of Tin Pan Alley was best transacted at Lindy’s. She ate her solitary meal, celebrating with a glass of wine. With the wine glass cupped in her hand she looked out the windows at the lights of the city kneeling at her feet. It was a rough place, and things were hard to come by here, but it could be done. After a really minimum struggle things had come to Joel. He was an ordinary boy from the small town out to burn up the city and he had done it. She took a step and the wine sloshed in the glass while she thought: Too easily. It was too
perfect. Too pat.
She sat down with her hands on her knees like a schoolboy and scolded herself: Now honestly. Who are you, Molly Meade, to set up standards and philosophize? Who are you to say what is right for people and what is wrong.
But the thought stuck, not to be dodged no matter how she shook her head. Suppose winning her love had been too easy for him too? SupposeShe went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth hard with salty toothpaste. When she c :me hack her clock was ticking madly and the time it told leaped out at her like a shock. Good heavens, he had stood her up. He had stepped off alone into the world where silver dollars grew on trees, where sun tans were a mark of winters in Florida and not indoor sunlamps in a Turkish bath. It was so very prettily ironic that the door had been opened to him through her engineering. Now safely launched he had no room for Molly Meade.
In her starched white blouse, her flawless hose, her sickeningly shiny shoes she waited because even though everything was over she did not know what else to do. The clock, worn out from warning, folded its hands at midnight in a tired way. Molly’s eyelids drooped.
A MOUSE scuffled in the hall. She sat awake, all her muscles functioning at once. There were no mice. It must be someone tapping, gently, with consideration for those who slept. She opened the door and moved to stand toe to toe with Joel in the doorway.
“I’ve been walking,” he said and slouched against the door bone tired from it. “I thought and thought how to tell you.” He laughed, softly, but not nicely at all. “Well, do you want to hear?” He pulled the folded manuscript of his song from his pocket and wadded it in his fist. “Do you want to hear the great big proposition? You want to laugh?”
Molly said “Oh, please--”
“He wanted me. He had something for me all right, but not what you think. This,” Joel said smoothing out the song. “This impressed him—the way 1 copied music. Not the song, dear girl, but the way I wrote it down. He liked my pretty notes. He offered me, now get this, a job on his showmaking copies of the songs for the singers to use, running errands, boy-of-allwork and forty bucks a week.”
Quickly she marshalled her forces, dragged up enthusiasm, hugged his coat lapels. “But how wonderful! Think. A chance to work with Gus Warren, to learn from him. Why, a hundred thousand men would give their right arms for the chance. A hundred thou—”
He was standing straightenpushing the manuscript down in his pocket.
“I knew you’d say that. It gave me the nerve to come hack. I took the job,” he said. And then carefully, diplomatically so that he would not seem to brag he told her this: “He
saw something in my songs too. He said with him to steer me rightmaybe not this year or next, hut someday—”
Joel broke it off, then managed a sheepish sort of grin. “I guess I have to learn to walk before I can fly. I guess I’ve got a lot to learn about a lot of things.”
“Not so much,” Molly scarcely said. His dreams had been high and fancy though and for a moment she saw the stubbornness wink back in him like a boomerang.
“But I wanted the world, Molly. 1 wanted it for me and then I wanted it for you. I love you, Molly.”
“Oh, darling,” she said foolishly. She touched his wrist and then she drew him into the furnished room where the Agératum trembled on the sill, drunk with lamplight. “Oh, darling,” Molly said. “Come in, come in. This is the world, too!”