FICTION

THE HOUSE ON GRIDLEY STREET

FRANCES SHIELDS June 15 1945
FICTION

THE HOUSE ON GRIDLEY STREET

FRANCES SHIELDS June 15 1945

THE HOUSE ON GRIDLEY STREET

FRANCES SHIELDS

THE Theodore Todd Henrys took the house on Gridley Street for an adequate wartime reason —there was nothing else to take in Clinton. The house had little in its favor, but the Henrys were slightly stir-crazy from living in one room, ornately furnished with a bed, a dresser, one chair and a greenish bulb dangling like an unripe pear from the ceiling. The house on Gridley Street turned up after they had waited endlessly on an agent’s list, and Mellie Henry snatched it, almost sight unseen. Even in peacetime Mellie was the impetuous sort.

“Of course,” she said after a sobering second look, “it isn’t the Waldorf.”

Standing in the centre of the dark and littered parlor, she looked like a physically precocious but otherwise immature child who has been loaded with responsibilities beyond her ken. In fact, she looked ready to weep.

He comforted her, “Maybe it’s not the Waldorf, but the rent’s almost as high.”

It was the proper thing to say. Mellie responded to satire by getting her back up. “Well, it does have four rooms and a stove and a refrigerator.”

“Icebox,” corrected Todd, ever the stern realist. “All right, icebox. At least we’ll be able to eat at

home, or would you rather go on developing diabetes at the Oh So Good Eat Shoppe.” She turned brightly to the agent who accompanied them on their belated tour. “Of course you’re going to fix things up, aren’t you? Paint, I mean, and scrape the floors and clear out the filth.”

‘•‘No, ma’am,” said the agent. “Can’t get the labor. Take it or leave it. Plenty waiting. If the rent’s too high you might rent out that spare room. Besides, in the back yard there’s tomatoes and things the folks before you didn’t have time to pick.”

“Tomatoes give me the hives,” Todd said. “And what about that porch step? Almost broke my neck.”

Mellie’s face, ordinarily of an appealing creamy pallor, reddened.

“Why don’t you stop heckling?” she demanded. “I almost killed myself finding this place. And if you think the rent’s too high we will take in a roomer. It’s the patriotic thing to do, besides.”

Todd ran a bony hand through the stiff brush of his hair and contemplated his wife. He shook his head sombrely, “As a landlady,” he said, “you’d make a very nice cream puff.”

“Todd Henry!” Mellie was getting angry now. “I’m sick and tired of being looked on as a cross between an imbecile and a field mouse. I can be as tough as the worst of them.”

Todd backed away, “Okay, baby,” he said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you. And you’re going to

Rigors of being a wartime landlady weren’t funny to Mellie, laugh as you may — and probably will

have to run the house. Don’t come begging for help from me.” He added reflectively, “It’s going to be fun watching you get tough.”

A week later, after investing $200 in fourthand fifth-hand furniture and several light years in manual labor in cleaning up, the Henrys moved into the house. They were in bed, tired, but filled with that pervasive virtuousness that comes of having handscrubbed four floors and a flight of steps. Mellie’s auburn head was nuzzled in the crook of Todd’s aching shoulder, but he was still too much in love with her to tell her she hurt.

“Home at last!” Mellie said.

Todd yawned, “A poor thing, but our own.” Suddenly Mellie sat bolt upright. Tod took advantage of this to ease his shoulder.

“Listen, Todd!” Mellie said tightly. “There’s someone in the house!”

Todd listened drowsily. From somewhere within the house’s innards came a little scuttling sound, like a miniature sailor doing a hornpipe on “Cellophane.” “Oh,” he said nonchalantly, “it’s probably only a rat. Or rats.”

He did not expect Mellie’s reaction, well as he thought he knew her. After a moment of paralysis she managed to leap over him so that she was between him and the wall.

“Rats!” she cried and her voice was undiluted terror. “I can’t stay in a house with a rat! I hate them! I’d faint if I saw one.”

“Stop shaking, sweet. You have to expect rats in an old house like this, especially with that dumping ground next door . . .”

“It’s an empty lot,” Mellie chattered, “not a dump. And please get up and tell that rat to go away!”

“He won’t come up here after you. And I’m not getting up this time of night to chase a rat around that cellar. There’s rvo bulb down there, either. Here, let me hold you. I’ll fight off that nasty old rat with my other hand.”

“If I weren’t cornered here like a stag at bay,” Mellie moaned, “I’d go back home where I belong. How dare you laugh at a time like this?”

“Best time to laugh, when you’re panicked,” Todd said. “Toughens you up. Or do you want to be a cream puff the rest of your life.”

Anguished doubly by the rat and the insult, Mellie burst into tears. Todd took her back against his shoulder and let her hurt him as much as she pleased.

IT WAS the rat (or rats) that decided Mellie on the question of a roomer.

“Besides the rent,” she said at breakfast, “there’s the question of protection for me when you’re away on one of your inspecting trips. Now if we were to get a sober, steady, respectable man to take the room . . .”

“How’ll you know what you’re getting?”

“1 can judge people,” Mellie said, in an incipient huff. “I’m not a complete dope.”

To prove this, she selected, amidst the host who answered her ad, a Mr. Benlick.

Mr. Benlick was a tall, scholarly looking, oldish young man, given to rather high, glossy collars and sombre neckties.

“You can see how respectable he is,”

Mellie told Todd that evening. “Why, after he took the room, he brought a cousin of his, from Medicine Hat, to inspect it for cleanliness.”

“Did you tell Benlick’s female cousin from Medicine Hat about the rats?”

Mellie blushed. “Do you know,” she mused aloud, “it’s odd how your viewpoint changes, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. I mean, since this is now my house I don’t feel like knocking it. Besides, we have the traps, so I didn’t think the thing was worth mentioning, since the traps cancel out the rats.”

“Any resemblance between you and George Washington,” Todd said, “is strictly accidental.”

Mr. Benlick came and went his quiet way for a week, disturbing no one, but lending a certain soothing solidity to the house, like a visiting minister. He seldom said more than “Good morning” and “Good evening,” but these were said with such grave deliberateness that Mellie felt he was bestowing a benediction upon her. One day, however, Mr. Benlick unbent so far as to request permission to entertain his cousin, who was bringing some hand-embroidered curtains for his room.

“Why, certainly,” Mellie said graciously. “Why don’t you take over the parlor? We’ll get out of your way.”

“I wouldn’t think of disturbing you,” said Mr. Benlick with his ponderous politeness.

The Henrys retired early nevertheless, leaving Mr. Benlick access to the parlor if he should change his mind. Mr. Benlick was too good a roomer not to be coddled occasionally.

Sometime later that night they were abruptly awakened by a loud splintering crash, as of someone falling down the porch steps after tangling with the broken step. This was followed, amazingly, by a high, feminine titter and an impolite expletive, and then a sentence, “Whasha matter wish shem killing innoshent shtrangers!”

Todd sat up. “His cousin from Medicine Hat seems to have broken her upper plate. She has one swell lisp.”

Mellie narrowed her eyes and looked sneakingly at the phosphorescent face of their bedside clock. It was an unmistakable 3 a.m.

“Oh, my goodness,” she said inadequately.

Todd smiled gently, “There’s nothing to be done now, ”he said, “but tomorrow you speak to him.” “ƒ speak to him! Me? 1 couldn’t possibly.” “Darling, you picked him. This house is your responsibility. You said so. You even said that as a landlady you can be tough. Remember?”

Mellie turned her back, and went rigidly silent.

MR. BENLICK, sensing disturbance in the atmosphere, managed to avoid Mellie as sedulously as she avoided him. But on Sunday noon they met in the hallway, outside the parlor, where Todd was reading his paper with his ears open.

Mellie, her face livid and her tongue stiff, blocked Mr. Benlick’s path.

“Mr. Benlick,” she said, “there’s something I want to discuss with you,” which was a patent lie.

“Yes?” said Mr. Benlick, haughty in his stiff collar. “Mr. Benlick, my husband and I are as broadminded as anybody of this day and age.”

“I shall treasure that bit of information,” said Mr. Benlick with finality.

Mellie drew a breath and stood like a watery imitation of Horatio at the bridge. “But we feel we must ask you not to repeat the incident of last week.” “Incident?” Mr. Benlick’s straight and uncompromising brows rose.

“Yes,” Mellie blurted, “your having your cousin from Medicine Hat stay so late.”

“Oh, is that all? In that event, I shall send her off earlier next time. I trust that will be satisfactory. Good day, Mrs. Henry.”

“Good day,” said Mellie feebly.

“Ah, my punch-drunk beauty,” Todd greeted her, “that was telling him off.”

“You’re a brute. It’s a man’s place to tell another

man something like that.”

“You’re the landlady,” Todd said, and buried himself in the sports section.

The cousin from Medicine Hat came again as to an open house. Mellie began to feel slimy about it, and felt even lower when she received an admonition from the house agent. The agent said he had had complaints from Mrs. Henry’s right-hand neighbor that Mrs. Henry’s house was not moral and that her roomer caroused. Mrs. Henry shuddered helplessly.

“There’s only one solution,” Todd said, “you’ll simply have to ask him to move.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Mellie irritably. She had never in her life asked anyone to leave anywhere and she had not the slightest notion of how to begin.

“Write him a note and slip it under his door and run,” Todd suggested.

Mellie wrote a note, couched in ambiguities.

Mr. Benlick, note in hand, stalked down to her. “You know, of course,” he said, “that you cannot throw a warworker into the street until he has found new quarters. I could sue you for this.”

Mellie shivered.

“However,” went on Mr. Benlick, “I am leaving tomorrow. My job has moved West. Really, Mrs. Henry, someone, perhaps your husband, should teach you the facts of life.”

She told Todd later, “When he said that, I felt myself seized with a loathing for all men.”

“Me, too?” asked Todd, bothered.

“Well, how do I know how much you caroused, to use that loathsome term, when you were a bachelor? You, too, looked like the serious type.”

“We won’t go into that,” said Todd with dignity. “You bet we won’t. Well the next tenant’s going to be a girl. And an unattractive one.”

Todd threw back his head and laughed loudly. “Okay, baby. Boy! this house is going to give you a liberal education.”

After clearing out a dozen bottles, assorted, from Mr. Benlick’s erstwhile den, Mellie advertised again, being very specific in her demands, except that she did not mention that the girl should be unattractive. She was enough of a businesswoman to know this would bring no results.

AND SO Miss Bettina Warthy brought her plain and . virginal presence to the house on Gridley Street. Bettina was new to Clinton but she had already discovered the alarming shortage of safe and good rooms. So her gratitude was great at being chosen, although she did not know the reason. She was a model roomer, cleaning her own room, making her own bed, supplying her own towels, leaving early and silently in the morning and returning early and silently in the evening to retire to her immaculate chamber.

Bettina, particularly in contrast to Mellie’s whipped-cream beauty, was extravagantly plain. Her hair was of that depressing limpness that accepts no known coiffure and her skin was just skin. But it was her eyes that most distressed Todd. They were large and flat and round; like those of a puppy who suspects he is in line for drowning, they had a certain tragic appeal.

“There’s one thing,” Todd said to Mellie, “we won’t be bothered by serenades at night.”

Mellie looked pensive. “You know, it’s not natural for a girl to look so sad and alone. It bothers me.”

“Look, angelpuss. Don’t go poking your head into a gift horse’s mouth. She probably just looks that way. I bet she has a rich inner life.”

“I don’t believe in inner lives,” Mellie said stubbornly. “They’re usually morbid. Unless you’re a poet, and Bettina is only a secretary.” “Well, don’t you go and make yourself the symbol of her outer life. She’s the type that will drape herself around you like seaweed.”

“Oh, nonsense,” said Mellie. “We can be friendlier, can’t we?”

On Sunday morning Todd came down to breakfast in his robe and pyjamas and was slightly disconcerted to find Bettina at the table. Todd, conscious of his unshavenness, murmured a good morning. Mellie was standing at the stove, blithely turning hot cakes and directing a steady stream of gay chatter at Bettina. They ignored Todd.

“I said good morning,” Todd said. “That’s very bright of you, dear,” Mellie said, absently. “Bettina’s been telling me about her wonderful job and her

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The House On Gridley Street

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boss. And just think, Bettina won the Paragon County Typing contest two years ago. Isn’t that fine?”

“Splendid,” agreed Todd. He looked at Bettina and noticed a faint flush on her sallow skin. Her eyes were turned toward Mellie, and in her eyes was the first dawning of adoration.

Todd thought, “If she had a tail she’d wag it.”

“I’ve invited Bettina to take a littlé' ride with us this afternoon,” Mellie said. “She hasn’t seen any of the countryside.”

Every pleasant Sunday it was the Henrys’ custom to make a short excursion back to nature, armed with a basket of food and three different Sunday newspapers. After the food and half the first paper, Todd usually fell asleep and Mellie roamed the countryside until she was weary and came back and fell asleep, too. It was not the sort of arrangement a third person easily fitted into.

It was impossible to convey his resentment to Mellie, who should have guessed it anyhow, so he merely scowled into his oatmeal and said nothing.

The picnic was painful, as he was kept awake by Mellie’s chatter and Bettina’s shy but eager remarks. He was forced to wait until he had Mellie alone that evening to speak to her.

“Listen,” he said, “don’t make a practice of this. You’ll regret it. She’ll be expecting to be asked everywhere we go.”

“Don’t be a goon,” Mellie said. “She’s so shy, it’s painful. And I don’t see where it hurts you any. You sleep too much as it is.”

Bettina, at Mellie’s invitation, came downstairs of an evening to listen to the radio with them. Bettina gratefully accompanied them to the movies. Bettina went to market with them just for the pleasure of their company. Bettina began to blossom out.

Todd protested. “But she inhibits me. She makes me treat you like a lady instead of a wife. Can’t we go somewhere by ourselves?”

“But of course, darling!” 'Mellie laughed. “What makes you think we can’t?”

So they went into town for dinner and a show. They enjoyed themselves hugely. They came home, to find Bettina in the living room, listening to the radio. Bettina once again looked as if she were about to be thrown to the wolves.

“Did you have a good time?” she asked, and there was a melancholy catch in her voice.

Mellie, who had all but rolled in the aisle during the show, sobered abruptly. “Not really,” she said gently. “You didn’t miss a thing.”

To his amazement Todd found himself concurring. He had an almost irresistible impulse to pat Bettina’s head, to soothe her. “The show was a real st . . . I mean, it was rank.”

Mellie said, in the tone of one offering a child a recompense for hurting it, “Let’s all have a cup of tea, shall we? And sit around and talk?”

Bettina’s face brightened. “Oh! Let me make it. I haven’t been in a kitchen since I left home.”

Mellie was not the world’s prize housekeeper, and she preferred keeping her kitchen to herself, but she said nothing.

“Imagine anyone being so thrilled about making tea,” she murmured. “I ought to thank God for you more often.”

“That sort of talk is all very well, but you are not going to cajole me into tea at this hour. Good night, my sweet.” “But, Todd, you’ll hurt her feelings,” Mellie said. “Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?”

“Of course. But not favorably.” He stalked off, wounded.

A FEW evenings later he came home and found that Bettina was to have dinner with them. Bettina, enthralled, had contributed to the making of the dinner, going the Oh So Good Eat Shoppe one better by a canned peach and cottage cheese salad. Dourly polite, Todd ate it, but what bothered him more was the queer flush on Mellie’s face and a marked tendency on her part to avoid his glance.

When the ritual of radio and good nights was over, he said to Mellie, “Okay, baby, come clean.”

Mellie twisted the strap of her nightgown and looked down at her toes. “Bettina is going to have dinner with us every night,” she mumbled.

Todd yelped. “Do I have to look at that puss every night across the table. Ye gods, how did she railroad you into that?”

“Well . . . she came to me with her heart in her eyes and offered to contribute her share of the expense and work . . . she was so pathetic ...” “Naturally, cream puff.”

Mellie bristled. “Well, what would you do if someone came to you with her heart in her eyes and . . .”

“Let’s not have a retake on that. You could have thought of something. You could have told her your husband is a typhoid carrier and that you want to keep it in the family. You could have told her I tell feelthy stories . . .” “Don’t shout. She’ll hear you.”

Todd fell back on the bed and moaned. “Do you think we ought to put a cot in here so she won’t be lonely during the nights?”

The spontaneity departed from Todd’s life. No longer could he gallop into the house at eventide and kiss the back of Mellie’s neck as she bent over the stove. Bettina had a neck too. He even found himself eating less, conscious of Bettina’s one-third investment in the dinner. He was aware that Mellie was somewhat straitened also, and that her conversations with Bettina had become somehow forced, but she refused to discuss it with him.

“The only thing to do,” said Todd heartlessly, “is to find us a three-room apartment and move.”

Mellie looked at him wearily and did not smile.’ “There are no apartments,” she said. “I thought of that too.”

“Oh, well,” said Todd, “it’s our contribution to the war.

Miraculously deliverance came at last, although it was not of Mellie’s doing.

Bettina’s boss, whom they had come to know by hearsay in detail and at

length was being transferred to Ottawa and taking Bettina with him. Bettina was tearful but proud as she told them.

“1 simply hate to leave you two,” she wailed, “but I couldn’t refuse him. He simply pleaded.” She beseeched them to try to understand. “And he and his wife have an apartment already, and what do you think?”

“I think they’re lucky as all get out,” Todd said.

“No, I mean, they’ve set aside a room for me!”

Silently Todd reversed his opinion of the boss’s good fortune.

Several idyllic days, like a second honeymoon, passed before Mellie broached the matter of the empty room. She did it tentatively.

“I think this time we should have a couple. A married couple. And preferably young, so they’ll still be interested in each other and won’t look to strangers for their emotional life.”

“I think this time we ought to have nobody,” Todd said. “It will make life much simpler for me.”

“But, Todd, I’d feel criminal letting that room stand idle. Besides I’ve been learning a lot.”

“You learn the hard way, custard head.”

“Stop calling me those disgusting things. I’m getting tough. Why, even the rats don’t bother me too much any more. And as for roomers, I’ll lay down the rules right at the start and stick to them.”

Mellie found her couple. Todd, coming home apprehensively, surprised a girl in bobby socks in the living room. She looked about 13.

“I thought,” he said to Mellie in the kitchen, “you were going to get a couple You didn’t say anything about children.”

“What are you talking about?” Mellie demanded.

“Who’s that kid, ironing in the parlor?”

“That’s the wife. They’ve been married three weeks. Isn’t that cute?” “I didn’t know you were an advocate of child marriage. You kept me dangling long enough because you wanted to enjoy your youth.”

“Darling, she’s 18, he’s 20. They’re to have all their meals out and not to share any part of the house. They’re to scrub out the tub after they use it. You should have heard me. I sounded like a sour old landlady.”

“Did you? Then may I ask what that kid is doing ironing in our parlor with our iron?”

“Well, you know irons are impossible to get, and her clothes are all wrinkled from being packed. Edna is having one sent from home. And we’ll have to wake them tomorrow because they can’t find an alarm clock.”

“I can feel it in my bones,” Todd said darkly. “This is going to be very cosy.”

The next morning, while Mellie was making breakfast, Todd came plunging downstairs with his shaving kit in his hand.

“Do you mind,” he said blackly, “if I shave at the kitchen sink?”

“Why? Is there something wrong with the bathroom?”

“Nothing, except that kid Wilbur. He beat me to the bathroom. He has been in the bathroom for 30 minutes. I timed him. What does he do, pull out every little hair by hand?”

“Don’t get upset, Todd. We’ll just have to work out a schedule.”

“And there’s that business of their radio. Do they have to play it that loud? And do they have to jitterbug in their room? f And I think someone’s using my tooth paste. The cap was off.” “I’ll speak to them,” Mellie said. “We’ll have things running smoothly in no time.”

Firmly and clearly Mellie spoke to them, and they abashedly agreed to abide by the rules. It was certainly, therefore, not Mellie’s fault that Edna came down with an infectious disease.

TODD and Mellie had just drifted off into that satisfying first deep sleep when they were awakened by a hammering at their door. It was Wilbur.

“My wife is burning up,” he shouted dramatically through the door, “and we haven’t got a thermometer, and besides I can never read one of those darned things.”

Todd grumbled into his pillow, while Mellie conquered sleep and got up. “Where do you think you’re going, Florence Nightingale?” he said. “Why don’t you tell the kid to call a doctor?” “Because no doctor will come unless he knows how bad the case is. At this time of night, I mean. Really, Todd, sometimes you act like an unfeeling brute.”

“I don’t know why you get insulting every time you’re upset,” Todd said, and turned his face to the wall and went to sleep again and slept soundly until morning. When he awoke, Mellie was not beside him.

Slightly perturbed he went in search of her. She was down in the hall, speaking to a man with a black bag, obviously a doctor.

“Of course I’ll take care of her,” he heard Mellie say. “There’s no one else.”

“My Good Samaritan,” Todd thought, but with a sneaking respect for her nobility.

Mellie met him at the foot of the stairs. “It’s nothing serious, darling,” she informed him. “We’ll have to keep Wilbur away from her so he won’t spread the infection at work. He can sleep downstairs on the davenport. Of course I’ve had it, so it doesn’t matter?” “You’ve had what?” said Todd patiently.

“What Edna has. Measles. Why, what’s the matter, darling? You look pale.”

“I feel pale. I haven’t.”

“You’ve never had the measles?” said Mellie. “Oh, why didn’t you tell

me?”

Todd drew a breath. “Listen, a guy doesn’t go about announcing to all and sundry that he’s never had the measles. He waits until an appropriate occasion arises, so that’s why I’m telling you now.”

“Well, that’s all right anyhow. All you have to do is stay away from me for a couple of weeks. You can sleep on the davenport with Wilbur. Just think of it, darling, I’ve never nursed anyone before.”

“Well, I must say this seems like a splendid opportunity for you,” Todd said without enthusiasm. “What about my meals?”

“You’ll have to eat out, I’m afraid. Unless you want to take a chance of exposure. Measles in an adult,” she added thoughtfully, “can be quite serious.”

“If Wilbur snores, I’m leaving home,” Todd said.

Mellie spent two weeks nursing Edna back to health. Todd spent two weeks at the Oh So Good Eat Shoppe and two weeks listening to Wilbur’s boyish snores. He felt deserted and ill-used.

At the end of Edna’s convalescence, Wilbur suddenly accomplished the impossible in Clinton—he found an apartment. He and Edna were ecstatic. Todd was so relieved that he found himself slapping Wilbur on the back in a burst of congratulation. Edna and Wilbur together made a little thankyou speech and presented Mellie with a

I box of rather greyish chocolates to show their appreciation.

In the peace of their own living room, Mellie sat nibbling at a chocolate and looking tired out. Suddenly she looked up, stared at the chocolate fascinatedly for a moment and said, “They owe us three weeks rent.”

“Well, snooks, you can just track after them and collect.”

“I can’t,” said Mellie in a small j voice. “I don’t know their new I address.”

“Laughs run high in this house,” Todd said, “but if you don’t mind, I’d like to indulge.”

“Laugh your head off,” Mellie said j bitterly. “I’ll go into the other room. When you’re through, there’s something I want to tell you.”

“Yes?” said Todd, sternly restraining himself.

“This is really only a one-family house,” Mellie said.

“My dear Holmes, you constantly amaze me with your penetrations.” “That extra bedroom was meant for

a nursery, not for a lodging room.”

“Oh, come, don’t tell me you’re thinking of renting to a baby? There are limits. Let’s just leave things as they are. It’s so wonderful being alone.”

Mellie sighed. “Darling, you can be so stupid. This baby I’m talking about isn’t going to answer an ad in the paper. This baby is moving in whether you like it or not.”

Todd jumped in comprehension. “Mellie! Are you scared stiff? Oh. Mellie, I’m a brute. Bringing you to a strange town and subjecting you to all those weird people, you with your spoiled upbringing. And now this. Don’t be frightened.” He started to chafe her wrists as if she were going to faint.

Mellie shoved him quietly away. “Who’s frightened?” she scoffed. “What do you think I am, anyhow, a cream puff? Anyhow, it’s only going to be a little baby to start with. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I heard a trap spring in the cellar.”