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“The Undecided Blonde” by Timothy Fuller

Published: July 31, 2018

Summer is for steamy romance. Our new series of classic fiction from the 1940s and ’50s features sexy intrigue from the archives for all of your beach reading needs. In “The Undecided Blonde,” Hannah is surprised when her past lover Hank, a playwright, turns up to reignite their romance. Her new man, Tom, isn’t so keen on the idea. The 1955 short romance by Timothy Fuller features a classic love triangle with Hollywood types in a small town.

 

The town of Santuxit, Massachusetts, was just as quaint as Purdy expected. There was a tiny park with old white houses crowded up around it and an ancient church at one end. It was snowing, and each vista was like a Christmas card before they went arty.

Purdy pulled into an early-colonial gas station in the center of town and was surprised that the pumps weren’t finished in knotty pine.

“Say, Mac,” he asked the attendant, “which way to the chowder factory?”

“Yonder,” said the man. “Quarter mile out on the Nubbin Road.”

So Purdy took the Nubbin Road and, sure enough, there was the factory. It had once been a railroad station, but now there was a sign in antique letters reading: The Chowder Works.

“Crickey,” said Purdy.

He’d make this the shortest interview on record just grab the facts and be back in Boston by dinnertime. The place was open, aromatic, neat and, so he thought, empty. It wasn’t until he looked through the grilled window of what had once been the ticket office that he saw the blonde on the cot in there. She was on her back with one arm thrown over her eyes but despite this obstruction the total effect was promising. The chin was good, the lips generous, and what he could see of the nose was upturned. Although Purdy ranked jeans with middy blouses as unimaginative female attire, this pair was well filled and, below, the ankles were nicely fashioned. Also she hadn’t followed the current trend of hacking off her locks with dull shears. Her hair was the color of copy paper left a day in the sun, and it was long, soft and intelligently curled at the end.

Why rouse her, Purdy asked himself. She would then talk, and no talk from a girl whose career was chowder making in an abandoned coastal-railway station could amount to anything. Purdy knew For months now he’d authored that popular newspaper series entitled Your Enterprising Neighbors and few of the neighbors, once away from their enterprise, had proved swift with their dialogue True the twelve-year-old who manufactured seat covers for English bicycles out of imported tartan and the little old lady who knitted bottle socks in your favorite college colors had been full of worldly wisdom, but from the dreamers in between  — the gadget and toy makers, the bird fanciers and animal trainers, the jelly brewers and herb gardeners, the clothing designers and all the strange highway entrepreneurs  — frankly nothing of interest or value.

On the other hand, Purdy reflected, resting his elbows on the ledge outside the ticket window, this doll might not even work here. His information gave the proprietors of the chowder pitch as two ex-New York City typists who had fallen in love with the area while vacationing the previous summer. This girl looked far too young and unjaded to be a party to any such bucolic deal.

As usual when contemplating a new girl, Purdy allowed his imagination to roam at will. Let’s say it’s low tide, he assumed. The typists are out on the flats in their hip boots, digging tomorrow’s clams, and the blonde here is a niece of one of them. She’s half a year out of Yale Dramatic School and is on for the winter to live frugally and finish writing her play. She’s been up all night with the third act and is worn out and depressed. More than anything else right now she needs advice and encouragement. When she wakes up we’ll seek out some quiet local bar and —

“Hello, Hank,” said the girl, and sat up.

Only the eyes were familiar. They were green, and he was certain at one time in his past he had looked deeply into them, but no bell sounded.

“Madam,” he said, bowing, “you have me at a disadvantage.”

She advanced, laughing, to the grille. “This is your life, Henry Purdy,” she said. “It is June and we are dancing. You are twenty-one and full of great plans for yourself. You will have three hit plays running on Broadway and then you will return to claim me as your bride. I am fourteen and almost believe you. We are in Miles River, Indiana, where you are best man at my brother’s wedding.”

“Hannah Willoughby,” he said, awed. “For it was she.”

“The same.”

He rattled the grille, but it was immovable. “Come out of there, Hannah Willoughby. I desire to kiss you.”

“A splendid idea,” she said, and hurried around through the door.

But he didn’t kiss her. He shook her hand and patted her shoulder, because she was no longer fourteen and she was Horace Willoughby’s kid sister and Purdy had his code.

“Don’t tell me you’re mixed up in this clambake, Hannah,” he pleaded. “The letter I got was signed by a Carlotta something.”

“My former partner. She thought we could use the publicity. But Carlotta went back to New York ten days ago. Claimed she was getting cabin fever. She was sleeping in the baggage room, and it has no window, so — ”

“You live here?”

With her thumb she indicated the ticket office. “Tw o windows. Inside and out.”

“Does Horace know? Won’t he send you fare to get back home?”

“This is a nice little racket, Hank,” she informed him, bridling. “Right now I ‘m clearing fifty dollars a week.”

“Gad,” he said. “And Carlotta gave up her share in this? She must be out of her head.”

Her chin went out, and with it her fine full lower lip. She looked as if she might readily sock him.

“I jest, Hannah,” he said quickly. “ That is Purdy’s way when confronted with imponderables. Believe me, I ‘m an expert in these undertakings, kid, and yours looks sound enough. Sloth alone can keep you from rolling in riches.”

She was mollified. She led him happily around the pots and pans, explaining the intricacies of the plant’s operation. It appeared that she and Carlotta had stumbled upon the fact that no real, fully flavored, old-fashioned clam chowder was commercially available. The catch, they’d discovered, lay in the nature of chowder itself. To be right, it had to be fresh. Why not, they’d reasoned, make up a concentrate of the essential ingredients, lacking only scalded milk, and deliver it fresh to institutions like schools, colleges, hospitals, clubs —-

“Take schools alone, Hank,” she said, with fire now in her wild green eyes. “You’ve heard of the hot-lunch program? Do you realize that within a radius of forty miles of where we now stand there’s at least a hundred thousand school children who must be fed something at noon five days a week?”

“I t’s shocking,” he admitted. “Do you feed all of them all by yourself?”

“Oh, I don’t do it alone. Mrs. Pina comes in mornings to help with the potato dicing, and Charley Shaw shucks clams and drives the truck. We haven’t really touched the potential market, Hank. This could be big!”

He nodded sadly. She was an excellent girl, marred only by the eternal dream of easy wealth. But he had a nice gimmick for his story: Hoosier shows Yankees way to make clam chowder.

“Do you know quahogs?” she asked, holding out a large brown mollusk for his inspection. “ They’re the big brother of littleneck and cherry-stone clams. They live to be thirty years old. The Latin name is Venus mercenaria.”

“A very pretty name,” he said. “A pretty name for you perhaps. Do you ever get out of here? Do you ever have fun?”

“Fun,” she said, and sighed. “That’s you, isn’t it? The fun-loving Purdy. Hankus comicus. Yes, I have fun, Hank. For one thing, I ‘m getting married next month.”

He felt a short, inexplicable spasm in the pit of his stomach, but at once it was gone. All pretty girls grew up and got married. It was in the nature of things. In time, no doubt, he’d get married himself.

“Well, that’s fine, Hannah. Congratulations. Is it anyone we know?”

“His name is Tom Burnett. He’s a veterinarian here. You could meet him, but he’s gone to a meeting in Worcester to read a paper tonight on wood ticks. They get on dogs, you know, and Tom is working on a permanent repellent.”

Purdy couldn’t help himself. “My,” he said, shaking his head. “And there I was thinking you might not be having fun!”

“Very amusing,” she said, and smiled. “ I was about to ask you to stay and eat some lobster with me because there’s something I want to talk to you seriously about, but if ——-”

“Hannah,” he said, “ if there’s something you want to be serious about, I promise to stay and eat your lobster. Is there anything we might need to go with it? Beer, wine, whisky, brandy?”

“I don’t drink,” she said, but he shot her a stricken look and she giggled in spite of herself. “Ordinarily, that is. Oh, Hank, it is good to see you again, and it’s a long cold winter. I’ll write you a list.”

He took her list and found a remarkable store that carried newspapers, drugs, hardware, groceries and a splendid selection of grain and malt beverages. It was run by a laconic character actor in a hard straw hat who thawed a bit under Purdy’s final extravagant purchase of a pint of cognac.

“Tell me,” Purdy asked casually, as he counted his meager change, “who’s the best veterinarian here in town?”

“Doc Burnett.”

“Good, steady man, is he?”

“None steadier. Tom’s been at it now for more’n thirty years.”

Purdy reeled. Thirty years! Why, the man must be nearing sixty, and Hannah, Horace Willoughby’s sister, planned to marry this ancient!

It was all too clear how the match had transpired. Hannah, lonely, far from home, fatigued by her effort to maintain her precarious enterprise, had been carried away by the promise of security and an easy, well-ordered existence with the stolid doctor. It happened every day. Venus mercenaria, indeed.

Driving slowly back through the snow to the factory, Purdy probed deeply into his conscience. Am I, he demanded, old Horace’s little sister’s keeper? What right might I have, if such were possible, to throw a wrench into this mishmash? Do I have a duty here? Or should I keep silent, eat my fill of lobster and slink guiltily away?

He arrived back at the station in a state of flux. In his absence, Hannah had changed her clothes. She had selected a pink blouse, a flaring black satin skirt and golden ballet slippers. She had also combed out her long yellow hair, brightened her mouth and anointed herself liberally with an exotic perfume. The total effect, when she pirouetted for his inspection, was sufficiently charged to cause Purdy to avert his eyes. Clinking with his supplies, he crossed to the counter.

“Hannah, child,” he said, “this serious talk you proposed. Let’s get on with it.”

“O.K . But promise me one thing. Hank. Don’t get sore.”

He laughed easily. “You’ll find I compare favorably in composure with jolly old Saint Nick.”

“Very well, then. Hank, you’re twenty-seven years old; right?”

“Right.”

“You’re bright, witty and talented.”

“All three. Also generous, kind “

“Hank, how many plays have you written?”

He was in the act of removing a bottle by its neck from a paper bag, and now saw his knuckles gleam white. With masterly control, he lowered the bottle gently to the counter and released it.

“To give you a rough total, dear,” he said, “none.”

“You were always going to, weren’t you?”

“A childish whim,” he said easily. “A passing adolescent fancy.”

“Hank,” she said relentlessly, “you’re a liar.”

He was, he felt, equal to the challenge. “ I trust you’re aware, Miss Willoughby, that lobsters are readily procurable all along this coast. Even now some local Boniface is awaiting my custom. I don’t have to take this obloquy from you, a mere chit of a chowder maker.”

“Oh, Hank!” she said and clapped her hands. “Don’t you see? You even talk like a play! You can do it, Hank! All you need is free time, a quiet place to work with no distractions, and a steady income coming in each week! That’s all!”

“Aren’t you forgetting paper and pencils?” he asked, and laughed hollowly. “Those I might be able to supply.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “Hank, I want you to have this!”

He frowned. Her hands were at her sides and he was at a loss as to precisely what she was offering him. “This?”

“Yes. The chowder works.” Her right hand now waved vaguely at the pots and pans. “Charley and Mrs. Pina could do most of the work, and all you’d have to do is supervise it. Even if you didn’t want to expand, you’d have enough coming in every week and — ”

“Hannah,” he said carefully, “ I am deeply moved.”

A work stool was handy and he drew it up.

She swallowed and her eyes went misty, turning them a shade toward blue. “Well, you were Hod’s roommate in college, and you were nice to me at the wedding, and I want to see you get ahead.”

As ye sow, Purdy thought, so shall ye reap. But he didn’t say it. In the first place, this was no time for another joke, and in the second, he had no great trust in his voice. That this wonderful girl should be pledged to a doddering quack —

“Anyway,” she said, “Tom doesn’t want me to work after we’re married, so you’d better have it.”

Tom, Purdy thought suddenly, won’t be in a position to make such highhanded decisions much longer. Old Tom doesn’t know it, but he’s about through.

It would take time, of course, and plenty of skill. He could hardly hope to lay more than a groundwork this first evening. Tonight would be devoted to brief exploratory maneuvers. After all, he knew next to nothing about this girl, and success would require a complete dossier of her innermost self. Obviously, loyalty meant much to her, hence she’d not lightly abandon this rustic V.M.D.

“Well, partner,” he said, getting up from the stool, “let’s at least have a drink while we talk it over.”

“I feel like one,” she said eagerly. “Hank, this is swell!”

He smiled. Drink, carefully apportioned, could be a handy tool.

“Bourbon?” he inquired casually. On the rocks?”

“Whatever you say.”

Up to and including the lobster, it went very well. Rarely, Purdy had to admit, had he been in better form. He amused her with anecdotes from his college days with Hod, touched modestly on his experiences in Korea, and shocked her mildly with some aspects of his present Bohemian existence on Beacon Hill. In general, the format was meant to instill confidence in himself as a fundamentally sound human being, while doubts grew as to the scope, color and excitement that would be hers, wed to the aged vet.

But while he was preparing two generous cafe diables, Hannah flung an arm about his neck and kissed his cheek.

“Careful, doll,” he said, sensing no danger. “This coffee is hot and the brandy dear.”

“Oh, the heck with that,” she said, and kissed him again, nearer the mouth.

He abandoned his drink making, disengaged her arm and looked clinically into her eyes. Both of them appeared to focus normally.

“Venus, baby,” he asked with some concern, “how do you feel? You’re not getting crocked on me?”

“Hankus pankus,” she said happily, “ I ‘ve only had two little drinks, and that was before supper. I just feel good, is all. Maybe I have a wee touch of cabin fever. What do you think?”

This possibility had not occurred to him. It-might well be the answer, and if so, it required delicate handling. He wanted her to have no remorse following this night’s session. It would be well for him to remember that this presently gay girl was also capable of conducting a going chowder concern, and for her to suspect, in the morning, that he’d taken any advantage would be ruinous.

“You know something?” she asked, and crinkled her nose at him. “You broke a promise to me. When you first got here you said if I came out of the ticket office you’d kiss me.”

“True,” he admitted. This much, properly executed, could do no harm. He extended his arms. “Advance, Hannah Willoughby.”

“Catch me,” she proposed, and went up on her toes.

Very well, he thought, this lighthearted mood is excellent.

She led him a merry chase, indeed. Here a frying pan clattered to the floor, there a pile of cartons toppled. At last, panting, he cornered her by the baggage-room door. She struggled briefly; then went limp and tipped up her chin.

He achieved, Purdy felt, just the right balance between comedy and lust. It was a token, really. No remorse could properly ensue.

“Old Hankus,” she said and her eyes were fading once again into blue. “You’re not so comicus, after all.”

“Honey,” he said nervously, “I think it’s time you told me a bit more about your Doctor Burnett.”

He retired to his stool, but she followed and sat on his lap.

“You’d like him,” she said, and touched his right cheek. “You’ve got lipstick all over.”

He ignored this diversion. “But what’s he like?”

“Oh, he’s New England, I guess.” She put her head on his shoulder, and the perfume of her hair was strong upon him. “Steady, straightforward. He was a nine-letter man at Cornell.”

That would account for his vigor, Purdy mused. Still in those days the competition was less.

“Did you win your letter in college, Hankus?” she asked, and nuzzled his neck.

It was then that a great white light flashed on in Purdy’s mind. She had no intention at all of marrying this Burnett. The vet was a decoy, a ruse, to arouse his jealousy. From the moment he stepped into this chowder mill she’d been playing him for all she was worth. What a rube he’d been to fall for it.

But why? What could she want from him? Marriage, of course. They all wanted that. Oh, there might have been a lingering romantic notion left over from Horace’s wedding day, but he was here on trial. She was looking him over. Why, she had actually sent for him. Carlotta might have written that letter to the paper, but you could bet it was little old scheming Hannah, who put her up to it.

Well, Purdy, what now? A moment ago ‘ you were prepared to marry her, weren’t you ? Desired to, didn’t you?

But the situation is quite different, he argued. Before, we were more or less faced with a crisis here. Now cooler heads can prevail. Are you really ready for marriage? For all its problems and responsibilities? You’re young, boy. Twenty-seven is nothing.

Well, we’ll cross that little bridge when we come to it, he decided sagely. Meanwhile

“Why, yes,” he said, moving her head into a kissable position. “I won my letter in this.”

He kissed her truly and well.

“Now, Hank!” she gasped, twisting away. “Let’s keep this comicus, shall we? Remember, I —-”

This time, as a variation, he kissed her well and truly. She socked him. It was a glancing blow, but it brought water to his eyes.

“I ‘m sorry, Hank. I guess it’s my fault, but I didn’t think you’d do anything  — like that. We were having fun and—-”

“Oh, come now, Miss Willoughby.” He grinned at her, holding both her hands.

“No, really, Hank. Let me go. I  — oh, golly Moses!”

He followed her eyes to the door and saw it open to admit a small cloud of snow and one large young man in a hunting cap and red-checked woolen jacket.

“Tom,” Hannah whispered. “Why aren’t you in Worcester?”

Purdy froze, but apparently. the man’s eyes were still dazzled by the light.

“They have fourteen inches of snow already west of Boston,” he said. “They canceled the meeting.”

“What about your office hours?” she asked desperately.

“Dad’s taking over tonight. I thought I’d just drop by.” Dad, Purdy thought, old Dad Burnett, the best veterinarian in town. By now, the eyes of the young, the real, Doc Burnett had grown accustomed to the light. Slowly, painstakingly, he detailed the mass of damaging evidence. The bottles, the toppled cartons, Hannah’s tousled hair, Hannah’s lipstick on Purdy’s face.

In a way, Purdy had to hand it to him. They didn’t come any straighter than young Tom Burnett.

“Beat it,” the doctor said.

Purdy couldn’t recall ever having encountered a more massive vet. Clearly, two courses lay open to him: he could go quietly in one piece, or violently in several. He stood up, still undecided.

“This is Hank Purdy, Tom,” Hannah said wildly. “He was my brother Horace’s roommate in college. He  — he’s lots of fun!”

It was this line of defense that decided Purdy. For far too long now he’d been lots of fun.

“I believe I’ll stay,” he said, meeting Burnett’s steely eye. “Shall we settle it in here or do you want to step outside, doctor?”

“Outside,” said Tom, obviously a man well accustomed to lightning decisions of this nature.

“Right,” said Purdy. “Take off your mackinaw.”

There was something almost tragic in the manner in which Burnett divested himself of his outer garment. How slowly each arm came out of the coat, how careful the folding, how deadly the light dropping of the cap. He’ll clobber me, Purdy thought. But he stepped outside.

The snow fell, the light was poor and the footing insecure. Let it be swiftly done, Purdy prayed; let one blow decide it.

It did. Burnett closed in, arms cocked, and Purdy shot out his right fist. He felt a stabbing pain along his arm, and saw the hulking form collapse at his feet. Burnett lay as though dead.

I’ve killed him, Purdy thought. The fellow’s foot must have slipped and he fell into my fist, but it’ll be manslaughter at least.

He dropped to his knees and rubbed snow feverishly on the face of the inert body. Miraculously the eyelids flickered.

“Nice punch,” said young Tom Burnett. He worked his chin with his hand. “Fractured again. Never should fight. They warned me. You win, Purdy.”

Suddenly, for Purdy, this chance victory was soured by remorse.

“Doc,” Purdy said, “you misread the picture in there. Hannah’s true blue. I played on her loneliness, plied her with liquor——”

“What’s done is done,” said Burnett. “Such things can’t be mended.”

“Give me a moment to say good-by to her,” Purdy pleaded. “ I ‘ll make things right for both of you.”

He stood up and hurried back to the door. It opened for him and he narrowly missed falling flat on the floor.

“Oh, Hank,” Hannah said. “He hurt you.”

“He may have broken my hand,” Purdy admitted, regaining his balance. “Hannah, listen to me. You’ve got a great guy out there. Go to him now. He needs your sympathy.”

“But, Hank —”

“I ‘m going to run along now, baby. We had our laughs, and the lobster was fine. Give my best to Hod when you write.”

“But, Hank — ”

He brought his undamaged hand to his lips and blew her a kiss. “So long, Venus. You’re the best.”

“The play, Hank. Won’t you —”

He smiled wryly and reached out and rumpled her hair. “ I’ll write that play, kid. I’ll send you tickets for the opening night.”

He lounged for a moment against the door. He felt great. He felt like Gary Cooper in the last scene of a socially significant Western drama. He only wished he had a cigarette drooping from his lip.

She socked him again. This time it was harder, and it staggered him.

“Oh, what a faker you are!” she railed. “Six years ago you said the same thing — and what happened? Nothing! Go on! Get out of here! Beat it!” She was weeping.

He put his arms around her. He kissed her forehead, her nose and both damp eyes. It was all very curious. He saw that Burnett had silently entered, retrieved his cap and coat and as silently departed.

“Oh, Hank, darling,” she sobbed, “I didn’t really mean that! I don’t care if you ever write a play or not! I don’t! I guess I don’t know what I do want!”

“I know,” he said, feeling wise beyond his years. “ It’s sometimes hard to tell.”

“Tom is so nice,” she sniffed, “but honestly he’s not much fun. Not like you. Promise me you’ll always go on having fun.”

“I can manage that,” he told her. “With you I’m a cinch.”

“Then you’ll stay and take over the chowder business?”

“I’m taking everything over. The works.”

“Oh, Hankus,” she sighed. “That’s lovely.”

It truly was.

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