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 Nesting Instinct,” from 1959, Pete will try anything to show his long-time neighbor Winona that he’s interested.
The Kuylers lived next door to the Millers. Pete Kuyler dropped in on the Millers after dinner as he usually did.
‘‘Hello, Pete,” said Mrs. Miller. “Just in time for coffee.”
‘‘Hello, Pete,” said Mr. Miller, looking up from his book. “Here’s an interesting bit; I’ll read it to you.”
“Now, father,” said Mrs. Miller. Mr. Miller was always reading bits out of books to anyone who would listen.
“Is Winona around?” asked Pete.
“She’ll be down in a minute.”
Winona came in, eating an apple and reading a book on higher mathematics. “Hello, Pete,” she said. She read them a bit from her book — it was a family failing; something about the number of uncompensated errors being equal to the square root of something.
“Pretty neat, eh?”
When it came to brains, Winona sparkled like a crystal.
“How about a movie?” said Pete.
“Thanks, but tonight I wash my hair. Why don’t you ask Eva Pullaski?”
“Because I don’t want Eva Pullaski.”
“She has a very interesting walk.” She swayed across the room in the sexy manner of Eva Pullaski, ending with a derisive flip of her derrière. “Well, I’m off to the suds.”
And she went off to wash her hair just as if Pete were calling on her mother and father and not on her. And that was the crux of the problem.
In a world full of curvy girls willing to be led to the altar, Pete persisted in being in love with Winona, a library-type girl with a figure like a beanpole, who had no plans for being led to the altar. To her, Pete was just the boy next door, whom she had known for ages. Besides the said skinny figure, she had a head of wheat-straw gold and a cool pleasant smell like a verbena.
But no yen for the men. What Winona liked was reading difficult books and eating apples. So far, she had not met a man as interesting as a good book, or even a good apple.
This was frustrating to her mother, who was solidly pro-Pete. She had known him all his life; he had a promising future in the business which his family owned. And besides, Mrs. Miller was a cheery, sociable soul, who liked weddings. That is, she liked weddings where nice boys like Pete got nice girls like Winona. Sometimes she was afraid Winona would not catch on until it was too late.
For it was clear that Pete was becoming discouraged. No one could say that he had not tried. He had done the flowers-and-candy bit for years; he had plodded through the World’s Best Books because Winona spoke highly of them, and he had bought a red sports car to dazzle her. But that was a device that had backfired. It had not dazzled Winona, but it had caused Eva Pullaski, a curvy girl who lived down the street, to pay Pete a great deal of warm attention.
Pete prepared to take himself off.
“Well, there goes the evening. I guess I’ll have to fall back on Plan B. Plan B is where the operative cuts his throat.”
“There are days when I could shake her,” said Mrs. Miller.
“Here’s an interesting bit,” said Mr. Miller. “It’s about bowerbirds, which are native to Australia and New Guinea, and are related to birds of paradise. Listen to what they do in the spring.” He read aloud from the book: “‘In the springtime, in order to attract a mate, the male bird builds a bower arched over with twigs, leaves and grass. Some of these are small and tent-like while others are long runways with a height of two or three feet. Outside the bower, the bird clears a space for a garden, a lawn of green moss, and decorates it with berries, colored stones, feathers, leaves and bright flowers — ’”
“Hey!” said Pete. He sat up. “Say!” Then he said, “Good night, all,” and vanished.
“Now what?” asked Mr. Miller, surprised by the suddenness of his going.
“He certainly went out of here under a full head of steam,” said Mrs. Miller.
Pete dropped in on the Millers the following evening. That is, he burst in like a human exclamation point.
“Guess what! I’m going to build a house!”
“Why, that’s splendid!” said Mrs. Miller. “Do you hear that, Winona? Pete is going to build a house.”
Winona looked up from her book. “A what?”
“A house! I’ve bought a lot at Heatherley Heights.”
“Pretty expensive out there?” asked Mr. Miller.
“Oh, brother! But it’s worth it. Say, I never knew about houses before. I didn’t know they could be so interesting.”
“Useful, too,” said Mr. Miller. “If it weren’t for houses, where would we put the mortgage?”
Winona was looking at Pete with interest. “Does this mean that you and Eva Pullaski — ”
Pete exploded like a firecracker. “Will you stop making cracks about Eva Pullaski and me! Eva Pullaski is nothing to me; I wouldn’t give her the time of day! Listen, Winona, this house is going to be terrific — fabulous! I’ve been up all night studying plans. It’s going to be a split- level on a well-treed lot.”
“Does that mean the trees are on the lot, or the lot is up in the trees?”
“All right, all right; have your fun. But just you wait — you wait right there — you’ll see!”
Often during the next weeks Winona looked about the room with the air of one who misses a familiar article of furniture.
“What’s happened to Pete these days?”
“He’s building a house. He told you about it,” said her mother.
“Sure enough, he did.” She thought about it for a moment. “Whatever does he want a house for?”
“To live in, I suppose. He’ll be getting married one of these days. Even if he doesn’t live in it, property out there is a good investment.”
Not only was Pete busy building, he was doing some pretty deep thinking. It seemed to him that he had got to the bottom of one of life’s mysteries. He mentioned the matter to Mr. Miller.
“Do you ever wonder why they have all these June weddings?”
“Beats me,” said Mr. Miller.
“It’s a sort of urge like the nesting season in birds. Come the spring, the girl looks round and if she finds a likely-looking nest, that’s half the battle. All these new houses are supposed to be ready in May, but they never are, so they have to hold off until June.”
“Only one thing wrong with your theory,” said Mr. Miller. “The girls get married not only in June but in January, February, March, April, May, July, August, September, October, November and December.”
“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” In other words, if you have a good scheme going for you, the thing to do is to wait for the propitious moment. Especially is this true of the building trades and houses under construction. But did Pete wait patiently for a favorable moment? Not he.
He came banging at the Miller door one raw, wet, windy March day, urging them to come out and inspect his dream house. It was no day to inspect anything, said Mr. Miller, who was lying on the sofa, it was a day not fit for man or beast. Winona toasting before the fire with a good book felt the same way.
But Mrs. Miller was loyal. “On your feet, everyone. Get your galoshes.”
They were bundled into Pete’s open car and sent hurtling through the wild wet March weather. They stopped before a drowned hillside where someone had built a foundation and stuck in a lot of two-by-fours.
“There she is,” said Pete proudly, seeing it not as it was, but as it would look when finished.
“You’ve been gypped,” said Winona. “Let’s go home.”
“We’ll come back when the flood waters have subsided,” said Mr. Miller.
“Now, father,” said Mrs. Miller.
Pete, bubbling with enthusiasm, showed them over every foot of it, over loose boards and piles of brick.
“Now this is the living room. That big hole over there is where the fireplace will be and this hole here is for the air conditioner. Underneath is the recreation room. Of course it’ll look different when the furniture is in.”
“Sure hope so,” said Mr. Miller morosely. “Right now it’s furnished with three feet of mud.”
“Notice this trench outside?”
“What do you mean, notice it?” said Winona. “It looks like Lake Erie.”
“That’s the drainage ditch. We’re going to put in weeping tile so the basement will always be dry…. Hey!”
Winona had stepped on the end of a loose plank which reared up like a teeter- totter and dropped her overboard. They got her out, minus one shoe.
Altogether it was a pretty dismal afternoon.
Pete was a going concern these days, he was really humming. He was finding that there is nothing so interesting, absorbing, rewarding and surprising as building a house. He sat up late thinking up ways to make this house better. This split-level was to be a split-level fit for a queen. A queen by the name of Her Majesty Winona Miller.
The dream house began to look like a house. The roof was on. The plumbers and plasterers were in and out, followed by the painters. It was nearly complete.
There came a fine evening in early June. There was spring in the air. There were boys and girls together wherever you looked, slightly bemused.
“Come out to Heatherley Heights,” said Pete to Winona.
“Don’t mention that place around here. Father said it gave him the worst cold he ever had.”
“The mud is all dried up. Come on, Winona; I have a surprise for you.”
They drove out to Heatherley Heights. A handsome split-level house with its windows shining sat on its immaculate greensward. Winona was astonished. She was learning one of life’s lessons for young girls, which is, you take a lot of men in overalls and set them messing about with boards and bricks and plaster and you’d be surprised at what comes out. She walked through the pastel-colored bedrooms, the dining room with the glass wall to show off the dishes, the kitchen with red brick and white plaster.
“It’s lovely. Pete; it’s really lovely.”
“I built it for you.”
“I’m not very good at telling you how I feel about you. I’m trying to tell you with this.”
The house was a very eloquent pleader. After this, she could no longer pretend not to know the strength of his feeling for her.
“I don’t know what to say, Pete.”
“‘Yes’ would be nice.”
“That’s the tough part. I like you better than any boy I know — but it’s not one of those deals with fireworks.” She looked around. “I rather wish it was.”
Eva Pullaski met Pete on the street. “I hear your new house is a knockout.”
“It’s all right, I guess.”
“How about showing me over it?”
“Sure, be glad to. Sometime.”
“Sometime about 8 o’clock tonight.”
That evening Winona had happened to bring home a novel of unrequited love. It was about this young fellow who loved this girl who did not return his affection, and about his sufferings, which were excruciating. It shook Winona; even though she was not in love with him, she did not want Pete to suffer on a scale like that. On impulse she called him on the phone; he was out at Heatherley Heights, his mother said, at the new house.
Winona hopped into her car and drove out.
In the split-level, Pete was explaining the different systems of heating a house — coal, oil, gas, hot water, hot air, electricity — to Eva Pullaski, who did not care much one way or the other. What Eva liked was boys, and she had been alone with this one for an hour and nothing had happened. Evidently he needed stirring. “What’s with the main burner, lover boy?”
She sidled warmly against him. Naturally he kissed her. And naturally, just at that moment Winona walked in the door.
“Aha!” she said and walked out again.
Next evening Pete rang the Miller doorbell.
“This is the Miller residence,” said Winona inside the screen door. “Your bowerbird lives down the street.”
“Aw, come on, Winona. You know it didn’t mean a thing. I was just explaining about heating systems.”
“Yes, I could see that.”
“You could see other things too,” said Pete, nettled, “if you weren’t an ice-coated beanpole!”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, that’s so!”
“If you are looking for father and mother, they’re in the living room.” She opened the door and, when he came in, she stepped out and closed it.
This was a tactical error, she realized a moment later; he was inside and she was out. She had not planned to go out, but having made a gesture, dignity demanded that she stay out. She went for a walk.
Several days later, Winona happened to glance out the back door into the Kuyler yard.
“What’s the matter with Pete?” she asked her mother. “He’s sitting out there looking as if he hadn’t a friend in the world.”
“His mother says he mopes round the house. Won’t eat a thing.”
“I’ll go out and cheer him up.”
She went out into the back yard and threw an apple core at him. “What’s the matter—have you got the blight or something?”
“I’m sorry I called you an ice-coated beanpole.”
“Oh, that? Sure I’m a beanpole. Figure like a thermometer. Mother says I’ll fill out someday, but not much sign yet. How are things out at the new house?”
“I sold it.”
“This fellow offered me two thousand dollars more than it cost me, and Eva Pullaski advised me to take it.”
She recoiled from him as if he had taken leave of his senses. “That is absolutely the dumbest thing I ever heard of! You build this beautiful house and then you go and sell it on the advice of a bird brain like Eva Pullaski. Listen, any time Eva Pullaski knows enough to come in out of the rain, that’s a brain wave.”
“But l thought you didn’t care about the house — “
“But you do! Why did you go and sell it when you personally love every board and brick in it? Men!” cried Winona. “Holy mackerel!”
She went into the house pretty indignant.
Pete came over to the Miller house.
“Nobody home but me,” said Mr. Miller. “Winona and her mother have gone to the movies.”
“I know. It’s you I came to see. I was hoping you’d give me some advice.”
“Glad to. On any particular topic, or just in general?”
“I was afraid of that. Fathers are remarkably poor sources of advice re their daughters. The general opinion is that when it comes to daughters, fathers don’t know beans.”
“I’m getting pretty desperate. A few days ago when she got mad at me for selling the house, I thought I was making progress. But when I told her I’d got it back again she just said good, that’s the stuff, as if it was nothing to her.”
“There’s something stirring in Winona,” said Mr. Miller. “I can tell by the books she brings home from the library. Up till now, it was usually deep stuff, pretty rough going for me. Like that time she took up the quantum theory, my mind was stretched like a rubber band, I figured it was due to snap any time. But look at this week’s haul—two love stories and a book on interior decoration. Last week she even brought home a cookbook. Winona, I think, is a good deal like her mother.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Pete did not see that this was much help.
“Let me tell you about the summer we got engaged. She was a college graduate, she was a darb at the books, she thought she’d like to go back and take her M.A. Whereas I wanted her to stay home and take an A.M. — that’s me.”
“Don’t hurry me, boy. I was in quite a state that summer; I tried everything I could think of. I even stopped a runaway horse.”
“A horse? I wonder where I — ”
“Nevermind. Horses are out. It didn’t do me any good; it just ruined a good suit.”
“What did it?”
“Something that had nothing to do with me at all. You know, when the girls are standing on one foot, trying to make a decision between marriage and a career, something not very large or important can tip the scales one way or the other. It seems to be the timing that does it.”
“An old aunt of hers died and left her a silver tea service which she had always admired. It seemed to turn her thoughts to a home and settling down. She always denies this, but I used to say that if it weren’t for that silver tea service the world would have got another M.A. and I would have lost a missus.”
“Has Winona got any old aunts?”
“Two. Both, I am glad to say, in excellent health. … I think I hear the girls coming now.”
Winona and her mother came in. Mrs. Miller greeted Pete. “For goodness’ sake, calm down,” she said to Winona. Winona’s eyes were bright, she seemed to be walking on air. “She’s in a flat spin,” said her mother.
“What happened?” asked Pete.
Winona, who had sat down, sprang up again. “Wait till you hear!”
“You’ll never believe it!”
“Well, give us a chance to try.”
“And to think I nearly didn’t keep my ticket; the man at the door had to run after me with it. And when they called out my name over the loud-speaker, I just died!” She fell into another chair and died again.
Mr. Miller looked at his wife. “Kindly issue a communiqué.”
“She won a set of dishes at the Lyric. Very nice ones too.”
“Ninety-six pieces!” cried Winona. “Eight dinner plates, eight bread-and- butter dishes, eight soup bowls, eight dessert dishes, eight cups and saucers, one soup tureen, three platters, one gravy boat, two creams-and-sugars — “
“Yes, dear, we know,” said her mother.
“Pete, it was terrific! It’s the first time in my life that I ever won anything. There I was sitting there, not even paying attention — “
She told it all over again, with details. Some time later when Pete got up to go home, she was surprised.
“It’s midnight,” said her mother.
“Oh. Well, I’ll walk you to the gate, Pete.”
She saw him safely down the porch steps. In the most natural way she put her hand within his arm. At the end of the walk she lingered for a moment.
“See you tomorrow night, Pete?”