Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Who Stopped That Clock?"

"Who Stopped That Clock?" was the second John D MacDonald short story to be published in the weekly newspaper supplement This Week. It appeared in the August 12, 1951 issue and, like most of his early This Week submissions, barely fills two pages. In addition to the brevity of these particular works they also share a tame, domestic quality that would have surprised most of the readers of his crime stories at the time. They are interesting little pieces that briefly entertain and then are forgotten entirely, the perfect fodder for a Sunday newspaper magazine. These stories invariably take place in suburbia and concern some kind of family problem or crisis, usually comic in nature, and end with a twist or a lesson learned. It's either a husband who clumsily tries to improve his love life, or one who tries to impress his wife with a new secret, or the problems of a diet, or even the issues of an aging pet dog. Or, in the case of "Who Stopped That Clock?" a teenage girl who wants to stay out later than her father will allow.

The story is told in the first person by Joe, the youngest in this family of four, and it begins at the breakfast table. This is the day of the big dance and sixteen-year-old Ginny simply can't believe that her father Hal is insisting she be home no later than one a.m. She's tried begging, cajoling, negotiating and even tries to shame him into changing his mind, but he won't budge. Her mother Marty seems to be willing to give an inch or two, but this is 1951 and the father' word is law. Joe looks on in silent amusement. Hal eventually grows impatient with the hectoring and threatens to make it twelve instead of one. Ginny gets up, her underlip trembling, and storms out of the room. "There is hardly time enough to make it worth going out as is. You seem determined to make a creep out of me!"

Oh, the trials of youth...

Later on Joe decides to go swimming but is nabbed by Ginny on his way out. She needs him to help her with a plan to trick Hal and is willing to pay Joe five dollars to agree. Ginny will leave for the dance at nine-thirty. Hal and Marty will hit the sack at about eleven and Ginny has to check in with them when she arrives home at one. Her plan involves Joe sneaking down into the cellar after eleven and unscrewing the fuse that powers their parents' bedroom, stopping the electric clock on their bed table. An hour later he will put it back in. When Ginny comes home at two, the clock will read one. Then before she goes to bed, she will sneak down herself and replace the good fuse with a bad one. When Hal wakes up the next morning the clock will have stopped sometime after Ginny returned home.

The modern reader is probably asking themselves, "What's a fuse, anyway...?"

Joe performs as agreed, then goes to bed, but is awakened at two by an angry Hal, who marches him into the parents' bedroom. There he sees "Ginny in her party dress, eyes all red..." and his mother "looking sort of startled." Something has gone dreadfully wrong.

It all ends happily, though, with the four of them "laughing so hard [they] had to hold onto the furniture."

MacDonald wrote 27 pieces of fiction for This Week (including one that was sold but never published) in a period that spanned 16 years. Some of the later works are among his very best short stories, including "The Straw Witch," "Blurred View," "The Loveliest Girl in the World," and "End of the Tiger," but it's no secret that the early ones are mostly inconsequential little family pieces about misunderstanding. Light in tone and professionally crafted to a specific market, they are enjoyable to read but have all the staying power of cotton candy.

The story art was created by the incomparable Lucia Larner, who signed her art simply "Lucia."

No comments:

Post a Comment