Monday, May 17, 2010

"First Offense"

One of the great things about exploring the forgotten short stories of John D MacDonald is discovering little gems in places you would never expect. Take, for example, "First Offense," a revenge tale that originally appeared in the August 1954 issue of Cosmopolitan. With an alluring photo of Esther Williams gracing the cover and articles with titles like "So You Want to Stay Single?" and "Shoe Romance," the modern reader simply doesn't expect to find stories about robbery and unjust imprisonment within its pages. But as I've written before, Cosmopolitan was a much different magazine before Helen Gurley Brown took over as editor in the early Sixties. The writings of John D MacDonald appeared in the magazine 36 times during his career and it includes some of his very best work in the short form. "First Offense" is an excellent story that begins one way and ends in another, a seemingly predictable story of a man seeking revenge for a crime he claims he didn't commit that resolves itself in a way completely surprising to the reader.

Since it is not my intention to give away story endings on this blog, I can't explore that aspect of the tale, but I can try and give you a hint of its gritty realism, its tight, economic prose and its interesting premise. It's the type of thing MacDonald was putting out month in and month out in the 1950's, even as his career as a novelist was taking precedence. He published "only" nine short stories in 1954 (two of them were novellas!) and every one I've read is excellent, not a clunker in the lot. Oh, and he also wrote three novels that year as well.

"Malcolm Rainey was released from prison on a morning in May when thick clouds drifted low and slow and there was a humid smell of earth and growth in the prison town."

How's that for a prefiguring first sentence?

Rainey is indeed getting out of prison today after serving a five year sentence for an armed robbery he didn't commit. He had been walking home late from the gas station he owned and passed by a pawn shop where he saw movement inside. Thinking the place was being robbed, he impulsively entered through the open door and surprised a man with a gun and an armload of valuables. Rainey struggled with the robber but was kicked in the stomach and the man fled, but not before dropping the loot and the gun. Rainey picked up the pistol and looked for a phone to call the police but stopped when he saw someone enter the door. It was a cop, and before he could say "somebody broke in here and --" the cop, seeing the gun in Rainey's hand, shot him. With only his story and a defense lawyer who was "barely able to conceal his bored skepticism," Rainey was convicted and the cop received a citation. He lost his business, his house and five years of his life, but not his wife Mary, who has faithfully awaited his release.

Despite the injustice of it all, Rainey has been a model prisoner and is seemingly ready to put it all behind him, as evidenced by the warden's words as he bids the prisoner farewell:
"I'm glad you adjusted the way you did, Rainey. What I said five years ago still goes. Don't work up a sweat. Let the ball bounce. Canelli was doing his job. I damn near believe your story. Suppose it's true. Should Canelli believe it? The jolt for armed robbery, even on a first offense, is stiff. It has to be. Don't go out with a con psychology. Canelli was a rookie. He was nervous. You had a gun in your hand, and he shot you."

Mary is there to pick him up and she immediately reaches to embrace him as he enters the car, but he stops her, not wanting to give the guards a show. He drives silently through town and finally pulls over and takes her in his arms. The author begins to reveal the bitterness that is smoldering beneath the surface.

"Five years had changed her. He had been aware of it on her visits. She had been twenty-seven when he went in. Five years showed in the texture of the skin under her eyes, in a deepening of lines that had been faint near the corners of her mouth. They had taken five of his years. He could resent that bitterly. but five years of her. That was the unforgivable part. Five years of the security he could have given her. All the little abrasions of uncertainty and loneliness. It would always be there, that sense of loss."

With no house to return to, the couple arrive at the tiny apartment where Mary has been living, complete with a Murphy bed and "a matchstick screen to hide the kitchen." They share a celebration homecoming dinner of turkey and champagne and a night of lovemaking that was "queerly shy and stilted." As the days go by Rainey becomes more comfortable in his new surroundings but it cannot mask the emotional distance he is keeping from Mary. When she finally broaches the subject he nearly explodes with resentment, slamming his fist down on the kitchen table and responding, "He lied! He made a mistake and he lied, and they took five years out of my life. Just because he was a green cop. He was nervous. He didn't want to make a mistake. So he lied and got a medal!"
And he can never forget what his attorney told him after he was convicted. "Patrolman Canelli's testimony is what made the difference... I think he actually believes you pointed the [pistol] at him... when you carry a gun, you're licked." He turns his back to his wife and tells her, "I want him to know what he did to me."

Rainey gets a job with an old friend who runs a trucking line and begins the outward readjustment, but "coming back to life was a painful thing, like blood flowing into a leg that had been asleep too long." He has his plan in place and knows he can keep it from everyone except Mary. "She knew. And it was something they did not talk about. It was a wall between them."

He waits a few months but eventually tracks down where Canelli lives. On a hot July day he drives there alone, into a new Levittown-like development and spies the cop -- older, heavier and now balding -- installing a patio in his backyard. He approaches, introduces himself as "Jones," and it is clear that Canelli does not recognize him...

The story doesn't end as one would expect, but that should come as no surprise. I doubt if MacDonald would ever write a straightforward revenge tale, certainly not by 1954. The story is less about what Rainey does than about how he is forced to either accept reality or go down in flames of hate. The third person interior monologue paints the picture of a man who feels he has to do something to rectify the injustice perpetrated on him, but other than confronting the man he believes caused it, he really isn't sure exactly what to do. If this were a Jim Thompson character he'd probably shoot the guy -- by accident, of course -- and go into hiding. With MacDonald, it is a far deeper and ultimately more realistic result.

As far as I can tell, "First Offense" has never been reprinted or anthologized.

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