Thursday, May 27, 2010

"What Are the Symptoms, Dear?"

John D MacDonald's fourth short story to appear in the weekly Sunday newspaper supplement This Week was a typically-brief 1,800-word vignette called "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" Like the three stories that preceded it and two of the three that would immediately follow, "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" follows a shape and format that became template: inserting a seemingly innocent incident or observation into the lives of a "typical" 1950's suburban household. A basic misunderstanding occurs, tension follows, and everything is eventually resolved in a wry and humorous manner. Although the names are different in each story, the characters are basically the same: Breadwinner Dad, loving and good-natured but clueless to the nature of whatever incident is being presented; Stay-at-Home Mom, smart, intuitive, understanding of her husband's shortcomings but easily hurt emotionally; Child One, male or female; Child Two, opposite gender of Child One. It's always the Dad who is the central character and it's always the Dad who is on the receiving end of whatever mess he has caused.

Appearing in the February 22, 1953 issue of This Week, "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" follows the formula well. Michael Rigsby is asleep in bed, dreaming of food. He's on some sort of midway, eying baked potatoes on sticks, like candied apples. He grabs one and takes a bite, but the potato had "no more substance than spun sugar candy." Awakening in frustration, Mike can't get back to sleep and his dream has caused a great gnawing in his stomach. He raids the refrigerator but can find noting to satisfy his hunger and returns to bed, careful not to awaken his wife Annabelle.

"Back in bed he began to worry about himself. Could a man who liked his work and had a relaxed approach toward life get ulcers? It seemed as if, of late, hunger pangs were always with him."

He awakens a second time that morning to the smell of coffee, "but it gave him no lift." He's worried about himself now.

"He felt dull, frail and ancient. In the bathroom mirror his cheeks looked a bit gaunt, he thought, his eyes slightly sunken."

He puts on a pair of pants that were slated to be taken out by his tailor, only to find that they fit perfectly once again. Then he panics and he remembers that a sudden loss of weight was "one of the bad signs." Not wanting to frighten Annabelle and their two small children, he goes down to breakfast wearing a brave face.

Later that day at the office he leaves briefly and heads across the street to a coin-operated scale in front of the five and dime. (I realize that nothing in that previous sentence will mean anything to anyone under the age of thirty.) He puts a penny in and reads the bad news: one ninety-three, down from over two hundred the last time he checked a year ago. This confirms his worst fears and he lets the realization sink in.

"Sudden and inexplicable loss of weight. He stood in the dismal sunshine. The will and the bonds were in the safe deposit box, along with the insurance policies. Hospitalization was paid up. As he crossed the street again he realized he was walking with a faint stoop. He straightened his shoulders carefully."

Mike calls his doctor and is told that they can't see him for nearly two weeks. He makes the appointment anyway.

"Twelve days to bear the weight of fear, the uncertainty. [He] clamped his jaw and decided he could do it."

That weekend he is moping around the house, sighing deeply and looking out of every window. Annabelle can't take it anymore and asks him what is wrong. He tells her "I'm a sick man. A very sick man." After a heartfelt gasp and an "Oh, darling!" Annabelle takes his hands in hers and listens as Mike explains that he isn't exactly sure what it is that he has, but it has been "very slow and insidious. When Annabelle asks "What are the symptoms, dear?" Mike tells her "The usual, I suppose. A feeling of depression. Constant hunger. Weight dropping dangerously." When he tells her what his current weight is, she closes her eyes, then opens them and beams "a wide, bright, disgustingly cheerful" smile.

"I see," she replied, and then laughed merrily...

The circumstances surrounding MacDonald's stories in This Week are either buried in the boxes of the JDM Collection at the University of Florida or lost to the mists of time. Whether he was "writing to market" or simply following the dictates of a This Week editor is less important than the fact that when "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" was published, JDM's second science fiction novel had just hit the stands, his first great mystery novel Dead Low Tide was about to appear, and he was working on the gritty urban novel The Neon Jungle. The sheer range of the author's talent never ceases to amaze me, no matter how deeply I delve into his more obscure works. "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" is basically an inconsequential family piece that, like most short fiction, came and went in the twinkling of an eye, but it's a professionally done and well-constructed work of short fiction that, despite the banality of its subject, is further proof of the man's ability to excel in almost any market he chose.

"What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" has never been anthologized but can be purchased from the archives of several major newspapers that carried This Week, including The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun.

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