Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"A Romantic Courtesy"

The shortest John D MacDonald story ever to appear in Cosmopolitan was published in the July 1957 issue of the magazine. It was submitted under the title "A Picture of Success" and clocked in at a mere 1,800 words. Cosmopolitan's fiction editor Kathryn Bourne eventually changed the title to "A Romantic Courtesy" -- an improvement -- and the story went on to appear alongside authors such as Harriet Pratt, Stephen Birmingham, Baird Hall and at least one writer whose name you might actually recognize, Bill S. Ballinger. It was one of only four short stories MacDonald would publish that year, the same period he would produce five(!) novels and publish four (The Executioners was serialized in October and November of that year, eleven months before it hit the bookstands). "A Romantic Courtesy" is one of the author's non-crime pieces, a "mainstream" work of fiction that focuses on human relationships and behavior, that region MacDonald called the "little areas between the myths." In this particular case it is that area between desire and action, and between contentment and regret.

MacDonald uses a favorite structural template in "A Romantic Courtesy," one he had been using at least as far back as 1949 (see "The Anonymous Letter") wherein the protagonist has a random and unexpected encounter with someone from his past, initially sparking a flashback -- deeply rich in the details of time and place -- where some kind of unresolved conflict is introduced. Once the flashback is completed the reader is returned to the present where said conflict is resolved, usually employing some kind of literary twist.

John Raney has it made. The thirty-five year-old Texas rancher lives on twenty-six thousand acres north of Fort Worth and
is married to a pretty blonde-haired woman named Betty who has given him three husky boys. John made his money in oil and horses, owns his own plane along with a private airstrip on the ranch. He is recognized in Texas as a Mr. Big and is respected as an honest businessman.

"The money was piling up, much faster than he had ever dreamed. A few breaks, and a lot of hard work, and now he was in the clear and moving fast. No regrets."
No regrets, except for the one he is about to have called to mind.

On the way back from a Corpus Christi business meeting, his private aircraft develops engine trouble and his pilot is forced to land in San Antonio. While the plane is being worked on John decides to head over to the terminal for some coffee. Since he hadn't planned on stopping anywhere, he is unshaven and unkempt, wearing a pair of sweat-stained khakis, dusty boots and a ranch hat that has seen better days. Then, as he sits at a counter waiting for his coffee, he sees her. Her: the one that got away.

"He felt as though his heart had dropped. She had not changed. Not at all. Funny to have been thinking about no regrets, and then the next moment see her and have the sight of her take the lid off this one little hidden regret... Gloria had come first, and he had lost her."
It was fourteen years ago and John had been in the army, training in California. He and two of his friends had been dating Gloria, but John had "gained the inside track" and a wedding was planned. But Gloria was an ambitious girl, and although she was genuinely in love with John, he had little to offer her at the time. So when Major Christopher Kimball came along -- Kimball, of "the Philadelphia Kimballs" -- Gloria quickly broke off the engagement.

After joining her at her table, the one-time couple begin trading histories. When John asks about "the Major," Gloria makes a face and reveals that she and Kimball were divorced soon after they were married. He went off to live in a Colorado mountain town and she headed to New York, where she met and married "a sweet boy" named Jerry Cobbler. Jerry was indeed a sweet boy, but one who refused to grow up and he eventually returned to his mother. ("Sweet boy" probably had a much different meaning in 1957 than it does today!) Husband number three -- and current spouse -- is Wendell Cowliss, a producer of some of the biggest television shows in the country. Wendell is an older man but, assures Gloria, one "young in spirit."

As John listens to her he detects "tiny lines of tension" around her mouth and under her eyes. "There was a nervous brittleness in her voice. the dark hair was as glossy as ever, the soft mouth as provocative, but she seemed to be under a strain."

When Gloria asks if John got "the little ranch" he used to talk about, it is clear that she has not kept up with the success of her former fiancée. He tells her yes, that he is married and has three boys, and Gloria launches into an odd reverie.

"Gee, you know, sometimes I wish...I've gone this far, I might as well say it. Sometimes I wish you and I had... done what we planned before Chris came along. Wendell can buy me almost anything in the world I want... but if I could have been with you on some little ranch, working hard, raising kids, entering stuff in the county fair, driving into town on Saturday night in the pickup... I think I would have made a good ranch wife, don't you?"
Taken aback, John quickly realizes that he is being patronized. "Up until that moment it had not occurred to him that she would regard him as a sort of grubby semi-failure." He responds sarcastically: "Hard work being a woman on a ranch. Chop wood, run the tractor, feed the hogs. Lonely life." So when Gloria asks to see a picture of his family, he pulls out his wallet and leafs through his small collection of family photos. Would he show her the the shot of Betty wearing the Dior dress, standing in front of the enormous fireplace? Or the picture of the family the day the Mercedes was delivered, with the huge ranch house in the background? When he decides on the image of the family standing in front of the airplane on their private runway, he looks up to see an unexpected warmth and vulnerability in her eyes...

"A Romantic Courtesy" is a satisfying little vignette, expertly told, featuring one of MacDonald's hero types, the self-made man. He's driven but fair, hard-working to distraction but never neglecting his family, supremely self-assured yet still harboring gnawing regrets from the past. And Gloria too is a JDM "type," the beautiful but self-absorbed woman who puts her quest for a comfortable life ahead of happiness, but one who has enough self-awareness to realize she might have been wrong. In less than 2,000 words MacDonald put together the full package, a complete world leaving much to the imagination yet nothing unanswered.

MacDonald was proud of "A Romantic Courtesy" and included it in his first short story anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. Interestingly, there are a few extra sentences in the anthologized version, not important to the overall story but important in further establishing John Raney as an honorable man. I'm not sure if these additions were afterthoughts or if Cosmopolitan removed them for space considerations. Not a big deal, but it is rare to find alterations in republished JDM, as the author strenuously avoided revising anything he had written after it was initially published.

End of the Tiger and Other Stories is out of print but used copies are easy to find.

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