Friday, October 22, 2010

"She Tried to Make Her Man Behave"

When John D MacDonald's short story "She Tried to Make Her Man Behave" appeared in the March 7, 1954 issue of the Sunday newspaper supplement This Week, his most current novel on the stands at the time was Area of Suspicion. It's hard to imagine two more different works of fiction, seemingly written by two different authors. Yet that observation could be made for most of MacDonald's early work for This Week, where he specialized in family stories where nothing more criminal than a marital misunderstanding ever occurred. True, he would go on to write a few crime stories for the magazine -- "There Hangs Death" and "The Bullets Lied," among others -- but mainly This Week seems to have served as an outlet for the author's domesticated muse, as well as his attempts, feeble at times, for light comedy. "She Tried to Make Her Man Behave" was MacDonald's sixth sale to This Week and began a year that would see three of his stories published in the magazine, up to that point the most ever.

It's a misunderstanding of a different sort that brings about the moment of clarity to the protagonist of "She Tried to Make Her Man Behave." Joanne Watson has been married to Barney for a little over a year, and all things considered, it is a good marriage. Life in suburbia is going well and the Watsons have established a comfortable -- if still childless -- home in a typically Fifties environment. Barney, whose physical description fits a particular MacDonald template and reads like a blueprint for Travis McGee, works as a production engineer at a local plant "where there were mysterious machines perfectly capable of picking up a locomotive and chewing it like so much bubble gum." Petite, redheaded Joanne loves her "big-muscled, ex-fullback, ex-Marine" husband to distraction, but that doesn't mean there aren't problems... one in particular.

The story opens as the couple is preparing for a weeknight dinner party at a neighbor's house. As Barney showers after returning home from work, Joanne paces the floor as she prepares her speech. When Barney emerges from the bathroom Joanne sits him down and tells him she wants " a serious word" with him. "Remember," she begins, "that the marriage book said a good marriage is a case of both people making adjustments," to which Barney replies, "That sounds as if I'm due to make one." Joanne explains that she knows how the party will go, as Barney spends the evening talking with the other husbands in another room, leaving Joanne alone on the sofa, practically "a widow." Joanne is tired of "being taken out and thoroughly ignored."

"How we act here in our own home is our own business. I don't mind that dreadful snapping thing you do with the end of a towel, and I don't mind love pats that rattle my teeth, and I like to have you lift me up in the air and it is all right if you drape me over your shoulder like a -- well, like a wet towel... But you see, here in our own home you've been treating me like -- like a playmate, I guess. I like that. I think it is fine. But when you take me out -- when any woman is taken out in public -- she wants the little attentions. She wants to be made to feel -- well, precious and fragile and sort of desirable. The way Walter Furgeson treats Martha."

The Furgesons, it seems, are the model of suburban marital bliss, a couple who work as marriage councilors, and they always spend these neighborhood parties together, fawning over each other. Barney doesn't think much of Walter Furgeson and lets Joanne know it. Joanne agrees to a point, but explains that "he treats Martha the way a girl wants to be treated in public... we ought to look as if we loved each other and..." Joanne can't finish and runs into the kitchen in tears.

Oh, the travails of the Fifties!

A chastened Barney agrees to be a good boy and the couple heads for the home of the Shubleys. Barney does his best to be attentive to his wife, gravitating to "the men" several times before remembering his vow and returning to Joanne, who is sitting on the sofa with the Furgesons. MacDonald's description of this couple is the best paragraph in the story.

"Walter was a small-boned man with a narrow moustache and the delicate body-control of one of the carnivore cats. Martha Furgeson always made Joanne think of yodels, yogurt and milking stools. She had a soft blondeness, a shy eye, the warm look of the well loved. Walter treated her the way a headwaiter would treat visiting royalty, yet with a lingering personal emphasis that would have resulted in any waiter being fired on the spot. They were, in the language of the group, a special couple."

Barney is up and down throughout the evening, seemingly incapable of keeping his promise to Joanne. Then, during one of Barney's frequent absences, a crisis occurs. While biting into a cherry tomato hor d'ourve, Martha manages to squirt a small amount of tomato juice onto her husband's "immaculate" white sleeve. "Don't fret, dear," sooths Walter as Martha gets up to look for something to clean the stain with. The couple disappear into the bathroom down the hall to use a stain remover when Joanne remembers a great "home-grown remedy." She heads toward the bathroom to inform Martha, but before she arrives she hears something she wasn't meant to, something that eventually changes her attitude toward "redeeming" her own husband.

"She Tried to Make Her Man Behave" is a little more serious than MacDonald's earlier This Week entries -- titles like "I Love You (Occasionally),"He Knew a Broadway Star," and "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" -- but only slightly. By 1954 the author's short story output was slowing to a crawl and the stories he did write were increasingly more mainstream than the work he had begun his career with. Now it would be the novels that would occupy his creative efforts, and he published three of them that year. He also published two novellas but only seven short stories, and three of those were for This Week. This particular story, useful perhaps to students of MacDonald's progress as a writer, is pretty much forgettable otherwise.

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