Sunday, July 10, 2011

"What About Alice?"

The Sign was a national magazine that first began publication in 1921 and which published its final issue in 1982. Billing itself as the "National Catholic Magazine," it was produced in Union City, New Jersey by an order of priests and brothers known as The Passionist Fathers. Much like similar endeavors with a narrowly focused audience -- magazines like The American Legion Magazine and The Elks Magazine -- The Sign was modeled on the general circulation magazines of the day and featured everything from news articles; book, radio and movie reviews; sports articles; columns, and -- yes -- fiction. Before television took over our lives, nearly every magazine featured at least some fiction. And with articles bearing titles like "Why I Became a Catholic," "From Confucianism to Christ" and "The Evil That God Permits," The Sign would be the last place one would expect to find a short story by John D MacDonald. Yet in the early winter of 1947, in the magazine's December Christmas issue, MacDonald's "What About Alice?" appeared. It was the only time the author would grace the table of contents of this religious periodical, just as he would do with his one-time appearance in The American Legion Magazine.

Of course MacDonald was not a Catholic -- his heritage was as Waspy as a WASP's could be -- and his religious views could be charitably defined as agnostic. How one of his stories ended up in a magazine like The Sign is a tale probably lost to the ages, yet it is likely the result of his literary agent finding a paying market for a JDM story and not caring about who signed the check or what bank it was drawn on. As MacDonald once put it bluntly when recalling this period of his career, "What I was trying to do ... was earn a living at 1¢ and 2¢ a word.... If I did fifteen [stories] a week (not unusual) and sold two of them, after trying them all on every conceivable market, any small increment in skill or believability could make it possible to do ten a week and sell three."

The Sign bought fiction primarily from no-name authors, writers like Roger Dooley, James B. Dunn, Rhonda LeCoq and Alice Laverick, people unfamiliar to even the most dedicated student of the American periodical. There was the occasional reprint, such as Evelyn Waugh's 1934 Christmas story "Bella Fleace Gave a Party," which appeared alongside "What About Alice?" in the December 1947 issue. Sometimes an author from the lower rung of popular fiction appeared, such as Doris Hume, whose work was published in slick magazines from 1945 to the end of the fifties, and whose novel The Sin of Susan Slade was turned into a Troy Donahue movie. The most surprising discovery was the frequent employment of pulp powerhouse Hugh B. Cave, who -- from 1946 to 1958  -- had twenty-seven stories published in The Sign, a fact that seems unknown to his bibliographers. And then there's John D. MacDonald...

"What About Alice?" contains nothing about God, religion or Catholicism. What it is is a typical JDM exploration of a broken romantic relationship: how it happened, why it happened and how it gets resolved (usually with a redemptive ending). It is similar to his 1953 McCall's effort "Forever Yours" and his 1951 Christmas story for The American Legion Magazine, "The Cardboard Star," which closely resembles "What About Alice?" in structure, theme and tone. It's sentimental -- if I may be allowed to use such a term -- but not overly so, as MacDonald grounds the sentiment with richly descriptive language and a protagonist's regret that borders on existential despair. If "Her Black Wings" showed MacDonald at his weakest when attempting to write the language of love, "What About Alice?" proves that in the proper setting the author could pull it off -- not perfectly, but he was getting there, and in the right frame of mind the reader will find both a moving and convincing story.

Bill Sanders is an ad agency "Mad Man," assigned to an account with a looming deadline. He has decided to work from home one day in the mists of a driving winter rainstorm and is interrupted by a knock at the door. It's Stan Quinn, a somewhat younger co-worker, who has come to ask for some advice, although he is having trouble spitting out the question. Over a couple of beers he finally comes to the point, and it surprises Bill:

"How about the scoop on Alice Kelsey, Bill?"

The question brings a suppressed anger in Bill, one that quickly turns to "a kind of sadness -- of regret." Alice is Stan's girlfriend, but before that she and Bill were deeply in love. Stan wants to marry Alice, but he wants to know from Bill if it is the right thing to do. He doesn't make a lot of money at the agency and won't for years, and he is worried that Alice's love might sour after several years of meager income. Stan confesses that it is an odd thing to ask of a former beau, especially when Bill and Alice don't even speak to each other any more. Bill pauses to think of an answer, and as he stares out into the "gray rain," he recalls the first time he met Alice in a small cafe, how they instantly clicked, how "every bit of her had snapped into place in his heart."

"She was both plain and beautiful -- something about the line of her brow, cheek, jaw, throat -- gray eyes bright with laughter. Before they left the booth they were in love. He recalled the way she walked out of [the cafe] ahead of him, his first realization that she walked with the instinctive grace and appealing awkwardness of a colt.

"Bill wondered how many miles they must have walked, her stride free and swinging, her hand warm and firm against his palm -- walking the streets of the city by day and night. The line of her throat, the tilt of her head, filling him with a dazzling sweetness. Beside him on the bench by the river, with the moist breath of the river mist, and the freighter shadows shouldering their way out to sea...

"She had been mocking in the midst of emotions, and suddenly emotional in the midst of laughter -- and all the days with her were short, so short. Under the gay surface she had a streak of peasant -- with warm lips and husky voice. Earth and fire, beauty and movement, he was thinking -- a bit of all that breathes is in her, and part of her is in everything that is beautiful."

When Bill finally answers, the response surprises Stan. "She's a sensitive woman, Stan... Easy to hurt. Don't fall into the habit of hurting her just because it's so easy."

And because it was easy, it had happened. Bill recalls to himself how he began to hurt Alice, how he learned the methods that would evoke the desired response, seeing the uncertainty in her gray eyes as he practiced his "emotional sadism." At first it was done to evoke a response, "to taste the joy of reconciliation," but it grew to the point where Bill was unable to stop, and it gradually killed the relationship.

"He had seen her sparkle fading, the cloud behind her eyes becoming more evident. But he had not been able to stop, even when he knew he must, and he couldn't stand it to watch her cry. It was easy to walk out, in time to let her save herself. Easy, that is until the realization came that all the rest of the days would be empty. And now -- now she was mending and here was Stan to help her. Yes, Stan would probably be right for her -- and he knew that no woman would ever be right for himself, now that Alice was gone."

Bill finishes by telling Stan that Alice is one in a million, and warns him against ever hurting her. Stan thanks him and returns to work, leaving an emotionally exhausted Bill ruminating on his past stupidity. Stan's questions had "torn away the protective scar tissue, and the wound was new again." Unable to sleep, Bill goes outside for a walk...

Many of MacDonald's mainstream stories -- especially the early ones he wrote for This Week magazine -- tend to be light, forgettable pieces that contain no more serious emotion than embarrassment and wry amusement. But the author's tales of love gone wrong -- of relationships that have broken because of the active commission (rarely the omission) of one of the (usually male) members of the couple -- while outwardly predictable and conventionally structured, typically contain aspects of darker themes that are not usually seen in this kind of writing. It's an almost noirish impulse on the part of the man to destroy, unable to stop, "even when he [knows] he must." MacDonald's ability to convey this malady in a common setting, to tell it in so few words, to create a deep, believable and recognizable character in a couple of sentences, is a gift that lifts these kinds of tales to a different level. And if their endings are typically "glib" (MacDonald's own characterization), the road to that glib ending is usually through the dark woods of an emotionally complex, far-from-perfect protagonist.

"What About Alice?" appeared once and has never been anthologized.


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