Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Smith excels at making telling use of meaningful details in her story. Besides magazines, for example, hairstyles distinguish the women, as befits a story that begins in the Beauty Nook. Lois Hickey wears her frosted hair too short, in Dot Mains’s opinion. Joan Berry Stikes still wears her shiny blond hair in the same pageboy style she had in college (a Baptist school), never deviating. However, Cherry Oxendine is a naturally curly redhead, except maybe for that time she popped up from the lake with muddy, dripping hair and greeted Harold.

References to food also abound in the story, in the characters’ names and other details. Harold Stikes marries Joan Berry and works his way up in the world by becoming the owner of three Food Lions. He meets Cherry Oxendine, obviously a powerful dish, in his own Food Lion deli, and she serves him up a big glob of potato salad along with the roast beef sandwich he ordered. Also, Harold’s former wife apparently expects to lure him back by leaving his favorite dishes around.

Allusions to ancient mythology and contemporary popular culture also play a part. The women in the Beauty Nook are like a bunch of harpies, Cherry’s rise from the lake is like Aphrodite’s birth from the sea, and Joan’s dishes are perhaps reminiscent of the one Medea served up to Jason. Popular culture appears in the form of UFOs. For Harold Stikes, his close encounter with a UFO is very similar to his close encounter with the heavenly body of Cherry Oxendine: “He feels that he has been ennobled and enlarged, by knowing Cherry Oxendine.”

All these references tend to build up the contrasts between the two main women in the story, Joan and Cherry, and the two ways of life that they represent and between which Harold Stikes has to choose. So also do the two meanings in the title “Intensive Care.” For Joan, Lois Hickey, and the girls at the Beauty Nook, life is just one enormous hospital in which the patients have to be managed with intensive care. However, for a while, Cherry Oxendine and Harold Stikes live life and love each other with intensive care.