Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583
“Intensive Care” is told by a gossipy omniscient narrator partly through flashbacks. The story begins in the Beauty Nook, where several women are having their hair styled and listening to the details from head nurse Lois Hickey about how Cherry Oxendine Westall Palladino Stikes is dying in intensive care. In the women’s self-righteous view, Harold Stikes is getting just what he deserves for deserting his wife and children to marry Cherry.
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The next scene shows Harold Stikes leaving the hospital, where he has been visiting Cherry, and driving indiscreetly to his old home in the suburban Camelot Hills development. While his former wife and their children are gone for the day, he lets himself in with his key, sits in the living room, and mulls over his decision to leave his family. The house is straight out of the pages of Southern Living magazine, with everything neat and orderly, and so was his previous life: Joan, his efficient former wife, a home-economics teacher, produced three children spaced three years apart before she got her tubes tied. However, hardworking Harold was infuriated one day when he found a magazine quiz called “How Good Is Your Marriage?” that Joan had filled out: She rated their marriage just average.
Six months later, Harold ran into redheaded, dynamite-figured Cherry Oxendine working in his own Food Lion deli, and events took their course. Cherry got cancer and had to have her breasts removed, but Harold proposed to her anyway. Now, three years later, the cancer has returned, along with pneumonia, and Cherry lies dying in intensive care. Harold had her only for “one trip to Disney World, two vacations at Gulf Shores, Alabama, hundreds of nights in the old metal bed out at the farm with Cherry sleeping naked beside him, her arm thrown over his stomach. They had a million laughs.”
Disorderly and disreputable, Cherry was married twice before (not to mention her torrid adulterous affair with Lamar Peebles, her rich high school boyfriend), has two grown children, and is a terrible cook, eating tacos, chips, and beer in bed. She is also gullible, believes in astrology and unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and has wild technicolored dreams. However, Harold has admired her ever since high school, in which she was a cheerleader and Miss Greenwood High. In particular, he remembers a “close-up encounter” with her after the senior class picnic at Glass Lake, when she appeared out of the lake in her topless glory, and no questions asked, Harold helped her ashore and gave her his shirt.
The story ends late one night when Harold returns to the old farm where Cherry’s parents raised cockapoos and where he has been living with Cherry for the past three years. In the kitchen, he finds lasagna and a piña colada cake, his favorite, left by his former wife, who has been bringing him food ever since Cherry went into intensive care. He eats the food, then takes a walk down a dirt road with the last two cockapoos. As he walks along, a star detaches itself from the sky, flies down, and hovers over him as big as a field: “Although Harold can’t say exactly how it communicates to him or even if it does, suddenly his soul is filled to bursting. The ineffable occurs.” Then the UFO is gone.
Two weeks later, Cherry dies. Harold might eventually return to his family, but he will love Cherry forever and never tell anyone what he saw.