A Small Town Short: “Incoming Tide” by Elizabeth Strout
Taking a walk down the dirt road where I live, I make a correlation between the short stories I like best and what I like about living in rural northeastern towns. I’m talking about the one post office, one general store, and an ice cream stand in summer type towns. Here’s what those stories do:
Establish a sense of place. While all towns have it, and suburbs, and cities, too–––a feature, and more than one, that distinguish a particular place from some of the others–––not all stories do the job. The ones I like best make use of rugged backdrops, rocks and naked trees, corvids, seabirds, overgrown lanes and rusty vehicles, tides. Weave a dreary atmosphere, a chill, and, as far as I’m concerned, you elevate the narrative.
Now evoke dissonance. It’s crazy hot for late April in Maine, the sun beating down on dampness everywhere. Up here, when it’s hot like this, I feel unsettled. Temperatures say its swimming weather, but there’s scarce green in the woods. Not enough birds. Too quiet. Something’s amiss. It’s reminiscent of slow-burning first act tension in literature.
Throw in the unexpected character. My near neighbor, the guy with the long white hair on the Harley, revved up engine, slows down when passing me, flashes a smile, flicks a friendly wave. He’s called The Outlaw. An American flag is appliqued on the back of his jeans jacket.
Not everything is as it appears. Characters have their wily ways. There’s his conduct. Fifty yards ahead, The Outlaw chucks the bottle he’s drinking from to the ditch and let’s loose a giant hocker. He knows I see him. He’s my nearest neighbor. I drive a fuel-efficient vehicle with a loon stamped on my conservation vanity license plate. He’s marking his territory, starting a conversation. It’s my move, but I’m not biting. I’m considering his backstory, his motivation, the mystery between us. For now, I leave the bottle where he left it, the ending unwritten.
I finish my walk. I try to enjoy the gift of sunshine on a New England seaside town.
Elizabeth Strout’s short story, “Incoming Tide” from her Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection, Olive Kitteridge, opens by creating a sense of place and establishes that place matters. A bay. Shifting rocks. The twang of a cable against a mast. The cry of a gull. A marina.
Kevin, our third person narrator, has been sitting in his car looking out over the water, taking it all in, which is nothing unusual on the coast of Maine, but he’s been parked there awhile. How much time went by, Kevin didn’t know. He’d been away and now he’s back. He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. What had he expected? Why should it matter? Dissonance. Something is amiss.
For a few pages, you get Kevin’s backstory–––childhood trauma, mental illness, no family. He finds himself lost in a memory about a woman, a waitress at the marina restaurant, who he sees from his car window as she crosses the parking lot carrying a bucket, and preparing to chuck clamshells from a pail over the cliff into the sea. He has fond memories of her from when they were children. A yearning stirred in him that was not sexual but a kind of reaching towards her simplicity of form. His reverie is interrupted when Olive Kitteridge, his ungainly seventh grade schoolteacher from years ago, suddenly appears, raps on his windshield and lets herself into his vehicle. She can do this. It’s a small town, and Kevin’s family’s story, his mother’s tragic end, left a mark, far-reaching.
Plenty of backdrops work well to show characters living on the edge. In this case, Strout has positioned her protagonist on a literal edge–––a parking lot near a cliff, a bay that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. Plenty of stories show how a strange alliance can enter the protagonist’s world. But Olive Kitteridge, the burly buttinsky, is unlike the prosaic small town gossip, or another manifestation, The Outlaw, the cliché, Olive means to get to the heart. She prompts. She’s here, not to meddle, or provoke, but to salvage.
In my way of thinking, these details make a difference. If you have characters on the edge, why not place them on the farthest reach you can find? Employ a busybody as a mover and shaker and make sure she’s got the presence of mind to sit still when the dark stuff starts to rise, the gumption to spring into action when serious shit hits the fan.
As Kevin and Olive, the unlikely pair, observe the vulnerability of the waitress whose personal struggle, from the little we find out, parallels the story enclosed in the parked car, their conversation progresses. Kevin is thrown into discourse on private matters he’d prefer not to discuss, while Olive proves a worthy listener, for she too has survived the tenebrous tangle of mental illness in one of her parents.
In this story, the topic of suicide is the glass bottle thrown to the ditch like a gauntlet. Strout handles it as lightly on the page as I have seen–––a glance at a gun in the back seat, wind blowing at the skirt of the thin figure standing on the precipice of the sea. Before you know it, the story has taken you to the outer lip of a desolate landscape and inside the emotional hollows of three loosely connected people, now dependent on one another for survival. You are indelibly marked.
Jodi Paloni grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and moved north to Vermont, where she lived for twenty-five years. She recently settled on the rocky coast of Maine. Her debut story collection, They Could Live With Themselves (Press 53, 2016), comprises eleven linked stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont. She was a runner up in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, and winner of the Short Story America prize for Short Fiction. Her stories appear in a number of literary journals in print and on-line. You can learn more at www.jodipaloni.com and on Twitter @JodiPaloni.