Lines that Linger by Katie Paterson
The opening story of Ali Smith’s collection The First Person and Other Stories ends with other writers’ reflections on what a short story is:
“ … Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment after the real, lived moment is dead …”
When I think of the short stories that have stuck with me, it’s because they’ve been successful in that way: they contain a moment that feels stronger on the page than in real life.
In these stories, there’s always a line – be it dialogue, internalised thought or even part of the narrative – that makes you stop and really think about what’s happening. It conjures an emotion that lingers with you for days, even years afterwards.
Here are just a few of these stories.
Raymond Carver – Why Don’t You Dance? (1981)
Carver’s stories are always full of excellent dialogue but there’s one line in this story that makes it one of his most memorable.
A man is selling furniture on his front lawn when a young couple walk by and haggle with him over some of his belongings. The man, who is a little drunk, asks the girl to play a record on his record player and begins dancing with her on the grass.
It’s a gorgeous picture: the older man and the girl dancing together in amongst all his belongings, until the girl leans in and whispers in the man’s ear. “You must be desperate or something.” And the scene is suddenly tragic in a way the reader is unprepared for.
The first time I read this story, this line cut me right in the gut. It still does every time I read it. There’s a great reading of this story on the Paris Review podcast too – you can listen to it here.
Benjamin Hale – Don’t Worry Baby (2016)
In this story, political activists and outlaws Miles and Odelia are flying on fake passports from Mexico to Canada with their young baby.
A claustrophobic tension runs through every sentence and it makes you feel like you’re trapped on the plane with them. I’m not a great flyer at the best of times, so I barely took a breath from the first sentence.
There’s a horrifying moment when Odelia realises Miles has injected LSD into a chocolate bar she just ate while breastfeeding the baby.
She tries not to panic about the impending hallucinations and starts to lull the baby to sleep. She looks into his eyes while he cries: “His pupils are dilated,” she says. The moment is chilling.
Ali Smith – A story of folding and unfolding (1995)
A man sits amongst his dead wife’s possessions, silk underwear in his hand, thinking back to when they first met and seeing her perfectly folded silk in her locker when she was in the WAF. He looks up at his adult children who are standing in the bedroom doorway. “What,” he says, “What am I supposed to do with all this?”
Ali Smith is a master of great moments in her short fiction, and no matter how many times I read this story, this line makes my throat close up. This single line of dialogue completely captures the devastating absurdity of losing a life partner.
The first time I read this story, I remember crying into my scarf on a train into Amsterdam. I couldn’t get the scene out of my head for days.
James Baldwin – Going to Meet the Man (1965)
A racist sheriff in the American south struggles to perform in bed for his wife. Lying in the dark, he comforts himself thinking back to when as a young boy he went to a public lynching of a black man in his town.
The description of the brutality is as horrifying as you would imagine; in fact, it’s probably much worse. But the line that stays with me comes immediately after the killing, when they have a picnic.
“I reckon we better get over there and get some of that food before it’s all gone,” his father says, while the victim’s burned and mutilated body lies at their feet. The casual tone of this line of dialogue against the backdrop of a brutal murder is shocking.
Bernard MacLaverty – On the Roundabout (2006)
A family are driving home in 1970s Belfast when they see the UDA approach a man hitchhiking on the side of the road. They watch as one of the men brings out a claw hammer and beats the hitchhiker in the face with it, creating “a hole between his ear and eye the size of a ten-pence piece”.
The family carry the man to their car and drive him to hospital. And there’s this shocking moment when the man regains consciousness and, with blood in his mouth that “looks black in the street lights”, says the line: “l’m dead – they’ve killed me. The cunts have killed me.”
We read this story in one of thi wurd’s writing classes a few years ago. The story is so short that the handout only covered one page, which is quite amazing because the story covers so much ground. Even though I now own two of MacLaverty’s short story collections that include this story, I haven’t been able to let go of the original photocopy. It’s folded up in between the two books on my bookshelf.
Katherine Mansfield – The Garden Party (1922)
A wealthy family in New Zealand are preparing for a garden party at their estate when one of their neighbours, a young carter called Mr. Scott, is killed in an accident just outside their gate.
Laura, the young protagonist, is sent with a basket of leftovers to the grieving family’s house. When she gets to their house and finds herself alone with Mr. Scott’s dead body she feels she has to say something. “Forgive my hat,” she says.
It’s a bizarre moment of conflict where a child is apologising to a dead man for class inequalities that have resulted in their contrasting fates. I read this story when I was a teenager and was really struck by that line because it felt like such a loaded sentence for a young girl to say. Rereading the story now, I am still struck by its originality and authenticity.