“The Staying Freight”–I love the title–was first published in the Harvard Review. At 36 pages, it’s a long story. And it’s divided into 20 sections. But I really want to slow things down. I think I’ll just look at the first section.
The first section is 4 paragraphs. The first sentence is 17 words:
Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field.
The first sentence sets the scene in a lyrical, poetic way–dust and dusk, burned and churned, fog and field. The camera angle is wide–looking at the ridgeline and the field.
He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he’d reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done.
With the second sentence, character and a very small action (blinking) enter the picture. Why “he” instead of a name? I think because of the two sentences that end this first paragraph:
Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.
The writing creates a picture for us–the field, the man in the field, a good man, and then the final flourish, his name. Instead of simply giving us the man, Heathcock is drawing our attention to the man.
Here’s the second paragraph all in one go because, even as I didn’t want to read the next word that I was afraid would be there, I just couldn’t lift my eyes from the words:
Winslow simply didn’t see his boy running across the field. He didn’t see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn’t see Rodney’s boot slide off the hitch.
Note the repetition: didn’t see, didn’t see, didn’t see. There were so many chances. Note the details that grab at your heart: the meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Note the simply: I imagine the sentence without it, and it’s harsher. The simply tells me it was just one of those things, just bad luck. The simply tells me Winslow wasn’t doing anything wrong. And the simply tells me the narrator is kind.
The third paragraph:
Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.
Second by second. Dabbed, hopped, whirled. That’s how fast it happened. A boy like something fallen from the sky. That’s how to create emotion. Verbs + a simile.
The fourth and final paragraph of the first section:
Winslow leapt from the tractor, ran to his son. With his belt, he cinched a gash in the boy’s leg. He pressed his palm to Rodney’s neck. Blood purled between his fingers. Winslow cradled his son in his lap and watched the tractor roll on, tilling a fading arc of dust toward the freight rail tracks that marked the northern end of all that was his.
No time for conjunctions. Short sentences and details. Leapt, cinched, pressed, purled. Until the final long sentence that contains the beginning but with everything now changed. 34 words that create a picture. A man crouched in a field, cradling his son, with the tractor rolling on.
34 words that slow us down.