SxS: Together and Apart

The other day, while stopped at a red light, I watched a woman descend the steps of a city bus carrying a large, cased instrument before her. On the sidewalk, she strapped the instrument to her back and adjusted it, and then she walked off. The light turned, and I turned to trying to recall a sentence I once knew.  

When I got home, I found it. Sofia Haines, a talented student from my "Emulations" class last fall at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, wrote it. Or maybe I should say she arrived at it: it followed several pages of character description in an early draft of a story she was writing.

He had often watched her lug the hefty instrument on and off the bus they both took each Tuesday to the center of town, where he went to his grandfather’s general store and she to her cello lesson. 

Now here was — and is — a beginning! A story is launched. The language throughout is simple; there is no straining for effect. There is, rather, clarity and a careful ordering of information. Notice how the immediately established point of view (“He had often watched her”) gains more and more narrative context as the sentence unfolds and we pan back. Following the hinge of that single, central comma, we peek at how different his Tuesdays in town are from hers. Learning of their distinctly separate destinations, I hear that "often" (from the start) a bit differently — I hear in it a kind of attentive longing he may be feeling. I can't know yet if my reading is accurate; I must read on. 

Every word in the sentence has a job and does that job well. I admire how Sofia withholds until the end just what that large instrument is, sustaining our curiosity. And I particularly like "on and off" for how the colloquial phrase makes me see him, regularly: he is on the bus already when she gets on; and, when the bus arrives in town, he is either behind her in the center aisle as the passengers file off, or (my preference) he is already on the sidewalk and glancing back at her — and at her cello.

Such efficient exposition. He had often watched her. Soon he will do more, won’t he?