Have you ever carried around a passage of writing by an amazing author and hoped that – maybe, through osmosis – one writer’s craft will meld into yours?
I can dream, can’t I?
Immersed in the life of a character so unlike me, I hung on each word as the images unfolded on the page.
Her father in distant Pennsylvania towns already had within him the anarchy of cells that announced itself by a steady cough and a pain in his back. Three packs a day for thirty years; he coughed as he admitted it. He needed something, he decided.
‘We’ll take some x-rays,’ the doctor had said. ‘Just to see.’
Neither of them was there when the negatives were thrown up before the wall of light, dealt into place as rippling sheets, and in the ghostly darkness the fatal mass could be seen, as astronomers see a comet.
The usual prognosis was eighteen months, but with the new machines, three years, sometimes four. They did not tell him this, of course. His translucent destiny was clear on the wall as subsequent series were displayed, six radiographs in a group, the two specialists working on different cases, side by side, calm as pilots, dictating what they saw, stacks of battered envelopes near their elbows. Their language was handsome, exact. They recited, they discussed, they gave a continued verdict long after Lionel Carnes, sixty-four years old, had begun his visits to the treatment room.
The Beta machine made a terrifying whine. The patient lay alone, abandoned, the room sealed, air-conditioned because of the heat. The dose was determined by a distant computer taking into consideration height, weight and so forth. The Beta doesn’t burn the skin like the lower-energy machines, they told him.
It hung there, dumb, enormous, shooting beams that crushed the honeycomb of tissue like eggshells. the patient lay beneath it, inert, arranged. With the scream of the invisible, it began its work. It was either this or the most extreme surgery, radical and hopeless, blood running down from the black stitches, the doomed man swerved up like a pot roast (pgs. 126-127).
Black print on off-white paper.
Yet, the way James Salter wove them together had me frozen in time.
My husband asked me what was for dinner, so I had to look up from the page. But, the moments with Lionel Carnes, the doctors, and the machine stayed with me.
That’s what I strive for in my writing: storytelling that suspends the reader, and then leaves them with a lasting image long after the book is closed.
Salter, James. Light Years. New York: Random House, 1975.