For a time—ninth grade, some of tenth—he’d lost himself in music. Listening, playing along to songs on the stereo, he spent hours in the downstairs rocker, headphones clamped to his head. Clancy Brothers, Beatles, Leadbelly, Emmylou, Zappa, Patsy, Aretha, Hank, Linda Ronstadt, Hoyt Axton…everything in their sizable collection of music spanning the decades. The few instruments around the house not violin-related—a battered rosewood parlor guitar with one tuner that barely turned, a Stella tenor banjo, his mother’s upright piano—were alluring and fascinating to him for their sounds, shapes, smells, but most of all for their promise of something beyond or inside the music…and yet magnetizing only up to the point at which his mother suggested lessons: “You like that style? You want to learn how they do that—those kind of Hawaiian chord voicings like what you’re trying there? We could get you lessons. You know Rick, Denis’s…your dad’s friend from over on Vashon, he could show you next time he’s visiting. Or Ed! Ed totally knows that idiom. You remember Ed, right? He’s a beast on the slack key.” Until finally he caved: guitar lessons with the local music store instructor, a semi-retired session guy and songwriter from Austin. And as soon as he’d caved, he knew he was done. Or, on his way to being done. Not that he didn’t enjoy seeing those familiar sounds given names in the clusterings of notes comprising chord shapes—C7, G7, Dm, Gm7—fingers stretched pleasingly, painfully, stacked together or arching separately over and against each other to land fingerpad-first not to deaden sound, but if she said, “Paul, hey, what about practicing—just a half hour…even ten minutes. Put in the time,” then he wouldn’t do it. Didn’t want to. More importantly, he’d also begun seeing that he had no real gift. Poor enough sense of timing (and only slightly better sense of pitch), there was no point in overcoming his automatic defiance of his mother. He saw the dread in his teacher’s face, watching as he uncased at the start of each lesson and ran a thumbnail or pick over the strings—the pained headshake as his teacher listened and finally said, “That sounds right to you? Really? You can’t hear that…play your B string again. Listen. Flat or sharp?” Or, his teacher’s jaw muscles clutching visibly against suppressed yawns, eyes popped disbelievingly, “You didn’t notice? This whole part here,” he’d point at the page of tablature hard enough to dent the paper, “you didn’t play these measures at all?”
He loved music. Loved what he felt in its logic and pulsing understructure, its tonal and rhythmic variance, loved the feelings of melancholy and estrangement engendered in his longing to have more from a song, listening—loved all of this well enough to know he should stop before he ruined it for himself.
After less than a year, his teacher was ending most lessons with some form of implied ultimatum—Can’t do anything if you don’t want to practice, man…it’s all about muscle memory and getting those sounds in your ears, right? You wanna keep asking your mom to write me checks, that’s cool by me, but I’ll be honest with you. We’re treading water here at best. You gotta show a little more motivation, buddy. More dedication. Still, it caught him by surprise the day they finished. His teacher was in one of the beat-up desk chairs under the front awning of the music store outside, smoking. Often he’d meet Paul here, using pre-lesson time for a smoke break or to talk with one of the other teachers or the store owner. Usually he and Paul would exchange a few words before heading inside, or before the teacher said, Go on in. Tune up…I’ll be a second.
This day his teacher was alone. “Have a seat, Paul,” he said, patting the other ratty, orange desk chair beside him, ashing into the empty soup tin of gravel and cigarette butts between them. He had on one of his usual shirts of odd designer fabrics and cool retro detailing—dark blue, velvet lined placard, subtle embroidery on the cuffs—cowboy boots and patched, shredded jeans.
Paul sat. He pulled off his knit cap, stuffed it in a pocket and mopped a hand through his damp hair, the sweat along his hairline.
“So I’ll tell you a little thing I learned back when I was on the road with Lyle Lovett’s band, before signing on with the Graceland tour…”
Rain splashed from the gutter-edge of the awning in a jagged stream, causing a curtain of sound and atomized droplets of cold water to enclose them, erasing most of the traffic noise from the street fronting the store.
“Ah, fuck it. I’m not going to tell you that story. Look, man, the truth of the matter…” He shook his head.
“We gotta be done with this…these lessons. It’s gotta mean more to you—playing the guitar—more than just something you do to please your mom. You know what I mean? She’s a nice enough lady but…seriously, you gotta learn to do things for yourself. That’s the key. Especially in music. If you can’t…if you’re just always about what other people tell you and what other people say you should do, punching the clock, then you get to the end of your life and you look around and you pretty much say, fuck man, what was that all about anyway? And then you die. The wisdom here, Paul…I don’t know. You figure your shit out, but I can’t be teaching you anymore. OK?”
Surprisingly, what hurt most, hearing this, was realizing that he’d never really wanted to learn guitar in the first place. What he wanted…he’d wanted to sit around like this behind the curtain of rain, talking. He wanted to hang out smelling his teacher’s cigarette smoke, hearing his stories, watching him smoke, admiring the blunt tips of his fingers so gnarled and calloused from daily practice, his hair crazed almost to quills by teasing and hair dye, and then he wanted to go inside and say, Hey, speaking of Lyle Lovett, play me that song from…. Wanted to watch as a corner of his teacher’s mouth tipped up and he said, Naw, naw, not now, man—can’t take up valuable lesson time with that old shit. And then unable to help himself anyway…how his teacher’s knee would jog up and down, the pick suddenly gluing itself to some inner life, some force of rhythm and exuberance extending from his wrist and forearm, pushing its way through the strings, vibrating the wood to sound, sound to the inner bones of Paul’s ears, animating his teacher too, until they were both singing.
The surprising thing, the impossible thing, was realizing that he didn’t want to be done after all. He just wanted to be done playing and practicing.
“All right, then? You’ll tell your mom for me? I don’t wanna have to be the one to break it.” He dragged a final time and stubbed out his cigarette. Stood and jerked his pants higher. Held out his hand. “We’re cool?”
Walking away, Paul was glad for the rain soaking his hat and hair, wetting his whole face and keeping him from knowing how hard he was crying or even if he was crying. Why? He couldn’t have said. At home he saw smoke curling from the chimney in his father’s workshop, the heat with it warping the air in a sheet so what lay beyond—trees, pale sky—appeared distorted as in a mirage, and he almost went as far as knocking on his father’s door. Telling him the whole stupid, sad story and asking what it meant. Why he felt so much, and what was he supposed to do. He veered toward the cedar-chip walkway and across the grass. Smelled smoke from the workshop chimney and felt a band of heat move across his shoulders as the sun slid from behind the clouds; still the cold drizzle touching his wrists, the wet grass slicking the tops of his shoes with water. Heard the sound of a saw starting inside, the phone back in the house ringing, and thought better of it. He’d never find the right words anyway, and his father…. Another time. When he was ready. He’d throw himself at his feet and ask for help, say, Make me more like you, and ask to be guided into the trade. Not today.
Excerpt from What Could Be Saved
Gregory Spatz is the author of the novels Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, and No One but Us, and of the story collections What Could Be Saved, Half as Happy,, and Wonderful Tricks. His stories have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Glimmer Train Stories, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review and New England Review. The recipient of a Michener Fellowship, an Iowa Arts Fellowship, a Washington State Book Award, and an NEA Fellowship in literature, he teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Spatz plays the fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.
Excerpt provided by Rhizomatic