What Could Be Saved by Gregory Spatz
234 pages – Tupelo Press
One afternoon in the boat on Bishop’s Pond, his mother asked if he thought she was an ascetic, a term she first had to explain—he was in middle-school at the time. By the nature and tone of the explanation, he felt invited to confirm that, no, in fact, she was not. Not an ascetic. She loved her walks in the woods and along the beach, her drink before and after dinner, her weaving, singing, collections of beach rocks in jars of water on the windowsill, occasional Sunday nights at the symphony. Her plants and garden. Earthly, sensual pleasures. She was anything but an ascetic. They’d been drifting in a patch of calm, through tree shadows close to the shore. He watched her hand on the gunwale, stroking up and back again along the refinished wood before dropping over the side, underwater, the shape of her hand so familiar because it so exactly matched his own, though more fully formed, older—same nails, same taper, same thickness of muscles at the base of the thumb. What other earthly pleasures, he wondered and leaned hard into his next oar-strokes as if to pull them away from the thought—her hand caressing the gunwale and dipping underwater—to reset the moment and undo her question’s effect on his mind.
“More than forgoing earthly pleasures,” she continued, “actually…maybe I’m overemphasizing that aspect of it. An ascetic is a person who cuts themselves off in order to clarify perception. To really see. Someone who forgoes pleasure relating to the senses in order to be better tuned in with…” she waved a hand. “Everything. Minus all the noise. Like a mental cleansing. Sensory fasting.”
“Boring! Anything but. It’s fascinating. Fascinated, maybe more like.”
He watched the water eddy and flatten in whorls behind them where his strokes had broken the surface. “What? Is this something Dad’s asking about?”
“Denis is such a natural ascetic himself it would never occur to him to talk about it, much less ask.”
He had no response to this except to stroke again and feel the tension through his wrists and forearms, the slight tug as the oars came up and released, and again as they went underwater. The glug-glug of water rushing under them and the eddies of different smells and shifting temperatures along the water’s surface—not quite spring, not yet summer.
“That would be like asking…a bird about wind.” She shook her head. “A snowman about ice crystals.”
“A maggot about dead flesh.”
“Well…” She laughed. “But what about you?”
She held a hand over her eyes like a visor, in the shadow of which he was able to make out individual flecks of color through the irises—gold, green, gray. A violin is a face, he remembered his father telling him once, years ago, or maybe it was more recently. Maybe last spring. Think about it. Eyebrows outlining the shoulders. Mouth like a bridge. Right? It’s constructed, somewhat anyway, according to the same geometrical principles by which we know a face is beautiful—the golden mean—and therefore it is, actually, just another reconfiguration of a perfectly beautiful, perfectly perfect…here he’d changed his voice to indicate some self-mocking awareness of his over-seriousness…perfectly noble human face. But Paul hadn’t wanted to think about it any further because the only face he might have imagined, in connection with such a principle, was his mother’s. A thought as aberrant as it was impossibly absorbing.
“What about me, what?”
“I dunno.” She said it in a tone to mock him. Mulish and indifferent. A tone to draw him out by teasing, he knew. “Come on! Anything at all. What makes you tick? What’s the world like for you these days? Speak!”
He rowed harder for the middle of the pond. This had to be something his father had put her up to. Find out what the boy’s doing and what he wants. I’m worried. Or was it something else going on between her and his father and manifesting as strange, new attention to him and questions about asceticism? He couldn’t be sure. Was she trying to distract herself, or really concerned? Guilty maybe, for having let him slip from them as far as he had recently? Too many games after school. Too easy to hack past their rudimentary sense of parental controls on the internet in order to see whatever he wanted, game with whomever he wanted.
“Boring.” He shrugged. “Homework, eat, sleep, back to school.”
She sighed and looked past him intently at something on the shore until he turned to see what it was.
“Thought I saw something. Heron.” She dipped her fingers and flicked water at him. “What else?”
“What else what?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know Ma. I’m not like you guys, always with your serious plans for everything. Your violins all day, every day. I’m pretty much just a normal kid. Pretty much just a normal nobody at school.”
“I doubt that very much. In fact, I completely doubt it.”
Now he needed his best poker face—maybe she’d seen the file of images on his computer labeled tutorial; maybe the whole conversation had been an elaborate ruse to draw him to confess in accordance with some very post-Catholic scrupulousness which required fully voluntary admission.
“OK, I’m pretty good on the ropes and pegboard at gym. Actually, I set a school record the other day for time on the pegboard.” This was a lie. He hadn’t even tied the record, though for a confusing, thrilling few seconds, dropping to the ground and scrubbing his sore hands against his thighs as Coach Alban, before realizing he’d misread his ancient stopwatch by a full revolution, punched a fist in the air and declared him the fastest climber in school history, he sincerely thought that he had. “And I can do more sit-ups than anyone in the grade.” This was not a lie, though he was pretty sure he’d already told her over dinner.
She leaned on her elbows and tilted her face toward the sun before lying back fully in the boat. “This is good, though, isn’t it. This is what we came for, right? A little sun on our skin. Tell me there’s anything better. Which is why, of course, we choose to live in one of the rainiest parts of the world. Hard to believe…” she shook her head. “Once upon a time, I could not have imagined a life for myself outside the church. Well, barely. When I was your age…maybe a little older.” She smiled at this thought but didn’t open her eyes, the prominence of her front teeth visible in outline under her lip. Parental failure to prioritize orthodontia for me, he knew, from another of her many set-piece recountings of her early life in religious severity. Call me vain. I’ll bear the label and the reminder of neglect proudly. “Never mind. Let’s just float to wherever.”
All these years later, still he remembered that afternoon, like it was a frozen center point in time marking before and after. What was divided from what, he couldn’t say. Just another afternoon on the pond with his mother. He saw the reflective shards of sun on the water’s surface and heard the water stuttering under them as he leaned forward and back, rowing—the plonk of his oars sinking through pond scum, weeds, light flashing on mica silt—again sunlight stinging in his eyes and transforming the surface of the water, and he remembered his mother’s easy, confiding tone, her arms draped along the sides of the boat. A lost last day from childhood, the caption under the picture might read. Somewhere back there still, an ordinary day to get back to…