Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Gregory Spatz’s new book What Could Be Saved: Bookmatched Novellas and Stories, a collection in which violins play a significant role. (When he’s not writing, Spatz is also an accomplished musician.) In her review of the book for NPR, Martha Anne Toll writes, “What Could Be Saved is for readers who love being immersed in the minutiae of a world they would not otherwise enter.” And it comes complete with a blurb from Paul Harding, who knows a thing or two about good writing.
As the last light of day struck her violin in its open case at the foot of the bed he woke, panicked momentarily at his still unfinished school work—and then let himself be absorbed in the way the sun lit her violin’s varnish orange-red, showing the grooves and ruts in the fingerboard. The wear from her hours of practice dimpled the ebony like fossilized imprints of some prehistoric creature. Rosin dust and dirt sparkled under the bridge. A filmy suds of finger marks and smudges shrouded the shoulders. Was there anything, he wondered, as uncompromisingly beautiful and severe as this sight of silver, steel, and nickel-wound strings down the ebony black of a fingerboard? The contrast, the lines of tension from nut to bridge, the colored tail silks—anything as clear and promising as many hours of focus…pure distillate of determination, disappointment, reward?
He slid to the edge of her mattress and lifted her violin from its case, laid it across his bare shins and pressed with one finger along the length of each string, sliding from the nut to the end of the fingerboard and back again. From the finger-polished top to the sticky rosin-sleeved endpoint, there was a slight, cutting pressure against his fingertip. The ruts and grooves, so visible in the sudden last light of day, were nowhere near as evident to the touch as he’d anticipated. He felt them, but not like he’d thought—not like riding down the washboard road from the end of their drive to the main road at home. And picturing that, the trees wheeling by, the speed at which the bumps became least noticeable, he remembered. His father’s failing eyesight. What was he doing here? He should be at home.
“Hey,” she said, kicking lightly at his back. “Hey. What are you doing?”
He replaced the violin in its case and crawled back to her on the other side of the mattress. Lay beside her. “You need a new fingerboard,” he said, falling beside her. “I just noticed. The light made it super obvious.”
“Psshh. Says you. Expert.”
“It’s not a big thing. Maybe a couple hundred bucks. Take it back to Jacoby. Maybe he’ll give you a sweet deal. Or hey, I know, maybe he’ll let you take that violin of my dad’s home on approval while he does the work…”
“Or maybe you could do it for me for free, or for, like, sexual favors.” Each of these phrases was punctuated at the end by her playfully pinching at his arms and chest. “How about that?”
He laughed, swatting at her pinching fingers. “Right. So I get to permanently destroy your violin and have the time of my life, and you…what exactly was in it for you? Maybe we could skip the whole violin-ruining part and…”
She slapped his hand away. “Quit! Quit it.”
Parts of her face surfaced through the shadows—pale nose, eyelid, eyebrow, half of her mouth—and moved back into darkness. Minus the usual visual filters, he felt close to her in a way he hadn’t previously, and better able to register some essential thing in her—some core of sweetness, rage and melancholy vibrating there. “Come on,” he said. “Show me.”
“Show you what?”
“I don’t know. How to play.”
She puffed air through her nose. “In five minutes or less.”
“Just the basics. Like, what’s the first thing? What do you do?”
“What are you talking about? You expect me to believe you’ve never played a violin? Even once?”
He held up two fingers. “Word of honor.”
“I find that hard to buy, but…whatever. Here.” She sat up and motioned him to the end of the bed. “Like this. Stand.” She fit the violin against his collarbone, the butt end of its shoulder rest digging into his breastbone and the cool concavity of the chin rest slipping forward under his jaw so she had to keep tugging the violin back up for him, pushing it harder against him. It smelled like her, but also like some other unplaceable austerity of wood and rosin dust and case glue. “No. Like this. Press down with your jaw. It’d work better if you had a shirt on, maybe… What is wrong here? Let’s see.” She squinted at him and stood back a second in the fading light, surveying, hands on her knees. “Maybe your neck’s just too long. That must be the problem. There’s just, like, no good contact! Did anyone ever tell you, you have a really long neck? It’s nice, actually. But this is just so not working. The idea, really…what should be happening anyway,” she said, coming around to loop her arms under his armpits from behind, hands on the backs of his hands, “it should lie flat like this, so you don’t even have to think about it, like your jaw is this hinge holding it in place so the violin hangs there and your hands can kind of float around?” She sang some notes in his ear and tried to make his hands move. “But this… It shouldn’t be so tense. Can you relax a little? It should be more like flying. Effortless. That’s better.”
In the end he was able to draw a few rasping notes unassisted. To press with his fingers and thereby increase the shrillness, and finally with her help, her hand on his, drawing the bow down and back in a straight line, able to feel the violin open with sound momentarily—to be struck through the chin and breastbone with sonic vibrations. With that came a metallic shimmering smell that seemed to dissipate the instant it had penetrated his senses, and a feeling like the ground rushing up at the bottom of a sharp downhill on his bike. And a pain at the base of his neck to correlate with the ones in his wrists and through his hands. If he relaxed into the heat of her arms under and over his, the weight of her against him, he could almost feel how it worked—could almost imagine it working without her—and yet as soon as she released him and stood back…