NEA Literature Fellowships

Gregory Spatz

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from Inukshuk

He was on lunch duty when it happened, jacketless because of the Chinook wind and composing in his head a line or two about the color of the sky reflected in the wet school-yard pavement, the ice-rimmed, quickly vanishing puddles, clouds whipping past upside down . . . sun oil water. If he had a minute before class, he'd jot some notes to remind himself, and tonight or tomorrow, the weekend maybe, craft the lines. Meanwhile, these gusting, transitory moments of pleasure verging on epiphany, ears full of word sounds not quite articulable. He told himself he was lucky: The reward was having such feelings at all, being a man attuned to his surroundings enough to experience the old spine tingle beholding a thing of beauty, not in mining his particular sensitivities for a poem. In the midst of this, something else, too -- a push, a seismic shift in the surrounding school-yard energy that put him on the alert, making him momentarily more enthralled by the windblown colors and reflections as he tore his attention from them back to the here and now -- and then it was in their voices, too, and he knew, because he'd been in the job long enough to recognize all the signs. There was a fight. He would now be called upon to do something. Act. These were old-enough kids, grades nine and ten, no one would come running for him; no more grade-school, middle-school tattletales ("Fight! Fight! Mr. Franklin -- quick!"), those simpler, earlier years of his teaching career long gone, like so many other things. They'd flock around, these kids, oversize strangers, cheering maybe or just silently longing for more, for torture, each one thankful it wasn't him in there getting pummeled, but no one would stop it. The boys he identified from a distance -- not bad kids, really, but ones with a preying instinct and a reputation. Scollard, Martini, two he didn't have names for, and the tall, angular one -- the instigator, he guessed -- Jeremy Malloy. Pink oxford shirt, dark blond hair, jeans seasoned with pocket whiskers and tears at the knees. Franklin hadn't been here long enough to say for sure, but he knew the type -- never alone, always mugging it up for a pack of friends, all of his antics, apparently, to be taken down by some imaginary news crew.

What he neither saw nor identified (and certainly never anticipated), in the less than thirty seconds it took him to lope-stride across the school-yard, gathering himself, finding the words in advance, alternating anger, dread, annoyance, disappointment, and a little excitement at the prospect of exercising his teacherly "authority": his own flesh and blood, his own son the one held down in the snow crust, underwear pulled to his rib cage, blood flowing from his nose. "Hey there, hey now, HEY, I said that's enough," he heard his voice booming while something inside him withdrew and spun out of control, causing the whole scene to fade and tunnel with pinpricks. He was weirdly aware of his teeth clicking together, and then of the sibilance of breath scratching his throat as he drew more air, impossibly warm, dry air, to raise the volume of his voice. "Hey! I said stop that now! That's enough. You boys! Thomas?"

Worse, as Thomas rose and separated from the bunch, stood back, tugging vainly at the waistband of his underwear with one hand and with the other dabbing at the blood that ran from his nose -- "It's OK, Dad. I'm OK. You can go now. Really. I'm fine . . ." -- Franklin knew just why they'd done this. No, worse than that, he sympathized. The kid, his own son, with his remote, demented stare, stiff-legged pirate-boy walk, perennial sniffling, and all the dietary weirdness -- he was an embarrassment. A nuisance, and an eyesore. The very stubborn thing, whatever it was lately, that seemed to sit on his soul like a block, it made you want to shake him, shout at him, hug him, do something anyway to see if you could get a response. See if Thomas might be made to realize how his obstinacy and difference and insistence upon never doing anything like other people only provoked everyone around him.

"I said I'm OK, Dad."

"No! You're not! And you'll come with me now. All of you. This way. On the double."

Or else?

For a moment, watching their faces, Malloy's especially, handsome, no-good, winter white with pink spots under the eyes, he felt the question just under the surface, animating their features. Or what, Franklin? On what authority, old man? We'll take you down, too. Malloy was a hockey kid -- hockey royalty. Team captain? Too young. High scorer? Something special about him, Franklin couldn't remember. With the hockey came certain entitlements: all those 4:00 a.m. mornings, some poor mom dragging him off to practice. He was allowed to act out. Expected to, almost. For split seconds longer, he felt how barely anything here was actually in his command. One boy sniffed and shoved his fists in his pockets, hard, feeling for something in there maybe, and backed up a step. One tossed and smoothed aside the black hair falling over his black eyes. Only Malloy seemed openly unconcerned.

"It'll just get worse, boys. You want a two-day suspension or a four-day suspension? Shall I keep going? Six days? How about detention, in-school suspension, and garbage duty the rest of the year? This way, now."

And then they were marching, past the vanishing puddles that had seemed to him luminous moments ago, windows to another world and full of hidden Sule Skerry poetry (his mind went reflexively back to the words sun oil water, but not much beyond that remained), the snowbanks reflected in their surfaces now menacing as teeth, grim and dead and nothing to look at or think twice about. Just ice and bare, wind-whipped ground. Students mostly tried to pretend they didn't notice anything going on, but they all did. They saw. They watched. There goes the new teacher, Franklin, saving his son. The dork. They stood back and kept eyes averted. One or two stared, one passed secret hand signals at the boys, and behind him he felt the gathering menace of other hostile gestures. Mockery and rage. Turned once abruptly to catch them at it, but no. Nothing.

Then the exterior double doors and the vestibule going inside, the sequence of things he didn't adequately anticipate. First the bell signaling the end of the period, so classroom doors everywhere inside banged open and students barged out, already laughing, talking; next, Malloy, seizing the opportunity, throwing back a pair of inner hallway doors, smashing them into red tiled walls and yelling something unintelligible as he ducked to the side and started to make a run for it; and last, Franklin, reacting (Overreacting? Later, he couldn't say), grabbing out, catching the kid by the back of his pink shirt collar and, not anticipating anything like the force of his own rage, flinging him back (so much stiffer, lighter, less resistant than he might have expected; a kid, after all) and around and against the wall, forearm across Malloy's chest, lifting and holding him there until the boy's eyes watered and only the wheezing sound of his breath made Franklin realize he'd better stop. Let go. Still he was yelling: "You want to try that again? Wanna piece of me? Any of you others want to make a run for it?" He was not even that mad, that he was aware of anyway, but he was yelling. Something had happened to make him go out of control. What? Only after he'd released Malloy and gotten the other boys marching again on a course straight through the crowded hallway for the principal's office, only then did he realize the one who'd given him the slip: his own son, Thomas, gone.

Gregory Spatz grew up in New England and holds degrees from Haverford College, University of New Hampshire, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the author of the novels Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012), Fiddler's Dream (Southern Methodist University Press, 2006), and No One But Us (Algonquin, 1995), as well as story collections Half as Happy (Engine Books, 2012) and Wonderful Tricks (Mid-List Press, 2002). His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New England Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, Santa Monica Review and the New Yorker. The recipient of a Michener Fellowship, an Iowa Arts Fellowship, a Washington State Book Award, and grants from the Washington State Artist Trust, he teaches in and directs the program for creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. He plays the fiddle in the internationally acclaimed, twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds, and bouzouki in the acoustic world-folk fusion quartet Mighty Squirrel.

Photo by Brett Hall Jones

Author's Statement

At the time of applying for this fellowship, I'd all but given up hope of finding a publisher for Inukshuk. I'd made a difficult peace with finishing it, making it as good as I could, setting it aside, and moving on to new work. I had a pile of stories as well -- in all, about a decade's worth of stuff -- which I was also beginning to accept would likely never be published in book form. By most objective measures, I'd done everything possible; it was time to let it go and forge on.

That's where the year began…and with a quarter of sabbatical leave during which I had to really live by the thing I'm always telling my students: that writing is its own best reward, and that you have to persist with or without external validation, or really any kind of hope. Because in the end nothing beats a good day of work. It's the best reward there is.

The rest of the year brought better and better news, ending with the excellent phone call from the NEA. So, for me this fellowship feels like a culmination to and affirmation for this past decade of work, and an opening into the next decade of work. It reminds me of the necessity of external validation after all, and of the necessity of persisting with or without it.

For all of this, and for the summers free of teaching, and an additional quarter of leave, I'm hugely thankful.