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Strings Attached

Tony Wallace wasn’t your everyday student. He was forty-something, and liked classical art, Hennessy, and Shania Twain. This is what I learned about him in a letter of introduction I have all my students write early in the semester. He wrote that his favorite book was Leviticus and that he most liked to write about ‘life in the ghetto.’

I wasn’t really sure about his background, he seemed to be mostly black, but I often picked up a sort of Hispanic vibe from him. Maybe it was the way he crouched back on his knees and barely raised his arm to point when he talked to me.

He missed class quite a bit, so I was a bit surprised when he showed up to his conference, and on time.

We exchanged the usual hellos and conversation about the day’s weather, avoided looking at each other, and then directed our attention at his essay, “Doctor My Eyes.” The essay was about his experience with a ruptured spleen as a kid, and all the hell that came with it. It wasn’t a bad paper, and I liked the way he looked at things. When he described what they pumped out of his body he said it looked like, “spinach and avocados in a blender on chop.”

“You know, Tony, this really isn’t a bad paper.”

He cocked his head, and stared into the miniature poster of Picasso’s Guernica I had hanging on the opposite wall of my office. I had a larger print of Diego Rivera’s Vendedora de Flores above my desk, but most students wouldn’t look at it as it involved me in their peripheral. I followed his eyes for a moment, a bit amazed at their steadiness in all the mixture of the painting, the bull’s head and the fragments of arms and legs and terror.

“I used to be bright, you know,” he said as he shifted his gaze beyond my face for a minute, caught a glimpse of me looking back and then looked up. “When I was a kid…I was bright, man. I mean for real bright.”

“You’re still bright. I can see that in your writing. You have a distinctive voice.”

“Man, but life has a way of getting to you. You know what I mean?” He brought his eyes down from the ceiling and went back to Picasso. “I used to be bright.”

There was an emphasis in the voice this time. Something he knew and I didn’t. He might have stomped his foot or pounded the table if I had not been his teacher. I let the debate go and picked up his paper.

I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair, giving me a little distance as I began an attempt to salvage the conference.

“I think with a few revisions, this could be a really good paper. An ‘A’ paper.”

“You know…all that stuff really happened. I didn’t make it up.”

“I know. That’s good. That’s what I wanted for the assignment. A story about a memory.”

“Man, it was a nightmare. I’ve still got scars.” And without any embarrassment or caution, he opened up the front of his black Pleather coat, pulled up a faded black t-shirt with some rock-and-roll logo on the front, and revealed his torso.

At first the shock forced me to look away, into my painting, at the feet and hands behind the little woman with a back full of flowers. But he persisted in offering me this vision, so, with a quick breath, I looked.

He had a funny little potbelly, something that made him more human to me, and his nipples were darker than I had expected. But across his stomach, a scar stretched and pulled the skin together unevenly, making it look like a puckered face as the awkward foot-long crevice passed from underneath his right breast, across his belly-button, and down to just above his pants-line. He ran his finger down the canyon as if to show me there were no strings attached, this was no joke, he was not playing.

“I’ve still got problems with this thing.” And then our eyes met. He was looking directly at me underneath the matching Pleather ball-cap that sat back on his head and left his black bangs hanging motionless like miniature dreadlocks.

“It looks pretty bad…geez…but…what do you want to do with this story?”

He came out of a moment then. I needed to get through the conference, I had others waiting, but I felt like I had somehow betrayed him, done a mirror trick when he was trying to tell me something he knew was true.

“I don’t really know. What do you think?”

“Well, like I said earlier, I really liked the story, but I think you need resolution.”

“Resolution? What is resolution?”

“You remember? In class we talked about dramatic action? Conflict, climax and resolution?”

“Dramatic action?”

“Yes….Alright…your story needs an ending. Some way of tying up the loose ends. Maybe resolving the conflict a bit more.”

He shook his head now, as if he had been expecting this. As if he already knew what to say before I asked this question.

“I see what you’re saying, man. But that story didn’t end. I was in and out of hospitals for thirty-three years after that day. I’m still not better. All that stuff really happened. It was a real nightmare.”

“I know. I saw the scar. But can you think of anywhere there might have been a moment of resolution. Maybe somewhere where the conflict had a little break? A point where you could pull some meaning out.”

“Like pulling something out of hat, huh?”


“Or pulling something out of my ass.”

We smiled, but just for a moment. His eyes went up to the ceiling again. Mine, too, this time, as I searched to find what he found so fascinating about stained paint.

“Do you think I should change to another story?”

“No…not at all. I really like this story. I just think you might try revising the end.”

“Resolution, huh?”

“Exactly. Every story has to have an ending.”