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?”
“Yes….Alright…your story needs an ending. Some
way of tying up the loose ends. Maybe resolving the conflict a
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.”
“Exactly. Every story has to have an ending.”