by Kaela-Rose LeBlanc
Consequences of a Juvenile Mind in “You’ll Apologize If You Have To”
We all live in multiple realities. A person’s identity is shaped by who they are at home, school, work, parties, family gatherings, etcetera. We often think that a person is their truest self at home, but what happens when one reality dominates one’s identity? Can one aspect of someone’s life begin to dictate their every action? This is the case for the main character of Ben Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Have To”, whose career has allowed him to avoid his responsibilities and emotional maturity. Because Wallace’s job as a professional fighter has taught him to hurt others without feeling remorse and rewarded him for this behaviour with fame and fortune, this is how he has learned to deal with his problems in the real world, outside the arena. He treats others much like a spoiled child would, making impulsive decisions based on selfishness and personal gain. When his loss in a fight marks the definitive end to his career, he realizes he must learn to be a good father and a good person, a task much more challenging than building up his physical strength.
We first see Wallace’s emotional immaturity in the way he handles conflict with other adults. When he is approached by a stranger in the estuary and told to stop smoking, Wallace becomes agitated, partially because of his recent loss, and he feels his instinctive need to fight: “His high was slipping away and he could hear his own pulse in his ears. Now, now, now, went his heartbeat. It’d take him hours to calm back down” (125). Like a ticking time bomb, Wallace’s mind and body are getting ready to deal with his problems the only way he knows how: by beating them up. This response is automatic to Wallace because to him it makes things simple; he doesn’t need to be sympathetic and acknowledge another person’s perspective, a process that takes time and patience. This way, he can end his problems in one fell swoop and worry about the consequences later, which is precisely how he handles his disagreement with the stranger: “He used a simple foot sweep to sit the man down just off to the side of the trail. It was like he was watching himself do it. The man landed hard and sunk down to his elbows in mud…Yeah, Wallace thought, that’s going to be trouble. But there it was” (125, 126). Like a child, Wallace thinks in the present and can’t be bothered to care about others. We see his consideration of consequences when he thinks “that’s going to be trouble”, but we can also see that he is overcome with satisfaction in the line “but there is was”. Aside from his fragile mood, the stranger bothers Wallace because he represents something Wallace could never have alongside his fighting career.
The stranger in the estuary is a reflection of the life Wallace could have had: being a good father, one who looks out for his kids, with a nice house on the beach and people to share it with. This life was incompatible with Wallace’s career and the irresponsible, aggressive man it allowed him to become. When Wallace’s hypothetical “kids” are brought into the argument, we can see it pushes Wallace even further: “‘How about if I came over there and blazed up in front of your kids? How would you like that?’ Wallace chuckled to himself. It was the only way to keep from slapping the man’s cool glasses off his face” (124, 125). Wallace feels like the man is judging him as a father, which makes him feel insecure because he knows his relationship with his daughter, Molly, is far from perfect. He doesn’t visit often because of he either has work or can’t be bothered, and when he does see her, she acts like she doesn’t even recognize him; “Molly stared straight through him and didn’t answer. He looked at her big eyes and felt exposed” (128). Around his daughter, Wallace does not feel like an adult. He is as intimidated as a shy little boy and feels all his flaws as a father are “exposed” to her. He feels judged by his own daughter, and knows that, in his current state, he can’t give her a great life: “Wallace pictured his condo, pictured flinging open the door for Molly, her crinkling her nose at the cloistered stink of three days worth of grown man wallowing” (129). Because he is afraid of his daughter seeing evidence of his “grown man wallowing”, Wallace clearly knows that he is not emotionally mature enough to take care of a child. It is one of his most shameful flaws and he realizes that his inability to balance his career and personal life is the cause of this. Because of this, when stranger brings up kids, Wallace takes it personally and assumes the man is insulting his parenting skills. The irony is that, in jumping to conclusions, Wallace demonstrates the exact reason why he is not a responsible or rational adult.
Although he acts like a child, Wallace is well aware that as an adult, his actions have consequences—he is just not willing to face them. After he assaults the stranger, he attempts to get away with it by running to other places of comfort, only to find that everywhere he goes holds more repercussions. In trying to avoid the cops, he visits his daughter, only to find disappointment in both Molly and his ex-wife for him not showing up when he was supposed to: [block quote]
“We’ve got to figure something out here,” Kim said. “You can’t just stand her up like that and then show up when you feel like it.”
“I know,” Wallace said.
“You think she doesn’t really notice but she does,” Kim said.
“I know,” Wallace said again.
“This age, you never know what will end up sticking with them for the rest of their lives,” Kim said. (128)
In this exchange, Wallace just repeats “I know” over and over, not really processing the importance of what Kim is saying. He answers her as though he is her own son being lectured on something as small as needing to clean his room, when in reality Kim is giving a serious warning that his absence as a father with negatively impact Molly forever. He is unable and unwilling to take in the effect of his actions, and although he knows it is hurting the daughter he loves, he is unchanging in his ways, which we can tell because they have clearly had this conversation many times before. After explaining the real reason he dropped by, Kim catches on and calls Wallace out on his cowardly escape: “‘That’s why you drove up here rather than just calling, isn’t it?’ Kim said. ‘Because you think you might be in trouble and you’d rather not be there for it.’ There wasn’t anything good he could say” (130). Wallace is speechless because he knows she is right. There is no smart comeback when he admittedly came to see his daughter just to escape the consequences of an assault he committed. Having the reality of his actions repeated back to him makes him realize how selfish and immature he really is. Even though he may have once been a big, macho fighter taking down everyone in his path, he cannot defend his own decisions. As the day progresses and his self confidence lowers, Wallace comes to the painful realization that he can’t overcome all obstacles with his fists.
This story started with a burst of energy and kept the tension high through till the end. Wallace may not be a likable character to all, but he is relatable. His story is the perfect example of what’s really going on in the mind of the rude stranger you bumped into on the street. While he is unlikable for his immaturity, many can sympathize with feeling lost in life, not knowing what to do with your career or struggling to take on responsibility. The abrupt ending leaves room for many possible outcomes of the final encounter between Wallace and the stranger, who is revealed to be a lot like him. The mystery of it leaves more interest than disappointment. This scene could represent Wallace’s final encounter with the man he has become, where he confronts a physical reflection of himself in the form of the stranger: “…he’s not cut out for most jobs. He’s very sensitive. He’s not a bad man. But he is very, very sensitive” (140).
Fowlkes, Ben. “You’ll Apologize If You Have To.” The Best American Short Stories 2015. Ed. T.C. Boyle. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015. 120-141. Electronic.