By: Margaret Sessenwein
Coming out of a big loss, thoughts of inadequacy come naturally. The protagonist, Wallace, shuts himself off from the world and questions his ability to perform after losing a fight in Florida. But upon running into a local disgruntled man who has a few issues with Wallace smoking weed near his house, things take a turn for the…better? Sure, he sweeps the guys feet out from under him, instantly regretting it out of fear of what the consequences may be. But in the end, the consequences never come, and Wallace even decides to apologize and throughout the story, Jack Fowlkes, the author of “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” accurately uses symbolism to depict the main idea which is that one must move on from a life that has trapped them.
After Wallace loses his fight in Florida, Ben Fowlkes consistently eludes to Wallace’s metaphorical suffocation in various passages. On the way back from the fight, he spends: “Five hours vacuum-packed into coach seats”(Fowlkes 84). This quote is interestingly symbolic, and I only realized it’s meaning my second time reading the story. The word “vacuum-packed” stands out because “to vacuum pack something” means “to remove air from the package prior to sealing” (Cambridge Dictionary) and Wallace, having fallen on his back after being knocked out, could quite possibly have had “the wind knocked out of him”. To tie in with this, Wallace was vacuum-packed into “coach seats”. The word “coach” while having the literal meaning of just simply stating what travel class he was in, can symbolize his actual coach, or more likely his career, given that his career is managed by Coach Vee. So to look at the quote as a whole, I can draw the connection that Wallace being “vacuum-packed into coach seats” can symbolize him being trapped in a career that isn’t going anywhere. Although he might not realize it yet, that fight took the remaining “wind” out of his career and he is now left vacuum-packed into his life. This is also evident when Wallace goes to visit Coach Vee at the gym, after days of not returning his phone calls. “Coach Vee’s office always made Wallace feel a little claustrophobic. All four walls were plastered with fight photos and magazine covers. The faces pressed in on you. You got more than two people in there at once and everybody had to platen against the wall just to let someone out” (92). This quote is interesting because the use of imagery is employed to further convey the main idea. With the walls being “plastered with fight photos and magazines” and Wallace feeling “claustrophobic” I can make the connection that although the office is small, the real element contributing to Wallace’s claustrophobia is are the photos and magazines of fighting. In other words, his career no longer provides him with a life of meaning and fulfillment, and instead the pictures of him, and others he knows on the wall in Coach Vee’s office “press in on [him]”, making him feel like he has nowhere to turn.
Fowlkes also uses symbolism and certain language in various passages after the meeting with Coach Vee that indicate that the meeting had a profound effect on him. Wallace is being haunted by something. He needed to rethink his career: “He needed a second to breath. He needed some time to figure things out (94)”. This quote stood out to me because it’s a clear sign that Wallace is suffering from a crisis. The words “figure things out” makes it clear to me that Wallace really took what Coach Vee said to him to heart. Similarly, when Wallace reflects on the time someone gave him the watch, he notes that it is: “Still in the box in the back of his sock drawer. He couldn’t say why. He had the vague feeling that he might need it someday. Maybe he just wanted to know it was there, this watch, a piece of secret evidence. It proved that he’d done something, at least. He hadn’t made it all up” (96). As a whole, this quote give off the idea that Wallace is saying goodbye to his career, or at least is thinking about, because why else would he remember the watch? The fact that he said “he had the vague feeling that he might need it someday” makes me believe that today is that someday. It’s like he’s thinking of that watch because that’s already all that’s left of his career. “It proved he’d done something” is interesting because he used the word “done” which means that he isn’t doing anything anymore to deserve that watch. If he had said “it proved he was doing something” it would be clear that Wallace has no intention on giving up on his career anytime soon, he was still doing what he thought he needed to be doing. This quote serves as a way of showing Wallace gaining some closure. He needs some type of closure to be able to even consider moving on and thinking back to the watch provides him with a type of closure.
By the time he gets to the man in the green jacket’s house, we are finally able to see how Wallace has changed since the beginning of the story. Although still trapped, it’s as if he’s ready to confront it head on and make some attempt at moving on. At the beginning of the story, Wallace was the type of guy to shut out the world after a loss, without considering how the people calling him were feeling. Now, he’s on the porch of the man he assaulted, ready to apologize, which shows consideration for the man in the green jacket.. While Wallace and the man’s wife are waiting for the man with the green jacket to come home, Wallace begins to open up to the man’s wife, and for the first time in the story, his true thoughts on fighting are revealed. When he first arrives he explains the story of what happened between him and her husband and thinks: “If people just knew what you were dragging around with you, they might cut you some slack” (98). The word “dragging” stands out to me because it indicates that something is weighing him down. Secondly the words “if people just knew”, indicate that he’s now ready for someone to know about what’s been bothering him, instead of just, you know, sweeping the legs out from under someone. He’s ready to use his words and voice his opinion like a mature adult, which by now you can see a huge contrast in his character since the beginning of the story. When he finally did open up: “He told her it was like breaking up. ‘You tell yourself, never again. But then, what else is there?’”(99). This quote stood out more than all the others because it gave me the first indication that Wallace has felt this way before in regards to fighting. This wasn’t a sudden thing, this realization that maybe his fighting career has run it’s course. And that’s what leads him to feel even more trapped. Him saying “what else is there” further promotes the idea that when you have feel like you have no other option, it can feel like you’re trapped with no way out. Wallace going to apologize is more than just a simple hurdle in avoiding prosecution, this is a cathartic experience for him.
The ending of the story is very much left up to interpretation. We can see the progress the protagonist has made in terms of character development, but we don’t know the end result. However, the final sentence is a clue just because it’s a sentence containing positive emotion. By thinking to himself: “It was delightful” (99), it’s reasonable to believe that Wallace eventually overcame his inner conflict and began a new life, a life without fighting.
Fowlkes, Ben. “You’ll Apologize If You Have To”. Best American Short Stories, edited by T.C. Boyle, Mariner Books, 2015, pp. 84-99
“Vacuum-packed.” Cambridge Dictionary. 2017. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/vacuum-packed