I try to remember that when Davis approached me the previous spring, he wore a halo vest and brace. He looked awful, paler than the flesh of a potato, and scraped about the mouth and eyes. I had not seen him for some time but had thought of him occasionally, wondering why someone so determined and doing so well, would give up after a year. He was a veteran, recently returned from Iraq. In class he told stories about “recon” missions and his amateur boxing career. The other young men nodded and smiled when he explained how a fighter must be “tenacious.” I told myself he wouldn’t give up. He must have transferred to a better school.
Or I told myself he was not unlike his younger brother, the first Davis I knew, who seemed to come and go for a couple of years until one spring morning, to my surprise, he showed up all decked out in robes and mortarboard to collect a diploma. And that was that.
So I try to remember how bad Robert Davis looked when he caught me on my way out of the library.
“Professor Charles,” he said.
That was when I saw him again, for the first time. He was the most damaged looking person I’d ever seen outside of a hospital. As I said, he wore the complicated contraption that I’d only ever seen once, on a professional football player named Steve Grogan.
This is true. I actually saw it on the man, at the movies, in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
“What the devil happened to you?” I asked.
He barely moved his swollen lips, but I heard enough to understand that he’d rolled his truck, and done some damage to his head and spine.
Something about his matter-of-factness made me want to shake his hand, or I don’t know, shout hosannas for him. Then it occurred to me that he’d probably answered my question a thousand times and was giving me a précis of the narrative, just the way I’d taught him.
“Are you going to be all right?” I asked.
“They tell me I might not get it all back.”
“You will,” I said.
“Well, I got a lot of time on my hands is all. I wanted to ask you, can you recommend some books?”
I noticed his right hand was wrapped in a wad of bandages. His fingertips bruised and bundled.
“Sure,” I said. “But what interests you, Robert?”
“I was asking you about literature,” he said.
“In literature, then?”
“I feel,” he paused, “I don’t know the classics at all. The myths and tragedies.”
So we talked like that for a few minutes more. I made my suggestions and walked away, moved that someone in such obvious pain and just as obviously riding the swells of whatever painkillers he was taking, would want to recuperate with books.
I try to remember that scene now when Robert tells the other students, most of them a decade younger and worlds of experience apart, to shut the “ef “up while I’m lecturing.
I tell him it’s not a problem for me so it shouldn’t be a problem for him.
I force myself to remember that scene when he asks me questions that I’ve already answered or confuses ideology with idolizing, or lets everyone know that he would have picked better books to read and better films to watch, or draws analogies between fictional scenarios and his military service where none exist.
Finally, I must force myself to remember that scene, how battered Robert looked, how shattered he sounded, when while viewing a film called The Fallen Idol, for which the class has to write a review, the lights go down and Robert takes out a briar root pipe, taps his finger over the bowl, raises the unlit pipe to his mouth and leans back to take in the movie. Occasionally, he removes and replaces it.
Tyler in the back row gives me a look. What the hell? He mouths.
The two dancers sitting to Robert’s left giggle, while doe-eyed Gretchen, who sits to his right and writes like a poet, begins to cry.