This Modern Writer: John D’Agata Is Not the Timothy Leary of Essay Writers, But I Do Like How that Characterization Sounds

The current debate swirling around essayist John D’Agata’s ideas about the role of facts in so-called creative nonfiction has me thinking about memory. I got gas at ARCO recently, and standing there beside the pump, I had a flashback of a morning back in, I think, 1993.

While attempting to eat breakfast at a truckstop café in Cabazon, California, I’d poured half a shaker full of granulated sugar into a jelly jar and hid my grimacing face behind the menu. Everyone who was there tells me that I poured the sugar before the Down Syndrome busser filled our plastic cups with water. I say I poured the sugar after. Really, I have no clue. Whose memory should I go with: my warped one or their warped one?

My best friends D, J and JT and I had spent that entire Saturday night awake, frying on acid in a Newport Beach motel room. We hadn’t planned it. We were walking down the street by the beach, headed back to our car around midnight, when a stranger passed whispering, “Doses, doses.” Before we could discuss our options, we bought four hits and J popped the tab on his tongue seconds after. “What are you doing?” JT asked him. J looked at us and shrugged. It was the last night of vacation. We popped the tabs in our mouths.

The four of us spent the next eight or so hours sweating and cackling at old Richard Pryor movies. A local TV channel was running a marathon of films from the era when Pryor was jittery and bug-eyed from cocaine. In one film, Pryor jumped onto a table and yelled something while waving his hands. I didn’t have to hear the dialogue to enjoy the sight of his frantic comic movements. We folded at our middles, laughing. One of us fell off the couch. Pryor’s eyes were so big they seemed ready to explode like microwaved eggs. At some point during the night, J used the bathroom. When he came back into the living room grinning he said, “You have to see what’s going on in there.” So we crowded around the toilet and, at J’s suggestion, each leaned our foreheads against one of the bathroom walls to watch the wallpaper patterns swim. A lattice of fine, vertical stitching ran up and down the wall, and when stared at it, the stitching floated atop the orange and brown pattern on the paper underneath. There was an ocean undulating below the fabric. I saw waves and swells and whitecaps. We shuffled between the bathroom and TV all night, intermittently opening the door to smoke cigarettes. The frontage road outside was lifeless. Darkness hung overhead as thick as the coastal moisture than concealed the stars. Although cars passed occasionally on the highway below, we felt like the only people awake in all of California.

But we had to get home to Phoenix that morning. We were eighteen and nineteen years old; our parents, jobs and college classes awaited us. So in the crepuscular blue before sunrise, we piled into JT’s tiny red Honda, and he drove us east along a web of southern California highways. The fading acid buzzed through our brains and spinal columns. We stared out the windows in silence. My fingers felt weightless and tingly, and slowly the lush green hills lit lavender pink in the pastel dawn, with the colors growing purer and truer white as day peeled back the skin of our long night, until we turned off the Interstate to eat at Cabazon, the place made famous for its huge plaster dinosaurs featured in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Someone seated us. Or maybe we seated ourselves. I only recall arriving.

This is how it always is now swapping old stories in our mid- to late-thirties. One of us describes something we did or heard or saw in our youth, and I’ll only remember part of it. Other times I won’t remember it at all. “Was I there?” I’ll say, like an Alzheimer’s patient. Like the time some friends threw a disco party in their cramped Phoenix house and I wore a rainbow jumpsuit. And the time D and I were out hiking and driving aimlessly across the Pima Indian Reservation, and he said I jumped up and down on the hood of a burned out car that had been dumped on a river bottom.

I shook my head. “I did that?”

D said, “I have the photo.”

I have no recollection of the hike or the car.

“It was just a blackened metal shell,” he said. Still, no image came to mind.

Social gatherings often leave me wondering why I can’t remember many of the obvious details that my friends can. Did all the weed we once smoked keep these adolescent moments from affixing themselves as memories? Is my partial recall evidence of a disturbing glitch in my brain function that foreshadows a future case of dementia? Maybe the LSD corroded my neural pathways. Or maybe the natural scouring action of time is finally emptying certain dusty recesses of my mind. Age diminishes recall. But can age be the only culprit? People simply cannot remember everything they saw or did, even the funniest mythologized events. This touches on the nature of truth: it’s both relative and absolute. There is fact, and then there’s our memory. Unfortunately, the twain shall meet, and the intersection can be both crystalline and blurry. That’s not what D’Agata is getting at, though. It’s just what I was thinking that day at ARCO.

This isn’t profound. It’s just the stationary mental jogging of a person who writes nonfiction and who still seems himself as young, even though he’s entering middle age. As Martin Amos recently put it in The New York Times Style Magazine: “You get ugly when you get old. It’s all perfectly simple. Everything seems fine until you’re about 40. You look in the mirror with your old habit of thinking, ‘While I accept that everyone grows old and dies, it’s a funny thing, but I’m an exception to that rule.’ Then it becomes a full-time job trying to convince yourself that it’s true.” My mental limitations do have an interesting side effect, though. Whenever my childhood friends and I get together and swap stories, our conflicting accounts and combined details create a surreal composite not unlike the pebble-flake shells of a mayfly casing. For instance, I do remember other details of the Cabazon trip. Like how, even under the influence, I knew it was wrong to snicker at the Down Syndrome busser, but my scrambled mind made it impossible to contain myself when she leaned inches from my face to fill our water cups. A dense pudgy woman, she waddled up to our table, wearing what I recall was a pinkish apron, and titled the water pitcher. “Hello,” she said in a nasal voice. The voice sent me snickering. That I know for certain. I hid behind the menu because I didn’t want her to think me cruel and feel insulted, because my reaction was cruel and insulting, and I still curse myself for it. According to D who was seated beside me, after the busser left, he turned to me and said I was going to hell; I’d have to ask him to be sure, but I probably agreed.

I still think the sugar came after the water. If I had to write this event as a scene, would I choose D’s account, which is likely more accurate, or go with the version that depicts me in a more flattering light? Or one that improves the rhythm of the sentence, as D’Agata might? Personal essayists and memoirists routinely face this sort of dilemma.

The sugar was a whim, one of those nonsense things adolescents do drunk or on acid and for which you have no explanation other than being gripped by an animal impulse. Same thing kids say after lighting leaves on fire in a yard or smashing a beer can on their head. I just did it. Tucked inside the red vinyl booth, I lifted the sugar shaker without warning, removed the plastic lid from the jelly jar, and poured in the white stream of crystals. JT and D stared at me and laughed. And then I laughed, like a mental patient: he, he, he, he, he.

At one point one of us said, “Where’s J?” We had been four and now we were three. We leaned around the corner of the booth to scan the interior. J was standing at the front counter talking to the hostess. “You need shoes to come in here,” she told him. J threw up his hands and mouthed something before strutting over to our booth to take a seat. He always was resolute.

Retelling this, we sound totally feral. Sometimes I wish I could erase my laughing at the busser from the record. I don’t like to think I’m capable of such cruelty. But a fact is a fact. I did that then. I do things differently now.

How we sufficiently gathered our wits to order breakfast remains open to debate, though D maintains that we never ordered breakfast. By his account nearly two decades later, the hostess came to our table and demanded J either put on shoes or leave. I was snickering behind my menu, watching the Down Syndrome server shuffle table to table refilling cups. JT sat beside me, trying not to laugh at me trying not laugh at the server. J told the hostess, “Fine,” and got up. Then we all left.

Outside, the concrete tyrannosaurus protruded into the blue sky above a sea of shimmering cactus. Gray brontosaurus squatted beside green T-Rex. A glaze of blinding angel sunlight draped our bodies like cloaks as we stepped from the café door. It felt like we had walked through a waterfall of liquid mercury. That I remember. And I remember the cold, clean water tasted like minerals on my tongue. And how soon we were speeding past a forest of towering wind turbines outside Palm Springs, the same turbines featured in the opening scene of the movie Rainman. D says breakfast ended suddenly because breakfast never was. He might be right about everything. I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

How was JT driving?

I know I made some Pee Wee jokes.

“Oh you did,” says D.

“I’m a loner, Dottie, a rebel.” And my favorite: “Be sure and tell ’em Large Marge sent’cha!”

Whenever my friends and I get together and swap stories, each person fills the narrative gaps left by age and time, sealing the holes in our collective memory with a putty knife to prevent further leakage. Our minds combined turn Cabazon, as they turn facts, from the fading daydream relict of an amusing story back into a lived event, something real despite the decay.

During one semi-recent summer, I drove past Cabazon en route to a wedding. Brontosaurus and T-Rex were still there, still towering above the desert. Scientists have since renamed Brontosaurus Apatosaurus, but the dinos stood unwavering, like images planted in the landscape of memory that refuse to fade. T-Rex’s plaster teeth showed sharp and white. His clawed hands reached out for the kill. The truckstop restaurant was still there, the same Wheel Inn Café with the same roofing and signage and worn walls. It was there, as if to verify my existence, but it looked different somehow.

I stopped for gas at the sunflower yellow Shell station next door. The sun was bright, the air scorching. It was June. I was alone. But I knew that as long as my friends and I were alive and together, and no matter how badly our minds might degrade in the coming decades, my memory of that lysergic morning, of our youth, would remain with me, sturdy like armored spines on a cement brontosaurus, refusing to bend to the whims of time. From the gas pump I studied the Wheel Inn Café. I could see why it looked different to me. All these years, I thought it was yellow, but the exterior is actually blue. At least, it was now.


Aaron Gilbreath has written essays, some forthcoming, for Paris Review, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Gastronomica, Yeti, Gettysburg Review, and The Normal School. His essay “Dreams of the Atomic Era,” from Cincinnati Review, is a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011. He lives online here and here!/AaronGilbreath.

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