Creative nonfiction contest judge Gail Galloway Adams writes of Richard Hague's work:
In this well-crafted and thoughtful essay, the author ties together a long-ago incident of an unexpected fight in a pool hall that has held its place in memory. Moving skillfully between the fact or truth of that night, “Acting Up” examines how both a memory and an essay of that memory are shaped; how our lives are bound by memory. “We don’t have memories,” John Irving wrote, “memories have us.” This piece also examines how the incorporation of fictional elements enhance and subvert personal truth. “I didn’t know I could go on without myself,” says one character, a statement that seems to embody all the complexities of writing memoir that speak to the separation of the remembered self from the written self. This skillful exploration brought to mind the poet, Li-Young Lee: “Slender memory, stay with me. // Memory is sweet. / Even when it's painful, memory is sweet.”
Acting Up by Richard Hague
Winner, 2019 Creative Nonfiction Contest
Although I have written about this before, more than thirty years ago, I don’t think I got it as right as I could have. At the time this all happened, I had no inkling. Nothing in the details of that place—the stale cigarette smoke, the jar of pickled eggs at the end of the bar, the jangling juke box—suggested anything beyond themselves. They were present, and the present was all there was. Here. Now. (There. Then.)
So how could I have known, prior to this, on whom I would have to hang a name, carefully outfit, and clearly give voice, for purposes of story? How could I have known that a much more winding narrative was to arise out of half-remembered, hungover details, fragments of slurred speech, the sloppy leftovers and do-overs of that earlier attempt? Such “ings” as were embedded in all of this: drinking, flexing, fighting, losing, running away. How could I have known what writerly ings, sorting and selecting, and what cautious re-inventing, would become necessary to complete it? How, now, maintain it as the truth? How in any way concede, now that it has a life of its own, that it isn’t?
I was in my late twenties or early thirties, those days, and I should have known better. But my buddy Jimmy Quinlivan had ridden with me the four hours from Cincinnati to spend some time at my trailer in the woods. After he’d gotten settled in, and we’d made the ritual pilgrimage over the hill to have a smoke and a beer in the white pine grove, we were eager to shoot some eight-ball at the Malaga Crossroads Inn, a roadside dive straddling the borders of Belmont and Monroe counties in southeastern Ohio.
We got there early, a hot Saturday evening in July. We started drinking right off, PBRs, a couple per hour. At first, no one stepped up to put a quarter on the rail, the usual way of saying “I’ll challenge the winner next,” so Jimmy and I just shot and drank. We were hot, making all kinds of wild combinations, starting to glow. Around dusk, a guy stepped up and slapped a quarter down. He stood about my height, deeply tanned, and wore a white sleeve-rolled, button-down oxford, neatly pressed. Newish blue jeans. A pair of polished brown boots. Some sort of lime-ish, tingly-scented aftershave. Another fellow, pretty much his duplicate, stood to one side. The first guy said, “How about we shoot partners?”
“All right,” I said, without asking Jimmy. “Sounds good.”
For about ten years I shot pool on a used table, bought from my wife’s business partner, that I kept in our basement. It was a bush-league item, a sheet of plywood under the bluish felt instead of slate, aluminum-rimmed pockets, three water-damaged cues about as straight as skinned beagles’ ribs, cheap white plastic rack. Most remarkably, its playing surface was warped badly, making one sunken corner pocket like a kind of strong gravity field, a ravenous ball-swallower we soon dubbed “the Black Hole of Calcutta.” Any shot that traversed the table within a foot or eighteen inches of it had a big chance of being altered; seven or eight out of ten times, depending on its speed, the ball would drift off course toward it and fall in.
This caused us to develop certain odd habits in the vicinity of the Black Hole, all of which we denied affected our game. Instead we rationalized that we were becoming more acutely attuned; the presence of the Black Hole required us to be in harmony with invisible cosmic vibes; no shot we would take on any standard table would be anywhere near as interesting or require as much skill. It is in such ways that mildly drunken men explain themselves to each other, making virtues of vices, even congratulating themselves on their (blundering) wit and (sloppy) technique. It was to be so at the New Dainty Lunch in Marietta, Ohio, years after, when an afternoon round of games with the late poet Joe Enzweiler (we will meet him later) stretched into a legends-in-our-own minds evening. I imagine it would have been equally so, far to the southeast at the Red Robin Inn in Williamson, West Virginia, had we gotten there.
Jimmy and I won four or five games after beating the first guy and his partner, a boy I now, for purposes of clarity and art, name “Dar” and who might have been his cousin or his twin. Dar was one of those guys with no clear sense of a bridge: one time, he’d form a tight circle with his thumb and forefinger, moving the cue smoothly inside it, and then the next time, for no apparent reason, he’d just spread his palm out on the table and lay the cue between a couple of knuckles and have at it. No sense of speed or English, just hard shots all the way. Carom and scratch. Scratch and cuss. Each win with new partners meant that we were handed another beer from the guys we beat—standard house rules at the Crossroads. Also standard was that you had to drink the beer during the next game. To skip a winner’s beer was bad form. We kept winning. We kept drinking.
Jimmy and I had taught together for a year, at the same school back in Cincinnati. English literature, American literature—poetry, composition, fiction. Boys came there from all over the place (we hadn’t gone coed yet), but Jimmy’s previous gig had been at an all-girls school on the other side of town. At Purcell, he’d had some adjustments to make. Boys didn’t fawn over this ruddy, green-eyed, curly-haired Irishman like so many of the girls must have done. He rustled the boys into as much academic shape as he could, and we’d spend our lunch breaks debriefing and encouraging one another.
To recharge, Jimmy and I would walk after school to a local joint, a bowling alley/pool hall called Mergard’s. There, we’d shoot eight-ball and nine-ball for hours among the black guys who lived in the neighborhood. Though we shot at side-by-side tables, this was a strictly segregated affair. We’d never been asked by black guys to shoot a game, and we’d never asked them. It was how it was in the ‘hood in those days. No hard feelings. No soft feelings, either. No feelings. Just eight-ball and pool. Rack, break, rack again. Beer again.
At the Crossroads, word of our long hold of the table had gotten out, and new players showed up every half hour or so, some with their own sticks, carried in zip-up leather cases. They wouldn’t look us in the eye, but watched the games closely, staring out over raised beer bottles and now and then leaning their heads together. Meanwhile, Jimmy and I won, and drank. And then we won again, and drank some more. Slop shots, rail shots, more slop shots. Us laughing. Around the eighth or ninth game, a bit of a crowd had gathered. Walking around the table before a shot, we’d hear things like: “You boys ain’t from around here, are you?” Or, as someone entered the front door, “Is that Coy Whitacre? If it ain’t, somebody better call him. Either him or Story Cline, or Scotty from Parkersburg. Somebody’s got to stop these guys.”
Finally, two bigger, older fellows stood very close to us. They held their chins up a bit, and swigged off their beers. Their clothes—overalls over faded red t-shirts—were a bit dustier than the other guys’, as if they were just in from some sort of hard work. Dried mud stiffened the knees of their pants. Shirts stained with sweat and grease. A cigarette hung from the corner of the mouth of the one with with reddish hair. The other guy squinted. “Let’s play for five dollars,” he said.
“You got it,” I said quickly. Jimmy frowned.
One of the problems with writing is that sometimes, (right now, for example), I forget what, exactly, is real and what is the product of the swyving of memory and imagination. What is true, and what must come into being to serve the credibility and wholeness and delight of the narrative. So, I don’t remember whether I actually said this, or had a character in some other godforsaken pool-shooting story say it, but here it is: “I respect pool too much to play it for money. Eight ball should not in any way resemble prostitution.” This is certainly a smartly facetious remark, which I may have said earlier as a defense against someone who was clearly going to kick my ass, some guy with his own cue, and a couple of rough sidemen, holding their empty beer bottles like shillelaghs—the type of fellows who hide the chalk between shots.
So I should have said it that night in the Crossroads, and stuck to my word, whatever the retort might have been. When the money challenge came down, I should have said “No,” and my answer should have concluded with, “Really, a beer’s enough.”
A writer often finds himself or herself saying things like “I should have said…” What we do is say smart-aleck stuff, or wise-guy stuff, or pseudo-philosophical stuff, but it’s never at the time when actually needed. It’s always after-the-fact. That’s why we’re writers, not improv comedians. Usually, we tend to think about what we’re going to say, we tend to revise, and not just spit it drunkenly out in a fit of hell-in-a-handbasket witless
Jimmy broke, sinking a couple of stripes, and then missed, wildly. He staggered back a step or two, and the taller of the dusties stepped up to the table, then walked around it twice, leaning over to angle a possible shot now and then. He looked at his partner, who was lighting another cigarette, and grinned. Then he ran the table.
The onlookers laughed lightly. “Attaboy, Bleaker,” someone said. “Yes.”
Bleaker stepped up to me with his hand out. I was wobbly drunk by then, far gone, and fumbled in my back pocket for my wallet. Jimmy had backed off and picked up an empty bottle from a nearby table. Then he backed up further, against the wall.
I got a five out of my wallet and slapped it in Bleaker’s palm. “Nah,” he said calmly. “Five dollars each, buddy.”
One insomniac night back in Cincinnati, years later, I was watching a local tv channel’s movie offering. If there were an alphabetical rating for movies, and I think there used to be, as in “she was a washed-up B-movie star,” this one would have been about an “L.” In one scene, a couple of what appear to be Ivy League college boys in button-down shirts and chinos have set up, of all things, painter’s easels by a roadside creek. It’s a stereotypically hillbilly setting: in the creekbed lie a couple of refrigerators, their doors askew, and some beer cans, and a few old tires, half-filled with mud. An old oil drum. A broken cane-bottomed chair. The boys are soberly painting this scene. A local comes by in a rusty beater pickup and stops. He leans out the window and asks the boys what they’re doing. There’s a pause, and then he says, “You ain’t real painters, though. Real painters put it on velvet.” He drives off, and the college boys gape at one another. Later in the film, there’s a scene set in a tavern. The camera pans around the room: a juke box, a wall hung with mining tools and old musical instruments; the bar. There a man sits; he wears long black hair and an unruly beard, and he’s talking to someone, and he says (I think) something along the lines of, “And so I said, ‘I didn’t know I could go on without myself!’” He snickers, and gets up. He’s wearing a Caterpillar ballcap and a black t-shirt with a big pink flamingo on it. He walks over to the jukebox, and selects ( I think) “Rock Salt And Nails.”
This man—it is almost impossible to believe what I am seeing—this man is a friend of mine. I have known him for years. He has never told me he was in this movie, or any movie, for that matter. As the scene unfolds, he pokes at the face of the jukebox, does a little dance, then sits back down at the bar. He never looks into the camera. He never smiles or says, “Hey, Dick” to me over the airwaves and years. He just sits there, in the Red Robin Inn, in Williamson, West Virginia, drinking and telling the story of how Utah Phillips gave him the song “Rock Salt and Nails” as a gift many years before.
I explained only semi-coherently to dusty Bleaker and his brother Dusty how I understood him to mean five dollars for the game, not five dollars for each man. He did not understand. He did not understand when Jimmy did not step forward from the wall and slap a five in his palm as well. He did not understand that I was so drunk I could not understand what trouble I was in. So was Jimmy. Drunk, I mean. But Jimmy fully understood what trouble we were in. It is why he stood with his back to the wall and with a longneck, held by the longneck, in his hand. It was no longer a container for beer. It was now a club. What I did not understand was so large and important at that very moment that I might as well have been asleep as to be ready for it.
A large yellow light flashed on, reddish at its edges. It glared blindingly bright, almost palpably bright, and I suddenly faced a wall. The wall was brown and grainy, and a bit damp. It smelled of cigarette ash, and shoes, and beer. Then it became clear that I wasn’t actually facing the wall; my face was smashed into it, my lips shoved aside like a road-killed possum’s, my cheekbone throbbing. The rest of my body, too, was somehow shoved up against it. Also, I was missing my glasses. I lifted my head to look around a bit, and there I saw them, three or four feet away, among a bunch of boots and sneakers and loafers, all stuck sideways on the wall, my glasses, boots, table legs, a dropped cigarette butt. Gravity had been suspended! Then I realized it was no wall, but the floor, to which I had been sent to by a punch. Then I heard Jimmy shouting. It sounded something like, “Back off, you Neanderthals.”
“Knee what?” a deep voice said. The sound of breaking glass. Ooofs. Aaahs. Another ooof and a thud.
It was true. Utah Phillips had indeed given Ski (that was the guy in the Red Robin Inn’s name) his song. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember Ski spinning a long yarn with that gifting of the song as the climax. (Talk about long yarns, check out the life of Utah Phillips. Or ask the Ski King, whose real moniker is Jim Webb, how he got his nickname—if you dare, and have an hour to burn.)
So I never thought to ask Ski just what exactly he was going to do with the song, now that it was his. It’s a pretty sad and ugly thing, really, about a spurned lover who turns sour against women. It ends this way:
Now if the ladies were blackbirds
If the ladies were thrushes
Well I'd lie there for hours
In the chilly cold marshes
And if the women were squirrels
With them high bushy tails
Well I'd load up my shotgun
With rock salt and nails
I imagine the blast from that rock salt and nails shotgun as pretty much equivalent to the punch that brought on the big yellow light. I picked myself up from the floor and Jimmy peeled himself off the wall, beer bottle still in his hand, and we staggered toward the door. Guys stood aside, glaring. Outside, heat, mist, night. I somehow got the truck started and turned around in the parking lot. Somehow I navigated the long winding, twenty-mile night-way back to the trailer, clouds and shreds of fog and once an owl swooping down into the dimmed, misty cone of my truck’s headlights. I remember messing unsuccessfully with the padlock on the trailer door. Jimmy lighting a cigarette and sitting woozily on the edge of the porch. Some godawful outbreak of dueling whippoorwills. I must have fallen asleep where I was on the plywood porch because morning suddenly crashed in a blast of light and brought a headache, heavy as a whiskey barrel on my head.
The fact is that we were planning on going that day to the very Red Robin Inn so recently mentioned. “Ski” was the aforementioned Jim Webb, poet, teacher, actor-up, and resident at the time of Williamson, West Virginia. Fact is, he might not yet have been known as “Ski,” a name taken from an extended autobiographical joke he told for the maybe the fifth or tenth time, if I remember right, at a meeting of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, this one at the Grace House in St. Paul, Virginia. In the middle of explaining how he’d gotten the name “Ski King,” he stopped to go to the bathroom. We continued the story without him, clinching the punch-line before he’d gotten back. It was then he’d exclaimed, “I didn’t know I could go on without myself!”
To visit him on his home turf in Williamson had been the plan.
So you, the writer, are traveling briskly though your story, eyes straight ahead, alert, getting all the business done that the narrative requires, describing, reflecting, inventing—yes—inventing (necessary, ironically, to establish verisimilitude), and all the while you, your other self, critic, editor, fact-checker, are also there, walking backwards, so to speak, just ahead of your writing self, overseeing every move. But because you are walking backward, sometimes you stumble—a crack in the pavement if the story unfolds in town, or a protruding root, if the story blossoms in the woods, or a murky pool much deeper than it appears, if you are wading the creek of the story for bass or bluegill. And your writing self, ever marching forward, tramples the fallen actual, historical you, carried forward by the power of writing’s momentum. You are roughed up and knocked down by your writing, the vagabond truth face-down beside you like a fellow victim, and meanwhile above you the story goes on without you, propagating like a wave out of the field of itself, a thing with a life of its own, even when the life it is writing is your own. Very strange.
The life of a writer-teacher is generally a mild, undramatic affair. You get up every morning at the same time, put on roughly the same clothes, show up at the same room for six classes filled with mildly amusing—and sometimes violently arresting— evolutionary variations on the theme of “human adolescent,” try to make Wordsworth mean something to them, administer quizzes and tests, assign grades on report cards and, by early December or so, begin to look forward to the summer, when you can have some more exciting, unexpectedly interesting sort of life, if just for a few hot weeks.
Attempting to tell a straightforward narrative, as we counsel our novice writing students to do in the beginning, we may nevertheless get bumped or jostled or sucker-punched aside in our own. Perturbations abound, anachronisms arise, and our story goes off in an unexpected direction . . .
Thus I am grateful to all those fellows in the Crossroads, especially to the one who slammed me upside the head with that fist made of pine knots. Had it not happened, Jimmy Quinlivan and I might have gone on to finish our pre-planned Appalachian road trip, might have found Jim Webb at that very Red Robin Inn in Williamson, West Virginia, ho hum, and thus destroyed the complicated surprise I was to have years later, seeing him in that movie. These and other slight modifications in the ways things might have gone remind me of the concept in chaos science known as “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions.” In a complex system like, say, the weather, so many factors are involved that the slightest turbulence (the beating of a butterfly’s wing in Pikeville, for example) can cause, far down the line, huge effects (in this case, a week later, a drenching typhoon in Peking.) Set against the regularity of the teacher’s schedule, the summer upwellings of random initial conditions give us life-lines and plotlines that surprise and instruct. Attempting to tell a straightforward narrative, as we counsel our novice writing students to do in the beginning, we may nevertheless get bumped or jostled or sucker-punched aside in our own. Perturbations abound, anachronisms arise, and our story goes off in an unexpected direction (or completely off the tracks.)
The next morning, Jimmy offered little resistance to my retreat from further roadtrippy adventures. A couple of scruffy beaten hounds, we fled back to Cincinnati, blowing cigarette smoke out the truck windows and quietly rebuilding our throbbing livers, cell by cell. And so it was carried—this very specific minor line of experience, survival, emotion, and memory—for forty years, me teaching, then re-marrying, Jimmy teaching then moving into another line of work and re-marrying and moving on, and Ski King growing larger in all of our minds and in the expanding mythologies that spring up around a person of such, well, characterishness.
So those pool shooters of old, insofar as I encountered them in my actual life, spoke words to them, dreamt of them afterwards (though their names are made up to give them a “local habitation” in readers’ minds) are real. They were—are—as actual as Jim Quinlivan, as Jim “Ski King” Webb. But we are not only ourselves; we are the things we have made up of ourselves, and that others have made of us. Without murdering to dissect, it is not possible to separate the natural outcome of biological reproduction from the complicated cultural artifact every artist creates. It doth tease us out of thought.
If somehow Jimmy and I could go back in time to the Crossroads and find those men and stand before them and say, “You guys recognize us? The strangers, the pool shooters at the Crossroads? The five buck losers?” they would certainly testify that we were there, as real as they were. But the problem with nonfiction, especially memoir, remains: Had I known I would write about them years later, then again, decades later, would I have been careful to take down their names and addresses in a notebook? Would they even have given them to me? Can any memoirist see that far ahead, take total, meticulous care of the actual moment? Long before we think of ourselves as writers, bound to some notion of “the truth,” are we nevertheless required to go through life loaded down with notebooks, cameras, audio recorders? We have to rely on memory, and on the instinct and ability to shape a story out of that dimness, that mess, that vital, vibrating, pregnant uncertainty. Many years ago, as I began to experiment with personal prose writing—essays, memoirs, autobiographical sketches—I ran across this, by Doris Grumbach in her memoir Extra Innings: “I leave out what no longer pleased my view of myself. I embellish with euphony and decorate the prose with some color. I subordinate, giving less importance to some matters, raising others to the weight of coordination. I modify. During this literary activity that surrounds the ‘germ’ of fact, as Henry James called it, I am moving into, well, style, and away from, let’s face it, truth. But I persist, driven by the need to record in readable form what I think about and remember, however unreliable.”
To some of the thought-police of creative nonfiction, Grumbach’s confession is anathema. “You can’t make this stuff up,” one capo of the genre warns. But for the memoirist, writing about a past event is analogous to the process of “making up your mind.” It takes drafts and revisions, re-memberings of long-ago disarticulated memories: and what are those creative manipulations of the original “facts” if not the processes of selection, highlighting, downplaying, coordination and subordinating and re-coordinating and re-subordinating, until it all “feels” right. Writing, in short. Creating. Finding coherence in it at all is something of a mystery. So however you name it—literary journalism or creative nonfiction or whatever else, the fundamental problem remains: some of it has to be made up. The writer’s loyalty is not to some Dragnet-type monotone of just the facts ma’am, just the facts—as if that were even possible—but to the story which arises and coalesces in the borderland between memory and imagination, between clunky exactitude and getting the “feel” of it right. In a Huffington Post essay on writing called “Danger,” Rick Bass said, “Telling a story straight from real life is only being a reporter, not a creator. You have to make your story bigger, better, more magical, more meaningful than life is, no matter how special or wonderful in real life the moment may have been.” I asked him in a bookstore encounter recently if he meant “story” as “fiction” and he said yes, and didn’t really commit to my further question as to whether his statement could apply equally to creative nonfiction. I suspect it might. “We are crafting a text,” Annie Dillard has written. Indeed.
What worries me is that the times we dwell in now, in which “fake news” and “alternative facts” and truth that is “not truth” complicate and endanger the situation of the memoirist, the essayist, the creative nonfictionist. The danger is now that we will be lumped into the ranks of the prevaricators or the willfully ignorant. Michael Chabon goes far out on a limb when he writes of his recent “faux memoir” Moonglow (can we hear the quick-stepping, the ginger, out-on-thin-ice-hedging here?), “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
So it came to pass that after all this, in response to a call for writing about “Acting Up” in Appalachia, I sat down a few months ago and with no pre-conceived notions of what or where or who or why or how, began this, a major revision of the earlier attempt, this dredged-up, sifted, re-arranged, accumulating pile of words, this actual, though re-invented remembrance, which did not exist in the days in which it was seeded, and now does, some sort of tiny complicated local miracle those guys in the Crossroads bar will never know of, even though they are central to its existence. What amplified and re-amplified records of foolishness and seriousness—can we even control such things?—live on after us, unknown to us, never fact-checked or corrected by us, but carrying our names (or not) and something of our lives into however brief or however long the journey into time the telling carries them? Just as we might convince ourselves on this diminished planet that the days of us being a panther’s or a wolf pack’s lunch are over, nevertheless it remains perilous being in the writing world, either as agent or subject, surrounded by ravenous possibility. As an agent (so to speak) of writing, we are seized suddenly by long-buried memories, seduced by the disguised hopes and wishes of the imagination. We spin yarns, embroider the truth, gild the lily. As unwitting subject, we wander obliviously into whatevers of every kind: Watch out, murmurs some wry, thousand-eyed, immortal Narrator, often an utter stranger, spying through the smoke and laughter from the other side of the bar. Watch out, he warns. The next sentence may be you.