Do You Remember, 48" x 54", Oil on Canvas

Story of the Ghost

 

They sit on the curb just past the customs booth: three dudes staring into the distance, faces hangdog, eyes vacant. Dreadlocks flow down their backs and rest limp on the sidewalk beside their bodies, looking like unearthed roots withering for lack of soil. Above them, the flags of two nations whip in a stiff breeze, while twenty yards off loom the struts and cables of Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit River rushing past below.

A few cars from the booth, the four of us—Greg Z, Greg K, Mike, and I—watch in edgy silence from the cab of Greg K’s SUV. Two border agents ransack a busted-up red hatchback just past the dreadlocked dudes, pulling out duffle bags and garbage bags and backpacks, dumping their contents on the curb and sifting through the mess. It takes hardly a minute before one finds a glass pipe buried amidst the debris. He dangles it in the air between his fingers, says something to his partner through a cocky grin.

“Oh fuck. Oh fuck,” Greg K moans in the passenger seat. He’s got the shoulder-strap of his seatbelt in a stranglehold, his face two shades paler than usual. He doesn’t say anything else, and he doesn’t have to. The moment those dudes on the curb entered our field of vision, our thoughts in the SUV synchronized. They melded to create a tiny hive-mind of fear directed squarely at my crotch, where that morning I’d stuffed one hundred hits of ecstasy just south of my nut sack.

The last thing any of us need right now is to end up like those dudes on the curb, but Greg K especially. Nineteen years old, a sophomore at Purdue, he has a pregnant girlfriend and Real Life waiting for him back in Indiana. Best friends throughout junior high and high school, the two of us. I bought his tickets for this trip, implored him to come along, a gesture of love and pity—his last hurrah before fatherhood. And now this.

One car left ahead of us before we face the same skinny Asian woman in the booth who proved the downfall of the dudes on the curb. Tense already, it’s now that waves of terror wash over me, nausea following fast in their wake. I see myself on that curb in handcuffs, tucked into the back of a police car, shipped off to the nearest jail. Worse, I see my mother standing outside my cell, flown all the way out from California. Only she’s inflated herself to terrifying proportions. Tall as Ambassador Bridge, she looks down on me and growls, “How could you be so stupid?” The words—weighty, brutal things—fall from her mouth and crush me to the ground.

I take in a deep breath and release it, as shaky in my chest as my hands on the wheel. I’ll have to do the talking. I grab my water bottle and take a long drink.

“Be cool, Gray. Okay, man? Just be calm and cool.” I glance at Greg Z in the mirror, his face stoic save the tension in his clenched jaw. I’ve known him my entire life. Since strollers. Since the womb if you count our mothers’ friendship. A few years out of diapers, we used to patrol our street together sniffing at old gum on the asphalt, debating flavors profiles like a couple of aficionados before picking at the hardened dreck with our fingernails and eating it with gusto. Innocent, stupid kids. Now just stupid.

The border agents have removed the spare tire from the hatchback’s trunk and now they’re shining flashlights in all the little crevices. “We’re fucked,” I moan. I’m on the brink of tears.

Guys,” Mike says from the backseat. “Seriously. Relax.” I check him in the mirror. He’s slumped down in his seat, arms crossed, grinning at us like we’re a bunch of pussies. Close friends for a few years, lead guitarist to my rhythm in our band, I’ve come to expect this from Mike. Confident, fearless, maybe arrogantly so. But right now, his machismo buoys me.  “They’re dirty-ass hippies,” he says. “We’re not. Just calm down.”

It’s true. The three dudes on the curb: they’re skinny as crack-heads, dirty as the homeless people they probably are. They’ve also made the mistake of covering their car in Grateful Dead stickers: an advertisement for drug possession if there ever was one. We four, on the other hand—showered, clean-shaven, short-haired, riding in the pristine Ford Explorer Greg K’s parents gave him when he went away to Purdue—look just like what we are: nineteen-year-old kids from middle class homes on a road trip for summer break.

The woman at the booth waves us forward. I pull beside her and roll down my window. She takes us in through wire-rimmed glasses, her eyes sharp. Not suspicious exactly but ready to get there quickly if need be.

“What is your final destination in Canada?”

“Toronto.” The name comes out like a question.

“And what is your purpose in visiting Toronto?”

“We’re going to a concert.”

“Which concert?”

I cough, clear a throat that needs no clearing. “Phish. At Molson Amphitheater.”

Phish: the world’s preeminent jam band, known as much for the drugged-out fan base that follows them from to show to show as the extended psychedelic improvisations that inspire the drug use in the first place. The border agent regards me more closely now, pokes her head in the window and sweeps a sharper gaze over the other three. “Do you have any drugs, weapons, or other illegal substances in your car?”

I hesitate. I cough again. “N-no.” I hold my breath as I wait for her response.

Once more she regards us with cutting eyes. “Are you sure there are no drugs in this car?”

I muster every nerve not shattered by the past few minutes. “Yes, I’m sure.”

She glances over at the beat-up hatchback and the agents still tearing it apart, then back at me. “Enjoy your stay in Canada.” Stepping back from the window, she waves us on with a flick of her wrist.

I drive away and roll up my window as we pull onto Ambassador Bridge. I feel like I might weep until I can’t breathe, but I swallow it down.

“Holy shit! Holy shit! Ho-ly shit!” It’s Greg K beside me. He’s upright in his seat, shouting and shaking his fists in front of his body. He tilts his head back, screams out a massive whoop before looking at me and the guys in back. Wide-eyed, wearing as complicated a smile as I have ever seen, he suddenly goes limp and collapses in his seat. None of us can express the moment better than this, and no one tries.

We finish our drive across the bridge in silence. I adjust the now ball-sweaty bag of pills in my undies, seeing again that image of myself in jail, of my mother, disgusted and looming over me. Not once do I think I’d have been better off without my illicit cargo. This is what I do. This is just the kind of shit I do to make my life bearable.

It’s not until we get the bridge, the border, and a few miles of Canadian soil behind us that anyone speaks. Mike leans between the front seats, puts one hand on my shoulder, one on Greg K’s, and says, “Dudes, we need to smoke a bowl.”

And we do.

§

Three months earlier, Phish released tour dates for that summer of 1999. Greg Z, Mike, and I had been waiting months for this, eager to plan our next road trip around the West Coast. We’d already gotten a taste of tour life following the massive caravan of Phishheads—with their hemp and their patchouli and their ganja goo balls (among other THC-laden delicacies)—to shows in the Bay Area, Ventura County, San Diego, and Las Vegas. We’d danced among the unwashed hordes to the band’s signature space-funk, their jazz and blues based psy-rock, their bluegrass ditties. And we’d had our minds bent by psychedelic light shows so perfectly harmonized with the music they seemed like synesthetic figments of our own drugged-out eyes.

We expected to do it all over again that summer at tour mainstays like The Gorge Amphitheater in Washington, Portland Meadows in Oregon, maybe even Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in our hometown: Irvine, California. But when the band posted the tour dates on their website that March, we found the west coast left in the lurch. That summer of 1999, Phish would come no closer than Indiana.

The moment I saw the news on my computer screen, I felt ill. My vision blurred, my heart raced, and a sickening unreality washed over me. The Hendrix and Blues Brothers posters on my walls retreated from view. The computer screen before me telescoped into the far distance. The ground turned mushy beneath my feet. Even my body felt on the brink of disintegration, as if I might dissolve into a mist and disperse into the atmosphere, reduced to little more than a ghost. Lying down on my bed and curling into a ball, I closed my eyes and tried to breathe.

A panic attack and its resutling depersonalization. Though it would be many years before I knew the names for what I experienced that day, this ghosting of my life was not unfamiliar to me. It happened on a semi-regular basis, more often than not while awaiting the wrath of my mother, which tended to come after one of my many cathedrals of lies—about school, about drinking, about drugs, about any little thing imaginable—crashed down around me. Or when one desperate scheme or another to steal happiness from life—usually involving alcohol, drugs, or sex—fell apart and I found myself confronted by the poverty of my circumstances. I never spoke to anyone about it, never asked for help. Rather, I did everything in my power to avoid facing it.

Looking back on it now with the benefit of hindsight (and a lot of therapy), it has become clear where these moments of ghostly unreality came from. I grew up in a profoundly unstable home. My dad, a quiet alcoholic who divided his waking hours between work and bars, hardly seemed to register my existence. He did not talk to me, play with me, or interact with me in any meaningful ways. My mother, a jilted house-wife raising two boys on her own, tended to overcompensate in her parenting, expecting what felt like perfection from us at every turn as if to prove our father’s failings would never touch our lives. But when we did fail, when we did deviate from the narrow path of her expectations, we received not just correction but the full force of her rage at life itself. So immense was this rage, so towering in its disgust, I felt microscopic in the face of it. I came to believe with a gut-level certainty that—if I was that much of a burden, that much of a curse on my mother’s life when I made mistakes—I should never have been born in the first place.

If, when seeing myself through my father’s eyes, I saw only invisibility, a ghostly insignificance not worth acknowledging for any reason, through my mother’s eyes I saw a fuck up, a piece of shit so aggravating to her I was better off disappearing, ghosting myself into safety through lies and silence. Live like this long enough and you never learn who you truly are, what substance you might have to offer yourself and the world. You try to find that substance outside yourself. You erect one scheme after another to find a self, a life, a meaning that hides from you for your own feelings of worthlessness.

This is where Phish came in. As a teenager, I could hardly begin to articulate to myself the roots of my desire for this band or the exact needs they met. I only knew that I felt like a living, breathing presence capable of displacing the air around me when I wore my Phish shirts, when I talked about Phish with the people I met, or spent hours each day online reading about the band instead of doing homework for my junior college classes. But never more so than when I clothed my life in their music. Take Phish away and I was left gaping at my own invisibility. Tell me that summer of 1999 that Phish won’t come west and I’ll panic, sensing the ghostly nothingness beneath the surface of my life.

The night after the band posted their tour dates, Greg Z, Mike and I sulked over beers at Greg’s house, and I broached the idea of heading east, of meeting up with Greg K and seeing how the other half of the country went Phishing. Greg found a map and by the end of the night we’d set our plans. We would pick up Greg K in Indiana near Purdue and attend six concerts from Toronto, down through New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, before coming full circle to see our final show back in Indiana.

The excitement that night as we planned our trip was palpable. But for me, secretly, what I felt more than anything else was relief. I felt, for the foreseeable future, saved.

§

If Phish is a lifestyle I wear to render myself visible to myself, to provide a stable identity capable of covering over the unstable, ghostly self within me, selling drugs from time to time helps me sell that self to others. I’m not a confident person at nineteen. In fact, I live in constant fear that one day someone will see through my many facades to the worthless core of my being. I’m careful with my words, with my manner of dress, with my perfectly placed little comb-over to hide my receding hairline (my hair started falling out at sixteen). And like a biblical leper, I’m careful about who I touch and when, assuming that my touch, my very person carries poison. If not, why did my dad so long ago stop touching me? And why does my mom seem only to touch me to hurt me?

What I present to others must be impressive at all times. More often than not, this takes the form of knowing every imaginable fact about Phish and sharing it ad nauseam to whoever will listen. I’m a self-styled Phish tour guide. A Phish evangelist. I’m a Phish prophet. I take others by the hand and lead them into the depths of Phishdom, that holy of holies where salvation is found.

But when I’ve got drugs to sell, I’m also a purveyor of Good Times. My drugs are good drugs. The best drugs. I don’t fuck around with subpar product, and when I’ve got one hundred hits of quality So Cal ecstasy, I’m the guy. The guy people seek out, the one people praise, the one they love. People need me. People hear about me and work hard to find me. And when I’m feeling magnanimous, I give discounts. To my close friends, I give away pills for free. Because I can. Because I’m the big man with the drugs, and I sure as shit can.

It’s that night we arrive in Toronto that I make my first sale. Checked into our hotel, showered, antsy for some adventure, we do what every nineteen-year-old American does when visiting Canada: find a bar to buy our first legal drink.

We take a cab downtown to a little sports pub. It’s dingy and dark, the walls predictably covered in Maple Leafs’ and Blue Jays’ memorabilia, neon signs for Molson and Labatt’s. Every time we order pitchers of beer we get dirty looks from the patrons. At one point, I overhear a woman at the bar say to her friend, “American kids think they can just come here whenever they want and get wasted.” As a matter of fact, that is precisely what we think and what we proceed to do in short order.

The four of us haven’t been here long when two dudes wearing Phish shirts step inside. We’ve got on our own Phish shirts, and as soon as they see us, they come to our table.

“Phish!” the guy in the Red Sox hat yells.

“Tomorrow night!” Greg Z yells back.

“Shit yeah!” cries the guy with goatee.

And just like that, we’re all friends. They pull a table against ours and for the rest of the night we trade off buying pitchers of Canada’s shitty beer, talking Phish and nothing but Phish. Family, religion, school, employment, passions, dreams, astrological signs: none of this matters. We spend our first few pitchers discussing the tour, the concerts we plan to see, the songs we hope to hear, canonical shows from days’ past. Essentially, we have the same conversation Phishheads all over Toronto are having.

Because, at this time in my life, I don’t understand my own motivations for following Phish around the country, it never occurs to me to wonder about anyone else’s. I don’t wonder what emptiness these two guys hope to fill, what wounds they hope to medicate with the all-consuming nature of the tour and its associated chemical pleasures. I don’t wonder about Greg Z, Greg K, and Mike, all of whom come from their own complicated families and carry their own unique chips on their shoulders (though, certainly, the dysfunction in my family and the neuroses in my head far outstrip theirs). I don’t wonder about the many thousands of Phishheads I see at every show, at what lives they’re escaping with the tour and the drugs. I don’t wonder what miseries they’re burying when they, like me, obsessively long after and plan for the tour, when they see the shows, when they reminisce about the tour after the fact with the same awe-struck tones of prophets who’ve seen the face God. I cannot see in them what I cannot allow myself to see in my own life.

And so, without fear or shame or any apparent inkling of self-awareness in any of us, our conversation eventually turns to drugs, as it always does when talking about Phish. Red Sox Guy wants to know what kinds we take when watching the band. Weed is a staple that barely deserves mentioning, though we all agree sprinkling a little opium on top—if there’s any to be had—can be a game-changer. Crystal meth isn’t psychedelic enough, says Goatee Guy, which is true enough. Unanimously, we agree LSD offers a rich Phish experience, though dicey if the fear gets you and drags you along to bad-tripsville. Ecstasy is a sure thing. Mildly psychedelic, hugely euphoric, bad-trip resistant: there’s no going wrong with ecstasy.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” Red Sox Guy says. “We need a bunch for us and our friends.”

Greg Z, Greg K, Mike, and I exchange glances, and I lean in closer to Red Sox Guy and Goatee Guy. “How many do you need?”

Their recognition of what this means is instant. They smile and lean in with me. “Twenty,” says Goatee Guy.

“I can help with that.”

“How much?”

“Twenty per.”

“How about eighteen? Since we’re buying a bunch.”

“Done. They’re at our hotel.”

We settle our tabs, take taxis to the hotel, and do the deal. The hits are called Blue Smurfs. Not surprisingly, they’re little blue pills bearing an imprint of Papa Smurf. I’ll run into Red Sox Guy in a few days at the concert in Pennsylvania, his eyes half-lidded, wobbly on his feet. He’ll give me a sweaty bear hug and yell, “Blue Smurfs! I’m fucked up!” He’ll introduce me to his other friends, all of them on the Smurfs. I’ll get handshakes and high-fives and hugs because I’m the guy who made the Good Times happen. For a few moments, I’ll feel magnified.

§

The next morning, my head throbs and my stomach churns if I so much as move. As is often the case when I drink, I had too much. Eventually I sit up, and I notice something curious. I’m in the hotel bed, but I went to sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag. Rubbing my eyes, looking groggily around, it hits me: everything is wrong. Greg Z, Greg K, Mike: nowhere to be seen. The duffle bags, backpacks, and sleeping bags: gone. Not to mention the room is a reverse image of the one I fell asleep in. Disoriented, confusion turning to panic, I notice the door to the balcony standing ajar, a crack of blue sky shining into the room.

Out on the second story balcony, I squint against the morning sunlight. Once my eyes adjust, it doesn’t take long to piece together what has transpired. I almost laugh. Then, realizing the seriousness of what I’ve done, my stomach revolts. I heave the contents of my gut over the side of the balcony, thirty feet down into an empty parking space. The splatter of pub food, bile, and beer looks close enough to the image that evoked the vomiting in the first place that I’m suddenly weak in the knees. The image was this: my head cracked open, leaking on the pavement below.

Just past the right railing and a two-foot gap of air sits the neighboring balcony, its door wide open. I can see inside: the guys, awake and sitting up in their sleeping bags, our things, my vanished life. There can be no other explanation: in a blackout, I crept out of my sleeping bag and stepped onto our balcony. Coordination and balance shot to hell by booze, I nonetheless climbed the railing, hopped across to this balcony, and opened the door to the room. Not only this, but I slipped under the covers and slept the night away. That I did not fall to my death I consider the work of muscle memory and the nimbleness of youth. That the room was vacant, that I neither woke up in the hospital—because, reasonably, the occupant would have attacked me in self-defense—nor in jail—because, reasonably again, the occupant would have reported my drunken and disorderly conduct to the police—these I consider nothing less than miracles.

I carefully climb atop the railing and hop over the gap onto our balcony. When I enter the room, Mike says from the bed, “Welcome back.” Then Greg Z says, “Tony Noodles strikes again!” Greg K leads them in a round of applause.

Tony Noodles. My alter ego. My nocturnal doppelgänger. My ghostly inner life taking over when booze has locked away my saner daytime self. My blackout shenanigans have become a routine and well-known occurrence at this point in my life: usually innocuous stuff like wandering my parents’ house in the middle of the night, putting clothing in the refrigerator or dumping the trash out on the living room carpet. A few years later, I even went to bed with a young woman I was dating and woke up with her roommate down the hall, my face buried in the back of her neck, my arm wrapped snuggly around her body. All of this easy enough to laugh off. Sometimes, however, the stakes got higher.

At a party one night with Greg Z and Mike, I became violent. I was sleeping on the couch while others stayed up nursing a keg we had with us in the living room. According to Greg and Mike, I suddenly hopped off the couch and walked around the room, neither saying anything nor answering when they spoke to me. Mike, being the trickster that he often was, laid down on the couch where I had been sleeping. When I saw this, I stood over him and said, “Get off the carton.”

I remember none of this. In Greg and Mike’s telling, I look possessed, my eyes glazed and vacant. I repeat the same command to Mike several times in a menacing slur. Each time, he answers simply, “What carton?” With each repetition, I’m becoming visibly agitated. Everyone in the room is laughing. Everyone knows Tony Noodles by now, so much so that whenever I drink someone inevitably asks, “Tony coming out tonight?” Tony is good fun for all. Except on that night.

Out of nowhere, I snap. I grab hold of Mike and wrench him off the couch. Then I rampage. I kick over the keg. I flip over the coffee table. I sweep books off the bookcase onto the floor. I storm down the hall into the laundry room and throw clothes and detergent and the laundry basket every which way. My own memory of the event begins with me curled in a ball at the end of the hallway, weeping, afraid, unsure of who or where I am. My friends looking on, fear and bewilderment in their eyes.

There is a rage and a mischief in me at nineteen that I catch glimpses of from the most oblique of angles. I have not even begun to understand the extent of it or where it comes from. Rather, I give this side of myself a silly name and do my best to laugh it off, which is precisely what I do with the guys in Toronto after Tony Noodles’ latest performance. They regale me with the story of waking to my disappearance, of seeing the open balcony door and finding me in the neighboring room and leaving me there to sleep it off. Crazy, absurd, hilarious.

Except this time laughter’s not enough. I’m shaken by what I’ve done. I do my best not to show it, but for the rest of the day I’m haunted, brushing up against a self-knowledge I’m terrified to see. As we check out of our hotel and pack up the car, as we grab lunch downtown, as we hang out in the Molson Amphitheater parking lot with all the other Phishheads before the concert, I feel anger, sadness, a niggling low-level anxiety. But more than all this, it’s that same sense of unreality that hit me the day Phish posted their tour dates that plagues me. I feel barely there, only just contained by my own body as I eat my lunch or roam around the parking lot amidst the hippies selling their homemade clothes and their pot brownies.

Still hung-over on top of all this, I am an irritable bitch of a person. At one point during lunch, the guys are talking about a Phish show from last tour and Mike has the set-list wrong, saying they played “Free” after “Train Song” when I know for a fact it was “Maze.” I say as much, Mike disagrees, and I go off on him: “Dude, I’m the one that got you tapes of that show. I’m one that fucking gets all the shows in the first place. You still don’t even know the names of half their songs. I know all their songs. Every one. So shut the fuck up.”

“Whoa,” says Greg K.

“Damn, Gray,” says Greg Z. “Relax.”

Unfazed, Mike just shakes his head and shrugs.

It’s not until we pass through the turnstiles into the amphitheater that the promise of this trip begins to renew itself, that the specter of my own ghostly self begins to release its hold on me. We weave our way through the mass of bodies, past the concessions stands, up the stairs to the lawn section, where we’ll have plenty of room to dance once the music starts. We stake out our patch of grass, sit down and take our drugs. Greg K is sticking with weed tonight. He packs a bowl and gets right to work. Greg Z and Mike bought liquid LSD in the parking lot. They take out the little pieces of bread the dealer used for his delivery system and eat them up. I pull out a Blue Smurf and pop it in my mouth, grinding it between my teeth to make it kick in faster.

In matter of minutes I will see Phish, and yet I can hardly believe it. It seems too good to be true, so much so that everything again takes on a character of unreality, except now it’s not fear that leaves the world hazy and my body buzzing but joyous expectation. A kind of ecstasy that will only deepen once the drug of the same name finds its way into my bloodstream. Trey, Mike, Paige, and Fishman will stand before me in the flesh, instruments at the ready. And then, the music: it will wash over me, caress me, fill me up to the brink.

The band steps on stage. The crowd erupts. The drug, timed perfectly, hits me, a sensation like warm water charged by the faintest of electric currents and poured slowly over my body. Then the first notes to “Chalkdust Torture” and I’m dancing, still unable to believe this is happening, that something this wonderful could be real. But it is real, and I’m a part of it. It’s then that I tell myself things are okay. Aren’t they? Drugs and music, friends and road trips. With all of this, how could I have just hours ago felt that something unspeakable, something terrifying lived within me? All is well. All will be well. Isn’t that right? I close my eyes as I dance, and somewhere inside myself, I wish I never had to open them again.


Interview with Gray Hilmerson

by co-editors Julie Brooks Barbour and Mary McMyne

 

BC: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to the title of this piece?

GH: Story of the Ghost is the title of Phish’s 1998 studio album. It’s my favorite of their studio albums (arguably their best), and it was on heavy rotation in my life during the summer of 1999. When I began jotting notes and writing early drafts of the essay, the title seemed a natural fit for my experiences, the figure of a ghost—a liminal creature that is somehow there and not there at the same time—an apt metaphor for who I was and how I lived: present and yet, in the most crucial ways, absent from myself and those I spent my time with. One song from the album, “Shafty,” begins with these lyrics: “The terrible thing about hell/is that when you’re there you can’t even tell.” It concludes with, “You’ll just go on an oblivious fool.” People with childhoods like mine often do their damnedest to avoid seeing the hell they’re living in as adults. We often claw and scrape for some semblance of surface happiness—usually revolving around the pursuit of numbing pleasures—while turning a blind eye to the misery we carry around with us at all times. In my late teen years, I used Phish and the drug culture that came along with the band to facilitate that numbness. I lived in a hell I wouldn’t allow myself to acknowledge, and I went on in this way—an oblivious fool—for a long time before finally seeking out help.

BC: How long have you been trying to write about this experience? How did you develop the distance necessary to develop this deep level of insight into your psychological motivation?

GH: I wrote the first draft three years ago, and it has gone through many revisions and reincarnations since then. The analytic distance required to write the piece comes from a couple sources, I think. First, I tend to be hyper-analytic by default, something two master’s degree and a PhD have only exacerbated. There’s nothing I can’t pick apart ad nauseam, myself included. That can be a double-edged sword, of course. Placing yourself under a microscope can prove useful while examining your past for an essay or while working with a therapist, but it quickly becomes an exercise in diminishing returns if not exercised judiciously. The second source is therapy itself. I spent my late twenties and early thirties working with a therapist who created a context in which it was possible to meet with and begin the process of accepting that ghost-self of mine. I found that the more I got to know those wounded and frightening parts of my life I’d ghosted, the less scary it became to look directly at my past. It hurt to look—it still hurts—but in therapy I learned how to shoulder that pain, how to experience pain without being buried by it.

BC: Were there any difficulties that arose in writing about this particular experience? How much detail did you remember from memory? Did you keep journals during this time? Did you have to conduct oral interviews with your friends?

GH: As I said above, it still hurts to look closely at my past. To write something like this, you have to live in your old skin, swim around in the old desperation, remember the wounds that created the desperation. It’s not fun, but somehow it feels necessary.

Regarding memory, that summer road trip was canonical for us four; it became a touchstone in our friendships, something we returned to and we spoke about often over the subsequent years. That communal telling and retelling cemented the events in my mind forever. However, to move beyond the events and access the emotional realities of the trip, I tried a few things: 1) I dug out my old collection of Phish ticket stubs and the pocket notepad I kept with me at every concert. I had used the notepad to write down setlists and record the occasional reflection or amusing anecdote. Tangible objects can often become receptacles of memory. Holding these things in my hands, studying them with my eyes: this helped me remember things I had not thought of for many years. 2) I listened to live recordings of the concerts I attended that summer. Phish has always allowed fans to bring recording gear into their concerts, and each of those recordings has been uploaded to web. Music has a way triggering memory, especially visual images and their corresponding emotional moods. I remembered a great deal, felt a great deal, while listening to those shows.

I did not consult the guys while writing the essay; it is so much about my emotional inner life at that time—something I never shared with them or anyone else—that they had no way of verifying what I experienced. I did have Greg Z. read the essay after the fact (after twenty years, he’s the only one I’m still in touch with). I asked him to share any places he felt I’d gotten the facts wrong or where the dialogue seemed off. Dialogue, of course, is tricky. You’re doing your best to approximate what was said, and you’re trying hard to match that person’s speaking voice. He gave me the thumbs up, and here we are.

BC: Can you talk about your use of suspense in the first section of the essay?

GH: I put myself and my friends in very real danger by carrying drugs across the border, but I don’t think we would have felt much fear if it wasn’t for that other car being searched. We were remarkably stupid when it came to our drug use and other illegal activities, casual to the point of recklessness. Seeing those hippies—who were obviously on their way to the same concert—brought home to us the seriousness of our actions (for those few minutes, anyway). I wanted to capture that danger, to show just how high the stakes were, so I could juxtapose that threat—possibly years in prison—against what I most feared at that time in my life: my mother. In that moment of suspense at the border, what I found infinitely more terrifying than going to jail was having to weather my mother’s anger. That fact says a great deal about my headspace at the time.


[author photo for Gray Hilmerson]Gray Hilmerson is a professor of American Literature and Creative Writing for the University of Memphis. His writing has appeared in Slice Magazine and Juked.