Don was the best friend I ever had. It would be hard to overstate how important he was to me, certainly as a teacher whose intellect amazed me right up through our last conversation, a few days before he died, but mostly as a friend.
We met at Vanderbilt. Both of us arrived there in the fall of 1976. I was an incoming freshman from a town in the mountains of Western North Carolina with a population less than that of Vanderbilt’s undergraduate student body. Don was a professor coming from UC Berkeley.
At that time, when you accepted an offer of admission from Vanderbilt, they asked if you’d thought about a major, and, if you had, they would assign you to a freshman advisor in that department. I said I’d probably major in English, and they assigned me to John Plummer. When I met with Plummer to go over the courses I wanted to take, he suggested that I take English 106, “Critical Approaches to Literature.” He said that if I majored in English, I’d have to take that class, and it would be a good one to start with, because it would let me know right away whether I really wanted to be an English major. There were two sections of the class: one from 8:00 to 9:00 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, and one from 1:00 to 2:30 on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
I was 18 years old, away from home for the first time, in the big city, the drinking age was 18, and I was surrounded by college girls. I wasn’t a genius, but I knew that I wouldn’t even be awake, much less functioning, at 8:00 in the morning. So I signed up for the Tuesday-Thursday class. That was the class Don taught. That’s how we met.
At first, I struggled in the class, but I was immediately smitten with Don, because he was exactly what I’d envisioned a college professor to be – a little disheveled, a little absent-minded, but talking about stuff that, when I was able to follow along, was mind-blowing. How is it possible that anyone could be that smart to think of those things? That never diminished – I was thinking the same thing the last time we talked, almost 43 years later.
After that first course was over, I took whatever other undergraduate classes Don taught. He was the deciding factor in my officially becoming an English major. I asked him to be my advisor. When I was in the honors program, I asked him to direct my independent study. He changed the way I read and, consequently, the way I see the world.
At some point in my senior year (1979-1980), I started hanging out more in Don’s office and helping with some of the stuff he was working on. I don’t remember if Narrative Unbound had started to take shape by then or not. When I say that I “helped,” I mean I listened, gave feedback when I could, and proofread. I couldn’t have come up with the ideas Don explored in his work in a million years. But I’m a good listener and proofreader, and I think Don appreciated having someone like that around. I was just glad that I got to hang out with the smartest guy I’d ever known.
Eventually, Don and Lynda (whom I don’t think I’d met yet) invited me over to their house one Friday night for Obie’s pizza. Friday was “Obie’s night” at the Aults. I went over, and that was pretty much that. My dorm and later my apartment were within walking distance of their house, so I became more or less a non-sleepover member of the Ault household until I moved to California in 1987. I’d help Don work on the old DeVry film projector in his basement movie theater or on his 1968 Pontiac Bonneville. Occasionally, we’d talk about what he was working on. Mostly, we just shot the shit.
When I was in law school (1980-1983), Don was focused on Narrative Unbound. We’d talk about it on the phone for hours, or I’d go over and to his house and talk about it. Both of us were going through a dark time, which further cemented our friendship. He was struggling with his book, and I was struggling with law school and, later, career decisions. But we were in similar boats and helped each other deal with our respective miseries. During one of our pitch-black conversations, Don said, “What do you think we’ll say about all this 20 years from now?”, and without missing a beat I said, “We’ll probably say these were the best years of our lives.” And we both cracked up, because the idea was so outlandish. Yet for me, it turned out to be true. Despite our mutual depressive states, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
I moved to Santa Barbara in the summer of 1987. I “ugly cried” when I said goodbye to Don. We stayed in touch over the years, but not as much as I wish we had. He and Lynda visited me in Santa Barbara once and I visited them in Gainesville once. Otherwise, we’d talk on the phone occasionally, then, when e-mail came along, we’d e-mail each other. Usually nothing very important. One e-mail, though, from the late 2000s, stands out. He was working on a paper or article about The Four Zoas, and he asked me to look at a couple of paragraphs to see if they made sense. I read them and e-mailed him back, “When I read stuff like this, I realize I’ve wasted my life.” Even 30-plus years after my first class with Don, he knocked me over with how smart he was.
I made it a point to e-mail Don every year on his birthday. When I did in 2018, Lynda e-mailed me back to tell me about the pulmonary fibrosis. I called him that day and we talked awhile about his illness and how it was affecting him, about the old days, about what he was working on, etc. Soon enough, we got into a regular Sunday afternoon routine. I’d call, we’d talk for an hour or so, and we’d say how good it was to talk to each other and make plans for the next Sunday. The last time we talked, Sunday, April 7, Lynda told me he’d had a rough week and once had even stopped breathing, until she and the hospice nurse brought him back. On the phone, he seemed a little slower, but was still sharp and still talking about new stuff he was working on. He knew he wouldn’t be around to see it published, but thought he had time to get it in shape to be published.
The next Saturday, Lynda called and left a voicemail, telling me that Don had died the previous Wednesday night, April 10. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: it was like a punch in the stomach that left me gasping for air. I called her back, and we talked about how Don died, about the family get-together the day after, and about how much our Sunday afternoon talks meant to both Don and me. It was a short, heartbreaking conversation.
Don was the smartest, funniest person I’ve ever known. I’m almost 61 years old, so there may come a day that, simply because of aging, I don’t think about him. I hope that’s a long way off. It’s still sinking in that he’s gone. I miss him so much.
– Will Tomlinson