SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
DENIS JOHNSON: This is from a-- I guess I would call it a piece, which consists of just a series of letters, all written by the same person. And I'll just read some excerpts. It's called The Starlight on Idaho
"Dear Jennifer Johnston, well, to catch you up on things, the last four years have really kicked my ass. I tried to get back to that point I was at in the fifth grade where you sent me a note with a heart on it, said, dear Mark, I really like you. And I turned that note over and wrote on the back of it, do you like me or love me?
And you made me a new note with 20 hearts on it and sent it back down the aisles. And it said, I love you. I love you. I love you. I would count there to be about 15 or 16 hooks in my belly with lines heading off into the hands of people I haven't seen since a long time back. And that's one of them.
But just to catch you up-- in the last five years, I've been arrested about eight times, shot twice, et cetera, et cetera.
And I think I got run over once. But I don't even remember it. I've loved a couple of thousand women. But I think you're number one on the list. That's all, folks-- over and out, signed Cass. In the fifth grade you used to call me Mark-- full name, Mark Cassandra. PS, where, you might ask, am I? Funny that you asked.
After all those adventures, I'm at an undisclosed location right back here once again in Ukiah, the armpit of Northern California.
Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor, Bob, now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes, I believe you might have laid up drunken in room eight, this very one I'm sitting in at this desk writing this letter, which is one of the few I'll actually be mailing. Because I need a few things which are in that box in your closet. Anyway, I hope they're still there.
I think there's a pair of jeans. And I think there's a few pairs of socks. And in fact, if you would just bring the whole box. If you did that, you would increase my holdings between 600% and 700%. Percent I'm down to one of everything except for two of these socks, which are both white. But they're not the same brand.
My good old boots collapsed. But I've been given an excellent pair of second-hand running shoes here. But I'm writing to tell you this, that I'm not running anywhere. I'm standing my ground. I intend to do the deal. And here's why.
Because the last four years have positively kicked my ass. In the last four years, I've been shot, jailed, declared insane, et cetera. [LAUGHTER] And even though I'm just 32 years old, I'm the only person I've ever met who's actually ever been in a coma.
I've repeatedly been told by medical people who probably know what they're talking about, you are lucky to be alive. And nobody around here has any idea why you aren't dead. Wow, I think I just took a nap.
They've got us on Antabuse here. And sometimes-- blip-- you just fade out and dream. In a few days, that's supposed to pass. They won't let me call you. But I'm pretty sure they'll let you come to a family group, which is on Sunday 2:00 to 4:00. Before I mail this, I will check if it's OK for you to come. I'd sure like it if you did. I wouldn't mind seeing a friendly face in the circle there.
I'm not the type to trudge along. I'm the type to come shooting off the block, get 20 yards ahead of everybody else, and go stumbling and sprawling off onto the sidelines with a collapsed lung. And pretty soon I hear the others. Here they come. I hear them trudging steadily along on their road to happy destiny.
I've got to have somebody remind me to stay in my lane and take it easy. That's where my buddy, Bob C. Comes in. He's my sponsor in the AA. But the thing about your sponsor is you've got to call him. I don't like to call him. He's always got something wise and reasonable to say. So if he turned up with my box of stuff and $0.02 of input for the family group discussion, what a relief. Cass.
Dear old Dad and dear Grandma, well, Grandma, that was entertaining what you pulled in family group last Sunday [LAUGHTER] but ridiculous. Come on back sometime. But keep a lid on it, OK? I don't need grandmotherly help. I need trained and certified counselors to point a view things out. And I can't have my grandma at family group red dogging the whole discussion and preaching about Jesus Christ and Satan, or anyway the last 30 minutes of a two-hour group. That's how much time you took up jiving on heaven and hell. Thanks a million.
Thank you for representing the Cassandra family in a most standout way. I'm not surrounded by demons here. These are trained and certified counselors. I am through explaining this family to each other. It's too damn ridiculous, is what it is. I guess I can swear here, Grandma, as you won't be receiving this as I won't be sending it.
Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel. And whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head who'd been run out of San Francisco. You have to be pretty down on your luck to get knocked off the market in the Tenderloin.
I mean you wouldn't cross the street for them. But I guess once in a while, some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I've had one or two minutes here where I might have done it myself. But no more whores-- the bus stop benches are empty. As far as I know, the benches aren't even there anymore. I don't think the bus runs past here no more.
I mean, this is not a family, to get their coat of arms tattooed on your chest. Do you remember when bro broke his girlfriend's nose in the living room and said, there. I rest my case? [LAUGHTER]
Do you remember when Dad scooped his hand down in his soggy cereal and just sat there, staring at nothing for about 22 minutes with a glop of it in his hand? Do you remember when John got his picture in the papers in Dallas being arrested, and he sent it to us in the mail like it was really something to write home about?
You know what I remember most about that picture? The borders were all ragged, because he had to tear it out of the page with his fingers. My oldest brother is somebody who the state of Texas won't let him possess scissors. That's your litter of geniuses-- jailhouse geniuses in orange jailhouse overalls rammed full of sin and picking up trash by the road, stuffing trash in white sacks along the interstate.
Incidentally, if this program works and if I get it together, if I reach a point of balance, I will enroll in college. That's not what I started out to say. But if I get so I can look people in the eye, get so I can make change and carry on conversations, I will get a part-time job and enroll in college. But as for my grandma, as for last family group day--
Dear Pope John Paul, [LAUGHTER] do you have two first names? Or is Paul your last name, like you're Mr. Paul? And I know it's not just dumb luck. I know I ordered the circumstances. I mean, I get that glass as far as touching my lower lip and next thing I know, I'm on the ghost bus to Vegas. There's a certain power in that, you know? It's like if you don't like the movie you're in, you just grab this jug going by. And it takes you and flings you into a completely different story.
What do they feed you when you're the pope? Try this stuff around here some time. For lunch, they give you a marshmallow and a coffee bean. It's a salvage yard for people who totaled their souls, called the Starlight Recovery Center in Ukiah, California, on Idaho Avenue.
Ah, hell, what's wrong with me? I won't be sending no letter to the pope. But I am telling you, I think I've been dealing with the devil. And I could use some expert coaching. There really is a devil. He really does talk to me. And I think it might be coming from some an Antabuse giving me side effects. But be that as it may, I need to know the rules.
So far, I think I've found out that I don't have to obey his orders. I can just ignore him sort of. But if I keep pissing him off, is he going to get after my people? Mark Cassandra.
Dear Satan, [LAUGHTER] Senor Mr. Business, you are one big bubble. And I'd hate to be there when you go pop. Because then I'd get a lot of really rank stuff on me.
Hang on. This is just water.
I mean, I'm here to change or die trying. But all I can think about is if this was still the old Starlight, the motel of bad dreams, I'd scrape together a couple hundred dollars and lay up drunk until they smelled my corpse and broke the lock. But everything changes. And the Starlight is all different. And I'd better get there, too, and find a different way of filling up than alcohol.
I'd like to thing this guy Wendell was saying in group. He put out the idea of pouring in the right thoughts into our poisoned thinking, like pouring good water into a glass of dirty water until I'm filling up and spilling over and just keep going like that until I'm running clean. My grandma puts it that, Cass, if you keep drinking, your babies will come out cross-eyed. And you'll end up buried in a strange town with your name spelled wrong on your grave.
Dear Melanie, you know, I'm glad I met you and heard the story from you in group about your daughter dying and your purse. It would have made me even sicker if it was just a story about some person I could only think about, like somebody I could only imagine. But it isn't as hard since I got to really meet you and hear about it in person. Because you have a sweet, sincere quality. You're bouncy, smiley, young for 61 years. And no matter how hard you've been knocked around, I saw you in a light. You're beautiful.
These last four years have chewed several giant holes right through me. I thought I was finished before. But that was minimum damage compared to this. Your fellow inmate, Mark Cassandra, Cass.
Dear Satan, I did not enjoy it at your jamboree last night.
Dear Doctor, I'm going to roll a cigarette. And I'd like to light it and get through the entire thing in a state of sanity. I did see the devil one time.
Dear Doc, in group the other night, a guy just like me said, I woke up in Vegas, sticky, broke and confused, a perfect description of that place. I've never gone there, just woke up there. That guy was funny-- reminded me of Gary Cooper.
I'm getting depressed-- depressed. I think this Antabuse is going wrong on me. You said we'd feel rundown or sleepy two or three days to start with. But you forgot to say, prepare to fall down through a trapdoor in the bottom of your soul. I mean, when I lie on my bed in this room by myself, I get dragged down to a black place. I've heard people talking right outside my window who aren't there when I go look.
Around other folks-- I mean real folks, folks who are really there-- I feel absolutely fine. They talk. I talk. Everything appears as normal. Get in this room and shut the door behind me and I'm alone with somebody who's not there.
Dear Friends and Neighbors in the Universe, dear Rolling Stone and TV Guide, I think I need to tell you I'm totally out of Cools. Some kind person has donated a whole can of Bugler that we can roll out of. But I tell you what. Buger smoke burns like fire from your lips on down to the pit of your lungs. So if you brought me a couple of packs of my brand, know what I mean? Cools.
I've written thousands upon thousands of these letters. And the reason I don't run out of ink, I don't think I'm actually writing to many of them down, or any of them. I think I'm just wandering, hiking, marching all around this room like it's a small, tiny mental institution, hallucinating, writing letters on imaginary paper. Where I just was was the road of hell-- black boiling dirt and burning diesel smoke. Nothing burns as hot as diesel.
People by the side, run over, squashed, killed, and dead, devil laughing so close I saw the veins in his teeth. You don't get me. My ticket says to Texas. He rolled the stone aside. And in the cave, the mysteries flitted like bats and insects. Here are the answers to everything, said the devil, like UFOs and life beyond the grave, like what was Elvis thinking? What was Elvis thinking and feeling in those last dark days, like just who masterminded JFK?
And the cave was his mouth, like a bathroom full of stink. His tongue popped with cheap sweat. Yeah, boy, he dragged me down to his jamboree, dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life, down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head, down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone, standing on his stump, shouting jive.
Just get a whiff of sulfur and wet fear. Come breathe these rank aromas for the purposes, of course, of scientific inquiry alone. The mayor is inside already. Come. It's all respectable.
Satan says, the gamblers shake the dice. And shake I the gamblers. Snake eyes and paradise-- Satan shouts, you know who Judas was? He worked for me. I run the jamboree and Hollywood and Vegas and start all the wars, vampire breather of the baby's breath, I the worker of the strings to jerk the fools dancing at my hell hound, hoedown jamboree, glue huffers, jelly rollers, paint suckers, bikers, truckers, cowboys, teachers, preachers, about a million hipsters hooked on dope, shaky alkies with their nerves burned up.
Hey, God where is you? You ain't nowhere. We search for some faint signal from your power-- all that just now, right now, while I'm writing it down. Not your boy, Cass.
Doctor So-and-so, I forget your name. Listen to me. I can't get this across to anybody in this ridiculous, pathetic excuse for a rehab. But I have to tell you, I think this Antabuse you gave us is backfiring with some serious side effects. I lie on that bed over there. And my mood goes black. And then I can feel my mind, my actual mind, pulling itself in two.
I hear the devil laughing. And I hear him ordering me to kill people. Don't worry. He's been running me all my life. But he can't tell me straight out what to do. There's no way I would ever take a direct order from anybody. That's why I never went into the military.
But if you read the papers, you see every day where somebody just jumps up and chops the baby's head off. And I have to tell you, there's been some of that in my very own family. My mother, when I was four years old, went psycho herself and has been in prison for 28 years in Gatesville, Texas.
And prison has not in any way reformed her. She should have gotten out by now, but she won't behave. And they just keep adding on.
My sponsor, Bob Cornfield, dropped around finally with a box of my stuff-- not much, a small box. And the contents inside still rattled. He gets his cigarette going, standing here in this room, roommate, looking around like he invented the place. These AA guys are faking about 80% of it. But let's just hang on to the truth. They're clean and sober. And I'm the one woke up moaning with his head in the toilet not two weeks back.
I think to see me here made him sad. But he won't show pity-- not allowed. I told him I feel like I might be Jesus Christ. And the devil is sending me messages. And he said, you can't be the second coming because I am.
I think it was a joke. But I've lost my talent for humor. It scared me when he said it. Everything they say sounds very deep. Their voices sound like they're echoing out of eternity.
Let's just face the music and the facts. Somebody is going out of my mind. Your patient at the Starlight. Mark Cassandra. Just call me Cass."
Jeez, I'm out of pages.
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Denis Johnson, poet, fiction writer, playwright, essayist, memoirist and journalist, whose most recent book, the novel "Tree of Smoke" (2007), won the National Book Award, read exerpts of his work Feb. 15 in the Schwartz Auditorium of Cornell's Rockefeller Hall. His short-story collection, "Jesus' Son," was adapted for a film in 1999.
The event is part of the Creative Writing Program's spring 2008 Reading Series, which features established and emerging artists.