UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2007
JAMES BROWN

THE SCREENWRITER

         The Las Palmas Behavioral Modification Center is located on the outskirts of Palm Desert, not far from its more famous counterpart, the Betty Ford Clinic, in the neighboring community of Rancho Mirage. Both cities are renowned for their spectacular eighteen-hole golf courses, plush landscapes, and million-dollar retirement homes. But water is not natural to this otherwise barren land, and without it everything but the indigenous snakes and lizards would shrivel up and die. In the summer months temperatures reach 110, often higher, and in the winter come the powerful winds that darken the sky with clouds of dust and debris. Life here stops where the water ends, and it's that borderline, on the cusp of survival and devastastion, that strikes me as exactly the right place for the alcoholic and addict who spends his days constantly navigating between the two.

         From Los Angeles, depending on traffic, it's a good two hours or more before you escape the congestion of the San Bernardino Freeway and turn onto the less traveled Highway III. From here it's a narrow two-lane blacktop that cuts through Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage and takes you still deeper into the desert. The land is flat and dry and the distant mountains are steep and rocky. A few miles past the city of Palm Desert, you turn off the highway and onto another stretch of blacktop that twists and bends and leads you, finally, to the Las Palmas Behavioral Modification Center.

         It's a sprawling, Santa Fe-style structure made of stucco and adobe and painted white. Outside the main doors is a rock garden with cacti and desert flowers and a small waterfall. At first glance it looks like it might be one of those trendy, out-of-the-way desert spas for people in the know, a quaint hideaway for L.A's hippest, but as you come closer, when you step through those front doors, you recognize it for what it is: a hospital for the mentally unstable and those wrestling with their own self-destruction by way of alcohol and drugs. The latter group comprise the majority of its patients, though many of us fit neatly into both categories. Directly after my release from St. Mary's Hospital in North Hollywood, where I was treated for second-degree burns on both arms and a host of contusions from head to toe, I take up residence at the Las Palmas BMC.

         I arrive in the late morning, accompanied by my best friend, Tim O'Neill, who's taken it upon himself to drive me here. It is also at his urging that I choose this rehab over dozens of more local ones. According to Tim, it has a high success rate with its patients and an excellent reputation within the film community for its discreetness.

         Unlike the Betty Ford Clinic, there are no photographers lurking behind the bushes, no National Enquirer, no news cameras. Even executive-level alcoholics and addicts can pass unnoticed throough its doors and return clean and sober with no one the wiser for it. Why my friend thinks I need protecting, however, I have no idea. My place on the totem pole of movie making is just a notch above the caterer in the last of the rolling credits. And it's not like my drinking or using is or has been any secret for quite some time now.

         "This is the best thing for you," he says, as we climb out of his car. He drives a Mercedes SUV, exactly like my ex-wife's, only a different color. "Like it or not," he adds, "this is your home for the next twenty-eight days. Don't get any bright ideas and try to bolt."

         Given that it's in the middle of the desert, I assure him that I won't be going anywhere in the forseeable future, particularly in my present condition. It's been nearly two days since my last drink, and I'm beginning to feel really sick. I'm beginning to sweat. "Clean up your act," he says, "and as soon as you're out of here, I know I can get you some work. A lot of people still believe in you."

         I know what kind of work he means, the kind I used to turn down. TV dramas. Cop shows. Sitcoms. Of course now I'd be grateful to get it. As for Tim's mention of those who still believe in me, he's talking about my meteoric rise to the higher echelons of screenwriting, followed by my equally meteoric descent years later when the drugs and alcohol took ahold of me. Tim, on the other hand, is a screenwriter turned TV producer, and he's at the top of his form by any measure. He slaps me lightly on the back. I can see the concern on his face.

         "Are you okay?" he asks. "You're not looking so good."

         "I'm all right," I say.

         "C'mon, let's get you inside."

         As with any hospital, the amount of admitting paperwork is staggering, and the Las Palmas BMC is no exception. Had I been in better health, the process may not have seemed so overwhelming, but soon after Tim leaves I feel the shakes coming on. I'm a real trooper, however, and instead of asking the head counselor if we could postpone these admission procedures until I can at least hold a pen steady enough to sign my name, I push forward. I follow the man down a long, wide hallway to his office where I take a seat across from him at his desk. He's around my age with thick glasses and a bushy mustache, and while I sit there, sweating, I wonder what he thinks of me. I wonder if to him I'm just another casualty in that long procession of drunks and addicts who pass through his life, few probably ever staying sober for any real length of time. It has to be frustrating, and I wonder if he cares anymore. I wonder if it even matters. He glances down at my arms, which are both wrapped in white gauze from the burns I suffered in the accident.

         "What happened?"

         "I burned myself."

         "How'd you do that?"

         "It's a long story," I tell him.

         Reaching into one of the drawers, he takes out some sort of form, or questionnaire, and lays it flat on his back.

         "I have to ask you some questions," he says, "and I need for you to be completely truthful. How long has it been since your last drink?"

         "About two days."

         "How much, on average, would you say you've been drinking?"

         "About a quart a day."

         "Of hard liquor?"

         "Vodka usually. Sometimes bourbon."

         The mere mention of liquor triggers my thirst. I want a drink, I want it now, and I want it badly. My hands are shaking, so I hide them in my lap.

         "What about other drugs?"

         "Like what?"

         "Let's start with heroin. Do you use it? Have you ever used it?"

         "I've done it a few times," I tell him. "But not in the last few years."

         "Intravenously?"

         Needle users always look the worst, and it's a bum rap because it's the most cost-efficient and expeditious way to get it into your system, offering the biggest bang for your buck. But I leave that part out, not wanting him to get the wrong impression.

         "Sometimes. Yes."

         "How old were you when you first started?"

         "Heroin? I was fourteen. Drinking? I'd say ten or eleven."

         "What about cocaine?"

         "I've used lots of it. Too much."

         "How much is that?"

         "When I'm bingeing, I'd say three or four grams a day."

         "And how often do you binge?"

         I shrug.

         "I don't really keep count," I say. "Maybe a couple times a month."

         As we talk he is taking notes and checking off boxes on the form. He has on a sport coat and a red-and-white-striped tie that he likes to tug on now and again between questions. I'm starting to feel nauseated. I wipe sweat from my brow with the back of my hand.

         "How long is this going to take?" I ask.

         He smiles. "What's the hurry?"

         But he knows damn well.

         "I need something to steady my nerves."

         "That'll be up to the doctor," he says. "Tell me, when was the last time you used cocaine?"

         "On Christmas Eve."

         "Any methampethamines?"

         "Only when I can't get coke."

         "But you use them?"

         "Yes."

         At first, when he started asking these questions, he struck me as nonjudgmental. But as the process continues, and I admit to more abuse, he appears to grow irritated. He looks at me and takes a deep breath.

         "Let's try another approach," he says, "and see if we can't save us both a little time. What drugs, Mr. Lewis, haven't you abused?"

         I have to think about this for a while.

         "Ecstasy," I say. "I've never tried that but I've pretty much done everything else, from Percodan, OxyContin, and quaaludes to LSD. Marijuana, I don't like, never have. To cut to the quick, my problems are with booze, coke, and speed. I've been using them all since I was a kid, but it didn't really get out of control until around my late thirties."

         Again he smiles. That smug, knowing one. I'm quickly coming to dislike this guy.

         "Or so you think," he says. "Alcoholics and addicts almost always cross the line into addiction years before they're ever aware of it. I'm betting you're no different." Then out of the blue he asks, "Do you have thoughts of suicide?"

         I'm caught off guard.

         "What?"

         "Do you ever think about killing yourself?"

         It's my firm belief that anyone of any intelligence has at some dark point in life seriously weighed the pros and cons of checking out early. But I also know that if I'm honest, I'll be treated as a threat to myself and they'll throw me into the lock-down psych unit. Which means I won't be going anywhere until the shrinks say I'm psychologically fit. That could be a whole lot longer than the typical twenty-eight days of rehab.

         "No," I lie.

         "Never?"

         A wave of nausea passes over me.

         "I think I'm going to be sick," I say. "Where's your bathroom?"

         Inside of an hour I'm in the throes of full-fledged withdrawal and the formalities of the check-in procedures are temporarily placed on hold. I'm escorted directly to the staff doctor where it's determined that I'm in the first stages of delirium tremens. The nurse gives me a healthy dose of Valium, and because my blood pressure has rocketed off the charts, I'm also administered an additional shot of Clonidine, a powerful antihypertensive, to further reduce the possibility of stroke.

         The combined effect of these drugs knock me out, and when I wake, when the drugs have worn off, I start to panic. My heart beats fast, and I'm still sweating. I'm still shaking and sick to my stomach. The room is dark, and for a minute or so I'm completely disoriented, not knowing where I am or what's happening to me. I sit up. I look around. The door is slightly ajar and a wedge of light falls across another bed in the room. Someone's in it, curled up in the fetal position, and I can hear his labored breathing. He's shivering under the sheet, like you do when you have a bad fever, and every now and then he moans. I lie back in bed and stare at the ceiling, knowing full well now where I am. I think of my daughter. I think of my ex-wife, and I ask myself, what's wrong with me? How come I can't straighten up? What have I done to my family? What have I done to myself?

         I've hit a real bottom.

         I've hit a brand-new record low.

         It's around this time that a nurse slips into the room pushing a cart. She turns on the light on the nightstand between our two beds and gently places her hand on the shoulder of the curled-up figure.

         "Eddie," she says, "how you doing?"

         "Not so great."

         "It's time for your medication," she says.

         He has to sit up now, and when he does I see that he's just a kid, probably no older than my daughter, and he's drenched in sweat.

         "What happened to you?" she asks me.

         "I burned myself."

         "How'd you do that?"

         "It's a long story," I say.

         I swallow the pills with the water and she takes the cups from me and leaves. Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes later, just before I go under, I hear Eddie in the next bed. "This is fucked up," he says under his breath. "I ain't never doing that shit again." Then it sweeps over me, whatever it is in the pills she gave me, and I'm down for the count again.

         For both of us it goes on like this for the better part of two days, our sweating and shaking, passing in and out of consciousness. It's a rebellion of the body crying out for the drug it's been trained to need. The heart pounds. The head throbs. You can't hold down food, and every nerve ending is on fire. Except to use the toilet, neither of us has the strength to get out of bed, let alone leave the room. The detox process is exhausting, and when the tempest finally subsides, and I believe I can speak truthfully for Eddie as well, we're overcome with relief and gratitude.

         After that we sleep.

         And it's a wonderful, deep sleep.

         When I finally wake up, I look over at Eddie in the next bed and find him staring at me. It's night, and the light on the stand between us is turned on. I feel immensely better, though the term better, in this case, is relative; even slight improvement, given where I started out, is a major breakthrough. I tell myself that this is it.

         That I will change.

         There will be no more drinking. No powders. No pills. No potions. From this day on I will make my first earnest, and hopefully last, attempt to put it all behind me, finally and forever.

         Eddie asks the running question of the week. "What happened to your arms?"

         "I burned them."

         "How'd you do that?"

         "It's a long story," I say.

         "I got time," he says.

         He's propped up on one elbow and I notice his arm, the left one. It's black and blue at the bend from sticking it with needles. Though I already know the answer, I turn Eddie's question back on him.

         "What happened to your arm?"

         "Heroin," he says, but he pronounces it "hair-on," as they do in the ghetto. I also detect a trace of pride in his voice, one typical of the heroin addict, especially the younger ones. It's the mother of drugs, and in the hierarchy of addiction there's a certain romance, a certain prestige factor, in being strung out on smack. A few years ago his attitude wouldn't have bothered me, but now I see myself in this kid, on the fast track to destruciton, and that mind-set troubles me.

         He nods at me. "What're you kicking, man?"

         "Booze and coke."

         "I like coke, too."

         Again he's a little too enthusiastic with volunteering this information.

         "I'm starving," he says. "Want to get something to eat? The cafeteria's closed but the lounge stays open all night."

         Until now I hadn't thought about it, but I'm famished, too. I rise slowly from the bed, still unsteady on my feet. I'm wearing a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Eddie has on the same. In the closet I find my tennis shoes. I put them on and together we emerge from our dimly lit room and into the brightly lit lounge, a little broken maybe, a little shell-shocked for the experience, but nonetheless alive.

         In the days to come Eddie and I will be subjected to a grueling schedule designed to get and keep us clean and sober. Breakfast is served at 7 a.m. followed by an hour-long group therapy meeting. After that it's a drug and alcohol-education class, which satisfies one of the state requirements for those who've lost driver's licenses on DUI charges, myself included. Then it's off to individual counseling. Then comes lunch. An hour later we have a study session with the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, copies of which all patients receive on their first day. We break again for dinner and afterward we endure a lecture on the damaging physiological and psychological effects of alcohol and dope on our bodies and minds. And every other night, Sundays included, we attend either an A.A. or N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting held here at the hospital but open to the community. I switch off between the two, since I've earned lifelong memeberships in both, though I feel more at home with your run-of-the-mill alcoholic. Eddie switches off, too, mainly just to hang with me.

         Tonight, after dinner, we flip a coin: heads it's A.A., tails N.A., and it comes up heads. The meeting is held in the rec room at the far end of the hospital, and Eddie and I get there early to help set up the tables and chairs, make coffee, and put out the A.A. literature. The leader of the meeting is one of our head counselors. His name is Dale Weiss but he's better known among the staff and patients as Tradition Dale for his strict and unwavering allegiance to the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. One glance at his face and you know he spent the better part of his fifty-odd years drinking hard and heavy before he ever sobered up. He has the telltale bulbous nose, and across it runs a thin spiderlike pattern of broken blood vessels. In his heyday, I'm sure the whites of his eyes were bloodshot and yellowed with jaundice, but now they're clear as ice, and that's how he looks at you. An intense stare, eye to eye, until you glance away.

         "How many days you got, Lenny?"

         "I think about twelve."

         "You think or you know?"

         "I know."

         "You need an exact date," he says. "You need to keep an accurate count. I have 3,672 days, and God willing, tomorrow it'll be 3,673."

         Tradition Dale is big on God, which has always been a stumbling block for me. Though I'm no atheist, I'm not exactly a churchgoer either, and I have a tough time embracing the religious aspects of A.A. The disciples say I need a Higher Power and that this Higher Power can be anything I want it to be, the options ranging from a doorknob to the group itself. "Fake it," they say, "till you make it." But I have trouble with that line of reasoning, too. It's like lying to yourself until you're convinced the lie is true.

         People begin shuffling in five minutes before the meeting is supposed to start. It's a small group, maybe fifteen or so, about half of them patients at the BMC, the others visitors from the surrounding communities. Eddie and I've arranged the foldout chairs in a circle, and Tradition Dale takes a seat at the head of it. He passes around three laminated placards, one with the Twelve Traditions of A.A., another taken from Chapter Five in the Big Book called "How it Works," and a third with "The Promises," which is all about the important, life-affirming benefits of sobriety. The first two are read aloud as a kind of preamble before the sharing of the stories begins. "The Promises" is saved for the end, so as to put a spin of optimism to even the darkest of meetings.

         And they can get pretty dark.

         One of the greatest realizations to come from A.A., at least for myself, is learning that there are plenty of others out there just as messed up and troubled as me. Some more so. It's no consolation but it does give me an odd sense of belonging in a world that by and large considers people like me weak-willed, moral degenerates. After the preambles are read, Traditional Dale calls on one of the group to share. In this case it's a young woman with a bony, angular forehead and sunken cheeks. A borderline anorexic. I'd say she's in her late twenties, and she looks scared. She looks emotionally fragile, as if any second she could burst into tears. I've seen her in other meetings, but she's not a patient here.

         "I'm Gloria," she says, "and I'm a grateful alcoholic. I'm glad I've been asked to share because I'm going through hell right now. It's been a year since Charlie died, and I know they say it's supposed to get easier with time, but for me it only gets worse." She pauses. She looks around the group. "I don't think I'll ever be the same. He was always happy to see me when I came home, always there to cheer me up when I was feeling blue. You couldn't ask for a better companion. We went everywhere together. Did everything together. Now he's gone and I still can't believe it. Last night I woke up thinking he was in bed with me again, but when I reached over to touch him there was no one there. The sheets were cold." Again she pauses, this time to stare down at the floor. Her pain seems genuine, and I find myself feeling for her. "My friends," she says, "tell me to look on the bright side--that we had twelve wonderful years together. And no one can ever take that away from us. I've been thinking about getting another puppy, but it wouldn't be fair to Charlie. I mean, it's just not right, especially so soon."

         Eddie is sitting next to me. He leans over and whispers in my ear. "Has she been talking about a dog?"

         I shrug. "I guess so."

         I don't like to think of myself as a cruel or insensitive man. Certainly you can deeply love a pet. At the same time, however, it strikes me that this woman has issues independent of alcohol and drugs and that maybe she'd be better off sharing her feelings with a good psychiatrist.

         If addiction has one redeeming value it's that it does not discriminate, crossing all ethnic, economic, and social barriers. In this group of BMC patients, we have a doctor who used to prescribe his own morphine sulfate, a paramedic who couldn't keep his hands out of the med kit, a housewife strung out on wine and anti-anxiety pills, and a Beverly Hills building contractor hooked on OxyContin. Then there's my pal, Eddie Salinas, a sixteen-year-old heroin addict, and thirty-something-year-old crackhead who hails from the friendly city of Compton, home to the notorious Crips and their beloved brethren, the Bloods. He has prison tats covering both arms, and on his neck, in fancy script, is the name LaKesha. Dale asks him to talk next.

         "I'm Ronnie," he says, "and I'm a dope fiend and a drunk. My father was a dope fiend and a drunk. My mother was a dope fiend and a drunk. Both my brothers are dope fiends and drunks. Getting wasted is a way of life."  This guy doesn't so much talk as shout, and he can't seem to sit still in his seat. I've heard him share before and I like his passion. I like that he's a little over the top, since the rest of us are usually more subdued.  "Normal, for me, is being fucked up. Normal, for me, is getting sick on Thunderbird wine. Normal, for me, is spending every cent I make on rock. Can't pay the rent, no problem. Just do another rock. Electric company turns off the power, no problem. Just do another rock. And when the money's gone, and the dopeman don't answer the door to you, you do what you got to do. Pimp your wife. Pimp your daughter. Rob some punk, split open his motherfucking head. Ain't nothing stop me from getting the rock till the police send my sorry black ass back to prison where it belongs. Who all here would go that far?" He looks around the group, trying to register his effect on us. He wants to shock. He wants, I think, to show us that his addiction is somehow stronger and more real than ours because it comes from the streets. "That's the monkey," he says. "That's the jones. Let me tell you all something, and then I'll shut up. When I get out of here, first thing I'll do is fire up that crack pipe. And you know what? Listen now," he says, "because this is the kicker. It won't be because I want to. I mean, I know rock's bad. I know it takes me back to prison. Every time. But I'll do it anyway. I'll do it because of one thing. Because," he says, "it's who I am."

         On that hopeful note, Tradition Dale calls on the doctor to speak, the morphine addict,who confesses to having intercourse with his female patients after he's knocked them out with a potent anesthetic. After that it's the building contractor from Beverly Hills whose foray into addiction started with a minor back injury and a generous prescription for OxyContin, a synthetic narcotic similar to heroin. Others in the group share, too, but these are the highlights of the meeting, and when the hour is up everyone rises from their seat. We form a big circle. We all hold hands and recite what's called the "Serenity Prayer": God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. This is followed by individual outbursts of various A.A. clichés:

         "Keep coming back."

         "It works if you work it."

         "And it won't, if you don't."

         Communality has never come easily to me. By nature I'm a cynic, and in my book any public display of camaraderie is automatically suspect. I'll accept as truth man's darker nature far more readily than I will his goodheartedness, what little there is. Still I know I'm in exactly the right place. Still I know I belong here, that I'm no different or better than anyone in the group, and when I leave the meeting that evening I somehow feel uplifted. I feel, somehow, that I'm making progress.

         On the way back to our room I stop at the pay phone across from the nurses' station and tell Eddie to go on, that I'll catch up. We're not supposed to use it after 8 p.m., and it's well past that, a few minutes before 10, but the nurses' station is closed for the night and the hallways are empty. I dig into the pocket of my sweatpants and come up with a handful of change. I haven't spoken with Alex and Nina for a couple of weeks now, and I want to hear my daughter's voice. I want to let them both know I'm making real headway. That I'm pulling it together this time. I deposit the coins. I dial the number.

         Alex answers, and she sounds groggy.

         "Did I wake you?" I say.

         "No, I'm just lying here on the couch watching the news."

         I want to ask if she's alone but I know better. It's none of my business anymore, and the last thing I want to do is get her started.

         "How's Nina?"

         "Fine," she says.

         "Can I talk to her?"

         "She's not here."

         "Where is she?"

         "Out with her friends."

         "But it's a school night," I say. "It's almost 10 o'clock."

         Alex laughs, a scoff. "This from her father in rehab. C'mon," she says, "give me a break. Since when did you start caring about your daughter?"

         "I never stopped."

         "Get off it, Lenny. I'm the only parent here. While you were off getting fucked up, who do you think raised that little girl?"

         I have no answer for her, none that doesn't shame me, but it doesn't mean I ever stopped loving Nina. And for that matter, Alex, too.

         "Anyway," she says, "let's change the subject before I lose my temper. My lawyer's been trying to get ahold of you but they have some stupid policy there about only friends and family and they won't put his calls through."

         "What's he want now?"

         "He wants to make an offer."

         "You mean he wants to make an offer, " I say, "or you want to make an offer? On what? What for? Just get to the point."

         There's a long pause, and when she speaks again her voice is dead calm and businesslike. "I'll let him fill you in on the details," she says, "but basically we've agreed not to press charges if you'll sign over your half of the equity in the house. The way I see it, we're doing you a tremendous favor. Seriously, you're looking at attempted murder, or at the very least attempted manslaughter."

         "For Christ's sake, it was an accident."

         "That's your version."

         "You know I'd never try to hurt you or Nina."

         "Save it for the judge. I'm sure he'll agree that plowing your pickup truck through the house was just an innocent mistake."

         At that she hangs up.

         For a while I stand there in the empty hallway, listening to the hum of the receiver, wondering why it is that we can't ever talk civilly. Why it is that we always end up arguing? At what point did we surrender our marriage? At what point did I cross the line from recreational use and social drinking into addiction, where I needed a drink, a line, a pill, anything just to make it through another day? What began as fun, or escape, had somehow turned deadly serious through the years. And in the end it wasn't so much about getting high as numbing myself to the guilt and shame that accompanies a lifetime of abuse.

         I return the receiver to its cradle and head back to my room. There I find Eddie lying belly down on his bed, writing in a notebook under the dim light of the table lamp.

         He looks up at me as I come in. "Have you started your letter yet?"

         "I will tomorrow," I say.

         "It's due tomorrow," he says. "You'd better get on it. That counselor is a real bitch."

         Eddie is referring to our group-therapy leader whose approach to sobriety involved belittling his patients, dismantling the self, or the ego, so that he can supposedly reconstruct it for us from scratch. His assignment calls for us to write a detailed letter of apology to the one person who we believe suffered the most from our drinking and drugging. We're asked to make a list of all the times we let that person down, how we hurt and humiliated them, and we're not allowed to make excuses for ourselves. No rationalizations. No justifications. We're to take full responsibility for our actions, and when we're done with the letter, instead of sending it, we're supposed to share it with the group and then destroy it.

         For me, that one person would have to be my ex-wife, though Nina runs a close second. For Eddie, it's his deceased mother, the only person, he says, he ever truly loved. In my case, the wrongdoings go back further than I can possibly recall, but at the top of that list are the many nights I didn't call or come home. These are followed by the needless arguments and turbulent mood swings. Then come all the promises I made to quit and never kept, not to mention the thousands and thousands of wasted dollars I put up my nose or drank away at some bar. All this and more I put into that letter, writing deep into the night, long after Eddie's fallen asleep. It comes out to thirty-two handwritten pages--or that's where I stop anyway. Toward the early morning hours my eyes grow heavy and I drop off.

         I don't put much stock into the importance of dreams. I don't believe much in symbols or hidden, subconscious meanings. In fact, I rarely ever remember my dreams. But this one is different. It's the kind that seems so real that when you wake up, for those first few seconds, you're absolutely certain it happened. That you were there. That you are there. In it I'm sitting at the edge of a dock looking out over the ocean, and beside me is a bottle of vodka. I know I'm not supposed to drink it. I know if I do I'll erase all the progress I've made. That it'll trigger the craving. And once the craving is on, I'll be off and running--next stop, the dopeman's house. But I pick up the bottle anyway. I uncap it. I raise it to my lips and drink, and I can taste it, I can feel it going down, the actual burning sensation in the back of my throat. This is where I wake up, flooded with guilt for having drank again, and then relieved, suddenly, when I realize it's only a dream.

         Now the room is just beginning to grow light. Outside the sun is rising, and I roll out of bed. I go to the bathroom and douse my face with water. What happens next is totally out of character for me, but I get down on my knees in front of the sink. I place my hands together. I close my eyes.

         Part of me feels silly.

         Part of me wants to believe. In what, in whom, I have no idea.

         And the funny thing is, for me, it doesn't really matter. It is after all the act, not the message, that ultimately gives form to prayer.

James Brown has received the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction writing and a Chesterfield Film Writing Fellowship from Universal/Amblin Entertainment. He received an MFA degree in creative writing from University of California, Irvine. His writing has been featured in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Denver Quarterly and New England Review. He is the author of several novels and a memoir, The Los Angeles Diaires (Morrow/HarperCollins).

The Screenwriter was originally published in Cocaine Chronicles (Akashic Books). It appears here by permission of the author.







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