Thinking of Neal Cassady

Justin Burnett

I wanted to die. Yes, that’s it. I imagined that nothing would’ve made me happier. In truth, nothing would’ve made me deader. This was before I had learned away ridiculousness. This was before I had watched people die firsthand. Some people have the gall to call that innocence.

You don’t get everything by looking for it. The very act of searching renders some things invisible. The things that really stick with you, your real acquisitions, are often accidents.

AIDS, tetanus, the syph—

Before I wanted to die, I wanted to learn. In some capacity, these two “wants” were connected. I made-believe that learning happens strictly on purpose. My parents applauded the construction of this fantasy because it matched theirs. Funds were allocated. Money happened, no thanks to me.

Leukemia, herpes, tapeworms—

“LSD,” someone said simply when I asked why people lay supine on the dorm courtyard’s recently mowed grass.

My roommate played the tuba. He lumbered onto his bike in every pre-dawn glow with the metal monstrosity strapped to his back in a case the size of a baby elephant and pedaled for a mile or so to the football field. In the evenings, people invaded the tiny dorm room and mulled around his TV. They had to press together like tamales in a can, thanks to the tuba.

I didn’t yet want to die. Someone in philosophy class was reading Finnegan’s Wake. “Hey, that’s a great book!” I said, even though I hadn’t read it. She said “fucking weirdo” with her eyes. I didn’t say anything else.

Two professors entered the room. One wore an earthy brown robe. A necklace of golf ball-sized black beads swung heavily on his neck.

Insanity, brain tumors, epilepsy—

The other wore a tie.

The robed philosopher read the first sentence of Plato’s Republic. “I went down to Pireaus!” he shouted. “DOWN to Pireaus, DOWN! Why is Plato saying DOWN?”

Perhaps the first inkling of wanting to die.

On my twenty-first birthday, I drove my jar of allotted change to the beer store. Then, with two forties in the passenger’s seat, the bookstore. I absentmindedly selected three or four titles. One was Jack Kerouac’s Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of On the Road: The Original Scroll. I suppose someone had mentioned this book to me at some point. I don’t really recall.

Amnesia, dementia, Alzheimer’s—

The forties complicated the reading. The sardined students on the tuba player’s side of the room rendered it impossible. I put the book away and drank myself stupid.

Alcoholism is one of those unsought acquisitions. You don’t notice it until it’s asleep on your couch one morning. Then it’s too late. You can chase it out with a broom and it’ll sneak back in through the basement, like a cat you accidently fed once.

My neighbor played snare drums every morning. My hangovers whispered murderous suggestions. I pulled the covers over my face and pretended to die.

“Missed class?” my roommate asked pointlessly when I finally staggered out of bed.

Members of my World Literature course congregated noisily in an unlit hall the size of a colosseum later that afternoon. An old woman ambled up to the lectern and flipped the switch on a small lamp. The disembodied creases of her face hovered like a gruesome hallucination in the dark. “Plato’s Republic,” she groaned unhappily, “is probably the most important text in Western literature. We will read it first this semester. Its importance is, in no small way, due to the fact that it is the foundational text of democracy. We owe much of what we enjoy in democracy today to Plato.”

I raised my hand.

Her glance wasn’t welcoming. “Yes?”

“Ahem, yes. I was curious as to how the Republic inspired democracy. Couldn’t one point to elements of communism in it as well?”


“Um, yes. Communistic elements. I’m just not sure…”

“Maybe you should do some more reading before you decide to ask questions in my class again.”

A strong urge to suddenly die. I never again reentered the colossal night cave.

The Student Center hoarded all the good food on campus. Everyone stayed as far away from the cafeteria as possible. After class, I walked into the Student Center and loitered in the art exhibits before buying dinner with a roll of quarters. One wall horrifically featured penises painted realistically on oversized canvases. The penises were painted by the same artist.

In the courtyard, I placed an overpriced chicken sandwich, a pack of Marlboro Reds and On the Road on the mesh top of a metal picnic table.

Obsession, paranoia, disassociation—

Most of what you pick up on accident isn’t good for your health.

Infatuation, enthusiasm—

—love. You don’t get everything by looking for it. The very act of searching makes some things invisible. The things that really stick with you, your real acquisitions, are often accidents. The thing about these accidents is that you don’t feel them right away. They aren’t like shards of glass nestled invisibly in the murk of green lake. You can’t recoil and extract them from your skin with a whimper. You are helpless. By the time you’ve diagnosed your infection, they’ve already slithered into one or all your orifices, munched their way into your system and implanted a colony of larvae, destined one day to wake up hungry. Often, your first symptoms are organ failures.

There is no love at first sight.

“I first met met (sic) Neal not long after my father died…”

I lit a cigarette. What kind of a first sentence is this? I’m a first sentence connoisseur. I attend first sentence-tasting soirees at bookstores, ambling leisurely from open book to book like a great grandfather hovering the hors d’oeuvre at a wedding. I attend these parties in solitude and strictly in my imagination.

Not only is my edition of On the Road plagued with a bad opening sentence (“not long?” how about “shortly,” or better yet, “… immediately following my father’s death!”), but there’s a typo! A typo three words into the book!

No, love at first sight is a lie.

I read on. And I read on. Cigarette filters amber with resin accumulated in the ashtray in the middle of the table, filling it to capacity, past the brim, spilling onto the table and falling through the mesh to bounce still smoking against the concrete below. As preordained, I eventually ran out of cigarettes. Rising slowly on numb, tingling legs, I oriented myself towards the familiar sunset, concealing the gas station like a cauldron of coins at its end. The walk was familiar. Nothing else was.

As often happens, something happened. The antebellum halls no longer towered regally above the aged oaks and meticulous hedges. Dorms were suddenly iron bars, circumscribing willows pacing like Rilke’s panther. Students pinballed along in the direction of the shimmering Mecca, the new health center, like mechanical lemmings to the rhythmic clank of a Calvinist determinism. The austere old campus was leeched of its blue blood. “I’m tired and in desperate need of nicotine” I told myself over the background music of Neal Cassady’s melodiously affirming Yass yass yass.

Later that night, I ushered a group of four strangers to my car. One of them ignited a thumbnail of herbage tucked into the bowl of a colorful glass pipe. I played Damien Marley on the stereo and we sang and pretended to freestyle until a police cruiser rounded a shadowed corner of the parking lot. A few meters from us, it paused for an eternal moment before driving away. We laughed and staggered from the car in a rancid miasma of fleeing smoke. Yass yass yass.

Love, devotion, worship—

I carved poems into my notebook on lonely midnight overpasses.

The sun circumscribed an infinite devotion to picnic tables, benches, grassy undulations at the foot of stone monuments and statues. When my eyes were sore from reading, I’d lift my guitar from its badly battered case and strum lazy chords to the moon’s luminous corona. Yass yass yass.

Most of what you pick up on accident isn’t good for your health. Love isn’t an exception to this rule, although there is no way to prove it. There is no final damage assessment in love, since it is never final. Love is terminal, accumulating justifications over time just as rapidly as Achilles multiplies spatial intervals. It buries its sinuous tendons in the future.

Empty bottles occupied the space between my bedframe and the floor in layers. The sun was a source of perpetual pain. Its daggered edges cutting through the drawn blinds darkened to a sickly jaundice. I read on. Yass yass yass.

I didn’t love the book. I loved Cassady. I imagined, along with him, that I loved life. Odd then, how badly I wanted to die.

When beer wasn’t enough, I’d tip back a bottle of cough syrup.

My life wasn’t enough. It wasn’t his life. It lacked his magnetism, his hypnosis of untethered admirations.

I would air dust myself into a stupor, wander just outside my dorm and collapse onto the lawn with my guitar.

Love is the only thing in life that’s greater than life. Everything else is either life or worse. Perhaps love isn’t all that bad. Perhaps the bad part is the hangover of necessary comparisons. Love is an event, in the philosophical sense—it’s an alteration to a framework, an earthquake rearranging the cabinet space so that the dinnerware no longer fits.

The beautifully age-washed stones of the campus darkened to testimonies of my own inadequacy—an inadequacy whose image endlessly repeated in a funhouse of beer bottom eyeglasses. By the time final grades posted, the fricative “F…F…F…” punctuating the page like air draining from a tire, my love for Neal, an inverted ratio of my love for myself, was complete. To celebrate, I enrolled for the following semester. Money happened again, this time with admonitions.

I read On the Road again. I purchased an impressively hefty copy of Ginsberg’s complete poems. Then Tropic of Cancer and Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. In damp valleys of roadside grass and wind screaming abysses under bridges, I wrote poems to Neal. True to the sickness, I couldn’t move on.

Equally true to the sickness, it grayed with time. On a fluorescent, booze sick dawn in a jail cell, I renounced my love for Neal Cassady. “What a joke! What an idiotic and costly emulation!” I say now in conclusion to reliving my humiliation. Yet the melodious assent weaves its accent along the umbilical flesh still attached to a person I no longer am: Yass yass yass. I recline my fingertips expectantly to the keyboard and today, still, “I think of Neal Cassady. I think of Neal Cassady.”


I am a hopelessly addicted high theory and low culture junkie, dividing my reading and intellectual focus between the academic canon of literature and philosophy, and the darker back alleys of horror, pulp, sci-fi, and bizarro. I am the author of The Emergency Spaghetti-O Recall and Esoteric Sausage, both Kindle singles, and numerous academic papers on Shakespeare, Milton, and Thomas Mallory. I have also published several short nonfiction and fiction works with Lost in the Funhouse and Blood Puddles. I’m a married father of four, and divide my scarce spare time between reading, writing and freelance editing. I have a Bachelor’s in Applied Arts and Sciences, and hope to pursue a Master’s degree in Library Sciences.


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