Fall 2005

Beelzebub Radio—The World Has Been Saved

The Devil, Ten of Cups, Strength, Nine of Wands, The Empress, Two of Pentacles

Denis Johnson

(This isn’t fiction.) I first met the Devil Satan in February 1978. He manifested himself, or rather lost interest in disguising his presence, as a result of a very aggressive series of incursions the God Jehovah had made in my universe, and these visits of His, in turn, came about because the Devil had gripped me more strongly as I made small experiments with prayer, meditation, reading spiritual books, things like that.

I worked as a temp for state agencies. By an insane coincidence, only a few days after the onset of these adventures, I was assigned a clerking job in an outpatient facility of the state mental hospital. All day long madmen and madwomen appeared before me with their stories, their complaints, their theories. A man called on the phone: “I think I’m the devil.” “You do?” was all I could say. “I drink and I hurt people when I drink and I can’t stop drinking and hurting people.” “Have you contacted Alcoholics Anonymous?” “I am the Devil,” he said, “I am Alcoholics Anonymous, I am the cosmos, I am the beginning and the end,” and I could hear him laughing as I hung up the phone. When my boss came back from lunch I took a walk with him over the grounds where crazy people stood still or strolled cautiously over the earth or sat on concrete benches or swings meant for small children, and I told him, “I think I’m losing touch with reality and I shouldn’t be working here.” None of the crazy people all around us talked to any of the others, none of them looked at anybody else. We all knew what was going on. The gigantic clash of good and evil tearing apart our souls left us no strength to focus on anything else. “Whatever you think is best for you,” said my temporary boss. When I went to clean out my desk I found a tarot card. I threw it in the trash. I went to the bus stop just outside the stone and iron walls of the facility. The bus came, but I didn’t get on. I went back through the gates, went to the outpatient clinic, told the people there, “I forgot something.” I stood beside my desk. They were all looking at me. A couple of patients said nothing, staring at me, breathing hard. They knew. I said, “I think it’s in the trash, maybe.” I took the tarot card from the wastebasket. The Ten of Cups. Cups, drinking, hurting people. I threw it back in the trash. On my way out I said to a thin, ropy crazy woman, “Tell him I get the message. But I’m still with God.” “Who?” she said innocently, and I said, “You know who,” and she said, “All right, I’ll tell him, but when should I tell him?” “TELL HIM NOW!” I said, and she stood absolutely still and began sending the message.

Back outside the gates I waited for the bus. I was terrified of who would be on it when it stopped for me, terrified of what would happen to me if I boarded it, but when it came, when it stopped, when the doors opened, I kept my head down and stepped aboard and took a seat not looking at anyone. I was holding the tarot card in my hand. I reached up and pulled the string to stop the bus. As it slowed I looked at the message in my hand: It had changed to the card of Strength. “All right!” I said to everyone on the bus, because God required a public acknowledgment, “I know God will give me the strength if I want it!” As the bus came to a halt I laid the card on the seat and got off as fast as I could.

The Devil broadcast two slogans over the atmospheres continually: “YOU HOPE, BUT YOU KNOW.” “IT’S KILL OR BE KILLED.” I broadcast in return that I wasn’t going to hurt anyone, that I wasn’t going to do anything wrong. Every few minutes I encountered someone who, despite their innocent behavior, I knew had been assigned to kill me. I insisted I wouldn’t make the first move. I wasn’t just going to assault someone suddenly. If that meant I’d be murdered, so be it. Tarot cards played a major role in the strategies being pursued all around us. Whenever I came near a place that might deal in such things, I tried not to go inside. But eventually I would give in and go see. I would stand at the counter of a psychedelic shop or occult book store and ask for a deck. I would open it and look at one card. Today the Nine of Wands. Not a message for me. But I shouldn’t have touched it. The clerk saw. It was his signal to kill me by hitting me nine times with some kind of wand. I left quickly without giving away the fact that I knew all about his assignment.

Very often I passed St. Theresa’s Church, which was on Thomas Street in my neighborhood. A day after I exposed the Empress card in a bookstore a few blocks from there, I understood the meaning of it. St. Theresa. I headed over to Thomas Street right away and walked along as if I were only pursuing a simple errand of some kind. People were going into the church. I could see they were all innocent, completely removed from the battle raging all around. I joined them and went inside. It was some kind of social occasion. A man was selling raffle tickets at the door. He had a roll of tickets and a box of coins. I stopped. Two days before I had seen him on a tarot card—the Two of Coins. I nearly ran away, but then I understood that the moment had arrived. I went over to a drinking fountain, and bending over it as if I were getting some water, I said a prayer. Prayers always had to be disguised in some such way—tying of the shoe, dropping something and stooping to pick it up, and so on. I let the water hit my lips and prayed: “God, if you exist, I will win the raffle. If I don’t win the raffle, I’ll join the war and begin the killing.” 

I started to go in, but I turned back to the fountain and said, “But first, I’m going to flip a coin: heads I go in, tails I leave.” I went into a hallway and found the men’s room. I went into a toilet stall and began flipping a quarter, and it came up heads over and over while the Devil screamed “You Hope But You Know!” and “It’s Kill Or Be Killed!” 

All right, all right, I said. I entered the church. The man said, “Twenty-five cents for a ticket, do you want one?” and I said, “No.”

In the front of the church a monk of some kind was delivering a lively talk. He wore a robe and sandals and dark glasses and a beard. His name was Brother William. He apologized for the dark glasses. He was going swiftly blind. He asked for everyone’s prayers. That irritated me. It seemed he almost enjoyed going blind just so he could ask for prayers and show his faith. He talked about his monastery. He said it was in the high red mountains of the desert. Everyone was invited to go there. When he stopped talking they read off the winning raffle ticket and told the winner he could have a free book. I went forward and picked up a flyer about the monastery from the table at the front of the room. I saw another, smaller room full of books. I knew there was one more tarot card in there somewhere. I could hardly move for fear and trembling, but I entered the room. No one else was there. Shelves full of books. I stood looking at them, seeing nothing, blind with dread. A man came to stand beside me. He was going to kill me. In order to disguise myself I reached out and took a book from the shelf and pretended to read its title. “Do you like that one?” the man said. “I don’t know,” I said, “I haven’t read it.” I couldn’t look at him. “Well,” he said, “I got the winning raffle ticket today, but you seem to like that book, so here—“and he handed me the ticket and said, “You win.”

As the war subsided I began to feel more and more down-to-earth every day. It took a little over two years before I lost my fear of tarot cards. I still flip coins and ask God to direct my thinking. Not long ago, I read a religious tract that said, “In many places in the Bible, people cast lots in order to reach decisions.” Last week the editor of a magazine sent me a note: If I agreed, he would send me a deck of tarot cards. I would choose six cards at random and write something based on those six. I agreed, and I have no idea why. I don’t believe I should have. When the cards came I didn’t touch them. But my daughter found them. She asked me to explain what I was doing with a deck of tarot cards, and I told her. This morning when I got up I went into the kitchen to make some tea, and I found six cards laid out on the counter. The first was the Devil.

Denis Johnson is the author of several novels and plays, and has also published articles, short stories, and poems. He lives in North Idaho and Arizona.

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