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Driving Mr. Albert (Michael Paterniti)


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Michael Paterniti with William Burroughs, 1997







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We cruise a Lawrence, Kansas, neighborhood of picket fences and leafless trees, parking before a small red house, a five-room Sears, Roebuck. Out back on the lawn, short grass and long grass, the manicured shape of a huge penis put there by the owner as a landing pad to welcome the coming space aliens. When we ring the bell, we wait for a moment, for some breathing presence within, then a turn of the knob, and a spectral light frames Harvey's former neighbor in the door, the soon-to-be-late novelist William S. Burroughs.

Father of the Beats, the counterculture incarnate, the junkie poet laureate, Burroughs, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, were the original rappers about truth and beauty, while opening the door on an underworld world of American drifters, living only for the high of any given moment. Though Harvey once lived around the corner from here, he only ever met Burroughs once, for a lunch arranged by Kevin Hull, the filmmaker. Now, Harvey clasps his hand, enunciating loudly, believing that the eighty-three-year-old Burroughs is hard of hearing, which he isn't, then climbs up the writer's arm until they are in a startled embrace, the two of them as pale as marble.

"REAL, REAL GOOD TO SEE YA!" gushes Harvey.

"Yes, yes, I'm sure I feel likewise, Doctor," says Burroughs. He waves a hand at the clouds, which have just begun to sprinkle ice, squints upward as if expecting pterodactyls, then hurries us inside. Burroughs sits against the wall, in a seat with wheels, the brand name Dynachair emblazoned on it. There is a deep groove in the wall where the back of the chair has rubbed up against it. The writer breathes heavily from his exertion. Prior to our arrival here, Harvey confessed that he tried to read one of Burroughs's books--Naked Lunch or Junky, he can't remember which--but had no luck. "Couldn't make sense of it," says Harvey. "But they tell me he's some kind of genius."

Burroughs offers Harvey a place at the table next to him, calls in drinks from one of the three men who help keep him tonight, the one named Wayne. Burroughs is dressed in a denim shirt with jeans and a green army coat, which he flicks back to reveal a handgun in a holster over his kidney. He has a bowed back, beautiful blue cat eyes, and cheeks dimpled as if by the tip of a blade. A chaos of wrinkles map his face, an entire life set there: Mexico City. Tangier. Paris. In some groove or deep furrow, too, is the apple he set on his wife's head, like William Tell on peyote, before he accidentally shot her dead. On blue plates before us, cheese, crackers, pepperoni, sardines, and caviar. "Ah yes," he says, "the eggs of sturgeon. A midwestern favorite." Then he loads a mountain of the gooey black baubles on a Saltine. Harvey quaffs glasses of red wine until he turns bright red; Burroughs drains five Coke-and-vodkas after telling us he's just taken his daily dose of methadone.

"WHAT'S THAT?" yells Harvey, having missed Burroughs's pronouncement.

"Methadone, Doctor. An amazing morphine substitution. Have you ever tried morphine?"

"NO. NO, I HAVEN'T," yells Harvey earnestly.

"Unbelievable. In Tangier, there was a most magnificent, most significant drug.... Went there just to have the last of it. Last there ever was. Tell me about your addictions, Doctor."

But then Harvey says nothing more.

"WAY-ELL, HEH-HEH . . ."

Burroughs lights a joint and offers it to Harvey, who demurs, smoke swirling around his head like a wreath of steam from a Turkish bath.

"DID YOU BECOME ADDICTED BECAUSE YOU FELT PAIN?"

"I wish I could say that, Doctor, but no," says Burroughs. "I became addicted because I wanted more." He considers for a moment, lost behind a white skein. "Now it just gives me something to look forward to."

Harvey nods his head sympathetically but doesn't speak.

"Well, yes, yes, how nice," says Burroughs, addressing the table, thrumming his fingers. He rocks in his Dynachair, takes tiny ballet steps with his toes, fumbles with a Patrick McGrath paperback. He fiddles with his kitty, for the old man loves cats. Above him on a shelf, Laxatone, for feline fur balls; Zantac, for GI upset. The sweet scent of marijuana mingles with the dinner being prepared by someone in the kitchen. Tomato sauce from scratch. Onions and green pepper, steaming off the burgundy. "Well, listen here," says Burroughs, holding up a copy of Guns & Ammo, thumbing absently to an ad. "They have a black powder cartridge gun that you can order through the mail. Can you believe this?"

Before Harvey can answer, the writer all of a sudden pops to his feet, starts toward the leather couch and the window above it. Some violent switch has been thrown, though there's nothing here that really suggests danger. Only headlights from the street silently sliding across the walls like flying saucers. "Whazzat?" he growls. Harvey looks startled; Burroughs reaches for his holster. Waves his other hand like he's surrounded by mosquitoes. Avarice, lust, hunger. Wayne rushes in, calms him: Sit down, Master. It's nothing. We have something for you. A little, pretty present.

"A present?" says Burroughs, switching again, dissolving as suddenly into some ecstatic state of childhood. Wayne is in his forties, though wearing an oversized fatigue jacket--the uniform around here--and with his dark sweep of hair, he appears both younger and dwarfish. He leads the writer back to the Dynachair. "Well, well, what could it be?" A happy soft-shoe. Harvey, too, is suddenly piqued, and sits with raised eyebrows--curious cat.

"We'll call it the Bone," says Wayne, disappearing into a dark corner of the house to retrieve it.

"The Bone!" cries Burroughs. "The lovely, lovely Bone!" Harvey is confused now, looking back and forth between Burroughs and Wayne, as Wayne gently places a huge wrapped object on the coffee table. Wayne reads a letter that accompanies it, from an anthropologist who found the following item while trekking in the Southwest. In describing the moment of discovery, the anthropologist writes something like "The object impinged on my periphery." And Burroughs gets stuck on that, starts repeating,"Impinge-on-my-periphery! Impinge-on -my-periphery! Impinge- on-my-periphery! " Then he falls on the gift with greedy hands, disrobing it in a crinkling fury, to reveal--what else?--a large brown petrified bone.

When Harvey sees it, he yells, "IT'S INFILTRATED WITH CALCIUM!" As if it's about to explode, and we all need to take cover. But having worked Harvey up into a climactic frenzy, Burroughs himself has disappeared into a mellow, postcoital reverie. "Absolutely magnificent," he whispers, far away, caressing it. "Feels like linoleum."

Wayne explains. "It's eighty million years old," he says. "The trachodon was a duck-billed dinosaur, a mean fucking dino as big as this house with turds as big as this couch." Burroughs's hands fly up. Delighted. The mere mention of naughty words reminds him of a certain bit of grisliness in Afghanistan, a woman there who was caught having sex with another man not her husband and was stoned to death. "No, they didn't kill her right away," says Burroughs. "Buried to her neck in the ground. Had to drop a heavy rock right on her head like this."

He stands up, throws an invisible rock down with all of his might. Sits. Shudders. Up again. "Like this!" Throws down again. "Terrible." Falls back into the Dynachair, cuddles himself. Up once more. "Like this!" And again. Shiver. Which opens the conversation to killers and gruesome murders. Wayne is a veritable encyclopedia on the topic. He describes a guy in California who raped and mutilated one woman, then killed another, which leads to short bios on Wayne's Hall of Fame of serial killers: Ted Bundy, Charles Ng, and David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz. And there are others, too, set loose and wandering in America right now, huddled by overpasses, buying Twinkies at convenience stores, picking a next victim by the fall of light on her hair as she stands in line at the cash register. When Burroughs seems to be working himself up again, Wayne places some of the writer's own books in front of him to be signed, which works a hypnotic effect. To the anthropologist, he writes: "Thanks for the beautiful bone. Look forward as we look back. All best, William S. Burroughs." It takes a long time to write the note and he repeats it to himself. Again, chanting. "The beautiful bone, the beautiful bone, the beautiful bone."

When he's done he sits back, spent. Harvey, who up until now has been inspecting the trachodon bone, yells, "WHATTA SPECIMEN!" But Burroughs is gone again. The appearance of dinosaurs here, in this gold-colored room, in this Sears, Roebuck house, on this applepie block, in this idyllic Kansan town, has set the thin man brooding. So lost in the fireworks of his mind, the body subsists on methadone and caviar. And now as the body fades, it's become an issue of bones. His loss has no end but for the bones.

"Dr. Senegal," says Burroughs, "what good has possibly come from this century?" Harvey swivels in his seat, assuming that another physician has arrived, then realizes that Burroughs is now addressing him as Dr. Senegal. He makes a show of deep consideration.

"WAY-ELL, THERE HAVE BEEN REAL IMPROVEMENTS IN MENTAL HEALTH."

"Chemical improvements?"

"NOT JUST CHEMICAL--"

But then Burroughs interrupts. "No, Doctor, nothing good will come from the End. More of a police state. More crime. More attacks on queers. I hope not to be here for it."

And he won't be. In a few months he'll be dead. But now, he's bewildered, jigging to some distant music in his mind. Since we haven't planned to stay for dinner, we get ready to leave, though once he's gotten started on the End, Burroughs has much to say. Computer chips lodged in the brains of newborn infants, poets lynched in the trees along magnolia-lined driveways to Corporate Headquarters, a howling pandemonium of neo-Nazis, hip-hop brothers, born-agains, and Black Muslims all getting to know one another in the city streets of America with automatic weapons. It appears Harvey has never considered the matter from this angle, and seems a bit stunned. But then Wayne intervenes.

"Ah, William," he says fondly, "it won't be that bad." He helps Burroughs from the Dynachair and then Burroughs leads us to the front door. On the tippy front porch, finally, Harvey and Burroughs face each other for a good-bye. The writer lowers his voice and delivers a farewell chestnut, one that Harvey receives with a knowing nod, though it isn't clear he actually hears it.

"What keeps the old alive, Dr. Senegal," whispers Burroughs, "is that we learn to be evil."

And then we are out in the night, in a downpour, Harvey trundling toward the car for what feels like a small eternity. Behind him, Burroughs sways, curling and unfurling his arms like elephant trunks, then assumes a position of Buddhist prayer--pale, delirious, still.

 
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Excerpted from Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti. Copyright © 2000 by Michael Paterniti. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.