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Cursed From BirthTHE SHORT, UNHAPPY LIFE OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, JR.
By WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, JR.
Soft Skull PressCopyright © 2006 The William S. Burroughs Trust
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSon of Naked Lunch
William S. Burroughs Jr. III, son of Naked Lunch. Born in Conroe, Texas, July 21, 1947, 4:10 A.M. without consult or consultation. My mother (Joan was her name) must have been a remarkable woman. During the entire course of my fetal development, she consumed enough Benzedrine daily to kill Lester Maddox outright while Big Bill, my father, took three bangs of H a day to keep up with her in his own ivied and contemplative way. I was born to conversation and to an alfalfa farm in the Rio Grande valley. The main crop, marijuana, grew between the rows. My father had hired a guy name of José to tend the fields, and a couple of times a week he'd go down there and nudge him in the ribs. "Hey José, what's that growing in my alfalfa? Haw, haw, heh, heh."
We split for Mexico City almost the moment I was born and all I can remember of the valley is the hot droning of locusts in the distance as seen, yes, seen, through gasoline fumes and the net over my crib (under a flat tree near a flat white house) to keep out the scorpions, beastly black things that danced andcapered together between the blasted gnarled roots of trees until one was dead, flexing spasmodically, the other crooked and haywire.
I have no memory of our flat in the native quarter of the city for reasons soon to become evident, but the spiral staircase that led down from our top floor was banked with cool blue walls that kept out the heat. Perhaps I was just young enough then to feel the temperature of the color. At the bottom of the stairs, in poncho and sunlight, was my little Mexican friend, Micco, who was the proud possessor of a white rabbit named Chili. I had never worn shoes in my life until one day Chili thumped up to one of my brown and bare toes and bit me like a Gila monster. I went crying to my mother wah!, who was soft and warm and pulsing, and not only got a set of shoes, but also a fresh can of beans.
I had a half sister named Julie, full of smiles, a tiny naked dancer who was my mother's daughter. She was only two years older than I, and the first hint of disaster was an impossibly mad drive along whimsically sudden changing mountain roads, with Allen Ginsberg in the car with us, terrifying glimpses of death, rusting wreckage far below and hearing my mother saying, "Ha ha, how fast can this old heap go?" Julie and I spent the trip on the floor of the back in the intimacy of fear as Allen pleaded with the driver to slow down. Finally we hit something and there was a little blood, but not much. The driver was not my father and Allen tells me that for a long time there was some doubt as to whose child I actually was. (If they only knew.) But I have my father's chin and I have his heart and spend no time in the forest licking imaginary wounds.
My father, pale and haunted, took me to a park all agreen with dusty Mexican trees futilely waving away the wind from a cloudless blue sky. I was nauseous but happy as we stood by a fountain, a big one that touched my face with spray in points of light. By the water, he unveiled his gift: a red boat that ran on alcohol-soaked cotton ignited in the stern. An awesome machine with real fire. "We have to be careful now," he said with the utmost gravity as he shakily lit the cotton and then the little boat chugged crazy circles on the water. But my eyes were on three teenagers with greasy hair who were watching us from the other side of the water. They were snickering and I was afraid of them.
At this time, Bill was looking straight into the abyss. The rock he'd built upon was rattling and crumbling and echoing down from beneath his feet and he was pale and thin. I was his main concern there by the fountain, but over the yearning and pain that he felt for me hung something heavier. Like lead, but molten and smelling of gunpowder and burnt copper. The Burroughs Curse. I don't know when it was first visited upon us, but I felt it then and the chug, chug, snicker, snicker painted a very lasting picture.
After the shooting, Julie went away, never to be seen by me again. Allen was not allowed to see her and it was clear that Bill would have been dried and cured on sight. As to myself, my father made the wisest choice available and took me to live with my grandparents in St. Louis. I remember arriving at their house on a hill all afeard with a piece of paper crumpled in my hand and asking, "Where's the wastebasket?" My father had always been a stickler about litter. "Now Billy, there's enough crap around, huh?" And then he was gone to suffer in abominable ways and to write or more accurately transcribe Naked Lunch. No shit man, he stayed not upon the order of his going but went at once. "Wouldn't you?"
I was taken in without reticence and with great compassion. My grandmother was Laura Lee Burroughs, aristocratic, proud, possessed of great strength and a great disgust for all things pertaining to bodily functions. She had once been extraordinarily beautiful, and wielded enormous power. My grandfather was Mortimer P. Burroughs, known as "Mote," a name picked up in the South. He was kind and gentle, and while largely under Laura's thumb, still provided most of the merriment in the house. "Oh-h Mote!" she would say as he'd slip into his favorite story, fraudulently aweep about the time he ate a robin for Christmas dinner.
I loved my grandfather deeply when I was a child. When I was five, in the St. Louis twilight, he took me out into the cool grasses where we deep-lunged blue light and looked for the first star. He would drop silver dimes in the grass and tell me angels were dropping them for me. And I would gather them up and give them back. I knew that angels had somehow dropped them. They fairly shone with stardust.
I felt small in my bed, but secure with my big grandfather there, reading Horton Hatches the Egg to me. In Palm Beach, Florida, when he went swimming in the ocean, I would cry until he came home. And he and I played a game called Our House. Laura was never included, nor did she ever try to join in. The game consisted of imagining a strange, forbidding place, a mountaintop or a cave, preferably inaccessible, surrounded by tangles of vine and bramble. And this would be the place where we built "our house." Years after Mote died, I was just beginning to understand what the game was meant to teach me.
I remember how he chuckled to himself when he found me crying at the bottom of our steep driveway in winter. I couldn't get up the drive because it was iced over and I didn't think to walk in the snow. I remember all of us sitting on the back porch. I was welcome on any lap and we'd watch the cars make the water spray on the thruway a mile away.
We all slept in the same room, and Laura had a ritual. I would say, "My foot hurts," and she would sit on the bed and massage my calves until I fell asleep. Or she would reach across from her bed to mine and hold my hand in the dark. I was unspeakably afraid of the night. My first encounter with headshrinkers would come over this fear of the dark. It was a bitter enemy. I even saw danger in reaching across the darkness to hold my grandmother's hand. Something might grab it, or it could find someone else in her bed.
Still, all these years later, I am in an uneasy truce with the dark, and always shy away from its resting places. The headshrinkers didn't know what they were doing. They dropped acid a few times and wore things around their necks. With steamer trunks of books in tow they tried to move into my house (head) and tell me how to furnish it. I gave them the guest room with the missing wall and nothing in it but a freshly killed rose and a musical note. They gave me hypnosis, Thorazine, Ritalin, imprisonment, kisses on my ass, and threats. They told me if I didn't let them take care of my problem right away, I'd have difficulty with interpersonal relationships the rest of my life. They were right about that.
One psychologist hypnotized me, and in the guise of making sure I was deep under, stroked my hand-which he seemed to enjoy. He would tell me it was getting more and more numb, and that I soon wouldn't be able to feel anything. Sometimes I didn't when he jabbed my hand with a needle again and again, as many as five times. I know he enjoyed that, too.
Mote and Laura moved to Palm Beach so I could grow up wholesome. For ten years, we lived at 202 Sanford Avenue, a street lined with royal palm trees where the houses get smaller and some of them have no servants. My grandparents ran an antique-furniture business on Worth Avenue, Cobblestone Gardens, where they sold elegant antiques to the very rich, and always met them at the door. The house was full of the creaking stuff. Some of the rooms were furnished according to different historical periods, but after Mote was gone, my grandmother sold a lot of it and scrambled up the rest. We had a lot of old Victorian articles with taloned paws carved on the legs; one coffee table actually had wings.
I went to the Palm Beach Private School with kids named Post, Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Dodge. I once knocked Winnie Rockefeller on his fat little ass and me knuckles are still agilt. Errol Flynn's son was one grade ahead of me in school. He was always quiet, not to say nearly totally withdrawn. He carried his books from floor to floor with a distant look in his eyes. Anne Woodward was a brave child. She came to school chewing gum the very day after her mother hung herself from a tree in their backyard. Oh, Anne, my first crush.
Nina Dodge used to run down to the police station and take her clothes off. She'd say, "You can't touch me! You can't touch me!" And it was true. They would lose their jobs in about three seconds. The politest cops in the world are in Palm Beach. The Kennedy estate, well protected by high ivied walls, stood mysteriously a mere half mile away from 202 Sanford.
There was a saying there that Palm Beach, which is an island, had "three bridges leading to the U.S." It was originally built to house the servants safely across the river, like a slave village.
It was a town where people could afford to build their fantasies into their homes. I remember one such place. Whoever owned it was almost never there. There was a marble swimming pool with steps leading down into it at both ends. One side was graced by what seemed to be a huge, marble amphitheater, the only purpose of which was to amplify the rush and roar of nearby ocean waves. The grounds of the estate, set fifteen feet above the Atlantic, included an ancient Floridian Indian burial ground.
With my cohorts, all grown up now, all gone on to various kinds of successes, I used to roam the various jungle-like paths that led round and about the burial mound. There were palmettos and tropical plants all over, some dangerous-looking. And there was a huge palm tree that sloped gracefully up through the dappled foliage. Whoever owned the estate, and left it for us to play in, had imported real pine needles to place around this tree, which angled in such a way that it was perfect for leaning against while running your fingers through the fragrant needles. I'd pick one out and while listening to the ocean snip it into as many pieces as possible between my thumb and forefinger, years before "she loves me, she loves me not."
There were wild and beautiful rock gardens here and there with underground springs that formed pools, real pools, not cement-bottomed, but clean, with water spiders. And around the big marble swimming pool were marble Grecian statues that led you through a great colonnade to the main steps of the mansion, towering over the end of the pool like the Taj Mahal, windows whitely shuttered and completely unmenacing. Everything was soaking in the purest white.
I was a mighty warrior with a bow and arrow. A friend, Larry, and I stalked game in weeded lots, no sign of civilization near. One day (I had never killed a thing yet) Larry tapped me on the shoulder. "Look!" And there, in expectant repose, I saw an indigo snake. Her scales were blue, blue, blue. Her eyes, her smile. She knew. And, not knowing a thing about archery, I sent a child's unerring arrow straight through her body, but didn't kill her.
For four days, in the garage at home, I kept her in a cardboard box with grass, water, and my murder. The hole through her was red and raw and the luster and life went so slowly. I touched the shivered length of this dying creature. She never tried to strike. Not in pain, not in shock, not at my tremulous approach. The eyes slowly turned to milk and I'd had my time. It was a perfect shot, from a distance.
The people who lived next door had a beagle that barked all night long. It thought it was protecting the whole block. And the whole block complained. The owners (the man's name was Given D. Powers) had no recourse but to take the beast to a vet and have its vocal cords removed. For the rest of its life it barked with a soft whisper.
I remember manicured lawns and hotels and the jetty for fishing at the smack end of town. I remember the "shark's pool," hidden away on the ocean side of Palm Beach, where you could always see sharks swimming. I remember the Coral Beach Club, the pastel clothing, strolling on classy Worth Avenue (somebody spent millions to build a fabulous new shopping mall and nobody went there, except to Abercrombie & Fitch, because it wasn't Worth Avenue).
I remember sneaking into the North Tower of the Biltmore Hotel to see if I could get an angle on the ladies' solarium and finding instead a baby owl and forgetting all about the naked ladies and chasing the little white critter all over the top of the tower with a view for miles and pigeon shit everywhere and catching it and wrapping it up in my shirt and walking back with it through the muted reds and browns of the lobby, half naked. I took it home and crooned to it the way kids do, and then took it back and let it go, the way kids do.
I remember Laura's beautifully polished record player. She called it her "Victrola." Tears would come to her eyes when she listened to "Three Coins in the Fountain." It was quite mysterious to open. The tone arm was a graceful work of art. I used to lay my head against the shining wooden pattern-work that protected the cloth that covered the speakers and listen to the theme from The Thin Man, and "Que Sera, Sera."
Two gay friends of my grandparents', Tom and Clark, came over once for tea. Someone mentioned I was afraid of the dark and Tom looked at me, teasing, his eyes like beacons. He asked, "Are you afraid there's something under the bed?" His eyes were not laughing, but everybody laughed. I could see what his eyes showed-the same fear of the dark.
I was perceptive in that way. I asked my grandmother why I could sense events before they happened, and people's inner feelings. She told me it was a very great gift and should be cultivated. But at the same time, she didn't understand that if I said the dark was dangerous, it was! I think she did know it was true, but that she wanted the idea brainwashed out of me. There was an old saying in the family: "Some things are better left unsaid."
I saw my father three times from 1951 to 1961. And what times those were! Driving to his hotel in the evening-he never stayed with us, and favored the less expensive places at the beach end of Worth Avenue-the air was always soft and salty. Body-temperature air. I remember that it was difficult to tell where my body left off and the air began. He always seemed to be standing in the hallway and locking his room the moment I arrived, me running to meet him, doors flashing past, into his arms and he smelled of cigarette smoke.
He would come over for dinner, though, and I would emulate his European style of eating, fork upside down. There was a general conspiracy in the family to convince me that Bill was an explorer, probably because of his South American sortie for yagé, and on these two occasions Bill took me for a walk after dinner and would show me how fast he walked through the jungle. I'd have to run to keep up and he'd turn about suddenly and snatch me in the air, then he'd be very quiet and we'd walk on as he lit a cigarette.
Excerpted from Cursed From Birth by WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, JR. Copyright © 2006 by The William S. Burroughs Trust. Excerpted by permission.
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