Image Credit: All grave site photos by Sarah Laurentius
The road to the Western Lands is by definition the most dangerous road in the world.”
William S. Burroughs
How often we judge actions by the people who perform them! The self-same deeds are lauded to the skies or allowed to sink into oblivion simply because the persons concerned are well-known or not.”
Pliny (the younger),
letter to Calpurnius Macer
The first time I saw Daniel he was sitting on a picnic table telling two confused but not entirely disinterested teenagers how he had gotten himself hooked on heroin so he could “feel what it would be like to kick and better understand William S. Burroughs.”
It was the Saturday of my first week at a new school and we were at a picnic social. I had accidentally walked up to the conversation at this line of dialogue and kept approaching, drawn to the dark, loud, twitchy raconteur. The male and female teenagers who were being regaled seemed too normal (or “basic” in today’s terms) to truly appreciate the story, and as I stood awkwardly in the midst of it all I hoped they would pass on. I didn’t know who William S. Burroughs was (beyond his portrayal in Kerouac’s On the Road) but at this small boarding school in the North Georgia Mountains, full of juvenile delinquents and the children of wealthy hillbillies, I had stumbled upon someone of distinction. As I eased into the story-teller’s sphere of attention, I knew it would be uncool to ask, “did you really get hooked on heroin just to feel what it would be like to kick,” and instead went for a more important question: “Who’s William S. Burroughs?”
“He wrote Naked Lunch,” Daniel responded, with no pretention or condescension and then with madcap zeal started to ramble and rant on about something else. Eventually we exchanged names and an awareness that we were from a similar part of Atlanta. He knew more about almost everything that interested me then (and still interests me today) but I could hold my own and we became fast friends. I was sixteen and he was only a year older but he felt like a big brother. We wrote screenplays and sketches, bonded over a love of Kafka and the band Ministry, and debated philosophical ideas. We were elitist punks and kings of oblivion and our friendship was on course to last the rest of our lives. After a few months Daniel was expelled from the school for starting a cult that met late at night behind the school’s chapel (I was never a member but he would giggle to me about it during the day). The official reason for the expulsion was smoking cigarettes.
That was 1993. Daniel died September 3, 2016 of a heroin overdose. On September 2, 2019 I drove all day to bring his ashes to St. Louis to the grave of William S. Burroughs (February 5, 1914—August 2, 1997).
6:20 am—on the road from Athens, GA; north on 441.
7:37 am—pass Tallulah Falls Boarding School where I first met Daniel.
9:20 am—arrive in Asheville, NC at the home of Daniel’s widow to pick up the ashes; then Interstate 40 to Nashville to 24 through Tennessee into Kentucky to 57 north in Illinois to 64; then straight west to St. Louis.
On the passenger seat sat a small stack of Burroughs books and a Zip-Lock bag of human remains. Daniel’s widow filled out the label on the Zip-Lock. For DATE she wrote, “8/2/19.” For CONTENTS she wrote, “Daniel,” after which she drew a heart.
There is a lot of history between 1993 and 2016 for both of our lives and our friendship. This carbon-burning epitaph can only be the highlights and the best of the low-lights, a road-borne encomium dictated through cigarette smoke and tears. As a teenager, Daniel cared about his legacy; and while he was as brilliant a writer as he was talker and thinker, he had a hard time finishing any piece of writing (once in his late 30’s he declared he would put together a collection of beginnings). The role of scribe for our group of friends had always been entrusted to me.
The last time I saw Daniel was at the launch party for my first big novel, And Wind Will Wash Away, in which there is a character based off of him named Lao Benjoseph. I read from a chapter featuring that character at the launch and Daniel approved of the portrayal and giggled about the embedded jokes. Not quite ready to tell the general populace, my wife and I did tell Daniel and his wife that we were expecting our first child. Daniel told me that his son was the best thing he ever did. It was August 13 and the next morning, deeply hungover, we sat on my porch, smoking cigarettes, and spoke with great excitement about the forthcoming return of Twin Peaks, a show he introduced me to.
After a traffic delay on I-57 in southern Illinois, I finally arrived in St. Louis at around 8:00pm, roughly fourteen hours after I left. The drive was spent listening to The Nation’s podcast “Start Making Sense,” a playlist of William S. Burroughs’ favorite songs (the list played at his funeral on August 6, 1997), various pieces of music that featured Burroughs in recitation of his work, and by the end chain-smoking Daniel’s beloved Marlboro Reds. The cigarettes were keeping me awake but also making me agitated. My somber mood passed into anger at times. This anger was not uncommon when I thought about Daniel’s death. It was quite idiotic for that brilliant man to over-dose on heroin (and alcohol), taking so much away from his wife and son. And the rest of his loving family. And me.
I expressed this anger out loud to the Zip-Lock bag on my passenger seat. There was no response.
It wasn’t just William S. Burroughs and Twin Peaks, although those are two of the most important. The list of concepts, artists, and works Daniel introduced me to in the first couple of years of knowing him includes but is not limited to: the rest of David Lynch’s canon, Hunter S. Thompson, the bands Crass and Throbbing Gristle, Genesis P. Orridge, Norman Mailer, computer programing, set theory, post-modernism (in the simplest definition of “context over content”), RE/Search Press, Abby Hoffman, Kathy Acker, Camille Paglia, G.G. Allin, Annie Sprinkle, and the Marquis de Fucking Sade (heard of but hadn’t thought to read).
Years later he would be the first of our group to read William T. Vollmann, telling me to check him out. A few years after that I was able to bring Vollmann (my friend, mentor, and now employer—I’m his research assistant) to Atlanta to meet Daniel. At lunch Daniel asked Vollmann what his favorite Burroughs book was. Vollmann said, “Junkie.” “Isn’t that one a little… basic?” Daniel responded with an impish grin.
When I left Asheville I posted to social media a photograph of my passenger seat and told everyone I felt like “Charon ferrying my friend to the western lands, to a resting place on the other side of a great river.”
One of the pieces of music featuring Burroughs that I listened to was the album, Seven Souls, by Material (a project led by Bill Laswell). I bought this compact disc some time in the late-90s and I’ve enjoyed it on many drives. On this journey it all took on new meaning; or I guess I could say, it was finally expressing its true meaning.
The only time I had ever set foot in St. Louis was on a cross-country bus trip in 1993 just a couple of months before meeting Daniel. I had a layover at the Greyhound Station and from this, the city of the “Gateway to the West” has always felt like a liminal space. Seven Souls was an album of songs all focused around Burroughs’ last completed novel, The Western Lands. Once Daniel got me hooked on Burroughs, one of the main aspects of his work that kept me hooked was a mutual obsession with world mythologies. The Western Lands is Burroughs’ own take on The Egyptian Book of the Dead. My favorite novel in his oeuvre is The Cities of the Red Night, but The Western Lands is not far behind. In the novel, Burroughs describes the progression towards the Western Lands as a journey on which one avoids traps and snares while shedding each higher soul until a place of final rest. At one point in a song he reads, “The road to the Western Lands is devious, unpredictable. Today’s easy passage may be tomorrow’s death trap. The obvious road is almost always a fool’s road, and beware the Middle Roads, the roads of moderation, common sense and careful planning. However, there is a time for planning, moderation and common sense.”
And at another, “The road to the Western Lands is by definition the most dangerous road in the world, for it is a journey beyond Death, beyond the basic God standard of Fear and Danger. It is the most heavily guarded road in the world, for it gives access to the gift that supersedes all other gifts: Immortality.”
I knew that in the book that last line is followed by, “Every man starts the course. One in a million finishes.” Daniel, or what remained of him in a bag on my passenger seat, would finish. I, a ferryman wearing a St. Christopher medal, would get him there.
I was also wearing a gray t-shirt from Orpheus Brewing in Atlanta. The front bore the brand logo—a snifter-lyre hybrid—and the back read “DON’T LOOK BACK.”
Something Daniel—and to a smaller degree I—shared with Burroughs was a social vantage point. Daniel was from a well-off family of academics and intellectuals. Burroughs might have been from higher society but he was a Depression Era suburban punk-wannabe. From his upper middle class position of privilege and safety he read Jack Black’s You Can’t Win and dreamed of life on the other side of the tracks, the thieves, hobos, and even celebrity criminals like John Dillinger.
Burroughs closes out his “Foreword” to You Can’t Win (I have the 2013 Feral House edition) writing, “Jack Black calls his book You Can’t Win. Well, who can? Winner take nothing. Would he have been better off having spent his life at some full-time job? I don’t think so.”
I’ve already provided an abridged litany of some of the Daniel’s torrid interests. Daniel might have spent most of his life at a full-time job, but he was drawn to those who didn’t and rebelled in his own way through drugs and art.
My choice of hotel was simply because it looked nice, it was near Burroughs’ childhood home, and I found a really great deal online. In preparation for my journey, I reread the Paris Review “William S. Burroughs, The Art of Fiction No. 36” from Fall 1965 (issue 35), and the interviewer mentions that Burroughs was staying at the “Chase Park Plaza Hotel, St. Louis’s most elegant.”
My hotel! Synchronicity!
From another article about Burroughs I learned that the next time he visited St. Louis, sixteen years later in 1981, he stayed at the same hotel on the twelfth floor.
Pulling up and figuring out where to park, I was in awe of the urban grandeur. The hotel, originally built in 1922, now housed a residential wing, a movie theater, multiple restaurants and bars, ballrooms, conventions halls, an athletic center, and a modest but stylish pool outside. I had found an oasis, a place of opulence and safety as I carried Daniel to his place of rest in these western lands. When I checked-in I did not ask their policy on human remains in the rooms.
My room was on the fifth floor with a view of the northeast corner of Forrest Park. I unpacked and set up my desk. I needed food and a drink would be nice, but I had to write, I had to exorcise so much that dogged me in the car. Notes on my hand and pieces of paper, along with voice recordings of complete sentences and passages needed to be typed. In a fury I got down as much as I could before my body, reeling from chain-smoking while driving, could take no more.
I ate at one of the hotel’s bars and had a Manhattan. I resolved to not leave the hotel that night, and after another drink I explored from roof to patio, chasing Burroughs’ ghost and running amok like a slightly inebriated Eloise. Back at the bar I ordered a sparkling rosé and told the bartender I was celebrating. At his behest I explained my journey and he gifted me the drink. Outside on the patio I bummed a smoke from a couple since I was ready to talk more and serendipitously one of the pair worked at a rehab center. They listened to the story of what brought me to St. Louise and then the man who worked at a rehab center, and was himself in recovery, blessed my journey with a pep talk that left me in tears. I went back to my room to write and eventually fell asleep surrounded by Burroughs books, Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, and Daniel’s Zip-Lock bag ominously resting on my night table.
In The Paris Review interview Burroughs responds to the question of why he started taking drugs with “Well, I was just bored. I didn’t seem to have much interest in becoming a successful advertising executive or whatever, or living the kind of life Harvard designs for you. After I became addicted in New York in 1944, things began to happen.”
Why did Daniel do heroin?
Daniel loved his son, loved his wife, loved his family, and I believe he loved me. But I also believe that Daniel was bored as shit. His mind and his weirdness were wasted in a middle class existence. The period immediately after boarding school led Daniel to his first overdose which led to rehab. After rehab, I caught back up with him while he was living in a halfway house in my neighborhood in Atlanta. His mother let me know where he was because I was “one of his goodfriends.” At the halfway house he was taking some classes at Georgia State; for an English class he wrote a story called “Tobacco and Dead Things” which I have since had published posthumously (it’s dreamy and sad and involves guilt and addiction). Enraptured with his mind and its potential, I often asked him what he wanted to do in life. That fact that he would write was never a question but at one point he expressed a desire to get a degree in Philosophy after which he would become a piercer (he loved the Urban Primitives volume from RE/Search).
He never did those things. From the halfway house he moved into a rental with the most brilliant of post-rehab teen fuck-ups (many of whom are still my lifelong friends) and in this new home, dubbed by Daniel “The Grassy Knoll of the Mind,” they commenced sober yet debauched madcap revelries mostly supported by day jobs at Starbucks. They stayed up all night smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, singing along to G.G. Allin, marathon-viewing Twin Peaks and a wide range of auteur cinema, and sometimes sexually experimenting. They were a low-key suburban “wild boys” a la the Burroughs novel of that title. After “The Grassy Knoll of the Mind,” Daniel briefly lived at my house. This was around when I serendipitously made a connection that got Daniel his first computer-programming job at Wang. Programming became the course for the rest of his life. Soon he left sobriety behind and with marriage Daniel settled into a life of programming by day and continuous revelries by night.
On page 191 of The Western Lands Burroughs writes, “Danger is a biological necessity for men, like sleep and dreams. If you face death, for that time, for the period of direct confrontation, you are immortal. For the Western middle classes, danger is a rarity and erupts only with a sudden, random shock. And yet we are all in danger at all times, since our death exists: Mektoub, it is written, waiting to present the aspect of surprised recognition . . . Don Juan says that every man carries his own death with him at all times. The impeccable warrior contacts and confronts his death at all times, and is immortal.”
Daniel knew not to mix alcohol and heroin. When it came to drugs Daniel was a pro. Daniel had also read The Western Lands. I’ve mentioned before that he cared about his legacy, but did he court immortality? Was teasing out Mektoub the most exciting game he could play in his suburban Atlanta townhouse? Did he win or lose this game in the early morning of September 3, 2016?
On September 3, 2019, I awoke in St. Louis on the fifth floor of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Dressed in shorts and a ragged t-shirt for the crisp, sunny morning, and with headphones and my phone—for music and maps—I went down and out to run. I went a block west to see the top of Forrest Park and the enormous houses on Lindell Boulevard that faced it. I doubled back north and east toward the side of Kingshighway Boulevard of my hotel and Burroughs’ childhood home. At 4664 Pershing Place I found the house built in 1912 to Mortimer Burroughs’ specifications where young William spent the first part of his childhood (back then it was called Berlin Ave and changed to Pershing during the First World War). The three-story brick house looked modest from the front behind trees and shrubbery, but I could tell how far back it went and all the surrounding houses seemed grand and decadent. The house bore no plaque or fanfare and was clearly inhabited so after a couple of photos I ran on by. A few blocks away at 4464 Westminster Place, T.S. Eliot’s teenage home boasted an official marker on the sidewalk.
As I’m wont to do when I travel, I had already mapped the closest independent bookstore. Left Bank Books was also part of this neighborhood in between Central West End and Fountain Park. Approaching the bookstore from the north on my way back to the hotel I felt four sets of bronze eyes upon me and signage indicated that this intersection was known as Writer’s Corner. The four sets of eyes belonged to busts of Kate Chopin, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and right in front of the bookstore, William S. Burroughs. I felt at home here.
Left Bank Books was a glorious place and after looking around I fell into speaking with the staff. They were kind and as I told them of my quest they became more and more welcoming. They asked questions and shared stories of Burroughs doing events in the store. The oasis of the hotel extended into this neighborhood. But soon enough I needed to make the final part of my journey, back to the river, to bring Daniel to rest with Burroughs.
Maybe there was a demon of grief I sought to exorcise on this trip, but Daniel has been my real life Daemon and that is something I never want to lose.
One of the best things Hemingway ever said was that what makes a great writer is a built-in bullshit detector; I take this to mean your own bullshit especially. I always had Daniel in my head for that purpose because early on, when we wrote together, I literally had Daniel out loud for that purpose. He always lovingly called me out in moments of cheesiness or sentimentality. When I wrote without him there was always some point in my process where I was writing to impress or amuse him. This is still true today.
He could be loud and crass and annoying but Daniel never punched down. He saved his ire for hypocrites and pretentious intellectuals who lacked the true intelligence that includes kindness. With his son and younger brothers he was always patient and everyone admired his heart as much as his mind.
My friend Sarah picked me up at my hotel at 1:00pm.
Sarah is a photographer who doesn’t get to practice her MFA-trained skill as much now that she’s working in marketing as a brand strategist. Knowing her professionalism and kindness I was comfortable enough to ignore her and let her be a ghost while I fulfilled my mission.
We found the Burroughs family plot after a short walk from the Cemetery Office and Gatehouse. On the way I joked about whether we would get busted for making an unpaid deposit and when we arrived at the obelisk I put down my bag and Sarah set to work.
The mid-day sun beat down but a breeze had followed us from the car. The obelisk before me read on it’s front: “WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS/ JAN. 28, 1867/ SEP. 14, 1898/ ERECTED/ BY HIS ASSOCIATES/ AS A TRIBUTE TO HIS/ GENIUS.” There was the patriarch, the namesake, the inventor of the adding machine, and founder of the Burroughs Corporation. On the right side of the obelisk were the names of other family members including our beloved writer. But alas that wasn’t enough.
Two benches thronged the obelisk and in front of the one to the right sat a rectangular marble nameplate that read: “WILLIAM SEWARD/ BURROUGHS/ FEB. 5, 1914/ AUG. 2, 1997/ AMERICAN WRITER.” We had reached our destination.
From my messenger bag I drew the Zip-Lock and my copy of The Western Lands. The breeze tickled me and felt hopeful. This was not how I expected this moment to feel. I worried about getting a face-full of Daniel like the Dude got a face-full of Donnie in The Big Lebowski. But the breeze was hopeful and here I was.
As I had rehearsed, I read the last page of The Western Lands. On the Seven Souls album the last track is called “The End of Words” and some of this text is read by Burroughs. After that last page—which is barely more than a paragraph—I went back a page and a paragraph to also recite: “You have to be in Hell to see Heaven. Glimpses from the Land of the Dead, flashes of serene timeless joy, a joy as old as suffering and despair.”
The breeze comforted me. It took the heat away. It took the sweat from my brow and tears from my cheeks and I knew this place was blessing my mission, like the hotel, like Left Bank Books, like Sarah somewhere around me.
I poured from the Zip-Lock bag and instinctively made a long rectangle outlining and filling in what I imagined to be the shape of Burroughs’ coffin. The second instinct that crept up and out of me brought shame for the first time in this whole process. I started to sing the chorus from “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. I caught myself and felt trite and cheesy and lowered my voice lest Sarah would hear. I was pouring ashes, what an obvious thing to sing. But… But… I loved David Bowie. I was always envious that Daniel saw Bowie and Nine Inch Nails on tour together without me. And…
The lyrics were utterly appropriate:
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out on heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low…
The song was a sequel to “Space Oddity,” and clearly, as indicated in the first verse, modeled off of the first great rock and roll sequel, Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” (a continuation of “Peggy Sue”). Ground Control gets a message from Major Tom, the “Action Man,” after he has been missing for ten years and his message is “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.” Daniel had been gone three years and yet we finally took a trip like this. Or should I say, I’ve known Daniel twenty-six years and we finally took a trip like this. Standing at the grave of a writer who brought (and still brings me) so much joy and inspiration. I guess I was thanking Burroughs and Daniel at the same time.
I’m happy, hope you’re happy too
When I finished filling in the ephemeral coffin of ash, I poured a tiny bit into my copy of The Western Lands and put the book away. The Zip-Lock wasn’t fully empty but I knew where the rest should go.
Walking away in my Orpheus t-shirt (thematic enough for a second day of wear) towards Sarah and her camera, I refrained from looking back. I was done here.
I did this for myself. Daniel is dead. He never asked me to do this. I can only honor the dead in the best manner I can think of. Daniel and I should have visited St. Louis together while he was alive. We should’ve done a lot of things together when he was alive. After the death of Bowie in January of 2016, I sought to stoke the most important connections in my life (I never met Bowie and I especially regret never having seen him perform live). Little did I know that Daniel would die and his death would be the first of nine friends over two year until the passing of my father in January of 2019 and then eventually my father’s girlfriend of thirty-three years in July of 2019. Across that spectrum of death new life came in the form of my two sons.
In 2016 I saw Daniel three times. We had dinner in May for a belated celebration of his son’s birthday and it was there I gave Daniel a galley copy of my book, And Wind Will Wash Away, showing him the chapters that featured the character based off of him. In June we had dinner, which somehow led to a heated conversation about physical violence versus trauma, before attending the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra backing up a Bowie cover band. And then there was my book launch in August. Each time we committed to making an effort to spend more time together.
The sky was clear besides a dappling of errant clouds and the top of the Gateway Arch cut the sun in half. Stargate, a film from my youth that both Daniel and I enjoyed, was an easy reference especially with all of the Egyptian mythos enveloping my experience. I stood between the Arch and the edge of a great and important river. The brackish and murky foam of the Mississippi lapped at my boot and Sarah put down her camera to squnch up her nose and shake her head, a face indicating “yuck.”
It was a yucky river. I crossed it to this western side to bring Daniel to a resting place. It was all quite literal. I realized at the grave that I should’ve hit the river first, but ferryman of the dead was a new role for me and in some ways I was still figuring it out as I went. On the penultimate page of The Western Lands, it is written: “I want to reach the Western Lands—right in front of you, across the bubbling brook. It’s a frozen sewer. It’s known as the Duad, remember? All the filth and horror, fear, hate, disease and death flows between you and the Western Lands. Let it flow!”
Sarah did her work as I opened the Zip-Lock and let the rest of Daniel rained down like dirty snow into the water. The ashes formed a column in the lapping of the river and threatened to come for my boot. I watched the column waver and widen, dancing like a cartoon ghost . . . and then dissipate.
Styx, Lethe, Duad, Mississippi . . . let it flow.
Why a Roadtrip? Why not just fly?
Firstly: The effort is part of the act of love, the sacrifice.
Secondly: I’m not sure how the TSA would feel about a Zip-Lock bag full of white powder, even if they knew it was only human remains.
Thirdly: Daniel and I were of a generation that seemed obsessed with road trips. We both loved David Lynch’s Wild At Heart; Daniel loved Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers more than I did (but we could agree on Terence Malick’s Badlands); and everyone read Kerouac’s On the Road. For honeymoon Daniel and his wife took a road trip out to Roswell, New Mexico for all the alien kitsch. As a teenager I studied maps of highways and had a guilty pleasure love for Tom Cochran’s “Life is a Highway” before I proceeded to cover this country by Greyhound Bus as passenger and car as driver. When Daniel and I first met at boarding school, the short story he was working on was about two guys on a road trip heading west with a mission to kill the sun. They drove all night searching for it and passed out by morning. When they woke up late it was there taunting them so west they drove to catch it and kill it again and again… the sun always just out of reach. Daniel didn’t know how the story would end or even what the guys would do when they got to the ocean. He wasn’t good at finishing stories.
We never took a road trip together.
Sarah dropped me off back at the hotel and I took a grouchy half nap. I couldn’t write and with no other purpose I went back to Left Bank Books and wandered anonymous to a later shift of workers and brought souvenirs. Sarah picked me back up for dinner with her son and while it was lovely seeing them I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent. Back at the hotel, I went straight to bed and slept a sleep akin to death.
In the morning I was up early and energized. I felt fresh, renewed, and wanted to get home to live my life, to be a good husband, a good father, and a good friend to those still living. I needed to live and I needed to write.
“Ashes to Ashes” was listened to; there was no avoiding that. However, the main focus of my return was listening to Patti Smith read the audiobook of Just Kids. The choice was perfect, she was honoring the dead, a friend she loved, as was I with my roadtrip and this essay. In the book she even detailed a similar quest to chase the ghost of Arthur Rimbaud around France (in the 5,000+ words of this essay I’ve somehow failed to relate that I once traveled to Tangier, Morocco to visit Hotel Villa Muniria where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch; I’m no stranger to veneration and pilgrimages).
I worried about what I might have brought back with me from the Western Lands. Can anyone return clean from such a journey? I knew I wouldn’t be magically cleared of my own demons: there would be still be sorrow, grief, anxiety, and depression. I knew there would still be struggles of rejection and failure. But if anything a journey to the Western Lands could do for me, it could remind me that I was still alive.
And thus the verse after the first chorus of “Ashes to Ashes”:
Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh no, not again
I’m stuck with a valuable friend
“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”
One flash of light, but no smoking pistol
The last night I spent with Daniel after my reading was filled with a great depth of companionship. We each drunkenly admitted that it was the mind of the other that helped propel us forward. I told him how his father had been helping me with research for Vollmann’s book (Carbon Ideologies, a work about climate change and energy; Daniel’s father is an atmospheric chemist). He was jealous. And here I was trying to impress him. Like always.
We said things we had both always been meaning to say. At the time I hoped it was a rebirth, a new beginning for our friendship. We lived so close; we shouldn’t take that for granted.
In another universe, running in a very close parallel to ours, I’m sitting at my desk in room 539 of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. Out the window to my right, by the glow of a streetlight, I can see the northeast corner of Forrest Park. The world is quiet and the streets are empty. William S. Burroughs is upstairs on the twelfth floor. He puts down his book and rises from the bed with a cigarette to look out the window towards the roof of his childhood home. He thinks he can see himself younger, in the backyard, pretending to be the righteous, hobo, criminal Jack Black. A tiny green reindeer, about the size of a cat, taunts the boy just out of reach.
I turn away from the window. I would like to get out there and visit the zoo in the southwest corner of the park; see the lemurs Burroughs is always going on about. But I can’t. It’s night. It’s always night, and I have to write. The day won’t come until I’m done.
But how can I ever finish? How can I hit save and close my laptop? How can I drive backwards, east to the land of the living when there is never any end to Daniel, never any end to love, even when the one you love is here in the Western Lands and there is no song I can sing sweet enough to bring him back. Yet still I write. Writing against the night, trying to put a life and a love into black and white, knowing it will never be enough.
In another universe, running in a very close parallel to ours, I’m sitting at my desk in room 539 of the Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri writing . . .
The last thing William S. Burroughs wrote in his journal, and therefore the last thing he ever wrote was:
Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
It is the best word to end a life and writing career upon.
Daniel had a really great day at work. He described it as “a win.” That evening he was celebrating. All the craft beer in the refrigerator. Lots of heroin. He was found on the back patio lying on his side, almost fetal, in a position that indicates he was crouched and smoking a cigarette before he fell over. We must imagine that he died happy. He was loved and still is. It always seemed though that there was a pain in Daniel that could not be killed, not by love or by heroin. Copping Burroughs and Lovecraft, Daniel loved to affect a tone both creaky and patrician, and deliver a discourse on the darkness that awaited man wherever he went. He laughed at that darkness; he was the comedian and it was his straight man.
Daniel didn’t leave a journal but when I cleaned out his home office with the help of his youngest brother I found several indications of how much he loved his wife, son, family, and friends. Daniel didn’t leave a journal but he left behind several instances of that best of all last words with which to end a life: LOVE.
I’m happy, hope you’re happy too
Jordan A. Rothacker is a writer who lives in Athens, Georgia where he earned a Master’s in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. He has published three novels and most recently a collection of short stories, Gristle: weird tales (Stalking Horse Press, 2019 ). December 2020 will see the release of his fifth book: a neo-pagan, future noir set after climate catastrophe and the resulting fall of capitalism called The Death of the Cyborg Oracle (Spaceboy Books).
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.