About the Author
Date of Birth:February 4, 1914
Date of Death:August 2, 1997
Place of Birth:St. Louis, Missouri
Place of Death:Lawrence, Kansas
Education:Los Alamos Ranch School; A.B., Harvard University, 1936; graduate study, 1938
Read an Excerpt
The Place of Dead Roads
By William S. Burroughs
PicadorCopyright © 983 William S. Burroughs
All rights reserved.
STRANGER WHO WAS PASSING
SHOOT-OUT IN BOULDER
SEPTEMBER 17, 1899. What appeared to be an Old-Western shoot-out took place yesterday afternoon at the Boulder Cemetery. The protagonists have been identified as William Seward Hall, sixty-five, a real-estate speculator with holdings in Colorado and New Mexico, and Mike Chase, in his fifties, about whom nothing was known.
Hall resided in New York City, and wrote western stories under the pen name of "Kim Carsons." "He was apparently here on a business trip," a police source stated.
At first glance it appeared that Chase and Hall had killed each other in a shoot-out, but neither gun had been fired, and both men were killed by single rifle shots fired from a distance. Chase was shot from in front through the chest. Hall was shot in the back. Nobody heard the shots, and police believe the rifleman may have employed a silencer.
A hotel key was found in Hall's pocket, and police searched his room at the Over-look Hotel. They found clothing, a 38 revolver, and a book entitled Quién Es? by Kim Carsons. Certain passages had been underlined.
Police investigating this bizarre occurrence have as yet no clue to the possible motives of the men. "Looks like an old grudge of some sort," Police Chief Martin Winters said. When asked whether there was any reason Chase and Hall should want to kill each other, he replied, "Not that I know of, but we are continuing the investigation."
The Sunday paper played up the story, with pictures of the deceased and the cemetery, and diagrams showing the location of the bodies and the probable spot from which the shots had been fired. When asked about the make and caliber of the death weapon, the Medical Examiner stated: "Definitely a rifle. Size of the exit holes is consistent with a 45-70 dumdum bullet, but the projectiles have not been recovered."
The article quoted the underlined passages from Hall's book Quién Es?
* * *
Papers in an old attic ... an old yellow press clipping from the Manhattan Comet, April 3, 1894:
Three members of the Carsons gang were killed today when they attempted to hold up the Manhattan City Bank. A posse, dispatched in pursuit of the survivors, ran into an ambush and suffered several casualties. ... Mike Chase, a U.S. marshal, stated that the ambush was not carried out by the Carsons gang but by a band of Confederate renegades armed with mortars and grenades. ...
This poem was wroted by Kim Carsons after a shoot-out on Bleecker Street, October 23, 1920. Liver Wurst Joe and Cherry Nose Gio, Mafia hit men, with Frank the Lip as driver, opened fire on Kim Carsons, Boy Jones, Mars Cleaver, known as Marbles, and Guy Graywood, described as an attorney. In the ensuing exchange of shots Liver Wurst Joe, Cherry Nose Gio, and Frank the Lip was all kilted. Only damage sustained by the Carsons group was to Boy's vest when he took refuge behind a fire hydrant.
"My vest is ruinted," he moaned. "And it was dog shit done it. There should be a law."
* * *
Owing to certain "offensive passages" written in the French language the poem could not be quoted, but an enterprising assistant editor had copies made with translations of the offensive passages and sold them to collectors and curiosity seekers for five dollars a copy.
Stranger Who Was Passing
un grand principe de violence dictait à nos moeurs
(a great principle of violence dictated our fashions
) Surely a song for men like a great wind
Shaking an iron tree
Dead leaves in the winter pissoir
J'aime ces types vicieux
Qu'ici montrent la bite. ...
(I like the vicious types
who show the cock here. ...)
Simon, aimes-tu le bruit des pas
Sur les feuilles mortes?
(Simon, do you like the sound of steps on dead leaves?)
The smell of war and death?
Powder smoke back across the mouth blown
Powder smoke and brown hair?
Death comes with the speed of a million winds
The sheltering sky is thin as paper here
That afternoon when I watched
The torn sky bend with the wind
I can see it start to tilt
And shred and tatter
Caught in New York
Beneath the animals of the Village
The Piper pulled down the sky.
LET IT COME DOWN.
Appointment at the cemetery ... Boulder, Colorado ...
September 17, 1899
Mike swung onto the path at the northeast corner, wary and watchful. He was carrying a Webley-Fosbery 45 semi-automatic revolver, the action adjusted with rubber grips by an expert gunsmith to absorb recoil and prevent slipping. His backup men were about ten yards away, a little behind him across the street.
Kim stepped out of the cemetery onto the path. "Hello, Mike." His voice carried clear and cool on the wind, sugary and knowing and evil. Kim always maneuvered to approach downwind. He was wearing a russet tweed jacket with change pockets, canvas puttees, jodhpurs in deep red.
At sight of him Mike experienced an uneasy déjà vu and glanced sideways for his backup.
One glance was enough. They were all wearing jackets the color of autumn leaves, and puttees. They had opened a wicker shoulder basket. They were eating sandwiches and filling tin cups with cold beer, their rifles propped against a tree remote and timeless as a painting.
Déjeuner des chasseurs.
Mike sees he has been set up. He will have to shoot it out. He feels a flash of resentment and outrage.
God damn it! It's not fair!
Why should his life be put in jeopardy by this horrible little nance? Mike had a well-disciplined mind. He put these protests aside and took a deep breath, drawing in power.
Kim is about fifteen yards south walking slowly toward him. Fresh southerly winds rustle the leaves ahead of him as he walks "on a whispering south wind" ... leaves crackle under his boots ... Michael, aimé tu le bruit des pas sur les feuilles mortes ...? Twelve yards ten ... Kim walks with his hands swinging loose at his sides, the fingers of his right hand brushing the gun butt obscenely, his face alert, detached, unreadable. ... Eight yards. ... Suddenly Kim flicks his hand up without drawing as he points at Mike with his index finger.
"BANG! YOU'RE DEAD."
He throws the last word like a stone. He knows that Mike will see a gun in the empty hand and this will crowd his draw....
(With a phantom gun in an empty hand he has bluffed Mike into violating a basic rule of gunfighting. TYT. Take Your Time. Every gunfighter has his time. The time it takes him to draw aim fire and hit. If he tries to beat his time the result is almost invariably a miss....
"Snatch and grab," Kim chants.
Yes, Mike was drawing too fast, much too fast.
Kim's hand snaps down flexible and sinuous as a whip and up with his gun extended in both hands at eye level.
"Jerk and miss."
He felt Mike's bullet whistle past his left shoulder.
Trying for a heart shot. ...
Both eyes open, Kim sights for a fraction of a second, just so long and long enough: the difference between a miss and a hit. Kim's bullet hits Mike just above the heart with a liquid SPLAT as the mercury explodes inside, blowing the aorta to shreds.
Mike freezes into a still, gun extended, powder smoke blowing back across his face. He begins to weave in slow circles. He gags and spits blood. His gun arm starts to sag.
Kim slowly lowers his gun in both hands, face impassive, eyes watchful.
Mike's eyes are glazed, unbelieving, stubborn, still trying to get the gun up for the second shot. But the gun is heavy, too heavy to lift, pulling him down.
Slowly Kim lowers his gun into the holster.
Mike crumples sideways and falls.
Kim looks up at the trees, watching a squirrel, a remote antique gaiety suffuses his face, molding his lips into the ambiguous marble smile of a Greek youth.
Definitely an archaic from Skyros with that special Skyros smile.
Who is the Greek youth smiling at? He is smiling at his own archaic smile.
For this is the smile that happens when the smiler becomes the smile.
The wind is rising. Kim watches a dead leaf spiral up into the sky.
The Egyptian glyph that signifies: To stand up in evidence. An ejaculating phallus, a mouth, a man with his fingers in his mouth.
Kim waves to his three witnesses. One waves back with a drum stick in his hand.
Hiatus of painted calm ...
Pâté, bread, wine, fruit spread out on the grass, gun propped against a tombstone, a full moon in the China-blue evening sky. One of the hunters strums a mandolin inlaid with mother-of-pearl as they sing:
"It's only a paper moon ..."
Kim lifts his gun and shoots a hole in the moon, a black hole with fuzz around it like powder burns.
A wind ripples the grass, stirs uneasily through branches.
"Flying over a muslin tree."
Kim's second shot takes out a grove of trees at the end of the cemetery.
The wind is rising, ripping blurs and flashes of russet orange red from the trees, whistling through tombstones.
All the spurious old father figures rush on stage.
"STOP, MY SON!"
"No son of yours, you worthless old farts."
Kim lifts his gun.
"YOU'RE DESTROYING THE UNIVERSE!"
Kim shoots a hole in the sky. Blackness pours out and darkens the earth. In the last rays of a painted sun, a Johnson holds up a barbed- wire fence for others to slip through. The fence has snagged the skyline ... a great black rent. Screaming crowds point to the torn sky.
"OFF THE TRACK! OFF THE TRACK!"
"FIX IT!" the Director bellows. ...
"What with, a Band-Aid and chewing gum? Rip in the Master Film. ... Fix it yourself, Boss Man."
"Abandon ship, god damn it. ... Every man for himself!"
For three days Kim had camped on the mesa top, sweeping the valley with his binoculars. A cloud of dust headed south told him they figured him to ride in that direction for Mexico. He had headed north instead, into a land of sandstone formations, carved by wind and sand — a camel, a tortoise, Cambodian temples — and everywhere caves pocked into the red rock like bubbles in boiling oatmeal. Some of the caves had been lived in at one time or another: rusty tin cans, pottery shards, cartridge cases. Kim found an arrowhead six inches long, chipped from obsidian, and a smaller arrowhead of rose-colored flint.
On top of the mesa were crumbled mounds of earth that had once been houses. Slabs of stone had been crisscrossed to form an altar. Homo sapiens was here.
Dusk was falling and blue shadows gathered in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. Sangre de Cristo! Blood of Christ! Rivers of blood! Mountains of blood! Does Christ never get tired of bleeding? To the west the sun sets behind thunder-clouds over the Jemez Mountains, and Jiménez straddles the mountains with his boots of rock and trees, a vast charro rising into the sky, his head a crystal skull of clouds as his guns spit from darkening battlements and thunder rattles over the valley. The evening star shines clear and green ... "Fair as a star, when only one/Is shining in the sky." That's Wordsworth, Kim remembers. It is raining in the Jemez Mountains.
"It is raining, Anita Huffington." Last words of General Grant, spoken to his nurse, circuits in his brain flickering out like lightning in gray clouds.
Kim leaned back against stone still warm from the sun. A cool wind touched his face with the smell of rain.
Pottery shards ... arrowheads ... a crib ... a rattle ... a blue spoon ... a slingshot, the rubber rotted through ... rusting fishhooks ... tools ... you can see there was a cabin here once ... a hypodermic syringe glints in the sun ... the needle has rusted into the glass, forming little sparks of brown mica ... abandoned artifacts ...
He holds the rose flint arrowhead in his hand. Here is the arrowhead, lovingly fashioned for a purpose. Campfires flicker on Indian faces eating the luscious dark meat of the passenger pigeon. He fondles the obsidian arrowhead, so fragile ... did they break every time they were used, like bee stings, he wonders?
(Bison steaks roasting on a spit.)
Somebody made this arrowhead. It had a creator long ago. This arrowhead is the only proof of his existence. Living things can also be seen as artifacts, designed for a purpose. So perhaps the human artifact had a creator. Perhaps a stranded space traveler needed the human vessel to continue his journey, and he made it for that purpose? He died before he could use it? He found another escape route? This artifact, shaped to fill a forgotten need, now has no more meaning or purpose than this arrowhead without the arrow and the bow, the arm and the eye. Or perhaps the human artifact was the creator's last card, played in an old game many light-years ago. Chill of empty space.
Kim gathers wood for a fire. The stars are coming out. There's the Big Dipper. His father points to Betelgeuse in the night sky over Saint Louis ... smell of flowers in the garden. His father's gray face on a pillow.
Helpless pieces in the game he plays
On this checkerboard of nights and days.
He picks up the obsidian arrowhead, arrow and bow of empty space. You can't see them anymore without the arm and the eye ... the chill ... so fragile ... shivers and gathers wood. Can't see them anymore. Slave Gods in the firmament. He remembers his father's last words:
"Stay out of churches, son. All they got a key to is the shit house. And swear to me you will never wear a lawman's badge."
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
Playthings in an old game, the little toy soldiers are covered with rust, shaped to fill a forgotten empty space.
Rusty tin cans ... pottery shards ... cartridge cases ... arrowheads ... a hypodermic syringe glints in the sun.
* * *
The horse is as much a part of the West as the landscape, but Kim never really made it with the horse. He tried at first to establish a telepathic bond with his horse, but the horse hated the relationship and tried to kill him at every opportunity. It would swell itself up when he put on the saddle, or it would suddenly scrape against a tree or run under a low branch. All the old horse tricks.
He did eventually break one beast, a strawberry roan, down into telepathy with a loaded quirt and some rather ingenious electronic devices but his "Strawberry," as he called it, finally turned on him and Kim swore that he would never again become involved with a horse. He hated their hysteria, their stubborn malice, and their awful yellow teeth.
* * *
"Shoot-out in front of the Dead Ass Saloon, still noon heat, dusty street from nowhere to nowhere, lead flying all over the set, my faithful cayuse at my side, then he hits me from behind with a front hoof. I roll, twist, and put a quick shot into his ribs from below. He screams like a woman spitting blood, bullets clipping all around couldn't hit me because of the prancing screaming horse, then he bolts right for them and they are all shooting at the horse and I take them out slow and easy and greasy. Percussion lock days, had to grease your bullets. Otherwise sparks fly out between the cylinder and the barrel, and all six cylinders is subject to go up in your face."
It was his practice to move on foot and he could cover up to fifty miles a day with his sorcerer's gait and his specially designed spring-walking boots, then pick up a horse, keep it for a week or so, and release it. Kim intended to head into the Jemez Mountains and hide out for a month. ... He would need camping equipment, too heavy to carry...
The area was mostly Mexican, and Kim had family letters. ...
There are signs that indicate the presence of a stranger in rural areas. Some are positive, like the barking of dogs. Other indications are negative, like the sudden cessation of frogs croaking.
Joe the Dead had taught Kim how to circumvent this obstacle course. "If you want to hide something, create disinterest in the area where it is hidden. Try this on a city street. Don't give anyone any reason to look at you and no one will see you. You have become invisible. This is easy in a city, where most people are concerned with their own business. But in the country you have to get around critters whose business it is to smell and see and hear you and give notice of your approach. So you have to give the watchers good reasons not to smell and see and hear you and give notice of your approach. This amulet is from the Cat Goddess Bast. All dogs hate and fear it. But you have to animate its power and make it work for you."
Kim took three dogs to a remote mountain cabin and got down to the root of their dogness. The dogs did not survive this psychic dissection. Kim wondered if any creature can survive the exposure of its basic mechanisms. After that, Kim had the power to cloud dogs' minds, to blunt their sense of smell, their hearing, and their sight. And he could make himself part of his surroundings so that he did not disturb the frogs and birds and crickets.
* * *
He reached a road of yellow gravel unobserved. He followed the road to a store by a bridge ... sound of running water ...
"Buenos días, señor." Kim stood in front of the counter, an envelope in his right hand. A thin old man in a gray flannel shirt looked up. It was not often that anyone reached his store unannounced. Two young men watched from the back of the store.
"I bring greetings from Don Bernabe Jurado." Kim passed the envelope over the counter. The old man read the letter.
Excerpted from The Place of Dead Roads by William S. Burroughs. Copyright © 983 William S. Burroughs. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
I: Stranger Who Was Passing,
II: His Father's Picture,
III: Quién Es?,
Also by William S. Burroughs,