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My name is Stu and I am here to share what I can.

10:56 AM

Where He Was Going


The following is a short story by William S. Burroughs, from a collection entitled "Tornado Alley." This tale is certainly my favorite of Burroughs' shorter works, and it serves as an exceptional model for artful writing:

Where He Was Going
by William S. Burroughs

Farm kitchen, blinds drawn, guns propped in corners. Plates and glasses have been shoved aside to make room for road maps. Four men lean over the maps. There's a basic sameness in the faces. Kerosene lamps cast a flickering light of death on cheekbones and lips on the tired, alert eyes.

"Sure to have roadblocks here and here."

Ishmael pours a generous portion of whiskey into a dirty glass.

"Couldn't we just hole up here?"

"Uh-uh. If they don't rumble us moving out, they will close in for a house-to-house search. Makes sense. Let's try it here."

And suddenly it occurred to him that he was going to die, not sooner or later, he knew that of course, they all did, but tonight. It came in a puff, the wind that makes a candle flicker, the sick hollow fear hit him like a kick in the stomach. He doubled slightly forward, supporting himself on the back of a chair. It's always like this, he tells himself, the fear, and then the rush of courage and a clean sweet feeling of being born. He read that somewhere in an old Western.

But the fear can go on and on until you can't stand it. It's going to break you, and that's when the fear breaks... he hopes.

"Let's go," he croaks.

He wonders if they're all as scared as he is. His gun seems clumsy and heavy in his hands, alien, malignant.

Sure they are but they don't talk about it. Click of hammers and breeches.

They're in the car now, shutting the door. He is sitting by the car door on the right side. The road is full of holes, and water in the holes in deep ruts.

Please G-d we don't get stuck: seeing themselves stumbling around in the woods with the bloodhounds closing in.

"Stop! Douse the light!" ... Chug-chug.

Another car coming this way, closer. The light coming around the corner of a narrow road between heavy timber.

Ishmael gets out slow, his feet like blocks of wood, and stands in the middle of the road, his hands up.

The old car sputters to a stop. Old gray man behind the wheel.

Ishmael walks over slow and shows the old man the wallet.


Ishmael's lips are numb. This is no pawnshop badge: it's a perfect replica of the real thing, with cards to go with it. Made up by a forger in Toronto. Cost a hundred and fifty dollars. Flashed him out of some tight spots.

The old man sits there with his face blank.

"We're looking for some bank robbers holed up around here. You live here long?"

"Forty years."

"Must know the area."

He brings out a road map.

"Now we've got roadblocks up here and here and here. Is there any other way they could get out?"

"Yep. Old wagon road, cuts in right here. Bit rough, but they can make it. Comes out on County Road 52. Yep, they could get clean away."

"If your information checks out, you'll be eligible for a reward of five hundred dollars." He hands the old man a card. "Just call the FBI office in Tulsa."

I'll do that. I surely will." The old man drives on.

The driver studies the map under the dashboard lights.

"Make it exactly five and three-tenths to the turnoff."

Old man on the phone. "That's right, posing as a G-man."

Ishmael remembers old Doc Benway saying, "You face death all the time, and for that time you are immortal."

The raccoon crosses the road, its eyes bright green in the headlights, not hurrying, slipping along, and it came with a rush, a sudden evil-smelling emptiness. And the raccoon was slipping lightly along the edges.

"Get away to Mexico. I've been there. Only way to live. Got five G's in a money belt. Go a long way down there."

The fear is back around his chest, like a soft vise squeezing the air out, the gun heavy in his hands: he knows he couldn't lift it. All the strength is running out of him, in waves of searing pain.

They pull around a corner and light jabs into his eyes, his brain explodes in a white flash. And he is free: throwing the door open, jumping out in the air as the windshield explodes, sending yellow shards, and Tom throws a hand in front of his face.

Very light on his feet, the tommygun light in his hands like a dream-gun, when a sincere young agent (religious son-of-a-bitch too) leaps to his feet, rifle level.

He hadn't made his dog meat yet, as they call it.

"Animals!" his fellow agents tell him, "That's what they are! Animals! And
don't you forget it!"

"Get down for Christ' sakes!" bellows the DS, and Ish stitches three .45s across the boy's lean young chest an inch apart.

He has the touch.

"It's an instrument," Machine-Gun Kelly told him. "Play it."

He must have dozed off in the car. Another shootout dream. He knows they have been driving all night. Home safe now. Coming down into a valley. Warm wind and the smell of water. From here you climb ten thousand feet to the pass. Remembers Mexico City and his first reefer cigarette: went crazy on him, wonderful crazy wandering down Nio Perdido and everywhere he sees sugar skulls and fireworks, kids biting into the skulls. "Dia de los Muertos," a boy tells him and smiles, showing white teeth and red gums. Very white, very red, and whiter and redder than life. And he thought, "Why not? I done it in the Reform School."

The boy has a gardenia behind his ear. He wears a white spotless cotton shirt and pants to the ankle with sandals. He smells of vanilla. Ish used to drink it in Reform School.

The boy understands. He knows un lugar.

They stop to watch two pinwheels spinning in opposite directions. He remembers the queasy floating feeling he got watching it, like being in a fast elevator.

The boy is smiling now and pointing to the black space between the pinwheels as they sputter out. And the blackness spreads wide as all the world and then he knew that was where he was going.

Ishmael died when they picked up the stretcher.


David said...

I have to say, this is a pretty good story, but not nearly as the story you wrote about facing the rope in elementary school. He could take a few lessons about structure from you, Stu! :)

-- Dave

Stu said...

Thanks, very kind of you to say. If I find an electronic copy, I'll post it.

Van Eyck Ant said...

First off, thanks for posting this! I have a recording of Burroughs reading it, but I was looking for the text, and yours was helpful. One correction: toward the end, where you have, "The boy understands", the next sentence should be "He knows un lugar." I'm not sure about the exact Spanish translation, but I think the implication is that the boy knows a more private place they can go. Thanks again!

Stu said...

Van Eyck Ant - Fixed! Thanks for that, good looking out. Burroughs is in the heart and in the head.