Saturday, April 9, 2011

William Burroughs' Backyard

“This is the fish pond,” said Tom. Our guide. Tom now lived in the William S. Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas. “William would tap his cane on the stone. The fish would come to the surface. Then he’d feed them. After Burroughs died the fish were left alone for four years. They didn’t perish. They survived. Carp are carnivores, you know. They ate their minnows. Two snapping turtles come out of Burroughs creek every summer and stay in the pond. They cull some of the carp.”

It sounded like a Burroughs story. Or perhaps: “The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles,” by Edmund Wilson. We walked further into the back thicket of overgrown, untended plum and pear trees. Snake terrain. Burroughs placed targets on the trees, or hung up spray paint cans in front of canvases, and shot at them. Shotgun art. Further into the grove his fans had planted a line of trees in the shape of phallic symbol.

“Didn’t the neighbor’s mind?” I asked. “Gunshots? Snapping turtles? Cock and balls?”

“Someone built William a giant gun silencer,” said Tom. “You could only hear a slight pop pop pop when he fired at the trees.”

We moved on. There was a rusted car in the weeds. “That was his Datsun,” Tom said. “Bill didn’t drive his whole life. So he decided to learn. At age 80. He couldn’t see over the wheel and kept hitting things. Disaster. His friends drove it out here into the weeds and abandoned it. We have to drain the oil and gas out one of these days.”

We walked back towards Burroughs’ cottage. On the right hand side of the house were the cat graves. “William would sit in his room and write, looking out over the graves. Russky was his favorite.” It reminded me of Hemingway’s Finca Vigia in Cuba and the line of cat graves by the swimming pool.

We went inside and ate homemade pizza. We’d appeared at a concert and seminar with the great boxing writer, George Kimball, and George was staying in the Burroughs house. His medications were lined up on the bedside table. George has been diagnosed with a virulent form of disease that was eating him up, but he’s still out there writing books and doing gigs. He’s published at least four books in the last few years. Chain smoking Lucky Strikes and very much alive. If George was “going out” he was certainly going out on his feet, throwing jabs and hooks for a furious fifteen rounds. He was damn sure a serious writer. As was Mr. Burroughs, who tapped his cane, bringing the goldfish to surface.

It was the raw hangdog end of a Kansas winter. Two fine writers: Burroughs and Kimball. Outside the wind hissed gently through the row of trees pocked with bullet holes. We drank a few glasses. Toasting great writers, carp, cats, and snapping turtles. And the art of George Kimball. And Burroughs’ cane. Still tap-tapping in my dreams.