Image is Memory
I just met William fucking Burroughs, what do you think about that?
"You may feel a little nauseous going in. Kind of a brain flutter. It's normal. I like a couple hits of Ponic before I skim, you know, softens it some."
My brother Kurt grins at me over the rim of the metal tank. The liquid I displaced while getting in has calmed down and now laps warmly over my naked skin.
"It's so simple, man, it's beautiful. You got two sets of trodes here, ordinary Virtual Reality trodes from Radio Shack. One pair puts the info in, just like VR. Only the other pair is cannibalized to receive, not transmit. They pick up your brain impulses and feed them into the digitizer. I got this from the earthquake sale at the SF State sleep research unit. Cool, huh? Then the deck matches up your visual images with what's in the image banks, enhances them and feeds them back to you. I got some basic stuff here on the server but the killer gear is out there on the Net. That's what the Sniffer here does. The streaming services have been trying to do this for years but they can't figure out the licensing deal for the images. Fucking lawyers are going bananas. Me, I just skim them off the Net, man, personal use, they can't touch you."
I'm starting to lose all sensation, floating at body temperature in this saline solution. Kurt says that the more you can dissociate yourself from your body the better the effect is.
"I call it dream feedback," he continues. "Sometimes it gets so real it's scary. Kind of like dropping a trip, only difference is you're in control. You don't like it, all you do is change your mind."
Kurt runs his hand over his shaved head, his knuckles undulating over the tiny silver balls that form a bumpy ridge from front to back. He squeezes some goop over the trodes and sticks them on my forehead, circling them for better contact.
"You sure this is OK, Kurt? Has anyone else tried it apart from you?"
I've stopped feeling my body, like I slept badly on it and it all went numb.
"Only Kafka here," Kurt indicates the skinny black cat perched like an Egyptian statue on the stack of old back projection video monitors that forms Kurt's futon platform. "It was like one of those old Tom and Jerry toons. Only he caught the mouse every time. It got boring after a while so I unplugged him. Gave him the munchies like you wouldn't believe, though." He chuckles. Kafka blinks and yawns.
"Kurt, I'm serious."
"Sure you wouldn't like a bong hit?"
"Relax, man, it's all natural, no chemicals. I'm your guide for the ride. I'll be looking in on the monitor all the way. You start to wig or anything just report in, I'll hook you out. Enjoy."
The raw Thermocrete block walls and bar joists of Kurt's unit shiver and become liquid, soft. Kurt's Psychic TV background music fades and a new music insinuates, the frequency slightly jarring. I feel an inbalance in my stomach, like when you take Spark for the first time. I close my eyes.
I'm in a standard VR waiting room, the type that V-Com likes to put you in to avoid the agoraphobia of the Net while you wait for your program. The music is some kind of mid-nineties ambient house, the sort of thing you used to hear at airports. I turn my head and the room follows on a slight delay. The walls are covered in a shimmering texture-rendered fabric and the scenery outside the window moves around aimlessly on a twenty second cycle.
"Sit back and get into some free association. The deck will start to pull stuff in from the Net as soon as it gets a bearing."
Kurt sounds tinny and distant like he's been recorded on a voice chip. He's in control, I tell myself, he's got it all figured out. Way ahead of me, as usual. I'll never catch up with him.
Kurt has been skimming the Net since he was old enough to hold a joystick. It was when we moved to Vegas that he seriously got into VR. Hardly leaving this hundred square meter Thermocrete lockup with his secondhand hardware and his video screens and his tech manuals. And his books. Funny, for such a gearhead, he searches out all those old paper books in the junk stores and the war veterans' boxes on Glitter Gulch. Old dead writers like Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs. Kurt reads like it's a nervous habit. It's probably what influenced me, why I got into UCLA on the Burroughs scholarship even though Kurt can run rings around me on literary theory. He'll never be an academic. Too much of a free thinker, an innovator. I'll never have Kurt's insight, his talent for getting right in there between the lines...
...Kurt is reading from Naked Lunch. His voice rises and falls across the campfire and the desert sky rises starry cold around his misted breath as he exhales words like narcotic smoke. The Strip below us creeps like an iridescent slug trail towards the California State line, the megalopolis of Vegas shifting and shimmering around it like one of its own holomirage signs. Even from here you can make out the giant twisting Elvis, the rearing unicorn of SonyLand, the floating Earth over Lunar Park. And beyond that, as the blanket of light thins and the fiber optic pinpricks of the subdivisions start to pepper the desert, the muted glow of the light industry parks forms a sodium beltway around the City. This is Kurt's territory, a transient community of misfits, hackers, Deadheads and geniuses. Living in steel-doored sheds, hammocks strung between second hand hardware and junked A-V units, virus-alarmed computer terminals controlling remote hydroponic weed plantations. Most of Kurt's gear he bought legitimately with credit accumulated from his info dump business and what he hacks occasionally from the banks and casinos.
"I only take what I need, man, you get too greedy they come after you, get into your system, up through the trodes, fuck with your head. Before you know it, your brain's spaghetti."
Kurt calls it the Interzone. Like Burroughs' Tangier in the late 1950's, a free trade zone of contraband, information, and free artistic license. The cops ignore it as long as it gives the City what it needs- the leading edge in Virtual Reality know-how.
Kurt puts down his book and blows on his hands. He opens a Zima and hands it to me. The bottle floats to my lips, my virtual fingers clutched numbly around it. It tastes like envelopes. The olfactory stuff must be tricky. He picks up his book and reverently blows some grains of sand off.
"This is the tits, man. Like it was written from his unconscious, you know, some kind of automatic writing."
He starts to read again and his eyes slowly close because he doesn't need to read and I could recite it along with him but I don't because there's nothing I can do that will impress him, I'll always be his kid brother. My eyes close and his voice gets louder and then starts to fade to metallic....
...Panorama of the City of Interzone. Opening bars of East St. Louis Toodleoo... at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street...
...Rats scurry up and down the mooring ropes as the Spanish crew members busy themselves with the gangway. A 1950's Mercedes sports car is being unloaded by crane, swaying dangerously above the quay, causing much argument in Spanish and Arabic. Swarthy diplomats and gangsters in crumpled white suits and black banded hats, dusty Arab boys, con artists and poets populate the waterfront. A dead kitten bobs in the filmed water and I concentrate to make it go away. It's not that easy but it morphs into a piece of waterlogged wood.
A leathery character with an eyepatch and a small monkey on his shoulder beckons me down the gangway. This one is straight from Central Casting.
"Come," he says. "Welcome in Tangier. What you need? There is everything here. I show you fine hotel, good restaurant. I get you some hashish, pills, whatever you want. You like girls, boys? I arrange everything. I am your guide, m'sieu. Trust me, I will look after you."
The monkey chatters and dances around his shoulder, tail up, its twitching pink anus winking like its master's missing eye.
The foreign money materializes in my hand. Pesetas, francs, dirhams.
"Come. I take you to see American writer. He is ill today. Very sick." He mimes injecting himself with a syringe and throws back his head and laughs, ropes of saliva dangling from his erratic yellow teeth. "Come."
Bouncing on the back of his rusty scooter through sun- stabbed canyons of dark streets strung with stagnant gray washing, sounds of carpets and children being beaten. Men in linen suits in the cool cafes, hookah pipe haze of commerce and illegality. Brown children carrying paint cans of water from the pumps, Babel of foreign voices from a thousand crackling radios, dragged from the audio banks of unknown countries.
We turn into an alleyway, narrow enough that I could reach out and touch the two walls. The scooter splashes through what looks like laundry water flowing down the channel in the middle. The Moroccan stops, using a combination of the scooter's brakes and his own callused foot. He indicates a half- open door and grins.
"How do I know he's here?" I ask.
"He sick. Not go out. Now I go. You give me a little baksheesh."
I look down at the money in my hand. V-Com give you a choice of ethnic types for your hands. Then you can customize them, rings, nails, and so on. But this is my hand, generated from my own mental images. I turn it over and look at the back of it, the same freckles and red hairs I've known for the last eighteen years. Kurt and I had identical shocks of red hair when we were kids and people used to ask if we were twins. I doubt if he even remembers that- now his head is shaved and he has his scalp studs. I've still got the same unmanageable mop and a matching crop of freckles. Kurt's skin is the color of reflected monitors, his eyes red rimmed from sleeplessness and virtual light.
A hand is extended.
I separate a banknote from my roll and he snatches it, holds it critically to the patch of sky between the converging parapets above, squints at it with his one eye, and tucks it into his gellabia. He guns the motor on his scooter.
"Salaam-al-ackoum, my friend. Enjoy your American writer!"
He throws back his head again and starts into his dry, hacking laugh and the monkey scrambles around his head. By concentrating hard, I make it shit on his shoulder.
Burrough's doorway is distinguished from the other peeling doors on the street only by the pair of dusky, sandalled feet sticking out of it, projecting out over the worn stone step. The soles of the sandals are made from old car tires. The toenails need trimming.
"Mr Burroughs lives here?"
The boy stirs. He has been sleeping, it must be siesta time. As I think this I begin to feel hot, maybe the tank has a thermostatic link. There is an empty kif pipe beside him. His eyes are deep and black, with long, camel- like lashes.
"Mr. William sick today." He wraps his arms around himself and shivers and smiles. "He wait for moneys from America. He no want to see nobody." Then his eyes catch the assorted currency in my hand. "Maybe he see you. Come."
I follow the boy's skinny brown legs and flapping gellabia up the stairs. The balusters are rotten and loose like decayed teeth and I can almost detect the sharp smell of urine in the corridor. He swings open the door.
The room is small and spartan. There is a shuttered window in one wall, and bars of sunlight and assorted Tangier sound effects pierce the dark, dusty air. An iron bedstead with a striped mattress and a balled up white sheet sits against another wall, and opposite is a table strewn with papers, notes, exercise books, orange peels and bread crusts, a black Corona typewriter nestling in the middle of it all. The figure sitting at the table does not move. Despite the heat, he is dressed in a blue wool suit, shirt buttoned to the neck. His bony shoulders are hunched over, his thin hair plastered down over his scalp. His head looks pale and boneless like a soft shelled crab. I suddenly feel hot and uncomfortable and nauseous. A rivulet of sweat runs down the back of my neck. William Seward Burroughs turns around to face me.
"Who the fuck is this?"
I feel like I've just surfaced from underwater. My ears pop and hiss and the sounds adjust around me like someone changed the soundtrack from stereo to surround. And now I can smell. The smell of sweat and oranges and stale marijuana smoke. The smells of boiling vegetables and stagnant water and urine from the street below. I feel my tongue rough against the roof of my mouth, my throat dry and sore. Burroughs' face is a skull draped with wet muslin, his eyes watery, pupils like pinpricks. His mouth opens like his face is starting to split.
"Are you holding?"
"No," I croak.
His eyes leave mine, apparently losing interest, until he notices the damp bills in my now sweating hand.
"Why didn't you say he had cash," he snaps at the boy. He pounces, catlike, and the money is gone from my hand and Burroughs is gone from the room leaving only lint balls drifting across the floor and his boy smiling sheepishly at the swinging door. The boy follows Burroughs down the stairs, which he is leaping three at a time. I breathe in, tasting the heat and the sweat trickling into the corner of my mouth. The air is moist and salty and beats against my forehead from the overhead fan. I rub my thumb and forefinger together, feeling the ridges of my fingerprints. And now the sensation is gone and my fingers are numb and my nostrils feel blocked and everything shifts into a looser focus again. The noises outside sound like background radio, effects tapes.
What the fuck is going on?
"Permit me to explain."
A man is washing his hands in the tiny basin in the corner. He turns to face me, shaking the drops off his long surgeon's fingers before reaching for a hand towel. He is wearing a white physician's tunic with spots of blood down the front. His long, cadaverous features remind me of Burroughs but in a more relaxed, avuncular mode.
"Benway's the name. Mr. Burroughs and I are, how shall I put it, associates. Yes, I think that's the right word."
He takes off his spectacles and cleans them with the towel. Large bumps on his wrist bones.
"You must understand, firstly, something of the nature of memory. Memory is image. And, of course, vice versa. Let me demonstrate. Lights, please."
The lights dim and so do the sounds from outside.
"What you are watching is film taken from the Central Memory Bank, which is composed of the collected memory of all persons at any given point in time. This is Mr. Burrough's personal reel. You will notice that certain images are very clear, others not so clear, and some are almost non existent. This is of course perfectly normal, as not all things are remembered distinctly and some things in life are gradually forgotten about, sometimes, heh,heh, conveniently"
The film flickers against the plaster wall, all scratches and hairs and white spots. I can see sepia toned pictures of a teenage boy in some kind of Scout uniform, images of a boarding school in the desert fading in and out.
"Of course," continues Benway, "The film can be wound forward, speeded up."
The room kaleidoscopes and I find myself standing in front of the gable of a brilliant white clapboard house. The land around it is flat to the horizon. Burroughs sits dead center on a wicker armchair, his arthritic hands clasped prayerlike over the head of a black cane. The aluminum sky reflects in his bifocals so that I can't see his eyes. His knobby wrists protrude from the tweed sports coat, the wrinkled edges of underwear sleeves edging past shirt cuffs. His creased twill pants are cut high up to the chest. There are two windows in the gable, one to each side of his head. Only the handle of the teacup on the table in front of him and the Institute of Arts and Letters pin on his lapel juxtapose to break the symmetry. My ears pop and sing again and the nausea reappears. The air is still and humid and my clothes cling to my body. I smell camomile tea and cats and twisters. Burroughs points at me, his fingers loosely bunched, the index hanging, pointing down at my feet.
"Do I know you?" he drawls.
"We may have met before..."
"No, I don't believe I remember you..."
A cat curls around my legs and I look down. My senses toggle back into virtual mode. The cat is skinny and black and looks like Kafka.
"Everything OK?" says the cat, in a Kurt type of voice.
"It's getting a bit weird."
"You want to keep rolling?"
"Stick with it, man, this is intense. I never get anything this good. I think I'll play it back on myself afterwards, see what my head does with it. Shitty time for the monitor to start crapping out on me, though, I'll have to jack in a spare. I keep missing out on bits."
"Kurt, about those missing-"
"Gotta go, man, I'll spoil the flow. Remember, if you want to stop, just visualize it."
That's the problem, Kurt. I can't.
"Now if you just examine this piece of the film," says Benway, holding the strip of celluloid up to the light like an X-ray, "You'll see what I mean. Here, and again here, your image is so strong it has burned into the frame. It becomes memory, which may or may not become erased with time- you've been lucky so far. These are outtakes, if you will. Of course, the ultimate danger is that you become, how shall we say, indispensable to the plot of the film. You become stuck, like an insect on fly paper. In short, you're history."
He tucks the strip of film into his vest pocket and consults his watch.
"Well I can't stay here talking, I have other cases to attend to. You will be receiving the bill for my, um, services in due course..."
Benway fades out the door muttering something about how you can't fuck with the fabric of time. Another figure merges through him, entering the room. Burroughs is carrying a brown paper bag and has his jacket half off. He slams the door and it resonates , zinging in my ear. My sinuses squeak and drain and my body shivers from the sensory attack, the room's smells are sharp in my nostrils again, the fabric of my jeans is rough against my damp palms. Now I'm seeing a pattern. Burroughs throws the paper bag on the bed, shrugs off his coat and has his left sleeve rolled up in one continuous motion. He ignores me as he breaks open the pharmacist's box of ampoules and loads a syringe like an experienced veterinarian preparing to vaccinate a dairy herd. The syringe primed to his satisfaction, he takes an old, stretched college tie off the bed and knots it around his upper left arm, catching one end in his teeth as he prods the crook of his arm with a long, exploratory finger, cursing under his breath. I watch, fascinated, as he repeats the performance with his other arm.
"God dammit, this doesn't get any easier" He turns to me. "Here, make yourself useful. This damn tie keeps slipping. I need you to keep a good tight grip on it."
Hesitantly, I approach him. His flesh is waxy and loose, like he's wearing someone else's. I pull the ends of the tie tight around his arm and he grunts and makes a fist. He eventually finds a vein and the blood blossoms like an orchid into the syringe, and he pulls the plunger back slightly and relaxes the pressure of his thumb. No need to hurry now, he can tease himself, hold back. I can see it in his face, the sweet knowledge of imminent relief.
"I don't believe I know you," he says as if we were meeting over cocktails. "Are you a friend of Bowles? Did he send you over?"
I nod, relieved at not having to explain my presence in detail.
"That old queen, he's not satisfied with the local boys, has to ship 'em in fresh from Stateside. You look pretty fresh off the boat, kid. I'll have Ahmed show you around if you like. I don't get out much myself."
Burroughs eyes my freckled forearms and grunts appreciatively. I feel a stab of panic. I've got to get out of here before I get any more involved than I am already. I know what's causing this now, all I have to do is get out of his presence and I'll click back. This is getting scary.
"Nice," he says, "Very nice. What I'd give for veins like that. You ever think of taking to the needle yourself?"
"No. I never did."
"Good for you."
He looks me straight in the eye and his thumb pushes the plunger home. His eyes close and he sighs like a man who has just quenched a raging thirst and he swings his legs up on the bed and leans his body back, his head slowly tilting to rest on a round, greasy stain on the white plaster wall. A beam of drifting dust particles brushes his sandalled feet.
I rise slowly and carefully and back out of the room, fumbling behind me for the doorknob, closing the door quietly, as if leaving a sleeping baby. As the latch slips into the strike I brace myself for the sensory lockdown and start to imagine myself back in Kurt's workshop sucking down a cool Zima. Kurt, I just met William fucking Burroughs, what do you think about that? I smile to myself, and the smile stays on my face too long and I feel it stretching the corners of my mouth until it drops and I realize I'm still here in a stinking rooming house corridor in Tangier and nothing's happening. I can feel my scalp crawling. Relax. Maybe you're not far enough away. I walk with exaggerated calm down the three flights of stairs and end up in the street. The sun is going down and the sharp edges of the building corners and parapets refract and split the light, staining the walls with deep reds and oranges and purples. The dust is settling and a breeze blows in from the ocean, mingling odors of salt and iodine and grilled fish. Keep walking, it'll happen.
I reach the quay and watch the ferry leave huffing towards the wavy blue outline of Spain on the horizon, silver balls of sunlight bouncing off its wake. Relax. Keep walking. Don't think about it. It's all a dream, you'll wake up.
The sky reddens and darkens and I feel my T shirt damp and cool against my back. I'm on the outskirts of town now and the road is running parallel to the beach. There is some kind of fairground set up, a small Ferris wheel surrounded by a dozen or so tents and stalls. Music drifts out over the cool sand, mingling with the gentle murmur of the surf. I smell grilled lamb and warm pastries and feel hungry.
The music comes from a small stage, a quartet of Arab musicians fronted by a writhing transvestite singer in a red sequined dress, all pancake makeup and sinewy arms.
The booth in front of me is round and the wooden floor is divided up like a roulette wheel. It is surrounded by excited, sweating men waving crumpled bills. There is a sudden roar of voices followed by a rapid exchanging of money and I crane my neck to see what is going on. All around the booth are numbered wooden boxes about the size of a shoebox. The stall owner plunges his arm into one of the cubby-holes and pulls out a struggling brown rat, holding it up in the air, its rubbery tail twitching in panic, its pink claws scrabbling at its captor's horny fingers. I watch, horrified, as he dumps the rat in a steel bucket, swings it around in a furious cartwheel, and slams the bucket down in the center of the circle. Money frantically changes hands again until there is an anticipatory silence as the owner lifts the bucket and the rat twitches and looks around, stunned, uncomprehending. I feel its fear settle like an icy lump in my stomach.
I can't think of anywhere else to go. The light is still on in Burroughs' room when I arrive, even though it must be late. My watch is on Vegas time, whatever that is now. Burroughs has not moved, or he has moved and has assumed the same position again. He is asleep, snoring softly, fully clothed. There is a chill in the room now, and a radio plays down the hall, some melodramatic Spanish singer. I look over at the paper strewn table and, despite myself, feel some academic excitement. This heap of crumpled notes must be the first draft of Naked Lunch. I am looking at literary history in the making. I start to sift through the pages. Maybe I can take a souvenir back, Kurt will flip. If I ever see him again. The cold lead in my stomach shifts again.
Shopping lists. Laundry tickets. Half finished letters. Random newspaper clippings in several languages. Scribbled addresses, crude spidery sketches, prescriptions, candy bar wrappers. A desk calendar that reads March 3, 1957. No sign of the most influential novel of the twentieth century. Shit, it must be here somewhere. Not under the table. Or in the wardrobe. Or in the suitcase on top of the wardrobe. Only a pungent chamberpot under the bed. Burroughs stirs and mumbles in his sleep and suddenly sits bolt upright like you hear about corpses doing in morgues.
"Whose agent are you?" he says loudly. "Which side are you working for?"
"Where's the book?" I ask.
"What book? I didn't borrow a book."
"No, the one you're writing-"
"Writing? In my condition?" He coughs and gropes around him on the bed and finds the tie and rolls up his sleeve again. "Give me a hand, kid, I got the sickness bad this morning. Pass me over that bag on the table."
I pick up the greasy paper bag but hold it back from him.
"You've got to write something," I tell him. "You need to work through it, get yourself off this stuff." I sound real convincing, I know. But what am I supposed to tell him? That some day rock and roll bands will name themselves after his books?
"I need a fix now," he pleads, "I need one before I can do anything. You don't understand. Please."
I pass him the bag and he goes through his painful search for a vein, eventually resorting to his ankle. And then he sighs and relaxes and his head connects with the grease spot on the wall and his eyes close I do some mental calculations. Assuming the calendar is up to date (a big assumption, given its owner's ambivalent attitude towards time) Jack Kerouac will be arriving in two weeks to help with the editing and Ginsberg will be here shortly after to help wrap it up and the whole thing will go off to France to be published and kick off the biggest fucking obscenity trial the world has ever seen and he's got two weeks and I've got him so smacked out of his brain he'll never even start it. And suddenly I remember Burrough's words from his foreword. I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch. I look out the window and see the dawn start to coldly illuminate the Moroccan sky. A cock crows, and another more distant one responds. The sun will be going down in Vegas about now. I'm a long way from home. My stomach rumbles and my head is light from lack of sleep but I know what I have to do. The typewriter keys are cold under my fingertips as I start to write, the letters flying up at the ribbon like silver hammers and I feel myself becoming less permanent in this place with every word.
The first sentence starts to appear on the top of the page above the typewriter roller.
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves....
Kurt, you better be impressed this time.
Respectfully dedicated to William S. Burroughs, 1914-1997
Author's note: The quotations on page 6,19, and 20 are from Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Doc Benway is a recurring Burroughs character.