All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

22 July 2015


Looking at him now, in the dim light of his room, I realised I had never seen him smoke before. He inhaled, deeply and heavily, as if he knew all there was to know about the deadly effect and wanted to make the most of it. Part-addict, part-philosopher. His inhaling was physical, fatal.

“Dad”, I whispered. “Remember how you told us off near that cinema? Me and Richard?”

His eyes flickered for a second, as if recognizing the memory. Then he looked carefully at me. There is so much irony, disappointment, contempt you can read into the eyes of those who do not say anything. So I wondered, like all of them had before me. Richard, Olivia, Martin. The memory: did he or did he not?

It was not that I wanted him to stop smoking, there was no way he would listen, not now and not ever. It was just that I had never seen him do that before.

They told me I should keep talking, despite anything. Despite his reaction and what I saw or thought I saw in his eyes. And so I did. Rather uneasily at first, I talked about that one particular evening, as Richard and I were standing in front of the cinema and he, although he hated films all his life, happened to be stepping outside. With his left arm starched around the waist of a pretty office girl. We stopped dead, cigarettes dangling from our cold November fingers. As it turned out, he had won the ticket in some dodgy office lottery, walked out half-way through the film show and immediately saw us. Smoking, swearing, telling crude jokes.

We knew straight away, before he even opened his mouth, that we would not be spared or get off lightly. Indeed, for weeks afterwards we could not smoke anywhere, not even in our school backyard – fearing he could still find us anywhere in the town.

I said all that, chuckling and giggling and whispering, looking at him all the time – in the dim light of his hospital ward. Of course, I wondered: did he care, did he listen, did he understand a word I was saying?.. But then I realised something. Something a lot more important: for all these months of dying and then surviving and then dying again – he was still the dad I feared. Like on that long gone day he caught us red-handed. I stared at his cigarette, identifying the culprit. Smoking rendered him different, again. Dangerous. Fearless. 

And again, he inhaled deeply.

Corner Cafe, Brighton

14 July 2015


Dresden. The place where to the shuffling voices and the background wailing of free-form jazz, I wrote letters to Jordan. Usually, there were few people about (anonymous types, drunk and mysterious), and I could approach my place in the corner, under a crumpled, smoke-stained Reservoir Dogs poster, and go about my business. This happened every Friday night. I ordered a glass of beer, took out a notepad and a pen and began with this: ‘Dear Jordan’. After that my mind blanked me and I stopped. Then I ordered another glass of beer (all the money my parents gave me), but the drink never helped. It distracted me to the point where I could not even imagine the face or the intense seduction of her voice. At some point later I tore the sheet out of my notepad and stuffed it into the back pocket of my jeans. Jazz was becoming chaotic (wanking with a trumpet, as my dad liked to say) and I went home drunk and unhappy, fearing tomorrow’s hangover and believing I would never attempt writing another letter to Jordan.

It was during one of those late morning hangovers, when the walls of my room eyed me with sickening disdain, that I heard the telephone ripping through my brain. It was Henry.  
“Burroughs is dying”, he said.

Burroughs was the only reason why Henry and I were friends. Either Burroughs or Jordan. A girl I first saw two years ago, under an oak tree in Holloway park, reading Junkie. That old and rather cheap-looking edition, dark red with a needle penetrating an arm. The one I had been meaning to buy for ages. Burroughs was a writer you discussed a lot but never actually read. Or maybe you tried – but barely survived twenty pages. The girl was blonde and, from what I could see, staggeringly beautiful. The whole scene was something to behold: the clouds, which on that day looked low and heavy and pregnant with rain, were poked by the green antlers of the tree; and the girl, the centrepiece, fatally expressive with her voice and her gestures. Stunned, I could not move. The added sense of anxiety was that she was not alone. In fact, she was reading those words to someone else; someone who was lying in the tall grass, by her feet.

I cannot say for how long I had been standing there, but at some point the girl saw me and waved. Quickly, I hurried to leave. ‘Hey you’, she screamed, and I turned around. Blushing, I came closer, thinking of all the reasons why I had to be doing that. But I couldn’t say no. There was something about the girl that implied no argument: she was completely naked.

Henry was the one lying in the grass, taking in the words as they kept floating out of the girl’s mouth like some mad prayer. And she was mad, too, walking about the tree as if possessed, going from soft whispers to full-on wailing. Henry, a face I vaguely knew from school or from elsewhere, silently instructed me to lie down beside him. In the rush of the moment, I could not find the courage to protest or question reality. But the strangest thing of all was that I could make out the words and even parts of the story. I actually followed it, along with each and every curve of her body, wet, glistening in the scorching sun rays of a midday.

“Don’t you want to fuck her?” Henry asked.

I mumbled something.

“Her name is Jordan”.

“Why is she naked?”

“Don’t you get it?”

“Have you?”

“Have I what?”

“With her?”

“You mean have I fucked Jordan? Oh many times. But she is like a friend really”.

For two seconds I tried to figure out what he meant by that, but soon got back to Junkie. First purring. Then screaming. Then moaning. Then wailing. Until she stopped and suggested that we should all go to a bar and have a beer. “Do you know Dresden?” she asked me, and I looked away. Which was utterly ridiculous: I felt more embarrassed by her dressing than by her exposing her breasts and her thighs.

By the closing time, I had been fully converted and had Burroughs’ Junkie in my hands and a promise of many more evenings like that. I noticed they went home together, and kept thinking about that while walking along the street at midnight and then withstanding my mother’s questions and then slipping hungrily into my room. And then I lost it, the moment I turned the lights on and delved into the pages of what was to become my favourite book.
So that was how it came about, our friendship. Henry, 16. Jordan, 19. And me, 15 years of age. We often discussed Jordan between the two of us (in fact, that was all we ever discussed; Burroughs rarely came into it), and I thought he was hiding something. Did he really sleep with her and was it really as simple as he made it out to be? It hardly looked as if they dated, and whenever I tried to broach the subject – Henry seemed reticent. Jordan was insanely pretty. She was older, too, and while her company flattered me (both of us in fact), I could not understand what she was doing hanging out with us. Undressing, reading Burroughs, taking us to Dresden. For some reason, Henry never bothered with any of those questions. Which was the source of my doubts about him and Jordan. Or else it was him being older than me. We were close without being close. Roughly twice a month we got together for a few drinks (mostly beer, sometimes whisky) and an occasional reading of Burroughs. A few times Jordan actually repeated that trick under the oak tree in Holloway park.

And then it happened. Burroughs is dying. Of course it sounded silly and improbable – even if I could not imagine anyone lying about a thing like that. But Henry sounded snappy and tough and hung up before I could get any details off him. Quickly, I put my clothes on, skipped breakfast and ran to Jordan’s place. Two emotions were fighting within me: vague shock but also delight about seeing Jordan. Seeing her out of order. Seeing her for free.

Henry was already there. Jordan, upset as I had never seen her before, was sitting on the sofa, her long white legs folded underneath and her blonde hair covering three quarters of her face. Henry was sitting by her side, embracing her in a solemn yet sorrowful manner. Jordan was not crying, but I wish she was. Her silence seemed devastating, odd, unthinkable.

‘Dead or dying?’ I asked, seeking to relieve the tension.

‘Fuck you’, said Henry, and then I knew this was serious.

Apparently Burroughs had a few days to live. Maybe hours. Earlier that day, Jordan had received a call from a friend in Kansas, another Burroughs lover like a herself, and told her about the news coming from Lawrence. As Henry was telling me all that, through hot whispers and the sipping of cold tea, I just repeated to myself: “Burroughs is dying, Burroughs is dying”. But the only immediate effect I could think of was that our friendship would end, Henry would blank me in the street and, most importantly, I would never see Jordan again.

In the meantime, nobody said anything and I was close to suggesting going to Holloway Park, doing a reading of Junkie. Like it happened the day I met them. Somehow, it seemed symbolic – if not appropriate. But they were both lost in their grim reverie, and I never said anything.

And then it happened. The moment that changed everything. Henry, as if possessed by an epiphany, said it was all down to us. We could do it. Jordan and I looked at him in disbelief, Jordan’s hopeful and mine a lot less so. Henry said he had a car and I could swear he had had it all figured out the moment he heard the news about William Burroughs dying in Lawrence, Kansas.  

Jordan’s expression and her animated movements made me forget about everything else, including my parents who were probably wondering where I was and why I hadn’t come down for breakfast. So that now, running with Henry to his car, asking him again and again if we could really pull it off, I was not thinking about dropping in at my place and listening to the hushed, worried whispers telling me no, of course not, what an insane idea. They hated Burroughs because they’d seen the book covers. They recognised my hangovers and they may have had some vague idea about Jordan and Henry. So if ever there was a thought now, as Jordan jumped in and said ‘Go!’, it was that I could ask to stop the car on our way to Kansas and make the phone call home from a gas station.

Jordan screamed at a passing car and we all whooped in unison. It was as if we really did think our coming would make some sort of difference and we could save the great man. Henry was driving and Jordan was sitting to the right of him, reading aloud from the greatest pages of Naked Lunch. Right behind her, I was listening rather carelessly and looking at her white blouse and her yellow pinafore skirt that revealed the full-blooded expression of her knee and her shin. She took out a bottle of wine from her bag and we drank: Jordan, myself, even Henry. And in the meantime, she was articulating her favourite passages that were getting more and more unreadable because of the dim lights of the oncoming evening. Henry was driving rather slowly and Jordan had no idea how to read the map. In the end, he missed more than he got right and I wondered if we could get there on time – whatever ‘on time’ even meant.

Outside, the state of Kansas was greeting us with the lonesome lights of gas stations and motels but through the wine and the voice of Jordan telling us her wild sexual fantasies I forgot to ask to stop the car and make that phone call. Nothing seemed to matter, not even William Burroughs dying in his bed and not writing that new novel he could still write. In fact, everything mattered even less the moment Jordan turned to me and lit my cigarette. First mine, then Henry’s. The smell of that cigarette, I knew, would stay with me for some time – as you can sometimes tell with graphic images or brilliant nightmares or just random points in life. Meanwhile, Henry switched on his favourite tape of ragged and nonsensical nighttime jazz and begged us not to fall asleep (this was already past midnight) as that would make him feel lonely. Jordan obliged, taking out a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels out of her bag. I realised, to my own amazement, that I myself was screaming and whooping at those rare cars passing us by. I behaved like a fool in front of Jordan. I vaguely realised that and did not care one bit. I could lean forward and kiss her full on her mouth – she would have played along. Except I never did that, much to my regret, in spite of all that whisky coursing through my veins. Mixed with blood, wine and yesterday’s beer. But there was a moment, a painfully brief one, when she lit my cigarette. First mine, then Henry’s.

I nodded off occasionally, but something always dragged me back: the jerky jump of the car, the shrill wailing of the saxophone or the voices of Jordan and Henry. These voices, I somehow felt, were the voices of adults that did not let you fall asleep when falling asleep was all you wanted. They kept you awake and you could not yet get to grips with the kind of reality that mothered those voices and made them its own. They sounded alien to me and yet so unlike the voices of my parents as they argued in their bedroom, late at night, hijacking my dreams.

We were approaching Lawrence when the dawn finally broke, with a movie-like flash against the sleepy, smoked out, hungover eyes, and it was only then that I began to realise why we were there. It was not Jordan or Henry or those wild evenings spent at her place, in Dresden or under a giant tree of Holloway park. What I remembered then was a postcard I had once found inside the library copy of The Last Words Of Dutch Schultz. A black-and-white picture of Burroughs sitting in the garden, reading a paperback. “To Margaret” was written on the other side, by a coffee stain that was getting closer and closer to the ageless, creamy colour of the postcard. I loved that picture and my idea, first whimsical and then not, was that the picture was all the reason there had to be.

And maybe Jordan was here for something like that, too, for soon she began speaking about Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch and how much she loved it. ‘A masterpiece’, Henry stated, his eyes dead, fixed on the road. I tried to argue, but feebly and without much hope. I did however imagine Jordan in that scary typewriter scene, her hair sticky and wet and waving to the open window and the breeze of the early morning.

Our conversation died down the moment we reached Lawrence and hit the streets. It was 6 am yet somehow, somewhere, the city was not sleeping. The movements were invisible, ghost-like and brought about great unease to the hearts deadened by the long way, the alcohol and the sleeplessness. The streets of Lawrence looked desolate but well aware of the impending tragedy. And if at some moments during our trip I wanted to actually stop the car and ask that question (‘How do we even know this is not just some spoof, some bullshit?’), I knew now this was all true.

I looked at the three of us. Could it be that we were late? Raped by gigantic emptiness, we were horrifyingly sober.

Henry banged the car door, stirring blood cells. It charged through my whole body and I saw the lawn of the Burroughs house silently invaded by a few dozen people. As we joined them, to the anxious rumours of a stroke or a heart attack, we were feeling numb and lost and a little out of time. None of us said anything, or wished to; it was enough just to see a few old men with battered old books, crying soundlessly. Otherwise, the scene reminded me of a huge flock of seagulls waiting for a piece of raw meat. Every second, I was more and more grossed out by the vision. Henry tried to take Jordan’s hand but she shrugged it off, and I felt cold and rough and thought of my parents. A guy to the left us was wearing jeans exactly like mine, and that, too, was a scary vision.

The house was an ordinary American house but a little on the depressing side. White colour had long turned grey and the windows were sealed with wood. There was no movement coming from the house, only the morning was slowly moving on, creeping up on us with new groups of people and the lush warmth of early August. Jordan had tears in her eyes. I felt disconnected and struggled to either put my arm around her or share her emotion. It was sad, it was upsetting, and there was a sense of a grim, tortured event about the whole thing but…

“Is he dead?” a girl asked me, breaking up an ugly thought. She must have been thirteen and had those horrible crooked teeth that usually made beautiful girls even more beautiful.

“No”, I said. “No, he isn’t”.

The girl nodded and went away, and soon I lost her checkered skirt and her baggy sweater in a growing throng of Burroughs followers. The lawn was overfilled with people and now there was a strong buzz of a million conversations that were perhaps the only reasons why we could stand still and disregard that great clot of tiredness growing within our bodies. It must have been closer to noon, that pointless noon at the end of summer, when the sense of wait was becoming either futile or unbearable, when a whispered murmur carved the crowd: William Burroughs is dead. A bearded guy standing behind us said the body had already been ‘removed from the premises’. On hearing that, some people began to shuffle away, sighing and sobbing and maybe even praying. Some were leaving books on the grass: opened at random pages, face down. We stood there for another hour and then left. There was an awkward, illogical feeling of hopelessness: not that we had failed but that Burroughs was dead.

Jordan suggested going to a local diner and having breakfast. However, none of us had any money so we simply dragged ourselves back into the car, heavily, sagged by exhaustion, and Henry started the engine. I thought my parents had probably called the police. Henry was saying something about seeing the dead body, on a stretcher, pushed through the crowd. “I saw him”, he said. “I did”.

I didn’t believe him. Pushing the paperback to the floor of the car, Jordan joined me in the backseat while Henry was driving us away from Lawrence. Inside me there was a strong sense of emptiness but there was also a kind of lightness that got stronger when Jordan put her head on my shoulder and fell asleep.

Before I had a chance to join her, I thought of the girl we had seen earlier that day. Her name was Margaret; sometimes you just knew. Also, I thought of the back pocket of my jeans where there was a letter that began and ended with two words: 

“Dear Jordan”.