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Lunch with a Dead Beat, by David Ohle


They found the Burroughs necronaut two weeks ago sitting in a Topeka bus station wearing a moldy suit and leaning on a walking cane standing between his knees.

His former manager called me. “He’ll only be back long enough for lunch, the clinic tells me. I’m in New York. Can you get over to Topeka to have lunch with him? You’re an old friend. He likes you. He thinks of you as a Johnson.”

That meant well-mannered, dependable, honest, and a good cook.

I had been reading and hearing about all the limited come-backs that were going on. You’re back for a limited time, usually a few hours. It’s hinky and it would scare me to see the Old Man this way.

But It was an easy thirty-minute drive to Topeka and I was extremely curious.  

The manager went on, “Ask him questions, but not about his writing. He hates that. I want his take on the afterlife. He always believed in it. Let’s see what he says about it.”

I had known Burroughs in Kansas, where he lived for sixteen years, longer than he’d lived anywhere. I had cooked dinner for him and a friend or two on Thursdays for ten of those years, taken him to Kansas City occasionally for his six-pack of methadone, and I was a pall bearer at his funeral. I do miss him. He was the sharpest of wits. I’m still always asking myself, “What would William say about this or that?”

I learned from the radio on the way to Topeka that helpful passengers had taken him from the bus station to a nearby clinic where, like all returning necronauts, he was cleaned, oiled, powdered, and kept in a barometric chamber for several days until the boils subsided. A feeding tube was inserted in hopes of improving his nourishment. He’d come up at only sixty-five pounds. Recent reports, however, advise that he has already gained enough weight and strength to stand and walk as much as a block or two using his cane and enjoy a lunch.

We were to meet at the Squat ‘n’ Gobble at one p.m. sharp. It was a short walk from the clinic. I waited there more than an hour, drank two Pimm’s Cups and an absinthe frappé, and was getting a bit bleary in the frosty Squat air-conditioning.

I was drunk and hungry, Burroughs was late, and I was getting twitchy. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the way he looked now.

I called the manager. “What does he eat anyway?”

“Clabber. I manage a lot of necronauts and that’s all they eat.”

“What the fuck is clabber?”

“Sour curdled milk. All the Squats carry it for the new arrivals. Don’t worry, he’ll be there eventually. The notion of time is a little muddled when they first come back. And the clinic tells me he tends not to lift his feet when he walks. He skates along slowly. He’ll fall, too, and people will have to pick him up. All this takes time.”

I began waiting again and ordered another Pimm’s. It was already three and no sign of Old Bill. The banging, clanging, and casual talk in the kitchen area suggested the Squat was prepping for supper service.

There were no other customers at this solemn hour between lunch and dinner. Booths were empty. I crawled into one and went to sleep. It was five when I woke to a sharp pain in my knee as if I’d been struck by something. Burroughs stood over me waving his cane. “I’ve got a sudden yen for some clabber, my dear. Let’s eat.”

“All right.”

In life, he’d been a gaunt, skeletal figure. Now he was much more so, and his eyes were clouded and white. They had been bright blue the last time I’d seen him. I helped him into the other side of the booth, straightened his back, tightened his black silk tie and scraped the mold from his dirty suit with a table knife. He coughed, gently, his breath skunky enough to make my eyes burn. It’s a shame they so often come back in such a rat-gnawed condition. I wanted to see him lively and energetic, the way he was before. I felt a sort of high-level sadness I’d never felt before.

“I’d like a drink before lunch,” he said to a server. “Make it a warm Coke with three fingers of cheap American vod.”

The server looked at Burroughs’s lips. They were partly sealed with the body’s natural after-death adhesives. But there was room for a straw and possibly a spoon. “All right, sir. Coming right up.”

“No alc for me,” I said. “Bit of a migraine.”

“Are you ready to order?”

“I’ll have the clabber with a little raw sugar on top,” Burroughs said, drily.

I was hungry enough now to eat anything. I said, “I’ll have the special, whatever it is.”

The server fanned the pages of an order pad trying to think of the day’s special. “Oh, yeah. Fried catfish on a bun with mayo and a side of curly fries.”

“I’ll take that and a coffee.”

“Okey-doke. Might take a while. The kitchen’s just started supper service. Drinks coming right up.”

Burroughs shook his head back and forth as far as the stiff neck would allow. “I would never eat a catfish. The rats of the deep. They nibble on the drowned.”

“Well, Bill, I don’t doubt what you say, but may I take this time to ask you a few questions?”

“With one proviso…I’ll need a smoke before we start.”

He reached into his suit pocket and found nothing. “Where are my ciggies? They’ve rotted away.”

“It’s against the law now, Bill, smoking in restaurants.”

“You can’t be serious. What an awful idea…no smoking in restaurants. I’d give my right arm for a puff of a Players right now.”

“Things changed while you were gone…May I ask some questions now?”

“Go ahead, baby, ask away.”

“What was it like during that period when you were ‘gone.’ And why, buried in St. Louis, did you come up in Topeka?”

“Who knows why I came up here. It seems very random. As to what it was like when I was gone, I have only a foggy recall. I remember all of us necronauts, young and old, ‘living’ in tiny, unfurnished cottages. We didn’t sleep, eat, bathe, or watch TV, so we had few household needs. Shelter was very important, however. There was acidic rain every afternoon. Administration had to come around and replace the ruined roofing once a year.”

Burroughs’s drink was served. He took a strong pull on the straw and filled his dry mouth with the vod and Coke. He nearly swooned with the pleasure it gave him.

The Coke prompted me to ask a spontaneous question. “Mr. Burroughs, your taste for heroin and other opiates are well known. Did you do much cocaine?”

“The only way I liked coke was mixed with heroin, right up the mainline.” He mimicked inserting a needle in his forearm.

“Another question…time. How does that work on the other side?”

“You have a wristwatch, my dear. What time is it?”


“It’s the same there…dinner time. The smell of souring milk in the air, clabber carts pedaling by the little houses, dispensing it in paper cups.”

A server approached our booth with my catfish sandwich, nestled into a plastic basket lined with wax paper and piled with fries. “Enjoy.”

I took an enormous bite of the sandwich and asked my next question with my mouth full. “Were you still addicted after death?”

“Yes, to anything I could get. Soak the flag in heroin and I’ll suck it. But there was nothing I could get. There were rumors of dead chemists who’d set up labs in their little houses and made the very opiates I needed…I never connected with them. It was just that, a rumor.”

Burroughs finished his drink and began spooning clabber into the round hole in the space between his lips as he scolded me. “Mind your manners, my dear. Don’t speak with your mouth full of food. It’s low class.”

I swallowed the lump of fish and bread with coffee. “Sorry, Bill. I’m a little anxious…one more question…I know you’re back just long enough for a late lunch…but imagine for me that you were back here to stay. As a necronaut, with such limited capacities, how would you get by?”

“TV repair. It’s just a matter of changing burned out tubes. I’d get a tube tester, a degausser, and some tools.”

I didn’t bother to go on about the advances in television viewing in the twenty years he had been gone. I was more interested in finishing my fish bun and fries.

He smiled. I could hear his lips cracking as they separated, “I would pursue my other interests, of course, like target-shooting, saving the whales, establishing a sanctuary for abandoned cats and runaway boys.”

“Where would you live? You wouldn’t have a little home anymore.”

“On the street I suppose until some kindly Topekan took me in. I’d sleep in parks. Weather wouldn’t bother me. Rain, snow, ice, summer sun, nothing.”

He nodded and seemed to be going to sleep, until he tapped my knee with his cane. “Help me up, I’m leaving. Lunch is over. I’ve got to get back. My time is up…I have commitments of the flesh…Some poet said that. I forget who. I think he was married to Sylvia Plath.”

I hefted him out of the booth with my elbows tucked under his frail arms. It took him several minutes to steady himself before making a few furtive steps toward the door, depending heavily on his wobbly cane.

“Goodbye, Bill. Now I’ll miss you all over again.”

“I’ll be back,” he said, “some time or another. We’ll have dinner.”

A server opened the heavy door for him and he shuffled out onto Arden Boulevard. For a moment, he was bathed in the lurid neon lights of the Squat ‘n’ Gobble, but soon passed into the shadows, gone again.


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