Russell Thorburn

The Richard Brautigan Papers

(Richard Brautigan, detail from book cover Trout Fishing in America)

Richard Brautigan stood before me at the front desk. It would be his last reading before he returned to Bolinas and blew out his brains with a gun. But nobody knew that.

  

I was thinking of Richard Brautigan, the poet and novelist, in his floppy winter coat, his trademark wire-rims from the sixties. His slow way of talking as if a turtle prompted from his shell. Then how he contradicted that slowness with a saber-like lunge of a thought. The A Confederate General from Big Sur author with his shaggy-dog hair, graying and electric, so many wrinkle lines in his round San Francisco face, as he momentarily stood before me at the front desk. It would be his last reading before he returned to Bolinas and blew out his brains with a gun. But nobody knew that.

I had my suspicions maybe as the hotel clerk who checked him in. I had worked at the old hotel on top of the hill overlooking Lake Superior for a year or more. I watched as Brautigan quickly scribbled his name in the registry. He was staying the night courtesy of the local college. I lived alone in a tiny room on the fourth floor: one postcard from my girlfriend in Paris had said goodbye. All of the stars were troubling to me because they reminded me of my girlfriend who had gone to Paris. I didn’t know how long I would stay at the hotel, for the hot plate burned fuses and the cook in his pill of a hat would burst into my room, “Don’t do that again!” he yelled, but with a new fuse in and lights back on, everything was as good as it could be.

Brautigan, or Bunthorne, as Ginsberg called him, showed signs of a nervous collapse after checking in and tumbling down to the lobby, where in the gauzy light of the hotel, he reported his toilet was overflowing. His eyes, burnt-out holes filled in with too many words, penetrated me with this secret. I locked the till and ran the elevator up to the fifth floor. Brautigan had one of the best rooms on the end, with a view of the harbor, Lake Superior ghosting on for miles toward Canada.

Too many stars, too beautiful, the harbor was what we had looked upon themselves, hand-in-hand or arms locked as lovers—of course, this story wouldn’t make any sense unless her age was nineteen. Her aquiline nose was what I yearned for, her body close to mine in bed with the same sheets for a month. I never told her that, but she knew.

It was hurting me.

I bent the ears of the television, turning it on. The patterns were fuzzy as if the snowstorm was contained in its tubes. I left it on while the music of some drama droned in—maybe I was thinking of the night John Lennon died, when I sat in the bar with the district attorney who was the owner’s fishing buddy—an affected episode of his life, watching some news-head talking about Lennon’s assassin.

I knew things were turning, right there and then, with the bulbous nose of the former DA asking him, grilling me more likely if I cried when I heard John Lennon was shot—and dead. And I held onto this popcorn bowl as if the world’s grace was contained in these greasy kernels.

***

I saw the Playboy on the bed. Beside it was a bottle of vodka. The Playmate of the Month was named Candy, and her body was honey-colored, as she waded through a river of sorts, wearing only a fisherman’s gaiters; the photographer in his indiscrete but necessary flash anticipated her to wade up to her thighs before snapping the December issue cover.

The toilet, then, flushed efficiently; perhaps it sprayed a bit. I wasn’t going to fix it if it didn’t need to be fixed.

Brautigan, in Bolinas, for whatever reason, would do a Hemingway. He wouldn’t write one more novel that nobody liked to read; his million-seller Trout Fishing in America with Trout Fishing in America Shorty would live on forever in the million paperbacks that had sold for less than two dollars, even though Ginsberg mockingly called Bunthorne for some reason. I would find out all this later after his death, feeling bad I hadn’t said more than I’d fix his leaking toilet.

I told Elizabeth “just ghosts” when she screamed at something moving in the sailboat’s dark. I wondered if I should ask her real age, which I hadn’t so far. I was sure I had seen the face of Brautigan at the hotel bar, where they had drunk too much. But he was a ghost locked in a kiss with a nineteen-year-old who didn’t want to say no; her tits underneath her silk shirt insisted.

The bartender scratched a note to himself to read later on: don’t let Thorburn back in until he paid back the money he owed him.

“John Lennon sat there at this table, right by the window facing the street,” I told her when we broke for breath, leaving the kiss behind us.

“You mean the real John Lennon?”

“What other Beatle do you think I mean?”

Her body had felt good against mine and as we both leaned precariously toward each other I saw her mascara was running. I wanted her naked inside the sailboat I had been sleeping in every night, to see her curves in the electric light of my flashlight move against my hips.

“One night the Rolling Stones were here for a funeral,” I said, not bothering to lie this time, for they had been here at the bar.

I told her Mick and Keith drank beer and whiskey waiting for the funeral of their beloved roadie to begin. They fit in with the crowd of middle-aged losers, more ghostly than alive with dangling cigarettes. You couldn’t tell the Stones they couldn’t smoke. Nobody talked with them, they might as well have been living statues, and he wondered what she thought about that. But she said nothing. She had drunk her third beer, and I hoped she’d use the bathroom before we traipsed down the cold street to the lower harbor parking lot where the boats were moored for the winter.

She didn’t use the bathroom in the end and had to stoop halfway down to the parking lot. I watched her bare bum in the moonlight and said to her “You can’t kill a ghost.”

At the sailboat, she had undressed but then discovered she had her period.

“I am not going to stop you from leaving.”

“You could help me search for my clothes.”

“I don’t think you want to wear these.”

I dropped the panties to the floor.

“It’ll be a cold walk alone back up the hill.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll walk with you, but you must wait for the police cruiser first.”

She collected a shoe, its pair lost; I could see her stumbling home and begged her to stay.

“Ghosts, they’ll follow you home.”

“I am not worried about ghosts,” she said, surprised she had found her bra at her feet and slipped it back on. She didn’t know she had worn one.

She pointed to the blood spot as evidence. “I’ve got my period, suddenly, unmistakably.”

I gave her too much time to deliberate on her escape. It came too soon. The sleeping bag kept me thinking of being a Boy Scout. I had forgotten the time, I was thirteen again, sleeping inside a tent, I heard the boys talking about sneaking over to the next tent. She wanted me to see the bloodstain, an offertory of her most personal bodily function and shoved it under the penlight, which kept wandering across her body.

“Don’t you see the bloody stain?”

I didn’t want to.

“It’s not my fault I got my period.”

“I think you did it on purpose.”

She wrinkled up her nose, looking sexy with her bra not really on right with one boob hanging out. I reached out to straighten her boob and she thought she loved me. Her arms surrounded me like I was an anchor, afraid to move much in the darkness.

“One of your shoes has come off,” I told her, for my knifing light caught it there on the floor.

Its pellucid leaked light of loneliness traced its edges: light enough for the shadows to contain it. Then the sailboat up on blocks in the parking lot shook its loose sail lines in the March rainstorm that’s slowly turning to snow. We trespassed, she understood that as she began reaching around to undo her bra again.

“I am-going-to-get-cold,” her lips’ bluing chatter said while I flipped the lids of several beer cans, and my eyes, if she was paying attention, flashed along with the penlight at the working clock inside the hatch.

“Are you done yet?”

“Blind, you must be blind, well, there’s little light for you to see me naked anyway,” she complained, but he’s not there at all, his shadow melted mostly in shadow.

Their sailboat named after a character in the Odyssey had been dry-docked in the harbor parking lot since October; I selected this one to break in because of the name: Telemachus. Why not? One has to find motivation in the simplest turns of words. I flashed that pen at her undoing her bra and out tumbled her healthy breasts.

She stood there not knowing what was going to happen. I wanted to reassure her it was all or nothing and I could hold her in my arms and wait for her to decide. But she did nothing and the sailboat’s mast creaked and the hull itself seemed to shake encountering what we couldn’t see.

I never got used to trespassing, of dropping through the hatch and landing on the debris of a stolen life. My candy wrappers and sandwich bags of another life wouldn’t let me go each morning. I lost my job at the hotel for entering a guest’s room when she wasn’t there. I wanted to look through her suitcase and see what she was going to wear as pajamas: negligee, perhaps, a sheer one with a single tie down the front.

She was a dirty blonde attempting to appear younger than she was. She flirted with me checking in at the front desk, or it appeared to me flirting, I could have got it wrong. She had arrived there in a beat-up truck with fishing poles in the backseat; I saw them sticking out the open window. She was thirty pushing forty and to pretend she was anything else was hard on the head to imagine. Her wrinkles covered her face like a map of a secret fishing hole.

She said her name was “Betty,” but I could call her “Betts,” as if we were good friends already.

I didn’t want to be her friend.

“There are no blankets here,” Elizabeth whined, her body shrouded in shivers, as my penlight wandered around, looking for blankets.

She was right: no blankets. Just a raggedy sleeping bag I had used as a Boy Scout long ago, with all the smells and stains of a thirteen-year-old on campouts. When she saw it, she dragged it around her shoulders and spoke in a lower register.

I wondered why I had been caught in Betty’s room on the fifth floor. I trespassed again, but lingered longer than I usually did, sitting down on her bed already slept in by the looks of it. I knew I’d be found out and that was the thrill of it—the waiting for what might happen—like turning to the last page of a 300-page novel to find out the truth.

The girl before had been a screamer and worried about the police hearing her from the dry-docked spot in the parking lot. The waves were whales swimming in from wild Lake Superior. More like the North Sea he had told her when she had laid down for him.

She asked me to smell it, blood was blood though, and I did smell it anyway. I thought of Lennon’s blood, Brautigan’s blood, even Betty’s blood, or was it mostly his when she struck me over the head with a lamp that gouged my forehead.

She tumbled out of this Boy Scout world and flashed my own penlight on me.

“I am sorry I ever came with you,” Elizabeth confessed, standing in the dark.

I saw enough to make me think of asking her to stay: hips and thighs, her astonished nineteen-year-old face that wrote her egress as quickly as her nose wrinkled, her eyebrows like chipped blinds rolled up.

“You are going to let me go?” she sheepishly asked.

I thought about Brautigan’s Playboy on his bed, loneliness like an addiction; his toilet overflowed when flushed. The shotgun he’d hold in Bolinas and why he had moved from Montana to California. Maybe that’s what killed him; he missed the wilderness and the snow; it never snowed in Bolinas. Ginsberg called him up on the telephone to whisper, “Am I talking to Bunthorne?”

“I am not going to stop you from leaving,” I told her more rationally this time, “but I believe it’s time for the police cruiser to come around one more time tonight.”

“You could help me search for my clothes again.”

“Just wear your winter coat, you’ll be fine till you get home.”

“I don’t want to walk home naked and alone.”

I wanted to love her and knew she was too young. I didn’t care about any of that as they stood there together in this deciding moment.

“I know I saw Brautigan walking back to the hotel one night, his wire-rims dirty, shirt untucked, and weeping. He wanted to know why he never fixed his toilet—that was the one thing, the one stupid thing, after being rejected by all the college women and drinking the vodka—the spray of the flushed toilet made him slip off that suicidal seat.”

She looked at me funny.

She didn’t believe in ghosts; she believed in the imaginary tires crunching through the icy snow outside the sailboat, the mighty Telemachus, the son who couldn’t slay Penelope’s suitors, the mast rattling slightly in the gale-force wind.

“It was Brautigan for sure, I wouldn’t lie to you.”

If there were footsteps coming, I didn’t hear them. To be sure, I hoisted the hatch to take a look at the snow flying around the boat. “I can walk you home, it’s not safe.”

I slid back into darkness; I wondered if my girlfriend would ever believe me, I had been faithful to her. I drank down a beer and threw it into the corner, watching her hunt for her purse.

“Let me walk you home.”

Whether it was only wind or the sailboat making one of its hundred kinds of noises, the lines coming undone and whipping around, the boat wanting to eat the water one more time, I heard that one extra noise of something solid. I couldn’t deny it, nor would my face lie to her. Maybe the penlight had leaked through a hole in the boat and they saw it finally, enough ghostly light to warrant the cruiser to actually pull up next to Telemachus.

I wondered if Brautigan knew he would kill himself that night in the hotel. Had he opened up the fifth-floor window and contemplated jumping? His Playboy on the bed as a testament to his terminal loneliness, a solitude like a shotgun shell—one only needed—the vodka bottle empty on the ragged room floor.

Lennon didn’t choose to die; it was fame that killed him.

He hoped for fame again, with his records, not those bullets; he hoped his assassin would miss, or the gun would jam—he could survive one bullet, but not another one. Please, listen, he wanted to tell his assassin, You don’t need to kill me.

My name is John Lennon.

When my shift was over that night, I thought about knocking on his door, asking if I could flush again. I never did, though. I went home, which was on the fourth floor then. I lay in bed thinking of Paris and was lonely. I’d lose this job soon and the hotel room. I wondered if Brautigan ever thought of Paris. I could see him at a cafe table, drinking coffee, a baguette in its wholeness like a prize he had won; a buttery prize for his eyes to eat, golden brown and cut flaky and beautiful; beautiful as any girl in her stockings and skirt, wearing a beret in the winter where she drank coffee outside at a cafe old Albert Camus used to frequent before his sports car wrapped around a tree in an existential act of suicide.

The Paris morning newspapers like the canvases of readers who wanted to be painters and poets; even if you couldn’t read French, you sat there with the edition hoping somebody would notice you.

Hello, my name is Albert Camus.

“This is extremely important, are you listening?”

But he never said what was important and she didn’t care to hear anymore. Her blonde hair fell across her face while her hand swept the floor; she said something under her breath he didn’t catch. She straightened up, one shoe in her hand and nothing else.

Did Brautigan order more than he could eat at the Paris café, or afford? Did he decide he’d eat himself to death like Hemingway? How I lusted after their eating habits, knowing death waited at some hour in the afternoon or night; some distraction that allowed them to go look for their instrument of death, of entering the other world as a ghost.

The clock, or sitting on a bed too long, tired of reading the same newspaper headlines, a missing sock, yes, the matching sock was nowhere to be found, like tomorrow, or watching the sunrise from the bedroom, a dog scratching at a closed-door, the same pair of underwear for a week now, what difference does a new pair mean when the time on the clock says you have run out on your life? A cup of coffee, stale and cold on the side table, the manuscript started and un-started, pages never in order with page numbers mismatched as the weather.

I wished Brautigan would have called up Ginsberg that night, yelled at him over the phone; I connected those calls at the switchboard, could listen in if I wanted to, but Brautigan never called anybody. Betty did and it was to the police. I said, “You realize I am on the switchboard downstairs?” and she said something like her father had a friend in the department.

“Please, you need to be listening. I want to tell you something.”

I never knew what it was I could tell her; wind could be so loud blowing off Lake Superior, and in the hatch, I could hardly hear myself breathe, let alone hear her say anything.

 

Richard Brautigan Appears at the Gas Station
One Night with His Girlfriend

He’s wearing the same tall, big-brimmed hat
on the cover of Trout Fishing in America,
and his hands slide off the steering wheel
of his jalopy so he can gesture to you,
in your faded red sweatshirt, your own oil-stained
poet mind, for what in hell does Brautigan
have to do with the Upper Peninsula?
You pry open the hood of his car, a pump jockey
under bug-stained lights, no longer nineteen
and in love with every word he’s written,
as if his hippie girlfriend in those knee-length boots
doesn’t mean any more than a late-night customer.
She marches quickly inside, past your sentinel
of a chair, the greased-up paperback, where you have been
reading Trout Fishing in America to the blinking neon.
Brautigan mentions his engine’s overheating,
and he might as well have said General Lee
was staying down the street at the local hotel,
many of his men hopelessly alive in their wheelchair
graves. But his teeth are talking, the poet
who once stood before Ben Franklin’s statue,
in his tightly worn vest with goddess beads
dangling between the lost buttons.
And you want to tell him he needs a can
of oil, dipstick in your hand, beckoning
before they can drive off to find one more
unmarked road leading nowhere into the night.
But by then the hippie girl in her tight-fitting boots
goose steps by you. Her great white wrinkled skirt
of many hours drags across the oily bay,
as she whispers, “See you later, alligator.”

 

Russell Thorburn

Russell Thorburn is the author of four books of poems. Somewhere We’ll Leave the World, published by Wayne State University Press in 2017, draws on the poet’s own experiences while imagining fictional characters and personal heroes. He has received numerous grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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