For legal reasons I am required to acknowledge the obvious, that this is a work of fiction. That being said, it is well-researched fiction and I have sprinkled real quotes throughout the dialogue between Joan and Patti. Patti's comment about "Burroughs being like another bible" is one, as is Joan's comment about "Bill fucking like a pimp." The Laughhead interview Joan mentions can be found easily online, as can "The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs- What Really Happened?" by James Grauerholz, an incredible resource I utilized when writing this story. Everything Joan says to Patti about events in her life at the time of her death can be found in Grauerholz's extensive document. The only liberties I have taken with Joan's story is her interpretation of those events.- FH
Here’s the thing. I am very distrustful. I have been burned many times. One time in particular that was quite painful was by Patti Smith. She was with her then boyfriend, the young man who would go on to become the photographer, who would be wearing monogrammed slippers in fifteen years time, shooting flowers and whips up his asshole. A good looking fellow with unkempt curls. Bill would not have cruised him as he liked Spaniards.
They were at the Chelsea Hotel, what we used to call the Literary Leper Colony as a kick. Not out of disrespect for the address but because so many of the greats had gone there to die. Patti was very aware of the anniversary, she’d even found out approximate times from somewhere, though she and the boy did travel in the same loose circles as Bill when he was in town. They had dressed for their parts, the boy in a handsome Salvation Army suit coat and matching pants and Patti in a diaphanous slip dress and pearlescent shawl. There’s not much written as to my sartorial flair. Despite having such a prolific circle of writers for friends, it’s amazing how invisible I have remained. It was because of this that when dressing as me Patti defaulted her look to that of Ophelia before hitting the brook.
At 7:15 PM, Patti and the boy exchanged words like they imagined Bill and I might have before I was shot. So much pageantry was involved in the reenactment it’s a wonder they didn’t sell tickets. It was like a warped wedding ceremony, the groom being artistic sensibility. We now pronounce ourselves outlaw artistes!
“I think it’s time for our William Tell Act,” the young man said without emotion. “I don’t think I can look, you know how I can’t stand the site of blood,” Patti replied. The only aspect of the recreation they’d neglected was the weaponry. Instead of a .38 the boy had a small plastic water gun, painted brown and filled with red food coloring. He put a tumbler glass onto her head and backed up not too far. I saw something in his face, it read like hesitancy. A squirt of red food coloring hit her squarely between the eyes. She twitched and the glass fell without breaking. As the pinkish- red trail ran down her forehead she collapsed to the floor.
The whole thing was really a rather crass affair, but who’s to say, I might be biased. My husband and I have become one of the most popular his and hers Halloween costumes in certain corners of New York. More popular then Zelda and Scott, atleast as popular as June and Henry. I’d seen my share of these farbs but Patti’s was the first by a person in circumstances similar to my own and with a connection. I suppose it was the reason I was drawn out. That and it was obvious she was outre enough not to be completely spooked by the idea of talking to a ghost.
She dropped to the floor, feigning the last wheezy breaths of my death’s rattle. The boy waited a few seconds before leaning down and helping her to her feet. She moved her hand to his face as he lifted her, to caress his smooth skin and invite him to kiss her. Instead he moved her hand away.
“I have to go,” he said. This going of his had become a reoccurring motif. Though he was rejecting her advances it was not with cruelty.
“Where?” she asked. The food coloring had streaked down her forehead and pooled at the bridge of her nose. Her costuming was in such stark contrast to the boy’s. He looked debonair, brashly handsome; with the blood, she looked like a Bellevue escapee.
“To Terry’s loft…”
“You spend more time with Terry than you do with me, Robert. Not a small feat considering we live together.”
“I said I’d do this with you...” He moved his hands in the air, though the fleeting traces of their reenactment. “I don’t want to argue. He’s waiting for me. I’ll be back late tonight, I promise.”
Once the boy had gone, she went over to the bookcase and took out a small, elegantly constructed handmade diary. She poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle she had planned to use as an aid in the seduction of the boy, if only she had made it that far.
She picked up a pen, sat down at a small table and began to write: Rimbaud, Whitman, Blake, Burroughs: Robert and I are similar in the way we express our idolatry. We commune with our influences; covet their experiences like cicerones to luminosity. But it appears for Robert having one such experience Rimbaudesque hasn’t been enough. Jim Carroll said he knew he wasn’t gay because he only did it with men for money. I’m fairly certain that Robert is now doing it with them for free.
Without confirmation from the boy she was in purgatory. Without confirmation as to the circumstances of my death, I was too. You could say I thought we could help each other out of a jam.
Not wanting to scare her but conceding that some fright was inevitable, I waited till she had finished her first glass of wine and had the beginnings of a glow on. When she got up to use the bathroom in the hallway, engaging all three door locks behind her, I even refilled her glass to encourage more consumption.
There was so much riff-raff in the halls of the Chelsea that when I did manifest, in the second chair at the table, the boy’s chair- she did not even seem that startled. I wore a knitted cloche low on my forehead to cover the bullet hole and moved my chair in a way advantageous to the dim lighting of the room.
“How did you get in here?” she demanded catching sight of me when she looked up from her journal. She clenched the pen in her hand like a javelin.
“Joan Vollmer, Patti. I was watching your interpretation of my death.”
As could be expected, the revelation came as quite a jolt. She jumped up from her seat and bolted towards the door. “You old freak! You were spying on us! Get out now or I’ll get the police!”
“Touch me Patti,” I said following her as quickly as I could with my gimpy leg. She was frantically trying to undo all the locks on the door. “I can prove it if you touch me...”
She wouldn’t acknowledge my request, so to offer up irrefutable evidence of my nature, I walked through her, through the door, out into the hallway, then back into the room and beside her.
“I’m a ghost, Patti. An eidolon.”
She frantically continued with the locks. As she was both tipsy and unnerved, all she could do was fumble them. “I’m asleep,” she whispered, closing her eyes and shaking her head side to side as if she could wake herself up. “I passed out in the chair, this is a dream...”
“You’re awake,” I interjected. “Robert left a little while ago. You’ve been drinking wine, writing in your journal.”
An uncomfortable silence rested between us. A sort of stalemate. She could either resist believing what I was or she could accept it.
When she finally spoke it was with such a release of emotion I thought she might cry.
“Did…. I conjure you?”
“I don’t know exactly what you did, but everything lined up. I don’t have long though. I’m like Cinderella at the ball and can’t dance all night. Can we sit down?”
She didn’t respond but followed me back to the table, keeping as much of the small room between us as she could.
She stared at me for a good moment, then leaned across the table to touch me skittishly, like someone might if trying to gauge the heat of a hot stove.
When her hand cut clear through the air, clear through me, she threw back her head and began reciting verses from Whitman, “And thee my soul, thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet thy mates the eidolons!” She assailed her hands upon the tabletop and cried out, “Old Bull Lee’s wife!” referring to my husband by his character’s name in Jack’s book. Talking a mile a minute and with much animation, she began speaking of her and the boy’s reenactment of my death.
“It, it was meant as a tribute, a paean to you and your relationship with Old Bull Lee… You are such an inspiration to me, Joan. You were the hippest, smartest, girl on the scene, a real firecracker. Robert has said I’m so obsessed by my icons their like my imaginary friends. I’ll be writing in my journal and he’ll say, “What are you doing over there Patti Lee, communing with your dead pals?” I’ve always been known as this sort of 'little girl who cried wolf'… “Oh Patti and her imagination,” they always say. That’s probably why you came to me Joan, you knew from my mouth no one would ever believe it! A visit from you is just the sort of thing they would expect me to claim!”
She was so excitable and schizophrenic it dawned on me we might go on like this forever unless I got stern.
“Robert is homosexual Patti,” I said. “His sexual encounters with men are not just some artistic experiment. I know all about the denials and justifications. I went through it all with Bill. I had as hard a time accepting it as you are.”
“Joan Vollmer Burroughs in my room at the Chelsea! Commiserating with me about man troubles! I needed this so badly, Joan. I’ve felt so jaded lately. My belief in the magic of the world has really been on the wane.” She inhaled deeply and fidgeted with a loose gold band on her ring finger, twisting it in circles it as she spoke.
“At one time, Robert and I were like one person, Joan. Psychic twins I used to say. Telepathic, like you and Old Bull Lee. I’d always dreamed of meeting another artist to love and create with. Robert’s my muse and my maker. I’m resistant to give that up no matter who he shares his bed with.”
She must have forgotten I was untouchable because she reached across the table, then caught herself. “I am so blessed to have this time with you, Joan.”
“You’re blessed you have someone to have this conversation with,” I replied. “I had no one. At least no one who wasn’t in someway caught up in our madness. You can’t just talk to anyone about your lover, your husband, being fey. They don’t understand why you just don’t leave, that you can’t just turn your feelings on and off like that. Then there’s the denial. I used to say to Bill, “How can you be a faggot when you fuck like a pimp?”
A sly smile spread across her face that led me to believe she could relate.
“I need to ask you a favor, Patti,” I said. “I want to know if my husband shot me on purpose. I want to know once and for all if my death really was just an accident.”
“Oh Joan, I can assure you right now that it was! Lee was devastated by your death. It ruined him. It took him to depths so low, he had to write to find his way out. Your death is what inspired him to become a writer. It’s the reason he writes now!”
“Bill had been writing for years before my death, Patti. He was starting to become more ambitious about it with encouragement from Allen and Jack. He was writing two books at the time of my shooting. I had read parts of them. One was about boys, the other was about junk.”
“I’m staggered you would even question this, Joan. Lee had no reason to do you in. You were the mother of his child. You had a partnership, a numinous understanding...”
“He’d been home for three days from a trip to South America with his boyfriend when I was shot. They were in South America for over two months, Patti. Two months! I don’t know what happened over the course of that trip. Maybe the thought that once he came home- the looming threat of returning to that existence… I suspect he was done with us. Billy could go and live with his parents- and me, I don’t think he really cared where I went as long as it was a way from him.”
“Oh Joan, I don’t believe that. You had tolerated all of his lovers in the past. What ever would have been his complaint?”
“I think he wanted to be free of the trappings and responsibility of a family, Patti. Free to be an artist, to bugger boys where and when he wanted to, with impunity. Free of my loud mouth, my ugly face. I moved my chair over here because the lighting is better and you won’t get a good look at me, Patti. At my teeth. They’re like rotting tombstones from all my years on Benzedrine. What you would see isn’t damage done by any bullet. I was off the speed by then, but I was foul- mouthed lush with a gimpy leg from polio. Twenty-eight years old, but looking closer to fifty. I was only a few years older than you and you made me for an old freak when you first caught sight of me! And I can’t be positive because I'd been drinking, but I think I saw something in his eyes when he pointed the gun…”
“You were both drunk, Joan. That’s probably why your recollection’s so hazy. You were blitzed. You and Bill were at a party, at friend’s house when you were shot. You were performing your William Tell Act, something you’d done many times before…”
“No Patti, I remember what happened. I remember clearly. Bill and I hadn’t even come to the apartment I was shot at together. I hardly saw him over those three days after he returned from his trip. We met up at the apartment where I died coincidentally. His lover, the boy he went to South America with, was one of five or so people that lived there. And I think it bothered Bill. He wanted me out of his life and there I was, a guest at his lover’s apartment, and it made him feel like he’d never be free of me, he’d always have to tolerate my presence in some unbearable way. He’d come to the apartment to sell a gun. And I was at my wit’s end with him, Patti. I had to call his parents for money to feed the children while he was off in South America gallivanting with his catamite. We bantered there. I knew him so well, I knew just what to say to get him good and make it sting. He hated to be embarrassed. He was such a show off, with a machismo streak a mile long. I made a comment, not even a clever one… I said, in front of his catamite, in front of his claque, I said, “The big man with the big gun who can’t shoot straight.” You see, Bill was a great shot, it was one of on the things he prided himself on, his marksmanship. I was being cheeky; I just wanted a response. And he said, “Oh yeah?” And then to prove it, to prove me wrong, I let him put the glass on my head. It was the most interaction we’d had in months, Patti… It was something I’d let him to before, but it wasn’t any party trick. I wasn’t suicidal; I would have never let him put that glass on my head if I thought for a second he would miss…”
“Joan, are you sure this isn't just sour grapes?”
“Sour grapes? I saw something in is eyes, Patti. I’m not saying it was a total set-up, but I think in that moment, he saw a way to get what he wanted, he saw a way out. What I’d like for you to do is, I’d like you to put it out there for me. To say that you suspect I was murdered.”
“Oh, Joan, I’m a fairly new face on the scene. I don’t want to alienate anybody. I’m a poet, Joan. I’m not any kind of investigative reporter...”
“You could write a poem. Nothing will happen to Bill, Patti. It was eighteen years ago. I don’t want him arrested again. He already got his sentence, which he ran from, by the way. I just want some acknowledgement of what really happened that night...It's so obvious! Why doesn’t anyone have the guts to say it aloud? Is it because all of you who venerate him so would have to confront something ugly about yourselves?”
“Look at my bookcase Joan; I’m a scholar of your lives...”
“What are you saying? Because you’ve read all my husband’s books you are somehow better qualified than I am to judge what happened to me that night?”
"William Burrough's is like another bible to me, Joan. He's one of the reasons I became an artist, he's one of the reasons I moved to New York..."
“Do you like science fiction, Patti?”
“Do I like science fiction? I mean, I suppose. It’s not my favorite...”
“What about pornography? Do you like pornography, Patti? Gay, male-to-male pornography?
“I’m not against any kind of sexual expression, Joan. It’s not what gets me off, if that’s what you mean…”
“What about pederasty? Child fucking. How do you feel about child fucking, Patti? Because if you don’t worship any of those things, I’m surprised my husband is your favorite writer. That’s what he writes about. That’s your bible. Or is my husband your favorite writer because of what you think he represents? Some kind of gentleman- degeneracy with a Harvard degree and a handsome hat? Or is it the kitsch value of his lawlessness that you venerate? Is my husband your favorite writer because you’re so frantic to viewed as outsider you’ll pardon him his transgressions just so you can be associated with them?"
"I’m sorry I came here tonight, but I have no choice who I come to. Because of that, if you keep with your crass reenactments, I may be back.” I was so angry now that I stood up and removed my cloche. “Yours will wash away, Patti,” I picked up her pen from the table, the one she’d been using to write in her journal and jammed it into the hole in my forehead. “Mine won’t.”
Then I left her there, at her table, in her room at that hollowed hotel.
Left her with her lepers.
Bill is dead now, so what does any of this matter?
I have not seen him since his passing but I came across something the other day, something interesting. It was a transcript of an interview George Laughhead did with my husband right before he died. I can’t get into the logistics of how or where I saw it, but in it Mr. Laughhead concedes to something I waited over sixty years to hear someone admit.
He says, “I don’t really care if William Burroughs murdered his wife.”
My husband was allowed my death.
His status as an icon allowed for him to transcend my killing to such a degree it was no longer considered a criminal act, but a celebrated one.
In his old age, it appears Bill himself felt a little more emboldened to speak closer to the truth. In the same interview, he yells out, “SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK….THAT'S WHAT I DID.”
It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword.
And sometimes it is the sword.
© Fiona Helmsley