“Ex-junkie gun loving novelist, pensive in a black bow-tie gazes at his clasped hands. He looks like a church deacon, a riverboat gambler, a soft palmed widow strangling con-artist.”
- Adrian Searle, describing a photograph of William. S. Burroughs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
In a long room in Philadelphia, there are photographs on the wall. The silver makes the blacks blacker and the whites whiter. When I was sixteen, I was given a worn copy of a book and it was one of those that changed me, after I finished reading it, and made me into something different. It was one of those books that made me into who I desperately wanted to be at the time. And somehow that Changed Me made it to Philadelphia in the winter so that I could stop in front of this particular picture, mesmerised.
In the photographs of him that I'd seen before, he always looked like an old man. It was at odds with the life that I know that he led, but maybe Old Bill cheated; where Dorian Grey had a picture of him that aged, maybe, in an attic somewhere, there was a photograph of William Burroughs that lived a good and quiet life for him in his absence.
It was cold in the city but in the gallery it was too warm and I swayed quietly on the balls of my feet while I looked at the photograph and didn't think a lot of anything at all. I let my mind go blank. I didn't hear her come up behind me; if I was listening to anything at all it was the distant murmur of my friends talking because the last thing that I wanted was to be left there, in that strange gallery and that strange city. I was chewing on the blue plastic chip that they gave me so that I could eventually claim your coat, which I'd need. It was cold. Later, I had another train to catch.
“That's a bad habit.”
I looked at her like it was none of her business, but I took the chip, the piece of blue plastic, out of my mouth too. It was damp and I held it in my hand.
She was a little woman, lumpen, black coat, black hair, one of those women who seem possessed of a huge and ancient sadness, a sadness that centres as an absence in the eyes. I felt like I might have seen her before; I didn't know her, but there was that sort of glancing familiarity that comes with brushing past someone in a crowded corridor at roughly the same time every day for a week or so.
“He looks so peaceful.”
“He looks old,” she said. “And sad.”
I was twenty-two years old, at the time. At that age, anything older than your parents is a flat line. Later, you come to know better.
“He was young once,” she said, her dark eyes pinpricks, fixed on Bill's white hands. “We were young together. It was Allen's fault, though.”
And then I remembered where I saw her. Tucked into a reader which I took out of the library once, little more than an appendix, a footnote, a blurry photograph of a woman in her twenties, the same age as I was, but looking much older, her pockets full of papers, her eyes closed against the sun. The picture was blurred by the shake of someone's hand. In Philadelphia, she was blurred by how quickly I looked away and then looked back again.
“I know who you are.” I couldn't help it. I blurted it out, and then it was said and couldn't be taken back. She didn't look at me, so I stared for a moment. Either I'd finally gone out of my mind, or something miraculous was happening. It’s sometimes so difficult to tell. “I read Junky when I was sixteen,” I said, trying to act as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “It made me want to be a writer, sort of.”
“I'm sorry,” she said. She looked older than twenty, but she did in the photograph too. It was difficult to tell if she'd actually got discernibly older since 1951.
“Writers. They're flawed...and they tell lies.”
I looked at her. The first time I read about her death I was in the grip of hero worship and I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe that, at a party, Bill rested a glass on the top of her head and shot at it and missed, but did not miss her head. I didn't want to believe that he was capable of doing that and walking away, but it was true. That was what he did.
“You could have stopped it.” There I was, blurting things out again. “You could have. It was a stupid game. You didn't have to....”
“You're a baby,” she said, house mother of that sprawling slum, more important to them, for a while at least, than Joyce or Edie. “How can you possibly know how much things can hurt?”
I wanted to tell her, then...wanted to set her straight. I wanted to tell her about all of the things that had happened to me, and all of the things that could hurt and how, at twenty-two, I was just coming to the conclusion that sometimes your life can have too much life in it, but I was never good at talking about those things, so I didn't.
“I'm here, aren't I?” That's all I said. That's all I could say.
We stood there for a moment, her and me, me and the woman who held her own for a little while in that circle jerk, that boys’ club that, fifty years later, I'd still sort of want to get into.
“Don't you think he looks sorry?” Personally, I would like to think that Bill was sorry for what he did. For a long time before a hopeless Californian stole my head in a way in which, maybe, it would never be stolen again, Bill was my favourite in the world. I always wanted to think well of him.
“I don't know,” she said and squinted her empty eyes at him. “Well, Bill? Are ya?”
Bill didn't having anything to say, even though I almost expected that he might. I remember reading somewhere that, afterwards, Joan's death kept him constantly terrified.
No way but to write myself out.
“He isn't sorry,” she said, and shook her head, once. “He isn't sorry and I love him anyway.”
She was silent then except for a barely breathed goddamnit. I wanted to put my arms around her or at least my hands on her, somewhere. I wanted to be a comfort but I'd never been good at that, either. I'd never had to be anybody's mother. Unlike Joan in that photograph, I'd had the luxury of never having to grow old before my time.
“He loved me,” she said. “But not hard enough and not for long. I lost him in a...” she moved her hands like I do when I can't remember the exact words for what I want to say, “...Benzedrine dream, and I saw double, and by the time I blinked and saw right again the real him was already gone.”
Joan bent down in her black coat with its full pockets, slightly blurry, and set something on the gently sloping floor, off-centre under the photograph, which was perfectly aligned. From the door, I was being called and I had to go.
Moving isn't enough, but it's a good start.
“He said that it was an accident,” I said.
Joan smiled, and it wasn't the tight lipped smile that she was showing in that one photograph I'd seen of her. It was broad, wide open, and she looked, if not twenty two, then no older than thirty-seven.
“In the magical universe, there are no coincidences and there are no accidents...” she said.
“Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen,” I said. And I think that I understood.
And then she was gone, as these things are, in dreams or, more rarely, when you're awake. And the glass didn't break then, either.