John F. Barber's tribute to Brautigan
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Looking back at Richard Brautigan

by John F. Barber?

Richard Brautigan limped into the classroom, leaning on a wooden cane as if to transfer all his pain down its tobacco-colored shaft, dispersing it, neutralizing it through the floor. "I broke my leg two weeks ago. I tripped over a foot stool in my house," he said, laughing at either the novelty of his situation or introduction, or both.

"As you can see, I'm not wearing a cast," he continued. "My doctor is trying a new method of curing broken bones. He set my leg and told me to walk on it and let the bone heal itself."

I had never heard of such a thing, but Richard seemed to be able to walk, even if he seemed to be in some discomfort.

Seen first time in person, Richard Brautigan looked remarkably similar to the photographs of himself gracing the covers of his novels. Tall, he was over six feet, and thin, except for his stomach which had gone to middle-age paunch. Fly-away, blond hair covered his ears and collar. A walrus mustache draped his mouth. His hawk nose supported wire-rimmed glasses, the same ones, I would have bet, he wore in San Francisco, years before, when he gave his poetry away on street corners. Photos showed him in jeans, a vest, a Navy pea coat, and a large black hat. Beads too. He still wore denim jeans, but his jacket was three-quarter length blanket lined denim with cargo pockets on the sides. No vest, but a snap button cowboy shirt, and plain, untooled, industrial strength cowboy boots.

It was the spring of 1982. I was a student in a creative writing class taught by Richard Brautigan, author of Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar, and A Confederate General from Big Sur, at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Introductions finished, Richard sat in a chair, broken leg stretched stiffly to the front, and dropped two bombs. First he said he couldn't teach us, anybody, to write. "That's something you have to develop on your own. What I can do," he said, "is act as a resource, based on my experience as a writer, and help you with your writing efforts. I can tell you that writing is hard and frustrating, but it's fun."

The second bomb was about fun. He said, "creative writing is the use of language, imagination, and experience to communicate something for pleasure."

He was right on both accounts. I haven't yet learned to write, but I keep at it, looking for the fun. If writing is a slot machine, I keep pulling the handle, looking for just the right combination of language, imagination, and experience.

One week I tarried after class. When my classmates left the room I said to Richard, "I'd like to get to know you outside of class. Maybe we could talk about writing."

Richard's first response was a look that nailed me as a groupie trying to get close to the famous writer. His look held me until I started to squirm and wanted to admit it was true. Like others of my generation, I carried a copy of Trout Fishing in America with me in my travels as religiously as I did a toothbrush. Now the author had stepped out of the pages, out of the photographs. I wanted to know more about him.

My doubts were erased by his next response. "Let's go downtown to the Eagle's Club and have a drink. We can talk there. I'd like that," he said.

The Eagle's Club was the local VFW outpost. Richard thought it the best bar in Montana and through the spring and summer we spent a great deal of time there, drinking, talking, getting to know one another. If he stayed in town, first thing the next morning Richard would call and say cheerfully, "Meet me for breakfast. I'll buy and then you can give me a ride home."

After a late night of drinking it was all I could do to look a plate of eggs in the face. My stomach churned and my head throbbed. But Richard always had a hearty appetite and ate with gusto while reading the Bozeman Chronicle. The obituaries were his favorite part of the paper and Richard often read them aloud, commenting on what was said about a person who had recently died. He said that an obituary was what was left of a person after they died, a summation of their life. "I wonder what mine will say?" he asked. After breakfast I drove Richard home.

Richard had a house he called "Rancho Brautigan" in Paradise Valley, about 50 miles southeast of Bozeman. It was a long drive after a night of drinking, but it gave us time to build a friendship. And provided the bonus experiences that only trust can support.

"My friend just died," Richard said with no introduction when I answered the telephone late one afternoon. "Why don't you come over. Bring a bottle of whiskey."

Richard had mentioned his "friend" several times, saying she was dying of cancer in Japan. He never told me her name, anything about his relationship to her, nothing. I didn't know the questions to ask, and figured he didn't want to answer them. He seemed to have no plans to travel to Japan, he was just waiting for the phone call telling of her death. Now he didn't have to wait any longer.

I arrived about an hour later, with a bottle of George Dickle Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey. Richard was sitting in the small guest house to the side of the main house. It was the first time I had even been inside the guest house.

Richard was in good spirits and with a sweep of his hand showed me the one room of the little house. "This used to be a smokehouse," he said, "and one time, when I had some money, I hired a master carpenter to do the remodeling work you see here. Some day I want to put in a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a hot tub with a roof which slides back exposing the sky. Think what it would be like to soak in a hot tub during a rain storm, or while it is snowing!"

The remodeling already done included a redwood floor, redwood trim around the room, and a triangular, free-standing closet in one corner. A wood stove sat next to one wall. Above the stove hung a Russell Chatham? painting of the Aspen tree once seen out the window filled in during the remodeling. The bottom of the unused chimney was boxed with wood painted a rich shade of raspberry. It served as an effective dividing point between the sitting and sleeping portions of the room.

A swayback brass bed took most of the sleeping area. A funereal mound of sheets and blankets lay on the bed. I thought of his friend. Who was she? She was Japanese. Had they been lovers? Had she shared this room with him? I felt impolite about asking and Richard said nothing. We sat in silence and stillness, not even opening the bottle of whiskey.

We left the smokehouse at sunset, moving to the back porch of the main house. I sat at a green table in a spindly wooden lawn chair. Richard sat on the porch railing, leaning against a pillar. For a long time neither of us said anything. Lost in our own thoughts, we watched the pods on the cottonwood trees explode and release their feathery seeds which snowed down and gathered on the porch floor where gentle puffs of air rolled them into balls and swirled them into the corners.

We watched thunderheads trailing veils of virga rain boil up over the mountains. As twilight lengthened deer jumped the fences of the old corral and floated like brown ghosts in the tall grass. One whitetail buck stood for several minutes silhouetted on the side of the hill by the barn watching us watch him.

Richard broke the silence. "She's gone now. It's all done."

It was the first time he had mentioned the death of his friend since our telephone conversation hours earlier. Wanting to make some response, I said, "She's gone, but not forgotten," and immediately felt stupid for having said it.

"I have no pictures of her, none of her letters, nothing. She's gone."

"But you have memories and you can write them down and preserve them," I chirped hopefully.

"I don't write for therapy, or to eulogize," Richard retorted. "But then again..."

Richard stood, stretched, walked across the porch, and into the house. The cottonwood seed fluffs swirled in his wake. He returned with a poem written on a scrap of paper. He read the poem to me, and the deer in the old corral, and the rain storms over the mountains, and his friend, wherever she was.


Where you are now
I will join you.

"Come inside," Richard said. "Hunger has visited us. Let's eat. He left the poem on the green table, fluttering in the puffs of cottonwood air.

We prepared noodles with smoked oysters, green peas, and chopped fresh onion shoots gathered from the backyard. Richard taught me how to eat noodles with chopsticks and how to suck the noodles into my mouth. He said that sucking the noodles into my mouth helped to cool them and made them taste better. He said that in Japan, it was quite acceptable to make a sound while eating noodles. He taught me to make the correct sound.

"Someday, if we are still friends, I will have Japanese friends over for dinner. I will make noodles, and invite you to join us. They will compliment you on your sound."

Richard's house was sparsely furnished, in Japanese fashion. The walls were bare, as were the bookshelves, save for a few editions of his novels reprinted in European and Asian languages. We ate at the big, dark wood table in the dining room, filling his empty house with the sounds of noodles properly eaten.

After dinner we opened the bottle of whiskey and talked. I kept thinking he would talk about his friend in Japan but Richard never mentioned her. He talked of his neighbors, other experiences, he thanked me for being his friend, but he never mentioned his dead friend. I had never sat a wake. I figured it was Richard's decision to talk about his friend or not, and I determined not to push him. The night grew older and the whiskey died a lingering death. When the bottle was empty we decided to make the twenty-mile trip into Livingston for another one.

We followed the Yellowstone River down Paradise Valley. The moon was out and the light on the river water gave us something to look at. We both stared out the windows, neither of us talking. It wasn't that there was nothing to say, but rather that we, at least I, couldn't think of a way to say it. It was a long, quiet, thoughtful trip for a bottle of whiskey.

Back at the house, bottle of whiskey half consumed during the return trip, Richard suddenly said, "My friend was Japanese. She was a Buddhist. The Buddhists believe that you can send things to the dead by burning them. I have two books she liked and the poem. I will burn them and you can help if you don't think it's too heavy."

I didn't, and wouldn't have said so even if I did. I agreed to help. We gathered the books, the poem, some matches, and lighter fluid. Passing through the kitchen Richard paused in front of a shelf of glassware and said, "She loved to drink white wine from a glass like this." He took a delicate wine glass shaped like a tulip from the shelf. He went to the refrigerator and filled the glass with white wine. "We will burn this also," Richard said, holding the glass of wine and walking toward the back door.

We waded through the waist-high grass in the backyard guided by brief flares of matches. We placed the books, the poem, and the tulip glass of white wine on an altar shaped pile of rocks. Richard picked a handful of white and yellow columbine and placed them on top of the books and the poem.

I soaked everything with lighter fluid and lit a match. I felt funny about being so aggressive at a ceremony that was essentially Richard's, but his thoughts were elsewhere and I hoped he wouldn't mind. As the flames erupted Richard said with a laugh, "She always had great style."

We stood with our arms around each other, watching the books, the poem, and wildflowers turn to ashes. The wine glass broke where the stem joined the bowl.

"She's gone," he said, "It's done."

"Yes," I answered.

We had a falling out later in the summer when I told Richard that I had written of our funeral ceremony in my journal. Richard was upset. We had a disagreement and Richard told me to go away, said he never wanted to see me again.

I never saw or heard from Richard again, never heard anything about him until October, 1984, when I read the newspaper article announcing his death.

Richard often wondered what his obituary would say, what would be remembered of his life, There were many obituaries from around the world, which said that Richard took his own life in his Bolinas?, California home, north of San Francisco. He hadn't been seen or heard from for weeks. A friend discovered his body. Richard Brautigan, author of Trout Fishing in America, A Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, and other paeans of the "hippie generation" of the late 1960s and early 1970s was dead.

There were eulogies too. One was written by Margaret Roiter, a writer for the Bozeman Chronicle, and a classmate in Richard's creative writing class. She talked about her experiences in the class and ended by saying, "In his last novel he wrote a passage that seems fitting to be among his last: 'If ever I got pneumonia, I wanted whoever was there to tie a very long string on my finger and fasten the other end of the string to their finger and when they left the room, if I felt like I was dying, I could pull the string and they'd come back. I wouldn't die if there was a long piece of string between us.' In the end, there must not have been a string between Brautigan and the world."

He kept his promise to his friend "Where you are now, I will join you." Richard made his rendezvous.

Poetry Digest?
October 1994

Copyright note: My purpose in putting this material on the web is to provide Brautigan scholars and fans with ideas for further research into Richard Brautigan's work. It is used here in accordance with fair use guidelines. No attempt is made regarding commercial duplication and/or dissemination. If you are the author of this article or hold the copyright and would like me to remove your article from the Brautigan Archives, please contact me at birgit at cybernetic-meadows.net.