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Authors: William Hjortsberg

jubilee hitchhiker

Table of Contents
books by william hjortsberg
Title Page
part one: - flowerburger
one: john doe number 9
two: honor thy father
three: american dust
four: tacoma ghosts
five: dick porterfield
six: midnight driver's ed
seven: pounding at the gates of american literature
eight: white wooden angel of love
nine: the rub of a strange cat
ten: family album
eleven: reno
twelve: frisco
thirteen: on the beach
fourteen: ginger
fifteen: the general
sixteen: scorpio rising
seventeen: scaling mount parnassus
eighteen: gone fishing
nineteen: the fastest car on earth
twenty: o, tannenbob
twenty-one: moosemelon
twenty-two: aborted dreams
twenty-three: the museum
twenty-four: the emperor's new clothes
twenty-five: digger daze
twenty-six: rx: dr. leary
twenty-seven: banzai
twenty-eight: bread and circuses
twenty-nine: willard
thirty: brief encounter
thirty-one: summer of love
part two: - bushido gunslinger
thirty-two: hitching a ride
thirty-three: ten-day barons
thirty-four: the great public library publishing caper
thirty-five: cover girls
thirty-six: satori
thirty-seven: fame's feathery crowbar
thirty-eight: lit crit
thirty-nine: my home's in montana
forty: over easy
forty-one: the five-year plan
forty-two: stockholm
forty-three: throwing a hoolihan
forty-four: kids
forty-five: tokyo throes
forty-six: the paradise valley ladies' book club luncheon
forty-seven: aki
forty-eight: rattrap roulette
forty-nine: banned in the boondocks
fifty: rashomon
fifty-one: trouble and strife
fifty-two: r.i.p.
fifty-three: midnight express
fifty-four: shinola
fifty-five: blowing in the wind
fifty-six: deathgrowth
fifty-seven: the itch
fifty-eight: the pitch
fifty-nine: the end
Copyright Page
books by william hjortsberg
Gray Matters
Toro! Toro! Toro!
Falling Angel
Tales & Fables
Legend of Darkness
(A Screenplay)
Odd Corners
The Slipstream World of William Hjortsberg
this book is
for the board
of directors
“Talent does whatever it wants to do: genius only what it can do.”
“With talent, you do what you like. With genius, you do what you can.”
DIARY 1928–1957
“Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can.”
, JANUARY 1999)
for Richard
Third eye
Watching above
The grinning
Crescent moon
In a pale evening
Of love
Written in the Utah desert, somewhere on Route 50
(the loneliest highway in America) on the road to
Fallon, Nevada, for Brautigan research
part one:
one: john doe number 9
ICHARD BRAUTIGAN NEVER heard his final gunshot. Traveling three times the speed of sound, the Winchester Western Super X .44 Magnum hollow point exploded up through the poet's head, destroying his face, dislodging his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, blasting off the back of his skull. Continuing on, the bullet tore a hole in the molding above a corner window, struck a one-by-four nailed inside, and fell back into the space within the wall. At the same instant, all his dreams, fears, hopes, and ambition were erased forever, his brain disintegrated, the nerves of his spinal cord were disconnected, and Brautigan's knees buckled, his body dropping straight down, as the weapon, a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver, flew from his lifeless hand. He was dead before he hit the floor.
It was a beautiful bright Sunday afternoon: September 16, 1984. Clad in tan corduroy trousers, a T-shirt, and socks, Richard Brautigan's body lay on its back in the main living area on the second floor of his house at 6 Terrace Avenue in Bolinas, California, a small seacoast village he referred to as “the freeze-dried sixties.” His left front pocket held a crumpled $5 bill and a couple singles. A radio in the kitchen at the back of the house blared at full volume. Richard Brautigan was forty-nine years old when he died.
Next door, in a smaller house sharing the same unpaved semicircular driveway with Brautigan's place, his neighbor, Jim Zeno, watched football (Raiders/Chiefs) on TV with a friend. In the middle of a noisy touchdown, they heard an explosive boom outside. It seemed to come from Richard Brautigan's house. The two men exchanged a glance but said nothing, continuing to watch the game. Zeno's wife, Karly, came upstairs. “Did you hear that noise?” she asked. They discussed the strange sound, “definitely a loud bang,” but there was no thought of going over to check on it. Part of being what Brautigan described as “impeccable neighbors” involved not entering his space except when invited, so the Zenos remained at home to watch Los Angeles come from behind and defeat Kansas City, 22–20, with a nineteen-yard field goal in the final minute of play.
Across the way, the acrid smell of cordite hung in the still, hot air. All the windows and doors at 6 Terrace Avenue were tightly shut, the blinds drawn. The shadowy house resonated with a radio's insistent discordant jabber. Four small bedrooms on the third floor were rarely used because Brautigan believed the ghost of a young Chinese woman dwelled in that part of the house. Various stories circulated about her. Some claimed she had drowned in the Bolinas Lagoon during World War I. Others said she'd been a servant, employed by the original owners, who had committed suicide in the house. Richard hung a looking glass on the wall over the stairway, telling his friend Dr. John Doss, “The reason I have a mirror here is because ghosts can't see themselves in mirrors.” Brautigan's daughter, Ianthe, believed the mirror kept the ghost from coming downstairs.
Several visitors reported walking through mysterious cold spots, and an Eastern woman journalist claimed to have seen a young female sitting next to Brautigan on the torn black Naugahyde sofa while she interviewed him. When the writer Keith Abbott volunteered his pickup truck in 1973 to move boxes of books out to Bolinas, he was startled to see a momentary apparition in the tiny junk-filled upstairs east bedroom, “almost like a slide being placed in a projector of a girl wearing a white nightgown.” He dismissed the unearthly vision as “a mild hallucination.” Richard told him three other people had seen an identical specter.
The novelist Don Carpenter believed the ghost was a “twelve-year-old Japanese girl who lives in the house and determines what goes on.” He based this assumption on testimony from two people who didn't know each other but had both seen the ghost on separate occasions. After Don's apartment in the city burned to the ground, he was living in his ex-wife's place in Mill Valley. Richard offered him the use of the Bolinas house for $100 a month, “a joke because the heating bill alone was $100 a month.”
Keith Abbott and a buddy came over with his truck. They packed up Don's furniture and drove it to 6 Terrace Avenue. Because of a ruptured disc, Carpenter was unable to lift anything heavy, so he went inside to have a look around while Keith and his friend unloaded. “I've never had a more awful, dreadful, terrible, foreboding feeling,” Don Carpenter recalled. “Except when I thought I was dying of cancer.”
Don went back out to the driveway. All his furniture stood waiting to be moved inside. “Keith,” he said, “I can't live here.”
Because he had done none of the physical labor, Don felt uncomfortable about this. “These guys who were doing this for free. I didn't want to say, ‘We've got to pack up this truck and go back to Mill Valley.' But I did and Keith said, ‘I understand perfectly.' We packed up the truck and off we went.”
The spacious second level served Brautigan as a combination living quarters and office. A large California state flag hung from the ceiling, functioning as a room divider between the barren fireplace and the kitchen door. The back roof leaked, and the floor boards in the rear had warped and buckled. The flag concealed the damage. Beneath it, the haunted sofa added solidity to the makeshift partition.
Richard Brautigan's six-foot four-inch body stretched full length in the southwest corner of the room. What remained of his head faced an unmade double bed, the tangled blankets suggesting a bachelor's inattentive housekeeping. His feet pointed toward the corner windows, where the .44 Magnum landed, barrel forward, on the seat of a blood-splattered white school desk, the kind with a single wide writing arm. A bloodied eyeglass lens rested upon it.
Brautigan's writing area, a large round table littered with various works in progress, stood to the right of his body, the hard blue chair he favored on the far side. A coffee cup sat among the scattered manuscripts and notebooks. Like some macabre action painting, blood and brains splashed vividly across the table's surface and sprayed the adjacent window. Richard's tan IBM typewriter sat nearby, the plastic cover gray with dust. When writer and performer Bobbie Louise Hawkins saw the shrouded machine she assumed he wasn't working. The ex-wife of poet Robert Creeley thought her friend had been fibbing when he came an hour late for a breakfast invitation, claiming to have written fifteen pages that morning.
Perhaps she didn't know Richard Brautigan did most of his preliminary work in longhand, scribbling away in spiral-bound notebooks and on stray scraps of paper, worrying poems and
stories through multiple drafts in his pinched, childlike scrawl. His last efforts bore an ultimate validation: the writer's blood staining nearly every page. Brautigan left no final note rationalizing his suicide. This gory pile of manuscripts said it all.
Altogether, eight notebooks dating from earlier in the year lay, along with many assorted manuscripts, on the blood-soaked work table. For more than thirty years, Richard Brautigan had used his notebooks as a testing ground, beginning certain pieces over and over again. The material on the table contained many such false starts. There were more than two dozen handwritten drafts of poems and stories on the tissue-thin stationery of the Keio Plaza Inter-Continental Hotel, where Brautigan stayed when he was in Tokyo. Some were typewritten. Richard Brautigan had been a very fast typist. Machine-gun speed, blasting out a first draft with little thought for the niceties of spelling or punctuation, two skills he never mastered. “Determination,” rendered quickly, became “dtertination.” Richard paused only when something felt wrong. He used a repeated virgule (/////) to cross out unwanted material.
All his work went to a professional typist who corrected any orthographic oversights. The idea was to get it all down on paper as fast as possible, straight from the unconscious to the page, first word—best word, a notion Brautigan acquired in San Francisco's North Beach during the early “Renaissance” days of the Beat movement. Breakneck first drafts proved an apt counterpoint to his pensive notebook ruminations.
Six typed transcriptions from earlier handwritten drafts were stacked neatly elsewhere in the room, untouched by Brautigan's blood. These included “The Complete Absence of Twilight” (a brief, haunting piece of fiction, which Brautigan optimistically referred to as a “book” in a letter sent to his agent, Jonathan Dolger, from Tokyo the previous April; three short stories (“Mussels,” “The Habitue,” and “Sandwalker”); a six-page extract from “The Fate of a West German Model in Tokyo,” compressing the manuscript into twin enumerated lists of monologue; and a finished version of “Russell Chatham: Portrait of an Artist in his Time,” which had gone through three previous incarnations in the notebooks.
Russell Chatham had lived in downtown Bolinas in the 1960s. The painter rented an apartment and a separate studio upstairs in the old H. Hoirut property, a complex of late-nineteenth-century buildings on Wharf Road. At the time the first floor was the home of a hamburger joint called Scowley's. Chatham and Brautigan did not know one another back then. The impoverished poet lived in San Francisco and would not buy the house on Terrace Avenue until 1972. The painter, yet to sell a single canvas, settled in Bolinas, attracted by the low rents.
For years, the simple, cheap life lured numbers of artists and bohemians north from the city. During Chatham's residency, Bolinas was also home to poets Robert Creeley and Tom Clark (then poetry editor of the
Paris Review
); painter Arthur Okamura; a movie-making outfit called Dome Film Productions; writers Thomas McGuane and William Hjortsberg (both unpublished at the time; Chatham later referred to them as “two guys like me who didn't have jobs”); and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who owned a large home on the beach at the far end of Brighton Avenue, once a popular seaside teahouse called The Ship's Lantern.
Bolinas, California, had hardly changed in over a hundred years. Local citizens tore down the highway signs marking a turnoff from Route 1 faster than the California state road crews replaced them. At the time of Brautigan's death, the old blacksmith shop still functioned as an auto repair garage. Smiley's Schooner Saloon, built in the 1850s, had operated as a tavern almost all of that
time under various names. Across the street, a false-fronted grocery had been slicing cold meat and cheese at the same location since 1863. It was the town Richard Brautigan called “a hippie Brigadoon.”
Set above the street, the three-story house at 6 Terrace Avenue, a dark, brown-shingled Arts and Crafts movement building made of locally milled redwood around 1885, was part of the Grande Vista Tract, Marin County's first subdivision. Screened by several tall redwood trees and a growth of Scotch broom nearly two stories high that blocked a potentially fine view of the ocean, the place remained perpetually in shadow. Overgrown with ivy, the garage resembled a small hill more than a building. Richard refused to have any of it cut, preferring the illusion of privacy provided by the dense foliage.
The house was gloomy inside as well. Raw ceiling beams and dark redwood walls had been unaltered since drying bouquets hung from the rafters when the place had been the summer home of Mary Elizabeth Parsons, who wrote the influential guidebook
The Wildflowers of California: Their Names, Haunts and Habits
(first published in 1897). Brautigan's poet/playwright friend Michael McClure remembered Parsons's “jewel-like descriptions of California wildflowers” as “among the best prose-poetry of the end of the nineteenth century.”
On September 16, 1984, the musky smell of congealing blood lingered in the enclosed air, not the sweetness of dried flowers. The loud radio echoing from the kitchen drowned an insistent buzz of gathering flies. As it grew dark, the automatic timer controlling the electric lights switched on. A little later, the phone rang. After four rings, the answering machine picked up and the tape of Richard's voice sounded bland and noncommittal: “This is the recorded voice of Richard Brautigan. He's not in right now. Leave a message when you hear the beep and I may return your call.” But there was no beep, only a dull click. Richard had set the machine on “answer only,” making it impossible to leave a message.
“Hello, Richard . . . ? Are you there . . . ? It's me.”
No answer, just the buzz of disconnection. The caller was painter Marcia Clay, an old friend from San Francisco who had reunited with Brautigan only two days earlier after a four-year estrangement. She'd phoned an hour before midnight the previous night. He said he'd call right back but never did. Marcia waited ten minutes and phoned back, getting Richard's answering machine message. Alone on a hot night in the city, she made a third attempt to reach him, hearing only the noncommittal message.
For the next few days, the old house remained a noisy tomb. No one came around to visit. Brautigan had alienated himself from most of his poet friends in Bolinas and had recently been eighty-sixed from Smiley's for his unpleasant, erratic behavior. Occasionally, the phone rang. Although she wrote in her diary that she didn't “have the energy or interest to play cat and mouse with him,” Marcia Clay kept trying to reach Richard. So did Curt Gentry, Don Carpenter, Andy Cole, and Tony Dingman, writing and drinking buddies from the old days in North Beach.
Montana poet Greg Keeler tried to leave a message. Ditto journalist Toby Thompson, calling from Cabin John, Maryland. Richard's attorney in Livingston phoned three times the following week. Jonathan Dolger, his New York literary agent, made several calls. He had good news regarding the possible sale of the film rights to
Dreaming of Babylon
to Warner Brothers. They all got the answering machine with its disconcerting click.
At some point early in October, one of the neighbors came over, annoyed by the blasting radio. Because the stairs to the upper deck had rotted and been removed, whoever it was knocked on the door of the true first floor, a nearly empty spare bedroom and storage area. No answer. Brautigan had departed on one of his lengthy journeys without having the decency to turn off the damned radio. Wanting to silence the round-the-clock radio playing, the irate neighbor found the central power breaker by the meter and switched off all the electricity to the house.
Upstairs, all was quiet now, except for the metallic drone of the flies. There were many, many flies, a nightmare population of blowflies, houseflies, bluetails, and greenbottles swarming everywhere in the melancholy twilight of the shaded main room. They clustered densely about Brautigan's corpse. Thickening blood and the enormous head wound provided powerful attractions for these rapacious insects. The inexorable process of decay began the moment his body hit the floor a couple weeks before.
With the power switched off, the automatic timer failed to trigger the lights that night and the house remained shrouded in darkness. The Zenos next door thought nothing of it. Richard was always coming and going mysteriously. He had his own peculiar reasons for the way he did things. He had mentioned that he might leave for a hunting trip to Montana in early October. Maybe he decided not to leave the light-timer on. When the phone in Brautigan's office/bedroom rang, the answering machine, running now on internal batteries, continued to pick up and deliver the same noncommittal message. It was a perfect vanishing act. The dead poet had managed to completely disappear.
The long, hot California fall days merged into weeks. Heat accelerated the process of decomposition and the eager swarming flies, finding easy access through the massive cranial damage, deposited thousands of their eggs inside Brautigan's body. When they hatched, the cadaver teemed with maggots, the rice-sized larvae writhing in his decaying flesh. At the same time, the batteries in the answering machine began wearing down and the recorded message grew distorted, the words slurred, like a man underwater. Even this final echo of the poet's voice began to die.
If no one in Bolinas seemed to care that Richard Brautigan had disappeared (either they were no longer talking to him and just didn't give a damn or else he had told them he was leaving on an extended journey), others among his closest friends began to grow concerned. At one point, Klyde Young, a housepainter and friend of Brautigan's who had done odd jobs for the writer off and on for the past dozen years, ran into Jim Zeno in Stinson Beach. Young was alarmed to hear that no one had been to Richard's house in more than two weeks.
Soon after, Young talked with Tony Dingman, saying if he got authorization from Ianthe he would get into the house, break a small window, and check things out. Dingman had also been worried. The last time he spoke with Richard on the phone, the day before he died, Brautigan said he'd swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills the previous night but that they'd had no effect. Knowing his buddy once made a similar halfhearted suicide attempt after the breakup of his second marriage, Dingman didn't take this latest pill episode too seriously. But weeks without any word caused concern, and Dingman had several conversations with Richard Breen, another Brautigan crony. They both hoped Richard had gone back to Amsterdam with a Dutch critic who had visited California earlier that summer.
This didn't seem right to Klyde Young. He drove to Bolinas and wandered outside the gloomy house on Terrace Avenue. Nothing looked amiss. No mail had accumulated. Klyde figured if a
body was inside he would smell it. There was no odor. The front porch steps were gone, yet, for inexplicable reasons, he couldn't bring himself to attempt the interior entryway stairs. Young looked through the windows. The blinds were drawn all the way around. He couldn't see a thing. No one remembered Brautigan being in town lately. Klyde Young assumed that he had taken off for the start of bird season in Montana, and headed back to Tiburon. Doubts remained, but he didn't want to take any drastic action on his own. How would he explain it to Richard when he returned?
On October 4, Jonathan Dolger sent a Mailgram to Brautigan's address in Bolinas reading: “Have been unable to reach you these past three weeks. Stop. Please call to discuss two new book and movie offers.” This was exactly the sort of good news Richard had been waiting for. Receiving the message might not have saved his life but almost certainly would have prolonged it.
Up in Montana, things felt very bad. Where was Richard? He had missed the opening of the upland bird season and wasn't answering his calls. Becky Fonda felt particularly troubled by the garbled message on Brautigan's machine at the Bolinas number. Even when drunk, Richard didn't sound like that. She made several calls and discovered no one, including his agent, had heard from him in over a month. Joseph Swindlehurst, Brautigan's Montana lawyer who handled his accounts in Livingston, told her that Richard hadn't written or cashed a single check in all that time. Joe said mail was being returned unclaimed. He had called Dick Hodge and Joel Shawn, the author's former and current California attorneys, asking them to look into the matter. Something seemed terribly wrong.
Becky and her husband, actor Peter Fonda, talked things over and determined to find out what was going on. On October 23, 1984, they phoned San Francisco private investigator David Fechheimer, protégé of the legendary Hal Lipset and a pal of Brautigan's since the early sixties. The detective had also been worried about his friend. He told Becky Fonda that he'd been over to the Bolinas house before leaving on a business trip about three weeks earlier. He'd found the lights on and the radio playing within. The door downstairs was locked. Fechheimer made no attempt to force an entry after knocking and not getting any answer.
He didn't tell Becky he suspected there might have been a booby trap waiting inside. After twenty years in his peculiar business, Fechheimer figured it would be unwise to go into Richard's empty house in Bolinas under those circumstances without thinking about “Take this, you cocksucker!” Another thing he didn't tell Becky was that he knew the moment she informed him Brautigan hadn't written any checks in over a month that his friend was dead.
David Fechheimer assured the Fondas he would get to the bottom of things. He told them he'd go out to Bolinas the next day. It had been on his mind to have another look at Richard's house later that week. Fechheimer asked Tony Dingman if he wanted to come along. Dingman declined, fearing it might turn out to be a “horror show,” but suggested an acquaintance named Dwain Cox, a big guy who'd once been photographed for
magazine hauling Brautigan around San Francisco in a rickshaw. Dwain knew some people in Bolinas. Maybe he could get them to investigate.
Later the same day, twenty-four-year-old Ianthe Swensen called Dingman from her home in Santa Rosa. She had not spoken with her father since the previous June, but people had recently asked about him, and now she wanted to know, “Where's my daddy?” Dingman immediately phoned Curt Gentry and told him about Fechheimer's request. Having coauthored the best seller
Helter Skelter
with Vincent Bugliosi, the district attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson, Gentry was well acquainted with the appalling grotesqueries hidden behind locked doors.
The writer had an old friend, a commercial fisherman named Bob Junsch, who lived in Stinson Beach. Curt had known him since the early days when they both worked as bartenders in San Francisco. Junsch also knew Brautigan, having accompanied him on his first adult trip to Montana. Gentry promised Tony Dingman he'd call out to Stinson right away. Bob was a stand-up guy, someone who could be counted on when the chips were down.
Bob Junsch moored his fishing boat, the
Pacific Fin
, in Morro Bay above San Luis Obispo and flew down from Marin County to make his living whenever the albacore or swordfish were running. Things were slow at the time, and Junsch was staying at home between trips when Curt Gentry called him on the evening of October 24. The next morning, Junsch and his deck hand, Jim O'Neill, made the short drive around the lagoon from Stinson Beach to Bolinas, arriving at Terrace Avenue a little after ten o'clock. They climbed out of the car and had a quick look. Everything felt still, mysteriously quiet. A dog barked somewhere in the distance. Some local mongrel with a red bandana tied around his neck. “Probably named ‘Siddhartha' or ‘Steppenwolf,'” Richard Brautigan once joked.
Before trying the door, Bob Junsch went around back, where the house was built up against the sloping hillside. Shading his eyes, he peered through a small uncurtained kitchen window about a foot square. He barely made out what looked to be liquid on the floor, as if something had been spilled. Junsch also glimpsed a single sneaker, “an Adidas-type shoe,” lying alone and forgotten. Somehow, it looked wrong. Junsch felt things “had a bad ring to it.” The back kitchen door was locked. He returned to the front of the old shingled house and had Jim O'Neill boost him up the corner onto the second-story deck.
A pair of French doors opened onto the porch, unlocked but tightly closed. Junsch pulled them open with a fierce tug. He was struck by an odor of rot so overpoweringly putrid as to seem almost tangible. Clouds of flies swarmed everywhere inside. Bob Junsch followed his nose hesitantly into the twilight gloom. Hundreds of larval shells crunched underfoot. An anticipatory dread assailed him. Looking around the unmade brass bed, Junsch spotted Brautigan's maggot-infested corpse stretched out in the corner.
He was a shocking sight, most of the head gone and his stomach exploded. The facial features were missing, the ruined skull gaping horribly. All of his remaining skin tissue had turned black. A large quantity of blood and the fluids of decomposition contaminated the floor around the body. For a moment, Bob Junsch stood transfixed by shock. At that same instant, downstairs under the house, Jim O'Neill had been poking around. Discovering the power was turned off, he flipped the main switch back on. The radio in the kitchen blasted full volume into raucous life and the sudden unexpected clamor “scared the shit” out of Junsch. He ran down the inside stairs, unbolting the door and rushing into the clean, fresh morning air.
Junsch blurted out what he had just seen upstairs to O'Neill. They went next door and told Karly Zeno of their grotesque discovery. “He's in there,” Bob said, visibly shaken. “He's like totally undescribable. You can't recognize him at all.” Mrs. Zeno got him a beer. Junsch didn't want to stick around. He wondered if he would ever wash the morbid taste of death from his throat. After calling Curt Gentry, Bob gave Karly Zeno his home phone number over in Stinson and he and Jim O'Neill took off.
Here the mists of time draw a confused curtain across the memories of the participants. David Fechheimer phoned the Marin County Sheriff's Office to report the discovery of Richard Brautigan's body. He remembers Bob Junsch calling him with the grim news. Junsch recalls it differently. Acting on the behest of Curt Gentry, he didn't have Fechheimer's number. “And Curt didn't call me to say, ‘Go check on Richard. If you find him call Fechheimer.'” After leaving Bolinas, Bob Junsch drove straight up to Petaluma and headed for a bar.
Whoever called Fechheimer did so promptly. At about ten thirty, the dispatcher at the sheriff's office contacted Sergeant Weldon Travis and Deputy Joseph Dentoni, directing them to 6 Terrace Avenue in Bolinas, to investigate the report of a dead body discovered at that address. Upon arrival, Deputy Dentoni, the responding officer, was met by Karly Zeno. She told him friends of Richard Brautigan had seen what they thought was his body earlier that morning. Checking the residence, Dentoni found the front door ajar, just as Bob Junsch left it during his hasty departure. After mounting the stairs, the sheriff's deputy came upon “a decomposed male body lying on his back with the top part of his skull missing.”
When Sergeant Travis had a look at the scene, he immediately contacted the Marin County Sheriff's Office and requested a response from trained investigators. Due to the condition of the body and a lack of any visible identification, neither of the lawmen could be certain the remains in question were those of Richard Brautigan. The initial report referred to the event as an “unattended death.” At 12:40 PM, Deputy Dentoni phoned Bob Junsch's number in Stinson Beach. There was no answer.
Shortly before two o'clock, Sergeant Anthony Russo and Detective Dave Estes arrived from the sheriff's office in San Rafael. While Sergeant Russo began gathering evidence, Detective Estes was assigned the task of photographing the surrounding area. As reporting officer, Estes also prepared a rough sketch (a floor plan) of the second level of Brautigan's house. During Russo's examination of “the crime scene,” he came across a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, the right frame bent and one lens missing, lying on the window ledge near the “victim's” body. The right-hand lens was recovered from the arm of the blood-splattered, white-painted school desk.
Sergeant Russo also discovered the bullet hole in the molding above the southwest corner window. He removed the wood around the hole and subsequently recovered a spent large-caliber slug from within the wall. Russo bagged the evidence: the eyeglasses and missing lens, a tape recorder (containing a tape) found near the body, the nickel-plated .44 caliber Smith & Wesson (serial number N 284972), the spent bullet, and numerous miscellaneous notebooks and papers.
William Thomas, an investigator from the Marin County Coroner's Office, arrived and conducted his investigation after being briefed by the police officers. He had never before witnessed such a gruesome scene. Thomas noted the many fly larvae shells, some found and measured as far as thirty feet away from the cadaver. A set of false teeth turned up in the kitchen and was removed as possible evidence. (It was later determined they did not belong to the victim and had been kept by Brautigan as a novelty gag.) In the bathroom just off the office area, Thomas uncovered a variety of prescription medications: two bottles of Dalmane, 30 mg.; one bottle of Tranxene, 7.5 mg.; a bottle of Halcion, .5 mg.; and tubes of Tridesilon topical ointment and Montistat Derm, 2 percent, along with three packages of Durex condoms.
For most of the afternoon, the police were in and out of the Zenos' house next door, using their telephone. From overheard fragments of conversation, Jim and Karly concluded some question
remained as to whether it was indeed a suicide. Perhaps homicide had been committed at 6 Terrace Avenue. When Jim Zeno asked one of the officers, “Well, do you think someone might have killed him or something?” the detective replied that it was possible. Further talk concerned the bullet's entry and exit path. They didn't seem to align in the normal fashion of a suicide. What about the downstairs door, was it locked or unlocked? And if this guy Brautigan was supposed to be some kind of writer, how come he left no note? They had no way yet of knowing if the victim actually was Richard Brautigan. Officially, it was just the ninth unidentified male body found in Marin County so far that year.
Zeno informed them one way to be certain was to look at his cock. Richard had told him that years of herpes had left his penis covered with knobs and ridges. Brautigan joked about his “built-in French tickler.”
“Cock, hell,” said the cop. “We're scooping him up with a shovel.”
Marin County had no central morgue, so the Coroner's Office contracted with individual mortuaries, chosen geographically on a month-to-month rotation. In October 1984, the designated morgue for the area was the Russell and Gooch Funeral Chapel of Mill Valley. The firm's removal van arrived at 6 Terrace Avenue in Bolinas in the afternoon. Bagged and anonymous, the body identified as John Doe number 9 was loaded into the meat wagon and driven away. Soon after, the yellow tape went up and the residence was officially sealed.
By four fifteen, Sergeant Russo, Detective Estes, and Coroner's Investigator Thomas gathered in the preparation room at Russell and Gooch on Miller Avenue for an examination of the body. They cut away and searched the stiffened clothing, finding no personal identification. The wadded currency was all his pockets contained. While Bill Thomas had a closer look at the extensive damage to the cranial area and noted the gold restorations in the victim's molars, the two detectives checked out the handgun. The shiny Smith & Wesson revolver was found to be loaded with five live rounds and one spent shell in the top position of the cylinder under the hammer. The weapon was dusted for latent fingerprints and shipped for further testing, along with the bullets and spent shell, to the Department of Justice Criminalistics Laboratory in Santa Rosa.
Bad news traveled fast. Becky Fonda heard about Richard's death through David Fechheimer and passed the sad word along. John Fryer felt angry upon hearing from her. A Western horseman at heart, Fryer operated the unique store (Sax & Fryer's in Livingston) his grandfather had founded in the 1880s. “Richard finally found a way to hurt all his friends at once,” Fryer said.
As it happened, most of the Montana gang was off in New York at the time, staying at different hotels, pursuing various careers, their trajectories randomly intersecting. Tom McGuane was in town to celebrate the reissue of
The Bushwhacked Piano
in the new Vintage Contemporaries series, along with Jim Crumley for
Dancing Bear
. Russell Chatham was there to discuss a future one-man show of his paintings. William “Gatz” Hjortsberg was working on a screenplay outline with Paris-based film director Bob Swaim. Jim Harrison had come in for meetings with his agent, Bob Dattila, and his publisher, Seymour Lawrence, who had also published Brautigan for nearly fifteen years.
Becky called from Montana and word quickly spread, from hotel room to hotel room. Tom McGuane commented that “if Richard committed suicide to punish us he did a good job.” That evening, Chatham, Harrison, Hjortsberg, Dattila, Lawrence, and others gathered for a huge Chinese feast at a restaurant on the East Side, raising a sad toast, bidding a departed friend farewell. Sam Lawrence put it best, paraphrasing literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen (his professor at Harvard,
who committed suicide by jumping out of a Boston hotel window), when he said Richard “died of the Great American Loneliness.”
The following morning (October 26, 1984), pathologist Ervin J. Jindrich, MD, performed an autopsy on what was left of John Doe number 9. Dr. Jindrich repeatedly noted the presence of extensive maggot activity. In the thoracic cavity he found only residual tissue, with a few fragments of identifiable lung and heart within the pericardial region. In the abdominal cavity there was a small amount of dried parchmentlike material appearing to be residual intestine. He uncovered no evidence of internal hemorrhage and no trauma to the ribs, thorax, or vertebral column. What was left of the head was deformed, flattened in a transverse direction, with the superior scalp and calvarium absent. The skull was massively fractured and in numerous small fragments, containing no remaining brain tissue. Contrary to police speculation, the external genitalia revealed an identifiable penis.
Dr. Jindrich finished his work by eleven o'clock. He was unable to detect any powder residue on the victim's head and found it impossible to determine whether a large defect above the right ear was antemortem or caused by insect destruction. His diagnosis revealed only a gunshot wound to the head with marked postmortem decomposition. Before typing up his report, the pathologist completed a couple final tasks. He surgically removed Richard Brautigan's blackened hands for neutron activation studies. These tests would reveal the presence of microscopic gunpowder particles and demonstrate whether the subject had discharged a firearm prior to his death. Dr. Jindrich also retained the lower jaw and excised the upper for odontologic examination. Most of the upper front teeth were missing, avulsed from the impact of the fatal gunshot, yet many molars remained and hopefully surviving dental work would positively identify the victim.
A dentist's bill from Dr. Bennett Dubiner, DDS, who maintained an office on Sutter Street in San Francisco, was among the miscellaneous papers taken as evidence from Richard Brautigan's home. Contacted by the Marin County Sheriff's Department, Dr. Dubiner telephoned the Coroner's Office the same day as the autopsy and reported he had last seen the writer professionally on September 9, 1984. During that office visit he had taken three bilateral bitewings and one periapical X-ray.
The forensic odontologist for the Coroner's Office, Dr. J. Robert Laverine, was notified and immediately called Dr. Dubiner. Subsequent phone conversations compared the September X-rays with the victim's remaining postmortem teeth. There were three full gold crowns, two three-quarter crown bridge abutments, and two onlays in addition to two amalgam-filled molars. A couple of impacted upper third molars were also significant. The gold restorations and their radiographic outlines showing numerous concordant points proved beyond a doubt that the body in question was Richard Brautigan.
A set of x-rays from Dr. James E. Smith, DDS, Brautigan's Montana dentist, were being shipped down from Livingston over the weekend. Although a positive identification had been made, Dr. Laverine would not complete his final report until he had a chance to study this additional material. At the same time, a media bottom-feeding frenzy was well under way. The AP and UPI both put the story out on their wire services on the morning of the twenty-sixth, date line: Bolinas. Although the sheriff's office stated they had not positively identified the body, Seymour Lawrence publicly announced the author's death from his office at Delacorte Press in New York City.