The Shooting Of Joan Vollmer Burroughs

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It's 1951 and in a room above a seedy bar in Mexico City, William Burroughs is drunkenly playing with a revolver between his angular fingers. There are three other people in the room too. Two are his friends Lewis Marker and Eddie Woods. The other is his common in law wife Joan Vollmer Burroughs who looks on at her husband attentively.

Their relationship is a good but unconventional one. Joan Vollmer is no archetypal fifties wife living in the shadow of suburbia. She is actually one of most respected members of the Beat Generation at the time, a free thinking catalyst to a rising intellectual movement of writers and zeitgeists who will eventually cast a huge influence over American culture. She is also a Benzedrine addict too, a euphoric stimulant which is widely used recreationally amongst the artists of her day. It makes her zip around the room like she is being switched on and off by some unseen electricity current. From time to time she picks up an object and stares at it for what seems like an age, much to the amusement of everyone else in the room.

Suddenly William Burroughs has an idea. He's been watching his wife for some time playing with a water tumbler and a thought has been planted in his head. It's something involving William Tell and an age old legend that he feels must be replicated in the room. Through the fug of alcohol he announces the idea. Everybody laughs, but the more Burroughs thinks about it, the more it seems a good one. Joan thinks so too. Sporadic moments like this entertain her. She claps her hands in excitement and playfully counts out ten steps away from her husband as if she is about to participate in a medieval duel. Then, carefully she places the tumbler on top of her head. She smiles at her husband almost mocking the danger. Her husband is the one man she trusts inherently, even against the odds and the cruel hands of the cosmos.

As Burroughs takes aim, he trusts in something else. The spirit of the pistolero. The outsider living out on the edges of society capable of any feat. He places a bony finger on the trigger and readies himself. He casts a last, great alligator eye at Joan and feels the power of Shiva in him. It is his destiny he figures. He has made a crucial error however. The true marksman doesn't rely on the metaphysical presence. He is like a mathematician. He measures distance and velocity religiously. He steadies both feet and stance before he starts because control is everything. Anything else relies on the music of chance. In the next split second Burroughs will realise this. As the thunder crack of the gun fills the room he can almost trace out the route of his wrong move like a homicide chalk line. At the tumbler falling intact without shattering. The ripping sound of bullet hitting flesh. The crumpling of his dear wife with the top of her skull now departed, laying motionless and dying on the floor....

Two days later William Burroughs is sat in a Mexican jail cell. He is facing a terrible charge in a country that has little time for avant garde intellectuals committing cold blooded murder. It is over for him he is sure. He holds his head in his hands like a small child as he feels the ugly mist descending on him From time to time he stares through the gap in his fingers at the sun like a blood orange through the cell windows. It makes him think of his friend Kerouac. A traveller. A poet. Not one for sitting in small rooms with ugly revolvers. Not one for using his creativity from behind a locked door.

He thinks of Joan too. Just a ghost now. It will haunt him forever the incident, he is sure of that. It is a struggle he will never really escape from but it is one that can only lead to one natural conclusion too. Not suicide or convention, for those two choices are far too dreadful to even consider. No, with the invader now fully in him William Burroughs will have to take a much more noble and difficult path to redemption. It's what Joan would have wanted after all. He will have to write his way out from beneath the red tide...

Craig Campbell