Longform

Sky Writer

Page 12 of 15

She installed him in her one-bedroom mobile home in north Phoenix and nursed him. It took several weeks for his feet to heal.

She asked him what had happened in the seven weeks he had been missing.
His answer was so strange, she recorded her remembrance of it so she wouldn't forget it.

He had gone to Mexican Pocket to look for treasure, and he had fallen asleep, Courtney says as she narrates the tape.

"Then he woke up. And he thought it was very early in the morning, the time of day when vision is very poor. He looked toward the place where he had left the van, and he saw two life-sized elephants, and some figures of people moving around the elephants. Then the elephants faded and he saw a woman carrying a child. And that figure faded and then he saw a cat, and he said to himself, 'At least I know that cat is real.' But as the cat came toward him, it sort of shimmered and just dissolved. Then, he said, everything went crazy."

Burnham told her a tale of fragments of visions: his hand magically going through the door of a car; traveling on a city street in another van; in a hotel room high in the sky with a big window without glass; a tremendously loud sound that forced him toward the open window; someone saying, "Let's go to the beach."

But the moment he heard himself say his name to the Newport Beach police officer, Burnham felt normal. From that point on, he could account for his whereabouts.

"He had no memory how he came to Newport Beach, no idea of reality during the prior [seven]-week period. All he remembered were the hallucinations," Courtney says.

No one remembers Burnham, who was 54 at the time of his disappearance, using illicit drugs of any kind. Bruce Thomas says Burnham often spoke against their use.

Says Michael Bartlett: "The job at Lowell was virtually the only job he ever had in his life. It took care of all of the mundane things in his life. Throughout that period he didn't have to worry about the things he needed, and he had meager needs. . . . But when that job ended, it cut the legs out from under him. Then suddenly he needed to fend for himself.

"If he had some kind of mental breakdown, this is what precipitated it."
Whatever had caused Burnham to lose a grip on reality seemed to have passed.
But Courtney says Burnham admitted to her that he feared ending up in a mental institution. It was the reason he refused her suggestion to seek an examination.

She had other suggestions as well. While she had come to Burnham's aid without question, as the days wore on, her living situation became intolerable. Sharing her trailer with her brother gave her no privacy, and Burnham never left the house. She suggested he get a job, and she made that request stronger after his semiannual October royalty check arrived.

It was for only $300. Burnham had taken so many advances in the past, there was hardly anything left of his pay.

Burnham did some telemarketing from the trailer, but he hung his hopes on a check he'd been waiting years for: royalties on the Japanese edition of his Handbook, which had finally been published.

Burnham told Courtney that he expected a lucrative check in April 1986.
She says he counted on more than $10,000, a bonanza, considering his current living situation. Courtney, desperate for some privacy, bought a townhouse with Bartlett. She told Burnham he could stay in the trailer rent-free indefinitely as long as he paid utilities. She hoped it would be an incentive for him to find a steady job.

Burnham became convinced that the Japanese edition would finally change his fortunes.

Then, the check arrived. It was for $500.
It devastated him, Courtney says.
Courtney tried again to wake her brother up to financial reality. "I told him, 'You can't live on the royalties from Dover. You can't live on the royalties of the Japanese book. In your mail-order schemes, you lost more than you've made. You need employment, then you can get an apartment and bring your things down from Flagstaff.'"

She shrugs. "Those were my plans for him. But he didn't seem to have any plans of his own."

Bartlett says, "At this point, he didn't seem to have any zest for life left."

"Perhaps he left Phoenix because he was afraid I would keep pushing to get him some kind of counseling," Courtney says, and she appears to battle feelings of guilt.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega