BY JAN HAAG



POETRY + TEXTILE ART + MUSIC + ESSAYS + TRAVEL + FICTION + SOCIAL JUSTICE

HAAG'S BIO + 21st CENTURY ART, C.E.- B.C., A Context + INTRODUCTION






NO PALMS

A NOVEL



PART I



"Here the government collects no taxes, and its laws have no force. Even if a
Pathan decides to grow poppies and manufacture opium and heroin -- and many
do -- the Pakistani police will not interfere. The only authority in a tribal
area is the local council or jirga."

The Land and People of Pakistan by Mark Weston, page 18



CHAPTER 1




All I got back were a couple of bones.

Pop and Sagalen (pronounced Sa gay lun, with an accent on the "gay") picked me up at the San Antonio airport, and brought me home to Brawley, Texas, where the Brawley Ranch sits astride the Balcones Escarpment. Half the ranch is rich farming soil; the other half of it is Hill Country, good grazing land. Half East, half West. That is, geological jargon says the Escarpment divides the East from the West but, actually, near New Braunfels, where Brawley is, the fault itself runs East and West, so it really divides the North from the South. You can see it: the high wooded cedar and oak country along the north horizon divided by springs and rivers from the low flat land, but the Brawley land, the ranch, is united by beauty, all of it is beautiful.

Pop, a huge old stooped buffalo, and Sagalen, a little less skinny than a stick, both in their nineties, a pair to behold, he in his Stetson and she in her gingham, stood waiting for me at the gate. My throat squeezed up -- hurt -- and my eyes fuzzed over with unshed tears. I longed to put on my best imitation Texas accent, which everybody always laughed at, and hug and kiss them and jump for joy, but I was barely able to say "Hello," and all the way home, in the old blue Lincoln, I only managed to blubber, "I'm okay." I said it a couple of times. Then we were silent. Sagalen drove real fast.

Out I-35 we flew. It seemed like we passed a hundred miles of car lots. There were buildings scattered among the grasses almost the whole thirty miles from San Antonio's airport to New Braunfels -- outlet stores, gas stations. It was about as ugly as California urban sprawl until we turned off onto the county roads, drove away from those triple strips that now form almost all the highway "complexes" around the old mission city named for Saint Anthony of Padua. The super highways, with their access roads along both sides, make the stores, with their scruffy bits of "nature" left around them, seem as far away as the distance across Red Square in Russia -- talk about car culture.

When we got home, Pop clumped upstairs, slung my suitcase on the bed, patted my shoulder, said dinner wasn't 'til 6:00 and shut the door. So here I sit beside my suitcase in the big old, fachwerk house which is part wood, part golden limestone, with gingerbread gracing the porch and the gables. Calico curtains hang in cascades from the four poster where Buck and I used to come when we had kicked the caliche of the land off our heels, when we'd had all we could take of yapping and slapping and hollering with the good old boys. We'd come and giggle here. Or we'd come back serious and arguing from Old Peter Good's place down by the creek on the rich bottom soil. Peter Good was still shoeing horses as if he were a Trojan, as if they still were secret engines of war, of life and death. Wooden horses. Secret compartments. Old Peter Good knew everybody's secrets. They called him Niggra, and wasn't one of them who hadn't drunk a julep with him. Many owed their lives or their daddy's lives to him. For Buck'd told me he was a kind of mid-wife, too.

"In the early days," Buck had said, "when there weren't any doctors or nurses, just bearing mothers, he'd come. Often unbidden. Just hang around outside. If everything went okay, he went home. You weren't even sure he'd been there. But if it was a breach, or some other little problem . . . I think they trusted him 'cause he'd foaled a lot of their mares, took colts out of the belly and trained them right up. He did that when a horse was more valuable than a son. It was the land you thought about then. How to ride from one end to the other of your spread, to mend the fences, herd the cattle, see the grass turn yellow, and the winter sun dance like crystal in the air."

You see, I do remember the good things, the good things I've been told.

"See the bluebonnets," Buck would say pointing out the windows. There were acres and acres of bluebonnets. They were the same two colors, as Buck's eyes, light and dark blue, at times almost black or brown. The color of Buck's eyes changed dramatically in different weather, in different moods. "We've always had a few thousand acres of bluebonnets, even before Lady Bird made it her obsession," he said.


Suddenly I feel I'm going to suffocate. I feel I'm going to slip right down off the high bed to the floor and lie there among all the hand carved legs, some carved by Buck when he was a kid, on the scatter rug on the polished pine floor, where they'll find in my hand -- they'll find me clutching a bone, Buck Brawley's bone. For all I got back were a couple of bones.

Literally.

I open my suitcase. I take out a box, a rectangular cardboard box, cardboard the color of old tablet backs. What was in it originally? Maybe it was a box for a few dozen ice cream bars, their chocolate cheeks stacked tight against each other, their sticks sticking out, waiting for the fingers of kids, even big, seventy-year-old kids like Buck. The cardboard box is about six inches wide and six inches high and over a foot long. In it are a couple of Buck Brawley's bones. I think one's a radius and one's an ulna. I don't have to say "I think," I know what they are as well as anyone. Havana told me and put tags on them. Little white paper tags fastened with a bit of wire. "B. Brawley, radius, left arm." "B. Brawley, ulna, left arm." And there had been half a jaw bone with three and a half teeth.

That's how they identify things, you know. The teeth. Buck had a bunch of bad teeth. So they could tell for sure that this was Buck's very own jawbone. Lucky him. The jawbone of an ass. Come on in swinging. Who was it that was going to fight the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass? Maybe I'll try it. Swinging and cursing. I wish Pop Brawley could still stand up to his full buffalo height.

Nobody, it became evident, was going to find anybody to prosecute for Buck -- ever. Not even Havana, as much as she was trying, by herself, now, in the desert, where I had just fled from -- to come "home" and hide.

"You go on home, kid," she had said putting me on the plane in Palm Springs, always calling me kid even though she was at least ten years younger than I was, "get your strength back."

It's Buck's home, was all I could think. But I couldn't say that to her. She wouldn't have known what I meant. Besides every time I opened my mouth, my eyes began to smart. What I meant was it wasn't my home. I didn't have a home. For a couple of years my "home" had been Buck, Buck wherever he was, whoever he was, high or low, out-going or secretive, and now Buck was dead.

Flying out of Palm Springs is like flying out of a stucco mortuary, a cemetary. It's yard is so full of flowers you can hardly breathe, rings and rings of petunias and pansies, all marshaled in ravishing beds under the iridescent, glittering, smog-laced heat. In my present mood, it was a funeral home with too many posies. In other moods, it's the most beautiful airport in the world. And it's always expensive. Pop sent me the money.

I sit on the bed shrouded by flowered calico curtains, holding Buck's bone -- the radius. Holding the radius. Even a big man's radius isn't too big. I mean it fits nicely in your hand. Maybe we should think more about making human bones useful, like the Tibetans do. Did. They used to make all sorts of ritual ornaments out of human bones, drink from silver-edged cups made from the top halves of human skulls. And they managed, as the Dalai Lama says: "To love their brother."

I myself picked up these bones, out there in Joshua Tree. I asked Havana to take me to the spot where the jawbone was found.


Havana was my good friend, almost my only friend in No Palms, CA. She'd ridden at the head of the posse, The Search and Rescue Team, that had gone out, gone out every weekend for a month, looking, searching, riding around the big rocks on the trails one had to know real well or get lost. Nobody, neither Havana nor I nor anyone else, had any hope, mind you, that Buck'd be found alive, but they called it practice. The posse -- because Havana had asked them to, because she was friends with a couple of the really decent members of the team -- had agreed to call it "just practice," a honing up of their skills of observation, of endurance in the broiling summer heat. They enjoyed the challenge. They enjoyed eating their packed lunches on the lee side of the big boulders protected from the wind that blows constantly in Joshua Tree.

The wind blows constantly across the whole southwest of the United States. I didn't know that until I lived in the desert, eating the grit even on still days, eating just a little grit every day. Every day there's just enough to crunch on the kitchen floor or settle at the bottom of your water glass, a pinch of sand, a scattering of sand, true grit. So they practiced looking for Buck in the wind, on the weekends, because, as Havana said, a man that big and that much despised doesn't just disappear even in the desert. "There's got to be some trace somewhere." So -- why not let the posse practice with the dogs and do grid searches and, while they're at it, re-map the terrain. It shifts, you know, in the wind.

They finally found a jawbone. They sent it to Texas and Doc Renard identified it. Sure enough it held Buck's gold teeth. On one of his three gold crowns, he had a pair of long horns carved into the gold. That'd been a laugh between Buck and that old fox. It was Buck's jawbone. I could have told them that, saved them the postage, but at that time I was crying. They were saying he died of exposure.

Havana'd hold my hand, "Don't cry. Don't cry, kid. He did a lot of good. Don't cry."

"Take me out to where he died," I begged her a week after the jawbone was sent back from Austin to No Palms.

"There's no guarantee that's where he died. Animals find bodies, and drag them, maybe for miles. The bones may be all around. All we found was a jawbone."

"Take me, any how, take me to where you found the jawbone."

So Havana took me on one of her big homely horses. She was riding Sassy. We rode out into Joshua Tree. You have to know Joshua Tree to know what a transcendental experience it is even if you're just walking along the road. It's a barren land of rocks and sky. It's not too far from No Palms, but it's different. It's a sacred place. It's a National Monument, one of those things Teddy Roosevelt saved for us, but, before that, it was sacred to the Indians. The light shimmers there, over the huge, boxcar-sized boulders balanced one on top another, and the Joshua trees. Do you know what a Joshua tree looks like? Well it can be grotesque and it can be absurd and it can be, in bloom, like incandescent candelabras yearning toward the sky. Spikey, hairy branches, and bell-like blossoms. They grow slower than you and me. It takes about fifty years for a Joshua tree to grow taller than even a midget's knee. Cut them down, knock them over, they're just about gone forever.


So Havana and I are riding out alone. She's leading me. It's dry. Hardly windy at all. We're just loping along under a white sun. It's hot. It's so hot it's burning the tears right out of me. Buck would have melted. Heavy men are not that keen on wandering around in the sun. He would have hated to ride with Havana on Sassy and me on the mare and he on some strapping big horse. Whatever he rode, it had to be big, big enough to carry him. I mean, we used to go out to Joshua Tree, but always in a car. Take a picnic on a weekend, just to get away from the newspaper for awhile, and the video cameras. And he'd walk and love it and be back in the car in half an hour ready to go back to work.

Havana and I ride across the wide spaces between these huge boulders, across the open space -- level and going on to infinity. We're riding across this huge space and we come closer and closer to this smooth round rock about four stories high. It curves down like a Victorian mother's bosom. Havana hauls back on Sassy so she can ride beside me. I can tell by the look on her face that this is it. It was right here, right here some place that Buck's jawbone was found. Ok, I think, the Jawbone of an Ass. My Ass. A Good Ass. Jesus rode on an ass. So be it.

"Let's rest," Havana says just as we pass into the shadow of the rock. Out of the blasting sun, we come into the coolness of the shade created by the rock. "It was right here," she says as we dismount. I know she can hardly look me in the eye. It can't be easy for a volatile, fiery little thing like that to tell you your husband's jawbone was found "right here."

Where? I want to say. Point to the very grains of sand on which it lay. Was it right here beside that bush? Or that one? Or back here a little in the shade? Did the coyote eat it here? Or the badger, or the bear? Where did they gnaw the meat, the muscle and the fat? I lean down just as easy as you please, and right there, lying between two rocks, as plain as day, is a bone. This bone. This radius. And two feet away, back near another rock is the other one. I know they are Buck's. I don't have to ask Havana. But I say, "What kind of bones are these?"

Havana knew right way, of course. I mean Search and Rescue knows human bones when they see them.

"They're human bones," she said.

"Buck's?"

"I don't know." She took the slender radius from my hand and turned it over. "These teeth marks look fresh," she said.

Well there's as much proof as there can be. The DNA test. The jawbone matched with these bones. But it didn't matter, I knew they were Buck's bones. I didn't need a test. A test by God, maybe. Some wild animal was in cahoots with God to bring them there on that day to that rock so I could find them. I know that like I know my first name was Gloria, was Glory, is Gloriana.

Pop, Buck's father, calls me Gloriana. He says only that is a proper Texas name. Gloria belongs some place else. Buck called me Glory. "Glory, Hallelujah," he'd always cry when someone new would come stalking around the paper, his newspaper, The Desert Truth. "Glory, Hallelujah," he'd say, "we're having some effect." If it was a threat, one of those really wild, unreasoning, maybe rock-throwing red-neck threats he'd be really happy. "Glory," he'd shout, "Hallelujah!" Once or twice before we left Texas he had called me Gloria Maria, my real name.

With his unbleached bones in my hand out there in the desert, the whole world closed in on me; I staggered, I collapsed against that great big rock facing Havana and Sassy and the little mare. I had Buck's bone, and this feeling like a pit, like a mine shaft going right down to the center of the world, just opened at my feet. I was going to fall in and I would never survive. Oh God I was so afraid I would die right there, be a burden on Havana, a heavy burden because she was little and red-haired, and I was big. Bigger, I mean, than her, and what wasn't grey of my hair was still black. I was sweating and smelling bad. What would she do? She'd have to go away -- while the badgers or the coyotes ate me -- to get a couple of guys from Search and Rescue to come and help her haul me in. If I'd been her I would have stayed away long enough so that when she did come back I'd fit in a saddle bag, just like Buck did, with plenty of room to spare for lunch and an extra gallon of ice tea.


My glance catapulted round the room, off the calico curtains, the window. I couldn't let my mind focus on the idea of what they had done to Buck. I couldn't. I didn't know. And I wasn't going to think about it. Not now. I'd come to Texas to not think about it, to end the torture of being there and knowing I would, more than likely, never know.


Havana started climbing into the rocks. She was moving easy and looking carefully, searching down in every crevice. She found a couple of wrist bones and a fragment. Nothing more.

"I think they were drug here from some place else. Recently," she said, "since the search."

"What am I going to do?" I started crying like a baby. "What am I going to do?"

"Glory, listen to me."

I was holding both of the long bones then, tucked under my arms. Tucked into my pits, like I was keeping them warm. I wanted to keep them warm and close to me. I thought I was freezing. That Buck was freezing. "'Til Hell Freezes Over." You've heard that one. Well it had. It had.

"Glory!" Havana shouted at me.

I looked up at her, the sweat running down my face. She stood on a two foot high rock, dark as a scarecrow against the sun.

"Give me the bones."


I got them back a few days ago, just before I left No Palms -- all but the jawbone with the identifying teeth. I signed for them. I promised to give them a decent burial. I promised to tell the Sheriff where they could be found if they ever needed them again. I promised I'd make myself available. I had to promise. . . I promised everything they asked. Buck, I want you to know, I promised everything they asked. I would have promised anything they asked, just so I could get a couple of your bones out of No Palms, so I could bring some of you back here to Texas. They hadn't found anyone to accuse. Those No Palms, desert California,sons of bitches.

"We don't have any evidence of foul play. We don't have a suspect," they told Havana who was with me when I picked up the bones.

"Because the suspect is you!" she snarled back. "All of you!"

They were going to keep the jaw bone "just in case."

"Just in case what?!" Havana slammed her fist on Sheriff Green's desk. Giorno blinked, and Eckhardt put his hand on his gun.

"The reflexes," Havana pointed out later in reference to Eckhardt, "of an assassin."


I sit, dry-eyed, not weeping, not thinking, I don't want to think. But where do I want you to be, Buck, where? Maybe just in a drawer. Is that a decent burial? Maybe just in the drawer of this dresser in the room where we slept in so much happiness, slept after so much laughter, good food, good cheer, good love, night after night after night. Would it be ghoulish just to keep your bits of bone loose in a drawer? How much of a man is in his bones?

But someone might come along and say, "What's this?" and just toss them out. Because, you know, not everyone knows what human bones look like. I mean where does one go to see human bones if you're not a medical student, or a curious devotee of esoteric Buddhism. Or Christian -- they have their bones, too, you know. I remember some female saint in a glass tomb in some church in Munich. A placard proclaimed the church's joy at having rescued them, their sacred bones, from the Second World War.

But if you don't know what a human bone looks like: Plop! -- into the wastebasket, down the stairs, out to the compost heap. The house-cleaner probably thinking some ancestor had a bizzare use for the left-overs of a Sunday roast. But Buck Brawley might not be unhappy to know he's here fertilizing the land. Bone meal. As I recall, they crush up bones here and feed them to the cows. Buck Brawley -- food for cows, Houston's cows. Pop doesn't keep cows any more. Just one cow for the table, for some milk and thick cream.

What does one do with six bones? One ulna, one radius, three small wrist bones -- and maybe one finger bone, so mangled and so fragmentary nobody could rightly say what it was. But it belonged to the others. Of that they were sure.

"Glory," I can hear his big voice booming, "Hallelujah!" Only he ever made that pause, making me know I was the glory, and his was the rejoicing. My throat catches and the tears spring from my eyes. Why did we ever leave here? Why'd we go to that burnt out land?

"I knew I had to come back," you said.

For what reason? So you could be killed?

"I can't kill you in Texas" -- was that death's promise? "But come out to El Dorado, and I'll getcha. Getcha good. You got an appointment, and I'll meet you in No Palms."

He wouldn't move to Washington state, which I had suggested. Felt cramped, he said. Not enough space, not enough light.

I was from Washington, but I knew what he meant. The trees had all grown up tall since I was a girl. They were getting as tall as trees in the South, trees in Mississippi -- dark, with vines swinging in the air. I could take a real scare in the woods myself. No, I didn't much want to go home. I didn't like the wet climate and the oppressive green trees. But I would rather have gone there than to No Palms. I would rather have gone to the Artic Circle than to No Palms. I'd rather have gone East, to that totally urbanized land where people are sober and unsmiling. There's corruption enough for you almost anywhere, Buck. But you had to go to California's dessicated, snake invested desert.

"Oh Buck!" I cried, getting up. "I would rather have died than gone to No Palms!" But trying to be a Texas woman, trying so hard to believe in the redemptive power of sacrificial love, I didn't have much choice, did I? For that's what I did, I sacrificed my feeling of what was right to your feeling of what you needed to do. A Texas woman honors her man. Honors her man right unto death.

So here I am home in Brawley. The Brawley Ranch, Brawley, Texas. Here I am. Right back where we started from. Brawley, of course, isn't a town, even in Texas. Well, there is a post office, sitting right out in the middle of a cross roads. Nothing else there. Brawley is mostly Pop's ranch. "Brawley, Texas" it says on the name-arch at the road. Brawley, Texas: Buck's country in Comal County. And I'm back. Alone. I've been a "widder," as Pop says, for more than two months now. I'll never get used to it. Even though I'm half a century old, I never really loved anyone before. Not like Buck. So I have no experience of sorrow, of loss.

I took two pair of jeans from my suitcase and hung them in the old Stautzenberger armoire. If I told Pop Brawley I had the bones of his son, I wonder what he'd do? You know, I think I can see why old black Peter Good plays the bones. I wonder whose bones they are. Maybe someday I'll give him Buck Brawley's bones to play.






NO PALMS, Part I, Chapter 2




Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: jjhaag@gmail.com


Complete novel, approximately 80,000 words


Jan Haag is a novelist, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.



BY JAN HAAG


POETRY + MUSIC + ESSAYS + TRAVEL + FICTION + TEXTILE ART

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO



21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context