INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
As soon as my sniffles stopped, BB offered me, one morning, access to a trunk that had been Pop Brawley's. He said it had been, for years, in the room that Pop occupied as a young man coming home from the Great War, before going back to Texas to be with his wife and see his new son, Buck. Apparently Pop had meant to send for it, but he never did.
BB had it brought down from the attic. I was hesitant to open it. Of course, I was intrigued to see what I might find, yet I am old-fashioned enough not to want to pry -- not into the life of the great old buffalo I had loved so much; not more than I had already done by riffling the drawers in his room at the ranch.
The trunk was neither black nor brown. The top was curved and "strapped" with wood, there were studs all over it, and a big lock that wasn't locked -- it stuck out like an open hand, palm downward. Sagalen didn't notice its presence in my room and I didn't mention it. She did ask me if I'd read the papers, the papers she'd brought with her, plus the ones BB was giving to her from time to time -- giving to me, I guess, through her.
When I opened the trunk I could have sworn no one had been in there since
1918? 1919? It had the smell of not being disturbed, the look of
petrified arrangement. Right on top were two medals. I'd have to ask
Saglen or BB what they were for. Beneath them, and lying loose, were
poems written out in Pop's unmistakable, bold hand. A page on top titled
"Emily Dickinson" listed eighteen numbers. It had been added to from time
Under the sheaf of poems was a photograph of Emily Dickinson, then a photograph of a man, on the back of which it was noted, "Samuel Bowles," and that he had been the publisher of The Daily Republican in Amherst, and a friend of Emily Dickinson. A bluff friend, I later learned. He tried to bluster Emily out of her increasing retirement, he treated her as a hearty, rough-and-tumble human being. She laughed, loved it, and withdrew. Bowles looked like Pop Brawley -- or did all men look like that if caught at a certain time of life wearing lots of whiskers and dark clothes? Beneath the papers was a uniform, indeed, two uniforms, one World War I and one World War II uniform. Why the other. . .? I was puzzled.
Why the other must be Buck's! I had to think about that. Had Pop put it here? Had Buck? When? Why? When had they, one or the other, visited here since 1945? Under the uniforms were other clothes, a tennis racquet, a crazy quilt. The quilt was made of silks and velvets, tattered and very old.
Not knowing much about Dickinson, I didn't know until I looked them up that one poem had been placed in the trunk after 1929, and the last one after 1955. These were their publication dates. And the uniform. . . ? Pop had, it seemed, visited this trunk within the last thirty-seven years. Didn't BB know that? Had Pop crept around in his brother's house when his brother wasn't there? Had Buck?
Pop had never said a word to me about liking anything more rhythmic than "The Yellow Rose of Texas." But I had found a poem I had to suppose he wrote, and now, this sheaf of Dickenson poems he kept adding to in a trunk he secretly visited over a period of almost forty years. And Buck's poem. Had these two old men sat by the fire and read poetry to each? The thought of it made me smile. What had I interrupted? Why are you dead, you old Buzzard, you old Buffalo!
But I cried that
night, cried thinking about how Pop used to hold me in his arms when I
first came home from No Palms. Pop Brawley's arms at ninety-two were
still warm and strong. Sagalen had only patted my hand, my head, said:
"You mustn't let go."
"Let's be right here," he had said. We were still in Texas then and, at the moment, nestled in bed. I had never applied "wanting to be just where you are" to real life. I mean, I'd heard endless talks about it in ashrams and zendos and monasteries while you stared at the wall or the floor or the inside of your eyes. But it took Buck's level-headed rebuke to break the spell of "someplace else" for me. From that day forward I concentrated on just being there beside Buck. Now that sounds real Zen, especially for that hell hole, No Palms, but what I really mean is that, if I was laughing, I'd laugh as hard as I could. I gave up longing to be in Hawaii, or back in Texas, or off in Asia traveling. My fantasy life became less rich and my reality harsher. It was what it was. I didn't indulge in poignancy any more, not while Buck lived.
Then here I was petting a black cat in New York, and unable to pay
attention to BB's thrusts and feints. Sagalen paid attention while I
spent hours beside the old trunk reading the poems Pop had sequestered
years and years ago.
"A good man," she said conclusively, adding a moment later, "A fine man."
She had, in the years I had known her, never once said a personal word about him -- or herself. O there had been stories -- like at the wake. But stories we all knew, Stories, I'm sure, everybody in Texas knew. But this was a woman who had lived with a man, not just a man, but Pop Brawley, for almost seventy-five years.
Did you love Pop Brawley? -- it was on the tip of my tongue to ask. But I had the feeling her wide-apart grey eyes, her fragile being, her very bird-like restlessness might take flight if I indiscreetly asked: "Did ya'all love Pop Brawley?"
I bet you did, I said to myself. I bet you did. I surely would have, I thought, if I had lived year after year after year with that craggy, virile giant that I had seen in the picture back home in his desk. If my sister had died and his two kids needed raising, I surely would have fallen in love with Pop Brawley.
He had waited years before he remarried, then married Sylvia Louise, not even half as old as he was, and Sagalen had stayed on, apparently happy in her place halfway between being family and being a cook and a maid.
Did you love Pop Brawley? -- Well, one day I would ask.
"I haven't had time to read the papers," I said.
Sagalen turned to leave the room. There was no judgment in her eyes.
Maybe a certain weariness in her step.
"Josephine was my sister." She half turned toward me. "Houston's my nephew." Her hand remained on the doorknob. "So was Buck."
"Didn't you ever want to get married?"
"Why, honey, I never had time." Her grey eyes smoldered, as if they would flash into fire. It was as if two of autumn's maple leaves had fallen into the room, as if goldfish flashed across the polished surface of the walls. "Now let me see," she swept open the door, "if I can rustle us up a cup of hot chocolate. You'd think none of these people was employed by nobody when Baby Brother is down in town."
And she darted out of my room before I could angle for more. It always
amazed me how swiftly she could move, as if she were my daughter instead
of old enough to be my grandmother. While Sagalen was gone I opened the
trunk and took out the poems.
I had held his horny old hand, thinking I was the one he was fond of. As I read his secret stash of poems it was as if our souls touched across eternity.
Sagalen came back with the chocolate.
She smiled at me with her bright, nervous bird's eyes. It must have been the way I said it, because I could see the tension right away make her cheeks high and prominent as she sucked in the corners of her mouth.
"Have you ever seen this trunk before?" I pointed to the trunk where it stood in the dark part of the room.
"Why I guess I have, honey, I can't rightly tell."
"I don't mean here, I mean any place else."
"I'll have to take a look." She put down her chocolate cup, held her long skirt up with one hand and almost tiptoed to the trunk, walking even lighter than she usually did in BB's house. "I don't think so, honey. I suspect Baby Brother's had it a good long while though."
"It was Pop's."
I could see, even in that dark corner, her eyes were huge and startled as she turned to look at me, almost as startled as if I had said Pop himself were in it. I could see her anxiously wanting to know if I had opened it, what was in it. But Sagalen never did ask questions like that, and she wasn't going to now.
"It's got a lot of amazing things in it."
Sagalen smiled, and cocked her head, touched the chest just ever so lightly, and came back to pick up her cup of chocolate. She sat down, sipping, sipping, and asking no question.
"Did you know that Pop loved Emily Dickinson?"
I could see little points of fire and alarm in Sagalen's eyes as they flew wide, then, almost instantly, were veiled again as she swirled the sweet chocolate in her cup, lifted it, tipped it and drank it off.
"He loved her very very much, apparently."
" I never met her," she said quietly and began to gather the things to take the tray down.
"I'm not quite finished with my chocolate."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"I suppose he maybe met her. . ."
Sagalen would say no more.
"She was a poet."
"I remember him liking poetry."
"I mean she's a dead poet -- long before he was even born."
Spots of red appeared in Sagalen's withered cheeks. She bowed her head silently. After a long time she said: "I guess I don't know very much about poetry."
I had an irresistible urge to tease her. "But you're happy she's dead. This Emily who Pop loved?"
"Miz Gloriana. . ."
"It's not real kind of you to tease me. If you want me to know what's in the trunk you tell me. Otherwise, I don't need to know."
"Otherwise. . ." I wanted to bring up the bones, but I didn't dare.
She left the room with the two cups on the tray, guiding the door
to shut gently with her foot. I replaced the poems in the trunk.
When Sagalen came in I said: "I think Pop Brawley loved you more than anyone."
"I wanted him to love me." I thought it would sound simple and truthful, but when it came out mixed with sobs it sounded like a confession. It hung there like a confession in the overheated air of BB's dark brown house.
Sagalen turned back toward the door. Her
voice sharp and edged with anger. "I don't think it'll do us any good to
scrap over him since we both know he's dead."
Had he kept her as a mistress even when Sylvia Louise was in the house, making love, being pregnant, nursing little Austin? Did Austin know? Did Buck know? Why hadn't I known?
I bet it was like making love with a thunder clap, making love with a buffalo. Thunder Clap meets Buffalo -- sounded like two Native American braves. I couldn't tame my fancy to forget a dead man, and an ancient. . . What? Flirt? Had Sagalen flirted with her sister's husband?
"Are you going to read the papers?"
"What is this?" I asked when Saglen came back.
She scanned it. "It's his building. Page 2 and page 3. It's a rental list, I think."
"It doesn't look like it."
Sagalen gave me a curious sharp look. "It doesn't have to do with the ranch."
"I know. But ask him."
"Let's go to lunch. You ask him."
But I was afraid to ask BB. Sagalen plunked the two pages down in front of him. But I was afraid to open my mouth. I was quite suddenly terrified.
"Are these your?" Sagalen demanded.
Baby Brother picked them up glanced at them and leaned back to lay them on a table against the wall. "It's the Bankers Life Building. Some of our tenants."
"Not investors," my voice came out like a choked whisper.
"It's a list given us by the previous owner. Why?"
I couldn't think fast enough to answer.
Late that afternoon I shaved all the hair off my
head. I shaved it right down to the scalp with my underarm-and-leg safety
razor. I had shaved it once before, a long time ago. It was refreshing
-- that feeling of your head being as tight as a drum, as if the skin was
going to pop loose, peel right back up across your skull like a window
shade snapping open. And all the little nicks where the blood oozed out,
I liked that, too.
When she had screamed at me for my idiotic behavior in shaving my head, I had yelled back that I knew she took Buck's bones from the drawer in my room.
"Is it lies Miz Gloria? You wouldn't tell the truth to Pop while he lived. What lies are you trying to scrape away now?"
"Where's the rest of the body buried, you mean?" I was furious at her for turning my little white lie back on me. I was both furious and scared.
"A truth teller tells the truth all the time."
"I don't know what the truth is."
"Buck is dead and you know more than you've ever said about it."
"But I don't know the truth! I don't."
Her eyes fastened on me like ticks screwing their way into my flesh.
"I don't know how it was done. Or why. Or where."
"What about LSL?"
"That's what I said."
"LSL? Havana's note?"
"With the bones." Her voice was hard and accusing, defying me to mention again that she had taken the bones. "Scott, Scott and Jacob."
"You saw it, you ask."
"I don't know. Havana rode out to Leopard Skin with some Posse members. There's nothing there. They couldn't even find a corral."
Her eyes wavered a little, but she said with as much defiance as she had mustered before: "And you ain't going to find a lasso between me and Pop either."
I didn't want her to be capable of reading my mind. I picked up the hand mirror on the dresser beside me, prepared to fling it at her.
"If you make yourself a freak, people'll pay for the side show."
"You're almost a hundred!"
The next day I wrapped a scarf around my head like a turban and told BB I was going to be gone for a day. I took off and went to Amherst to visit Emily Dickinson's home. I had some idea about poking around the city where this muse of Pop's had lived. My map said Massachusetts wasn't too far away.
It turned out to be a pretty little city, bright and cheering in its autumn colors. The tour of Emily's house was just a talk and a glance at her bedroom. It was a romantic talk by a refined lady who thought Emily had had a "normal" childhood, but one that struck me, as well as some writing students on the tour, as affluent, somewhat peculiar and dedicatedly Christian. I found that the photograph Pop had in his trunk was a copy of the only known photograph of Emily. There were no others.
The Evergreens, where Martha Dickinson Bianchi had lived, was not open
to the public.
As she turned away, she threw back over her shoulder, "The living dead don't come back too often neither."
And maybe that's what I had to hear, that Sagalen thought I was ghoulish, that I was becoming somewhat indistinguishable from the living dead.
"Up to 1918," Sagalen poked just her head back around the almost closed door, "Texas had a legal class consisting of 'idiots, aliens, the insane and women.'" She let the door slam shut. I looked in the mirror. I was getting rounder and rounder on BB's rich food. I looked like a fat friar now with my naked and glossy head. With the sheen of the Bag Balm I kept on my lips to keep them from chapping I even looked unctuous. What I really needed was a friar's frock of plain brown homespun, a knotted cord.
Sagalen came back later with another set of papers with blue backing. I tried again to read. I was finally able to comprehend that most of what she had given me was a vast inventory of the ranch and the West Texas land. What could I do but shrug and say it was correct? However, one of this new set, between the lines of jargon, seemed to be saying clearly enough, so even I could puzzle it out, that I was to sign over -- and here there was a Latin phrase which I didn't understand but which no doubt meant -- my rights to Pop's house and ranch and land to BB. Sure enough, right at the end, was a big expanse of white with finely drawn lines for signatures, his, mine, Sagalen's, and two witnesses. Where was Juris going to sign?
"Do you really think Pop would want me to fight BB?"
"Honey, I do."
"Yes, Honey. Glory."
"But Sagalen, you're not going to live forever. And neither am I."
"You might live longer than you think."
"Fight and fight, to give it to who?"
Her eyes were dark and secret.
"Houston? He'll be dead, too."
"Buck'd want you to fight."
I think she was pleased I'd at last roused myself to even ask her. She went off to wash her hands for dinner.
"Did you shave your head?!" BB looked almost the color of a tall white ghost dressed as he was in a pale sweater and tan pants.
"Why, I believe I did." My scalp prickled in the cool air of the dining room. I had left my scarf off and my two-day-shadow didn't do anything to warm my head.
Margaret's hand remained at her mouth where it had flown when I entered the room.
"Humph," BB cleared his throat as he sat down at the head of the vast table where we four had sat down to early dinner most nights since our arrival like four knobs on the ends of a cross. "Do you have a reason?"
"Widows and spinsters used to be forced to join nunneries," I mumbled.
" I beg your pardon?"
I turned to stare from the window of the great brown house across the
lake into the forest. I still couldn't believe BB seriously thought he
had to have the ranch, too. I mean, he already had more room then he
could ever decently use. Would he throw me off the land -- strip it,
sell it? Sagalen had spent the afternoon telling me with relish of BB's
plans: the plot he was laying with the help of Amos, Armand and Juris.
I didn't know enough about the law to know if I had to worry. My flesh
tingled with the thought of what he might have done, might yet do to get
Just after the soup was served, I said. "You have this house, you have a house in Albany, you have a New York apartment. Three house. Why do you think you need my house, too?"
Margaret looked horrified at my bluntness.
"Three!" I screeched for emphasis. "This land and God knows how much of New York City!"
Between my baldness and my bluntness, I thought, Margaret might just drop dead. With a placating smile BB said gently, as if he feared I'd get violent: "That's hardly the point, my dear."
"But that's exactly the point."
"You aren't even a Brawley, my dear."
"If I ain't then half of you ain't either."
"Three piddling years?"
"Well split my rail, that's the first time you sound like a Brawley yourself Mr City Slicker."
"You hardly lived at the ranch."
"Did you? You make it sound like I married Buck for money. He didn't have any money!"
"You'd calculate something like that, wouldn't you, Baby Brother. Well, I'm just a human being. But you'd rather see me in the streets than let your own brother dispose of his property the way he saw fit to do. You're going to take me to the lawyers, and in the end the lawyers are going to get more than I'm going to get and probably more than you're going to get just 'cause you think you got to go on living with your greed."
"I need to back up a small loan to pay off one of my buildings."
"Yeah, I know, the billion dollar baby. Why don't you sell it. Then you'll have some money to clean up the shab here, and pay off all your other contracts."
"My Japanese partners wouldn't like that."
"They'd probably love it if you sold your half cheap enough."
"You talk like a child."
" I never grew up."
His look said I would grow up fast from now on.
I decided I would go visit my family in the Pacific Northwest. They who had taught me to long, day dreamed and yearn -- but who, themselves, didn't do much.
"You been itching to find out some truth, some inkling of the truth about Pop Brawley and me," Sagalen said. "Honey, I'm going to tell you straight."
"I wouldn't want you to do that." I tried to make it sound funny, light, as if it were all a joke, as if I had only been teasing her.
"You had the son, but you didn't get the papa. But you're right, the papa was twice the man Buck was. And don't get me wrong, Buck was quite a man. But honey, I wouldn't sell my soul, my birthright as a human being for neither one of them, nor for Baby Brother, nor for Jesus Christ himself."
I stared at her. I wondered what she meant.
really, but I couldn't admit that even now. So I didn't.
"Liar! Houston got his own ranch and he doesn't need two!"
"I think it could be argued," said BB in his suave way, "that Pop was not of sound mind."
"Pop was of sound mind to leave nothing to a viper like you."
". . .to ignore a living son for a woman who, at best, had a questionable alliance with his dead son?"
"Questionable alliance? Baby Brother?"
"It's hard to believe a man would do such a thing without being a little insane, without a little, maybe, coercion. Especially after one debilitating stroke. . . before his. . ."
"Excuse me?" I said. "Pop was as clear-minded -- just as active as you are to the day he died."
"We'll see." He smirked.
"And Buck!" But I didn't dare accuse him. I didn't know what to accuse him of. Maybe my behavior was simply crazy. Maybe I was crazy.
Out on the trail leading to a
high point from which I could see all five lakes that adjoined Loon Lake,
a giant tree had blown down. In falling it had embraced another, breaking
it. Both heads had been cut off, and the broken limbs. That's how I
felt: my head cut off, my arms cut off, embracing this giant member,
thrusting jagged into the sky.
And I left. We left.
Sagalen wanted to fly so I drove her to the airport in Albany, where she said at the door of Gate 3, "Manchester Meneceius, hain't got one single American name among his monikers."
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Complete novel, approximately 80,000 words
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO