INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
INTERVIEW/HEZIKIA APPLETONCROFT. As soon as Sagalen sat down I flicked the tape on. It started up where I had stopped it, Hez still sitting slumped in the big red chair, his chest caved in, his dark eyes staring blankly at nothing. After awhile the cam era panned to Buck's empty chair. Buck sat down, into the image, and gave his regular introduction: "This is The Desert Eye. . ." etc. ". . . and tonight we focus our lens on Hezikia Appletoncroft, known to many of you over the years as Water Commissioner of the No Palms Valley Water District."
Then Buck stood up, left the image and, in a minute, the camera swung to old Hez, who had roused himself and was now sitting up straighter, but still looking like he had met two fists in the dark.
They were obviously alone in the shed. Buck was doubling as interviewer and camera operator, as he often did for someone who wanted to tape something but didn't necessarily want it broadcast. There were a lot of people in No Palms who wanted to tell their stories for the record, or would come forward to tell their version of an event once Buck had pursuaded them how important it was to keep a record of the truth -- and that he could be trusted to keep it confidential until it could do some good.
"First, let me affirm," said Hez, "that I have given no permission, signed no release for this tape to be played for any kind of public viewing. If you are looking at this show on a public television station you are looking at an illegal copy, which may indeed have been falsified. Okay with you, Buck?"
"Okay," came loud and clear from off-camera. "It's just for the record."
Then there was a long wait.
Finally, Buck's voice urged, quite gently, "Do you feel some of the things you say might have far reaching consequences?"
Hezikia's gaze turned inward for a moment, then he cleared his throat, he straightened his tie at the top of his well-fed, compact little body.
"So what did you want to ask me?"
"Will it be easier if I ask you questions?"
"Probably. It's hard to narrow down those seven years in my head."
"Why did you quit when you quit?"
"I never quit. I was forced out by the Sextet."
"Who are they?"
Hezikia Appletoncroft scratched his not very clean shaven chin for a minute. "Well, at first it was a Committee of Six to study the water situation. Later they got into what might be called vigilante activities."
"Like what?" asked Buck
"Dingbat and Sleaze Ass. . ."
"I thought those were Havana's terms."
"Do you think anyone would dare to say Mrs. Matthew Marshall Hall?"
"Was she one of the six?"
"So as vigilantes. . .?"
"I think Sheriff Green carried gasoline for the arson jobs."
"Who else had more cause to be out patrolling around in the night? He was supposed to be the first one to fires, wasn't he?"
"So Sheriff Green was one of the Sextet, and Jackson. Do you want to name the others?"
"Sheriff Green, Richardson, Bud Norquist, Sam Giorno, Jackson himself, and Beaudeauin, Johnnie Beaudeauin."
"What?" Johnnie Beaudeauin? I hit the stop button. And pressed rewind. My ears hadn't heard right.
". . .himself, and Beaudeauin, Johnnie Beaudeauin."
"What else did this Sextet do?" asked Buck's voice.
Again I snapped off the machine. "What else did this Sextet do?" -- I couldn't believe Buck'd pass right over Johnnie's name.
"What else did this Sextet do?" I played it once more. There was not one moment's hesitation in his voice, as if he didn't know Johnnie from Hitler. As if it was no surprise to hear Jesus Christ was out to get Pontius Pilot with a gang of hoodlums.
"What's the matter, Gloriana?" Sagalen's voice was almost a whisper, in deference to my acute agitation. I was breathing hard. I needed a minute to think.
"Johnnie Beaudeauin," I said, "is a . . . a good . . ."
"Adam's father?" asked Sagalen.
"Well, let's hear the rest of what this Sextet does."
She didn't know that Johnnie. . . My whole trust was. . . Johnnie. . . I couldn't believe it. I'd heard about the Sextet, known the term. Havana had used it occasionally while we were in No Palms. Everyone did sub rosa. Everyone thought Dingbat was a part of it, that it included the Sheriff's son "Dummy." But Johnnie? I simply didn't believe it. Sagalen didn't know that I was practically sure it was the Sextet who killed Buck -- took him --
"Are you going to listen, Gloriana?"
"Sure," I said. I pushed the button. Maybe I was just jumping to conclusions. But five vultures and one . . . what?
I was looking at the tape box and I noticed that this interview was taped about six weeks after Johnnie Beaudeauin's interview. Jesus it made me nervous. I have about as much faith as a mosquito, I thought, or hope, or charity. My conclusions were giving me chills and my flesh was crawling. They set fires, they were vigilantes. Johnnie was one of them . . .
I pushed the play button again.
"They helped get out the vote," Hezikia flashed a brief ironic smile.
"You've heard of the Jukes and the Kallikaks."
"Relatives, you mean."
"Dead and alive. 'You have the meeting, I'll write the minutes.' You know what I mean."
"What else did the vigilantes do?"
"Me, for instance."
"My family's been here for generations."
"What'd they want you to do as Commissioner?"
"Then what did they do?"
"Most of the time they don't do anything because they don't need to."
"Who do they work for?
Hez shook his head back and forth. It wasn't clear if it was trying to say he didn't know, or if he meant he wasn't going to tell, or, maybe, that they didn't work for anyone.
Buck's voice tried a different tack. "Who'er Scott, Scott and. . ."
At that moment there was a kind of whistling sound on the tape, a little snow, like a jolt of interference. Then Appletoncroft kind of jerked back, slumped, then began to lean forward. A dark line moved down from his mouth.
I squinted my eyes, I stared, leaning forward. I simply couldn't register what I was seeing.
There was a shout from some place off screen. Then a muffled voice, chanting long drawn-out ghostly words, as if the voice had a fist in its mouth. "You keeep oon taaaping ooold Buck-a-roo! Youuu gonna need a vaaa-kkaaa-shun, too!"
Appletoncroft doubled over toward the camera, his bald head shining in the glare of the sun guns. His hand, which had been in his lap, jerked out and up and it was bright red. He held it up, two fingers straight and high, then the hand and the arm flopped down, full length, touching the floor.
A voice which was much clearer and much closer said. "Gonna be a hole to remember in that fine chair." There was chuckling by several masculine voices, the sound of scuffling. "Notice Glory like to sit in that chair when you test the lights."
Another voice said, speaking like it had a mouthful of mush: "Buck-a-roo, take some advice, put dark glasses on that ole Desert Eye."
"Hee! Hee! Hee!" There was some hooting, the sound of clumping boots, then boots on gravel, car doors slamming, then a moment of silence before a great blast from, probably, a pickup's engine being gunned, a great squealing of tires. The vehicle sped away. And then silence.
All the time the camera remained on Appletoncroft bent double, his two fingers touching the floor in Buddha's gesture of calling the earth to witness, while a red pool grew bigger and bigger and bigger at the end of the fingers. Gradually it crept toward and under his shoes.
After long long minutes, I could hear someone take a breath. I looked over at Sagalen. She was staring blank-faced at the screen. The intermittent harsh breathing continued, but it wasn't her.
A hand came into the image and grasped Appetoncroft's wrist, held it, searching for a pulse. It was Buck's hand. Then apparently Buck turned the camera toward his own empty chair. He sat down into the picture, and started to talk to me . . . the camera.
"About three minutes ago. . ." he gasped. "Ago. . ." His breath was coming hard and deep, like he was trying to calm himself with deep breathing exercises. "Someone shot Hezi."
Breath. Exhale. Breath. Exhale.
"Hezikia Appletoncroft. I'm sitting here in The Desert Eye studio and someone just shot Hezikia Appletoncroft. They blew him wide open and he's dead. I think they used a silencer. I didn't hear any gun shot. When they came into the studio I couldn't see them because the lights were in my eyes. But I think one was Sheriff Green. Eckhardt Richardson. Maybe Bud Norquist, but I can't swear. I. . ." again he gasped several times. "I can't swear to anything, because maybe it was because Hez just mentioned those names."
Then for a long while Buck just let the camera watch him as he kept breathing in and out, heavy intermittent gasps. "I gotta tell someone. . . I don't know who, but I gotta tell someone," he said and with a great heave and sigh launched himself out of camera range. The TV went black.
Snow. Interference patterns.
I looked at Sagalen. She said softly: "Don't turn it off, there's more."
I wasn't even surprised at that moment. Some how I knew she had seen the tapes. Probably all of them. When? When? And Why?
After a half minute the screen lit up again, the lights came on full blast. The camera was being hand-held, panning erratically and kind of wiggling as if whoever was holding it were shaking. It was focused on the floor; I could tell because there were a couple of cables running along the right hand side of the screen. Other than that it just looked like a mellow grey-green blankness, some parts of the grey were a very dark shade of grey. The camera panned up the leg of a chair. I was getting an eerie feeling before I realized it was not the chair that Appletoncroft had been shot in. It was not the big red chair I had been used to sitting in as a stand-in to help Buck set lights. After awhile Buck had insisted he didn't need a human being's help to set lights anymore, even though Sarah offered to sit in when he said I was too busy to do it.
It was a different chair, the green chair.
The camera rested on Buck's chair. The same chair he used continuously from the day The Desert Eye began shooting. In a minute, he slid into the chair, haggard looking, his hair messed, his face lined and old. But his breathing was normal. He said:
"Notice first, there isn't any blood. That was a lot of water soaking the blood out of the concrete floor." Then he said: "I'll start from the beginning:
"I went to the Sheriff's office. Why, I don't know. Maybe I was thinking I would get there before Green got back. Maybe someone else would be there. I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. Well Giorno was there. I told him what happened, that Appletoncroft had just been shot. He said. . . He said, smiling. 'I think you must be mistaken, Buck. Hezi the Apple left last night, moved to San Diego.'
"'I was interviewing him. He was shot.' I said.
"'Buck-a-roo. I sometimes think those hot lights giving you sun-stroke.'
"'The tape'll prove it.' I said.
"Giorno, laughed and looked up. I thought for a split second he was going to do something. Make a phone call, help me out, believe me. Then he laughed again and I could tell by the way he laughed that there was someone behind me. I turned and there was Sheriff Green. 'Howdy, Buck,' he said.
"'You're on the tape,' I said.
"'I just came by your place baby, the lights is blazing, the door is open, what'er you doing here? I'm going to have to write you a citation for wasting energy!' he said and he and Giorno roared laughing. Then suddenly they turned out all the lights. Like it had been planned. And Sheriff Green said in the dark. "'We don't waste any energy, Buck-a-roo. See that you don't either.' And they both walked out into the dark."
On screen Buck shook his head, rubbed his eyes for a minute. He looked like he had aged about ten years. Then he looked up again, wiping his mouth, gasping, for a moment, like a fish.
"Then I went to the Highway Patrol. Eckhardt Richardson was on duty in his car, it was parked outside the dark office just off 62. 'Out of our jurisdiction,' he said. 'You gotta talk to the Sheriff.' He stepped on the gas. Nearly broke my hand as he took off."
Buck held up his hand for a minute for the camera to see. It was bandaged with the neckerchief he'd been wearing earlier.
"I didn't know who else to talk to so I came back here. I walk in and every light in the place is on. The door is open. Nothing disturbed, except there is no blood, no Appletoncroft, and the chair with the hole in it is gone. This chair.. . " He got up, moved out of camera range, then the camera moved to look at the interviewee's chair. ". . .has been put in its place." On the screen was the new green chair Buck said he'd bought at K-Mart.
He turned the camera on his chair again. Sat down and said. "I played the tape back before I sat down to record this. It's all there. No attempt has been made to steal it or destroy it. Appletoncroft's words ring in my ears. 'Most of the time they don't do anything because they don't need to.'
"I don't know what to do. Call Norquist's office in San Bernardino? Wouldn't he laugh!" Buck's voice was bitter. "I haven't even got a body. I got one VCR tape. I got one tape. I don't know what to do."
Buck sat for a long time just staring into the camera.
Finally he got up, turned the camera on the green chair. Went around, I could tell, turning off the lights. Then the screen went black.
Sagalen and I sat there for I don't know how long, before she said. "There isn't any more than that. That's the end of this tape."
I clicked off the VCR.
God how it hurt to see Buck's face again, so weary. So haggard, so hurt. I had to close my eyes. And Hez, that funny little dapper man. . . who'd been. . . very helpful. . . Sagalen sat still, she said nothing.
After a long time I asked. "When did you watch these before?"
"Pop Brawley thought we'd better look at them. About a week before Buck was killed." Her voice gained momentum and rose. "He bawled Buck out again and again and again. Told the kid to come home!" Sagalen's voice was a high wail. A whine in a whirlwind. "He did everything but go up there and drag him home by the short hairs!"
"Pop didn't tell me!!" I screamed.
"He shouldda dragged him home!"
"He didn't tell me!!" I screamed again.
"O Gloriana," she wailed. "He did! He did! What do you think all those whining phone calls was about? The wheel chair! Old Age! Suffering! Suffering?! Bullshit!"
"But he never said!!!"
"Was he going to say it on the phone? Your life, you stupid cunt, was in danger!"
It was like a great big dishpan of ice cold water being tossed over my head. I had no idea Sagalen knew such a word.
"Can't you hear! Can't you see!"
I just stared at her, my mouth dropping open like a pried-open rat trap.
"Buck changed your home phone number, made it unlisted!"
"But the. . ."
"Sarah had instructions to never never never let Pop through."
"But when I came home?"
"Do you want to go back up and hunt for Appleton's body?"
"But. . ."
"Honey, if you can't rope the lava, you'd better run."
"But. . ."
"Well, what have you been able to do?"
It was like a quick slit with a razor.
"How many bones you got now?"
I saw the blood on Buck's fingers, it was as if they touched my throat.
"Honey child," Sagalen reached out.
Can you mourn deep into the past? Like a hologram. It was like reality was a hologram: you could see it, but you couldn't feel it. You could see it, but not smell it. Or taste it. You could put out your hand and grope forever in the thin air, the thin cool, non-resistant air, and never be able to touch a thing. I knew that if you altered one fact -- I knew it from reading Karl Pribram years ago, years and years ago -- if you added one element into a hologram, added one new element, reality reshuffled itself like a deck of cards. My heart was stopping in the present. Buck was already dead in the past -- two years. I couldn't die now of the fright and the shock and the hurt. The tears stung my eyes. Sagalen got up, came close and cradled my head against her hard, almost fleshless hip.
"Honey child. Honey chile," she said, patting my head.
Suddenly the lower hall was full of hooting and hollering. Even from my room I could hear the towels snapping.
"Hey Saggy!" Adam's voice, wild and loud.
"Sa-gay-land!" Tommy Thomas's voice.
"I'd better go," said Sagalen. "They're probably hungry. You want a piece of pie?"
"I wanta die."
"You will, Gloriana, just a little patience." And she left the room. She'd never give in to a wish to die, or any kind of wish at all. Sagalen, like Buck, just did. That's what it was all about. I needn't ask. Just do it. Action. You didn't have to feel one way or the other.
I got up and rewound the tape. Pushed the eject. Took the cartridge out. This VCR tape that showed a murder. It was probably valuable, like the Zapruder tape, the Rodney King tape. There'd be a great big trial. Someday. I put the tape with the others in the basket into which I had unloaded the safety deposit box.
Well, when I could think, when my eyes didn't feel like they had been socked, when I didn't feel like I was going to vomit, when I had had a good night's sleep, when I was some body else, I would look at the rest of the tapes. I would ask Sagalen. She'd tell me which ones to look at. She could probably even synopsize them for me in her mirthless monotone. Maybe I wouldn't have to look at any more murders. Maybe I wouldn't have to look at Buck again, Buck the hologram.
Emily, I thought of -- Pop Brawley's love for Emily Dickinson:
. . . For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die - . . .
The more I thought about Buck's behavior, the stranger it seemed. Why had he gone to the very people he had just heard named? Where do you go when someone gets killed right before your eyes? The police. And if the police do the killing? If Sheriff Green did the killing? I guessed it. Could Buck have guessed it? What did he actually know or not know? Would I have gone to the Twentynine Palms police, the Palm Springs police? The FBI? Why didn't Buck? How did he know Appletoncroft was dead? Could he have been mistaken? All that blood.
He never told me.
Why didn't he tell me? The tape was dated September '89. Why didn't he tell me then?
But I remember, his eyes had changed at some point in there, they had taken on a haunted look. I thought it had to do with the worry about the paper failing. The DTs was maybe going to go under. But maybe it was more, maybe it was like seeing a son in your lap with a broken neck, or like seeing murder in front of your nose.
Sagalen said he wouldn't talk to Pop. I remember him changing the number. Pop why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me straight?
And again my mind flashed on Johnnie Beaudeauin. Buck had interviewed him a month earlier.
I wanted to burn the tapes. I, too, would die just from the stress of watching them if each one sent my mind off into such crucifying chaos.
Sagalen knew everything that was in them.
I'd ask her.
At ten o'clock the next morning I was in New Braunfels waiting at the bus station for Juniper Johnson. Her shiny black hair and round, slant-lidded eyes looked about as foreign as you could ask for in that old German settlement town where the houses came to peaks and the gingerbread work on the eaves and balconies looked like lace doilies.
"Hi, there," she called across the station. The six people sitting there looked from her to me. "Still a virgin?" she said in a stage whisper when she got closer. Only one person turned to stare at that one. Hopefully they were mute, if not deaf. Otherwise. . . As Sagalen said, the Hill Country's ears were its rolling hills.
"Welcome," I said to JJ. "You better learn to talk softly."
"'And carry a big stick.' I brought my bio-diversity seeds."
"Well, I got 13,000 acres to plant them in."
She hooted with laughter. I hooted, too. We went into a bakery. Ordered coffee and pastry. I ate enough pastry to fill my gut and Buck's gut, too. JJ picked at her strudel. She was skinny. Well, maybe I'll get skinny, too, I thought if I have to put up with her. Her voice, full of laughter -- always -- was piercingly loud for a Texas cafe.
"Couldn't stand the Northwest, huh?"
"Drizzle. Lots of drizzle."
When it was time to go home, I drove the pickup as slowly as I could. JJ had never been in Texas. I pointed out the pecans, the chinaberries, the cottonwoods, and the fields where the bluebonnets would be. The huge "wedding oak" that told you you had just crossed the Brawley boundary.
"How come you're here now?" I asked.
"You invited me."
"Welcome," I said again. At least she was livelier than Sagalen. I had invited a lot of people a lot of places in my time, but it took Juniper Johnson to actually show up at Brawley. What was I going to do with her?
Holy God, I thought, I had one television drama on tapes I wanted to burn, and another
TV-like drama starting up with this mixed-blood nut from the top of Mount Rainier, to say nothing of the growing-more-civilized-by-the-minute Adam Beaudeauin. Which, with excruciating pain, brought back the thought of Johnnie Beaudeauin being named by Appletoncroft as one of them. Surely he must have been an agent, surely he was working as an inside agent in the Devil's camp. I couldn't believe. . . What?!
I suddenly wanted to howl out loud.
No way could he have been involved in killing Buck! I knew that. I knew that more certainly than I knew my own name.
"Pretty country," said JJ.
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: email@example.com
Former Website address was: http://weber.u.washington.edu/~jhaag
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.
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO