INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
I had to get a jump start for my mind today. I spent all yesterday playing hostess to JJ, taking her around the ranch in the pickup, telling her this, telling her that, talking Texas history. She'd never been on a horse. Never been on a ranch before, for that matter. Everywhere I looked the images of Appletoncroft and Buck stared back at me. From the peach trees Pop Brawley had planted to the cypress down on the creek with their toes in the river whose ancestors had been cut to timber the original ranch house, to the steeple of the church, you could see from our highest hill, over near San Marcos where prehistoric earthquakes had split the earth along the Balcones fault releasing spring water to form the San Marcos River, creating underground caves where I had never been, they stared back: Hez with the blood, Buck with the wounded, helpless eyes searching to find out what you could do with The Truth.
JJ's presence, vitality, eager-to-try-anything energy reminded me, acutely, of the black hole within me. A black hole into which all my energy had been sucked. Excavated deep and wide, shovel full by shovel full. What was I going to fill it with?
It was as if I had died in the night. I clung to my bed, I kept my pillows around me. I was warm. I was safe. I knew there was nothing I could do with The Truth. I hadn't always felt that way. I told myself the hole wasn't so deep or so wide. Then I heard Sagalen shouting:
"JUUUUUU NI PURRR! You going to get fire-ants in your toes!"
"It'll wake me up!" came a shrill reply.
"You'll be sorry."
I shoved aside the pillows, plop, plop, plop they fell to the floor with the quilt. I pulled aside the window curtain. Out in the glistening, washed-clean, bright winter air was the black-haired Yugoslavian-Chinese-American-Peruvian-Jew in a white frock that looked like the one Pop Brawley's cousin Sophie wore in the old sepia-tinted picture taken on the day she was confirmed. JJ was part angel, part drifting Botticelli. Her legs were bare above naked feet and she was dancing as wild and high stepping as Isadora Duncan was ever accused of doing. Maybe Isadora had succeeded in persuading Nijinsky to reproduce with her after all. If so, JJ was, no doubt, a cherry from the old pit. She was as graceful as a fawn and as jubilant as a Russian. She was dancing and twirling and jumping up to catch the chinaberry boughs that broke off in her hand. The tissue paper thin, crackly, golden balls rained down on her head, down the front of her low-cut, Puritan-white dress.
Sagalen, from the kitchen doorway, was waiting for her to step on an ant hill. So was I, as I pressed my forehead against the tight-shut window. You don't just run around in the Brawley back yard, or any other back yard in Texas without a concern for being bit. Fire ants are part of the landscape. Part of life. Fire ants are something that came crawling up over the border, I forget how many years ago. They are an established part of Texas lore by now. At first I myself had not believed in their menace and ubiquity. But I did now. Besides, if I'd been real proper Texas stock, I'd have thought JJ was being indecent, as it was evident on each high jump that she didn't have any underpants on, let alone a bra. She brought a, may I say, gayer view, a spring time hue to what might otherwise be the grimmest of all possible dawns. I rocked myself there at the window, my arms tucked tight across my stomach. I wished I had the energy, a reason to dance, to drift in embroidered white across the fields. So JJ's mere presence was a jump start.
When I finally assembled myself enough to go downstairs to the kitchen I found JJ sitting in a chair next to the kitchen table carefully scrutinizing, with an intensity you wouldn't want to interfere with, her ant bites, watching them rise, angry, white-headed. God, I knew how they could itch!
"Scratch the heads off," said Sagalen.
I wanted to ask JJ what made her so full of natural juices. But who can un derstand a question like that, out of the blue, before coffee or pancakes?
The real question was, was I going to watch more of those video tapes? How soon?
The real question was: What am I going to go on living for?
Sagalen, at the stove, was as quiet and competent as ever. Did Buck's face haunt her? Did Pop Brawley's? Would mine, if I made it into my grave before her? She seemed to do everything. She seemed to want nothing. Maybe it was living with the quietness for seventy-five years. It was so quiet in the hills once you stopped talking.
But JJ was here now, and she was laughing up a storm.
"People are going to think I have hii-ives!"
"They're going to think you have fire ant-bites," Sagalen corrected, smiling broadly. You could tell she really liked kids.
Adam came in, smiling, too, with a fresh pressed shirt on. He had gone home with the Thomas' on the night of the full moon and missed JJ's arrival.
JJ and Adam hit it off right there at the breakfast table. He poured her out a half cupful of real maple syrup on the small stack of pancakes she was only going to eat three bites of. I mean JJ could be any age, from two to two hundred, and when she met Adam, she immediately became fourteen, and ate the whole stack.
She went down with him that very day and enrolled in New Braunfels Junior High School. "I can prove," she said to me late that afternoon, "I have no high school education whatsoever, and the American public school system owes me one."
"Fine," I said. What else could I say? Besides it solved the problem -- since it looked like she was here to stay for a more or less long while -- of what exactly she was going to do all day long. As it happened, it took her and Peter Good only about twenty-two hours to go through the seeds, decide on which month to plant which seeds, select a site of deep, rich, river bottom just high enough above flood level to be safe in which to grow out her "Save The Earth Garden," get it plowed and begin to wait.
"Mostly I got to wait for spring. So why not get an education," she reasoned.
She lied about her age. "I'm fifteen," she admitted to on her application and stuck to it when the principal questioned her. And, "No, I don't have any grades to transfer. I'm a refugee from Florida, lost everything in Hurricane Andrew. School flattened, me flattened, parents gone. Gloriana Brawley, she's my saint. Rescued me. Will vouch for my sincerity. And destitution."
When John Charles the principal questioned me, all I could say was: "Whatever she said is true." And: "How can it hurt to teach her a few things?"
"It's the other kids. She may be a bad. . ."
"Kids know more than you and I ever did."
I went out walking in the woods along the path the truck drove to bring in wood. I had walked there nearly every day since I had come home. Suddenly this huge owl flew past my head, big and spotted, his wings like beach towels in slow motion flopping up and down, graceful, slow. He stopped to sit for a moment in a tree, almost lost because of his coloring, because of his spots, even though I knew exactly where he had perched. Then he swooped again and led me off into the piney woods. I followed shushing through the fallen leaves, knowing, really knowing that the path lay always in front of me. I thought: I'm getting as old as an owl, surely wisdom can't be far behind.
I came back from the walk energized. JJ and Adam were just coming in from school. "Hey," I cried. "Would you like to go to the Alamo? A little Texas history?"
They were willing. San Antonio wasn't but about an hour away. So we all piled in the station wagon. Adam drove. He drove very well. I'd come to find that trust was never misplaced by being invested in him.
First we walked along the river, where the leaves were coming down, sometimes forming almost a carpet across the quiet current which, from sidewalk to sidewalk, was almost free of tourists at this season. The unused boats were tied up at intervals. The old carvings were charming, the quiet was appealing. JJ was enchanted with the idea of a River Walk right through the heart of a city, the gardens, the cypress, the giant-earred-elephant plants, the terra cotta-colored Lone Star Cafe.
Later we came to stand before the facade of the Alamo, the ancient mission named after its cottonwood trees, warm-faced in the winter sun, proclaiming for all the world that it was better to be a dead Texan, a Texan dead in resistance to the unmanageable fact of overwhelming odds, than almost any other living thing. I was a living thing. I turned away seeing again the blindly suffering face of Buck, and the shiny bald pate of the dead Hez. This had been a mission, one of the earliest. What was my mission to be?
Adam came up to my room that night. "Tell me Gloriana. It's mostly just people telling each other ghost stories, isn't it."
"What's that, Adam?"
"My dad. . ."
"I reckon. You're a smart kid."
"My dad. . ."
I waited quite awhile before I said: "Yes?"
"I used to think he was special."
Adam -- I let thoughts sift through my head like dust motes in the sunlight -- was maybe as mixed up as I was because he had heard his dad was one of the bad guys. He saw his dad always act like a good guy, but had heard "ghost stories." Kids gossip. Especially in the desert. Was that it? Was that the key? Was that the reason he had been so hostile? Was that the reason why he had so quickly settled down into a model of decent boyhood under the lashings of Sagalen's agarita berry pies, and the high good spirits of the New Braunfels boys who, with their strict German country tutelage, hadn't been allowed to become "heavy-metaled" even in this modern world? Had I finally come up with something I could understand. Make a few deductions from?
"Your dad is something special. I think he is. I'd forget about the ghost stories until I see the ghosts."
"I appreciate being here," he said quite simply. "Do you suppose Dad and Mom will ever leave the desert?"
"Do you want to write and ask them?"
"I'll think about it."
He moved toward the door.
"Could I have just one small hug. It'd make me feel a lot warmer on a cold night like this."
Adam came and put his young boy's arms around me.
Well of course with JJ's tendency to run around barefooted, it wasn't long before she found out that Adam had a false foot. "I'll prove it to you," she said and stood on the end of his foot one day while he didn't notice.
I wrote to Havana. "Was it Adam Beaudeauin's foot that was chopped off? How? Why? Why didn't Johnnie tell me?"
Havana wrote back that it hadn't happened recently. It hadn't happened last summer when she wrote to me about it, it had happened a year before and she just learned about it last summer. She liked to express herself on paper. Trying to think out her moves. Trying to adjust to each little puzzle piece of reality. She went on for two pages speculating. She implied, by knowing I'd put two and two together, that Adam had been shot in the foot by the Sextet. Later it was operated on. "Maybe even Beaudeauin himself did it," she wrote. "To prove? he was one of them? Or stood by when it was done. To prove? he was one of them? Because it was at that time Adam turned against him, joined a gang, began to smoke dope. What possible reason could Johnnie have had," she concluded her speculations, "except that he was after bigger fish?" Her letter was mailed from Riverside.
"You knew all along that J was six?" I wrote back aghast and amazed at my own naiveté, hurt by the wall of silence everyone had maintained around me. Why? Was it some perverse form of protectionism?
Her next postcard, mailed from Los Angeles, said: "Don't jump to conclusions."
But of course I didn't believe it. I didn't for a moment believe the Johnnie Beaudeauin I knew would be capable of standing by and letting his son in any way be mutilated. Johnnie was as far from being a calloused man as I was from being a Texas longhorn. If Buck was after The Truth, Johnnie was after -- what? Justice? Compassion? God is love? How was I to know?
I looked over the tapes again, looked at each title. Not one suggested that anything more was going to be said about Johnnie Beaudeauin.
Another question plagued me, always, day and night. Then it suddenly struck me that Sagalen was the only person who would know: "Sagalen," I demanded, "why did Buck go to No Palms?"
She turned her blank old eyes at me. She stood there assessing no doubt at what point "I deserved" to know. I drew a small amount of comfort, however, from thinking that anything so unreasonable, anything leading to so much pain, might ultimately be knowable. The question now was: would I ever be told? Wise old owl. I took another walk in the woods. But the great spotted owl was absent.
JJ came home from the historical museum in New Braunfels talking about Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels who had founded the city in 1845. "I'd be proud," she said, "to just spin a little thread in the textile mills there."
I'll remember that, I thought, when I need a little less exuberance in the house. In the meantime, she made a party every night out of "Doing the Homework." I mean, the girl was a genius, she made me laugh and she made me cry with her antics over the "Lessons in School."
For instance: Sex Education was part of the mandatory curriculum, but with Germanic piety New Braunfels determined to teach it with a Quaker separation between boys and girls. JJ decided to give supplementary classes under the oaks. She took seeds, flowers and a small writing slate. The increase in the interest toward Lady Bird's Wildflower Scheme was astronomical.
The only thing I tried to enforce was John Charles' request that JJ wear shoes in the classroom.
Most nights I sat in the parlor with Sagalen, doing my stitching. She did mending and read. She never asked if I was going to look at the other videos. I thought about nothing else. I might grow very old before I ever wanted to look at a tape of Richardson or Norquist.
She looked up.
I got a note from Baby Brother that he was inviting himself down for a brief visit after a football game in Dallas. Colonel Steadlow said: "Let him come." Dr. Bluebutcher said he would be glad to play host and be on hand. Houston suggested BB stay at his place -- or at least part of the entourage, as he put it, should stay there. "Why he's getting so anxious honey," Houston drawled, "he can't even wait the decent interval until the next Longhorn game at UT. Imagine him going to a Cowboys' game. That kinda takes the prize, doesn't it?"
Even though I couldn't get over my squeamishness, I thought I had better look at the rest of the videos quickly. Somehow the evil of Baby Brother was connected in my mind with The Sextet. I knew I was wrong, but at least it made me act.
"Video night," I said to Sagalen, feeling pre-bulimic, as if I were going to throw up even before I ate.
"Which do you recommend?"
"Depends on which questions bother you the most."
"Why did Buck have to go to No Palms?"
"If you keep thinking there's an answer, you might find it."
"In one of the videos?"
"Maybe not in one of the videos."
"Maybe you'd better watch them first." She had a streak of fatalism in her as wide as the Ganges.
"All of them?"
"As many as you can stand."
"Richardson's bland enough."
"Okay, we'll start with that one."
INTERVIEW/ECKHARDT RICHARDSON. The tape was no more than a brief biography of how Richardson happened to get himself stationed out in No Palms for the California Highway Patrol. No big feat as no one else wanted to be there anyhow. Why had Buck saved this tape? I played it through twice. Until one detail caught my attention: Richardson seemed to make no distinction whatsoever between CHP business and the Sheriff's office. He talked about one or the other as if he ran both shows. In fact the tape was interesting because after awhile it registered on me that it wasn't filmed in our shed at all. It was taken in the Sheriff's office, but Sheriff Green wasn't there, unless an occasional movement in the background indicated his presence. Richardson and Buck were having a drink and the camera never moved, just filmed them from a single position.
Richardson continued to speak in his harsh, abrupt way telling briefly about growing up in Twentynine Palms. His dad was in the army, he'd gone to school in Los Angeles, one of the junior colleges, then he had gone to CHP school. When he was done there he, as he put it, "came home." He said he had grown up with little Billy Green, the Sheriff, and it was real nice to share the law with him. It was not hard to guess that he had always been a bully and Green had always been his "Yes-man." Richardson neither emphasized this nor concealed it.
He was also notably friendly toward Buck. There was no date on the tape, but I suspected it had been done early. In fact Sagalen told me it had been done before we moved to No Palms. I remembered the time. On Buck's second trip to the desert, the one in December, he had taken his Camcorder.
I remember, Buck had promised to be back from California for New Years, but he hadn't made it. It had hurt a bit at the time to be alone with Pop and Sagalen, I mean they were my family by then, but I missed Buck. Later I used to think about it occasionally, that it was an ill omen that we had been separated for that all important first day of the year.
Still the tape didn't seem important enough or incriminating enough to have been part of the stash Buck made after the injunction. Richardson was, no doubt, one of the worst, but, except for his lack of awareness of what was duty and what was coercion, the tape seemed mild enough. I was relieved I had picked this one to view. The hole in my insides seemed less deep that night when I went to bed. I didn't even bother to discuss it with Sagalen. And as usual, when she was not asked a direct question, she proposed no answers.
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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