INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
Houston was the kind of man who could make a big to-do about anything if he chose, apologizing all over the place for everything, hesitant, obsequious. This time he really took on Baby Brother. Why he was just so unsure of what to do and how to do it that he could take eleven hours worth of advice from BB, almost made him miss the Cowboys' game by holding him on the phone trying to make some kind of really exact plan about how BB and his wife and kids and friends would be flown down, what time they'd arrive, how long it would take them to drive over. It wasn't too much trouble? He didn't mind? Should we send over a car for them? Why of course we must send over a car. A couple of cars. They'd be much too crowded in one car. "We'll send the kids as chauffeurs. You'll like them, local boys."
But Houston didn't want to seem un-delighted to see them. Should we, ourselves, come over to the airport? Maybe we should meet half-way. Did Baby Brother feel bad about going to the game without a member of the family with him? His wife was sympathetic? She understood? Did they need any more tickets? Did they want to meet the coach? It was just doggone awful he hadn't thought of that before, they could have seen some of the game from the bench, but, and again he went into the apologies: He was just so busy, needed help he didn't have, would sure appreciate some advice from him, Baby Brother, when he got there.
"What time can we expect ya'all? Don't hurry, don't worry about us, we will be here. Don't you worry. We can save dinner. Hope you'll like what we have, nothing elegant, just an ole Texas barbecue. Nothing special. We hoped you wouldn't mind 'nothing special.'"
I could almost feel Baby Brother pulling away from the phone, trying to get loose from the glue of Houston's apologies, alternatives, artful temptations -- and how, as he pulled, the glue hardened. I looked at my watch. Unless he were right in the stadium already, he had already missed the opening of the game. I concealed a giggle and Houston winked at me and launched into one more apology and one more instruction about where and how to meet just in case he had forgotten anything, and the last temptation: "Maybe I can still get you into the dressing rooms, right after the game. Won't take but a few phone calls. It'd really be my pleasure, if you don't think it would make you too late. You just say the word." Finally BB must have hung up. And there was Houston with an open mouth of shock, just a holdin' the phone out at arm's distance. . .
"Can you believe it, Gloriana, he hung up on me?"
"Why Houston, it's just them bad Eastern manners."
And we laughed. Even Sagalen who'd been standing on the other side of the kitchen, not listening, laughed.
"Why it'll be such a treat to see them!" Houston exclaimed, and he lifted old Sagalen up from under the armpits and twirled around with her. She looked like a handkerchief doll in his hands, so thin and fragile, her long gingham skirts hitched above her ankles.
"What's going on?" It was JJ leaning in the doorway; she was shrewd enough to know she had never seen anybody lifting up Sagalen, and wasn't likely to see it again. "You all liquored up at 2:00 in the afternoon?"
"JJ, my darling," I said, "this is my brother-in-law Houston Brawley. Houston Brawley is a good friend and we are celebrating the fact that his Uncle is coming to visit. His Uncle is known as Baby Brother, Baby Brother to my husband, who you are not going to get to meet because he's. . . he's dead." I don't know why I chose to run down hill like that, but I careened right into a dead-end and it stopped the laughter. Maybe it was because I immediately noticed my mistake, which I didn't think anyone else had noticed, but which I couldn't get out of my mind -- my husband: Pop. Pop Brawley, I glanced to see if Sagalen had noticed. If she had, of course, you'd never know.
"You aren't," said JJ, her luminous eyes refusing to let go of her humor, "ending upon a very cheerful note."
"Sorry about that. But. . ."
Houston, too, undertook to re-enlighten the conversation with his booming voice. "Baby Brother is a longhorned Eastern horse thief. You'll be able to judge for yourself sometime this early evening. Hold your jewels tight."
So, courteously conveyed by the Thomas boys, about eight people arrived about seven thirty. (The local people began arriving a little later.) They'd seen the game, they'd had a few drinks on the flight down and they had hoped to get here before dark, but by the time they arrived it was twilight. We turned the floodlights on in the yard to see the barbecue, but we ate indoors. It was all very informal, and I actually had fun for I kept watching Houston as he played BB.
Aside from this central divertissement, there were about twenty-five people roaming around: BB's wife, Margaret, his lawyer and his wife, Ludwig and Erika Juris, BB's daughter and son and their spouses -- "come to case the family plots," is how I put it to myself. I was reminded of Katy Neuman's assessment, so long ago, of the 911 types come to case her mother's house, never mind the guy with the broken neck lying on the floor.
Well, I wasn't lying on the floor and neither was Houston. Sagalen, as usual, was as elusive as a hummingbird, but had got two of the neighbor girls in to help with the serving and the dishes. Adam was also being especially helpful. I'm sure BB took his helpfulness to indicate he was one of the local lads, and for some reason, some protective kind of maternal fluttering in my breast, I didn't disabuse BB of this mistaken identity idea. He kind of gave orders to Adam, and I kind of winked at Adam, and I could see it turned out to be okay for him to play humble helper for BB.
JJ of course was fascinated by the strong smell of money that came in the door with Baby Brother and his entourage. She was Eastern enough to recognize a Brahmin when she saw one. Baby Brother began to purr under the admiration from her nubile and adoring Eurasian eyes. Margaret, his wife, was subdued. His daughter, more toward my age than JJ's, didn't know what to make of the scene. Her husband joined BB in his appreciation of JJ.
To distract Margaret, Dr. Bluebutcher walked her out beyond the pale of lights to look at the Texas stars just coming out. I stepped out myself for a moment. There they were, all the little points of light, just winking and blinking. Bluebutcher was talking soft, and was delighted when Mrs. Brawley, Jr, the wife of BB's son, joined them. I thought they were going to take a stroll off over the far hills, maybe, with luck, walk right away into the moon.
Colonel Steadlow said almost nothing, just hanging around in the background with the Mayor of New Braunfels and the School Principal, John Charles and their wives. But everyone finally did get loosened up and later on there was some fine old tall tale telling, and even Peter Good arrived on cue (probably Sagalen's cue) with his fiddle and we had a little bit of a hoe down, Adam and JJ and the two Thomas boys, who'd brought their guitars, giving new interpretation to a fine old Texas hoot. And quite to my astonishment, some place late in the evening, Sagalen stepped up, borrowed Peter Good's fiddle and sawed off a couple of splendid tunes, her grey curls wagging, sweat pouring down her lined, flushed face.
When she handed the instrument back to Peter Good, BB grabbed her and whirled her around, sashaying and toe-tapping with her across the parlor floor and around the longhorn chair. You could see that, in spite of his plans and his greed, he was having a good time. I suppose he was even imagining himself here at Brawley as host, bringing his Eastern Elite down to mix with the Natives for weekends. I mean, it was fashionable nowadays to collect people, the semi-savages that were so entertaining, and that you could have on demand if you had the money to entrap them.
Baby Brother was a viper, Houston knew it and I knew it and Sagalen knew it, and it didn't matter if anyone else knew it or not. Of course, old Steadlow didn't need to think in those terms. What he'd have to say to BB's lawyer would take place off stage.
The local guests left about 2 a.m., and then it came to sleeping time. Now we'd opened up the south wing. Sagalen had had a couple of the local women in there for a couple of days to take the musty and mothball smell out of the place. Except for the stray sleepers during the wake, it had never been used in my time. I remembered walking around in it once with Buck when I first came to the ranch. It's where we had found Grandma Victoria's bed. The whole wing was all under dust sheets then and remained that way. In all it was maybe half a dozen rooms. It was built for house parties. Pop Brawley's family never was that large, just Buck and Houston, and they were mostly gone by the time Austin came along. But Pop's father had had it added on -- even though his only offspring, at the time, was Pop himself -- because in those days, around the turn of the century, if you had a party, if you went to the trouble of troubling people to come all that distance, way out here from San Antone, and way out here from Austin, and even New Braunfels, why you had to have a place for them to stay, and leisure for them to stay in -- sometimes four and five days at a time. The women would have quilting bees. They came prepared with their crafts and hoardings of gossip. The men might have poker games in the evening after looking over the ranch, discussing breeding and the old cattle drives, or they might ride out with torches looking for a cockfight. So we had a south wing and we also had a north wing, but nobody in living memory had officially opened them up until BB came to watch the Cowboys and drool again over what was not his. Oh, I guess JJ and Adam romped in there from time to time with their friends, but until BB announced his coming, the rooms were left shrouded.
But Sagalen had done right well at fixing them up and we were almost like a wedding party leading the eight "big city guests" up and down the steps and into the halls of the south wing.
Houston invited Lawyer Ludwig to his house. With many apologies to BB and Margaret that he hadn't thought to invite them sooner -- or the kids, for surely they would like to see more than one Texas house -- he cut Ludwig out of the herd. Of course they could come tomorrow, but Ludwig and his wife, Erika, who knew nothing, sadly, knew nothing whatsoever of Texas could come that night. He didn't have a wife, of course, so it wouldn't be so cozy, but he had a housekeeper, a real good housekeeper, and they could see what more than one ranch looked like and on and on and on he went, so that I could finally see BB nod to his lawyer to Go, Go! with the crazy man or they'd all be here the whole night through listening to the alternatives and the apologies.
Of course Steadlow was staying the night, too, at Houston's, and that was convenient and they could talk over breakfast and then everyone could meet and ride later in the day. But of course maybe some of them didn't ride and we'd have to figure that out. There was an old open carriage that maybe the ladies that didn't ride and . . . and . . . and . . . you could see Baby Brother getting punchy as all git out, and so he said goodnight and grabbed Margaret's hand and shut the door.
We shut everyone but Ludwig and Erika in the south wing. Then Houston was backing out, talking the whole way and leading his guests to the car where all their luggage had remained stowed all along in the back. Then with honking of horns and the lights still lighting up the yard like Texas Memorial Stadium, Houston went off into the night, and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart in the wake of the noise and in the deep silence that followed.
I heaved a great big sigh, and with Sagalen went back and had another piece of pie with JJ and Adam and the Thomas boys in the kitchen, and wondered what the hell Baby Brother would think up for tomorrow to make us regret that, as desiccated an octogenarian as he was, he was still, nonetheless, alive.
Well of course by morning BB was in fresh good form, smooth as unguent. You could see him taking in everything this time, his eyes appraising every object and thing right down to the stitches on the samplers on the breakfast room walls.
"It's so nice of you to find time to come visit us so often way out here, Baby Brother." I said in my most hospitable voice. "You must have really taken a shine to ranch life last time. But, of course, you grew up here."
"We lived in a lot of houses then, and under the stars."
"Yes, it is hard to get a picture of how you all lived in those days. Kind of like itinerant monks learning the religious life."
"I had no idea when I went East that I would stay there."
"And so successfully there." I turned to his daughter, who at fifty-five looked older than Sagalen: "You must be so proud of your papa," I said in my most ravishingly naive voice, letting her know I was just the most spavined awkward social animal alive who didn't know that in the East you don't talk about money because if no one was so gauche as to talk about it everyone could assume you were Old Money and had had it forever. "Why I think Pop Brawley gave Baby Brother only a measly hundred thousand, to do his first investing -- I think that's where the estate divided then, between the cash and the land -- to start his life in the East. And to think now he appears right near the top in the Fortune 500. I mean, right near the top."
JJ's luminous eyes ran over the tall spare frame of Baby Brother, widening and smiling. She was probably already dreaming agri-business in bio-diversity seeds. I hadn't gotten around to telling her to keep her fingers and her seeds whole by staying out of reach of the omnivorous BB who consumed whatever came near him, but didn't give out much. Nothing if he could help it.
"How close to the top are you, BB?" I encouraged.
"I don't think the listing has been compiled for this year."
"And last year you figured you only needed about 13,000 acres of Texas to catapult you right up to number three? Isn't that what we figured, Sagalen? Right up to number three. We are so pleased to be part of your family and looking forward eagerly to signing a mutual agreement pact. It's something like the North Atlantic Treaty, as the Colonel explains it to me. You come to my aid, I come to your aid. It sounds all so very agreeable. But you know I am not very smart in those areas so I'll let Houston do the dealing. Sagalen," I added -- she was out of the room at the moment -- "checks up on Houston, because she's the smartest of us all. In the meantime, of course, JJ is here and wants to show you her part of the farm. She is getting into saving the world with a whole new/old world of seeds, saving seeds. Have you heard of that, BB? Saving the world through seeds? 'Cause if we all get cut down to one seed or just two or three seeds -- why then if they fail, everything fails. Don't you agree?"
So BB barely had time to finish his breakfast before JJ took him by one hand and Adam took him by the other, and they made him walk down through the mud in his shiny Eastern shoes to the plot of rich black dirt from the river bottom that was waiting for its implantation of seeds. They walked him and walked him -- a vigorous workout even for his well pampered body.
By the time he finally got back to the house Houston had come over with the Colonel and BB's Lawyer Ludwig. While the wives and the son took the Lincoln and went touristing in New Branufels we plunged into the papers, the four men, Sagalen and me in Pop Brawley's study which was just off Adam's tiny bedroom, which had been Pop Brawley's bedroom, and where Adam went to rest now and could, because the door was slightly ajar, hear everything that was said. When BB realized this, not too much was said.
BB wanted another conference. He suggested Steadlow's office. Houston sugggested his own home, so we all drove over there, including (much to BB's consternation) JJ and Adam who had never actually been in Houston's home before. BB, Steadlow, Ludwig, Sagalen, Houston and I settled down around a big table in Houston's library -- his home was far fancier in every respect than Pop Brawley's. It had been built after the First World War and was rather grand. It had been built for the ranch manager, I believe, when the whole thing was still cattle. Then Houston himself moved in when Pop gave him the cattle, half the land and all the cattle. Amazing, I thought, Pop just opening his fingers and letting it all go. Houston's wife was dead, but he lived there in a kind of 1920's barbaric splendor with, I understood, first one woman and then another.
"You said -- "the tack they were going to take immediately became apparent, "-- that you only wanted to live on the Brawley Ranch until you died."
"Couldn't live here much longer."
"And we're perfectly agreeable to that."
"That's just fine 'cause that is just what I'm going to do."
"But to make it easy and agreeable for all of us. . ." Ludwig began.
"Why, yes," Houston cut in, "I do think it is easy and agreeable for all of us. I think that Gloriana knows and appreciates the ranch, and certainly Sagalen has been taking care of it for years and years, she has been as far as I have ever been able to tell, Pop's right hand man . . ." he stumbled and "humphed" and continued ". . . person for half a century already, so we needn't have any misgivings on that score -- about the ranch being run by competent hands, about the future of this fair piece of Texas."
"But I need some guarantees to be able to borrow against it as collateral without it being at an exorbitant rate."
"Why Uncle Brother, you wouldn't think that you would need to borrow anything against the ranch? Why would you want to do that? I mean I apologize for being a bit naive here, but I don't think you can really mean what it sounds like you're saying. Surely some of those nice tall skyscrapers in New York City are more attractive things to borrow against than the only inheritance Gloriana Brawley has to her name. I think you must be, I apologize for having to point it out, thinking of something quite different than we are thinking about out here in this broad and hilly land."
"It'll be perfectly safe."
"But of course I know that."
It went round and round and round in the politest terms until it was quite clear that BB had some scheme up his sleeve whereby he thought he could get me to sign away my "after death rights" on his dear Brother's land.
All I could think of to say was: "I hain't near dead yet."
Houston of course apologized for the next thirty minutes about my abruptness, BB having to understand that I wasn't Texas through and through like he was and his Dear Uncle was. But it was quite clear to him that I needed a place to live and Sagalen needed a place to live right up to the day we died and that day would be soon enough to borrow money against the land or do any other kind of man-ip-u-lation with it that really shouldn't be done while there was someone there to be alive and love it. Didn't he agree?
About that time the wives arrived, lunch was ready and we all went out into the south garden, partly ringed with a high wall within which heaters could be turned on so that we could enjoy eating, at an even temperature, in the crisp brightness of a windy cold winter Texas day. There were pots of roses that had been raised in the green house and set out and geraniums, so that the whole aspect of the place was made festive with the red flowers and rich green leaves against the golden brown of the dying hills.
After lunch when we were lounging back in our chairs sipping some brandy -- brandy that Houston assured us was ancient, brandy that maybe Napoleon himself had given Old Man Brawley when they met once briefly in New Orleans, and which we didn't drink except on very special occasions -- and indeed, certainly, we almost never drank brandy at lunch, anyway. While we were sipping Houston started to talk about Austin. His very own Little Baby Brother, who was killed just a few years before his Big Brother Buck was killed. "Isn't it strange?"
"Fate does deal one the strangest blows. He was such a nice kid, too. He wasn't amounting to much, but he sure was a nice kid. I think Pop was rather planning on him to stay at home because Buck and I had both been such a total loss to him in terms of his plans for his ranch. But then Buck died and Austin just before him. I don't think Pop could quite recover from that. The only one he had left to love was Gloriana here who loved Buck so much, Gloriana and Sagalen who both loved Pop Brawley until the day he died."
I thought Houston would just go on forever, just purring and talking and not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. Just talking and talking and talking, making ob-ser-va-tions. By the time we were finished with the brandy and ready for late tea in the afternoon, he had got to Brawley history. Which I was pleased to listen to him tell to Ludwig and Erika and BB's kids because I had heard very little of it myself.
"Brawley was a corruption of Braunley. Old Grandad Braunley, later known as OMB, was such a brawling old bastard that they, his cowpunchers, his partners, changed the name as a joke and he took it on as a joke and then liked it and to sort of confirm himself in it he had it carved on the gates of the ranch. He took it on, proud, and it stuck.
"He came out here as a kid in about '35, 1835, just before the Alamo. He was a real brawling kid, fought in the good fight for the Republic and gained himself a real reputation for being disputatious. He got this spread and a hellavua lot more with some other ex-soldiers, caught cattle -- maybe some of the abandoned Partilleas stock -- enough to fill a whole state the size of New York. They could have filled that little old state right up with lowin' longhorns. Sold them, in any case, a couple hundred tons of beef in his time, on the hoof, off the rails, on the docks. But he didn't really settle down until right into what some people call old age. I don't think he married until round about '95, and then he had Pop. I think he must have been seventy-six, yep, I believe he was seventy-six when Pop was born. The same year William Jennings Bryan gave his: 'You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold' speech at the Democratic Convention. OMB was there. Did you know that, BB? The old man wasn't too much into polotics, but he went to that one. Now, can you conceive of this crazy old brawling bachelor marrying and then having a kid, his first kid at seventy-six?
"Of course, by then he'd acquired a lot more family than just a wife. I think he had eight partners. That's where all them houses come from. You ride around here you find all these old houses filled with the oddest kinda junk. That one you see out there," he turned to point to a couple of little wooden peaks that stuck up over a hill, "that's got a full mahogany bar in it, original bar from the old Findsilver Saloon. Most the houses you see when you ride the land was Grandpa Brawley's cohorts' houses. God, you'd a thought it was a Benedictine Monastery, 'cause most of these guys was bachelors. I mean there was plenty of women coming and going off the property then, but these guys had got kind of used to brawling together and just never got around to marrying. But Grandpa did, or we wouldn't be here now." He guffawed long and loud.
"Here was this little bitty baby being raised on this bachelor ranch, and this nice girl. . . I'm assuming his ma, Grandma Victoria, was a nice girl. But she was a sick girl, too, had to go off to a sanatorium. So here was this little kid being raised by this hell-raising bunch of old men.
"Did you ever talk to Pop Brawley about his childhood? It was unusual. Even for the Hill Country I think he had a unique kind of childhood. Fun for a boy, with fishing and hunting and running the cattle, but not too civilized. I don't think you ever noticed Pop Brawley being too civilized. I imagine, if I may say so, that the most civilizing force he ever met was Sagalen."
Houston looked to the old woman and smiled. But she neither smiled nor raised her head, she was just sitting there listening, her eyes closed. But you could tell that she wasn't asleep, by no means was she asleep.
"I mean her sister Jospehine would have civilized him, too, maybe did civilize him a little bit, but when Baby Brother," he reached across to squeeze BB's arm with wince-inducing camaraderie, "came into the world he wasn't too easy on Grandma Victoria, frail little thing that she was -- like Sagalen, but Sagalen got to keep her strength because she never did have any kids. Anyway, within just a year or two of your getting here, Victoria's health failed. She just faded into the background, one hospital or another, until she died in 1916 -- same year Pop married Josephine. And as far as I know OMB never had a woman after that, probably didn't need one at that age. So throughout his life about the only civilizing influence on Pop came from Miz Sagalen. But, of course before all that, the Ole Man had bought a place at Harvard for Pop. That started the whole civilizing process, but still it was all boys, men and boys. Then off he went to the war.
"But here at Brawley it was always Sagalen teaching Pop and BB and Buck and me, but especially teaching Ole Man Brawley. 'Keep those boots off my kitchen floor or lick up the mud.' 'Wear your hat for the sun, not dinner.' 'Now you tell them folks to light and set!' You know, things Pop would never think of because he had been raised by this whole passel of rough men just living like a bunch of animals out here on the range, bedding down at night with the cattle, especially in the winter, like now, when you don't know if it's going to snow and freeze.
"So that's when the house got added to, just when Grandma Victoria was still alive, those few years, right about the turn of the century. There were big parties then. Great old times. I remember a few parties when I was a kid, too -- it was the twenties then -- in this house
"You remember, don't you Sagalen? The parties after the war. How could you not? How could you forget? You don't forget times like that."
So by the time he had talked and talked and talked and just about talked their heads off right to the airport in San Antonio -- they had to change their reservations at the last minute, because he had talked so much they didn't have time to fly back to Dallas in the private plane and catch their original flight. But they would go through Dallas, anyhow, he assured them. If that mattered. Sometimes it does matter, you know, and sometimes it doesn't. Did they mind? And he kept talking them right onto the plane. So by the time they left there hadn't been a single minute to sign any papers.
Houston took the whole sheaf of papers Ludwig was handing him as they were all stepping through the gate to go on the plane. Then he, Houston, made a last minute grab into Ludwig's briefcase. Ludwig gave a tug, but then he changed his mind and gave Houston the whole brief case with all the papers. Houston promised to read everything, just everything, and then the door, which the flight people had been holding open for this little gift-giving charade for about ten minutes, was closed and they were all gone on their way back to the East Coast.
Houston, Sagalen, JJ and I had all gone with them in two of Houston's stationwagons to the airport. While Adam had actually gone to school that day. Anyway we came home to Houston's place. We came into his place and he stoked up a big fire in the biggest fireplace in his house, in the huge old living room that was never used and was ice cold until the fire in the walk-in fireplace heated it up. He opened another bottle of that good old brandy, threw on a few more logs and we all sat down in chairs he had pulled close.
"Why, Houston," Sagalen observed, chuckling, "you kept running right on over him 'til there wasn't nothing left but a little color in the dirt."
We laughed and laughed. The brandy and the fire were warming us up. Then Houston opened old Ludwig's briefcase, and took out the papers, one sheaf after the other. Sometimes he read a title and sometimes he read a sentence, maybe even a paragraph, and after each reading he would hoot with laughter and throw the blue-backed papers into the fireplace. Whatever they said, we never knew because Houston threw all those papers into the fireplace and we all watched them burn like the Fourth of July. Then he threw in the briefcase which made an awful stink.
And we laughed! You'd think we were all drunk.
Then, a few weeks after Baby Brother's visit, Houston and I had another howling good time. We had a Giveaway. I just got tired having all that stuff around, all those things, especially in the dust-gathering south wing and the north wing -- just cluttering up everybody's life. So we invited all the people from around, and friends -- everyone we knew.
"We're going to take votes now and do this democratic. And civilized," Houston announced like an auctioneer. "As I point to it, if it's anything you want, you just raise your hand. Then you look around and see who else wants it. Then if you want it real bad or haven't wanted anything before keep your hand up. If you already got a lot, think about letting someone else have what they want. Got it? That's the only ground rule. There's too much stuff here to end up under one roof again."
Off went bric-a-brac and vases and pictures and books and paintings and little settles and a couple of couches and chairs and bureaus and linen and towels and gew-gaws and -- well we saved a few beds and chests of drawers, some chairs and a few shoehorns. For two days we had one hooting joyous big auction without a penny changing hands, people wandering in and out, all over the place choosing what they wanted. And when they had all gone home with all the junk that was no longer ours, we finished up the brandy because we had been dis-po-ssessed.
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