INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
INTERVIEW/MRS. MATTHEW MARSHALL HALL was the next tape I picked to run. And on this one, much to my surprise, Johnnie was acting as interviewer. I guess my head had been up my ass most of the time I was in No Palms, because I sure as hell was surprised by all these "recordi ngs of reality." Where had I been when reality was being recorded? I guess I had been in answering the mail. But I sure didn't know that Buck had had Johnnie act as Barbara Walters, Junior, ever.
Sagalen bowed out of this one, said she didn't have to see it again. "I've seen enough bullshit in my life, don't need to invite the bull to sit in my lap."
"Should I invite JJ to see it?" I didn't particularly want to sit alone with the blue/white, fuschia/green Eye.
"You do what you want."
"Give her a shout and tell her to come if she wants to."
"He's over at the Thomases.
"Just as well," she muttered closing the door.
So I'm already five minutes into the tape by the time JJ comes busting in.
She looks for sixty seconds, then says: "Who are these people?" in that way that young people have that makes the subject of their query sound like builders of the Berlin Wall: architectonically evil.
I didn't want to say: "That's Adam's father," so I didn't say anything. Anyway, the tape had started out with Mrs. MMH looking very dignified and pleased in a high-cost suit. A voice- over had told me that this was a copy of the tape shot the eve of the election that had catapulted her into fame and power and glory in No Palms, CA, in 1986, i.e., to membership on the Board of the Town Council, the Community Services District. And she was smiling her new found dignity as Board Member Hall, smiling and nodding, and some people were coming up to shake her hand, and then she said a few conventional words about "Thank you all!" and "Here we go!" and so forth.
Then there was a cut and the camera panned around the room, showing The Steak House's private dining room and a U shaped table -- Dingbat at its head with Sleaze Ass, and all the others around inside and outside the U, some standing, some sitting, all talking at the same time and raising glasses and toasting and laughing. It was a regular rogues' gallery of No Palms sleaze.
Then just after JJ came in, the tape cut off abruptly and came back on with a different quality. I know enough about tape to guess that this was refilmed from some other tape or maybe even super 8mm film. And it's Johnnie Beaudeauin and Dingbat. They're sitting in chairs outside. Maybe on her patio. I'm guessing, because it sure isn't his shop and whoever's running camera is staying most of the time on Dingbat, usually moving too late to Johnnie to catch the last of his questions and then hurrying back for Dingbat's answers.
Johnnie: "You've been in No Palms seven years."
MMH: "That's about right."
Johnnie: "Where'd you come from? How did you happen to come?"
MMH: She hesitated, drew in her breath and sighed. "Well, Mr. Beaudeauin," she said real flirtatious-like, "I can tell you the short story or the long. How much film do you have?"
JB: "Try the long. We can always find more film."
MMH: "Well you wouldn't know it to look at me, but I'm Chicana. Pure. Straight through, bone to bone. I was born down in Mexico. Eleven kids. Four brothers, seven sisters. If you can believe that. My daddy crossed the border as a wetback. You know, swimming in the night, crawling through the cactus. Have you ever been down on that border? Down near El Paso/Juárez? It's quite an eye opener even today. I mean it's poor, baby. You think we got poor in No Palms. Wait 'til you see the Mexican border where the patrol runs after people like my daddy. Well, it took him two tries, but he made it over. Snuck over to California. Got to go to work up in L.A.. Worked real hard. Laboring. Washing dishes, picking grapes, digging for the Highway Department, shoveling shit. Laboring. You know, hard labor. Finally -- I was one of the youngest -- he gets to bring my mom and me over. He brought the boys first, so they could work. Anyway, they could swim, shimmy over the sand and the rocks. Some of the girls was already married. We come, Mom and me, like on a real train. Opulent travelers with real luggage. And he meets us at Union Station. Can you believe it? The tall halls and the big designs on the floors and we go to eat right then. I mean, we leave the suitcases in a locker and we go right across the street to Olivera Street and we eat Mexican food. Papa and Mama laughing! Because we're celebrating by eating food not half as good as what Mama always made down in Guadalajara.
"But we're here. We're here! Of course Daddy's not nearly as well off as we fantasized down there in Mexico. How could he be? I mean five dollars coming through the mails down there was a fortune. Five dollars in L.A. in 1958 is already nothing. So pretty soon it becomes real evident that Mama needs to go to work, and of course there is no work except as a maid. And Daddy lives in this house with my brothers and all these men, and so we find ourselves, we got to go live with someone's cousin. Welcoming, mind you, but. . .
"Well, you know, so Mama goes to work as a maid and I go with her. We live in this great big house. He's Jewish, of course. And it isn't that he's so bad, but he has some real raunchy gringo friends. I can't tell you what they mostly did for a living, but on the side it was drugs. You can bet on that. I mean, I never really saw them with my own eyes, but I hadn't been a street child for nothing down there in Guadalajara.
"They're like always after Mama. Nothing big mind you. Nothing particularly mean. Just she's there and other women aren't. So it all falls on Mama. And I'm growing up.
"This is the long version, Johnnie." She interrupts herself to smile. "You sure you want it all?" The camera starts off in Johnnie's direction, then darts back to her as she says. "I can edit a real pretty picture for you if you want only the highlights."
"I'd like to hear the whole story."
By the time the camera gets to Johnnie, MMH is going on, so there's just a blur of a pan over and back. You can hear Johnnie's voice saying to the camera person: "Just stay on Mrs. Hall."
"Who is this woman?!" says JJ.
"Tell you later."
"Well," MMH laughs, pretty and sexy and flirtatious-like, "I'll let you fill in some of the parts. By the time I'm thirteen, I know alot about these guys. And love. About Love. I guess that's what people still call it. But what love has got to do with it, I never could tell. Love. Odd word, isn't it? Our boss loved my mother and loved me. He of course couldn't pay us more than about three dimes apiece. My papa loved my mother and we used to get together once every Sunday at the first of each month.
"Mama, somehow, even with those meetings managed not to get pregnant again. I think one of the guys at the big house must have clued her in about birth control. One did me, I know. I didn't consult Mama, but I assume she had private instruction, too. Neither one of us, of course, needed to tell Papa about love.
"So we're living this double life. I mean high on the hog in one end of town and low on the haunch in the other. It's enough to split your consciousness. I mean we were already split because we were Chicana, you know back there, half Indian, half Spanish. Half conqueror, half conquered.
"People don't think about that too much, even the Chicanos don't think about it too much, but there you are divided in two, half of you always at war conquering the other half. Half of you glad to be in America serving the Wasps and the Jews, and the other half of you hating the fact you can't live in your own homeland, and be who you are. But you aren't anything there either, because you're not Indian, you're not Spanish and if you're poor you aren't human.
"I mean who're you going to identify with? The Aztecs? Have you ever seen some of the real stuff? Stuff they dig up every once in a while from down in the muck of what once was the lake, the stuff the Spanish couldn't stand and spent all their might tearing down. Hacking it down. Pulling it down. Drawing it down with horsepower. Chopping up the natives and feeding them to their dogs. I mean we think about the Aztecs tearing out hearts. But the Spaniards. Do you really know what they did?
"On the other hand, there are the Spanish to identify with. Landing on this primitive shore. Not having a clue where they were, walking into a continent, not even a path, going up the river, not a clue to what was there, living in the weather and the heat and with the sizzling flies. Walking and plotting and wanting. Can you imagine the amount of wanting that generated that walk in the first place? The amount of wanting that was needed to sustain them for years and years and years walking around in the jungle, seeing their buddies drop dead.
"So, you choose, Johnnie Beaudeauin. You choose.
"What are you? French? Half of you is probably French and the other half -- what?" But she didn't wait for him to answer.
"If they chopped you in half which part would you choose? If you're born half and half and you have nothing at all, which part do you choose?
"What do you think love is? Who's going to teach you love? So I had a lot of love before I was thirteen. Lots of sprouts and older gentlemen. Mama not knowing, deliberately not knowing. And I'm just as pretty as a young white-skinned Chicana girl can be. When I bleach my hair, no one even knows I come from south of the border.
"But what do you do next? For fourteen, fifteen, sixteen? I couldn't see any more future ahead of me than marrying one of those guys who came to the house and fucked with the maid and her daughter. That was my goal in life. Some goal, huh?
"But not too bad when you consider what the goal would have been if I'd still been down in Mexico City. I'd have already accomplished the only possible goal I could have had by then if I had been 'home.' Probably two or three babies and a laboring husband can't make hardly enough even to dream of running for the border, living in one of those grey, concrete pigsties without running water, not so much as a blade of grass around, not a tree, except way at the edge of a field, a mile away.
"Oh I went back there once, but I will never go again."
"Angel or villian?" asks JJ, she's kind of sitting forward in her chair now, rapt with attention.
I just shake my head.
"Who did you marry?" asks Johnnie's voice.
"Which time and when?" she laughs. It's her whiskey-tenor voice, that voice that almost all women of the desert have stowed somewhere. The voice of women who have made a career of dealing with men too rough for them, who want you to know they're tougher than anyone of either sex you're ever likely to meet, the voice that says: "I know it all. And if you think there's more to know, baby, I can assure you I came across that when I was twelve and discarded it the same year."
"First there was Matthew."
"Matthew and Marshall and Hall?" Johnnie asks. The camera is trying to run between the two of them again, back and forth whiz whiz. Whoever's doing the camera work knows nothing at all.
"Yeah, they're all husbands: one, two, three. Makes a nice name, don't you think? Distinguished sounding. The essence of WASP -- which in the desert is good. Matthew was just a kid. In fact I'm sure his dad was a fucker of my mother, and he didn't want his precious son having anything permanent to do with me, any more than he wanted anything permanent to do with my mother. But kids can use that, you know, twist the knife a little. 'Hey, Dad,' I heard him say, 'don't you moralize at me.'
"Anyway, we got lucky and he made a small fortune on one of those throw-away Hollywood newspapers, you know, the ones that seem very inside to the newcomers, the would- bes and the wanta-bes. I mean he did real well, and I helped him.
"I nearly ran my ass off being a secretary and a driver and a telephone operator and a mock-up specialist. You know, everything rolled into one that he didn't want to be or find out how to do. All grist for the mill, of course.
"But as soon as we had enough for a real layout and a big house in Beverly Hills, we began scratching each other's eyes out. So I got the house and he got the paper. But he soon ran it into the ground, and I got another husband. By that time Matthew's rag was ready to crash right into the grave. We bought him out. Mr. Marshall and I. That's why it is called the Marshall Plan and not the Matthew Plan!" And she laughed and laughed, like she had made one of the biggest jokes since Saturday Night Live.
"And, by this time my dad is being one of the biggest pains-in-the-ass ever. He's into alcohol and masochism/sadism, real s and m. Dragging my mother around by the hair, in and out of jail. Threatening me. Threatening me! And I'm paying him off, of course, out of filial piety. The poor lead such messy lives.
"He won't move into Beverly Hills, into the big house or the gardener's house. He won't be seen, he yells, 'in the domain bought by his Whore Daughter!' Well, that's me, Johnnie Beaudeauin, that's me. You want to know the inside scoop of the desert rats, you've come to the right nest. We got rats in the desert. Lots of them. Rats. Rats. Rats."
Somehow her face is losing its early glamour as if her molecules or her cells are breaking down right there for the camera. It's an odd phenomenon. As if she's not only telling her story but living it on the molecular level, living it right out there for the camera to pick up frame by frame.
"She looks like a rat herself," says JJ.
"You got it," I say, but I don't like to talk when the TV is running. I want to pay attention to the reality I missed the first time around. I mean, I had seen Dingbat half a dozen times in action in the Board meetings. I had heard a hundred stories of her through Havana, her and her corruption and her heart of a cholla cactus, but I never thought to look behind the scenes. Somehow I guess I thought there was nothing behind the scenes. But here it was. And this, whatever it was, had never been filmed for The Desert Eye. This was something else. Something personal for Johnnie? Some kind of documentary? Why had he thought to film Dingbat at all?
"Mr. Marshall, that great altruist -- pretty soon he ups and divorces me, and skips off with the whole pie. Have you ever read California divorce law, community property law closely? Well, it doesn't favor the woman. He takes off, leaves me flat. Takes everything I own. Suddenly I have less than my mother had when she got to this country. Where am I going to turn? My father's in an institution by now, for alcoholism. My mother is in the slums. I sell my clothes -- the bastard didn't even leave me a car -- so I sell my clothes and I buy this old car. And that's how I get to the desert. I drive out here. No Palms really appeals by the time I've driven a couple of hours having no idea where I'm going. Where am I going? So I stop. I stop in the real estate office and ask Mr. Hall about rentals. And I find out real quick he's a bachelor and just as quick that he don't know his ass from a hole in the ground."
"So you marry him." It's Johnnie's voice -- could have sworn it was Buck's.
"Having finally learned which end is up."
"That's seven years ago?"
"That's seven years ago and a long way from hell." And she laughs, real handsome and expansive like. Like she's really found herself now. I guess she has. "From there on in it's the American success story. I'm mighty proud what I've done for this community. We got lots of amenities we didn't have when I first got here. I've helped to build this community. And I'm proud of it." She licks her lips and kind of moues at the camera.
The image stops there. In another moment, Johnnie, sitting someplace else, alone, comes on. He says:
"That's interview number six for a proposed documentary for Faces of the Desert for the Palm Springs Public Library. June 6, 1986.
The screen goes black again and in a few minutes Buck comes on, sitting in the big red Desert Eye chair in the studio, saying: "The foregoing was some early, super 8 footage filmed under the auspices of The Palm Springs Public Library and Copper Mountain College. What follows is footage from a meeting of the No Palms Community Service District Board Meeting of July 17, 1989. Mrs. Hall, Jake Hall, Giorno, and Hawkins. Appletoncroft being absent."
So the camera eye is roaming around the community hall where the Board Meetings take place. Everyone is milling around, tempers are running high. You can tell because everyone is gesticulating and shouting and laughing. Besides, I remember. I was there. In fact part of what follows was filmed by me. So first were these crowd shots. Round and round, bits of conversation: ". . . the horse reared back . . ." ". . . trash on the lawns . . ." ". . . my son said . . ." ". . . yanking up signs . . ." ". . . all the windows, yeah, every one . . ."
Then old Sleaze Ass Jake was slamming the gavel. Slamming it, and screaming and spitting. Calling the meeting to order. Threatening there would be no meeting if people didn't Sit down! and Be quiet! Then he was laying out the rules. Rules that had never heard of Robert's Rules of Order. Parlimentary -- who? Jake had his rules and he delivered them at top volume, the cords in his neck stretched and quivering. The agenda was going to be short and sweet, and no one was going to speak longer than three minutes. "Got it ?! Three minutes!" Then he began expounding for about ten minutes on how the water situation was what it was and it was in good hands to be solved, and though there was a lot of interest in the subject (everyone had in fact come to this specific meeting because it was supposed to be about the water bond issue) we were not! going to deal with it specifically tonight. "The only thing we're going to say specifically about water tonight is a few phone numbers that you can call. You can figure out for yourself on this list," he waves a six page legal size document, "which group applies to you and you can call these phone numbers over the next ten days and they'll tell you if you might have some luck in having your assessment altered."
A hubbub starts. People shouting.
"But That Is Not What This Meeting Is About Tonight!" Spitting and screeching and pounding the gavel. I mean it was hard to believe this was a democratic meeting in a democratic country conducted by civilized people.
Then someone got up and asked Mrs. Hall just how much property she did own and did she pay assessment individually on each piece to the same tune that everybody else did.
And Sleaze Ass is trying to pound the question right out of the sound waves with his gavel. But then Dingbat herself opens her mouth and starts to answer.
Buck trains the camera on her, she's wearing a white sweater that kind of flares until he readjusts the lens.
"I pay my taxes like anyone else!" she screams to be heard over the fray. "My assessment is set and settled in the same way yours is. "
"Except the town line seems a bit shakey out there by Dingbat Holler!" A livid old man screeches, coming up almost face to face, leaning over the table at her.
Immediately, two or three guys, Sleaze Ass's relatives, put hands on him and are dragging him back.
Suddenly the camera was pushed and the shots went wild, waving all across the ceiling, and down the walls, back across the table, coming to rest on Dingbat just as she's lifting the water pitcher. Water and ice-cubes spill, sloshing over everyone in front of the table. She's about to hit the livid old man on the side of the head. Then, crash! She drops it.
Again, someone shoved the camera, the picture went wild, then black.
"Sure is a knock-down-drag-out you got going there," says JJ, and again: "Who are these people?"
There's another space of black tape, then the next thing that comes on the screen is an intense closeup of Mrs. Hall wearing one of her fancy scarves, bug-eyed, veins popping: "Now you listen to me Mr. Buck Brawley, and you listen to me carefully. Real carefully. We don't need your interfering in running No Palms now, or in the foreseeable future. We don't need The Desert Truth, and you can turn that bloody Desert Eye off me, too. You keep interfering with the duly laid out processes and political bodies of this town and you're going to find you don't have a newspaper or a TV camera."
"That's quite a threat," Buck's voice from off screen is soft as his interviewing voice always was, "to be filming for the television viewers of No Palms."
"You're a cocky bastard, Buck Brawley. But there have been cocky bastards in the desert before now. We just have to keep on cleaning house. It's that simple. We just keep on cleaning house."
"So, do you want to take this opportunity to mention the reason for concealing this . . ."
The corner of a paper bound, half inch thick, offical looking report came into the image, thrust close to Dingbat's face.
". . .$300,000 report from the public that says No Palms has all the water it could ever hope to want right straight down. . . "
As Dignbat reached for the report, it was withdrawn.
". . .right down under your feet. . ."
". . . while ramming through a $32,000,000 bond issue for a pipeline that is about as muched need here as a conduit to siphon in sand from the Sahara?" His Texas voice remained, all the time, soft and purring, like he was talking about the price of ice-cream sodas. "Do you want to take this opportunity to explain that?"
"You just drop out and manipulate any facts you please, don't you?"
"It seems to me it would have been very important to bring this report to the taxpayers' attention before voting on a bond issue to the tune of thirty-two. . ."
"You think if you talk fast enough, do enough editorializing, you can leap over decades of No Palms Valley planning. Considered. In-Depth. Studied. Planning!"
"You yourself ordered this report. You yourself signed acknowledgement of receiving this report. And not one peep. . ."
"You fancy yourself a water commissioner?"
"I'll damned well be talking to the new water commissioner," still soft and sweet as chocolate syrup, "and I'd like to talk to old Appletoncroft as well."
"Do so!" Dingbat said in one hard-as-nails phrase as abrupt as a karate chop, then rose and disappeared from camera range. I noticed she had been sitting in the green chair that appeared the night Appletoncroft was shot.
Off camera you could hear her voice, "Let's get out of here!" and Sleaze Ass's voice, "I told you not to. . ." disappearing -- walking out the open shed door, no doubt. Then Buck came in front of the camera, grinning. "To be continued . . ." he laughed and reached forward and turned off the camera so it pinged to black right across his outstretched arm and face. There was no date on this last segment, but it had to have been around the beginning of 1990, maybe February, just before he did the White Paper. It had been maybe two or three weeks between the time someone gave him the $300,000 report and the broadcast of the White Paper. This had to have been done before that was broadcast. Buck'd been crazy to challenge her like that with the camera running. Buck'd been crazy to challenge her at all. Was he hoping she'd say, on camera, that she'd shot Hez?
"Whew!" said JJ.
I left the VCR running but no further images came on. I remembered when he said he'd got Dingbat to agree to an interview. But I also remembered it had never come off.
"Who are these people?" JJ said again, like she thought they might be escapees from a zoological looney bin.
"It's my home town, honey, where I used to live," I said with my best Texas twang.
"I surely do hope it ain't near Brawley," she said in her best Texas drawl.
I stopped the tape when it reached the end and rewound it. My nerves were jangling, my hands were shaking.
"What'd you think of the lady?" I said. I didn't want her to see how upset I was.
"She must be a real Jekell/Hyde."
"Were you moved by her story?"
"You gotta be. Misfortune is always with us. It depends on where you goina let that misfortune lead you."
"What's your story, Juniper?"
"Mine? You want to film me? Miz Brawley, what are you doing? Making a little old documentary on screamin' meamie wimin?"
Just then the piano started up downstairs, kids shouting and hooting, then a steel guitar and a mandolin.
"I guess I gotta go sing, Gloria. Are you going to come singing?" With a knee-bending, trucking step she danced out the door, glad, I think, for the excuse to get away from me.
"I'll be right down."
I took the rewound tape out of the machine, and put it in my basket and covered it up with the checked tablecloth. The red and white, checked gingham table cloth makes me think of the bars I'd been in with Buck, around San Antonio, around Austin. We used to go beer drinking and laughing. He liked the Mexican restaurants, the Mexican bars, and they used a lot of red and white gingham, sometimes cloth, sometimes plastic. I remember him telling me not only once, but several times, he wanted to do something big. "I want to do something big, something that means something!" He'd say.
I shove the tapes under my bed where I keep them. What had he stumbled on? How big was it? Would I ever know? Was it the report itself? Or what? I hear the music throbbing up from downstairs and I discover my tension is going. Something's going on in my brain, something positive. What is it, I wonder, having this salutary effect on my usually fear-filled system. Am I beginning to piece things together?
I go downstairs to join the kids around the piano. I stand out of the way of the guitars, and behind the amplifiers so my ears don't split. I open the French doors and walk on to the porch, wishing I was twenty again. So seldom do I ever wish I was twenty again. But the kids improvising for the starlight of Texas make my hands clap.
Later I find myself thinking about what JJ said about old Dingbat. She probably had had a life of misfortune, and it turned her around and aimed her in the direction of possession and oppression. I wondered if she was involved in the killing of Buck. Somehow I didn't think so. Killing seems such a male thing to do. Oh I know they're always trying to convince us that women are as wicked as men. But I think we are a different species. We don't often kill our own.
I longed to have Havana come visit the ranch. Could I persuade her? Was it time I persuaded a bunch of my friends, old Los Angeles friends, maybe some of my spiritual buddies, Sarah? Arenas? to come live on the land, start a utopia? You can gather quite a few people on 13,000 acres. How much of a garden did I own? I guess I had to talk to Sagalen. Take an inventory. Look at the inventory that had been taken. Help JJ plant her seeds. Take an interest. Do some physical labor.
Peter Good had told me there were Indian ruins on the property, ruins a thousand years old. Maybe we would all get into archeology. Or paleontology. There were dinosaur tracks the UT people had long ago been out to look at. They had survived, the dinosaurs themselves, 170,000,000 years, and still flew around as the birds.
JJ came to stand beside me, under the moon, looking up. Inspite of the music from the house, she was subdued, melancholy.
I said: "One reason I got into the Eastern stuff: sadhus, Hindus, Buddhus, I'd heard they thought human actions were sacred."
"Looked around," JJ's voice was flat, jaded.
"Do you think they mean something else?"
"You're the lady with the ideas."
"Have you been to India?"
"I went when I was fourteen."
"I really was. Got a passport with a different age. I wandered around. Saw a few things."
She hesitated long enough to make me think she was going to stop there. "Where?" I prompted.
"Bombay, the South." She turned to lean on the railing and stared into my face. "Man, do they live different. But living in a ghetto there is paradise -- Remember Paradise on Mt. Rainier? -- well that's what it's like compared to your everyday, average ghetto, say in L. A., say, 5th Avenue in downtown City of the Angeles. At least for me. I was safe, I was warm -- sun shines every day. I wasn't a criminal 'cause I was poor. I was too late to be a hippy, but I learned a few things. Self-sufficiency." She looked at me with her huge luminous eyes. "You learn that there, Miz Brawley?"
"You about the most self-sufficient lady I know." She nudged my knee with her knee, and smiled, then forced a little laugh. "Except Miz Sagalen." Her laughter turned genuine. "Quite a hotbed of feminists we got here, huh?"
"What's your story, JJ? You'll tell me sometime, why not now?"
"Well, I don't have much of a story. I'm still too young." She batted her eyes. It was like a challenge, making me wonder again how old she was. "But I've lived a few places, I've had my opportunity to wonder what it is all about. God. . ." she moved her hand like a wand through the air, "U-ni-ver-sal energy," she intoned.
We both giggled.
"If you want to settle down on this place," JJ advised, "you maybe better learn how to run it."
It was right then that I discovered, young and "looney" as she was, she could also be my friend. She had more to teach me than I had to teach her.
"You may be right, JJ. You want to help me?"
"Why not? I can do that and get my education, too?" She climbed onto the porch railing, stood up, balancing a moment, and laughing. "Why not?" she whooped, and jumped into the moonlit yard, clearing Sagalen's flower bed. Motioning to me she turned and danced toward the moon. I walked beside her down to and across the gleaming field. She said:
"When I was little I had the fantasy unhappy kids have -- I mean, I've been told most kids have it -- that my father wasn't my real father. He was the Yugoslavian-Jew. I wanted to be a foundling. I wanted to be, you know, the illegitimate daughter of a prince, or a movie star or somebody! But even though he wasn't my real father, he was handsome. Very handsome. Kind of a nut. Into having fun. So the rest of the time I fantasized: My mother's not my real mother, because she makes me do housework. She interfered with my wanting to read myself to death. I wanted to lie forever in my bed and read.
"When I simply couldn't turn another page, I'd lie in my warm bed and make up stories, movie-type stories where I was the hero -- or the heroine. Mostly the hero. I didn't really make the distinction in those days between male and female. I just knew that in books and movies adventures happened mostly to men and since they were going to happen to me, ergo, I was neither boy nor girl.
"I can remember walking in the U district with Kessy. We saw a boy we knew and I said, 'If I were a girl . . . I would fall for him,' -- or -- or whatever. But it's the first part of the sentence. 'If I were a girl . . .' It came out so quick, so natural. I don't know what I thought I was.
"Later on I began to wonder if I was even human, especially after I left India. I often don't know what's what, whether I'm coming or going -- I sort of hover over the earth and look down at humans and judge. Judge harshly.
"But I'm better lately. I guess lately I even think I'm a girl. Isn't it funny? Let's go," she grasped my hand excitedly, "just you and me, to visit a friend in Austin tomorrow."
The next day we went to visit Arnica James who at that moment was giving a slide talk about Tibet in a shabby downtown hall.
JJ, as it turned out, hardly knew her. She and Adam had just met her. JJ, always full of adventure, had persuaded Adam to go quite frequently, to skip school -- I learned -- and go over to Austin and "have some fun." They had, just the week before, JJ said, walked into a Lama session in a Buddhist church.
"I walked right up to Arnica," JJ eyes were wide and amazed, "thinking I knew her. After checking a half a dozen names and as many places, I found I didn't know her at all, but the feeling of recognition persisted and persisted."
I, too, looked at Arnica and felt I had known her, not only knew her but felt that she had played some significant role in my life. I sat beside her at this Tibetan slide-lecture studying her, studying her profile. She held her head high, her chin tilted up on a long, slender neck, her nose slightly hawked, her skin pale beneath her greying hair -- a profile as fragile, as lovely, as solemn, and as familiar as a priestess. Where had I known her before?
After the show ended and a brief ceremony, JJ and I traced out as many lineages with Arnica as possible, times, places, people, and found a few connecting webs. India. China. But no moment in time where we could definitely remember intersecting before.
Later I studied her in the garden room of her huge, enchanting, pink mansion in Balcones Park. Like a divine cockatoo she sat among the tropical plants inside and outside the solarium which she used as a studio and painted pictures as bright as tropical birds, as mysterious as emerging butterflies. She was gentle, soft spoken, and had been very ill. "Yes, I paint now," she said, "but stiffly." At one time she had painted under her mother's (hated) direction with wildness and verve. Her mother had been a painter with at least a little reputation, she assured us, and brought our attention to huge canvases flanking the central hall, brilliantly colored, jagged, geometric, aggressive.
Arnica said she came from poverty and couldn't get used to the big house, which she was also running in a kind of poverty -- I didn't know the qualities or the sources of these poverties. JJ smiled when I asked.
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