INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
What had Havana said about the pipeline suit? -- I woke up thinking about it the next morning.
"The pipeline got started up," Havana had said. "There's got to be a way to stop it."
"A legal way?" I had asked.
"That's what the justice system is all about. We're trying a class action suit. Everybody, all the property owners up and down the valley. We're going to sue the Water Board and the Town Board and the construction company."
"But Havana, that'll cost millions."
She shrugged. "We've also got the petitions out for a recall election against Dingbat and Jake and Giorno."
Havana was like that, she always took the largest overview, always spoke as a human being, put as many things into motion as she could. She was homo politic us -- never at a loss.
"I think the Grand Jury may even look into our complaint."
If she had begun something, she could end it. If the devil had begun something, he could somehow be forced to end it. Right would triumph. She would see that it did.
"You'll never win."
She shrugged again. I wanted to ask her who "we" was. Was it she and Monica and Sindy, maybe Sarah, Arenas, and Johnnie? And another half dozen old geezers.
"Come to the ranch."
"I will, kid, when I'm done."
It was still mid-morning when I put the tape labeled AFTER INJUNCTION into the machine. I sat down with a tray of coffee and some poppyseed cake that Sagalen had got up early to make for me. She made it especially for me, I knew, because it was my favorite -- rich with sour cream and butter, dripping with lemon sauce. I sat down and pushed the remote button. Then leaned down and picked up an old envelope that had fallen out of the tape jacket, which I placed on the tape jacket on top of the machine and leaned back to watch the beginning snow. The interference patterns were richer than usual as I watched, munching on my cake filled with the crunch of sweet seeds. The tape was dated: March 28, 1990.
Buck's face had just appeared on the screen as the phone rang. I touched the off button, to wait, to listen, to see if it were for me. I had to mute the television which came on to a "soap" as soon as the tape was stopped. I waited. I finished the cake. Ordinarily I'm not that curious about the phone. Sagalen knows far more people in Texas than I ever will, but for some reason I pushed myself up out of my chair and walked across the room to the phone on my desk. I was in the little sitting room beside my bedroom where I do the tape and TV watching, and my stitching and my sitting, meditating, thinking, brooding, sorrowing. It's where I often sit and think about not being as well. Just not being.
On the phone Havana's voice was saying: ". . . apparently he threw one grenade in and then jumped in with another. It blew them up, killed everyone but Sheriff Green, but he's pretty bad off and may check out, too."
"And Johnnie?" It was Sagalen's voice, soft and rather tentative, like I had not quite ever heard it before.
"It blew him to smithereens." Havana's voice was choking, but she was driving it on, driving it on like she drove her Toyota, straight out across the desert. "You might find little bits of him on a cactus some place, but not so's you'd know it was him. Green said, "Johnnie came in and flopped on his belly right in the middle of the room, just one second before the first explosion."
"Johnnie," Sagalen's voice said again softly. It was like an epitaph.
"I'm sorry to always be the bringer of bad news," Havana apologized. "Do you want me to tell Gloria?"
The difficulty I was finding in breathing was almost taking me over the brink, but I said, into the phone: "I'm on the line."
As usual Havana wasn't going to wait for any emotion, she stepped on the accelerator. It seemed the world was going past at a hundred miles an hour by now. She said efficiently: "Johnnie Beaudeauin is dead. And everybody else."
Suddenly as if it were an image on a screen I saw Johnnie and me when he had put his arm around my shoulder -- was it just yesterday? The day before? He had put his arm around my shoulder and then hugged me close -- in that little hallway near the patio that opened into the empty desert. My eyes stayed on that image and I asked: "Who is 'everybody else?'"
"Six, plus Dingbat herself. I think they were having a meeting to see if they could circumvent a Grand Jury investigation into the Board's negligence vis a vis the bond issue."
"Johnnie Beaudeauin," I said, "is a pacifist." I heard a slight click on the line and knew that Sagalen had cradled her phone down there in the kitchen. It was like a signal that I could release my tears, my hurt, my sorrow. "Havana," I began to sob, "Havana."
"I think he did what he had to do, kid."
The sobs came up harsh, racking me, making my body quake. I could feel the poppyseed cake wanting to come back up.
"The law's not too useful to you and me -- we leftovers out here in the desert," there was utter exhaustion in her voice, as if she, too, were coming to a standstill.
I made the sobs back off, I could feel my breath coming in deep gasps like Buck's used to do when he was deliberately calming himself. "I just can't believe Johnnie would do a thing like that."
"I don't know what else to say, kid. I'll send you the Yucca Valley paper."
"But the Grand Jury . . .?"
"Honey, I don't think the complaint would have ever gotten through the Sextet's controls."
"This is America."
"Right. 1993. Five hundred and one years after that jerk came and robbed the first Americans."
"Buck loved America."
There was a silence. No sound. No crying, no nothing. Then just a quiet: "I do too." And the line went dead.
"Havana!" I thought my body was going to break in half from the pain. "Havana!" But I didn't dare call her back. I didn't dare go put my head on Sagalen's shoulder. I put the phone in its cradle. I picked up the remote. It couldn't be any more painful to look at Buck's face. All that pain was old pain, maybe it could wash away the new. Johnnie. Johnnie. I felt his heart beating against mine. I had known then. Something. Something. But not this, never this. I had hardly begun to know him.
I pushed the tape button, and for a long time I just looked at Buck's face. He was speaking, but intermittently. Then slowly, very slowly it dawned on me that he was sitting in the chair I was sitting in at this very moment watching him. The camera must have been on the TV set. It was this room. I looked around the room. And as I did so, the door opened. Sagalen stood there very quietly, holding a fresh pot of coffee. I didn't bother to acknowledge her or anything. My eyes just continued on their 360 degree tour until they came back to the screen, to Buck's face. I pressed the little arrow that means sound up, and up came the sound slowly and I began to hear those vibrant bass notes out of his big barrel of a chest. He was saying: ". . . I didn't want to hurt you, Glory, all my love was for you, but -- we were too old for a kid. And I did just want to be near my son, to help him. I didn't really have any idea of the hell hole I had left him in -- what had gone wrong with the world since I was there in '41."
That's all he said.
Then there was a long silence, as he just continued to look, soberly -- with love -- I didn't have to question what love was at that moment -- out from the screen. Sagalen moved quietly into the room with the coffee, poured me a cup, and set the pot down. The screen turned to snow.
"Who is he talking about, Sagalen," I asked as that calm little old lady was moving toward the door. There were no tears on her cheeks, her hands were steady. She continued on toward her exit, I could hear when she opened the door, I could hear the faint swish, even though I wasn't turned far enough to see her any more. "Who is he talking about?"
The door clicked shut. "Sagalen!" I screamed. But it was a scream in my heart. I hadn't made a sound. And maybe because I hadn't made a sound, I heard a slight thud, a slight giving, a squeaking of the old pine floor, just outside the closed door. I jumped up and jerked open the door. Sagalen was sitting there, dumbly staring into space, tilted to one side, holding her head up from the floor with one thin arm supporting the whole weight of her torso, her heart... I could almost visibly see it through her skinny chest, she was as skinny as Sarah had been, her heart -- I could see was fragmented.
"Johnnie?" I asked.
It's funny how big and strong I had grown, I had no trouble picking up that tiny little old lady -- picked her up like I would a kid, in my arms -- bringing her back into my room, walking right across the sitting room into my bedroom. I laid her down on the bed. Tears were dribbling out of her old eyes, her old sunken eyes that never -- maybe never had cried before. I sat in the chair beside her holding her hand, hardly bigger than a kitten's paw, and almost as soft though she had worked day and night for almost a century.
After a long long silence I said: "Johnnie Beaudeauin was Buck's son?"
"There's a letter," Sagalen said in an almost normal voice. She pointed to the jacket cover of the tape where I had put the old envelope I had picked up from the floor without looking at it. I got it from the top of the jacket and brought it back with me to sit beside Sagalen in the chair. It was a letter that had been sent from San Francisco, California, in 1988, November -- I could tell the month from the postmark but not the day -- 1988. I remembered Austin had died in September, 1988.
I opened the letter; it was handwritten, and it said:
"Dear Mr. Buck Brawley:
I'm just sending this to Brawley, Texas because I remember you said that was the name of your town.
I just wanted you to know that you had a son. His name is John Beaudeauin III. He's lived in Los Angeles most of his life.
But I think after Viet Nam he went home to Twentynine Palms.
I never told him about you because I didn't want him claiming relationship to you for your big money. I didn't ever want him thinking he had a rich daddy some place.
I had all the pleasure of his upbringing. I never wanted him to cause you any pain.
I have cancer and it looks likely that I am going to die in a day or two, so I wanted you to know."
It was signed: "Eva Beaudeauin" and dated "November 13, 1988."
I looked at the envelope again, there was no return address on it. Just a San Francisco postmark.
I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. I remembered one of the few times I had ever taken marijuana -- actually eaten it as a brownie. It was in San Francisco when I was a kid and married. When it started to take effect I was watching my husband, and his face kept dissolving into that of all the men I knew, my father, my brother, uncles, boyfriends. It was the same effect now, Johnnie's face dissolved into Buck's and Buck's into Pop's, and Houston's was in there, too, and then Johnnie again. I couldn't hold a single image. They were all dead. As if a vacuum cleaner had sucked me dry. Gone. Clean. What was the phrase Johnnie had used? "To stay clean you have to know who's tracking in the dirt." But there was no more dirt. There was nothing at all. Johnnie's face had disappeared like sheet lightning from the world. He had lit up my world for one moment, and was gone. Buck was gone. Pop. I held Sagalen's little kitten paw in my hand. Petting it.
Buck had gone up to the desert twice in '88, November and December. In December he had got the idea to move to -- first it was going to be Twentynine Palms. We moved in January,
"Have you watched this tape?" I asked Sagalen.
"And you read the letter."
She nodded again. "About a week before Buck was killed. Pop got the tapes out of the bank box. But he knew all along about Johnnie. Ever since that letter arrived. He started sending money for Christmas '88. He wanted to be sure Johnnie was taken care of so Buck didn't have to feel bad."
"But Johnnie wasn't poor."
"Pop didn't know that. He thought Buck might come home if he saw his son well off, might even bring him home. But Buck wanted to stay in the desert, I guess on that first trip he found Johnnie mixed up in. . ."
"Did Johnnie know he was Buck's son?"
Tears seeped from her old eyes, her head turned from side to side against the little blue flowers on the counterpane.
A pain as sharp as an icicle stabbed into my heart. Johnnie was dead. Buck had loved him as a son, and he was dead, his daddy was dead and he was dead. O the pity of it, I thought. The pity.
"I kept sending him money after Pop died because I didn't doubt for a minute that he needed it -- to fight. . ."
"Oh Sagalen," I pressed her hand. If there was a heart as pure as Buck's or Johnnie's it beat under the gingham covering that skinny old breast.
"You don't think Johnnie knew?"
"I don't think Buck ever told him."
"Buck never told me."
"I don't think he ever told Johnnie."
"Pop Brawley never told him?"
"He'd never jump over Buck's word."
"Even to save his life?"
"Buck wasn't a kid, you've got to let a man do what he wants to do." She paused -- maybe thinking of Pop's frantic phone calls to Buck, that Buck had changed our number to not have to answer. "Except, of course, if you can persuade him. . ." her voice faltered and died, then added, ". . .direct."
Houston came to supper again that night, tall and spiffed up and young looking. He came with a whole briefcase full of papers, and a prime rib roast. I don't know what Sagalen had told him, but he didn't mention Austin and he didn't mention anything personal to me about No Palms, nothing about Johnnie. Nothing about Buck. We all just sort of sat in the kitchen, smelling the beef cooking. Houston did mention that Baby Brother was deep into making a challenge against Pop's will. It seems he was going to get me evicted from Pop Brawley's ranch. "He says you were never married to Buck and you ain't blood."
"He's got to be kidding," I said to Houston.
"He ain't kidding, but he'll still lose."
Adam walked in the door, throwing his school books aside. "I've been studying with the Thomases. Good trip?" He join us at the supper table.
"Adam!" I shouted as if he were Jesus resurrected. It simply hadn't dawned on me until that moment, seeing him. My shock had been so profound over Johnnie, over Buck's announcement. "Adam," the second time it was a cry, and I twisted to face Sagalen. She shook her head not more than a quarter of an inch. She hadn't told him either.
"Yes, of course, of course," I stumbled. "The trip. . ." I closed my eyes for a moment. Then it was as if someone had waved a pennant in the air. His father is dead and he is Buck's grandson. "Where is JJ?" I managed to ask.
"I don't know," Adam shrugged.
"Well, my boy, how is school. . ." Houston began, he had a fatherly streak in him, which had been badly scarred I thought by what had happened to Austin, so he was always a little formal with Adam. Kept his distance, wouldn't be hurt again.
I personally carved the meat that night and served it around as Pop Brawley had done in the old pre-vegetarian days.
"This," I said, "is going to be the last beef roast we're ever going to have." I looked at Sagalen. "Is that all right with you, Sagalen?"
She nodded; we all dug in.
After supper, a long time after supper, after JJ had joined us -- she'd been down talking to Peter Good -- after we had all gone for a walk in the moonlight and admired the Texas hills getting ready to release the new year's blooms, after Houston had told me the worst that could happen, and the best, and promised to use all his pretty hefty Texas influence against his uncle, after he had pressed my hand with special tenderness, and I had smiled at him and passed his hand over to JJ's, after all that, very late in the evening I asked Adam to come to my room: "Come up to my sitting room, Adam." I didn't ask JJ or Sagalen. I just asked Adam alone.
He came in a little bit like he expected he was going to be chastised. Isn't it funny, when you pointedly ask a kid to come to you, they tend to think they've been bad, or what's going to take place is going to be bad. Maybe that's because it often is. Or maybe it was just Adam's way. Well, some good and some bad. And no doubt he was suspicious because I had never before so specifically asked him to come to my room. But if he'd known how sad, and how nervous I was. I mean, I still didn't know how to deal with kids. I let Adam do what he wanted to on the 13,000 acres. I guess if he needed discipline from time to time it was Sagalen who noticed it and did it. I had no idea how I was going to help him, in the space of a few minutes, to mourn a father and rejoice in a grandfather, both of whom were dead.
I could feel my heart tightening, shutting down, I could feel I was deliberately closing it down, so I wouldn't have to feel the pain -- not mine, not Adam's. I'd just tell him straight out, like Havana would.
He stood by the chair I usually sat in, and I pulled one of the straight-backs forward. And now, for the first time, I found myself searching his face for any resemblance to Buck. Funny I had never noticed before that he had Buck's broad brow, the deep, deep blue eyes, eyes so blue they were almost black, were black in some lights, sometimes even brown, and that he had adopted, after his hostility dropped away, a way of nuzzling like a cat. He nuzzled JJ, he nuzzled Sagalen. He would even nuzzle me occasionally, when I would permit it. But I had never connected it to Buck's nuzzle, Buck's gentle way of love.
Adam had the hefty body of a Brawley, the Brawley side of the Brawleys, not the thin frame of Baby Brother or Austin. He was tall and going to get taller; he was going to be big, like Buck, probably bigger than Johnnie -- who was slimmer, probably inheriting from whomever BB had inherited from, and Austin. Or his mom.
Eva? Eva Beaudeauin, would I ever be able to think about her, her pain and her courage -- that resulted in a man like Johnnie. A good man who'd lost his trust and his connection to a society where everyone always wanted more and more and more and more.
Did Houston know, I suddenly wondered. I was looking right at Adam and wondering if Pop and Sagalen had told Houston. Did he know the whole complicated story? Oh, my God, and Baby Brother?
Would he shit his pants! Buck Brawley's grandson popping up. That would be a double whammy.
Then again the pain, as I thought of actually opening my mouth to say to Adam: "Johnnie Beaudeauin is dead. He was your father." He knew already that Johnnie was his father. But he didn't know his father was dead.
"Hmmmm?" he was still scrunching out of his jacket and his neckerchief from the walk.
"I got a tape for you to watch."
"No, a tape. Do you ever remember seeing or meeting Buck? Buck Brawley, my husband -- he ran The Desert Truth."
He frowned at me a little, squinting his eyes just like Buck used to squint to remember. I had never noticed that facial tick in this fourteen-year-old, red-head before. It sent a shiver though me as if a ghost had touched my lips.
"I guess I did."
We both sat down. I snapped on the remote.
First the snow. Then the interference patterns that again were richer than usual. The date. Then Buck's face. He said: "Glory. Hallelujah." He said it for one last time, I felt. For one last time. Then he paused for a long time.
"Hopefully I'll have told you all about this so you'll never have to see this tape." Then a long pause. "But just in case."
Again he paused.
"I want you to know all about it from me."
I could tell the exact moment it registered on Adam that Buck was speaking from the room in which he and I were now sitting, but before Adam could say anything, Buck just said it straight out, first thing: "Johnnie Beaudeauin was my son."
Adam's head jerked forward a little. He gave me a quick glance, but his whole concentration was on what Buck was saying, in muted tones from a blue/purple, then green face on the screen.
"Neither one of us was a virgin, Glory.
"I met Eva Beaudeauin in Twentynine Palms in 1941 when I was sent to the base there. Her family had lived in Twentynine a hundred years. They'd taken over the original palms from the Indians. They were Washingtonia palms, Glory, the only indigenous palms in America. The Beaudeauins were old stock, old settlers, but not rich. Eva was pretty and she was young and she thought I was wonderful, all of us were wonderful, for going off to fight the war. I just fell in love with her. And she with me. We did what young people do. Then they pulled us out real sudden to send us to Guadalcanal."
He paused again for a long time. Thinking about the war, maybe, thinking about Eva, but his eyes were blank and his gaze was inward. Maybe he wasn't thinking at all. Maybe it just gets to be too much to think about sometimes.
"I never saw her again. I wrote and she wrote. She never said a word about being pregnant.
"I was gone for four years. Her letters stopped after a year or so. I went home to Texas when I was discharged. I called her in Twentynine Palms half a dozen times, but no one answered the number I had.
"That was it.
"There's nothing to regret. You know what I'm talking about -- that magic of young love."
No, Buck, I thought, I don't really know what you are talking about. My young loves were painful -- until I met you, after almost half a century of living. For girls, young love is usually painful -- I would have liked to say that to Buck. He'd have made the effort to understand. He would have really listened. "The whole tradition," I would have said "of 'good enough to sleep with, but not good enough to marry' taints any pure feelings a girl might have, even if she loved you very very much." My heart went out to Eva. Alone. Pregnant. Her love overseas. Afraid to tell him. Afraid to tell her family. 1941 was a long time ago -- before the sexual revolution. Almost before I was born. I'd spent a long, hard time getting used to love 'em and leave 'em in my fast lane days. But I had succeeded a couple of times.
"She was never really poor," his voice went on, "but I don't think she had an easy time either. None of us does. Particularly alone and trying to cope. The rest of the story you'll have to learn from Johnnie, if and when you're watching this."
He paused again.
"Johnnie was already fighting the "water boys" before I arrived, with no money, no backing, just going at it as best he could, documenting the turf, boring from the inside to establish who was who. We hit it off. He needed help. He thought it was something big.
"I still haven't told him. But I'm proud of him. I'll tell him when we get this mess straightened out. I'd like him to be proud of his Pop before I spring it on him."
He paused again.
"I didn't tell you right away because I was ashamed of myself. Later I thought I'd tell you when we'd solved some of the things in the desert. When we do solve them, I'll tell Johnnie, because I can see you like him, and we'll all come home to Brawley. Am I being a paternalistic bastard?" he laughed, ruefully embarrassed. "I guess I am. Heritage, I guess. Ask Pop, or better yet, ask Sagalen."
Then he got to the part about loving me, ". . .Glory, all my love was for you. . ." To keep from crying, I stopped listening, I started thinking about how I was going to tell Adam his father was dead. ". . . I was there in '41."
I punched the off button on the remote.
Grinning, Adam looked at me.
"I love you, son," I said quietly.
He got up and did his best to give me a hug in the straight-backed chair in which I sat.
"It means . . . It means . . . step-mother, I guess."
"And Sagalen and Houston and. . ."
"And a whole tribe you'll have to learn about. Fortunately most of them are ancestors."
I let him glory in the news of being Brawley born. He was grinning. "Wait'll I tell JJ!" He was kind of dancing about the room. "Wait'll I tell . . ."
Then I said, "I also have some bad news."
"Nothing can be that bad!"
"Your father died last night."
Adam stared at me, suddenly gone rigid, like he wasn't going to believe whatever I said. The hostility, the hate I had seen in his eyes that first morning I had picked him up at Johnnie's, shone again -- radiant currents of defiance.
"He didn't know that Buck was his father."
"My father. . ." He tried to go on but couldn't.
"Died last night in . . . I think . . . in No Palms."
I wasn't prepared for that question. By a grenade? Two grenades? Was I going to say it? It would sound like a war. Well, maybe it was a war.
"Do you know?"
"It was pretty awful."
"The law caught him . . .?
Suddenly I realized Adam thought . . . That he was still trying to figure out which side his dad had been on. Had I decided? Yes, I had decided once and for all when I had seen him last in No Palms. "He killed a whole nest of vipers," I said. "He took a whole nest with him."
Then, as the blood drained from Adam's face, I immediately returned to the twentieth century. You don't just rage in -- an eye for an eye. You don't just take on the role of the avenging God. He was whiter than the TV snow patterns. What could I say? I knew nothing more than what I had told him, nothing more than the "grenades" I had heard on the phone. It must have been one of the most sickening, bloody, awful scenes anyone could imagine. Had I read it in the paper, what would I have thought of Johnnie Beaudeauin? But he must have had a reason. My reasonable mind kept saying. He must have had a reason.
I said as calmly as I could: "Your dad fought a war almost alone."
Adam's rejecting scowl did not go away.
"He was on the right side, Adam, even though he couldn't tell you. Even though I doubted myself. But we never should have. He was on the right side."
"He killed a bunch of people?"
"I can't justify it, Adam. Johnnie was a pacifist, and he killed a bunch of people. I don't know why. I mean, I know they were rotten . . . They, some of them . . ." I'd have to tell him some day, so I decided to do it now ". . . killed Buck."
Would Buck have wanted it that way, I wondered. Not Johnnie dead, I mean, but the violence, the violence. An eye for an eye . . . He was a man of words. He wasn't himself articulate, but he had a belief in words. I didn't mean to be violent toward Adam, to tell him everything at once. But I didn't know how else to do it.
"I think Johnnie just gave up on our justice system. Sometimes it just doesn't work -- if you live in the ass-hole of the earth where the scum coagulates.
"I wasn't there, so I don't know why he did it. Why now? -- what it was that was the final flash point. The explosion." I too wanted to cry as Adam was doing -- his blue eyes brimming with tears, his hands shaking, his shoulders heaving.
"He loved you very much."
"Is Sheila okay?"
"We'll have to find out. She wasn't there. I know that."
"And my mom?"
"We'll find out." I took his hand. "Let's go out and take a walk." I said. Somehow it seemed that the pain would be more bearable in the pure frigid air under the brilliance of the moon -- even though men had walked upon it.
After Adam had gone to bed, I went down to check on Sagalen. Something I would never have thought of doing before, but now she kissed my hands for smoothing her sheets and fluffing her pillows, for putting a cool cloth on her head, for touching away her tears with my finger tips.
"Is Adam okay?"
"I wanted to meet him," her lips trembled. "Johnnie. I wanted to meet him," she confessed and, as if that had broken the dam for feelings she had never dared admit, she said it again and again, as the tears trickled down her old soft-as-doeskin temples: "I wanted to meet him, he looked like such a lovely lad."
"He was . . . He was . . . Adam is very much like him."
In my room alone I said to my heart it could feel again. But it didn't want to. I was calm. I counted the links in the long chain of karmic events that had led to my going to bed in Brawley, Texas -- alone, trying to imagine, just trying to imagine, let alone justify the killing of at least half a dozen people by Johnnie Beaudeauin, my own "son." I sorted among the kinks of my whole improbable life since that day at the Alamo. The tragedy . . . it had turned out to be. I felt compassion for the young girl who had loved Buck. She had waited almost fifty years to share her secret. My heart ached especially because I knew Buck -- who was as faithful as swans are reported to be -- would have loved her all her life had he known.
How proud he must have been knowing Johnnie was his son. I couldn't sleep and so I looked again at the tape Buck had made of Johnnie -- and Johnnie had made of Buck. The tears fell from my eyes. Johnnie had never learned whose secret he was trying to discover.
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