BY JAN HAAG

POETRY + MUSIC + TEXTILE ART + TRAVEL + ESSAYS + FICTION

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO






NO PALMS



PART I, CHAPTER 2




I've come back to Texas to see if I can make some sense out of human life, my life in particular, and Buck's life -- Buck's life which began here and ended where the down-and-out, the raggle-taggle remnants of humanity hang out in the California desert. I spend my time thinking about Buck's murder, how likely my own death is. And I eat.

Or I don't think. I try to think about nothing. I was trained to do that, off and on, for half a dozen years. After I quit my job in the City of the Angels I sat in a couple of Asian monasteries, with a shaven head, clapping and chanting and trying to discover my mission, what my own special mission in life might be.

But there's no room in my mind now for nothing. I gain weight.

I sometimes think my mind must be like the mind of God where the horror of human atrocities surely fills up 99% of the available space. Does it drive the guy with the long beard nuts trying to remember his original plan? Do you think he mourns: "I had hoped... I wanted..."? Or does he, as he flings one more earthquake, a hurricane, violent death into the balance, cry with vengeance: "There! that'll fix 'em!"

I am alone most of the time. More than a year has passed since I first came home from the desert. There is an atmosphere of kindness in the rambling old house at Brawley, and an unspoken agreement that no one will ask any questions. We've all been through trauma enough. We'll let time ravel up all the agonizing hurt, the seared nerve endings, the unendurable pain. We'll let time and kindness, consideration for each other's solitude, mend our broken hearts.

Once again it is late summer in Comal County and I spend most of my time staring for whole days and whole nights out the window into the last golden ornaments of the china berry tree. Or I stand at the porch rail and gaze into the lifting, swaying, curtseying cottonwoods, and out across fields that lose themselves in a heat hazed line where the horizon should be.

I had no place else to hide from the ruthless indifference, the determination to do nothing that the "law" exhibited in the face of Buck's disappearance. He was gone in April, gone with the coming of the desert flowers. Gone. Disappeared. Dead. He was dead, they agreed, but nobody had killed him. Exposure. Animals. Wild animals had killed him, the judge said.

The great spaces here in Texas offer me quiet and solitude, not the haunting, dehumanizing, high desert solitude, the moon-still loneliness of California. Here there are oak trees and softly undulating hills, pecans that Pop Brawley planted eighty years ago, and some that his daddy planted before that. Here in Buck's family home I am treated with compassion, a certain dignity, a little grace.

When I start to think, when I can't keep the images out of my mind, I sometimes sit at the computer in the downstairs study and write, just to get the thoughts out of my mind. Sometimes I write a few pages -- these pages -- and sometimes I just think about it. I have to tell someone. I have to tell someone what I know, even if no one will believe me. I begin a new page:

I'm a woman of fifty, born on the eve of America's conscripted entrance into the Second World War. In fact I'll be fifty-one this year. I never thought I'd come home alone, at my age, to Pop Brawley, that old buffalo who sometimes cries. I often think that he, at ninety-five, hasn't thought it out either, his life in particular, or Life, great big Life in general. The pointless, dogged, unrelenting, wholesale cruelty. He's lived almost two of my lifetimes, out-lived two wives and two sons.

He had one son, Buck, and another, Austin, and another, Houston. Now two are dead.

I wasn't able to speak of Buck's death when I first came home, and as the weeks and months have passsed, I still don't. Pop Brawley's depression seemed even deeper than mine. He sat and stared, played solitaire. Read. It looked like a single small book that he read over and over again. And always he took it with him, kept it in his shirt pocket. I didn't find out what it was until after he died.


Sagalen, Buck's ninety-year-old spinster aunt, flutters around me with elderberry wine and cool cloths. She puts up the mosquito netting at night and takes it down in the morning. She smiles and occasionally suggests a mint julep after dinner, something she wouldn't have encouraged before, not for me, not for "the good wife." But now even Pop Brawley will say out of the darkness on the porch where he has been nursing his drink and not eating dinner: "A drink'll do you good, girl."

Buck, the one the Buffalo and I weep for, the Buffalo's eldest, dearest son, died in California, that arid land of greed and gold. Why did he need to go there at all? I wonder now, and I wondered then. Why?

"A drink'll do you good, girl."

Don't be too prissy, I tell myself. I wish I had gotten roaring drunk a bit more often. A few wingdings over the years might have mitigated the pain of now. The pain of sitting in this "old folks retreat," staring at the beauty of a night sky in the Hill Country of Texas, staring at the scudding clouds that tell tales of the wind's trips, the pain of feeling my belly full and my heart broken, my mind emptied of motive through sorrow. Sorrow. Wondering what to do next. I begin to wonder if one should do anything at all for fear that when it ends you have to answer for the next minute and the next motive. I sit and watch the wind in the trees. Listen to the pecans that drop and rattle on the roof.

Sagalen bakes. She baked me a peach pie today. Peaches, sweet small peaches that come from over Fredericksburg way. In bad years, if the frost catches them, they can be small as strawberries, but sweet. Whatever size they are, they are sweet. Whatever size my life used to be, I used to think it, too, was sweet, getting sweeter year by year.

God must have meant something special, I sometimes think, by giving middle-aged women the tendency toward fat, toward eating and expanding. Is it because we no longer taste the sweetness of life? I eat Sagalen's peach and berry pies. I've even begun to eat barbecue again. Up to a year ago my life was disciplined by beliefs and convictions, now it's merely a habit I'd like to dispense with. Oh if only pigging-out on chocolate chip cookies could lead to death! Tonight if possible.


I loved Buck Brawley -- if you can love anyone that ugly. For he was ugly. Big and ugly, with a scarred face, a big belly and a huge outgoing manner -- after he got to know you a little. He could purr like a pussy cat. He could be abrasive. Scratch. Spring from your lap like a cat and snatch a bat right out of the air -- an Old Tom to be sure. He could howl into the night with the best of them, and sleep with one eye open to see all that anyone might do. He'd sometimes sit like a weathervane on a roof top, huffing and puffing and knowing, just knowing what was going to come down. They say you can't predict the weather, long-term, but Buck Brawley could predict human weather whenever he wanted to take the time. He was a bundle of controlled chaos packed tight into a human skin.

He kept to a vegetarian diet. I had asked him to, as a condition of love, and he did. It didn't keep him slim, but if he hadn't been killed, it might have extended his life. His truth was that strong -- I mean, to eat lettuce and tomatoes, broccoli and pasta out of conviction, sheer conviction. You must remember he was born a Texas rancher's son. When he saw Truth he went for it and took big helpings. But he was careless, too, didn't always listen to his own predictions, didn't always let himself believe his own horse sense or tom cat knowledge.

And they killed him.

Just like that. Simple as castrating an old tom, or sewing him in a gunny sack to drown, or smashing his brains out with a sledge hammer. Just like the fanatics of the middle ages, who burned cats because they were witches, burned innocent cats, hundreds of them, in wicker cages. They tormented cats, they executed cats, one print master in France ordered a cat massacre. We can hardly believe it now, but they did it then. And they do it now. The desert rats did it to Buck, the sly, red-necked, dog-owning, spitting, gun-toting, pickup-driving, mean-hearted men (and some women, too) who, though utterly primitive, survive in the desert, holding sub rosa "Inquisitions" in the state of California.


"You better believe us. Honey."

"You with the Honey Chile' accent, you better believe or you better leave."

Sure, they talked like that to me. Sure, why not? Buck was dead. What was I going to do? Prosecute them in the paper? Buck's newspaper died immediately under my leadership. I'm not a fighter. I'm not even in the ring when it comes to politics and knife fighting. To shouting in the dark at the dogs! To shooting straight and to killing. To asking questions later. I didn't grow up in the desert, the mean, lean, ain't-no-further-out-to-go desert, nor on the streets. I never saw anything to make me envy the reality of life in the streets. I didn't need to know. Nor do I think I truly believed the lurid tales that some of those people came in out of the 110 degree heat to tell Buck Brawley, the stories which I overheard, half heard, as I sat composing wildflower and seed reports on the computer in the front room for the next edition.


Where I come from, up north, in the Northwest, from Everett, Washington, near Seattle, it's cool all summer and rains in the winter. Rains most of the summer, too, but the people call it drizzle. I'd come from that wet, milldewed, pulp-mill-smelling place that grew up to be a city, all the way around the world to Texas to meet Buck Brawley. Our meeting I thought was a gift, a light-hearted dazzling gift from heaven. And I fell in love with the Hill Country, maybe even more than I fell in love, late, oh ever so late in life, with Buck.

Why did we have to go to California? I still don't know. He'd talk about the Texas banks closing. The down turn of oil. He'd talk about needing more input and more energy. He'd talk about the dry air. He'd talk and talk and talk and I still don't know what pulled him to the rock and debris of the California desert. Oh I understand about being a nomad, about wandering. Who isn't or who hasn't? If you were born after 1910 in this country of immigrants and migrants, or even before, right back to the Mayflower, you've moved. You've moved and moved, or your kids have, or your kid's kids. You can hardly listen in on a conversation on a plane anymore without hearing "Kathmandu," and "Beijing." "My daughter's in Afghanistan and my son's just going back to the Urals." "My granddaughter is off to Paris."


Buck'd been stationed at Twentynine Palms in '42, about half a century before I met him, but I could never believe that he, with his liberal views, was lured by a green beret to go back to that desolate shack-ridden sun-beaten hell hole of a land, where the twenty-nine original palms were still about the only green things in sight. There they stood, beside a little lake that reminded me of India, planted, so they said, by Serrano fathers each time a baby boy was born. But we didn't go to Twentynine Palms, or Thousand Palms or Palm Springs. Where we ended up was down the road a dozen miles from Twentynine in No Palms. No Palms, CA. Some cynic no doubt had named it that and, by God, how right the son-of-a-bitch was. No Palms. No laurels. No nothing. A gimcrack, shambling excuse for a town. In fact it was more like a no-town squatting on the high desert, unlovely, unloveable and malevolent as a gila monster. There were bears back in the canyons, they said, along with cougars and coyotes, tarantulas and snakes -- rattlers, they said, big as your arm.

Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had picked us up in Texas and set us down in California, there we were in No Palms with no history, no future and no reason I knew of to be there. Buck had a truck full of computer equipment and one camera. A small truck. If there's one thing about computer equipment, it comes small and, along with the reasonably sized computers, Buck had a big passion to try his hand at publishing a newspaper and doing TV.


"Let's do it in Texas!" I had pleaded when he said we were leaving for California.

"Nope," he said. "I wanta try California. A lot of people out there in the desert need a voice."

"But that was years and years and years ago."

"Still do."

"But you don't know a soul out there."

"You'll make friends soon enough if you tell the truth."

You simple ape, I said under my breath. I never expected people to love him or me for telling the truth. But I didn't expect them to kill him either.


He sank his entire fortune and future and every minute of his day and night and my day and night into running a newspaper. The fortune wasn't big, but it was sufficient. And the newspaper wasn't big. But for a couple of years we did have an amazing time of trying to fight the insane apathy of the desert poor and the desert rats and the virulent corruption of their masters.

Masters by default. Masters by underhanded, Machiavellian ways so blunt and childish that you could smell it in the air when you arrived -- a stench that you felt, Buck felt, had to give way before the clean uncontaminated breath of truth and the cool purity of motive. But that's what Texans are like. And he was real Texas, Texas old stock, about as old stock as you can get. His granddad, Old Man Brawley, hadn't arrived before the longhorns, but he, Buck said, would, just as like as not, have tried to convince you he had. And sometimes Texans, like Buck, though big and bluff, have in their hearts the goodness that God, I think, had intended for humans. They tell the truth. Like George Washington who, after chopping down the cherry tree, came in and told his Papa. "I cannot tell a lie." Or they stand at the Alamo certain to be shot.

My stock, from the Northwest, is dour from cold feet and the rain coming down, and probably an excessive handling of fish. Nobody has big dreams from there, except maybe me. I wanted to write, I wanted to paint, I wanted to make pots as elegant as the Chinese had done 6,000 years before anyone ever dreamed of America. But there was nothing I wanted quite enough to learn how to do it properly and exclusively and forever. I spent too much time being awestruck by the real world, its beauty, its terror -- and I got religion, or I would call it "spirituality," just about when life was supposed to begin, at forty. I became convinced that God would tell me someday what He/She/It wanted me to do. So, having saved enough to quit my job, I drifted, I drifted until I drifted into Buck's big arms via an erratic route that brought me through Texas when I was waving at the approach of fifty. At the moment Buck's life touched mine, transforming it almost over night into fireworks and nuclear energy, I was being a nanny for my niece's baby.

I had come down to Austin to help my niece get through school by taking care of her baby. That's all I was going to do, just be a helpful auntie-nanny until she and her husband got their PhDs at the University of Texas. Then I was going to tramp around Asia some more, go to the rest of the places I had never been. Then old Buck Brawley. . .

Would you believe it? I met him at the Alamo. I mean I was over there in San Antonio and he had on this ten gallon hat, looking so much like a Texan with his heeled boots and his big rough jacket, I went straight up to him and asked him if my niece might not take a picture of him and me together to send to people to prove I knew a real Texan.

Well, even right then he was interested in The Truth. He said I could take the picture, but I'd have to get to know him a bit before I could palm off a story like that on an unsuspecting friend. So he took Sugar, my niece, and the baby, little Halley Hawley Hughes, and me right over to the Menger Hotel and insisted on buying us lunch in that murky old bar with the dark polished wood. He was alone, had just come over to pick up a book at the public library, and always liked to come by and look at the arch of the Alamo, he said.

He said: Did I know half of Texas architecture was built on that arch?

I supposed I had noticed it, I said, and I had. But the real Alamo arch was carved, handmade and very beautiful and the flat computer-generated arches you saw on modern Texas buildings weren't nearly so appealing -- is what I said.

And he laughed and said he was about to become a computer man himself and what did I have against computers.

And I said: "Nothing. I like computers. My niece here is an astronomer and she works with computers." And he was real interested in that. He knew a lot about the history of McDonald Observatory. His Pop, he said, had been one of the one's helped push it through, back there right in the middle of the Depression. Had I been out there to see it?

"Only at night," I laughed. "I walked the baby around the cat walks as the sun went down, I walked the baby round and round and watched the electrical storms all over Texas. I could see a hundred miles, maybe two hundred miles," I said.

"From Texas, you can see around the world," he said. His eyes glistened with laughter and good humor. Would I let him show me his Texas from McDonald Observatory, he asked.

I laughed.

They had a ranch nearby, up near New Braunfels, he said. He'd like for the baby and all to come visit. "Soon," he said. "See our spread."

That's how I met old Buck Brawley.

My niece insisted we go. She said it was hard for University people in Austin to meet the real Texas people. I mean, the scientists hung out with the scientists. Besides even if you had the opportunity to meet one or two real people nowadays everyone studied so hard, worked so hard, was so specialized that they couldn't talk to their fellow humans unless the meeting was somehow, from the beginning, nothing to do with what you DO.

Anyway, Sugar and her husband Josh and the baby and I went out to the Brawley Ranch -- after two phone calls, and a third for directions. You can get lost in the paradise of those beautiful backroads of Texas. We met Pop Brawley and Sagalen and Buck insisted right that day that I stay overnight. I mean he insisted he was going to take me out to West Texas, to McDonald. Said he was lonely, and that I needed a ride. It was going to be the weekend, he said, and they could take care of their own baby for two days. I laughed. But he meant it. So Sugar and the baby and Joshua went back that night without me.

Just like that, almost, I was a member of the Brawley family. Just like that, practically overnight, I was taken in and baptized amidst the 150 year accumulation of bric-a-brac and frontier implements that were housed under Pop Brawley's rambling roof.

We went out to McDonald. I think Buck wanted to impress me but, as I say, I had already been there. I had walked the cat walks, I had peered at the read-outs of the big scope and through the little scope to see a passing comet, not so famous as Halley's -- I had missed that by a couple of years. This one, the comet I saw, Comet Austin, was such an itty bitty speck I wasn't sure I could distinguish it from the other itty bitty specks on the lens. But at least I had seen the night sky visually through a "professional" telescope, and not just as a TV signal as it comes through on the big one. I'm not sure I like the universe being nothing but a TV read-out on a little screen. It looks just like interference. Gets a little abstract, I thought.

Anyway, Buck told me the history of McDonald up there on Mt. Locke. The observatory was born eight years before I was born. He'd helped in the '60s at NASA -- in a minor capacity, he said (he was always very modest) -- with the building of the big, 107", reflector scope whose primary task was to gather infomation for possible use in future space exploration. Buck was always passionate about exploring everything, space included.

He knew the director and even though the director wasn't there we stayed in his house. Real nice. Fancy, but restrained. Very few Things. Pretty new rugs. And moths! You should have seen the moths hanging around the gold colored, carefully shaded porch lights. In fact there was a poem dedicated to the director and stuck on a kitchen cupboard dated 1985. It read:


McDONALD OBSERVATORY



Up among the miller moths and piles of moth
bodies, up where they do lunar laser
ranging, where Texas drops away like the wings
of tomorrow, where the three nano second

Korad ruby laser beamed sixteen straight years
at the moon measuring our distance within
centimeters, confirming Einsteinian
relativity, judging earthquakes, the drift

of continents, lunar wobble, the human
heart soars with possibilities of being
out over the buttes and mesquite, the dry oaks
gnarling, up through cirrus clouds, stratus, out,

out to where the white-domed telescopes barely
pierce. We're alone, and lucky that we attained
this form before we grabbed evolution by
the genes and hightailed it into a future

peripheral to nature, but not to us.
"O, meddling humanity, discover
my laws, but respect my vision. One hundred
seven inches will get you to the verge of

the insubstantial universe, but not to
the heart of the matter. Dive deep, deep into
the ease of breathing, into the aorta's
pumping, feel it in the wild chaos of cells,

urgent, desiring. Ask the synapses who'll
come next, fluttering as moths on the mountain."


It was dedicated to the director and signed E.B. I liked that poem. I liked it so much I took it down and had Buck ask someone in the observatory library to run off a copy for me. I have it still.


We wandered all over West Texas that weekend. There's not too much there. I saw most of it at ninety or a hundred mph. Whizzing by the mesquite, Buck laughing, telling me about the "Awl"

"What?"

"The awl?"

"What awl?"

He points to the teeter-assed oil rigs.

"Oil!" I shout.

And he laughs, "That's what I said: awl!"

The whole of West Texas, up in the north smells like "Awl."

When we got to San Antonio on Sunday afternoon, we went flying out across the land and the awl rigs.

"Not so many pumping as there once was," he said.


Within a month Buck says that he's got a new nanny for the kid -- Halley, Sugar's daughter. Someone old and Texas, who'd bring that girl up right, knew a lot more about kid raising than I did, make a real Texan out of Sugar's natural born Texan. Besides, he insisted, it'd free me up to see a bit more of Texas, East Texas and South Texas -- where I had never been. I think he'd already got my number. I loved to travel and to look. Look at everything, anything, see the whole world.

Well, Sugar, my niece, is one of those easy-going young people, willing to roll with the punches -- Buck convinced her in just one or two little ole speeches that Mrs. Peppler would do a better nanny job than Sugar's own childless, untrained auntie. So Mrs. P, a fine, stout, grandmotherly woman from New Braunfels starts going up every day to take care of the baby. Soon Buck rents her an apartment in Austin, so she can go and come as she pleases. It's only a couple of months until Sugar and her husband graduate. But I'm effectively relieved of being a nanny.

So there I was living on the Brawley Ranch. As I look back, I still can't believe how it all came about. And after I'm there for a month or so, going off on trips around the countryside every day with Buck, nodding in on this and nodding in on that -- he'd got a lot of fingers in a lot of pies. I mean, it all just looks and feels like gossip and goofing off to me. Texans get together and they jaw and jaw and jaw. God, do they talk. But something must happen, because a lot of things get put in motion, motion by anybody's standards: awl, cattle, skyscrapers, NASA, and politics, lots of politics.

Then I hear it announced one day at the dinner table -- when Pop Brawley mentions our status, musing out loud about some gossip he's heard -- that we are already married. "Because," says Buck, "Common Law says in Texas that if you live with a person you are automatically married."

I look at Buck, and he grins back at me. "Okay with you?" he says.

I shake my head.

"Don't shake your head," he says.

"You haven't even asked my Daddy's permission," I say, light and flirtatiously, because it never even occurred to me until that moment to think of spending the rest of my life with any man, let alone Buck Brawley.

"Where's your Daddy?" Buck's got the phone from the sideboard in his hand, poised, ready to dial.

But I don't give him the number.

"And you're not vegetarian."

"Pop is. He stopped running cattle on the ranch -- when was it, Pop?"

"That's not you. Everytime we go into a restaurant you eat steak -- with lots of blood."

"Try me. From today on."

There's Pop Brawley laughing and Sagalen sitting there, quiet as usual, and Buck, big as life, thinks he's going to press me for an answer right there. An answer I can't possibly give because I have a lot of thinking to do about how much I prefer being single and free.

"I have to think, Buck," I say.

"What are you going to think about?"

I look from Pop to Sagalen to Buck.

"If you don't like me after six weeks, you can always ditch me. I won't tell the authorities about your hanging out here. We got real privacy here at Brawley, 13,000 acres of Brawley property to be private on. And Houston's got 12,000. So you can disappear if you want, or you can be my wife."

I don't know if he knows, but most women, I think, think like me, and you don't expect marriage proposals in front of your future father-in-law, or your future husband's aunt. I really am kind of embarrased. I look around, I giggle a little, as if I were sixteen instead of forty-seven, and the tears even start up in my eyes. I dab my mouth with the napkin and run from the table, knocking over my chair.


Buck leaves me alone for a couple of hours. I mean, I don't know whether I expected him to chase me right then into the bedroom or not. But anyway, I go to my room, my guest room, chockful, right up to the ceiling with things, I mean, too much furniture, too many objects, too many rugs. And my head is all awhirl. I mean, I used to think of getting married and loving, but I had rather given up on it. It wasn't to be part of my life. Having given up the Good Job, too, I thought I would travel. And when traveling, I found a lot of vigorous, middle-aged women who were doing the same thing. So I wasn't sure that I wanted to give all that up. If I thought about planning a future for myself it was more like The Peace Corps, or going to South Africa to teach kids, or Tibet to help rebuild monasteries. And yet -- a Real Texas Rancher Picked Up At The Alamo!

Even that night, when Buck comes up as usual to take me to his room, I start laughing about it. That was the first time I heard Pop Brawley's belly laugh coming out of me.

The second time wasn't to be until a long time after Buck's death, after Pop Brawley's death when the whole world had changed and what was there to do but laugh about it. God, what was there to do, but Laugh About It!






NO PALMS, Part I, Chapter 3




Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: jjhaag@gmail.com


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.



BY JAN HAAG


POETRY + MUSIC + ESSAYS + TRAVEL + FICTION + TEXTILE ART

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO



21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context