INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
I dreamed that night abo ut the winds: the winds across No Palms, winds across the American deserts, blowing constantly, drying up every good and decent thought, every green possibility. I had learned, in my driving back and forth across America, just how much "My Country 'Tis of Thee" was a land of deserts, wind, grit, gravel, cactus, and dry, flat expanses where oceans had once stagnated. How land that wasn't fit even for a sidewinder was gardened into spindly trees and lawn, useless lawn, and agri-business. What had happened to God's creativity, diversity? Did only JJ carry seeds around? When was it going to be spring enough for her to plant? Would we be here to harvest? For BB was seriously after the land. He was an eighty-eight year old Baby Brother for Christ sakes! One would think he could spend the rest of his life spending what he had instead of fanning his flames of greed. But the Brawleys were long lived. I suppose he thought ten more years of greed was like paradise enow.
I rose early, stole out of the house and around to the garden shed and found an axe. Then, as dawn spread over the earth, I walked out through the seed pearls of dew.
To the first peach tree, I walked. I laid my axe against the slender, delicate trunk and began to chop. Pop Brawley had planted it only six years ago. Slim and beautiful as a silver wand, it was just now beginning to puff out its tiny little buds. Tight and green, with fiery tips of sanguinary red, each blossom was a miniature used tomahawk, incandescent against the glow of the rising sun. The tree was just about to enter its full bearing years.
The twigs quivered and danced. The wood, the sap exuded a fragrance with each blow of the axe. The ghosts of the peaches, whose sweetness I would never taste, hung in the air.
It's death only took three swift strokes.
After I chopped down the peach tree and told Sagalenwho just glanced at me and said nothing while she went on rolling out the dough for the last cherry pie before springI went to my room, pulled out the Gauguin Catalog that had recently come in the mail from a friend who had attended the big exhibit several years ago. She knew, her note said, I would love to see the catalogue because it had a number of photographs of the pink grounds I had been fascinated by when I saw the Gauguins in the Hermitage collection in Russia. How many years ago was that? 1975?
After a half day's reading, I laid aside the catalog. A catalog like that is written, I thought, because none of us can slow down enough anymore to indulge in contemplation. But all the citing of sources had nothing whatever to do with creation. All the post-mortem appreciation in the world had nothing to do with the fact that no one gave him enough money while he lived to prevent his diseases.
I went down to my computer and wrote out:
A MULTIPLE CHOICE QUESTIONNAIRE
WHY DID GEORGE WASHINGTON CHOP DOWN THE CHERRY TREE?
pick a reasononeor any combination you think explains the act:
A He hated cherries
BHe wanted the view
CHe was goaded by a friend
D He wanted to try his new axe
E He was goaded by his conscience
F He felt the orchard needed thinning
G He wanted to whittle a cherrywood whistle
H He wanted to set himself up to Tell The Truth
I He just wanted to see if his old axe could still hack it
JHe mistook it for the hackberry his Pop told him to cut down
KHe wanted to make a really spectacular bouquet of cherry blossoms
L He thought only indigenous trees should be grown at Mount Vernon
M He anticipated it would become a famous incident in American History
There, one has half of an English alphabet's worth of choices. If more wants more try N through Z, or start on other alphabets: the Russian, Sanskrit, Italian, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Swahili, whatever.
I took out one of Buck's archaeology books. But before I could open it the question popped into my head: What is archaeology anyhow? Digging up dead bodies? Counting the elephants on a frieze around Hampi?
I had walked around Hampi, the Vijayanagar Empire, I had seen the archaeologists at work, had even joined them for lunch. But I wanted to dream about the elephants, not count them (although I knew at the time I wouldn't have minded the physical labor of digging). As if counting the elephantsHow many have short trunks, how many have long? How many look to the right, how many left?could give us any clue about the passion for building.
Again at the computer, I wrote: "I wrote these remembrances at different times in different places. I have put them in the best order I could."
I have nowhere to go and nothing more to say. I tear one page out of Pop Brawley's Emily Dickinson:
Your thoughts don't have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency
Colonel Steadlow came with Sheriff Brandenberg just after noon. The Sheriff was obliged to tell me, he said, that he had to put me off the land. The land was in dispute, the law obliged him to say. He said it with polite, indeed, gallant Texas courtesy. "It causes me sadness, Ma'am, to have to tell you that you'ns can't live on it until the dispute is settled." And: "I'm sure, Ma'am, it'll be settled in ya'lls favor, but until it is, I have to tell you'ns the law."
"Why, thank you, Sheriff Brandenberg," I said with as much charm as I could muster. "It's mighty kind of you to come all the way out here to tell me in person. Won't you come in and have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee."
"I don't mind if I do."
Out on the big porch in the cool, but sunny weather of March, 1993 we drank our coffee. Sagalen sat down to join us after she had done the serving. She said the radio was still talking about the worst storm of the century that had been taking place in the East. It started on Saturday. There was snow even in Florida. Almost 200 people were dead.
Our weather in Texas was warm and benign.
Colonel Steadlow laid out his suggestions on strategy for the coming battle. "Some people are born to fight," he said, "some people are born to fight their brothers."
It sounded a little like the Mahabharata to me, the Baghavad Gita.
I told him I wasn't interested, but that we had a new brother, a brand new brother just one night old.
I told him about Adam being Buck Brawley's grandson.
And that he, Colonel Steadlow, could play Krishna.
Of course this esoteric chit-chat passed right over the heads of my good Texas advisers, but I felt I had taken off into the stratosphere. I couldn't quite identify what had done it to me, but somehow I knew I was free, I had flown the coop, I wasn't coming back.
We had twenty-one days, but Houston came that night. He said: "He can't put you outta your own house. Steadlow knows that and I know that. And Sheriff Brandenberg knows that, too. According to Texas law you cain't do it. Nobody can do that. And BB knows it well enough that I don't know what the bastard is up to. I don't trust that buzzard any further'n I can see him, and then only because I have acute eyesight. You come on over and spend a little time visiting me at the Houston B. We'll see what worked on Sheriff Brandenberg enough to make him even come calling. You suppose Baby Brother offered him a three-headed steer or something?" He laughed and he packed us right up and bundled us off to his placethe Houston B.
You know, I didn't know until that day that he had a different name for his ranch: The Houston B.
He moved us all, body and soul, over to his house. It was easy enough since we all lived like squatters, JJ, Adam, Sagalen and me. He'd send a truck tomorrowHouston saidif we needed any of our own personal furniture.
That night as I tucked Adam into the strange bed and kissed his forehead, I said to him: "You're Buck's grandson. The ranch would have been Buck's, so if you want it you have every right to fight for it."
He nodded seriously, his fourteen-year-old sense of justice trying to walk out on an identifiable path.
I took his hand, "You're also Johnnie's son and he just walked away from his Florentine heritageyou can see the tape about that if you want. He also just kept sidestepping and walking away from Pop's money. The only personal thing he ever spent it on was your foot."
I was holding Adam's hand real tight because I could feel it trembling.
"So you're free to fight or to walk away. Me, I never had anything, so I just walk away."
"Glory, don't go!" he cried, clutching my hand tighter, until I thought his young strength would crush my bones.
Again I kissed his forehead. "You sleep tight, kid. I'll be here in the morning. We'll talk at the breakfast table."
Down in the living room, at the mouth of the great fireplace which Houston had piled high and which was blazing away, stood JJ, poking up sparks, chasing the embers, while Houston chose to pace the big porch out in front; back and forth, back and forth, he braved the cold to look at the stars in the night sky, listening to the doves and the owls and the crickets. I sat down, picked up my stitching and stared into space.
JJ said: "I'm glad I didn't get my seed in the ground over there."
"Never fear. Houston'll give you land. You'll have land as long as you have plans."
Houston stuck his head inside at that moment and asked me if I wanted to come out on the porch to stare with him into the beauty of the night sky. Well, of course I didn't want to, not that I couldn't use a little beauty-of-the-night-sky, but I knew he had motives. . . But I was tying up loose ends, so I put down my stitching, got up, went out on the porch and looked at the beauty of the night sky.
"Houston," I said right up front, knowing I could no longer bear the burden of a man. "I love you dearly as a brother, as Buck's brother, as my brother. I love you as a dear, dear person, but if you want to marry someone. . . Now, you've not said one word about this, but I got my nose to the wind. If you want to marry someone, why don't you marry JJ? She needs a home, she needs a place to plant her seeds, and youwhy who knowslate in life you might just reproduce like the Brawleys have been known to do."
Now Houston was a big, and for the most part, a very quiet man, not unlike Buck, not unlike Pop. So he didn't answer, just sat down there in one of the white wicker porch chairs. Just sat down and gazed out into the beauty of the inky-blue night sky.
I tiptoed over and put my arms around his neck from behind and kissed him just a little peck on the ear. Then I tiptoed quietly up the stairs to my temporary guest room in Houston's old fashioned and elaborate house.
I thought about passing by the kitchen, as I would have done at home, over on the ranch, where I would have found Sagalen busy at her baking. She baked especially at night but she, please note, almost never ate more than one bite of her own creations. Sagalen, I was pretty sure was, that night, down in Houston's kitchen, talking with Houston's cook, Martha Good, Peter Good's fourth cousin, twice removed. But, I didn't stop. I wasn't hungry.
In my room, I thought: I've lost my words, I've lost my land, and I feel as if I am suffering from the greatest of good luck.
On Wednesday evening I went all by myself to a Black church in the poorest section of New Braunfels. Peter Good was there. Everyone came up at the end of the service to shake my hand and welcome me. They greeted me with warmth and affection, their hands holding me tight, their old hands that felt so much softer and so much rougher than white hands. They had the little kids shake hands with me, too. Some of the little kids shut their eyes and just stuck their hands out in front of them, some not even particularly in my direction. Then they just stood there waiting until I put my paw around theirs and gave it a good Havana-like shake. They didn't smile. When I let go their hands they just ran off. But the parents smiled. And I smiled. It was as if among these people who had almost nothing was the only place people could truly welcome each other, just for coming by, just for singing about Jesus. They welcomed me just for the joy of coming in to clap my hands. During the service we had all prayed for the storm victims in the East.
I felt I didn't have to go on living, I felt as if my soul were free. It didn't matter to me if I had a ranch or not. I had my two hands and some new energy. I knew I would get in my trusty old station wagon tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. I'd head toward Mount Saint Helens. I never had anything much, I didn't need much of anything now.
After all, Buck Brawley and I had never bothered to get officially married.
Besides, I really wasn't hungry anymore.
But I'd have to leave a tape for Sagalen: "It was hard for me, Sagalen, it really was. . ." I'd have to leave her a tape when I went off, ". . .living here alone where I had lived with Buck. Knowing you love Adam more than I do; that you know what to do with Adam and I don't. That you had known all along and I didn't. I was jealous as hell, I guess. I guess that's what ate. . . eats at me, makes me anxious. And Pop. . ."
I'd go again to the Black church on Sunday.
On Thursday via Express Mail I received a note from Havana. It had been sent from San Bernardino. It said:
"This was hand delivered to me two days after the explosion.
Enclosed was a much folded note in a much folded envelope. It had been typed on a computer; it read:
"Tell Gloria I love her, and that there isn't any other way. Because she'll ask."
Several spaces down it said:
"Tell her to take care of Adam and Sheila and Marilou."
Another couple of spaces, then:
"I loved Buck very much."
That was all, no signature, no date, no nothing. Havana had also included in her envelope, making it a rather fat package, the front page of the Yucca Valley paper. The Headlines read: BLAST KILLS NO PALMS CITY OFFICIALS. The lead article called Johnnie Beaudeauin a fanatic, named the kind of grenade, puzzled over the motive, speculated that it might be just one more of those random shooting type of incidents that were becoming so common on the streets of California, or maybe he was angry about the water rates. Though it didn't think his property had been affected. It mentioned Marilou and Sheila as survivors, but failed to mention Adam.
Another smaller article mentioned exactly who had died: Sam Giorno, Bud Norquist, Jackson and Mrs. Matthew Marshall Hall, Eckhardt Richardson and, it said, Sheriff Green and an unidentified man had died at the hospital. They didn't seem to think the unknown man was local and didn't know if he had been at the meeting or simply in the building. The FBI were investigating. It mentioned Beaudeauin's background as a marine, and there was evenone could tell it was probably written by an ex-servicemana touch of admiration about how well he'd been trained to catch eight at a shot. The end of the article promised individual obits on the six distin-guished citizens who would be "sorely missed" on Page 3. But Havana hadn't included Page 3.
The reading of the two front page articles drained me. It was hard to believe that I knew the principals, the people involved, every one of them. I had been reading headlines like that ever since I was a girl, and I had never known the principals. Though we'd printed some dramatic stuff in The Desert Truth, there'd been nothing like this. Hez? Buck? Neither "disappearance" had made the front page, let alone headlines. I guess Buck had thought it was too dangerous to say anything about Hez, and only The Desert Truth would have headlined Buck's disappearance, but I hadn't managed to publish a single issue by myself.
It was always hard to think of headline people as real people. Johnnie. Johnnie. I closed my eyes, I felt him holding me close, that last time in his little hallway-room, knowing I wouldn't see him again. How did I know?
I read his letter. I read it again and again. With its three widely spaced lines. After about the fourth reading it made my breathing slow down and my eyes squint to realize: Johnnie must have known. Must have found out about Buck.
"I loved Buck very much."
"There isn't any other way."
"Because she'll ask." He was being as cagey as Havana. But knewof that I was sure.
I was just as sure that he hadn't known when he held me close. No Brawley can lie from his chest!
Who had delivered the note to Havana? Someone Johnnie didn't particularly trust.
Havana said: "Nick Martinez," when I called her. "A nice kid from Twentynine."
"Did you read it?"
I didn't know if Havana knew about Buck's relationship to Johnnie, but I sure wasn't going to mention it on the phone. "Adam wants Marilou and Sheila to come down to the ranch," I said. I didn't have the guts to tell her about the Sheriff, the trouble. Houston, after all had 12,000 acres and a big heart. What did it matter?
"I figured as much. Sheila's at Yale."
"Nobody bothering her yet, but Adam should call."
"Johnnie sure got himself one bunch of lunes."
"Why, Havana, why?"
"They was killing us all."
"Is that enough of a reason?"
"What more do you want, honey? He was a crazy fellow, best we ever had in the desert, always giving away his money."
"There'll be an investigation now for sure," she said. "Now that the good guys are dead. I'll call Marilou, too," and she rang off.
My gut told me Havana didn't know. But I did. Now I did know the real motive. Loyalty lies deep in the soul of a Texan, lies deep in all the Brawleysright back to OMB. So does vengeance. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!" Oh Johnnie, Johnnie how arrogant you are for a saint! Were! I thought of BB. His vengeance. My heart broke anew. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!" Listen! I wanted to scream, Listen!
When I called Marilou, I found that Houston had already called, invited her, made arrangements. Sagalen must have urged him to do so.
At three o'clock that afternoon it hit me like a thunderclap. I was resting on my bed and I sat up shaking. Sagalen had told Johnnie he was Buck's son!
I found her in the kitchen, in Houston's kitchen. Martha wasn't there. She'd probably been given the day off so Sagalen could do the cooking.
"You told him!" I accused without so much as a preface. "You called him!"
She glanced at me, her old eyes were as opaque as a snake's, glittering, dark. She went on paring and slicing large red apples into a pie shell.
"You kept sending the money."
Again she flicked a look at me.
She went on with her work.
"Why?" I wanted to shake her. "Why, after all this time? Why did you tell him?"
And then she put her hands right into the middle of the white, thin, sliced apples, pressing down and down, her fingers going through the soft dough at the bottom, the soft dough being pushed up and over the edge of the pie tin. The apples broke, and her thin shoulders bowed. Tears dropped into the open pie.
I put my hand across her shaking shoulder.
"Didn't you know what would happen? Didn't you yourself teach me that you never interfere with a man's business. Especially if he's got Texas blood in his veins. Didn't you teach me that, Sagalen? Don't ask questions. Don't know nothing. You left him no choice. No choice once he knew." The tears were bright and glittery in my eyes, and I wanted to kill her. I held her close.
"I killed him." It was like trying to hold onto a little peach tree being chopped to bits, or the nervous body of a humming bird. She was crying and crying. This old woman, who I bet hadn't cried in a whole lifetime until last week. "I killed him."
"Honey, you didn't kill him." I had to believe that. Sagalen had never wanted anything for herself. One gingham dress and a kitchen to bake in.
"I thought he might come here, live with Adam and us."
"You wanted to meet him."
She raised her old grey eyes, as if I'd said something important, as if I'd said something that let her know I really understood.
"He wasn't like Pop Brawley," I said. "He was a good man, but he was different."
"I wanted to meet him. I thought he'd come home."
"He was like Buck." They were words of love, the epitaph for my love. At the same time my whole consciousness was filled with horror for I knew, given similar circumstancesif the No Palms vipers had killed his blood Buck would have done exactly what Johnnie had done.
For his inheritance Adam got a bunch of tapes from me and the headlines from the Yucca Valley paper telling about his father's crime in killing the sleaze bags. From Buck's side he inherited the whole life-draining need for protecting the ranch, his "rightful" possession. He got, if he so chose, years and years in the law courts outwitting Baby Brother.
I also gave him Johnnie's last note and told him it meant that Johnnie did know that Buck was his father.
"Buck," I told Adam, "had genes from both sides, some of Pop's and some of Sagalen's. He'd probably have lived to a hundred and ninety if he hadn't been killed by the scumbagsso you, Adam, have probably got ninety-five in you, minus your grandma Eva's dying young."
I got the right to walk away. Just walk away, because I didn't want any of it. Neither No Palms nor the Brawley Ranch. I'd sell No Palms. It'd give me enough change to last. If I don't kill myself, I thought, I may be in for some happiness yet. I started to laugh.
Holy God, what was there to do, but laugh about it!
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