INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
The night the flood gates opened Buck was fiddling with the video recorder. The big door, big enough to let in a helicopter, was rolled up, and he had just trained the camera on me, while he tried one set of lights and then another. I was backed up against the wall that he had draped with our only pair of blue sheets. They had white doves of peace on them, doves carrying olive branches. Suddenly, coming in from the darkness, we heard steps clacking and echoing, stumbling into this huge space that was our still set-less "TV studio" -- and a girl's voice, angry, talking, already talking. Katy Neuman had her hands out like a blind person as she made her way into the lighted area over the cable-laced floor. She was wearing desert boots and jeans. Her face was streaked where tears had washed away the grit. She was eddying around in the middle of a story she was telling to the night or to God, it seemed, more than to Buck or me. Certainly it was imperative that she tell someone. Buck told her to slow down, stand still, and look straight at "The Desert Eye".
". . . these sleaze bags standing around watching him, watching my granddad lying there, not moving. Mom is antsy. She's into, you know, politics, and all these characters, all these 911 grafters, are the opposition. I wanta tell you about this, listen to me!" she cried when Buck flicked on the brilliant light of a sun gun.
"Go on, Katy," I urged, eager to both help Buck and to calm the distraught child.
"There they stand, the hours ticking by, they stand studying, you know, the layout." Her voice is bitter and angry, but at the same time, you could tell she relished the telling of the story. "Like, there's the VCR and there's the TV, there's the radio and the phone. It comes in the wall there and they can cut the wires as they go out -- snip snip, any old time. I mean, these characters are real sleaze. I mean, you know, like sugar-in-the-gas-tank types. And they're all standing around watching.
"Gramma is saying, 'His neck is broke. His neck is broke. Can't you see? His neck is broke.'
"They stand there staring, stupid, not saying a thing. They just stand looking at the ceiling, looking at the floor, studying what kind of lock's on the inside and what kind of lock's on the outside. You know, the layout, like they got their survey equipment buttoned up their ass. Leering at Mom from time to time, and at Gramma.
"Mom keeps yelling that they got to get Granddad into a God-damned ambulance.
"Gramma keeps shrieking, 'I think he broke his neck.'" Katy's voice imitated a thin, high squeaky voice: "'I think he broke his neck! I think he broke his neck!'
"He ain't moving. They keep asking him, him, mind you: 'Do you want to go the hospital?'
"Hell no, he don't want to go to no hospital. He's telling them, the firemen -- this with his voice box and all -- rasp rasp, 'Hell no,' gurgle gurgle, 'I don't want to go to no hospital.' I mean, that's what he woulda said, except, you know, he don't speak well, can only form 'No' with his lips. I mean, it's been like two years ago he lost his voice box and he don't speak much even when he's sober and standing on his own two feet.
"I guess he and Gramma got their talking done before he lost his voice box. I mean, you know, they never did do too much more than sit around and bellyache, ever since I can remember, drunk and bellyaching. Talking about how this shouldn't be and that shouldn't be. Talking 'issues,' as if their issues was going to make any difference. You know, bellyaching -- for years. I can't remember that Granddad ever did anything else. Dipping and bowing, waving around like a little tree in a strong wind, shouting and complaining. Maybe that's why the good Lord took his voice box in the first place, I mean, to give us a rest. I mean, give our eardrums a little rest after all the sixteen years of complaining I've had to listen to."
"Katy, what's happened?" I asked. I could see she was trying to pull too many things together. "What happened tonight?" I urged, trying to get her to focus her attention, to divert her before she said something she'd be sorry for. Buck held up his hand for me to be quiet.
"I never paid too much attention to it all because, you know, I know what drunk means. It was always like maybe it was the TV, just noise, going on and on, going on and on and on. You kind of get used to it. Ain't so nice as a cat's purr, but it don't bother you too much -- even if you're doing your math problems. Or I go out. Let them have the house for complaining. I complain, too, but mostly to my friends. What else are friends for if you can't tell 'em your troubles?"
Her eyes searched the darkness behind the camera, the blackness that the three sun guns had created as Buck turned them on one by one. He had aimed them first at the floor and then into her face but, compelled by her story, she didn't seem to mind, not after the first one, indeed, the light on her face made it seem as if she were telling her story to the burning, incandescent desert sun itself. When she couldn't see us, she went on again, recapitulating and circling again and again around the story of her grandfather, like a buzzard looking for its dinner.
"So he's lying there, kind of flat out with a bent neck. Gurgling, not moving, Gramma bitching. They're standing there, and the time is passing. Mom's getting hysterical. She's telling them he needs to go to the hospital, and Gramma's screamin': 'I'm a nurse, damn you, I kin see with my own two eyes: he's got his neck broke. Ain't no one lie that still unless they cain't move and he ain't moving. He hasn't moved so much as a little muscle since he fell down there head first trying to tie his shoe lace. He fell straight over. I saw him,' she says, 'he hit his chin, bent his neck back, snap, and lay there sideways.'
"When those dumb creeps arrived -- 'Dumb creeps,' that's what my mom calls them -- they just turned him over and his neck goes crunch, and Grandma starts hollering at them. 'Don't move him! You damn well better know what you're doing to move a man that broke his neck! You ain't taking no precautions,' she's yelling fit to be tied.
"'Don't move him, he needs to be put in a body brace,' she's crying. I mean, like she was losing her puppy. I mean, they been quarreling for years. I never got the impression there was much love lost between them, and I think she's drunk now, too. I even think she's getting drunker, for she walks out of the bedroom every once in a while, and when she comes back her grey hair sticks out all around, like she's been in a high wind. She's got tears on her face hollering at those guys who are, as Mom says," Katy opened her eyes wide and whispered, "The Enemy.
"That's a situation and a half, too," she snorted. "I mean, you got to understand the politicking that goes on in this town. I mean, Mom says -- not to me, mind you, but I hear her on the phone hour after hour after hour, so I know all about the politics of this little burg -- everybody is sleeping with everyone else. The fireman with the police chief's wife, and the police chief with the water commissioner's daughter, you know what I mean. I mean, I don't listen too close, but she can cite you chapter and verse about who's sleeping with who. The local politics around here is so sleazy that you can't watch anything more sleazy on TV. I mean, it ain't just the medical squad that's a total loss, the whole town is a loss. I mean, it might even be dry as a bone soon. Not for lack of water, mind you, but for politics.
"We got lakes under us, Mom says, and rivers running right through the ground, but the local Bosses and their cruddy pals is drying it up, channeling everyone's water right through their inseams. Lining their pockets. Really lining them. I think I can even tell you how they're doing it. I mean, I don't know about politics from nowhere and I don't care right now, but you know I will care one day, when I get old enough to have babies and bills.
"I been to the meetings, too. I mean, you never saw such meetings as we have here, not on TV, not in the movies, you just don't see what we got here. I mean, name calling. Red in the face! The Board president screaming, his eyes bugging out, his -- well you know -- spit spraying. I mean, I sat down in the first -- well no, the second row once and his spit come flying right out and hit me in the eye. He's shouting wild and mean at anyone who's disagreeing with him. I mean, you have to see the whole thing to believe it. He's screaming and shouting and the secretary's shouting -- she controls things. I mean, she controls things! And she's cuckoo as they come, sitting there shouting down almost anyone who has a word of sense to say. That's what my mom says. They got the money going through their pockets and they don't listen to no one. They just holler them down in those meetings.
"And she says -- I mean, I'd like to ask my poly sci teacher about it, but of course I don't dare -- but she says, that Board don't answer to no one. Don't answer to nobody, not the voters, not the county, not the state, nobody, not even the president. I mean, I don't think that's what we're taught in poly sci, but that's what she says is true. They don't answer to nobody, not even to their God-damned grandma. They shout and that's the law. You fight it. I mean, my mom and her girlfriends, they fight and fight, they talk on and on, I mean, they talk even more than my gramma and grandpa bellyaching. They say it's an illegal form of government. They're trying to get this stopped and that organized and Lordy, oh Lord, its more dramatic than a Movie of the Week. I mean, you have to see it to believe it.
"They're all dopers you know. I mean, some of them. That's big money, even in our little bitty town. You got habits, you got to support them. I mean, support them good. There's factories and refining joints. I mean, there's a lot of kids at school who got habits, lots of habits. I tried it myself once or twice. I didn't tell Mom, she'd shit her panties if I told her, but I did try it. But you know what? I ain't interested. It's not that much fun, and Jesus, where do I get thirty bucks? I mean, I haven't seen thirty dollars for just a habit in my whole life.
"I mean, Gramma and Grandpa, they weren't poor. Not poor, but they had -- Jesus here I am speaking like they're dead. They have a habit. Alcohol's a real habit. Look what's happened to the poor old guy lying there, still mad as a hot green pepper, just lying there turning green and red and green again, trying to shout through his little old voice box. Lost it to cancer, you know. Mom says he's probably got cancer of the liver, too. Cheer roses."
Again Katy paused. Whipped her head this way and that, like a frantic rabbit caught in headlights. Buck said softly from behind the camera, "What happened then?" Her eyes flash red as she stares right into the sun gun to the right of her face, stares right into it as if it were what had spoken and not Buck at all, and she smiles sweetly, flirtatiously.
"Well, I suppose I should start back at the beginning. Or maybe someone else should tell you this story." She blushes. "It ain't pretty, but it is funny." She laughs. "You never know," she speculates, "if his neck is really broke, it might cure him of his habit.
"I mean, are you going to drink with a broken neck? Seems like the liquor might just come jetting out the sides of your neck, you know, where all them funny little bones go to make up the spinal column. Can't you just see the beer, or Jack Daniels jetting out. Making the room smell awful, like it often does anyhow, with all the liquor that's been spilt around the house over the years. I mean, my mom keeps the place clean, except for their room, which is Gramma and Granpa's own private province. I painted them a sign once that said just that: 'Private Province.' They spend all their time in there. It's actually two rooms, one a bedroom and the other's got a couch in it. They sleep there and drink there and watch TV, especially when Mom has company in the other part of the house. The other part where she now keeps closing the doors to.
"I mean, first one guy and then another, they all got to go in there and have a drink of water, a cup a coffee. I mean, they been hanging around a couple of hours already and they keep sneaking off for a pee, more coffee, more water, in our part of the house. Mom keeps trailing them into the kitchen. I know she thinks they're out spying, casing the joint. Taking the opportunity! Here they are in The Enemy camp and they're counting it real lucky and taking advantage while we're all staring at Grandpa gasping.
"You could hear their radios cackling outside, too. I mean, they pulled that old paramedic fire truck right up unto the lawn, you know, 'cause the front door is a good walk from the driveway. I think they did it out of spite. Not destructive, mind you, just arrogant. Never mind Mom's petunias, and little plants. Just drive right up. They walk out every once in a while and, cackle cackle cackle, they use that radio: 'Hello, hello, we're at Neuman's, the old man's wacko. Naw. Maybe. Sure. Sure. Sure.' I got long distance hearing. They don't know I could eavesdrop from the moon.
"Then they decide to move him!! Oh Jesus. They got some kind of permission or something. Two of the creeps bring in a thing that looks like a cage.
"'You going to put him in a neck brace?' Gramma hollers. 'You don't know diddly-squat about how to put no God-damn man in a neck brace.'
"They just moved on in, like super-cop. Now that they're moving, got something to do, they move like a couple a clowns on TV. They don't say nothing. They've quit talking to Gramma. They act like she isn't even there. Not there, you know, some crazy old loon of a drunk Gramma. Ignore her. She's a nice old gal in her way, but they ain't giving her the time a day.
"'I'm going to tell the Sheriff,' she screams, and then the Sheriff comes, and he don't listen to her neither. He goes into the kitchen to have a cup of coffee, cases the joint.
"He talks to Mom. He may not be so bad. But he's in their pockets, you know what I mean? He keeps his job by being right there, living in their pockets. He tries to get out, they slap him down. You know, like you got a frog in your pocket when you were a kid and you slap it down.
"Anyway, there they are on their knees, the two biggest guys, Sam Giorno, and 'Dummy' Green, the Sheriff's son. They take this cage and divide it in two. Gramma is screaming: 'Don't you lift him, don't you lift him!' So they lift him, letting his head dangle, and, oh Jesus, he's trying to shout through his little old voice box. Mom is screaming and Sindy, from next door, is screaming, too. She come in just a little while before. She's a fire ball with a shaven head. I mean, she shaved her head a while ago for the heat, maybe even a couple of months, and she's all fuzzy-headed now. Now she's here, she's talking and talking and telling 'em what to do, she talks more than Gramma, maybe, certainly as much as Mom, and she's one of our political figures. Our side. Jesus, she's always going down to the meetings and she shouts as much as they do. She's got a real loud voice, and a cute face, kind of round and pink and she shouts. She can shout so loud people actually listen. I mean, I've seen it, people stop and they turn around and listen -- even for five minutes. But she don't know nothing about medical science, so she's kind of hung up in shouting even though she doesn't know what to shout about. Mom and Gramma are shouting, too, telling 'em how to put the neck brace on.
"It's painful to watch. I mean, they're handling him like a sack a dough. I mean, you get to wondering if they would handle their side the same way, even if he was some old alcoholic. Some dumb old alcoholic.
"I can't watch anymore, so I go look out the window at the marigolds. I think about God. You know I think about God sitting out there in that blue blue sky. The sky is always blue out here in the desert, always blue and clear and bright and sunny. I mean, its gloomy in that room, you'd think it was a tomb. But outside it's blue, and I think about God and I start to talk to Him. But I really don't know what to say.
"Help him get better? I mean, how bad is he? And as long as I'm wishing should I wish him off the booze? Then what would he do? What would Gramma do? So I don't continue the conversation. I stop talking to God. I just look at the blue sky I decide it probably isn't worth it, talking to God, I mean."
"Katy," I cried. I wanted to stop her. I wanted to hold her in my arms.
"I mean, it's all fucked-up." She over-rode me. "I mean, I'm only sixteen and I can see it's all fucked up. So God, don't you think--? He doesn't care, doesn't give a shit. So why talk? Just more jaw flapping. Why talk at all? So I turn around and lean against the window, and I just fold my arms and I watch the scene. I mean, it's a scene. I mean, I know that normal people don't live like this. Do they?
"They're fiddling with the straps, and they're doing the buckles, and they even look a bit gentle, trying to get the old man's head straight enough to clamp it down. And then they get done. They stand up and they don't know what to do. I mean, these two big guys, they really kind of fill up the room.
"So another pee, and another cup of coffee. Are they just going to leave him there? Put that brace on him and leave him there? On the floor?
"Gramma said: 'Don't put him on the bed! Don't put him on the bed!' She hollered about that for half an hour. I keep wondering if she thinks he shit, or she. . . Well, I know you're not supposed to move an injured man unless you know what you're doing. But you'd think these dingo medics would know something.
"Later on the ambulance arrives from Yucca seventeen miles away. Seventeen miles in three hours. You know, that's not too swift. He fell down about four o'clock and they're getting there after we should have eaten dinner. Mom says it's because she's who she is and they don't give a shit about serving the public. You on the wrong side, you ain't public anymore, you're just the wrong side. Know what I mean? You lose your identity and you are The Wrong Side. Mom's convinced they're really dragging this out because she is The Opposition. I mean, it's hard to tell who wants what done. But I think they need to take the poor old fart to a hospital. Which hospital? I don't know. Don't they come from a hospital? I don't know. So I turn and talk to God a little more.
"And when I look again they're taking the neck brace OFF! I know there's been some talk and some radio-ing and clumping back and forth behind my back, and when I turn around the ambulance guys are taking the brace off. I can't believe my eyes, so I go have a cup of coffee.
"I talk to God a little more out there in the kitchen. You know about other stuff, about my boyfriend. I have a donut. When I come back in -- I mean, I did hear the commotion and the engines, and I come back in and they're GONE! They're all gone except Mom and Gramma and Sindy and me. And Granddad is still lying there on the floor -- not moving. With no brace." She paused.
I want Buck to stop the camera. I feel he's treating her like a butterfly pinned on a blackboard.
Buck waves at me to be quiet. "How'd this all start?" he says to Katy.
"Well, I was just coming home from school, just walking up the street. We don't much have paved streets here, that's also part of the greed and corruption my mom says. They take our taxes -- we got taxes and taxes and more taxes right up your you know what." She kinda starts laughing and doing a little jiving. She's feeling the light now, performing. Her tears are dry. "Taxes. But they don't spend the taxes on the roads. I mean, the town's got 4,000 people and maybe three paved roads.
"As a cousin of mine from the city said, said when she come to visit us -- we're driving up one of the paved roads, full of pot holes and chuck holes and rocks and gravel and sand and, you know, desert shit, and I say: 'This is one of the few paved roads in No Palms.' And she says real cute like, 'This is paved?'
"I mean, you could just see the little old question mark a waving there at the end. 'This is paved?' And we laugh and laugh. So they don't squander the taxes on paving the roads. They don't do that.
"So almost any place you walk out here you walk on the sand, the dust. There'll be a flat strip and the rocks are hurled back so you can tell it's a road. And if you walk along at the edge of the road you can see the beer bottle line when you go by the empty lots, you know, from the road to as far as the human arm can throw, beer bottles, nice brown broken beer bottles. And they all have dogs, lots of dogs, 'cause red necks love to scream at their dogs: 'Come in here you Gawd damned son of a bitch! Lie down! You hear me! Lie down! Gawd damn it.' So yap yap yap, you walk along the dirt roads you dodge a hundred dogs, and the kids ride their bikes there, scrunccccch! trying to make the tires squeal in the dust, and the cars go by. Not too many cars. Not out here on the city streets. But the highway's a real Indianapolis Speedway.
"There's a marine base out there another dozen or so. So those fellows, those jar-heads, have to get from the city, you know, Palm Springs, to the base. They fly through here like we were the halfway mark on a bird's flight to the south pole. Whiz whiz. You stand down at the highway a moment you get dizzy. Even right in the middle of town -- they got signs posted "45 mph." But whiz whiz. Nobody'd think of stopping, so you just got to wait. You wait until they've all gone. Whiz whiz whiz. Then you can cross if you're lucky.
"Anyway, so I was walking home with my friend -- who lives on up the hill in a real small shack, one of them homesteading shacks, been here a long time. Lots of homesteading shacks around here. We're talking and laughing, and throwing a couple of stones, and up ahead, you know, it's up a little rise, not quite a hill, but up there's Grandpa.
"I mean, there he is swaying like in a high wind. He's always swaying. I mean, he would have made a fabulous tango dancer, it seems to me, because sometimes he sways way back. Maybe he was a tango dancer. Anyway, up there, outlined against the blue sky, you know, waving like a flag, there he is on the rocks a little above the drive.
"That God-damned ambulance had to climb the rocks. But everything out here's got four-wheel drive.
"So there he is in the yard. I mean, it's what? -- four o'clock. Sunshine. Blue sky, kids coming home from school and there he is, his pants down and fumbling around with his thing. You know, trying to piss into the wind. I mean!
"You know, I try not to see. I turn my back and we're laughing and I can tell Sally, my friend, she don't mind seeing. She's looking bug-eyed and I've got my back to Granpa and I'm not seeing. I mean, I seen Granpa piss before. Why do I want to see it now. But then, you can't walk backwards forever, and it don't make no difference to me anyhow. I mean, it's Sally I want it to make a difference to, but she's seeing and snickering. So I turn around, too, and I see and there he is, waving the family jewels in the breeze. I mean, you can almost feel the drops, he's shaking and finishing. Another little squirt. It's like that saliva coming down on you at one of those political meetings.
"Men are always spitting and shitting. Peeing out in the yard. God! They whip it out every chance they get. Like you're supposed to be interested or something. And now. I mean, now. I get mortified. There he is, his pants way down, and he's -- I swear to God -- he's squatting to shit. I mean, you know men pee in the yard, but in the front yard!? I can't believe he's going to shit. Well I can't really tell. I think he's squatting to get his pants. I mean, you know he's like one of those gyration dolls, weaving around, you don't rightly know what they're doing. Weaving around, weaving around. The wind's blowing. The marigolds are bright as can be. I look at the blue sky. I think about God just for a moment, looking down on my grandpa out there naked as a jaybird. I mean, he's got a tee shirt on, but that doesn't cover much. And his pants way down around his feet. And I guess he's just trying to get them up but he can't. I mean, he teeters. So he got a hold of his belt. It's all pulled out almost and he's shuffling toward the house.
"I challenge Sally to a run and we run screaming by the house right over the little hill and start down the other side. And Grandpa doesn't even see us. He's going shuffle shuffle, holding his pants by the belt and gaining on the front door. I stop and look toward the hills and I think: God, let him get inside. I mean, he is humiliating me. I mean, he isn't humiliating me, he's humiliating me in front of my friend. Even if she looks and laughs. She snickers. She's going to tell the other kids. God, I hate kids.
"He got inside. . ."
Kathy Neuman's mother had come in. "Katy!" she commanded.
Katy stopped talking.
Mrs. Neuman hustled her daughter out of there without so much as a hard stare.
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO