INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
Sam Giorno, and 'Dummy' Green, the Sheriff's son, and another guy, whose name I later found out was Scott came by the next day. I hadn't met either Sam or Dummy before then, so I thought they were just another version of the big, almost inarticulate hulks that now sometimes did drop by the office. Sometimes they wanted to buy a paper -- they'd heard about us. Often they wanted to drop off a card, or more likely a bit of paper with their handwritten phone number on it, "in case we wanted anything done." "Anything, you know, rocks. Pipes. Plumbing."
"Ah, sure I do ceilings."
And often you wondered if the guy had ever looked up. Work, as I have said, was scarce in the desert, and even scarcer was finding anyone who was truly trained to do anything at all.
When these two great big guys come in, the biggest one sticks out his hand and says "I'm Sam."
I shake his hand. "Hi Sam."
"And this here's Don."
"Hi Don." I shake his hand, too.
Then referring to the dapper little man who'd entered with them -- but who is so neat and tidy and polished, and besides that holds in his arms a collared and leashed almost pure white cat, that at first I took them to be two separate sets of callers -- Sam says, "And this is a friend from L.A.."
"How do you do?" I extend my hand, but it's a full half minute before Mr. L.A. manages to raise, by first shifting one of the cat's docile paws, an almost limp hand to meet mine.
"He wants to put a big ad in your paper," says Sam.
"That's wonderful," I say and turn to the little man, pencil poised for the wording, very relieved that everything's so up-front and swift -- business-like -- because we are, as usual, swamped with work, and I had been dreading one of those slow, wandering, almost wordless desert chats out of which I never seemed to get very much.
"Mr. Brawley. I'd like to speak to Mr. Brawley." The cat man's voice has a kind of odd rasp to it, a little like he might have had laryngitis yesterday.
"Of course," I say.
Buck is in the backroom going over the week's final copy to be run down to San Bernardino -- it's due in two hours.
"Can I tell him what it's about?"
"I'd just like to speak to him," the little guy says, fixing me with eyes that make me feel like two bullets have just gone through my throat. They, his eyes, don't get any higher than that. They certainly don't look into my eyes. His small flexible hand pets the cat.
"Give him a call, Mrs. Brawley," says Sam.
"You sure I can't help?" I'm not usually so forward, but I know Buck is desperate. He's spent the whole morning, starting early, just trying to gather the names of the organizations that respond to 911 up and down the valley, trying to discover how they function, whose in charge of what.
"Let him handle it," Sam says. He's got a handsome face and a nice smile and he's Italian.You can tell he's a male-chauvanist-papa type: "Now don't you worry your pretty little head about it," are the next words I expect to hear coming out of his mouth. But instead he just nods and leans over resting his hand on the counter where I usually write out the ads. He lets his rough hand touch mine. "Call him." His eyes are looking straight up into mine. Brown, liquid, opaque. It's hard to tell if he wants to initiate an affair or. . . But I know there's something wrong. I don't usually notice people's eyes much, in fact I've always found it strange how writers so often read half the plot in some character's eyes. But at that moment I begin to understand.
"Okay, just a minute." I step back to the doorway and call, "Buck, O' Buck." Then, having made this up-front gesture, I step through the doorway into the back room. Sarah and Arenas both look up at me.
"Something wrong?" Sarah asks.
She nods toward the back of the room cluttered with computer and recording equipment. Paper litters the floor, old issues of The Desert Truth lie on practically every chair, the waste baskets are overflowing. Over in one corner, beyond the flickering screens, Katy Neuman's tape plays to no audience with no sound. On the way to the back, I have the wit to hit the VCR's stop button.
He's standing at the huge table in back, musing over the layout.
"Three men to see you," I smile. "Sam and Don and one from Los Angeles with his cat."
"They look pretty serious."
"Sam and Don?"
"I think they're local. I think Don is the Sheriff's son. And I've seen Sam around. Giorno I think his name is. I think they're the ones Katy mentioned last night."
"What do they want?"
"Won't tell a pretty little thing like me," I say with my best Texas accent.
Buck manages a smile and comes forward with me. When we get to the front room, without introductions or any niceties at all, Mr. L.A. hands the cat to Sam. "Hold the leash," he commands. Then he turns to Buck. "Can we talk in your TV room."
Buck's a little surprised, but he says, "Sure," and they walk out the door and across the gravel to the shed.
I'm left with the two giants and the cat.
"Isn't your name Sam Giorno?" I ask.
"That's right," he says, stroking the cat. "And this here is Donny Green. We work for the Sheriff's office."
"I thought so." My mind is racing around, trying to remember what Katy had said about them. Were they the ones who put on the brace? I'm sure they were the ones who put on the brace. I want to ask them about it, but Buck has gone out, and well, frankly I feel unsafe. "It's a pretty cat," I say to show I'm friendly.
"Yeah, he's one of them -- I forget what they're called -- bred for being friendly."
"Yeah. I should remember, I studied to be a vet once."
"How interesting." Then I smile -- real brave. "And you're one of the volunteer medics here, too, aren't you?"
He shrugs and laughs in Donny's direction. "Fame spreads."
But I don't dare ask them about Katy's grandfather. Somehow I know according to the desert code that's none of my business. I mean even Buck is only going to print factual material about how 911 operates, a kind of public service notice. We had discussed it in the night. He was going to print that and then he was going to call Mrs. Neuman. Everywhere you stepped in the desert, it was like walking on eggs -- or geodes. You were afraid the eggs would crack, and afraid the geodes wouldn't, or if they did there'd be no crystals.
It couldn't have been fifteen minutes before Buck came back. Alone. "He'll meet you in the car," he said to Sam and Don, and walked right on through into the back room. I watched Buck disappear, it wasn't like him not to pause even for one word of banter. When I turned back, Giorno was holding the white cat out in my direction.
"He likes to be petted," Giorno said.
"He's beautiful," I said.
"But, Mr. -- what was his name?
"He takes real good care of him."
"Come on, Sam," Don Green, who was still very young, was opening the door.
"I'll get you one like him."
"Oh, that's very sweet, but..."
"Oh please don't. We work too hard to be fit parents even for a cat."
"You shouldn't," he said, and laughed. And they were gone.
I found Buck again at the table. He was frowning over the mock-up. And he was angry.
"What did he want?" I asked.
"Read this," Buck said, tapping the 911 article. It took me a couple of minutes.
"It's wonderful," I said.
"No names, just facts. Right?"
"Did he threaten you?"
"A public service announcement."
A long time later, after the injunction and just before he died, Buck told me the guy's name was Scott. And that that morning, real early on, I mean we weren't even broadcasting The Desert Eye yet, he'd told things to Buck that he wished he didn't know. "Wished I'd never heard," Buck said.
"Better I don't."
"That's real macho, Buck. You've been keeping secrets a long time."
"Let's see if I can do something about them first."
"Glory," his eyes were real tired by then, his face haggard, "I love you."
"Hallelujah," I said tonelessly, really meaning to be sarcastic, to goad him into his famous truth telling mode.
"Damn right." He said his voice rising. "Hallelujah!" He grabbed his ten gallon hat and went out the door, shouting "Hallelujah!" That was Satruday night. He went drinking someplace. And the next day was Sunday. He disappeared.
I kind of assumed at the time, at the time the man with the cat came in, that it might have something to do with drugs. Or some other kind of big payoff. But I didn't press Buck that day, or later. It's only my intuition that tells me it was more than what we learned next from Havana, Havana Jones.
Havana, who earned her living as a private duty nurse, was motivated by a sense of fairness. Her obsession with Fairness was almost as maniacal as Buck's obsession with The Truth. She was under five feet tall, all Irish, right to the red hair and green eyes, and she ended up personally digging her own well -- to side step the "water situation." But then she came out slugging for everybody else, all the desert poor who could neither dig a well nor pay their water bills, and were too apathetic or too afraid to fight.
"Cute as a bug in a rug" -- you've heard that expression, well that was Havana. I had to ask her maybe twenty-five times why/how she ended up in No Palms, before I could remember/believe how she explained it. She came into the office of The Desert Truth, the shed, that is, of The Desert Eye, because she knew the rest of the story of Eric Neuman's broken neck, and thought we ought to know it, too. It led to some real insights.
If we'd been smart enough, that, plus the cat man's threat, would have led to putting our tails between our legs and high-tailing it out of there. But it didn't and we didn't. And Havana's still there, if she's still alive -- I pray each day -- because she doesn't have any exit route. Due to the earthquake and the down turn of the economy, she can't sell her house even for a lot less than she paid for it, and it was under a low income housing construction loan she built it in the first place. She built her own house and she built her mom's house. You know, grabbed the money, bought the land, got a set of plans and six weeks later owned the very first home that she had ever totally bought by herself free and clear from any husband, boy friend or "any other non-child-support-paying louse of the male sex" as she puts it. Besides that, her mom is sick, and she's rescued another two horses. I mean, the horses wouldn't keep her from moving. Nothing will when that iron will gets wrapped around the right day. The day she decides is the right day.
The first time we met, she drove up with a flourish. Screech. Bang. The door was opened and closed before you had quite accounted for the presence of a white Toyota on the lip of the loading dock that slanted up to the front of the shed.
"Hey!" her grin was wide, and her teeth were straight, she was pushing forty, but never looked too much older than sixteen. "You can't be anybody but Buck Brawley," she half chuckled, half shouted to Buck, sticking out her little paw that was always hard and hot, like grabbing a piece of tempering steel. "I've been reading your shit," her voice was always loud, and as crystal clear as the sunlight in Joshua Tree, 3,000 feet above sea level, just beyond the smog line. "You're brave but you're dumb!"
That's my Havana. And of course it made Buck grin from ear to ear. Nothing he likes better than a full-face, up-close shot between the eyes. Especially after whatever stab in the back he'd got the day before which caused him to rewrite the 911 article -- even after my pronouncing it to be as neutral as plain tofu. Which in turn caused the late delivery of the paper to the press, which in turned caused us to be up at 3:30 a.m. and to have already driven to San Bernardino to pick up the latest edition which was due for delivery yesterday. So he says: "This is Glory." A little longer pause than usual: "Hallelujah!" And all three of us begin to laugh like you'd have thought the sun wasn't just crawling up from her bed of pain. I mean, who but Havana would come calling on you at 5:45 a.m. to give you a brief introduction to the Black Hole of Calcutta as relived in the high desert right next to The Cauldron -- where it is known that only one Native American ever made it all the way across on his own in the old days, before the internal combustion engine and the snow birds -- and a first rate critique of The DTs.
"First, I can't believe you're so dumb that you think you can sit both sides of the teeter."
"Gotta. They'll self select. But the truth is wide open. Have to protect everyone, like the First Amendment."
"It's an A-mendment, honey. It ain't the way things are. Sometimes people shoot first before they re-think things."
"I'll chance it. Mind if I turn on the lights and the video camera?"
Again she laughed, her laugh was bigger than Buck's, I swear. Giggle giggle, her hair bounced up and down like the froth on a red beer. "What'd you want to do? Sell it to my hangman?"
"Just keep it. You'll own the say so, 'til you think the coast is clear."
"If we're really lucky that'll be the day after the earthquake. When this is the coast, and everybody else is down there living in the fissures. 'Til then there's not going to be any clear coast, win, lose or draw. You tuck it in the same place you tuck in Katy Neuman's tape -- you hear?"
"You got it." And since his fingers were already on two sun guns the shed sprang into incandescence like the inside of a sun flare. At the same moment, up comes the sun over Joshua Tree, and on comes the red light of The Desert Eye. Honey, I can hear old Buck's brain commenting, we are about to have an eye full of THE DESERT TRUTH! -- in spades.
"There's a lot you don't know."
"I'm not surprised." You could tell Buck was just going to keep purring for this little puss.
"Have you met Dingbat?"
"Don't think so."
"Well, let's start with her."
"You may have met her and didn't know it. Mrs. Matthew Marshall Hall?"
"Don't think so."
"Well we call her Dingbat or Ding-a-ling. Ding's not dumb, mind you, she's big and she's fat and she's smart like a boa constrictor. Ding's into Real Estate, capital R, capital E. Dingbat's an architectural term, in case you Texans don't know your Los Angeles jive. I never thought it quite fit, but some Englishman did. Supposed to name those cheapo, crumbling stucco, sliding glass door, four-walls-and-a-roof kind of buildings that you see from the Mexican border to Oregon, but especially in the Angel's City and the desert. But to me Dingbat's a dingo. That's a wild dog. Not all there. Froths with money lust, you know, greed.
"Anyway Mrs. Matthew Marshall comes here about seven years ago, poorer than me. Just drives into town in an old jalopy, her worldly goods lying in the back seat. A small back seat, and almost before she could get it unloaded she teams up with old Sleaze-Ass Jake.
"Sorry to make your tape unairable, but you might as well know the "real names" from the beginning. Anyway old SA, Jackson Hall, is in REAL ESTATE, that's how Dingbat got in REAL ESTATE. But we don't have to dwell on that. She's the brains. The shaft goes like this -- even while she's getting her license, which ain't hard out here. . . I mean, the palms you gotta grease in No Palms is relatively few. You gotta keep the pie intact, relatively speaking, or it ain't big enough to cut -- anyway, in case you haven't noticed, this is the ends of the earth. I mean, you don't come here unless you got some kind of complex, or habit, or religious conviction, or you're itching to take a jump off that edge that Columbus said wasn't there. It's right there." She pointed toward the rising sun. "The edge is right there. The government owns Joshua Tree and the Devil owns Twentynine Palms, so this is for all intents and purposes The End. And, aside from the old squatters and homesteaders, there're kids and there're old people on pensions, fixed income, small, little, itty-bitty incomes. If you got money, honey, you don't come here.
"Except I hear tell there's some brainless, monied, troublemaker moving in waving a new rag shouting 'Truth Truth Truth!'" She started to giggle. "Something. . ."
Buck started to chuckle.
". . .we haven't seen here since the gold rush!" And they're both laughing and thigh slapping so hard that I put up my hands to hold the camera still. You'd think old Pop Brawley was squeezed inside that little red-headed, snub-nosed, Irish, fast-talking nut.
"But don't get me wrong," she said when she finally sobered down. "There's money for Dingbats and for SAs. You got enough greed, you'll dig it outta somebody somehow. She takes out a young couple; she's real smooth talking, looks like your fat Great Grandannie Tell-The-Truth."
You could see right away Havana'd got Buck's number. Teasing him, leading him around by the nose. Her syntax was never straight but she knew an image when it bit her.
"Fat and broad bosomed -- how could she tell a lie? She starts out real sympathetic like. So, oh so sorry that they, this nice young couple, can't afford to buy even here in the Devil's asshole. The economy is bad, no chances, no deals, nothing -- you could see the tears standing in her eyes for the plight of the young who'd never owned a house or were never likely to, now or for the foreseeable future -- until Gandhi comes back as President of the You Knighted States! "And all the time they're driving around visiting shacks. I mean, if there's one thing we got here it's shacks. Homesteading shacks, no bigger than a fig leaf. And cruddy. I mean, door-flapping, sand-driven, crapped-in cruddy! And the tears coming down Dingbat's face, matching the tears coming down the kids' faces. You know what I mean: He clerks at the Homeowner's Emporium and doesn't make a dime, and she's pregnant with number three -- numbers one and two being with her mom down on the outskirts of Mecca. You see Mecca, honey? That writer, what's his name, outta go there. A Moslem be safe in Mecca, CA. It's almost too poor to find on the map.
"So with all this mutual flood of tears, the hard working kids know that Dingbat is on their side. They trust her. And they come back two weeks later. Now He's got a second job, and also gets to work overtime at the first. And She's going to take in kids as soon as her kid-number-three arrives. Dingbat is so impressed. She just knows they can do it. No more shacks. Or bigger shacks, better shacks, depends on how big a fish she thinks she's caught. Anyway they find that Right One. They got nothing, mind you: $50 for a down payment. But outta the goodness of her heart old Dingbat will carry it for them.
"They start making the payments. Well, of course, they got to eat. They got to take the Mrs. to the doctor, the new one gets here, needs diapers. No self-respecting desert mom ever heard of using anything but plastic diapers. See that mountain out there?" again she pointed toward the sun, "plastic baby-diapers. The whole range of the Bullion Mountains," she pointed slightly north, "and the whole range of the Sheep Hole Mountains," she pointed slightly south, almost directly at the ascending sun, "are plastic baby diapers. They don't decay. Solid as a rock. They'll make 'em a National Monument someday. Carve some president's face in baby shit brown, one day. Soon."
Buck yelped. She laughed. I giggled.
"Anyway, what a surprise! They don't have enough money for the third payment. Et cet ta ra. Great Grandannie Dingbat, all kindness, all sympathy (and big smiles) will of course help them out. She's gonna be GOOD to them. Just sign here.
"Well, guess what, in less than a decade she owns No Palms. There's enough water around here to make her rich just by the amount of tears shed by the kids and the grannies she's screwed. Their tears have raised the water table a good three inches. Old Dingbat's got a heart of flint. I dug my own well in spite of the salty taste. I figure it keeps me healthy, all that exercise."
And Havana stopped right there and turned to stare at Buck, shading her eyes. "Turn them God-damned things off," she yelled. He hit the sun guns but I let the camera run, even though it was just the silhouette of her head surrounded by the halo of the new day's sun climbing.
"I don't smoke dope, but. . ." She interrupts herself, "You wanta go have a cup of coffee?" She ignores me. Later Buck said she said I was too pretty to kill right off the bat. So they went off to nose up the "buried bodies," and she told Buck what she knew about the coke dealing and weed growing all around the valley, and how Dingbat had got hold of the Town Community Services District Board, et cet ta ra.
I went in the house and baked a peach pie with the next-to-last-jar of Fredericksburg peaches old Pop Brawley had canned with his own two hands. He didn't make that Texas distinction of "women's work," and neither did Havana for that matter. Her hands got hard and horny by digging her own fence posts, down loading her own winter's store of hay, doing a roofing job on her house that she had to do after nobody, five sets of nobodies, could do right. But I think she was smart enough to fear for her life. And she is still alive.
When they got back and the three of us had polished off the peach pie, I said. "Is Katy Neuman's grandfather a secret, too?"
"Nope," she said, "He's dead."
It was like a body blow at all those sweet peaches. For one minute I was afraid I was going to play a Mount Saint Helen's right in her face.
"Yep. The ambulance finally came back and took him to the local hospital. That one down the road. His neck was broken. They got a 'copter up here from Palm Springs. Flew him down. Twenty minutes later he was dead."
"Can we print that?" asked Buck, his suntanned face as white as I ever saw it.
The green eyes of the red-headed Havana studied him real long and real cool. "They got all the tapes on the 911 calls minute by minute, the jibber jabber back and forth on the ambulance. All the delays and the hee-haws and the hoo-haws. But Monica Neuman says she's not going to sue."
"Why not!" It was my voice and it was almost a shriek. I mean, I may joke about The DTs but even I know an open and shut case when it bites off both legs like a school of shallow water sharks.
"She's not mourning, mind you. But says she's got to live here."
"Fire starts real easy out there among the creosotes. The all volunteer department hasn't been able to save a shack yet. . .
"Not one," she added, shaking the short red hair. "Great record. I think they take pride in maintaining it."
I could see Buck brooding, as he kept picking the crumbs out of the pie tin. Pick pick. Pick pick. We watched him, like we would watch a clock tick. Tick tick. Tick tick. You know the kind, that big round-faced kind, whose tines used to jump, jump round the clock in grade school. Jump right toward the bell. Ding dong.
"I hope you got a deep safe," said Havana. "About as deep as a black hole will do." And she drove away. I always kind of got the impression that Havana didn't need the roads. It was like that white Toyota of hers skimmed straight out across the desert, rocks, Mormon tea, cholla, Gila monsters and all.
Buck looked at me, and I looked at him.
What could I do but shake my head.
It turned out Sarah knew Havana and Havana knew everyone. She'd even sat on the Town Board for half a term, before a campaign was mounted against her and she was recalled by Dingbat's shenanigans. I could never tell, can't tell to this day, if Havana carried a grudge or just an incredibly pure form of the Flaming Sword of Truth.
We interviewed Jackson Hall, the one Havana had called Sleaze Ass Jake, for the official opening night of The Desert Eye. He was the chairman of the the Town Community Services District Board, the local governing body, he was in a way, if you believe in a hierarchical universe, No Palm's most distinguished citizen. Buck played Barbara Walters, Arenas played technician. I played camerawoman and Sarah sat at the switching board. Havana had acted as procurer. "Pimp," was how she put it.
SA gave a little pep talk on how brilliantly No Palms was developin'. He hoped in no more than ten years we'd have a few golf courses of our own to match the eighty-two down in Palm Springs that made Palm Springs and all its hook-up of sister stars look like a technicolor version of Ireland -- from the air.
I'd been flying a couple of times with the Traffic Man from down there by then. God it was gorgeous the first time I went up. It had snowed the night before and the sun came out early to melt it on everything but the high peaks. There was San Jacinto and there was San Gorgonio as big and beautiful and snow shrouded as Everest and Annapurna. I can't carry a tune, but Marvelle Duke -- who'd been broadcasting the traffic for twenty-five years, along with his kind of "Goodmorning Palm Springs" program -- and I ended up singing, "O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day. . ." loud and off key as we swooped out Interstate 10 and back down 111, right from God's holy air to the local radio listeners on that morning's incredible dawn.
Nobody, not SA, not Buck, not me, not Havana or Arenas or Sarah ever breathed a word that maybe the Good Lord didn't intend the desert to look like Ireland.
Havana began to write articles for the paper. She knew what to print and when to print it.
But, because 90% of it -- what could at least be printed -- boiled down to water, let me describe The Water Situation -- in Havana's words -- as best I can. About a year and a half before we arrived, Jackson Hall and Mrs. Matthew Marshall Hall, his wife, (no one could tell me if her first two names really were Matthew and Marshall), plus what was sometimes referred to as the Sextet, and the rest of their nepotic gang, half of whom sat on the Town Board itself and the other half of whom worked in the Board's office, had rammed through a bond issue. It seems the last drop of water had already been squeezed out of the desert and now they needed to bring in a pipeline from somebody else's river, thirty-two miles away. And it was going to cost 32 million dollars. For our little bitty burg, she added confidentially, that represents Big Graft.
"To say nothing of the property owners of No Palms and the property owners of the other burgs around here who are just a linin' up, linin' up and fighting to get that old bond issue levied against their property (into which they've sunk their life saving) so that when the taxes come due, and they can't pay them, they can put their signature on the dotted line and sign their worldly goods right over to Great Grandannie Just-Sign-This-Paper-I'll-Rescue-You-From-Ruin who is standing by in all her benevolence to help them out of their plight.
"And if that isn't a sinister enough scenario -- five hundred people up and down the valley standing to lose their property for non-payment of taxes (even Dingbat don't have enough money to buy everyone out) -- some developer from LaLa Land keeps dipping his wings like the angel of death over No Palms, day and night. You'd think we was a strobe-lighted disco, filled to capacity, of course, with Apathy, Pass The Buck, It Ain't My Problem."
So Havana makes it her problem. Her obsessive sense of fairness overwhelming her good sense. She and a small circle of friends, including Monica Neuman, Sarah and Sindy, band together to fight that bond issue from Dingbat's first water soaked, pocket-lining breath.
They fought and fought and fought and fought and fought and fought and lost. People lost their property. The town, the whole valley's in a panic. The lethal debt is ticking off a few more property owners every day.
About this time we arrive, and after Havana introduces herself, we get a deluge of Letters to the Editor and articles backgrounding, researching, analyzing the Water Situation. Letters and articles that shout and criticize and spit venom, ones that suggest alternatives, and name the names of those in the foreground and those in the background who manipulated for the bond issue. We print them every week. Lots of them. Whatever comes in.
No, Buck didn't have to choose sides. Pretty soon the slings and arrows, the threats and nasty night phone calls were coming from only one direction.
The gist of the phone calls was usually: "Be careful what you print or. . ." and "I wouldn't go out tonight if. . ." All the citizens of the high desert put together had probably never got as many threats as we did in a week. Our notices were torn off walls, our papers trashed
A couple of times Officer Eckhardt Richardson just followed the van around town. We'd put out the papers on the store counters, on the news stands, and ten minutes later he'd pick all the copies up. Burned them, I guess, someplace. We didn't find out where. Sheriff Green, when we reported it, said sure, he'd check into it: "What exactly is the complaint?"
"Copies of The Desert Truth..."
"You're putting them out for free aren't you, whoever wants them..."
We put a twenty-five cent charge on all papers. Richardson would give the store owners a $20 bill and ask them to keep his account straight. It made it tough for the owners and for us because sometimes they hadn't even had time to count the copies.
We'd had a billboard made for advertising. Soon it had enough black paint splattered on it via stone-weighted plastic bags to look like a roost for giant licorice-eating seagulls.
Then, low and behold, one day when it is too late, one day after we had arrived, had listened to Katy Neuman, had interviewed Havana and put the tapes in the black hole and, in all the grandiosity of equal time, interviewed all the sleazebags, as well as a few others who were old enough or dumb enough not to care if they could live with their neighbors, or who had enough fire insurance, or who knows what other blackmailable evidence stashed some place outside the combustion area, when we had printed every truth that we could find, when we had won the up-hill fight for a few loyal readers, even a couple of cash-contributing supporters, one day out of the desk drawer of the Town Community Services District Board itself comes a study, A Water Study, no less, which tells Dingbat (who commissioned it) and Sleaze Ass (who also sat on the commissioning Board) that all the water No Palms et cet ta ra could ever want for 150 Years was straight down under their feet. Poke a Hole! Get a Geyser! The study had cost $300,000 of the taxpayers' money and covered seven valleys up and down the south side of the Mojave Ridge, and someone -- whose name we were not to print -- gave it to Buck.
Remember the White Papers on TV, the early days of TV, The Huntley/Brinkley Investigative White Papers? Well, Buck wasn't above stealing a good concept. Besides, it was -- in the spinoff format he devised -- a good distancing concept. I mean, Buck was filled with a crazy zeal for truth telling, but he wasn't stupid. Well he did a "White Paper" for the tax payers on the spending of their money vis a vis water. Just a nice factual study. Like Sgt. Friday: "Just the facts, Mam, just give us the facts." It was actually dry enough to send you out to fill your canteen. And we weren't even sure that we had an audience out there that outnumbered our staff/crew.
The next day there was an injunction against The Desert Eye. They thought maybe his license hadn't been properly processed out there in San Bernardino, the county seat. Miles and miles and miles and miles away, maybe, all told, fifty miles door to door from No Palms to the only issuer of licenses for public access television in all of San Bernardino County. I mean, fifty miles walking is a long way, cause your little red truck that had transported your computer equipment all the way from Brawley, Texas, wasn't working too well on its diet of sugar. Jesus, I couldn't believe it!!!
But Buck, as I said, was smart and he didn't drive it far enough to ruin the engine. But it did give the licensing department time enough to get the injunction firmly in the works, to wind miles of red tape around it, miles and miles and miles, maybe fifty miles of red tape. Even Havana didn't know how to slice through that Gordian knot of bright red, cochineal -- that's the reddest bug on earth -- red tape.
That was our first clue. I think that was the day the black hole opened up in my stomach and I began to wish I didn't know what I knew. But even more, I wished Buck didn't have ears and didn't have eyes, didn't have the brains of a foolish zealot. I wished that he would listen to me and the fanatic on the telephone that threatened to blow him away. "We aren't living in Latin America," Buck said.
I said: "Maybe it's Pathan."
Havana got legal advice. Bad legal advice, I might add, from the perspective of hindsight, and the Hill Country of Texas. And she found out about grand jury indictments, that anyone could initiate a complaint to start an investigation. And she began compiling the necessary evidence.
She tried to rouse the media. The real media. Ever try to rouse the real media about something you know at first hand that stinks to high heaven! Try it. It's like prodding two black cats that have just eaten twenty-five mice each, to eat that twenty-sixth mouse. You get the impression from Watergate and Iran Gate and the fate of Salman Rushdie that there are crews of avenging angels like Bernstein and Woodward just standing by, plumes at the ready.
But No Palms doesn't interest them. Who cares what goes on in No Palms. They come out, they look, they shoot some tape of the sleaze bags and the red necks, they go away, you watch. Nada. They got a plane crash to cover or some movie star's junkie son. Nada. Nothing. Not a word, not an image. All newscasters are more interested in the dead than the living.
You prodda. Everyone gives you great advice. Try X. Try Y. Try Z. Publicity!!!! That's the key. Try the law!
The the drill-bit in my stomach had already gone ten feet deep and was spinning for the earth's core. I'd been to India, I'd been to Africa. I understood just a little bit about tribal societies. I'd even studied the Jivaros, the head hunters -- just a little. Just enough to know that if you open your mouth from the wrong side of the sidelines -- and what could be more of a sideline than The DT -- The Law, Publicity only finds you when the Corpus Delecti is ready for dissection and burial.
Katy Neuman came to cry and cry, not over her Grandaddy -- life was a little easier in the house without the old boozer -- but I think it was over The Truth. Over helplessness. Over despair. Over cuffed hands and shackled feet. She was a bright kid. She tried to tell us about a drug warehouse. She didn't know where it was, but she knew it was there.
"Mr. Brawley I know it's there. I know it is, but even my friend can't tell me where. He thinks they got a whole storeroom of guns, too. There's a helicopter comes in sometimes at night. It's got a bright beam. You think it's one of those LA police choppers, but it ain't. Mom'd kill me if she thought I was telling you." Her eyes glistened bright with fear and unshed tears.
"But why? She's with Havana, she's with. . ."
"She doesn't want us barbecued, she doesn't want the old homestead fried." Then she added softly, "This friend of mine over in Twentynine thinks they're flying in from Mexico."
"Who's your friend?" Buck asked.
She shook her head, "Uh uh," and the tears brimmed over, slid one by one in at the corners of her trembling lips. "They already got him once."
"I don't know. I'm not saying anything more. Nothing." The tears kept falling.
Buck put his big bears' arms around her and rocked her, rocked her, crooned. He had a nice voice, like an Italian. I guess she had never known her dad. And he put $10,000 in the bank for her college education. Buck did things like that. That dumb dead big-hearted bastard.
Havana just kept writing and digging post holes, rescuing dogs and cats and horses, a couple a goats. And she roused the ladies. Ever notice how the real fighters, the real stamp lickers and typists who get the copy out are mostly women? The ones who walk around and stuff it in your mail box. Women. The ones who do the first draft and the last draft. Women. Havana had noticed. She was such a feminist she would even write to the Post Person in the Post Office. Post Person. That's me, a Post Person. Oh God, when do I get my wings?
Oh, I forgot to tell you that Havana got dragged to the desert by her third husband, a ne'er do well, who thought he was a ranch hand. She supported him for a couple of years until she finished raising her daughter and her son sired by the first husband she had reared. Then when she announced that she wanted to quit working at nursing and concentrate for a year or two on gardening and being of use to the community, he took off.
There are almost as many abandoned women in the desert as there are old cars. It's hell on the cars, but when you really look at the nitty gritty of it all it may be a good trade-off for the women. You get strong fast in the flying sand, you get dried out and leathery, you get used to disasters and the long distances it takes to solve them. Serrano Indian women, aside from their questionable urge to have more male babies, could find food in any landscape, they were great berry pickers, and root gatherers, knew the herbs from the poisons. As Faulkner would have it re the Blacks: They survived. No mere husband would ever do Havana in. On the other hand she was so strong and endearing, so full of courage and resourcefulness, honesty, good will and generosity, you wondered what God had been thinking about when he created men for the most part unable to lay their egos aside long enough -- though she never noticed -- to appreciate her.
At that time she was beating her heart out against an ex San Berdu police officer, who it took only one look to know wasn't on her side. He milked her for dinner, he milked her for sex. I only hoped he didn't have a more serious dairy business in mind, one planned over her dead body, because she went to bat to get The Desert Eye out of court and on the air again.
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