INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
On the label in Buck's handwriting it said: INTERVIEW/JOHNNIE BEAUDEAUIN. I pushed the play button real quick after I slipped the tape in for I knew I wouldn't have the courage to look at Buck if I thought about it even for a minute.
The dialogue came on before the image.
"Forget it," Beaudeauin's voice said. "The last person on earth you need a tape of is me."
Apparently Buck had the camera aimed at a wall for there was a small sign that said something about a Machintosh with the little symbol of the bit-into-Apple. They must have been in Johnnie's shop.
"Don't be so nervous kid. You know me, I gotta hole deep as a well to bury any tape you want buried in. But I think it's important to tell stories of guys like you. I mean your personal stories. You're the balance for these God-awful desert rats. The desert used to have a reputation for holy men, you know."
"There's nothing special about me."
"Sure, all ex-marines tell everyone to donate to the hospice instead of taking money into their business. Besides I'm smart enough to know you're not rich. It's not an excess of money, or not too much of an excess of money, that makes you peculiar."
"I don't need yours."
"Just say I like The Desert Truth. Seen too little of it out here over the years."
"Sure. About a hundred and fifty people like it by now -- like it even enough to pay for it -- but it doesn't mean that when I go to buy gas they give it to me for free."
Johnnie Beaudeauin laughed long and hard, and during the middle of that laugh Buck turned the camera on him. "Come on," he said as the merry laugh tapered slowly back into silence, "tell it to the lens. You started to tell me something about your wife's Pa."
Johnnie's round, handsome and always startlingly young face stared silently into the camera. His gaze had gone inward. He didn't seem to be thinking or considering, maybe not even remembering. In fact, his face looked perfectly Chinese to me.
Have you ever been to China? You see that look that the barbaric early invaders (the English, the Dutch, and the expressive French) used to call the look of the "inscrutable" Chinese. I think they just weren't used to looking at people who don't have an expression on their face. You walk down a street in America, any American city, or anywhere for that matter in Europe, and you see expressions! Everybody's got a point of view or a pain or a problem or a question or an answer, most of which doesn't relate one iota to the street they're walking on. Things prey on their mind. In China people walk down the street without expression. They dwell in neutrality until that neutrality is impinged on by something that calls for expression. If you say "Dzow," which is "Hello" in Chinese, or "Good morning," they'll beam with delight, with extraordinary welcome.
That's how Johnnie Beaudeauin's face struck me. He remained deep in repose as the camera stared at him. I had noticed it before. He was deep in repose most of the time, until some expression was called up by some event or bit of conversation.
"Well, in Nam," he said and paused a long time. "I shot a little napalm. Some Agent Orange. I saw people and people's houses go up in smoke, screaming children running in flames to the river. I opted to stop shooting Napalm and Agent Orange. I spent a little time in the hoosegow. Had some time to think."
He paused a long time. Buck didn't speak or move the camera.
"Had a lot of time to think." He nodded his head up and down, his jaw thrust a little forward, his under lip tucked a little over his upper. "So I thought a lot."
Another long pause. Pauses as long as a Native American will take between sentences. "I didn't like to do what I had been doing. I didn't want to do it any more. So I declared myself a Conscientious Objector. I became a CO."
Again he paused -- a ghost of a smile on his lips, as if this were a memory he was pleased to think about. "Now that, like changing horses in mid-stream, is not easy to do. You probably know that. I can't believe that even as a World War II vet, you wanted to do it, do war, I mean, or you wouldn't be here being so nosey."
Buck didn't bite on the opening. He just remained silent. The hand-held camera jiggled a little.
"So eventually, when all the threats and all the shit got cleared away, I got into ambulance driving, emptying bed pans, you know the kind of thing I mean. They weren't going to send me home from Nam. Nor was I particularly looking for them to send me home. I just wanted to be part of the cure and not part of the disease. So I saw a lot of hospital work, and even some civilian hospital work among the Viet Namese we had just tried to exterminate. So I was there a long time."
Another "inscrutable" pause.
"So I saw a lot."
Again, he wasn't thinking or remembering, he was just resting. Resting quietly, letting the energy flow at its own rate.
"It's different in Asia."
Buck grunted his agreement and let the time pass in silence.
"So I got home late. My wife had died while I was away -- and her mom. Ginny, my wife, she died of an abortion. Not mine. My best friend wrote to tell me Ginny was dead. But I chose not to go home. Wouldn't have been my kid at all.
"I read in an editorial lately -- not The DT mind you, your perspective's not quite wide enough -- that more women died of botched abortions here in the good old Hew Hess Hay, during the Nam years than American soldiers did in the war." His eyes flashed with anger and hurt, but his voice remained steady.
"That was before they legalized abortion."
You could see the tears standing in his eyes.
"I mean, the soldiers thought they were unappreciated. . . Can you imagine those back alleys, probably filthy -- the guilt? What sticking a coat hanger up your gut might be like? I loved Ginny alot. I wasn't there when she died. They didn't want to give me leave. I should have gotten leave, but I didn't get it and, under the circumstances, I didn't fight it. Her mom was with her; she wrote me a letter. But by the time I got home her mom was gone, too. Sudden. Heart attack, I guess. Great old gal.
"Anyway, her dad, Ginny's dad had depended on her -- Ginny and her mom, us. He was an old geezer. Outta work most of the time. So when Ginny wasn't there any more to send money on from her check, he didn't have any. None. He and Ginny's mom had parted friendly-like, years ago. He lived near Santa Fe."
A long pause.
"I finally came home when the war was over. It wasn't much fun, I picked up what pieces I could, didn't even think about Ginny's old man. I even forget how I began to think about him, or how I found out about him. But somehow I heard he was living in a cave in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Hah! The Blood of Christ Mountains.
"Now, I don't have to tell you I wasn't angry at Ginny. Why should I be angry at Ginny? I was gone almost five years. I met some lovely Vietnamese women. She met -- whoever. Anyway, I didn't want to take it out on her dad. He wasn't too well, is how I heard it when I finally heard about him.
"And I hadn't started the shop yet. I wasn't even here in Twentynine Palms. I was still in the City of the Angels and I had enough money and a house full of a few interesting antiques -- my grandaunt had been somebody." He widened his eyes for the camera.
"So I went to Santa Fe. It wasn't all that easy. But I found him."
"Living in a cave?" Buck's voice was thoughtful and a little incredulous.
"We don't much take care of our homeless."
Then Johnnie waited long enough, so that Buck finally urged: "And. . .?"
"He liked it."
"Liked it?" Buck kept this voice neutral.
"Yep, he was loving it." And Johnnie Beaudeauin grinned, a huge grin on his smooth, young-looking face. "Seems some parts of the Mountains of Christ's Blood are full of people living in caves. Which shouldn't sound as peculiar as it does, because we all know about and love the architectural wonders the Cliff Dwellers left behind. Most of America has driven a few hundred or a few thousand miles to look at the tumble-down ruins of the Cliff Dwellers. They admire the pots, filch the shards if they can, you know, walk around on the paths, read the brochures, buy imitations, copies of pots, and read Tony Hillerman. But other people still do it, I mean, really live in caves, cliff dwellings, and Ginny's dad was one of them.
"He'd taken up rock carving. Said he had found some carved rocks on the mountain, and someone had told him they were done by some old geezer named Coluzzi. A long time ago. Coluzzi was somewhat of a hairy bear from an old Boston family. I imagine --" Beaudeauin laughed again with that innocent glee on his boy's face -- "he probably looked something like you."
"Thanks," Buck's voice was neutral, and I knew he'd be reaching for a cigarette off screen, before he discovered he didn't smoke anymore. Buck was big and ugly and would say so, but he was still sensitive about people talking about his looks to his face.
"Anyway, Coluzzi had carved up a bunch of rocks after he got tired of civilization. They say he had jumped -- or fallen -- off the Brooklyn bridge. I met an old woman named Pearce over in Las Vegas, New Mexico. She'd known Coluzzi, invited him in for a bath one time. She said he left a ring of dirt and hair you needed an ice scraper for. You know it was one of those up-right shoe-shaped bathtubs. And when he was all clean, he looked at his hands, she said, with such wonder. In earlier days he used to do Kabuki dances, she said -- the women's parts. People would laugh at him, she told me, but nonetheless he did them very beautifully.
"Anyway Ginny's dad found some rocks he thought were Coluzzi's, but he just left them there, didn't feel a bit compelled to archeologize them or tell some museum, or take them home to his cave. Just stumbled across them and left them where they were. He wasn't into Kabuki, but got inspired to do some rock cutting." Johnnie chuckled. "Didn't have much talent either. But he didn't mind doing a little hunting for his meat, and he was friendly, so people'd let him glean or give him some vegetables. And of course there are all the nuts you can eat from the pi–ons.
"I'd gone up into the mountains past where the Penitente live to find the old guy to sympathize with him, and I came back filled with envy. He didn't want to move, he didn't want to get on the welfare rolls, all he wanted was to remain anonymous up there in the cliffs and not see any BLM fuzz or BIA bureaucrats come looking for him or his couple a buddies. He'd go sing with the Penitente sometimes in their Easter Sunday ceremonies. You have to be pretty cool to manage that. The Penitente want less to do with you and me then a black widow spider wants to do with her husband. They're Spaniards dating back before the pilgrims, you know. They used to crucify one of their own each year, but that's not allowed anymore.
"So what could I do? I mean with an old guy like that. He knew what he wanted and never once looked at the price tag. I stayed with him in the cave for a week. I don't like to overstate it, but it was rather a time of exultation. Ever slept in a cave? The sky was clear, sometimes you could hear the animals up on top, where the vegetation was. The rocks are so beautiful in the moonlight you almost think they are soft, like down pillows. What a view you have out from one of those rainbow shaped caves! They're like a band shell inside. If you sing you get the feeling that the music is projected right out to the stars. And if you choose the right one, you have all of creation at your feet, you can see for two hundred miles."
He stopped to savour for a long time what he had conjured in his mind's eye. He looked at Buck seeing if he could see it, too. Off camera there was a sound, a door opening and closing. Some foot steps.
"Have you ever been to Mesa Verde, Buck? That's probably the greatest place on earth to help you find out, to help you understand the appeal of living with the earth. So I went up there after I left Dad. I camped out for a few days, mostly in places I wasn't supposed to. But the rangers are friendly enough. Some of them are ex-marines, too."
At that point, though the camera remained still, Johnnie Beaudeauin got up. As he walked out of camera range he said, "I sent him a little money from time to time, when I had too much.
". . . help you?" I heard in the background.
And then there was a space of blank tape.
When the image came on again, Beaudeauin and Buck were outside. I would guess they were behind the computer shop, for Johnnie was sitting in front of a stretch of desert, the kind of nondescript desert that stretches away behind the streets of Twentynine Palms for eternity. His face was dappled by shade from the dense tangle of the miniscule leaves of the Palo Verde tree he had his chair tipped back against.
"So, in Los Angeles. . . Yes. It wasn't cheap. I mean I didn't have a job. I had had some training in computers, it was all -- the computer industry -- just beginning if you recall. I worked at this, I worked at that. I didn't know why I didn't move to Santa Fe. Santa Fe means Holy Faith. The City of Holy Faith. But of course there never were any jobs there, so I didn't go. I didn't have any real urge to become a permanent cave dweller. Then I met Marilou and we got married, had Sheila and Adam. By then I was selling a couple of computers, working at another job in a software store, and moonlighting some repair work. You know, making do.
"Then I don't know if it was because of the computers or what, but one day, almost simultaneously, Marilou and I just got tired of taking care of our stuff. I mean, so many people came in so razzed, so frazzled by owning this expensive junk that they didn't understand, and probably didn't need, and something had gone wrong! They were panicked at the price they had paid for the computer. They were on the edge of a nervous breakdown for the price I felt I had to charge to fix the junk to make a living. I felt like one of our A.M.A. medicine men, who have to be about as insensitive as God -- charging prices so high that if you haven't had a stroke to bring you in, you'll have one on the way out when you get the bill.
"I guess Marilou and I were both late blooming hippies. But when it came right down to it, I didn't want to get the jacuzzi repaired once more, or the dishwasher. I sure as shit didn't want to get the antiques brought up to snuff so you could sit on them and open and close the drawers. I mean, a couple of those pieces were fifteenth century Florentine. What the hell was I going to do with them? I was never going to be a Medici. Maybe my grandaunt had thought she might be, but I wasn't. Or maybe she didn't have a choice either. Maybe the old stuff had come straight down in the family, each generation thinking they had to keep and to guard, to twist their lives around those pieces. Because they were valuable, maybe $15,000, maybe $50,000 worth. I don't know I never really checked it out.
"Anyway, one night Marilou and I -- she's more full of highjinks than I am -- we get a friend's truck, along with two friends. It's full moon, so we can see quite well, but we also wait until late, I mean, real late. Like 3:30 a.m., and we drive to the west gate of Bel Air -- you know Bel Air in Los Angeles. There are estates in there the Medici's could envy. It's not so posh near the west gate, but sometimes there's a guard in the gate house at the east gate, so we take the long way around. But we didn't want to go too slow or wander around too much in there because, like in Beverly Hills, there's cops patrolling. If you look suspicious they'll stop you just to look at your papers. Anyway, we find the biggest God-damned palatial-looking thing we can find by the light of the moon. Tudor looking, lots of timber and brick. We make sure it's all sound asleep, nobody stirring, no dog's going to bark."
He turned to look off across the desert for a while and said, in a low gruff voice: "Woof woof." Then he turned back to the camera with a sweet smile playing around his lips. I could hear Buck chuckling, anticipating some kind of fun, a Buck Brawley kind of fun.
"Then we back up real close to their lawn -- you know, a sweep that comes down over a few acres. But we choose a spot real visible from the house so they won't overlook our gift, so they'll see it early in the day, preferably at breakfast time, before that movie star or corporation president or whoever-he-is goes off to foster his capitalistic ideals. We take out our three Florentine pieces and leave them, pretty as you please, right there on the lawn, a chest of drawers, a large carved chest, a high-backed chair, and yeah, an old mirror, too, the silver so tarnished in it you swear it belonged to Donatello. Maybe it had. Those four pieces made a lovely arrangement, like a conversation pit.
"Then we sped away under the moon into the dark, laughing and FREE. We never never never had to think about our responsibilites to those fine old pieces again. We didn't have to twist our lives out of shape to guard or keep them, or house them or insure them or -- you get the picture.
"God we laughed!" His face was like a ten-year-old boy's, wonderous with glee.
"'Let the rich take care of their own shit!' we kept hollering all the way back to our almost empty house which, by that time, with the creeping blight was way in the wrong end of Hollywood."
"Why didn't you just sell the stuff?"
"Jesus, Buck baby, you ever try to 'just sell the stuff?' I mean if you're not a dealer or, better yet, a wheeler dealer it's almost as much of a pain in the ass to try to sell your fifteenth century valuables as it is to keep them in repair. I mean I did try Sotheby's; they had a branch in town at that time. But they wanted to authenticate and discuss price and -- and it was boring. Both Marilou and I were already longing to go out and breathe some of the desert's grit."
"I did sell some -- newer stuff, but it wasn't worth the bother. Now I don't want you to think we didn't appreciate the craftsmanship, the love that went into creating those grand old pieces in the first place. We did. We did our best to make sure that whoever lived in that house, whoever they were, looked like someone who'd take a second look, take in the orphans, do right by them. I mean, we never saw a story in the paper. But we did drive by there a couple of nights later. There wasn't any furniture on the lawn. So we felt we had done our best.
"Soon after that we moved out here. By then the computer age had arrived."
The camera just stayed on him for a long long time, watching his smile, almost caressing it, you might say, until it faded.
"That's all," he shrugged. He was getting uncomfortable. Suddenly he leaned right into the image and it began swinging wildly. You could hear scuffling and some laughter. Finally the camera came to rest on Buck's image. It jumped violently once or twice, I guess Buck was trying to grab the camera back.
Then Johnnie Beaudeauin said: "Your turn."
"Ah, come on," Buck's big voice said, pleasant, but serious. "Don't waste the tape."
"I'm sure your listening audience, all seven of them, would like to know how a nice guy like you, big and Texan, and -- I'm sure you got a 'spread' down there in Texas -- how come you have to come to No Palms. I mean, even the Nam refugees pass by No Palms. How come you come out here to broadcast The Desert Truth?"
Buck looked at him and his shaggy eyebrows tipped down at the sides and shot up in the middle like they always did when he was amused but didn't want to smile. "I guess I'm not so fond of caves myself."
"Come on Buck Brawley, you gotta give as good as you get. Why'd you come to No Palms?"
I nearly stopped the tape at that point. This was the first time I'd seen Buck's image since he died. Laid over his face like a double exposure, laid over my remembrance of Buck every time I thought about him now were the images from Giorno's pitiless tape, the merciless savagery of his killing. I didn't want to start crying again.
I was playing the tape on the QT in the middle of the night, so low that Pop Brawley couldn't hear, so low that if Sagalen could hear she'd think I was just watching TV, which I do watch about once every two weeks -- when I need to feel, just a little, that umblical cord that keeps me attached to our society. I usually look at animal programs. But they mostly depress me, too, because they're always done about this species dying out or that one needs to be rescued. It's as if we can never just look at something as it is, as if we are unable to just look at the world like one of the inscrutable Chinese, without having to take a stand, to adopt a point of view, to make it a problem.
Besides, I didn't know if I was prepared right now, this very minute, to find out why Buck Brawley went to No Palms. Would he really answer Johnnie Beaudeauin? Was there an answer? Had Johnnie Beaudeauin answered? What? Oh yes, why did he give away his services? Well, yes, he did. And yes, I guess he had answered the question. He thought he had at least. He thought he had said something that Buck could understand. And now he was asking Buck to say something he, Johnnie Beaudeauin, would understand.
He probably didn't know I had asked that same question -- Why No Palms? -- at least half a hundred times. I had come to think Buck didn't know. I couldn't figure any other reason he wouldn't tell me. I had chalked it up to karma. Impulse. Being driven.
"Come on baby, tell me why you came to No Palms."
Buck laughed his easy big laugh, "I don't think I have an excuse."
"Well you just tell me your history and let's see if we can't rake an answer out of it."
"There's not a hellva lot to tell. I was stationed here as a kid, I mean here in Twentynine Palms, when I was twenty-three. I was born in 1918. I had to do it. I had to join up, outta Texas. You know that's what all the kids did. We all went scampering off to the Just War. It was a lot more fun than staying in school. And damn all, we were right. We had that conviction. We really did." Buck's face was sober, silent. After a long time, he put up his hand, first in front of his face, then to cover the lens.
"Hey, Buck Boy, you can't ask for the truth from other people if you can't shell it out yourself."
"I don't mind telling you the truth, Johnnie, I just. . ." he paused. The screen remained dark. "I just got this urge to come back. Come back here, do a newspaper."
"Did you kill anyone in the war, Buck?"
Light leaked over the image: a closeup of Johnnie's hand, all fuzzed out, pulling Buck's hand out of camera range. And you could see why Johnnie had asked the question: Buck's face was kind of funny, his eyes screwed up, squinting, like maybe he didn't want to cry.
"Were you in the Pacific or Europe?"
"The Pacific. Did you know that that famous picture of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is faked?"
"It's not too surprising. Most good pictures need a little staging."
Buck didn't say anything more.
Finally Johnnie asked, "But that bothers you?"
"It doesn't bother you?"
"Well I guess it can, now that I know."
Another endless pause, the camera just watching Buck, like I used to watch sometimes in the night when he was asleep. Just looking and looking and wondering what went on in that big brain. Just wondering the wonder of another human being.
"Is that what motivates you, Buck?"
"You don't think it's enough?" Buck asked a little sheepishly.
Johnnie considered for a moment. "I think it's a little easy."
"You want more."
The camera moved just enough so that you knew Johnnie shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. You're the one that's after The Desert Truth."
"That consists in making it a fair world for other people. Give them a voice."
"Your father didn't give you a voice?"
"Oh sure, Pop let me say anything."
"You sure don't want to say much of anything on camera."
"It's not my style. Hell, boy, I ain't got no thoughts, I just got an urge to action. I just do. Lots a things need to be done in this world." Buck looked more and more sheepish and embarrassed. Again his hand reached out to the lens. The tape went black.
"I think I believe you, Buck." Johnnie Beaudeauin's voice said. And I couldn't tell if he was telling the truth, or if he didn't want to embarrass, maybe even hurt Buck by not believing him.
I let the tape spin on and on, watching the flickering on the empty screen. I'd let it play out to the end so I could be sure there wasn't anything more on the reel.
After awhile I stood up and walked to the window. I could see the reflection of the flickering screen in the window and, if I stood real close to the window, I could see into the moonless night. The cottonwoods danced a little, silently in the night.
"Buck," I could feel my lips say, and I could see my reflection in the dark window, but I couldn't see the tears as they rolled down my cheeks. I couldn't even feel them until the drops splashed on my forearms. I had crossed my arms below my breasts so that my hands could be tucked warmly into my pits. For a moment it was as if I could again lay my ear against the warmth of Buck's heart.
A long time after the tape had wound itself to the end I turned off the machine. I turned off the flickering square of the TV. I shut off the lights in my little private parlor next to my bedroom where Buck used to make love to me on the floor. In fact we used to make love all over the house when Pop Brawley was out for the day. Imagine a man of seventy being that horny. I was no slouch myself. I guess neither of us had had enough love while we were young. Too confused, maybe. It was a tough thing growing up right after the War. Kids now just have no way of knowing how far we've come.
Or the awful price we've paid in other respects.
Maybe I'm just getting old, I thought as I slipped between the cold sheets. Because those were the same sentiments my mom and dad expressed when they were fifty and sixty and seventy. I use a juicier vocabulary, but the sentiments. . .
Except that the possibility of destroying the world was no longer just a manner of speaking. No, I corrected my self. We probably couldn't destroy the world. But we might be able to destroy ourselves. I turned my head to look out the black window in the black room into the black sky. I tried to remember if I had ever slept in a cave. I used to go camping a lot with my family. Then with my friends. I had traveled, God knows, at least half the world. Did I ever sleep in a cave? Did I ever want to? Why had I gone to No Palms?
Because of Buck.
Did the causes in a married woman's life go back to the same causes as in a. . . I searched for a word, but I couldn't find any other than . . . a "free" woman's life?
Well, I was free now. I had left No Palms as soon as I was free.
What were my choices?
Did I have any?
Did I want any?
What if I had just refused to go to No Palms? Just refused.
Three weeks later I got a small package, mailed out of Palm Springs. They looked like more wrist bones, maybe knee bones -- I wasn't sure. Now I had ten bones, or ten pieces of bone. At this rate I could hope for a whole skeleton, say in (How many bones in the human body?), two or three more years. A small penciled note in Havana's scrawl said:
"LSL owned by Scott Scott and Jacobs, insurance brokers out of L.A. for 25 years."
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