BY JAN HAAG

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

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO






NO PALMS



PART I, CHAPTER 9




About a week later Sagalen called Colonel Steadlow to come and read the will to her and me and Houston.

An hour before he was due to arrive Steadlow called from San Antonio asking us to come in because Pop's Baby Brother had just phoned to say he was flying in from the East for the reading of the will. Houston had picked up the phone, he took the call. After a moment he said loud and clear and friendly-like that we were not coming in to town, said we were not delaying. Said for the Colonel to come on out and we'd take it from there.

Houston eyed my jeans and the old shirt of Buck's I was wearing. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

"Houston," Sagalen, dressed as always in her gingham, snapped. "She's not aiming to catch flies."

You have to understand, of course, that if there is any place in this country where women still dress up to go to the doctor and the lawyer it's in Texas, all over the south, maybe more so in the deep south than in Texas, but in Texas you can still see white gloves at a tea party, and an expensive suit at the lawyer's is more de rigeur than I'd have expected among these individualists. Pop had never noticed my wardrobe, nor had Buck. They probably didn't have any idea what I wore. But Houston knew the proprieties, even if he didn't live by them.

Now he shrugged his wide white-suited shoulders, tipped his Stetson back, sat down on the porch with his feet on the railing. Nobody said Boo about Baby Brother.

Steadlow arrived before the hour was up. He was still a little flustered but under control. I wondered how BB had found out about the will reading. Houston grilled the Colonel about BB's phone call. But BB hadn't called, it was his secretary who'd called to say he would arrive in San Antonio at 10:00 a.m. It was now 10:30.

"Well we're a little slow getting started. Pop hated anyone to be late," said Houston.

Sagalen said, "I've cleared the kitchen table."

The will was simple and it was clear. Everything that had been Pop Brawley's was now mine. Period.

From the expressions or lack of expressions on the faces of my "family" I guessed Pop had already told everyone, maybe even before he'd told me. And since we'd just sat down no one got up, except Sagalen, to pour each of us a cup of coffee.

I was a little shy, a little frightened, not by the news, but by the now palpable reality of it. I glanced at Houston and then at Sagalen again. A smile began to draw my cheeks and my eyes. I had already inherited, I was pretty sure, the No Palms property from Buck, which wasn't, I guessed, worth very much. But now I had more than I needed, I had thirteen thousand acres of Texas. Johnnie Beaudeauin's serene face popped into my mind. I wondered how I was going to feel about something that needed to be kept up, cared for, owned.

We heard a car drive up, circle around, not in a hurry, and park at the side beyond the wall, out of sight, where Pop had always liked to keep all the cars. Didn't like the sight of them, he said. Liked to use 'em, but didn't like the sight of them. Preferred animals, he said. And he was always as kind as could be to the horses, loved 'em, kissed 'em, gave them carrots.

There were footsteps on the front porch. And before anyone could move, Houston shouted in his echoing voice: "Come on in!"

The screen door opened and closed.

"We're in the kitchen."

Sagalen sprang up and went to the stove, grabbed the coffee pot as it it were a refrigerator door and shook it.

I was facing the dining room which led into the hall and I waited. Colonel Steadlow turned in his chair and waited too. The footsteps that crossed the hall and came through the dining room weren't wearing boots.

"My deepest apologies," said the tall, spare, dark figure that appeared in the doorway. He was white-haired, hatless and wore a beautifully cut, dark blue suit. I just stared. Nobody else seemed incline to speak either. "I was not able to come to the wake. How sorry I am that Ed is gone." He paused. "I've had a particularly busy time this summer. The economy and all, you know."

"But you wouldn't want to miss the will!" Houston boomed, and at last got up to put a hand on his uncle's shoulder.

"I thought it might be important to be a witness."

Houston had him in tow now, bringing him to the table. "This is Mrs. Brawley, Buck's widow." BB was forced by the pressure of Houston's arm to step right up to the table. He put out his hand. I let mine touch his for a moment. I anticipated it would feel cold like a rattler's skin, but it was warm and smooth. Quite courtly, he said: "A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Brawley. And Buck?"

Houston narrowed his eyes, "Buck's dead." he emphasized.

The old, spare man, tall and looking just a little like Pop, but slim, very slim and trim, bowed his head. "I'm so sorry. It's terrible to be so out of touch with one's family."

"About two years now," Sagalen said as she brought a cup of black coffee, set it close to Baby Brother, but not on the main table. She put it on the little side table that faced the window.

"Sagalen, thank you. Thoughtful as ever."

She brought the cream and sugar tray and set it down silently. "If you want some."

BB glanced around at the chair that was being proposed for him. You could see he was longing, was planning how to move it to the main table.

Steadlow rose, and shook his hand. "We got your message a little late," he said. "You look the same."

"Half a century doesn't make too much difference, does it?" BB laughed affably. "Good to see you again, George."

Steadlow nodded, his gaze was steady.

"Sorry I missed Pop. I hadn't seen him in. . ."

"We'll read it again if you want to hear it." Houston said, returning to his place at the table. Sagalen poured more coffee for him and for me, for the Colonel and for herself. Houston nodded to Steadlow and he read again:

"'The land, all the houses, every stick of furniture and every dollar bill, all my accounts, all my worldly goods, and all my future income, in a word, my assets, I leave to Gloriana Brawley, wife of my deceased son Buck, Edward Buckingham Brawley." Signed Edward Manchester Menecieus Brawley. Dated, June 16, 1992. Witnessed by John Charles' -- he's the school principle -- 'and Dr. Alvin Bluebutcher, and Houston Brawley, here, for good measure. And, oh yes, here's a codicil, a one dollar bill, left for you, 'Manchester Menecieus Brawley, my brother.'"

BB must have felt like a TV star for all our eyes were on him, intently. He sipped his coffee, he nodded his head slowly, let his gaze fall from the meeting with our eyes. He poured a little more cream in his coffee and took another sip.

"Amazing he could remember all them names at ninety-six," Sagalen muttered, heading once again for the stove.

"What names?" You couldn't see his eyes, but there was just the tiniest leap of interest in BB's voice.

"His names. I'd almost forgot his names, myself. He hasn't used 'em since he was a kid."

"Like you, Baby Brother," Houston laughed pleasantly, "do you use your real name?"

"My business associates are a little more formal."

"I bet they are," Houston slapped the table and guffawed.

"Congratulations, Mrs. Brawley, it's nice to meet a new member of the family and to know you'll be well looked after."

"Why thank you, Mr. Brawley. What is your real name?"

"Manchester Menecieus."

"English? Like the city?" I asked

"Yes."

"And the other."

"You'll have to look it up in some Greek history book!" Houston was enjoying himself.

"House of Cadmus, father of Jocasta," Colonel Steadlow said, who all too rarely had the opportunity to show off his considerable learning.

"Old Man Brawley must have been something," I said, and because I was getting nervous in this sparring atmosphere, I stood up, and walked to the window. I looked outside while the conversation went on by fits and starts at my back. Then I turned around, knowing my face was dark, that BB couldn't read me, but I could read him. I hadn't been an ad executive in the City of the Angeles for nothing. It's called the "window ploy" high up there on the ladder. But I must say, he looked harmless. His decorum was perfect in handling these two rough men: Steadlow, an old badly-shaved ruffian despite his education, and Houston, doing his very good best to help BB feel uncomfortable. Sagalen did not return to the table. She got out her baking stuff: flour and sugar, and started softening some butter.

"I never got to tell Glory you called before the wake," Houston confessed his face as bland and blank as a boy's.

"I heard it was something of which Pop would have been proud. Made me think of Dad. Remember his funeral?"

"Shocked some of the neighbors," Houston informed me, then again to BB, "but now nobody's quite so religious. Not Pop, not me."

"Two-stepping and singing."

"You would have enjoyed it," Steadlow assured BB.

I really thought that was a funny remark, because if anyone didn't look like he would enjoy a down-home Texas blast it was this tall, genteel, soft-spoken Baby Brother. His next question, put with great delicacy, was: "Where is he buried? May I visit the grave?" He stood up. I think he was very uncomfortable and longing to get away from Houston's and Sagalen's scrutiny.

"Pop?" Houston cocked his head.

"Yes, I'd like to pay my respects."

I saw Sagalen wipe her hands on her apron and scuttle out of the kitchen.

"Is he down by the old man?"

"Nope. Austin's buried there, beside Grandpa."

"And Buck?"

Houston didn't answer this time, just studied him. I had a wild fantasy of taking him by the hand, leading him upstairs, giving him the ice-cream box, enumerating the bones for him, discussing which was which, "this is the wrist, this is the ulna," and where they were found.

At that moment Sagalen came striding back into the room. She thrust the urn containing Pop Brawley's ashes into his brother's hands. "He was cremated."

Steadlow cleared his throat, looked like he might be shocked enough to faint at the rude abruptness of Sagalen's gesture.

BB accepted the urn because he could do nothing else. It wobbled in his hand. Fortunately it was closed at the top, sealed, or he would have spilled Pop's ashes on the kitchen table.

"Whatever respects you wanta pay," said Sagalen and went back to her baking.

BB held the urn, closed his eyes. I could see him trying to collect his feelings, to concentrate, to summon an appropriate response to holding the urn of his dead brother, for I could see it written all over him that he was a very conventional man, interested in propriety. Houston was right, I probably should have worn a suit.

When BB opened his eyes again we were all still watching him. His discomfiture was evident. He didn't know what to do with the urn, whether to set it down on the table or give it to Houston or Steadlow or me. Suddenly I felt sorry for him, as if a nasty trick had been played on a little boy. I stood up, reached out, took the urn from him and handed it back to Sagalen.

He smiled, relieved. There was a little sweat forming on his forehead. He wiped it with a clean white handkerchief.

"Mrs. Brawley," BB turned his light blue eyes, full of gratitude, on me. "It'd be nice if I could just choose a memento from my brother's house, would that be too much to ask?"

"Why what is it you want, Mr. Brawley?"

"I haven't been here for many years, could I just look around."

I felt a little chill pass over me, and didn't quite know what to do. Pop had warned me. Pop warned me. Pop?

"Let him have what he wants, Glory," Houston said. "We've got plenty." Then, as he rose, Houston said to BB, "If you don't see what you want here, I've got some of Pop's stuff at my place. And there's more," he nodded out toward the fields, probably meaning the barn, maybe the other houses scattered across the ranch.

I turned with the idea of leading BB around the house, expecting everyone to follow. But Houston said immediately: "We'll clean up here. Do you have any questions?" he asked Baby Brother as he extended his hand.

"You were completely excluded?"

"I got my share a long time ago."

BB nodded, "Of course."

As we walked into the dining room, BB smiled at me, took my arm. I wondered what on earth he could want. I'd long ago thought that most of it should go to the Salvation Army, give us a little breathing space, a little room. The only thing I could see concerning him in the whole house was maybe that picture in the upstairs hall. But that was painted on the wall, part of the house, part of the structure, and it was one of the few things I liked. Well, he couldn't take a wall on the airplane.

We made the tour of the house, him kind of free associating as the various objects called up his memories. He was quiet and quite friendly, he kept his eyes lowered. I wondered what he was really looking at. Before we were done, Colonel Steadlow had to go back into town Then Houston said he'd be over at his place if BB wanted to come visit, but he had to get home because they were branding today. "We always brand on the horns nowadays," he said to BB. "Easier on the brutes. Breeding and branding, just like when I was a kid," he said and left.

When we had seen all I was going to show him of the house, BB suggested he'd like to walk down by the pecan grove as well. He said he'd like to take a minute, take a walk, before he decided what to choose. He'd been real friendly and very charming. I called to Sagalen to say we were going for a walk.

"What's time to a hog?" she called back. "Mind the snakes."

"Snakes?" BB asked.

"Why, BB, if you've got 13,000 acres of Texas land," Sagalen had come to stand on the porch, "you've got snakes."

BB took a moment to admire the fachwerk construction, the gingerbread on the gables and the verandas -- he called the porches verandas.

"Pop died in that chair," I said, pointing back toward the rocker. Sagalen had gone back inside.

"It was always Dad's favorite, too."

I showed him the peach orchard near the house where the little trees were bearing fruit already. "We're expecting a good crop next year. They're as good as the ones from over Fredericksburg way."

Pop had called his baby brother a white devil. Well he was white. But once he actually set foot on the soil, he kind of relaxed into an attentive appreciation of nature. He commented on the birds, knew the names of the trees. He possessed a little of Buck's sweetness, I thought, not gruff at all like Pop. Maybe Pop had exaggerated. By the time we got to the pecan grove he was asking about Buck.

He wanted to know how he died. "Stroke, like Ed?"

"He was only seventy-three." I felt defensive, as if he'd slurred Buck's memory.

"Brawleys do live a long time."

"He was as healthy as you or Pop. More so."

"You hadn't been married very long?"

"We were in California."

"Not here?"

"Buck started this newspaper in the California desert. Little town named No Palms."

"Near Palm Springs?"

"An hour away. And The Desert Eye -- Buck's TV station. He started that, too."

"The kid always did have energy. Met him a couple of times in New York, in Europe. Owned a TV station did he?"

"And a newspaper. The local politicians got an injunction against The Desert Eye. Didn't want him talking. Buck was fighting it."

"The injunction?"

"The water situation." I said.

It was the first time I had talked about it in so long -- to a stranger, I mean -- to anyone but Havana. I knew I sounded blunt and childish, like what I said was a list of non sequiters. I was out of breath, flushing, getting hot, as if I were about to pass out from sun-stroke. I reached up, but I hadn't worn a hat. I must have looked pale, because BB suggested sitting down. He took his expensive coat off and put it on the ground for me to sit on.

My mouth was dry. "I'm thirsty," I said, shutting my eyes and bowing my head into my hands, letting my chin rest against my chest for a moment. BB went to dunk his handkerchief in the near-by stream, and brought back some water in his cupped hands.

"I don't know if you drink this?"

I shook my head.

"But put this against your cheeks." His gestures were those of a kind brother.

When the cool cloth had made me feel better, I said: "Buck had found some real hard evidence that they had manipulated the whole water situation."

"Who are 'they?'"

"The people on the local governing board. And maybe not just water. That's what Buck might have found out. Might have known. He'd been out for a couple of nights. Didn't tell me where. He'd been investigating, he said. Then he left on Sunday morning. He was whistling, said he wouldn't be gone long. Said if there was any trouble I should call Havana. But he always said that. She was a friend who helped him." I stopped to breathe; he patted my hand.

"Then he didn't come back and he didn't come back."

I was staring wide-eyed at the dark handsome face that leaned in toward me from the sun. I had never gone back to relive that day. I didn't even remember at the moment who this person was, but I was in the safety of the Hill Country. And this was Pop. I had never told Pop before. I'd never told anyone before. I couldn't really remember that day. I just remembered the pain, the waiting, the waiting. "I called Havana at midnight. She hadn't seen him. She didn't know what to think. 'He may have been killed,' she said."

"Killed?" the kind shadowed face said. "Now isn't that unlikely?"

"It's true! He was."

"Killed?"

"He was."

"In California? And who..."

"They never found his body. A couple of bones."

"Bones?" BB's voice was so civilized, soothing, so full of quiet authority, it made me feel almost like I was hallucinating.

"They said he died of exposure in the desert. Animals ate. . ."

"What you're telling me is appalling, Mrs. Brawley."

"But it's true, it's true." The tears were coursing down my cheeks now, and I was so sorry. I didn't want to frighten this kind man away. I knew how Pop hated tears. Buck didn't like them either.

"They killed him, I know they did."

"Did you report your suspicions?"

"You don't understand. It was they. . . It was those people who killed him."

"Who?"

"The law, the politicians, the Sheriff. You think I'm crazy, but I know, I know, I know."

BB sat back on his heels, he was studying me real carefully, so carefully that I stopped crying. "What are you doing about it?"

"There's nothing I can do," I said as hard and sober as I could. For I suddenly thought about Giorno's threat. About Havana's safety.

"Do you want me to help? I have some influence, some connections in California."

"Oh no. Don't. Not yet." Suddenly I understood what I hadn't understood before. Havana was working at it. Maybe Johnnie was working at it, he had been a good friend of Buck's. I had to trust that they were doing all that could be done. "There're drugs, I think, too, involved. Big dealers. That's what I think my friends are trying to trace."

"Your friends?"

"People who know the truth."

"Mrs. Brawley, if I can help. . ."

BB was so kind and sympathetic that I thought maybe Pop had misjudged him, maybe Pop hadn't known. "I want to go back to the house," I said.

"Yes," he said glancing at his watch, "my plane leaves at 4:00."

"Sagalen will have lunch."

"I don't need any lunch."

His trim figure showed he spoke the truth. Nonetheless I was surprised there wasn't any lunch laid out when we got back. Nothing.

"Sagalen," I called. "Mr. Brawley's leaving."

Sagalen came around from the side garden with her work gloves on. "Goodbye, BB," she said without extending her hand.

"It was good to see you again."

"If you wait another fifty we'll all be in the urn."

I walked him to his rented car. It was a Rolls Royce. It rather startled me, the great white gleaming car, in the dust of Pop's parking area. "I didn't know they rented these things." I said touching it gingerly.

"My secretary," he said modestly, apologetically. "Let's be in touch, I'll help you if I can." He drove away at a sedate pace. It was only 2:00. He forgot to take a momento. He hadn't said a word about the will.

When I came back to the house Sagalen was in the kitchen. "Cottonmouth!" she hissed. She was fixing a salad. "He ain't got the decency to stay in his own pool."

That closed the subject of Baby Brother Brawley.

~~~

But of course it wasn't closed.

The next round came in the form of a gracious invitation, came long before I got used to the idea of possession. Came when I was getting a little claustrophobic, living on my 13,000 acre spread with hardly enough energy to walk out the door. I was suffering from cabin fever, I knew. I mean, I hardly knew Sagalen or Houston or anyone else in Texas. Sugar and Josh were gone and Buck was gone. Why was I here? I had already been pondering a visit to the Northwest to visit what was left of my family, my home -- where I had never felt at home.

A polite letter from Amos, Armand and Juris of Albany, New York arrived at Steadlow's office requesting a copy of the will. Steadlow brought the letter out to show Sagalen and me. It had lots of addresses and God-knows whose names all down the side.

I said, "Send a copy, I'm sure it's all right."

Sagalen said, "No."

Houston, on the phone, said, "Over my dead body."

A week or so later, after Steadlow had answered politely declining, I got a phone call from BB himself, charming, soft spoken. He suggested that if I wanted to vacation in the East to see the turning of the leaves, he would be delighted to have me visit for as long as I wanted.

Now to a Westerner that's a lovely invitation, and so unexpected from a viper. He was gentle, polite, sensitive, kind, and I hadn't been East in ten years. I could hardly remember or believe that trees turned each year to orange and yellow, crimson and gold. No one at the ranch would talk about BB, which was fine, I trusted them, but my impression of him had been so different than I expected it to be. Aside from which I hadn't heard from Havana in a long time. She said she couldn't talk when I called her; she all but hung up on me. My heart felt locked down in my chest. BB had offered help. He'd rented a Rolls. Maybe he had enough money or political savvy to pursue avenues we hadn't even thought about. I was ignorant, I was lost. I didn't know what to do. I was also restless. I felt trapped, albeit in a velvet lined box. It was, perhaps, the life force reviving in my veins.

Pop had warned me.

"It takes thirteen cats to kill a rattlesnake," said Sagalen

Houston said, "You have to surround it."

"I'd really like to go."

"Not without putting that snake in a trance."

Houston said, "Let him come here."

But as October began I packed a small suitcase to go East and I went.

I went my style, my old style, the way I had done in my years of wandering. It never even occured to me to travel like the rich woman I now was. I took the old Ford stationwagon, and I drove across Texas. I slept in the back of the car -- like a turtle, comfortable and content -- in national forests and deserted cemeteries. No one disturbs you in a cemetery on those windswept hills of Oklahoma and Kansas -- small cemeteries, family cemeteries with tiny signs on the highways and wires around a hundred graves. I drove on and on by myself up through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. I didn't mean to drive fast but on the good new highways and the Interstates you go faster than you plan. There's nothing to detain you. The cars, no matter what the speed limits say, go on up to eighty for the cruise.

I felt like an escapee as I drove the 2,000 miles up to the Adirondacks to view a landscape I had never seen, meet this man I barely knew, see leaves brighter than memory or sheer decency had anticipated.

Sagalen flew.

She wasn't about to let me go, as she put it, "into the skunk's den" all by myself.

~~~

I met her in Albany. She timed it so I could pick her up just before I was to meet BB in the convenient place he had suggested: his lawyer's office, where, Sagalen said, we were sure to find blue-blooded bugs scurrying around in dark pressed suits.

I didn't have the privilege of making up my mind about Baby Brother -- Sagalen lectured me on the way in from the airport. "Pop told you the truth!" she was spitting mad. "And if you didn't listen to him, then let me point out," she continued harshly, her face as clenched as a fist, "what a low-down-sneaking-thieving-varmint looks like."

Up to then I had never thought too much about Sagalen, for she was always Pop's helper. I mean she was friendly with me, but essentially she was a silent, dedicated, single-person woman. Now refreshed by almost a week of in-motion solitude, I began to perceive her as an individual.

She had come to live with Josephine when Buck was born, because Pop was away at war. She stayed on after Josphine died -- 1920 -- the same year Old Man Brawley died, the same year Baby Brother, at sixteen, had been sent east to live with his Uncle. She stayed on when Sylvia Louise arrived and had Austin, and she stayed on when Sylvia Louise died. Actually, at first I thought Sagalen was Pop's wife, until I found out she was Josephine's sister. I realized that I was glad she was with me now, like a sister, a mother.

"What do you think you're going to do?" she demanded.

She was right, of course, I didn't even know why I had come. My life had got tangled up. My judgment was impaired from too much mourning, feeling too much like a fish on dry land, not knowing what to do with what I had. BB's was a style I had known at one time, suave, worldly- wise, right out of one of AAD's New Yorker ads, a style with which I thought I could cope.

But I should have let the Colonel handle everything. I knew nothing about the law, and I didn't, certainly didn't have very strong opinions about possession, since I couldn't even conceive 13,000 acres, let alone the fact of owning them. It wasn't too smart, the whole trip and all, I mean, it's not too easy to say "No, you can't have my inheritance," to your host, but I didn't know that's what he was after when he invited me. I wanted to see the Adirondacks. It was the first thing I had wanted in a long time. Maybe it wasn't even the Adirondacks, it was just the longing to travel again. Move on. "Get along little doggie..." as the cowboys used to sing over and over to keep the cattle soothed.

I had been in Albany a long time ago. I had been charmed by its trees and its leaves. It had seemed a pleasant, if somewhat sleepy little town, taking its Capitol status in stride -- now it struck me as a replica of every other town growing too big too fast.

When Baby Brother and his wife arrived at the lawyer's office and saw Sagalen with me there was no mention of business.

"Mrs. Brawley," BB put a brotherly arm across my shoulders, "may I call you Gloria?"

"Why of course, Mr. Brawley. Do please call me Gloria. My name is Gloria Maria."

"This is my wife, Margaret."

"How do you do."

"Sagalen," displeasure barely peeped beneath his elegant manners, "you've met Margaret."

"Probably. Thirty years ago."

Margaret said, "I'm so glad you could come."

"And Mr. Juris."

He, too, was tall and lean, but black-haired -- dyed, I guessed -- and maybe sixty.

BB immediately invited us out to their big house on a lake, "a big house on a rather small lake," he smiled. "It's not the scale you're used to in the west, the lake I mean -- in terms of the land I mean," he stumbled, but concluded with a smile, "but it is private."

A young man in the office was instructed to drive my car up and to see to the luggage.

"We'll take the more enchanted way," said Margaret. "We'll dine in an old hotel."

"I'm sure you know about our famous country inns," said BB and, with the instincts of an impresario, added: "It may be dark when we get to the farm, but I believe the moon is almost full."

Warned by Sagalen, I did my best to size up BB and his wife. But it wasn't easy to imagine getting into a fight with these civilized people. They weren't like the desert rats that Buck had been training me to deal with.

"The city sewer rats are the worst," Pop had said.

Besides, I thought I had learned something in my experience at AAD, I thought I knew that it took power to deal with power. You see I was thinking about Buck. If BB was as powerful as he seemed to be. . . Could I really picture myself asking for his help?

"What're you doing with the acreage?" Baby Brother asked me in the car, a Mercedes this time, not a Rolls.

"Why nothing, it just sits there." I was sitting beside him, gazing at the landscape. He drove politely, smoothly and fast.

"Non-productive."

"It's earth, Baby Brother, it just sits there."

"What do you intend to do with it?"

"Why, nothing. Just let it sit there."

BB's presence, that had been compassionate and engaging in the Hill Country, was now focused on me like a laser beam. I could feel the life being sucked out of me as if, without my knowing, he had made an incision right into my heart. The land? Was I that fond of the land?

I didn't know, on that drive into the country, what the contest was all about. I hadn't even known there was a contest in which everyone but me had already donned their masks and saluted. Later, when I began to perceive the true situation, I wasn't certain if I wanted to win or lose.

Sagalen's presence in the back seat, not talking to Margaret, was like a stout interior archway in my earthquake rocking world. She was the only person of continuity left in my life even though we had never talked much. What was there to talk about? Baking? Recipes? It would never have occurred to me to talk to her about Buck.

We arrived at Braunley Farm on Loon Lake after dark. The moon had not yet risen.

~~~

Next day, the woods that surrounded the Farm were dark and green and rain soaked. Just at the tips of the maples and alders, chestnutst and beech, there was maroon showing high against the green hemlock. The sunlight, when it later shone, splashed orange fire on the giant rocks left over from the ice age and created lemon blazes through the green, the small green trees. Nothing too big, all man-sized here. Only a few ornamental trees on the spacious lawns were enormous.

The house was dark brown, noticeably dark, non-Western, brown. All the houses on the lake were dark brown and big, real big, a lot bigger than Texas ranch houses. The interior of BB's house was defined by knotty pine walls, and filled with polished furniture, furniture made of woods I didn't know. But then I didn't know much about woods. I knew about trees, but not about woods. I knew Texas pine, because Buck had liked Texas pine -- and wicker.

Old Man Brawley, Pop had told me, had come from here, the woods in the Adirondacks, when he was a kid. He was the younger brother. OMB went West in about 1835, and he never came back. He used his portion of inheritance to run the big piece of Texas that he grabbed near where Prince Solms-Braunfels was to establish his settlement, a two level geological paradise, good for cotton and corn and as many longhorns as he could catch. It gradually became, over the span of a century, The Brawley Ranch, Brawley, Texas.

"Got a little spread," OMB would say to people. I could see OMB, a fiesty old hellion from what I had heard, dancing in Pop's eyes as he reminisced. "He would say he'd come from thirteen hundred acres in the Adirondacks and ended up with thirty thousand acres of a fresh new land in the Republic of Texas. Liked that idea, The Republic of Texas. 'Youngest country on earth' he'd say. 'And a lot of it mine.'"

In those days, of course, a lot of it came as payoff for a few years fighting for the Republic, but a few years later some of it had to be repurchased from the Mexicans when Texas was annexed to the U.S.A.. "'Well, we had our fling,'" Pop would say, still quoting the old man, "'it's time to cooperate.'"

However it had been acquired, it turned out that Pop's Baby Brother, second son of OMB, wanted his patrimony back even though he probably had more money than Pop ever thought of having, but it was tied up in real estate. Estate more real, to be sure, than Dingbat's in No Palms. His money, Colonel Steadlow had told me on the phone when I insisted I was going East, was in buildings, buildings in Manhattan, forty stories high, fifty stories high, condos and insurance companies, that sort of thing, and the petrochemical industry. Alongside the Japanese, and the Queen of England, BB was buying up Manhattan just as fast and as much as he could.

"But as you know," Steadlow's first phone call to the Farm cautioned me, "if you're into real estate, you're short of cash."

BB had a new deal going -- started up just before Pop nodded off -- and there was no nicer thought to him, Sagalen assured me, than cashing in the old spread to help with the down payment on the new Bankers Life Insurance Building in mid-town near the UN. "I think he'd even been counting on tapping Pop alive," she said.

"He's in some kind of trouble," she insisted. "Because for him, like for everyone else, the prices are sliding instead of climbing."

"And to not let go," Houston, in one of his nightly calls from Brawley, said, "to have more than anybody else, to not budge an inch on rents or contracts or deals of any kind he, of course, needs periodic infusions of money. Otherwise he might have to sell his billion dollar building for a mere five hundred million, far below what it's worth, having been built not more than ten years ago for two hundred and fifty mil."

"Of course Pop wouldn't have given him a dime." Sagalen said, "But Pop is dead now."

~~~

As soon as I got to Loon Lake, with this battering of phone calls and the tension, the high tension between BB acting like a perfect host and the people who loved me telling me he was the Devil, I got sick, caught a cold, and didn't go downstairs for two days. Baby Brother had my meals sent up.

He had an exceedingly well-stocked library, so I read. I slept and read with a black cat that came up to visit curled against me and purring. I wondered when I would know, how I would know what to do. I had stepped in water far too hot for me. I now felt threatened that BB even knew about Buck's death. What had I said? I felt less capable by the moment, as if my memory were slipping, as if I were entering a second childhood. Well, Sagalen would help me, tell me what do to.

Life with Pop Brawley had been so simple. I had known nothing about what he did or what Sagalen did or the ranch did or who took care of what. Or why. I hadn't even been bright enough to ask the Colonel who handled all of it -- I hadn't even asked if there was an agent or a foreman, or maybe Houston handled it.

Being an heiress in the East was so different from being a worker in the West, I soon found I could hardly remember what my life had been like. Not only before Loon Lake, but before I met Buck. Most of my life I had walked alone following my direction as it happened. Then I altered my path for peace by jumping out of the fast lane. Then I had altered it for love. Now here I was as lost and more alone than I had ever been, challenged on the one hand and expected to defend my interests on the other. Well, Buck, I'll do my best, I protested into my pillow, I'll learn. I will learn.

However at Loon Lake it quickly became apparent that Sagalen was the one who knew all the facts, the figures, the "who" and "what for." She said Houston helped her, as had Pop, but mainly she did it. She had an astonishing head for figures, clearer, she said, at ninety than it had been at nineteen. She knew all the crops and all the tenants, each bit of acreage. I was amazed. She was a dynamo, who ran an empire, it seemed to me, as big as Baby Brother's.

After all, you could accommodate quite a few people on thirty thousand acres, even as the acreage itself had dwindled. Pop gave off 12,000 acres to Houston, Sagalen said, when he decided to stop ranching cattle -- gave most of the hill land, and all the cattle, about a thousand head, to Houston. No formal deed, just did it. Another 5,000 acres were sold off bit by bit to pay bills, to accommodate friends, to meet taxes. Though I always tended to think only about the big house, the house with the porches, there were actually half a dozen houses scattered here and there across the ranch, rented out, used by the family over the years, or sold with five acre plots to a faithful cohort or an "exquisitly distant relative," as Pop phrased it. He was generous but he didn't like too many people popping in on his solitude. And then there was West Texas. I had no idea how much Brawley land covered with sand and chaparral and saturated with oil lay in West Texas.

I began to read over a pile of papers that Sagalen had brought with her and put beside my bed and encouraged me to look at. "When you get tired of reading the books of 'the great white devil.'"

"Is there a foreman?" I asked Sagalen.

"Houston's got a foreman." Her voice was flat and definitive. "I don't need no foreman. Now you get well, girl. We ought to clear outta here pretty quick," she advised. "Let them get back to their skyscraper swapping."

After that, Sagalen didn't talk much, but she polished her weapons, her swords and armor, honed her skills of invisibility and determination. When she did talk, everyone listened carefully, First, because she used her softest voice and you had to pay attention to hear her at all. Second, she knew more than anyone else knew, which gave us a certain advantage. Third, she was a compressed ninety-six pounds of iron will. I was awe-struck by how much a ninety-three-year-old brain could retain inside that shiny pink scalp, under that thin cap of grey curls.

At times, too, I wondered at her determination, for she didn't need money any more than I needed it. She wore one or another almost identical light brown gingham dress day after day -- had ever since I met her. Even for the East, she hadn't found it in her heart to pack more than a handbag to travel with, along with a long brown coat, a dark brown sweater and one extra dress. No suitcase mind you. She carried some of it over her arm, and as much of the rest as could be stuffed into a rawhide bag. "No luggage," I'm sure she had said at the airport, "this is my purse." But she did bring along a picture of Pop and set it on her night stand. It continually amazed me how much I didn't know about these people.

Manchester Menecieus Brawley, tall, white haired, eighty-eight, seemed, in his home environment, forthright (Sagalen called him arrogant) and far better preserved than he had in Texas, more elegant, more confident, like a jewel in its setting. He kept fit by working out in a gym in the center of Manhattan ten out of the twelve months of the year; besides it was fashionable to be lean in New York, and he was a fashionable man. When he was in residence a masseuse came to Braunley Farm every other day. If BB was tanned it was from playing golf; if he remained courteous it was because he knew what he wanted and he felt, between Sagalen and me, he was sure to get it.

I pressed him to find out how long it had been since he had seen Pop Brawley. He was willing to think it probably had been half a century. Later he admitted to sixty-two years -- that is, the last time he had seen Pop was when he had gone home in the middle of the depression to get his portion of OMB's inheritance that staked him to his first big buy, though he had already inherited this big brown house on the lake from his Uncle.

I began to wonder in the dark nights, in the forest on the edge of Loon Lake, if he had been doing voodoo, waiting for Pop to die so he could send out a claim to land that he had to admit, even after his three hour visit, he could barely remember. I began to think, too, that I could never do what Pop had asked me to do. Why should I fight the Devil for something it had never occurred to me to want.

On the fourth morning I walked out into the cold crisp air which had been down to zero in the night, and every morning and evening thereafter I walked to one point or another around the flaming autumn lake. I heard the cry of the loon. I saw each particular leaf flutter, ignite into incandescent color, toss itself from its anchoring tree, float upon the sparkling air, and drift through the silver moonlight down to the gold encrusted ground. Autumn is God's revelry, there's absolutely no doubt about that.

One evening in mid-October we all, BB, Margaret, Sagalen and I, with some other guests, took time out from our still polite sparring to listen to the debate on TV between the vice-presidential candidates: Senator Gore, Vice-President Quayle and Admiral Stockdale.

Admiral Stockdale introduced himself with the rhetorical questions of a Hindu Philosopher: White-haired and beamish, he asked: "Who am I? Why am I here?" and ended up as pathetically unable to answer those questions as I am, or as are most of the inhabitants of the Western world in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.






NO PALMS, Part I, Chapter 10




Copyright © 2010 through 2015 Jan Haag
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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




Complete novel, approximately 80,000 words


Jan Haag is a novelist, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.



BY JAN HAAG


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

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO



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