INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
Some of us believe that if we all told what we really know the problems of this world would disappear real quick. Spontaneously, so to say.
How did they kill Buck Brawley?
Who's going to answer for that one? Who's going to tell that story? Coyotes and badgers, the Sheriff said. He died of exposure, the court said. They even hypothesized a bear. That was the killing of The Desert Truth. They had an inquest. They exhibited his jawbone. When I suggested foul play, they kept his jawbone, and slapped Richardson's wrist who confessed that he might have seen Buck Brawley heading out of town that early Sunday morning. It was the crucifixion of the truth.
A long time passed before I got the tale. In late May, almost two years after Buck was killed, I finally got a little piece of the rat's tail from one of the rats himself, who still had a small piece of a human heart left in him. Either that or he was fiendishly cruel. For once I'd heard what the tape that he sent me held, I'd wake screaming in the night, weeping, whimpering, trying not to picture what I had never seen.
After the tape came in the mail I walked out one day into the bluebonnet field to listen to it. I walked out in the soft and easy sunshine of the Hill Country spring, amid the sweet scents of the new sprouting grasses to hear the tape Sam Giorno sent to me. I think partly he was trying to apologize for his part in old man Neuman's "murder." He knew everybody in town knew. He knew it was on tape at The Desert Eye. He knew Monica's decision not to prosecute. But he also knew Monica. He knew Buck, me, Katy. . . All I can say is you wait long enough even murderers begin to apologize.
Well I had waited. I waited doing dishes with Sagalen, looking out the window onto the fields of grass waving in the evening light. I waited on the porch rocking and stitching. I waited while I took Pop Brawley to the doctor's and promised him I'd help him make a graceful exit if I needed to. I waited while I wrote to Katy Neuman, then wrote again when she entered City College in Los Angeles. In fact I write to her regular now. And she writes back.
I waited and I talked to Havana once in a while on the phone. She said Sassy had broken a leg and had to be put down. "We all got to be put down sooner or later," is what she said, with tears in her voice. "We all got to be put down."
So Giorno, the big Italian who once wanted to give me a cat, sent me a tape on the hush hush, and here I sit among the blue bonnets not wanting to listen to it. But I will. He sent it to me about two weeks ago. I got it and I put it away, and I wondered when I would have the courage to listen to it. It came certified mail from Oregon, I had to sign for it. And the next day. . . The thing that made me afraid to listen to it was a call from Giorno himself. I had pegged him right along as probably half monster half honest-man-scrabbling like the rest of us. He said: "I wanted you to know, because I didn't want you to live in terrible doubt the rest of your life, like I do about my brother, missing in action in Vietnam. But if you," and his voice was real straight and hard about this, "try to use it. . . Well, bears and coyotes can migrate real fast down into Texas -- or over to Havana," he broke off for a moment to laugh at his own subtlety, but I knew what he meant and it made my blood run cold, "-- in fact just about any place your pretty little head can think about. Nobody but me and you know your little gifty exists." He hung up and I didn't want to hear the tape. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to know. I mean, I knew already who killed Buck. I mean, I thought I knew.
I shut my eyes and pushed the play button. A voice started in right away. I thought it was Richardson's -- and Giorno's voice asking questions.
". . .it was a laugh. Well, now, ya hear, it was a laugh! Jesus you ain't seen nothing until you see a 250 pound man strapped out to four steer, and they bucking and bouncing and wanting to get loose of their tethers. There he is bare-assed in the dust and fit to be pulled apart by these steer. Except they weren't tethered that far apart. Just enough to let him know we meant business. Just a little edge you know, just a little blood on the cuffs. The metal cutting a little into his hands, you know right there at the thumb. A little blood never hurt anyone. Keep 'em conscious."
"So who was there?"
"Jesus man, a couple a years ago? Who knows? A couple of the Sext. . . I ain't naming no names. Society wasn't owed no payment. Isn't that what the court said? Society don't get payment for wild animals. Just debts all paid off. Society can go out and kill themselves a couple a coyotes. Coyotes shouldn't be allowed to gnaw human bones, you know."
"How many were there?"
"Boy, you're really into ancient history."
"Kind of an anniversary celebation."
You could hear glasses clink, and laughter. And the voice that wasn't Giorno's continued.
"Well now, one for each steer, one for the crown of thorns," he gaffawed, "one for the spear. Happy anniversary." Glasses clinked again.
"You looking out for yourself, Giorno?"
"But I never got to see nothing. So you got him staked out. . ."
"Yeah, out behind the Leopard Skin Lodge."
"Up that far? I thought not even a coyote could get in there."
"I hain't been there myself since I was a kid. But old Bud -- But up above No Palms Creek, back up off that arroyo. . . I swear you could wander for a day if you don't know where it is. But I come in the truck so I didn't have to worry."
"He was unconscious in the back of the cab. If he come to, they give him another good one. He never knew where he was. You can be sure of that. I mean, who goes to Leopard Skin? You have to be crazy to go out there. Nothing but cholla and thorny bush. You have to really crash through that underbrush with a truck or you can't get through. It's all growed up around the ruins of the old ranch, the old lodge. Nobody's been there for fifty years." A chair scraped across the floor. "Fifty-two now."
"And nobody going to be there for another fifty years."
"The FBI never got near it?"
"Why would they? Brawley wanted to go sniffing. Well, he got to sniff."
"So they take him out of the cab --"
"Dumped him right in the middle of the corral."
"Whose cattle up there?"
"I never thought to ask. You want to go up and brand some?"
"Someone must go there if there's four strong steer up there."
"You got a curious mind, Giorno."
"Sure I do. So anyway. . ."
"So they fasten one leg to a leg and another leg to a leg and both arms, and there he is. First we argue a bit about face up or face down. Let him lick dust. Or shall we see what he thinks about it. You know, you got to make a choice. I mean, it's rough ground, lots of sharp rocks. I mean, it's hard on the skin, the tender skin. Blood comes right away. On the other hand, you like to see if he appreciates the finesse with which his last editorial, his very last editorial upon the face of this earth has been planned. So face up it is. And the guys who don't agree -- well they each get to pitch in a shovelful of cholla burrs. You know he looked -- from an underside view -- like a God-damned porcupine. Every time the lines get stretched up he come off the ground, then bongo, down he goes again and comes up more of a porcupine. So what are we going to deal with first is the question. Cut off his you know what? Should we do the ultimate first or last. Some cries first! Because then he can suffer the loss longer. Some says it's too fitting for a climax, so it's gotta be saved until last. So some says start with his tongue. That's wagged enough already. Some says his eyes. 'First his dick, then his eyes,' someone shouts. Well that's not too bad of a plan they figure. 'Ah, let him see his fate,' someone else jaws. So it goes. Him there, sometimes hanging in and sometimes lying in the cholla. That big, old, fat-assed son-of-a-bitch. Ugly as sin."
"Did he cry out?"
"Did he cry out? I don't rightly know. You know, I don't think so. I mean a grunt, a puff -- coiling up. But I don't think he was yelling or talking. I don't know. Yeah I think he did say something. I wonder if I can remember?"
Then a snarling accusation: "How come you so curious, Giorno!"
"I never saw nothing!" Giorno whined, then tried a pacifying "Happy ann --"
There were some crashing noises on the tape, like breaking glass, like furniture being moved, drawers slamming, a door slamming, maybe something falling. A lot of ambient sound. It might have been a fist fight. It sounded like someone being hit, and grunting. Then silence.
I kept listening, first to the static and then the silence, there in the sunny field in Texas, among the bluebonnets. It was like listening to the news on the radio. Like when you're driving along in a car, and you're half listening. It didn't have anything to do with me.
Then Giorno's whispered: "That's all I got Miz Brawley. Richardson tore up the place, he thought I might be taping. That's all I got. Don't tempt any wolves."
I turned off the tape recorder. I turned it off and sat there, watching the bluebonnets, which now seemed to turn a dull gun-metal grey as if the image were negativing out, as if it were all a television image and it were shimmering away into negativity. As if the world were going to fade forever off the screen in the next moment, all the green and fuchsia faces would be gone forever. Gone.
I could see the house from where I was, the porch, wide and full of sun and shade, and Pop bawling for me there.
He must have seen that I looked up. For he waved, and waved me to come in with that rounding of the arm, as if a bear could hug you back into life. I waved back. But I didn't get up. Not right away.
Ever try to write a story and come up against the trouble of "What happens next?" Imagine the chagrin of God up there hunting and pecking away on his celestial computer. He must suffer terrible writers' block every-once-in-a-while. So he throws in a little amnesia, or a colossal disaster so bad that everybody gets so busy picking up the pieces of their lives they don't realize the plot is stalled.
I sit in the sunshine. I breathe in, I breathe out.
I knew someone who was studying The Course in Miracles who said, when she had been done wrong, when she had really been done in by someone, and she'd made her decision to do nothing, nothing whatsoever about it, she said: "You have to be grateful sometimes that someone takes time out of their karma to work on your karma."
An Indian mystic said: "The silence after a lifetime of talking and the silence after a lifetime of silence are the same silence."
Every pore in my body was shrieking. I was trying to shut down my brain cells.
I don't want to picture Buck Brawley suffering! I cried at God.
I lean down and tear off my shirt with the pattern of small checks on it. I turn over and let my bare breasts touch the ground, descend right down through the grass until they are crushed under me against the ground. And I'm watching a praying mantis.
Pray hard for me little green, translucent bug. You look like a baby. You're not very big.
Buck had been a POW in the Second World War. He had told me a thing or two about suffering, over there, on one of those Pacific islands.
He'd also broken both arms once, when he was still punching cattle, before he became a vegetarian. Yeah, all those 250 pounds were vegetables. Can you imagine that? Vegetables and grains. He had a conviction. A conviction big as his Pop's. Nobody ran cattle on Pop Brawley's ranch any more. Houston had his own spread.
Pop Brawley? Well, lately, he ate what you gave him. Even asked for some pork chops once.
The praying mantis walks along my left index finger, his little triangular head on its long green stalk, twisting and looking. Looking, as if he were looking for a question to answer. I know bug brains don't ask questions. But maybe a praying mantis. . . ? Would he pray for me? Was it a he? How do you sex a long green bug?
"Glor - ri - ann - a!"
I'd have to answer sometime soon. I'd have to scrunch back into my blouse. Stand up, go talk to Pop Brawley. He couldn't have heard the tape. I had had it on real low. Maybe I should have used the head-set. I didn't even think of using the head-set. I never did. Somehow it seemed to me head-sets were like electrocution or electric shock devices -- zap! straight through your brain, from ear to ear. I mean I appreciated them on other people, because I, myself, have always liked a lot of silence. Both Buck and I liked silence. So did Sarah. Arenas sometime liked the radio on. But she soon learned to turn it off when we came in.
As I pushed up from the ground a little, the grass blades left their pattern on my breasts. Little glistening golden stalks, and green ones, were inlaid into my white skin. My praying mantis was gone.
I didn't know where Leopard Skin Lodge was. I had never heard of it. Were there more bones there? What had happened between Leopard Skin and finding the radius in Joshua Tree?
"Glor - ri - ann - a!"
I ejected the tape from the small tape-recorder and, as I sat up, tucked it in the back pocket of my jeans. I was facing away from the house and I put on my checked shirt. Then I turned, stood, waved, all in one motion, and yelled: "Coming!"
I made sure my shirt hung over the rectangle of the tape. I tried to think of a reason I'd be carrying the tape recorder in the grass with no tape in it. I came up the side steps to the porch and set the recorder down on the railing, a long way away from Pop before I went over and kissed him on his ancient, balding head. He probably couldn't even see as far as the recorder. I mean I'm Buck-Brawley-of-The-Desert-Truth's wife -- widow. Nobody would ever accuse me of deceit.
"You gettin' deaf girl? Someone on the phone, probably gone to sleep by now."
"Oh, thanks, thanks, Pa," and I walked gratefully into the hall letting the door slam loud. I picked up the receiver lying on the lace sham on the hall table. But there was only a dial tone. I listened and listened. I could use some sleep myself.
"Who was it Pa?" I asked, sticking my head out the screen door.
"Damned if I know. Some gal."
"Thanks. Thanks. I'm sure they'll call back. Can I get you something?"
"Nope child, I'm taking my siesta."
I let the screen door shut without so much as the tiniest sound. I couldn't keep the stairs from creaking. Parts of the house are 150 years old. They just creak. Even if you don't step on them.
I sat on the flowered calico on the edge of my bed.
Some of the tapes from The Desert Eye had been put in a safety deposit box in a bank in Austin. Buck had done that. Two weeks after the injunction. He took them, smuggled them, you might say, out of state. He hadn't even trusted Houston to register the box. He'd flown out one night from Ontario, CA to L.A. to Austin. I had driven him the sixty miles to that flatlands town where the cheaper, less observable airport was, and I had sat in a motel room until he came back. Nobody knew he had even been to Texas.
Though I had the key, I'd never been to that box. I kind of felt about it like I would about putting my hand into a den of spitting cobras.
"Society wasn't owed no payment. Isn't that what the court said? Society don't get payment for wild animals."
I traced the lines of the little flowers.
About 7 o'clock the next morning I called Havana. I talked a lot about life in Texas, and she talked about the horses and the cats, her sorrow over horses, all horses, how they didn't deserve the mean treatment they got from so many people. I stuck in my question after half an hour: "You ever hear of Leopard Springs Lodge?"
"Old place, back in the hills?"
"One of the old timers down here," I paused a moment, but couldn't think of a way to say anything without saying it, "said they might once have visited there."
"Maybe. I don't know anything about it."
"Who owns it?"
"I haven't a clue."
I couldn't tell if she was registering or not. She'd convinced me long ago that her phone line was tapped, convinced me enough at least to keep me from just blurting things out. She also knew her mail was read going in and out of the Post Person's domain.
"When you coming to Texas to visit?"
"I wish I could, I wish I could."
"I'll send you the money."
"I got money, but I got to work."
"Call me soon, or drop a line."
"Love ya, kid."
The next morning Pop Brawley had what was probably a minor stroke. We were eating breakfast in the sunny room next to the kitchen where Sagalen was singing. She had a pretty voice. She said she and Buck used to both sing in the choir in the Baptist church when he was a kid and she wasn't much more.
Pop's head suddenly dropped forward, his mouth slack. He wasn't quite coughing -- it was like hard breathing. It was like his neck was the dish rag. His forehead hit the fried egg, and when Sagalen lifted his head there was this big round yellow dripping eye. The yolk coated his lashes and touched his cheeks.
Sagalen got on one side and I got on the other and we walked him right across the hall into the parlor and laid him down on the sofa. Funny, I was sure he didn't used to fit on the sofa, but he seemed to fit all right now. His breath was rasping, but he was breathing, his face a translucent, waxen mask. Sagalen wiped off the egg while I got on the phone to Austin to Dr. Bluebutcher. My voice was high and whining, my hands were shaking, my knees were knocking.
The doctor made me describe Pop's condition three times -- what happened in what sequence. By then Pop was resting. And he seemed to stretch out some. Sagalen put a pillow under his feet, so they could ride up over the sofa's chintz-covered arm, and she moved the longhorn chair where he could see it. She knew he liked to look at that amazing monstrosity of a chair. It made him smile, he said, made him think of his own Pop's ninety-nine years chasing longhorns, inventing that chair, horns sticking up at the back, horns for feet, horns for arms. "Lucky," Pop had once said, "he didn't put 'em point up on the seat to rest your balls on." I mean, he'd said it to Buck, not to me. Buck had passed it along, because I had suggested taking the chair out of the parlor when I'd first arrived and was going to be the "lady" of the house. To me Pop had said, "Don't sit on it. Wouldn't want another immaculate conception." Pop had said that at the dinner table. Sagalen had laughed, Buck had laughed, Pop had howled and thumped the table, and I had blushed and laughed, too.
Bluebutcher said he would send some pills down by the afternoon. "Give two to Brawley every four hours. Then bring him in tomorrow or the next day. If he goes to sleep now, he'll be all right, I'm sure. Call me right quick if anything else happens."
"Thanks, Dr. Bluebutcher."
Pop was all right even by that afternoon, even before the pills got there, via Bluebutcher's grandson. But I chose the day after the next day to insist he drive up to Austin with me. He didn't want to go, but I said I wanted company. When we got there I said, since he was in town he might as well stop by and thank Dr. Bluebutcher personally for the pills, and see if he could throw the rest away.
I dropped him off, then I went to the bank. I knew the number of the safety deposit box and I just signed right in. Simple as pie. I always thought everyone in Texas knew everyone else. But I didn't see a soul I knew in that bank, and nobody seemed to know me or my name. It was in a fairly new building out at the edge of town in one of those malls.
I put Giorno's tape in the box.
I didn't know what else to do.
So I counted the tapes. There were just eleven videos, and two audio tapes. Now there were three.
Buck's image, hurt and panic stricken, popped up before my eyes. I would die if I had to think about him, think about his crying out, tied worse than any bronco under the broiling sun.
I touched the tapes. Just to have some bit of reality to touch. The black plastic spines. I remembered most of the tapes, I'd helped with a few, but then I noticed one video tape was labeled JOHNNIE BEAUDEAUIN, and that struck me real odd. Johnnie Beaudeauin was the computer repairman in Twentynine Palms. But it said: "INTERVIEW/JOHNNIE BEAUDEAUIN." Why on earth, I wondered. He was one of the nicest guys I ever met -- used to do our computers for free. If we tried to pay him, he'd wave us away. "Give it to the homeless, give it to the poor. Give it to the Hospice," he'd say.
The only other fact I knew about him was that he was an ex-marine. Far younger than Buck. I suppose he'd been in Viet Nam. But he never said. I kept trying to compute ex-marine with sainthood. I mean it shouldn't have been too difficult for me with Buck for an example. But Johnnie, though he looked younger, was about my age and he lived in Twentynine Palms, and by no means had any money. . .
I took the tape.
Pop Brawley was a little pissed by the time I got back to Dr. Bluebutcher's office.
"Where the hell'd you go, girl?"
"Sorry." I went to the woman at the window. "Is the doctor in?"
"How many magazines do you think I can read?" Pop rasped at my back, rather peevish.
"Nothing wrong with me."
"I'm glad," I kissed his forehead.
Dr. Bluebutcher was standing there with folded arms when I turned around again. "See that he takes his pills."
"Every four hours."
"Yep. Next time you're in town, why don't you let me look at your heart beat, too."
"Hate for the old man to outlive you."
"Sure envy you that quiet out there in the hills."
For some reason that brought tears to my eyes and, without too much more ado, I hustled Pop Brawley out of there. He was champing to go. And insisted on taking me to lunch in the new Four Seasons Hotel, where you drove right into the building at the end of San Jacinto. It was big and filled with soft colors and ranch themes, and about as much needed in Austin as an old-time cattle drive across the Capitol lawn. But it was Canadian money and they'd come to cash in on Austin's image as the most livable town in America, like everyone else had, which soon made it much less livable -- just before the big crash, when all real estate gave way to reality, causing the ugly new skyscrapers in the charming old-tree-strewn-two-story town to remain empty, even to this day.
On the table at lunch they had more knives and forks and sets of glasses than Buck and I had used in the whole three years of our life together.
Pop Brawley kind of gazed around and enjoyed himself. I don't think he'd been in a restaurant for a couple of years. When he was drinking the coffee I was sure he wasn't supposed to have, he said. "I'm going to leave it all to you, honey. Gloriana. My honey. Just remember that. Every acre and dollar."
"Pop. . ."
"Just remember I got a white devil of a brother back East. Give 'em a good fight. Give 'em a Buck Brawley brawl." And he got up before I could say anything more. "I gotta piss, honey."
He came back with his arm around the waitress, kidding and laughing fit to be tied. Then he gave her a twenty dollar tip and we went back home to Brawley, Comal County, Texas.
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