MY MOTHER AND WILLIAM FAULKNER
Susan Connell-Mettauer

In 1969 there were few countries forbidden by law to U.S. citizens: North Vietnam, Mainland China, North Korea and Cuba. This prohibition was printed on the inside cover of all passports. No one I knew took these laws seriously. Nor did I. It never occurred to me that there would be consequences for breaking them. They didn’t seem that important. But if I didn’t take the laws seriously, the State Department did; and so, when I returned from Cuba, I was assigned my own FBI agent—like a personal trainer—who harassed me mildly for a period of six years, give or take. His name was William Faulkner, and I met him one day in 1971 under strange circumstances where, had they wanted to, people couldn’t find me, not even my mother.

It just so happened that on the day William Faulkner came to town there were some Indian dances in Los Llanos, a tiny hamlet, a caserio, with not so much as a post office, on the flat top of a mountain. Rumor had it that the Penitentes were active in this town, but, since they were banned, they only showed themselves on Easter, at which time they would form a long procession, walk and moan, and flail themselves with two-by-fours until they bled. According to my source, a wizened hippie with an odd sense of humor who lived at the Hog Farm in Llanos, the Penitentes worked themselves into frenzies, ecstasies of pain and blood. This was meant to reenact the torment of Christ at the crucifixion; a grotesque and hideous ritual but also awesome—even a little silly. I never saw such a thing, but I don’t remember being in Los Llanos at Easter either.

When William Faulkner turned up in Los Llanos, the Indian dances were underway in a cul de sac of parched red earth like adobe with tall dark pines to the North, not far from the DH Lawrence ranch. It was hot, and the sky was a bright, cloudless, and unforgiving blue. Wearing ceremonial headdresses of red and white feathers, the Indians shook bells while standing in rows and hopping from foot to foot. A few banged tom-toms. Many rolled their eyes in disbelief; and every now and then one laughed outright; and that would get the whole row laughing. It was a total tourist experience, complete with straw-haired Midwesterners saying, “Look Mabel” and snapping photos, Winnebagos scattered about like dinosaur bones. In spite of the general phoniness I swayed with the drumbeat and chanted along with the Indians—hey-oh-hey-hey, hey-oh—still expecting an elemental surprise, a moment of vision, a whiff of transcendence, as if an ancient spirit might charge from the ground through my feet, whiz out my head, ribbons of white light uncurling through the great sky. Then the rains would come: the rain would wash us clean. Thus preoccupied, I didn’t notice William Faulkner who, as it turned out, was standing right next to me.

After the dances I went home to Ojo Sarco, which was across one ridge in a small arroyo, shallower than a valley and more like a sort of saucer, about five miles away. I lived on a dry swoop of land, a quasi-commune, with a complicated mortgage that required activities of ill repute to pay off. This devolved on one woman who plied her trade in Albuquerque: she was six feet tall and an Oglala Sioux, God’s truth. Those who lived on, rather than paid for, the land were building structures that ranged from cabin to adobe roundhouse to tipi in which to be at one with each other and nature while maintaining some privacy too—and all this gratis—compliments of our woman in Albuquerque, Cathy.

Cathy’s husband, Robert, was a "Black Irishman" from Durango, a so-so artist with shoulder-length hair and leather pants, who was building his round adobe dream house set with huge stones he quarried around for. In the meantime, he and I lived like gophers in what was called the “grow-hole,” a rectangular lot dug underground with Plexiglas sections as a roof, at ground level—all of it originally intended as a place to start plants.

It was here that William Faulkner came intending to trick me into informing on former companions with whom I had traveled to Cuba or whom I met in the ultra-left faction, Weatherman, just before it went underground. Finding the place was not easy since the land was invisible from the small road that ran through the town, a settlement consisting of one church, one post office, and a few batches of flat adobe homesteads on either side of a gulch; and between the commune and the town-road was a vast field on one side that filled with high hay in the spring and summer. On the other side a dirt road wound through a tract of pine woods showing no evidence of habitation.

William Faulkner shambled into the clearing from the woods road where he had parked his car, a gray sedan. His balding pate shone in the sun; he was short and stocky, and he wore matching sky-blue pants and shirt that together resembled a leisure suit. Pencils and pens and a small spiral notepad crested his breast pocket. He sported a pair of scuffed black cowboy boots.

“Hi,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you. My name is Bill Faulkner and I’m with the FBI.”

“Like the writer.”

“Like the writer,” he said smirking.

I asked him how he found me, out in the middle of nowhere. He said Sunshine told him I was at the dances. Sunshine was a pregnant woman who lived in a tipi on the property.

“I was standing right next to you,” said Bill. “Didn’t you see me? I like that scar on your left forearm.”

Bill Faulkner had raised non-discriptness to an art form, so, indeed, I had not seen him. Then I asked how he knew I was in New Mexico.

“Your mother told me,” he said.

This sort of made sense, knowing my mother, which is to say I understood but I didn’t understand. My mother had also sided with the principal when I got in trouble in grade school, and it had offended my sense of loyalty back then. By now I had come to expect such things. Still, no matter how much one expects such things, they still come as a shock when they actually happen.

FBI-Bill wanted to know whom I knew that he knew. But the crux of our chat was less about whom than what. What I knew that he knew: I was under no legal obligation to talk to him. When we arrived in Canada from Cuba the organizers of the trip had explained this. The FBI will come. Say nothing. Do not try to be smart. Even if you think you know nothing they can get information from how you react. You are within your rights to refuse to talk.

I did talk though, just a little, just for the fun of it. Bill wanted to know if I had met any Weathermen in Cuba. I said, no. He then asked if I had come across a woman named Roberta something-or-other in New York. No. Bill mentioned more names I didn’t recognize. And then I said I didn’t have to talk to him, there was no law, and I wasn’t saying any more—he couldn’t make me. Besides, you are wasting your time, I said. I’m nobody. I know no one. And, even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. So he left. I’m not sure he said he’d keep in touch, but he should have.

After William Faulkner left, Robert intercepted me on my way over to Sunshine’s tipi. Naturally I wanted to know why she had told the FBI where I was. So, instead of asking her, I asked Robert, who got belligerent. “You brought down the heat,” he spat. Robert had his own paranoia about the federales dating back to some problem in California. I told him not to be dense; the FBI didn’t give a shit about him or me or the idiots in the commune; they were interested in other people, people he didn’t know. He seemed not to understand. “A weak link,” I shrieked. “They’re looking for a weak link. It has nothing to do with you.” Robert didn’t agree. It was all about him. “You people are so stupid,” I shouted, and then Robert punched me in the face. Much to my amazement no one stood up for me, nor did anyone think the incident odd or unjust. One of the other hippies, Curtis, a former bronco-buster, said I deserved a whack and good for Robert.

Right about then I started to think I had landed in the wrong part of the world with the wrong people, people like Sunshine and Robert who, while wild and Western and exotic to a New England city kid, couldn’t spell their own names and had never heard of Women’s Liberation. Sure they were pretty. And the land was pretty and the sky was big and broad and full of magic floating over the wild red Sangre de Christo Mountains. But ugly as it was, at least there were people to talk to in Boston. So I called my mother in Boston, collect from a pay phone, and asked her why she gave my whereabouts to the FBI. “They were such nice men,” she said.

 

Susan Connell-Mettauer has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Her story, “Speed Freaks,” appeared in the anthology Before and After: Stories from New York. She is working on a book about the bad-good old days of the late 60’s and early 70’s. She lives with her husband and cat in Swampscott, MA, two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.

 

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