Originally published in the July 4, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is now back to his old routine, working the aftermath of a massacre, this one bigger and more terrible than he’d ever experienced before. But he hadn’t sought it out. It found him. Miller and 8-year-old Carleen were traveling through Missouri when it happened, and now everyone Miller’s met along the massacre circuit has descended upon Marquette — including Heffner, who has a score to settle with Miller. Over the years, Miller has comforted (and conned) survivors through a variety of means, with animal therapy, with spiritual profiles and later with “mediums” who could conjure the dead by digging into their personal data. But now, with Carleen, Miller has tapped into something else.
They were a week into the Cedar Creek massacre when Heffner came out of the Liberty Diner, wiry and lantern jawed, his big, buzzed head jerking this way and that as he scanned the street and sidewalk. Miller was parking the rental, Carleen perched on her seat beside him, prepared to jump out the second he killed the engine. Heffner looked up and down the street, walking right toward Miller and Carleen. If he pulled a gun or reached for Carleen’s door, Miller would punch the Hyundai up over the curb, either killing the man or buying enough space to back out of their spot and away.
Everyone who’d ever been to a massacre was in Marquette, where Cedar Creek had been located before the shooting and bombing reduced it to rubble. Miller craned his neck as he inched the car back, and when he faced forward again, Heffner was looking right at him, still coming. Miller jammed the gear shift into drive, ready to blast out. But there must have been glare coming off the windshield, because Heffner kept walking — right past them, not three feet from Carleen’s window.
Miller exhaled, settled into his seat.
“We’re going to be late,” Carleen said.
“We’re not going to be late,” Miller said, watching Heffner recede in his rearview mirror. He realized he hadn’t been breathing.
“We have to set up,” Carleen said.
Heffner stopped on the sidewalk in Miller’s mirror, his big head bobbing as he looked this way and that.
“Hold your horses,” Miller said.
Heffner resumed walking away.
“I don’t have any horses,” Carleen said.
He’d appeared in Rosedale four months ago, wanting a refund for the Cumberland massacre. Miller couldn’t remember what for — a donation to an advocacy group maybe, or an online action fund. Definitely not for the Echo program, which Miller never would have let him enroll in, Heffner the type who’d demand his money back after a thousand tweets and posts and comments had been invested in animating his lost son — not to mention the dough Miller would have had to lay out for the data. But he’d been everywhere in Cumberland, furious, rabid, popping up at the Marriott, collaring Miller at a vigil, ambushing him in the hotel lobby on what would become his last night in town. “What,” he said, “my money’s no good?” and Miller said, “It’s not about the money, man,” and Heffner said, “What’s it about — man?”
People had a right to be unhinged, especially if they’d lost a kid.
“Doing what we can for each other,” Miller said.
He heard how ridiculous he sounded.
“So do something for me,” Heffner said. “Mrs. Aeillo told me you bring kids back to life, like Houdini or something — not that I believe in that crap.” He looked at Miller, half pleading, half sneering. “But my wife will take whatever she can get,” he said, “even if it’s not real.”
“I don’t bring people back to life,” Miller said.
“Of course you don’t,” Heffner said, wheezing. “But you can help my wife pretend.” He pulled out an inhaler and hit it, his eyes never leaving Miller’s. “Even if pretending hurts her.”
“I don’t think the program would hurt her,” Miller said. “But it’s not for everyone.”
“Who’s it for?” Heffner said. “Everyone but me?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“I don’t want your goddamn program,” Heffner said, hitting the inhaler again. “I told you — it’s for her.”
“Okay,” Miller said.
“Okay,” Heffner said, clenching his jaw.
Miller took a step back.
Heffner balled his hands into fists and worked them back open.
“All right then,” Miller said.
“All right then?” Heffner said, hatred coming up hot in his eyes.
He twitched and Miller flinched.
“You make me sick,” Heffner said.
Heffner made Miller sick, too.
“You think I wanna need you?” Heffner said.
Survivors often had the power of repulsion, their grief becoming unbearable, but Heffner was the most repulsive survivor Miller had ever encountered, maybe because what was coming off him didn’t feel like grief so much as hate and hurt and a hunger to hurt. They made an appointment for the following week, when Miller would be gone, and for several months Miller forgot about Heffner, until he showed up in Rosedale looking for a refund, looking for revenge, looking for who knew what, a stench rising off him like rot. Thank God Wade had been there to lay him out. But Wade wasn’t in Marquette.
“Are we ever going to get out of this car?” Carleen said.
Miller had been so lost in thought he hadn’t seen Heffner disappear. He looked up and down the sidewalk, killed the engine. Carleen opened her door as Father Mike arrived to help them unload doll supplies into the church basement, where two moms and a dad were waiting to help set up. They’d spent days and hundreds of dollars assembling the sewing kits, Carleen’s idea following the last animal session. She’d seen lots of Cedar Creek kids in the past week, especially Fiona, and now as they arrived, she greeted them by name. Parents sat in folding chairs around the sewing tables in the middle of the room.
Miller kept his eye on the door, waiting for Heffner.
Carleen welcomed her students, her friends. “You can make lots of things,” she told them, “anything really.” She held up a mermaid doll as she talked, then a cowboy with stuffing sticking through his stitches. She held up other dolls, passed them around, a man in a top hat, a stern-faced woman with blonde hair, a peapod mom with peapod babies in a pouch on her belly. She held up patterns of people and cats and horses and ducks, and showed her students how to make their own patterns. “Just starting points,” she said.
“Can we make a rocket,” one kid asked, and Carleen said, “Sure you can, Cody.”
“Can we make cryptids,” another kid asked.
“I don’t know what that is,” Carleen said.
“It’s like monsters,” someone else said. “But real. Like Bigfoot. Or a Kraken.”
“You can definitely make those,” Carleen said. “Or you can make Laura Ingalls Wilder or Spiderman.”
“Can we make people we know,” another kid asked, and Carleen said, “You can, Michelle,” and Michelle said, “I’m gonna make Steffi,” and a woman against the back wall made a sharp sound like a gasp or a sigh or a moan.
“Oh,” she seemed to say.
Everyone looked at her.
She put her hand to her mouth, trying to hide or pretend nothing had happened. Parents on either side reached for her. She nodded, blinking, covering her mouth.
“A beautiful idea,” Father Mike said, moving toward Carleen.
“I’m sorry,” the blinking woman said, her hands fluttering away from her face.
“It’s okay,” Carleen said.
Father Mike touched Michelle, who looked like she might cry.
“You could also make Narcissa Whitman,” Carleen said, handing Michelle the stern-faced doll. “I have some of her hair here — which is almost two hundred years old.” She held up the plastic bag that had gone missing from Whitman College. “My dad can tell you about her.” She looked at Miller, who nodded, the case of the missing Narcissa hair solved.
“Come on everyone,” she said, “up here — grab a pattern, search the boxes.” The children rose and ransacked, gathering buttons and yarn and fabric. There were eighteen in all, maybe twenty-five parents, some of whom seemed to be survivors, a woman crying, but silently, holding hands with a man to one side of her and a woman to the other, who were perhaps lucky enough to still have living children. Miller watched the door for Heffner. Over and over he’d seen the pain of losing a child, first his nephew, then children all over the country, parents destroyed by their children’s deaths. But he’d never felt it as deeply as now, as he watched Carleen move from one child to the next, these few survivors, so many hundreds dead. He had an appointment to look at houses in Columbia at the end of the week, but maybe they would stay around Springfield. Heffner would leave once the massacre faded, and then they could settle into their lives. There wasn’t any reason to leave now, especially since Lizzie had gone silent, though she’d come around soon enough.
The door swung open — another kid. Everything was fine. The door swung open again, a parent this time. Heffner had no way of knowing where they were. Miller was so proud of Carleen, such a sweet, good girl, helping these kids, even if she had stolen Narcissa’s hair. The parents came out of their chairs to watch the kids stitch and cut and stuff and sew, the basement a hive of activity, Carleen the center of it all.
Originally published in the July 11, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Carleen may not be Miller Cane’s daughter, but like him, she’s found herself called to help the survivors of this latest American massacre: 500 dead, hundreds of kids not much older than 8-year-old Carleen. Miller, meanwhile, is seeing familiar faces everywhere, people he previously met working the massacre circuit, including Heffner, whose grief and anger have found a target in Miller. For her part, Carleen’s doll-making hobby has found new meaning as therapy for the town’s kids like Fiona. For months, Miller and Carleen have been traversing the West in a motorhome — uncertain when Lizzie, Carleen’s mom, might get out of jail and fearful that Carleen’s dad, Connor, might finally find them. But for the moment, amid all this grief, none of that matters.
That afternoon, Carleen went to Fiona’s house, where she’d be spending the night. Miller did not want to be away from her, afraid that Heffner would find her, but maybe she’d be safer there. They hadn’t spent a night apart since he’d picked her up on the Fourth of July, nearly four months ago, and he couldn’t help but worry, though he knew that being with a friend, building a friendship, would be good for her. He’d met Fiona’s mom, Tammy, at Laura’s house the day of the massacre, and he’d met her dad and sister earlier in the week, when he picked Carleen up from a play date. They were a nice family — devastated, but lucky too, because they were intact, and probably feeling guilty because of it.
After the doll session, Fiona and Carleen plotted their sleepover, which would be fine, Miller said, but Fiona had a therapy appointment first, and Miller and Carleen had plans to go to Baker Creek for lunch and a walk through the pioneer village, which meant they’d have to leave town and come back again through all the cops and press and protesters and parasites. There were already bastards on television claiming the massacre was a hoax, that the 500 dead were not really dead or had never existed — and if anyone should be massacred it was them, smearing the dead with their lies. You could hardly buy an assault weapon in Missouri or Kansas, every store sold out, though new shipments arrived daily. Hundreds of wrecked parents and students and survivors of previous massacres were in Jefferson City, demanding gun reform. Others were demanding looser restrictions so that everyone could conceal carry everywhere. The only way to stop the slaughter, it seemed, was complete annihilation. Protests erupted in Kansas City and St. Louis, D.C. and Chicago, New York, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, eleven survivors immolating themselves in Golden Gate Park — and none of it made any difference whatsoever.
Outside the church basement, Heffner was not waiting on the sidewalk when Miller and Carleen emerged. They loaded the car and headed toward their campsite on the other side of Springfield, nearly an hour from Marquette, where Carleen fed Waffles and packed an overnight bag with some clothes and her notebook, her Barbie Care Clinic and some bonnets.
“You did a good job today,” Miller told her as they drove toward Baker Creek.
“Justin lost his sister,” she said. “Kailee lost two sisters. Everybody lost somebody.”
“Not us,” Miller said. Not this time, anyway.
“My mom’s mad at me,” Carleen said.
“She’s just worried,” Miller said.
Carleen looked out her window. “Mrs. Zellman asked if we could come make dolls at her house with some other families. Benton’s dad asked if we could come to the farm. They have cows and horses and a stream we can wade in like Plum Creek.”
“It might be good to take a break for a few days,” Miller said. “Get out of town.”
“I don’t want to take a break,” Carleen said.
Miller pulled into Baker Creek, an heirloom seed farm in the middle of nowhere, with a restaurant featuring Asian food. It felt like a Krishna joint, except the people who worked there wore pioneer clothes. There were no prices — you paid whatever you wanted to pay, which Carleen thought should be a hundred bucks. Miller recognized a group of parasites from a previous massacre at a table in the corner, attorneys who organized class-action lawsuits. He’d seen people he knew all week, hucksters and grief specialists, survivors of other massacres in town to help the Cedar Creek survivors. Carleen filled their cups with cucumber water as the food arrived — Lo Mein and salad and ginger pancakes, all of it excellent. “We should pay two hundred dollars,” she said.
Miller handed her a fifty, which she deposited in the donation box by the door.
“You can have the rest of mine,” Carleen said. “I’m not hungry.”
She sat across from him, flipping through her notebook.
“Have you ever looked in my book?” she said.
“No,” Miller said.
“Good,” Carleen said. “Because it’s private.”
One on the parasites in the corner caught Miller’s eye.
“Do you believe in visions?” Carleen said.
“I’m not sure,” Miller said.
“Me neither,” Carleen said. “But I had one.”
Miller hoped the attorneys wouldn’t recognize him as a massacre colleague.
“Like Sitting Bull’s soldiers falling into camp,” Carleen said. “But mine was children falling into snow. Or maybe it was just from the The Long Winter.”
They’d been reading The Long Winter for weeks.
“Was it a dream?” Miller said.
“Kind of,” Carleen said. “Not really. It was just something I wrote in my notebook.”
The attorneys stood and made their way out, the last one depositing a twenty in the donation box.
“Some of the kids made dead dolls today,” Carleen said, “with blood on them and stuff.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Miller said, taking her hand. It all seemed so awful so often. But maybe making a dead doll was a good thing. Or maybe Lizzie was right, that they shouldn’t be here.
The day after the massacre, he’d had every intention of getting them out of there, but Carleen saw the newspapers in the lobby that morning, the pages and pages of lost kids and teachers and cops, every headline a variation of 500 Feared Dead. She couldn’t stop crying, even after he got her out of town. “We have to get the animals,” she said, crying. “We have to go to the vigil,” she said, crying. “We have to do something!” she said, crying. Maybe they did need to go to the vigil. After all, they’d been part of it — at least peripherally. He found a campground near Baker Creek and they marched that night in Marquette with the survivors, crying and carrying candles, Carleen there with the rest of them.
Lizzie called the next afternoon, the noise on the line unbearable, then perfectly clear. “Are you out of your mind,” she said.
Miller wasn’t sure she wanted an answer. Besides, maybe he was out of his mind.
“I saw her on TV,” Lizzie said, “crying with those kids.”
“The vigil,” Miller said.
“Right,’ Lizzie said. “But you’re supposed to be gone already.”
“The vigil was good for her,” Miller said.
“No it wasn’t,” Lizzie said. “You don’t know what’s good for her.”
He knew more than Lizzie did, since he was with Carleen, since he’d been to dozens of massacres. But he understood why she was upset. He was upset, too — if Carleen had been on TV, Connor might know where they were now.
“I ran into a therapist last night,” he said, “from Scarborough. Carleen’s seeing her right now.”
“Good,” Lizzie said. “But then you have to leave — okay?”
They were hosting an animal session the next day.
“I know you’re not trying to hurt her,” Lizzie said. “But what you’re doing is wrong. You don’t have to be there. Carleen doesn’t have to be there.”
“We do have to be here,” Miller said.
“You don’t,” Lizzie said. “And you don’t know the damage you’re doing.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” Miller said.
“There’s everywhere,” Lizzie said, “anywhere,” and Miller said, “We’re safe here.”
“You’re traumatizing her,” Lizzie said.
As if she wasn’t already traumatized. As if they all weren’t.
“Please,” Lizzie said through the rising, whistling static. “Do this for me.”
He didn’t know how to say no to her. He never had.
And maybe she was right, that leaving would be best. But the next day, two hundred people showed up in Father Mike’s basement to hold twenty-seven cats and dogs. Miller made phone calls, coordinated survivors to drive to Kansas City and St. Louis the next day to haul more animals to Marquette, enough for everyone.
Lizzie called that night. “You’re still there,” she said, but she sounded resigned, beaten.
“Let me tell her about the animals,” Carleen said.
“Why won’t you do what I ask you to do,” Lizzie said.
Miller handed Carleen the phone. “No, Mom,” she said. “We do have to be here.”
But now they would leave, tomorrow, at least for a little while. They walked through the pioneer village, with its jail and bakery and blacksmith shop. They hadn’t heard from Lizzie in days. Maybe she was calming herself, getting used to the idea of Carleen being here. There was no way she could understand what they were going through. Miller drove to Marquette, looking for Heffner everywhere. He dropped Carleen at Fiona’s, kissed her goodbye, and drove back through the massacre. He couldn’t bear the thought of going to the motorhome alone.
Originally published in the July 18, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Lizzie is upset, understandably. She’s stuck in jail — charged with assault for shooting her estranged husband, Connor — and on TV she sees her 8-year-old daughter Carleen at a vigil for America’s latest massacre that left 500 dead. To be fair, Miller Cane, who’s been caring for Carleen, hadn’t planned this. Yes, he used to make his living traveling from mass shooting to mass shooting, comforting and conning survivors (like Jimmy Heffner), but this is different. He and Carleen were traveling through Missouri when tragedy found them, and now Carleen wants to stay and help. At the moment, Carleen’s spending the day with one of the town’s surviving kids, and Miller has the urge to write. Along the road, Miller, a school teacher by trade, has been writing brief biographies for a history textbook — each starting with the same question, “Hero or Villain?” — but his editor, George, fired him a while back when Miller’s stories took a wild turn.
Miller got a table outside on the square in Springfield, where it was too hot for the end of October. They’d head out tomorrow for a few days, and while it didn’t seem fair that they could just leave like that, Miller knew the weight of the massacre would go with them. He opened his laptop — nothing from George. It didn’t matter. He was writing for himself now. A placard in front of the fountain designated Springfield “The birthplace of Route 66, the Mother Road.” Another sign mentioned the Ozark Jubilee, where Elvis had never played but Patsy Cline had, as had Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, Kitty Wells and George Jones, Ernest Tubb and so many others. It was possible there were people in Springfield untouched by the massacre, but unlikely. Miller ordered another coffee and started to write.
Hero Villain VIII — Elvis Presley and Jim Jones
This isn’t about falling Elvis, full of doughnuts and pills, but rising Elvis, poor, weird, coming into himself — into country music and gospel and the blues, which he knew, more or less, were the same thing, or something all together different once combined. There’s nothing more American than rock and roll, except jazz and the blues and hot dogs and murder and pills and Jesus and booze, and while we may have invented rock and roll, we also forgot about it for a while, until the British reinvented it, by which point Elvis had guns in his boots and dope in his bloodstream all the time. He liked drugs and he liked women. He liked cars, costumes, badges. “I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position,” he told Richard Nixon. “I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large.” He spread his credentials across Nixon’s desk, a lieutenant’s badge from LA, a captain’s badge from Memphis, deputy badges from Hinds County, Cumberland County, Mobile, Alabama. He’d been studying Communist brainwashing techniques and drug culture for ten years, he told the President, and was ready to become a secret agent. He said he needed the federal credentials.
Nixon turned to his deputy counsel. “Bud,” he said, “can we get him a badge?”
Bud could get him a badge. Everybody was always getting and giving Elvis badges and drugs and sex and loyalty, and he gave them cufflinks and Cadillacs in return, plus horses and the aura of his invincibility. He was famous at 19, very famous at 20, the most famous person in the world at 21. He bought his mama a car and a house, and when he bought Graceland, he moved her and his daddy in with him.
“Colonel Parker is more or less like a daddy when I’m away from my own folks,” he said. He called his mother every night from the road. Years later, Priscilla’s father said, “Our little girl is going to be a good wife.” But by then Elvis wasn’t much good to her. They were closest when she was 14 and he was 24, right after his mama died, when he was still rising.
In high school, he was lonely and had no friends. He wore pink pants and attended the Assembly of God church, where people spoke in tongues and shivered in the presence of the lord. No one could believe it when he became famous so fast, igniting such ecstasy in his audience, and then it seemed as if we’d always known he’d become who he was — The King, risen from the commoners.
“He had all the intricacy of the very simple,” Marion Keisker said. “Whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him.”
He had greasy hair and a dirty neck. He hung around Sun Records, waiting to become Elvis. His first single was blues on one side, country on the other, “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but not quite country, not quite the blues, or both and a little more.
His manager was more interested in money than music, so money’s what they made. Elvis was grateful to the Colonel, attributing his success to him. Elvis would take care of the music and the Colonel would take care of the business, but business became all there was, bad movies and mediocre records and lots of money.
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips said of meeting Elvis in 1953 that “He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in that way; his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.”
“Elvis was a hero to most,” Chuck D said thirty-six year later. “But he never meant shit to me.”
He worked at Precision Tool, drove a truck for Crown Electric. Once he started recording, being Elvis became his job, making music, then movies, except when he was in the Army, when his job was being a soldier and taking amphetamines his sergeant gave him to stay alert. He had a religious experience in the dessert — Stalin’s face in a cloud morphing into the face of Jesus Christ. He had lots of guns and cars and hangers-on.
He had a chimpanzee named Scatter….
Miller looked up from his laptop, took a sip of coffee and watched people crossing the square. He wanted to focus on rising Elvis, but kept slipping into falling Elvis. Sometimes it was hard to see around the badges and dope and remember how remarkable the man had been. And how completely alone. Miller wanted to capture his vitality, the electricity of his best performances. The chimpanzee would be his transition to Jim Jones, who had chimpanzees of his own, one of whom was found shot in the head among the 900 dead at Jonestown.
On a bench by the fountain in the center of the square, a couple sat kissing, untouched by the massacre, at least for the moment. Miller didn’t want to write about Jim Jones. He wanted to peel the ridiculous off Elvis, turning him into something beautiful and dangerous again, his ecstatic movement another manifestation of the music pouring out of him.
The kissing couple pulled apart, the man holding his hands up in surrender. The woman laughed and leaned back into him. Miller watched them, barely registering the movement of another man by the fountain approaching them.
Something was off with the other man. He wasn’t Heffner, was too small to be Heffner, but something was wrong. Miller scanned the street, the square, the sidewalks. A flock of pigeons startled the other man as they lifted in flight in front of him, the man flinching, then cocking his head to watch the birds resettle. Miller felt the walls closing in, not wanting to know who the other man was and then knowing, Connor, the idiot, not fake Connor or imagined Connor, but actual goddamn Connor, not fifty feet away.
Miller watched them, barely registering the movement of another man by the fountain…
Miller sank into his seat, face down into his computer screen. At surrounding tables, people were writing, reading, behaving themselves. Miller made himself small. He counted seven beats of his heart in his ears and when he looked up, Connor was gone, crossing the street toward the Fox theatre. Miller exhaled, closed his laptop and lifted himself, silent, invisible, eyes down as he walked into the coffee shop, toward the door that would lead him onto a side street.
He heard her voice before he saw her. “Rice milk,” she said. “Not soy. Does that make sense?”
None of it made sense, or it was all inevitable. Miller pivoted, fluid, silent, glancing toward her at the counter, all of them here now, and if she was inside and Connor out, the two of them were in Springfield together — impossible. Hadn’t she shot him? Didn’t that mean anything? He glided onto the patio, a shadow. The only way out was over the wrought iron fence enclosing the sidewalk tables.
“Miller,” she said behind him.
Maybe he could knock the fence over, bull his way through.
“Miller,” she said.
Connor was in front of the history museum now, walking away.
“Miller,” she said, touching his shoulder.
He turned and she was herself, but worn down, washed out. She’d lost a lot of weight in jail. “Lizzie,” he said, mouth open, eyes wide, an imitation of surprise.
She started to say something, but he talked over her. “Oh my God,” he said opening his arms, “I can’t believe — ”
She stepped into his hug.
How many times he had dreamed of her coming to him this way. But not quite this way.
Across the square, Connor moved farther away.
Maybe it was coincidence that Lizzie and Connor were both in Springfield, in which case Miller needed to warn her, protect her, get them all on the road and away from here.
“Where’s Carleen?” she said, pulling away and looking around, as if Carleen might materialize and jump into her arms. On their bench by the fountain in the center of the square the kissing couple were still kissing, another sign that perhaps none of this was real.
“Miller,” Lizzie said. “Where is she?”
Originally published in the July 25, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
For months, Lizzie has been stuck in jail — charged with assault for shooting her estranged husband, Connor — and while behind bars, she turned to Miller Cane to keep 8-year-old Carleen safe. In turn, Miller and Carleen have been on the road ever since, staying one step ahead of Connor, who suddenly came back into the picture when he learned that the girl will inherit a massive family fortune. While in Missouri visiting the house of Laura Ingalls Wilder (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame), tragedy found them. America’s latest massacre left 500 dead, most of them kids, and Miller and Carleen stuck around to help — much to the horror of Lizzie. But now, inexplicably, Lizzie is in Missouri, too, and she runs into Miller in a coffee shop, while Connor is outside in the town square, dangerously close. Thankfully, Carleen is spending the day with one of the town’s surviving kids.
“We have to get out of here,” Miller told Lizzie, everyone around them watching and listening. “It’s not safe.” He looked across the square past the kissing couple, where Connor had turned toward them, making a full circuit. Miller took Lizzie’s hand and tried to lead her out, but she pulled back, yanking her hand away from him.
“No,” she said. “Where’s Carleen?”
“She’s fine,” Miller said. “But we have to go.”
Connor was adjacent to the fountain now. If he held his course, he’d be on the sidewalk in front of them in less than a minute.
“You have to tell me where she is first,” Lizzie said.
Miller didn’t have to tell her anything. Showing up like she had wasn’t right — getting out of jail and failing to tell him, when he’d been paying her attorney and taking care of her kid for months, his kid now too, Miller and Carleen waiting and worrying, having no idea how long Lizzie would be away or how best to live or plan a life.
He turned and walked away from her, back into the coffee shop.
“Wait!” she said.
He’d done everything he could for Carleen, walking out of his own life to protect her, to nurture her. Lizzie could not just appear after all this time, as if to say, Thanks for being such a good mother and father these past six months, but her fake father and I are here for the rescue now, so you can piss off and die. Because they were no longer in this together. Raising Carleen was Miller’s job now. A mother who went to jail for shooting a man, then got out without telling anyone, was not a good parent. Any judge would see that, any child advocate.
Miller pushed open the door to the street.
“Wait!” Lizzie said.
She could follow if she wanted to, but he wasn’t going to be trapped by her, like Elvis had been trapped by his mother, his entourage, the Colonel, Priscilla and all the other women, his loneliness and need, falling deeper and deeper into himself.
“Please,” she said, taking him by the wrist and pulling.
Miller yanked himself free.
“We have to go,” he said. “Connor’s back there.”
Miller’s car was two blocks away, the motorhome thirty miles east, Carleen twenty miles the other direction. He was the only one who knew where she was.
“I know he’s there,” Lizzie said. “Would you wait?”
Of course she knew. Miller walked faster.
“We’re here for Carleen,” Lizzie said.
Miller had watched Connor jam a screwdriver through the window of Lizzie’s front door, breaking into her house to get to Carleen. He’d seen him in Pendleton handing out flyers calling Miller a kidnapper, a predator, when it was Connor preying on Carleen and her money.
“If you’d stop and listen to me,” she said, grabbing his arm again — Miller jerking away again — “I’d tell you what’s going on.”
But the days of her telling him anything were over. He was different now. Everything was different. You can’t just show up at a massacre and think you can snatch somebody’s kid. Lizzie had to know how much she’d given up, how much had slipped away. That’s why she was here — to reclaim Carleen, as if Miller had taken her, when all he’d done was protect her, at Lizzie’s request, from Connor and the world.
You don’t know what he’s capable of, Lizzie had told him over and over, Connor on her porch with a screwdriver she was afraid he’d push into her throat, the stink of desperation on him, a junkie who’d do anything for money.
“Miller, stop!” Lizzie said. “Don’t make me call the cops.”
He whirled on her. “Call them,” he said. “Go ahead. You’ll never see her again.”
He’d never struck a woman, had almost never struck a man. He’d hit Connor in Lizzie’s room with a Madonna to get Waffles out of the house. But he felt the urge toward violence now, something hot and hard at the core of him, radiating, wanting release, wanting to break itself into a million pieces against whatever else it could break.
But he felt the urge toward violence now, something hot and hard at the core of him…
“Listen to me,” Lizzie said.
“No,” Miller said. “You’re a liar.”
“So are you,” Lizzie said. “So is everybody. So what. Can we just talk?”
The cops hadn’t caught him yet and never would.
“Not here,” Miller said. “Not anywhere near him.”
He didn’t want her to see his car, to be able to spot him later, but he didn’t want to be on the street either, or anyplace Connor could stumble upon them.
“Is she even here?” Lizzie said, tears coming into her eyes.
“She’s here,” Miller said. “And she’s safe.”
It would be better for Carleen to have a mother and a father, of course it would.
“Let’s drive,” he said, and Lizzie said, “To her?” and Miller said, “Away from him.”
He opened the passenger door and Lizzie climbed in. They’d head toward Mansfield and Laura’s house, away from Marquette and Carleen.
“I’m not with him, you know.”
“I don’t care if you are,” Miller said.
“I need to see my baby,” she said. “Please, Miller.”
He had to get them away from people, onto a road where they could move.
“How long are you going to keep her from me?”
He glanced at her and she was crying.
“Think of how you’d feel,” she said, “if you couldn’t see her.”
That’s exactly what he was thinking of.
“You tell me this guy’s going to hurt her,” he said. “You shoot him. You tell me he’s a junkie. But now somehow, you’re with him, the man who’s going to hurt Carleen. And you want me to hand her over.”
“But I’m not with him,” Lizzie said. “I told you that.”
“Just wait,” Miller said, “until we get out of town.”
They needed to acclimate to each other. They could talk, but she’d have to apologize for not telling him she was out, for just showing up. She’d have to understand that Connor would never be Carleen’s father.
They passed the abortion graveyard, the field of the fallen unborn. Miller didn’t want to look at her. It would be better if they kept moving. He drove until the storm inside him started to settle, and then he said, “Tell me,” ready to listen, because once again, he had to figure out what would be best for Carleen, for him, for them, and he had no idea where to begin.
“We made a deal,” Lizzie said, “me and Connor. I didn’t know what else to do.” And then it poured out of her, everything she’d done to get from the Skagit County Jail to Springfield, Missouri, and everything she wanted to do now that she was here. But she wasn’t in charge anymore — that was the first thing she had to understand. Miller was.
Originally published in the August 1, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
While Lizzie has been in jail — charged with assault for shooting her estranged husband, Connor — Miller Cane has done everything to keep 8-year-old Carleen safe. But Lizzie has made a deal with Connor: Drop the charges against her, and the two of them can share in the massive family fortune that Carleen is set to inherit. Miller, though, is not about to give up the girl. He and Carleen are in Missouri helping in the aftermath of a massacre that left 500 dead, and Carleen is spending the day with one of the town’s surviving kids.
He dropped Lizzie near the square in Springfield, and made plans to meet the following day, but that didn’t mean he’d show up. Back at the motorhome there was kitty litter all over the floor, Waffles pacing and meowing, demanding food. Miller fed him and did the dishes, then walked to the creek with a beer. Halloween was three days away and Carleen hadn’t mentioned a costume. She’d want to stay in Marquette, but that was not going to happen. Miller had friends in Des Moines where they could stay a few days, trick or treat, then head east, where no one would find them. He took off his shoes and walked in the cool creek water, drinking his beer.
Lizzie had been calm on their drive, transactional, hollowed by the screaming, roaring, banging and clanging of jail, not to mention her separation from Carleen. But she hadn’t thought through the implications of what Connor wanted, the blood test he’d mentioned months before. Now it was clear why he wanted it. “She’s not mentioned by name in the will,” Lizzie said. “She’s only referred to as the great granddaughter. And if she’s not the great granddaughter…”
“Connor gets the money?”
“That’s what he seems to think.”
Her hair was short and jagged and she looked every one of her forty-three years — deep lines etched into her forehead, but still beautiful, especially to Miller. Still, something had changed between them. He had obligations now. And her calmness was disturbing, covering her delusion.
“And if she’s not the granddaughter,” Lizzie said, “Connor will still share the wealth.”
Sure he would.
“And I’ll share if it goes the other way.”
Everybody sharing Carleen’s money. Everybody taking a piece of her. Lizzie had to be crazy not to see the threat. And why shouldn’t she be, after all that time in jail.
“Campbell’s looking at the will,” she said. “So are Connor’s attorneys.”
“Plural attorneys?” Miller said.
“I don’t know, Lizzie said. “I don’t even care. I just want my life back with Carleen.”
This was the delusion — that they could return to their lives. If the will was settled in Carleen’s favor and the blood test proved Miller her father, no way would Connor walk away from the money. Whatever Lizzie had agreed to, Carleen would have to agree to as well, and so would Miller, if he was her father. In which case Connor might get nothing, a possibility he must have considered. The fight would go on and on or maybe something would happen to Carleen before the will could be resolved, Connor killing her in a car accident, Carleen swallowing poison or choking on a chicken bone, so that Connor could be the sole heir.
Miller didn’t share his worry with Lizzie. After being locked up for months, stuck, her last few days had been a frenzy, calling Connor, overcoming her revulsion — “which wasn’t easy,” she said, “to be in the same room with him, negotiating while he pretended to pity me. But I knew what I was doing. And I was pitiful, but I made the deal and he dropped the charges because it was only about Carleen for me.”
“But why would you give him anything?”
“I just told you why.”
“But what if he is her father?”
“What difference does it make?”
The thought of Connor hovering around Carleen made Miller sick. All Lizzie wanted was her daughter back — Miller understood — but Connor was as dangerous as ever, maybe more so, since Lizzie seemed incapable of seeing the threat in him, even as she remained repulsed — scrambling to SeaTac and across the country with him stuck to her, the way he was going to stay stuck until the blood test was done. But the blood test wouldn’t tell them anything. Or whatever it told them wouldn’t make any difference.
“I did it because you wouldn’t listen to me,” she said.
So it was all Miller’s fault — everything — the shooting, her shitty marriage, Connor coming after Carleen.
“I couldn’t have her here any longer,” Lizzie said, “I told you that,” as if working the massacre made any difference when the shooters were everywhere. Not that they were working the massacre. They were here to help. And they were helping. Or they were here because there was nowhere else to go, and because they had to be here.
“So you’re just going to hand her over,” Miller said, and Lizzie said, “Why do you pretend not to understand? It’s a blood test — that’s all.”
“And if she’s his, he’ll keep her as close as he can. Is that what you want — Connor weaseling into her life, your life, trying to control her and her money?”
“I appreciate what you’ve done,” Lizzie said. “I really do. But this is none of your business now.”
“Of course it’s my business,” Miller said, and Lizzie said, “It’s not.”
“Carleen is my business,” Miller said.
“Listen,” Lizzie said. “Whatever happens, Connor and I will share the money. None of this matters. Everyone will have plenty.”
“It’s not your money to share,” Miller said.
“It’s not yours either,” Lizzie said. “Nobody even knows whose it is. And I don’t care anymore. I need to see her. I need to hold her and take her home. She needs that, too.”
Lizzie had every right to see her daughter, with certain conditions. Miller drove them back to Springfield and told her they could meet in town the next day, but that Connor couldn’t come anywhere near them. Lizzie agreed. Miller would be watching, he said, and if Connor appeared they were gone. He didn’t tell her he and Carleen might not show up at all if something felt wrong. That’s what he had to figure out — how to protect Carleen if Connor came for her in the open, or if someone else came for her, with a gun say.
He finished his beer in the creek and put on his shoes. Lizzie didn’t realize that Carleen had a home — with Miller and Waffles, here or wherever they’d land. Maybe they could raise her together. He’d get a place in Skagit County and she’d stay with him half the time and they’d drive to Mesa Verde in the summer and Jamestown. But he had to know she was safe first, that Connor couldn’t hurt her. That’s what Lizzie couldn’t guarantee, now or in the future, the very fact that she’d made a deal revealing how poor her judgment had become. Still, Miller wouldn’t keep Carleen from her mother. Unless there was no other way to keep her safe.
His phone rang, Carleen calling for Miller’s crust recipe.
“Are you having a good time,” he asked, a stupid question.
“Yes,” she said.
They should have had Fiona here in the motorhome, away from the dead kids. He gave Carleen the crust recipe and told her he’d pick her up in the morning.
“Did my mom call?” she said, and Miller said, “She did — and she sounds pretty good, too. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
He had no idea what he’d tell her. He had a lot of thinking to do. He wanted everyone to be okay. He spent the last night of his life trying to imagine a future with Carleen.
We made pie and hamburgers and Jell-O and waxed beans. You would have hated them Mother. As would Narcissa. They asked where you were Fiona and Tammy. Gone I said and they looked down. I didn’t mean it that way but didn’t know what else to say.
I know you don’t want us here. But we have to be.
The dead kids are here and so are the ones who were left.
I told Miller that and he said do you feel dead and I said no and he said do you feel like you owe them something and I said I don’t know.
We all owe them something he said not just you.
You don’t have to do everything he said.
Im not I said.
You can just be a kid he said.
I’ve seen Miss Ellen two times. Its okay to cry she said. Its okay to be mad.
Look for the helpers you always said. You meant police officers and firefighters and teachers if I was in danger. They’re everywhere here and I’m one of them.
I still cry but not like before.
Who did this I said and Miller said we don’t know. Or we know but the papers wont say.
Its like they want to erase him but can’t.
We went to Mass twice and the New Day church once. I want to go every day but Miller says we have to rest.
Fiona and I made dead dolls and took them apart. It felt wrong to make them and wrong to take them apart. I know it was wrong what I said about you.
I want to tell Father Mike.
He puts his hand on my head to bless me.
First at the animal session then with the dolls today.
I can feel it run all the way through me.
That’s why Mom.
Originally published in the August 8, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane has begun to look at houses, a permanent home for him and 8-year-old Carleen, in Missouri — not far from the site of America’s latest mass shooting. He and Carleen feel called to this place, to counsel and cry with survivors like Tammy and Fiona, and they have made real connections after spending months on the road together. The town is still swarming, though, with people Miller previously met working other massacres, including Heffner, whose grief and anger have found a target in Miller. And now Lizzie, Carleen’s mother, is in town, too, sprung from jail after making a deal with her estranged husband, Connor, to drop assault charges against her. They’re here to collect Carleen, and Miller’s plans for a normal life may just fall apart. Most important, though, is making sure Carleen is safe.
Carleen was wearing her yellow bonnet when Miller picked her up, she and Fiona shaking Mason jars of milk on the patio out back. “They’re making butter,” Tammy said. The plan was to meet Lizzie at the coffee shop in Springfield, but it was still too early. “There’s pumpkin bread in the oven,” Tammy said, “if you have time.”
Encouraging words were all over the kitchen framed in needlepoint, burned into wood, spelled out with refrigerator magnets — Hope, Gratitude, Dream, Believe. Tammy stood at the counter measuring dry ingredients into a bowl. Miller imagined other words bent out of rusted metal — Quit, Surrender, Most Things Haven’t Worked Out, the great Junior Kimbrough title. Maybe he wasn’t the right person to raise Carleen. Maybe all he was good for was keeping her on the road until her mom arrived worn out from jail.
“Carleen said you might be settling here,” Tammy said.
Had he ever really thought that? The place was a disaster, a ruin. Carleen would want to stay, but that wasn’t going to happen.
“There’s nothing left for us here,” Tammy said. She pulled the bread from the oven and placed it on a cooling rack. “We’re going to Wichita,” she said. “Blake’s got people there.”
“Smart,” Miller said.
“I don’t know if it’s smart.”
“Leaving isn’t quitting,” Miller said.
“Maybe it is,” Tammy said. “It’s hard to know what’s best for the girls.”
A giant wall clock ticked above Miller’s head, surrounded by a wooden rooster and three wooden chickens. Everything in Tammy’s kitchen might have come from the same catalog.
“Carleen said you’ve done this before,” she said. “Shootings, I mean.”
“Yes,” Miller said. “My nephew — ”
The girls burst into the kitchen.
“Try this,” Carleen said, opening the jar of butter and handing it to Miller.
“Fantastic,” he said.
“The bread’s too hot to cut,” Tammy said, but she cut it anyway and they smeared it with butter and jam, then Carleen gathered her things from Fiona’s room, everyone hugging at the door. When they finally got outside it seemed likely they’d never see Tammy and Fiona again.
Miller told Carleen about her mom as they drove, not knowing how to prepare her or if he should prepare her. What if Connor was lurking and they had to bolt before seeing Lizzie? It didn’t seem possible that Carleen would be gone from him, that she’d fall into Lizzie’s arms and fly home, out of his life. The better plan would be the three of them driving back to Washington in the motorhome, Carleen and Lizzie sharing his bed and Miller sleeping in Carleen’s loft, almost like practicing for the future. Maybe Lizzie was right about the deal with Connor. But Miller would have to see him first, make a determination based on how desperate he seemed.
“Your mom sounded good,” he told Carleen, and Carleen said, “Is she coming home?”
“Maybe,” Miller said. “Probably.”
Carleen untied and retied her bonnet strings, pulling the brim lower over her eyes. “Are we going back to Mount Vernon?”
“Maybe,” Miller said. “Is that what you want?”
“I don’t know,” Carleen said. “I thought we were supposed to be here.”
“Maybe we’re done here,” Miller said.
“Or maybe Mom could come when she gets out. She could help too.”
“Sure,” Miller said.
He parked the car and they walked onto the square. No sign of Connor.
“Where are we going,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “To the fountain.”
Taking her to Lizzie felt like losing her, but maybe it didn’t have to be that way.
“I could go back to school,” she said, and Miller said, “Exactly.”
A woman on the bench beside them scattered crumbs for the pigeons, the birds lifting and resettling as people walked by. The fountain burbled behind them. Miller put his arm around Carleen and she leaned into him. The massacre was everywhere here, but would soon begin to fade, even though so many had died close by. Marquette would never recover. It would be best if the town were bulldozed and buried.
“Are we still looking at houses Friday?” Carleen asked.
“If you want to.”
“I do want to,” Carleen said.
“But that’s in Columbia,” Miller said, “a few hours away.”
Carleen loosened her bonnet and let it fall down her back. Miller kept his eyes open for Connor, but wanted to be fully aware of Carleen, fully here with her, because any second —
And then Carleen gasped. “Mom!” she cried.
She looked at Miller, her face radiant. “It’s Mom!”
Across the square, Lizzie was approaching a table in front of the coffee shop. She put her hand to her forehead to block the sun, looking for the sound of Carleen’s voice, her other hand holding a cup and saucer.
“Mom!” Carleen cried.
She jumped from the bench.
“Wait,” Miller said.
“Carleen!” Lizzie said. She put her cup on the table and opened a gate in the wrought iron fence, moving toward Carleen.
“Watch the street,” Miller said, taking Carleen by the hand.
“Mom,” Carleen cried, dragging Miller.
Up on the curb, he let her go and she ran to her mother, Lizzie opening her arms to take her in. Miller stayed back, checked the square. Still no Connor.
Carleen said something into Lizzie’s neck.
“I know,” Lizzie said, holding her. “I missed you so much.”
“Miller,” Lizzie said, rising from her crouch with Carleen. He approached and they embraced, Carleen still attached to Lizzie, Miller putting his hand on her head, Lizzie pulling him in hard, the three of them together right there on the sidewalk.
“I have to tell you about the butter,” Carleen said.
“Yes,” Lizzie said, leading Carleen through the gate toward her table. “Tell me everything.”
Lizzie sat and Carleen crawled into her lap.
Miller had texted her last night and this morning, had talked to her on the phone before picking up Carleen, and she assured him that Connor would not be here, that he had no idea where they were meeting. Miller believed her.
She ran her hands over Carleen’s back. “I love your bonnet,” she said, and Carleen said, “Miller got it for me. A cowgirl hat and a Barbie Clinic too.”
“Wow,” Lizzie said.
“Mom,” Carleen said, pushing herself closer to her mother.
“Carleen,” Lizzie said.
“Mom!” Carleen said.
“Yes,” Lizzie said.
It seemed wrong to be so close to them when they only needed each other.
“I’ll get us a treat,” Miller said.
He kissed Carleen’s head, Lizzie’s too.
“Be right back,” he said.
As he turned to walk away, he saw Connor across the square, leaning against a wall by the fountain. Miller’s heart kicked, but it wasn’t fear this time. It would be good to start whatever was going to happen between them. He looked at Carleen and Lizzie holding each other, then walked through the tables, onto the sidewalk, across the street, Connor slouched by the fountain, his pure idiot self, skinny, scraggly, lighting a cigarette on a summer day in October. He needed to understand that Miller would be watching from now on, that Connor wasn’t going to bully anyone ever again.
The pigeons fluttered from in front of the pigeon lady as Miller walked by.
Connor did not seem to be looking at anyone. Maybe he was a junkie, blank, pathetic, oblivious. Miller was no more than ten feet away when Connor looked up and saw him, jerking upright.
“You,” he said.
The last time they’d seen each other Miller had brained him with a Madonna and was driving away, Connor running onto Lizzie’s lawn screaming, “I see you!”
Now, he flicked his cigarette and planted himself.
“Stay out of my business,” he said. “We’re here for her own good.”
Sure you are, Miller thought, the smell of rotten meat and ammonia rising around him.
“You don’t scare me,” Connor said.
Miller had nothing to hit him with but his hands. But he wasn’t going to hit him. Unless he had to. He was going to tell him how it was going to be from now on.
The smell came on stronger.
Connor’s face changed, shifting from sneer to surprise to fear, as if Miller had frightened him just by looking at him. As if he finally understood.
“No,” he said, holding his hands up and starting to turn.
Miller should have done this months ago.
Then Connor crumbled — it didn’t make sense exactly, Miller’s mind behind what he saw and heard — Connor crumbling at the same moment the gunshot cracked, Connor reaching for his leg as he fell, blood soaking the fabric of his jeans, as if Miller was seeing the shot Lizzie had taken him down with in her front yard all those months ago.
“Why’d you shoot me?” Connor said, smoke and gunpowder mixing with rotten meat and ammonia. Miller turned and Heffner was there with a long revolver, the smell rising, pigeons flapping and people screaming. They looked at each other, the moment more intimate than any that had passed between them, as if they were agreeing to something, coming to terms. Someone shouted, maybe Connor. Then Heffner discharged a bullet into Miller’s brain, blowing off a piece of his skull like a Kennedy Doll’s — the warmth of it and the cold, the speed, a sky so blue it was purple, clouds swimming around Rainier, and down below the rolling green of the Palouse. It’s like an ocean of wheat, Carleen said. Relief ran through him. She was out there somewhere with Lizzie, across the square. They were all going to be okay. But he was falling, everything bright and crackling. It wouldn’t be so hard to raise her, to give her the chances she deserved. They both loved her. And she had Waffles and her dolls and her own big heart. She’d probably save the whole goddamned world. There were more shots as the cops took Heffner down, Miller certain, as he died, that Carleen was right there with him.
Originally published in the August 15, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is dead, shot and killed by a grieving father whose own son was shot and killed by someone else. But someone had to pay, and Miller, having traveled from massacre to massacre selling “spiritual inventories” and other healing techniques, was as good as any. Carleen would be okay. She was just 8 when she spent the summer road-tripping across the country with Miller, a teacher by trade who had tried to reveal America’s true self while penning short biographies for a history textbook under the heading “Hero or Villain?” Miller hadn’t chosen this particular job — taking care of Carleen while her mother, Lizzie James, was stuck in jail on assault charges for shooting her estranged husband, Connor — but he took to it. He and Carleen bonded over history, Waffles the cat, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Miller’s friend Avery and, in his final days, trying to ease the suffering at America’s latest mass shooting. Yes, Carleen would be okay — an heiress even, set to inherit a fortune from Connor’s unscrupulous family — but her time with Miller would leave its mark.
Hero Villain IX — Miller Cane
Without Miller there would be no Cane Foundation, no four-hundred-billion pound gorilla about to break free, to fight back, to take senate seats and assault weapons. And whatever we accomplish, whatever change we make, we make in his name and in the name of every massacre victim. Money will be most of it — because we understand who we are and what we’re up against. Money is speech, the supreme court said. Money doesn’t talk, it swears, Miller Cane said, quoting Dylan. He was often quoting somebody, though I didn’t realize it then and didn’t know which Hero Villain said what for years. Our speech will be louder than anyone’s — nearly half a trillion dollars’ worth — convincing senators and congress people, governors and presidential candidates, judges and local legislators to do the right thing, and if they don’t do the right thing we’ll talk to someone who will. Miller would not have thought this cynical. He was romantic, but he understood that money was more fundamental to our national character than Jesus even, the religious zealots who arrived on the Mayflower having been financed by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. If you want to know what God thinks of money, Miller said, just look at the people he gave it to. Dorothy Parker said that first, but for years I thought Miller had. He loved his country and hated how we failed so consistently to live up to our ideals. But he believed. And he made me believe. The speech I inherited attracted other speech — from a software developer, a talk show host, an industrialist, a media mogul, various merchants, investors, hedge fund managers, old speech and new, from patriots who believed we could be better than a nation of murderers and people waiting to be murdered.
I gave Connor my allowance until I was eighteen, when the money became larger and I could give him a little more and keep a little for the Foundation. He still lives on it somewhere like a child, and while there’s not much good in him, the Cane Foundation would not exist without his family and what they took and ultimately gave to me. Miller would hate his name on it, but he didn’t get to choose — I did — and he’s dead so it doesn’t matter.
I’ve met survivors he helped, people whose money he took, some of whom have contributed to the foundation, one of whom shot him in the head.
“He never pretended it was Cami talking,” Bree Dirkson told me. “But it was her. There was a spiritual dimension there. He couldn’t have known what he knew without a spiritual component. No one but her could have known the things she said after she died.”
“Narcissa didn’t mean to be awful,” he told me at the Whitman Mission.
“Custer’s wife loved him,” he told me at the Little Bighorn battlefield. “So we know somebody did.”
“Jesse James was an asshole,” he told me at Zerelda’s farm. Several men in our tour group had stars and bars on their belt buckles or caps and gave Miller dirty looks as he told me about Quantrill’s Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson. “Horrible people,” he said, “ideologically bankrupt — they were only in it for the murder. And their methods were horrifying.”
“She doesn’t need to hear that,” the tour guide said, and Miller said, “Of course she needs to hear it. So do you. Besides, her mother’s a James, which means she is too. She has a right and an obligation to know her own story.”
“Is my mother really a James?” I asked after the tour guide walked away, and Miller said, “Isn’t that her name?”
“Yes, but is she — am I — related to him?”
“I’m not sure,” Miller said. “Who knows?”
He might have added that it didn’t make any difference, that we all have something corrupt in us from the past, some of us more than others. But it wasn’t all villains. He knew how I felt about Laura and loved her as much as I did, because she tried to tell the truth, he said, even when it made her look petty or selfish or small. He tried to tell me the truth too — “You have to at least try to see what happened,” he said, “and what’s happening now.” But he lied too — about my mother shooting Connor, about things that made him money on the circuit, and about anything he thought would hurt me if I knew it too soon. I would have done the same for him.
He saw them everywhere, great Americans, failed Americans, and he made me see them too.
Avery flew into Kansas City after his murder and met us in Springfield. I had to find Waffles. The cops helped Avery find the motorhome near Baker Creek and Waffles was okay. We got a crate and they let me bring him on the plane. I don’t know how I got through it, how anyone survives a massacre. Avery kept the motorhome until the next summer, when he showed up in Mount Vernon. It still smelled like Waffles and had our stuff in it — books and games and Miller’s guitar and dozens of dolls. I hadn’t made one since Cedar Creek, but I made one that summer, with Miller’s barrel chest and belly and a sparkle in his eye like he was about to say something someone would regret, but probably not him.
Right after we visited Little Bighorn, we went to a canyon in Utah on BLM land, the most remote place I’ve ever been. We drove miles over rutted roads to get there. A stream ran through an abandoned Mormon orchard and the walls of the canyon were covered with pictographs I copied into my notebook, wispy, long bodied people with wings or horns or antennae, plus goats and deer and lizards, beautiful images from pre Columbian America, before it was America. I was heartbroken about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman and the Indian baby Laura had wanted. I didn’t want any of it to be true and made Miller tell me everything he knew, over and over, which he did — Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement and Leonard Peltier, the Ghost Dance and boarding schools, all the treaties signed and broken. But he also took me to those petroglyphs. We stayed the night near that orchard, far from any artificial light except our own. I’d never seen stars like that, so many, so bright, and Miller taught me what I believed were constellations until I realized years later that he was making them up, that there wasn’t a Muddy Waters or John Brown or Sacagawea constellation, though I saw them that night. He saw them everywhere, great Americans, failed Americans, and he made me see them too. And he sang about them and taught me the songs.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” he sang.
“I’ve been a moonshiner,” he sang, “seventeen long years.”
“When first unto this country,” he sang, “a stranger I came.”
“Ain’t no more cane on the Brazos,” he sang.
“Puff the Magic Dragon,” he sang.
“His truth is marching on.”
That summer went on and on. Even as we got farther away I believed I would be okay, and I was. The massacre was just so awful, of course, but he let me help, taught me to help, taught me that the only way to get better was to help.
I didn’t think I’d ever be okay again. Avery was there and my mom, and they got rid of Connor and we talked about the money and what to do with it. It would be a long time before I got most of it, enough time to go to school and more school and more school, studying history like Miller and Avery, enough time to gather the other money, all of which would become the Cane Foundation’s speech, which would say, You can stop these massacres. And you don’t have to lose any amendment in stopping them. You’ll only become better.
He didn’t like rich people but he liked to spend money. And it wasn’t really the people he didn’t like. It was the idea of them taking too much, part of our corruption. He liked to be on the way somewhere — a rodeo, the Corn Palace, the Keys, Plymouth Rock. He loved my mother, but she didn’t love him as much. I can’t blame her for that — you can’t help who you love. Look at Libby Custer. I have everything he wrote when we were together, the Hero Villains, plus so many of his thoughts about us, his struggle to figure out what to do with me, how to love and raise me. He never lost hope, even though there was so much horror. He believed in the American experiment, and if he didn’t fight as hard as he might have or should have, I’m fighting now because of him. Because of myself. I know how proud he’d be of me, as I am of him. He was a good man, a good American. He was my father.