Originally published in the Feb. 14, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is back on the road. A good thing, too. He figures the best way to keep 8-year-old Carleen safe is to keep moving. Carleen’s mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting and injuring her estranged husband, Connor; that deadbeat suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a family fortune that he believes is rightfully his. Before all this, Miller had been been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, but now, with Carleen, he plans to return to the road with a different purpose: completing a long-ignored writing gig. Miller is writing short profiles of historical figures for an 11th-grade history textbook. Maybe Marcus and Narcissa Whitman would be suitable subjects?
It was a hundred and six degrees at the Whitman Mission a few miles west of Walla Walla, and smoky from the fires still burning up the West. The word “massacre” was not mentioned in the National Park Service material regarding the deaths at the site in 1847, though there were books for sale with titles like The Whitman Massacre and A Survivor’s Recollections of the Whitman Massacre and Eliza Spalding’s Whitman Massacre Cookbook. Carleen wrote her name in the visitor register and insisted Miller do the same. He complied, but when Carleen went to the bathroom and the ranger was occupied with an elderly couple bragging about their own missionary experience (perhaps they too would someday be massacred?), Miller ripped out the page with his and Carleen’s names on it and hid the register in a pile of Washington State coloring books. He wasn’t about to make Connor’s job any easier. He gathered pamphlets. He studied maps. He and Carleen watched a movie about the cultural differences between Marcus and Narcissa and the native Cayuse, the trickle of emigrants along the Oregon Trail in 1841 becoming a flood by 1847, the measles epidemic that killed half the Cayuse, finally leading to murder, hostage taking, war, and execution, all of it broadly referred to as Tragedy at Waiilatpu. At the center of the museum was a diorama featuring Marcus in his buckskins and floppy hat, his hand resting on Narcissa’s shoulder as she knelt with open arms before a Cayuse child.
“I like that girl’s blanket dress,” Carleen said, “and Narcissa’s bonnet.”
There was a spinning wheel behind the Whitmans, a butter churn, and a hutch full of China. A handful of Cayuse stood behind the girl Narcissa was reaching for.
“Remember in Little House,” Carleen said, “when Laura wanted the baby?”
“I do remember,” Miller said.
“Get me that Indian baby! she said.”
“And she cried and cried,” Miller said.
Carleen had cried, too, when Miller read her that section.
“She didn’t know why she wanted it,” Carleen said, “and she didn’t know why she cried, but it was wrong, even though she didn’t know why.” Carleen squinted at Narcissa in the diorama, reaching for the Cayuse girl. “Mom thinks the Little House books are bad,” she said.
“I know,” Miller said. Lizzie had told him as much, and he didn’t argue, though he thought her reading of the books was narrow, stunted by a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to travel in time.
“What do you think?” he asked Carleen.
“Some parts might be,” she said. “But I still like the books.”
“Me too,” Miller said. “Sometimes they know something’s wrong and show us — like Laura wanting that Indian baby, or the family being on Indian land, where they don’t belong, just like the Whitmans.”
“But the Whitmans died,” Carleen said.
“Right,” Miller said. He wondered if their deaths suggested a squaring of accounts in Carleen’s mind, a debt settled. He remembered a joke from the Marble Mountain massacre — What’s the difference between a good Yankee and a bad Yankee? — the punch line of which might have applied to missionaries as well: Good Yankees (and missionaries) go home. After Marble Mountain, Miller realized he no longer had a home, and hadn’t for years, though he wasn’t sure when or how he’d lost it.
“Narcissa’s pretty,” Carleen said, “but Marcus just looks sad.”
Marcus did look sad, and doughy and a little guilty — or maybe Miller was projecting guilt onto him for the deaths of the people he and Narcissa had come to save. Surely someone else would have been responsible for opening the trail and killing everyone if not Marcus. And another white woman would have crossed the Rockies first if not Narcissa, a harbinger of the “domestication” of the West, which would involve misunderstanding and displacement and suffering and death by starvation and disease and execution and warfare and massacre — tragedy at Waiilatpu indeed.
Outside, the sites where the Mission buildings had stood were outlined in concrete. There were interpretive placards with pictures of Marcus preaching, Marcus being tomahawked, Marcus bleeding all over the floor, Narcissa swooning, Alice Clarissa, the Whitman’s two-year-old daughter, sitting on the bank of the river she would drown in.
“But the river’s so far away,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “It moved,” and Carleen said, “That’s not true,” and Miller showed her a sign that said it was true. Their eyes were watering from the smoke and they were sweating, but at least they had respirators now.
They were the only people outside, though there were plenty of motorhomes in the parking lot, some with Jesus fish on their rear panels. Miller wondered at the complexity of the Christian response to the massacre. Guilt? Remorse? Narcissa and Marcus had failed as missionaries, and Marcus as a doctor, at least to the Cayuse, as any doctor would have failed in a time with no antibiotics and very little understanding of the origins or treatments regarding so many deadly diseases. Had the missionary board ever apologized for sending the wrong people to save the Cayuse, for ever sending missionaries to save anyone anywhere? Good missionaries stayed home. The Tragedy at Waiilatpu began with a story of three natives of the Northwest arriving in St. Louis seeking white religion and the Book of Heaven, a story that spread all over the East, creating missionary fever, the Indians asking to be saved, ready and willing, and the Whitmans ready and willing to save them — until such effort killed so many.
Miller looked at Carleen looking at the picture of Alice Clarissa dangling her feet in the river. Narcissa had failed to pay attention to her daughter for a few minutes one Sunday afternoon and lost her as a result. Carleen’s father, Connor, had walked away from his daughter, abandoning her when she was less than a year old. She would have died from starvation and exposure and smallpox if someone hadn’t been there to take care of her.
At the baby’s grave, Carleen wanted to know what it felt like to drown.
“I don’t think it’s painful,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “Choking on water you’re trying to breathe?” She held her breath until her face turned red, then threw herself to the ground, clawing at the air. “Help me!” she cried.
“Stop it,” Miller said.
“I’m drowning!” she cried.
“Enough now,” Miller said.
They were the only people outside.
He offered her a hand. “I’ve heard it’s a peaceful way to go,” he said, but back in the motorhome, the internet told them that drowning was indeed painful and terrifying. “See,” Carleen said, paging through the book Miller had bought her — The Tragic Tale of Narcissa Whitman and a Faithful History of the Oregon Trail. Miller paged through his own book, about the trials after the massacre. The mission always depressed him, like all historic sites in the West, the same stuff reported over and over, hardly ever changing. The Catholics and/or Protestants were the problem, and/or the solution. The unending deaths were because of disease and the influx of Americans. Marcus was tomahawked so thoroughly as to be nearly unrecognizable, his face pulped. The Cayuse could not stop shooting Narcissa, everyone wanting to put a round into her, the only woman killed. She had a beautiful singing voice. After the massacre, Oregon became the first U.S. territory west of the Rockies so that tribal leaders could be tried and executed on American soil instead of their own.
Miller looked at Carleen, who’d fallen asleep in her seat, head bowed and drooling. Narcissa had taken in other children after Alice Clarissa drowned. She wasn’t all bad. She might’ve been haughty and superior and miserable and racist, but by the time she was murdered she still believed there were people to save — if only white children whose parents had died along the trail. Everyone else had become unsaveable it seemed. But, god, to lose a child like Narcissa had, like Miller’s brother had, like so many parents at so many massacres had, all over the country. Miller looked at Carleen, her face no longer flushed, lines from her respirator etched into her cheeks. Such a sweet good girl. She hadn’t asked for this. Maybe Narcissa’s mothering wasn’t so much about saving children as it was about protecting them for the little while she had them, though she’d failed at that, too. Maybe everyone fails at that, finally.
Originally published in the Feb. 21, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane figures the best way to keep 8-year-old Carleen safe is to keep moving. Carleen’s mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting and injuring her estranged husband, Connor; that deadbeat suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a family fortune that he believes is rightfully his. Before all this, Miller had been been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, but now, with Carleen, he plans to return to the road with a different purpose: completing a long-ignored writing gig. Miller is writing short profiles of historical figures for an 11th-grade history textbook and the unlikely pair have gone to the Whitman Mission in search of his next subject: Narcissa Whitman.
Avery Mason, Miller’s favorite professor from college, had moved from Bellingham to grow grapes behind his new house in Walla Walla. He grilled salmon for dinner, and Miller and Carleen made huckleberry pie that baked as they ate. There was wine from the nearby vineyards, though Avery’s vines were still too young to bear good fruit. “People are worried about this smoke,” he said, “year after year. We’re talking a multimillion dollar industry here and nobody knows what’s happening to the grapes — not that I’m in it for the money.”
He held up his glass, regarding its contents, then took a long drink.
“What are you in it for?” Miller said, and Avery said, “The wine — what else?”
And he laughed his big laugh.
“I mean, really,” he said, “I gave up whiskey years ago, gave up weed, even now that’s it legal.” He looked at Carleen. “You don’t smoke weed, do you, Carleen?”
She shook her head. “My mom does, though,” she said. “I don’t like the smell.”
“I don’t either,” Avery said. “Makes me sneeze.”
He filled Miller’s glass.
“Can I have some wine?” Carleen said.
“No,” Miller said.
“You can have some juice,” Avery said, “once you finish your milk.”
“I don’t like milk,” Carleen said.
It was still hot outside, though an afternoon breeze had cleared the smoke. Avery went inside and Carleen asked if she really had to drink her milk. “Not if you don’t want to,” Miller said, but she drank it anyway — in three gulps. The whole day had been that way.
Avery returned with a carafe and three glasses. “These are my grapes,” he said, pouring and passing the juice around.
Carleen gulped it down. “It’s good,” she said, “but not as good as Mama Chia’s.”
Miller had to stop himself from glaring at her. She was having a bad day was all.
Avery talked about his move from Bellingham. “Fifty years ago,” he said, “Walla Walla meant one thing only — the Washington State Penitentiary. Now it means lots of things — good food, good wine, lots of money. People from all over the world come here. But when I was a Panther, I never would have dreamed — I mean, really — Walla Walla?” And he laughed his big laugh. “At least I’m on the right side of the wall,” he said, and Miller laughed with him, then Carleen — too hard, her eyes shiny as she looked at Avery and kept laughing.
Miller touched her shoulder.
Avery raised his eyebrows, shrugging.
Miller drank his juice.
Carleen said, “Do you want to see my cat, Avery?”
“Sure I do,” Avery said, and Carleen knocked her chair over jumping from the table.
“Easy,” Miller said.
“It’s okay,” Avery said, righting her chair.
Carleen ran to the motorhome.
“She’s having a rough day is all,” Miller said.
“Seems fine to me,” Avery said.
If Miller and Carleen could just know how long they’d be on the road — but they couldn’t know. Or they kind of could: eight to eighty months.
Miller told him how they’d slept at Rooks Park, Miller waking this morning to Carleen crying. There’d been nothing but bad news for weeks. And it all sounded crazy, saying it aloud, how Lizzie had shot Connor, how Connor wouldn’t go away until Lizzie gave up Carleen’s DNA, how Lizzie was facing eight to ten years — and just who would raise Carleen, she wanted to know, while she was in prison? Miller wanted to know that, too. How her attorney claimed he would bargain the charge down. Eventually. If Miller and Carleen could just know how long they’d be on the road — but they couldn’t know. Or they kind of could: eight to eighty months.
And this morning, first thing, Carleen had been crying as the motorhome started to bake.
Who wouldn’t cry?
Then, at the college this afternoon, she stole Narcissa Whitman’s hair.
“She what?” Avery said.
“This is what I’m talking about,” Miller said.
“She stole whose hair?” Avery said.
If anyone could understand this, Avery could, a real historian.
“Okay,” he said, craning his neck to look across the lawn.
Carleen had not reappeared
“But I’m going to need just a few more details,” he said.
“The hair was on the table,” Miller said, “and then it was gone.”
“Another couple steps back,” Avery said.
Miller took a deep breath and wondered how many steps back he’d have to go to figure out how they’d gotten here — and how many steps forward he’d have to take to get them out.
Originally published in the Feb. 28, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is in Walla Walla visiting an old buddy named Avery. Miller and Carleen, a “Little House on the Prairie”-loving 8-year-old, have been traveling together across the smoke-filled West in Miller’s motorhome, driven by two impulses — to keep Carleen safe and to pick up Miller’s long-ignored writing gig. He is crafting short biographies of historical figures for a high school textbook and he’s considering a profile of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women to cross the Rockies, who was later killed in the Whitman massacre. Miller’s been taking care of Carleen while her mother sits in jail for shooting and injuring her estranged husband, Connor. Before all this, Miller had been on the road with a different mission: conning the survivors of America’s mass shootings.
He woke to Carleen in her loft crying, just sniffling, then nothing. Maybe she wanted privacy. At six in the morning it was already too hot to visit Fort Walla Walla, which was a relief really. They didn’t need another diorama of friendly pioneers encountering curious Indians — at least not for a few days. But now Carleen was upset and he had nothing to distract her with. That’s when he remembered Narcissa’s hair, a relic he’d seen at the college years ago. Carleen would love it. He drifted in bed for a while, and when he woke again, the motorhome was silent. He called her name, but she didn’t respond. He jumped from bed and checked her loft. Empty. She was probably right outside the door.
But she wasn’t right outside the door.
He ran to the playground, the showers, the horseshoe pits. He ran to the water — she wasn’t anywhere — but then she appeared, rounding a bend in the creek. He took a deep smoky breath.
She saw him and waved.
He walked toward her, pointing at his ears, meaning take off your headphones so you can hear me. He took another breath.
“What is it?” she said.
“You can’t be by the water alone like this,” he said, and she said, “Why not,” and he said, “Because it scares me.”
He could hardly breathe.
She kicked at the water. “It’s barely above my ankles,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “But remember how Laura almost drowned in Plum Creek?”
She looked down, then squinted at Miller.
He didn’t know what else to say.
“I’ll just,” he said, and pointed up the hill, then walked in that direction, toward a picnic table where he could watch her. He could feel his heart beating. Neither of them was wearing a respirator. He’d have to talk to her about telling him when she was leaving and where she was going and when she’d be back, not that he’d ever let her out of his sight again, not with Connor out there waiting, not until they were farther away. He wondered if she’d be better off without him — with Dena in Spokane, or Cara out on the Peninsula. Maybe he wasn’t fit for this. Maybe her wandering off was proof.
He waited, breathing the bad air. When Carleen walked up the hill, he followed her to the motorhome. She wrote in her notebook while he made sandwiches, and at lunch she told him how the creek led to the same river the Whitman’s daughter had drowned in. She showed him on the park map — Mill Creek leading to the Walla Walla river. “But the water was shallow today,” she said. “And it wasn’t the river anyway — it was only the creek.”
“I know,” Miller said. “I just — ”
“You were scared,” Carleen said. “But I’m not a baby.”
“I know you’re not,” Miller said. But she had been a few years ago.
He told her about Narcissa’s hair at the college.
“Really?” she said. “Do you think it’s still bloody?”
“No,” Miller said. “I’m sure it’s clean.”
“Good,” Carleen said, and later, when the librarian brought it out — a single blonde lock bound by a blue ribbon, sealed in plastic — Carleen said, “Is it really hers?”
“It really is,” the librarian said.
She placed it on top of the other material Miller had requested.
“It’s beautiful,” Carleen said, picking up the hair and studying it.
Miller was pretty sure no one had any idea if it was real. But who cared? He opened the envelope containing Narcissa’s first journal.
“Are we allowed to touch the pages?” he asked the librarian.
“Yes,” she said. “Just be careful.”
It wasn’t as if Miller missed the massacres, but out on the circuit at least, you never wondered what came next.
They touched the pages Narcissa had touched, which Carleen didn’t seem as excited about as Miller was. He read some letters aloud, then parts of the journal to himself, Carleen drifting away as Miller followed Narcissa to Vancouver then back to Waiilatpu and the building of the mission, Narcissa’s disappointment with her life and the Cayuse gradually leaking through her stoicism. Carleen sat across from him writing in her notebook. She got a drink while Miller read. She went to the bathroom and came back. Narcissa was going blind, asking Marcus to get her some spectacles in the East, from whence he’d bring a big group of emigrants along the trail. Things were not going well for the Whitmans — or the Cayuse.
“Miller,” Carleen said, “come up for air.”
Both Carleen and the librarian were looking at him. He’d gotten lost in Narcissa’s words.
“What?” he said, and Carleen said, “I think it’s time to go.”
He looked at his watch. They were going to be late to Avery’s. He packed everything and returned the boxes, wondering if Narcissa’s molecules were all over him now from her journal, which they probably were.
“We’re just missing the hair,” the librarian said.
“Right,” Miller said.
He went back to the table, but it wasn’t there. He unpacked the boxes and envelopes and went though everything again. He didn’t want to think Carleen —
“Is it possible you might have it?” he asked her.
“No,” she said. “I don’t even have pockets.”
He made a show of emptying his own pockets, turning them inside out.
“Just bring it back when you find it,” the librarian said. “It’s okay.”
But she looked pained. Of course she was pained. Narcissa Whitman’s hair was missing. “That’s not the only lock we have,” she whispered to him, which was some relief, and probably suggested that the whole thing was fraudulent. But, still.
Now, hours later, Avery said, “And you think Carleen took it.”
“What else could have happened?”
“It fell into one of the envelopes,” Avery said, “one of the boxes.”
“I looked,” Miller said.
Carleen came running across the lawn with Waffles.
“I got him,” she called, and when she reached the patio, she held him out to Avery.
“What a handsome boy,” Avery said.
Miller hoped Waffles wouldn’t pee all over him.
“He likes you,” Carleen said, “of course he does.”
Waffles was purring. Carleen beamed as Avery rubbed the cat’s belly.
“When did you become a person, anyway,” she asked.
Avery looked at her.
Miller said, “What do you mean, Carleen?”
“A long time ago,” Avery said, laughing, and Carleen laughed with him.
“I mean,” Carleen said, “when did you become a person exactly?”
Miller didn’t think he’d told her about slavery and the census and how each black American had been counted as three-fifths of a person. But maybe she knew. And now —
“Sweetie, I’ve always been a person,” Avery said.
“I thought — ” Carleen said, her face turning red.
She slid deeper into her chair.
“Sit up,” Miller said.
Carleen looked at Miller, at Avery, at the table.
“You thought what?” Avery said.
Carleen looked at Avery again and away.
What else was going to happen today?
She shook her head.
“You can tell me,” he said. “It’s okay.”
“I thought,” she said, her voice shrinking, “you were a cat.”
“A cat?” Avery said.
“Before you became a person,” she said, her voice tiny.
“Carleen,” Miller said.
“A panther,” she said.
It was quiet for a second and then Avery laughed.
“Oh,” he said, and he laughed harder.
But Carleen wasn’t laughing. Carleen was going to cry.
“It’s okay, honey,” Avery said, sliding his chair closer. “You’re right — I was a Panther.”
He reached out to pet Waffles.
“You said you were,” she said.
“I did say that,” Avery said. “And I was. I’m going to tell you about it, okay?”
“Okay,” Carleen said, but she didn’t look sure.
Miller sank into his own chair as Avery soothed her. He wondered how long they could keep this up. It wasn’t as if Miller missed the massacres, but out on the circuit at least, you never wondered what came next. Another massacre would happen and then another one and you knew what your job was from one day to the next.
“Did you ever grow your fingernails long like claws?” Carleen asked.
“We didn’t,” Avery said, “but I like that idea.”
“I like it too,” Carleen said.
Miller went inside and took the pie out of the oven. When he came back out, she was writing in her notebook.
“What are you working so hard on?” Avery asked her.
“A history,” Carleen said.
“Just like your dad,” Avery said, and Miller and Carleen looked at him.
“My dad?” Carleen said.
Originally published in the March 7, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane and Carleen, a “Little House on the Prairie”-loving 8-year-old, have been traveling together across the smoke-filled West in Miller’s motorhome. Miller is crafting short biographies of historical figures for a high school textbook, and he’s considering a profile of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women to cross the Rockies, who was later killed in the Whitman massacre. Miller’s been taking care of Carleen while her mother sits in jail for shooting and injuring her estranged husband. They’re currently visiting Miller’s old buddy Avery, who used to be a “Panther” (as in, a Black Panther), and now Carleen is trying her hand at writing as well. Oh, and Miller suspects Carleen has stolen a lock of Narcissa’s hair from the library they visited.
Monday night later in bed. Even if he wasn’t a cat he could of been. He didn’t look like a cat even though birds or people sometimes do but he still might have been one. MEEEOOOWWW he said MEEEOOOOOOOWWWWW. Narcissa talks to her mother in her letters and journal. You mustn’t worry Mother she says. Miller says I can talk to my mother too or I can draw cats or whatever I want and it can be a secret or doesn’t have to be. You mustn’t worry Mother. We’re marching forward with the blessing of the lord. Mr. Cane brought in a buffalo this afternoon. How it relishes! Miller read from the journal how this relishes and that relishes all the food she loves. And the lord. Miller says I should write Narcissa’s story for the children he’s writing for.
The book he got me is filled with drawings and maps. She’s different than what he said she’d be which was mean and selfish. But you can’t ever tell. Like with Laura. She was bad but not all the time. Or maybe she was. I don’t think so but Mother does. You mustn’t worry about Laura Mother.
Miller knows what happened is the worst thing you could do in a library. But not as bad as wanting an Indian baby. That’s why the little house is wrong. But it still relishes.
Narcissa wanted to go home but couldn’t. The Lord has taken our child she wrote. Oh, the Indians the Indians!
Mom said it was fine to talk to her in the notebook but we must also talk on the phone everyday even if I don’t want to talk and neither does she. Not always.
I haven’t touched it yet except outside the plastic.
Miller said we think things that if we said them out loud they would make us seem bad like Laura and the Indian baby.
But she did say it out loud.
Because she’s real he said.
We can forgive her he said
But not Narcissa I said.
Sure we can he said why not?
He’s got an old book called Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans. You would hate it Mother how the Indians are always wicked and cruel.
As do I.
I can write any story he said but it must be as true as I can make it.
They won’t say what she did my mother.
They use the forked tongue of the white man.
No my mother says you’re not allowed to say that.
I asked Miller if we could go to church and he said why would we and I said why wouldn’t we.
I will tell the children about its pale silkiness.
It doesn’t seem old but I mustn’t touch it much.
Narcissa had a beautiful voice. Everyone loved her. She said everyone who sees me compliments me as being the best able to endure the journey over the mountains.
Of course its not right to take something that’s not yours.
So long as I have buffalo meat I do not wish anything else she wrote. But later she said she could scarcely eat it IT APPEARS SO FILTHY she said.
It had stopped relishing.
Shes not as good as Laura, even with the Indian baby. Maybe nobody is.
It can be your own private words Miller said.
But now the words are here and not private.
PUT THIS BOOK DOWN MILLER. ITS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.
The hair does not appear to have blood on it but I have not smelled it because I have not taken it out of its plastic. I could give it back and it would be like no one had ever done anything. Isn’t that so Mother?
Catherine Sager said Narcissa was the prettiest woman anyone had ever seen. Catherine came on the trail with her sisters and brothers. Her Mother and Father died one after the other.
They were said to be very bad children Narcissa wrote.
I can tell when Waffles is going to be bad by the way he looks at me.
Mom says animals can’t be bad.
But Mother have you ever seen a man turn into a cat and back again as I have?
Originally published in the March 7, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane and Carleen are on the run in the smoke-filled West, driven by two impulses — to keep 8-year-old Carleen out of reach of her estranged father, Connor, and to pick up Miller’s long-ignored writing gig. He is working on short biographies for a high school history textbook, and he wants to spotlight Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women to cross the Rockies. Miller and Carleen are now in Walla Walla, visiting Miller’s buddy Avery and doing a little research; they recently visited a library where a lock of Narcissa’s hair was preserved — until Carleen apparently swiped it. Back in Spokane, Miller’s sister, Dena, is trying to unload their ailing mother’s house. Before all this, Miller had been on the road with a different mission: conning the survivors of America’s mass shootings. One of those survivors, Heffner, isn’t finished with Miller.
That night after Carleen was asleep, Miller went to his own room to handle a piece of business — paperwork from the realtor to review. It would be nice, Dena had texted, if Miller would check his email once in a while like an adult, an accusation Miller found unfair. No one was responding to email anymore, everyone stupefied by Facebook and Mainline and WhoDat and Litterbox. Miller himself was almost completely unencumbered since fading from the support groups and political organizations he’d founded for his work on the massacre circuit. His only obligation now was to Carleen. He was tired from the heat and smoke, from Carleen disappearing this morning, then stealing Narcissa’s hair — if she had stolen it.
He opened his email, but couldn’t remember the realtor’s name. There were hundreds of unopened messages. Miller scanned subject lines and opened a few that led nowhere, then opened one headed Our Earlier Business, and immediately encountered the enraged, demented specter of Heffner, exactly why he didn’t open anything anymore.
Heffner had no idea Miller had tagged his earlier emails as spam, but now he was writing from a new address, getting around the filter, and while the tone was like his emails after the Rosedale massacre, there was something unhinged in the typography, as if flashes of rage were shaking his ability to adhere to even the simplest conventions of written English. Miller hadn’t recognized the name in his inbox — James May — but the minute he saw the message, he knew who was screaming at him.
“DEAREST Miller,” he wrote, “I am RIGHT BEHIND YOU and I will be right BEWHIND ypiu until I FInD YOuY on the day YOU DIE!
“I on;y want whats mine and my neighbors and whatr you trook.
“I KNOW YOU KNOW THIS!
“You talked like you knew us but you dikdn’;t know anything
“YOU’RE SON WASN’T TAKIN FROM YOU!!!!!!
“THIS COULDHAVE BEEN SETTLED EAST BUT MONEY WONT SETTLE ANTRTHG NOW.
“YOURE NOT HALF WHAT tIM WAS NOT HALKF OF ANYTH9ING
“YOUrE NOTHING NOW
“JAMES MAY HEFFNER
“ps, I am behiond you motehrfutter so tou bewrtrter have youre eyts opne 24 hours adayt. Im going to stare you down like Carvin staremd Tim down — like a goddman dog, like the goddamn dog you are you are. I wil; pit you out of your gosddman misery once and for all ASSHOLE”
Miller read the last paragraph again, which became clear if you didn’t pay attention to individual words or spellings. Heffner had been messed up when Miller met him — why wouldn’t he be, with a murdered son? — more messed up and menacing than most, and more menacing still when he showed up at Rosedale looking for money, until Wade laid him out and Miller escaped town. Now, six months after losing his son, he was off the rails entirely, which would have been okay, comforting even — he seemed incapable of hurting anyone now — except for the mention of Carvin, the Cumberland shooter, which felt like a conjuring, an invocation.
Miller stood and looked out the window. The motorhome was parked below, on the street in front of Avery’s house. Heffner was not visible anywhere. Of course he wasn’t. The man was deranged, crazy with grief — and there’d probably always been something bent in him. Miller wanted a cigarette. Avery wouldn’t have one and Miller wasn’t going to buy any. He sat on his bed and closed Heffner’s message, but didn’t delete it. He scanned his inbox. There were no other messages from James May or Jimmy Heffner. Maybe the email was just an outburst, evidence of the man’s pain becoming momentarily too much to bear.
But in his spam filter, Miller found more, sometimes two or three a day. There was no point in looking at these — except to scare himself, which he obviously needed since he’d hardly given Heffner a thought since picking up Carleen. His worry had been focused on Connor, and while it made sense to worry about Connor, Miller had been stupid, negligent, naïve to think Heffner would disappear. Hadn’t the man tracked Miller from Cumberland to Rosedale? Hadn’t he demanded money, whatever he believed Miller owed him, not that Miller owed him anything.
He had picked up forty-five grand or so from a couple of Heffner’s co-survivors in Cumberland, but those people had plenty. Mrs. Aiello herself was worth millions. Miller would never take money from an old lady — or anyone — unless it was excess and giving it would also help the survivor. In a massacre’s wake, people wanted to give, and if they had money and got value in return, Miller tried to facilitate such exchanges.
Mrs. Aiello’s granddaughter, Sierra, had been one of four kids murdered in Cumberland, a tiny massacre, barely newsworthy, unremarkable except to the survivors, who would never recover. Miller provided Mrs. Aiello access to Sierra — an illusion of intimacy, of interaction. The whole thing was simple and beautiful and he only wished he’d thought of it sooner.
When he first started the program — Echo, he called it — Miller had handled the medium work himself. But after a year or so, he hired Jenna, who was better than Miller at reading the dead and comforting the living. Deep access to each victim’s social media and email accounts was purchased from among several sources, and then Jenna (or Miller or Kara, Jenna’s sister, who Miller later hired) brought the dead back to life, or more accurately, channeled them from the afterlife, weaving details from the deceased’s past no one could have known but the deceased (or someone with access to a lot of data). The new webpage or social media account or email exchange was a living memorial, with Jenna or Miller or Kara serving as different mediums channeling beloved victims to each survivor in the program. No one got involved who didn’t want to be involved. Often the interaction was an ongoing email exchange — or comments on a survivor’s social media posts, sometimes as the deceased, with an explicit understanding that it was not really the deceased, but the deceased reaching out through a medium.
People contacted him crying, sent gifts and more money, thanked him over and over for keeping them in touch with their lost loved ones, and he was careful about who he enrolled. The spiritual profile was his read of a client. He would never enroll anyone who would be hurt or would hurt anyone else. Someone like Heffner would never be allowed in, though he probably had given to one of the online action funds. Miller had only ever provided Echo to maybe 20 survivors, and people got their money’s worth, their loved ones arising from the ether. The service started at twenty grand. Everybody won as much as anybody could. But it was a relief to be off the circuit. Miller had done well by doing good — but he did not want to do it anymore.
If he’d never hurt Heffner, he’d also never brought his dead son back.
He read the man’s emails, all variations of you-did-me-wrong-and-I-will-make-you-pay. After thirty or forty they started to seem like harmless ranting, an exercise that almost had nothing to do with Miller — just howling. Maybe this was how he was helping the man, serving as his punching bag.
But then a fresh one arrived from the new address, Heffner within electronic micro seconds of Miller, the subject line reading Grettings from your Hometown. Miller opened it right away. “Know,” Heffner wrote “That I AM ALWAYS with you,” one of his standard greetings. Everything in the message was typically crazy, until half way through when Heffner wrote that he was in Spokane. Miller’s heart stuttered. A hundred and fifty miles was too close. But he’d be easy to track to Spokane — so what? That didn’t get Heffner to Avery’s house in Walla Walla. Still, he did seem to be tracking them — unless he was lying, which the last lines suggested he was. “I MET YOUYR Friend WALLACE,” he wrote.
Miller didn’t have any friend Wallace.
And then he was back on script: “I will TRACK YOU DOWN,” and so on and so forth. Miller read it again, seeing no evidence of Heffner in Spokane. He could have been anywhere in the world. Still, Miller texted Dena and told her to watch for somebody sniffing around — a deranged, possibly dangerous massacre survivor — and to tell the man nothing about their mom or Carleen, or Carleen and Miller’s whereabouts. Odds were good he wasn’t there at all, and if he was, he’d never find them in Walla Walla and probably wouldn’t find Dena either.
But Miller woke in the morning to an hour-old voicemail.
“He’s here, ” Dena said. “I just saw him.”
Originally published in the March 7, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane keeps looking over his shoulder. He’s been on the run with 8-year-old Carleen, trying to keep her away from her estranged father, Connor, while the girl’s mother, Lizzie, rots in jail. Before this, Miller had been on the road with a different mission: conning the survivors of America’s mass shootings. One of those survivors, Heffner, has a score to settle with him. Miller and Carleen are now in Walla Walla, visiting Miller’s buddy Avery, who used to be a “Panther” (as in, a Black Panther). Meanwhile, back in Spokane, Miller’s sister, Dena, is trying to unload their ailing mother’s house when, out of the blue, a strange man shows up asking questions.
Miller called Dena back immediately, to find out what she knew and what she’d told Heffner, but his call went straight to voicemail. He texted — Call me as soon as you can. Carleen’s room was empty, her Barbie Care Clinic open on the bed. In the kitchen, a note from Avery explained that he’d taken Carleen to town for breakfast and a matinee. They wouldn’t be home until afternoon.
Miller made coffee and waited for Dena to call. It was time to get out of Washington, to head to Pendleton for the Roundup, and then to get out of the West entirely. Maybe they’d skip the rodeo, though he hated the thought of Heffner chasing them away from what they wanted to do. Miller read the newspaper online. The entire state of California was on fire. A few hundred miles north, Canadians were being rounded up and shot along the border, and there was talk of installing a moat filled with boiling sewage to keep them out of the country. Maybe that was all rumor. Miller was having trouble thinking straight. Heffner had reasserted himself, but that didn’t mean he was on their trail, though it seemed like he was. Maybe getting a gun wasn’t such a bad idea. But then he’d have to learn how to use it.
Dena called from their mom’s room at Fairhaven.
“He was outside when I got here,” she said.
“What?” Miller said, and Dena said, “Here — at Fairhaven.”
How was that possible?
“Was he frothing at the mouth?” Miller said, and Dena said, “Actually, he seemed — I don’t know — kind of normal.”
That definitely didn’t seem possible.
“Said he was Lizzie’s cousin,” Dena said, “that he’d been by the house and talked to McKay.”
“Who’s McKay?” Miller said.
“The realtor,” Dena said. “Didn’t you sign that stuff?”
“The stuff he emailed us,” Dena said. “Come on, Miller!”
“Just tell me what happened,” Miller said.
“Nothing happened,” Dena said. “Except — I don’t know.”
“What?” Miller said.
“I got this feeling he didn’t know what he was talking about. And based on your text, I was on guard — like what’s this guy doing at Fairhaven? That’s what really got to me.”
“Exactly,” Miller said.
“He spent an hour at the house with McKay three days ago and then again yesterday — apparently he’s talked to the neighbors and stuff. I mean, I’m guessing all this, putting two and two together, based on the serious buyer McKay told us about.”
“Jesus,” Miller said — Heffner in their house, at his mother’s nursing home, talking to the neighbor’s. Who knew what the man was capable of?
“But that’s after I talked to him here,” Dena said, “outside.”
“I need another towel,” Miller’s mom said in the background.
“Hang on,” Dena said to Miller.
“Is she hearing this?” Miller said when Dena came back.
“No,” Dena said.
“And Heffner didn’t get inside Fairhaven?”
Soon the big open country would swallow Miller and Carleen, not that they were traceable now.
“I don’t think so. But I called McKay to see if I was right — that this serious buyer who’d been spending so much time at the house was actually our stalker, even though he seemed normal when I saw him. I stayed in the lobby at Fairhaven watching the dude, and after he walked to his car, I called McKay and said, ‘This buyer — does he drive a black Mustang?’”
“A black Mustang?” Miller said.
But that couldn’t be. That was —
“And he was like, Yep.”
“But that’s not him,” Miller said. “That’s Lizzie’s husband. Connor.”
“No,” Dena said. “This was Heffner.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he was here.”
“But if he was driving a black Mustang, that has to be Connor.”
“So they’re both here?”
“I don’t know,” Miller said.
Connor was supposed to be on the other side of the Cascades. Heffner was supposed to be stalking them in Spokane or somewhere else. Outside, there was nobody at Avery’s curb watching, though Connor and Heffner both knew the motorhome and its crazy stickers. Soon the big open country would swallow Miller and Carleen, not that they were traceable now.
“Connor’s been in our house,” Miller said — the thought turned his stomach — and Dena said “I’ll tell McKay the guy’s not a real buyer — ”
“Don’t tell him anything,” Miller said. “We don’t want the cops involved.”
“Why not?” Dena said.
Miller didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Dena said.
“He doesn’t know where you live, does he?”
“I don’t know,” Dena said.
“Get out of town for a couple days,” Miller said. “Heffner might be sniffing around, too.”
“Okay,” Dena said. “But there’s something else.”
“What is it?” Miller said.
There was still nobody outside, and the smoke hadn’t blown back in since blowing out the previous evening.
“Mom’s been really volatile,” Dena said, “up and down like I’ve never seen her before.”
“Like how?” Miller said.
“Like totally here one minute,” Dena said, “especially when she talks about Carleen.”
“Carleen?” Miller said.
“And then totally gone.”
“What about Carleen?”
“I don’t know,” Dena said. “I guess they’ve been talking on the phone.”
“What do you mean they’ve been talking on the phone?”
“What do you mean what do I mean? I mean she’s been calling Mom. I assumed you knew that. I assumed it was your phone.”
“Hang on,” Miller said. He checked his call log — and almost every time there was a call to Lizzie, there was a call to his mother as well.
“Why is she doing this?” Miller said.
“I don’t know,” Dena said, and then Miller heard his mom in the background. “Excuse me, miss,” she said. “Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, Ma,” Dena said, and then she said to Miller, “I gotta go.”
He did, too. It was past time. Nobody knew where they were, but it didn’t feel that way, and when Avery and Carleen came back from the movie, Miller told Avery about Connor and Heffner right up the road in Spokane. If Heffner even was there.
“Okay,” Avery said. “But you’re jumping to conclusions.”
Carleen was out back with Waffles.
“We’re going to the Roundup,” Miller said. “Today.”
“It’s only an hour away,” Avery said. “You can sleep here if you want.”
“We have to get out of Washington,” Miller said.
“Thirty miles across the line’s going to make a difference?”
“Yes,” Miller said.
“How about I go with you?” Avery said. “I’ve got a friend in La Grande where we could park the motorhome — sleep there.”
Avery coming with them to the Roundup felt like a miracle, another pair of eyes to watch for Connor and Heffner, to watch Carleen, who banged in through the backdoor holding Waffles and pulling off her respirator.
“Is Avery going to the rodeo with us?” she asked, and Miller said, “How did you know?”
“Because I invited him,” Carleen said.
Avery shrugged. “I’ve never been to a rodeo,” he said.
“Me neither,” Carleen said.
Things were getting weirder, but so what? Miller was grateful to have a few more days of Avery’s calming influence. His judgment wasn’t distorted by all the craziness they were wrapped in.
“With me and Avery and Waffles,” Carleen said, “the cats will be taking over.”
Maybe Miller would become one of the cats, too.
Originally published in the March 28, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane has been on the run with 8-year-old Carleen across the smoke-filled West, trying to keep her away from her estranged father while the girl’s mother rots in jail. Before this, Miller had been on the road with a different mission: comforting and conning the survivors of America’s mass shootings. A high school teacher by trade, Miller is using his time with Carleen to return to a long-ignored writing gig: He’s crafting short biographies of historical figures for a high school textbook — each profile begins with a central question, “Hero or Villain?” — but so far, Miller’s editor hasn’t appreciated the literary license he’s taken.
Hero Villain V — Three American Sisters:
Libby Custer, Helen Keller, Narcissa Whitman
It’s Helen we love the most and not because of what she overcame, though that’s part of it. Mostly, it’s how good she was in spite of everything, how kind and warm and funny and sweet and blind and deaf and limbless. It’s Libby we love because of her beauty and carnality and perseverance as a professional widow — 57 years she spent burnishing the legend of her vain, unbearable husband, getting rich off the spoils. It’s Narcissa we love because… because… actually it’s so hard to love Narcissa, unless you’re Henry Spalding, who Narcissa spurned, and who went West with her and her husband anyway and later invented the game of basketball, Henry who was a bastard and raised in foster homes, who fell in love with haughty, spiritual Narcissa — who married Marcus instead, because she had to marry someone in order to serve the benighted heathen, and anyone, it seems, was better than Henry Spalding.
In a more enlightened time she might have been as famous and sensual as her nephew, the beloved poet Walt Whitman, who wrote:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs
Like Walt, Narcissa celebrated herself, but those who knew her did not. Nor did they celebrate her husband. The year before the Whitmans ventured into the darkness of heathendom, Marcus attended the Rendezvous in Sturgis, where trappers gathered to sell furs and buy whiskey and cook meth, and as he travelled West with the American Fur Company’s caravan, “very evident tokens gave us to understand,” he wrote, “that our company was not agreeable, such as the throwing of rotten eggs at me.”
Poor Marcus. But a bronze likeness of him stands in the Statuary Hall in D.C., where each state commemorates American hero villains, Marcus all mountain man missionary with his buckskins and bible and fur cap and saddle bags, perched on a pedestal that reads, “My plans require time and distance,” and if his plans shifted from saving the benighted heathen to opening the West to white settlement, from a distance of time, his plans were indeed fulfilled. Perhaps you’ve seen his statue among the others in the Hall, including one from Alabama representing his sister in law, Helen Keller, embracing a water pump, on the verge of understanding what Anne Sullivan has been trying to teach her for months, writing words in her hand, in this case “water,” as it gushes from the pump, Helen feeling “a misty consciousness as of something forgotten; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”
Other hero villains in the Hall include George Washington and Robert E. Lee, both from Virginia, one being the father of our country and the other being America’s drunk ex-husband. Or maybe her drunk ex-husband is Jefferson Davis, whose pedestal reads, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” There’s heroic polygamist Brigham Young and renegade Puritan Roger Williams, great grandfather of Ted Williams (a famous baseball player and bread salesman nicknamed The Splendid Splinter). There’s Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, whose pedestal reads: “I am afraid of nothing on the earth, above the earth, beneath the earth, except to do wrong.”
Poor Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Almost everything he did was wrong, such as explaining that, “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” There are lots of bigots and white supremacists in the Statuary Hall, and until 1986, no African Americans, but now there are four — Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, MLK and Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, who replaced one of the Hall’s confederate generals. So change is possible — though, sadly, sometimes we change for the worse, tearing ourselves to pieces.
But if there are ugly Americans in the Hall, there are many others to be proud of — astronauts and doctors and Founding Fathers and the inventor of mechanical cooling, suffragettes and temperance reformers, generals and presidents (including Jackson but not Lincoln, Reagan but not Jefferson, assassinated Garfield but not the assassinated Kennedy doll); there are agronomists and inventors, lickspittles and kingfish, shipbuilders and planters, puritans and bed-wetters, plus an actual saint, Junípero Serra y Ferrer, who built the first missions in California and worked for the Spanish Inquisition, to whom he filed a report from Mexico regarding “a large congregation of Christian non-Indians… and these persons, flying through the air at night, are in the habit of meeting in a cave… where they worship and make sacrifice to the demons who appear visibly there in the guise of young goats.”
Yes, there were witches and demons in the olden times. Kings and queens, too. And even though we hate kings and queens, there’s one in the Statuary Hall we like, King Kamehameha of Hawaii, along with six native Americans and two persons of Hispanic descent, but only one blind deaf person — Helen.
It’s hard to choose the most heroic deaf American. You might think of Thomas “Tommy Gun” Edison or Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno, but those men were hard of hearing, not deaf, whereas Oscar winner Marlee Matlin was deaf, but not as kind as our Helen. And while the most heroic blind American might be Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles, there’s only one most heroic blind deaf American, and while we all tell horrible, hurtful jokes about her, we love her dearly — because she was more Alice B. Toklas than Gertrude Stein, more Loretta Lynn than Chrissie Hynde, more Eleanor Roosevelt than all the other first ladies combined, solid, reliable, erotic as hell.
Carnegie had an affair with her. So did Vanderbilt and Houdini. She might have been a raging socialist, but the industrialists loved her. Her sister Libby was just as lusty, desired by senators and presidents and secretaries of war. Libby mentioned in a letter to her vainglorious boy General, “a soft place upon Somebody’s carpet,” that needed attention — and how she “longed to sit Tomboy for a ride!”
“I know where I would kiss somebody if I was with her tonight,” Custer wrote back. He cut off his mustache and mailed it to her that night. We remember him as a vain, self-involved man baby, but all the glory he sought was for Libby: “When I think how successful I have been of late and how much has been said of my conduct and gallantry I think, She will hear of it, and will be proud of her Boy! That is all the reward I ask.”
Others wanted bloodier rewards for him. Iron Hawk, a Hunkpapa Lakota who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn said, “These Wasichus wanted it, and they came to get it, and we gave it to them.” President Grant said, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself.” Libby did not care for that kind of talk at all. She became her husband’s tireless champion, dying peacefully in her sleep half a century later.
Narcissa did not die peacefully in her sleep. She was shot, beaten, and thrown face down in the mud. Thirteen people died at the Mission that day, but “all the women and children were spared except Mrs. Whitman,” Harry Clark wrote. That’s how hard she was to love.
“They worship and make sacrifice to the demons who appear visibly there in the guise of young goats.”
Like her sister’s boy general, Narcissa had an abundance of self-regard. “Everyone who sees me,” she wrote, “compliments me as being the best able to endure the journey over the mountains.” And if she did not share with her husband a passionate love like her sister’s and the man baby’s, Narcissa and Marcus did invent the missionary position. She “loved to confide in his judgement and act under him. He is just like Mother in telling me my failings.”
Poor Narcissa. What she longed for — a chance to save the benighted heathen — did not make her happy, even if she was the first white woman to cross the Rockies. She had so much hope early on. “Our manner of living is far preferable to any in the States,” she wrote as she and Marcus travelled west. “I wish you were all here with us going to the dear Indians.” But a few months later, her first impressions of the Cayuse was of “Old Chief Umtippe… full of all manner of hypocrisy, deceit and guile. He is a mortal beggar as all Indians are.”
Narcissa tolerated the Indians at first, and was then inconvenienced, repulsed, and finally indifferent to them, as more and more white people streamed west. Her only daughter drowned, after which she took in orphan children, many of whom witnessed her murder, and two of whom — boys — were murdered with her. In her last letter home, she wrote: “the poor Indians are amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into their country.”
The Whitmans could have left when the Cayuse lost interest in their preaching, or blamed Marcus for poisoning their people, or when friends warned them to leave. But to go back to America was to fail — so they kept failing where they were. Narcissa didn’t want to be horrible. She wanted to be as good as her sisters and nephew, Libby Custer maintaining the glory of her massacring, massacred husband, Helen Keller transcending limitations only a hero could overcome, beloved nephew Walt Whitman becoming our national poet, who wrote: “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations…. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes.”
But mostly heroes.
Like you, gentle reader.