Originally published in the Dec. 27, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane flees over the North Cascades, heading east in his motor home with 8-year-old Carleen. Miller’s been taking care of the girl while her mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting Connor, her estranged father. Connor suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Miller, who lately had been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, has a new job: keeping Carleen safe. His plan: Take the girl on America’s open roads while he returns to an old writing gig penning biographies of historical figures under the heading, “Hero or Villain?” But first they’re going to stop in Spokane to check on Miller’s ailing mother.
The plan was to shop for a Barbie castle, then meet the realtor and swing by Fairhaven in the afternoon. They’d arrived at his sister’s house in Spokane the night before and now it was too early to be awake. But they were awake, Miller at the kitchen table with a newspaper, Carleen beside him painting a domestic scene in watercolors — a house with a door, four windows, a chimney under rising curlicues of smoke, a cat in a tree, six seagulls, a sun and a rainbow and three tiny tornadoes. “What about people?” Miller said, and Carleen said, “The people are next.”
Dena came in from the raised beds out back wearing a particulate respirator and carrying a basket of heirloom tomatoes, red and orange and yellow and pink. You never would have guessed looking at them that the air outside was poison. Baxter whined and slobbered as Dena pushed him back with her knee and closed the door behind her.
“It’s godawful out there,” she said, pulling off her mask.
Miller poured another cup of coffee. The newspaper headline on the table said, “Air Quality Improves to Unhealthy.”
“An otter at the aquarium has asthma,” Miller said, “which nobody’s ever heard of.”
“But she’s getting medicine,” Carleen said, “and feeling better.”
“That’s good,” Dena said, grabbing a mixing bowl from the cabinet.
Carleen rinsed her paintbrush and dabbed it in black, then painted a crooked man beside the house, giving him a beard, a bowtie, a stovepipe hat.
“Lincoln?” Miller said.
Carleen nodded. “Mom says he’s our greatest president — because he freed the slaves and kept the country together and was probably bi.”
“Bi?” Miller said.
“Sexual,” Dena said.
“Right,” Miller said. “But what difference does that make?”
“It makes a difference to bi people,” Carleen said, and Dena said, “Exactly.”
Carleen painted a bird on Lincoln’s shoulder, then dipped her paintbrush in the water again. “Mom says a lot of people are bi — maybe everyone — whether they know it or not.”
“Which is just fine,” Dena said, pulling eggs from the fridge.
“Of course it’s fine,” Miller said. “Nobody’s saying — ”
“But I don’t have to be anything,” Carleen said. “If I don’t want to be.”
“No you don’t,” Miller said.
“Except yourself,” Dena said.
Carleen dabbed her paintbrush on a paper towel and walked across the kitchen to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge.
Dena cracked eggs into the bowl and whisked them, adding salt and pepper and ranch dressing, her secret ingredient. “The tomatoes are slowing down,” she said, “all that smoke blocking the light. The AQI was 350 yesterday.”
“AQI?” Miller said. It was one thing to feel left behind by Carleen, but Dena was six years older than him and had no right to be speaking in code. Besides, who cared if Lincoln was gay or bi or trans — besides Lincoln himself, and he hadn’t cared for a long time either. It was hard to imagine him in bed with Cump Sherman or wearing a ball gown like Caitlyn Jenner, dreaming of a day when surgery and hormones would set him free. But maybe he’d done exactly that, or something equally unimaginable, the sex lives and gender wishes of our historical darlings as difficult to imagine as the erotic spankings of our grandparents. And while 21st century concepts of gender and sexuality might have been incomprehensible to Lincoln, they might just as well have been enlightening. Still, if we discovered that Robert E. Lee, say, was genderqueer, it was hard to know how that information would change our thinking about Pickett’s Charge or Second Manassas or Lee as a general, an American, a statue. Whatever we discovered, the biography would be inadequate, and most of the time far worse — reducing the person to a thesis, a distilled essence evaporating into nothing.
“Everyone’s become fluent in these numbers is what I’m saying,” Dena said.
Besides, who cared if Lincoln was gay or bi or trans — besides Lincoln himself, and he hadn’t cared for a long time either.
Miller imagined another thread for the book to complement his Hero Villains: “Lincoln’s Gown” it could be called, subtitled, “Exploring the Gender and Sexual Identities of our Founding Mothers and Fathers and Non-binary Progenitors.” The research potential was limitless, and no matter what conclusions you drew, the dramatic bits would remain the same — Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner nearly to death on the floor of the Senate, John Brown raging at the Pottawatomie massacre, John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln in the head before leaping to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, Ford himself hustling a very young Bonnie Parker away from the assassination in a tricked out Model T.
“Are you even listening to me?” Dena said, and Miller said, “Yes,” and Dena said, “The radio actually told people with heart conditions to get out of town yesterday, as if they could just leave.”
Carleen fed Baxter a carrot. He gobbled it, whining by the door.
“I even ordered a mask for Baxter,” Dena said.
“You did?” Miller said.
“I know,” Dena said. “Can you imagine what Grandma Cane would say?”
“He’s an animal,” Miller rasped. “Stop babying him!”
“He should be EUTHANIZED is what,” Dena said, imitating their grandmother, and Miller said, “He should have been euthanized before he was BORN is what!”
Dena put a cast iron skillet on the stove and turned up the heat.
“We killed animals all day every day on the farm,” Miller said, and Dena said, “We’d wring the chickens’ necks, and then we’d wring the donkeys’ necks.”
“And then we’d machine gun the horses!”
“We were DEATH FARMERS is what,” Dena said, and Carleen said, “But did you really shoot the horses?”
“Oh, no, sweetie,” Dena said.
They’d forgotten Carleen by the door with Baxter.
“Our grandma was just crazy.”
“Not that we ever said that word,” Miller said.
“And not like our other grandma,” Dena said, “who was really crazy. Or our mom. Grandma Cane was just mean.”
“Can Waffles get a mask?” Carleen said.
“Cats won’t wear them,” Dena said, pouring eggs into the pan. “But we’ll keep him inside today, out of the smoke.”
Carleen handed Baxter another carrot. “Can I get a mask?” she said
“Sure you can,” Miller said. “We both will — after we do the dishes and call my mom.”
But his mom couldn’t come to the phone, and the hardware store on Lincoln was out of masks. So was the one on 29th. At the Country Store on Division, the kid working the floor talked into a tiny microphone at his throat and listened through headphones. “Chip doesn’t think there’s a respirator in town,” he said to Miller, “but we’ve got paper masks in aisle four.”
“Are they any good?”
“Not for smoke,” the kid said.
“What about surgical masks?” Miller said, and the kid said, “You need a respirator — an N95 or a hundred.”
“What about — ”
“Bandanas won’t work either, or wet towels.”
“What about a gas mask?” Miller said, and Carleen said, “What about a cat mask?”
“No such thing,” the kid said, “but we do have an AR90 Riot Control Mask, which is probably too much for our situation here. Hang on,” he said, holding up a finger. “Chip says we’re getting more respirators tomorrow, if you can swing by in the afternoon.”
“Okay,” Miller said, “thanks,” and they walked back into the toxic air. Summer used to be the best season in Spokane — hot days and cool nights and swimming at the lake or pool, eating and drinking on porches and patios and decks. Now you couldn’t even go outside.
Miller started Dena’s Subaru and turned on the air.
Carleen let out a deep breath.
“You can stare directly into the sun,” she said, “through the smoke,” and Miller said, “But don’t.” You could stare directly into the sun — it was dull and flat and pinkish red.
Miller’s phone buzzed with a text from Dena.
“I think Waffles and Baxter will become friends,” Carleen said, “if we stay long enough.”
“Mom’s gone,” the text read.
Miller put the car in park and called Dena, who didn’t answer.
“Waffles is not always friendly with other animals,” Carleen said.
“What do you mean gone?” Miller wrote back.
Was she dead? That seemed impossible, for all the usual reasons.
And likely, for all the usual reasons.
“But I think he might like Baxter,” Carleen said. “If he’ll come out from under the bed.”
Miller’s phone buzzed with another text from Dena.
“I’m on the phone with them right now,” it said.
“But is she okay?” Miller said.
“He can bully dogs sometimes,” Carleen said.
“She broke out of Fairhaven,” Dena said.
“And of course he would eat a bird or fish.”
“Or a ferret or hamster.”
“Or a gerbil,” Miller said.
“Or a mouse or rat,” Carleen said.
Another text dinged Miller’s phone.
“She took off,” Dena wrote.
“Or a rabbit,” Carleen said.
Miller’s mom was on the lam.
Originally published in the Jan. 03, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is on the road with 8-year-old Carleen, and they’ve stopped at his sister Dena’s house in Spokane. They planned to check on Miller’s ailing mother, but she suddenly vanished from her nursing home. Carleen is in Miller’s care because her own mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor; he suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Before all this, Miller had been making his living comforting and conning the survivors of mass shootings, a calling he found after his brother Charles and nephew Billy were killed.
According to Dena, Miller was to finish his errands. Yes, their mother was missing, but the cops had been notified and extra staff had been brought in to look for her and apparently this kind of thing happened from time to time. Dena was going to take a cab over there to be a grounding influence once they brought her in, and since it was unlikely their mom would even recognize Miller, he and Carleen should just finish their Barbie shopping and meet with the realtor.
There was nothing Miller could do about any of it except worry and wonder if his mother had finally disappeared for good. She’d only shown glimpses of herself at Christmas, mostly when Dena put on Dean Martin, waking as she swayed to the music. “What are you doing here?” she’d say to Miller, taking his hand. “Visiting you,” he’d say, and after a while, she’d disappear again. Maybe today’s escape was merely the final phase of her disappearance, a horrible thought, Miller casting her as a beloved dog crawling away to die. The money he’d spent on Fairhaven wasn’t enough. He should have visited more often, to be there when she surfaced, however briefly. She’d looked after her own mother for years, flying back and forth between Spokane and Providence, and it was only after Grandma died that she allowed herself to hope she might still dodge the dementia that ran through her family. Would Miller and Dena dodge it? Charles had, the only bright side of the Sunny Day Massacre.
Carleen was quiet on the ride to the White Elephant, a cavernous store on the north side of Spokane devoted to toys and models and camping and fishing and boating and bear spray and guns you could look at while you waited to purchase your toy. There were cases of revolvers and semiautomatics, racks of rifles and shotguns, and once when a younger Miller was studying the handguns laid out under glass, a salesman pulled down a rifle and said, “This might be just what you’re looking for, son,” talking to Miller’s dad really, but looking at them both. “Perfect for plinking and small game,” he said, and Miller imagined shooting cans and bottles in the woods — he’d shot twenty-twos at Camp Reed — but his dad shook his head and the salesman walked away.
How much money could you accumulate before you started to believe you actually deserved it?
Miller’s friend Bryce went hunting with his dad and told Miller how you had to get up early and freeze your ass off and how you’d disappoint your old man with your pathetic weakness and complaining, but how you might also watch him cut open a deer or elk and help lift the steaming organs from the animal, which was horrible and cool and awful, but the meat was so good — Miller knew that, because he’d eaten it at Bryce’s house, venison sausage and elk steak and moose and a deer heart. Miller himself had never wanted to kill or skin anything, but he remained entranced by the White Elephant’s guns — beautiful objects, harmless it seemed — and he still dreamed about them sometimes, assault weapons in nightmares and semiautomatics in good gun dreams, a calm settling over him as he took a nine from its Crown Royal bag, popping and unloading and reloading its clip, the calm lingering even after he woke and the dream dissolved. Not that he really wanted one. But the dream had to mean something.
He hated himself for having such dreams after everything he’d seen.
“Are we here to look at guns?” Carleen said, and Miller led her past the camping and survival equipment to the other side of the store, where there were Popstar Barbies and Pediatrician Barbies and Harassed Personal Assistant Barbies, but no Barbie Castles. “Let’s go somewhere else,” Miller said after they exhausted the Barbie aisle, but Carleen pulled a big box from the bottom shelf, which proved to be a Barbie Care Clinic — an ambulance that opened into a hospital, complete with reception desk, waiting room, exam table, eye chart, gift shop, and Ebola victims scattered dead on the floor (if you imagined them).
“Do you want to look at this?” Miller said, and Carleen said, “I am looking at it,” and Miller said, “I mean out of the box.”
“I don’t think we’re allowed,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “I think it’s okay.”
He opened the box and handed Carleen the ambulance, which she transformed into the Care Clinic. She studied the plastic furniture and waiting room magazines and medical implements, so fixedly examining each object that Miller stepped away to browse the knives on the other side of the store, until Carleen tracked him down, and said, “Can I really get this?”
“You really can,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “What if it’s too expensive,” and Miller said, “We can afford it.”
He’d never seen her so hungry for anything.
“Mom thinks new toys are a waste,” she said, “especially plastic, because they’re made of oil and will never break down and are as good used as new.”
“But birthday presents can be new,” Miller said, “and since I didn’t get you one — ”
“You got me a Barbie Styling Head,” Carleen said.
Was that really something he’d have gotten her?
“But maybe this,” Carleen said, “could be an early Christmas present?”
“Sure it could,” Miller said. “Do we need a new Barbie, too?”
“I don’t think so,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “How come?”
“Something more might spoil it,” Carleen said. “It’s just so perfect as it is.”
Thank god she didn’t know about the money yet. And once she did, Miller wondered how much of herself she’d lose to it. Not that it was his business. And not that she’d be better off poor. But was it possible to remain unruined by a billion dollars? Three quarters of a billion? Five hundred million? How much money could you accumulate before you started to believe you actually deserved it?
Not that a Barbie Care Clinic would ruin anyone. Carleen was practically vibrating with the pleasure it was already bringing her. The thing about a gun, though — if Connor came after them armed, for instance: what if it was the only way to protect her? And what if he didn’t have one when Connor came for her with his? Miller had never been at a massacre from the beginning. Did he really want to train for that? What if the shooter was a kid? Miller wondered if his brother knew how far gone Billy was the morning he shot up Sunny Day, if that’s why Charles got there so fast — to try to stop him — before the cops killed them both in the cafeteria.
Originally published in the Jan. 10, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane’s stop in Spokane has gotten complicated. The West is shrouded in wildfires, and his mother, who’s losing her mind, has vanished from her nursing home, leaving Miller and his sister Dena to figure things out. Besides, Miller’s got 8-year-old Carleen to take care of while her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor; that deadbeat suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that he believes is rightfully his. Before all this, Miller had been on the road alone, traveling from mass shooting to mass shooting, comforting and conning survivors to make a buck.
They should have hired a realtor years ago. But they’d been pretending — first when they moved her to Dena’s place, then when they moved her to Fairhaven — that their mother would someday move back to the house where she belonged, where she’d raised her family, though none of them had lived there for years. Now that Miller was on massacre sabbatical — which might become permanent — neither he nor Dena could afford to pretend she’d ever move back to their childhood home. And with the housing market heating up, it seemed like the right time to sell.
The real estate agent, McKay, wore narrow shoes like Voyageur canoes strapped to his feet. Spokane had never been cool, but over the last few years, cool had been creeping in, breeding craft cocktails and electric scooters and restaurant empires, the art and money people impersonating each other and starting businesses nobody understood — Heath and Bindle and Plonk. Yes, there were still tweakers and car thieves and dive bars and thrift stores, but there was also snow removal and propaganda promoting Spokane to residents of other Western cities. Even with the recent changes, the city remained friendly and weird and a little crime-y, with a good sense of humor, only now with weed shops and excellent restaurants. The schools were good and lots of people were still poor and the suction goat garbage can was still sucking. McKay said something about the house’s bones, which made Miller think of his mother’s bones, which made him wonder where his mother was and what he was doing considering selling her house. What would be left?
Carleen pushed her Barbie Care Clinic across the living room floor.
“So cute,” McKay said.
It wasn’t McKay’s fault that Spokane would someday be as unbearable as Portland. Well, probably never that unbearable. And partially McKay’s fault — the shoes, his name.
When Dena had gone through the house last spring, Miller had told her he didn’t want anything except the roll top desk, which he had no use for or space for and never would. Now it was safe in a warehouse downtown. He was grateful to Dena for going through the family possessions, saving important stuff and getting rid of the junk. Seeing the place empty was so much better than seeing and smelling what it had become at the end, but he didn’t want to be seeing or smelling it at all. Where was their mother?
McKay asked if Miller planned on having the floors redone. The wood was beautiful, but scratched and gouged. McKay suggested painting the interior, at least downstairs. He was a nice guy and seemed to know what he was doing and the price he recommended listing at — with improvements — was far more than Miller would have guessed the place was worth, and might even keep them afloat for a while if Miller failed to get back on the circuit.
Carleen opened her Care Clinic on the kitchen floor.
McKay had some questions about the garage.
Miller didn’t have a gun and didn’t want a gun and Connor would never be able to track them to Dena’s house because Dena had a different last name and had kept it — Cassidy — after her divorce. But Connor would find them at Miller’s mother’s house. They needed to go before he showed up. They needed to get out of Spokane entirely.
But McKay wanted to know about the furnace first and the water heater and the asbestos downstairs.
What asbestos downstairs?
The asbestos wrapped around the pipes in the basement.
Which was going to kill everyone if they didn’t get out of the house immediately.
Miller walked upstairs to his old bedroom overlooking the alley out back, the houses the same as they’d always been, only filled with different people now. This room had belonged to Charles first, then Dena, and finally to Miller, the room furthest from their parents’ room at the front of the house. At night, you could crawl onto the roof through the dormer window and smoke cigarettes and see the lights of the city spread out down the hill like jewels.
Spokane had never been cool, but over the last few years, cool had been creeping in, breeding craft cocktails and electric scooters and restaurant empires…
Connor surely knew they were in Spokane — didn’t criminals always return to familiar haunts? Not that Miller was a criminal exactly. Yes, it was possible he was wanted for child abduction, but if the cops were after him, wouldn’t they have picked him up already? It wasn’t the cops Miller was worried about. It was Connor, who’d seen the motorhome with its crazy bumper stickers — jackalopes and John Wayne and Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls and Muddy Waters and a hundred others — impossible to confuse with any other motorhome. But soon enough they’d be out in the beautiful, clear-aired country, lost to everyone.
Miller’s phone vibrated with a text from Dena, probably more bad news.
But it wasn’t bad news. Their mother was back at Fairhaven, safe. Just like that.
All this time he’d been worrying over nothing, and now everything was back to normal. Not that normal was so great necessarily, but at least his mother wasn’t missing.
“Such a beautiful house,” McKay said again, walking them out, and it was, now that everything was gone.
Back at Dena’s, Carleen asked for help with the respirator so she could play out back with Baxter. “But just for a few minutes,” Dena said, and once Carleen was outside, she told Miller that nobody at Fairhaven knew how their mom had escaped. She’d made it over four miles, a Fairhaven record, before Spencer found her walking Division in her gardening hat and sneakers, put together pretty well, too, a fit senior strolling the retail hell-strip a half mile from the White Elephant, where Miller and Carleen had spent their morning.
“It’s those Japanese floor mats I’m looking for,” she told Spencer when he picked her up. “What do you call those things?”
He helped her into the Fairhaven van. “Which things, now?” he said and their mom said, “Which things what?” and by the time she was safe back at Fairhaven, she’d forgotten where she’d been entirely. “Where’s your father?” she asked Dena the second she walked onto the unit.
“Golfing,” Dena said, leading her to her room. “Where have you been?”
“That place with the little — the tiny little — what is that place?”
“I’m not sure, Ma.”
“Where’s your father?”
“Watch Hill” Dena said, because their mother was often in Rhode Island now, where she’d grown up.
“The Bouvier’s had a house in Watch Hill — Jackie’s family — did you know?”
“The socialite?” Dena said.
“And the president’s wife,” their mother said. “It was a piece of his skull she was after that day in Dallas, climbing the seatback and onto the trunk, reaching and scrambling for a piece of him. William thought Ruby was hired to kill the first one.”
“And what do you think?” Dena said.
“I think it’s wonderful,” their mother said. “What else would I think?”
The nurse walked in and checked her vitals, and afterward their mother sat at her table handling pieces of a blocky puzzle. But she couldn’t settle in. She pushed the pieces around, glancing at Dena, looking away, looking at Dena, glancing away.
“Who might you be?” she finally said.
“What?” Dena said.
“Who are you?” their mother said.
“Your daughter,” Dena said. “Dena.”
“Hm,” their mother said.
Now in her own kitchen, Dena looked at Miller. “And I know you’ve heard that before,” she said. “But I haven’t — not like this. She couldn’t skate across it like she usually does.”
“It’s okay,” Miller said. Though he knew it wasn’t.
Dena was trying not to cry. “It’s just how empty she seemed. Like there was nothing left.”
Miller wrapped his arms around her.
They were going to sell their childhood home and never see their mother again, not who she really was, or they’d see her a few more times or a few hundred or a thousand, but probably not a thousand. Still it was encouraging (and troubling) that Fairhaven’s memory unit could not contain Noreen Elizabeth Goodman Cane.
“I’ll go over there this afternoon,” Miller said.
“Tomorrow,” Dena said. “She’s done for the day.”
“Okay,” Miller said. “But did you know the house is full of asbestos?”
“Yes,” Dena said. “But it’s not friable.”
“I’m not talking about frying it,” Miller said. “The problem is breathing it.”
Dena laughed and pulled away. “Take Carleen with you,” she said. “Ma’ll love that.”
“I know,” Miller said.
“What are you going to do with her anyway,” Dena said. “Once you leave here?”
“Who?” Miller said, and Dena said, “Who do you think?”
Why was everyone always asking that?
“You can’t keep her on the road forever,” Dena said.
Miller watched Carleen throw a tennis ball out back for Baxter, yelling encouragement through her respirator. Maybe the rules about what you could and couldn’t do forever no longer applied once you were out on the road in the clean, clear air of America.