CHAPTER FOUR

AboutChapters

PART ONE

Originally published in the Dec. 27, 2018, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
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.

Baxter whined.

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.”

Baxter whined.

“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.”

“Broke out?” 

“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.

PART TWO

Originally published in the Jan. 03, 2019, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
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.

PART THREE

Originally published in the Jan. 10, 2019, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
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.

PART FOUR

Originally published in the Jan. 17, 2019, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
Miller Cane is in Spokane, checking on his ailing mother. He’s also been taking care of 8-year-old Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. 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 has been sending his editor, George, short profiles of historical figures for an 11th-grade history textbook. Each brief biography begins with a central question, “Hero or Villain?” But so far, Miller’s writing has missed the mark.

That evening Miller got another email from George Sampson, his editor at Boundless Books. George was becoming a nuisance. “I know you’ve been through a lot with the work you’ve been doing,” he wrote, “these shootings. Maybe you’re not up for the Hero Villain project now?”

Miller wrote back right away: “Doing great here, George. Very into the Hero Villain project — just haven’t sent you a real one yet. Am still sort of finding my way. Once I get the form, I’ll knock them down quickly. You know that. I need you to stay with me here.”

But another message came after Carleen was in bed, this one even more irritating.

“George Washington seemed promising,” George wrote, “at least as a subject, but then, I don’t know — George Kennedy? I’m not sure what you’re doing — out in the world or with this assignment. Maybe there’s another project we can get into, or maybe you’d like to talk to another publisher, who could really work with you on the shooting stuff. I think an examination of why these massacres keep happening might be valuable, or portraits of people surviving in the wake of such tragedy. I’m also still totally down for your contribution to the current project if you’re still interested — and if you can rein it in a bit.”

George wasn’t stupid — he’d just never been to a mass killing. Miller sat at the table for two hours writing “How To Survive a Massacre.” He attached it to an email that read, “Thanks for the idea, George, though I realize this might not quite work for you. Still, I’m feeling super excited AND hopeful AND stoked over here. It’s super MEANINGFUL to write something that might be so USEFUL to someone, though I wish, of course, that NONE of this was necessary. Will send a reined in Hero Villain soon. Stay with me George. We’re getting there. It’s just a matter of finding the shape and the voice. Like John Lee Hooker said: “Let that boy boogie woogie. It’s in him and it’s got to come out.” XOXO MC.

How to Survive a Massacre

1. Don’t be born in America.

2. Don’t be born in Norway, Australia, Egypt, France, China, Somalia, Spain, the West Bank, the Ukraine, the Belgian Congo.

3. Don’t be born.

4. If you must be born, acquire a handgun you’re comfortable with and learn how to use it — make friends with it, make love with it under your bed or pillow or inside the special drawer where you keep your other lovemaking tools. Then get dressed and put your gun back on.

5. Conceal it. Open-carry it.

6. Parade around the living room with it strapped to your person. Pull the kitchen curtain aside and look outdoors. Accept the awesome responsibility of staying inside with your gat strapped to your person until you die and the cats feast upon your remains.

7. Hide where the killer(s) could never find you — in a bulletproof room, for example, behind a secret panel nobody knows about.

8. Be the kind of person no one would dream of shooting in the face, or elsewhere.

9. Run for high office on the Second Amendment, promising free guns for children and nuns and the criminally insane. Be showered with campaign contributions, then ban assault weapons immediately upon election.

10. Prepare to be assassinated, but don’t be.

11. Though hard to believe, body counts will actually go down if killers have to massacre with knives or clubs or garrotes or pikes or boomerangs or swords or brass knuckles or slingshots, and your constituents, most of them, will be grateful, though there won’t be any money for your re-election campaign.

12. Before, during, and after holding office, surround yourself with Secret Service agents ready to be massacred in your stead.

13. Get shot in the face by your hunting buddy and die.

14. Shoot your hunting buddy in the face and spend the rest of your life in prison.

15. Decide to write comic books (isn’t that where the money is? Not that you’re a sell-out), then realize comic books are stupid (though really, really hard to write, and beautiful in their way, with lasting literary value. Or maybe they’re just comic books and every superhero is the same superhero, only in different costumes). Die of sadness.

16. Once the shooting starts, hide behind others.

17. Become a desk, a globe, a potted plant.

18. Cultivate a will to live so powerful that even when you do get shot in the face, you won’t succumb to death.

19. Become a movie star, a porn star, a baseball star. Movie stars and porn stars and baseball stars are almost never massacred.

20. Pray constantly, in every direction.

21. Retrofit your motorhome with a hyperspace engine that allows you to travel from massacres at warp speed, and into spiritual dimensions you’ve never before imagined.

22. Practice the kind of mindfulness that puts you into a coma.

23. Once in a coma, stay there the rest of your life. Coma victims are almost never massacred.

24. If you see something, don’t say anything — run.

25. Pass legislation requiring everyone (except the security forces here for our safety) to be naked at all times (except after we make love, when we conceal-carry ourselves around the living room).

26. If your son’s the shooter, for God’s sake don’t run into the building to try to stop him. The cops have no idea who you are or what you’re doing, and they’ll blow your head off.

27. Stop eating chicken and beef and pork and fish and rabbit and squirrel and buffalo and possum. Stop eating radishes and wheat and dairy and fruit and grass and dirt and fiber. Only eat cinnamon.

28. If you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution, which means if you’re not part of the massacre, you won’t get shot in the face.

29. Develop a way to determine who will be a killer, then develop a treatment plan to make him a spiritual healer instead, with lots of adoring followers.

30. Refuse to be a victim.

31. If you have a child, spend time with the child, play Barbies with the child, ride horses and read pioneer stories with the child — but don’t ever let him/her/them/it out of the house.

32. Lobby for an amendment to make massacres unconstitutional.

33. Fund miscreant centers and killer centers so that killers and miscreants have places to go and things to do other than massacring, such as macramé and smoking and cricket and high colonics and coffee drinking and bocce and duplicate bridge and stamp collecting.

34. If you’re not sure if someone’s about to massacre you, shoot him in the face, saving yourself and those around you who are too irresponsible to conceal-carry.

35. Never offend a cop.

36. Never go outside.

37. If you must go outside, never go where a massacre’s happening.

38. Make extra effort to make the world a better place, and be outraged with people who aren’t even trying. They’re the ones who should be killed — not you!

39. Pass zero tolerance policies regarding bullying, fat shaming, slut shaming.

40. Require rich people and poor people to switch places, becoming each others’ butlers and gardeners and secretaries and cooks and maids and prostitutes and drug mules and lepers and minions and serfs, then switch them back again without warning.

41. Be more sex positive, more massacre negative.

42. Swaddle yourself in invisible safety shields.

43. Prohibit bad things from happening to good people and good things from happening to bad people.

44. Prohibit anything from happening to everyone else.

45. Be generous with your thoughts and prayers.

46. But look for massacres everywhere.

47. And deliver us from evil.

48. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the one nation under god.

49. And the glory. Don’t forget the glory.

50. [This last one, George, I’ll leave for you. Maybe you can lead me to a hero/villain who did something to stop the slaughter. I don’t mean regarding individual massacres. I mean someone who took on the contagion. Have we ever had an American massacre doctor?]

PART FIVE

Originally published in the Jan. 24, 2019, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
Miller Cane is in Spokane, visiting his sister Dena and checking on their ailing mother, who’s in a nursing home and losing her mind. Miller has also been taking care of an 8-year-old doll-making girl named Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. 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. Now, with Carleen, he has a new 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?”

His mother recognized him immediately when he walked into her room at Fairhaven. “Miller Cane!” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “And who is this marvelous child?”

“Carleen,” Miller said. “Lizzie’s girl. You saw her a few years ago at the house.”

“I certainly did,” Miller’s mother said. “And she’s even more adorable now.”

“She sure is,” Miller said.

“Hi, Mrs. Cane,” Carleen said, placing her Barbie Care Clinic on the table.

“Call me Noreen,” Miller’s mother said. She opened her arms which Carleen walked into, and after a hug, Carleen handed her a stuffed doll shaped like a bowling pin, with no arms and no legs and hair flowing from under a paisley babushka, a pouch on her belly filled with three smaller dolls.

“It’s for you,” Carleen said.

“How wonderful,” Noreen said, putting a hand to her chest. “Thank you, dear.”

“You’re welcome,” Carleen said. “Tammy’s her name.”

“Lovely,” Noreen said, pulling bowling pin babies from the mother doll’s pouch. “The detail work on these faces is marvelous.”

“It’s marker,” Carleen said.

“Exquisite,” Noreen said.

There were other dolls scattered around the room — a plastic infant on the couch, a Raggedy Ann on the table, others propped or dropped on shelves. Most of the women at Fairhaven had dolls, which moved from room to room, mother to mother. Miller often brought a new one when he visited. At first he wrote his mom’s name on them and tried to find them when they went missing. Then he realized it didn’t make any difference, as long as everybody had one to carry around and hold.

“Remember your parrot?” Carleen said.

“I certainly do,” Noreen said. “Whatever happened to that bird?” and Carleen said, “I think he went to a farm.”

“Did he die?” Noreen asked Miller.

“Bryce has him,” Miller said.

“Bryce,” Noreen said.

“Bryce Bell,” Miller said. “Remember? My old friend?”

In high school Bryce had practically lived with them. His mother had died when he was 13 and he didn’t have siblings. Noreen took him on as a project, cooking for him, buying him clothes, mothering him, which neither Bryce nor Miller minded.

“Bryce was a handsome boy,” Noreen said. “But bad.”

“He wasn’t bad,” Miller said. “You loved Bryce. You went to his plays.”

“His father was bad,” Noreen said. “I can tell you that much.”

Miller hoped he wasn’t going to learn something awful about Bryce or his father. Noreen’s revelations were often disturbing. She’d fallen in love early in her tenure at Fairhaven with a man who died a few months later, who she promptly forgot. “A woman has needs,” she told Miller at the time, which Miller understood but didn’t want to hear from his mother. “Your father was very attentive in that regard,” she said, “one of his strong suits,” something else Miller didn’t want to know, though surely his mother and father’s intimacy had been a good thing. She’d started forgetting his father’s name from time to time only a year ago, but more often lately, forgetting him at Christmas for long stretches.

What did we know about nightclubs and cocktails? We thought the glamor would last forever.

“Barclay was funny,” Carleen said.

“But possessive,” Noreen said. “Which was why Miller was jealous.”

“I wasn’t jealous,” Miller said. “He bit me. He bit everyone.”

“He didn’t bite me,” Carleen said.

“Or me,” Noreen said. “Where is that bird?”

“Bryce has him,” Miller said.

“Who?”

“Bryce. He has Barclay.”

“A wonderful bird,” Noreen said.

“Who’s your daddy,” Carleen squawked.

“Oh, yes, he did say that.”

“Nobody’s home,” Carleen squawked. “Go away!”

“It’s as if he were here,” Noreen said. “What’s become of him?”

“Bryce has him,” Miller said, wondering if Bryce had set the bird free by now.

“Is this your child?” Noreen said, and Miller said, “This is Lizzie’s girl — Carleen,” and Noreen said, “Is Bryce her father?”

“No,” Miller said, and Noreen said, “Lizzie,” and Miller said, “Lizzie James.”

“I know a Zee James quite well,” his mother said. “We play duplicate bridge Thursdays.”

“That was Lizzie’s aunt,” Miller said.

“Was?” Noreen said.

“She died,” Miller said. “A while ago. But you know Lizzie, too — Carleen’s mom?”

“Of course I do,” Noreen said, and to Carleen: “How is your mother, dear?”

“She’s in jail,” Carleen said.

“Oh, my.”

“But she’s okay,” Carleen said. “It’s just a misunderstanding.”

“A tax thing,” Miller said. “We’re working on it. Lizzie’s going to be fine.”

“Lizzie James,” Noreen said.

“Yes,” Miller said, and Noreen said, “Is she your wife, Miller?”

“No,” Miller said.

“Did your wife die?”

“My wife was — is — Georgie,” Miller said. “We split a while ago.”

“I never like to hear that.”

“I know. She has two children now.”

“Yours?”

“No.”

“Is this one yours?”

“No.”

“I’ll be needing a shower.”

“I know,” Miller said. “But how about some music first?”

“Wonderful!”

Miller walked to his mother’s iPod, glued to the bookshelf, and started a Dean Martin mix Dena had made, which always seemed to comfort their mother, and often brought her back to the surface.

“Ah,” Noreen said, and to Carleen: “Do you love these songs as much as I do?”

“Yes,” Carleen said.

“Did you know my husband, William?”

Carleen looked at Miller, who shook his head. “No,” she said.

“He loved Dean Martin,” Noreen said, “dragging me to Vegas when those ridiculous men were kings of that place. It could be so romantic though, especially before the president got shot, the women in pearls and gloves and evening gowns, the men in pressed suits. What did we know about nightclubs and cocktails? We thought the glamor would last forever. William loved to gamble, but he never lost a dime more than we could afford.”

Miller had not heard her stay on topic this long in years. Maybe it was the new drug Dena had mentioned.

Noreen nodded to the music and sang along: “Oh baby, obey me.”

“He was a dancer,” she said. “Elegant. Graceful. A beautiful man. Slimmer than Miller. Do you know how to dance, dear?”

“Sort of,” Carleen said. She started gyrating to Dean Martin, her version of the twist.

Noreen held out her hands. “Do you want to dance with me?”

Carleen took her hands, and Noreen said, “I’ll teach you.”

“I’m going to the nurses station for a second,” Miller said, watching Carleen to see if she felt comfortable being left alone with his mother. It could get pretty weird pretty fast here. Carleen seemed fine. “Are you good, Carleen?” he said, and she said, “I am,” and Miller’s mom said, “I’ll be the man. You’re going to wrap this arm around my waist, like this. There you go. And then I’m going to put my hands here and here, and pull you in.”

“Oh baby,” Dean Martin sang, “oh baby, obey me, do.”

Miller left Carleen to his mother’s instruction and walked to the nurses station. What had they done to make her seem so almost fine was what he wanted to know. He was only gone for a few minutes, and when he returned everything had gotten weird, but not in the usual way.

PART SIX

Originally published in the Jan. 31, 2019, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
Miller Cane has stopped in Spokane to visit his sister Dena and check on their ailing mother, Noreen, who’s in a nursing home and losing her mind. Miller has also been taking care of an 8-year-old doll-making girl named Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting and injuring her estranged husband. Before all this, Miller had been making his living comforting and conning the survivors of mass shootings, a calling he found after the Sunny Day massacre; in that case, Miller’s own nephew Billy was the shooter, and it ended in the death of Billy and Miller’s brother, Charles.

It was in his mother’s blood,” Noreen said to Carleen, who was holding the old woman’s hands in her own. There was weight in the room that hadn’t been there before. Dean Martin was still singing, but quietly now. “That’s nice, dear,” Noreen said, nodding down to their hands. “Constance was stuck-up,” she said, “from Massachusetts money. She thought she was better than everyone else. So what do you expect her child to think?”

“I don’t know,” Carleen said.

Miller took a seat on the couch.

“Didn’t you tell her about Billy?” his mother said.

“My mom did,” Carleen said. “A little bit.”

“It’s not a secret,” Noreen said.

She seemed perfectly herself. Her old self. And while the Sunny Day massacre wasn’t a secret, it also wasn’t something Miller wanted to talk about, certainly not around Carleen. Why breed fear and nightmares? Even if the world could be harsh and horrible, it didn’t have to be for Carleen yet.

“People wanted to know if Billy was bullied, but that wasn’t it,” Noreen said. “I don’t know what it was exactly. There was goodness in him — I know that much. There was meanness in him too, something wrong. But there was goodness.”

It was odd that she wasn’t veering off topic, and Miller didn’t know how much more of this Carleen needed to hear. Dino started into “Bella Bimba.”

“His mother was a Stevens,” Noreen said, “a descendant of the first territorial governor of Washington State. Did you know that, dear?”

“No,” Carleen said.

“Did you learn about Governor Stevens in school?”

“I don’t think so,” Carleen said.

“You will,” Noreen said. “They’ll lie to you about him. Isn’t that so, Miller?”

“Maybe,” Miller said. “Would anyone like a snack?”

His mother waved him off. Carleen kept rubbing Noreen’s hands in her own, as if she were smooshing butter into flour for pie dough. The nurse said they wouldn’t notice any effects of the new drug for weeks. And changes wouldn’t be dramatic.

“He was a hateful man,” Noreen said.

So how was she capable of staying on subject? Miller knew some days were better than others, but he hadn’t seen her this lucid in years.

“He was a dwarf,” Noreen said, “though that’s neither here nor there.”

Miller wondered if “dwarf” was still an acceptable word. Had it ever been?

Carleen kept rubbing his mother’s hands.

“What he did to the Indians was unthinkable,” Noreen said. “He got killed in the Civil War, but what I’m talking about was earlier, after Franklin Pierce appointed him and he moved West. Pierce was a doughface you know.”

“A doughface?” Carleen said.

“That’s right,” Noreen said. “And a dwarf.”

What did she know about Franklin Pierce and doughfaces?

“And bad for the Indians,” she said.

Yes, but how did she know?

“And that blood was in Billy is what I’m telling you, dear, a kind of poison.”

“Okay,” Carleen said.

“Would you touch my face, dear?” Noreen said.

Carleen stood and put one hand on Noreen’s neck, the other rubbing her cheek and up to her forehead.

“That’s nice,” Noreen said.

Miller would have been terrified as a child to touch the head and face of an old woman. But Carleen seemed comfortable. Lizzie had always been comfortable touching people, too.

“You can say what you want about nature and nurture,” Noreen said, “but what I’m saying is that the blood was in him.”

This was not Miller’s mother, or it was a version who’d been lost for years, her eyes closed as Carleen stroked her face. Miller needed to touch her more, maybe that was part of it — touch and Dean Martin murmuring in the background.

“You know those books about the girl on the prairie?”

“I know Little House,” Carleen said.

“That’s the one,” Noreen said. “The governor’s name was Isaac Ingalls Stevens, just like that girl. He was from a Mayflower family, as are we — not Cane, but Goodman. Allerton too. Miller has lots of Mayflower blood.”

Oh, lord — not the Mayflower blood.

“I’m not sure those are the same families,” Miller said.

“They are,” Noreen said.

“Pa’s family was on the Mayflower,” Carleen said. “It’s in the books.”

“That’s right,” Noreen said.

“But he was nice.”

“The governor was a hateful dwarf.”

“I don’t think being a dwarf had anything to do with him being hateful,” Miller said.

“I don’t either,” Carleen said.

Miller had never heard his mother suggest that Billy’s blood was somehow responsible for the Sunny Day massacre, though it seemed as good a reason as any. He joined his mother and Carleen at the table. “How you doing, Mom?” he said.

“Great,” she said. “But I’m trying to tell you what happened.”

“Okay,” Miller said. “But how do you know all this?”

“All what?”

“What you’re telling us about the governor and the Mayflower.”

“I just do,” she said.

“It seems like you do,” Carleen said.

“Miller had never heard his mother suggest that Billy’s blood was somehow responsible for the Sunny Day massacre, though it seemed as good a reason as any.”

“The problem was money,” Noreen said, “as much as anything. All that money on his mother’s side. She beat it into him that he was better than everyone else, though of course the money was long gone by then and my Charles would never make enough to replace it. And Billy knew he wasn’t better than the other children. He was fine. He would’ve been fine. But he knew he wasn’t better. There was goodness in him. But I don’t know if he was best at anything, not that many people are. It was the mother. Charles could be fooled by status, seduced, the reason he wanted to go to school in Boston, to affiliate with that awful Eastern blue blood.”

Didn’t they themselves have awful Eastern blue blood. Hadn’t his mother just said so?

“And then they passed it onto their son.”

“He was mentally ill,” Miller said.

“Yes,” his mother said. “But my question is this: was it nature — Constance’s contaminated blood — or nurture — the way that she raised him.”

“Mom.”

“Or something else.”

“Something else,” Miller said.

“Something inside him,” Noreen said. “I don’t know what it was.”

“Nobody does,” Miller said.

“He would probably be sorry if he really hurt someone,” Carleen said.

Miller had no idea what she knew.

Noreen patted Carleen’s hand on her face, dismissing her.

Carleen sat and opened her Barbie Care Clinic.

Miller’s mother put her hand over his.

He looked at her and she was all there, or almost all there, a kind of fear or pain or terror brimming up in her eyes.

“He was sick,” Miller said.

“Can you get me out of here?” she said.

He looked at her looking at him, pleading.

“How about we go for ice cream?” he said, and Carleen said, “That sounds good.”

Maybe surfacing was the worst thing that could happen now. Why had they ever brought her here in the first place? Why hadn’t he taken care of her?

“Please,” Noreen said. “Take me out of here.”

“I will,” Miller said.

Could he take her with them? Of course he couldn’t. Or maybe he could.

But in few minutes or seconds she wouldn’t know who he was. Or maybe, somehow, she was better — because of the new drug.

“What if we went for ice cream first,” Miller said, “then to Dena’s for the night.”

Maybe they could move her back into the old house.

Carleen started packing her Care Clinic.

“Just give me a moment,” Noreen said, walking into the bathroom.

“What happened to Billy?” Carleen said.

Miller stood and turned off the music.

“I don’t know,” Miller said.

“What did he do?”

“He hurt people,” Miller said, “some children at school.”

“Did he kill them?”

“No,” Miller said.

He heard the shower start in the bathroom.

“Yes,” Miller said.

“We have lockdown drills at school,” Carleen said. “I hate them.”

“Me too,” Miller said.

“Why did he do that?” Carleen said.

“I don’t know,” Miller said.

“Was he nice?”

Would it be more terrifying to know that a nice person, a sweet child, could become a mass murderer? Probably.

“Yes,” Miller said, “he was nice. But something happened to him.”

“His mom?”

“No,” Miller said. “Not his mom. That’s not what it was.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know. But not that. Something was wrong with him.”

Miller’s mom came out in her bathrobe, followed by a cloud of steam, the shower running full blast behind her. “Oh, hello,” she said. “Is that you, Miller?”

“Hi, Mom,” Miller said.

“And who is this adorable child?”

They didn’t go out for ice cream. They went down to the pretend kitchen and played with their dolls with all the other lost ladies of Fairhaven.

PART SEVEN

Originally published in the Feb. 7, 2019, issue of the Inlander.

PREVIOUSLY…
Miller Cane is in Spokane, checking on his ailing mother. He’s also been taking care of 8-year-old Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. 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 has been sending his editor, George, short profiles of historical figures for an 11th-grade history textbook. Each brief biography begins with a central question, “Hero or Villain?” But so far, Miller’s writing has missed the mark.

Hero Villain IV – Dean Martin

If he was the son of Mexican immigrants and not famous, we’d hardly consider him American at all. But because he was the son of Italians (who we no longer hate) and because he was famous (though irrelevant today, except at Christmas) and because he was Abraham Lincoln’s grand nephew (Lincoln’s mother was a Crocetti) and because Lincoln is a Rushmore president, Dean is an undisputed hero villain — not as heroic villainous as Malcolm X or Billy Graham or Billy the Kid or Susan B Anthony, but more so than Kick Kennedy, who was a Kennedy doll, yes, but also actual royalty — the Marchioness of Hartington, by marriage — and the second of three Kennedy plane crash fatalities, dying years before Judith Campbell would have affairs with JFK and Sam Giancana, forcing Bobby and J Edgar Hoover to dump Frank and the rest of the Italian American contingent, leading to the Kennedy assassination, the end of Camelot, and the beginning of everything bad. Like Lincoln, Dean had no royal titles.

“Anytime something happens,” Dino said, “they blame the Mafia, even if the Mafia had nothing to do with it. I love every bit of being Italian, and I don’t think of the Mafia.”

“He was a good sex man,” Herman Hover said, “but his big interest was golf.”

He was racist, sexist, fatist, yes, but he was cooler than Frank when the Rat Pack mattered, though he’d never be as cool as Bogart or Bacall or Lou Reed or Patti Smith or Hendrix or Dylan or Dr. Dre or Doris Day. If you were to make your own list of coolest Americans, Dino would probably not make the cut, and neither would Frank or Ray Charles or Calamity Jane. The people who found those people cool are all dead now and irrelevant. And while you’re not dead, dear student of history, you’re not cool yet either — thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson greasy tallow-catch, thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog.

Is/was Shakespeare cool? Maybe to theatre people, who are notoriously uncool, at least in high school, but not to Dino, who was an unpretentious commoner, the grandnephew of our greatest president, often high on Percodan, but not a theatre person. “They say this is hard work,” he said, “this acting. Work my ass. I signed the NBC contract for thirty-four million. I do an hour. I sing maybe ten songs.”

He knew he was getting away with something, all that money for — not nothing, exactly, but close to nothing — the coolness he had that could not last. He knew the American dream had nothing to do with hard work.

“If your past is limited,” President Franklin Pierce said, “your future is boundless.” No one had any idea what he was talking about. Ever. A son of New Hampshire, Pierce supported the Confederacy after one term in office. He was a doughface, the father of Bleeding Kansas, one of our worst presidents, who affirmed his presidential oath on a law book rather than the bible, but called for “an ardent devotion to the institutions of religious faith.”

Dean had such devotion. “I don’t understand too many things,” he said. “For example, when a baby comes from a lady, who’s gonna make this thing with the ears and the mouth and the eyes? And when people die, who are they gonna turn to? Henry Ford?” He prayed every night and understood why our first Catholic president would distance himself from the Italian Americans who helped get him elected — because guinea/dago/wops had no place in Camelot.

Lincoln could have used a general like Dino, a wartime consigliere. Pop had Genco. Look who Lincoln got — McClellan, who wouldn’t fight, though Lincoln finally found Grant and Sherman, two fighters like early versions of Dino and Frank the night they threw a beating on those rich guys at the Polo Lounge. “Jew bastards,” Frank called them. “Dirty wops,” the Jew bastards replied. And then it was like Second Manassas, the dirty wops sending the Jew bastards to the hospital with fractured skulls.

It was Dean who started the rumor that Jerry Lewis “beat a crippled child to death with a bag of gold,” which everyone believed because Jerry was impossible to work with and wore socks only once and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, a Holocaust clown movie, and hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, annual proof of his guilt (Carnegie had done it as well, killed a disabled kid with a sock full of ball bearings — Bill Gates too, and Buffet, the philanthropists all beating someone to death with a bag of something, the price they had to pay for their goodness).

“Everything was Jerry Lewis,” Dean said. “I was an idiot in every picture. And I was making a lot of money, you know, but money isn’t all.”

Because there was also honor — onore. And dignity — dignita.

Suddenly everything’s even less funny than it’s been all along, even in the wake of that hilarious joke.

But sometimes honor and dignity could get mixed up with something bad, like the night at the Sands when Dino wondered, “Did you ever see a Jew jitsu?” and Sammy comes bounding out and the three of them say all kinds of weird, racist shit to each other, as if they’re somehow above it all, as if saying weird, racist shit makes it all untrue, Frank making Sammy do a monkey dance and Sammy calling Dean whitey and Dean karate chopping Frank in the face, then throwing him to the mat judo style, Sammy like, When are we gonna sing? touching Dean’s shoulder, and Dean says, “Hey, hey, Zelda” — tapping Sammy’s thigh — “I’ll go out and I’ll drink with you” (because they’re Rat Packing buddies), “I’ll go pick cotton with you (the crowd loves this one), “I’ll go to shul with you” (because Sammy’s Jewish), “but don’t touch me,” and he slaps Sammy’s hand away. “Have you forgotten the South?”

Somehow suddenly everything’s even less funny than it’s been all along, even in the wake of that hilarious joke, a black man forgetting the South — good one! — forgetting centuries of bondage and beatings and lynchings and rape, but remember that Dino had Lincoln’s blood too, whose greatness lay in his humanity, his belief “that all men are created equal” (men meaning people, because while women were people then, sometimes we just said men). Lincoln was big and beautiful and weird and warty. He invented the Republican party and hated as fiercely as he loved. What he hated most were taxes and big government and national health care and George McClellan and slavery and the Russians, and what he loved most were self-reliance and a more perfect union and the Russians and state’s rights, which he would have loved even more if he’d lived long enough to stop hating them.

And so did Dino love and hate these things.

Have you forgotten the South — meaning, not the South, but something bigger and more fundamental to who we are and haven’t yet unbecome.

In 1852, Frederick Douglass wondered if he was supposed to “argue that it is wrong to make men brutes… to work them without wages, to beat them with sticks… to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth… to starve them into obedience and submission,” and he did have to argue that — again and again and again. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was only a beginning, and we still want to believe, like he did, “that our fathers brought forth a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” words delivered after Gettysburg, when that battle’s 57,000 casualties obscured or proved that we were moving toward greater liberty, greater equality, even though we would fail over and again to live up to our simple, beautiful ideals, Lincoln himself praying over blood “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” and we’re still praying that such a government — us — will find a way to do what’s right, even knowing how we killed Lincoln for doing just that.

Dean Martin died on Christmas morning 1995, the very day and hour that Lincoln had died a hundred years earlier, reminding us how far we’ve come, abolishing slavery and instituting women’s suffrage and legalizing same-sex marriage and electing a Catholic president (and an African American president a few years after Dino’s death) and so much more — creating national parks and interstate highways and beautiful colosseums — but so much less too, losing wars on poverty and drugs and imprisoning millions and fracturing into fundamentalist factions enraged by any violation of our narrow orthodoxies, showing how far we still have to go, but holding onto hope that we might someday get better. “I do not despair of this country,” Frederick Douglass said in 1852, when three million of us were still enslaved. “The Constitution,” he said, “is a glorious liberty document.”

And so might it always be.

That’s amore. ν

Share This

Share this post with your friends!