Originally published in the Sept. 13, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane was six days into the Rosedale massacre when Heffner slid into the Legion Hall during an afternoon animal session. Miller didn’t recognize him at first, was focused on calming a howling beagle he’d just settled into a survivor’s lap. But the rage vibe was unmistakable, a disruption in the air over all the animal distraction, even as Heffner slouched and slunk and tried to keep himself small as he looked for a seat, finally taking a broken office chair by the coffee urns in back. It never would have occurred to Miller that a survivor from Cumberland would show up in Texas — a thousand miles away — at a completely different massacre. Maybe the man was just disturbed. Weren’t they all? Maybe his hurt came off as hatred. Miller had seen that before. But he couldn’t help wondering, just for a second, if the man might be another shooter, fresh on the scene to finish them all. He didn’t want to think that. Connie Lopez seemed to know something was off with the dude too, keeping an eye on him from her table in the center of the barroom as she chopped cilantro for chili.
Eight days after the shooting, this was an intimate group. People came and went, grieved at their own pace, sought comfort or outlets in ways you couldn’t anticipate. Miller certainly didn’t know every person in town, and this was a small enough massacre that there hadn’t been many out of town scammers, not that this guy fit the profile of a parasite. The lights were low for calm in the Legion Hall. The survivors were focused on their animals. Miller tiptoed out the front door to get the last two dogs, a Chihuahua mix and an ancient golden. He walked back in and handed their leads to Connie’s cousin Wade, who distributed the animals. These were good people in Rosedale, like everywhere. Most of the dogs and cats here, on loan from the Humane Society, would find new homes today.
Miller could feel the dude in back watching him, but he wasn’t going to show discomfort or acknowledgement, not yet. Maybe the man just needed to settle in.
Connie said, “I need your help over here, Miller.”
She handed him a cutting board and four onions.
The survivors were scattered around the room on chairs and yoga mats, holding animals, whispering, putting faces against fur.
Miller peeled and chopped onions.
Elvin Duchamps handed his cat to the rage dude, who took it, a good sign. Miller was watching it all without looking directly at them.
“Too big,” Connie said about the onions. “Cut them in half again.”
At every massacre, people shed — kidneys and blood and casseroles and stuffed animals and real animals and money and cars. A rich dude in Dallas had set up a scholarship fund this morning for the Rosedale kids who’d survived. Connie Lopez gave more than anyone in Rosedale. She’d lost a husband, a son, and her mother, but she’d been baking and cooking for days, feeding the others in the Hall, where they’d set up shop for the healing or non-healing, whatever it was they were doing, a place for them to be together. This was not uncommon, people feeding each other, but most of these folks had been here a week now, moved in like an occupying army. Connie worked at a stainless steel table relocated from the kitchen to the center of the barroom so that others could handle food with her. She’d roll dough for pie, mix dough for tortillas, talking sometimes, listening sometimes, shutting down, waking up, but always working. She’d chop vegetables and fruit and meat, pour sugar and add fat, instructing her helpers — almost everyone in this tiny town — to keep stirring, to not handle the pie dough too much, to have another brownie, more pozole, keeping herself and all of them alive, it seemed — just as long as they could stay together and keep cooking and baking and eating.
“I don’t like that guy,” Connie whispered over the rain and flute sounds creaking out of the ancient PA system.
Miller wasn’t going to look at him.
“I told Wade to get him out of here at the slightest,” Connie said.
An older woman, Ruth Dozier, lowered herself to the floor and wrapped her arms around the golden Wade had placed before her. The dog looked at Miller, seemed embarrassed, guilty, then squatted and started to pee.
“Uh-oh,” Miller said walking toward them.
“It’s okay,” Ruth said. “She’s not hurting anyone.”
“I know,” Miller said. “I’ll just get you a towel.” He walked behind the bar and into the kitchen, still ignoring the stranger. The golden was probably overwhelmed. They all were. Miller had been on the road three years now — from Ravenswood to Marble Mountain, Springfield to Scarborough, Whiskey Flats to Cumberland, in circles it sometimes seemed, all over the country. He went wherever the work was, which was everywhere, wherever he thought he could do the most good and make the most money. And while he didn’t know how much good he’d done exactly, or how you could even measure such a thing, he did know he’d made people’s lives better, if only for a little while, because they told him so, thanked him with words and food and money and booze. Sometimes he wondered how much gratitude he deserved, how much of anything anyone deserved, but he never came up with an answer.
There were all kinds of things a person needed — love and food and shelter and rest. But how much food? How much love? How much shelter?
The money seemed to feed itself, five hundred becoming five thousand becoming ten thousand becoming a hundred thousand, becoming more than he’d ever need, though need was as hard to measure as deserve. There were all kinds of things a person needed — love and food and shelter and rest. But how much food? How much love? How much shelter? How about a motorhome or a cabin in the Cascades? How about candy and gum for everyone, liquor and books and ponies and affordable health care? How about a new vaccine for a new disease? How about doing whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to do it?
His phone buzzed, but he didn’t answer. There were no clean towels — in the kitchen or in the office. The aprons were all dirty, too. He grabbed a roll of paper towels and walked it back to the barroom, past the stranger, who was turned to watch him, who Miller still ignored, but who said Miller’s name now, quietly at first, “Cane,” then a little louder: “Hey, Cane.”
Miller didn’t stop.
Okay, so the man knew him.
Lots of people knew him.
Miller turned to look at the man, but the lights were low.
And then Miller recognized him.
Heffner, the asshole from Cumberland, looking for problems when his problems should’ve kept him home.
Miller held up the paper towels, meaning wait a second, I’m busy.
Heffner held up his cat, meaning okay, I’ll be right here, waiting.
He was wearing shorts and a tee shirt, and didn’t have a bag with him or any other way to conceal a weapon. Maybe he had something outside, but nothing here now.
Wade stood by Connie’s table, watching everything with his arms across his chest.
Miller helped Ruth clean up after her dog. Connie rolled her garbage can over so that Miller could fill it with wet paper towels. He lifted the bag out of the can, tied it, and walked toward the bar and kitchen door, toward Heffner’s seat by the coffee station. Most people were still in private spaces with their animals. Heffner had his cat against his chest.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Jimmy,” Miller said to him, crouching. “But glad. I imagine you’ve got a lot to offer these folks.”
“Oh, please,” Heffner said. “Spare me the bullshit.”
Miller could hear the cat purring, could smell something rotten coming off of Heffner.
“I’m here for my money,” he said.
Miller couldn’t remember any money coming from Heffner. They certainly hadn’t done a spiritual profile, though toward the end Heffner had seemed to be everywhere demanding one, becoming more and more difficult to put off. Maybe there’d been a donation Miller wasn’t aware of?
He hefted the garbage bag, hoping Wade was still watching.
“Why don’t we talk out front in a few minutes,” Miller said. “Give these folks some space with their animals.”
“Sure,” Heffner said, the rotten smell rising off him. “Sounds swell.”
Miller walked away, hoping he wasn’t about to get shot in the back. Outside, he swung the garbage bag into the dumpster, took a deep breath. And another. The air was sticky and still. His phone buzzed again in his pocket. He pulled it out as the back door swung open. Skagit County Jail, the caller ID read. So Lizzie was in trouble. No surprise there. But jail?
Heffner walked toward Miller.
“I want my money,” he said, the cat against his chest.
Wade followed, watching.
“It’s okay, Wade,” Miller said, hoping Wade wouldn’t leave.
“Yeah, Wade,” Heffner said. “We’re fine here.”
“Take it easy,” Miller said to Heffner.
“Only way I know,” Heffner said.
Wade stood by the back door watching.
“Fifteen hundred for me,” Heffner said. “Fifteen for Sully. Six grand for Mrs. Aiello. Nine for Tim and Marcie.”
“You’re collecting for everyone?” Miller said.
“Not even close,” Heffner said.
“You think I do this for money?” Miller said, and Heffner said, “Yep,” and Miller said, “I take what people give me — to help other people.”
“Sure you do,” Heffner said. “Just give me my goddamn money.”
The cat yelped, twisting in his grasp.
Wade stepped forward.
“Give me that cat,” Wade said. “Sir.”
Miller’s phone buzzed in his pocket.
Heffner glared at Miller, working his jaw. “Eighteen thousand,” he said.
“That’s a lot of money,” Miller said.
“I’d be just as happy to take a piece of you,” Heffner said.
Wade inched forward. He had a hundred pounds on Heffner, but hurting him would only make things worse.
“It’s okay,” Miller said to Wade.
“Give him the cat,” he said to Heffner. “I’ll get you some money, whatever might help.”
“Whatever might help?” Heffner said. “Nothing will help. Just give me what you owe.”
And Wade said, “I’ll take that cat now.”
Heffner pulled the cat closer, twisting as it yowled.
“Now,” Wade said.
“No, man,” Heffner said. “Neither of you — ”
He went for something in his back pocket or the waistband of his jeans.
Wade popped him with a right to the jaw.
The sound of bones crunching and crackling.
The rotten smell rising up more rotten.
Heffner crumpled and the cat sprang free.
Originally published in the Sept. 13, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller watched the ambulance take Heffner away. He figured he’d follow, give him what he thought was coming to him, a piece of it anyway, then escape this awful, dripping heat, this burnt, monotonous landscape, and head back to the Northwest and Lizzie. In the past three years, he’d learned all kinds of tact and politeness when people from other regions showed off their local beauty, a lot of which was stunning — the Blue Ridge, the Keys, Cape Cod, Colorado — but a lot of which wasn’t, though people said it was because it was the best they had. A survivor would take Miller somewhere to show off the local beauty — the woods, the lake, wherever — and when other survivors found out where they’d been, everyone would want confirmation that the beautiful place was indeed beautiful. So often it wasn’t, not compared to where he was from, but he always said it was, always found something remarkable to mention.
The only thing remarkable about Rosedale was how many people had been shot there one Sunday morning in June. It wasn’t beautiful, though people there were as good and bad as everywhere. But it would be a bust for Miller. There just wasn’t time for spiritual inventories, not that there was much money in the town anyway.
There was a lot of crying in the Legion Hall when Miller said he had to leave. There was always a lot of crying in the Legion Hall.
“Because of that guy?” Wade said.
“Because of a problem at home,” Miller said.
He still hadn’t talked to Lizzie.
“What problem?” Connie said.
“You’ve got my number,” Miller said. “And I’ll put you in touch with some other folks, the survivor networks and support groups I told you about.”
Connie wouldn’t let him go.
“I don’t want to have to break this all down,” she said.
Miller knew she meant her base in the Legion Hall.
“Maybe you won’t have to,” he said.
She couldn’t get her hold quite right on him it seemed, kept shifting her arms around.
“Someday I will,” she said.
“I know,” Miller said.
“Then what?” Connie said.
He held her a long time, until she finally pulled away and walked back to the kitchen. She didn’t want to watch him leave, she said.
Wade helped him collect the rest of his things and pack up the motorhome.
“I’ll take care of the animals,” he said.
The only thing remarkable about Rosedale was how many people had been shot there one Sunday morning in June.
Miller had gathered almost three thousand in cash in Rosedale, plus credit card donations to the foundations and action committees, most of it from Wade, who handed Miller another envelope now as they said goodbye outside the Legion Hall.
“Nah,” Miller said. “Keep it. You’re going to need that here.”
“I’ve got plenty,” Wade said. “I’m hoping you might come back.”
“I don’t think that’ll happen,” Miller said.
“Take it anyway,” Wade said.
Miller took it. Good people in Rosedale, like everywhere. And Wade had plenty of dough.
At the hospital, forty miles north, Miller placed the envelope on Heffner’s bedside table.
The man was groggy from surgery, bleary eyed, his jaw wired shut.
“That’s twenty-three hundred,” Miller said. “All I’ve got.”
And far more than Heffner deserved. Though deserve...
Heffner’s jaw was black and purple and shiny swollen.
With Lizzie in trouble, who knew how long Miller would be off the road, unable to earn.
Heffner reached for the envelope. “You,” he said through his wired jaw, or “Oooh,” his eyes flashing and tearing up as he tried to talk.
“I’ll get the nurse,” Miller said.
Heffner shook his head, put his hand on Miller’s arm and squeezed.
“I’m sorry you’re hurting,” Miller said. “Take this money now, and if I can get you more later, I will. There’s resources we can tap.”
“You fut,” Heffner said through his clenched jaw, still holding Miller’s arm.
He was like a drowning man who’d pull you down with him. It was a horrible thing to think, given the man’s loss, but it was true.
“Let go of me now,” Miller said.
Heffner made some other sounds that must have hurt him. He squeezed his eyes and fell against the pillow, his brow crinkling.
“I’m sorry about your son,” Miller said, leaning toward him. “I really am.”
Heffner jerked, head butting Miller and going for his throat, growling and spitting through his wired jaw. Miller couldn’t breathe for a second, or was about to be unable to breathe. He cracked Heffner with the heel of his hand in the spot Wade had popped him earlier, right over the bruising, still hot, and Heffner let go, falling flat, tears running from his eyes as he groaned and held the side of his face. Miller picked up the envelope from the floor, considering. Heffner kept groaning. The man had suffered, was still suffering, would always be suffering. Miller placed the money on Heffner’s table and walked out of the room, headed for home.
Originally published in the Sept. 20, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane has been making his living conning and comforting the survivors of mass shootings, and when working a massacre in Rosedale, Texas, he’s surprised to see a face from his past. Heffner, the father of a boy killed in a previous shooting that Miller worked, wants his money back. There’s a scuffle, and Miller decides it’s a good time to leave town. Besides, he’s missed a couple of calls from the Skagit County Jail. He assumes Lizzie, a woman he loves, is in trouble.
It was always good to leave a massacre, and once Miller made the decision, he’d feel the excitement of escape, often driving all night, drinking coffee and listening to country music or preachers on the radio. That was when he missed cigarettes the most, driving at night away from a massacre, almost nobody on the road around him.
Now that he was through with Heffner, he could feel himself shedding the weight of Rosedale and Cumberland, Salt Flats before that. He headed north, toward home, where he hadn’t been since Christmas, and waited for the call from Lizzie. Too much time passed without his phone buzzing, but then it did, and an operator, just a recording really, asked if he’d accept a collect call from an inmate at the Skagit County Jail. Of course he would. It had to be Lizzie. Who else could it be? He just hoped she hadn’t killed the idiot Connor.
He pulled over so he could concentrate on talking to her and not killing himself or somebody else with the motorhome. He’d only had it a couple months and was still getting used to it.
“I’m in jail,” Lizzie told him, which he already knew.
“But it could be worse,” she said, and he said, “It could always be worse,” and she said, “Assault with a deadly weapon, if you want to know why,” and he said, “Hm.”
“I thought you’d appreciate that,” she said.
“Connor?” he said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It seems like people will shoot just about anybody these days.”
“Not me, though,” she said. “I’m not going to shoot just anybody.”
It sounded like she was talking from inside a can, all this reverb and echo on the line, all this noise behind her, static and shouting and some kind of thumping and clicking.
“Not that I meant to do it,” she said.
“Of course not,” Miller said.
“And nobody’s hurt, really,” she said. “Thank god. That moron Freidlander across the street saw the whole thing. Did nothing, even after — ”
There was a scream somewhere behind her, a horn blasting, some kind of clanging.
She went quiet.
“Okay,” Miller said, and then, when she didn’t pick it back up: “Are you there?”
“The noise never ends,” she said, “that’s the thing of it — this roaring over everything. Sometimes you stop noticing, and then you wake up and realize it’s coming from inside you. Not really, of course. It’s just that it’s bouncing off everything. And all the women jammed into these big dorms with triple bunk stacks and nowhere to go, everybody about to pop under the roar.”
“Let’s get you out of there,” Miller said.
But she wanted a lawyer first, this guy in Anacortes — Campbell.
“It’s a lot of money,” she said.
“How much?” Miller said.
A blast of static and distortion garbled her words.
“Are you there?” she said.
“I didn’t hear you,” Miller said.
“Thirty thousand,” she said. “Maybe thirty-five.”
He could cover that. But what about bail?
“The problem’s the prosecutor,” she said, and then her words got lost in the static and roar of the broken line, then emerged again, then got lost and emerged, Miller piecing her story together through the noise, trying not to make her repeat too much because it was so frustrating — something about the prosecutor being a pinch-faced woman in a burble suit, something about a hat, the prosecutor saying in the hearing this morning that the blur cloud might still file for attempted murder, even though Connor was such a gobbering idiot and hardly hurt at all and deserving of every blatch that would clacken his ridiculous, stupid life. And this hawk faced woman, this hatchet faced — glar — saying maybe attempted murder, but definitely assault in the fisted tree (first degree? Miller couldn’t remember in the disorientation of the horrible noise if third or first was worse) but Lizzie’s court appointed clacky telling her they’d go for second, because something something — clack — circumstances and that was a good thing, Miller saying “Good, good,” when he thought he should, and “Oh, no,” when he thought he should, pretty much getting it right, it seemed. The court appointed guy was diggering something, but Lizzie wondered if it wouldn’t be better to actually hire someone, not better necessarily — “Yes, better,” Miller said — just not gerbil car. Then the attorney found out Lizzie had a job, so she’d have to get somebody else. Not court appointed. Because that was the law.
This seemed to be the end of the story, and Miller said, “Good, good.”
But what about bail?
Too much money, Lizzie said. Because the prosecutor hated her guts.
“That might just be her job,” Miller said, and Lizzie said, “But, still.”
“How much?” Miller said.
“Five hundred thousand,” Lizzie said. “But Campbell can probably blarton the chard — ”
Miller felt like he was in a tunnel, the horrible distortion and roar in the phone, the strain of trying to hear Lizzie’s words and piece her story together making his vision blur around the edges. Bail was five hundred thousand. Miller thought they’d need ten percent of that for bond — so fifty thousand to get her out, plus thirty-five for Campbell.
Lizzie was still talking.
Miller kept trying to make the right sounds.
Eighty-five grand would be tight because of his mom in Spokane. He’d put her in a memory unit a year ago, a good place, but expensive. Maybe he could put bail or the lawyer on a credit card, some of it anyway, if they let you do that.
The line went clear for a second, a blissful relief, followed by an intermittent click-clacking. Maybe their conversation was being monitored, recorded. Of course it was. Lizzie was in jail.
“Listen,” Miller said, “I can cover — ”
And then there was a deafening blast of white noise.
“Are you there?” Miller said.
A recorded voice said, “This call will terminate in sixty seconds,” followed by another blast of white noise.
“I’m here,” Lizzie said.
“Okay,” Miller said. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Lizzie said.
And then the noise was gone.
Maybe their conversation was being monitored, recorded. Of course it was. Lizzie was in jail.
It was such a relief neither of them said anything for a minute, resting in the silence. And then Miller said, “I can cover the bail is what I’m saying.”
“That’s sweet,” Lizzie said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Miller said.
“But I was hoping for something else,” Lizzie said.
“Something else?” Miller said,
“The heiress,” Lizzie said.
Right. Of course. Carleen. How stupid he was not to have asked about her. She was why Lizzie was calling in the first place, the main reason anyway. Someone would have to take care of Carleen. Surely she was safe in Shelton still, or hidden somewhere else away from Connor.
“Can you get her?” Lizzie said, and Miller said, “Now?” and Lizzie said, “Yes.”
“Is she still at Cara’s?”
“There’s no way Connor knows she’s there,” Lizzie said. “But hurry — if you can.”
Cara lived in Shelton, out on the peninsula, nearly two thousand miles from where Miller now sat.
“I will,” Miller said.
“I don’t think this business is going to take long,” Lizzie said. “Campbell told me this morning I probably won’t get convicted. You want to know why?”
“Sure,” Miller said.
“Because I’m such a nice lady,” Lizzie said. “Do you believe that?”
“Of course I believe it.”
“I am a nice lady,” Lizzie said, “aren’t I?”
“You are,” Miller said, though nice ladies were capable of all kinds of things, Lizzie maybe more than most.
“Almost always,” Lizzie said. “It’s just — ”
And then there was a blast of static and the line went dead.
Originally published in the Sept. 27, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane, who’s been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, is driving toward Washington state when he receives a garbled call from the Skagit County Jail. It’s Lizzie. She’s in trouble for shooting her estranged husband, Connor, who apparently escaped with minimal injuries. Lizzie asks Miller to pick up Carleen, her 8-year-old daughter, and keep her safe while Lizzie sorts out her legal mess. Miller plans to call Campbell, Lizzie’s lawyer, for more details.
Miller called the lawyer, sketched out what little he knew of Lizzie’s story. Campbell told him there’d be multiple factors in determining how long she’d be locked up. So much would depend on what the witness across the street saw. Campbell said he’d see Lizzie in the morning, and if she had a message for Miller, he’d call. He knew how bad the jail’s phones were — part of the punishment, he said, before conviction.
Miller transferred Campbell his fee, thirty-five thousand, all of which he’d keep whether the job took a week or seventy-five years. It would certainly be more than a week, Campbell said, and hopefully less than a year. The timing was vague, which was fine, except that Miller wasn’t about to take an eight-year-old out on the massacre circuit, which meant money might become an issue. Which meant bail would have to wait, at least for a while. Carleen had means of her own now, true, but Miller wasn’t sure how that worked exactly. And it’s not like he was close to broke. He had plenty, enough to carry his mom and him and Carleen for at least six months. Would Lizzie be out by then? Probably. Maybe. She was a nice lady. And Connor was an idiot. Everyone — even the pinch-faced prosecutor — would realize soon enough that he’d deserved to be shot.
Miller wondered where Connor was, where Carleen was right this second. No one was better suited than he was to care for her while her mom was away, to teach her and take care of her and hide her. Not that he’d ever raised a child, or wanted to particularly. But he did love her. That was the thing. And she loved him. Lizzie had told him the idiot wasn’t hurt bad, but did that mean he was on the loose, looking for Carleen? Or was he in the hospital or jail or dead of a heart attack or a car accident or from forgetting how to feed himself?
Miller had never met him, but he knew the story — how Connor had left when Carleen was one, sending postcards and presents occasionally, but only showing his face once, when he was back in the Bay Area to visit his grandfather. Lizzie had been blindsided by his leaving. He was supposed to be going to Morocco for a week with his buddy Dominick — that’s what he told her — to embark on some ridiculous Paul Bowles hash pilgrimage, but he called from Athens six days in, extending the trip, and then from Rome a week after that.
“What are you doing?” Lizzie asked when he called from Malaga, almost a month later.
They had a kid, for Christ’s sake.
“I’ll send money,” he said.
“I’m figuring some stuff out,” he said.
“What kind of stuff?”
“No,” he said. “It’s good.”
“What about your job?” she said.
The company he worked for was dying, she knew, a dot com pet grooming service she wasn’t entirely clear on. But still. People needed to show up to their jobs. Even if they didn’t need jobs.
“It doesn’t matter,” Connor said. “This time apart will be good for us — I promise. Just another week or so.”
She believed him. That’s what made her feel stupid later. They had problems, sure — everyone did — but on the whole, they’d been more happy than not. For weeks and weeks, then months and months, she tried to give him space to grow, even though he was thirty-six and already grown. He couldn’t be tied down anymore, he wrote from Istanbul, to one idea or belief system, to one person or place. He’d be back, he said, once he figured himself out. But he didn’t come back, and Lizzie’s longing turned to hurt and anger and resentment, and after several years, she buried him. What else was she supposed to do? She had Carleen to raise and she wasn’t going to be miserable and she wasn’t going to be a victim, even though Connor was an idiot.
They had no custody agreement because they’d never divorced, something she regretted now. Miller had encouraged her over the years to nail down custody, but Lizzie didn’t think Connor would ever come home. He was too careless, too immature, too committed to his own pleasure. When she moved from the Bay Area back to Washington, to Mount Vernon, he didn’t even notice. Not that she bothered telling him. If he wasn’t in Aspen, he was in Provincetown. If he wasn’t on Kauai, he was on Grand Cayman. If he wasn’t in Vietnam, he was in India — backpacking, mountain climbing, snorkeling, experiencing the world, writing, painting, sculpting, living, sending postcards, and it wasn’t his fault if Lizzie wouldn’t join him out in the world, which he finally asked her to do years after he left, when it was too late.
But he did love her. That was the thing. And she loved him.
He couldn’t be bothered with Carleen until he got cut off by his grandfather a few weeks before the Rosedale massacre, the old man more or less saying he’d be sending Connor’s allowance to Carleen from now on, money Connor viewed as rightfully his, since he’d been living off it for twenty-five years. But it was much worse than losing his allowance. He’d also be cut off from the big pile of money that had been feeding the little piles all these years. It probably never occurred to him that Carleen would jump her spot in line to take his place as the legal heir to the family fortune. It certainly never occurred to Lizzie.
Connor’s grandfather died on Memorial Day, triggering Carleen’s first allowance installment, which would come once the will was out of probate — five thousand a month — as explained to Lizzie in a phone call from the old man’s attorney.
“Of course he wanted to tell you himself,” the attorney said.
“Who did?” Lizzie said on the phone. This was the first she’d heard anything about money or an inheritance or anything coming from Connor’s family.
“Mister Callahan,” the attorney said.
She hardly even knew the man, hadn’t seen him since they’d left California, though she sent a Christmas card every year with pictures of Carleen.
“Five thousand a month?” Lizzie said.
This was before Connor knocked on her door, before she understood that he considered the money his and stolen.
“That’s right,” the lawyer said.
But that wasn’t the half of it.
Because when Carleen turned twenty-six, the five thousand a month would become fifty thousand a month.
That wasn’t possible. Was it?
And that wasn’t all either.
Because when Carleen turned thirty-five there’d be more money to manage, a lot more, more than they could ever imagine, all of it hers. Carleen’s.
“How much more?” Lizzie said.
She felt this tingling in her chest, in her fingers and toes.
They hadn’t been poor before, exactly. Lizzie worked as a baker at the co-op in Mount Vernon and made clothes and jewelry she sold to boutiques in Edison, Friday Harbor, and Bellingham, with more shops expressing interest all the time. But they sure as hell weren’t rich. And now, at eight years old, Carleen was an heiress? That was the word, right? A female heir to a fortune? An heiress. Her. Carleen. And Lizzie would be the mother to an heiress, which made her some kind of duchess or something. A baroness. A baronet. Whichever. Somehow, they’d become American royalty. It was hilarious, right?
Yes it was, Miller said when she called him in Cumberland to tell him about it.
It was hilarious, she said, and ridiculous, fantastic. Money could actually fill you with joy — Lizzie would never have believed that — but it could actually make you giddy, only momentarily maybe, but still. And it was horrible. All that money, more than anyone could ever deserve, all of it stolen in one way or another, tied to all kinds of 19th century exploitation, timber and mining and railroads and god knew what else. Slavery for all she knew. No, not that. If it was that, she couldn’t —
But it was so amazing, these gobs of money coming at her, well not her, Carleen, not that Carleen knew anything about it, and Lizzie planned on keeping it that way. No little girl should know she’s an heiress. That could only hurt a child.
“So walk away,” Miller said.
“What?” Lizzie said.
“Don’t take the money,” Miller said, and Lizzie said, “Really?”
“No!” Miller said, “How else are you supposed to become a duchess?”
“A countess,” Lizzie said, “but for her, mainly,” and Miller said, “Exactly.” ν
Originally published in the Oct. 4, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Lizzie is stuck in jail after shooting her estranged husband, Connor Callahan, who sustained only minimal injuries. Connor had long been out of the picture, but it was recently learned that their 8-year-old daughter, Carleen, will inherit the massive Callahan family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. While she’s in jail, Lizzie has asked Miller to take care of Carleen, and he’s heading to Washington state now to pick her up. Miller’s not sure how long he’ll need to keep Carleen safe and he hopes Lizzie’s lawyer, Campbell, can help.
He made it to Moab before stopping to sleep, was on the road again by seven with a thermos of coffee and a box of doughnuts, two apple fritters, an old fashioned, two maple bars, and four turnovers, mumbleberry and cherry. Not as good as cigarettes maybe, but something to serve as a reward for each hundred miles driven.
“Take it to court,” he told Lizzie after Connor came back a few weeks ago. “Make the custody clear. No way is a judge giving him anything.”
Miller was still in Cumberland then, tiptoeing around Heffner. He’d been trying to brush the man off for days, saying he was booked, but Heffner kept popping up at the Marriott, collaring Miller at vigils.
“Get the custody straightened out,” he told Lizzie. “Connor’s been a deadbeat even if he is rich. And get a restraining order.”
“Oh, please,” Lizzie said. “How many of your shooters had restraining orders against them?”
Two that he knew of — Daniel Phillips in Delaware (fourteen dead), and Nathan Cole in New Mexico (seven).
“Nobody knows what Connor’s capable of,” Lizzie said, “though we certainly know what he’s incapable of. Carleen hardly even remembers him, doesn’t miss him at all. She never even knew him, so it’s not like she’s been deprived of anything, except something that would’ve been bad for her. I mean, you’ve been more of a father to her than he ever was.”
As if Miller didn’t know that.
Now, as he drove toward the kid, he needed a plan, some way to structure their time together. But for how long? Two days? A week? Six months?
A few years ago, he’d lived in one place, Spokane, a regular person with a regular job…
According to the radio, the entire West was on fire, most of it anyway, a hell of a lot of it, and just south of Provo, he finally smelled the smoke. He kept driving, pulled over in Twin Falls for a nap. The smoke was thicker in Idaho, the sun’s light dull and diffuse, colorless it seemed, his eyes itching and burning from the fires reported in B.C. and Montana, the North Cascades and eastern Oregon, even out on the Peninsula. He’d never heard of fire on the Peninsula — a small one maybe, but not burning for days like this. He woke midafternoon and got back on the road, grinding out the miles. Campbell called and said Carleen wouldn’t be ready till noon tomorrow because she and Cara were camping. Lizzie was doing alright, he said, all things considered. They’d know more next week.
“But how does it look,” Miller said, “based on what you know so far?”
“Hard to tell,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot to learn.”
“How about initial impressions,” Miller said.
“It’s odd for me to talk with you about this,” Campbell said. “I know you paid me — ”
“We’re practically family,” Miller said.
“And she said to tell you everything.”
Miller waited. Was the man really going to give him nothing?
“According to Lizzie,” Campbell said, “Connor didn’t have a weapon. Not that she could see anyway.”
“But he probably lunged at her,” Miller said.
“Maybe,” Campbell said. “He definitely scared her. But it happened out front, and there was a witness across the street.”
“Friedlander,” Miller said. “An incorrigible drunk. The man’s completely unreliable.”
“But the thing is,” Campbell said, “just real broadly here, regarding the law: if you’re not facing deadly force, you can’t respond with deadly force.”
“Is Connor dead?” Miller said.
“Hurt bad?” Miller said.
“I think you know what I’m talking about,” Campbell said.
It didn’t seem like Lizzie’s force had been at all deadly if Connor wasn’t even hurt bad.
“I’m just saying,” Campbell said, “broadly, in this kind of situation with deadly force, you’re probably going to face some serious charges.”
“But specifically,” Miller said, “regarding her case, once all the circumstances become clear — ”
“Right,” Campbell said. “There will be a lot of factors. The prosecutor will be talking with Mr. Callahan. I’ll be shocked if we don’t see a restraining order in a few days.”
“She did shoot him, Mr. Cane.”
“But he deserved it,” Miller said. “What about her? Getting a restraining order against him?”
What about everybody getting a restraining order against everybody else?
“We’re talking about that,” Campbell said. “We’re just going to have to be patient and see what comes out at the indictment. We’ll know more then. Sound good?”
No, Miller thought, it did not sound good. He hung up feeling like he’d learned nothing — and that the nothing he’d learned was all bad.
The smoke was a blanket over Baker City. He stopped for dinner, then drove on, through the Blue Mountains, to the Tri Cities, over through Yakima and up, before finally stopping in Ellensburg for the night. A few years ago, he’d lived in one place, Spokane, a regular person with a regular job, and a side job too — contributing to a line of history textbooks. His specialty had been set-aside sections, writing that went into a little more depth than the broad, boring sweep of the bulk of each book. Nine hundred words on the Whiskey Rebellion. Seventeen hundred on Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery. Six hundred words on Frederick Douglass. George Sampson, his editor, had recently reminded Miller — again — that he owed such material for an 11th grade text. Miller’s contribution was to be brief biographies of notable Americans to be included in set-aside sections woven throughout the book, each of which would be titled “Famous American’s Name: Hero or Villain?” Miller thought the idea sounded okay in principle. But it would become idiotic in practice — because, while the feature would pretend to deal in ambiguity, the publisher would be afraid to challenge too many students or parents or school boards or mayors or other Americans. The publisher would want to reinforce whatever mythology the current moment called for in the most school districts or states, depending on who was buying. Not that it had ever been any different, probably, but Miller was done with history, with teaching. He’d signed the contract five years ago, as part of a three book deal, two of which he’d delivered before he got on the road. He’d been waiting for George to dump him from the Hero Villain project for over a year now, or to ask for some money back, but here in Ellensburg, Miller wondered if this project might be just what he needed to create structure for his time with Carleen. He wrote George to tell him he was ready to start work on the book, but only if he could pick the Heroes and Villains.
It was midnight in Texas, where the publisher was based, but George wrote back right away. “We want you to follow your passion here,” he said, “within reason, of course. We want you to bring these stories to life for the kids,” he said, “almost like fiction.”
Miller poured a finger of whiskey, drank it at the table.
Was it really this easy to jump back into regular life?
Not that he was jumping into anything. Whatever he was doing, he certainly wouldn’t be staying. This was just a side gig, a job for him and Carleen to do to give their lives structure, while he pretended to be a parent. He started a list of Heroes and Villains, figures he might be interested in — Elizabeth Custer, John Brown, Sacagawea, MLK, the lobotomized Kennedy sister, Frank Lloyd Wright, Muddy Waters, Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover(s), platonic or not.
At Christmas, Miller had given Carleen the Little House books. Maybe they’d head to Laura’s farm in Missouri. He pulled out the atlas to help shape his list. Narcissa Whitman would be perfect, so close to home. They could visit the Whitman Mission in Walla Walla, maybe hit the Pendleton Roundup if the timing was right. What was more American than a rodeo? Maybe they’d make some stops along the Oregon Trail, find out whatever there was to see there, if anything remained. He could read her Uncle Jim’s diary from 1862, make Uncle Jim a Hero Villain.
Carleen would help with the list. She’d love it. They both would. He added Buffalo Bill, Black Elk, Margaret Sanger — they’d never let him write that one — Frank Sinatra’s mother. Why not? Charles Manson. No, too scary. But he was going to follow his passion, just like George requested. And Carleen’s. They’d separate the Heroes from the Villains. One job could rest while another began.
He’d be a good surrogate parent, too, even if he didn’t know what he was doing. What mattered was that he loved her, always had and always would. Lizzie knew that. So did Carleen. Connor probably too, not that Miller cared what Connor knew. Miller often wondered if Carleen might be his. Not that it mattered much. Not that it mattered at all.
He’d be her father whether there was blood or not.
Originally published in the Oct. 11, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane, who’s lately been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, is on his way to Washington state to pick up an 8-year-old girl named Carleen. Her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail after shooting her estranged husband, Connor, and has asked Miller to keep the girl safe. Miller’s not sure how long he and Carleen will need to stay on the move, but he has an idea: He can return to a long-ignored writing gig — penning brief biographies of notable Americans for an 11th-grade history textbook — and use that project to structure his time on the road with Carleen. Miller’s editor, George, has given him (mostly) free rein to choose which historical figures to profile, each of which would be titled “[Famous American’s Name]: Hero or Villain?”
Miller started driving again before first light. It was still dark when he wound through Snoqualmie Pass, and the air was less smoky, the snow bright in patches on the higher peaks, reflecting moonlight. Here the Cascades resembled what Miller thought the Alps must look like, jagged and pointy, with lots of little peaks, as opposed to the giant mountains like Hood and Baker and Rainer. Even after he got through Seattle and Tacoma and was almost to Olympia, he had hours to kill before Carleen would be ready. It was the Fourth of July. Miller headed toward Yelm on 510, pulled over at a rest area with a view of Rainier, pink and huge and floating. You couldn’t quite see the smoke, but you could smell it and it made everything hazy, distorting the mountain through a beautiful pink. He ate another maple bar. It would be nice to be on the road with Carleen chasing something other than massacres. Maybe he’d never do that again. But no way was he going back to public schools. He looked at his list of Hero Villains, made a fresh pot of coffee and took his laptop to a picnic table placed perfectly for the view. He didn’t know what to say exactly, which hero or villain to profile first. He added Skip James to his list, Howlin’ Wolf, Carrie Nation, Mother Jones. He stared at the mountain rising out of the clouds for a long time, and then he started to write.
Hero Villain I — America Her/Him/Them/It Self.
First of all, and for starters, her/him/them/its story is not just about steel and Chryslers and pilgrims and heroin and fishing and lynching and baseball and jazz and buffalos and Indians and cowboys and missionaries and guns and rebellion and cheese whiz and porn. Because it’s also about robber barons and pioneers, Mormons and slavery, immigrants and genocide, preachers and drunks. We will have better amusement parks than everyone, yes, but also more massacres, countless massacres, though some we’ll remember especially, like Boston, My Lai, Mountain Meadows, Wounded Knee, Las Vegas, Columbine, Sand Creek, Sandy Hook.
We’ll become shopkeepers and lawyers, doctors and clerks, captains of industry and career criminals. Work will give our lives meaning and grind us into dust. We’ll reward ingenuity. Weight will be gained and lost and regained. We’ll overcome addictions and succumb to them again. We’ll be oversexed and celibate, male and female, neither and both. What’s rightfully ours, we will take, and what’s free for the taking we will take. We’ll take anything we can get out hands on, but we’ll give too, often while we’re taking. We’ll cherish our rights. We’ll love hamburgers and whiskey and Babe Ruth and Jesse James and Flannery O’Connor and Sandra Day O’Connor and Martin Luther King and Buffalo Bill. But we’ll also hate them.
We’ll be socially mobile, some of us, and trapped by the circumstances of our births, some of us. We’ll have black belts and bible belts. We’ll handle snakes, shun cards, play tennis, and stab each other in juke joints. “Clowns and Elephants” will be “the pegs on which the circus is hung,” P.T. Barnum will tell us, but his most famous elephant, Jumbo, will be struck and killed by a train in Ontario. How can such a thing be possible, we’ll wonder — a Sudanese elephant captured and sold to an Italian then a German, imported to Paris then London, bought by Barnum, beloved by Americans, only to be killed in Canada.
Super Heroes will become more real to us than anything except money. We’ll improve and we’ll backslide. We’ll develop vaccines, then fear them.
We will never admit defeat.
And we will kill and kill and kill and kill — each other, people of color, people not of color, people like us and not like us, and we’ll be helpless before such killing. We’ll kill in churches and bars and post offices and college classrooms and malls and elementary schools — at home, at work, at night, in the morning, in grocery stores, movie theatres, concert halls and dance clubs, in the city, in the suburbs, in tiny towns, in cars, in bed, wherever we happen to be. We’ll stalk and kill, and we’ll kill randomly. We’ll kill our bosses and co-workers and lovers and ex-wives and parents and children. We will kill strangers. We will kill people we hate, people we love, people we used to love but now hate. We’ll mourn and we’ll pray over our killing.
We’ll believe we believe in freedom more than anyone else, even knowing our history of slavery. We’ll grow fatter and fatter and incredibly, obsessively fit. We’ll wonder if these pants, this dress, this outfit, makes our ass look big. We’ll hate kings and queens and dukes and governments and love actors and athletes and pop stars and rich people (who we’ll also hate). We’ll invest in land and gold, the long con and the short. We’ll invent oil. We’ll invent the telephone, democracy, three martini lunches, the assembly line, prayer meetings, the internet, and almost everything else (except fireworks, invented by the Chinese, and pizza and pasta, also invented by the Chinese. Lesson? The Chinese will invent whatever we don’t). Depending on where we shop — and we’ll know if we’re in the right place — soap will cost 24 cents a bar or 24 dollars. That’s what we mean by freedom, and no one can tell us otherwise. And no can stop us. And no one can keep us down.
Traffic, though, will become a nightmare. And what are we supposed to look forward to once the land’s all settled and Buffalo Bill’s defunct and we don’t build bridges or dams anymore or go to space or anywhere else, except unending war — which is fine for the present, but just what is the significance of the frontier in American history when there is no frontier left? What are we supposed to conquer now? Cancer? And when did chefs become heroes? If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll say our nation’s wealth was built on slavery and taking everything we could get our hands on. We’ve always been a nation of laws, yes, but also a nation of taking, of lawlessness even, a nation of sin and salvation, a nation of second chances, fresh starts, long prison sentences, churches and taverns and melting pots and buffets. It makes sense maybe that Black Elk liked Queen Victoria when he was with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, because Queen Victoria said to him, “All over the world I have seen all kinds of people; but today I have seen the best-looking people I know.”
What are we supposed to conquer now? Cancer? And when did chefs become heroes?
She meant Black Elk and his friends. It’s pretty much impossible not to like someone who thinks you’re the best-looking person in the world, even if her name will later become synonymous with sexual repression. But it wasn’t just that. It’s that she wasn’t American. That’s what was so likeable, probably, to this native American.
“If you belonged to me,” she said, “I would not let them take you around in a show like this.” But Black Elk did not belong to her. And she probably had no idea how horrible she sounded saying such a thing. The next time he saw her, at her Jubilee, Black Elk noticed Grandmother England’s “dress was all shining and her hat was all shining and her wagon was all shining and so were the horses. She looked like a fire coming.”
And then Buffalo Bill left him and several of his friends in England for years — not on purpose, but still! And then Buffalo Bill went back for him and brought him home to America.
[George, insert that image here of all those stampeding buffalo with Buffalo Bill’s head in a circle right there in the middle of the foremost, craziest eyed buffalo, and the words “I’m Coming” at the bottom.]
[George, also, okay, so I’ve run out of time here and off the rails, but this is just a warm up is all anyway, just a way to get thinking about this whole American Hero/Villain project. I realize this tone is not quite what you’re looking for, but here’s the thing, George, here’s what I want you and all the kids to know the most: if you’ve never driven up Chuckanut Drive or along the Blue Ridge or across the Kancamagus or down the Pacific Coast Highway, do yourself a favor and drive one of those beautiful drives right now. I mean this instant, man. America is a lot more than just massacres, you know.]