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.