Originally published in the April 4, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane learned from his sister in Spokane that a man was in town looking for him. Miller couldn’t be sure if it was Connor or Heffner — either way, it was bad news — and he decided that he and Carleen needed to get out of Washington state. They headed for the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon, joined by Miller’s friend, Avery, a former Black Panther. Miller has been on the run with 8-year-old Carleen, trying to keep her away from Connor, her estranged father, while her mother is stuck in jail. Before this, Miller had been traveling across America, conning the survivors of mass shootings, including a man named Heffner, who’s come unhinged with rage and grief.
They made it to the Roundup in time for the Grand Entry, in time for Miller and Avery to get a beer and Carleen to get pizza and pretzels and ice cream and licorice, the stands a sea of cowboy hats and feed caps on the men, most of the women bare headed, everyone wearing sunglasses, and after the first riders — flag bearers — rode into the stadium bearing American and Canadian and Tribal flags, and after the anthem was sung, all those cowboy hats and feed caps held over hearts went back onto heads, the announcer’s voice booming that he was pleased to present the queen and her royal court.
“The queen?” Carleen said.
“And her royal court,” Miller said.
“Entering from the east,” the announcer said, “Princess Delia Flynn!”
“Oh!” Carleen said.
Into the arena charged a princess, glorious in her white cowgirl hat and pink fuzzy chaps flapping, waving to the crowd like mad, and before she was halfway across the field, another princess was introduced, from the west entrance, then another from the east, and another from the west, all of them riding and waving, the spindly lower legs of their horses a blur of pink wrapping, the same pink as their chaps, until the queen herself was introduced.
“Oh!” Carleen said again, as the queen charged into the arena, jumping over a low bumper on the far side of the track and barreling across the grass infield, then over another low bumper and onto the track itself, cowgirl princesses flying behind her, the crowd cheering, flag bearers riding hell bent for leather behind the royal entourage, music booming.
“Let ’er buck!” the announcer said, and the crowd shouted, “Let ’er buck,” and then the president of the Roundup was introduced, charging onto the dirt track amongst the swirl of riders, the theme from Bonanza blaring, the announcer shouting, “The wild and wooly West is alive, folks! You’ve got to say it with me now — Let ’er buck!” and everyone shouted it again, Carleen loudest, a bucking bronco erupting from one of the chutes, its rider a ragdoll flopping, but holding on. “The bucking horse of the year,” the announcer reported, and again the crowd went wild, as did the horse and rider bucking around the grass infield. Three black-shirted, black-hatted, sunglass-wearing, alpaca-chapped rodeo authorities surrounded the bronc, herding it, one of the animal-handling cops pulling the rider onto his own horse, the other two leading the bucking horse off the field. A second saddle bronc rider burst from a shoot, flipping and flopping and bucking and broncing, until he too was surrounded by the alpaca-chapped animal authorities.
“This is definitely better than baseball,” Avery said.
Why wasn’t everyone doing this all the time?
“Let ’er buck,” Carleen yelled as the Indian relay started, each rider racing bareback around the track, sliding off his first horse while still in motion and jumping onto the next, then around again and onto another, a horse and human frenzy.
“It’s amazing!” Carleen said.
“It is,” Miller said.
“Mom wouldn’t like it,” Carleen said.
“I think you’re right,” Miller said.
“But I like it,” Carleen said, until a cowboy launched himself from a galloping horse onto a charging steer, taking the animal down by its horns and twisting him by his head into the dirt.
They got another beer. They got popcorn and popsicles and nachos and French fries. Back at their seats, the bull riding was much better than the steer wrestling, as far as Carleen was concerned, because the bulls always won. “I didn’t know cowboys were this real,” she said.
“I didn’t either,” Miller said.
Their names were Boudreaux and Tristan and Tanner and Chance.
And the barrel-racing cowgirls were Tillar and Chandra and Raelin and Kai.
Carleen gripped Miller’s hand. “Why does she have to whip him,” she said.
“To make him go faster,” Miller said.
“I thought that’s why she kicked him,” Carleen said.
“I don’t think it hurts him,” Miller said. “I think it’s just to remind him.”
“She really loves him,” Carleen said. “Look how she pets him.”
“And how she leans in to talk to him.”
“If it is a him.”
“It is,” Miller said.
“Let ’er buck,” Carleen said, and after the barrel racing they headed toward the teepees in the Tribal Village, hundreds of them, Carleen transfixed by a girl in a beaded dress, shells jingling from strings down her chest and back.
“Do you have to be an Indian to wear that?” Carleen whispered to Miller.
“I think so,” Miller said. “But there are other things you can wear,” and Carleen said, “Like what?” and Miller said, “Lots of things.”
They followed the girl to a grassy area where drummers were singing and driving the dancers. They watched and listened and when it was over they walked out of the Roundup toward Avery’s car.
“I could probably wear a cowgirl hat,” Carleen said.
“Sure you could,” Miller said.
They had one more day of rodeo, plus the pageant tomorrow night, Happy Canyon, which Miller was dreading, a Buffalo Bill Wild West show celebrating — something.
“If a French dude can name his wine Cayuse,” Avery said, “you can wear a cowgirl hat.” And to Miller: “You ever been to that tasting room?”
Miller shook his head.
“I went a couple years ago,” Avery said, “all these stupid ass names for the wine — Widowmaker, Bionic Frog, stuff like that. The vineyard’s only a few miles from the Mission, on what used to be Cayuse land, but there’s no mention of what happened, the winemaker a wine duke from France come to wrest holy juice from the rocky Western soil. It’s about the struggle of the vines, they tell you, the biodynamic farming methods, all this bullshit. I said to the woman there, I said, ‘Who names these wines anyway?’ and she said ‘Christophe himself probably’ — that’s the wine duke — and I said, ‘Well, I got an idea for some names: how about a Massacre white? Or maybe an Execution red?’ which I thought was pretty goddamn funny — I mean, really — but she didn’t laugh.”
Miller didn’t either.
“I don’t get it,” Carleen said.
“That’s ’cause it’s not funny,” Avery said.
They drove in silence for a while, toward Shelly’s house in La Grande, where they’d left the motorhome that morning.
“Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t a cowgirl,” Carleen said, “because she was a pioneer.”
“That’s true,” Avery said.
“And a farmer,” Miller said.
“But she loved horses,” Carleen said.
“And she was a writer, too,” Miller said.
“People can be lots of things,” Avery said.
“I could wear a bonnet,” Carleen said.
“Sure you could,” Miller said.
“Do you think I could go back to school now?” Carleen said.
It was the second week of September and she hadn’t asked for days. She wanted a normal life — of course she did. Maybe he’d settle them someplace safe, enroll her in school ’til Lizzie got out.
“But right now we’re working on our history book,” Miller said.
“Which is like school,” Avery said, “traveling and seeing stuff.”
Carleen didn’t say anything.
Avery said, “Did I tell you Shelly’s niece is coming for dinner?”
Miller could study third grade curriculum and start teaching her, so that when she did start up again — January say, or sooner even — she wouldn’t be behind. Not that she’d be behind, as smart as she was.
“Bella’s her name,” Avery said.
“I want to go to school,” Carleen said.
“I know you do,” Miller said. “We’ll figure it out.”
“When?” Carleen said.
“Soon,” Miller said, but he didn’t know when — or where.
“She might have a horse,” Avery said.
Somewhere far away.
“Really? Carleen said.
“Or a steer or a donkey or a bull — ”
“Okay, cat man,” Carleen said.
Avery laughed. “I think I’m going to Katmandu,” he said.
Carleen laughed too.
Miller didn’t know how he’d enroll her if she wasn’t his kid. They’d have to make up a story — lies on top of lies. Or maybe he’d just say she was his kid, and who could say otherwise? Maybe another day of rodeo was just what they needed, even if did include a lying Wild West show. At least there’d be cowgirls and princesses and clowns and broncos and cowboys and Indians and hot dogs. Avery was right. The rodeo was better than baseball.
Originally published in the April 11, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen are now in La Grande, Oregon, not far from the Pendleton Roundup, where they spent the day. Miller’s friend Avery is with them; they’re all staying with Shelly, Avery’s girlfriend. Miller and Carleen have been on the run for months, with Miller intent on keeping her away from Connor, her estranged father, while her mother, Lizzie, sits in jail for shooting Connor, who survived mostly unscathed. Carleen’s growing restless, wondering when she might return to school and a normal life. Before all this, Miller had been traveling across America in his motorhome, from one mass shooting to another, conning and comforting the survivors.
Shelly’s niece, Bella, did not have a donkey or a horse, but she did have a minibike, a Honda 50 — loud and stinky and fantastic. Carleen was afraid of it. Bella had her sit on it in the backyard, going nowhere, then showed her how to kickstart it, which Carleen did not like. Bella turned the bike off, and they talked for a while in the grass, then wandered into the woods behind the house.
“Those trails go for miles,” Shelly said.
Miller and Avery and Shelly and her sister Monica were drinking gin and tonics on Shelly’s back deck, except for Avery who was drinking wine. Miller felt like a fifteen-year-old kid, at a party where couples were pairing off, disappearing into back bedrooms. On the drive down from Walla Walla, Avery had called Shelly his special friend, and now it seemed as though Monica might become Miller’s special friend, Carleen in the woods with Bella wandering the trails for hours possibly — days even.
Miller hadn’t had a special friend since the Lawton massacre, over a year ago. And Monica was funny and pretty and smart, sharing a joint with him in front of Shelly’s house after the third round of drinks, asking for a tour of the motorhome.
He led her in, hoping she had a cat. All he could smell was Waffles. And there were doughnut boxes and chip bags and candy wrappers scattered all over the couch and counters.
“This is cool,” she said. “Let’s hear the stereo.”
Miller turned on some Lucinda.
“Nice,” she said. “How’s the bed?”
“Pretty good,” Miller said, and they talked about beds — futons and hideabeds, Murphy Beds and California kings, Castro Convertibles and daybeds, Monica sort of teasing with her eyes, finally saying, “We’re not going to take off our clothes or anything, so don’t worry,” and then she was kissing him and he was kissing her and there wasn’t enough air to breathe.
Kissing Monica was the best thing Miller could imagine — kissing and everything kissing might lead to. Their kisses felt like promises. No reason to stop here, Miller promised. No reason to keep all our clothes on, and Monica seemed to agree, but maybe this wasn’t quite the time. It was still light out and the kids were around somewhere. But later, yes, her kisses suggested. And if they could just get a little closer — but then Carleen screamed, “Let ’er buck!” and the minibike roared to life.
Miller and Monica jerked upright and peeked through the blinds in time to see Carleen climbing onto the bike behind Bella and wrapping her arms around her before they disappeared into the woods.
“Is it safe?” Miller said, and Monica said, “It only goes fifteen miles an hour,” and then they were kissing again, negotiating what might be possible, which seemed like a lot, everything really, hours and hours to go — it was only seven — but before the children could return, they sat up and straightened themselves out, then started kissing again, then pulled themselves apart to make themselves presentable, then started kissing again, getting a little desperate, and if they didn’t stop now — but they did stop. They were adults. There were children somewhere. They went back to Shelly’s deck and had another gin and tonic. Avery told a story about a goat his neighbor had who could open a bottle of beer with his teeth and drink it in one long pull, and Shelly told a story about her college roommate opening bottles of beer with her eye socket, Avery and Shelly holding hands, Monica and Miller looking at each other, knowing what they knew — how barriers would be falling like Berlin Walls across eastern Oregon tonight.
They made another drink.
He turned and watched Monica approach, smiling. He smiled back. Everything was about to happen.
The minibike was a vague swarm of mosquitoes buzz-whining toward them, then the girls were back, Bella killing the engine, helmets falling to the lawn, the girls scrambling toward the deck, calling, “Can we have a sleepover? Can we?”
“Of course you can,” Miller said, and Monica said, “Absolutely.”
“I want to show Bella the moho!” Carleen said.
“Sure!” Miller said.
“I’d better get dinner going,” Shelly said.
“What can I do to help,” Monica said.
“Or me,” Miller said, “to help.”
Monica smiled. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you Shelly’s house.”
She led him downstairs and they kissed some more.
“Why did we have to have all these stupid kids anyway,” Monica said, imitating George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miller said, “Beautiful, stupid, old Building and Loan,” and Monica said, “Bedford Falls — Yay!” throwing up her arms like George Bailey discovering that he really did have a wonderful life.
They needed to help upstairs. They needed to be presentable. They needed to get the children to bed as soon as possible.
They made salad while Shelly and Avery cooked salmon and eggplant on the grill. They kept brushing against each other, Monica telling Miller how she’d never been married, how she owned a distillery in Baker City. Maybe they’d try some of her whiskey later, a fantastic idea. They took the salad outside, Carleen and Bella wanting nothing to do with them. When Miller called them for dinner, they asked if they could eat in the motorhome, which was fine, and after dinner, they wondered if they could sleep in the motorhome, which was also fine. Shelly had two bedrooms in her basement, separated by a bathroom, Brady Bunch style. There would be no reason for anyone to get any sleep whatsoever tonight. But first Bella had to go home for pajamas and books and a suitcase full of Barbies with whom to populate Carleen’s Care Clinic.
While she and Monica walked to their house, Carleen called her mom.
Miller was thinking how nice it would be to have a cigarette, but he didn’t smoke anymore. Avery and Shelly were doing dishes in the kitchen. Miller wasn’t helping at all. He’d have to do something heroic tomorrow to make up for being such a bad guest. Maybe Monica would give Miller a job in her distillery, not that he had any skills. La Grande was pretty goddamn far from everything. Maybe they didn’t need to keep driving. Maybe this was where they should be. Miller walked to the motorhome to get another bottle of wine.
“They were real,” Carleen said into the phone. “You know who — the cowgirls and princesses.”
Miller sat in a wooden chair outside the motorhome.
“There’s nothing bad about it,” Carleen said. “Indian princesses, too — part of Happy Canyon. No, it is real. Miller said.”
Why couldn’t Lizzie just let her be a kid? She was so sweet and good. But Lizzie had her own problems, stuck in jail, far from her daughter.
“I love you, too,” Carleen said.
It was quiet for a minute and then Carleen asked for Noreen Cane, Miller’s mother. She’d been calling her nearly every day since they’d left Spokane.
And why not? It was probably good for both of them.
“Hi, Noreen,” she said. “It’s Carleen.”
“Yes,” she said. “I wanted to tell you about my day.”
“We went to the Roundup,” she said, “in Pendleton,” and she told Miller’s mother about the cowgirls and Indians, the queen and princesses, her new friend Bella, almost ten years old, who had a minibike called Pettin’ Patty, named after the mustangs in Little House on the Prairie. She was really funny and nice — Bella — Carleen’s new friend.
It was good she had Noreen. Maybe she’d call Dena, too, and Grace in Edison, and Cara out on the peninsula. But those were grown women. She needed kid friends.
“I love you, too,” she said.
“But you know what?” she said.
“We’re going to Happy Canyon tomorrow,” she said, “after the rodeo. It’s a Wild West pageant. I might wear a cowgirl hat. Miller said I could get one.”
He heard Monica and Bella down the road moving toward them.
“I love you, too,” Carleen said again.
Bella flew past him wearing a backpack and carrying a small, pink plastic suitcase, probably filled with Barbies.
He turned and watched Monica approach, smiling. He smiled back. Everything was about to happen. He stood to greet her. They didn’t embrace or kiss, but they wanted to. And they would soon. They went into the motorhome where the girls were furiously playing, the Barbie Care Clinic open, Barbies scattered everywhere.
Carleen’s face was flushed, her eyes shiny. “Good night, Miller,” she said. “We’re fine here now.”
“I know you are,” Miller said. “I love you.”
He’d never said that to her before.
“I love you, too,” she said.
And then Miller and Monica headed to their Brady Bunch bedrooms in Shelly’s basement, where they would stay up all night, a great end to a nearly perfect day, because even after feeling bad about school, Carleen had a new friend, and Miller had a special friend, and was feeling how good and right everything was as he and Monica walked away from the motorhome, where the girls would play all night long, none of them knowing that everything would go to hell tomorrow.
Originally published in the April 18, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen have been on the run for months. Carleen’s mom, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting and wounding her estranged husband, Connor; he suddenly came back into their lives when he learned that Carleen is to inherit a massive family fortune that he believes is rightfully his. Miller and the girl are now in La Grande, Oregon, not far from the Pendleton Roundup, where they’re planning to spend a second day. Miller’s friend Avery is with them, and they’re all staying with Shelly, Avery’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, Miller has found a friend in Shelly’s sister, Monica, while Carleen has found one in Monica’s daughter, Bella. Everyone’s making the best of life on the road until…
The day everything went to hell started as good as the night that bled into it, Miller and Monica still in their Brady Bunch bedrooms. Miller hadn’t met a woman like Monica in a long time, maybe ever. Not that anyone was making promises. Not after one night. They could hear Shelly and Avery upstairs early, banging around the kitchen, the smell of coffee wafting down, then bacon. Jesus, they were hungry.
Miller took a shower in the Brady Bunch bathroom, Monica joining him halfway through. They couldn’t get enough of each other. When they finally went upstairs, the girls hadn’t arrived from the motorhome yet.
“You’re looking fit and fresh,” Avery said.
Miller was feeling fit and fresh.
“Who’s got a cigarette,” he said.
He didn’t know why he said that. Nobody had one, thank God.
“Maybe we’ll have dinner again tonight,” Avery said.
“Sure,” Miller said.
“I’ve got something,” Monica said, “I could maybe get out of.”
Miller nodded at her. Why shouldn’t the good times go on forever? Or at least for a little while.
Carleen and Bella burst into the kitchen.
“Can Bella come to the rodeo with us?” Carleen said, and Monica said, “Bella’s got school.”
“Oh,” Carleen said.
“Can Carleen come to school with me?” Bella said.
“Yeah!” Carleen said.
“That wouldn’t work,” Monica said. “You’re in different grades.”
“So,” Bella said.
“Maybe we’ll have dinner again,” Monica said. “How about that?”
“We’re going to Happy Canyon,” Carleen said.
“Maybe another sleepover!” Bella said.
“Yeah!” Carleen said.
“Sure,” Monica said.
“Sure,” Miller said.
They went to the rodeo, which was as good as yesterday. It was only too bad Bella and Monica weren’t there with them. But they’d see Bella and Monica later. There were cowgirls again and princesses and lots of junk food and they had dinner in a giant tent set up in a restaurant parking lot, packed with people in town for the Roundup. Miller drank Monica’s whiskey, which was good. Avery drank a glass of wine. Carleen wanted a cowgirl hat, so they walked through Roy Raley Park and got her one, and then she wondered if she could get Bella something, a present, Miller realizing he should have been giving her money of her own these last few months.
“Do you get an allowance,” he asked her.
“Five dollars a week,” she said.
Miller handed her a fifty.
“That’s for summer,” he said, “because I forgot before.”
“Thanks,” Carleen said. She was wearing her new cowgirl hat, which was also a princess hat, a crown of sparkly beads sewn into its front, the same sparkly beads lining its brim.
“And here’s something from me,” Avery said, holding out a bill.
“A hundred dollars?” Carleen said.
“Shhh,” Avery said.
“For what?” Carleen said.
“For you,” Avery said, “to buy something with.”
Her face was flushed.
“I’ve never had this much money before,” she whispered.
Miller wanted to give her more money, all of it. Someday she would have it all, or most of it anyway, but she didn’t know that yet, and she wasn’t ruined, and probably never would be, no matter how much they gave her. At least he hoped that was true.
“Thank you, Avery,” she said. “Thank you, Miller.”
“You’re welcome,” the men said, and they walked from booth to booth, shopping.
At some point Miller was going to be tired, probably tomorrow, his third day without sleep. He and Monica had been texting each other all manner of fantastic filth. He couldn’t wait to get through Happy Canyon and back to her so they could stay up all night again.
Carleen bought Bella a cowgirl hat and a beaded necklace and a ring for herself, but she still had a lot of money left. “You don’t have to spend it all,” Miller said.
“I don’t have anywhere to put it,” she said.
“Let’s get you a wallet,” Miller said, “or a purse.”
“Let’s get both,” Avery said.
Carleen found a deerskin wallet and a beaded buckskin bag.
“I’ll cover those,” Avery said, reaching for his wallet, and Miller said, “We’ll both cover them,” and Carleen said, “Thanks, guys!” and then it was time for Happy Canyon, which had its own building on the other side of the arena. It took forever to get there, Miller’s phone buzzing in his pocket with texts from Monica as they walked and finally arrived and found their seats and settled in, the whole thing much cooler than Miller thought it would be — with an orchestra and all kinds of animals — but it was also predictably weird, a history of the West, starting with the Indians, then the whites arriving, most of it pretty well handled, but also filled with all kinds of horseshit and gun smoke, Lewis and Clark, stagecoaches and square dancing, outlaws and outhouses, a cowboy and Indian show Carleen loved, her eyes shiny under her cowgirl hat, the story ultimately one of domestication, taming, like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, always ending with The Attack on the Settler’s Cabin, Bill himself riding in to save the white woman from marauding Indians, all the wildness of the West drained, controlled, contained, the hearth established and preserved. The Attack on the Settler’s Cabin wasn’t enacted in Happy Canyon, but there was lots of dancing in an adorable Western town that had risen up from the land. Everyone was happy — pioneers, cowboys, Indians — a fantastic past leading to an even better future. The action seemed to be headed toward conclusion, everyone swirling, Carleen in her cowgirl hat, rapt, the actors all onstage now, bowing, the orchestra playing triumphant music, the crowd cheering, half of them up and out of their seats already, headed for the aisles.
“That was cool,” Carleen said. “But I’m not sure it was true.”
“Me neither,” Miller said.
“Me neither,” Avery said.
“But I liked it,” Carleen said.
“Me, too,” Miller said.
Avery stood and they followed him into the crowd, up the aisles and through the tunnel into the lobby, where there was a bar and concessions. Carleen and Avery went to the bathroom while Miller scrolled through Monica’s recent texts, some of which made use of Libby Custer’s language — about riding tomboy, riding cowgirl, riding and riding. They could both use a good ride, Miller wrote, Monica sending a picture Miller looked at right there in the lobby, jammed with people — getting drinks at the bar, waiting in line for the bathroom, funneling toward the exit and outside — Monica in his phone feeding his hunger, people everywhere and nowhere, because it was only him and her. He could not wait to get back to La Grande. He wasn’t tired at all.
There was electricity in Miller’s guts, vibrating, making him shake. He tried to make himself small, hoping no one had spotted him…
When he came out of his phone and back into the lobby, Avery was walking toward him, agitated, his eyes hot and urgent. Miller’s antennae twitched. He scanned the room, jammed with people, but nothing seemed wrong.
Avery whispered, “You’ve got a problem, man,” and handed Miller a piece of paper.
“What?” Miller said.
“Look,” Avery said, shifting his eyes this way and that.
Miller unfolded the paper, his stomach churning before he even saw what it was, everything going to hell gradually — Avery vibrating in front of him — then all at once as he saw the side-by-side photographs of him and Carleen under stacked text:
REWARD REWARD REWARD
REWARD REWARD REWARD
“Where’d you get this?” Miller said, and Avery jerked his head toward the bar. “Dude’s handing them out,” he said.
Miller knew who it was before he saw him, and then there he was, Connor, handing out flyers to people still pouring from the theater, ladies putting hands on his shoulder, men looking up from the flyer and around the room.
Miller turned away and looked at the pictures of him and Carleen again, the words: REWARD, REWARD, REWARD.
“I know it’s not true,” Avery said, “but what I’m saying — ”
“Of course it’s not true,” Miller hissed. He’d told Avery about Connor and Lizzie, so why would he think Connor could ever say anything true?
“Whatever it is,” Avery said, “it’s not good.”
They needed to go. Now. But Carleen was somewhere in the long line in the ladies room.
It was so much worse than not good.
Connor in the same goddamn room with them.
“Watch him,” Miller said.
“I am,” Avery said.
There was electricity in Miller’s guts, vibrating, making him shake. He tried to make himself small, hoping no one had spotted him, that the cops weren’t all over the room, not that he could show his face to look, not with his face on that goddamn —
“Get out of here,” Avery said.
“What?” Miller said.
“Get out,” Avery said.
He couldn’t just leave. If Connor saw her, he’d make a move, and —
“They’ll see you if you’re with her,” Avery said, “the two of you together.”
“Just get her,” Miller said, and Avery said, “Go,” and Miller went, head bowed, heart thumping — waiting for the knife, the club, the cuffs, not quite enough air to breathe, and then he was out the door, Carleen behind with Connor, everything about it wrong. ν
Originally published in the April 25, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Connor is back. Incredibly, he showed up at the Pendleton Roundup, handing out flyers offering a reward for an “abducted child.” For months, Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen have been on the run in the wildfire-choked West — with Miller doing side research on historical figures for a textbook he’s writing. Carleen’s mom, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting and wounding Connor, her estranged husband, who suddenly came back into their lives when he learned that Carleen is to inherit a massive family fortune. Lately, they’ve been in La Grande, Oregon, with Miller’s friend Avery and staying with Avery’s girlfriend, Shelly. For a moment, everything seemed sort of normal — Miller finding a friend in Shelly’s sister, Monica, and Carleen finding one in Monica’s daughter, Bella — but nothing lasts forever.
Outside, he tried to breathe. He had to keep it together to get her away from the Roundup and out of town. There wasn’t any smoke anymore, hadn’t been for days, but he hadn’t noticed ’til now when he was trying to breathe. Maybe the fires were under control. Maybe the winds had shifted. Inside, Avery was watching Connor — who Miller could see through the plate windows — handing out flyers, people looking up and away from the photographs of Miller and Carleen under stacked text:
REWARD REWARD REWARD
REWARD REWARD REWARD
And over Carleen’s photo on the left: “Have you seen this child — Carleen Callahan?”
And over Miller’s photo on the right: “Have you seen this man — Miller Cane?”
And under the photos, a block of text: “Carleen Callahan was last seen in Mount Vernon, Washington, in the unlawful custody of Miller Cane, a known liar and sex offender, travelling in a beat up motorhome, covered in bumper stickers. If you have seen these people PLEASE Contact Carleen’s Father, Connor Callahan. Any information leading to her rescue will result in a $250,000 reward, all the money I’ve been able to scrape together by the will of God.”
And across the bottom, a phone number and more words:
“Please help me find my little girl!”
Miller would kill him. He’d get a gun and shoot him, and then Miller and Lizzie would both be in jail because of him, all of Carleen’s parents gone. So, no, they’d go, get far enough away to never see him again, even though he deserved more pain than anyone would ever be able to give him.
Miller didn’t see any cops and no one was paying attention to him, a dude outside hunched over his phone, like any dude waiting. Then somebody bumped him and Miller swirled.
“Sorry,” an old man said, sort of panicky, holding up one hand with a cane in it, his other arm on the shoulder of a younger woman — his daughter maybe — steadying him.
From the old man’s reaction, Miller knew he looked insane now, murderous.
“No,” Miller said, “I’m sorry,” holding up his hands. “My fault,” he said, which was ridiculous — he’d just been standing there when the old man bumped him.
He hunched back over his phone, but heard the daughter say, as they walked away, “Wasn’t that him?”
“Who?” the old man said.
“That guy on the flyer.”
Miller started walking — the other direction, head down, not too fast, not too slow — just walking. Everyone could see him now. But they wouldn’t see Carleen because she was with Avery.
Connor might see her though. Not that he’d seen her in years.
Miller kept his eyes on his feet. He had no idea how many people had seen that flyer, how many would recognize him. Carleen had her cowgirl hat. He had nothing.
He texted Avery to meet him at the car, to make sure Carleen wore her hat.
“Everyone can see me,” he wrote.
“Stay cool,” Avery wrote back. “We’ll get there when we can.”
“Is she out?”
“Busy now,” Avery wrote.
What did that mean?
Miller wrote, “What’s happening,” but Avery didn’t respond.
Miller kept walking, the crowd thinning. Another four or five blocks and the people could have been from anywhere, bars, restaurants, nobody left from Happy Canyon.
But for Connor to call him a sex offender — him! — when Connor was the one who’d left her, neglected her, was still neglecting her, hurting her worse now than ever. Desperate was what Connor was — that bastard — craven, despicable, because she was far more Miller’s than anyone’s, Miller tasting the dust of Connor’s bones as he ground down into them, his jaw throbbing, because if he hadn’t always been her father, he always would be now. Better to get the gun and learn how to use it and put him out of his misery. But no. Get it just to stop him, for self-defense.
His phone buzzed with a text from Avery: “Moving,” it said.
Miller didn’t dare hope they were okay. Not yet. There was a gas station with a bathroom door he walked through, locking it behind him. He needed a minute out of the crowd, to settle himself. But taped to the mirror was the goddamn flyer!
He tore it down, balled it up, threw it away.
He slipped out, away from the light, toward Avery’s car. They weren’t there. He leaned against a tree trunk in the dark, watching. And then he heard them down the block, a murmur that could have been anyone, then Carleen’s voice: “Waffles is not a Himalayan.”
She seemed normal, fine.
“He’s a Ragdoll,” Carleen said.
She didn’t know anything, hadn’t seen anything.
Miller waited until they were almost to the car before stepping out of the shadow.
“Hey, there,” he said, trying to seem as normal as Carleen.
“Hi, Miller,” she said. “Are you sick?”
“Not anymore,” Miller said. “Feeling better.”
They got in the car.
“Let’s go,” Miller said.
“Yep,” Avery said, pulling out.
Carleen talked about Happy Canyon, the parts that seemed real, like the Indians at first, and the parts that didn’t seem real, like everyone dancing together. Avery talked with her. Miller looked back and couldn’t tell if anyone was following them or not. He’d been awake for thirty-nine hours. Once they got on the interstate and the miles unfolded, he started to settle into his seat. It was a miracle nobody had seen them. If it was even true. Miller didn’t know anything, except that they had to leave now, tonight, as soon as they got to Shelly’s place in La Grande.
He texted Monica. “Something came up,” he wrote. “We can’t do tonight,” and Monica wrote, “Tomorrow maybe?”
“I screwed something up,” Miller wrote, “some business. We have to go tonight. I’ll tell you about it later. I promise.”
“Okay,” Monica wrote back. “Soon, I hope.”
Then she texted seven hearts and Miller texted ten hearts back, like they were twelve years old.
He couldn’t tell her anything. Ever. He shouldn’t have told Avery or Dena or Mickey or Grace or Cara. They were all contaminated now.
When they pulled down Shelly’s long driveway, the house was dark.
“Sweetie,” Miller said to Carleen, “I just got a text from Monica. She and Bella can’t do tonight.”
“What?” Carleen said. “Why?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Miller said.
“Well, we can see them tomorrow,” Carleen said.
Miller waited a second and then said, “No, we can’t, sweetie.”
There was nobody behind them, but that didn’t mean anything anymore.
“Why?” Carleen said.
“Because we have to leave tonight.”
“What? No! Why?”
“I made a mistake,” Miller said. “But we’re going to see those guys later.”
“I’m not sure.”
“I was supposed to have something for George,” Miller said, “based on a place in Montana. We have to go there. Remember George? The editor of our book?”
Avery parked in Shelly’s dirt driveway, opened his door.
“I don’t care about George,” Carleen said.
“I know,” Miller said.
Avery stepped out of the car.
“I don’t care about our stupid book,” Carleen said, unbuckling her seatbelt.
“Okay,” Miller said.
“I want to have a sleepover,” Carleen said. “With Bella.”
“I know,” Miller said. “I screwed up. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not fair,” Carleen said, opening her door.
“I know,” Miller said.
“Stop saying that!” Carleen said. “Just stop!”
She got out of the car and walked toward the motorhome.
They said goodbye to Avery and Shelly, settled into the motorhome and pulled away, Carleen silent and furious in her seat beside him as he drove them east and away. And even if everyone in Oregon had seen that flyer, and everyone in Washington, no one in Wyoming had probably, no one in Nebraska, no one in Tennessee or Florida. He just had to keep driving till they were far enough away. Carleen fumed, until she finally fell asleep, while Miller drove and drove and drove through the night.
Originally published in the May 2, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Somehow, Connor found them, tracked them to the Pendleton Roundup — yes, Connor, the reason Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen have been on the run all these months. Thankfully, they made their getaway unseen, back on the road, leaving their friends behind, Avery and Monica and little Bella, as well as Connor, Carleen’s estranged father, who suddenly came back when he learned that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune he believes is rightfully his. Lizzie, Carleen’s mom, is still stuck behind bars for shooting Connor, though she clearly didn’t stop him. Miller, who’s used to life on the road, is using this time to return to a long-ignored writing gig: He’s crafting biographies of American figures for a history textbook — each profile begins with the same question, “Hero or Villain?” — but so far, Miller’s editor, George, hasn’t appreciated the literary license he’s taken.
And then he couldn’t drive anymore, everything blurring outside his windshield. He pulled over and parked in the same rest area near Twin Falls where he’d stopped on his way home from Rosedale all those months ago, on his way to pick up Carleen on the Peninsula. He’d been so confident in his ability to rescue her then. All he had to do was pick her up, get on the road, and stay ahead of Connor. But now — Jesus. He didn’t know what to do or where to go and Connor wouldn’t stop coming. Worse, both Miller and Carleen were wearing out, when they hadn’t even left the Northwest yet. He went around to her side of the motorhome and unbuckled her seatbelt, her arms reaching around his neck as he lifted her. He carried her through the side door and up to her loft above the front seats, her face marked with lines from the fabric she’d been sleeping against. He put pajamas into her hands, which she changed into with eyes closed before flopping onto her bed. Miller walked back to his room, flopping onto his bed as hard as Carleen had, and when he woke hours later it was still black and silent, just before dawn probably. He checked his phone. Twenty minutes had gone by.
He could hear the faint stream of cars on the interstate in the Western night. His phone buzzed with another text from Monica, and he texted back how sorry he was to have left like they had. Maybe Miller and Carleen would find a permanent place, and Bella and Monica would join them or at least visit. Connor would have to give up at some point, wouldn’t he? And Lizzie would get out of jail at some point, too. Surely that would be best for everyone.
Miller opened his notebook. George had hated the last two Hero Villains, had hated them all probably, but Miller thought they were more true and accurate than anything he’d ever written. He and Carleen could write them together. There’d be a market for that — a fake father-daughter team rewriting American history. Avery would get involved, too, and Monica. It was funny how far he felt from Lizzie. He’d loved her forever, but now she seemed to be fading. And not because of Monica. It had more to do with Carleen, somehow, but he didn’t know how or why exactly. Maybe there wasn’t a reason. It made him feel guilty, her rotting in jail while he and Carleen were out here free, sort of. He uncapped his pen and started to write.
Hero Villain VI — Rose Kennedy and Buffalo Bill: An American Love Story
Yes there were others, Ma Barker and Annie Oakley and Eleanor Roosevelt and Kit Carson and Nancy Davis (later Reagan, and what they said about her was true — all of it) but it was Rose mostly, even with that awful husband of hers — Joe — giving the lie to Sylvia Plath’s line about every woman adoring a fascist. Because Rose hated Joe. It was Buffalo Bill she loved, and the litter of Kennedy dolls he sired. And it was Rose Buffalo Bill loved, though there were thousands of others — Amelia Earhart and P.T. Barnum and Calamity Jane and Curious George Custer. But mostly it was Rose — at the Plaza, the Heathman, the Biltmore, the Drake, in Bill’s tent, Bill’s train car, at the ranch in Nebraska, and the compound on Cape Cod, where they cultivated those unbearable accents. Bill wanted to have Joe whacked — Dino would do it — but Rose said no, and Bill would do anything for Rose, except that thing Meatloaf also wouldn’t do — the unnamable, the unknowable.
Perhaps you’ve learned what you know about sex from the internet, or in health class, useful information regarding condoms and periods and fisting and Cleveland Steamers. Perhaps your parents gave you a book, or a friend enlightened you late at night, but whatever you know, and whatever you do, you should be doing it often, even if it wears you out and reminds you of death, which famous writers think about all the time, sex and death and death and sex and sex and the moon if you’re a poet.
For Hemingway it was sex and death and sex and food and wine and sex and bulls and fishing. But not for George and Martha. Not for Abe and Mary Todd or Nancy and Ronnie or Dick and Pat Nixon — for whom the loving never stopped, Dick and Pat Tallahassee Logrolling in the Lincoln bedroom up to the very moment of Dick’s resignation. Perhaps you’ll succeed in love like these Americans, transcending death, like Rose and Buffalo Bill did.
You should be doing it often, even if it wears you out and reminds you of death, which famous writers think about all the time, sex and death and death and sex and sex and the moon if you’re a poet.
“I will never allow myself to be vanquished or annihilated,” Rose Kennedy said after four of her nine children had been annihilated, and one — her namesake — lobotomized. She had 75 legitimate grandchildren and nobody knows how many great grandchildren and somehow, through all that annihilation, she thrived — because she was Honey Fitz’s daughter, F. Scott’s sister, the Kennedy Doll’s mother, America’s grandmother, Catholic but also a WASP, a pie baker and homemaker, the best lover Buffalo Bill ever had, and he’d had them all — Milton Berle and Bonnie Parker and Mother Teresa and Joice Heth, who Barnum introduced him to in 1835, claiming she was George Washington’s hundred-and-sixty-year-old mammy. Bill was as big a liar as Barnum was, the root of both men’s heroic villainy, encouraging Americans to call out fraud and feel smarter than we ever actually were. Because we knew Joice Heth wasn’t really Washington’s mammy, that the Feejee Mermaid wasn’t really a mermaid, that Buffalo Bill never really rode with the pony express or spied for the union army. Seeing truth through the lie felt like uncovering a secret, like we weren’t always at the mercy of forces beyond our control, like we were finally on the inside.
People have tried forever to hide what’s really going on — the tea bagging and dip shagging. Your parents, for example, right this minute, with each other, yes, but also with your bus driver and the mean lunch lady and the nice lunch lady and your piano teacher. Perhaps you’re familiar with Occam’s razor, the idea that simple solutions are more likely than complex ones, that most things are as they seem — your parents doing what they do and your grandparents too, and their grandparents and Adam and Eve and their neighbors and your French teacher and the janitorial staff and your cross country coach and all the gym teachers with each other always, but nobody more than Rose and Buffalo Bill.
“Cunning clover thimble,” Gertrude Stein wrote. “Cunning of everything.”
What you’ve heard about Alice B. Toklas is true, the pie, the whiskey, her deep fulfillment of Gertrude Stein.
“Cow come out cow come out and out and smell a little,” Stein wrote.
It’s Occam’s razor and Cleveland’s Steamer, Pascal’s Wager and Emma’s Cleaver.
It’s Bill and Rose, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.
“Little slam up,” Gertrude Stein wrote. “Cold seam peaches.”
It’s Sam the butcher —
Do you know the rest of that one?
Have you heard the good part?
“A Fat Clemenza,” Rose said.
“An Omaha Ploughboy,” Buffalo Bill said.
“The bruise-knuckled knock of me,” Nance Van Winckel said.
Sex and death and death and sex and sex and massacres, too. Is it possible the shooters wouldn’t be shooters if they knew what Rose and Buffalo Bill knew? Or if they worried less about not knowing? All we know is that Rose’s husband, Joe, would not stop coming after them. They could hardly stay a step ahead, the reason Bill invented the Wild West in the first place, all that horseshit and gun smoke, until the day Joe finally caught them and killed them, deader than hell, with his bare, bruise-knuckled hands.
But that’s not true. That’s impossible. This is a love story, not a massacre — Rose and Bill, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, wrapped in each other’s arms and the afterglow of American twilight forever.