Originally published in the Nov. 15, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is in Washington state, having picked up 8-year-old Carleen in his motorhome after her mother, Lizzie, asked him to keep Carleen safe while she’s stuck in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. Long out of the picture, Connor recently learned that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Miller — who’s lately been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings — is planning to take Carleen on the road. But first, he needs to get some of the girl’s things.
If this were a history, the dates would matter. If the dates were wrong, the names would matter. If the names and dates were wrong, which they would be, the places would matter, because places always matter. Even when they’re wrong. History can be as stimulating and boring and self-serving and contractual as any compact dreamed up by the pilgrims (such as, “We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James… having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony,” etcetera, etcetera, as signed on the Mayflower, December 7, 1492), but if it’s accuracy we’re after, the only True and Exact history can be this: that once, somewhere, something happened to someone.
Or this: that on July 9, Miller Cane saw Carleen’s father for the first time, parked in front of Lizzie’s house in Mount Vernon. This was not hypothetical Connor, fading into a Fourth of July crowd, or historical Connor, conjured from Lizzie’s stories, or abstract Connor, shot and lurking who knew where. This was actual Connor, dread Connor, pulled to the curb in a black Ford Mustang.
At least it probably was.
Carleen was in Edison with Mickey and Grace.
Miller was in Carleen’s room picking up Waffles from Carleen’s bed.
Waffles was a cross-eyed Himalayan who peed in people’s shoes and had no redeeming qualities except that he loved Carleen. And Carleen loved him.
Earlier that morning, the jail’s background screeching and rumbling had penetrated the glass separating Miller from Lizzie, a muffled roar that finally dissipated in the car as he drove away from her, but reasserted itself as he scooped Waffles from Carleen’s bed, as though contact with the cat had somehow restarted the sounds now seeping into Carleen’s room.
But that was ridiculous.
Miller looked at Waffles, who yawned.
And then the rumbling became what it had always been — not jail sounds from Miller’s head, but a car engine running outside. Miller walked Waffles toward the window, the cat warm and soft and purring — then peeing — against him.
Miller dropped the cat, who bounced back onto Carleen’s bed.
“Jesus, Waffles,” Miller said.
But Waffles ignored him.
Outside, a black Mustang sat at the curb, its tinted glass so dark the driver could have been anyone. Well, not Prince Charles probably, or Princess what’s her name — Flippa — the one who was always breeding, and not Mahatma Gandhi or Jackie Kennedy or any of the other dead celebrities, but definitely, maybe — probably — Connor.
Miller had come for Carleen’s pillow and clothes, her special blanket and Barbie castle. And, of course, for Waffles. Connor might not have recognized Miller under normal circumstances — the two had never met — but if Miller snuck out now and around the block with all this crap, Connor would surely recognize Waffles, and then he’d know who Miller was — who else would be carrying Carleen’s cat? — and he’d know that Miller was the better man, taking care of his daughter by taking her away from him.
Lizzie said Connor had been suspicious for weeks.
“Does Lard Ass have her?” he asked the day she shot him.
She’d only been home a few minutes, and here he was again, which meant he’d been watching the house.
“You can’t hide her forever,” he said.
Yes I can, Lizzie thought.
“She’s my daughter, too,” Connor said, “even if I have been gone. And I have every right — ”
“You don’t have any rights,” Lizzie said.
She’d hidden Carleen on the peninsula and didn’t have to be nice anymore. But she did have to get rid of him — now and forever — not that she’d kill him, though she did have her father’s gun in her dress pocket. Something was wrong with the will; she didn’t know what, only that Carleen’s money was frozen.
“I have rights,” Connor said, “whether you say I do or not.”
“What rights?” Lizzie said, and Connor said, “If she’s mine, I have every right in the world.”
“If she’s yours?” Lizzie said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“And if she not mine — ”
He’d never sunk this low. Or maybe he’d always been this low.
“She’s not yours,” Lizzie said, “in any way that matters,” and Connor said, “She’s not yours in any way that matters either.”
Had they always been this stupid, this childish?
“She clearly is mine,” Lizzie said, “since she looks like me and talks like me and calls me Mom and wouldn’t even recognize you.”
“So she’s yours,” Connor said. “But I never thought she was mine.”
“You asshole,” Lizzie said, and that’s when he moved on her.
She stepped back, out of his reach.
“You think I’m going to hurt you?” he said.
He’d never hit her — never even come close. But he was different now, all that money gone, and desperate, never getting to see Carleen after three attempts in these last few weeks.
“Don’t touch me,” Lizzie said. “I swear to god.”
“All I want to know,” he said, “is who she belongs to.”
“She belongs to me,” Lizzie said.
“I want proof she’s mine,” Connor said.
“You’re not getting anywhere near her,” Lizzie said.
Her back was against the front door now, her hand in her dress pocket.
“I’m going to see her,” he said, “whether you like it or not.”
And that’s when she shot him.
That’s what she told Miller, anyway, at the jail this morning.
Now, outside Carleen’s window, the Mustang kept running. What kind of idiot would pollute Mount Vernon all day like that when the rest of the West was on fire? For all the massacres he’d been to, Miller had never shot anyone or seen anyone shot, though he’d long been a survivor, having lost his nephew and brother. Some people said a dead shooter’s family didn’t deserve survivor status, since the family must have known something of the killer’s plans — his potential to kill — and did nothing to stop him. Worse than the family’s passive complicity was whatever active role they’d played, real or imagined, in the making of the monster.
Down on the street the Mustang’s engine went dead, snapping Miller back from the window. If Connor came with a gun, Miller would take him out with a baseball bat. He had fifty pounds on him, at least.
Waffles meowed on Carleen’s bed.
Miller watched the driver’s door swing open, the driver lifting himself from the car.
Did Lizzie even own a bat?
Miller couldn’t tell if it was Connor or not, looking at the motorhome across the street, then turning toward Lizzie’s house, the sun’s glare washing over everything.
What kind of idiot would pollute Mount Vernon all day like that when the rest of the West was on fire?
The way you can tell it’s not history is when it’s not boring — because history sometimes is boring, especially pilgrim history. The worst part of the Mayflower Compact was when they promised Submission and Obedience to the colony, which they hadn’t even seen yet — it was still just an abstraction, a corporation, a religious retreat, someone else’s continent. Would cowboys and gangsters and televangelists and Malcolm X and Huck Finn and George Washington and Bonnie Parker and Miles Davis and Mister Rogers and Patti Smith and Merle Haggard all arise from such submission and obedience? Of course not. Maybe Jamestown and Plymouth were just corporations, maybe Plymouth had been filled with religious fanatics, but what about the people who came later, or the people who were already here, or the people brought in chains? Not everyone — hardly anyone — descended from the pilgrims. King James himself had hated them back in England, even as he was furiously rewriting the bible.
Outside, probable Connor limped toward Lizzie’s door, showing off his gunshot wound, and becoming less and less himself as he became a Jehovah’s Witness or an insurance salesman. Did he have to be a corporate stooge or a religious fanatic? Probably. No one else came to front doors anymore — except Connor, fully himself now as he stepped onto the porch, looking up the street and down, pulling something from his back pocket, looking up the street and down. Then he punched the blade of a screwdriver through the front door’s narrow window.
Miller took another step back. Nothing was desperate yet. He just had to breathe. On Carleen’s bed Waffles cocked his cross-eyed head at the sound of breaking glass. Somebody’s home, he would have said. Such a sweet, stupid cat. Maybe not so sweet, but Carleen loved him.
Downstairs, the door creaked open, creaked closed. Waffles jumped from the bed and bolted. Miller crept toward Lizzie’s room across the hall, looking for something heavy.
Lizzie was right, she’d hardly hurt Connor at all shooting him.
Maybe he’d left something and would leave once he found it. Miller pushed open the door to Lizzie’s room, which creaked like the front door had.
“Carleen?” Connor called from downstairs.
“Is that you?”
Miller inched into Lizzie’s room.
A floorboard groaned.
“Who’s up there?” Connor called.
And then he was silent.
But Miller could feel him coming, could smell his own fear, then realized it was just Waffles’ pee drying on his shirt, Connor creeping silently toward him.
Originally published in the Nov. 22, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is taking care of a doll-making 8-year-old girl named Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. Miller plans to take the girl on the road, but first he sneaks into Lizzie’s empty house to grab a few things for Carleen, including her beloved but prone-to-peeing cat named Waffles. While upstairs in her house, Miller hears Connor come inside, asking “Who’s up there?” Long out of the picture, Connor recently learned that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his.
Eighteen hours before Miller saw Connor, before Waffles peed on Miller’s shirt, before Connor climbed Lizzie’s stairs to investigate a creaking floorboard, Miller pulled the motorhome onto Mickey and Grace’s property in Edison, a sort of gentleman’s farm planted with plum trees and cherry and apricot and quince and pear trees and apple, some of them espaliered. Grace opened the motorhome’s side door before they even stopped rolling. “Cool camper,” she said, climbing aboard, and Carleen said, “It’s a motorhome, actually,” unbuckling her seatbelt and scrambling back toward Grace. “Do you want to see my bedroom and the secret compartment?”
Thank god for Grace. Miller had forgotten how awful children could be, how demanding and heartbreaking and inconsiderate and relentless, though Carleen had every right to be upset. She wanted her mother. She’d talked on the phone with her every night from Port Townsend, while Miller filled their days with coloring and hiking and soaking in salt water tubs.
Still, Carleen had been out of sorts earlier that morning when they began the drive toward Edison and Mickey and Grace’s property. She wouldn’t talk and she wouldn’t work on her new doll.
“It’s not fair that you get to see her and I don’t,” she finally said as they crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
“I know it isn’t,” Miller said, “but that’s how she wants it.”
They were only stopping in Mount Vernon because Lizzie wanted to talk to Miller face to face and Carleen needed a few things, though she was to go nowhere near the house or jail. She didn’t know her father was looking for her, that he had any interest in her whatsoever, so she didn’t know to be afraid of him, which would only make her more vulnerable.
From the bridge deck, Miller could make out a line of mountains through the smoke and clouds, but Rainier was invisible. He remembered his father one time talking about the 1940 collapse of this bridge as they crossed it, terrifying Miller. “Do you think it’ll collapse again?” Miller asked, and his father said, “Highly unlikely,” and Miller said, “But maybe?” and his mother said, “Of course not,” and Miller said, “Dad?” and his dad said, “I wouldn’t worry about that,” and then nobody said anything.
“Did you know there are giant octopuses down there?” Carleen said.
“Yes,” Miller said, because his father had mentioned those too, before he mentioned the bridge collapsing, so that Miller could imagine his family falling into the giant maw of one, its hideous beak crushing them all as they drowned inside the sinking car.
“They can open jars and everything,” Carleen said, “from the inside and the outside, gates too, which is why we shouldn’t eat them.”
“Because they can open jars?” Miller said.
“Because they’re so smart,” Carleen said.
“I wouldn’t call opening jars that smart,” Miller said.
Carleen didn’t say anything.
“And what does smart have to do with anything anyway?”
He glanced at Carleen and her forehead was crinkling.
“Oh, sweetie,” he said.
If it wasn’t giant octopuses eating your family, it was your mom shooting your dad and going to jail. At least Carleen didn’t know that part.
“We’re going to figure out how to see her,” Miller said. “I promise.”
Carleen’s head bobbed shallow nods.
“And we’re going to see my mom, too,” he said, as if his raving, incontinent mother could possibly be any substitute for Lizzie.
“Is Barclay still with her,” Carleen asked, referring to his mother’s parrot.
“No,” Miller said. “Her new place doesn’t allow pets.”
Barclay had bitten Miller’s fingertip off at his tenth birthday party. The other kids were sent home and Miller spent the first hours of his eleventh year in Sacred Heart’s emergency room. Everyone hated that bird, except Carleen and Miller’s mom.
“She’s doing okay without Barclay,” Miller said.
She was doing okay without everyone, if doing okay meant having no idea who anyone was.
“But she’s a little crazy,” Miller said. “Remember?”
“She called me Tammy last time,” Carleen said.
“Right,” Miller said.
Brake lights flashed ahead of them.
“But I don’t think we’re supposed to say crazy,” Carleen said.
“She’s worse now,” Miller said. “More confused. But not scary-crazy — that’s what I’m trying to say.” Was that what he was trying to say? Or was he trying to say that from the outside at least, crazy seemed scary as hell.
“But we shouldn’t say crazy is what I’m saying,” Carleen said.
“Right,” Miller said, though there weren’t a lot of alternatives. Sick was accurate, but didn’t quite capture the craziness of crazy.
Traffic started to grind.
Maybe parenting wasn’t so complicated. Maybe all you had to do was bombard the kid with lists of what she wasn’t allowed to do or say or think — don’t lick the armadillo, don’t run into traffic, don’t eat smart animals, and please god, don’t say crazy.
Miller tried to loosen his shoulders.
Carleen looked out her window.
You couldn’t weave through traffic in the motorhome was the problem, couldn’t try for the front of the line.
“When can I see my mom?” Carleen said.
You had to surrender to the slog like some kind of Buddhist — that’s what made it so awful.
“Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow,” Miller said.
“Maybe we can stop by the house tomorrow.”
You had to sit on the edge of your seat, urging the traffic on, helpless.
“I don’t think so,” Miller said.
“Why not,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “Because they’re spraying for mold this afternoon and no one can go inside.”
It seemed like a brilliant answer.
Maybe parenting wasn’t so complicated. Maybe all you had to do was bombard the kid with lists of what she wasn’t allowed to do or say or think…
“Why can’t we go inside?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “Because the spray is like — ”
A dude in a Lincoln, a possible Connor, was hovering near the moho.
“Poison?” Carleen said.
“Not poison, exactly,” Miller said. “Not bad poison. More like — ”
“It’s poison?” Carleen said. “What about Waffles?”
“Oh,” Miller said. “Waffles is with Friedlander.”
The traffic —
“But Friedlander doesn’t like Waffles,” Carleen said.
“No,” Miller said. “He’s just — ”
“Waffles is afraid of Friedlander,” Carleen said, and a big fat tear ran down her cheek.
“It’s okay,” Miller said, though clearly it wasn’t.
It was just this goddamn traffic.
“What if Waffles runs away,” Carleen said, “and doesn’t come back?”
They were jammed into the middle lane and no one would let them out. The Lincoln was gone. “He’ll be back,” Miller said.
“Did he really run away?” Carleen said. And another tear ran down her cheek.
“No!” Miller said, and Carleen said, “Has Claire been feeding him?”
“Of course Claire’s been feeding him.”
“Then why didn’t Claire — ”
“I don’t know!” Miller said.
“When can I go home?” Carleen said.
Miller put his blinker on and bulled his way over.
“I want Waffles!” Carleen said, finally rubbing her face and eyes, smearing the tears all over herself.
“We’ll get him,” Miller said.
“When?” Carleen said.
“Tomorrow,” Miller said.
“I want my mom!” Carleen said.
“We’re going to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house,” Miller said.
“I don’t want to go,” Carleen said.
“I know,” Miller said. “But we have to.”
Carleen cried harder.
A semi opened a space and Miller pushed into it, some douche laying on his horn and Miller somehow not flipping him off, something else he would never get credit for.
Carleen cried into her hands.
He pulled into the exit lane and up the ramp into a gas station. He killed the engine, reached for her. She was gasping, sniffling, trying to settle down.
He rubbed her back.
“It’s okay,” he said.
She tried to talk but couldn’t.
“I promise,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”
And maybe it would. Some things were. For a little while.
“Shh,” he said.
“Can,” she finally gasped, “we,” she sniffled, “at least,” she cried, “bring Waffles?”
“On the road?” Miller said.
Carleen nodded vigorously.
The moho would become a rolling litter box.
“Um,” Miller said.
Carleen was nodding with her whole body now.
“Okay,” Miller said, and Carleen unbuckled herself and fell into him. He held her a long time and when she was calm enough he took her inside and bought her candy and popcorn and soda and sunglasses and gum and coloring books and magazines and beer and doughnuts and hot dogs and everything else in the store she wanted. And then they got back on the road.
Originally published in the Nov. 29, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane, on the road with a doll-making 8-year-old girl named Carleen, stops in the tiny town of Edison, on the coast of Washington, at the house of friends Mickey and Grace. Miller’s been taking care of Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. Carleen is adjusting, and so is Miller, who, until recently, had made his living comforting and conning the survivors of mass shootings. Now he’s thinking of traveling America with Carleen — anything to keep her away from Connor. Tomorrow he’ll grab Carleen’s beloved cat Waffles for the trip. Tonight, he’s making pie.
That night did not get any worse than the day of crying in the motorhome, except for Carleen finding a new favorite song in “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Why would Mickey play such an awful song, let alone enough times for Carleen to fall in love with it and learn several verses? Mickey made a Torta Rustica based on the one at Tweet’s in Edison, and after dinner they drank wine around the fire pit in back. Mickey brought out his Gibson and Miller pulled his old Guild from the moho’s side storage compartment and Grace sang every Lucinda song they could play while Carleen worked on a new doll, and then they played gospel songs, “Jesus on the Mainline,” “The Everlasting Arm,” “No Hiding Place,” and when they finally took a break, Grace said she wanted Miller to teach her how to make pie again.
“Tonight?” Miller said, and Grace said, “Right now.”
“Miller’s the best pie maker in the world,” Carleen said.
“Better than your mom?” Mickey said, sending a panic through Miller. But Carleen was unfazed. “I’m better than my mom,” she said, and Miller said, “It’s true — Carleen’s a pie lady and she’s not even nine.”
“Do you want to teach me?” Grace asked Carleen.
“I want to work on my doll,” Carleen said, “out here with Mickey.”
Grace led Miller inside, where he taught her how to make crust again, working the butter into the flour with her hands, measuring the water by feel, and handling the dough as little as possible. They each made a two crust batch, and while the dough cooled, Grace poured them a single malt to drink at the kitchen island.
Miller pulled blackberries and sour cherries from the freezer.
“I saw Georgie in town last week,” Grace said.
Why wouldn’t the past go away was what Miller wanted to know. And why would people pursue it on Facebook or whatever social media nightmare was currently sweeping the nation. Didn’t we leave people behind for good reasons? Why did we have to keep resurrecting them?
Grace wanted to make a lattice top for the cherry pie.
Outside, Mickey started “Puff the Magic Dragon” again.
“She seemed good,” Grace said, “peaceful,” and Miller said, “That’s good,” and Grace said, “When was the last time you saw her?”
What difference did that make? “I don’t know,” Miller said.
“She had two kids with her,” Grace said.
So that was it.
“A girl, maybe five, and a toddler, a boy. Beautiful kids.”
“Nice,” Miller said. And it was. She deserved it. Everyone deserved it.
“Those kids aren’t mine,” he said, and Grace said, “I realize that.”
Miller checked the dough in the fridge. It was still too soft to roll.
“But I see how you are with Carleen,” Grace said.
None of this was Grace’s business. But he knew how much she loved kids, how she couldn’t have them, and how much money she and Mickey had spent on in vitro, until they finally gave up on it last year. They could still adopt.
“I was happy for her,” Grace said. “She seemed happy, too.”
Why wouldn’t the past go away was what Miller wanted to know. And why would people pursue it on Facebook or whatever social media nightmare was currently sweeping the nation. Didn’t we leave people behind for good reasons?
Georgie had wanted children when she and Miller got married, that was part of the deal. Miller wanted them, too, or at least didn’t not want them. His nephew Billy was only twelve years younger than him, almost like a cousin, but when the shooting went down in Massachusetts and Charles and Billy died, plus 14 of Billy’s classmates, Miller needed some time to grieve, to mourn or rage or whatever, and Georgie understood. She was patient. She needed to grieve, too. But a year passed and then another, and maybe having a baby would help Miller, Georgie said, would help her, too. But he didn’t want a baby anymore. And he didn’t want Georgie. It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t cruel to her in any way, but she wouldn’t stop wanting that baby. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t his fault. She left him, left Spokane and moved to Seattle. He encouraged her. It was best for everyone. That was almost ten years ago. The Sunny Day Massacre was fifteen. They never should have gotten married in the first place. That was the problem. Miller had never loved her enough.
Carleen exploded into the house and ran to the bathroom. They could hear her humming “Puff the Magic Dragon” from behind the closed door.
The dough was ready to roll. Carleen exploded out of the bathroom and back outside. “Play it again,” she said to Mickey, and he played it again.
“How about you roll this,” Miller said to Grace, “to get some practice.”
But Grace had no talent for rolling.
“Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane,” Mickey sang.
How did he know so much of this ridiculous song?
Miller helped Grace rotate the crust with a pastry scraper.
“Use more flour,” he said.
Grace kept trying, smashing the dough with her pin.
“In a land called Honahlee,” Carleen sang.
“What are you going to do with her?” Grace said, and Miller didn’t say anything.
“Just drive her around?”
“Maybe,” Miller said.
The less Grace knew about it the better, not that Miller knew so much. Spokane. Walla Walla. Missouri. Maybe the Little Bighorn along the way.
Grace knew what had gone down with Connor, how he’d shown up out of the blue in Mount Vernon until Lizzie shot him but hardly hurt him. Miller would learn more tomorrow.
He helped Grace fold the crust and cut the lattice for the top.
“It’s not too late,” she said, and Miller said, “For what?”
“For kids,” Grace said, “for you.”
“Who said it was?”
“The way you look at her,” Grace said, “she could practically be your daughter.”
“Right,” Miller said, showing Grace how to weave the lattice.
He knew all about that. And while he and Lizzie had never talked about it, they both knew that Carleen could indeed be his. Lizzie had spent a month with him in Port Townsend before she went back to the idiot. Not that it mattered to Miller, really, the blood.
Carleen exploded into the kitchen again. “Are we sleeping in the moho, tonight?” she said, and Miller said, “Yes,” and Carleen said, “Finally,” and Grace slid her pie into the oven.
Originally published in the Dec. 06, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane has been watching over 8-year-old Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting her estranged husband, Connor. Miller takes Carleen to the town of Edison, on the coast of Washington, to the house of friends Mickey and Grace. He plans to leave the girl there while he visits Lizzie in the Skagit County jail and picks up Carleen’s cat Waffles before they hit the open road to see America. Miller’s intent on keeping the girl from Connor, who recently learned that Carleen will inherit the massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his.
“We should invite Mickey and Grace for breakfast,” Carleen called from her loft at the front of the moho.
It was seven in the morning.
“But let’s not wake them,” Miller called back.
“They’re farmers,” Carleen said. “They’re already awake.”
Grace was an HR director for a company in Everett and Mickey was a boss at the co-op, though everyone pretended the co-op didn’t have bosses. “They’re not farmers,” Miller said.
Carleen dropped from her loft and walked toward him. She opened the accordion door to his room. “Of course they’re farmers,” she said. “Who do you think lives on a farm?”
Miller could hear Mickey and Grace loud as hell in the garden. Maybe they were farmers.
He drifted for another fifteen minutes, then got up and made everyone pancakes, and later, while Grace and Carleen pitted cherries at the kitchen table, he drank coffee until it was time to go. “Say hi to my mom for me,” Carleen said.
“I will,” Miller said, touching her hair.
Grace looked like she was about to cry, which was not helping anything. The crying was yesterday; they were over that now. It wasn’t as if Lizzie would be locked up forever.
“And don’t forget Waffles,” Carleen said.
“I won’t,” Miller said.
At the jail, he sat in a cinderblock cubby on his side of the glass until Lizzie appeared on her side, washed out, wrung out, her hair pulled back tight. They picked up their phones. A sign on the wall behind her said conversations would be recorded. Miller told her the heiress was fine, happy, healthy, waiting for her mom. He wasn’t sure if they were supposed to talk in code or not. Lizzie smiled and cried and told her story, three feet away and untouchable, but Miller couldn’t tell if what she said was mostly for him or for whoever was eavesdropping on them.
Connor changed, she said, and didn’t change over the ten days he was back. He was nice at first, though she was still afraid of him. What never changed was what he wanted, and though he didn’t say what he wanted, she knew what it was — money — because that’s all he ever wanted. Carleen never saw him and wouldn’t have recognized him if she had — there were no pictures in the house, plus he looked horrible, skinny, scraggly, worn down and out. Like the junkie he was.
Miller hadn’t heard this before. Weed, sure, and psychedelics, but never heroin.
When the Mustang pulled up that first night and Connor climbed out, Lizzie felt this surge of adrenalin — she hadn’t seen him in years — then calm as she took her father’s gun from the shoe box under her bed, a Colt .38 Super with horses on the handles. She’d never used it and never would, except to protect herself and her daughter. She only shot him when she did because he was coming at her when she wouldn’t produce Carleen. He didn’t know Carleen wasn’t home. She had to stop him from coming in, from trying to strangle her. But that was the end, after he’d gone round the bend. He was almost sweet at first. Though stupid.
“I just want to see the baby,” he said that first night, standing on her porch all sheepish.
The baby was eight years old.
“It hit me in Barcelona,” he said, “how I needed to make it right for you and Colleen.”
He didn’t even know that wasn’t her name anymore, hadn’t been for years.
He wasn’t sure if they were supposed to talk in code or not. Lizzie smiled and cried and told her story, three feet away and untouchable…
He was so pathetic, trying to weasel his way back in. But he hadn’t always been pathetic — that’s what was horrible. There’d been a time when she loved him more than anyone. Was it possible — that he’d been lovable? Not that she felt pity for him. Not after everything he’d done. The abandonment. The abuse.
“Did he hit you?” Miller said.
“Not before,” she said. “But the last time, he was — listen to me. He shows up after seven years and wants his baby, then a week later he says she’s not his, that he doesn’t want her. And the way he talks gets weirder and weirder and scarier. It’s in the blood or it isn’t, he says. The bottom of it’ll be in blood, he says, coming at me. I was just — I couldn’t — ”
“Of course you couldn’t,” Miller said.
Five years after his nephew and brother died, Lizzie had brought Miller back to life in Port Townsend, driving them all over the peninsula, going to karaoke at Sirens, staying up late together drinking and carrying on. She was as wild as she’d been in college, and when she returned to San Francisco and the idiot, Miller wasn’t entirely surprised. He was grateful to be back in the world was what he was, hadn’t realized how far gone he’d been.
There’d been a few months in college like that, too. But Port Townsend was something else entirely, and then she was gone. He didn’t meet Carleen until she was three and Lizzie was back in Washington. She invited him to visit Mount Vernon and it was like that month in Port Townsend again, only better. Much better. And worse. She was as hungry as he was. They’d eat and drink and stay up all night, but now there was a kid there in the morning. Miller would take her to the park while Lizzie slept, to the beach, to the pool. He was with them all summer, and when school started up again he didn’t want to go back to Spokane. She had boyfriends after that, some serious, some not. Miller never slept in her room again.
“That first night,” she said, “he handed me this calling card with three words on it under his name: Poet, Painter, Visionary. And I was like, oh, yeah, that’s Connor all right, but there was also this desperation in him, sneaking glances past me like he was looking for what he could come back for later. I called his friend Dominick the second he left. That’s when I found out he’d been cut off by his grandfather right before the old man died, and Dominick was like, ‘He’s been borrowing against that money for years. The family fortune, the inheritance, whatever. People know about it,’ and I was like, ‘But he had money. He had an allowance,’ and Dominick was like, ‘I’m telling you he borrowed a lot — for drugs, for cash, for a house in Mexico, for a llama, I’m not even kidding, and now that the fortune might not even be his, a lot of people are coming after him.’”
And Lizzie thought, Might not be his?
It definitely wasn’t his. It was all Carleen’s. And even though Lizzie couldn’t believe the balls on this guy — to show up after all these years looking for money — it was hard not to feel a little sorry for him, so pathetic and lost, such a waste, the father of her daughter, not that he’d manipulate her ever again. But by the second visit he seemed more desperate, and then scary, pulling a screwdriver from his pocket and handling it while he demanded to see his daughter, palming that screwdriver like he was going to push it into Lizzie’s throat.
“Jesus,” Miller said.
“I know,” Lizzie said. “I was so scared.”
“Does he want custody?” Miller said.
“I thought so as first,” Lizzie said, “but then something happened with the will, I think, something he did, maybe. Carleen’s money got frozen before she even got any. Campbell’s trying to figure it out.”
The sounds of the jail leaked through the glass, the grinding, shrieking, rumbling.
“Is she really okay?” Lizzie finally said.
“She is,” Miller said.
“I can’t tell you how grateful.…”
“I know,” Miller said.
“He was shaking that day,” Lizzie said, “sort of coming out of his skin as he came at me to get Carleen. He was going to go right through me. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Miller knew she knew they were being recorded. He had no idea if she was talking to him or the prosecutor. He looked at her, sort of pleading with his face for a sign. But there was no sign. The noise through the glass had him on edge. He could see how you’d lose yourself in here. It didn’t matter what was true exactly. What mattered was that Carleen was okay and Lizzie was okay and everything was going to be fine.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“It’s not okay,” she said. “He’s gonna kill us all.”
And now she looked at him pleading.
Originally published in the Dec. 13, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane, who’s been taking care of an 8-year-old doll-making girl named Carleen, leaves her at the house of friends Mickey and Grace, and he goes to visit Carleen’s mother, Lizzie, who’s in jail. Lizzie is facing criminal charges after shooting her estranged husband, Connor, who suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Miller plans to take Carleen on the road to keep her away from Connor, but when he goes to retrieve the girl’s beloved cat Waffles, Miller finds himself trapped upstairs in Lizzie’s empty house when Connor shows up.
Miller drove away from the jail, knowing what he’d known since the beginning, that Connor was dangerous and coming for Carleen. He drove to Lizzie’s to get the cat and Barbie castle and Carleen’s special blanket, but then Connor arrived in his black Mustang, idling at the curb and finally limping toward the front door. If this were a massacre, Connor would be a victim, a survivor, having been shot by Lizzie, and Miller would be working to bring him back to life with therapy animals and spiritual inventories and community meals and coffee. But this wasn’t a massacre and Connor wasn’t a survivor. He was the shooter for a massacre waiting to happen.
On the porch, Connor looked up the street and down the street, pulling something from his back pocket. He looked up the street and down. Then he punched the blade of a screwdriver through the front door’s narrow window.
Waffles bolted from Carleen’s bed.
Miller crept toward Lizzie’s room looking for something heavy. A floorboard creaked underfoot and Connor called up the stairs for Carleen.
He’d always seemed like a tool to Miller, from the stories he’d heard, but never dangerous. Not this kind of dangerous. Obviously, something had changed. Money did that to people, made them horrible, dangerous, small. But all kinds of things did that to people. At least some of what Lizzie had told him in jail this morning felt off or inflated. But she was screwed up from being there, the noise and never sleeping, separated from Carleen. And Connor was screwed up too. Maybe he was capable of anything.
“Is that you Carleen?” Connor called near the top of the stairs.
Miller stood behind Lizzie’s door, gripping a plaster virgin Mary statue, maybe two feet long, maybe ten pounds. He was pretty sure it had been Lizzie’s grandma’s, and that it had become less ironic over the years perched on her dresser, though he didn’t know why he thought that. Maybe because she never talked about it anymore, or maybe because she’d moved the psychedelic concrete virgin from the back garden into the garage, not that she went to church or anything. Or maybe she did. A string of rosary beads hung on her doorknob. Miller could hear Connor in the hall, inching his way toward Lizzie’s room, could practically hear him breathing.
Miller stood behind Lizzie’s door, which Connor finally walked through, the back of his head a perfect target. He still held the screwdriver in his hand, some blood on his knuckles where he must have cut himself on the glass. It was surprising how fast and hard he dropped. For a minute, Miller wondered if he was dead. But then he started to groan. Miller could hear himself breathing. He rushed to Carleen’s room and gathered her stuff and Waffles, who was back on the bed, yawning. Yawning when a man had just been crowned across the hall. Connor moaned. Miller took the stairs down two at a time, then he was out the front door, across the street, and into the motorhome — no time to grab Waffles’ dishes in the kitchen. Connor was possibly dying up there. Or possibly in pursuit. Either way, it was time to go. Miller put the moho in gear and was pulling from the curb when Connor staggered out the front door.
“I see you, man,” he called. “I see you!” And he bent from the waist on Lizzie’s front porch, holding his head in his hands. Miller had broken the statue over his head. He’d buy Lizzie another one. In the sideview mirror, Connor was still doubled over, holding his head. This was good news. Connor was alive! And bad news. Connor was alive. By the time he got to Mickey and Grace’s place, Miller was certain he hadn’t been followed.
But Waffles was making horrible noises from somewhere behind the driver’s seat. Why had Miller agreed to this? He could still smell the cat piss, reactivated on his tee shirt by sweat. Miller had known Waffles peed in people’s shoes, but on people themselves? He parked the moho as Grace and Carleen pulled into the driveway, returned from their swim at Bay View.
“Did you get Waffles?” Carleen called, and Miller said, “He’s in back somewhere. Would you make sure he’s not peeing on my bed?”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Carleen said. “Did you get the Barbie castle?”
“Oh,” Miller said. “That’s the one thing — ”
“We can go back,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “No, we have to hit the road.”
Grace was sniffing around him.
Carleen emerged from the moho holding Waffles.
“You’re not going to stay for dinner?” Grace said.
“We’ll get another castle,” Miller said to Carleen. “A better one.”
“What’s the hurry?” Grace said.
“How was Mom?” Carleen said.
“Great!” Miller said. “She sends love. We’ll call her from the road. I’m really hoping to camp tonight.”
Carleen looked at Miller’s shirt. “He pees on you when you don’t hold him right. Did you get his stuff?”
“He wants new stuff,” Miller said.
Carleen had her special blanket wrapped around her neck, a disintegrating pale yellow rag that had once been her baby blanket.
No one was pulling into the driveway. No car was rumbling out on the road. No way did Connor know about this place, these people. Probably. But it was time to get into the mountains and then over them.
“Can Waffles come inside?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “We have to go,” and Grace said, “Of course he can. Come on, Miller. You can change your shirt and pack a lunch.”
Waffles bolted under the back deck.
“It’s okay,” Grace said. “Relax.”
Miller didn’t want to relax. He’d almost been killed today. He’d almost killed somebody today, who was right now looking for them. While Carleen coaxed Waffles out, Miller told Grace what had happened. She packed them a lunch, wrapped the unopened pie in a dishtowel.
“He doesn’t know you, does he?” Miller asked her.
“I don’t think so.”
Grace hugged Carleen and helped load the moho, and then they were on the road again, headed east on the North Cascades Highway, Carleen stitching a doll named Tammy for Miller’s mother.
“Your mom’s doing really well,” Miller said, “though she misses you. I think she’s going to be out of there within a month or so, maybe sooner. It’s just a misunderstanding.”
“How soon?” Carleen said.
“I’m not sure. We’ll ask her on the phone tonight.”
He needed to stop lying, making everything worse, especially since Carleen seemed fine. “How about some music?” he said.
“How about ‘Puff the Magic Dragon?’” Carleen said.
“I don’t have that one,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “I bet we could find it on your phone,” which she did and which they listened to a few times before they lost connectivity.
Carleen worked on her doll. Miller worked on getting them away.
“The most famous Tammy was a pilgrim witch,” he said, the jagged top of Mount Baker sneaking around a curve as they approached Concrete.
“I can make her a pilgrim,” Carleen said. “Does your mom like pilgrims?”
“Everybody likes pilgrims,” Miller said.
“And witches,” Carleen said, “except when they’re scary.”
Somehow the phone grabbed “Puff the Magic Dragon” again, pouring it through the motorhome’s sound system, the north Cascades rising all around them.
Originally published in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane broke a plaster virgin Mary statue over the head of Connor and successfully escaped with Carleen’s beloved cat Waffles. Miller’s been taking care of 8-year-old Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is in jail for shooting Connor, her estranged father. Connor suddenly came back into the picture after learning that Carleen will inherit a massive family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Before all this, Miller had been been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, but now, with Carleen, he plans to return to the road with a different purpose: completing a long-ignored writing gig. Miller owes his editor, George, short profiles of historical figures for an 11th-grade history textbook. Each brief biography will begin with a central question, “Hero or Villain?” So far, Miller has veered off course.
Hero Villain III
George Washington and George Washington Carver and John Carver and George Jones and George Kennedy and John F. Kennedy and Georgy Girl.
Of course these aren’t all one Hero Villain — one of them is the father of our country and one of them was a famous botanist and one of them was the writer of the Mayflower Compact and the first governor of Plymouth Colony and one of them was a drunken singer and one of them was an actor who could sweat better than any other actor and one of them was a Kennedy doll and the author of his own naval history and one of them is the subject of a song, a girl with “another Georgy deep inside,” but they’re all people who loved America as much as they hated kings and queens and emperors and dukes and sultans and czars and popes.
They were mostly men and mostly white and mostly named George. They were freemasons and rodeo clowns. They were fathers of our country, and they were nicknamed The Possum. They were Puritan separatists with bad teeth and bad backs, who surrendered to booze and pills and laudanum and the lord. They chopped down trees. They invented peanuts and cures for the common cold. They married Jackie, Tammy, Martha. They were gay and bi and trans and cis. They wrote the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence. Nobody they met could ever see the loneliness there inside them. They stopped loving her today.
Activity: Rank the above Hero Villains from most heroic/villainous to least.
Activity: Match each claim in the above paragraph to the correct Hero Villain listed above. (Example: George Jones was often called “The Possum,” [as well as “No Show Jones”], was married to Tammy Wynette, and surrendered to booze.)
Activity: Determine the degree to which any claim — here or anywhere — might be true or false.
Commentary: It doesn’t matter if George Washington chopped down a cherry tree or if George Jones rode a riding lawn mower to the liquor store or if Georgy ever managed to “shed those dowdy features and fly a little bit,” or if John Carver’s Puritan colonists are remembered more today for their insufferable piety or for establishing Provincetown as the LGBTQ vacation mecca it has become, or if JFK was elected as a result of voter fraud, or if George Washington Carver developed a hundred and five or a hundred and twenty-five ways to prepare the peanut for human consumption.
Question for Consideration: What then does matter?
Condescending down talk: There are thousands upon thousands of American Hero Villains. You might be one. Or you might just be plain folk who will someday become one. Maybe your daughter will be the prose stylist who makes your Little House books great. Or maybe you’ll be George Washington Carver. Can you dream yourself into a Hero Villain? Probably not. But if you could, what would that dream look like? Will you ultimately give up because of all the factors limiting your potential, or will you transcend those limitations? Maybe you’ll spend your life in prison, like Charles Manson. Or maybe you’ll travel to Mars!
Consider G.W. Carver, born in Missouri shortly before the end of slavery. He was the first African American enrolled at Iowa State, and later taught as the first black faculty member there. Another Washington, Booker T., hired him to head Tuskegee Institute’s Agriculture department, where he taught for almost 50 years. He invented the phonograph, the film projector, television, and baseball. His research on crop rotation was revolutionary and he developed scores of peanut and sweet potato products and applications.
Activity: Find a hundred new applications for the walnut, for doughnuts, for anything.
Activity: Change your first and middle names to George and Washington.
Activity: Wonder if it matters that George Washington was sterile.
Conclude: That it doesn’t matter, because he fathered a country. And while no one knows who the mother of America was, we do know it wasn’t Martha, though Martha was rich, bringing 84 slaves with her to Mount Vernon in 1759. Fifteen years later, she and George had 100 slaves, and ten years after that 250. George freed them all in his will, and ordered that they be taken care of forever, but that was after he was dead. Still, lots of people thought he was swell. It was swell that he wasn’t a king for example, and swell that he wanted to be called Mr. President. It was swell that he had a distillery and dentures made from human teeth and elephant ivory. Still, his mouth hurt all the time, and he had to take laudanum for the pain.
Activity: Reconcile the good you did with the bad, swaddling your vice in a nest of virtue. (e.g., Yes, you chopped down a cherry tree, but at least you admitted it. Or, yes, you owned hundreds of slaves, but at least you freed them and made whiskey and would never let anyone call you Your Highness.)
Activity: Reconcile the good you did with the bad, swaddling your vice in a nest of virtue.
But let’s say you’re Jack Kennedy and are a kind of royalty. Maybe you’re into Marilyn Monroe and the mafia and all kinds of drugs like codeine and Demerol and methadone for your back pain and Ritalin to keep you awake and meprobamate and librium for your anxiety and barbiturates for sleep and steroids for your Addison’s disease and antispasmodics for your colitis and antibiotics for your urinary tract infections and antihistamines for your allergies. And maybe you’re into super fine babes, too. So what? It’s the 1960s and sexism and harassment and drugs are just a part of who we are. Maybe you avert a nuclear crisis in Cuba, but push America into war with France or Vietnam. What difference does it make? If it’s not the Bay of Pigs, it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis. If it’s not Nikita Khrushchev, it’s Ho Chi Minh or Judith Campbell. But when we talk about your era as Camelot, what we really mean is that sometimes we need a king to serve. Or a saint. And our servility might someday destroy us.
Activity: List the attributes, positive and negative, of your favorite king or queen, and of your favorite president. On balance, who’s a better person, leader, American? Who would you rather serve? If you could assassinate one king/queen/president, who would that be? Why?
George Kennedy was not a king or a president, he was an actor — but not a huge star, which means he doesn’t really matter. Still, you should watch Cool Hand Luke and try to find other movies where he sweats a lot, maybe when he’s driving a getaway car or something.
George Jones on the other hand was a huge star, so he does matter. Also: his father’s name was George Washington Jones; he was an incorrigible drunk; he had one of the greatest voices in country music; and he wouldn’t show up at his own concerts half the time. He wrote songs like “The Race Is On,” about pride and heartache and other American virtues and it’s possible he didn’t write that one but others, like “Why Baby Why,” and “The Window Up Above.” He was a direct descendant of John Carver, who was the Puritan author of the Mayflower Compact, a company man and a king hater. George Jones was an American. John Carver was an emigrant, which means he was also an immigrant.
Question: Is it more American to welcome immigrants into our melting pot or to shoot them in the face?
Finally, Georgy Girl, a song made famous by an Australian group, The Seekers, and written by two British men. We must remember that George Washington was also a British man for most of his life. Georgy Girl was a smash hit in 1967, and we can study its lyrics today to see how far we’ve come since then: “Hey there, Georgy girl/Why do all the boys just pass you by? Could it be you just don’t try or is it the clothes you wear?”
Activity: Watch several episodes of Rock of Love, starring glam metal “singer/songwriter” Bret Michaels. Try to get a feel for who Bret is and what he believes, then rewrite “Georgy Girl” as Bret Michaels would write it if he were trying to get a super fine babe to change out of street clothes into slut clothes in a Porta Potty right outside his tour bus.
Extra Credit: What is the most American thing about Bret Michaels and George Michael and Michael Landon and all the other people listed above?
[George, think of this as a meditation, me getting my sea legs, playing with form. What I’m really working on now is Narcissa Whitman — headed to the Mission next week and doing all kinds of research. Did you know the Cayuse people could not stop shooting her after hatcheting her husband in the head? A lot of hatred bred by those missionaries. I’m wondering if a body can still smell it down there. I’ll be sniffing around. But you know what? Even as the West burns and we’re erecting statues of Stalin in town squares all over America, I’m as hopeful for our country as ever. Know why? Because freedom isn’t free, baby — never has been, never will be.]