Originally published in the Oct. 18, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is returning to Washington state to keep watch over 8-year-old Carleen, whose mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail after shooting her estranged husband, Connor Callahan. Long out of the picture, Connor recently learned that Carleen will inherit the Callahan family fortune. Meanwhile, Miller isn’t exactly your typical parental figure; a fraudulent historian, he’s lately been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings. Now, with Carleen, he’s thinking of returning to the road and to a long-ignored writing gig — penning brief biographies of notable Americans for an 11th-grade history textbook.
Miller headed west toward Washaway Beach, the wrong way if he was trying to get to Port Townsend, but he hadn’t been out there since he was a kid and wanted to see how much more of it had washed away. He told Carleen about it as they drove, how it had been a beach town in the 19th century, North Cove, with a cannery and a lighthouse and hotels, and how it had all fallen, piece by piece, into the ocean over the years. Most of the old town site was a mile out to sea by now, and more houses and trailers fell annually as the ocean swallowed the land and everything on it in this one spot, taking a bigger and bigger bite out of the peninsula every year. The road had to be moved. The pioneer graveyard had to be moved.
“Like Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Carleen said.
“Exactly like that,” Miller said.
“But they didn’t live by the ocean,” Carleen said.
“They might’ve,” Miller said. “You don’t know.”
He’d read her the first two Little House books, before heading back out on the massacre circuit in January.
“The part I’m talking about isn’t in the books,” Miller said. “It’s too sad.”
Carleen watched him, waiting.
“Mary got washed away for one thing,” Miller said, “which wasn’t so bad, since no one liked Mary. But then Carrie got washed away. And then that awful dog — what was his name?”
“Right,” Miller said.
“But he wasn’t awful,” Carleen said.
“I guess only Pa and Laura were left at the beach house,” Miller said, “after they ate Ma.”
“Really they ate corn cobs,” Carleen said. “And that was the long winter.”
And now it was the long summer. Miller had driven to the Olympic Peninsula from the Rosedale massacre in under two days, eighteen hundred miles. It was good to be back in the Northwest, but the smoke was disorienting — even in Aberdeen you could smell it blowing in from the small fires in Olympic National Park and the big ones up in B.C.
“You know what I want to do?” Carleen said.
“What?” Miller said.
“Camp in this camper,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “I thought you just went camping.”
“Not in a camper,” Carleen said.
“We’ll camp in the camper,” Miller said, “but not tonight. I couldn’t get us a spot.”
Carleen had the craft tray pulled out of the dashboard and over her lap in the passenger seat, her supplies spread before her — scissors, needles, batting, beads, her basket of fabric on the floor beside her.
“We’ll stay at a hotel in Port Townsend a few nights,” Miller said.
“With a pool?” Carleen said.
“With salt water soaking tubs down the street,” Miller said.
He had no idea if the soaking place was still there. He figured they’d drive up the peninsula, hike if Carleen wanted to, then settle into their room in Port Townsend — maybe head out to the fort for fireworks and whatever else was going on for the Fourth.
Carleen said, “Can I use the camper’s bathroom while we’re driving,” and Miller said, “You can, but you might get thrown off the toilet and killed.”
“Oh,” Carleen said.
“Do you have to go now?” Miller said. “We can stop.”
“No,” Carleen said.
“You can take a shower while we’re driving, too,” Miller said. “It’s illegal and dangerous and you might get killed — but it’s possible.”
Carleen said, “Can I use the camper’s bathroom while we’re driving,” and Miller said, “You can, but you might get thrown off the toilet and killed.”
Carleen was making a mermaid doll. She’d been making dolls since she was three years old, must have made a hundred by now. Miller had a dozen or so in the motorhome, including several series of dolls — Judy, Cutie, and Trudy Moody, for example, a group of somewhat misshapen sisters Carleen had sewn early in her career, their faces lopsided, their stich lips smeared with purple marker, their yarn hair patchy over mitten-shaped skulls. Another series featured the Ming family, mother, father, daughter, all sewn together by their heads.
“Why is it so dangerous?” Carleen said, squinting as she stitched together two pink fabric strips shaping the mermaid’s tail. The dolls she made were so good now she could sell them in the shops where her mother sold clothes and jewelry. But most of them she gave away or kept for herself.
She didn’t know she was an heiress yet, that she’d never have to make or sell anything again if she didn’t want to. Lizzie had been right about that — no kid should know such a thing.
“Because you’d probably be decapitated,” Miller said.
Carleen looked up from her stitching. “Really?” she said.
“You know what that means?” Miller said.
“My head chopped off,” Carleen said.
“And rolling around the shower,” Miller said.
“That’s what a guillotine does,” Carleen said.
“Or a broadsword,” Miller said. “Like Pa had.”
“Pa didn’t have a broadsword,” Carleen said. “He had a gun.”
“And brass knuckles,” Miller said. “And a blackjack.”
“Not really,” Carleen said, and Miller said, “No, not really.”
They fell to silence and the road sounds while Carleen stitched her doll’s torso. “They had a cat, though,” she said. “On the prairie and in the big woods. Waffles was his name.”
“I thought that was your cat’s name.”
Carleen put her needle down and started stuffing her doll with batting.
“Can we get him?” she said. “Aunt Cara told me we might see Mom.”
“We’re going to talk to her on the phone,” Miller said, “I know that much.”
“But we’re not going to see her?” Carleen said.
“We don’t know,” Miller said.
When he’d picked up Carleen a few hours ago, Cara had told him she thought Lizzie was in jail for tax evasion.
The kid was eight years old, for Christ’s sake.
“What does she know about tax evasion?” Miller said, and Cara said, “She knows Lizzie gets paid under the table for her jewelry — and that it’s a secret she could get in trouble for.”
Miller poked his head into the hallway to see if Carleen was looming.
“What about the idiot?” he said.
“What about him?” Cara said.
“Does she know Lizzie shot him?”
“She doesn’t even know he’s back,” Cara said.
Carleen pounded into the kitchen.
“Know who’s back?” she said.
“My friend Flicka,” Cara said.
And then they were on the road.
“You don’t know what he’s capable of,” Lizzie told Miller once Connor had reappeared. But based on Lizzie’s stories, what Connor seemed most capable of was getting high, going to the Bahamas, and writing bad poetry. On the other hand, Miller had seen enough to know that most everyone was capable of nearly any horrible thing you could imagine.
Beside him in the motorhome, Carleen sewed her mermaid’s head shut. “Is it because kids can’t visit jail?” she said, and Miller said, “I’m not sure how jail rules work.”
“But we don’t always follow rules,” Carleen said.
“But sometimes we do,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “Now I really have to pee.”
They were on the bridge crossing from Bay City to Laidlow.
“I’ll pull over up here,” Miller said. “And then we can go to Grayland maybe — drive out on the beach and eat lunch and watch people clamming and go swimming if we feel like it.”
“I’m not sure this bus can go on the beach,” Carleen said.
“Why not?” Miller said.
“It might get stuck.”
“It won’t get stuck,” Miller said. “And it’s not a bus. It’s a motorhome.”
And it wasn’t that big — twenty-three feet, with a queen bed in back you could close off with an accordion door, plus a shower and bathroom and a two burner stove, a fridge, a small oven, and a table with a bench wrapped around three sides, and another bed for Carleen up above the front seats. Miller had gotten it three months ago from a guy at the Salt Flats massacre, Parker Dundee, who said he didn’t want it anymore. Miller wasn’t sure he wanted it, either. He’d gotten rid of almost everything, and wasn’t sure he wanted to start filling another place with stuff. But it was nice to cook on the road, to have his own bed, to have space apart from the survivors.
“Mom says it’s a gas pig,” Carleen said.
“Not when it’s sitting,” Miller said. “Sometimes, when I’m parked somewhere for a week or so, it’ll get over a hundred thousand miles per gallon.”
“That’s pretty good,” Carleen said.
“It really is,” Miller said.
He pulled into the dirt lot at Brady’s Oysters, with its mountain of shells facing South Bay. “I’ve never peed in a camper before,” Carleen said after he showed her how to flush the toilet.
“You’re going to love it,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “I know I will.”
Originally published in the Oct. 25, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is on the coast of Washington state, traveling in his motorhome with a doll-making 8-year-old girl named Carleen. Miller’s been asked to take care of Carleen by her mother, Lizzie, who is stuck in jail after shooting her estranged husband. Miller had been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings, but he’s now contemplating a different life on the road — with Carleen, exploring America, our heroes and our villains.
Everything Miller remembered of Washaway Beach was gone. State Route 105 had already been rerouted once, maybe ten years ago, and was about to fall into the ocean again; only one lane was open. The pioneer graveyard was as he remembered it from childhood when his family had visited on a trip from Spokane, only now it was much closer to the ocean, though the sign marking it was the same: “North Cove Pioneer Cemetery. Established 1892. Eroded 1977.” There were almost no buildings left, a few squatters’ trailers, one house on a point jutting into the sea surrounded by blasted concrete and rebar, holding on, all of it ramshackle, the resort town long, long gone and the remaining trailers derelict and marked with Keep Out and No Trespassing signs, good places to cook meth it seemed.
Each gravestone in the pioneer graveyard had a small rock laid atop it, hand decorated with hearts or stars and the word “Love” written in 1970s bubble letters, but the paint fresh and vibrant. “I bet the grandchildren painted these,” Carleen said. “Or schoolchildren.”
Across the road the surf pounded, chewing at the point.
“Do you think they’ll have to move it again?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “I do,” and Carleen said, “They should move it farther from the ocean next time.”
That day at Washaway when Miller was 10, his father had told the story of his grandfather losing his car at Moclips in 1920, Miller’s great grandfather parked on the beach and falling asleep in his A model Ford — “That’s what he always called it,” Miller’s dad said, “an A model Ford,” the tide washing up and waking Miller’s great grandfather when the water started seeping in through the doors, destroying the car.
That story always led to talk about the line of failures Miller’s great grandfather had come from and transcended, the family failing its way across the continent from Virginia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to end up in Walla Walla in 1860, thirteen years after the Whitman massacre, failing in Walla Walla on some of the richest farmland in the world, something that was almost impossible to achieve.
Great Grandfather Cane made something of himself in spite of his parents’ and grandparents’ failures, proof that Miller himself and his brother and sister were also exceptional, Great Grandfather putting himself and his siblings through Linfield College in Oregon, then teaching, then becoming a principal in Gresham, before finally becoming superintendent of the Multnomah County Farm, a poor farm outside Portland that housed indigents and alcoholics and the mentally ill.
How had he let himself become so maudlin on the Fourth of July when he had a job to do and the smoke was thinning?
Miller’s father had visited the farm many times as a kid in the early ’60s, afraid of the smells of the old poor people, inmates they were called, his grandfather playing ping pong with them in the basement recreation room and helping old men roll cigarettes from pouches of Bull Durham. “He did what he could for those people,” Miller’s dad said, “made their lives better, made the farm more productive and a safer place to live.” The poor farm was an adorable inn now with a brewery and winery and pottery shack, and beautiful art along its institutional hallways. You could get a room there with a sink in it and a bathroom down the hall for one-fifty a night. Miller had stayed there with his brother and sister and parents before his dad died and his mom started slipping. There was a picture of his great grandfather on one of the walls, though no one there would have known who the man was, and Miller himself wouldn’t have known either if his father hadn’t shown him.
At Washaway Beach that day in 1986 there were still neighborhoods, still plenty of houses, but his father said, “This is all going to be swallowed,” which terrified Miller. If these houses were going to be swallowed, why wouldn’t the ocean keep swallowing until it reached their house in Spokane? They sat on a blanket in the pioneer cemetery eating lunch. “If it wasn’t for your great grandpa,” Miller’s dad said, “the family might’ve failed its way right to this spot, the end of the country, the end of the continent — all of us swallowed up right here by the ocean.”
“Really?” Miller said.
“Jack,” Miller’s mom said.
“That’s not true,” Miller’s sister Dena said.
“You’re right,” Miller’s dad said. “It’s not true.”
But now everything his father had said about the houses washing away was true. And he himself was gone, and so was Miller’s brother and Miller’s nephew — and Miller’s mother with no memory left was as good as gone, a horrible thing to think. How had he let himself become so maudlin on the Fourth of July when he had a job to do and the smoke was thinning?
Miller told Carleen that he’d been here when he was her age, and was now surprised by how much of it had washed away, even though his dad had told him it would.
“Well,” Carleen said, “it’ll probably wash back in someday.”
Miller imagined the town reassembling itself piece by piece, the people reassembling themselves.
“It’s not that interesting, really,” Carleen said, “to see what isn’t here.”
“You’re right,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “I wonder if it’s because of cars on the beach that it washed away.”
“No,” Miller said. “It isn’t.”
“Mom says cars shouldn’t be allowed on the beach,” Carleen said.
“But it’s fun to drive on the beach,” Miller said. “And that’s how they do it here.”
Carleen held up her mermaid. “Let’s send her back to sea,” she said.
“Really?” Miller said.
“I can make another one,” Carleen said.
They found a high bluff over the water and hurled Carleen’s mermaid into the ocean.
“She might make it to Asia,” Carleen said. “Or she might get torn apart by sharks.”
Originally published in the Nov. 1, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane is traveling the coast of Washington state with 8-year-old Carleen. Miller’s been asked to keep Carleen safe by her mother, Lizzie, who is stuck in jail after shooting her estranged husband, Connor Callahan. Long out of the picture, Connor recently learned that Carleen will inherit the massive Callahan family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Miller, meanwhile, senses trouble. He had been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings and, as a result, he has his share of enemies, including a man named Heffner, whose son was killed in a previous shooting that Miller worked.
They drove to Port Townsend in Fourth of July traffic and checked in to their hotel — a smelly, crumbling Victorian a block from Sirens, the only real bar in town. French doors in their room opened to a deck where you could watch ferries come and go and see Mount Baker and a line of Cascades all the way down to Rainier if there wasn’t any smoke, which there was, not that you could see it — you only knew it was there because you couldn’t see the mountains. The deck was a perfect place to have a beer and a cigarette if you still smoked cigarettes, which Miller did not, though he reserved the right to take them up again if he lived long enough.
They got a pizza at Waterfront and took it to Fort Worden. Everyone in town was there, the parade grounds across from the old officers’ houses jammed with cars and a couple of hot air balloons going up and down. They ate their pizza on the commons, far from the stage, but they could hear the awful folk music. Carleen watched the kids running around them. “Go on,” Miller said. “I’ll stay here.”
He kept an eye on her as she ran with a group of girls toward the school house. No way could Connor know where they were, though Miller kept mistaking people for the idiot. Up the road past the hostel was Artillery Hill, ringed by old batteries and bunkers facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca — to defend Seattle and the Puget Sound from a naval attack that never came. Now you could crawl around the bunker system, and if you were in high school, have sex and smoke weed and ignore your future, all with a stunning view. When he was a kid, Miller’s dad told him he could ride one of the deer that were everywhere here, if he could catch one, but when it seemed like he might — that’s how tame they were — his mom told him his dad was just being cute.
Miller followed Carleen and her friends toward Alexander’s Castle. The girls ran around a big madrone tree, then up the lawn, stopping in front of the cottages. A man called to one of them, and Carleen looked around until she spotted Miller, then waved to the girls and ran toward him.
“There’s a pie eating contest,” she said, “and face painting.”
“Let’s do it all,” Miller said.
As they walked back to the commons, he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched, followed. There were a couple thousand people here. Of course eyes would land on them. But he kept looking back, for Connor, for Heffner — for a shooter, which was why he had to stop doing what he’d been doing these last three years, making him imagine shooters everywhere he went.
While Carleen got her face painted, a man onstage started a Skip James song, “I’m so Glad.” The guitar part was hard and fast, and the dude was hitting it note for note as he sang, the song picking up speed through its repetitive verses — “I’m so glad, I’m glad, I’m glad,” the guy almost too good, too much like Skip James — “I don’t know what to do, don’t know what to do, I don’t know… what… to do.” This was the great version from 1931, almost exactly, except clean, none of the noise from the brilliant old recording.
Carleen was getting a unicorn painted on her cheek. It was after eight o’clock, but this far north, the light would linger past 10. Miller wanted to get close to the stage, to see how this guy was doing what he was doing.
“How much longer is this going to be?” he asked the teenager painting Carleen’s face.
“I want another unicorn,” Carleen said, “if we’re allowed to have two.”
“Sure,” the teenager said. “Maybe 10 minutes?”
“I want to watch this musician a minute,” Miller said to Carleen. “Don’t move from here, okay?”
He worked his way toward the stage. He’d never heard anyone play like this. Except Skip James. But it didn’t feel like imitation. The guy was putting everything he had into it, and he was still picking up speed, still nailing the high, fast riffs. Miller got closer, wove through the crowd. “I’m tired of weeping,” the dude sang, “tired of moaning, tired of groaning for you.”
And still he sped it up.
From a distance the guy even looked like James.
Up close he looked exactly like James, slim and strong featured, a broad forehead over piercing green, almost translucent eyes. No one else had those eyes.
But Skip James had been dead 50 years.
Miller looked back, couldn’t see the face painting booth. Maybe Skip James had a son, and this was him, or a grandson. He wanted to stay and watch, but he couldn’t see Carleen. He made his way through the crowd, not quite running, and when he could see the booth, another kid was in the seat, no sign of Carleen. He started running. What a fool he was — to leave her there when his only job was to keep her safe.
She was nowhere.
And then she was 10 feet away with the girls she’d met earlier.
Jesus, he’d never let her out of his sight again.
Skip James started another Skip James song — “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.”
Carleen watched him approach.
“The pie eating contest is in 10 minutes,” she said.
“Okay,” Miller said. “But let’s watch this guy play for another minute.”
“We have to register,” Carleen said. “We might be too late.”
They stood in line in the pie tent. A contest was going on, people paying to throw pies at local politicians and other prominent community members. Carleen requested a fork when she registered for her event, and the woman told her she’d have to keep her hands behind her back during the pie eating contest.
Carleen said, “I don’t want to do it like that.”
“But those are the rules,” the woman said.
Carleen shook her head.
“We can also just get a piece of pie,” Miller said.
“Sure can,” the woman said, pointing. “Right over there.”
“I want to do the contest,” Carleen said.
Miller paid the woman and Carleen got a bib with a number on it.
Skip James went into “Devil Got My Woman.”
Carleen was led to a long row of tables and given a seat. There were only a dozen or so competitors.
“I’d rather be the devil,” Skip James sang.
Announcements were made, then the contest started, with all the competitors sticking their faces into the pies before them. Except for Carleen, who put her face down and nibbled at the crust, wrinkled her nose, and sat back up watching her peers smear their faces with filling.
“Go ahead, honey,” an old lady said to her. Carleen ignored her.
She smiled, though, and watched the other kids.
A 12-year-old boy won.
“The crust wasn’t any good,” she said to Miller, once it was over.
“Let’s go buy a couple pieces in the tent,” Miller said.
They got slices of huckleberry, blackberry, and gooseberry, then walked toward the water. Skip James was done and another nightmarish folk ensemble was playing.
“This crust is pretty good,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “Not as good as yours.”
“Or yours,” Miller said.
They sat on the lawn to wait for the fireworks.
Their first day together had been a good one.
Then he saw Connor through the crowd in a blue polo shirt, headed toward them.
Jesus Christ — the man wouldn’t do anything here, would he?
Miller looked for a way out. He didn’t want to scare Carleen, didn’t even know if she’d want her father to be back and looking for her. Maybe she’d be happy to see him.
Miller shifted around to block Connor’s view of Carleen. His heart was going. Would the idiot have a gun?
But when he looked back, the man was gone.
Then he appeared again, heading away from them. But the blue of his shirt seemed more purple. Or was that a trick of the light?
Maybe the man wasn’t Connor at all. Maybe he was just some dude. And the blues player wasn’t Skip James. He just looked and sounded exactly like Skip James.
“I love fireworks,” Carleen said. “Mom says they represent bombs and war, but I think they’re beautiful exactly as themselves. I don’t think they have to represent anything.”
“You’re right,” Miller said. “Things can be just what they are.” But he kept his eye on the guy who maybe wasn’t Connor, just in case. And on everyone else, too.
Originally published in the Nov. 8, 2018, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane spent the Fourth of July in Port Townsend, Washington, with 8-year-old Carleen. She got her face painted while Miller was mesmerized by a musician — a dead ringer for the long-dead bluesman Skip James — who was playing in the park. Miller’s been watching over Carleen, whose mother is stuck in jail after shooting her estranged husband. It’s been an adjustment for Miller — a former teacher and writer who’s lately been making his living conning the survivors of mass shootings — but it’s also an opportunity. 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?”
Back at the hotel there was no air conditioning and the room was hot. Miller sat on the deck with a glass of whiskey while Carleen reread the first Little House book in bed. He had his laptop open on the picnic table, but couldn’t get anything started. When he went back in for another drink, Carleen was asleep, her forehead flushed with heat, and the unicorn on her cheek smeared, some of the paint on her pillow as well. Miller walked his whiskey outside and sat with it, watching the water, and eventually, he started to write.
Hero Villain II — Skip James.
Long ago, in the nineteen hundred and sixties, when it was still possible to go to space and eat nothing but meat and sugar and carbohydrates and Tang and save people from horrible belief systems like communism and anarchism and fascism, and everyone was snorting gluten and lactose constantly, a certain group of people was searching for Skip James. Skip wasn’t lost to himself, necessarily, but he was lost to the people who needed to find something authentic and American and tortured and beautiful — and if you’ve heard Skip James, you know that what they were looking for was the sound of his early records, the ones that matter, recorded in 1931, because before we saved the world from fascism, before we could destroy cities with one bomb and then the entire world with a few missiles, before we could blow it up or realized we were melting it down, Skip James was singing in Wisconsin where he’d travelled from Mississippi to record eighteen songs for Paramount Records, and even though we couldn’t blow up the world yet, it was hard, hard, times, with dust blowing and people eating babies and everyone so poor and desperate and worn out and hopeless that even Almanzo Wilder — whose wife Laura was writing her Little House books then, trying to scrape up a buck or two during the Depression — even Almanzo said, “My life has been mostly disappointments.”
Laura’s father Pa would never say such a thing, but this wasn’t Pa, this was Laura’s husband, Farmer Boy, though he wasn’t a boy anymore, nor Laura a girl, worshipping her father — poet, fiddle player, fond of cider and music and moving every few years, a gigantic failure when we stop to think about it, depending on how we think about it.
Can a happy man be considered a failure?
[George, include a photo of Pa here, preferably with wife Caroline, Ma, under or beside the photo of Skip James, and maybe one of Almanzo, preferably one where we can see how gimped up he is.]
Shall we consider Pa’s poverty and constant moving a sign of failure, or does he represent a kind of American optimism? Not a man who couldn’t make it where he was, though he couldn’t seem to, but a man staying on the edge of the frontier looking for more gold, better dirt, Pa himself if not successful then also not an inveterate gambler (except in his moving?) or a child molester (no evidence of this at all), but maybe a drunk in Laura’s portrait (Skip James also liked a drink now and then), certainly more charming and playful and lovable than Ma, God knows, and happy! Pa would never say, as his son in law would, “My life has been mostly disappointments.”
But even if one could consider Pa a failure, Laura would become a legend, mining from her life the stories that would mythologize her and her family and America Her/Him/Them/Itself. Plenty of things didn’t work out on the prairie or on the banks of Plum Creek. Still, might we say that Laura was a success because she was rich and her work was well received, while Skip James was a failure because he was poor and almost nobody heard his work in his time? Might we also suggest that Laura was the inspiration for such songs as “Cherry Ball Blues” and “Devil Got My Woman” and “Special Rider Blues,” Skip singing in “I’m So Glad,” “I’m tired of weepin’, tired of moanin’, tired of groanin’ for you… I don’t know what to do, don’t know what to do, I don’t… know… what… to do.”
Laura never portrays Pa as moaning and groaning, not knowing what to do, though Pa wasn’t born on a plantation like Skip James was (in 1902 when it seems like plantations would have been gone, but weren’t) and Pa didn’t participate in the Civil War, though it was happening all around him and he was only 25 when it started, Laura’s hateful, perfect sister Mary born just three months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Still, no one in the family was touched by the war, except Uncle George who ran away when he was 14 to be a drummer boy and was “wild” when he came home, though the only wildness we see is his bugle playing and dancing as Pa fiddles songs like “Arkansas Traveler” and “Buffalo Gals” and “Yankee Doodle.”
Pa wouldn’t have known “I’m So Glad,” or “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues,” because he died in 1902, the year Skip James was born. He and Ma never heard Skip wail and moan those beautiful songs recorded not so far from the big woods, though by 1931 the big woods were gone, and then Skip James was gone, at least from recording, until the nineteen hundred and sixties. Did Skip James read Laura’s books? Did he know how she mined her life to come up with riches and fame? Was he waiting in his Mississippi hospital bed to be discovered by folk-music enthusiasts, white boys from the north mostly, hungry for something pure and genuine, something authentic and noncommercial they could make money from (or at least try to make money from — they were American), something beautiful and real and born of suffering?
This much we know: Skip James was real. And his music was real. He shot people when he was young and bootlegged and sang beautiful, haunting, terrifying songs about cutting a woman in two. Was he waiting to be found by blues miners in 1964? The prospectors wanted to be touched by greatness, affiliated with greatness and what was real, having rejected the confections of Buddy Holly and Elvis and Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Only the year before, 1963, John Hurt had been discovered, extracted from the richest blues mine in the world, Mississippi, where Son House was also from, though he would be found in Rochester, New York, the same year Skip was found. Because everything was still possible.
It was the year of the Civil Rights Act, which would address some of the race/slavery issues that had been addressed a hundred years before and would have to be addressed again and again forever. One of the beautiful Kennedy dolls had been assassinated, but we were still in Kennedy doll thrall. We would defeat communism in Vietnam. We would fight wars on poverty and right wrongs! We were terribly optimistic, even though a few years earlier we had been hopeless. We were a little like P.T. Barnum regarding the fat boys he displayed in the 1840s, his Infant Hoosier Giant and Highland Mammoth Boys, proclaiming as his did in a letter to another showman, “I must have the fat boy!”
All of America wanted the fat boy in 1844.
And in 1964, our collective white pre-hipster Barnum blues miners proclaimed, “We must have the blues man!”
And we found him, we found him! We discovered him! Over and over.
Maybe Skip James and Lightning Hopkins and Son House were the opposite of Barnum’s fat boys, another side of the coin. Because Barnum’s fat boys only had to be fat. The bigger the better. Barnum had to have them (and so did we!) but they didn’t have to do anything.
Skip James made beautiful songs. The folklorists had to have him (and so did we!) but no one could have his songs as much as he could, whether he was found or not.
And when he said, “I’m so glad,” and “I’m so tired,” and “I don’t know what to do,” we knew exactly what he meant. And so did Laura Ingalls Wilder, his step grandmother, when she wrote at the end of her first book, “They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago,” Skip and Laura and Pa timeless and immortal.
“This is now,” Laura realizes in 1860-something and again in 1930-something and again every time we read those words. This is now! Right now! And again, forever!
[George, include a link to the 1931 recording of “I’m So Glad” in the digital edition. Yes, it’s scratchy. But it’s going to save somebody’s life. Probably yours.]