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By James Robison


The Montréal Review, April 2012


The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983) at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Purchased from Simone Collinet, through Pierre Matisse, December 1936)


He worked Sunday alone from five-thirty a.m. until two, in the early hours nailing down tape on number twelve and using the electric cart to rake and groom the courts and at nine opening the pro shop and signing in customers and lining up the doubles matches for the tourney and stringing rackets and taking calls. When Carl relieved him, Neil climbed into a bashed black 85 Chevy pickup that was oven hot, with no ac, and he was sweating hard as he drove across Bahia Cay and called his older sister, Jo Jo, on his cell.

She said, "Amy's back from Miami with that idiot and I gave her your room. Is that cool?"

"No, but what's my option," Neil said.

Amy was Jo Jo's pal from high school, twenty years ago, and temporarily without quarters because, Jo Jo said, ".her rental house is being tent-fumigated. I don't know, termites. So she escapes to Kingston but gets back, they're still not done, twelve hours too early."

"Typical stupid mindless--" Neil said.

"It's only tonight. Just why can't you stay at Camille's? And Madison wants to go to the beach."

"Fine," he said, because he enjoyed Jo Jo's kid, Madison, Maddy, his nine-year-old niece.

"Maddy wants to kayak is the thing, don't scream. She'll be next door. Also we didn't get a Sunday paper, so, I mean-"

"You mean would I stop and get one."

"I need the coupons and ads and the air conditioner is still not working," Jo Jo said quickly, and punched off before Neil's whimper.

He tried again, as he had all day, to reach Camille. No deal. Braked at a crossing, he caught a rain-smelling wind blowing off the Gulf; it roughed a stand of palms, shaking them so they hissed. If it rained torrents, he wouldn't have to show at the courts at five tomorrow and could sleep in until seven. But he didn't count on anything about south Florida beyond heat.

At the next light, a DJ's amplified voice boomed from the speakers of an SUV: "Sprring Break!"

The old town was a village of small shops painted Bermuda pink and blotched in the deep shade of substantial trees and jammed now with cars. Neil parked recklessly, blocking a Porsche with Colorado plates, and hustled into the Quick-Shop, where a six-deep line was at the check out. Working the register, a lean brunette peeled lottery tickets off a roll and she called to him, "Hey, baby, you look shot."

"Work work work, Chita," Neil said.

Conchita yelled, over the heads of customers, "Talk all about it, I can't stop to pee."

"Well, tell the world," he said and hefted the slabs of the Sunday Press and Miami Herald.

In the car, he tried Camille again and once more as he pulled into his drive. A white painted die cast swordfish leaped on the screen door, in curlicues of white wrought iron. Theirs was a dark green one story. The lawn had been knotted St. Augustine with Dollarweed all through it but was now cropped and soft looking. Neil's work.

Inside, it was baking. Amy's two duffles with Air Jamaica tags, blocked the foyer. Jo Jo had closed the drapes and taken the shade off an end table lamp and switched on the naked bulb so there was a skewed and blaring quality to the light. Toys, clothes, plates all over. He heard a promising grumble of thunder and yelled, "Hey?" The inflamed whoop of a siren answered. With a splashy flump Neil dropped the Sunday papers and went to work.

He gathered Madison's tiny clothes and CDs and toys. He screwed the shade back on the lamp, switched off the bulb and opened the drapes to show the small, hedged side yard. He twisted the strip blinds on the kitchen windows, righted the fallen ivy plant and ran the sweeper.

He waltzed the Electrolux. The house roared with his industry. The vacuum sweeper snarled and the clothes washer and dishwasher chugged. He poured coffee from the morning carafe into a Disney World mug and not caring that the stuff was ten hours cold, gulped it.

After his shower, he ploughed a nylon brush through his ginger hair tugging it straight back. Dark freckles were spattered, glazed under the burn on his face, shoulders, biceps. He was not thirty, but the sun had burnt a squint to his face: lines fanned his eyes and rutted his brow.

He dressed in fatigues and a yellow T-shirt that said, "Sanibel Half Marathon" in lime green letters. He heard someone in the living room.

In the living room, a muscular young blond guy in a head scarf was crossed legged on the sofa, reading the Sunday Herald Neil had bought.

"Yo, dog," Hoagy said, in a charred voice, and held up a fist which Neil tiredly bumped, knuckles on knuckles, with his own fist. Hoagy was Amy's idiot.

"What it do? You got some sun, bro," Hoagy said.

Neil had been called Red all his life and hated it, but working outside in the subtropics even with sun block, he was inevitably, inarguably ruddy.

He said, "How was Kingston? Where's Amy? Where is anybody?"

Hoagy three or four times brushed his lips with his fingers, as if sweeping away cobwebs, and frowned at the task set him. He spoke in his smoker's rasp. "We were in Montego Bay and hating Jamaica, all right? Those police are scary mothers. You know about The Shower Posse? Christopher Coke? Poh-lease thinks you running with them, they will chase your ass with guns, know what I mean? And Amy's out and-what else you ax?"

"Just, tell Jo Jo when she gets back that I got Madison from next door and tell her to keep it clean. This place, I mean."

"Abso-dudely, bro," Hoagy actually said.


Madison, Maddy, who was nine, said she didn't see the point of going to the beach unless they were going to kayak. Neil asked her what the point of anything was.

"I suppose it's to learn how for later," Madison said.

"The point of being alive is to learn how to be alive later?"

"I suppose that's so." Madison had a high Tweety Bird forehead, a snub nose, a perfect mouth. She sat on a black towel on white sand.

"Is Mom crazy?' she asked.

"You think she is?"

"Well, I do. But I think it's just the anti-depressants."

Sail craft rode on the horizon line and swimmers leapt in the emerald water. The late April heat was profound, with the sun feeling closer than a week ago and heavy on his back.

"What do you know about antidepressants?"

Maddy said, "Nothing but they make her loud." She clasped her hands over her ears. "Can I now see the baby doves?"

A kite fastened to the blue umbrella of the Cuban family four towels down was way up against clouds with its string line tight. College kids were playing beach volleyball. A radio blared under the vast breathing of the surf.

"I'll show you the doves, but, you should know, Madison, that your mom was always leading me through this world. She went ahead and I lollygagged behind."

"What's lollygag?"

"I'm sorry, I forget there are things you don't know."

Madison showed him an incredulous look. "There's lots!" she said.

He drove them in his jouncing truck from the beach across the old town. Madison was bounced on the seat and said. "Whu-ow! Buh-buh-buh." Neil caught her belt and cinched it tighter.

They crossed Pelican River to the Marina Condos, where he stayed some nights each month with Camille.

The condos of Marina Condos were in a motel-like structure of cocoa stucco with red pipe tile roofs, built in a high U around a pool.

Taped to the inside door of her unit, on Dilbert stationary, written in Camille's scrawl, in purple ink, was this note:

"Neil I dreamed I saw a man on fire from the inside out. His eyes were flaming holes in his face. He had a halo of flames. I took this as a sign and the spirit is on me. I am gone."

"What's wrong?" Madison asked.

Neil said, "Camille's playing a joke."

He picked up the remote and gunned on the TV and heard at once, "First Alert Storm Team is looking out for you." Then the picture blossomed and he saw a banner streaming under the local station's promo spot. "Severe thunderstorm watch in effect with wind gusts-"

He took Madison into the bedroom and hefted her so that she could see out the long windows that showed the upper branches of a laurel oak. Beyond was the sailing and yacht club, its parking lot, and beyond that boat storage structures and the marina and then the Gulf.

"The high shrubs are called Ixora, and the yellow flowers are butterwort-"

Madison said, "Mrs. Butterwort," and laughed.

"No--and follow with your eyes up the trunk of that tree."

"I'm following."

"Okay, on up? See those, right there? Leaves ? Like banana bunches? Now look in there, it's hard to see, but where I'm pointing.

See those little heads."

"Oh my god they're babies!"

"They're dove babies in their nest. And the mom comes and feeds them right out of her mouth. There she is over on that power line."

"Oh," Madison said. "Oh, look. Guarding!"

"Yesterday a crow came along and she and two other doves chased it away and scolded it."

"Scolded? I love that. I love them," said Madison.

"She let them have it, and you could hear her all over the neighborhood. Now, I eat or die and then we find Missy."


Neil phoned Leo Longworth. "I'm at the Crab," he said to Leo's voice-mail. "Call me or stop by." He started to add something about emergency, but said just, "Anyway, do it," and punched off.

Mulraney's Stone Crab Shack was dark, on an inlet, and there were hurricane lamps on every table and tourists at almost every table and they threw out a complicated cluttered din.

Their waiter was a guy Neil knew from the courts: Lloyd. Lloyd was fifty and had a rag over a shoulder.

"Camille was in here, man, and she was toasted," he half-yelled.

"I'm with my niece here, Lloyd. So you know where she went?"

"She was with Bellino," said Lloyd, not answering Neil's question directly, but suggesting that Camille wasn't maybe Neil's problem. Neil ground his teeth so his jaw muscle fluttered.

But he said calmly, "We want iced tea and whatever Garcia caught this morning."

"Bellino was all like usual. I made my millions. Stand back. You know?"

"I know," Neil said. "I'm with my niece, here. Do you see her with your eyes? So what's fresh?"

When Lloyd was gone, Neil tried Leo again and Dr. Stringer as well. Voice mails. Lloyd brought a pitcher of iced tea and plates of grouper with corn muffins and slaw.

Neil forked off big bites. He ate the plate of food, all of it, dog fast and scrubbed his mouth with a napkin and drained the iced tea glass.

"You need help, Madame Secretary?"

"I'm not that hungry," Madison said. Her face just cleared the tabletop but she had refused a booster seat of course. Corn muffin crumbs dotted the front of her swimsuit.

Fumes of garlic and wine and fish blew from the kitchen into the thin chilled air, into the dark rumble of diners, the clash of plates and cutlery.

And Leo Longworth rolled in, a guy with a big belly, blue shorts and business socks. He was eighty-two, and got his rocking limp in the army just after World War Two, in Munich, as he was standing guard duty and had his tibia fractured by a German black marketeer's bullet.

"What a circus," he shouted, sitting down. "What's that you ate?"

"Grouper. Have you seen Bellino?"

Leo looked in the breast pocket of his short sleeved shirt, as if Bellino might be in there. The shirt had a pattern of starfish and bowed out over his stomach, baring white skin. He said, "The grouper? Garcia caught grouper? Or was it frozen?"

"Dunno, I was starving."

"Whose your date? She's a beauty."

Madison yawned and kicked out with her legs. She pressed her fingers to her closed eyes.

"I haven't seen anyone at the place," Leo said. The place was Leo's odd little wine bar which had a bookstore and newsstand attached in a mall between an Iguana Mia restaurant and a spray-on tan franchise. "But I saw whatsername. That crazy one who talks all the time."

"Janet di Marco?"

"Sure, di Marco," Leo said and shrugged as if one name were as good as any other.

"With a baseball hat always?"

Leo shook his head. "Rabbit ear pigtails."

"Okay, that's Penelope. The English one. From Leeds."

"Whoever. This one's always running around with Camille. They're inseparable."

Neil sighed. "Where did you see whoever it was?"

"Either Water Shops or Palm Center. I don't remember."

This earned a full-bore growl from Neil who stabbed out a number on his cell phone. "Pen? Penelope? I'm at the Crab. If you know where Camille is, call me. I know about Bellino. This is urgent. Call."

Leo said, "I was comin' in Monday and maybe hit some balls? You wanna' hit some balls?"

After a pause, Neil said, "Leo, the thing is, everybody quit at the courts and they aren't hiring new. So I mean, you know?"

"Yeah well, those misers," Leo said and gazed off for a bit. His eyes were ringed by blue circles and his nose had a Marlon Brando-like drooping hook. "I think it was Water Shops, where I saw her."

Neil drove across the Parkway and he cut through the cemetery- like gated community of Marsh Haven and out and down the strip mall road where he got caught in four lanes of backed-up traffic.

"This sucks," Madison said. In a version of her mother's voice, she said, "Why don't they all just go home? Easter's over." She yelled out the open window, "You may now all go home!"

Neil drove through the public library lot and down Pine Key Road to Water Shops which was, logically enough, a shady collection of upscale designer shops built around pools of water.

Next to Versace was a small covered island with benches and an Italian coffee stand. The coffee guy was looking at him. " Man. You got some sun today, huh?"

Neil said, "No more than usual."

"Doesn't that hurt?"

The guy was in a cloth envelope hat, like G.I.'s used to wear but white, and an apron. "No more than usual," Neil said again.

Penelope came out of DKNY, and caught them in the parking lot. She walked toes-out, dancer style and looked like a big toddler, with white skin, button eyes. Her hair fell in rabbit ear ponytails.

"Mm, you sex god," she said to him. "Sorry, Maddy."

"I don't care," Madison said.

Neil said, "So you work here or shopping?" He had known Penelope for five years and she had gone through twenty jobs. People hired her for the accent. He heard, from her, that she stole from her bosses' inventories or didn't show or got bored and walked away in mid-shift. Someone else would hire her.

"Well, I'm all DKNY, aren't I?" She gestured at her clothes, obvious evidence, he guessed, to anyone with a brain, of her employment. A cigarette was notched behind one tiny ear.

"Listen, I'm looking for Camille. I'm not gonna hound her or anything. You know where she is?"

"I don't," Penelope said.

"Why is she back with Bellino?"

"Poor judgement." She narrowed her blurry mascara-and- eyeliner gaze at him. " He's loaded though. Do you like my jumper?"

"Sure your jumper and trainers and plimsoles and vest. All bloody good. Ta. God bless the queen. You're not gonna help are you?"

Penelope seemed to think but Neil knew she was already decided. She said, "I'm in a bad spot here. I like you both."

She stopped to light her cigarette and blew a long cloud at the hot blue sky. The sun was mean on the concrete with all the car metal and her cigarette smelled dirty.

He looked at his watch. "It's six, almost. I'm going to the Ninth Street beach. If Camille doesn't show by sundown, I'm going to her condo and wait all night. Tell her, Pen."

Across from St. Michael's church was the house his family owned when everyone was alive. The place needed a new roof and a paint job but it was a wonderful 1960's Florida property and he sighed seeing its flower beds and lemon trees and its cactus-looking six foot aloe plants and its twin palms. Madison was making trombone noises with her lips.

The clouds over the yacht brokerage were bright and silky, but east, above the Pier Walk, the sky was doomsday blue. Neil drove along coastal roads, past beach walled off by private properties and then his phone chortled on the passenger seat. It was sister, Jo Jo.

"I pray you've got Maddy," she said.

There was a car, rear-up, in an irrigation ditch by the Sheraton Hotel Road juncture. "Right here. Didn't the idiot tell you?"

"Hoagy left for Cape Coral before we got back from Best Buy."

"Good man. Just as wise and mature and considerate as the other idiot. As Amy."

"I'll tell her you said so."

At the beach, this stretch, where Camille always came, the day was softly falling apart. Embedded between cloud shelves was a line of smoldering orange. The distant hotels no longer shown white and a few lights were on. It was still warm. It was still dry. No Camille.

Driving home to drop off Madison, Neil saw flash pops off to the west and then heard that stampede sound of rain coming up hard behind. In the truck's mirrors he saw a black curtain sweeping up on them, giving chase.

"Tomorrow can we kayak?" Madison asked. She had been lost in her own thoughts, ruminating the way adults do.

"When I get off work. It's a date. You'll be my date from now on."

"Don't tell Larry Swartz that, Uncle Neil. I actually like him a lot."

"You know we are racing a storm. See behind us?"

Neil spun the truck into Marina Condo road and then into its parking area and rain exploded on the truck. A furious wind ripped at palms, sent branches slashing, fronds spinning across the lot, and seemed to push Neil's old truck into a poolside parking slot.

"We're not sitting in here. Too hot. You want me to carry you in or run for yourself?"

Maddy raised her foot to show a cheap thong with its inverted Y strap over her arch. "Can't."

So Neil jogged into the water fall, scooped his niece from the truck and sprinted to the covered steps and up them, with Maddy shrieking, up to the third floor covered arcade and down to Camille's condo door.

"Okay okay, ouch!" Maddy was saying. Neil worked a key and without knocking burst into the front room. Gary Bellino stood there, in a white polo shirt and madras shorts, handsome, dark, panicked.

"Oh, man. Oh, my goodness," he said to Neil.

"All right, calmly. What's up?"

"Is she like off her meds? I get a call. She's seeing things. I tried whats-his-face. Doctor Strangelove."

"Dr. Stringer. Not in on Sundays."

"Look, I don't want to scare the kid-where's she going?"

Neil squeezed his nose and shook water from his hands. "She'll be all right. Please just keep going--"

"She's having the visions again. Man on fire. Burning guy. I don't know why me. She says, can I come over it's an emergency and I guess you're working. I'm like of course. She crawling the walls. Wants to see a priest. I take her to Penelope."

"No help there," Neil says.

"And to the Crab. I'm thinking a drink will chill her-"

Neil is shaking his head. No, no, no.

"So I find out. Bad idea. This is worse than before, Neil."

Neil said, "Relapse. She was better. We were even, like, normal. Not normal normal--"

They were yelling at each other because the rain and wind were roaring.

Madison's howl pierced even that wall of sound. It was harrowing.

"Jesus Christ," Neil said.

"Oh, no," Gary Bellino said.

In her room, Camille was flung on her bed, sobbing into her hands. Maddy was on the cane chair, looking out the tall window.

She said, "They were babies!"

The nest was blown loose, the notch where it was lodged empty, the female dove, beat-up in wind, was searching and calling.

"Go down and get them, Uncle Neil! You've got to do that!" Maddy's lip curled and she showed Neil a stricken face, one sadder and more offended by existence than even crazy, haunted Camille's, it seemed to him.

An hour later the storm blew north and Gary Bellino escaped and Camille sat in the dusk light, at the wide pine kitchen table, over a mug of tea, calm, and Maddy sat there too, still damp from rain, her fine hair still wet, her body wrapped in a quilt to protect her from the air conditioning .

She said, "They will not be rescued, will they? I mean, how could they?"

Neil had poured a three finger tequila drink over ice and drank some and said, "I will do you the favor of treating you as you have earned. No. They're gone."

"Everything has a soul," Camille said to Maddy. "I can see yours."

Maddy rolled her eyes.

Neil said, "I don't know about that. But the dove babies are in heaven with grandpa and grandma. That's where they are."

"But what will the dove parents do?"

Neil took Camille's hand, firmly, as much to shut her up as to show affection. He said, "Just build another family. That's all. That's it. It's sad, but-"

"Can they do that?" Maddy asked.

Neil said, "Happens all the time."





In a used bookstore I buy a self hypnosis guide for a quarter and take it under leaning clouds to my apartment and in the spring afternoon I hypnotize me, going down the dark staircases of my ego and id into the deepest parts of my inner self, a trance in the bedroom where a mirror reflects an alarm clock...

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James Robison has published many stories in The New Yorker, won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel, The Illustrator, brought out by Bloomsbury in the U.K. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and Grand Street. The Mississippi Review devoted an entire issue to seven of his short stories. He co-wrote the 2008 film, New Orleans Mon Amour, and has poetry and prose forthcoming or appearing now in The Manchester Review, Story Quarterly, The Northwest Review, The Raleigh Review and Smokelong Quarterly, The Santa Clara Review, elimae,The Blue Fifth Review, Istanbul Literary Review, Wigleaf, Commonline, BLIP Magazine,The Ramshackle Review, Blast Furnace, The Houston Literary Review, Scythe, Metazen, Corium Magazine and elsewhere. He taught for eight years at the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, was Visiting Writer at Loyola College of Maryland, was Fiction Editor of The North Dakota Quarterly and 2011 Visiting Artist at The University of Southern Misissippi.


 "The Illustrator"

"Robison's precise command of language, his wickedly acute ear and mocking voice, mark him as a writer of talent. But his slim novel ultimately boils down to another tale of urban angst and emotional burnout..."

-- Publishers Weekly


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