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By James Robison


The Montréal Review, July 2011





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. I feel a strange double-ness. Half of me is going, "Wha!"

Half, I'm just a sponge soaked with human blood and no structure or muscles. A red haze scrims the window light and the walls blush and now I'm in a purple place and my dead mother is young and she asks, "You want dinner, George?"

I say No, not hungry, turn on the radio, Mom. The part of me asleep looks around my childhood site. Outside, the road is ditchy dirt and a willow swings braided whip branches and high grass slants in the worm woman's yard; she's called the worm woman because she is lethally crazy, hairless, oh, a terrifying neighbor who poisons dogs.

In the living rooms duplicate hundreds of roses and thorns and doves pattern the walls. On the radio it's the Kraft Dinner Winner Hour, then a show called Danger then jazzband music and it is dark and the lights in the worm woman's house never come on. When I return to full awakeness I feel sixty pounds lighter and rays of light flow through my veins and my brain is bright.

I am a stranger to myself, though I've been in this skin for 55 years. I think I might go bananas with seeing my mother's face so new, in the sun striped by willowtree shadows plus our gravel drive and mailbox with red metal flag. Ginger from across the hall in these lowlife apartments has been knocking on my door bang bang with her red hair. "George are you okay?"

Big freckles. Big lips.

I tell her I'm fine and she says she heard me talking to myself much louder than usual.

I change into my overalls and go to work. At work, I pour steel from a bucket into molds. It is 100 degrees in the foundry. Breaktime, with the Pepsi, the Lucky Strikes, the grimy men, the asbestos gloves and leggings, the black goggles. Gary is sipping vending machine coffee off a cardboard cup and he smells bitter and burnt. He has no front teeth at 32 and the joke is he can charge more for blow jobs.

He says, "I knew this guy in Erie who was a funny mother. He could make a cat laugh."

Shorty needs a shave. Stubble like freezer frost. Happily smoking and staring. Then he goes, "All your life you wanted to know who was your daddy and shit."

I have. True.

"So," he goes, "Whyn't you hypnotize yourself to go back to the undiscovered country of your earliest fucking memories?" Shorty is 6 foot 7 with arthritis and he works in the brass foundry.

Gary goes, "Naw just hynotize some chicks and make 'em do a pile up witch you." Such is Gary's whole attack on life: Get some.

After work-we punch out at dawn- I and Shorty go to the house with many Polish daughters, where they serve only steel workers, the girls bringing scrambled eggs and sausage and vodka for night shift breakfast.

"What you were saying I was gonna do exactly," I tell Shorty.

"Unrecover innermost buried memories?"

"Yes and it might work because when I was under I heard an entire radio show and because we used to sit, you know, my mother and me and listen. Listen to the radio and look at it. I heard a whole song note for note with Charlie Christian on guitar."

"Man o man o man."

"And it was all there, tape recorded in my memories. But I had to be hypnotized to-"

"To play back the tape," Shorty goes.


Gary lunges over, drunk. Letter jacket with leather sleeves and watch cap. Sun's not up and a full moon is white through a window.

I ask, "A letter jacket? What did you letter in?"

"Stealing jackets." Gary's smile opens the black gap in his mouth, also he sways and shunt-steps, like trying to keep balance on a tipping deck.

He asked me once if I thought he was alcoholic because, not only did he get his teeth kicked out in a barfight, but during a weekend in jail he said they gave him a little vodka when he started shaking and he thought if the cops give you booze that is a sign that you may be problematic.

On the TV is the Today Show with news that Berlin Wall chunks are being sold as souvenirs.

Gary says, really drunk, "Remember when we were drunk in that motel on the interstate?"

I do. Gary laughed so hard at something he fell out the window.

I'm not one to cast stones. I wrecked 3 earlier lives I used to live because of the drinking and poor thinking.

I now sit in a room with one chair and a TV. This town has nothing- well, no, not true. It has trains, a foundry, a Frosty Hut summer food thing place made of bricks, a hobby shop and bait shop and neighborhoods with driveway boats and mystery shapes sculpted by snow.

One job I lost had a messy mouthy sexy mongrel little Irish girl I liked and told her so. She wrote poems.

"Do you fancy my writing or me?"


"What are we going to do about that?"


"Well, better do something or I'll just go out to the dam with Fatty."

She wanted action. I said I was married and she was a young student.

"And this would be the first time that ever happened?"

She had an answer for it all. "And anyway, I'm not so young as you think," she said. "Didn't I serve in the Army? And aren't they paying for my education? Me with a rifle, mind you! With the International Peace Keepers."

"You were in the army?"

"I was. In Beirut, Lebannon."

"What was that like?"

"Beautiul country. Beautiful."

"But wasn't it dangerous?"

"They only shot us up the one time and we just got low and never returned fire."

I kissed her and we took a bottle of single-blend to a Knight's Inn Motel room and I remember sheets of wind dotted by snow flowing down and I tasted her and made her delirious. She was still on my tongue when I got fired and my wife wasn't there anymore, ever, all because of this Irish girl. Her flavor was like a burn on my tongue, under everything sweet or salty.


You know how I get up is when I open my eyes, I chug cold coffee by the bed and roll over until the caffeine from the Blue Mountain Jamaican is in my bloodstream making me happy and active so I can forget bad dreams.

What dream do I not want to think about, this late morning in rain gusts with the movie channel showing The Blue Dahlia?

You don't want to write about the dream. You try to forget the fucker but here it is. You go into a tent in some eastern Algeria place and a dog carcass is rotting there, torn half open. You look inside the dog and a hive of maggots is wetly throbbing. Maggots cover the exposed guts. The dog is still alive. There are other dogs whining, being eaten by maggots.

You think, Kill the dogs somebody!

You try to do it. It's a mess. One dog changes into a beautiful woman. She has sharp features. She wears a white blouse and a red skirt. She comes at you. She wants a kiss. You know she is bursting with maggots. Busy maggots. These eating things give a silvery cast to her living eyes. In real life, rain slashes on the glass.

I brew more Blue Mountain and read about shad fishing in a magazine. Push-pinned to the wall is a postcard of a Porsche in tones of aluminum and chrome.


Later, Shorty interprets, "The girl full of maggots was that worm lady neighbor. Obviously. What you were scared of. Symbolic is all."

We're in a bar with fluorescent strip lighting and particle board, as joyless a place as a field hospital in war. Gale force lake winds splatter nails and broken glass rain over fields like iron and the vineyards around us are lumpy black and the gray lake is a half sky.

"The woman is his mother," Gary says. He's spanking a cigarette pack, tamping all the tobacco before he opens it.

"What the fuck his mother?"

Gary says, "Who is dead and coming to him in his trances asking for a hug? A girl? But who is really dead and got eaten by, excuse me, George, fuckin' worms man? Dream's a warning." Gary is in a black T and his shoulders are a yoke of hilly muscles and his biceps swell and he's wearing a leather cuff with stitching in cursive: Pale Rider.

Shorty gobbles pain pills for his arthritis. Drinking Crown Royal. "You know though?" he goes, "I can't believe I am saying this. I think he's right, George."

I know. Me too.

"I am right. From so many the delirium tremens and seeing the craziest shit. But I think about it so I don't miss anything," Gary says.

I ask him if he thinks about his DTs, really? He has a hooked nose and his upper lip caves where there are not teeth and he frowns.

"Fuck yes. They are messages from god. Like maybe you don't want to know your biological father. Maybe your mother even killed him or something."

"Gary," says Shorty. "I seriously fuckin doubt that."


Another life I wrecked was when this girl, Sissy, who I loved, killed herself. Never mind about that. I lived with her. On the carpet in our place were long skid tracks, ten feet long, from her blood from when she crawled on her elbows towards a phone.


Foundry silt hangs like fog in the clamorous roaring exploding air, and gets in everything you wear or own and makes eyeliner and mascara on us and rings our nostrils, so with this silt on me and sipping Smirnoff after work next morning, I sit home unshowered, thinking about Russia. I think, Stalin? Eat me. KGB? Blow me.

Then I hypnotize myself and say, "You will go under and return to consciousness whenever you want, George, but you are going under and back back back-"

My father has a plaid suit and rubyred tie. He has oiled hair. The armchair is oxblood leather and he is grand, dandling a fireplace poker in his right hand as a lord might hold a walking stick, legs crossed knee on knee.

"Georgie, what the hell are you doing with the cat when I told you the cat will give you pinkeye? Mamie, what is Georgie doing with the pinkeye cat? Mamie, did we have a moron? Does he speak English?"

From the kitchen: He's two!

Smoke unreels from his cigarette. He pretends to cast, as with a fly rod, the fire poker. Several times. "His first words are gonna be, you know what, Mamie?"


"I got pinkeye from the fuckin cat."

I don't know. I'm driving on a chipped backroad, it's late April and more snow is due, and on TV I saw the Florida sun and park lights reflected off the plasticky batting helmet of a baseball player.

I don't have a car-this being Shorty's van with the seat pushed back far from the pedals.

"What the hell do I do with this, about my dad?"

"Doesn't matter," Gary says. "My old man-I wish he were just a lost memory who disappeared. My old man still busts my balls."

"He didn't look like me. We were in Ohio. He was kind of gay, how he was all dressed up with these cufflinks. Cufflinks that like were rubies and matched his tie. That just occurred to me."

"No no," Gary says. "They did that back then."

Crows blow over in the wind like black rags.

"Go back and talk to this Ohio father and ask him why the fuck he left you is what I would do." Gary blows smoke and uncaps a pint. "I mean take something from this shit you can use."

No, I tell him.

"I used to think then was better than now. I used to think that when I was little, the reason for everything including messing up was fuckin implanted in me. Or like I was coded and now I should break the code."

"Isn't that still true? You were molded by something, man."

We drive right down to the lakefront where there are birch trees and the lake water is hard and black and there are big white arcs where the frozen parts go liquid. You will always see gulls around here.

No, I'm old and I see beyond Gary, beyond myself, and that I don't matter in my life. It's fucking stupid to think about the mythology of me, the me-ness of everything. That won't bring back my father, mother, Sissy or anything. Nor will that explain nothing, nor will I discover anything but that there was a house and a willow tree and everywhere are ghosts.


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 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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