James Robison

Imagination Is The Dynamic Of History

I need the Jeep for its bite on the mud stew and porridge incline and I like throwing the stick, grinding uphill and how you lose hold and glide back in a swivel slide so you cram the clutch, L- down the stick to first, pop, and both axles and four tires chomp and you’re riding now a steady sure thing up the yellow hill.  To its crest. Red trees to see and my cell ring-tones: Dolly Parton “When I Get Where I’m Going.”

“Are you seeing Betty Timpson, Uncle Jim?”                 

I say, “Lolly! Yes. Somebody’s got to offer sympathy.”

“True, but poor poor you.”

I know because it’s obvious her husband Fred didn’t die in an accident but killed himself. I’m up here under turkey buzzards, splayed high up on gray clouds and talking to my niece.

And I go, “Even in an advanced state of stupid? Even like blind drunk high, I mean, who would cross a million open acres and find little tracks and park of all places there?”

Lolly is 42, a keeper of horses and daughter of my sister, Leah, and through my Samsung phone says: “Like, the train horn had to be blasting. And out there, at night, you hear it far away. And see the light miles away.”

I hate to think about it. Braying train and headlights from two miles away: Hey asshole! I’m coming closer louder closer louder closer.

Fred, in his black Pathfinder on the tracks, waiting, probably drinking and waiting on the CSX coal train running empty to Wheeling with 180 hopper cars to smash him to hell at 2am last Sunday—

Bye, Leah, and I drive down and it’s 10am, September rain and I have whiskey in my canvass jacket and rain falls in the open Jeep. I got a hat.

Oh my god, Betty is ugly and mean with almost no nose and crossed eyes like a drawing by a third grader. Softly and funereally, I ask, “How are you doing, Betty?”

“How’m I doing? Well, you just missed the party with six male strippers and the trick dog. How do you think? Where did you get that hat? Throw it away!”

Trick dog? I like that idea. 

I toss the hat and rainy wind somersaults it off and she lets me in the blue house with Fred’s chair and a giant TV.

“Jim, I’m in grief. I hate Fred so much right now.”

We talk for a while with this instant coffee she makes, more bitter than crow bile. It knifes the gut and she has a box of cream-filled cookies.

“Thank god we own this house outright and Fred had some money and a pension—“

I’m nodding yes, but thinking, Would this trick dog wear a cone hat and pants? Bow tie? I hug her and say nice things and go, but have to find my corduroy hat with a bill. It’s in wet daffodils.

Out under priceless black walnuts one-hundred-years old and sycamores with silver trunks and gold leaves. 

There’s Rural Route 4 which is skinny. The Irish woman in Ohio does art and with her husband they have a blackface sheep ranch too. Her husband’s out front with hanging hair.

“Well, Nick,” I say,”bad night then?”

“Christ, bye, ‘twas rainin rivers.” Which I love that he’s calling me at age sixty-six “boy” One, and Two, saying it as “bye.”

I go, “It was a dark and stormy night. And how did Iris hold up?”

“Shay never noticed. Ripped to the tits, fall-down drunk. Ha!”

“I’m sorry. How’s she feeling, now?

“Now, you say? In her stewed-jo no worse for it, having a go at da cage ting. S’art, see?”

“And good art, in my view.” I like her sculptures which are steel rectangles with legs and chain mesh parts.

Their house is the highest thing all round and grass paths fall east and north. Drizzle gusts in sheets and we go in the studio under glass shed roofs where Iris wears a welder’s helmet, with cable reels from her torch to the canister and charger, links and clamps on the art, her torch flaring, as she is melting a part to a frame standing in sparks spangling, blowing in white jets and flowers.

Nick yells, “Lookit there, bye, your fookin ting goes behin t’other see? And t’other’s standin oop straight, solid as Sunday, proudern brass.”

Iris quiets her flame, cocks up her visor. Her blue-black hair shines.

“Like a baste openin his jass,” Nick yells, “all sweaty red n like ta die!”

Iris says, “I‘ll fook this up, sure, just you watch.”

“You never,” Nick says, “ya big dare-tee garl. “

Nick laughs at their youngest, Sally, two. “She wants oop on mammy’s hip to ride round, bein tall like alloos…Lookit dem bairnt red cheeks!”

She to me: “So give us a dot of your good whisky, Jim. “

“Well, no, I think no,” Nick says. “I’ll take him out in the sheep yard,” Nick says and I think he says “shipyard.”

Where it’s all muck, tin puddles of sky, trough of water, two dozen blackface sheep, coughing and croaking bleaters and whingers.

“Greedy tings, they et all the clover and pasture. We feed ‘em  silage.”

“What was Iris’s work like before the cages—“

“Solid, squire boxes, like coffins for boooks.”


Does God Exist And If So, Why is God So Hard on Us? Is the name of my popular undergrad philosophy class and I take the jeep to campus and I’m in my office when my nephew, Lawrence, called “Law” by everybody, phones me from Afghanistan and asks what I’m doing. I tell him making notes about god.

He laughs. “God? Okay. Some very religious guys where I am, buried another guy up to the neck and kicked his head around until it was a bloody cabbage, Uncle Jim, then they finished burying his head alive. They coulda shot him, you know? And they’re gobbling and cheering and wearing the throw cushions on their heads.”

“I’m sorry you have to see that shit,” I say.

“Well, but I didn’t call for pity. What I called for is to ask a philosopher and metaphysical guy and a moral man—this is you I’m talking about—why the fuck shouldn’t I have shot the guy out of mercy. And. Shouldn’t I shoot all those assholes?  Wouldn’t god want that?”

“I mean, you could look at it this way.”  So I tell him about the war horrors and terrors in The Illiad and how Simone Weil calls the inevitable brutality "the force," and how she suggests that barbarism be considered as a permanent and universal human characteristic, but only Homer or a person such as himself, my nephew, can understand Christ truly, how such force demands a redeemer, one who has gone through a ghastly ordeal.

“Gotcha. But next time I’m just gonna shoot off their heads,” he says.

He won’t.

He’s a good guy and out my office window I see, wet, the quad and the old campus buildings, the church with bells and misty pond.


Night falls and rainfall. I have the nice Armani suit and scarlet tie.  We go out to a sports bar in the city, I and B Bobby 9, who is the university’s Visiting Writer. He writes songs. He chants books. He is a coveted entity and we are envied for grabbing him.

“Man you ain’t but 13,” B Bobby 9 says to this drunk kid of color out front.

“Izzz chill bluyh chak less [burp] fukpt. “ 

“Drunk lil nigger, not one person can understand you. Shorty, you a bad ass nigger, lookit. Back offa me.” Pushing the boy away.

“Leave that tiny person of color alone,” I say.

“You killin’ that suit, Methulusa.”

“I think it looks good.”

“Aight. Shorty gonna be sick, though.”

The little person of color pukes all over the sidewalk outside the sports bar and wipes his chin, saying, “Damn.”

“You’all can’t play off that Gray Goose. It come back on you,” B Bobby 9 advises.

“You not wrong,” goes the youngster.

Look how in this night  people park near the long sinkhole in rain and warning signs gleam like tail lights. We are there in the rain with the sidewalk blood red. Red lights:  DRINKS ALL NITE blink DRINKS ALL NITE blink.

Inside. On plasma TV news, CNN has live pictures of a dead man. “One less mouf on da welfare, bro.”

“B Bobby 9, you are no credit to anything.”

“That’s just the way it is, Old White. Dissociative sensibility. Ain’t nobody tell you life is fair. I’m man enough to speak the truf.” B Bobby 9’s stirring his mojito and I see the handle of a Smith & Wesson M&P Compact in his belt, dead black as a tree snake. “I am not Martin Loofah, ‘kay? I had my soljas. I sold da rock y’all. Aight? ”

“You were acquitted, I thought.”

“The POLice fucked up or my ass would be in the penitentiary. Bless me cocksucka for I have sinned. Now I be busting rhymes all OVER hell, the poet lariat, bra. Noose you in.”

“Isn’t that a gun I see?”

“You smart, Old Whitey, it is a gun. Ize why you livin in the gated community. Like that’s gonna stop a nigger! Gated. Old Whitey sleepin, thinkin, my ass is safe, it is gated.”

Time passes.  We bet on a fight, football, both lose, drink, leave, I sleep like the old.

Now it is dawn.

Weak as a leaf. I can hardly get out of bed to fetch the restorative good good coffee. The good black necessary coffee. Breakfast the traditional pop of twenty-five year old Glenlivet Nadura Single Malt Scotch Whisky and an Altoids and Prilosec, then at work the dynamic Naomi, the department secretary, the school’s turbine engine and true brain, forty-five years old at her desk in the department’s foyer office, relentlessly plotting everyone’s day, night, months, retirement, memorial services. Thighs like needle-nosed pliers, clasped shut, wedge of smooth hair, fingers nipping a keypad; she is blue in the blaze of three HP 27-inch LED monitors. I am acting Chair of the CAS for Fall Semester.

“You will say this at the meeting in conference room 1000A downstairs in eight minutes.” And gives me papers.

Good morning. Following on the information provided by Diana Glass, which you should all have in the folders in front of you, the university is now planning for a quote resulting net cut of  one million nine hundred thousand five hundred and sixty five dollars end quote. [smile warmly] and a proportional cut as per paper ten. Karlheiz and Suzi from CAS representing their Q E P studies and outcomes committees, have reported, Quote everything is on the table end quote.

And so forth.

“What’s this about ‘and wash your car?’”

“No! That’s me saying to you, Doctor V, please wash that car and come here a second, you idiot.”

I pretend to gag and be choked to death and pop my eyes while she straightens my tie and smoothes it.


This is a gated community, true, with a booth and two watchmen and CCTV cams like sleek birdhouses stuck up all over and communal yards and a party house with pool and health spa and short trees with rain sparkly leaves and wet polished shrubs and chrysanthemums. 

My sister’s visiting, whisking in my wide kitchen, clickity snick in a bowl making aioli to put on grilled vegetables and a Chimay Belgian Trappist Monk’s Ale bottle stands up empty by her. Her weight rounds and thickens her shoulders and I pat her neck on the nape where the hair’s pulled up.

I say, “Wannanother ale?  Better act fast ‘cause the way that school is losing money, it’ll be tap water and living in a dumpster soon.”

Leah whaps an overhead cupboard and gets down flour and my heart sings because I love to watch her with the pin and board and dough. “I might have another, yes.”

“I might join you.”

“Did you drive from school, Jim? Because I hate to say this, but you seem drunk.”

“I talked to both Lolly and Law since I saw you, although neither had any news or anything. Just saying,’Hey.’”

“Lolly lost her job, I bet she didn’t tell you? I can’t even think about Law. Oh, I wish I believed because all I‘d do is pray. Please just bring him back alive, every waking minute.”

“I talked to Betty Timpson yesterday. She’s no picnic but doing all right—“ Leah’s hands are now powdered white and she smacks them on her apron.

I fetch her an ale and pry the stopper and ale sizzles and she slurps foam and then settles into long gulps and belches and says, “I checked the Sentra taillight for you and all’s that’s wrong is a part I can get from Autozone and stick it in. It’s a half hour job, once you have the part. Then you’re back on the road.”

It would not be politic here, or now, to show too much gratitude.  I pour myself some pale Scotch in a highball glass.

She says, “Isn’t it selfish and immoral and evil of you to drive drunk? Forget you. I mean the danger to others, Jim.”

Well, I tell her I’m not and wasn’t drunk but I did pass the crossroad for my own house.  “To get righted I turned around on Evening Street. It’s funny ‘cause I used the driveway of the dead minister. I used his drive to pull in, you know? Back back out, getting turned around.”

“Didn’t he marry you? The dead minister?”


“At the Methodist Church—”


“—on the village green in Spring. Wasn’t it the Methodist Church? Reverend, oh, whatwasit? Boyle?” 

“Doyle. No, it wasn’t him.”

“Mom loved that day. The light through the glass and I remember the blossoms were like snow.”

“That’s Ray’s wedding you’re thinking. Actually mine was St. John’s on the other side of the green in the Fall. And Father something, with a lisp. Remember? ‘I now pronounth you...’ Everything blowing around in the fucking Fall?”

My wife and our brother Ray are both dead.

I drain my drink and go down the hall through the study, where pale blue wallpaper has chinoiserie ornamentation in pink and green, showing a junk on rippling seas over and again, and by a cherry desk with a brass library lamp and a laptop.

Out the bathroom window straddling the bowl, waiting on a stream, I see a staked and guyed three-year-old Tulip sapling throwing a blue shadow. Black and red raspberry canes spear the bushes that hem the backyard garden, everything with sequins of rain. Two units south, I see clearly, a woman’s giant freckled hand squeeze a wedge of lemon over asparagus tips and chopped shallots glazed with olive oil decorated with tarragon leaves in a roasting pan on a huge TV screen in razory sharp color.

In the wide kitchen, I ask, “You remember when we were kids and we all used to go over to Uncle Robert’s? Because he had one of the first televisions? “

Leah’s roller pin rumbles across a sheet of dough.

“I know! They didn’t have anything to put on TV so they put on like a men’s glee club. And we’re all sitting around, staring. Like, Okay. That’s fine with us.”

Leah has a face like our dead brother, Ray. People like such faces. How can strangers tell from a face that its owner is generous and will help you?

I say, “You remember the little dog—”

She yelps, “How could I ever forget that? It’s all you talked about for years.”

The TV screen was round and the image blurred and green and some dick was selling cars when on two legs upright, out walked a dog in pants and a bow tie and with a cone hat. It skoppled around the stage, in circles, with large eyes. The dog was why I became a philosopher.

Leah passes a linebacker’s forearm over her hairline, smoothing. “You were possessed. You kept asking if I thought the dog was having fun.” 

Ray wasn’t yet born.

“You know, I took Alina to the lake when we were married for a month or two, in like 1971.”

Leah says, “I miss her.”

“I’ve never told anyone—ever ever this. There was a black mountain rising to the train station up above these bluffs and we were at the lake, and as I sit here, I swear this to you. Over the bluff comes these lights in a circle. Big as a carousel and spinning colors like a carousel but in the air and this thing comes down, oh, two-hundred yards, and then hangs in front of us, like it doesn’t care we can see it. It was churning up the water. It didn’t make any noise. It hung like a spinning two-hundred foot chandelier, spinning and green and blood red and it hung there, spinning and quiet, and then, poof. Not ‘poof’ as in abracadabra. Just, like—”

I crack together my palms.

“That! Bang. It was up and gone.”

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m just—everybody’s got a story like that and I wasn’t there, but, I’m sorry. I just don’t believe it was some outer space thing.”

In my living room is a worn Persian rug and a pine sideboard. China plates shine. It’s not that I think or care what the UFO object was, it is that I felt myself like a trick dog under its scrutiny. All dressed up, looking grim, moving through life for the amusement of something watching and listening.

James Robison

<em>Edit Fiction</em> James Robison

James Robison won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, Grand Stree, The Manchester Review and The New Yorker.