James Robison


I try to sleep on Miriam’s silk divan, can’t, and walk far in a snowstorm to some 24 hour porn booth where a grinding projector blasts a movie of pale people and I leave and walk two blocks over to the White House. Nixon is president.

Around three a.m. and out here, white flecks angle. Every day more cover-up stuff explodes so the air crackles with crisis and I circle the property wondering, Is he up? Some lights are on. Wind slashes the bushes and certainly microphones hear my crunching boots and hidden cameras pivot on me, back in the deep hood of a parka with the Trotsky glasses, snow-fogged. It is quiet and nobody’s out. Maybe only me and Nixon are awake and the nation sleeping.

I go round The Treasury and the sodium vapor streetlights of D.C. make the gloom yellowish-pink and in a setback of wall of Hoover’s FBI I drink a half pint of King James Scotch and chase it with a True Blue cigarette. I live in West Virginia, but more in dipso-fantasyland and am a tourist in sum, trusting myself to the treacherous keeping of hard spirits, a stranger to self-belief and my nation’s capitol both.

My breath and smoke pink in the dark light, me skidding along New York Avenue, smashed. I’m on 18th  Street alone and I see this Octagon House, which I know about because sad Patty told me yesterday how the White House was half burned in some war, so President Madison lived in this Octagon place for a while and she said, “It’s really haunted.”

“No, listen, Billy,” Patty’s mother, Miriam, said, “I don’t believe in ghosts either but I was in there alone one afternoon in late fall. Just alone with no guards, about to close, and I could feel something following me. Something was there.”

In the upwash illumination, snowfall and branches blush hot and I go over, right up to a window–it’s high off the ground–and inside on the ceiling, moving around is a pool of candlelight and then the glow moves and now is ascending stairs inside. Down by my ankles a voice barks and I jump 47 feet.

It’s just a gratings person, lying on the sidewalk in gushed warm air from the subway, in a cloud of dirty heat, so as not to freeze to death or have to go to a shelter. This person is spun in rag blankets and towels wrap its head. Voice like a cough. I go, “Hi.”

I’ll give me this much:  My heart’s banging around and I keep walking and for a drunk, no map, first time in D.C., I get around. Patty and I are staying at her widowed mother’s Watergate apartment.

Six am but still dark back there and in her azure housecoat, Miriam makes coffee. Patty’s dad died in some car wreck in Rock Creek Park, 1959, and now Miriam is on Senator Philip Hart of Michigan’s staff and adores him and cares for him.

She says, “Where were you? Don’t you ever sleep? You look blue.”

“I went to see my president.”

“Long walk for nothing. You did not sleep?”

No. I can’t join the diurnal rhythms. I’m usually awake through a two day/night cycle, (endless nights with TV signed off at one am, so just a bottle and a Pittsburgh station on the radio) until sooner or later (who knew when it would?) drink swallows me. Bed had squashed Miriam’s hair cone, she was losing her chin and kohl blurred her eyes.

“Billy you’ll die, drinking at dawn,” she says and fans at my Scotch fumes and looks over and says, “Enter Ophelia, distracted,” because here comes sleepy Patty for coffee with her long legs and her long wrists and long blonde hair and says, “Brr.”

So coffee and cigarettes, Patty’s bare knees pressed together and black socks in the morning kitchen, and Miriam says, “Oh, you would never guess!” and tells how she has dropped off papers to Teddy Kennedy’s house recently in person.


“And. He was decorating a Christmas tree with his shirt off. The most beautiful man you ever saw.”

Patty and I are 24 and living in a hilly West Virginia river town and she works at The Red Dragon Chinese food and I do not work.  Her older brother teaches law at Georgetown and his wife is a beautiful lawyer getting a doctorate in Library Science at Catholic–so Patty’s whole family is here being smart–and they want us to move to Washington D.C. and go to school and be rich and articulate but I hold out. I just blow around and hide. As long as there are cigarettes and whiskey, what the fuck do I care?

The Watergate has an arcade of little shops, one being a fru fru grocery where I go that morning with sad Patty. She’s always sad. I have pinched an old leathery scrap of a bill, a twenty, from my Miriam’s purse, reasoning it’s so tatty, you know? And buy four fifths of a quart of White Horse and a carton of True Blues. We see a famous ex-Russian ballet dancer pushing a little carriage full of produce.

“He is gorgeous,” Patty tells her mother upstairs and he was, yes. All these beautiful guys and then me, total shit. Out the windows barge clouds on fluid sky. The Watergate apartment has big orange table lamps and is a warren of halls and rooms.

My girlfriend has another sibling in D.C., a kid sister, Jamie, a girl named Jamie, and Jamie’s husband, Malcolm Thayer calls, I think. I’m happy about these two books I am reading; one is The Voyeur and one is I forget, in the Watergate apartment where the color TV shows Nixon news. Somebody calls and says Malcolm needs a prescription filled and can we help?

So, sure, says Patty. Billy will come for you in about ten minutes.

Why did everybody think I was the best driver since Graham Hill [he was this great Gran Prix driver then]? Everybody is always, “Let Billy drive.  Billy will drive,”  even though I was ceaselessly swackered. You know that group Mothers Against Drunk Driving? If they knew–

Patty says to me, “You can find their place. It’s just…see this map? Here we are and here’s them.”

Miriam adds, “Yeah, Billy, take New Hampshire to K-”

I sigh a plume of smoke, and zip my jacket. Just parking a car in D.C. cost what an apartment does back home, but somebody has found a one-week place for our Pinto and to locate again this tiny wedged corner I ballpointed on the back of my hand Prkng Grage B, Flr Two, Sec 8a,  so I get my car and shuffle and shunt it, with its bald tires whizzing and screaming on ice, free of its cubby and take it out into murderously complex, round and round frozen D.C. city to find Indiana Street where Jamie and Malcolm live. He’s on the curb in a tweed suit and his Burberry trenchcoat beating him like a flag and his cashmere muffler waves and a creased leather bag is strapped with brass buckles off a shoulder.

“Going to court?” I say. He turns on me his damp and wary gaze, shakes his head. “I cannot see this being much trouble,” he says, trying to sound normal and as if he were not better than I, I think. He has said he is a graduate of Harvard Law, and tells us he’s putting together, from-the-ground-up, a political campaign and shopping law firms and he told us once, he goes, “I dearly love Jamie. I will give her,” he says, “the best of everything.”

Now I say, “So, where we aimed?”

Slush splatters the windshield and the Pinto’s wipers whack, shoving it clean and we sit through a few dozen successions of this while he stares at nothingness.  “Which pharmacy, Malcolm? You wanted to get a prescription?”

And, Jesus Christ, for no reason, he yells at me,“Straight! Go straight! “

“Holy crap, all right.” And I find first gear.

And we go to a Rexall in a Federalist style building with cold trees and we go into this drug store with the huge teardrop jugs of blue water and perfume soaking the air and Christmas garlands up still. This pharmacist is old: brittle hair, a knife-slash mouth, lab coat. Malcolm goes into a conference-like pose, a counsel will now approach the bench posture to say in a low voice:

“Has Dr. Massoud from George Washington Hospital contacted you, regarding the prescription for Thayer, Malcolm? M-A-L–”

“Prescription for what, Mr. Thayer?”

“The light pills?”  In a whisper. “My light pills?”

Here comes a huge song and scuffle about, There are no such thing as light pills, and then Malcolm saying how if he doesn’t get them his brain will run out of energy and catastrophic things will ensue. Doctor Massoud surely explained all this?

At the same time, I see Malcolm’s striped cotton French cuff with no link and one screwy thread loose in this pricey shirt, and just that thread twisting makes it clear to me he’s not Harvard, not a lawyer, not running for office, not anything but crazy. Schizophrenic people, (don’t ask even how I knew this), their sweat can smell metallic and cutting and Malcolm smells this way, through his shave balm and wet wool and shoe wax, comes this I AM A LOON stink.

The pharmacist looks an appeal to me, What the Deuce? (is how I imagined he’d say it) but I’m wearing whited-out glasses and drunk. A black security guy moseys up; they have uniformed security.

I go, “Malcolm, stand over there a minute,” and then I try to get the pharmacist to put some aspirin or candy or something in a vial and charge Malcolm two dollars or something just to get him calm.

Panic tears Malcolm to mewling shreds and he blubbers, afraid for his poor brain and how it needs these pills to keep him thinking, living.  I mean, we always all thought he was maybe cracked, but not full blown Grand Canyon. So I say, “Where’s the harm? Put some Lifesavers in a bottle. Look at him.”

“Just you listen to me. Get your friend to a hospital.”

“Everything okay?” asks the black guard with these big arms.

“My rights are being violated. I’m an attorney.”

“Shut up, Malcolm,” I go. “No, everything is fine.”

Guard: “Have you been drinking, sir?”

And so on. Back in the Pinto, Malcolm shakes. “Billy,” he says.  “Oh, man, Billy, a little help, please,” and his voice comes up from hell to me.

“If all you need are light pills?” I go, “I know where we can get some.”

“You do?” He’s like going to hug me, but catches himself the poor fucker. “But this is legally? I have a reputation. My reputation is everything to me. Legally?”

Back home years ago I had a part collie dog and he trusted me and I’d ask him, “You want to go for a ride?” and of course Lucky did, he loved it, with the head out the window for the feast of odors and his ears blowing around, so he yelped and bucked to the car, ecstatic, but one time he didn’t know he was going to the veterinarian–which he hated most of anyplace on the planet. And I feel almost that bad, betraying Malcolm with this big lie this day about pills. “Of course legally. I’ll drop you on this corner and be back in ten minutes.”

I buy him some Tic Tacs and put them in an amber vial from my duffle in the trunk and scrape off the label which says, Amoxicillin 500 mg orally 3 times a day for 7 to 10 days: antibiotics for a soft tissue infection after a car wreck I’d been in where I’d torn my lip about a year ago in Chillicothe, Ohio. Then I drink from my flask, pop pop pop, and then pick him up. I’m like, “All right. Okay, go easy with these and wash them down with water. Lots of it.” I find a place to park on his apartment’s street and only about seventy blocks away.

I don’t know.

He isn’t an idiot. I think he knows the pills are candy. He’s humoring me. The wind’s bad and there’s no sun. I see a poster for the new Hirshorn Museum on the Mall.

Their place is nice, with white walls, dark wood floors. Coming in, I yell, “Mission accomplished.”

And Jamie half-falls over at me, crying, in pajamas and dirty blonde and hugs me and is a different shape from her sister. In a terry robe. With Panda stains around her eyes from no sleep. Her lips close to my ear, whispers, “Oh, Billy, he’s just so bad off. I can’t deal.” I see Malcom in his rep tie looking at the bottle. Feet planted. Looking dolefully at the bottle. I say to her, “Conference.”

I always carry the pint flask and I have whiskey with tea in their nice kitchen with its French cookware, leaf cornices. Jamie and I at the Butcher Block table and she tells me things. Malcolm’s family has money and he gets a big allowance and has ten credit cards and still they’re dead broke, in the red, because Malcolm spends in Georgetown tons for shirts, ties, Persian rugs, platinum pen sets. He interviews people for a campaign staff she says and then, goes, “I know, go ahead, laugh, it is funny, I agree.”

I do like the idea of some Yale graduate nervously going all out to get hired by Malcolm, I do. But I get deeply drunk and weary and do actions. I called Miriam’s lawyer and find out how to get Malcolm committed for a spell and where and what papers need to be signed by who and find out a physician in ER can admit him meanwhile, long enough for better arrangements, and I do a lot of this detective work and call their banks and then credit card companies to cancel Malcolm’s  accounts and then call even Malcolm’s father’s attorney in Pittsburgh and a doctor I know in Wheeling.

I make Malcolm wash down three Tic Tac Light Pills with two fingers of Scotch in soda water and he gets happy. “Goddamnit, I didn’t think they were legal,” he says. “I thought, forgive me, black market fakes. All I have is my good name, Billy. I will not sully that.”

I go, “No. They are real.”

“Oh, I know. I know that. I can feel them already.”

So the drink is helping him so I pour more. “Let’s be safe. Take three extras. And then you want to go for a ride?”

Next is confusion. I got lost in the car and spun the car off the road twice and then back onto the road and drove around with Malcolm and it was sunset and orangey out and I was lost and it was darkening and purplish dark and a magnificent sight was the Lincoln Memorial and I remember next George Washington Hospital ER and some cops and Malcolm punched me in the face wearing his fraternity ring and this made the cops mad at me and how their cop lights thrashed the black sky, blue red blue red, and I went into a sewer place, a sewer of the mind, and decided to park the car at sec 8a, whatever, and walk to the Executive Office Building and bang on the door, which it was lucky I didn’t, or I would have been shot naturally.

Okay. Malcolm is stowed and I’m awake more, anyway, with a broken nose, black eyes, dried frozen blood on my winter coat and the fogged glasses so I walk straight into a pole and then a column, and miss the curb and fall, and thrice slide and sit down hard on the sidewalk like a silent movie comic.

And this is a snarled time with no normalness. I was poisoned and loose.  Patty’s brother and sister-in-law find me, or something, but next we are all eating in this crowded chichi Georgetown restaurant with a fireplace snapping and lots of buzzing and tweed and sweater-with-pearls cool women and I am drinking a Mouton Cadet, which is like water to me and has no effect on me, and eating roasted chicken and the Attorney General comes in, John Mitchell, and it looks as if somebody inflated his face. Popped red face. Cashmere topcoat.  Two bodyguards.  His wife, Martha Mitchell,is a huge thing at the time. He has the basset hound droop, the air of a beaten human, but everyone gets quiet for a second. Power.

The Secret Service men look me over, being hard eyed and detailed, and tell their cuffs all about me. I am flattered.

Too, the meal talk is freighted with accusations (I know now because of the guilt of putting away Malcolm) but Patty says she is sad so many boys in our class were killed in Vietnam, or are just there, and why, in the name of decency, wasn’t I doing anything? But in my professional defense, her beautiful sister-in-law lawyer, says that there is moral precedent for someone putting reason above blind patriotism and then they talk about the chances of these leaks and this break-in at the Watergate getting to Nixon, to his job.

“Nobody cares! He was just re-elected,” the law-knowedgeable say, “His job? That’s absurd.”

“I think it could happen,” Patty says. “I read this thing that it might.”

Her older brother, in black suspenders and a dotted tie, goes, “See, you’re always woebegone because you’re like Miriam, like Mom. It’s good to be an idealist, but you believe things will change like in a movie. The bad guys lose? What happens is the good guys get cancer.”

And they’re all tearing apart each other, even about the morality of Malcolm in the nut hatch, and I think, “We do have the Attorney General of the United States and about three dozen lawyers in the place to decide anything,” but I feel the sleep crash coming. That’s when you just go. Lights out. I’ve been up for a decade or two and stupor is coming so I stand and zombie for the door and the ice blast of night.

I hear behind me, from many voices, my name.

Walk down K and buy a coffee at a walk-in store and try to keep the engine running by thinking about The Voyeur. About the Gauloise package of cigarettes in the book. About detection of various varieties and investigations and guilt and then magically there’s an international tobacco store open and I spend 2.75 on a box of 20 Gitane Mais and they’re yellow in the blue box with the airbrushed gypsy dancer and I light one which punches me in the chest. It’s dirty spicy smoke and I see a shirt in a window with stripes and French cuffs. I see handmade shoes in a window and wooden lasts.

There is a point to all this.

I awaken chortling on the silk divan, a day and night later, feeling temporarily wonderful because I have put down so much eyewash that I’m still drunk. I can’t see and my knees burn and back aches and I can’t breathe well. Someone covered me in a comforter into which I had spun myself, like the gratings person. I have equally to pee and drink water, urgently and straight away, both. I want to shave too.

In the shaving mirror, lathered, looking into my bullethole eyes-

Did I remember everything that happened in that last awake epic? Mostly. Some things (the pharmacist’s razorslash mouth) vividly. Did I feel bad? About anything? No, I felt bad about everything. Feeling bad was existence at that time.

Did I see parallels between the insanity of Thayer, his insistence on his own rectitude and his delusional political self with the disastrous missteps of the President of the USA? Not until writing this, many years later and furthermore, I wonder if the sense of wars raging, threatening, domestic and distant wars, made intoxication a beneficent response?

Malcolm Thayer, he and Jamie divorced. He spent only two weeks in care, launched a West Virginia Republican Gubernatorial campaign in 1983, which was sunk fast when his primary opponents released the records of his past and there were nut houses, two drug arrests, one resisting arrest, (nothing about breaking my honker, the prick, plus I still have a scar where his big probably-sham ring gashed me) and then one January morning, 1992, my mother came from the kitchen–I was sheltering over with her–and said, “Did you see, Malcolm Thayer died?”


“Well it doesn’t say. His folks would keep all that quiet. Born in 1944 so it wasn’t old age.”

She said she saw him standing on a Wheeling downtown street corner tearing open his mail and throwing it into the street only a few weeks ago. Dressed, she said, very nicely and talking to himself.

And now, 2012, I’m thinking in my gravel gray suit, silver car, white hair of which I have a divot’s worth, wristwatch silver and burnished by Atlanta sun–I am thinking everybody is gone. Patty’s lawyer older brother and his wife dead, both from cancer. Jamie killed in London, England, by a terrorist. Is that crazy? I do not know what got Miriam. Age or the cigarettes or when Senator Philip Hart died, Patty said, her mom just gave up on life. Patty is alive out there, sad and disappointed and, like everyone else in this story, not mine to help or hurt anymore.


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