R is for Robin

For twenty minutes every other day, John and Paloma Palumbo would lie down on her bed next to each other without quite touching. Sometimes she would scratch his back, although he had to balance the pleasure of this against the distaste he had for reciprocating. It wasn’t the broadness of her back or the smell of her embroidered sweatshirts; mostly it was just the boredom that set in after thirty seconds of being the scratcher not the scratchee.

Because after a while you either have to keep saying, “Over here? There? That good? Yeah? Like that?” or you have to trace out different shapes or patterns with your hands to keep things interesting. With Paloma John usually avoided the former technique for being overly sexual, so he often found himself broadly tracing out the letters of the alphabet on her back, which was in fact the same method behind his cunnilingus technique, learned from some movie or something.

Speaking of cunnilingus, which is Latin for “vulva lick,” in case you were wondering, John was reminded, on this gray day of Thanksgiving, several months into his Paloma sanctuary with the lead in his toes having crept up to his mid-calves, of a time when he was sorry.

“I should have told Noah,” he said to himself, though he spoke it aloud as he no longer heard the distinction anymore, “of the time my freshman year of college when I went over to that girl’s room with my roommate’s VHS copy of Cruel Intentions. And she gave me a really truly great blow job, top three all time top one at the time, and when she crept back up all I could say was, ‘I’d love to return the favor, but I have no idea how to do that.'”

“That sounds less about being sorry and more about being scared, at the time, and embarrassed, now.”

John leapt up from the bed. “You know WHAT Palumbo? I have had it up to HERE with your linguistic DISTINCTIONS!”

The only other one Paloma could think of was the time she’d made John some ziti and he had said thank you for the penne and she had corrected him and he had snapped her plastic fork in half, but by now she was well-versed in his occasional need to reclaim some sense of masculinity and she smiled and said, “Okay,” but he was already out the door, the weight in his legs no obstacle to his current determination.

She looked at the clock. He had shorted her three minutes of back-scratching. Some people just aren’t givers, she thought, and reached around to finish herself off.

It took John six hours to get the VHS and another eight to find himself in front of a strange door. He knocked. It opened. A young woman. John squinted, then held up a picture for comparison. Satisfied, he explained: “I’m John Lake.”

She squinted. “You’re fatter in the face than you used to be.”

“Yeah, yep, thank you. Anyway. Eight years ago you gave me a blow job – ”

“Top three all time,” she said.

“How did you know that? I mean, most of them hadn’t happened yet.”

“I could feel it.”

“Okay, well. Yes.” He cleared his throat. “So, as you also know, I never, well, you know what I never did.”

“Uh huh.”

He held up the VHS. “So I thought we could fix this real quick.”

“Is this some sort of My Name is Earl thing?”

“I don’t know what that means. I can assure you I’ve done this like three or four times now so I have a much better sense of it and am a little less afraid of it, but if you want give instructions, or call me Earl, that’s cool.”

“Honey? Who is it?” A man called from behind.

“John Lake,” she called back.

The man came to the door. Wedding rings. “You’re John Lake,” he said.


“My wife gave you a top three all time and you never paid her back.”

“How nice we all know the story.”

“You’ve sure made it hell on us mister, these last eight years.”


“Oh sure. It’s like her ability to trust men with erections was the city of Atlanta, and you were General Sherman.”

“Luckily he stepped in with his johnson, who we named President Johnson.”

“Because it led the delicate and sometimes racially divisive process of Reconstruction.”

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“And now I have a huge airport and CNN and great tax incentives but what price glory, John? What price glory?”

“I have no answer to that.”

A pause.

She shifted. “You know what they started calling me, in college, thanks to you?”

John figured this was rhetorical, and waited.

“The Giving Tree.”


“They, they called you The Giving Tree?”


“Wow.” John nodded, made little lip-pursing movements of empathy.

“But it’s okay,” her husband said. “Because I’m the old man who sits on her stump.”


“You know, like in the book. The old man comes and sits on the stump because he’s tired, John. He’s tired of dicks.”

“Yes. Well. This has been very enlightening for me.”

“Look, he’s doing it again.”

“Taking what he needs from us and leaving.”

“No no, no. I…offer’s still good here, but uh…even if that doesn’t…tickle your, you know. I guess I want to say, obviously…I’m sorry.”

Thunder, ominous, but in the distance. Finally, she spoke. “We don’t have a VHS player.”

“That’s okay,” her husband said. “I know it by heart.”

Cut to John leadenly walk home, sucking on Altoids. “It is finished,” he said aloud, surprising himself. He looked up at the clouds. He felt lighter with that sorriness gone from him. He looked at his house. It seemed flat and two-dimensional to him. So did the trees, like they were cut out of black paper for some shadow puppetry. So did his hands. He began to wonder, too late, if it was being sorry which kept him alive. This made him particularly susceptible to what was about to happen.

First he saw the can of trash perched on top of his car. Again.

“Seriously?! COME ON!”

He knocked on the door of the steely-haired man who had done this before.

The door opened, and a hand grabbed John by his collar, jerked him inside.


The door closed. Darkness, but John could see himself in the man’s wide wild eyes.

“Shh,” he said. “The ceremony’s starting.”

Some chanting began.

“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”

The wild man spoke. “From the seventeenth chapter of the book of Genesis, as written by Saint Phil of Collins. Throwing it all away, children. Throwing it all Away.”

Flashlights turned on. John saw that everyone was wearing clothes made out of trash. Elaborate headdresses with shoebox bases, pants made out of pizza boxes. And they each had a garbage bag with them.

“Communion,” the man said. Each person blindly put a hand in their bag and pulled something out. Whatever it was, they ate it.

“Don’t eat that,” John said to a man chewing a K-cup.

“He must, John. He must. It is how we remind ourselves of our connection to the great Away.”

“Uh huh.”

The wild man put a plastic bag over John’s head.

“What are you doing?!”

“You are still full of confusion, my son. We must sweat the false thoughts out of you.”

He held the bag over John’s head and others held John’s arms down until he became light-headed. As things went black, he saw Gladys, holding a baby.

The wild man removed the bag. John sucked air.

“John Lake. Ask yourself something. Where is Away?”


“When you throw something Away, where does it go?”

John looked at the other trash people. They looked back at him expectantly.

“The trash.”

“And where does the trash go?”

“The…trash place. The landfill?”

This brought excited whispers. “The son, the son, the son.”

The wild man slapped a tattered piece of paper into John’s hand. “The son,” he said. “Freshkills. Formerly the largest landfill on the planet. Now, they’re making it a park.”

The paper was a pamphlet on the new park. Which is real PS.

“But the son will rise!”

“We have faith, John, that someday the trash will come back, the son will rise up out of the earth, the body triumphant, to join the other members of the trinity, the Father – ”

Here he gave John another piece of paper, with information about all the trash floating around in space. Also real.

“And the Spirit.”

A third piece, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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“This trash is eaten by birds and fish, and birds and fish is eaten by us. The Spirit is already inside us, John. It is inside you. It is strong in you. You have thrown Away so much already. This is why I have given you the mark, three times, with the trash. Now you are prepared to answer.”

Two trash people began walking ceremoniously toward John, carefully holding something in their outstretched hands. The wild man took this thing from them, and wrapped it around John’s neck.

“This is an infinity scarf, John.”

“World without end,” the others whispered.

“I found it one day, in some trash. In a way, I found it in Away. It was a sign. You see, John, the infinity scarf has no end.”

The wild man fiddled with the scarf. “I still have no fucking idea how they made this thing.”

He snapped back to prophet mode. “This was the burning bush. No end. Just as trash has no end. And if trash has no end, nothing has no end. It goes Away, and Away is never nowhere. To you it may be out of sight, but to the poor people getting asthma from living next to your waste, or the poor people breaking their backs picking through your trash for rags and scraps, it’s as present as can be. Away, John, is always somewhere.”

He wrapped the scarf tighter around John’s neck.

“You are the one. Lead us out of our fear that this is all there is. Find life everlasting. Reduce, reuse, recycle yourself. Throw it all Away, John. Lives are thrown away every day what does it matter? She went Away, didn’t she? Maybe you’ll meet her again there.”

The others chanted, “Throw it Away, throw it Away” over and over as the Wild Man pushed John back through the house and out the door. Which he then slammed, leaving John in the cold, with the scarf.

Suddenly the door opened again. “Wait,” said the wild man. “Have you already apologized for the top three blowjob?”


“Okay just making sure. You don’t want that on your soul in case God is real and he judges you and sends you to hell. Thumbs up, Ace. Now go Away.”

Door slammed.

Back at the house, John could smell Paloma upstairs making her microwaveable Thanksgiving. The whole thing came in a box, including relatives.

“John is that you?” she called through the floor. “Uncle Albert’s asking for you.”

“Fuck Uncle Albert,” John muttered.

“What was that John??”

“I said, tell him SORRY! Sorry if I caused him any PAIN!”

He listened. Uncle Albert didn’t say a word. Which was so like him. John went to the fridge where he had a piece of pie he’d gotten from the diner special for today.

“Dessert first and last. No one can stop me.”

He ate the pie, remembering what it was like to eat one of his grandmother’s pies. “Johnny,” she called him, “likes my pies.”

In point of fact, he didn’t. But he ate the pies, one time two in a single weekend, because she made them for him.

“I’ve eaten a lot of things I didn’t want to eat,” he said aloud. He used to have to stay at the dinner table for endless stretches, cold food in front of him. But that was so far Away it seemed like a movie.

John walked to his closet. He opened the door. He pulled open the little folded step stool. Stood on it. Slipped one end of the infinity scarf over the hook at the top of the door. Then he kicked the stool away.

This time things didn’t go black. They went white. And a man stepped out of that whiteness.

“Hello,” he said, very calmly.

“Robin Williams!”

The man cocked his head. “Yes.” He smiled. “That is what they used to call me.” He started to float.

“Are you leading me Away?”

“No. I’m a figment of your oxygen-deprived brain, John. It’ll all be over in two shakes. Unless you think about why your brain might have summoned me, of all possible figments, in this your last moment of existence.”

Robin slowly began to fly, all over the house. “Look, John! I can fly! I forgot I could do that.”

John spoke weakly. “You remembered to fly when you remembered how to never grow up.”

Robin was backstroking through the air. “That’s right. I remember that. Do you remember how I did it, John?”

It came out in a whisper. “Happy…thought.” John’s eyes closed.

“But what was it? What was my happy thought?”

John’s eyes opened. He remembered Robin’s happy thought. Robin looked in his eyes; then he did too.

“That’s right. That’s what it was.”

Robin flew right up to John’s face. “John. My happy thought didn’t save me. But it can still save you. Don’t be afraid, John. Love is simple.”

John saw Gladys and the baby again. And then he saw the baby in his arms. And then he wished he had never kicked that stool away. And then John died.

Outside the rain started.