Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bones Brigade

(This is about as Halloweeny as I get. I'm sharing a piece called "Bones Brigade" that first appeared at Mississippi Review online (Now known as New World Writing) back in the Fall of 2006. Enjoy.)


Charlie blasted through the front door sending my nervometer tripping. The mess of bones was strewn over the oakwood table. Two of his goons lugged the body over, freshkill.

"Think of it as your boobie prize," Charlie said.

He wore the sardonic grin of a carnival clown as he swung the butcher blade down, right below the kneecap. Blood splotched in the air like so much tomato clam chowder.

"Bye bye birdie," Charlie said.

He chuckled, a long drawn-out guttural guffaw. For whatever reason I fused his face with Prof. Jackson’s, though Charlie was a somewhat pudgier cheeked, barrel-chested version, but still. Thwack, he separated the fibula from the ankle. Grimple, his do-it-all goon, still donning his woolen cap, came over with his scraper contraption. He skinned the meat right off till there was nothing but bone. My neck swelled up, a rush of phlegm scooched all the way up to my throat. I tried real hard to dam it back, but I hurled all over the table, all over my pants.

Grimple busted out the trusty hose already lying in the sink that was waiting for just such an occasion. He washed all the gunk and guts away.

"Now get to it and make my mobile," Charlie said.

He called the finished product, the hanging skeleton, a mobile. The idea was to string together his victims’ bones and bring it to their enemy crews’ hangout, pinning it up so that it would do its hangman dance, thus striking fear into his lower alpha nemeses. Apparently mobiles, even ones with sailboats and bunnies frightened him as a kid, so this was one way of facing his fear skull on.

The mobile thing became Charlie’s signature stunt, but it had become such a sought after, in-your-face kind of tactic, that before long he had a bunch of underbosses pestering him to supply the service their way, for the appropriate fee of course. So I was needed overtime. The upshot of all of this was that since so many orders came pouring in I got a fat paycheck. Charlie paid me in bricks, thick stacks of hundreds. That they came in bricks came in rather handy. The leg to my fan busted so I used a brick to prop it up. I was still hoping to go to Lake Turkana someday so I needed to get accustomed to the sweltering conditions in my shoebox of an apartment. A simple fan was hardly cheating in my book.

So what was the problem? Why wasn’t I holding up my end of the bargain? Whatever I’d learned in Prof. Jackson’s classes went to mush in my head. I found myself twiddling my fingers against my lips, the way those bozos in cartoons do when they’re going nutso.

See, it’s like this, at the time I was pursuing a degree in Biological Anthropology at U. Chicago’s Grad Program. What I really wanted to do was dig up bones in Lake Turkana, but instead I was consigned to a lab sorting through fossil fragments that quite frankly could have been stale gingerbread crumbs. I bagged them in Ziplocs and labeled them so that whoever came by to sift through the remains could identify whatever the hell it was they were looking at.

Let’s just say pursuing a career in Paleontology isn’t the most lucrative path one can take, which is why I jumped on every moneymaking opportunity there was to pay my bills. Twice a week I even went to the sperm bank, I got more for those deposits than all the interest I earned for the past two years in my high yield savings account at Amalgamated Bank. There really wasn’t all that much in my account to begin with, but hey. At first I told myself I went down to the sperm bank to quench the anthropological thirst inside of me and see what specimens loitered around, maybe I could dig up a thesis just by paying enough visits. But of course, as much as it pains me to admit, it was a totally gratifying experience being there. Beating yourself off, in a doctor’s office, is addictive. The possibility that the nurse might accidentally open the door with my pants felled around my ankles heightens the pleasure more so than cutting off circulation to your neck. It’s different for everybody, but I know what floats my boat. Ooh, it sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it, although I’ve never been so lucky. Nurses ought to work on their bedside manner, but that’s just one guy’s opinion.

I’d grown tired of giving museum walking tours. Actually, I was afraid that the Curator could really revoke my fossil-hunting license if I continued to horn in on his turf. The museum had a very strict policy when it came to profiteering off their patronage. Plus they were pissed that I still hadn’t returned their plaster of paris Homo rudolphensis molar mouthpiece. You could say that’s where part of the trouble began. All I wanted to do was see how Granny would look if I pulled the old switcheroo on her fake teeth.

After Verizon shut off my phone for the second time I decided to answer an ad pinned up outside of the Dean’s office. Big money digging up bones. Had the ad been posted anywhere else I may have been skeptical. I was hard up for cash so I was willing to do whatever I could, within reason; the allure of being a hired hand in something broadly related to my profession got my juices going. I celebrated by making a pit stop at the sperm bank before heading to the docks where, according to the ad, the interview would be held.

A deft breeze tussling the low mast sails sounded something like wet towels whipping flesh. I lit a smoke to calm my nerves there was a rough element that hung around there so I did my darnedest to blend in. After I tossed my seventh butt away I got that lousy feeling I’d been duped. Some prick hiding behind a crate was having a good laugh about it. What dipshit would answer such an ad? Grad school, or so I thought, was supposed to make a man out of me, push all that pussy optimism out and pump in the pragmatics.

As I was ready to leave I felt a hand on my shoulder. There to my surprise was a guy wearing a woolen hat tucked over his ears even though it was a mild seventy-two degrees that listless late spring night. Without a word he led me over to his forklift. He made me get on the lift, while he jumped onto the seat. I hung on for dear life even though we scuttled by at a whopping two miles an hour. I had that feeling that somewhere underneath the hood of that forklift was a turbo-charged motor and this hooknosed goon was going to dump my body into the river.

He didn’t of course. We ended up in a warehouse amidst a labyrinth of crates. He grabbed a crowbar and hacked a crate open. After tossing away numerous crumbled newspaper balls I could’ve swore I saw a pelvic bone. He handed me a flashlight and told me to get to work and put the skeleton together.

It was something. Under all that pressure I actually rose to the occasion, having fused all those years of lab classes into my hyper-charged synapses at that moment. I’m not a spiritual person, but I have to say that I was thanking my lucky stars, quasars, whatever.

"What do you call this," he said to me holding up a fragment.

"A patella," I said.

"And this."

"An occipital bun."

"OK you’ve got it."

"Got what?"

"You’ll start tomorrow."

The next day on I was the fair-haired boy of the bunch. I had a chance to meet Snucker Salas, Donnie Darling, Carlo Campanella [A.K.A, Charlie Cannoli] the head honcho of the crew and many other luminaries from the dark side of the dock. Prior to that I had only read about them in the news and seen one or two mugshots but they weren’t as mean-looking as I’d pictured.

Charlie Cannoli took to me immediately. He had me boxing up the leftovers of his dirty deeds. I told him that my specialty was piecing together pongid skeletons, that I was only beginning to get the hang of hominids, forget about anatomically modern Homo Sapiens.

Donnie Darling was Charlie’s right hand man, a bit of a dandy. He couldn’t leave the john without wetting his hair so that he had that slicked back look 24/7. He wore tighter shirts than the other fellows. Seriously, he made Rayon and other cheap threads look silken or linenish just because he had a flair about him that said style.

He kept an eye on me to make sure that things went down smooth. I sort of liked the guy, not in a faggy way, but enough to want to pal around with him after work and drink beer and throw darts.

"What’s the matter with you Paulie, you ain’t you today," Donnie said.

"Paul, I prefer Paul," I said.

Probably shouldn’t have harped on it so much, Donnie calling me Paulie, it was his way of saying I was one of the crew, that I wasn’t just another cabone meant something. I’m not exactly sure what, but it had to be good.

"It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," Donnie said.

He rumbled through his coat, I could see the barrel of his gun. The hair on the back of my neck shot up. Then he pulled out an envelope.

"Maybe this will make you feel better."

He brushed his thumb against a wad of bills, letting them flutter. This actually gave me a deeper chill, the goosebumps multiplied under my sleeves like a bunch of hyperactive sea monkeys on crack.

"That’s a lot of shcarole. I’ll spot you some, just to get a little taste, but you’ve got to fill your end of the bargain."

That’s just it I’d got way more than I bargained for. It made me sick seeing the way they’d butchered Prof. Jackson. I never should’ve opened my big fat mouth, I could’ve done better on his exams, I mean, it wasn’t his fault I did lousy on Scantrons. He had to be fair to the rest of the class.

"You can’t just chop up my professors because they want to take me to do some fieldwork," I said.

"How do you expect us to run our mobile ring, you’ve got it down pat?"

"I can teach anybody, really, just give me the chance. There’s this guy from my Lithic Tool Analysis Class who’d be perfect to take my place."

"No can do, you’re our ace-in-the-hole."

That’s when I knew that I had only one choice, to finish that job so that I could get out of there alive, but I knew I couldn’t go back. I never learn to keep my big fat mouth shut. Charlie had that devious glow about him while I glommed Prof. Jackson together, like he knew that sooner or later he would replace me.

After I finished the job I took my brick and sped off. I never returned. As a result they kidnapped the Dean of the Department and sent his body parts wrapped in butcher paper to each of the faculty members. So I had to cut my studies short. They would’ve gotten to me sooner or later, nobody could be so important, nobody was irreplaceable. They would’ve caught on eventually that, contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t so special, that practically any of my fellow Grad students could’ve handled the mobiles. I just didn’t want to be around when they came to that indubitable conclusion.