Beatrice and Bone



Bone and I were wracked on all the wrong drugs. The ladies from Marketing had their razors and straws and premium snortables spread on the plank floor of their tree fort, and Management was united in its cowardice of long needles, wanting instead a few ounces of agriculture to smoke. This left Bone with his arm in his belt and a sense that, socially at least, he couldn’t rise to his surroundings. By the fourth day, we were shunned at team-building exercises, the faith climbs and trust falls, the cafeteria of achievement, the executive sweat lodge. The retreat was intended for company employees looking to make the next leap. Myself and Bone, housed in the same tent now instead of our usual cubicle, heads crooked with heroin: we were limping, not leaping, and inward, not up.
     I found my Bone in the tech-support teepee with one of those boondoggle craft things clenched in his teeth and his nostrils sutured shut. He had already bought the train tickets home. They were epoxied to his cheek. Around him were a tribe of tech guys and enough inhalant product to keep the Hindenburg high.
     “Glue fiends,” I sighed, shaking my head. My blissful, slurred, opiated head. Bone rolled onto his back and reached for my foot.
     “Bea,” he whispered to me. “I fear I have spooked the spirit horse for good.”
     We took the train home. Bone retreated to his hovel and me to my townhouse. It was a diligent domicile, and clean—no molds or grimes or infestations—but I just couldn’t survive there anymore. There was too much feeling in all that square footage. So I fled my suburb in search of some smallness to rent. All I found were unfinished basements, bitter subletters, sallow bachelors, and that’s how I ended up among the broken needles and trampled sandwich bags on Bone’s attic floor.
     He wasn’t serious about his needles. Long and glinted, or stubby and dull, they were not habit but hobby. Something to stick in his arm and plunge the black blood into whatever grim hole it came from. So Bone kicked. He had to, he said, to be feared for his untarnished self, the true one, unjunkified, and he was tired of nodding off in his cereal bowl at our cubicle breakfasts. I was tired, too—tired and thankful there wasn’t much for me to kick. I’d put in my leg whatever Bone put in his arm because I wanted to share his secret. But now the secret had dried up. It was just junk. We rode the tunnel train to the office and then rode the escalator upstairs, harshly postured, briefcases empty, smiling stiffly as we were lifted into atrium after atrium of manufactured sunlight.
     “Look at them.” Bone was gazing at the sunburned scalps that rushed above the cubicle wall, foreheads and hairpieces and the receptionist’s levitating bouffant. “Such authentic specimens. Five days in the bush and they think they’re free and clear of the urban malady, if that’s what this is.”
     “One of the interns brought back Lyme disease,” I told him. “Tick bite, top of her head. So she shaved herself bald, looks gorgeous, adorable, and now all the girls in Distribution are doing it. A dozen svelte Mussolinis hunkered over their spreadsheets. Did I tell you about my ankle? I picked up an itch out there. It’s either poison oak, poison ivy, or an allergic reaction to sarcasm.”
     “The jungle.”
     “It was a summer camp.”
     Bone slumped in his chair and flexed his wasted arm muscles, cracked a knuckle, and with only his pinkies began tapping an approximation of “Chopsticks” on his keypad. He had been training himself to play all the classical prodigies. I didn’t clap loud enough, I guess, because Bone soon abandoned the song, grabbed his leg like a rifle, and trained its long snout on my breakfast.
     “Upon discovering the wild cantaloupe in its natural habitat, aim for the brain stem,” he intoned in an Australian accent. His shaky finger found the trigger and pinched it. The rifle had some serious kickback.
      “The brain stem.”
      “Yes.” Bone was already reloading. “Always the brain stem.”

In the morning came the famished scamperings of his deaf German shepherd, Kaiser Wilhelm, his loud pangs for food and drink and diversion, and later, dumbed by boredom, the nose-plowing of his water bowl around the kitchen linoleum. His snout, what a marvel. The linoleum resembled a relief map of North America with its thousand island lakes shimmering in the hundred-watt light. Bone never mopped anything up. He would enter the kitchen on all fours and commence grappling with Kaiser, wrestling the dog through the scattered food, the slosh. Bone held his mouth against the canine’s neck and murmured a private language, something akin to motorboat sounds, soothing the dog and its deafness through vibration, human hum.
      Evenings, we stayed in.

Our old friends and antagonists from junk land had either been found half-rotted in supermarket dumpsters or were now dressed in suits and spangles and voting Republican. Our loyalties were a little bleary. Bone still shed his office khakis at home, but no longer did he chase off the religious missionaries who appeared sunny-faced and slavering at our front door near dusk. Their ten-speed bikes were parked at the end of the driveway where Bone and I used to trace each other’s profiles in purple chalk, making crime-scene silhouettes to put the local grandmas on notice. The missionaries blinked with rabid encouragement as Bone studied their pamphlets, mutely mouthing the words, like a tourist stranded between continents and native tongues.
      “How do you make that leap,” he asked them, “from the fuckup you were yesterday to the fuckup you’ll be tomorrow?”
      Myself, I never prayed on an empty stomach. But Bone only stared at me, an exhausted look, when I suggested we head off any looming spiritual crisis with soft drinks and cheeseburgers. So I went alone to the nearest Burger Utopia, the one with all the molded playground equipment where we had taken our first stupors, but I stayed away from the dumpsters.
      The playground seemed three or four shades of salmon too bright.

Bone developed a rare and unfortunate adoration for his khakis, how they hung, rumpled, twisting off his skinniness and lank. The white shirts he custom-ordered from catalogs with fraudulent credit-card numbers, the belts he stole from Garment District kiosks. He made a habit of slowing his walk in front of mall mirrors and asking joggers to take his photograph in the park. The human majority, I realized, turns embarrassingly docile the moment it’s confronted with an unstable philosophy of the world. Even at the office kitchen nook.
      “Your friend,” the girls said.
      “That’s not his real name.”
      “Bone and I don’t truck in reality anymore. Not since the Super Bowl.”
      “You live together.”
      “Not in that way,” I said, watching sadly as their blue eyes grayed over, a lovelorn muddle.
      “His dog is large and deaf and stinks up the kitchen,” I explained. “His parents live in Sacramento and never call, not even at Hanukkah. Bone isn’t Jewish, just contrarian. He refuses to take the ferry. Bonaparte, that’s the name on his birth certificate, but nobody would believe it. He hates being called Bone, but it beats Napoleon. He cries every time he sees the Statue of Liberty boarded up with construction. He sleeps in his khakis.”
      “Does he get into fistfights? Does he get roughed up often?”
      “He looks like he could.”
      “Yes,” the other girl added. “He looks the type.”
      “What type?”
      “There’s a type,” she said.
      The girls were made drowsy with the details. I watched them later from my attic window as they crept out the back door, each morning a different girl, barefoot, carrying her shoes and wearing one of his discolored undershirts, too large, neckband stressed, splattered with the spaghetti sauce Bone spread on his bread-and-spaghetti-sauce sandwiches. The girls went home humming.

Bone strode shirtless through the kitchen, hopped over the torpid dog, hopped back, pirouetted. His form was sloppy but earnest, which only incensed me more. What happened to all the straight relations that once made my life so mundane I needed a curveball like Bone to keep things interesting? Unstinting citizens, bored dames and gents, who lingered a little too long over takeout menus but at least didn’t necessitate background checks or idle threats of pistols at fifty paces? I didn’t know what had happened to such stable people. I didn’t know what had happened to myself. Bone saw me pouting in the doorway, fox-trotted up, and offered me his hand. I declined, and he boogied back to the empty pantry, the broken oven, the girl in high-waisted jeans and a low-neck sweater perched on a stool, grinning at his idiot routine. Bone wasn’t at his best without some expensive chemical splendor veering up his veins, his crazed embolisms. But still, he managed to amuse. Except for me and the dog, who cowered behind the dishwasher Bone had pulled from the wall and integrated into his mad jig as a kind of rolling platform, until he slipped off the surface and nearly cracked his neck. The girl dragged him into her lap, cradling him around the sore vertebrae, his sweaty head. The dog looked at me. I looked at the dog.
      “Does Kaiser Wilhelm want to go for a walk?” I asked the deaf animal. “Nod once if you can read my lips.”
      “I think he broke something,” the girl said.
      “He’s always like this. He doesn’t even realize he’s deaf.”
      “I mean Bonaparte.”
      “Don’t call him that.”
      “He said I could if I wanted. My grandfather is from France.”
      “Kaiser Wilhelm,” I said. “Is your grandfather from France?”
      “Don’t do that,” the girl said.
      “Do what?”
      “Talk to the dog like he’s people.”
      “Kaiser Wilhelm,” I asked the animal, gassy with jubilation. “Are you people?”

After the last of the girls left for good—too much mania, too many concussions—Bone dwindled into a bleak obsession with Olympic sports. Pole vault, luge, the confused obstacle course of steeplechase, all the bizarre metrics and exotic athletic apparel. He sat on the couch in his khakis rolled to the kneecaps, watching fifteen years of Olympic zenith and collapse on loan from the library. He refused to return the tapes. He drank mystical herbal concoctions and stopped going to work. His concussions healed. Bone seemed a beacon of moderate mirth, if not temperament. But the cavalcade of triumph upon triumph eventually turned him morose, all those poor self-starved gymnasts without medals or smashed records or breakfast-cereal sponsorships, slouching in the margins, already forgotten. Bone turned off the tapes. Scattered around the kitchen: bronze and silver and gold medallions fashioned from giftwrap ribbon and tinfoil he had tried paper-clipping on the dog. Bone had nothing to bask about. Indolence as a serviceable pastime, but that would be all. He turned the tapes on again and left the house.

The next morning, Bone was not back. I went upstairs and held my electric bangs curler so close to my forehead I could smell my pigments scorching, the sad sizzle of very last things. I repeated my best announcer voice in the mirror. “No, Bea. That is not the crackle and fry of death in a spoon you hear. Certainly not.”
      My bangs curler took a swim in the toilet, sunk low and burbling, and I did Bone’s laundry, all of his laundry. Black marker in hand, I also inscribed the labels on his boxer shorts, like days-of-the-week underwear, but I made every day Tuesday. A whole week of Tuesdays. A complete drawerful. A lifetime.

In the absence of Bone, I shoplifted a new wardrobe, got gussied up, and met a man. Many men, actually. They favored franchises for dinner dates, long strolls, short skirts. Bone and I had originally been too shy for carnal consummation, and then too stupefied with narcotics, and finally too egg-eyed and raw with recovery to be anything more than cordial relations on an ambiguous layaway plan. The new men were strictly short-term. The condoms came courtesy of the free clinic, and my coordination grew keen: gathering formal wear in bachelor darkness, tiptoeing over piles of the same books, the same damaged musical instruments, to fetch stockings and garters, and—dancing out the door now—I hiked home. Sober and in my heels, never humming a goddamn note.
      Bone was in the basement with a week’s worth of chin stubble and his arm in a sling. The sling was his belt, I realized. I tried to hide my shudder in a sneer.
      “Was it another dishwasher? More dumb dancing? Were you fleeing the bed of some young strumpet and her alphabet soup of STDs?”
      “If only,” he said.
      “If only what?”
      “You were gone, too.”
      “Just some guy,” I said.
      “And the night before that?”
      “Just some other guy.”
      Bone smiled and held out his hand. I shook my head, and his smile stiffened. Slowly, he returned the arm to its improvised sling.
      “I’ve been reading the fine print lately,” he said, gazing down into his lap. “Bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, forgotten scriptures, sex-toy rebates. It baffles me sometimes. The whole damn world shrunk to the size of a sentence.”
      The next afternoon, he was vanished again.

My birthday came, but no Bone. I pictured his wan lank as it roamed dungy alleyways and the hallowed teak corridors at work. Bone caped in a shabby blanket and sitting mid-row at our employers’ annual shareholder conference, a spike in his arm, that murky, faraway look on his face. Then he was in the supply room, torching proxy statements by the crateload, crank-calling the SEC, decorating the office in Post-it Note haiku. In short, I saw Bone carving for himself a succinct and dubious career in the anonymous stone edifice of white-collar misery. But I guess that’s what we had been doing anyway. Really, I was envisioning Bone as Bone, without his Beatrice. I could have searched for him. I could have extended the binary beyond racquetball court or morgue. Instead, I lay on the living-room rug, staring through the barricaded doorway at Kaiser Wilhelm sprawled in the kitchen and mauling the extra cone party hat, as I narrated for him the latest fencing results, the losing cyclists, the losing shot-putters, the losing everything.
      “Just close your eyes and imagine a wall of beautiful, beautiful brick,” I told the dog. “Keep your eyes shut. Don’t breathe. The ice ballerinas are weeping again.”

Management asked, they always asked, but they never did anything. He was stricken in bed with flu, I told them, then pneumonia, a dead grandmother, appendicitis. Then I said the appendicitis had been misdiagnosed, it was his tonsils, his kidney, then his other kidney, and eventually, I’m afraid, the doctors had him quarantined in the mystery ward along with borderline schizophrenics and other medical enigmas. Everything would be fine, my manager replied. Our department’s productivity was up threefold since Bone disappeared.
      “Imagine,” I said, “how much we’d achieve if Bone was here, too, fighting the good fight.”
      “Would he be fighting with a needle in his scrotum?”
      “Bone kicked.”
      “My dear,” said the woman, her hand on my shoulder. “That’s so fucking adorable.”
      Then she yanked away the hand. “You do realize we fired him weeks ago, right?”
      When I got home, Bone was back on the kitchen floor, a peach-colored bracelet made of translucent plastic snapped around his forearm. Maybe an in-patient wristband or an amusement-park pass, a concert, a bar. It didn’t matter as much to me as it mattered to Bone, this secrecy, this stealth. His only words, delivered in a cryptic bit of Spanglish:
      “I have found me-self, señorita, in hot animal climates of zeee blood.”
      “Is that near Milwaukee?” I asked.
      I tried to maintain a benign smile, lip muscles taut, mouth cramping, but it was sloughing off me. Everything was sloughing off me.
      “We had birthday cake here,” I said. “What kind of cake did you have?”
      Bone gazed at the ceiling as if a suitable reply were painted among the rain stains and cracked spackle.
      “Cake!” I hissed.
      But his face was soon buried in the dog’s flank, and he, my distant friend Bone, was once again gone.

My days at home and office began to share texture and sequence and contour, and soon one environment merged goopily with the other, and neither seemed significant enough to merit much distinction. I wore a hands-free headset around Bone’s kitchen, pretending to field calls from subsidiary underlings and our dark corporate overlords while my baguettes burned in the oven, and when at work I removed my hosiery while walking the halls, feet bare, limbs swinging, a careless comport. People spoke to me with great patience, mostly in single syllables. Nobody noticed that I took long and reckless cigarette breaks in the men’s room. One afternoon, I entered the technology closet, and there among the banked boxes and long-braided cables, thousands of colorful reptilian strands and a munificent electric drone, I took out my tiny grooming scissors and started snipping wires at random. Nothing happened. No earthquakes or blackouts or avenging angels or locust plagues. The world was unchanged. I made a festive wreath by knotting the severed wire tails, and I stepped out of the closet, where the Lyme Disease Girl was standing with an armful of steaming beverages in a cardboard tray. Her hair was growing in now, a boyish fuzz, but gray instead of blond. All her poor pigments, I thought. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-two. And yet even with that unsightly gray head, the head of an ancient, palatial matron, she still looked younger than I felt.
      “Two years I worked here,” I said, “and then I stopped keeping track. It’s data entry. I enter data. Technically, I’m still a temp. Isn’t that hilarious? Who’s temporary for more than two years? Gerbils don’t live that long. I mean the doomed kind everybody wins at the state fair.”
      “You mean goldfish,” she said.
      “No,” I replied, arms folded. “I don’t.”
      I tried to glare a series of smoldered holes into the girl’s forehead, but something inside me softened, not much, but then again, there wasn’t much inside me to begin with.
      “Sometimes,” I whispered, “I can’t keep my proverbial shit in proverbial shit-like togetherness.”
      “Would you like a latte?” the girl asked, lifting the tray but retreating in the same shy motion. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the hallway that awaited her, austere, overlit. Emboldened by this first twinkling of freedom, she kept moving until she disappeared around the corner, more or less in a trot. She had athletic legs. Lean and long. Achingly beautiful. That’s when I started to smell something metallic and sweetly alloyed sizzling in a nearby closet. And then came the smoke.
      “That’s nice of you,” I finished saying, kind of gulping it, my hand still halfway up, reaching for the tray.

So I quit my tunnel travels altogether. It made me stupendously aloof, lost above sea level in a new throng of pedestrians, walking, not waiting, spitting expletives at caroming traffic along with all the other rootless aristocrats. I learned to ride a bicycle again, a sleek skeleton of titanium frame, then swiftly and efficiently crashed it on a hydrant. I returned to public transit a renewed woman with a swanky hobble. After the mortar and stink came off my healed ankle, I slept with fewer men but increased vigor. This seemed one of the few compromises in postindustrialized life that didn’t trample to pieces that small, cheering portion of your soul which still found amazement in fossil records, religious architecture, any romantic union among tree sloth or snails, and the very persistent rumor of the human soul itself.
      When Bone resurfaced, it was a month later, summertime, in the emergency room. I occasionally visited with a fake sprain, hoping some ravishing surgeon might sit me down and turn me and twist me with tenderness, like an antique carburetor. But today Bone had called me. He was fine, he said. He was in better health, in fact, than when I had last seen him. His hair was cropped too short, and he wore a crisp pair of dark denim jeans. The cuticles of his fingertips were not so raggedly chewed.
      “I am a train,” Bone announced from his horizontal splay on the bench, “that has run out of track.”
      “You look wonderful.”
      “I know.” He shrugged.
      “What are you doing here?”
      “No idea,” he said.
      He stood, stretched his pale arms, unpunctured, a little chubby.
      “How’s the cubicle life?” he asked.
      “I told them we both have a rare and infectious something or other.”
      “That is only a half lie,” he said. “It’s not exactly rare.”
      “Kaiser Wilhelm misses you.”
      Bone ran a hand against the pinkness of his exposed scalp and smiled sadly.
      “Cheeseburgers?” he asked, curtsying as he held the door for me.
      I remained in the middle of the waiting room, fixed and calm, encircled by sickness and injury, or suspicions of sickness and injury.
      “Of course, cheeseburgers,” I told him. “What else but cheeseburgers?”
      Bone held out his arm, his fresh arm. There was almost too much to grab, so I took him by the shirtsleeve and held on for dear, drear life. Because what choice does the human animal have after so much migraine and panic, cruel weathers, stress fractures, failed nerves, fallen arches, long waits and longer odds, not to mention mild and egregious collapses of spirit, but to make oneself, finally, a little less stranger to love?

David Nutt is the author of The Great American Suction (Tyrant Books, 2019). His short-story collection, Summertime in the Emergency Room, is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in May 2022. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and dog and two cats. "Beatrice and Bone" first appeared in Washington Square Review No. 42.

|| home || archives || artist index ||  about/submit ||

Calamari Archive