The Making of Mr. Bones
Heller's wife was concerned. For the last three weeks her husband had been uncharacteristically withdrawn, a shade of his former self. Now, though he rose for work at the same time every day, he dressed in silence. It was not a mean silence but the quiet of a blank man. It disturbed her. Sometimes he read the same cereal box three or even four times before getting up from the kitchen table, rinsing his coffee cup, kissing her on the cheek, and walking out the door. She could tell he was reading and not just staring because his eyes moved. He still played with the boy, but his motions were automatic. They played a lot of catch in the yard. All this she could handle, but now he was beginning to shed.
Heller and his wife were always a close couple. In the early days there were gondolas and jazz clubs, shared showers and Pilates for two. Nights, he'd ransack his memory for little secrets to offer unto her. She delighted in their intimacy. Later, after the boy, things settled down. Heller opened a newspaper stand and eventually branched out into chocolates. Heller's wife regretted the loss of their cloistered nights and joined the Rotary Club so that she could receive secrets by newsletter. Still, she never tired of her husband and often begged him to tell her something he'd never told anyone else. Heller took to carrying a small notebook and pen to scribble away those hidden moments of his past, when they came to him. Heller's wife did not know about the notebook. It would have offended her sensibilities.
She'd first noticed the shedding when they were in bed. At her request he was telling her about his day, sparing no detail. He was lying on his back, she on her side. In the lull after he finished she noticed that he'd closed his eyes and was breathing evenly. It struck her as odd; eight years ago, on their honeymoon, he'd explained that he was sorry but he couldn't sleep facing her. He had only ever slept with his back to her, slightly curled in on himself. A little germ of panic woke within her.
She whispered, Are you awake? He answered without opening his eyes. Yes. She decided to press on. Is anything bothering you? You've been distant lately. Do you want to talk about it? He did not respond for several minutes and she thought he'd fallen asleep. She could still see him in the dark; she had excellent night sight. He looked asleep. Then he said, I've told you everything. There's nothing left to tell. But she persisted, and finally decided it had to do with his alcoholic father. She felt better. She turned to say so and noticed he was truly asleep. The skin around his eyes was relaxed, though it looked faintly scaly. She resolved to make him an appointment with the dermatologist.
The next morning, after he'd left for work, she was making the bed and thought to change the sheets. As she stripped the mattress a tiny flurry met her face. Startled, she looked down and saw the bed was spotted with flakes of his skin.
Soon the house was covered in pieces of her husband. He never seemed to scratch, but whenever he left a room it was littered with specks of flesh. She went through three vacuum bags in two days. More and more often she sent the boy outside to play. Heller took on a distinctly pinkish tinge. She badgered him to see the doctor but he only shrugged and said he felt perfectly normal. Even keel were his exact words. By the third day he looked small and tight, shrink-wrapped in what skin he had left. His mood remained unchanged. His smiles were still vacant but they came easily as the flesh pulled back from his lips. On the fourth day, Heller's wife woke up next to a deserted husk of her husband. It had all his hair and a wide slit at the back where he'd wriggled out. She pulled the covers to her chest and wished she'd insisted on installing a kitchen incinerator.
Without his skin she could see her husband had very little fat. She felt proud to be associated with such a well-toned man. Customers refused to touch his wares and he was forced to quit work. She bent all her efforts towards understanding his condition. Priests were called, and scientists too, but they all fainted at the sight of Heller's red red body, roped with muscle. The boy was not disturbed. After all, it was still his father.
Heller's wife decided that something was still bothering her husband. His condition, she reasoned, could be an internal malaise. Every day from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon she sat Heller down at the kitchen table and tried to ferret his problems. Heller stared at her with his protrudent eyes and scoured his soul to the best of his ability. He told her about spelling bees won and opportunities lost. About cheating on Becky Cohen in the tenth grade and being picked last for kickball. Still Heller's wife was not satisfied. He began to lose muscle in great chunks, which he buried in the backyard.
Soon Heller was reduced to his bare bones. He smiled all the time now. His wife found a job packing fortune cookies and he took over the housework. She came home to find him clacking from room to room dusting and carrying linen. She fancied he liked the arrangement. They abandoned their daily chats, for Heller could no longer respond. Though much had changed, he and the boy remained close. Heller let the boy unhinge his jaw and use his ribs as a marimba. They became as thick as thieves. One Sunday, four weeks after he ceased to speak, Heller was making sandwiches. His knucklebones cracked as he spread peanut-butter. The boy ran in from outside yelling for him. He tugged at Heller's left femur. Bend down, Dad. I have a secret for you. Heller bent down and the boy whispered into the hole where his ear had been. Heller stood up and smiled at the sandwiches. The boy gripped the notched and hollow bones of his father's hand. Promise you won't tell? Heller nodded yes, he promised. As he turned back to the sandwiches, a tiny tendril of muscle snaked over his chest.
About the author:
A senior at Bowling Green State University, Matthew Jurak is presently attempting to impress French onto his brain for the seventh time (which he has been told is the charm). His fiction has appeared in Prairie Margins and The Madison Review (forthcoming).