Skeleton Keys



To procure your skeleton, several reasonable options exist. You may for a less tiring route go to Party City (anytime) or Target (Halloween season) and thereat purchase a commercial skeleton. If the cashier makes a wry comment about bone jumping, pertly remind him to respect his elders—after all, he doesn’t know what you might be up to when skeletons are involved.

If brick-and-mortars lack skeletal romance, you may alternately sneak into a secured city parking lot with a Guard Dog on Duty sign on the rolling gate.This is the lot in which the county fair carnival rides are stored. Remember years and years ago, going to the fair? The blue tack of cotton candy crunching in your teeth? Lewd. Now the empty unplugged carnival rides feel like a ghost town, your memories, like tumbleweeds. These are the times and days of disuse, times that have gone on for quite some time. The time of times. The dog is dead, the dog is dead, and late at night after climbing the fence (carefully, bring a thick suppressing blanket in case of barbed wire), you wander about the forgotten rides and stands and stalls. Find the horrorful swinging ship, shake a head at the cannibal-natives-in-the-jungle haunted mansion. The skeletons on these are usually seated on deep poles that go up their bottoms, up through their backbones; if you grasp a skeleton by its shoulders and slide it just right, a little twist and turn, you’ll pull it free. Bring lubricant, just in case. The skeleton, freed at last, falls loverly if bonily into your waiting arms.

On the way out of the carnival lot, try to ignore the middle-aged security guard sleeping in the security van. But as you and skeleton pass by, does the security guard look familiar? Something about her bone structure resonates, the wide slope of jaw, the narrow eye sockets. All so much like a girl your son once dated. Remember, long ago, when she’d pull up to the house on her white ten-speed and later sit in your kitchen, asking with a pained squint how you’d managed to lead a fulfilling life? And the wisp of hair curling just so over her right ear—it’s there now, all these years later, but please don’t linger beside the van now, please don’t fall prey to easy distraction in this lot, on this night, in that van (never mind you’re standing here with a stolen skeleton in your arms).

The security guard’s chin jolts, a waking snortle. Her eyes blink, alarmed, as she looks about her. Does she see you beyond the window, in darkness, gazing in?

Rush along now.


A cemetery? Please.


If you’d like a third option, try a high school. They’re mostly empty now, the high schools of the world, everyone stuck as they are at home. Some days in your out-of-house wanderings it feels like everything is empty, like the world has emptied itself of humankind, and you alone wander the face of it like a solemn metaphorical survivor from a strange novel, walking along, walking alone. Except there’s still traffic and honking lines at the gas station and twits at the grocery. So tonight, as you sneak onto your old high school campus for the first time in decades, it’s just a childhood fantasy, the supposed emptiness of the world and you alone in it.

The science lab door is locked. Well—did you bring your skeleton key? Good.

Thankfully the old familiar skeleton is still there, if shifted. How long it’s been since you stepped into this room. Sit a moment at your old table, where you spent an hour a day for almost a full year with your partner, Andrew Gravenstein. So much time with another person! Andrew and his odd bowties, whisperclucking to himself as he slid the scalpel into the brown-green hide skin of this frog, or the red-white marbled flesh of that blobbling pig fetus, or along the black holed retina of that cow’s eye. Once, Andrew set the scalpel down and leaned to you. You or me, he said, who takes the first bite? His eyes grew even merrier at your reaction. Kidding, he said, patting the back of your hand. And now, years later, where has he gone. Where, Andrew.

Suddenly you remember. It wasn’t Gravenstein. A Gravenstein is an apple. He, an Andrew.

The classroom skeleton is watching you, a certain haughtiness to him. To every skeleton. How many Alas, poor Yorick’s did you hear uttered in this sterile room? How many has the skeleton’s bony ear canals had to bear? Is it even real? Was there ever a Yorick’s sad fleshbody hung upon its bones? Or was it, perhaps, a lass? Your teacher, those years and years ago, perched it in quizzical pose, bone hand clasped to bone forehead in mock anguish. Please don’t, the teacher would say, turn me into this. The recent teacher has shifted its pose and posture: now the skeleton stands at a podium, gripping a side in hand while, with the other, it holds up a stern fin- ger, and in this pose the skeleton looks like a demagogue, a skeleton leader of the skeleton dead.

How long have these bones ruled over the empty empire of this classroom.

Quickly now. Disassemble it, jam it into your old camping backpack, it’s easier this way to bear the heavy burden of bones. Some skeleton juts out the unclenched zipper, and as you make your way to your Mazda, you lose a bone here and there, and you try to remember if fallen skeleton bones sprout new skeletons. Where has this notion sprung from? One of those classrooms back there behind you? Maybe. Maybe the bones you’ve lost between school and parking lot are even now beginning to rise from the earth. Are you or are you not supposed to look back to see?

The backpacked skeleton, when you shut the trunk, groans.

Ignore this. Skeletons are by nature dissatisfied.


If you cannot afford a skeleton, or if you worry about trivialities like criminal trespass (what sort of scofflaw are you, to desire a skeleton yet be unwilling to do whatever it takes to procure it?), if for whatever reason the options listed above aren’t actionable for you, then, fine, another option.

Still: no. No cemetery.

Why? You cannot go to a cemetery because it is too obvious, and beyond that grave sin, only the dead live there, and the dead have but one advantage over the living: the power of being eternally undisturbed. Leave them be.

Instead, just sit back somewhere in the comfort of your own home. Wait. Wait a long time.

Perhaps, even, in the closet.

This, though slow, is the easiest way to procure a skeleton.


Now a bit of context to, as it were, flesh you out. You’re getting a bit long in the tooth, a bit slow in the morning rise, creaky in the joints and mind. Within the mirror each morning, a gaunt face peers back at you, and the thinning layers of flesh are apparent now, flesh-colored shadows laid across the bone that is you. Lately much appears to you this way: bone covered by layers that you know will soon be gone away. Everything in its final essence. When for two weeks a comet lights across the sky, the tiny red clouded puff, you think, This is the final time I will see this celestial event. When you eat a tasty sandwich, a cemita, recommended by the local food writer, you are morosely understanding that soon the plate will be empty, soon your esophagus and intestines and stomach will churn their various dull acids into it, soon each bite will be reduced to a thing no different from any bite that came before, and all the bites to come will be the same, and how many more newnesses will life allow you? Ten? twenty? A hundred? And how many will lose their shine even as you gaze at them, even as your teeth grind them down?

And what is life without newness.



Yet for all that, really, it’s not so bad. You still have a bit of spring in your strangeness step. You saw the skeleton at the Target amongst the blow-up Halloween décor and thought, Why, I’ve never had a skeleton! Your husband of forty-six years, squinting at bags of candy corn, shrugged. Sure, a skeleton, okay, why not. You’ve both been in retirement these last ten years—self-elected, but quieter than you expected it to be. You and your husband were doing annual retiree-catered trips, Road Scholar escapades your children snicker at, guided tours across the far-off wrinkles of the planet. Yet even on these, the more recent trips, even in the grand thumping streets of Beijing, the old roads of Zagreb, you’ve caught yourself thinking: This is it, I will never be here again.

You feel stuck in the dull pages just before the story’s end. Even before this pandemic you felt it. Your husband plays morning tennis with rotating retirees. He’s offered to get you lessons but no, arthritis in your hands and shoulders (your bones). Most mornings you spend home alone, and the rest of your days are also at home, if together, finding something to do, volunteering here, trying this TV show, signing up for that local film festival. Why not dominos nights with your husband’s friends and their wives in the SIRS Club? Grand. Dominos with the SIRS.

And this recent confinement has been more severe, the bulletins that command you to stay home, travel and gatherings forbidden. Virtual dominos seems less depressing than in-person dominos, but no one else shares this point of view, and the virtual game nights wither. So here you are again. At home. Nowhere to go. You have a small vegetable garden, and you find old seeds in the garage, you plant lettuces and herbs, and they start to grow, but squirrels. You try squirrel baits, flashing lights, mothballs, coyote urine. But squirrels. Give up on the garden. Other hobbies? Needlework, no. Sourdough, god no. The neighbors on either side don’t ever care to say hello, not even their children. And the kind old lady across the street died how many years ago. When did Mrs. Watson last waddle over wearing reindeer earrings so she could set a Nutcracker-themed green-cellophane wrapped paper plate of pecan fudge in your mailbox? It’s been so long now you don’t remember. Did you ever notice the gauntness of her form? The loneliness in her eyes?

This year the holidays come and go. On the big day, you and your husband sleep in. It’s only mid-morning, when your daughter calls, that you remember. Special day. Right. You have a family Zoom not only for the holiday today but most Tuesday evenings, and generally this seems nice, but also you feel guilty, as your children are so dutiful in their Zoom. Each week you try to stay smiling. It’s easier if you remember to watch your face on the screen—that way, you can shape yourself. But sometimes you get distracted and look at your daughter’s face, at your son’s, at the faces of their respective spouses. They’re gaining the weight of their not so many years, lovely dears, they’re still adding layers; they are not skeletons yet; they don’t even know. And you stare at their chins and jowls and jaws and you think of all their flesh and then your husband is chuckling, Hon, hon, hello?, and they’re all looking at you, and they laugh, gently, as, once again, off you’ve gone. Hon, your husband says, see Areli’s new woodworking studio? See? Your daughter-in-law holds her phone to the screen, and you see an empty room, walls torn down, just wood frames and dust and drop cloth. We’re stripping to the studs, she says, explaining that there was no insulation and the electrical needed fixing because no one wants another tragedy. Your husband says this is very practical, that maker-spaces anymore can be deathtraps. Your daughter-in-law nods politely. The first time you met her you heard a roaring three blocks away, louder and louder until she appeared in the driveway on a motorcycle, purple hair streaming beneath a neon green helmet, black boots up to her knees, and you thought, My son is going to marry a super-hero. And she is heroic in personality and attitude, if unable to find a steady job, moving as she has from amateur golfer to goat herder to acrobat to Krav Maga instructor, for it’s this buoyant fluttering that you envy in her, and the way she seems to enjoy it all, to laugh at the absurdity of life, her purple hair flying on winds that blow her everywhere as she makes it work somehow.

You ask something about the studio renovation—cost, timeline—and she shrugs and stares beyond the screen and softly says what’s money anymore, what’s time anymore, and, there, in the bitterness of her voice, you hear it: endedness is already beginning to take hold in her.

Both of you, for a long moment, are silent as bones.

Well this very Thursday, your husband finally says, we get to take out the trash! Everyone laughs; your husband says this every week. Then he nudges you. Show them, he says. Go on.

What are you going to show us, Mom?

Mom? What is it?



They’re all looking at you. Waiting.

Yes, yes, of course, you say, and you go down the hall to the living room, and you lift the gathered bones over your shoulder and carry them back into the office. You set him carefully on the chair, turn the chair to face the computer. A skeleton! How funny! What a thing to go out and buy! Mom’s so hilariously weird! What’s his name, what’s his name, they all want to know.

His name, you say, is Curly. They cheer at this. Curly. What a perfectly droll name.


But really, though you never tell anyone this, you know his name is You.


For a time he’s uptight, even stoical. You sit Curly down, propping him in poses that suit your task of the moment: as you empty the dishwasher, Curly sits at the kitchen table, turned, arm over the back, watching; Curly sits across from you at the kitchen table, the newspaper’s front page open as you eat dry cereal with your fingers; in the backyard he sits in a lawn chair as you weed the garden boxes. You continually speak to Curly as if he might respond. Which drawer does the darn wine stopper go in, Curly? Did you see the article about the Moderna vaccine, Curly? Should I have planted flat leaf parsley instead, Curly? He doesn’t answer—he’s the quiet sort.

But day by day, as you wrestle with the garden boxes, trying to drape layers of cloth and chicken wire over your young tomato plants, Curly, in his lawn chair, hands behind his head, begins to loosen up. He yawns one day. Burps another, covers his mouth in embarrassment. Soon he starts to tell you factoids about skeletons. Did you know this about skeletons. Did you know that. It’s unfortunate that Curly is not a vivacious speaker. His voice is as still and accentless as a Zoom screen. But he’s trying to engage. Did you know, Curly says, that there are three types of skeletons, hydrostatic, exo, and endo? Hydrostatic, Curly explains, are like jellyfish. Like worms and anemones. Does it sound pleasant, to exist in a form filled by fluid? Like, Curly says, a penis?

You blush a little at this, pausing from the annoying task of rolling out the chicken wire. Curly doesn’t notice. He just keeps murmuring along in his voice so flat that it’s hard to imagine a body ever accompanied his bones. Such a bony voice.

Did you know, he says, that examples of exoskeletons are fairly common? Think of the beach, Curly says. Crabs. Crab people. The sea star on your bedroom bookshelf, he says, is one perfect example of such a specimen. You hesitate—when was Curly in your bedroom? Did you know, bone voice continues, that Thom Yorke once said he can’t wait to die so he can play his skeleton chest like a xylophone? Curly pauses a moment, and, as you glare down at chicken wire, you imagine that Curly is right now looking at his chest, imagining playing it. Maybe after all this is over, Curly says, we can take a road trip. There’s a museum of skeletons in Oklahoma City. Though, he says, I hear it’s rather scant.

Obligingly, you laugh.

It’s reassuring, Curly’s steady drone of meaninglessness. Some days after chores you arrange the two of you beside the pool, under the shade of the redwood, and he talks and talks. Sometimes you pour two glasses of wine. Curly peers into his glass wistfully, never drinking. One day, as he holds the glass in hand, the sun glinting against the straw-yellow of the wine, he says, Did you know that my favorite thing in the whole wide world, he says, is this? He taps his collarbone. Clavicle, he says. His voice is almost warm. Latin word, he says, clavicula, meaning little key. He brushes his second intermediate phalange against his collarbone and you can hear it, the dry rasp of bone on bone. This, he says, is my little skeleton key. The real deal. Right here.


What should we do next?

This is what Curly wonders, not long after you’ve finished his glass of wine, too.

You peer at him. Considering. In late morning, you’ve learned, it is possible to see through Curly’s ribs and the plastic slats of the lawn chair he rests in, to see into the blue poolness beyond and, from the right angle, the pool water reflects the sky, and the sky is usually cloudless, and what you see is so many endings and layers and nothings. And to see through something is a little depressing, as if the things in this world are hardly even there, are already vanishing.

Listen now—try not to linger so much on the lackness of things.

You’re surprised when Curly tells you he isn’t from the United States, that rather he was in fact a Brazilian woman who died over forty years ago while hiking out of the Grand Canyon. Curly is a little offended at your mistaken presumption. Don’t you see these hips? Curly said, swaying back and forth. Leave it to what Americans, Curly said, to think all skeletons were what Americans, too. But Curly’s annoyance passes, and the two of you soon fall back into languid routine. Did you know, Curly says, that Jack Kerouac once wrote, What is left of a man’s pride but bones? Which, Curly says, isn’t so revelatory, is it, but did you know that Sherman Alexie wrote that the past is a skeleton one step behind you while the future is a skeleton one step ahead, so you have two skeletons, and these two skeletons on either side of you wear watches, meaning, I think, Curly says, that you’re going to die? Which, of course, right?

Ugh, Curly says. I hate Radiohead.

You’re both in the kitchen now. It’s late morning—or is it even later? Your husband is so late coming home these days. Curly has poutingly agreed that you can keep referring to him as he. What do I care, he says, what do skeletons even care, he mutters, and he stands in the open doorway of the refrigerator, peering into its depths. Should I drink more milk? he asks, but you ignore him; you’re checking your watch. Is it really so late in the day? So late in the month? Which you skeleton does this watch belong to? Curly shuts the refrigerator door. Hey, he says, have you read Ma Jian? He’s great, he has this character so haunted by his past that everywhere he goes he sees his actual skeleton walking down the street. Isn’t that sad? Or, maybe, sort of hopeful?

You observe to Curly that he seems to read an awful lot.

Well I did live my whole skeleton life in a school, Curly says.

Sometimes you fancy that maybe things could be better than this, better than sitting at home with a Brazilian skeleton named Curly. That there were choices you could have made earlier. That you could have been more outspoken. More demanding. Only if throughout your life you had been faced less with opposition and more with society and stimulus. What if you’d studied Spanish? What if you’d taken night classes on stock options? Worked on your tennis game? Your condition, your condition, your condition could be so much better, so much more shaped to your wants. But who says you have true wants, Curly points out, as what are wants but suggestion and envy, and, Curly says, isn’t the very worst thing to do is to think about your condition? There there, Curly says, laying a damp warm washcloth over your forehead. He’s drawn you a bath, he’s put in lemon-scented bath salts, swirling the salts to dissolution with his skeleton fingers, which really are like skeleton keys on a skeleton key ring, and the citrusy smell in the warm waters is so nice. Curly sits on the toilet and reads from your Kindle. You shut your eyes and drift. You picture skeletons. Skeletons in the grocery store, peering at bags of corn chips. Skeletons at the ATM. Skeleton crosswalk attendants holding up STOP, SKELETON signs so little skeleton children with bright yellow backpacks may cross the street. So many skeletons. Where did they all come from? Did they all start by meeting their own skeleton friend who drew them a bath, too? And, when finally they stepped out of the waters, did they, too, leave their skin and material viscera behind?

Ah, Curly says, standing and offering you a towel. Much nicer now, isn’t it just?


You’re in the kitchen playing solitaire when your husband flings through the front door, rushing inside without even shutting it. And he keeps rushing: he rushes down the hall, rushes into the bedroom. You follow him at wary distance. When you arrive in the bedroom, he’s got a suitcase on the bed, he’s rushily stuffing it with clothes. We have to go, we have to go, he says.

His face is pale, his brow sweaty. He is nervous, you can see.

You think: It’s true. The skeletons are coming. Coming for us all.

Why aren’t you ready? your husband half-shouts. Don’t you check your texts? As he keeps stuffing clothes into the suitcase, handfuls of underwear and socks, of bras and shirts and pants, he tells you what he says you should already know, that your daughter-in-law has been in an accident. That she and your son got into a terrible argument, the details are vague but he suspects money, a fight awful enough that your son had to sleep on the fold-out sofa, and, when he awoke today, your daughter-in-law was gone. She’d taken the motorcycle out for a ride, and the next thing anyone knew there’d been an accident, three hours away, far far north of the city, an accident of one: one motorcycle, one young woman, on one winding coastal foggy road.

Come on now, don’t just stand there, he says, we have to go. Coats, he says. It’s freezing on the coast. When he opens the bedroom closet, he flinches. Curly sits on the lidded laundry bin quite casually, left foot propped on right knee, plastic martini glass in hand, mid-rise. Your husband looks at you. His eyes are full of something sad and tired. Gently, he reaches past Curly, and, carefully, he retrieves his windbreaker and yours.


A skeleton is a framework. A secret framework, sure, but the kind of secret everyone has their own version of: a secret that doesn’t really matter. A hidden framework you’ve set your body upon to ride it all out, this nonsensical dream called existence. And the ride—you know it’s just preamble. That every day you’re in a vast waiting room with all the other skeletons, waiting for the door that is yet to be opened. And you know that you have the key within you, that a skeleton bone is a skeleton key that opens the skeleton closet that frees the skeleton that frees, finally, the you.

In tired moments lately, you’ve caught yourself tapping at your collarbone. Like a charm.

So many tired moments.

Mom. Hey Mom. Are you all right?

You look at your son. He’s just awoken in his chair beside his wife’s hospital bed. His eyes and voice are thick with sleep. It’s all right, you lie, I was just dreaming. He nods and shifts, falls back into sleep. And this is what you tell yourself, that it was just a dream. That one day you were at the store and you saw a skeleton, her empty eyes staring back at you, and you thought, What does it all mean?, and you couldn’t move, couldn’t move on without carrying it home with you.