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The Stories of Ray Bradbury 47


  ‘Darling, I’ll be with you in a moment,’ he called weakly. To himself he said, Come on, brace up! You’ve got to go back to work tomorrow. Friday you must make that trip to Phoenix. It’s a long drive. Hundreds of miles. Must be in shape for that trip or you won’t get Mr Creldon to invest in your ceramics business. Chin up, now!

  A moment later he stood among the ladies, being introduced to Mrs Withers, Mrs Abblematt, and Miss Kirthy, all of whom had skeletons inside them, but took it very calmly, because nature had carefully clothed the bare nudity of clavicle, tibia, and femur with breasts, thighs, calves, with coiffure and eyebrow satanic, with bee-stung lips and—Lord! shouted Mr Harris inwardly—when they talk or eat, part of their skeleton shows—their teeth! I never thought of that. ‘Excuse me,’ he gasped, and ran from the room only in time to drop his lunch among the petunias over the garden balustrade.

  That night, seated on the bed as his wife undressed, he pared his toenails and fingernails scrupulously. These parts, too, were where his skeleton was shoving, indignantly growing out. He must have muttered part of this theory, because next thing he knew his wife, in negligee, was on the bed, her arms about his neck, yawning, ‘Oh, my darling, fingernails are not bone, they’re only hardened epidermis!’

  He threw the scissors down. ‘Are you certain? I hope so. I’d feel better.’ He looked at the curve of her body, marveling. ‘I hope all people are made the same way.’

  ‘If you aren’t the darndest hypochondriac!’ She held him at arm’s length. ‘Come on. What’s wrong? Tell mama.’

  ‘Something inside me,’ he said. ‘Something—I ate.’

  The next morning and all afternoon at his downtown office, Mr Harris sorted out the sizes, shapes, and construction of various bones in his body with displeasure. At ten A.M. he asked to feel Mr Smith’s elbow one moment. Mr Smith obliged, but scowled suspiciously. And after lunch Mr Harris asked to touch Miss Laurel’s shoulder blade and she immediately pushed herself back against him, putting like a kitten and shutting her eyes.

  ‘Miss Laurel!’ he snapped. ‘Stop that!’

  Alone, he pondered his neuroses. The war was just over, the pressure of his work, the uncertainty of the future, probably had much to do with his mental outlook. He wanted to leave the office, get into business for himself. He had more than a little talent for ceramics and sculpture. As soon as possible he’d head for Arizona, borrow that money from Mr Creldon, build a kiln and set up shop. It was a worry. What a case he was. But luckily he had contacted M. Munigant, who seemed eager to understand and help him. He would fight it out with himself, not go back to either Munigant or Dr Burleigh unless he was forced to. The alien feeling would pass. He sat staring into space.

  The alien feeling did not pass. It grew.

  On Tuesday and Wednesday it bothered him terrifically that his epidermis, hair and other appendages were of a high disorder, while the integumented skeleton of himself was a slick clean structure of efficient organization. Sometimes, in certain lights with his lips drawn morosely down, weighted with melancholy, he imagined he saw his skull grinning at him behind the flesh.

  Let go! he cried. Let go of me! My lungs! Stop!

  He gasped convulsively, as if his ribs were crushing the breath from him.

  My brain—stop squeezing it!

  And terrifying headaches burnt his brain to a blind cinder.

  My insides, let them be, for God’s sake! Stay away from my heart!

  His heart cringed from the fanning motion of ribs like pale spiders crouched and fiddling with their prey.

  Drenched with sweat, he lay upon the bed one night while Clarisse was out attending a Red Cross meeting. He tried to gather his wits but only grew more aware of the conflict between his dirty exterior and this beautiful cool clean calciumed thing inside.

  His complexion: wasn’t it oily and lined with worry?

  Observe the flawless, snow-white perfection of the skull.

  His nose: wasn’t it too large?

  Then observe the tiny bones of the skull’s nose before that monstrous nasal cartilage begins forming the lopsided proboscis.

  His body: wasn’t it plump?

  Well, consider the skeleton; slender, svelte, economical of line and contour. Exquisitely carved oriental ivory! Perfect, thin as a white praying mantis!

  His eyes: weren’t they protuberant, ordinary, numb-looking?

  Be so kind as to note the eye-sockets of the skull: so deep and rounded, somber, quiet pools, all-knowing, eternal. Gaze deep and you never touch the bottom of their dark understanding. All irony, all life, all everything is there in the cupped darkness.

  Compare. Compare. Compare.

  He raged for hours. And the skeleton, ever the frail and solemn philosopher, hung quietly inside, saying not a word, suspended like a delicate insect within a chrysalis, waiting and waiting.

  Harris sat slowly up.

  ‘Wait a minute. Hold on!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’re helpless, too, I’ve got you, too, I can make you do anything I want! You can’t prevent it! I say move your carpales, metacarpales, and phalanges and—sswtt—up they go, as I wave to someone!’ He laughed. ‘I order the fibula and femur to locomote and Hunn two three four. Hunn two three four—we walk around the block. There!’

  Harris grinned.

  ‘It’s a fifty-fifty fight. Even-Stephen. And we’ll fight it out, we two! After all, I’m the part that thinks! Yes, by God! yes. Even if I didn’t have you. I could still think!’

  Instantly, a tiger’s jaw snapped shut, chewing his brain in half, Harris screamed. The bones of his skull grabbed hold and gave him nightmares. Then slowly, while he shrieked, nuzzled and ate the nightmares one by one, until the last one was gone and the light went out…

  At the end of the week he postponed the Phoenix trip because of his health. Weighing himself on a penny scale he saw the slow gliding red arrow point to: 165.

  He groaned. Why, I’ve weighed 175 for years. I can’t have lost 10 pounds! He examined his cheeks in the fly-dotted mirror. Cold, primitive fear rushed over him in odd little shivers. You, you! I know what you’re about, you!

  He shook his fist at his bony face, particularly addressing his remarks to his superior maxillary, his inferior maxillary, to his cranium and to his cervical vertebrae.

  ‘You damn thing, you! Think you can starve me, make me lose weight, eh? Peel the flesh off, leave nothing, but skin on bone. Trying to ditch me, so you can be supreme, ah? No, no!’

  He fled into a cafeteria.

  Turkey, dressing, creamed potatoes, four vegetables, three desserts, he could eat none of it, he was sick to his stomach. He forced himself. His teeth began to ache. Bad teeth, is it? he thought angrily. I’ll eat in spite of every tooth clanging and banging and rattling so they fall in my gravy.

  His head blazed, his breath jerked in and out of a constricted chest, his teeth raged with pain, but he knew one small victory. He was about to drink milk when he stopped and poured it into a vase of nasturtiums. No calcium for you, my boy, no calcium for you. Never again shall I eat foods with calcium or other bone-fortifying minerals. I’ll eat for one of us, not both, my lad.

  ‘One hundred and fifty pounds,’ he said the following week to his wife. ‘Do you see how I’ve changed?’

  ‘For the better,’ said Clarisse. ‘You were always a little plump for your height, darling.’ She stroked his chin. ‘I like your face. It’s so much nicer; the lines of it are so firm and strong now.’

  ‘They’re not my lines, they’re his, damn him! You mean to say you like him better than you like me?’

  ‘Him? Who’s “him”?’

  In the parlor mirror, beyond Clarisse, his skull smiled back at him behind his fleshy grimace of hatred and despair.

  Fuming, he popped malt tablets into his mouth. This was one way of gaining weight when you couldn’t keep other foods down. Clarisse noticed the malt pellets.

  ‘But, darling, really, you don’t have to regain the weight for me,’ she said.
>
  Oh, shut up! he felt like saying.

  She made him lie with his head in her lap. ‘Darling,’ she said. ‘I’ve watched you lately. You’re so—badly off. You don’t say anything, but you look—hunted. You toss in bed at night. Maybe you should go to a psychiatrist. But I think I can tell you everything he would say. I’ve put it all together from hints you’ve let escape you. I can tell you that you and your skeleton are one and the same, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. United you stand, divided you fall. If you two fellows can’t get along like an old married couple in the future, go back and see Dr Burleigh. But, first, relax. You’re in a vicious circle; the more you worry, the more your bones stick out, the more you worry. After all, who picked this fight—you or that anonymous entity you claim is lurking around behind your alimentary canal?’

  He closed his eyes. ‘I did. I guess I did. Go on. Clarisse, keep talking.’

  ‘You rest now,’ she said softly. ‘Rest and forget.’

  Mr Harris felt buoyed up for half a day, then he began to sag. It was all very well to blame his imagination, but this particular skeleton, by God, was fighting back.

  Harris set out for M. Munigant’s office late in the day. Walking for half an hour until he found the address, he caught sight of the name M. MUNI-GANT initialed in ancient, flaking gold on a glass plate outside the building. Then, his bones seemed to explode from their moorings, blasted and erupted with pain, Blinded, he staggered away. When he opened his eyes again he had rounded a corner. M. Munigant’s office was out of sight.

  The pains ceased.

  M. Munigant was the man to help him. If the sight of his name would cause so titanic a reaction, of course M. Munigant must be just the man.

  But, not today. Each time he tried to return to that office, the terrible pains look hold. Perspiring, he had to give up and swayed into a cocktail bar.

  Moving across the dim lounge, he wondered briefly if a lot of blame couldn’t be put on M. Munigant’s shoulders. After all, it was Munigant who’d first drawn specific attention to his skeleton, and let the psychological impact of it slam home! Could M. Munigant be using him for some nefarious purpose? But what purpose? Silly to suspect him. Just a little doctor. Trying to be helpful. Munigant and his jar of breadsticks. Ridiculous. M. Munigant was okay, okay…

  There was a sight within the cocktail lounge to give him hope. A large, fat man, round as a butterball, stood drinking consecutive beers at the bar. Now there was a successful man. Harris repressed a desire to go up, clap the fat man’s shoulder, and inquire as to how he’d gone about impounding his bones. Yes, the fat man’s skeleton was luxuriously closeted. There were pillows of fat here, resilient bulges of it there, with several round chandeliers of fat under his chin. The poor skeleton was lost; it could never fight clear of that blubber. It might have tried once—but not now, overwhelmed, not a bony echo of the fat man’s supporter remained.

  Not without envy, Harris approached the fat man as one might cut across the bow of an ocean liner. Harris ordered a drink, drank it, and then dared to address the fat man:

  ‘Glands?’

  ‘You talking to me?’ asked the fat man.

  ‘Or is there a special diet?’ wondered Harris. ‘I beg your pardon, but, as you see, I’m down. Can’t seem to put on any weight. I’d like a stomach like that one of yours. Did you grow it because you were afraid of something?’

  ‘You,’ announced the fat man, ‘are drunk. But—I like drunkards.’ He ordered more drinks. ‘Listen close, I’ll tell you. Layer by layer,’ said the fat man, ‘twenty years, man and boy, I built this.’ He held his vast stomach like a globe of the world, teaching his audience its gastronomical geography. ‘It was no overnight circus. The tent was not raised before dawn on the wonders installed within. I have cultivated my inner organs as if they were thoroughbred dogs, cats, and other animals. My stomach is a fat pink Persian tom slumbering, rousing at intervals to purr, mew, growl, and cry for chocolate titbits. I feed it well, it will ’most sit up for me. And, my dear fellow, my intestines are the rarest pure-bred Indian anacondas you ever viewed in the sleekest, coiled, fine and ruddy health. Keep ’em in prime, I do, all my pets. For fear of something? Perhaps.’

  This called for another drink for everyone.

  ‘Gain weight?’ The fat man savored the words on his tongue. ‘Here’s what you do: get yourself a quarreling bird of a wife, a baker’s dozen of relatives who can flush a covey of troubles out from behind the veriest molehill. Add to these a sprinkling of business associates whose prime motivation is snatching your last lonely quid, and you are well on your way to getting fat. How so? In no time you’ll begin subconsciously building fat betwixt yourself and them. A buffer epidermal state, a cellular wall. You’ll soon find that eating is the only fun on earth. But one needs to be bothered by outside sources. Too many people in this world haven’t enough to worry about, then they begin picking on themselves, and they lose weight. Meet all of the vile, terrible people you can possibly meet, and pretty soon you’ll be adding the good old fat!’

  And with that advice, the fat man launched himself out into the dark tide of night, swaying mightily and wheezing.

  ‘That’s exactly what Dr Burleigh told me, slightly changed,’ said Harris thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps that trip to Phoenix, now, at this time—’

  The trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix was a sweltering one, crossing, as it did, the Mojave Desert on a broiling yellow day. Traffic was thin and inconstant, and for long stretches there would not be a car on the road for miles ahead or behind. Harris twitched his fingers on the steering wheel. Whether or not Creldon, in Phoenix, lent him the money he needed to start his business, it was still a good thing to get away, to put distance behind.

  The car moved in the hot sluice of desert wind. The one Mr H. sat inside the other Mr H. Perhaps both perspired. Perhaps both were miserable.

  On a curve, the inside Mr H. suddenly constricted the outer flesh, causing him to jerk forward on the hot steering wheel.

  The car plunged off the road into boiling sand and turned half over.

  Night came, a wind rose, the road was lonely and silent. The few cars that passed went swiftly on their way, their view obstructed. Mr Harris lay unconscious, until very late he heard a wind rising out of the desert, felt the sting of little sand needles on his cheeks, and opened his eyes.

  Morning found him gritty-eyed and wandering in thoughtless senseless circles, having, in his delirium, got away from the road. At noon he sprawled in the poor shade of a bush. The sun struck him with a keen sword edge, cutting through to his—bones. A vulture circled.

  Harris’s patched lips cracked open. ‘So that’s it?’ he whispered, redeyed, bristle-cheeked. ‘One way or another you’ll walk me, starve me, thirst me, kill me.’ He swallowed dry burrs of dust. ‘Sun cook off my flesh so you can peek out. Vultures lunch off me, and there you’ll lie, grinning. Grinning with victory. Like a bleached xylophone strewn and played by vultures with an ear for odd music. You’d like that. Freedom.’

  He walked on through a landscape that shivered and bubbled in the direct pour of sunlight; stumbling, falling flat, lying to feed himself little mouths of fire. The air was blue alcohol flame, and vultures roasted and steamed and glittered as they flew in glides and circles. Phoenix. The road. Car. Water. Safety.

  ‘Hey!’

  Someone called from way off in the blue alcohol flame.

  Mr Harris propped himself up.

  ‘Hey!’

  The call was repeated. A crunching of footsteps, quick.

  With a cry of unbelievable relief, Harris rose, only to collapse again into the arms of someone in a uniform with a badge.

  The car tediously hauled, repaired, Phoenix reached, Harris found himself in such an unholy state of mind that the business transaction was a numb pantomime. Even when he got the loan and held the money in his hand, it meant nothing. This Thing within him like a hard white sword in a scabbard tainted his business, his eat
ing, colored his love for Clarisse, made it unsafe to trust an automobile; all in all this Thing had to be put in its place. The desert incident had brushed too close. Too near the bone, one might say with an ironic twist of one’s mouth. Harris heard himself thanking Mr Creldon, dimly, for the money. Then he turned his car and motored back across the long miles, this time cutting across to San Diego, so he would miss that desert stretch between El Centro and Beaumont. He drove north along the coast. He didn’t trust that desert. But—careful! Salt waves boomed, hissing on the beach outside Laguna, Sand, fish and crustacea would cleanse his bones as swiftly as vultures. Slow down on the curves over the surf.

  Damn, he was sick!

  Where to turn? Clarisse? Burleigh? Munigant? Bone specialist. Munigant. Well?

  ‘Darling!’ Clarisse kissed him. He winced at the solidness of the teeth and jaw behind the passionate exchange.

  ‘Darling,’ he said, slowly, wiping his lips with his wrist, trembling.

  ‘You look thinner; oh, darling, the business deal—?’

  ‘It went through, I guess. Yes, it did.’

  She kissed him again. They ate a slow, falsely cheerful dinner, with Clarisse laughing and encouraging him. He studied the phone; several times he picked it up indecisively, then laid it down.

  His wife walked in, putting on her coat and hat. ‘Well, sorry, but I have to leave.’ She pinched him on the cheek. ‘Come on now, cheer up! I’ll be back from Red Cross in three hours. You lie around and snooze. I simply have to go.’

  When Clarisse was gone, Harris dialed the phone, nervously.

  ‘M. Munigant?’

  The explosions and the sickness in his body after he set the phone down were unbelievable. His bones were racked with every kind of pain, cold and hot, he had ever thought of or experienced in wildest nightmare. He swallowed all the aspirin he could find, in an effort to stave off the assault; but when the doorbell finally rang an hour later, he could not move: he lay weak and exhausted, panting, tears streaming down his cheeks.