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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


The Intermittent Skeleton

QUINTUS BLAND had only the most fragmentary memory of that mad drive home through the night. Yet even as he slumbered beside the small figure at the wheel he had a vague consciousness of a vast and steady beat of wind, of heavy darkness occasionally interrupted by onrushing rivers of light, and of terrible, terrible speed. He wanted to make some remark about this unnecessary hurtling through space, to interpose a mild objection, but found the effort altogether too much for him. In a single night he had taken aboard more liquor than he had consumed in the course of a whole year. Also, he had lost, perhaps for ever, all of the little flesh he had possessed. The double shock had numbed his faculties. He was no longer able to carry on as Señor Toledo. Let Lorna take charge. Even if she was two-thirds binged herself she at least had all of her flesh.

One fact he realised vividly. He was going home. He was withdrawing from the public eye, finding sanctuary beneath his own roof. For the moment he had forgotten that he was playing the part of Señor Toledo, presumably a mere visitor to his own home. He was simply a fleshless Quintus Bland, and he was sitting by his wife. That thought comforted his slumbers. He was no longer in the hands of libidinous friends and strangers.

At the New York entrance to the Holland Tunnel he nearly dragged his trousers from his much-discussed pelvis in a polite endeavour to procure change with which to pay for the ticket. The man at the booth accepted the money, slipped the ticket into the skeleton fingers, paused and stared in stupefaction at those fingers, then followed them up until his dilated eyes rested on the weird face confronting him. With an incoherent exclamation he jumped back into his little house, the change rattling over the floor.

"Look," he managed to say to the agent directly behind him. "'That lady's driving a skeleton through our tunnel."

"Wish they were all skeletons," commented the man, "and deep down in their graves." He paused to sell a ticket, then continued passionately, "I hate all motorists. How do you know she was a lady? Sounds more like a ghoul to me."

"What's a ghoul?" asked the other.

"Something horrid," said his colleague, a trifle misty himself.

"I know," declared the other, brightly. "I've heard of them—ghoul birds they're called."

"That shows how much you know," said the second man. "You're thinking of jail-birds. There ain't no such thing as a ghoul bird."

"Well," replied the first ticket vendor, not to be wholly squelched, "when I played basketball at the settlement house I used to make ghoul after ghoul, if that's what you mean."

"You poor lug," said the other. "A ghoul is a body snatcher."

"A ghoul didn't have to snatch this body," the first man replied. "This body could snatch for itself. There wasn't no flesh on it at all. I saw its bony fingers wiggle. Gord, I even touched the awful things. And its head was just a skull."

"If you're going to talk like that," said the second man, "I'm clearing out. Motorists are nutty enough for me. I don't want to be cooped up with no madman."

The first man relapsed into silence. He realised the utter futility of attempting to make himself understood. The more he tried, the madder people would think him. No one would ever believe. Nevertheless deep within him the man felt fundamental craving to find at least one person somewhere in all the world who would credit his incredible story. Furthermore he was dead certain he had made ghoul after ghoul in basketball.

Mr. Bland next remembered being awakened by the stabbing beams of a flashlight. From the darkness behind the light came an awed ejaculation.

"Holy Mother preserve us," said the voice. "What a sight on a lonely beat. Lady, you've got a grinning corpse beside you."

"He's not grinning, officer," came the cool voice of Lorna. "He's grimacing."

"Whatever it is," said the officer, "I wish he'd give it up."

"That's why I was driving so fast," explained Lorna. "He's desperately ill. I've got to get him home."

"Mean to say you're going to take that thing into your own house?" demanded the officer.

"Certainly," answered Lorna. "He's a sick man."

"I'll say he is," agreed the officer. "He's wasted away something shocking. You can drive on, lady. You've got me all upset."

So they left the officer to his thoughts and drove on to the open country. Here by the roadside they drew up to take a drink. This was one of Mr. Bland's pleasanter memories. A car was parked directly ahead of them. The car was dark but not quiet. There were certain sounds. Mr. Bland and his wife exchanged significant glances, then Lorna raised the bottle. As she did so the door of the other car slammed and a man came aggressively up to them.

"Say," he began, "what's the big idea in parking your car next to mine? Ain't this road long enough?"

Slipping off his coat, Mr. Bland half rose and extended two long, deathlike arms towards the aggressive gentleman.

"Not long enough for you," he croaked. "Not long enough for you, old boy, old boy."

The man did not run. He was incapable of co-ordinated action. Jerkily, as if motivated by clockwork, he swayed back to his car. No sound had escaped his lips. For the moment his lungs had ceased to function. Whatever had been taking place in that car was indefinitely postponed. The man threw the motor into action and resigned his soul to God. The poignant disappointment of the girl beside him was swallowed up by her anxiety for the safety of her life and limbs, especially for her limbs, for without those attractive members there would be no life at all worth speaking about.

Quintus Bland expanded his ribs and emitted a howl like a drunken Tarzan, then drank deep of the bottle. A moment later he was once more slumbering peacefully beside his wife.

He was still slumbering when the little roadster hunched itself through the doors of the garage directly behind his home.

"Señor Toledo," Lorna sang out, "we are here! Wake up and stir your stumps."

"Eh?" muttered Mr. Bland. "What's this about my stumps?"

"Shake a leg. Get a move on," she told him. "Come in and meet the dirty dog. We'll yank him out of bed."

But when they looked for the dirty dog all they found was a wriggling Busy who was not at all the right sort of dirty dog. Lorna was crest-fallen. Her high spirits plunged without brakes and splashed in a puddle of disappointment. She tried to become very angry, to work herself up to a rage, but her heart would not respond. She had planned to show her husband that she was not wearing the black underwear with the lace. And her plans had not stopped there. They were much more elaborate. But now—what? The dirty dog was gone. He had done a bunk on her, and she was left in the house with a male skeleton she had met that night for the first time.

They turned away from the door of the empty bedroom and went downstairs. At any rate, she thought as they descended the stairs, she could not be compromised by a skeleton. How fortunate it was that she had not brought a real man home. That would have been difficult at this hour of the night, or rather, morning.

After a few drinks in the living-room she suggested they retire to bed. Her husband, who amid familiar surroundings had forgotten he was supposed to be Señor Toledo, readily agreed. Not only did he follow Lorna upstairs but also into her bedroom. Once there the routine of years swam through the fumes of alcohol. Automatically he began to prepare himself for bed. The first indication Lorna received of her guest's clubby intentions was when she saw him sink into an easy chair and wearily remove his shoes from which fell several wads of paper.

"Had to stuff my shoes to keep them on," he explained casually to his wife. "The Whittles thought of that."

He rose, went to his closet, and produced a pair of slippers, then he began to attack his trousers.

"Just a moment," said Lorna in a crisp voice. "What is the big idea?"

"We're going to bed, aren't we?" asked Quintus Bland.

"Certainly," replied Lorna, "but not together."

"Why not?" inquired Bland.

"Your wife is one reason and my husband is another. Added to those I have various reasons of my own. Those are my husband's slippers, by the way."

"Nonsense," scoffed Mr. Bland. "Don't tell me. I know whose slippers they are." He moved to a chest-of-drawers and extracted a pair of pyjamas therefrom. "I suppose," he challenged, dangling the objects before his wife's puzzled eyes, "you're going to say these aren't mine."

"Of course they're not yours," declared Lorna.

"Ha!" laughed Bland, sarcastically. "I suppose I have no rights in this house at all."

Lorna's hands moved ominously to her hips. One small foot was steadily tapping the rug.

"Listen," she said, her voice gone frosty. "Listen, Señor Toledo. I let you take your shoes off in this room because I couldn't stop you. It was a horrid sight. I'll even go so far as to allow you to borrow my husband's slippers. If you insist you can have a pair of his pyjamas. But I'll be damned from here to Harlem if you're going to take your pants off in my presence. Don't interrupt. I know it wouldn't mean anything if you did, but just the same, the idea is repellent."

"But where shall I take them off?" asked Mr. Bland, desperately.

"Anywhere but in front of me," said Lorna. "We've a perfectly good guest room."

"Damned if I'll sleep in the guest room," said Bland.

"Damned if you'll sleep in here," said Lorna.

Mr. Bland was once more fiddling with his trousers, this time with an air of grim determination.

"Stop that this minute," cried Lorna. "Señor Toledo, keep those trousers on."

"See here," replied Mr. Bland, "you get along with your own undressing and let me take care of mine."

"Do you expect me to undress with you in the room?" his wife demanded.

"I hope you don't want to sleep with your clothes on," said Bland.

"You get out of here, Toledo," said Lorna in a dangerous voice. "Apart from all considerations of morality I am not going to sleep with a skeleton, and that's that."

"But didn't you say," Mr. Bland demanded, "that your husband was nearly a skeleton?"

"Toledo," said Lorna, primly, "there's a world of difference between a skeleton and a thin husband."

"Don't know what you're getting at," Mr. Bland grumbled.

"It's just as well you don't," said Lorna. "Leave those trousers alone and get on out of here. I want to go to sleep."

"You've got nothing on me," her husband replied, dragging his trousers down over his pelvis. "And sleep it's going to be."

Lorna gasped, gathered up a few garments of her own, and hastened to the door.

"You've forced me to watch you taking your trousers off," she said with great dignity, "but I won't remain to see you put those pyjamas on. I'll sleep in the guest room." She slammed the door behind her, then promptly opened it again, struck by a new thought. "Toledo," she said, "I thought you were a gentleman, but you've proved yourself to be merely a filthy skeleton. I hope you fall out of bed and break every bone in your body."

"Sweet lady," Bland retorted, bitterly, "your husband's a filthy skeleton himself."

"Is that so!" said Lorna. "Well, if my husband comes home and finds you in here you won't have to fall out of bed to break every bone in your body. He'll do it for you."

Bland laughed nastily as she again slammed the door and betook herself to the guest room. When she fell asleep a short time later it was with a sense of solitude and separation. Also, she was exceedingly put out with Señor Toledo, who by this time was slumbering vociferously where she by rights should have been.

In the morning she was up just in time to catch Fanny, the passionate maid, on the point of entering the marital bedchamber with two cups of coffee and the morning papers. Lorna, still a trifle fuddled, emitted a small scream.

"Oh, no," she called to Fanny. "Don't do that. There's a skeleton in that room."

A little startled, but more curious, Fanny cautiously opened the door and peered in at the still form in the bed. Then she closed the door and came up to her mistress.

"He doesn't look any thinner than usual," said Fanny. "He's sleeping like a babe."

"What!" exclaimed Lorna. "Like a babe, did you say?"

Fanny nodded her dark head.

"Yes, ma'am," she replied, quite seriously. "Like a babe."

"Where's the skeleton?" asked Lorna. "Didn't you see a skeleton? A skeleton by the name of Toledo?"

Fanny considered her mistress suspiciously. Had Mr. Bland at last succeeded in driving his wife mad?

"Could I bring you some aspirin?" she asked, solicitously.

"Yes, Fanny," said Lorna in a preoccupied manner. "Lots."

Still carrying the coffee, Fanny departed on her errand. The moment the maid was gone, Lorna approached the door behind which she had left a skeleton putting on her husband's pyjamas. There was no doubt about that. One could not be mistaken about a skeleton, no matter how much brandy one had consumed. Nevertheless something was radically wrong. Fanny had said that her husband was sleeping in there like a babe. Lorna found it difficult to conceive of either her husband or Señor Toledo sleeping like a babe. They might sleep like a beast, but certainly not like a babe.

Quietly she opened the door and looked in and caught her breath with a little gasp. There lay her husband sleeping, if not like a babe, at least like a log. Unconscious of the change that had taken place in his anatomy, Quintus Bland in the flesh lay inertly in his bed. In some mysterious way the potent fumes of the chemical mixture he had created had become dormant during his slumbers, with the result that Bland's flesh had once more reappeared. He was no longer a fluoroscopic man.

Having satisfied herself that her husband had returned, Lorna closed the door and retreated to the guest room to think things over. She had seen no broken bones about the room, yet quite obviously something had happened to Señor Toledo. She wondered if her husband had chased him from the house.

While she was pondering over this mystery, Bland himself awoke and sprang from the bed.

He had a confused but strong impression that he had turned to a skeleton. And even as he stood by the bed struggling to collect memories of the previous night, his body began to fade until he was once more a fleshless man. His pyjamas slipped from him as he moved across the room to a long mirror. Mr. Bland did not care. What good were pyjamas to a skeleton? What good was anything to a skeleton? A drink, Mr. Bland decided.

Fanny, having provided her mistress with aspirins, was moved to take another look at Mr. Bland. Accordingly she armed herself with fresh coffee and the paper, then quietly approached the door. This she opened and looked into the room. The next moment Lorna was summoned to the hall by a series of screams. Her own nerves were so jumpy she was screaming a little herself. The sight of Fanny served to calm her. The maid was in a bad way. Never had she looked less passionate or felt less so.

"What is it?" demanded Lorna.

"It's Toledo," gasped Fanny.

"Is he back again?" exclaimed Lorna.

"I don't know about that," said Fanny, "but there's a skeleton in there and he's looking at himself in the mirror."

"Why shouldn't he look at himself in the mirror, Fanny?" said Lorna. "Do try to be reasonable."

Fanny laughed hysterically.

"Reasonable?" she retorted. "I don't think it's reasonable for a skeleton to look at himself in the mirror. If I was a skeleton I'd want to see as little of myself as possible."

"Did you see anything of Mr. Bland?" asked Lorna.

"No, ma'am," replied Fanny. "Perhaps Toledo, the skeleton, has destroyed him."

Without further words Lorna hurried to the door and rapped sharply upon it.

"Toledo," she called, "where is my husband?"

"Search me," was the indifferent reply.

"Oh," breathed Fanny, "I'd hate to do that."

"Toledo," repeated Lorna, "tell me this instant what you have done with my husband."

"He's gone," said Mr. Bland. "He took one good look at me and then he went away."

"Did he say where he was going?"

"He didn't even say how-do-you-do," complained Mr. Bland. "He just went away—fast."

Exasperated, Lorna threw open the door. The skeleton of Bland stepped out into the hall. Once more curiosity overcame Fanny's fear. She placed herself behind her mistress and awaited further developments.

"Don't be afraid," Lorna reassured her. "Señor Toledo can be most annoying, but he is quite harmless."

"I wouldn't touch a hair of your head," Mr. Bland told Fanny, "except for amusement."

"It wouldn't amuse me," said Fanny. "Think of something else to do."

"I wonder," said Lorna, "why my husband left the house without saying a word to anyone."

"Perhaps," Mr. Bland suggested, "he didn't want to become involved. Look at his situation. He comes home late at night and finds a skeleton in his bed. Quite naturally he concluded that you had gone in for skeletons and brought one home with you to take his place. Knowing you as he does, he doesn't put anything past you. From Phil Harkens to a skeleton is merely a—"

"That will do, Toledo," Lorna hastily broke in. "Go downstairs and get yourself a drink. Fanny will bring you some coffee. And do stop gossiping like an old woman."

Fanny, who delighted in gossip, felt a little more favourably disposed toward this amazing freak of nature. Perhaps from him she might be able to learn all sorts of interesting things about the events of last night. With a queer, uneasy sensation at her back she allowed Señor Toledo to follow her downstairs. A short time later Lorna appeared dressed for the street. She found the skeleton of her husband sitting in an easy chair. He was contentedly sipping a highball.

"Hope you don't mind my not dressing," said Mr. Bland, politely, laying aside the paper.

"Not at all," replied Lorna, taking a drink herself. "I don't believe in half-measures, Toledo. If you're going to be a skeleton, I say whole hog or nothing. You either should beseen not at all or seen at your best, or rather, your worst. I'm going out to think things over. Make yourself at home."

As Lorna left the house, Mr. Bland poured himself another drink. He continued to repeat this operation until finally he fell asleep in the chair, the newspaper abandoned on his lap.

Some time later Mr. Bland was awakened by a small, quickly smothered cry. Whether it was a cry of fear or appreciation, he was unable to decide, so confused was his state of mind. Fanny, the maid, was standing before him. Fear could hardly account for the expression on her face. Her eyes were large and wild-looking, and when Mr. Bland discovered he had regained his flesh his eyes looked as wild as Fanny's.

"Why, Mr. Bland," she said in a hushed voice, "you're all naked."

"Not quite," replied Mr. Bland, taking a firm grip on the newspaper on his lap.

To his great consternation Fanny leaned over and scanned an advertisement.

"My," she sighed, wistfully, "they're having such a lovely sale at Macy's. Have you finished with the paper, Mr. Bland?"

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