By Jack Kaulfus
There was only one job opening in her father’s department at the university, and Julia wasn’t picky. After an interview and quick orientation, her new supervisor handed her a box and led her out to the floor where the rest of the Articulation Specialists hunched beneath fluorescent lights. It was a big room, chilly and quiet. They found her mentor, Pete, in a sea of shoulders and backs. He stood up and shook her hand. He was a small pale guy, anxiety riding his prematurely balding forehead.
“Meet Milton,” Pete said, nodding at four neat rows of bones. He handed Julia a pair of gloves and she took off her jewelry while Pete explained the process of cleaning, sorting, labeling, and re-storing the bones in air-tight bags. JoAllen Primates, a private company, provided the university with a steady flow of chimpanzee bones, which the university kept as a research collection to study primate functional morphology and evolution. He pointed at the enormous shelf that ran along one side of the converted university classroom.
“Barbras and Miltons are females and males over thirty. Joeys and Rachels are all twenty-nine and younger. When you’re done, you separate them by age and sex and put ‘em on the shelf.” Pete took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had a slight stutter, just a shadow of hesitation before soft vowel sounds. “Any questions so far?”
Julia shook her head. Pete disappeared behind the large shelf, came back, and handed Julia her own skeletal map and a stack of actual-size photographs to help with identification of smaller bones. He stood over Julia as she lifted the lid on her first Barbra, a jumble of pearly yellow bones, weighty and smooth. Julia set Barbra’s heavy cranium on top of the box and looked at it while she wiped oozing lipids from the chimp’s lower vertebrae. When they were clean, she tried to remember how to line them up. She glanced at the information on the box, stalling. Barbra had died the year she was born.
“Devil’s in the details,” Pete told her, reaching across the table to flip through the laminated photos. He pulled four or five from the stack and placed them in front of her, beside their respective bones. His hands were neat and quick as hummingbirds.
“How long you been here?” Julia asked him.
Pete sat back and sighed. “God. Too long.”
“You know your bones.”
After work, Pete invited her out back for a smoke. In the alley behind the building, a tall black girl raised her hand in greeting and introduced herself as Betty. “I’m trying to quit, you know,” she said, shaking a cigarette from the soft pack in her shirt pocket. She handed one to Julia.
“Yeah, me too, actually,” said Julia, even though it was a lie. She’d just learned how to inhale.
“Pete’s a bad influence.” Betty winked at Julia.
“So what happens to the bones?” Julia asked. She’d experienced a strange sense of loss just before putting Barbra on the list of catalogued skeletons.
Betty lit her cigarette off the end of Pete’s. She was slight and shaped like a question mark, as though she’d been doing this work for years. Several hairs shone white against her dark ponytail in the lamplight. “Who knows?” Betty said.
“They sell them to universities,” Pete said. “It’s no mystery.”
“You don’t know that,” Betty said sharply.
“Well, what else are they gonna do?”
“I don’t know, Pete. You don’t either.” Julia wondered if they were still talking about the bones. “It’s a private company,” Betty said, turning back to Julia, “and they don’t tell us shit.”
“It’s weird, how attached you can get.” Pete said, almost to himself. “But watch it. In the end they always go back on the shelf.”
Julia walked home, thinking about Barbra’s last day on earth, which very well could have been Julia’s first. A horrible vision of opening mouths - her first breath, Barbra’s last - came to her just as she stepped inside the front hallway of her parents’ house.
Julia ate lunch every day after that with Betty and Pete, who enjoyed an unbalanced intimacy Julia thought might have been the product of couple-hood gone to pasture. It was hard to tell, until she found them whisper-fighting in the alley on Friday evening, unlit cigarettes in one hand, lighters in the other.
“We’re trying to be friends.” Pete told Julia after Betty had walked away. He lit another cigarette.
“Is it working?” Julia asked. Betty hadn’t even said goodbye.
“I can’t tell,” Pete said, shrugging. “So, what’s going on this weekend?” He leaned awkwardly against the wheelchair railing.
Julia shrugged and pulled her backpack onto her shoulder. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “stuff.” She hoped Pete wasn’t fishing for information. She wasn’t interested in divulging anything personal, even though her weekend forecast was bleak. It most likely involved a labor-intensive but ultimately futile project of her mother’s: last weekend she had hemmed and hung new curtains in every room in the house only to come home after work on Monday to find an interior designer at the kitchen table discussing window treatments with her mother. She’d been incensed. Then, magically, halfway though the den, she didn’t care. She instead walked to her bedroom, which held the last hard yellow light of the day. The curtains in this room were untouched; she pushed one panel aside and looked across the lawn. Gary was home. She supposed he was still looking for a job. Some evenings, she could see his long shadow in the front windows as he set the dining room table.
Julia had known Gary for most of her life, so she married him when he asked. Six months later, she woke up one morning feeling certain that she didn’t want to know him any longer. The next day, Julia was back in her childhood bedroom, staring at the ceiling and trying hard to think of what to do next.
Her father had pulled some strings at the university to get her the chimp job, insisting that it was just the thing to get her back on track. It was this kind of reassuring talk that kept her from succumbing to a sudden dark suspicion that her life was somehow close to an end. She wasn’t depressed about Gary, or her last job, which had ended as badly as the marriage. It was just impossible to keep the reckless machines of memory from shifting into high gear when she thought about her future – she couldn’t imagine any other life than her own, and when she did, it was only from that day backwards. It wasn’t something she talked about.
Pete said, “We could go to a movie. Your choice.”
Julia smiled and said maybe some other time.
Julia’s second week brought her a Joey, a young chimp with a badly healed break in his left arm. She separated his ribs and lined them up, his pelvis in place below them. She was speeding through a chimp and a half per day now, and didn’t need the cards much anymore. But she enjoyed Pete’s company and insisted, when her supervisor asked, that she wasn’t ready for her own table. The Joey was small, and his bones felt winning and sweet beneath her hands. She hated to drop his bones into the bleach, and almost said so to Pete. She finished sorting and labeling an hour before closing, and spent the rest of the time in the back alley with Betty and Pete, who seemed trapped together at the bottom of a well.
That night she dreamed of the Joey: lips taut with pain, his mother laying fruit near his mouth and worrying through the hair on his chest. White hot light behind his body hurt her eyes, and Julia woke up shivering even though it was warm beneath her bedcovers, and even warmer in her dream. She dressed and got to work early, took the Joey down, and dumped his bones on the table. She laid him out in the position of her dream and felt like reaching through the table, into some space other than the one she could see. She wondered if she was crazy. Then she put his crooked humerus in her backpack and the rest of him back on the shelf.
Julia was already cleaning another Barbra when Pete walked in the door, a shiny green-purple bruise covering most of his left eye and cheek.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, pointing at the swollen side of his face. He looked older somehow, brimming with something unidentifiable.
How could he know what she was thinking? “A rumble?” She ventured.
He smiled at her and shook his head. “So much better,” he said. Pete uncovered his first chimp and started working. Every once in a while, she saw him reach up and touch the tight skin over his unshaven cheekbone.
“The weirdness is over,” Betty told Julia on the way to lunch, “you know, between Pete and me? It’s over.”
“Are you limping?” Julia asked.
“There’s this game in Drake Park,” Betty said, uncapping her cottage cheese. Betty always brought the same thing to eat: half a dozen deviled eggs and a cup of cottage cheese.
Pete tossed his bag lunch on the table next to Betty. “It’s not a game,” he said, opening the refrigerator. “It’s a fight.”
Julia was surprised. Betty and Pete didn’t seem like the Ren-Fair type. She’d seen the fights – folks dressed in 17th century garb, chasing each other with wooden swords wrapped in bedsheets.
“Did Betty do that to you?” Julia asked, pointing at Pete’s eye.
Pete smiled and sat down. Betty grabbed his chin and planted a kiss on his good cheek.
“Do you want to come this weekend?” He asked. “It sounds hokey, but you just have to see it.” Betty scooped some cottage cheese onto a deviled egg and ate it, her eyes suddenly hard. Julia said she would pass. She opened her backpack and reached for some change, wondering if she would beat the shit out of Gary if she had the chance. Her fingers closed around the Joey’s forearm. She blushed.
When she got home, she put the Joey’s bone in her top drawer. Her father grilled shish-kabobs. The zucchini tasted like old pennies. When he asked about Gary, she answered honestly that she didn’t miss him at all.
At night, she dreamed of the chimps. Births and fruit and fights. She stole a bone every day or so, carried it around for a while, then put in the drawer with the others.
Gary respected her privacy for exactly one month, which is what Julia had asked him to do. He called on the third of March and spoke to her mother, who was unable to hide her relief at the sound of his voice. She stepped over the piles of water damaged books she had purchased at a yard sale – she was planning on decoupaging the kitchen countertops – and handed the phone to Julia. The yellow cord vibrated.
“You said a month,” Gary said.
“Do you want to come over?”
“That’s okay,” she said, standing to look out the side window. She could see him. She had worn that blue shirt of his more than he had.
“No, Julia, nothing is okay. I want to see you.”
“Look out your window,” she said. He lifted his head and she could see his eyes narrow angrily. She waved.
“Fuck you,” he said, and hung up.
Julia handed the phone back to her mother and excused herself.
“I wish you would just quit this mess,” her mother said, but Julia was already in the hallway.
The top drawer of her dresser was heavy. She picked up a handful of bones, some creamy, ivory soft, some chipped and brittle as china. She, miraculously, remembered each chimp clearly, and thought perhaps this was the reason Pete had warned her about inappropriate attachment. Julia put the bones back in the drawer, went out to her father’s workshop, and stole fishing line, the dremel bits and handset. She spent the rest of the evening and most of the night articulating the pieces of her chimp. The bones were beautiful against one another. After a few hours of sleep, she awoke, excited for the first time to get to work.
Pete and Betty continued to arrive at work looking as if they had just stepped from the boxing ring. The worse they looked, the happier they seemed.
“Fight’s tonight,” Betty told Julia one evening as they smoked in the back alley. The days were getting longer. “You want to come?”
Julia wanted to pin Betty’s shoulders back against the building, straighten her up. “Do you want me to?” She felt sure that Betty did not want her there.
“You can just watch,” Betty said. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“Pete asked me out last week,” Julia said. “I thought I should tell you.”
Betty inhaled sharply, shaking her head. “Pete’s gay,” she said.
“You’re not a couple?”
“We were once, but that was when Pete was a woman. And now that he’s a man, he’s gay. Isn’t that something.” Betty’s tone suggested that it was not something – it was everything. “So there’s no way he’s interested in you.”
“We were standing right here,” Julia said, more offended that Betty didn’t believe her than she was surprised about Pete’s past. “He said ‘movie, your choice.’ He was all stuttery.”
“Well, you misunderstood,” said Betty. She ground the cigarette butt out on the side of the building. “Drake Park, 7:30.”
When Julia got home, she found Gary and his folks camped out in her den. She could smell grilled meat. Gary unfolded himself from the couch and started toward her just as her father swung through the kitchen door with a platter piled high with brisket. It was something they had done all her life, the two families, before Gary and Julia were married. They ate barbeque and watched network television during desert and then Julia and Gary snuck off to the basement where they turned on the same program and had sex on the couch. Only they didn’t have to sneak, not really. By their sophomore year in high school, Gary’s mother had already given Gary her grandmother’s ring. Julia’s mother had the ring resized by the time they had chosen a college and apartment next to campus - a pretty little diamond in big platinum prongs.
“Just like old times!” Julia’s father set the platter on the dining room table between the potato salad and baked beans and began untying his apron.
“I can’t stay,” Julia said to all of them, to no one in particular. “I have plans.” She backed through the hallway and out the front door. Gary was fast, out on the lawn in front of her before she hit the sidewalk.
“I’m supposed to be somewhere,” Julia said.
“Is it Baltimore?” Gary asked quietly, letting her pass. “I told you. It’s all over, all done with.”
“My life,” she wanted to say is over, but instead she said “is complicated.”
It was still too early for the fight at Drake Park. Julia found a bench in front of the water and pretended to read a book while the dogwalkers passed. She tried to picture Pete, small and nervous, as a woman. She couldn’t, but wondered about his family, what they had called him before he was Pete. The sun was hanging low in the trees on the far side of the park. She tried to think about where she should go after the fight, but found her options limited, and distasteful. The memory of her debutante ball was vivid and frightful this evening, but any time she focused on her future self, her mind darkened to a pinhole of light, the center of a still-hot television screen. Thoughts about the chimps came easier, and she reached into her backpack to find a Barbra’s lower third lumbar. She felt better, almost instantly.
Around seven, people started arriving for the fight. A muscular man in a maroon tunic and matching boots opened a large duffel bag and began handing weapons to three others, smaller than him but in similar dress. Julia guessed they were a team. The big guy swung his sword for a while, then picked up a mace.
Pete and Betty arrived during the warm-up. Julia hung back and watched them approach; they were dressed from head to foot in white tennis gear. From his Wilson racket bag, Pete withdrew two wooden swords, their blades wrapped tightly in a brilliant blue material.
A big archer with cascading blonde curls loaded up an arrow wrapped in foam and let it fly at Betty, who easily deflected it. She adjusted her visor, picked up her shield, and stepped into line with Pete. At 7:30, the archer shot an arrow straight up into the air and shouted carry on! and everybody charged everybody else. Julia could not make head nor tails of the teams after a few seconds, though Pete and Betty pointed their swords away from each other. The first fight ended quickly, with victims dropping their weapons after the first and second blow, and then taking themselves out of the game after the third. A cheer went up for the big guy in maroon, who was the last one standing, and then the teams realigned themselves, the arrow went up, and they charged each other again.
Several costumes on the field seemed to hinder performance, but Pete and Betty were agile as cats, working back to back as a team, laying folks out. After a few fights, Julia realized that one of the teams was shrinking - each time a fight ended, the losing team forfeited a player to the other side. The fighter had to switch, to turn on his or her home team and fight for the bigger team. There were no POWs.
Julia and Gary had been married only a few months when Gary introduced the Baltimore idea. He was gentle, but firm, and insisted that it would not affect their love for one another. A couple of trips a year, at most. And she was free to join if she felt so inclined. He held her close while she cried into his chest.
“Nobody will know,” he told her.
“I will know.”
“If it bothers you this much, we can do it together. We share everything, remember? We always have.”
“I only want to be with you. What is wrong with just me?”
“Nothing. But this is the only way I can be happy, married like this. It’s the only way.”
So they went to Baltimore for a weekend, and there were other couples, young and smart and willing to make the effort, to play harmless college drinking games in front of the fireplace. Then came the switch, the trade off - first a woman kissed her, and then a redheaded man who smelled of sandpaper leaned her against the back of a couch and began to unbuckle his belt. She closed her eyes and kept them closed until she was back in the car with Gary. He was happy, he said. His happiness sailed them all the way home.
Betty was never the last one standing; every time it got close, she seemed to throw her win at the last minute. Eventually, when only a few people were left, she was forfeited to the other team. She gave Pete a look, turned around, waited for the signal, and then rushed him as though he were the only one on the field. He was waiting behind the wooden shield, his sword jutting from the middle of his body. Betty faked high, then swung at his feet, and as the fight died down around them, people sat back on their heels to watch. They fought so closely that the edge of Betty’s shield caught the tip of Pete’s nose. She regrouped and turned back on him, slowing only when she noticed the bright red blood striping his polo. Pete brought his hand to his face and smiled. He jogged backward a few feet, slowly separating his sword and shield, exposing his body in a manner Julia found vaguely unsettling. Betty charged again and he sidestepped her, catching the back of her calf as she passed. She threw down her shield and beckoned him with the other. She let him get close, then cleanly whipped the sword from his hand and smacked his bare shoulder with the flat edge of her wooden blade. As he grabbed his shoulder, Betty circled around to his bare side and drove the butt of her sword into his ribs.
He crouched, curled into a ball on the grass. Betty bent over him, breathing hard. Julia grabbed her backpack and ran across the field, sure Pete’s ribs were broken. She knelt beside him. “I’ll go,” she told him. “Let’s go to a movie.”
“A movie?” Pete raised his head and waved Betty off. “Now?”
Julia looked at Betty, who stood adjusting her wristband, pretending not to hear their conversation. “Now,” Julia said. “I don’t live far. We’ll clean you up.” She held out her hand, he took it, and she helped him off the field and three blocks south to the street where her parents lived.
“Why’d you change your mind?” Pete asked, holding his side and trying not to limp.
“Why do you and Betty fuck each other up so bad? What’s that about?”
“My question first.”
Julia didn’t answer.
“She’s angry,” Pete said, finally.
Pete laughed weakly, wincing. “I guess I am, too.”
“Nice. Don’t bring your sword to the movies.”
Pete was leaning on her heavily by the time they reached the house. His nose was leaking blood again. “So why’d you say yes?”
She opened the door and led him into the den. Her parents and their guests looked up from slices of key lime pie.
“Hey guys,” she said, over the sound of a car commercial, “this is Pete.”
Pete looked as though he might pass out.
“Come on,” Julia said, and led him down the hall to the bathroom suite connected to her bedroom. He leaned against the sink and she handed him a wad of toilet paper for his nose. His eyes swam behind his glasses, so she took them off and set them on the counter.
“Hi,” he said, over her shoulder. Julia looked into the mirror and saw Gary filling up the doorway behind her.
“Who are you?” Gary asked.
Pete extended his free hand and said his name from behind the toilet paper. Gary raised his eyebrows.
“We’re going to the movies,” Julia said, applying a cool washcloth to Pete’s head. “Or maybe the hospital. How’s the ribs, Pete?”
“This is some kind of date?” Gary asked. “Were you in a wreck or something?”
Pete shook his head. “Sword fight.”
Gary shook his head, laughed too loud. “Fucking sword fight! Perfect! Julia, can I talk to you alone for a minute?”
“It’s not a date,” Julia said, “Pete’s gay.”
Pete’s forehead crumpled as he lowered the toilet paper.
“Betty told me,” Julia said.
“Why?” He looked genuinely confused.
“Because you are?” Gary folded his arms and leaned against the door jamb.
“Shut up, asshole,” Julia said to Gary. “Why would she say that, Pete?”
Pete wrapped an arm around his ribs and grabbed his glasses. “I’m outta here,” he said. “Thanks for the help, Julia.” He nodded at Gary, but Gary did not move.
“Pete here thought he had a movie date,” Gary said as Pete pushed past him and made for the hallway.
Julia asked him to wait, but Pete had already stopped beside her desk, where the headless, semi-articulated chimp lay prone. He reached over and flipped on the lamp.
“Well.” Pete leaned closer and touched the delicate clavicle. “What in the world is this?” Julia closed her eyes, briefly, white light flashing.
“Got your left and right metatarsals mixed up here, Julia.” Pete said from across the room. He paused, and added softly: “It was easier when I just let people think I was a dyke.” He moved a small bone across the desk, clearly calmed by the presence of the chimp.
“You’re a girl?” Gary’s eyes swept Pete from head to toe. A slow, ironic smile spread across Pete’s unshaven face. “Get the fuck out,” Gary said, his voice low and even.
“Happy to,” Pete answered, but he paused at the doorway, took a step backward, and snapped the fishing wire holding the left leg to the pelvis. “I’ll just return these tomorrow,” he said. Julia felt the dislocation in her own body, rage like a hot pain all through the tops of her legs. She was grateful for Gary, at that moment, who crossed the room in three long steps and shoved Pete hard against the window frame. Julia didn’t move. Pete caught the bottom of Gary’s chin with the long yellow femur, and then Julia heard Pete’s ribs break, cleanly, against Gary’s fist.
Though unapologetic and still plainly disgusted, Gary was persuaded to drive Pete and Julia to the ER at St. David’s, where Pete tumbled out of the back seat and made his way up the drive without looking back.
The next morning, Julia was not surprised to get a call from her supervisor at JoAllen Primates, who told her that the company would not press charges as long as Julia returned the bones.
Julia agreed. “What do you guys do with the skeletons, anyway?”
There was a short silence on the other end of the line. “I liked you, Julia,” said her supervisor. “I thought you had a real talent for this kind of work.”
Julia hung up the phone and looked at her amalgamation, left leg broken, right arm healed. She went out back to her father’s workshop again and found a warped cardboard box. Julia lifted the bones and laid them inside, unable to cut the fishing wire.