Albert felt an affinity for his bones. He loved the delicacy of his fingers and toes, the strong force of his legs as he negotiated the sidewalk that flanked McKenzie Boulevard, the intricate web of his vertebrae and ribcage.
Albert studied the Gray's Anatomy book he purchased at a flea market spread on the lawn of his high school. Memorizing the skeleton's nomenclature on quiet Saturday nights when other boys had eager fingers unzipping their jeans, Albert sat cross-legged before the book. In his bedroom on those never-ending Saturday evenings every bone triggered a word association.
Femur, a furry Madagascarian tree climber. Ulna, an Indian deity sitting next to the throne of Ganesh. Tibula and Fibulka were, of course, Twiddledee and Twiddledm's evil twins. In Albert's mind those naughty boys with their pinstripe jumpers and rag-tag beanie caps hid in the hems of Wonderland, whose dark corner pockets and frayed seams collected the unsolved riddles of the world.
Scouring Gray's Anatomy while his mother drained the fat from a packet of fried chicken thighs in the downstairs kitchen and his father tinkered with the carburetor on his vintage Volvo, Albert felt as he read the lengthy words and studied the color illustrations of bones with the scrutiny of a jeweler counting the facets on a diamond, he was becoming important. He could sit at home with his parents, sandwiched between Mother's conversations of sewing nightgowns for underprivileged children in El Salvador and Father's constant castration of the Democratic Party as a bunch of, "Commi hypocrites." Albert could coax the buttery globules of corn from their harder shells with his incisors, allow fried chicken to drip grease along his chin while still retaining his dignity.
Albert sought importance the whole of his seventeen years. Different than approval with its multiplicity of Freudian complications he neither accepted nor completely understood, importance was tangible. A lick of candied fruit. The first warm breeze of March. Soon, very soon Albert's bones would get him there.
On an ordinary Sunday afternoon of rain percolating in puddles along the suburbs, Albert's parents took a drive in the country where the smell of barnyard creatures defecating across their prospective acres seemed to fill his mother and father with sentimentality. Albert picked up his copy of Notes from the Underground, a Dostoyevsky offering checked out from the public library in an embarrassed exchange between the young librarian and himself, and splashed his galoshes down Second Street to Rory Avenue. At the first aroma of brewing coffee Albert picked a café and strolled inside.
Walking towards the counter with his eyes cast to trail the shadows stomped beneath his muddy boots, Albert managed to set Notes from the Underground onto the marble counter. His fingers spidered across the book cover as the girl with the Art Deco face refilled the biscotti jar. She pumped the espresso machine for a couple in front of Albert with their politely arranged features, as if genetics in Her particular wisdom had left the two looking so normal that Albert saw this man and woman as the ultimate representation of human anatomy. A wave of surprise gripped his gut as he expected to have seen their very photographs somewhere in Gray's cross-sections of the homosapien sensibility.
Albert had a big nose. He knew this. He knew his eyes, too close together, gave him a simian appearance. If Gray's Anatomy produced a book charting the evolution of Modern Man, perhaps Albert would garnish a page or two. A sketch on the semantics of an ugly boy, quickly developing into an ugly man. But under the acne cratering his skin, under the plain brown eyes, the large probocis of a nose curved into two pinched, perpetually stuffed nostrils, Albert owned the golden bones.
The counter girl made no comment on Dostoyevsky. On Albert's turn he meekly questioned, "Can I have a latte, please?" Paying his two-fifty, he wove through the café patrons to an unassuming side table lit by a dim forty watts. He rested his bones. He opened Notes from the Underground. He casually noticed the room. He knew nobody noticed him. Albert decided to seize the moment and made his way to a corner stage.
"Excuse me," he mumbled, but everybody sat at their tables skimming the free arts papers, too busy thinking their important thoughts.
Was the crowd's disinterest caused by the suit Albert wore, a Salvation Army vintage tweed with torn elbow patches?
Albert loosened his tie, a pre-graduation present from Aunt Clara, and looped the yellow and blue strip over a nearby coat rack. The silky length hanged like a sail impotent from lack of wind. Out of fashion and torn at the sleeves, he stripped off his three-piece suit and folded each garment over a chair sitting adjacent to the café's stage. Albert paused to remember all the times he'd pay a dollar cover to watch amateur night at the café, with its flowery girls reciting their earnest poetry and the guitar boys doing painfully inept renditions of old folkies.
Again, Albert received nothing from the crowd.
Perhaps it was his underclothes?
Not Clavin Klein billboard material, Albert blushed while removing his undershirt and boxers. He read how Ginsberg recited "Howl" au natural at the Six at the Six Gallery reading. What importance! Thinking of poetry, Albert felt the beginning gleam of importance bathe his skin until he realized he'd never even written one rhymed couplet.
Maybe it was his skin?
Remembering the Gray's cross-sections-the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous tissues layered like a gelatin parfait-in one graceful swipe Albert pulled off his skin. He draped the leathery shell across the café stage so it would not crease. Beatnick holdovers in head-to-toe black sipped espresso, sullen faces still waiting for a revolution. Albert was not important.
Could this paltry reception be a result of his organs?
Albert gently unwrapped the pulsating fibers that composed his muscles and piled them on the stage in alphabetical order, their ligature now slack and pliant. His stomach and lungs dislodged effortlessly. His eyeballs-slippery as just washed fruit-fell from his hands and landed on the café's checked carpet. They rolled beneath a woman's chair.
"I think you dropped these," she said without looking up from the steam of her cappuccino. Her breath, Albert imagined, gave off the aroma of cinnamon and bittersweet chocolate, of a sidewalk café in a land so far from his hometown that Albert's parents wouldn't even bother to find him. He wanted to run away with the woman, then, kiss the tips of her lacquered fingernails, flick the tips of her blonde hair with his tongue if he hadn't already removed the meat from his mouth and set the pink-gray flap taste bud side down on the carpet in front of him.
Albert's brain held on. A survival instinct, not of procreation garnishing the perverse joy of cheating a death which was inherent in his species, but an instinct of ego vs. id, a consuming need to remember his thought, and, if possible, cause his thoughts to remember him. His brain, a gelatinous creature hiding inside his skull, part talisman, part buried relic, finally gave way to the Great Excavation. Albert proceeded to yank out his heart. He then arranged each vitality in a compact row beside his skin.
Show time, bone time, Albert bent his skeleton with a loud crack of ankles and elbows and pulled a wrench from a side pocket of his skin. With the wrench's metal tip Albert loosened his joints. His bones made the sound of a xylophone as they smacked the floor. Scapula, sternum, radius, carpals, metatarsals. He hoped they landed in an important stack.
Albert's soul floated above the stage, poised for recognition. It smiled-as some souls are prone to do-but nobody deemed that important. Maybe they could not see? Albert's soul decided to leave the stage. It glided towards a businessman who cartographed the stocks in a Wall Street Journal.
The soul hovered in front of the man. "Isn't is great to be so important?" Albert's soul questioned the man in a sweet, airy breath.
The businessman inhaled Albert's soul with his coffee steam. The man folded the Journal under his arm-important title positioned for the whole world to notice-and walked out the café's front door.
Suzanne Burns' first poetry book is scheduled to appear from Archer Books of Santa Maria, California in the Fall of 2001. She is currently working on a group of sestinas and finishing her short story collection, The Dream Tree, from which Dostoyevsky Dreaming appears.