I die, and when I’m a skeleton I try to put myself back on the dating scene. It’s messed up how many people still reject you, even when you’re dead.
So, many dark months later, I go to the salon, and I get my phalanges painted bright crimson, very stylish, something I never dared to do when I was alive.
“Would you like fish treatment?” the salon skeleton asks. “It’s ten percent off.”
“Off of what?” I ask, trying to crack wise.
The salon skeleton shakes her skull. She tells me what I already know, that if I really want to get me some of that hot skeletal action, I need to go to the pet cemetery and get myself a dog, and while I’m at it, have my skull buffed and my teeth polished, and, to be honest, work on my character, what little there’s left of it.
I get the fish treatment. I climb into the aquarium; the fish swim through me, pecking off little bits the world has forgotten. Staring at the fish, I imagine the sort of dog I’d like to get: one who could be calm when it’s just me, but all bouncy around strangers, a real slutty dog to go clickity clack when we hang out in the abandoned park the living avoid.
Later that night I walk past the empty swimming pool where the skeletons jump in and mix their bones up with everyone else’s. It’s so egalitarian: you walk out of there with someone else’s femur, no one will call you on it. The moans make me shiver, but I’d like to think I’m still a good monogamous skeleton, insistent upon holding onto the values of my living self.
“Why are you so sad?” you might ask. “The world is full of skeletons, more so every day. Why don’t you just go out with someone you knew when you were alive?”
Hearing that, I would take off my skull and show you the spider eggs inside my cranium, the been there/done that of your suggestion. And sure, the swapping of tarantulas has its own erotic charms, the thrill of being full of webs, the frisson of the living world blowing through you as they vibrate. But it’s not so good for the soul: it doesn’t make the loneliness go away, just pushes it to one side for a while, until you remember who, and what, both of you are once more.
At the pet cemetery all the dog skeletons are taken, all the cats too. The dead are so selfish and mean, and don’t get me started on the living and their crematoriums. “Parrot or Iguana, take your pick,” the cemetery keeper says, waving his stick at my dwindling choices. The iguana hisses at me. So, parrot it is.
The parrot perches on my collarbone. “Squawk Squawk Squawk,” she goes.
“Don’t you know how to talk?” I ask her.
“Squawk,” she says. I let her nibble on the spider eggs in my skull. She squawks raucously inside my head until finally I learn her language.
“You know,” she says. “You don’t have to act like you’re alive anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Pretending I don’t already know the answer.
“You got me to bring you back someone who will fuck you, yes?”
If I could blush I would.
“Sure,” I say. “But I want more than that. Otherwise I’d just go swimming like everyone else.”
“Then give me one of your fingers,” the parrot says.
I give it one of my fingers. Crack crack, gulp gulp. It’s just a finger; I can always borrow another.
“Give me one of your hands.”
I give it my hand. Crack crack, gulp gulp.
“Well?” I ask. “Why are you still here?”
“Give me every part of you, and I’ll bring you the most delightful of lovers,” the parrot says. “One who will love you forever.”
“I will,” I say. “But not here. Let’s go someplace nice, like the park where I died.”
We go to the park, and beneath the sycamore, beside the monument to the future I used to visit with my parents when I was a child, I feed the parrot every part of me, even my ribs, even the tiny bones the flesh of my ears used to cover. The parrot, delighting in all my calcium, squawks louder and louder.
“The sun is surely going to rise in the land of the skeletons this time,” she says. Resplendent in orange, red and yellow feathers she leaps up into the sky, blindingly bright.
Never have I felt such love as I slowly dissolve into the warm earth’s embrace.
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.