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Book Excerpt

My father was staying at a hotel in Beverly Hills. I got to stay at my sister's house, where everybody got in cars and went about their business at six in the morning. I had no wheels, no money, and nothing to do.

I phoned a guy I'd known at college, an art major who had transferred to U.C.L.A.

"Mike, it's Pinkwater."

"You in town?"

"I'm stranded at my sister's house."

"Tell you what, I'll pick you up tonight. We'll go out."


Mike came to get me in a little sports car.He wanted to show me the work he was doing, so we drove over to the art school at U.C.L.A. I looked at his stuff. He was making portrait sculptures out of latex rubber.

"See, this way it feels like a real face."

I tweaked the nose of one of his portraits. "It feels like a rubber face."

Mike showed me around the studios. It was night, and nobody was there. I looked at various projects by various art students. There seemed to be a craze for mixed-media, collages, and odd materials--like Mike's rubber faces.

I came upon a large carton of skulls.

"What's this?" I asked Mike.

"Skulls," Mike said. "Some guy dragged that box in here a few weeks ago. It's just been standing around."

"I've always wanted a skull. I'd like to keep it on my desk."

"So help yourself."

"Just take one?"

"Sure. He'll never miss it. Just shove it under your coat."

"Steal a skull?"

I did it.

I put the skull in the trunk and we buzzed off to the movies. It was a midnight show--a double horror feature. After the pictures we drove back to my sister's house.

Everybody was asleep. We tiptoed into the kitchen, and made coffee. The skull was on the kitchen table.

"Boy, this is neat," I said.

"Sure is," Mike said.

"I didn't just take it for trivial reasons," I said.

"Not at all," Mike said. "Art students need skulls."

I was noticing that it wasn't one of those anatomist's skulls that have been boiled in paraffin, and are white and neat-looking. This one was a lead-grey color. The teeth were loose, and every time I moved it, a little cone of powdery clay would fall out of the foramen magnum. It had been dug up somewhere.

"You know...this is somebody's head,"I told Mike.

"I was just thinking the same thing."

"You wouldn't want to take it...back would you?"

"Can't take the risk, pal. I'm enrolled there. If they found me skipping around with someone else's skull they could expel me."

Throwing it into the garbage can was out of the question, and dumping it somewhere in the neighborhood was equally unacceptable. It wasn't the sort of thing that could be overlooked if found--there could be trouble--and besides, it was part of a former person.

It went back to New York in my suitcase.

I was stuck with it. The mandible kept breaking, and I'd patch it with Elmer's Glue. It looked like I'd have to keep the thing until it finished decomposing.

Then I went to visit my friend George.

"I got a skull when I was out in Los Angeles," I said.

"Really? I've always wanted a skull," George said.

"Tell you what, you can have mine."

"No fooling?"

"On one condition. You can't give it back."

"Why should I want to give it back?"

"Just you can't, agreed?"

I ran and got George the skull. I left while he was still happy with it. The next day, he called me on the phone.

"This thing is horrible."

"I know."

"Take it back."

"We made a deal. You don't like it, get rid of it."

"How? I can't just throw it out in the garbage."

"I know."

George had the skull for a long time. It sat moldering in his closet. When he got married, his wife came to live in his apartment. First thing she did was tidy up the place. She got rid of odd socks, old magazines, outdated yogurt from the back of the refrigerator--and she found the skull.

"This is nasty," she said, and dropped it down the chute to the incinerator.

My father asked me, "So vhat did you finally did vit' that skull?"

"I gave it to my friend George."

"And vhat did he did vit' it?"

"His wife threw it out."

"Yeh. Vhen you get married, you should pick a smart goil too."

--from Chicago Days / Hoboken Nights

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