Most Memorable: June 2018
It’s summer, 1999. My father’s standing at the customer service counter at the New Albany Kroger, asking where my younger brother, Matthew, and I can find Dem Bones—a chalky, sugary candy shaped into miniature human bones: femurs and tibias and ulnas and rib cages and skulls. One afternoon on the school bus Rob Riddle swore he ripped open a package to find it filled exclusively with skulls. Fifteen lonely skulls looking up at him, no bones to form their bodies, no way to make them whole. That’s what my father’s asking about, Dem Bones. That’s why he’s standing at the customer service counter talking to this pale 17-year-old whose name tag reads “Ziggy,” and written underneath that in Sharpie, “The Zigster.”
“Dem Bones,” my father says in his heavy Persian accent. It’s a trochee, the way he says it—like my own name, like my brother’s. Like his. Michael. Matthew. Mohsen. “I am looking for Dem Bones,” my father says.
“Dem Bones?” Ziggy says. “What is a DemBone?” I turn to smile at Matthew but he’s gone, off to locate Dem Bones on his own, I suspect. It’s his candy; he’s the reason we’re here.
“It is not a DemBone,” my father says. “It is just Dem Bones. Candy bones. Little candy bones.” He brings together his index finger and his thumb so that only the smallest sliver of space separates them.
“Candy Bones?” Ziggy says. “You’re looking for candy bones?”
“Yes,” my father says. “Little candy bones. My sons like them. Little candy human bones.” He turns to gesture at Matthew and me, notes Matthew’s disappearance by frowning and scanning the store panoramically before returning his attention to “The Zigster.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Ziggy says. “I don’t think we have any Dem Bones.”
I’m eleven, but even I can tell this is bullshit, that Ziggy’s speaking in that smiley way adults speak when they don’t want you to say anything else to them.
“I don’t think we have any kind of candy bones, actually,” Ziggy adds. “Especially not Dem Bones. Maybe they’re not called Dem Bones. Maybe they’re called something else.”
My father shakes his head, tightens his lips, smooths his beard with the back of his fingers. “They are not called something else, Mr. Ziggy. They are called Dem—Bones,” my father says slowly, like it’s Ziggy who struggles with the ambiguities and excesses of English. Like it’s Ziggy who fled Iran after Khomeini began jailing the artists and philosophers. Like it’s Ziggy who’s found himself in a country full of people who don’t understand him, and won’t bother to try. “Candy,” my father says, pointing to his mouth, simulating chewing. Then with his index finger he traces a line from his shoulder to his elbow, looking into Ziggy’s eyes because he believes somehow it will help. “Bones,” he finishes. “Candy bones. In what aisle do you keep your candy bones?”
“Umm, okay, sir. Did you try the candy aisle?” Ziggy says.
“Yes,” my father snaps. “Yes I did try your candy aisle. But I do not see Dem Bones.”
“Okay,” Ziggy says, squaring his shoulders, placing both of his hands on the counter, shifting his weight between his left and right feet like a cat preparing to leap across an impossible chasm. “Okay,” he repeats, exhaling, closing his eyes, opening them again. “What do you mean by dem?” Ziggy says. “I get bones. I get that we’re talking about like actual human bones, in your body and whatnot. But what is dem?”
“They are not actual human bones,” my father says.
“No, no, no, I get that,” Ziggy says. “I meant like metaphorical or whatever—they’re metaphorical human bones, not real bones. I get that.”
My father nods slowly. “Yes,” he says. “Not real bones.”
“Right,” Ziggy says. “I get that. But what’s dem? What’s the dem part of it?”
“It’s just candy’s name,” my father says, dropping the article like he always will. “There is Betty Crocker. There is Bob Evan. I am looking for Dem Bones.” He looks at Ziggy as if this is the end of it. When he sees it’s not, he looks at the fluorescent lights above. Then he looks at Ziggy again. “This is just candy’s name,” he repeats. “It is company that makes candy.”
Ziggy looks at me in that way which wonders whether I might be able to translate. I’d be eager to around friends, desperate to prevent miscommunication from becoming embarrassment. But with Ziggy I raise my arms over my head, palms absorbing fluorescence, and lift my shoulders in a shrug so exaggerated Ziggy looks angry—like he knows I’m the one bullshitting now.
“Okay,” Ziggy says again. “Okay, hold on. Let me just,” he puts a telephone to his ear and holds it there with his shoulder. “Let me just phone my manager.” He pounds buttons before looking up at us with a wide, perfunctory smile.
“Yeah, hi, Lou,” Ziggy says. He keeps his eyes fixed on a point on the counter. “I got a customer up here looking for something called Dem Bones. Do we have any Dem Bones?”
“They are candy bones,” my father says, pointing to the phone. “Tell him. Tell him they are little candy bones.” Ziggy puts up a hand and nods, doesn’t look up from the counter.
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Ziggy says. “Yeah. That’s what I told him. And he’s got this thick foreigner’s accent, too.” Then Ziggy listens for a while, doodles on the counter with a finger, traces over its swirling, recursive patterns, its uncertain and unmade helixes, gyres of dark green obsidian coming together and falling away. “Right. Alrighty. Thanks, Lou. Yeah. Yeah, will do. Okay. Okay, bye.”
Ziggy places the phone on the receiver and looks up from the counter’s anarchy. “He says we’re all out of Dem Bones.”
That’s when little Matthew, as if cued, comes running back to us, his small fingers white-knuckling packages of Dem Bones, breathing heavily, a smile spread across his face. He holds the packages out to my father who, turning away from Ziggy, withdraws his wallet and hands over a couple of ones, saying, “pedasookteh, borroh deh cashier.” Matthew and I buy the Dem Bones. My father keeps his eyes on us from the exit doors. We leave.
At home Matthew and I sit at the kitchen table making and unmaking skeletons. Mom will be home from work in an hour. My father hits play on the answering machine: “Hi, I’m calling for Motion … Share-zadeen,” a voice says. “This is Laura Bates calling to ask about high-end senior portraiture for my son Keith who’s on the football team at NAHS and who”—my father cuts her off, saves the message for later. “Motion,” he says, shaking his head, approaching the table. “Share-zadeen I understand. But Motion? How do you get that?”
I connect a blue femur to a green rib cage, scan my pile for a tibia. Matthew sees me looking, puts a finger on a red tibia slowly, dramatically, then slides the tibia toward me. Now our father is standing over us, watching. He kisses the top of my head, then the top of Matthew’s. We’re sporting these lopsided bowl cuts courtesy of my father, who insists that the only difference between paying for a haircut and throwing your money away is that the former imposes on your time. He watches us connect the bones and says, “Pas chera shoma neeme komach tohh pedaahr Dem Bones?” Matthew and I smile at each other but don’t answer. Our father looks through the sliding glass door at the forest behind our house, the tree line already thinning as the developers close in.
I’m using femurs as necks, giving my skeleton two heads—now three. “This one’s you, Babah,” I say, pointing to the middle head. Matthew looks up from his own creation and grins, grabs the middle head, eats it and looks at me, then at our father. Matthew’s grin breaks into laughter. Our father laughs too, sits down between us, and the three of us connect bones in the afternoon light—eating candy, constructing and disassembling bodies, tearing open new packages so that our creations might be made whole again.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Steve Tatum
FAMILY PHOTO courtesy the author.