A Basic Framework
Until recently, people in this part of the world defined themselves more by their fetishes than their jobs. In conversation, office politics yielded to window-ledge altars fashioned from votive candles, vintage lunch boxes, old hubcaps, croquet mallets, 3-D Jesuses, tiki mugs, worn tampons, riding crops, absinthe paraphernalia, Pez dispensers, cocktail shakers, wrestling masks, lovers' hair, Madagascar beetles, and living tarantulas (you know who you are). Some folks managed to turn their fetishes into art, some made them their vocations, and others did both, weaving them through their lives like breath.
The home Bones shares with his wife is painted the cheerful color of a fondant bonbon -- very much like all the other cheerful bonbons snuggled together on top of this neighborhood hill. The house is the same size and shape as the other houses and its front garden is located next to the stairs, just like the other gardens on the block. A person would have to be quite observant to notice anything unusual about the house, like the curious features of the rocks and stones scattered among the cacti out front.
Bones answers the door wearing a flagrant jumble of mismatched checkers and stripes. His dusky hair -- washed and combed -- remains incorrigible after decades of salt air and desert wind. He smiles, and his eyes shine out of a lean, leathery face bearing the ruddy patina of sunshine.
Once inside, the little stucco house begins to conform with its owner's roguish mien. A couch made from a great, ancient tree offers witness to ceremonial headdresses from Africa and statues from New Guinea. A deadeye dropped from a ship in the 1800s and encrusted with seashells and rocks from countless tumbles across the ocean floor stands on a low shelf among other pieces of art -- carved antlers from Bali, a perfectly rusted gasoline can, a delicate mobile made of an ostrich pelvis, totems, paintings, driftwood, and carvings. While Bones clearly relishes all of his exotic treasures, his narration becomes most demonstrative when we admire the skeletal mobile.
"Bones are architectural wonders," says Bones, fingering the bleached surface of an elephant femur. "They are masterpieces of sculpture."
Bones first fell in love with skeletal remains while attending art school, where he met his wife. "They make wonderful models," he says, matter-of-factly indicating the 110-pound pelvis that spans his 4-foot-wide fireplace. In 1954, during his 11-week cross-country camping honeymoon, Bones noticed a sun-bleached horse skeleton protruding from the dried grass of an enclosed pasture. Harvesting the armature was the beginning of two lifetime commitments. By the time the newlyweds reached California, their Ford was an exanimate menagerie of cows, sheep, deer, and horses.
After that, Bones became friendly with zookeepers and taxidermists. He began digging through 50-gallon drums behind tallow works filled with dogs and cats from the Humane Society. He wandered the beaches of Baja and collected roadkill in Australia, Mexico, and Alaska. The young couple's first apartment was littered with femurs, vertebrae, pelvic bones, and skulls. Bones used the skeletons to inspire his biology pupils at a high school in East Oakland, where he taught for over 32 years; his wife turned them into frameworks for grand paintings. Somewhere along the way Bones began gathering for natural history museums, making him one of only a handful of men in California licensed to salvage the remains of marine mammals and endangered species. The bone-collecting increased further. Animals too large to be stripped of their flesh by dermestid beetles and bacterial maceration -- elephants, hippos, giraffes, whales, and the like -- were brought home under cover of night and buried in the back yard, where they decomposed naturally. Eventually Bones' wife demanded a larger home, one where the skeletons would not crush her easel. The transition took place at night, over the course of two weeks.
"People can get freaked by a VW van full of bones," says Bones. "And there's always the chance of theft. I don't buy or sell bones -- everything goes to the museum when I die -- but there are plenty of people who would like to get their hands on a few chimpanzee skulls. People are strange." For these reasons, very few bone collectors are willing to openly talk about their collections, and fewer wives willing to put up with an extensive collection.
"When we moved, I promised I would keep the bones out of the living quarters," says Bones, indicating a large glass case holding the delicate coiled remains of several rattlesnakes -- one of which put Bones in the hospital. A glass of "swizzle sticks" made of the penis bones from bears, otters, and raccoons sits in the center of a small table cluttered with strange valuables. A stately rhino pelvis leans in one corner.
"I really like pelvic bones," says Bones. On intimate terms, it's easy to see why. Pelvic bones are comprised of some of the most graceful lines found in nature: The balance of negative space and mass is nearly sublime; stripped of their function, bones beguile light and produce a delicate impression of uninterrupted airflow and relaxed equilibrium.
While not encumbered by bones, the bathroom, bedroom, dining nook, and kitchen are sprinkled with moose antlers, turtle skulls, whale vertebras, raccoon claws, and wild boar tusks. "But that's not what you came to see," says Bones, opening a door leading downstairs to a laundry room cluttered with stray parts -- whale ribs casually tossed over the rafters; boxes filled with the tiny bits that make up ankles, wrists, and toes; an exquisite giraffe spine; huge tortoise shells filled with the sort of odds and ends that find their way to the laundry room; two mummified cats wearing tiny shoes and a sign that says "Puss in Boots."
"We had a 7-foot alligator spread out over the washer and dryer not too long ago," says Bones. "My wife wanted to paint it, but it started to stink."
But there's more.
Down another flight of stairs lies the "pet cemetery" -- a sprawling cathedral of bones. Rows and rows of skulls, thousands of them, everywhere you turn, covering every inch of wall space and most of the floor, gleaming between the slats in the ceiling -- all chalky, white, and vacant. There are too many to take in at once: hundreds of armadillos, baboons, cheetahs, giraffes, caribou, tapirs, pythons, tigers, wolverines, and more, all lined up in tight, organized rows. There are 30 breeds of dogs here, 1,600 seals and sea lions, and a number of human skulls. The only way to deal with the multitude is to concentrate very closely on one individual skull. They smell like ceramic, but more like warm, dry ... bone. They're porous and somehow yielding to the touch. As I move my hand from one head to the other, caressing the craniums of orangutans and porpoises, Bones begins a low, rumbling recitation.
"That's Baldy. He was in captivity for 30 years. When he died he was so riddled with arthritis his spine was fused together. You see that a lot in captive animals. That's a sea lion. He got a nylon line wrapped around his head. Over the years, it slowly cut through his skull and into his brain, until it killed him."
It is said, in scientific circles, that you can tell more about a life from a skull than from a face. T.S. Eliot wrote, "Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness." Bones makes me understand it. Everything I touch has a story and he knows each and every one. "That one was hit by a car. That one was taken out by a propeller."
There are too many bones, too many stories. His voice fades from me and I begin to see only shapes and lines again, the organic geometry, the clean white planes, the interweaving patterns, the tongue and groove: examples of fine craftsmanship and an artist's eye.
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By Silke Tudor