Oh, insomnia. It’s so helpful to consider the affliction in the guise of an ugly goblin man who likes to creep into bedrooms. Like that old painting of the messed up dude squatting on the sleeping lady’s chest; The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, who is named for pasta, I just Googled it. My particular imp doesn’t sit on me, but likes to jab my ribs at 3 a.m., wake me up, and remind me of my problems. For instance, how I work a ridiculous collage of freelance jobs and still occasionally live beyond my means. I don’t know why he likes me to remember stuff like this, as it troubles me enough during daylight hours. I’d prefer it if he just went away, left me to my dreams of having my hair cut.
Often the trick to subduing my insomnia goblin is to walk to the kitchen and eat a lot of cold bread. The doughiness can put me right back out. Other times I put on a podcast and attempt to drift off as hungry men argue about cupcakes out of my phone. Should these methods fail to lull me back to sleep, I resign myself to a bleary, too-early morning where I spill the coffee and bury my face in my laptop. When I can’t sleep I can’t think and when I can’t think I like to Google. I free-associate, almost always a useless habit, pull words from my subconscious and stuff them into the search bar.
On such a morning last July, before the sun rose, my brain dug deep into one of its stupider crevasses and offered up “Juul” as a search term. A product that I’ve never used; I pounded the enter key with my pinky as hard as I could. The query led me directly to a blog post about a class action settlement which allowed anyone to receive “around 50 dollars” simply by claiming, without proof, to have at one time purchased a Juul product. While considering fraud, I noticed the site I was browsing was named The Krazy Coupon Lady. Strange to spell crazy with a K when you’re following right up with a C, but I decided not to let this get to me. Being a man who enjoys bargains, I forgot about hustling 50 bucks from the Juul company and started clicking around to see what other schemes the Lady had on her radar.
Almost immediately I saw a post: “Skely, the Home Depot Skeleton, IS BACK on July 13 (6 a.m. ET)!” Well, well. So he hasn’t gone out of style. As the blog post, written by someone named Christa (Krazy Christa? Same problem as Krazy Coupon — they’re creating unnecessary friction), pointed out, Skelly was introduced in 2020. That same year I started writing Halloween essays for Glasstire.
At times Skelly has felt like my cooler twin brother, older by a few minutes, way taller, more popular. I wouldn’t say I’ve actively ignored him in my essays — versions have shown up in at least two of the illustrative photographs — but I’ve attempted to put a healthy amount of room between the two of us. Skelly has been published everywhere, even the New York Times. Even the Krazy Coupon Lady. Skelly is the trendy, obvious oddity in a holiday built on them. Skelly is the Christopher Walken impersonation of Halloween decorations. My aim, in writing these pieces, has always been to give you my best Tracey Walter.
But, wow, Skelly popping up online in early July felt important. I started writing this piece around then, from Austin. I’d been living in New York for two years but subleased my place and temporarily returned to Texas out of a longing for friendship, sustained conversations about art, and so many twisting reasons that aren’t particularly relevant here. That summer was cruelly hot every day. October felt like an event that happened on some distant, autumnal planet. At the same time, Halloween didn’t feel too far off.
When I first started writing about the holiday for Glasstire, in 2020, I gravitated toward skeletons. I fantasized about the factories that spent the whole off-season manufacturing them, wishing those operations to be run by hordes of self-replicating bone men. What I failed to recognize at the time was the perennial fervor for Halloween theater. A quick search reveals Bobvila.com ran a feature on Skelly this past spring. About a week before seeing Christa’s post I ran into Skelly’s equally tall coworker, a big werewolf, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei. He’d been installed behind a white picket fence for a child’s birthday party, and when I went back with my camera he was gone.
People often give me tips, text me about recent bone happenings in their neighborhoods. It’s lovely. I got a few of these leads in Austin and found myself stalking around communities with my camera in 100-degree weather, looking for skeletons, when all the more sensible people I knew were busy wading in swimming holes. After encountering the furtive werewolf I thought maybe this year’s Halloween essay would track the off-season maneuvers of frontyard creatures. But then sleeplessness led me down a zagging path to the Krazy Coupon Lady and the suddenly-real prospect of Skelly ownership. He was coming BACK on July 13 (6 a.m. ET)!
There were a few hurdles, the highest of which was that Skelly retailed for a prohibitive $300. This was cleared with surprising ease. I asked Glasstire if they had room in their budget for a big skeleton. While I shouldn’t say how it happened (industry secrets plus a slightly deviated path), to my complete surprise I ended up being forwarded the cash. The Krazy Coupon Lady let me know that this July Skelly drop would be an online-only thing, so I marked my calendar and set my alarm. When the time came I went to homedepot.com and ordered him without issue.
What do we think Skelly is supposed to be? A deceased giant? The skeleton of a normal person whose bones got too big and didn’t fit in their skin anymore and decided to do their own thing? A member of some alien species of large, sentient bones?
Planning time. I was to be in Austin through the summer, with a September pit stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before returning to New York in the fall. My new skeleton would accompany me on my road trip. I would drive east and north as the seasons changed, posing Skelly in different situations and taking pictures for this website. It was going to be so simple. As the summer clicked on I received sporadic shipping updates from Home Depot. Skelly had been prepped for shipping in such-and-such city. Skelly was on an Estes truck heading this way. Skelly was in your state, you’ll be able to pick him up from your local store soon. Be ready for friendship. I didn’t think much about where I’d stash him once he arrived; I had too much important work to get done.
A box of popsicles later it was mid-August, yet Skelly had not shown. The emails from Home Depot quit coming. I needed to leave Texas in a week. This was a problem. When you have a problem with Home Depot, you can text them. They put you on the line with a customer service representative who attempts to work through your issues with you. I was connected to a predictably chipper, faceless, nameless cog. Here is a transcript of that exchange:
The line went totally dead and my helper never returned. Poor cog! You were not a cog at all, but a real person with a terrible job. And now you were gone, eaten by my Skelly, a bone abomination who escaped Home Depot custody and was silently rampaging around Texas, cleaning up any loose ends that might help me track him down. Right then he stopped seeming like a Skelly; I saw that our budding friendship had been parasocial. I started calling him Big Skeleton. (Honestly I felt a little weird about calling him Skelly from the beginning. How could they all have the same name? They’re not all the same guy.) I rushed down to the nearest Home Depot, my scheduled pick-up spot, in an attempt to capture Big Skeleton and put a stop to the carnage.
There were no signs of paranormal chaos in the parking lot, just regular chaos. The security guard was buzzing around in his cart, unconcerned with monsters and full of furrowed, spiteful ex-cop nonchalance. A beat to shit truck, painted like a cobra, was being fed lumber by two undefinable folks in incredibly tall socks. On each side, a Tesla. This is summer in Austin. My friend Eamon, who was visiting from the Catskills, accompanied me to the store. He was ready to fight a skeleton.
We went inside and stood in the customer service line next to houseplants and so much bug killer, waiting as men exchanged pipes. Eamon thought the Venus flytraps for sale were cool. So did I. After a bit I got some face time with an affable employee, a guy with a mustache that distinguished him from the other orange-aproned folks milling around. I explained the situation in detail and showed him the relevant emails. Since it was mostly conjecture, I left out the part about the call center employee getting eaten.
“Oh it’s one of the skeletons, cool,” he laughed and hummed, scrolling through menus on his monitor, “this says it was delivered on July 21. That’s weird. Let me go in back and check for you.” Eamon and I were left standing with the Raid.
After what seemed like half an hour, the employee hadn’t returned. The skeleton was back there, alright, and he’d claimed another victim. These guys get exploited for an hourly wage by a titan of commerce, they don’t deserve this fate! Something had to be done to stop Big Skeleton before he ate everyone on payroll. My feet were sweating. Eamon started scheming, mapping out which tools would be best to grab off the shelf for our upcoming confrontation. Good thinking. He lives in the woods so he’s used to this kind of thing, I guessed. I was interested in the chainsaws, but Eamon pointed out that there wasn’t any fuel. He thought the hedge trimmers might be a better choice. I nodded. Eamon gestured toward the bug bombs at our side, suggesting that they could be useful if one of the skeleton’s powers was being covered in bugs and shooting bugs at you. I hadn’t read anything like that in the product description on homedopt.com, but at that time I was scrambling to buy my Skelly before they were sold out so I couldn’t say for sure.
“Yeah might as well bring a few,” I said. Entomancy is a power, sometimes.
We were getting ready to mobilize when the employee with the mustache came back. Surprise. He seemed uneaten, but I couldn’t trust that. It occurred to me that, depending on how a big skeleton chews, a person may be eaten and show no signs of it. Skeletons have no stomachs, no skin, nothing to hold you in. If they swallow you whole you can simply stand up and run away — probably that’s what happened. Nevertheless he returned to his station unfazed, shrugged, and sighed. He explained that my skeleton had indeed been shipped, but the pallet of skeletons arrived short one skeleton. My skeleton. There were none left in the warehouse. I got a refund.
Two possibilities here. One: As the thankfully safe and passably untraumatized employee pointed out, Skelly was a hot commodity. It sold for “like a thousand bucks” on the secondary market, over three times retail. He theorized that somebody along the shipping route absconded with mine, either for their own front yard or eBay. With its electronic blinking eyes and manufactured scarcity, this product was the world’s largest Furby. And I was a kid again, waiting in a fruitless queue outside Toys-R-Us. Second possibility: Big Skeleton clawed his way out of the Estes truck at a Flying J and was now shambling across the American expanse, subsisting on livestock and scaring small-town teenagers on makeout mountains. Now I was about to hit the road and head east. I’d keep my eyes and ears open, track oversized footprints, ask if anyone had seen a skinny pedestrian bonk his head on a streetlight. You know, just in case.
Chattanooga is haunted. It has to be. The charming little city is built around a dense network of Civil War monuments and atop post-industrial detritus. The road to the local Target takes you over Missionary Ridge. I arrived one evening, lucky to be in town as an artist-in-residence at a delightful place called Stove Works. The residency takes place in an old factory. There’s an expansive picture window outside the living quarters that looks over the uniform headstones of the Chattanooga National Cemetery. During orientation we were all told about amateur ghost hunters who had identified 13 spirits on the premises. Despite this abundance of spooky energy, I wasn’t thinking so much about Big Skeleton as I got settled in Tennessee. Away from the summer, away from Texas, and in a place with lots of space and a fully functioning woodshop, I let him go. I wanted to focus on making some art.
My desire to use the woodshop meant I needed to buy some wood. That’s a thing Home Depot sells. To get there from Stove Works, I drove toward the site of the Civil War’s second bloodiest conflict and hung a left at Del Taco. Actually I stopped at the Del Taco, just across the state line in northern Georgia, and ordered a nostalgic burrito. It was the first time I’d eaten at the chain since I was young. There was a time I used to invade Del Tacos as part of a swarm of suburban Phoenix skateboarders, but there aren’t locations in Texas or New York. I savored the familiar junk, smiled. At the next booth a rangy teenager in a Discount Tire Co. uniform listened to dolphin vocalizations on his phone. Before I got up to leave, after refilling my little plastic cup of water a few times, I made a list in my notes app of what I needed at the store: D-rings, cedar, spray lacquer. Then I added, as an afterthought: look at the Halloween stuff (why not).
Home Depot, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. I froze in the aisle, dropping a blister pack of D-rings at my feet. Of all the places in all the country. There he was, assembling a horde.
“You!” I exclaimed, not knowing exactly what to make of the situation but suddenly frantic, forgetting lumber, returning to the depths of the Austin summer. It seemed he wasn’t expecting to see me either — he bolted. With both hands I grabbed the first orange apron I saw, pleading its wearer for help.
“Uh, nah, sorry,” the employee said, “that one’s just for display. Everyone wants them. We’re sold out. You might try Hixon.” I tried to inquire further, but he climbed into a forklift and drove down an aisle, so I wasn’t allowed to follow him. Another employee made sure of it; she had a little flag.
Hixon is a neighborhood to the north, on the other side of the Tennessee River. My phone said there was another Home Depot there. I sped. After what I’d seen in Fort Oglethorpe, it was clear my Big Skeleton was attempting to rally the other, regular-sized (actually rather small) Home Depot skeletons to his cause. If he was heading anywhere nearby, he’d be heading to Hixon. I had to cut him off.
On the drive between Home Depots I listened to Roxy Music’s self-titled album, because a 30-inch animatronic skeleton with bug eyes they’d had at the first location sounded exactly like Bryan Ferry when he sang his royalty-free Monster Mash homage. In “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the real Ferry boomed out familiar lyrics that seemed to fit my current circumstance: “I tried but I could not find a way…”
Luck! The guy with the forklift was right, and I got to Hixon in time. Big Skeleton was in stock. There was a brief skirmish. I won’t go into it too much, but a goth employee watched for a while as I tried to lift heavy, awkwardly sized things. All in all it was easier than I anticipated. Soon Big Skeleton was boxed and under my control, on a little wheelie cart. I gave the goth my credit card. As they handed me my receipt they said, “don’t take the head out of the head box unless you want something to happen!”
All the way back to the warehouse, the goth’s directive looped in my mind. What would happen if I removed Big Skeleton’s head from the head box? What was the head box? I didn’t know what to make of any of it, but this was skeleton advice from a goth so I figured I’d be wise to pay attention.
Then it was evening. Everyone was doing what they had to do. My task for the night was to inspect Big Skeleton.
Pencil for scale.
As the pieces came out, I laughed. The road had been long, figuratively and literally, but now Big Skeleton was here with me. I would be able to write my Glasstire Halloween essay after all.
Water for scale. After the body was removed, documented, and cataloged, there was one thing left in the box — another box. It was smaller than the main box but still large; about the size of Home Depot’s small-size packing box, which is only small compared to their medium and large-size boxes — if that is in any way a helpful analogy. Since the head was nowhere else, this box was obviously the head box that the goth had warned me about. I set it aside, sat on the floor, and stared.
The goth had said not to open the head box “unless I wanted something to happen.” Did I? What was the risk? Sometimes it was pleasant when things happened, but other times it was very bad. I decided to be good, to be patient, to analyze the body like a sensible journalist and not risk what otherworldly forces could be unleashed from the other side of the cardboard flaps.
After a few minutes like that I caved. I’ve never been one to resist a siren’s call. Without seeing the head, my research — my journey — felt incomplete. For a second everything seemed calm. I was worn out from the day and my stomach hurt a bit from Del Taco. Everyone else had gone home or gone to bed, and Big Skeleton’s head rested quietly on a table in the warehouse. I looked around, looked at my phone. Maybe the goth had just been putting me on. For a second, nothing was happening.
And then the light came into his eyes.
Just like that he was back, standing upright, all his hollow plastic bones clicked into place. The beastly figure was ready to assume his true calling as a real attention hog. Fear!
“Did you eat the Home Depot text message person,” I asked.
No response. I asked again. Nothing. I tried other questions:
“Why did you try to escape? Are you going to try again?”
Still he stood silently. I waited for a while before I realized he wasn’t being stubborn.
Big Skeleton was inanimate. This surprised me. Maybe my predicament wasn’t as bad as I had thought. I walked in circles around him for a while, trying to figure him out. He was made of the same stuff as any other Halloween skeleton, just more of it. Chimeric, lightweight, with lots of negative space. This was fine. I scooted him over into the corner of the warehouse, where he wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. Then I went upstairs and went to bed, still needing D-rings.
Over the following few weeks Big Skeleton and I really got to know each other. He actually wasn’t a bad guy at all. Very quiet. The frenzy around him was never his fault; he was just a victim of a marketing ploy whipped up by a Fortune 500 company. I started calling him Skelly again. Down in the warehouse, Trevor — and eventually, Caroline — called him Terry, but that would be something for them to explain. Point is, Skelly was making friends. He even started posing for my art.
The pieces we made together have some special qualities, but I’m not going to share them all here. I’d like to unveil them in an exhibition somewhere, someday. I’d name that show Big Skeleton, a way to honor how far Skelly and I have come. Studio time was our path to common understanding. I was curious, though, where Skelly’s interest in art had originated. He was just an oversized chunk of plastic from a distant factory, and those usually aren’t so tuned in. Turns out creativity ran in the family. He had an Appalachian cousin, right near Chattanooga, who was a pretty interesting painter. One day I took a break from the residency and paid him a visit.
With Skelly now held firmly in the realm of the known, I was able to coast through the rest of the residency on a wave of optimism. I even got to stay through October.
Today is Halloween proper, a day to embrace, defang, and commodify scary things; to fang the fangless with glow-in-the-dark plastic. I am confident that I’ll embarrass myself, yet speak for more than myself, when I say that some of the scariest things to touch daily life are the phenomenon of time and the distance that it builds between friends. My residency at Stove Works has ended, and everyone has gone their separate ways. I am due back in a Brooklyn that I’ve been avoiding since spring. It will be great to see the people there. Further, I take comfort in the knowledge that the people in Texas, the new people in Tennessee, the old Del Taco friends from Phoenix, they’re still around. It’s uncertain that all our paths will all cross again, but I’ve been around enough to find hope in the not knowing. Maybe it is silly to factor Skelly into this conversation, but I don’t think so. He’ll be out there as well, delighting passersby with his absurd take on horror, his explicit answer to the question, “what if a skeleton was too big?”
And as for my longtime friends, the ones I never get to see as much as I’d like, I have a welcome feeling they’ll keep texting me when they run into him or his horde.