Skin by Doug Smith

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looking down snowy street/rail tracks at dusk; street lights aglow

Almost naked on the examination table, bare feet on the rubber tread, you sit staring at the tissue of snow stretched across Copley Square while the dermatologist sets your glasses on the counter behind your back.

Here I am.

Your father died of melanoma when he was thirty-nine. Now forty, you have moles all over your body and young children at home like he did, yet you have never had your skin checked.

“Never?” the dermatologist asked when you were wearing clothes.

“Never,” you said.

“Why not?” He waited, blinking behind thick, wire-rimmed spectacles.

“His skin was fairer than mine. He burned more easily.”

He is not me. I am not him.

The dermatologist talks behind you now, writing in your chart. Treatment for melanoma is much more effective than when your father died, he tells you. Back then if someone had malignant moles anywhere on their body, they didn’t survive. Today many people survive—with one exception.

“If you have a malignant mole on your hands or feet,” he says, “you die. We don’t understand why, but for moles on hands and feet the fatality rate remains extremely high.”

You delayed making an appointment for so many years that your wife made you one herself. You canceled it. There wasn’t time between meetings to ride the Green Line out to a doctor in Kenmore Square. That’s what you told her, although the next day you had time for a haircut. She made another appointment. You canceled that also. Instead of arguing, she found a dermatologist two blocks from your office and scheduled the skin check at lunch.

This appointment you remembered only last night, after you left work late and went sprinting down Boylston Street to daycare, where you dropped two kids into snow pants. Carrying one and pulling the other, you still missed the train. While waiting forty-five minutes on a cold stone bench with two tired children and a book only one of them liked, you kept visualizing the sticky note at your desk with the dermatologist’s number. It was too late to call. They would charge.

But when your wife asked during dinner if you had canceled, you flushed with rage. “That’s insulting!” The kids bowed their heads and focused on their forks. You left the kitchen without helping clean up.

She called to remind you this morning. “Leave me alone!” you snarled so loudly that keyboards fell silent in the cubicles around you.

Why did you snarl? Fear. Yes, of course. I am afraid of dying like he did.

Still, you stood up on time. You left the office and walked between Trinity Church and the John Hancock Building, hunched against the whipping winter wind which now rattles the windows in this examination room and makes you miss the sweater that lay across your lap like a blanket until a moment ago.

Fifty percent higher than people without the same family history. That’s your risk. The doctor said that. You read that in The New York Times. You have a mole in the same place as the one that killed him.

Here I am. In my father’s skin.

“This is what I use for examinations,” the dermatologist says. You twist around to see him clutching a steel handle with a magnifying glass at the end. He lifts his spectacles and rests them on his head.

All those years spent not making appointments and the last year spent canceling them. What the fuck were you thinking? You made the one choice most likely to lead to the same result. You cultivated whatever catastrophe he is about to find.

The dermatologist is raising his magnifying glass when you both see it. A black mass on top of your bare right foot. He gasps. The steel handle drops and dangles next to his thigh.

Now I will leave my family like he did. That is your thought. Now it all ends. Train, daycare, cubicle. Cubicle, daycare, train. Driving past the store without stopping. “We needed milk and pasta. You didn’t remember?” It is like watching a man on television fall—legs pedaling, arms windmilling—while you sit motionless, as if on a couch. Is this how he felt?

The doctor is pulling down his spectacles and you are raising your foot to look at the mass when it rolls off. A ball of dark wool from your sweater.

Then the scratching warmth of your sweater retrieved from the back of a chair. Next melted and refrozen snowbanks in Copley Square. Followed by elevator, key card, cubicle. Tonight, cups of milk and bowls of pasta and all the how-many-more-bites questions. Bath and bedtime. Alarm and train. So this is not his skin?

Meet the Contributor

Doug Smith writerFor twenty-five years, Doug Smith has designed and built products to teach children to read—books, iPad games, and instructional software. He was accepted into the 2021 Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop Series and has recently had a piece accepted for publication in Under the Gum Tree. A recent graduate of the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street in Boston, Doug is working on a memoir about how families negotiate death and grief.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Michael Krigsman

  4 comments for “Skin by Doug Smith

  1. Wonderful! I love how you interspersed the experience in the room with your memories of your Dad and thoughts about your own fathering.

    • Beautifully written. Such a mikafo stick build up. I think I held my breath for the duration. Scared silly like the character & then boom! A silly piece of fuzz. Exhaling at last…

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