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SKIN

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  2. SKIN
  3. —FROM FINAL JUDGE JACK COULEHAN—

“Doncha think it's real cool, Grandpa? All my friends have one.”

Adjusting his spectacles, Krieger bent over, gazed intently a few seconds at the tiny pink rose on her back, then clucked approvingly. Long ago, he learned not to display shock or anger to children, or his patients.

“Did it hurt, Jodi?” Eyebrows raised, smiling.

“Nope,” she chirped proudly.

It seemed a bizarre fashion; using one's body as a garishly ornamental billboard. He gave it no further thought until well after his daughter's family had returned to Ohio … It had been 6 months since Sarah's death. Every day he recalled her handsome face, sweet smile, the happiness of their long life together. Sarah had been afraid of dying. Even talking of it. She refused to accompany him to Krumholz the lawyer, to draw up a will. There was no convincing her. But … the circumstances of her death still haunted him. She had been just 75. Although pale and weak, she had refused to go to the hospital until the bleeding became uncontrollable. The hematologist said she had an “interesting” disease. Even in medical school Krieger knew the label “interesting” invariably meant devastating and incurable. I should have screamed “enough is enough—genug.” he often thought. It would have spared her medicine's last rites: the foredoomed chest-poundings, the poisonous resurrection cocktails. Such suffering. Poor Sarah. The rare form of blood cancer, the fevers, the hemorrhaging, the overwhelming infections. Comatose on a respirator for 4 weeks … until the end. It had been inhumane to prolong her dying.

He felt responsible, and resolved not to let that happen to him.

Shortly after her burial he obtained 2 bottles of Seconal, putting them behind a book on the shelf. The children and grandchildren were taken care of in the will, the burial plot and funeral paid for in advance. He was ready. He had no religious misgivings about ending his life, nor illusions about the existence of an afterlife. He was in fairly good health for a man of 82; failing eyesight, aching hips and knees, and barely adequate urinary plumbing and bowels. Not frightened of dying, there were times after her funeral it seemed most welcome, he wanted it to be on his own terms; swift and painless—if at all possible. In his lifetime, he must have written “natural causes” on hundreds of death certificates. Krieger felt he had the right to determine the time and manner of his death. Pneumonia, once referred to by his professors as “the old man's friend” no longer provided a quick exit. When the inevitable occurred, an illness he knew would end in his physical or mental decrepitude, he planned to take the pills, peacefully go to sleep, and join her.

The second Thursday of each month he visited Jake. On the long bus ride Krieger always reflected on their long friendship. My best friend since high school, oh how I envied him. Little Jakie, the top student at Boston Latin helping me with my homework, introducing his cousin Sarah to me one summer. Just imagine … years later he became Professor Jacob Levov of MIT, the brilliant astrophysicist once rumored to be on Stockholm's short list. Didn't they even name an equation after him? Sarah was always unsuccessfully introducing him to eligible lady friends. But, resolutely a bachelor, he was married to his research. When he had a stroke I didn't know about it for weeks. For the past 2 years, poor Jake had been wrapped in diapers, strapped to a wheelchair in front of a TV in a nursing home dayroom. The foul odors, waxy skin, swollen legs. I'd read the newspaper to him, hold his cold, immobile hand. Jake's mute unblinking face was horrifying. Was this life? I pondered. No, he was one of the many living dead. Not for me. An hour was all I could bear. On the bus home I always sat in the back wiping away the tears …

It was after his recent visit to Jake that he remembered little Jodi, and made his decision.

One wintery afternoon he rode the subway downtown, getting off in the Combat Zone, an area of strip joints, porno shops, tattoo, and body-piercing parlors. The “CHAMELEON's” neon-lit window beckoned, proclaiming “Body Art—Custom Tattooing. Disposable Needles—Public Health Dept. approved.”

“What'll you have, Pops?” the young Asian woman said. He must have looked uncertain.

“Before you make up your mind, let me show you around. You'll get an idea of my beautiful work.”

The small shop had psychedelic posters and photos of necks, backs, chests, and buttocks decorated with scorpions, cobras, cupids, Satanic symbols, and religious images covering the walls like a stamp album. The blasting rock music made it difficult for him to speak.

He shook his head, and wrote what he wanted on a piece of paper.

“That's all? No kidding? That big? Do you want me to doll it up a bit, some U.S. flags, a few coiled snakes? I can do calligraphy or Olde English script, but it'll take longer and cost more. How about some pretty colors instead of just black?”

He shook his head.

“Where do you want it?

He opened his shirt and pointed.

“OK, have a seat,” motioning to the worktable near the front window, “it's plenty warm in here. I'll have to shave your chest clean.”

She lathered the area with green soap and carefully maneuvered the Bic razor.

“Usually, it doesn't grow back,” she said reassuringly.

Soon an admiring crowd formed: bearded bikers in leather, nose-ringed punks with green and fuschia hair, and 3 scruffy derelicts who had wandered in.

“You're the oldest dude I've ever put my artistry on,” she said. The onlookers nodded. She placed the letter stencils on the table and began. The electric hum of the tattooing gun could barely be heard. The group winced when he winced.

“Does it hurt, Pops? Should I stop for a moment?” she whispered, letting up on the foot pedal. Eyes shut, he shook his head.

An hour went by.

“There, how do you like it, Pops?” she said, wiping him dry, offering a mirror.

He stared at the reflection. D.N.R. in 3 in high capitals. The abbreviation would suffice, he thought. If ever I'm taken to a hospital, the aggressive young doctors would know what that meant. Let me be!

“Are those your initials?”

The joking stopped when he explained what the letters signified to the medical profession.

“No *##*! You don't mean it, do ya? Why ya doin' that?”

“I have my reasons. I'm a physician. I know what I'm doing.”

Everyone was silent, staring in disbelief. He got up, dressed, wrote a check, and walked out.

It was becoming dark. Few were on the street as Krieger shuffled to the station.

“There, done. I don't owe them an explanation,” he grumbled. “Why'n the hell should I tell them about Sarah and Jake? It's none of their goddamn business.”

He knew Sarah or the family would never have understood. Nobody would, but that didn't matter.

—FROM FINAL JUDGE JACK COULEHAN—

  1. Top of page
  2. SKIN
  3. —FROM FINAL JUDGE JACK COULEHAN—

I chose “Skin” to be the winner in prose narrative, not so much because I'm a grandpa myself, but because of the story's deep humanity and heroism. Anton Chekhov wrote that the good playwright, who casually leaves a pistol lying around the stage in the first act, should wow the audience in the third act by using that pistol to bring on the play's climax. So, too, with “Skin.” This is a story of loss and compassion, but in the end, when the pistol goes off, at some level everyone in the audience cheers.