A dry piece of soapy white skin, half the size of the nail on my small finger, had begun to fleck away from one of my father's nipples. He sat at the dinner table, brushing it persistently with the edge of his thumb, trying to scrape away this more than dead piece of skin. His fingers felt as coarse as just-once-used sandpaper, I knew; I was surprised, too, each time the flap slipped stubbornly back into place, unmovable.
He began to pinch at it, using his thumb and ring finger, trying to grip the skin between them and pull it away.
"Oh, Jesus Christ," my sister said. "Do you have to do that while we're eating?"
True, it was dinner time: hamburgers and corn on the cob and pickles were laid out on the table. She was the only one eating, however, and even she--for the moment--stopped. She held a large, puffy white hamburger bun in her hands, elbows resting beside her plate on the table. She had taken three bites from the hamburger, but now she simply stared across it, over the sesame seeds and the curling, exposed edge of pale green lettuce.
"Do you have to do that at the dinner table?" she asked.
My father looked up, moved his fingers and hands momentarily away from his chest, looked around the table, glancing at the chair where my mother usually sat, and went back to work.
"You wouldn't be doing that if Mom were here," Elena said.
Also true. When our mother left, a week earlier, to care for her own mother, our father stopped wearing his greying undershirts to the table, and he no longer worried about hiding his peeling and flecking from Elena and me.
My sister dropped the rest of the hamburger onto her plate, muttered something sharply into her napkin, pushed back her chair with a loud scraping noise, and left the table for her bedroom upstairs.
While my father's hands rested, for only a few seconds, on the table, away from his chest, I took the opportunity to examine the nipple closely, from my own chair directly across the table. Both of my father's nipples were light brown, almost a tannish yellow, and large. So flat that they almost sank back into his strong chest, and so large that they seemed almost to cover the chest, his nipples seemed surprisingly soft, the tenderest part of him. Womanish, I heard him call them once.
The one I stared at, his left nipple, was textured with regular small bumps, pink or almost white, in a tight circle surrounding the raised, dimpled plateau at the nipple's very center. The fleck of dry skin lay across the top right corner of that center of his nipple, barely noticeable.
My own nipples, I knew, were smaller and darker, and they seemed always to be hard, constricted. I slid one hand beneath my navy blue baseball t-shirt, instinctively starting to lift the shirt up, wanting to compare.
"Got it," my father said.
He pinched the skin between his thumb and the small finger, catching it on an untrimmed nail, and pulling the flesh away. "Got it," he said.
After I finished eating one of the hamburgers, lathered in ketchup, and an ear of corn, I went upstairs. At the top of the steps was a tiny box of a hallway. To the left, it led to my bedroom and to my sister's. To the right, my parents' much larger bedroom, and the bathroom that we all shared. Dusty old photographs covered the dark panelled walls of the hall: baby pictures, school "Picture Day" pictures of me and Elena, looking uncomfortable, shots of my mother smiling in her wedding gown and my father nearly grimacing in a stiff tuxedo, and still older photographs, pictures of their dead grandparents and other distant, unrecognized relatives--all of them long dead, I supposed.
I only wanted to go to my own room. I was reading a book, just borrowed from the public library, and I was eager to finish it, but the door to Elena's bedroom stood open, so I hesitated there for a moment, looking in.
My sister's room had begun to take on various layers of meaning, and I took an archeological interest in their interpretation. My parents bought the house the summer before she was born, and she spent all sixteen years since in the same room. The walls were still the same soft, pale shade of pink, and the curtains--though new--were still pink and white. Our mother insisted on buying the frilly curtains to match the walls which my father quietly declined to re-paint, in yellow or in sea green.
One small dresser in the corner, bought the week Elena turned four years old, was white, trimmed in pink, and decorated with large, fading stickers of flowers and rabbits. Two years ago, my sister and I began scraping away at the stickers, trying to peel them off with two steak knives borrowed from the kitchen, but we scratched the paint badly, and the stickers refused to come off neatly, so Elena decided suddenly that we would stop, leaving worse enough alone, she said.
At that time, she decorated the walls with school pictures of her friends and three or four large posters, one of the Bay City Rollers, one of Leif Garrett. Those posters disappeared long ago, and just recently were replaced by Billy Idol and Adam Ant. On her last birthday, our parents gave her a small stereo, a record player and radio, that sat on top of her newer, larger, brown--not pink--dresser. As I stood in the doorway, she was listening to the B-52's, "Planet Claire."
"Fuck off, jerk."
While I had been looking around her room, at the posters and pictures on the wall, I didn't even noticed my sister, lying on her bed, facing away from me, not even turning around to swear at me. She had taken off her jeans, dropping them on the floor, and wore a long white t-shirt, and her long black hair fanned out over her back. She was studying a magazine, spread out on the pillow in front of her.
"Go jerk yourself off," she said, without looking at me.
I shrugged, turned around, and went into my own room, closing the door.
Even with the door closed, I could still hear her music, muffled. But my room was also just above our small living room, with an open heat register between them, and I could just hear the sound of the television set below, where my father watched a baseball game, sitting on the sofa, I supposed, and probably drinking a beer.
I tried to read the library book--"Too Hot to Handle," a baseball story by Matt Christopher--but the combined noise from the stereo and the television was too loud for me to concentrate. I set the book down.
I lay on my bed, fully dressed and on top of the sheets and blanket. I began shifting around, moving from spot to spot, closing my eyes, and listening. I found that with my head near the top of the bed, slightly hanging over the edge, the sounds became perfectly balanced: the B-52's were just as loud as Ralph Kiner calling a routine grounder, Ralph Kiner was no louder than the B-52's, singing "Dance This Mess Around."
I pictured the back of my sister's legs, pink and full, pressed out slightly as she lay on her stomach. Her boyfriend, Keith, was a year ahead of her in school, just starting his senior year, and didn't know if he would be going away to college. I had seen them, on the small porch behind our house, kissing and holding each other all summer.
I thought, suddenly, that what offended my sister was not my father's nipple, not the dry skin he tried to peel away, but the remainder of his flesh. He wore no shirt, after all, exposing his tanned chest and stomach, with just a slight gut, the skin dark and rough, darker even than his nipples. He was still muscular, still weathered from the work he did outside, and the few hairs scattered over his chest were beginning to fade from stern black to a snowy white.
My mother, who should have been sitting with us at the dinner table, left five days earlier to visit her parents. Her mother, the stronger of the couple, had--in a week's time--gone suddenly, irreversibly blind. The doctors could find no logical cause, not cataracts or diabetes or nerve damage.
My grandfather took this unexpected development badly. He swore at the doctors, swore at his children when they arrived to help, swore even at his blind wife, who sat quietly in an old easy chair, her eyes turned toward him but seeing nothing. He had always drunk, and he drank more now, refusing to do any of the chores she had always done for him--the cooking, the laundry, cleaning the house.
Earlier that evening, just after my father started cooking the hamburgers on the charcoal grill that sat on our back porch, my mother called to tell him how things were going. She and two of her sisters were staying at my grandparents' home, taking turns coddling their father and comforting his wife. My father nodded, waving me toward the back door, handing me a spatula so I could turn the burgers while he talked.
The hamburgers lay in two neat rows of three on one half of the small grill; the corn, tightly wrapped in aluminum foil, was stacked on the other side of the grill. Everything was so closely pressed together that I didn't know, at first, how I could maneuver the spatula to flip one burger without damaging, or breaking, the one next to it. Finally, I removed a few ears of corn temporarily, burning the end of one of my fingers on an edge of hot foil.
From where I stood on the porch, I could see my father standing beside the telephone, next to the wall. He cradled the phone against one of his broad, brown shoulders, holding a can of beer, sipping, nodding, murmuring, sipping. With one thumb, he began to flick at a small piece of dry skin on his left nipple.
My sister turned off her stereo. I had been lying on my bed for close to an hour, listening to the competing noise of her music--first the B-52's, then the Talking Heads--and my father's baseball game. I could hear her moving around her room, opening dresser drawers, closing her door.
I looked at the alarm clock on my night stand. Not quite 8:30. My sister was allowed out until 10:00, or even 11:00, sometimes, during the summer and weekends. I rolled over and picked up my book.
I could just make out the sound of the baseball game on the television downstairs, now in its fifth inning, and what I heard kept mixing up in my mind with the game in my book. The double play ball in my book, softly hit, would roll through the shortstop's legs downstairs, and the new kid on the opposing team, caught in a run down between third base and home, managed to slide in safely with the tying run.
Holding the book open with the sides of my hands, I rubbed the tip of one finger across the burnt spot on another finger, on the other hand. The skin there had turned white, in a small, uneven circle, and it hurt slightly when I pressed on it. The circle turned whiter, with a larger pink circle around it. I touched it with my tongue: the burnt skin felt smoother, almost cooler.
I fell asleep at one point, the book falling closed next to me on the bed. I woke when my father tapped on the door to my room. I rolled over, blinking and staring.
"Where's your sister?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I'm not sure," I said. "I think she went out."
He nodded. "Okay."
"Who won the game?" I asked.
"It's in extra innings," he said, "but Cincinnati just scored a run." He stood in the doorway for another second, rubbing his stomach, staring past me. I could see the skin starting to dry there, also, flaking off as he rubbed it. He turned, finally, and started to walk away. "Well, goodnight, Peter," he said.
I heard him open and close the bathroom door, heard the loud spray of water and the flush of the toilet, the door opening again, heard him walking slowly back down the stairs.
My father's skin began to dry out in large patches about a year earlier. I walked past my parents' bedroom once then, while the door stood slightly open, and my father lay on his stomach on their bed. My mother straddled the small of his back, alternately rubbing the dry skin off with her palms, and picking at it, peeling away long strips at one time.
"I don't know if I should do this," I heard her say.
"It itches," he answered.
She rubbed harder, and the flakes of dry skin fell off more quickly, sliding down from his back into two uneven piles on their blue blanket, on either side of his waist.
A few weeks later, their door more widely open, I saw my parents again. This time my father was resting on his back, and my mother straddled his thighs, rapidly rubbing her hands over his stomach and chest, where the peeling had spread. Like a small scene shaken under a glass dome, everything in the room seemed to cast off the same snow-like flakes of skin. In that flurry, I could no longer tell if the dry slough was rising from my father's chest into the cold air, or falling from my mother's hands onto the still bed and the floor.
The dry patches persisted, letting up for a week or two at times, then resuming again somewhere else on his body. My mother patiently helped peel away the dry, itching skin, patiently rubbed her perfumed skin lotion into his back and chest and legs, patiently reminded him to call his doctor, but he had not--so far as I knew--yet made an appointment.
I woke again, at a quarter after eleven. Through the almost quiet house, I could hear the faint murmurs from the television set downstairs. I sat up on the side of my bed.
The hall light was still on. Elena's room was dark, the door open, empty. I walked into the bathroom, not even closing the door, pulling down my pants, flushing, washing my hands and face, rubbing the thick towel hard into my eyes.
Downstairs, only a small lamp in the living room was lit. My father sat asleep on the sofa, the television set still turned on softly. I sat down next to my father for a minute. An old war movie, black and white, played on the television.
My father's face was turned away from me. He breathed deeply, not snoring, his hands crossed in front of him, resting in his lap, just over his crotch. I could see where he had rubbed and picked at the dry skin on his chest. The peeled skin, pink underneath, stretched from his nipple now almost to the left shoulder. On the upholstered arm of the sofa, next to him, I could see four or five large strips of dry skin that he had peeled away.
I saw him then as he would be in another twenty years: an old man, his chest and cheeks greying hollows, the fragile ribs pressing against the skin that had been peeled and worn down to a pale, translucent sheen. His bony fingers worked unconsciously, as in his sleep, rubbing and fretting away at what was no longer even there.
When the movie switched to a louder commercial, I stood up and shut off the television. I walked into the dining room and stood beside the table. The room was nearly dark, lit only by the one dim lamp around the corner.
The table had never been cleared off after supper. Our plates, with half-eaten burgers and the half-finished ears of corn, still sat in front of our chairs. In the center of the table, two larger plates held three uneaten burgers and several more ears of corn, still wrapped in aluminum foil.
I began to put away the smaller items first. I took the salt and pepper back into the kitchen, placed the mustard and ketchup and margarine back in the refrigerator, on the door, twisted the pack of hamburger buns tightly shut and set it in my mother's breadbox, over a half loaf of rye bread.
Next, I cleared off the glasses and the silverware, dumping the flat, watery soda into the sink, rinsing the dried mustard from a butter knife. I scraped our plates into the garbage, rinsed them off, and stacked them next to the sink. Finally, I took the larger platters into the kitchen as well. I set the wrapped corn into the refrigerator, moving an unopened jar of bread and butter pickles and a bowl of leftover rice to make room.
I took the plastic wrap from a cupboard to cover the hamburgers. In the light from the open refrigerator door, I could see where the blood had seeped out from the still hot meat, then dried almost solid, grey and spongy, on top of the burgers as they cooled. When I pressed down on the plastic wrap, I could watch the dried blood flatten and spread.
After I cleared off the table, then wiped it with a damp sponge from the kitchen, I noticed a slight noise from the back porch, like a rustling of leaves or dried paper. I glanced through the small kitchen window.
On one side of the porch, the grill still stood open, the spatula resting on the cool, greasy metal rack. On the opposite side, just out of my sight, Elena and Keith sat on the same wooden lawn chair. I could see their shadows projected, by the faint porch light left on, in negligence or defiance, against the slatted, wooden wall of the porch. If Elena even noticed the harsher light, or the noises I made in the kitchen, she never gave one sign.
Elena sat on Keith's lap, her arms wrapped around the back of his head, her own head slanted onto one shoulder, her dark hair falling down across his back, eyes closed. Her t-shirt, pushed up over her chest and one shoulder, bunched up around her neck. Keith wrapped his arms loosely around her waist, and leaned his head into her chest, moving his face slowly from side to side, pausing over each nipple.
The cast of their shadows recalled the posture of my parents, my mother straddling her husband to caress away the dry flakes of skin. Between their dark shapes, the shadows of large moths, circling the bare glowing bulb, flickered from one to the other. When my sister raised her hands to her own breasts, rubbing the bare flesh, the white moths danced in a sudden flurry.
I ran the top of my thumb across the white circle of skin where I had burned my finger. The flesh felt cool now, and smooth. In the living room, my father began to snore, the sound soft and uneven, no louder than my sister's formless whisperings.
(published in "WordWrights!" No. 15, Spring 1999)