The Skin Sellers


Dermali was once a tiny nation in the Balkans. It no longer exists. But its culture lives on among the Dermalian-Americans.

In the Twenties, after the Dermalian economy had been smashed by The Great War, six of my eight great-grandparents emigrated to the United States and settled in three of the larger American cities, where bilingual enclaves of our people were forming.

That makes me a fourth-generation D.-A. by blood. But I’ve assimilated pretty thoroughly. I know exactly five words of Dermish, and I dance no Dermalian folk dances. My father is another story.

When an ethnic group jumps into the Melting Pot, the breadwinners sometimes gravitate to a particular profession. Irishmen often joined police departments; many Jews opened up tailor shops; and lots of Chinese found work at laundries. Similarly, a large contingent of immigrant Dermalians snagged jobs as hospital orderlies.

There are various theories to explain this demographic quirk. One theory holds that Dermalian men tend to be quiet, serious, and clean—traits that are valued in hospital orderlies. An orderly is essentially a janitor, but he’s a glorified janitor, a janitor in a sterile, white uniform and rubber-soled shoes.

The men of my grandfather’s generation were intensely proud of their work. They hoped that someday their grandsons might go to training colleges and become registered nurses.

Their faction got control of a national labor union, and nepotism did the rest. Fathers wangled orderly jobs for more and more sons, until young D.-A.s were mopping the floors of all the major hospitals.

At the onset of World War II, every American urban center included a clean, quiet neighborhood full of clean, quiet Dermalian families, all raising their children to speak English. The working men rode buses to their hospitals at all hours, and dreamed of acquiring used cars.

During the postwar period, blood transfusions became commonplace, and many new blood banks were established. Dermalian-American orderlies saw that nurses were drawing blood from various lowlifes and paying out good money for the privilege. Reasoning that their blood was as red as any other American’s, many orderlies began to sell their blood on weekends, to supplement their incomes and to make life easier for their wives.

More recently, in the era of kidney transplants and artificial knees, the D.-A. community embarked upon a whole new profession, moving from blood donorship to the next logical level. They started selling their skins. Not all at once, of course, but in strips.

The strips are usually removed at burn wards, for grafting purposes. The skin is rendered universally graftable by means of patented pharmaceutical viruses, which eat the chromosomes right out of the ectodermal nucleoplasms.

Blood is worth peanuts, compared to skin. If a man is a fast healer, he can make a bundle selling his skin. Enterprising D.-A.s left their hospitals and started working out of their apartments as private contractors. They would visit burn wards or cosmetic surgery clinics for removals and then recuperate at home.

My father’s generation saw the skin profession as a brave new world of economic opportunity. The demand for skin had created a seller’s market.

But they had to put up with a few unsightly side effects. The skin grows back, but the new skin never perfectly matches the skin around it. First a strip grows back coarse and hairy. Chimp skin, they call it. Then it begins to grow back pale and smooth and waxen—corpse skin. A skin seller comes to resemble a patchwork quilt. It takes some getting used to.

Dermalian-Americans became a highly visible minority. Women of other ethnicities shunned the skin sellers. Intermarriage with other groups, formerly on the rise, took a downswing. But Dermalian women have grown accustomed to piebald complexions. When a Dermalian woman spots a guy in a tank top, his arms all pink and red and white, she doesn’t think, How gross! She thinks, Ah! A good provider.

Nonetheless, the men of my generation have turned against the practice. We’ve seen the long-term health problems involved. The skin keeps growing back, yes, but thinner and thinner, more and more varicose and translucent. And numbness sets in.

A skin seller who gets greedy and overworks himself can wind up as a very young corpse and a very unsightly one, usually in a closed casket.

Consider the case of my father. He’s sold skin all his life. I went into tax accounting, and he’s never forgiven me. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps.

The two of us have been getting into fights over this ever since I was in high school. It started when I refused to sell leg strips for a summer job. We said some ugly things that day.

“It’s just a few hunks off your butt and thighs!” he protested. “It’s nothing! Who’s going to notice? You just wear long pants.”

“Dad, when was the last time you went to a beach?

He snorted. “Dermalians don’t go to those places.”

“All my friends do.”

“What a sissy you are. What vanity! Don’t be so concerned with surfaces.”

“Dad, it isn’t healthy. Look at yourself for Christ’s sake!”

“Watch your mouth,” he told me. “Your mother is in the kitchen.”

These arguments have continued. I scold my father for making unnecessary sacrifices, and he reminds me that his hide put me through college.

Whenever I visit him, he’s lying in bed, regrowing. In pajamas, he looks like a damned science project. Mom wishes that I’d just stay away. But I have to get through to him. He won’t be around much longer.

For the last month, Dad’s been in a hospital. Some kind of fungus has got under his skin, what’s left of it. They’ve got him in a ward that smells of saline baths and pusy gauze. He shares a row of beds with a bunch of poor bastards who have skin cancer or UV burns. The same people who’ve been buying Dad’s skin all these years—them or their insurance companies.

He lies on bleached bedsheets, all moist and raw, like skinned meat waiting for the butcher. There ought to be a buzzard perched on his headboard.

I went there today and pleaded with him one last time.

“Look, Dad, I know that you did this for your wife and your kids. But it’s ruined you. And you didn’t have to do it! You sold yourself for money!”

“So what?” he said. “That’s how America works, chum. That’s what made America strong. We’ll do anything for a price. You wouldn’t know about that, Mr. Fancy-Pants College Boy.”

“Dad, you threw away your future.”

“What horse shit! You’re just ashamed of me. You’re like those bleeding-heart liberals who want to outlaw the automobile just because of some holes in the ozone layer. You call that progress?!

“Dad, that’s not a fair comparison. We’re talking about a part of your body.”

“Get out of here,” he told me. “You don’t belong here. I can’t stand the sight of you.”

There was no more to say. I rode an elevator to the lobby.

I put on my pith helmet and my plastic UV shroud. I pushed through the hospital’s revolving door. I walked to my car in the deathly white sunlight.

It was over 120 Fahrenheit in Albuquerque. The ultraviolet index was far into the Red Zone. It had stayed in the Red for two weeks. It showed no signs of falling.

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