Strange Affliction

My father used to work with isotopes created in an atomic pile located in a lead-lined bunker beneath building 27B in Kodak Park. This may or may not have had anything to do with the strange affliction he developed in his sixties, after he retired and moved upstate to the ranch house in Glens Falls.

The genetic switch that tells epithelial cells to form keratin went haywire; my father’s skin gradually morphed in to a material with the consistency of fingernail. At the beginning, he took pleasure in being impervious to mosquito bites. But as the disease progressed, he lost flexibility. If he moved too quickly, his skin would crack. Fortunately, the proliferation of keratinous bundles crowded out nerve endings; pain was not an issue. He’d simply patch the gaps with duct tape and carry on. Eventually, however, the cracks began to seal overnight, leaving him trapped in a rigid exo-skeleton every morning.

I left my job in Rochester and moved in with him. Every day at 7 a.m., I brought him breakfast in bed, which consisted of black coffee and a protein shake in two separate Camelbak hydration packs. He sipped on these while I scored his joints with an X-ACTO Knife. Once he was up and active, he stayed reasonably limber – as long as he kept moving. One afternoon he made the mistake of taking a call from my notoriously talkative sister. I found him an hour later, standing in the living room with the phone to his ear, stiff as stone. My sister was still yammering as I pried the phone from his hand. He never lost his sense of humor; as I pulled out the X-ACTO, he whispered “oil can” from behind unmoving lips, reprising one of our favorite scenes from the Wizard of Oz. “Oil can what?” I replied, scoring his jaw line so he could smile.

He enjoyed trips to the Crandall library and the Hyde Museum. Sometimes we ventured up to Lake George village and took in the view from the Million Dollar Beach. If the drive was longer than 10 minutes, we’d stop and walk around so that he could loosen up. We often dined at the nearby Friendly’s, where the wait staff knew him well and would kid around by tapping out old Sinatra tunes on the carapace covering his shoulders. He seemed to enjoy this – despite the disturbing wet resonance of the sound – and always guessed the right song. Or so he was led to believe.

Eventually the keratinization of his skin became so aggressive, I couldn’t keep up. I had to move him to the Glens Falls Hospital, where they were able to maintain a few key openings through hourly treatments with a diamond-tipped drill. The shell encasing him became pure and lustrous and nearly transparent. Toward the end I could see muscles and veins and the pulsing of his heart.

He’d always been an active man, and I knew he wasn’t happy with his situation. We watched movies and listened to music together. I read to him and tapped out tunes on his chest for old times’ sake. When he developed breathing problems, the doctors put him on a ventilator. I stayed up with him all that night and toward dawn asked for his advice. He couldn’t talk at that point; couldn’t whisper or even blink. But his eyes watched me through sealed, translucent lids, and told me what to do.

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Strange Affliction was originally published in Pif Magazine.