In March, longtime WNBA member Diana Altman will read from her work at the New York Society Library. Her story A Night at the BSS was recently published on Trampset and her story In the Wrong Skin will appear in the Notre Dame Review in the spring. Read on for an excerpt from In the Wrong Skin.
IN THE WRONG SKIN
Toward the end of my training I was assigned to a rural dermatology clinic. The farmers and townsfolk were curious and hopeful about the new doctor so they crowded in to see me on my first day. At least eighty people, one after another, came to ask for help. By the end of the day I was so exhausted that I was not myself. The nurse came in and said there was one last patient. He would not go home. She tried but he would not. In he came, a big, strong man with the skin of a reptile on his scalp, face, neck, and hands.
“There is nothing that I can do for you,” I said after examining those raw patches of scales.
“Then tell me, Doctor,” he said, “Why has this happened to me?”
Out of my mouth came these words: “You are in the wrong skin, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.”
Upon hearing what I’d said, I was ashamed and could only sit motionless as the man left my office without another word. I called his family doctor, admitted that I had told a patient that his condition was hopeless and apologized. I never expected to see that patient again so was surprised several months later when the door to my office opened and there he was. His skin was clear. Not a trace remained of his former affliction. He said that far from saying the wrong thing to him, I said exactly the right thing.
He told me his story. When he was seventeen, it was taken for granted that he would enter the family butcher business as his father willingly did before him. It was a successful business started by his grandfather but the boy disliked it. He never wanted to be a butcher. Nonetheless, he took his place as heir and worked hard. He married, had children, and eventually owned several lucrative butcher shops.
After his visit to the clinic, he remembered that his skin problems started when he was seventeen and became a butcher. Those words I said to him that evening when I was drugged from fatigue rang down to the bottom of his soul. He sold all his butcher shops and bought a farm. “Now,” he said, “I won’t have to kill young animals but can raise them.”
This was the case of a man who, for thirty years, had been trying to shed his skin. He wanted to move on, to grow. It was that patient who made me realize that the skin, one organ from head to toe, is a mirror of the psyche.
Years later I was asked to take charge of the dermatology unit of a city hospital. One day a madman was deposited in my office by psychiatrists who had given up on him. He was compelled to tear off his skin. There I was alone with him. He said nothing, just tore the skin off his legs and sat there in a pool of blood, oblivious to my scrutiny.
Diana Altman has written two books including Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the origins of the studio system (Carol Publishing, ’92), a nonfiction book still quoted in movie star biographies and books of film history. As the author, she was a guest on TV’s Entertainment Tonight. Her award-winning novel In Theda Bara’s Tent (Tapley Cove Press, 2010) has more than a million reads on Wattpad and was described as “sophisticated storytelling” by Library Journal. Her short story A Night at the BSS is published by the journal Trampset and is currently available online. Her story In The Wrong Skin has been accepted for publication by The Notre Dame Review. She has been published in the New York Times, Yankee, Boston Herald, Forbes, StoryQuarterly, Moment, and elsewhere. Diana has been a member of the WNBA for more than twenty years and was past president of the Boston Chapter. She plays squash at the Harvard Club and sings with the 92nd Street Y chorus.