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Intrigue at 30,000 Feet
by Ed Dewke

posted <January 1998

You can't hide the psoriasis when it's flaming on your hands. But you CAN have some fun with it.... I am on a plane from Boston to Cincinnati, sitting next to a fellow who looks about my age.

"That looks like it hurts."

He was glancing at, and is now pointing to my hands. Flaming red lesions, varying in size from dime to silver dollar-size, cover the backs of my hands and creep out along the tops of my fingers. The nails are thick, corrupted, swooping up like a ski lift at the ends, where I've chopped them as short as possible. No sense in hiding these atrocities behind my open book, now; so I splay the fingers on the hand closest to him and look along with him. "They itch mostly," I say. "Only hurt where they're cracked."

"Were you in an accident?"

I hesitate for only a few seconds. That's all it takes for me to decide to ... well ... to do it, again. "Sort of," I say. "But it was a long time ago."

He's still studying the hand I've now put on display for him, but I see his face muscles contort with curiosity, sympathy, and, I'm sure, a little relief that I'm taking his inquiry so well. Lord knows how long he sat there after noticing, weighing the pros and cons of bringing it up. It's a difficult choice for the mature fellow traveler to make. Only children are routinely blatant.

"Don't tell me," he says. "Battery acid. It happened to me, once."

This fellow is good. He moves towards completely disarming me with his surest tactic, the I've-been-there-too tactic. It doesn't matter whether I nod in agreement or say he is mistaken because now he knows I believe 100% in his empathy. We're pals in anguish.

"No," I say. "It's an immunological anomaly." These words roll off my tongue as easy as Happy Birthday or Good Morning Dear. Now I'll see how good he REALLY is. The best move now is earnest ignorance ... and he doesn't disappoint me.

"An accident?" He's pled ignorance with the aplomb of a diplomat. Skip over the semantics by jumping back.

"An accidental immunological anomaly," I spar. Fishing is fun only so long as the fish is on the hook and in the water. "I was a GSBT for DARPA back in the sixties." I'm pleased to have thought this up. I said it because earlier I'd seen his ballpoint pen had U.S.Government imprinted on it. DARPA—Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—he would know, probably. He'd have to ask about GSBT.

He doesn't miss a beat. "GSBT? What's that?"

"‘Green screen beta tester,'" I say. He looks into my eyes and I blink. I can see he's calculating in his head, running through those cerebral algorithms that allow civil servants to communicate in acronyms. Based on his earlier moves, I predict correctly what comes next.

"Something you did for the government in the sixties is responsible for that?" He glances—a gesture—down to my hand then back to my face.

"Yeah. Unfortunately," I say and look away.

He pauses, assimilating, maybe collating. Finally, "What is a green screen beta tester?"

I look back at him, then down at the laptop computer bag tucked neatly under the seat in front of his feet. "How long have you been using computers?" I ask.

I see the slightest indication of a twinkle in is eye. He's a sharp one. "A long time," he says. "By ‘green screen' you mean the old monochrome CRTs? Green colored letters and lines?"

I close my eyes and nod. Now's the moment to play out some line. "They weren't always safe, you know. Sure, eventually they cooled them down a little bit. But didn't you ever wonder why the European screens were always amber?"

Some shadow passes over his face, perhaps it is incredulity, or a dampening of his empathy, but I know it's not a hint that he's catching on. No one in their right mind, especially someone with hands that look like mine, would be play acting. "I don't get it," he says, finally. "A computer monitor did that to your hands?"

I grin and try to look just slightly apologetic. "It's complicated," I say. "Really an anomaly. The radiation went in through my eyes, of course. That was its gateway to my immune system. The damage to my skin is contraindicatory." That word, contra-indicatory, rolled out like it was real, too.

"Shit," he says, then looks at his own hands as though for the first time. "I worked at a green monitor for years."

Now it's time to jerk on the line. "What years?" I bark it like an order, as though the answer is critical, strategic.

He snaps his eyes back to mine and for an instant his lips move but no words come. Then, "Ah ... ah ... late sixties, I guess. Sixty-eight, sixty-nine ... in there somewhere?" He ends it like a question. His face is taking on color, his eyes are dancing across the bridge of my nose.

I can't help myself. Same tone of voice: "Was it sixty-EIGHT or sixty-NINE?"

Now his voice is cracking. "Ah ... ah ... Sixty-nine. Yeah. Sixty-nine, I think. Does it matter?"

I stare back at him in silence for a moment, I dance my eyes back and forth across the bridge of his nose. I notice beads of sweat building on his forehead at the hairline. I take a deep breath, frown. "You should be okay," I say. "The last of the stinkers were pulled out of service in the summer of sixty-eight. I think." I just had to add that last "I think."

He is instantly relieved, like a great exhalation comes out of him. "When did it ... I mean, how long have your hands—"

"Been like this?" I say, finishing for him and raising my hands slightly between us. "Well, it didn't happen all of a sudden. And, as you can imagine, it took them forever to figure out just what was happening. And it's not over, I'm afraid," I pause to sigh and punctuate this revelation with a wee self-deprecating smile. "And the medication helps somewhat." I stop talking and wink at him.

"You must be...." He loses his thought, or thinks better of it, and starts over. "The government is taking care of you, right?"

I frown again and purse my lips as if to whistle. Then I squint at him and say, "I can't really talk about that."

"Oh," he says. Then, "I work for the government. Commerce Department." And then he blinks as though surprised to hear it himself.

I love invitations, so I say, "Well then, you understand."

For a few seconds neither of us says anything. Only when it seems I'm about to resubmerge in my book does he speak. "Boy, they covered that one up well. I never heard a WORD about green CRT's being dangerous."

I shrug, book open, eyes now on the pages. "Well," I say, "It's been taken care of."

Another few seconds of silence. "Were a lot of people ... I mean, what happened to you, did it happen to a lot—"

I silence him by raising my ugliest finger to my lips. "I could tell you more," I say. "But then, I'd have to kill you."

An hour later we stand at opposite sides of the baggage carousel at the Cincinnati airport. He's with a woman who appears only modestly enthused about picking him up. While I watch them peripherally he leans into her and whispers something. I see her squint to find me, then she stares at me blatantly. I move my head and look at them directly. He's flustered by my noticing. I smile, raise my psoriatic hand and point a finger at him like it was a pistol. I let my thumb fall forward , then, raising the finger, pretend to blow smoke from the barrel of my index finger. His bags arrive at that propitious instant and, with his free hand on the woman's arm, they hurry away. Beside me I hear a sultry feminine voice—too close and too quiet to be intended for someone else—and turn to see her. "Ouch," she says and gestures with her eyes to the hand which seconds ago had been my pistol. "That must hurt," she says. I grab my bag on its way by, then turn to her and say. "Not really. It wasn't loaded."

 

 

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