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Layers of Skin by Nathaniel Tower

Meachem Douglas was only part man. The part of him that wasn’t a man was all onion.

Luckily, he didn’t at all look like an onion. Nor did he smell like one. He might have tasted like one, but he never bothered to find out. He didn’t go around asking others to test it for him either. He was content with everyone thinking he was just a regular man.

There certainly were advantages to being part onion. One obvious advantage was his layers of skin. He could literally peel off his cuts, stabs, sunburns, and other surface ailments. He could do this without consequence, and he could do it far more often than a snake.

The first time his father saw him cry, the ogre of a man smacked him and said, “Douglasses have thick skin.” That soon became his father’s catch phrase, and Meachem couldn’t get away with showing any emotion at all.

It didn’t take long for Meachem to realize that his thin onion skin was much better than thick skin. After all, when thick skin was damaged, it was damaged for good. When onion skin was damaged, it could just be peeled away, revealing a fresh, undamaged layer. Sometimes the wound would be deep enough to damage a couple layers, but there always seemed to be an unharmed layer somewhere down there.

The problem Meachem eventually ran into was his dependency on peeling away layers of his skin. If a classmate insulted him, a layer had to go. He didn’t make the high school basketball team and lost a couple more layers. When his first girlfriend dumped him, five or six layers bit the dust.

It eventually got to the point where Meachem didn’t have many layers left. At the young and not quite ripe age of twenty-five, he knew he couldn’t afford to lose many more, but he couldn’t help himself. He had gotten so used to peeling off layers to fight off every little bit of pain. There was no one he could go to for help because they surely would lock him up in the mental institute for claiming he was part onion.

When Meachem’s father died a year later, he had to let go another layer. Although he always resented his dad for smacking him about those tears, he couldn’t deny that he loved the man. He knew his father would be disappointed with him for being upset even in that moment. He peeled away another layer at the thought of the memory and then two more at the thought of his father’s disappointment.

“You look rather pale,” a nice young woman told him at his father’s burial.

The woman touched his arm. No touch had ever felt so sensual to him before. In that vulnerable moment, he turned to the woman and asked her to have dinner with him. She apologized and told him she was seeing someone. Meachem pulled away three layers as the woman walked out of his life.

Meachem felt utterly exposed in that moment. He looked at his body and realized he was down to his final translucent layer of skin. It showed everything underneath, his heart included. But it turned out okay in the end. His heart was a clove of garlic.


Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in over 50 online and print magazines. A story of his, “The Oaten Hands,” was named one of 190 notable stories by storySouth’s Million Writers Award in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, is due out in July 2011. Visit him at

Layers of Skin has obvious roots in the idea that onions have layers. I like to imagine characters that aren’t wholly human (other stories I’ve written include a guy whose hands are made of oats, a woman that gives birth to a boot, and a man with a nuclear weapon implanted in his mouth). There is certainly a level of absurdity to each of these stories, but each has something deeper to offer (layers, if you will). Layers of Skin is about much more than a boy who is part onion. If you can’t figure it out after one read, then start peelin’…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/02/2011 03:52

    Very interesting. How many licks did it take to get to the garlic core? (I may have just dated myself, but what I do in the privacy of my own home…). I enjoyed this one a great deal.

  2. Liz Haigh permalink
    04/02/2011 08:16

    Wow Nathaniel.

    Clever concept, clever writing.

  3. 06/18/2011 21:42

    Great story, Nathaniel. Kudos.

  4. 06/23/2011 00:31

    I like it. Gives me an insight into another style of writing I may want to try. I’ll be looking for more of Nathaniel’s writing.

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