By the time I grabbed my shovel, a group of neighborhood kids had gathered in my yard. I swung and stabbed at the animal’s neck. I chopped down, again and again, and the resilience of its neck muscles was surprising. It shook its head back and forth, growled, and foamy mucus flew from its mouth. I kept hacking and I wanted the kids to turn away. My neighbor grabbed a bat and hit it in the side, but his swings only agitated the animal. Finally, as the sweat beaded off my forehead and dripped onto the little beast, its legs started twitching, and then it died. I buried it in my garden, and went back to bed.
Lying in the still sweat-soaked sheets, I rolled over to wake up Megan to tell her what happened. She pretended to sleep. It was twelve forty-five. I would get up at one o’clock and make some coffee. I would pour Megan a cup and make her breakfast, but she wouldn’t eat it. I would keep pouring her coffee, and I would tell her all about the raccoon, but she would just read the paper. We would stumble around until two o’clock when I would go to the parlor, and she would head off to work as a waitress. She would tell me she hates her boss, and that she needs a new job. I would agree with her. We would kiss each other goodbye and then we would tell each other we would miss one another. I would spend all day inking other people’s flesh, and then I would come home and be with Megan again, and we’d go to sleep. I would wake up the next day at one o’clock and then make breakfast.
I owned the oldest Tattoo parlor in the Bay Area, or so it said on our neon sign that didn’t work--St. Girard’s Ink Den, Oldest Tattoo Parlor in the Bay Area--but it was nowhere near the oldest. It was a burrito shop when I ended up on this coast twenty years ago. My shop attracted the younger crowd who got tattoos that didn’t mean shit. They’d be kids coming in after finals or after humping in a dorm room, wanting to put a name on their arm, or on their pelvic bone.
Between appointments, I’d work on my paintings. I never thought they were any good, but some artsy kid from university said they were something else, and he bought one. It was a dragon eating a blood-filled egg. The kid said there’s a market for this type of work. He also told me another time, “You have some natural skills,” after I finished up a chintzy Chinese symbol. I didn’t know what it said. The book translated it into meaning something like, “luck,” “providence,” or “god;” something like that. For all I know it could mean “sausage,” or likely, “idiot” for getting such a cheap tattoo. Although the kid wasn’t referring to his arm, he was pointing at a pencil sketch I did of a skeleton princess. She had bones for a body, and a rotten fleshy head, but I did my best to make her look beautiful. The kid went on and said I reminded him of an artist that started with an S. He asked if I knew the guy, or had seen the guy’s work. I said the only work I see is in my head or in these tattoo books.
I ran into the same kid, one late night, when I was heading to my car and walking by one of the college bars. He looked at me, and he was obviously drunk, but he wanted to talk. He was average-sized and good-looking too. He wore all black. Smart kid. He said he wanted another tattoo and wondered if I had the time to do it right then and there. It was a bone cross. Terrible, but he had done it himself on a bar napkin. I don’t ink drunken kids, so I told him he should keep the design and look it over tomorrow to decide if he’d want it. He looked off into the distance and started saying a lot of stuff about art and inspiration, the way that type does when they’ve had too much to drink. Then he looked at me.
“Where are you from? Chicago?”
“Never been, where you from?”
“No, I mean what school did you go to? NYU, LA? What?”
I’m a disheveled guy, wild hair, wild beard, ratty clothes, but I’ve never been mistaken for an artist before. I looked at the kid like I was his parent and I said, “Wouldn’t you like to know.” He smiled like he knew something, and I smiled like I knew what it was he knew, but I didn’t. “Later, man,” I said, and I kept walking.
Megan left me a burger and fries from the restaurant in the fridge. The ketchup on the burger reminded me of the raccoon remnants so I couldn’t eat it. I poured myself a 49ers souvenir cup of whisky and tea over ice and sat on the front step. It was late and Megan was already in bed. I watched the sporadic traffic drive by and the brown clouds skirt around the moon. Across the street my neighbor was watching television. He never slept. I wanted it to rain. I drifted in and out of a surreal buzz from the booze with thoughts of Megan sleeping alone in my room. Megan used to cut herself. I never actually saw her do it. Not once. She could have been over it, I don’t know. I tried not to spend much time looking at the scars. They were there, but she was too, and that was the important part. I met her at my shop. She wanted a tattoo, one of those tattoos that chicks get these days, the kind of Asian or Mediterranean thing at the small of their backs. I talked her out of the tattoo. I’ve seen tattoo fads come and go, and I didn’t want to mess up her perfect back.
“Man with the style of a hippie with a biker problem gives me advice?” was what she said.
“You don’t need to listen to me. You just have a nice back. Don’t want to ruin it.” I didn’t know if that was inappropriate.
Then she asked with a glint in her eye, “Really?”
We settled on a butterfly near her navel. Classic. As my needle approached she got this look in her eye. It was excitement and pleasure wrapped into one like the countless yin-yang tattoos I’ve inked on a lot of stranger’s bodies.
When I finished, she came out of a sort of trance and sat up.
The first thing she said, was “My boyfriend is such a cocksucker.”
Surprised, I tried to listen to all the pains this cocksucker had put her through--and they were many--but I was also more interested in dressing her tattoo. Before I knew it, I said, “What kind of cocksucker wouldn’t love you?”
She laughed. It was a fake laugh. “You don’t know him.”
Then she started to cry. She was distant and a mess, so of course she found me. I hugged her because I thought that was what she wanted. She didn’t hug back. She asked me to take her somewhere safe, so I made the mistake of bringing her home, and we didn’t do anything. She slept two days straight.
Back on my step, focusing on my neighbor’s television late at night with Megan still asleep, I thought of her past, and I thought of her as someone’s kid. She wasn’t too much older than the university kids, and I’m much older than that. Inappropriate, most likely. I went back in and topped off my 49ers cup to show them how big of a fan I am and went to bed and lay next to Megan. Her eyes were shut and drool was crusting on her smooth cheek.
“I think I need another tattoo, babe,” she mumbled. “Could we go soon?”
It was another week and it was full of Chinese kanji, barbed-wire armbands, and wiggly things that people drew themselves. People get tattoos with no meaning attached to them. Tattoos should mean something, it is a brand, and it is personal, and you sure as shit better want it on you for the rest of your life. These kids don’t imagine what their tattoo will look like when their skin goes soft and saggy, when the ink will fade and lines will blur. They don’t know their armband will look like a blue smudge years from now, and what did it mean? Still, I tell every customer that it looks great. They all leave happy.
A girl with a black eye came in with her bulldog-looking boyfriend, and he paid for her to get a tattoo high up on her inner thigh that said Chacho. I noticed she already had another name on her other inner thigh that said Nathaniel. I wondered who gave her the black eye, and then I told them to have a nice day as she walked out bow-legged.
The arty kid came back, and he had his bar napkin with the bone cross, but he didn’t want to talk about the tattoo. He wanted to talk art, so he reached into his backpack and handed me a book about an artist whose name I couldn’t pronounce. He told me to really look at pages 56 through 79 because they were his later works, and they reminded him of my work. He even told me some titles. Real dark shit. The kid was right. I did appreciate it. Then we talked more about art, inspiration, all that shit I hated, but with the kid it was all right. I let the kid roll himself a joint as he spoke endlessly about his professors and what they would tell him and how they’re all posers and dumbfucks. He offered me a drag. I told him I stayed away from the stuff.
“You do anything else?” he asked, like I’d be interested.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, other shit man. You know what I mean.”
“I do whisky.”
He looked at me--condescending. Disappointed that I no longer did other shit, whatever he meant by that. I called him on it.
“What do you got?”
“What do you want?”
“It’s not rocket science to get a prescription out here.”
“I’m not talking about weed. I can get everything else.” He chuckled, and he looked quick to my arms to tell me that he knew I knew he saw the few dimes of shiny scar tissue on my arms.
“Ah, I see,” I said. “You want a better look,” and I put my arm under the light so we could see a history I had intended to forget. “The skin is dead there from abscesses. Pretty cool, huh?” I said because the kid wanted me to impress him.
He was delighted. “That is what I’m talking about. Things are different now, though. Smoother kick--no needle. No spoon. No--” he waved his hand to dismiss my scars like they were nothing but pinpricks. “Whatever you junkies did in your day,” he said.
I took my arm from the light and we sat in that silence as if we were waiting for something to break. Maybe it did.
“Pills, man,” he finally said. “We’re flooded. If you want pills, I got pills for you. All I’m saying.”
I leaned back in my chair and thought about the many ways I would like to dismember the kid. I thought about my shovel and the raccoon and its shallow grave in my garden.
“Sounds a little weak for me,” I said to further delight this kid and see how far he wanted to take the mystery I was creating for myself--for him.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a prescription bottle. He shook it seductively as if he were jerking it or me off.
“People like it,” the dumb braggart said.
“I’m sure they do,” I said and he understood what I was saying and he graciously didn’t push it any further. He put the bottle in his pack and changed the subject back to art and the meaning of the squiggly mess upon his forearm. It took me a moment to realize it was supposed to be the bone cross on the bar napkin.
“I told you to wait on that,” I said.
“I was drunk.”
“They’re not supposed to ink when the client’s drunk. Illegal.”
“She was drunk, too,” he chuckled and wanted me to laugh with him. I didn’t.
“Think you can clean this up?” he asked.
“I can,” I said.
The first day Megan had off, we went to the shop. She wanted another tattoo and she had this idea. She always just tells me her ideas, and then I do them with as much care as I can. She has me do a tattoo when she’s not feeling right, when things are down, when she’s itchy. I know she needs one when she starts scratching her scars. She scratches until they bleed, and I ask her why, and she says because it’s easier to do it than to not do it. I try to understand it and tell myself that I do. I don’t.
She gets in her zone. She’s on my bench, and I am touching her, and I am inking her, but she’s not there. She’s not in the room. I hear her breaths, and slight wince of pain. I read somewhere that there’s a chemical that’s released in the blood stream when consistent pain is administered; it has a numbing effect like opium. Her toes are now the heads of her favorite birds, and her left foot is a wooded path up a mountain, while her right is a radiant sun either rising or setting over the sea. Both legs are full of mythical creatures, and dying things. Things are decaying, birthing, and some are being reborn. There’s a phoenix on her hip and an elephant trunk down her forearm that covers many of her scars. Her ears have tattooed earrings, and on the back of her neck there are four dots that are symbolic of something in another country. Her back is becoming my masterpiece. When things get bad, we work on her back. I finish, and she comes back to me. “Did you hear the rain?”
“That was the faucet,” I said.
“I was washing my hands.”
A couple weeks later the kid was back in the shop with another sketch. He wanted it on his arm, up on the shoulder, where a lot of men get their most important tattoos. His was of a Christ-like figure being crucified on a swastika. Another cross. Kind of. He said it says something about society. When I finished it, I told him it was great and that I really dug the vivid imagery, like I really saw what he was going for. He explained a lot about what the piece did for him and what it said about everything and it all sounded like bullshit.
“So you’re the artist. You do all the tattoos, do you have any?” he said as he lingered with his backpack. If he opened it again, I planned to deck him in the mouth.
I only had one, and I never show anyone. It’s on the top of my pelvic bone. It’s a little butterfly with a flower near it. There’s a looping dotted line following the butterfly, symbolizing its flutter. The butterfly is headed toward the flower to drink its nectar. I thought it was really pretty. It’s hard to see with all the gray hair that has started to grow around it. I’ve begun to call them weeds in my flower garden.
He laughed hysterically.
“The master of tattoos has that? You must’ve been high when you got it. Tell me you were high.” This coming from a kid with a swastika tattooed to his arm.
“Why don’t you just remove it?”
“Right,” I started to put my equipment away. “Never thought of that.”
“Just get rid of it. I’ll help you with a new one, you know, something that says something, not that blah.” Then he stuck a finger in his mouth, fake retching.
“I’m fine with it,” I said.
Then Megan walked in with our lunch. She was always good at reminding me that I needed to eat. She didn’t come straight over to see me, which was odd. The kid quit being so gabby, and everyone stared at each other like they do when the air gets thick and tense. I turned to the kid, and I said, “I’d like you to meet Megan. She’s one of my best customers.” Sometimes she gets uncomfortable when I tell people we’re seeing each other because of our age difference.
The kid quickly got up, pulled his sleeve down and said, “Good to see you, Megan.”
“Yeah. Nice to see you, too, Chris,” she said.
I never knew the kid’s name was Chris.
I looked at them confused and thought the old man thought of how kids these days just somehow know each other from the internet and their Snapchat.
Kids. Just fucking kids.
Megan gave me some story about meeting the kid at a party somewhere after her shift at the restaurant. I decided to believe her and I also decided to close early. Canceling my appointments relieved both of us. Forgiveness was something I learned and it was easiest to get there if you didn’t ask too many questions.
We went to the Presidio and we had one of those picnics that people in love have where they sit in the sun, look at how blue the sky is, and say nice things to one another. We were both awkward. We weren’t used to going out in public together in the daylight.
Megan kept asking if something was wrong because when she’d talk to me I didn’t have much to say.
“Hey, how’d the day go, any really terrible tattoos that people wanted?--I mean beside that awful swastika Jesus crap Chris got.” I didn’t like her saying the kid’s name again.
“Nah, nothing beside the Nazi shit. But they’re all pretty awful.”
And then we didn’t say anything beyond what we saw right in front of us and I tried to find comfort in our discomfort as we watched Frisbee players run around on the grass. She was sitting cross-legged and I had my head in her lap. She looked down at my face. She looked sad. She pinched my right ear lobe and asked sincerely what was wrong.
“Nothing. Is there anything wrong with you?”
I got up and started walking toward the top of the bluff that overlooked the Bay. I looked at the Golden Gate Bridge and sun on the water and wished I were back home in the woods, far from the coast. Megan stood next to me. She got hold of my hand, and when my forearm rubbed against hers, I could feel her raised and bumpy scars. I noticed the wind.
“You ain’t cold?” I said.
There was a silence, and then a pause. “Not really. They should’ve called this the windy city, right?”
“Chicago must’ve had it first.”
“What’s Chicago like?”
“Big, populated, windy, kind of like this, but shittier.”
“Why don’t you tell me stories like you used to? You’re being quiet. What’s wrong with you, old man?”
“You know I was married before?”
Megan said, “No shit. You’ve told me about a dozen times.”
I knew I had told her before, but I had to make sure, so I said, “So you know how it ended and everything.”
She didn’t say anything I just felt her head nuzzle into my neck.
“I showed that kid my tattoo. He laughed.”
“Oh, babe,” she said and she stretched her arms around my body and laid her head into the pit of my arm. “Chris is a fucking asshole.”
My back hurt from leaning over this large drag queen all afternoon who wanted a tattoo the length of her spine. Painful for the both of us, and worse in the heat. An impossible wave of humid stink settled over the city and the Bay wasn’t taking any of it out to sea. People were all trying to stay cool and that meant business was slow. I closed the shop early and headed home.
When I got home, heat lines rose out of the tar in my driveway. I went into the house and opened all of the windows. I never realized how much of a mess my house was. I determined right then and there I would clean it and get things organized. It was time for a change. I didn’t expect Megan home till her shift was done around two, so I thought it’d be a nice surprise her if there weren’t dirty dishes in the sink and our bedroom had clothes that were folded.
For extra motivation, I first went to the kitchen and filled a souvenir cup to the brim with tea and whisky and organized my thoughts in the heat on my step. I decided maybe it was time Megan and I hit the road. San Francisco wasn’t good for her. Our future was north in Seattle, or maybe even further into Canada. I didn’t know for sure. The sky was yellowy dust. It looked like it so painfully wanted to be a nice clear day that it was stressing itself out. My feet ached. I looked at my truck. It had gone 200,000 miles too far. I started doing economics in my head. It was going to work out, I was sure of that.
When I went back into the house, I decided the bedroom was where I’d start. Megan spent most of her time in there, so I’d spend most of my time making it look good. The hallway had a peculiar cool dry feel to it and it felt dirty, because it was dirty, but dirtier than usual. It was in the air. Another thing I determined I’d somehow fix. I came to the door. It was only open a crack.
A morning light flooded the room even though it was five o’clock. Her foot with the bird tattoos hung off the bed. Megan lay there like a child. She looked nice, a young sort of nice, sleeping so peacefully in the mistaken dawn. I walked over to the bed and kissed her cold cheek. Her face was always cold, a circulation thing she’d say. She was sure to get shit from her boss at the restaurant for missing work like this. Like it mattered. We were leaving and she’d be happy to leave with me. I leaned down to kiss her again on her forehead. She was unmoved, oblivious. The bedspread was tangled a bit, so I adjusted it to tuck her in. When I pulled back the spread there it was: a pill bottle. Possibly Chris’s pill bottle. It looked like a trinket that should be atop an old woman’s piano. It was terrifying in its normality. I could’ve dragged her to the garden and buried her with the raccoon. But she breathed like a child. Slept like a child. She was a child. I was, too.
I checked her pulse, her temperature--as I had done for others--and then tucked her in. I pocketed the bottle to talk about it later and kissed her again.
I ended up outside on my step for I don’t know how long. The sky was closer. Trees that I’ve seen thousands of times were misshapen. Houses that once stood straight and tall now looked parabolic. It was dark by the time I left.
I spent the night in the shop. Not sleeping. Waiting mostly. I waited for dawn, pacing and watching for real living people to pass in front of my parlor. I kept all of the lights on and stared out the window. I could see my whole shop in the reflection: the barber shop chair that I liked to use for arm tattoos, the massage bench I liked to use for back tattoos, the same bench where I met Megan. There was my counter, my dentist table with needles and dyes on it, my crumpled handkerchief, and the overhead light. I could see some of my paintings shoved in the corner. I hoped the sun would come up soon.
I stayed up as long as there were fingers left in the bottom of my bottle. I was expecting a call from Megan, but I really had no idea how long she’d be out. I started to get anxious, like I did something wrong. I was paranoid, weak, sullen and drunk. I couldn’t stop fidgeting, so I called her, multiple times, but there was no answer. Near dawn I passed out.
I woke up to fists hitting my store window and a silhouette of a person at my door. For a moment, I thought Megan, but then I came to my senses. This person’s hands were big and ham-fisted and there were others with him. He started to pound again.
I struggled out of my chair and I felt my age course down my legs. I was no longer drunk. At the door, my stomach dropped. Cops. I didn’t want to know, but I already knew because the past is the real cocksucker.
After I did my best to convince them I had nothing to do with it; after I said I thought she was recovering and that I didn’t supply her the pills; after I said I had checked on her--really checked on her; after I said she seemed not OK, but OK for what she’d done; after I told them that I didn’t have any family in the city and she didn’t either; after I told them for tenth time I didn’t know why I said she was my wife because I meant girlfriend; after I told them I didn’t run and I wasn’t fucking hiding; after I said of course I knew my neighbor and it was not unusual he stopped by in the middle of the night; after I told them to leave and assured them I wouldn’t run because I was of course going to fucking go to the coroner’s--
After all this and other things I cannot remember, I went back to my stool. I sat like a statue in my shop that felt narrower, with a ceiling that was lower, and surrounded by needles that were larger than I remembered.
I prepared my kit, swabbed my arm and waited for that gentle whir when the needle would track my flesh.