I slowly inked in another segment. I didn’t bother making small talk with my customer as he cringed and tried not to squirm. The needle went in and out of the soft breast tissue.
Mack reclined in his ancient convertible client chair across the room from me as he read The Evening Call in the combined glow of the overhead fluorescents and the street light shining in through the dirty plate glass window. The street light caused a darker shadow on the gray tile floor that spelled out “Mack’s Tatts” in celtic-looking letters. If you looked at the actual lettering on the window, you could see how scratched and faded the letters were, but that didn’t show on shadow on the floor. The whole place looked kind of scratched and faded, including Mack. Over the glass door was a large round clock, like you’d see in a rail station. The numbers were really large so that Mack could keep track of how much time a job took. That was probably the newest thing in the shop. Everything else, from the rickety coffee table to the stools and client chairs were left over from when Mack first opened the shop years ago. The whole place had a faded, out-dated feel, like it was caught in a time warp, which might be why I kind of liked it here.
As he read, he periodically called out tidbits of news that he found interesting. I tried to ignore him as I concentrated on my art.
“Hey!” Mack called out, surprising me after ten minutes of quiet, the only sounds having been the sharp inhales of breath my client made as he pretended the needle didn’t hurt.
“Jesus, Mack! Will you stop doing that? I don’t want to make a mistake here!” Looking down at my customer’s worried frown, I continued, “Don’t worry, no problem. It will be perfect. Completely lifelike.”
I smiled as the needle punctured skin again and his relieved smile turned into a grimace.
“What?” Mack said as he forced his bulk into a sitting position in the chair. The chair groaned in protest. I really think that one of these days that chair is just going to give it up and collapse in a heap. He shook the newspaper in my general direction. “Did you see this?”
“The paper? No, you know I never read it. It’s so full of typos, really bad writing and stories that just get cut off in the middle. And I’m not interested in the local politics and scandals that it’s filled with.”
Nodding his head, Mack agreed with me, “It is pretty bad, but the big ones, like The Journal or The Globe aren’t gonna cover any of the local stuff.” Being a local boy, Mack believed that if it didn’t happen here in town, well, then, it just didn’t matter.
Lost in thought, probably thinking of the wonders of this tiny burg, Mack shut his bristled mouth for a minute. Then he shook his head, and as if that had gotten his brain working again, he said, “Anyway, they found a body in an apartment over on Elm!” He stopped and watched for my reaction, his bushy eyebrows dancing up and down as he waited.
I quirked my own eyebrow and looked back down at my work, “Yeah, so? Bodies are a dime a dozen.”
“Yeah, yeah. But I recognize this guy.”
That caught my attention, I paused with the needle in my hand and I noticed my customer had turned his head to look at Mack, too. “Oh? Did you know him?” I asked.
“Nope. But you did.”
“Me? I don’t know nobody here but you, my landlord and the guy who sells me butts at the Maxi Mart, and I don’t even know his name.” I stopped for a moment as I tried to think who else I knew. I had only been here in town a couple months and I wasn’t big on making friends. It didn’t seem to be worth the effort when I knew I’d only be around two, three months, six at the most.
I never stay long in one place. Most of these little towns I pass through don’t have much to offer me. And if there isn’t at least one tattoo parlor, me and my ink keep on moving. I travel mostly by foot or by thumb, though most people won’t give me a ride—scared of the scars on my face and the tats on my body. Or maybe it’s the long gray hair held back in a leather band or my none-too-clean jeans. I don’t know, but the bottom line is that very few people pull over to give me a ride and some that do, take off after getting a good look at me. Sometimes when I had made good money in the town I’m leaving, I travel by bus, but I prefer the open road. Because when I’m walking I know when to stop—I get a feeling, like a tingle, in my fingertips and I know that this is a place where I have to stop for a little while. It’s funny, I get the tingle and sure enough I find a tat shop in town. Never fails.
“Well, I’m not saying you were buddies. He was a customer,” Mack said.
“Yeah? Who was it?”
“I don’t know his name, but his picture’s here in the paper.” Mack struggled out of the protesting chair, which was designed to convert for a client’s comfort, depending on what part of the body was being worked on, but it wasn’t designed for someone Mack’s size to use as a recliner. He lumbered his way over to me, his arm extended and his pudgy, yet remarkably skilled, fingers holding the newspaper out to me to see the face in the center of the page.
Of course I remembered the face, not his name. None of their names are important to me, just the ink and the art. I had used my special ink. The guy was a weight lifter, or so he said, and kept bragging that he could bench press 500 pounds. What a pompous little snot! He wanted a set of realistic barbells on his chest, with each weight showing “250 lb” in bright red. For one thing, I didn’t believe him—he had some muscle, but not that much. He had the muscle of someone who had just started lifting and was bulking up with some anabolic help. Then his bragging! One thing I can’t stand is a braggart. Once he opened his trap and started mouthing off, I knew he was someone who deserved my special ink.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I remember working on him. Don’t remember much else about him though.”
“You don’t? I sure do!” Mack said. “He was a real pain in the ass. Bragging and complaining the whole time.”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember him. He was a total wuss and a liar! Telling us he could lift all kinds of weight.” Mack shook his head in disgust and his jowls bounced like fuzzy Jell-O. “And then he complained about your artwork!” He shook the paper for emphasis and continued, “And we both know that your artwork was perfect. So realistic that you felt you could reach out and pull those barbells right off his chest!” With a huff, he turned and went back to his chair, settling back with a grunt as he shook out the paper and concentrated on the rest of the article.
I looked down at the tattoo I was creating on my current customer. Giving him what was meant to be a reassuring smile, I told him, “Yours will be every bit as realistic as the one Mack was talking about. So realistic that you’ll expect to get stung.”
Instead of looking reassured, he just looked alarmed. I don’t know if it was my smile—granted I am out of practice and it was probably more of a grimace—or the idea of being stung by his tattoo. Or maybe it was just that a customer of mine had died. I opened my mouth to reassure him, but then changed my mind. Did I really care if he felt reassured? Not really. I only care about the ink.
So I ignored his face and concentrated on what I was creating. I completed another segment and started work on the tail. It was very detailed and was taking a long time to complete. I’m glad I charged the $750.00. I probably should have charged more, seeing I had to split it with Mack; he gets 40% of everything I take in, but even so, it would be a pretty good pay day for me.
I’m actually starting to feel pretty happy here. Not a lot of reasons to use my special ink. The money is good and there’s a steady stream of customers, not so many that I feel rushed, but enough so that I don’t worry about how I’m gonna buy my next meal or pack of butts. Maybe I’ll hang around here longer than usual. I don’t even mind that Mack talks a lot at me, at least he doesn’t seem to need me to respond. He’s happy just to hear his own voice.
He and the regulars don’t seem to mind my scars. Though some of the wannabes freak out when they see me. The scars are unusual. Most people probably think that they were caused by having tattoos removed. But that’s not what caused them. The truth is too strange to explain, even if I cared enough to try. Most people just kind of stare and then look away; few are rude enough or brave enough to ask me how I got them. But even if they assume they are left from having tattoos removed, they must still wonder why I had tattoos on my face. I would never offer an explanation and if someone were to ask me questions, well, there are ways to deal with them.
I think what startles people the most is that the shapes of the scars are so recognizable, they’re not like a burn scar—all irregular shapes and random bumps. In these scars can be seen what used to be there. One is in the shape of a bird—like a pheasant—on my right cheek and on my left cheek is one in the shape of an Egyptian cat—like the ones on the walls of the pyramids. On my forehead is a series of small images and symbols. But these scars were not left after having tattoos removed; they are something else entirely. I am so used to them that when I look in the mirror, not that I do that very often, I don’t see the scars. I see the past and what was there. I see what I was like when I apprenticed. I see the shiny blue-black tones of the cat and its bright yellow eyes. I see the pheasant with brightly colored feathers fanned out as if attracting a mate. The small images and symbols which spell out my name in an ancient hieroglyphic language still glow in my mind with the bright primary—red, blue and yellow—colors that were there originally.
I remember when my teacher put those designs on my face and explained what the ink would do. When I questioned why they had to be on my face, he explained that ordinary tattoos belonged on the body and that these tattoos and the scars they would leave on my face would show my standing in the ancient art. Only those of his line—the high priests he called us—would have these exact marks. Only we would know and be able to use the power of the ink. Only we would know what receiving one of these tattoos would mean. In all my years of travel from shop to shop I had never seen another marked as he and I were, and I have come to believe that I am the last of the line. The secrets of the ink would die with me.
My teacher taught me what ingredients went into this special ink, ink that made me an artist like few before me. I learned how to activate the ink and how to control it: sometimes the ink kills and sometimes it only leaves scars. He shared this knowledge with me. Why he chose to share his secrets with me I never knew. I don’t know if it was my skill or something else—something he saw in my soul—that made him choose me as his final student. But he explained that there could only be one per generation with the skill and the ink and he chose me as he felt his own powers fading; the occasional tremors that shook his body told him and me that his time was nearly over. In the end, he died before my apprenticeship with him was done. I had received all the training, but he had not yet released me. Then he died and I was free to move on.
Sometimes I wonder if he would be disappointed in how I’ve used his gift. I have not shared the secret of the ink and I have used its power—sparingly—but to my own ends. When I am gone where will be no one who can use the ink and witness its power.
Not that I really “witness” its power. I just use the ink and know what will happen when the ink is cured. Sometimes I read about it in the paper or hear about it from someone like Mack. But I get my satisfaction from knowing the power of the ink; I don’t have to see its power because I see the proof of the ink’s power every time I do look in the mirror.
These thoughts flowed through my mind as my eyes and my hands focused on my work. Mack’s voice penetrated my mind again. I noticed his tone was odd; he sounded puzzled and strangely frightened, as he said, “This guy’s chest was crushed as he lay in bed. But they have no idea what crushed him. And there’s no mention of his tattoo.”
“Oh yeah? Maybe it’s not the same guy then.”
“You saw his face. That was definitely him. You would think they’d mention those brand new tattoos. The colors were so bright…” his voice faded out as he continued reading. I went back to my work, while still keeping a half an eye on Mack.
He sat up so suddenly that the sheer momentum of moving all that bulk forced him into a standing position. Surprised, both my customer and I looked at him as he stood there, the paper held limply in his hands, his eyes opened very wide and staring blindly at me, and his mouth working, lips opening and closing as if forming words, but without any sound except a faint whistling noise.
“Mack! What’s up? You okay?” I asked, hoping he wasn’t having a fit of some kind. I weighed in my mind just what that would mean for me: on the one hand, if he got rushed to the hospital I could probably keep the whole $750.00 that this guy was paying me. But on the other hand, I didn’t really want the hassle of calling an ambulance—and what if he collapsed and needed mouth-to-mouth or something? I looked at that round face, the sparse beard that didn’t hide his jowls, his lips pursing and his cheeks pushing out, looking like nothing so much as a hairy blowfish. I didn’t want any part of that.
“Mack!” I repeated. “What’s the problem? What’s going on?”
Slowly, he shook his head and then stared very hard at me, “there’s no mention of the tattoo you gave that guy. But there is a scar on the guy’s chest.”
“Well, then, it can’t be my customer,” I said. “He just got the tattoo and you know that having one removed is a long process. So those scars are on someone else’s chest.” I watched Mack as I spoke. Mack returned my look, and I didn’t like what I saw on his face. He was adding two and two, and even though he didn’t know how it was done, he was coming up with four.
Mack continued, “From the description in the paper, the scar is the size and shape of that tattoo…” his voice faded and I swear I could see the wheels turning in his head.
I turned my attention back to my customer so I could finish up and get him out of here. I was making good progress and was on the final details of the tail, when I had that eerie feeling of being watched. I looked up, and sure enough, Mack was still standing just a few feet from me and was staring at me with a look of horrified amazement. I could tell that he had realized that I was responsible, even though he had no idea how.
He started babbling, “There was that girl…”
“What girl?” I asked interrupting him as I put the final touch on the tail. I wiped the blood away from the tattoo, grabbed the hand mirror and gave it to my customer so he could admire my work. It was a beauty, if I do say so myself. It was a little larger than found in nature and seemed to be crawling up the left breast with the tail curled around the nipple there. While he was preening in front of the mirror—turning it one way and then the other to see the tattoo at every possible angle—and smiling inanely, I turned back to Mack, whose babbling had petered out.
He noticed that I was looking at him and the words exploded from him, “There was that girl! When you first got here. I remember she was real young and kind of freaked out about getting a tattoo, about your looks, everything.”
“Really, Mack? I don’t remember any girl.”
“Yeah, I didn’t make the connection, but she died, too.”
This caught my customer’s attention. Two of my clients had died. Not that it really mattered if my customer knew. It’s not as if his knowledge would change the chain of events that I had set in motion. His die was cast when I decided which ink to use. And, to be honest, that was just because I didn’t like his face. He was a “pretty boy,” which he might have been trying to do something about by getting a tough, kind of scary, tattoo. But I can’t stand pretty boys.
Like that silly girl a month ago, shortly after I got to town. The look of disgust in her pretty blue eyes as she stared at my face made me burn—how dare she be disgusted by me? But her attitude changed when she saw how the tattoo turned out. She had come in with only a vague idea of six fish—she was a Pisces and six was her lucky number. I created a circle of blue-green water with foaming white waves that crested and came to six points around the circle. And each crested wave was ridden by a golden fish with blue eyes. She loved the design I had come up with on the spot—she raved about the whole circle of life theme, life and death, blah, blah. But her compliments were too late. I had already used my ink.
Mack’s voice continued softly, he was looking at me, but seemed to be talking to himself, “I remember reading it in the paper, she drowned in bed. It was quite a mystery, along with the round scar on her stomach. It was described like a circular saw blade; the reporter even suggested that it was caused by a fiery hot blade being pressed into her. But no one could figure out exactly what could have caused such a scar, it was just one more little mystery on top of the big mystery—how did she drown in a perfectly dry bed?”
“Mack, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said as I bustled around, cleaning up my station and carefully rolling up my special ink into its ancient suede wrapping and tying it with the leather strap, just as it was when my teacher gave it to me years ago.
My customer was ready to go. I walked over to collect my pay.
“Thanks, man. It’s awesome,” he said as he handed me my fee plus an extra $50. He reached over to grab his shirt and the tattoo shimmered in the overhead fluorescents. “Totally like it’s real,” he said softly as he took one last look at it in the wall mirror, before putting on his shirt and leaving the shop.
I realized that in a couple weeks Mack would know for sure that my tattoos had something to do with these deaths, though he’d never be able to explain it, let alone prove it. I knew that my time was done in this town. I packed my tools and my ink into my duffle, which already held all my clothes and my butts—I was always ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I counted out Mack’s share of tonight’s fee.
Holding his money out to him, I said, “Here’s your share of that one.” I looked over at the large round clock hanging above the glass door. Then I took a last look around the shop at the four client chairs, left over from when the shop was busier and had more artists, the sample books stacked on the rickety coffee table surrounded by three hard black plastic chairs, the hanging fluorescent lights and the scuffed gray plastic floor tiles. Dumpy as it was, it was as much like home as any place I’d been for the past twenty years. I was going to miss it. But it was definitely time to go. Turning back to Mack, I said, “Well, it’s time for me to move on.”
Mack looked up from counting the money I had handed him, “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, sorry about the no notice, but I need to be moving on.”
Mack looked at me, opened his mouth, and then closed it with a snap. He just nodded his head, once, sharply, slid the money into his shirt pocket and walked away.
I watched him for a moment and then picked up the duffle bag. Slinging the strap across my chest, I straightened the bag until it rested comfortably enough on my back to start walking. I pushed open the glass door and walked out onto the sidewalk. As the door swung closed, I turned back for one last look, something I had done hundreds of times at hundreds of different shops over the past twenty years. Mack still had his back to me. I turned back to the street, looking first north and then south; with a shrug I turned north and started walking. I smiled as I thought about that last tattoo. I think that scorpion was my best work yet.