Chris Honore’ was born in occupied Denmark, during WWII. After the war, he immigrated to America. He went to public schools and then attended San Jose State University and the University of California, at Berkeley, where he earned a teaching credential, an M.A. and a Ph.D. After teaching high school English for two years, he joined the Peace Corps. He’s a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon. His wife owns a bookstore on Main Street. His son is a cinematographer, living in Southern California.
JUST ONE SMALL TATTOO
The shoulder in question? Smooth as a baby’s bottom. Unblemished, lightly tanned and oh so nice. That would be Jenny’s shoulder. The one I’d fallen in love with. And, of course, all that was attached thereto.
Jenny and I were lying on the grass in the park across the street from our high school, me on my stomach, my chin resting on my arms, she on her back, legs crossed, looking up at the sky. School had just let out and we could hear voices in the distance and the shrill sound of a P.E. whistle, rising and falling.
“Present and accounted for.”
“I’ve decided to…”
“Jen, listen. I think I’ll change my name. Something stronger, more jockafied. I’ll never make varsity soccer with a name like Daniel. How about Chip. Sounds strong, preppy. Maybe a Latin name. Antonio.”
“Call me Antonio, just once. Let me…”
“Daniel, will you stop with the name stuff. I’m trying to tell you something important. I’ve decided to get a tattoo.”
“Really. I’ve decided. A present to myself.”
“No way. Where?”
“Like where on my person?”
Jenny sat up, crossed her legs, and pulled the sleeve of her cotton blouse up over her shoulder. “Right here,” she said, placing her forefinger on that delicate piece of geography favored by nurses everywhere for shots and boosters.
“I suggest you give this some serious thought, Jen. I mean, if you want to get yourself a present, try a department store. There’s the J Crew catalogue. Or get one of those L.L. Bean utility tools. You can fix my bike.”
“I’m serious, Daniel. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’m definitely getting one.”
“I’ve, like, already got it picked out. It is so cool. Sarah and me? We stopped at this parlor, you know, this tattoo boutique? On the other side of town. It’s where she got hers. There’s this really cool guy, they call him the Rag Man.”
“The Rag Man. Anyway, he’s done tattoos for, like, ages. Everyone goes there. I’m getting this small sunburst. Yellow and orange, touch of red and blue. He showed me the design. It was on the wall with hundreds of others. Called a flashes. It’ll look so cool.”
Jenny pulled her sleeve down and sat hunched forward, running the flat of her hand across the short bristles of grass, a smile touching her lips.
“Jen, damn, get one of those press-ons. You don’t like it, you shower. But a real tattoo? You’re talking forever.”
“I know. Neat, huh? Wait’ll you see the design. I’ll probably want to wear tank tops the rest of my life, so I can, like, show it off.”
“Right. You realize that they ask you on college applications if you have a tattoo. Or piercings. They want an inventory. The reason for asking is to determine if you have even a shred of common sense.”
“Daniel, you’re so full of it. What’s your problem with just one small tattoo? You know they call it body art. Everybody’s had work done. I mean, name one kid in the western hemisphere who doesn’t have one.”
Jenny looked at me, smiling, challenging me for a name. “Except for you, of course.”
“Jen, think about it. Everyone doing something is not a reason to do anything. That’s a poll. You have to come up with a serious reason.”
“Fine. How’s this. Having a tattoo is just something I
want. For me. An expression of my inner self. My individuality. I’ll look at it and know that no one else has one just like it.”
“Right. Just you and about a gazillion others. Jen, this is not a good idea.”
“Okay, Daniel. Fine. Tell me why.”
I had an answer. I did. And it was a good one; but I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to get into it. Other than to say that needles made my hands clammy and my head swim. And anything having to do with needles in places like tattoo boutiques - which I imagined to be grimy, crusty places, smelling of rubbing alcohol, sweat and garlic, peopled by creepy drifters who led these bizarre, dark and edgy lives - carried a huge risk. Huge.
I debated about telling Jenny about an experience I had when I was much younger. A memory that hovered in the depths of my subconscious, ready to make itself known at the mere mention of a tetanus shot. Or the thought of sharing a room with someone named the Rag Man.
Years ago, my parents had taken me along to the hospital to visit my uncle Clark, who was having what my father called a procedure. Because I was so young, they left me in a small waiting room, sitting on a vinyl couch, while they went down a long hallway to his room. Everything was hospital quiet, hushed, people dressed in white and green walking quickly by, their crepe soles squeaking on the linoleum floor, others stopping to talk to one another in low, serious voices.
Across from the waiting room, and directly in my line of sight, was a room with the door open. Framed by the doorway was a man, a very old man, lying in bed covered only with a white sheet. A plastic bag of clear solution hung from a chrome hook attached to a pole, a long tube snaking down from the bag, the end inserted into the top of his hand, held in place by strips of tape. A halo of harsh florescent light above his head illuminated his gaunt face. I was certain I could hear him breathing, his mouth opening and closing.
Suddenly a nurse appeared and walked into the old man’s room carrying a small tray. She set the tray down on a raised cantilevered table near the bed. Without looking at the old man, she quickly pulled on a pair of latex gloves and picked up a vial and needle from the tray. Holding the vial upside down at eye level, she inserted the long tip of the syringe into its narrow end, pulling back on the plunger, watching the chamber fill with the liquid. Holding the needle at the ready, she took a square of gauze and pushing up the old man’s hospital gown, exposed a pale, flaccid arm. She gave his shoulder a brisk rub, and with a practiced efficiency plunged the needle into the loose flesh. I winced, but the old man didn’t move or even turn his head. After what seemed only a heart beat she pulled the needle out, giving the shoulder another quick rub with the gauze. The tray in hand, she left without giving the old man even a glance. He never stirred.
I shuddered, feeling my skin goosebump and tried not to look at the old man. Suddenly every vagrant hospital smell - stale sweat, alcohol, sickness - seemed to fill the waiting room, and I felt light-headed, and the couch began to tip and sway. The hallway, the waiting room, all became a blur. Thinking I might pitch off the couch onto the floor, I pushed myself to the back and closed my eyes. A trickle of sweat rolled slowly down my back and my face felt damp.
Eventually, my parents returned. We rode down in the elevator, sharing the cramped space with an orderly who was taking a woman on a gurney to another floor. I tried not to look at the woman, but I couldn’t help myself. She wore a green cap, and she stared up at the ceiling, unblinking, as if everything in her life had become inevitable. The elevator stopped with a jerk and the door slid open. The orderly angled the gurney carefully out into the hallway and I noticed the woman had covered her eyes with her hand. I didn’t want to think about where she was going. By the time we reached our car, I felt feverish, shivering, my mother putting her hand on my forehead, wondering aloud if I was coming down with something. The minute we got home she put me to bed, and my dad looked in on me, asking me how I felt.
I hadn’t thought about that moment for a long time, though for weeks after it worked its way into my dreams, waking me in the dead of night. I would lie very still, staring into the darkness, seeing empty hallways, dimly lighted rooms with cadaver-like people waiting on gurneys, masses of tubes winding around their necks, and images of that old man staring at me with sunken, fearful eyes while the nurse leaned over him holding a long stiletto-like needle.
Several weeks after getting out of the hospital, my uncle came to our house for a Sunday dinner. He was a big, gregarious man, flushed face, sandy hair, wide smile, a man who talked in a booming voice that no one could compete with. Sitting at the dining room table, filling his plate, he told about his operation in a voice that was both serious and comical.
“It’s a place to avoid, going to the hospital. I kid thee not. They tell you to rest and then wake you up every two hours to ask if you’re asleep or to give you a pill only a horse could swallow. And the food? Hell, it couldn’t keep a canary alive.”
The kidney stone, the reason he was there in the first place, was described in detail as being bluish-gray and about the size of a small, pitted marble. “Keep it in a jar on my dresser next to my cufflinks box. And the incision,” my uncle exclaimed, pointing at us with his fork, his mouth full of potatoes, “great good God, goes from here to here.” He pushed back from the table and using his forefinger in place of a scalpel, traced a line from his sternum to the small of his back. When he started to pull his shirt out of his trousers, saying something like, “You will not believe this,” my mother, her eyes going wide, convinced him it might be better to wait. “Perhaps after dinner, Clark,” she said. My uncle, looking disappointed, said, “Sure. But you gotta see this damn thing. Wicked. Doc sews like a saddle maker. You could drive a small car through the opening.” My mother, smiling weakly, passed him the dinner rolls.
Later, lifting his dessert fork to his mouth, a chunk of cake balanced on the tines, he said, “Gotta tell ya. Hospitals. Man oh man. Lucky I got outta there alive. People go in to have a toenail removed and end up having their last rites read to ‘em. First thing I did when I woke up after surgery was take inventory. Make sure I had all my appendages. No one’s sure what the hell they’re doing in those places, they’re so busy.”
My mother tried to make him stop, saying, “For Pete’s sake, Clark, it can’t be that bad,” glancing at my father as if to say, Do something.
But rather than explain all that to Jen, how that hospital visit gradually morphed into a persistent aversion to needles and shots, not to mention hospitals, I played for time and changed the subject. “You hear about Andy?” I said. “Yelled out the F word in class. Second period.”
“He did not. Really?”
“Honest. Yelled it right out loud. In History.”
“Oh, m’God. History with Halverson? I think she’s born again, river baptized. I bet she’s never heard that word said out loud by any living person. Andy must have a latent death wish.”
“Latent no longer. Swears it was unintentional. Fell asleep. You know how Halverson drones on, always reading from the textbook. This time it was the Bill of Rights. She could make those tapes that help people fall asleep at night. Anyway, Halverson’s reading, walking around the room, taking her time with each amendment, when she wanders back to where Andy’s z-ing, slows down, and notices him deeply asleep, his head resting on his history book, mouth open, drool coming out of one corner. She stops reading, and after watching him for a moment, the entire class by now paying seriously close attention right along with her, she gives him a sharp poke in the shoulder. Pretty hard. Andy’s eyes pop open, startled-like, and he yells out the F word. Loud. I mean, really loud.”
“Oh m’God,” Jen said, her hand covering her mouth.
“It was unbelievable. Person who jumped even higher than Andy was Halverson. Dropped her book, let out a yell of her own. Then wrote out an office referral slip. Profanity during an oral reading of the Bill of Rights.”
By this time I knew my distraction was working, since Jen was laughing, letting out these irresistible little piglet snorts. Show me a woman who snorts when she laughs and I’ll show you the mother of my children.
“And check this,” I said. “Andy asks her if what he yelled wasn’t protected by the First Amendment, free speech and all. Actually, I thought the question was inspired. I wish you’d been there.”
“Unbelievable. Halverson. Of all the teachers. He’ll get detention for sure.” Jen gave a toss of her hair back over her shoulder and looked at me, saying, “Okay, Daniel, getting back to my sunburst…”
“Fine. The sunburst. We were discussing your intention to take part in this body altering ritual that the herd has recently decided is fashionable. Have blue ink injected just below the epidermis, using a needle that works like a laser jet printer. Wonderful. Right up there with body piercing… now piercing, that’s something really fun to think about. Making holes with very large, dull needles in all these very tender places on your body, just so you can insert some piece of polished metal through said hole. What is that all about? Some kids have more metal attached to them than a medieval knight.”
I’m saying this and Jen is looking down at the grass, shaking her head, wondering, I’m sure, how I could be so pathetically uncool. But I couldn’t stop myself. All of it seemed so, well, dumb. Not to forget that a good rant can take on a life of its own.
“Oh yeah, wait, hang on a sec,” I said. “There’s always the nipple. Definitely my first choice for a nice round loop. What mental midget came up with that location? Or how about the center of the tongue? Just the place. Makes you talk like you’ve got a very large marble in your mouth. And then there’s all those other places, tender spots I don’t even want to think about. Next thing’ll be neck extension rings. Or foot binding. I saw that on National Geographic.”
“Jen, don’t. Please don’t get one. Think about it. It’s shallow, a fad. And worse, it’s dangerous.”
“It is not. What makes you think it’s dangerous?”
“Well, for starters, there’s the guy who’s the needle jockey. What’d you call him? The Rag Man? Now there’s a moniker that instills confidence. Man probably spent ten minutes taking a tattoo correspondence course. Gets his supplies from Tattoos R Us. And let us not forget the needle itself. God knows where it’s been before your spiffy looking, untouched, virginal shoulder shows up. That would be the shoulder I’ve come to know and love. The one I’ve spent quality time with. How about a hickey instead? I could do that, no charge.”
“Daniel, be serious, this is, like, not the Middle Ages. The needles are disposable. The man wears rubber gloves. Sarah and I watched him actually do a tattoo. Everything was very sterile. Plus he’s an artist.”
“He’s an idiot. You see him actually deep six the needle? Put a new, sealed, packaged needle on his gizmo? I bet he just goes in the back room and gives it a quick rinse under the tap. Like it was a watercolor brush. Save a few bucks. As for the rubber gloves? Money says he wears the same ones all day long. Has ‘em on when he plays with the dog. Really. Just because he wears latex doesn’t mean he’s sterile. Sanitation workers wear gloves. He probably showers once a month and has enough hair on his back and arms to make an industrial-size doormat. A wild man. I know the type. I watch the National Geographic Channel. Jen, would you let this man even close to your toothbrush? I mean think hepatitis A through D and worse.”
Jenny gave a deep sigh. She leaned forward, pushing her long brown hair back off her shoulders - a mannerism I had grown particularly fond of - saying, “Daniel, would you just listen for a sec. It’s so annoying when you get like this. I swear, the Rag Man’s very sanitary. That’s his rep. Think hospital. Plus, his work is known practically internationally.”
The last thing I wanted to do was think hospital. “Fine, you’re about to put your life in the hands of a guy who looks like Bigfoot and has a passport. But speaking of Bigfoot, what’s your dad gonna say?”
“I… well, I’ve decided that I don’t need his permission. I’m almost eighteen.”
“What? Almost? Jen, you’re barely seventeen? I thought you had to be at least eighteen to do this. Wait… hang on. You’re telling me you were carded by the Rag Man and you used fake I.D. and you’re not telling your dad? Or your mom? So, that would mean you plan on spending the rest of your life wearing long sleeves and not tank tops.”
Jen knew it was risky keeping her folks out of the loop. But understandable. Jen’s dad? A classic. The man wears clip-on ties, suspenders with a belt, and on weekends, it’s over-the-calf dress socks with baggy plaid shorts and leather dress shoes. The man’s a sartorial wonder. He works for an insurance company downtown creating actuarial tables. Look up the word conservative in the dictionary and you’ll find his name. He has a GOP elephant on his desk, given as a gratuity when, as a very young man, he worked for the committee to re-elect Ronald Reagan.
Jen had once explained that her dad was relaxed and happy when she was small, his little princess. Until she turned fourteen and boys started calling on the phone or showing up at the door during dinner. It was at that point he began talking about digging a moat in front of the house with a drawbridge.
Naturally, by the time I showed up at the castle gate he had this look in his eyes like he was under siege. Suddenly princess was home a lot less, and what he said around the house that always went? Now, suddenly, didn’t. At least not without, let’s say, a few words from Jen who was happy to point out that most of his new rules were seriously lame.
Actually, having gotten to know him, I’d have to agree that Jen’s father was just a tad rigid: think ironing board. So it was clear to me that if he got even a whiff that Jen was about to get a tattoo, well, there would be real trouble: think tsunami.
“Just so I understand, you’re telling me your dad is going to be kept in the dark about this very small but permanent alteration of your still unblemished left shoulder?”
“What I’m saying, Daniel… sweet Daniel… now give me a minute here before you say anything… what I’m saying is that I want you to go with me.”
I know my mouth dropped open, and I know my head started shaking back and forth, telegraphing what I was about to say. “Go with you? As in drive you there? To the tattoo parlor?” Now it was my turn to sit up, looking for any sign she was teasing me. “I don’t think so. No way, Jen. Not in this lifetime. I’m serious. This is stone serious. I don’t do well in hospitals, emergency rooms, or in places inhabited by guys who call themselves the Rag Man and wear latex while holding a needle. Food servers wearing latex? Bring ‘em on. But I really hate needles. Love to be there for the creation of that little sunburst and all, but…”
“Daniel…” Jen had begun to pout, her irresistible lips, the color of a ripe plum, puckering, the lower lip trembling ever so slightly, her Bambi eyes large and pleading.
“I am not now nor will I ever be the designated tattoo driver. Hear me, Jen. You are in the presence of someone who can’t even watch his mother sew on a button. Not that she has ever sewn anything on anything. But you get my point. Take a seamstress with you. Anyone.”
Jen was now giving me her killer look, so sweet and sincere and not to be denied. That look would’ve made Genghis Khan weep. Me? I was bailing out the dinghy though I knew I was lost, sunk. But I couldn’t just give in. At least not right away. “Nope. No can do, Jen,” I said weakly, shaking my head as if I meant it.
“Daniel, ‘member how we pledged we’d always be there for each other? Through thick and thin? You promised.”
“I believe you were kissing me at the time. I would’ve promised to kidnap the Pope, get him tattooed. But if you want to try the kissing thing again, I’m game.”
Jen, going for broke, gave me the Bambi-just-found-out-its-mother-wasn’t-coming-out-of-the-burning-forest look.
“Ah, man. I really hate this… Okay. Fine, I’ll go. But only on one condition. And I mean this.”
“You will, Daniel? Swear, you’ll go with me? What’s the condition?”
“You take off your top off. Then I’ll go.”
“Let me see your chest. You owe me.”
“No, it’s lust.”
“Fine, remain fully clothed. When do we do this?”
“This Friday, after school. At four.”
“You really sure, Jen? Think about it. Once the deed is done, the deed is done. The fat lady in the helmet with the horns carrying the big spear will have sung. The bell cannot be un-rung. When you come to the fork in the road, don’t take it. The…”
“Daniel, enough already. I know. Once the Rag Man’s into his design mode, you can’t, like, call it off. I get that. I’m seriously ready.”
“Design mode. The Rag Man has a design mode? Dear God. How long’s it gonna take? The Rag Man have cable?”
“You’re going, Daniel.”
“I know. I will. Honest.”
“You really want to see my chest?”
“Well, maybe a corner.”
“Take everything off. I’ll show you which corner.”
“Not in this lifetime.”
“I can wait. I believe in reincarnation.”
All that week I pestered my father until he finally gave in. I could drive the family station wagon to school on Friday as long as it didn’t get to be a habit. Me, with a newly minted license from the DMV, who walks through the house yelling, “I feel… the need… for speed,” dreaming of zipping here and there, free as a lifer suddenly given parole. Habit? Cruising around becoming a habit? No chance. Where’d that thought come from?
So, on Friday, right after school, we headed across town, Jen giving me directions to the tattoo boutique. Rags to Riches Tattoos, it was called. I couldn’t wait to see the place. I was hoping for ferns and an espresso machine. Complimentary bowls of nachos and salsa. A flat screen, wall mounted television the size of New Jersey. I’d watch ESPN sitting on his plush leather sofa, thumbing through GQ and Esquire.
As it turned out, Rags to Riches was in a corner building in a neighborhood that you only went to if you were armed. Pawn shops, liquor stores, check cashing outlets, and blitzed-out drifters. The streets were dingy, wet paper decaying in the gutters, mud and cigarette butts and fast food grunge pushed into the corners. Just down the street a small group of men stood around a steel barrel, a few holding bottles wrapped in brown paper. You could hear their laughter, calling out, pointing at one another, and laughing some more.
I locked the car, already worried that when we came out Jen’d have a new tattoo and I’d have maybe two tires, a steering wheel, the back seat being used by three locals as a sidewalk sofa. The rest would be on the way to a chop shop somewhere.
Rags to Riches had two large picture windows, one on each side of a wide green door, the paint on the door chipped and peeling. Standing on the stoop, you would’ve had a nice view into the place had the windows been washed. Instead, it was like looking through the bottom of a Coke bottle. All you saw were fuzzy lights giving a soft blue-white florescent glow to the interior.
We paused at the front door, and I gave Jen a questioning look and she nodded, saying, “Ready.” I pushed the door open, letting her walk in ahead of me. We were definitely no longer in Kansas. To the right was a chair, an old fashioned barber’s chair, a mix of leather, white enamel and chrome, with an ornate footrest sticking out, and a fresh square of white paper on the headrest. Nearby, on rolling stands, were stainless steel trays covered with green cloths the size of restaurant napkins. On a long counter stood bottles of mineral water, alcohol, jars of cotton and gauze and an autoclave for sterilizing instruments.
The wall behind the chair was covered with squares of stiff paper, thumb tacked to a wide cork board: dragons and anchors, hearts and swords, the word Mom written a hundred different ways, and crosses, lots of crosses, some ornate, others simple. And, of course, barbed wire, the type that now encircles thousands of arms coast to coast. Why barbed wire? I mean, we’re discussing a type of fencing used by ranches and prisons. What’s that all about?
To the left, through an arched opening, I noticed a waiting room with a long couch, two chairs, and a coffee table with magazines fanned out in the middle. There was an astringent odor of alcohol in the air, and I was instantly reminded of another waiting room. Only this place was just a tad grungy; well, to be fair, perhaps not grungy. But the walls weren’t green or light blue and there wasn’t a Muzak polka playing in the background. I think the song coming out of speakers was retro Jefferson Airplane before they became a Starship.
We heard footsteps and then a curtain was pushed back and the Rag Man appeared from a back room. The Rag Man. To be honest, he didn’t look like he slept in a coffin. Granted, he was big, but round big, soft looking, his skin everywhere smooth and pink. Naturally, he had tattoos on each arm, tropical scenes, the most impressive being a red macaw next to a woman doing the hula. His thinning hair, oily and stiff, was pulled straight back, managing a short ponytail touching the collar of his sleeveless shirt. Small, gold frame granny glasses rested low on his nose, a soup-strainer mustache covered his lips.
He walked toward us, smiling, saying, “Hey folks, you must be my four o’clock. Let’s see, we got… Jenny Mason, right?” He was reading from a clipboard with wrinkled papers attached.
Jenny nodded and raised her right hand, like she’d just been called on in school. She then slipped her hand in mine, and, to my surprise, her hand felt cold and damp.
“Well, Jenny, looks like we’ve done all the paper work. And, if memory serves, you had your eye on the sunburst.”
He seemed relaxed, personable. He walked over to the barber’s chair and motioned for her to sit down. “Have a seat and we’ll get started.”
Jenny didn’t move. She just stood there looking at that chair, and I was certain I could see her heart beating, her light cotton blouse seeming to flutter. From a square box on a Formica countertop, the Rag Man pulled out a pair of latex gloves, one, two, snapping them on in a practiced way, the tight latex hitting his wrists sharply.
I glanced toward the waiting room where I would sit reading, I expected, back issues of Rolling Stone Magazine or paging through dog-eared magazines of, say, Tattoo World, with a model on the cover, her arms looking like a road atlas.
“You just sit right here, get comfortable,” the Rag Man said, his best bedside manner kicking in. “This won’t take long. And it’s all pretty much painless.”
Jenny nodded, letting her cold hand slip out of mine, crossing the creaking, wooden floor toward the chair. I watched her and had this strange, uneasy feeling. She had made it repeatedly clear that she was going to do this. And I’d been there when she told Sarah and Andy that she was scheduled for Friday. Naturally, they’d been very excited and very encouraging, the words “How cool,” going back and forth.
“The sunburst?” Sarah had asked.
“Yep. Right here. On my left shoulder.”
“That is so very cool, Jen. I loved the sunburst.” Sarah stuck out her leg, turning her foot slowly. “See mine, how it kind of wraps around, brings out the anklebone, gives it, like, a nice three-dimensional effect. The Rag Man said it’s almost holographic, has, like, depth.” Sarah had a small red rose tattooed just above her right anklebone, the petals seeming to open and close when she moved her foot.
During this show and tell I definitely felt like a visitor from the tribe on the other side of the island, the one that doesn’t practice piercing or tattooing. The tribe that worships the human body in its pristine form. If you’re caught with a needle of any kind on my side of the island, you have to haul sand from the lagoon to the pig-roasting pit for a month.
The Rag Man stood studying a square of parchment, the design of Jen’s sunburst, his eyes small black marbles. I turned toward the waiting room, the one with the couch that looked to be salvaged from an abandoned apartment house, after the drifters had jettisoned it when they decided to redecorate. But just as I was about to leave, Jen turned back to me, taking my arm. She looked at me, eyes wide, saying, “Daniel, don’t leave.”
I knew I’d given her my needle speech. But I also knew that the look she gave me - that would be the one that you have on your face just before they ask you if you want a blindfold - was one I couldn’t ignore.
So, taking a deep breath, I walked over and stood near Jen. The Rag Man, who swung the chair in her direction, gave her a relaxed smile - the artist, eager to get at that clean new canvas, ready to drop into his design mode.
I noticed the stainless steel tattoo gun, hanging in a chrome holster, light reflecting off its polished surfaces, a black umbilical cord dropping down to a console with dials and switches. A tray of dyes on an elevated stand was close at hand. The Rag Man was locked and loaded.
Truthfully, I wanted to bolt out the front door, to be anywhere other than standing next to Jen and the soft, pink Rag Man and the turbo powered needle.
Jenny eased up into the chair and leaned back, her head resting on a white square of paper, her hair falling past her shoulders. She threw me a look that said pages, the main idea being, Do not move. Do not even think about moving. I smiled at her trying to say with my eyes, Not to worry. Couple of minutes, all will be good.
The Rag Man held the design near Jen’s now bare shoulder, peering down through his grannies, moving a long arching gooseneck lamp closer. The sunburst was about the size of a quarter at the center, with points going in all directions, like colorful spokes on a wagon wheel. The Rag Man held the square of paper away from Jen, studying it under the bright light, his face lost in concentration.
“Yes, this’ll fit nicely, go right about here,” he said, and his index finger traced a circle on her upper arm, just below her shoulder. “This’ll be a nice piece of work. And if you agree, we might use a touch more red and yellow at the edges, bring out the burst. Create a nice contrast with your skin tone.
“So, Jenny, how ’bout we begin? Now if you feel uncomfortable during the application, if you feel more than just a tingling sensation… it won’t hurt, but you will feel it… you tell me and we can take a break. But I’m sure you’ll do fine. Take about an hour, maybe less. Now I’ll just clean your shoulder with some alcohol, then I’ll draw a general outline to work from and we’ll get started.”
The sharp smell of alcohol reached me just as the Rag Man, using a dark blue pencil, began to draw the outline of the sunburst on Jen’s shoulder. The pungent odor made me rub my nose and take a step back. When Jenny saw me move, she glanced over and I noticed her forehead was beaded with sweat, her breathing quick and shallow. But then once I had gotten a whiff of the alcohol, I wasn’t feeling too great either.
“There. That should give me the idea, a few lines to guide me. The rest I leave up to my creative juices. You will never see any two sunbursts exactly alike. They’ll have my imprint, but each will be different. That’s my trademark, variations on the same theme, a zeitgeist coming together to create an original nexus… ”
The Rag Man lost me at zeitgeist, but I confess I wasn’t hearing much of what he was saying. And neither was Jen. She was intently watching me watching the Rag Man as he reached down and flipped a couple of switches, then lifted the gun in his hand and, pushing a button, caused it to come to life, giving off a high-pitched, wasp-like drone. He’d taken off his granny glasses and put on lenses magnifying the canvas. The Rag Man leaned forward, hunched and intense, glancing from the parchment to Jen’s shoulder, holding the gun like a very thick pencil, dipping it into the red dye, then slowly dropping the point of the needle closer to Jen’s shoulder.
I felt hypnotized, unable to take my eyes off of the gun, the chrome, vibrating beak now perilously close to Jenny’s shoulder. Suddenly I felt an impulse to reach for something to hold on to, overcome by the sensation that my feet were standing on a pitching deck.
Ah, sweet dreams, Jenny calling my name, my right hand searching for a blanket to cover myself, reluctant to wake up. I tried to turn on my side, wanting to sleep just five more minutes. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and opening my eyes I found I was looking at the Rag Man who was kneeling over me. I was stretched out on the floor, my legs elevated on a short stool, with not a clue how I got there.
Jen was standing just behind him, her eyes large and worried. I felt strangely rested, not unlike waking from a deep sleep.
“You just lay still, sport,” the Rag Man said. “You’re not the first to hit the deck in here. But you were sure sneaky about it. How’re you feeling?”
I nodded, saying, “Okay. I feel okay. What happened?”
“Got a little tense, blood drained from your cabeza, and when that happens, down you go. So we raised your feet, got the juice flowing to your head, and here you are, back with the living. You’ll be fine. No damage done. Just give it a sec. I’m guessing that getting a shot of any kind is a problem. Right?”
I grinned, nodding, “Hate needles. Always have.”
“Well, son, you proved it once again. How’s it going? Getting your bearings?”
“Much better. I think I can sit up.”
The Rag Man helped me onto the stool.
“You just sit here for a minute,” the Rag Man said, his hand resting on my shoulder. “And keep in mind, this happens to the best of us. Can’t control it. All these autonomic switches get turned off and the lights go out. Seen it happen to presidents.”
I was starting to like the Rag Man. Jen was standing close by, looking at me, concern in her eyes, her lips pressed together.
“You know what I suggest, guys,” the Rag Man said, looking at Jenny. “Maybe we should reschedule the sunburst for another time. Might be best to get your friend here home, rest up a bit. You, Jenny Mason, give me a call and we can set something up, try it again. The sunburst’s not going anywhere nor is your shoulder. Work for you?”
Jenny quickly agreed and thanked the Rag Man, said she’d call for another appointment. I stood up slowly, feeling just a tad foolish and saying so. He insisted it was no problem, and we walked out the door, me feeling much better.
We stood for a long minute on the stoop and I took several deep breaths of sweet city air, such as it is, insisting to Jen that I could drive, not to worry. I was fine. Jen insisted on circling her arm around my waist as we walked to the car, which, to my great relief, was right where we’d left it, with the right number of tires and doors.
Heading home, Jenny kept glancing over at me, concern in her eyes. I kept returning her looks with a grin, doing my Groucho Marx eyebrow move.
“Fine. No after effects. Head feels clear. Actually, amazingly clear. All is well, I promise.”
“I want to tell you something.” Jen put her hand on my shoulder and looked at me.
“Well… I was… I was glad you passed out.”
“I mean… I wasn’t glad when I saw you, like, actually on the floor. I didn’t see you fall. I was busy watching the tattoo needle, I guess. But, when you did, the Rag Man jumped back, put the gun down, and that stopped everything.”
“Daniel, if you hadn’t passed out, I don’t know what I would’ve done. The problem… well, it was like every mixed up feeling I’ve had about actually getting a tattoo in the first place, they all hit me right when I was sitting there in the chair, the gun buzzing. In that moment, I knew I didn’t want a tattoo. Not then, not ever. I didn’t want that needle touching my skin. God, it was like some old time movie, you know, where the woman is tied to the railroad tracks and she can’t escape and in the distance she sees the headlight of the train, getting closer and closer.”
“But, you seemed so…”
“I know. It’s weird. I insisted, argued with you. Made myself believe I truly wanted one. Had to convince myself about every half minute. Tried to ignore this other voice that was whispering in my ear about how getting that sunburst was a huge mistake. And then, there I was, in that chair, and I felt trapped, panicky, and I swear I thought I was going to be the one to pass out. The Rag Man, looking down at my shoulder, his breath sort of wheezing, smelling like garlic, the rubbing alcohol giving off this odor, that awful needle buzzing away. God, Daniel, it was awful.”
“I know. I could tell.”
“What do you mean you could tell?”
“You were pale, your forehead sweaty, and you had this look in your eyes, like, ‘Please dear God, get me out of this.’”
“Yep. So, I passed out.”
“You did what? What do you mean, you passed out?”
“Well I couldn’t jump up and say, ‘Stop the show. No tattoo.’ Instead I hit the deck.”
“You did not. Not on purpose. Did you? No way, Daniel. That was real. Your eyes were, like, so completely rolled back in your head. It was scary.”
“Well, I had to be convincing. It had to be a solid distraction.”
“Did you really? That is so bogus. You didn’t.”
Jen turned in her seat, looking at me, waiting. I tried to keep my eyes on the road, still a little worried that I might get suddenly woozy and take out a parking meter and end up on the curb with a little old lady for a hood ornament.
“Well, maybe not. But it seems karmic. You needed help and I went out like an old light bulb. You have to admit, it worked. Gave you just enough time to get outta that chair and an excellent reason to postpone.”
“Amazing, Daniel. This is so unreal. And you know what’s bizarre? Really strange? I can’t believe I’m saying this. Sounds so weak and dumb. But, I would’ve gone through with it rather than tell the Rag Man and you what I was really feeling. I swear. And later, I would’ve looked at that sunburst and felt like such a coward. God what a close call.”
“Not to worry, Jen. People do stuff like that all the time. Hear this voice in their head telling them to do something else. Like don’t take the dare. Whatever. Pretty loud, too. But most everyone turns down the volume.”
“Thanks for going with me, Daniel. Really. I understand now how deeply phobic you are about needles. I should probably be glad it was you there and not Sarah. She would have been cheering the Rag Man on.”
“Everything in life is timing. Do I know when to pass out or what?”
“You’re a treat to hang out with, Daniel,” Jen said, smiling widely, happiness and relief in her eyes.
“I know, a gentleman and a scholar. Wanna stop for something to eat? Suddenly I feel hungry. We can find a back booth at Henry’s diner. Out of the way. Private like. As I recall, the deal was if I was there for the tattoo, you would show me your chest. Figure now you owe me big time.”
“No can do, Daniel. You see my chest you’ll pass out, again.”
“I can handle it. But then again, maybe you’re right. My eyes going where no man’s eyes have gone before. I’d probably hit the deck. How about we get horizontal first, that way if I do pass out, I’m already there? Let’s put safety first.”
“Not in this lifetime.”
“That’s okay, I believe in reincarnation.”