The Tattoo Artist
by Christian Riley
Chris Riley lives near Sacramento, California, vowing one day to move back to the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, he teaches special education, writes cool stories, and hides from the blasting heat for six months of the year. He has had over 100 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and across various genres. His debut novel, one of literary suspense, titled The Sinking of the Angie Piper, was published in 2017; and his debut short story collection is forthcoming, with Mount Abraxas Press. For more information, go to www.chrisrileyauthor.com.
That’s what the sign said. But it wasn’t really a sign, so much as one of those flyers with a row of phone numbers dangling at the bottom—the kind you could tear off to keep for yourself. There were three of those rectangle tags left when I found that flyer, over at the V.A. hospital, near downtown Seattle. It was the afternoon of February 19th, I had woken up with another broken nose earlier that morning, and I was sick and tired of lying to my son. I guess you could say I was ready to drop all the shit I’d been hauling around. The shit that’s been haunting me for all these years.
I didn’t know what to expect when I made the call. Wasn’t sure what it was all about, really, just going off instincts. My session at the hospital seemed as empty as the last one, although more brothers and sisters were there this time. They were there to share their stories and their disfigured bodies. To share their emotional scars, along with their…nightmares. I remember thinking about my fellow soldiers when I looked up at the announcement board on my way out of the building. That’s when I noticed the flyer.
My head ached for the hundredth time that day as I sat in my car and dialed the number. Second broken nose this year, and it wasn’t even March yet.
“What happened to your face, Papa?”
My beautiful wife, Angelina, is such a good liar, it scares me at times.
“Your daddy slipped climbing out of the bathtub last night. Didn’t you hear him? He hit his nose on the wall next to your bedroom when he fell… Now eat your cereal, you’ll be late for school.”
A battalion of black clouds loomed patiently outside our apartment window, their gloomy shadows pouring into our kitchen as I sipped my coffee; yet all I could see were Bryson’s glowing, childish eyes as he stared back at me over that bowl of cereal. I had to turn away. I always turned away when my son stared at me because of what I see in those big eyes of his. And perhaps, also…because of what he might see in my own eyes.
Angelina works as a dental assistant. I collect unemployment, which saves us money with daycare, and we barely make it at the end of each month. I don’t care about any of that anymore. I know my friends would all call me a loser if they knew how I felt about this life I now live. How I’m no longer ashamed to collect food-stamps each month. Or that I’m content with being an unemployed, “stay-home” dad, with two kids to take care of, and a beautiful hard-working wife who deserves so much more than I can give her. Yeah, my friends would all call me a lazy bum if they knew the truth of it. If they knew that while my son was in kindergarten, and my two-year old daughter, Sophia, napped in our bed each morning, I took those two hours in which I should’ve been calling about jobs, and spent them curled up in a blanket of depression on our couch.
But none of those guys I hang out with have ever witnessed the grueling mayhem I’ve seen in the war-torn streets of Mosul. And I hope to God they never have to.
The number reached a recorded, soft-spoken, raspy voice, which was hard to decipher through the incessant thrumming of the Seattle rain slapping down on the hood of my car. But I made out what I needed to hear:
Got nightmares? Get a tattoo. Bring your own design, or we can provide one for you.
The message concluded with an address and hours of operation.
Angelina never worked on Fridays, so those days turned into my own, unofficial days-off. Days where I would run off for a few hours to go look for work, buy groceries, visit friends, or perhaps roll over to the V.A. hospital for a session of counseling. And so I called Angelina then, after I heard that recorded message, and I told her I’d be home later.
More than anything, I was curious. I had no idea what I was in for. But when an elderly, biker-looking man, with long grey hair and a scraggly beard looked up as I walked through the door, I felt a sense of unexpected despair wash over me. I guess I had hoped there’d be something special about this place. Something really cool to go along with that flyer over at the V.A. hospital, because yes, I did have nightmares. But the guy behind the counter was as typical as any other tattoo artist I had ever seen, and upon first witnessing his hard, sullen face, my heart just sank.
There was a fat ledger on the counter he was writing in, as I bumbled through the door, soaking wet. I noticed the man gave me a double-take, the second of which compelled him to slowly put down his pen, close the ledger, then place it onto the shelf behind him. Between the look he gave me and the way he wrapped up his work, well…I remember thinking this guy knew something about me already.
“So what’s your name, son?” No Hello of any kind, just straight to the questions. It took me off guard for a minute.
“Name’s Jason Ramone, sir. I saw your flyer over at the V.A. hospital.” When I shook the man’s hand, I noticed a Green Beret emblem embedded within the curves of a dragon on his forearm.
“Afghanistan?” he asked.
The man stared a hole through my eyes for what seemed like half a day, then asked if I had a design picked out. If I was ready for my tattoo?
Caught off guard once more, I regurgitated the names of my family. Hardly original, yet certainly impossible to compare to with anything else of value in my life.
He took a brief look at the schedule on his wall, mumbled something to the effect of having a few hours, then walked over to the door, flipped the “out-to-lunch” sign, and turned the lock.
“I don’t ever like to be interrupted when I work,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “Come on over here, have a seat.”
The first things I noticed when I sat down were all the pictures scattered across the walls. Like any other tattoo parlor, the walls were blazoned with a zoo of fascinating designs to choose from. Dragons, fairies, crucifixes of a thousand different varieties. Countless images of favorite things, and inspirational motifs. Yet in the midst of these designs, sat a few posters of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles, effectively breaking things up a little.
But then, just as I got myself comfortable in his leather chair, I noticed all the other pictures. The ones hanging on the wall right in front of me. The odd ones. The pictures that begged the question as to their very presence, here in a tattoo parlor, and why they all stared back at me.
Actually, at first I thought nothing of them. Just happy customers smiling for the camera as they showed off their new tattoos. But when I inspected those pictures a little further, I noticed that not a single spec of ink appeared in any of the photographs. Just the faces of those happy people, as they smiled for the camera.
Curious as hell, I asked the man what those pictures were about.
“Well…” he began, but then paused, as he assembled his paraphernalia on the table next to us. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Why I didn’t explode out of that chair and bolt through the door might have been because in those pictures, the people were all smiling. But by itself, that comment of his would’ve sent my imagination running through every Saw movie ever made, while my legs sprinted like a jaguar’s, back to my car.
“That nose of yours will sure make for an ugly picture, though.” He chuckled, as he turned and walked over to a rifle-safe I just then noticed, sitting in the back corner of the room.
It’s the lack of sleep which tortures the mind in these situations, more than anything else. I started sweating, and my hands began to tremble, as I sat there thinking about what could only be stored away in that big, chrome safe, while the man spun the dial. Why in God’s name did I come here, anyway?
“But I like that!” His voice smashed through my internal horror-film like a twelve-pound hammer. “Shows the vulnerability of our species,” he continued, as he walked back to where I sat.
“So, Jason, are you a boxer?” No rifle. Just a large, wooden box, which he placed onto the table next to me with utmost care.
“No sir. Got this from my own fist last night.” The man looked at me with a strangeness that almost matched that box of his. “Sometimes, when I have my nightmares…well…I get a little violent. And it sucks, because my wife can’t sleep in the bed with me anymore.” No one can sleep with me anymore. At night, Angelina curls up in the other room with both of our kids. Oftentimes, after I roam the small hours of dawn, I’ll find myself in a fit of tears, broken as always, while I watch my whole world lay peacefully on that bed in the other room.
Tattoo Man didn’t say anything in response. He just turned his attention to that box, then nodded in a way that told me he understood completely. From his shirt pocket he pulled out a key ring, and I noticed that he now wore a pair of eyeglasses as well. A sense of familiarity washed over me at that moment, while the man stood there with key in hand. Perhaps it was the stale, cigarette smell that lingered over him, which evoked my déjà vu. Or maybe it came from all those faces on the wall, staring back at me. And yet again, perhaps it was just a byproduct of having that mystical box sitting so close to me.
Remember how I mentioned that I had no idea what I was in for? The box was about the size of a two-foot, rectangular cube. Deep burgundy in color, it had been crafted from some kind of exotic wood, like rosewood, or purple heart, maybe. Likely. A highway of blood-red inlays traced the perimeter of the lid, and there were foreign symbols of gold stamped into its outer walls. Symbols that might have been Tibetan. The hasp, which kept the box sealed, was pure silver, but the padlock looked like any cheap fastener bought at a hardware store. Before the man reached over to unfasten it, he abruptly turned to me, eyelids as full as the rim of his glasses, and he said, “Just so you know, this is some serious shit, Jason.”
I stared back like a dumb child. Maybe I nodded in reply.
“I don’t need to hear your story to know you’ve suffered,” he continued. “Like the people on this wall behind me,” he indicated with a throw of his thumb, “you’ve lived through some type of nightmare, which has managed to sneak over onto your back. And it’s sitting there right now, I can see it, its claws buried deep into your flesh… Out of your reach, and…impossible to shake off.”
I fell speechless as tears began to swell up into my eyes.
The man then interrogated me with a serious-as-shit gaze for quite some time, before continuing. “But I’m about to put you through another hairy situation, Jason. Another lead-ridden walk through those streets of Mosul. Another fucking nightmare, which might damn-well have you shitting your pants…But rest assured, you’ll be smiling like the rest of them, when I’m finished.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I guess the bluntness in his voice—or maybe just his words—woke me up a bit, and I realized then just how scared I was at that moment.
“You’ll need to hang in there, Jason. Hang in there, and above all…trust me.”
Trust him? My eyes caught site of that elite emblem there on his forearm once again, as he spoke that last sentence. Who better to trust with my nightmare than a brother of war, right?
Apparently satisfied, the man turned, unsecured the padlock and raised the hasp. Then he opened the box, and a wave of gold light belched out of it, filling the entire room with a dazzling aura.
Serious shit indeed. This might’ve been magic, I realized. The kind of magic you could only see in the movies, or perhaps read about in some ridiculous novel.
The source of this yellow haze came from the items resting on black velvet in the box. I noticed a series of gold canisters embossed with tiny, silver and copper symbols, and then two odd-looking devices which I eventually realized were antique tattoo guns.
The guns were about the size of a tennis ball, and they were crafted to the likeness of a scorpion. Except that their faces were human: one being a male, and the other a female. They were dull silver in color, pewterish, actually, and appeared to have been well-weathered from use. To be sure, the contents of the box were nothing less than a small fortune.
The last thing I thought about before the real magic took place though, was how funny that tattoo man’s huge hands looked as he delicately handled those various canisters and, for me, the silver gun with the male face. That biker-dude looked clinical, peering over his spectacles, as I offered him my left forearm, along with the names of my family on a small sheet of paper. And finally, as odd as this sounds, the last thing that crossed my mind before that artist freehanded me to a place far and away from there, was what Jimi Hendrix would look like if he were bald, and wore a white lab coat underneath his famous Stratocaster.
The yellow room fell dark as the first trace of ink spilled under my skin. Mechanical sounds turned into cricket chirps, and I looked around the room with amazement. I want to say that that tattoo man turned into the Mad Hatter, but I couldn’t even see the guy. All I could see, at first, was that silver scorpion as it pinched away at me with both claws, while occasionally throwing a vicious tail-stab into my skin. I watched in horror as that ancient arachnid crawled up my arm, butchering through skin, as if working to prepare a feast for itself.
But then I discovered if I looked away, the pain would recede, so I bit my lip and left that scorpion alone to do its business. And that’s when I saw their faces again, there on that wall.
Although this time, I saw much more than just their faces. I saw a whole lot more. I saw their human conditions, and their pains and sufferings. I saw their fucking nightmares, every one of them, curses that had been haunting so many people, for so many years. And then, along with these visions, I heard their screams—blood curdling howls, begging for the end of one long and terrible night…
The first vision came from the young girl with the pretty green eyes. She wasn’t built like a gazelle, but she was a fast runner none-the-less. Her long blond pony-tail slashed the air as she tore tracks underneath a canopy of black alders. She felt alive, and on-fire, even though it was one in the morning and she was all by herself, jogging on a sidewalk. Her mother and father would’ve been horrified, had they known how she managed the advice they’d given her for all those years. They hit her with a baseball bat then, young-men hiding behind the campus library, as she came running up to their corner of the building. Her body fell limp and helpless, and then the monsters dove in one-by-one, defiling her, as they took their turns. And when that pretty, green-eyed girl woke up the next day, used and broken…that’s when she discovered her real nightmare had only just begun.
The second one came from the guy who wore a tattered sombrero and a goofy grin, who may have been on the verge of yelling, “Tequila shots, two dollars!” He looked silly indeed, in a Peter Pan-ish way, and I knew from the get-go that this was Mr. Cool Cat. This was the guy everyone loved to like, because he could talk to anyone about anything, and make them feel like nothing else mattered except for that moment of their life right then and there. The guy who had all the neighbor’s kids running up to him because he was that “fun dad” who got down to their level, and played with them at all the birthday parties.
But this man had his own nightmare too. And I saw it then. I saw the severe terror of impending loneliness while that cool dude sat next to her bed watching, and waiting. He sat there, crying like a child, while Life jutted its ugly nose into his face, telling him it was time to grow up now. Time to take care of those kids because his wife was now dead, and they’re gonna miss her more than you know, so it’s gonna suck for you mister. Every morning, throughout every minute of the day, and up until the last minute of every night, you’re gonna feel the true power of sorrow as those children ask you why their momma left; where she went; does she miss us as much as we miss her; and, will we ever see her again?
After Mr. Sombrero, there was the lady with the pierced nose and shiny red handbag. I saw her come tip-toeing into the tattoo parlor many times, but only once had she felt the sting from the scorpion. For half of her forty years, that woman carried the weight given to her on the night she boozed it up real good, then drove her and her twin sister fifty miles an hour into a brick wall. Some years, it was all she could do just to get out of bed. All she could do just to look herself in the mirror each morning, and see the woman whose body she brutally crushed on that night. See the face of that little girl who truly was her soul mate, if there ever was one. Her best friend forever and always, killed without so much as a parting “goodbye” or a “hug-for-the-bug,” as the two of them always said when they had to be away from each other…
I realized then that that woman with the pierced nose and shiny red handbag had been tip-toeing through her life ever since.
Sometimes I just closed my damn eyes, the pain hurt that much. But whole hours passed by, while that scorpion ate away at me, and I saw a lot more than what Red Handbag Lady, Mr. Sombrero, or the green-eyed girl showed me. I saw, heard, and felt the heavy sadness that once belonged to the faces on that wall in front of me. The wicked sorrow, which managed to put a kink in so many lives.
Yet they were all lit up now, weren’t they? Lit up with real smiles. Smiles that came from the heart and out through their eyes, as they looked into the camera after their time spent with the scorpion. Smiles, after they got their tattoos.
And then, just as I had pondered this reality, I watched with astonishment as all those pictured faces on that wall converged into one single frame; a gold frame, trimming the reflective shimmer of a silver mirror. And then, in that mirror, I saw those brown eyes I had known all my life…
A shell from an M1 Abrams obliterated the wall fifty yards in front of me, sending dust and rubble down onto the bodies lying in the street. Marines ran to my left, busting through doors, yelling and screaming, shooting and killing. Just minutes ago, this had been a quiet stroll down another Mosul neighborhood. But like all those other quiet strolls, shit cooked-up real fast after that first shot rang out.
It felt like a blazing bonfire of manure—as the tank blew a hole in the building up ahead—when I started to get that ominous feeling once again. The one that felt like the whole world fluttered desperately on a thin piece of thread, while some ugly monster with white fangs huffed and puffed at it with all its might. The same feeling that made my entire body shake and jitter, telling me to hurry up and find a piece of cover because every man, woman, and child with a rifle in this city, now had their sights on me.
But I was a damn good marine, and I had my orders. So I brought up the rear of my squad as they went smashing through a wooden door. And just to show how quick things fly in battle, I remembered thinking that that door looked “triggered” at exactly the same time a deafening blast of blackish orange fire came hurtling out through the windows, followed by the screams of more than one man, and the running feet of enemy combatants as they hurried across the alleyway in front of me.
I fired my rifle. I drew it up in a fit of panic and rage because everyone in that damn city had their guns on me while my brothers screamed in pain inside that building. And I pulled the trigger as many times as I could, sending all four of those kids into a scattered heap of lifelessness upon the ground. I sent all of them there, into the cold dirt. All of them, except for that one boy.
The boy with those big brown eyes who just stood there staring back at me. The boy who might’ve wondered why this man, this nice-looking American was pointing a gun at him. The boy who also might’ve wondered if I too had a family, somewhere half a world away. And if maybe, just maybe, I also had a little boy with big round eyes very much like his own… A little boy with a heart of gold, just dying to have his papa come running up to him, to squeeze him, and hold him, and tell him not to cry anymore, because he loved him more than anything else in the whole wide world; and that he should never have to worry again, because he was going to be alright, and just fine, and…
“…And forget about those holes in your chest, son, ‘cause I’m never gonna let you go! I’M NEVER GONNA LET YOU GO!”
Cricket chirps turned into my wail of sorrow as yellow light rose above the darkness of the room. I remember reaching up with both arms then, accepting that great bear-hug from the tattoo artist—my brother of war—while I just let it all out. For the first time since I came home, I let it all out.
And then sometime after I was done, he poured me a cup of coffee, and we talked for a while. We talked about ourselves, and of our families. Of the people on that wall, and of the places where he posted his flyers. And we talked about that box of his, with its supernatural contents, and how it was given to him by a man whose entire family he’d saved from certain death, back when he was in Vietnam. But most of all, we talked about the feeling I now had, after my experience with the scorpion. After getting my tattoo. The feeling of once and for all, becoming “extinguished” from the searing pain that had burned a hole in my own chest after all these years. A feeling that evoked a genuine smile, which came straight from my heart, through my ugly, busted-up face, and then right into that camera of his.
After we talked half the night away, I got myself together and paid the man for his work, said my bittersweet goodbye, then headed out into the pouring rain, feeling like there wasn’t a star in the universe that could shine as bright as how I now felt. But then, much to my own surprise, well…that’s when the real magic took place…
I walked into our apartment well past midnight, exhausted yet full of excitement with this new life I was given to live—this life which would echo the spirits of four little children now playing somewhere along the streets of a neighborhood that knew no sadness. And when I found myself in that bedroom doorway, a river of tears shedding nothing but joy as I looked upon my whole world, asleep in the bed, I slipped off my shoes and crept under the covers with as much grace a man my size could muster. And finally, the last thing I saw before I fell into the deepest, most refreshing sleep I’d ever had… Yes. The last thing I saw were those eyes of his. Those peaceful, big brown eyes, of a little boy with a heart of gold.