He steps across the threshold of the tattoo shop, a little Himalayan brass bell rings on the door and the smell of incense nearly gags him…”
by brian ames
Justin’s first impression on coming to is that this must be a nice jail. Most of them have filthy concrete floors, but his fingertips knead carpet fibers–they feel soft and hospitable–then he turns his groggy head aside through a hangover thrum to see the shadows of bars cast by wan sunlight. He closes his eyes again, runs his tongue across a mouth full of liquor paste. Not again – Marie will kill him this time. Or just outright leave. He’s been in the can four times this year, in front of a judge for three of those four. He knows he drinks too much, but damn–why can’t he catch a break? He lies on the carpet and digs his fingers further into its nap. It feels warm and clean.
Then he hears the sound of a machine, an electro-motorish sort of racket, oscillating, closer, then further away. He opens his eyes again. Marie towers over him running the vacuum sweeper, sucking up dust and grit. What’s she doing here?
He appreciates now that he lays not at the center of a cell, but stomach down, spread-eagle on his living room floor. His jacket is bunched up around his shoulders like an old grocery sack. The bar shadows are cast by Marie’s rocking chair–one of those old-fashioned wood-hewn types–she has pulled it over next to the window in order to sweep the carpet. He’s relieved, then embarrassed. He must have come home last night as drunk as a storm, passed out on the living room floor.
“You gonna lay there all morning, have me sweep around you?” Marie asks.
“Naw, I’m gettin’ up,” Justin answers. He pushes to rise, rolls to one side to evade that damned sweeper. He senses pain on his shoulder, the skin above the blade.
“Ouch–what the hell’s that?” He reaches under his coat, feels sponginess at his skin, pain there. It shoots around his shoulder, up into his neck. A bar fight, maybe? The last thing he remembers was being down at The Dot. Hoisting beers and tequila shooters, and then now.
“Help me up,” he says. “I think I got hurt.”
“Big surprise,” Marie offers. “Do you have any idea what time you came in?”
“Last night, sometime,” Justin offers, trying a grin. She isn’t buying.
He stands, dizziness washes through his ears. A pounding in his temples slams into his brain like a mallet rhythm, and his stomach feels queasy. He has to pee, too, shuffles away from Marie and her infernal vacuum down the hall to the bathroom. He relieves himself there, shrugs out of his coat, tosses it out the bathroom door into the hallway. In the mirror, he turns to his right, lowers his shoulder. There’s a compress of some sort under his T-shirt, starting over the shoulder joint and running part way down his back. He lifts the T-shirt from around his neck, snaking his arms through.
“Christ,” he says. It’s a bandage. He peels it off, bloodcrust grabbing and it’s a mottled thing, blood and ink across gauze. He has new ink on his shoulder, a tattoo, semaphore of skin. It sends this message: MARIE in high gothic, enscrolled around a red heart. “Oh, man,” he says, to the mirror. He doesn’t remember the needle.
“Hey, get a load a this!” he shouts over his shoulder, trying to catch her attention above the vacuum. She doesn’t come, still the noise of the sweeper is drowning his call. He drops the nasty gauze into the wastebasket, emerges from the bathroom. “Honey,” he calls, “look at this.” She sees him coming bare chested, his strong pectorals, that one ranging vein that rises down each biceps and coils his forearms. He turns to show her the new tattoo.
She doesn’t know what to say, standing there gripping the sweeper handle. She toes the switch on the machine into silence. It’s raw, blood oozing from the needlepricks. The edges of it are crusty. But she can see her name, the scroll, the heart. He thinks she will be pleased with this, or at least not angry. “Oh, Justin,” she starts, then can’t find the words. “It’s… it’s… well, so nice.”
“You think so?” he asks.
“I got it for you.”
“Obviously,” she says. Thus the name and all.
“You really like it?”
She avoids answering, explicitly, the question. “Where’d you get it?”
“Uh… well I guess down at Skin Prints, by The Dot.”
“How much did it cost?”
He looks sheepish to her, the shit heel. “Um… I don’t really know sweetie,” he admits. He has to build a story here, something convincing. He’s trapped not knowing the when, where or why of it, but seeking to stay in her good graces. He doesn’t even remember leaving The Dot.
“I remember going into Skin Prints, but paying–I don’t know. I think the pain and all… probably with the MasterCard.” He reaches into his wallet–there, folded with a couple of bills, a receipt. Sure enough, Skin Prints, $85.00. His ratcheting signature.
He hands it to her, her eyes pop out like two pie plates.
“Eighty-five bucks!” she shouts, “Justin, you know we can’t…”
“Honey, I’ll work some OT this week–it’s no big deal.”
Whatever, she thinks. It is a nice tattoo, or will be when it heals. She had one of her own, a little brown mouse inside her upper thigh. She is driven nuts whenever Justin puts his mouth on it, works upward. She’s thinking about that now.
“Go brush your teeth,” she commands. “I’ll finish this later.”
His compliance is instant and later, on their bed, she drinks the blood and ink from his shoulder as his sweat drops onto her, the odor of cigarettes in his hair.
Marie sorts through mail on her way back to the house from the box. A couple of ad circulars, a missing kid postcard, and three bills. But what’s this? An envelope with a Washington State Liquor Control Board return address. It’s addressed to Justin.
The screen door slams behind her as she enters the house, strides across the living room to the dining table. She drops the other envelopes, holds Justin’s mail. He hates it when she opens his shit. But she can’t resist–slides her thumb under the hasp and slices the top open with her fingernail. It’s a bill–Body Art Tax, it reads, $35.00. Due two weeks from receipt. Check or money order, please, send no cash through the U.S. Postal Service. There’s a return envelope with a cellophane address portal.
“What the hell’s a Body Art Tax,” she wonders aloud. Maybe Justin knows–she’ll have to ask him when he gets home, after he settles down from expressing, again, his anger that she feels it necessary to pry into his mail. “We’re husband and wife,” she’ll say, using that same old argument. “Your business is my business.” He’ll snort and grouse and come around, especially if she offers to bring out her mouse.
“I never heard of a Body Art Tax,” he claims when he arrives home. “Sounds like bullshit to me.”
“The date here is from a couple of weeks ago, when you got the new tattoo.”
Justin grabs the bill and sure enough, it’s marked For Services Rendered–080900. Two weeks have passed and while the tattoo still is tender, most of it has scabbed over and healed–at least the edges. The bleeding has mostly stopped unless he forgets and scratches at the center. He quit wearing a bandage four days ago.
“Well I ain’t payin’ it,” he declares. He never heard of the tax, and he never voted in such a tax, and he thinks someone’s playing games here.
“It looks pretty official,” Marie offers.
“I don’t give a crap,” Justin rebels. “If this is the government’s way of raising more money, I ain’t gonna be any part of it. Toss it.”
Marie complies, carries the envelopes and bill to the kitchen garbage, throws it there among eggshells and a greasy pizza box.
Twenty-eight days later, when Justin’s tattoo is bright and fully healed, a second bill arrives. “If you have made payment and our correspondence has crossed yours in the mail, please disregard this second notice,” it reads. “If, however, you have not sent payment, why not do so today?” Another return envelope is enclosed.
A month passes, and a third notice arrives. “THIRD NOTICE,” it threatens. “PAST DUE: Please make immediate payment before this bill is turned over to a collection agency.”
Justin takes the bill down to Skin Prints. He steps across the threshold of the tattoo shop, a little Himalayan brass bell rings on the door and the smell of incense nearly gags him. The walls are covered with examples of skin art–tigers rampant, the Harley-Davidson logo, skulls, snakes, flags of Dixie, women with perky breasts and narrow hips. There are yin-yangs, dragons, Disney and Warner Bros. characters, all kinds of shit.
The artiste waits behind the counter. “You were in here before,” he says.
“Yeah, you did a nice job too.”
“Refresh my memory.” The man has metal fobs and gewgaws stapled to his ears, his skin is a bestiary of ink. Even on his neck, where a black web had affixed itself, connecting the base of his ear with something under his shirt. His nipple, probably, Justin speculates. He’s a skin-headed guy, ugly fuck, but good with the needle.
“My shoulder,” Justin answers. “A heart with ‘Marie’ on it.”
“Oh yeah, you were a late-nighter. Drunk as a maggot. You happy with it?”
“She like it?”
“Yes, she does.”
“Heal up ok?”
Justin nods yes, fishing in the pocket of his jean jacket for the bill. Pulls the envelope forth.
“So you come in for another one,” the artiste says, gesturing at the samples on the walls.
“No, not today… I gotta question for you though.”
“Maybe I got an answer.”
“You ever seen this?” Justin asks, gesturing at the paper on the counter between them. The ink man lifts the bill, scrutinizes it. A look of comprehension washes his features, his squint becomes affable.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “The skin tax, sure. State politicos passed it last spring. More money for the coffers I guess. They gotta get it some way, and since the vehicle tax was lowered… shit, man, you know your tattoo is helping fill potholes?”
“But thirty-five bones?” Justin asks incredulously. “For eighty-five bucks worth of ink. That’s what… what percentage?”
“I look like a mathematician to you?” the artiste offers, rhetorically. “But it don’t matter, we can ask the tax man hisself.” The ink man turns his head, hollers, “Hey Hank,” back into the shop. “Hank’s here during the day, ‘cept for Friday and Saturday nights, when he stays late, collects the tax right on the spot. He’s an asshole…”–the artiste looks back over his shoulder and lowers his voice, Justin can hear the tax man’s footfall–“…hard to get along with, being a government dickhead and all, and he don’t stick around for the night customers during the week. Makes me give him the addresses, files his report–he wasn’t here the night you came in though–had a family emergency or somethin’. They’re everywhere now, in all the art houses. Body piercing, tattoos, scarring, branding–even got a tiny little tax for henna. It’s bullcrap, I know.”
“Whaddaya want needle man?” Hank wallows through the door to the ink room, folds his chubby arms over a pendulant stomach. He wears a short sleeve shirt buttoned up to his neck, and folds of skin wrap down over the collar like a lipid blanket. His eyes are a pair of beads.
“Customer here has some questions about your Skin Tax,” the artiste mocks.
“Yeah? What kinda questions?”
Justin steps closer to the counter, points at the bill.
“This–who ever heard a this?”
The tax man eyes Justin with mistrust. “Looks like you heard of it now, fella,” he answers. “But it looks like you havin’ some trouble understanding the concept of a bill. I’d pay it now.”
“Like hell,” Justin starts, and the ink man winces.
“I’d do it,” the artiste warns. “It can go on your record.”
Justin looks at the two, ink man, tax man. “Jesus,” he says. “A Body Art Tax? What a crock.” Nevertheless, he fishes his wallet out. Tosses a twenty, a ten and a five at the tax man. He turns to leave, strides to the door.
“Lucky I don’t charge you a late fee,” the tax man calls after him.
“I’d kick your ass,” Justin claims, gagging on the rise of anger, slamming the door behind him.
Justin’s doing some hard drinking. It’s payday, he has a wallet full of cash, called Marie a few minutes ago to say he’d be home late. She drilled him with objections, even invoked the mouse, but he’d said he’d be home later. He needed to hang out with his crew for a while. “We had a rough day, honey. We need to bond.”
The Dot’s a hovel on Fifth Street, a honky-tonk with a jukebox and beer signs like a million others. The bartender and Justin have been cawing back and forth for an hour about the Body Art Tax. “Gimme another shot, Nebby,” Justin orders. “I’m just getting into this.”
“You know, you’re gonna drive yourself to drinkin’ worryin’ about shit you got no control over,” Nebby predicts, as he sets a full shotglass on the counter. Justin tosses it, lights a smoke.
“Don’t jimmie-jack me around, Nebby,” he says. “The government can do whatever it likes, but it ain’t gotta right to tax what I put on me.”
“Well, they tax what you put in you,” Nebby points at the empty shotglass, Justin’s cigarette, the evidence that backs up his statement. “They tax whatever the fuck they want.”
“That’s just it–they got enough a my money.”
“Well you don’t gotta buy the shit,” Nebby explains. “It’s your choice, like playing Lotto. Noboby’s got a gun to your head or nothin’.”
Justin asks for another shot.
“You’ve had a few, big guy.”
“Just supportin’ my country,” he claims.
Before long he’s boiled, his face muscles tight and stomach primed. He’s eating everything in sight, bar chips, wants one of those picked hard-boiled eggs. It slides down his throat like a ball of paste, so good he gets another. And more beer, his mates are buying pitchers and throwing darts. Justin throws one and misses completely, buries its needle tip in a Miller Babes poster next to the board, right in her smiley-ass teeth. He starts goofing off with the darts, aiming for her tits. Thunk–one pierces her navel. His crewmates cheer!
Then he’s in the bathroom pissing beer, it’s like water flowing through him. He’s dizzy and lost, feels those eggs bunch and push, a big sulfur belch ejects from him. The taste overfills his mouth, banishes for a minute the aftertaste of beer, tequila, cigarettes. “Goddamned tax man,” he mutters, eyes heavily lidded and red where they ought to be white. “I’m gonna show that prick.”
Justin pukes in the urinal, buries the mint with bile. Stands there gagging above the streaked porcelain, snorting matter out of his nasal tubes, retching the last of it up. Good, he thinks, makes room for more. He staggers back to the bar, shouting, “Hit me, Nebby-Boy.”
“Justin, mellow out,” the bartender says. “I’m gonna have to cut you off pretty soon. Your wife’ll come down here and have my ass.”
“Take it easy, Nebby,” Justin says through tunnel vision. “I’m gonna go get me some new ink tonight. Gotta be plenty blotto ‘fore I sit through that.”
“I’d say you’re ready now,” Nebby pronounces.
Justin and Todd stagger together down Fifth Street. “Gonna get us some ink,” Todd howls, passersby crossing over to the other side of the avenue ahead of them. The pair are happier than pigs wallowing, caroming off plate glass and bus-stop signs. It’s twilight, and they can see the Skin Prints sign down the street, another block, then a half block, then they’re at the door.
“After you,” Justin jokes, holding the door open. He sweeps with his hand. Todd bows, skitters inside giggling. The bell rings and the needle man looks up from an underground newsletter he’s been reading all evening.
“Hey fellas,” he greets. “Come in tonight for a tattoo, or just cruisin’?”
“Ink!” Justin demands. “That one.” He points at a sample of an anchor, with a scroll on which anything can be written, indelibly, forever. “I want it to say, ‘NO TAXES.’”
“And you, sir,” the artiste turns his attention to Todd.
“I gotta look for a minute,” Todd says, and Justin senses hesitance. Todd, as far as he knows, wears no tattoos. Tonight’s would be his first.
“You chicken shit,” he says, pointing at his work mate. “Don’t you puss out on me tonight, Toddy.”
“Ah, fuck you Justin–I gotta see what they got.”
Justin remains unconvinced. “Yeah, you take a good look, bub. There’s plenty for you to pick from.”
“Yeah, take your time,” the needle man adds.
Justin is directed around the counter, through the door to the back. Fat Hank is sitting there reading a dog-eared copy of Field & Stream, wishing he had a big bass on his hook. He glances up, sees Justin, betrays a hint of recognition. He can’t quite place the guy, but he knows there’s history, that there was a confrontation once, somewhere.
“It’s gonna be about sixty-five,” the artiste estimates, depending on how much time it takes. He’s usually pretty close.
“Plus the Skin Tax,” Hank adds, grinning wryly, and he remembers this puke now. Guy said he was gonna kick his ass! Oh boy, it’ll be a pleasure taking your money, you drunk piece a low-life scum.
Justin strips his shirt off, sits on a stool. The artiste assembles his implements, the needle gun, small jars of ink, some pure alcohol, swabs, bandages.
“Where you want it?” he asks.
Justin motions to his right biceps, flexes the muscle. The vein rides its ridge. The MARIE tattoo on his shoulderblade is in perfect bloom, and the artiste pauses to admire his own work.
“That came in nice,” he says.
“Mmm-huh,” Justin mumbles. Needle man dips some gauze in the alcohol, it’s odor whirls and eddies under Justin’s nose. He breathes in–it smells so clean. And it’s cool, like ice, where the artiste dabs and swaps over the vein. He runs a disposable razor across the skin, his palette, preparing the surface. Then he swabs on some transfer fluid, some sort of solvent. He presses an ink template there, over the biceps, lets the solvent transfer the design on to skin.
The needle gun clicks and hums. The artiste dips the tip into one of the pots, sucks up black ink into the chamber. Justin feels the first teeth of it as its motor rises, it spits blackness into his skin, little jets of permanence dying the cells there, the underskin. He clamps his teeth, squints. It still hurts, even through the alcohol. He watches as the artiste moves the gun in little wasp swirls, the pain ebbs and flows, more acute at times, almost inconsequential at others. Needle man dips the business end of the gun again, completes the outline of the anchor and scroll. He changes tips, swabs blood away with clean gauze. The wipe comes away stained some unidentifiable, unheard-of color.
Now he’s filling the anchor with gray, the solid application of a wider inktip. It hurts worse because the hole being blasted in his skin is twice as wide. Justin jerks.
“You better hold that fucker still,” the needle man warns. “I’d hate to draw a gray line halfway across your arm.”
Justin braces again, suffers through the gray until the artiste is finished. Now’s come time for the scroll.
“What’s that you want it to say?”
“NO TAXES!” Justin replies, eyeing Hank evenly. “All capital letters, with a exclamation point at the end.”
“You got it.” The needle man slips the first tip back on the gun, dips in black again. Carves from the alphabet the message into Justin’s arm. The crossbar of the T bisects that big blue vein, and he’s finished.
“You want color on the scroll?”
Justin’s had enough, declines. “I want the skin to show through there,” he says, as if this were some aesthetic preference. Truth is, he thinks as he grips the arm with a gauze bandage as thick as a maxi-pad, this motherfucker hurts, and he wants no more of it. And the pain has affected his drunkenness too–rather than sober him, the adrenaline and beating of his heart had made it deeper and broader than when he came in. It—he–rolls from it, wants to sleep in it, wants to strike out at the same time.
“I want that jackass to come get his tax money,” he challenges, pointing a wavering finger at Hank. “Come on, jackass.”
“I think you know I’m gonna have no trouble at all collecting,” Hank proclaims.
“Well bring it, don’t sing it,” Justin says, and both men rise. The needle man jumps from between them, flees to a corner. The two men square off like pro wrestlers, testosterone flooding the place. Hank swats the air, an exploratory poke. His flabby arms shake as he counters Justin’s first jab. They make a circle, dance through arcs, and Justin wants him bad. He looks for an in, finds it, lashes out and laces knuckles across Hank’s cheek. It backs him up.
Then he charges like a rhino, runs right through the stool between them, upsets the working table. The glass pots of tattoo ink go flying, splattering the opposite wall and Justin’s base chest and belly. Todd hears the ruckus from the front parlor, runs through the door–sees some fat fucker bulling into Justin’s body like a locomotive.
“I’m here, partner!” he yells, grabs the needle gun. He grabs the gun by its pneumatic tube, the air pressure that spits ink is fed through the vessel but now it’s like a weapon, the brass gun whirling like a bolo in radii from Todd’s wrist. He pulls hard on the tube and the gun smashes into the fat man’s temple. He goes over like a bag of salt, splintering the stool under him.
Justin gasps at the wound aside Hank’s head.
“Alright Toddy!” he shouts, as the artiste flees the room. “Fuckin’ A nice shot!”
They stand over the tax man, the splintered stool, the spattered-ink wreckage. Justin’s biceps throbs, and Todd is jacked completely up.
“Let’s do this bitch,” Justin says. “Do him up good.” He turns where the ink man was–“Ink man? Where is that dude?”
“He booked, Justin.”
Todd has an idea. Everyone will know who the tax man is. He’s just out cold, not dead or anything, but when he wakes up… Justin giggles at the thought.
He picks up the needle gun, flicks the ON toggle, and that hum fills the room again. And carves…
… on the fainted man’s forehead.
“That’ll teach ‘im,” Justin pronounces, the work done. Not as fancy as the artiste, but there, for good, nevertheless.
Todd’s gone white, looks like he’s going to vomit any second. “We better get outta here before somebody shows up,” he says. Justin thinks his work mate may be right, drops the needle gun on Hank’s chest. “So long, Hank,” he says. “Don’t forget to pay your taxes.”
Justin wakes up to a bastard of a headache, blood clotting his T-shirt. That dip shit down at Skin Prints must have forgotten to put a bandage on, and then he remembers, grins…
Walks down the hall to the bathroom to pee, pulls the sleeve of his T-shirt up around his shoulder, stares at the anchor, the scroll.
Reads NOT AXES!, and no matter how he turns in the bathroom’s fluorescent light, no matter how much he pinches and pushes the sore skin, that T is not going to migrate across the scroll to its proper place. It’s stuck there, for good.