The Tattoo

         Stan Panko missed her so much, had been so certain that they would live together forever, that he got a tattoo of their apartment on his wide, flabby back. It happened on a Saturday

Bill Brandt
afternoon of epic drinking. He was at his favorite corner bar, Rocky’s. He staggered out at dusk and found himself in front of Paradise Tattoos, two blocks down. The place was still open. Stan described the small kitchen where he and Sheila scrambled eggs together pretending to get irritated with the lack of elbow room, which usually ended with them in each other’s arms, laughing. He told the tattoo artist about the chair with the broken arm on one side from a particularly overzealous love-making experiment. Of course he talked about the fold-out couch and her embroidered pillows they always had to toss to the floor. Even the bathroom, he still kept her hair brush on the counter from the last day, with her sandy brown hair tangled in the teeth.

         “Look man, this ain’t no therapy session. What are you gettin’ at?” The artist, with tattoos covering his arms and neck and one lightning bolt down the side of his cheek, could smell the beer and bourbon on Stan’s breath.

         “Can you do a tattoo of what I just told you? My apartment?”

         The guy had heard some doozies in his time, had scorched people’s flesh with everything from satanic symbols to wildlife scenes, but this was new.

         “Why not just do her face? Simpler, and it’s the same idea anyway, isn’t it?”

         Stan looked at the guy as if he were crazy. “The same? Not at all, man. If the place is empty I can see us in it, don’t you get it? I can see us moving around, doing things. She and I can’t be in the picture. It has to be the place, our place.”

         The guy raised his eyebrows, shrugged. “It’s gonna take a hell of a lot of time, I’ll even have to keep the shop open way past closing, and it’s gonna cost.”

         “That’s fine, that’s fine. I appreciate it, man.”

         “I mean, it’s gonna take all night. And I really should do a job this big over at least a couple of days—for your sake. You’re gonna need the recovery time. It’s gonna hurt a little more than just a little. I won’t lie.”

         “I got nowhere to go, and I’m boozed-up enough, I know you can tell. That should numb things a bit. I’ll pay extra for the late hours.”

         The artist was impressed with Stan’s back. It was a big canvas. The skin was very white too, and hairless. Just right for a masterpiece like this.

         The whole job took eight hours and cost fifteen hundred bucks. He paid with a blank check he had folded up in his wallet for emergencies. He didn’t have the money but would figure something out. He couldn’t lie on his back so slept all the next day on his stomach. He called in sick Monday, not moving from the bed. The tattoo raged like fire daggers as it scabbed over.

         “Now we’ll always have this place,” he thought. He stood in front of the mirror and twisted sideways, which hurt, examining the artist’s work. The guy had done a nice job, even placed a mug on the coffee table with lipstick on the rim the way Stan described. Her lipstick was called Ravenous Blue, and he admired how the artist got just the right tint. The apartment took up nearly the entire surface of his back. If he hadn’t been six-two and nearly three hundred pounds they might have had to leave out part of the living room. Luckily too, the apartment was an efficiency.

         Each day at work at the loading dock, Stan could feel Sheila under his shirt. He felt her walking around with bare feet, the way she always preferred. He felt her turning channels of the TV and tapping the end of her cigarette in the seashell ashtray they had bought for a souvenir in Jersey on the boardwalk. He’d smile as she turned up the stereo and danced in her bathrobe thinking no one else was around, the way she did that time he caught her when the dock shut down one morning due to some shipping mix-up and he was sent home.

         Every day after work, he’d go to the bathroom, peel off his shirt and stand with his back to the mirror. He had become good at using a hand mirror to study himself without having to twist and turn. His eyes would move through the apartment, starting with the entryway, then into the kitchen, then into the family room, and finally a quick peek at the bathroom. It really was amazing, he thought, how the guy even squeezed in the toilet. He had told him to draw the seat cover up since Sheila always pretended to be irritated with how Stan left it up, which Stan found so cute.

         After examining his back, Stan would usually shower, put on a fresh shirt, and head to Rocky’s. It was there one night that he saw her. She came in with a big dude, bigger than Stan. She had to know this was his place, he thought. Why would she come back here unless to stick a knife in his heart?

         He watched as the two of them sat close on the same side in a booth. She spotted Stan at the bar and looked a few times over the guy’s shoulder. Stan’s stomach churned and it felt like something was stuck in his throat. He kept ordering beers and shots until the room started to tilt.

         That’s about all Stan could remember. His buddies would tell him that at some point he tore off his shirt and staggered over to the booth. He turned to show his tattoo to Sheila and starting foaming at the mouth with some gibberish. No one at the bar knew about the tattoo, so were shocked and amused like ticket-paying customers ringside at a circus. Stan was not someone to rile up. They’d tell him that he smashed a pitcher of beer in the guy’s face. And he didn’t stop there. He ripped the guy’s shirt off, flipped him on his stomach, and pinned him face down, straddling the way a cowboy rides a bull. All the while, they’d say, with one arm he kept shoving Sheila aside who was screaming and cursing. And there was more. He took chunks of broken glass and started carving some picture into the guy’s skin, blood everywhere. The police came and it took four of them to pull him off, cuff him, drag him out.

         Of course he did some time for it. The other inmates, most all with tattoos, had never seen body art like what Stan had on his back. They knew he must be crazy, so never bothered him. It didn’t hurt that they heard what he did that night in the bar.

         Stan and the owner of the bar, Rocky, went a long way back. So, when Stan got out, he was allowed to drink there again. Stan had to promise to keep things calm from now on, though, no matter what. Which he did.

         He never saw Sheila again, though he felt her every day moving around where no one could see. It was the best decision he ever made, getting that tattoo. Wherever she was on God’s green earth, and with whomever, she would always be his, his roommate, his perfect love. She would always be there waiting for him after the loading dock or the bar late at night.

         Now and then a woman would come home with him and see the tattoo. She would sometimes laugh or call him strange, and Stan would have to set her straight, with more than words, if required. Sometimes a woman would look around comparing his back to the actual apartment, amazed at the accuracy. She might gently touch his skin, tracing the different colored lines and shapes with her index finger. Stan would lie there in the dark after making love and explain that, contrary to all the philosophy books, it was possible to keep a thing of beauty at its most perfect, forever. It made him almost feel like a god himself, he’d say. This would impress the woman who found it surprising that a big rough guy with calluses and dirty nails was so deep. She wouldn’t even care, at least on the surface, that he was talking about some other woman.

         He would talk long into the night, nearly every night, trying to explain it—whether a naked body was beside him or not. It was like taking a rose blooming, a fist-shaped rose, so fat and vibrant—that’s it, yes, he’d say, yes—and freezing it before the petals started to fall off.

Neil is the author of three full-length poetry collections--Playground of Flesh (Main Street Rag Press), At the Axis of Imponderables (winner of the Quercus Review Press Book Award), and Beyond the Bones (FutureCycle Press). He is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. He teaches and is the Director of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

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