UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Junior plans his escape from an apartment, whose floors make any escape impossible.
She nestles her head into his shoulder, strands of her hair tidal-waving across his lips. It tastes like fruit left out in the sun. He nudges her lightly, and after nudging her a second time with more force, he peels the blankets from his torso, fumbling for his clothes in the dark before slithering out one-socked.
Before generating so much as a rustle.
She leaves for Binghamton next week, ready for a challenge and a change in location. Unlike Junior, she always planned on attending a four-year after Finger Lakes Community. Unlike Junior, who could’ve graduated a semester early but instead took two extra years to do so.
Making his triumphant escape from her building, he pulls out his Parliament Lights and caresses his forearm, his touch warming the ink in his flesh. He can’t wait to show his new tattoo to Scooter, who is visiting for the weekend and who promised big news for the family, and who promised Junior, and Junior alone, an unforgettable (“Or forgettable if we do ‘em right!”) night of sloppy debauchery.
Junior then remembers Beautiful, the tattoo on Scooter’s left forearm.
He looks briefly back at Nancy’s apartment but keeps walking, a trail of cigarette smoke faintly connecting him back to her.
* * * * * * *
Scooter stops by whenever he finds himself in the area. He can’t resist the free meals, he always jokes. Or the warm place to sleep. Or the company of his favorite nephew. Likewise, Junior loves to talk up Scooter to people outside of the family. His uncle. His lonesome-traveling uncle, who gets tattooed to commemorate each time he enters a new city on his way across America. The free-wheeling, road-romantic uncle who never stays put whenever his job-of-the-moment gives him time off.
Junior wonders what kind of news Scooter is bringing. No matter. A visit from Scooter, however fleeting and erratic, is still a visit from Scooter.
He can’t wait to show off his tattoo, which he is positive Scooter will love and congratulate him on. Junior hopes, hopes, hopes Scooter will arrive with new ink of his own. He imagines the two of them, favorite uncle and nephew alike, swapping tales under the needle, linked by a common experience, laughing and drinking and howling into the night at all the girlies passing by.
* * * * * * *
He bounds down the stairs, landing on every other one like a child at Christmas. He discovers Scooter hunched over a syrupy plate, the cigarette smoke and the steam from his coffee rising in front of him and intermingling. “Heard you come in late last night?” Scooter says. He gets up and embraces his favorite nephew, whose face has a smile on it that a nuclear bomb couldn’t melt off.
They release each other roughly, typical of them, and take a seat. The steam and the cigarette smoke soon evaporate. “Got yourself a girlfriend, I hear,” Scooter says.
Junior fills his lungs with second-hand smoke and nods. “Get this. Her name is Nancy.”
“I’ve always been a sucker for girls named Nancy,” Scooter replies.
His affinity for the name dates back to his days as a Sex Pistols fan, and more importantly, as a fan of the Sid-and-Nancy love story, doomed from the start and thus more captivating. After hearing Scooter re-tell their story, picking up on the passion and heartache and the beauty he found within it, Junior too couldn’t help but love the name, which to him symbolizes everything reckless and wonderful. Everything perfect and imperfect that the world has to offer. Nancy. The name alone sounds slippery and mischievous.
Junior cannot tell Scooter how his own Nancy falls short of their lofty ideals, and how she bears more of a resemblance to Junior’s father than the two of them, personality-wise. At least, she’s blonde. That much he knows Scooter will approve of. But everything else about her is just too perfumed and perfect. Too predictable.
“You heard about this?” he asks, lifting his sleeve.
“Very nice. What is it, Junior? A cardinal?”
“No,” Junior answers. “Why would I get a cardinal?”
Baffled, he waits for Scooter to speak, to compliment the artistry of the tattoo and congratulate him for getting it. “It’s a phoenix,” he explains, tired of waiting.
“Oh, okay.” Scooter looks at it again, nodding his head afterwards. “Like the city.”
“I guess,” Junior says. He perks up when he recalls Scooter’s tradition of getting inked each time he enters a new city on his travels. This gives him hope. “What about you? Got any new tats?”
Scooter’s eyes squint when he smiles. Even then, their redness is their most prominent feature. “Man, I aint been inked in awhile. I mean… like… awhile, Junior.”
They sit in silence. Junior looks for a sign that he’s kidding: a smirk perhaps, maybe just a wink. But nothing.
“So then what’s your big news?” he asks. “You moving to town or something?”
Scooter smiles at his nephew’s sudden excitability. “We should wait for your Dad.”
“You can tell me now,” Junior insists. “I’ll act surprised later. I’m real good at acting surprised.”
Scooter shrugs in surrender and smiles.
“Well,” Scooter says, taking a quick second to scratch his head, “your ol’ Uncle Scooter’s getting married. Her name isn’t Nancy, unfortunately, but I don’t have anything against the name Maggie, either.”
The smile on Junior’s face is left on his face to rot. “That’s one of the last things I was expecting you to say, you know that? What about all those girls from way back when? You remember them? You remember how much you used to love all the girlies back in the day?”
Scooter extinguishes his cigarette. “All that’s in the past. Mags is the future, my boy. And your girl, Nancy, too… she must be something, the way your Dad talks about her.” He leans halfway across the table and smiles. “But I’m sure all the best stuff about her, I’d have to hear from you, huh?”
Junior stares past him, incapable of speech.
* * * * * * *
After telling Junior’s father the news, Scooter continues on about his more immediate plans, beginning with his impromptu visit.
“Mags never cared for ol’ Beautiful here,” he says, flashing the blonde-haired biker-angel on his forearm.
It isn’t bad enough watching Scooter abandon his just-for-kicks lifestyle. Scooter had to flash Beautiful one last time, too.
This, the man who taught him all about music, about the purity and beauty of the name ‘Nancy,’ about tattoos, is now leaving him. And for who? Some Maggie, some girl he had met at the bar one night and screwed, who probably refused to be ignored afterwards. This fucking Maggie. Junior despises her for taking away Scooter the way she is. He imagines Nancy Spungeon tossing and turning in her heroin-addled grave.
“I hear Yin still has his place downtown. I figured I’d go there some time this weekend and get Beautiful covered up,” Scooter says. “You know, since he’s the one that united us. He who tattooeth, tattooeth over, right?” He laughs, drooling on his chin and wiping it off with the back of his hand. “Poor girl’s been bare-breasted so long, it’s a wonder she aint gotten sick and died on me.”
“Maybe it’s a good time to have her covered up,” Junior says, mimicking the matter-of-fact tone he hears so often from his father.
“Why don’t you just have Yin cover up her breasts?” his father cuts in. “Did Maggie demand that all of Beautiful be covered?”
Junior glares over at the man who has shown only disdain toward his and Scooter’s tattoos, who has been nothing but dumb to their significance. How can his father have it in him to defend this particular one? Of all the tattoos in the world, of all the ink on Scooter’s body alone, his father suddenly feels compelled to defend Beautiful. Junior just can’t make ashes and dust of it.
“Mags told me that covering up her tits would be enough, true. But I could tell she was just saying that to appease me, and believe-you-me I know women, so I know. I figure, I might as well just get her covered up completely. It’s time.”
Scooter chugs the rest of his coffee, brewed with a splash of vodka.
“And besides,” he continues, his lips moist. “I think she’s got herself another man, anyways. I think the ol’ girl’s been cheatin’ on me with Popeye.” Scooter has a Popeye tattoo on his other forearm. He also has a tattoo of Superman on his shoulder blade, but Popeye seems more like Beautiful’s type. A roughneck, steak-and-eggs type of fellow. “Yep, I seen the way the two of them look at each other. Quit it! Quit it, you little whore! I gave you everything! I’ll ruin you, you understand me?”
Scooter chokes on his laughter, coughs it up. Vodka and spit run off his chin. It doesn’t take long for Junior to join in. He loves Scooter’s off-beat humor, the way it scares most people. And Junior, like Scooter would want him to no doubt, thinks the things Scooter says would be funnier if he wasn’t joking at all.
“It’s been a wonderful ride, Beautiful.”
* * * * * * *
“You haven’t called.”
“I know,” Junior says. “I’ve been busy. One of my uncles is visiting this weekend.”
“Your Uncle Scooter?”
Junior nods his head, and then says ‘Yeah’ when realizing that she cannot hear his head nod through the phone.
She then keeps quiet, as if she knows she is in a battle she cannot win.
“I was going to call you,” he lies.
“Well, what’re you doing tomorrow, Junior?”
He pauses. There’s always been something off-putting about how she pronounces his name. She just can’t seem to speak it without sounding like she’s squeezing into a piece of clothing two sizes too small.
“We’re going to Yin and Yang’s. Scooter’s getting a cover-up.”
“Want me to come?” she asks.
“Eh. I’d rather you didn’t. It’s just that, I want to spend some alone-time with him before he leaves. He’s getting married, you know.”
“No, I didn’t,” she says, realizing he meant this as a question. “Well, congratulations. For him.”
“I’ll call you,” he says, hanging up.
* * * * * * *
When Scooter steps out for smokes, Junior is ambushed at the kitchen table. He had just been sitting there, rolling a quarter across the back of his knuckles, when his father suddenly sat across from him, a solemn expression on his face, refusing at first to make eye contact. The last time his father’s face looked this serious was….
Junior thinks about it.
Since his father doesn’t look as if he was going to talk anytime soon, Junior takes his time.
He thinks. And he remembers.
Ah, yes. Their sex-talk.
He remembers that conversation well, from his father’s hiccupping tone and excessive hand gestures, to how the sunlight slanted across the kitchen table, slicing it in half, one half for Junior, the other for his father. His favorite memory of that day, however, is when his father gave him a 6-pack of condoms.
He hopes today they cover the same topic. Junior could use some free condoms right now, having put off the purchase for almost a week, and having failed to convince Nancy into anal.
His father clears his throat – louder than necessary – and finally begins, his tone of voice consciously steady. “John Harrison from down the block… you know John … three houses down … drives the red Rover? Anyways, John was telling me about this opening at his restaurant. It’s a managerial position, Junior, so you’d have some power at work, which I thought you’d like. And I really think you should go for it. You can’t be a bar-back the rest of your life, you know.”
He adds, already chuckling, “Unfortunately.”
“I already put in a word for you. And Johnny says it’s your position if you want it. And you and John have always gotten along. I remember back when you were younger, you guys would always exchange Conan O’Brien jokes from the night before. Anyway, I just hate to burst your bubble, but you’re not fourteen, anymore. None of us stay fourteen, forever.”
He adds, already smiling, “Unfortunately.”
“I would never want to be fourteen again,” Junior replies.
“Good,” his father says. “Great. So I’ll tell him yes?”
Junior shrugs. “Why not?”
He figures this talk was something his father wanted to accomplish before Scooter returned. This way, they now had a verbal agreement that some time in the near future, Junior would become a daytime manager at Johnny’s Hamburger Hut. Even though Junior, at twenty-two years of age, thought he was too old to work at a place with such a stupid name. “What, I get no free condoms this time?” Junior remarks, just before his father could leave with his elation still intact. “Nancy isn’t letting me fuck her pooper, you know.”
* * * * * * *
They stumble through the front door, giggling. Scooter offers to brew a pot of coffee, but remembering Scooter’s special ingredient, Junior insists on doing it himself.
He had kept the big news of his new job to himself, doing shots and chugging beers alongside Scooter, who had kept all the details of his life secret, too. The two of them did what they always did: drank, laughed, drank, drank, laughed, intentionally flung themselves into other people at the bar, acting afterwards as if it was accidental, and laughed. He returns to the living room in time to find Scooter passed out on the couch.
With no one left to talk to and his drunkenness slowly becoming fatigue, he heads up to bed. He lets his mind wander until it’s filled with thoughts of being a manager. Working at Johnny’s Hamburger Hut would certainly do for the time being.
Until a four-year.
He turns on the television in his room for background noise. Skinemax seeps into his brain while his eyelids droop, penetrate his dreams soon afterwards.
* * * * * * *
“The coffee pot was on this morning,” his father says from across the breakfast table.
Junior sets his spoon on his plate, dabbing away the ketchup on his lips. ‘I’ve decided to take that job. For real. I don’t want you thinking I was paying you lip service before. I can see myself being good at it.”
“Great,” his father responds, forgetting about the smell of burnt coffee that greeted him this morning, the coffee pot he now needs to replace. “Hey, maybe you can start tomorrow!”
“No,” Junior says. “Monday, I start. After Scooter leaves.”
“Yes. I’m going with Scooter when he gets his tat covered up. Then on Monday, I’ll work. You have my word.”
“Yeah, my word. It means something, doesn’t it? What, you tried convincing me to take the job, and now that I am you don’t want me to. What’s up?”
“No, Junior… I… didn’t…”
Scooter enters from the living room. The lining of the couch is imprinted on the right side of his face. “Good morning, ya’ll. Had the craziest dream last night. Usually do when I been drinking, you know. So what’s for breakfast? Only thing I’m looking forward to more than my shit is breakfast.”
“That’s great, Scooter,” Junior’s father says. He picks up his plate and cleans his side of his table. On his way out of the room, he adds, “Could’ve offered you some coffee if the two of you didn’t go and ruin the pot.”
* * * * * * *
Sunlight shines upon the Popeye tattoo on Scooter’s left forearm and, for what he is wistfully referring to as the final time, Beautiful on his right.
At the sight of Beautiful’s flowing blonde hair, Junior averts his gaze toward Popeye. A tattoo without memory.
“You know what I’ll miss most?” Scooter asks. “Those big, brown eyes of hers?”
Junior intensifies his stare on Popeye’s eyes, which are etched in black ink and faded in the middle. Not brown at all, not even close.
“Oh, shit. Her eyes aren’t brown!” Scooter’s surprised tone does enough to jostle Junior’s focus. “They’re green! When’d they become green?”
“Probably when you weren’t looking.”
“Well, shit.” Scooter shakes his head, genuinely stunned. “So what’re your plans today after Yin and Yang’s?” Junior shrugs, smearing ketchup across his plate with his fork.
“You going to see that girl of yours?” Scooter continues. “You know, you still aint told me a lick about her.”
“Not much to lick,” he replies, smiling. He awaits Scooter’s response. No way could Scooter avoid a set-up that good.
But Scooter remains transfixed on Beautiful. Junior glances back down at his ketchup collage, his decimated over-easies. He has a job waiting for him on Monday. A new sense of power, of responsibility. He’ll spend the rest of the week with Nancy before she leaves for Binghamton and leaves him for good.
Then there’s Scooter, who is leaving him, too.
“Sure hate to say goodbye to the girl,” Scooter says about Beautiful.
And there’s Beautiful. That fucking tattoo.
* * * * * * *
“You never called.”
He had completely forgotten about it. No matter. He knew that she, like always, would call him if he took too long. “So has he gotten that tattoo of his covered up, yet?” she continues.
A mental image of Beautiful flashes across his mind. He suffers through the memory. He hears the crackling wood in the fireplace. Sees Scooter’s arm hanging limply off the couch. He remembers the reverberating drone that was Scooter’s snoring that night, which was how he knew he was asleep. Which gave him the confidence he needed.
“We’re heading out in a little bit.”
“You were saying something about it once. You were crying, I remember, and saying… something. I can’t remember what.”
“I can’t remember what it was, either,” he replies. “I’m starting a new job on Monday. Johnny’s Hamburger Hut. You got any plans that evening?”
“Don’t think so,” she says.
“I’ll call you when I get off.”
“Okay. I’ll be here,” she says. “Later, Junior.”
It still sounds weird, her pronouncement of his name. He quickly gets over it, though. He forces himself to. “Goodbye, Nancy.”
* * * * * * *
“This is reminding me of The Green Mile,” Scooter says.
His graying forearm hair gathers between the blades of Yin’s razor. Junior’s eyes oscillate between his uncle and Yin’s tattoo portfolio in his lap. He is in need of an idea. He’d like to get another tattoo before Scooter’s next visit. He’d like to think he has plenty of time, but he never knows.
“Hold still,” Yin cautions.
Scooter’s antsy. He wants the actual tattooing to begin already. “Damn, Yin, I aint in here to get my arm shaved bald, for Christ’s love!”
Junior shares his sense of urgency. It was just one night, he tells himself. One act of a fourteen-year-old whose stare was fixed on his uncle’s forearm for too long, who felt the heat from the fireplace on the back of his neck while the blankets warmed him into a sweat.
But he’s not fourteen, anymore. And he would never want to be again.
“Before we begin, Yin… hey Junior! Junior! Say goodbye, Junior.”
Junior watches Yin prepare the outline of the new tattoo. And then he smiles, this time meaning it. “Goodbye, Beautiful.”
“What the hell, Yin? Let’s go!”
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