UNDERGROUND VOICES: PROSE - 09/2004
On his 18th birthday he walks into a Body Art Salon, planning to come out with something shocking on his bicep, where it can be hidden from parents, teachers, boss. A shirt sleeve, that's all it takes to make a person employable. A few hours later, he steps into his house, wondering how he can ever explain. A bird. A thunderbird. Head turned to one side. Wings reaching. The moment of decision, that avian choice between perching or flight. Only it's not on his bicep. The painful talons and sharply curved beak grip the long space between his wrist and elbow, in plain view.
The head is turned toward the wrong side. How had it happened? Why didn't he realize it wasn't just an ordinary Body Art Salon, but a skinhead, neo-Nazi one? Everyone knows that Thunderbirds aim their beaks one direction, and Nazi Air Force eagles point the other way. So he walks into his bathroom, seizes the electric razor, and closes his eyes as the long, dark curls fall away from his altered skull.
He's only been out of prison a few days. He's ready to change his accidentally transformed life. There are too many alterations on his skin by now. They can't all be removed. It would cost a fortune. Neck to ankles. Shoulder to wrists. What was he thinking, or rather: why wasn't he thinking? All those years of potential memory wasted, like coins dropped into a sewer grate. Better not to know. The thoughts must have been monstrous. Now he has a job in a quiet place, a coffeehouse overlooking a river. High in the mountains, nature, sunlight, birdsongs. Who would have guessed? This second transformation is almost as surprising and unexpected as the first. A second chance. A life of serving cappuccinos and cinnamon scones to vacationers. The customers seem frightened. His neck, he realizes, the neck is a dead giveaway. No one tattoos a neck unless he's given up hope. And yet, here he is, hopeful in the presence of a customer who fears him. She's terrified. So he makes the perfect cappuccino, and decorates it carefully, with a mountain of whipped cream, then a crescent-shaped swirl of caramel, and two chocolate chips. A happy face. Just like the pancakes little kids eat at roadside diners. He smiles. The customer is pleased. She returns his smile, leaves a big tip, and returns the next day, with all her friends. Word spreads. He feels certain that he has finally escaped the avalanche of errors made after that first crucial, drunken mistake on his eighteenth birthday.
He is alive, but unconscious, sedated, unaware of his surroundings. The snowboard, the tree trunk, the crash, his wounds, all are floating somewhere in the suspended animation of delayed recall. They will haunt him soon enough. On the operating table, everyone sees. Surrounded by strangers, he is vulnerable. If he were awake, he would agree that he deserves a sense of shame. The Latina physician shakes her head. This is the worst case of racist tattooing she's ever seen, and in an emergency room in the rugged mountains, she's seen many. The nurses, one part Japanese, the other Jewish, both shake their heads, muttering in disbelief. How could anyone make such an absurdly false declaration in permanent ink? Doesn't this young man know anything about genetics? The doctor and nurses exchange glances, smiling and nodding their heads. A silent agreement has been reached. They open him up, stem the internal bleeding, save his life. Then they close him, stretching the skin of his abdomen just a little farther than before. Now, instead of 100% WHITE, the night-blue tattoo on his belly proclaims: 10% WHITE. A true statement. The doctor grins. She knows his mamacita will be pleased, and his abuelita, and los hermanos, las hermanitas. In the morning, when he regains conscious, there will be phone calls to make, una familia to reclaim, his parents, grandparents,siblings, and probably dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins from the old neighborhood, and the old country. His years of accidental exile are over. He will no longer be subject to the amnesia imposed by ancestral ghosts. Once again, he will belong to more than one nation. He will be accepted.
Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of two novels, Singing to Cuba (Arte Publico Press) and Skywriting (Bantam). Shorter works have appeared in a wide variety of journals, anthologies and chapbooks. Literary awards include a Cintas Fellowship and a San Diego Book Award. Works pending publication include a young adult novel-in-verse (Henry Holt & Co.). Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program.
© 2004 Underground Voices