Dedicated to Deftones
She came in at eight in the evening. It was midsummer, but the shadows of the city had plunged my little tattoo parlor into early night.
“Sorry, but I already have a scheduled appointment tonight,” I told her.
The fluorescent light overhead was buzzing again. Its filament was going bad, probably. It was giving off that sickly yellow color that would have been cool any other time, but was a pain whenever I was trying to color-match somebody’s tattoo to their requested image. And the buzzing really got on my fucking nerves.
“I need it tonight,” she said. “Before sunrise.”
She did not look like she could have paid for a tattoo, honestly, or a sandwich, which she badly needed. Actually, she looked like an anorexic vamp scouting for twenties. She was emaciated and pale, her bones showing through her short black halter-top like a radiator’s ribs. The downcast light hollowed out her cheeks and eye sockets, and the black contacts covering her whites made her head look like a skull. Her scalp was shaven to the skin, but here and there sprouted long shoots of coarse black hair, somehow missed when she was giving her dome a weeding.
“Not tonight,” I said. “As I said, I already have someone scheduled. We can set up an appointment for next week, if you want. I’m booked up until then…”
She reached into the pocket of her frayed denim shorts and pulled out a fistful of Benjamins— crumpled and dirty, but real so far as I could tell. BJ money, I thought. Drug money, probably, too. Maybe even blood money. I didn’t know. Didn’t ask. They scattered across the silver tray like windblown snakeskins. Counting them at a glance, I saw at least thirty, maybe even forty.
“All tonight,” she emphasized. “All in one go.”
Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted a job like this. Too suspicious and too mysterious and too fucking presumptuous. But the gaunt-faced bitch seemed decided, and had the money to back it up in cold-wash sums. A lot of money. A lot more than what Joey One-Shoe was going to pay to have me touch up his OD’ed girlfriend’s portrait on his chest. To tell the truth, I dreaded hearing the asshat drone on and on about her while I touched up the blues and blacks. The bitch died at a blow party with the jizz of three different guys up her babymaker. And the dumbass sang the gospel about her like she was a goddamn saint. He could really bring you down.
“Give me a second,” I told her. I pulled out my cellphone and called Joey. He sounded so happy to hear from me that I felt guilty for a second— just a second— and then I told him I couldn’t touch up Jackie tonight.
“I’m just not feeling good, man,” I told him. “Maybe I can do it tomorrow. I won’t even charge you. How about it?”
Joey agreed, and I instantly regretted agreeing to work on his tattoo for free. Hell, sometimes it seemed like he was paying me to be his therapist rather than his tattoo artist. The only cure for his fucked-up head was a shotgun slug. I turned to the woman again, putting my phone away.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked. “Hello Kitty?”
It was a joke. I was being facetious. I could tell by the piercings and the ink that already decorated her body that this bitch was hardcore in her bones. Her sleeves showed dia de los muertos women among spiderwebs and syringes and mushrooms and anatomical flesh bisected to the bone. A pony galloped across her abdomen, almost as white as the translucent pallor of her skin. The most prominent tattoo, however, was the sow’s head drawn large upon her left thigh. Decapitated, the beady-eyed head was impaled on a stake, the blood still flowing.
She handed me a wadded-up sheet of paper. Uncrumpling it, I found what looked like a cross with bloated flies swarming around it. The drawing was crude and childish in its scrawl.
“Do you really want this?” I asked. “I mean, I can add some…um…depth to it, if you want.”
“If you want,” she said. She picked up my tattoo gun from my silver tray and pressed it into my hands. “Blow me away,” she said, smiling as if it had a double meaning that I didn’t understand. I looked at the bends of her arms, and saw heroine scars. Her teeth did not seem to be rotten, but then again they had seemed too perfectly white in the artificial light. False teeth, maybe. Her face— once pretty, maybe even beautiful— was a minefield of bright red welts and scabrous meth sores. She had seen some shit, and done shit to herself. A lot of shit.
She took out a glass capsule of what looked like black ink from her shallow cleavage. “I want this mixed in with the ink.”
I couldn’t get a fix on this bitch. Was she crazy? Too many trips into the medical dumpster? Sometimes I had sad cucks come in and try to get me to mix blood in with ink to tattoo them to remind them of some girl that broke their hearts. Sometimes couples asked me to use each other’s blood. I would, if they signed a waiver beforehand, but this black gunk didn’t look like blood. It looked like some kind of fucking nasty ichor.
“I can’t use this,” I said. “I don’t know what it is. It might be unsafe and I don’t want to go to jail for inadvertently killing you.”
Instead of accepting my refusal, she reached into her other denim pocket and pulled out another wad of Benjamins. These she added to the bills already littering my silver tray.
I considered the money, then sighed in resignation.
“You’ll have to sign a waiver,” I told her. “For legal reasons. Whatever happens, it’s on you.”
She signed the page promptly, impatiently. I pocketed all of the bills she had heaped up for me and she laid down on my tattoo bed, face down. Evidently she wanted the tattoo on her back. She wasn’t very specific in what she wanted; only insistent.
My tattoo parlor used to be a dentist’s office. The bed I had was actually a dentist’s chair that reclined out flat. As I prepared the ink, I stared at her torso, trying to plot out how the tattoo would look best. At the back her halter top was nothing but a narrow strap at the nape of the neck. The rest of it was open, revealing the bony knots of her spine and the ridges of her narrow ribs. Her veins were blue beneath her pale skin. I mapped out the revised drawing that I had improvised upon her back with a marker, then I mixed the capsule she had given me with the ink. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.
The ink and the gunk worked well enough on her. Whatever the stuff was, it didn’t compromise the ink. In fact, it helped the stain. But it also stank. Badly. Very badly. It smelled like a rotten carcass left out in the July sun for a few days. Distilled roadkill. Liquid decay. But she did not seem to mind. I knew I would have to throw the gun away after I had finished this tattoo. No amount of alcohol or bleach would clean the gunk from it.
For hours I worked on her tattoo. Pale skin, black ichor, sallow fluorescence. Dizziness came and went, and sickness, too. My eyes ached from strain and the sickly light. But I soldiered through with a cramped claw-hand. She did not flinch or complain, and she wasn’t into small talk. The needle etched over bone-stretched skin and she seemed a cadaver on the dissection table— motionless. It was quiet in my parlor. I did not often listen to music like other tattoo artists because it distracted me. The silence could get on some clients’ nerves, but I preferred the silence. Or the silence that inhabits the city, anyway. It reminded me that there was a world alive beyond the door, and not an apocalyptic void left in the wake of nuclear holocaust. You could hear cars occasionally whooshing by, and the voices of pedestrians walking down the street; druggies begging for money from alleyways. The buzz of the light above my head. The whirr of an industrial fan that pumped fresh air into my parlor from the Summer night outside.
I had to take a moment and step over by the fan, letting the fresh air blow in my face. Nausea squirmed in my stomach like maggots.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I asked her. “Or to get a drink?”
“No,” was all she said.
I took a piss in my studio restroom, and drank a Sprite from my little fridge. Leaning on my counter where I kept all of my paperwork and receipts, I took a breather again. The nausea subsided only a little. My stomach was like a leaky boat that was slowly taking on water, and the passengers were bailing it out, but only enough to keep it afloat. Eventually I might be sick and have to throw up. The light in my parlor was intensely yellow now. Hungover, beer-piss yellow. The woman laid so still upon the black dentist chair, in the honeycomb light, that she looked like an insect in amber. The dentist chair was shaped like an insect, too, I realized. Head, abdomen, and long thorax. Looking at it made me more nauseated.
Emptying the soda can, I threw it in the trash and took a deep breath, then manned up and went to war with the ink gun again. Despite my sickness, I made good progress. The gunk in the ink was strong, but not too overbold for gradients and finer details. The tattoo was very large in proportion to her back, but her back was so narrow and sunken that it was not too big a tattoo to complete in ten hours.
I was adding details to the cross when she suddenly spoke.
“Do you have any addictions?” she asked.
It was not a question I had never heard before.
“No addictions,” I said. “I only take for fun, and not that often.”
“I have used everything,” she said. “But nothing beats what I am on now.”
She said nothing else. She just laid there, dead to the world.
The hours seeped on slowly, like pus. My hand hurt, and my stomach was queasy. I felt tired and dizzy. Had I eaten anything, even a candy bar, I would have hurled. The Sprite had helped a little. I needed the sugar for my concentration, though the aftertaste was like syrupy sap in my mouth now.
It took me a while to realize that the buzzing I heard wasn’t only the faulty light overhead. There were flies in my parlor. I mean, there were always flies around, buzzing and getting stuck on my flytraps, but there were a lot of flies in my shop; a lot more than usual. They mostly flitted around the sickly light, or crawled along the full-body mirror in the corner, or furiously struck the windows looking out into the neon-lit urban night. Some died on the bugzapper I kept in near the back, screaming their sweet agonies as they fried. Living in the city, you had to have as many things to kill vermin as you could get.
But one fly kept buzzing around my ear. I tried to shoo it away, and then I tried to swat it. It was persistent, landing on my earlobe, tickling it, echoing in my ear canal, and even flying through my ear gauge like it was part of a circus act. Pissed me off.
“She thinks you taste good,” the woman said.
I frowned, but didn’t dignify what she said with a response. I had heard a lot worse things from my clients over the years. Drunken sorority girls had the filthiest mouths on the planet. Then again, their upper shoulders weren’t pockmarked with meth sores, either. What she said irritated me, almost as much as the fly.
Finally, the fly landed on my forehead and I swatted it fast and hard, hammering my brow with my palm. The fly was a pulp that peeled away with my hand, and a juice that remained on my brow. Disgusted, I set aside the tattoo gun.
“Give me a second,” I said. I went into the bathroom to clean up, feeling irritable and sick. Reeling a little, I splashed water on my face and tried to breathe through the sickness. The world continued to reel as I returned to work. Everything in my parlor— the tattoo art hung on the walls, the dentist chair, the tattoo tools, the yellow light—overwhelmed me. I felt like I just wanted to lay down and die.
I told myself to suck it up and trudge on. Picking up the gun again, I resumed where I had left off.
“You killed a part of me,” the woman said, her voice barely audible above the buzz of the tattoo gun. “It’s okay. Part of me dies every day. Smashed by careless hands. Burning in bright lights. Born again in the corpses of believers…”
She trailed off. I hoped she had fallen asleep. My head wasn’t feeling great and I was not in a mood for listening to drugged-up nonsense. I just wanted to finish the tattoo and never see this bitch again.
Eventually, I was almost finished. It was six in the morning and I only had a little touch up work to do here and there— primarily just smoothing over the shade transitions and adding highlights with some white ink. Overall, it wasn’t a bad tattoo, especially for being improvised from a rough sketch. I wasn’t going to take a photo of it for the Wall of Fame, though. Wasn’t even worth keeping it recorded in my portfolio. I just wanted to take the money and let the memory of this bad night die away.
I finished, finally, and told her she could sit up. As she sat up, I gave her the usual spiel about treating the tattoo at home, and what not to do, and everything else. She didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she stood in front of the full-body mirror, gazing at the tattoo while hugging her arms in front of her, so it stretched her translucent skin. The sickly yellow light embalmed her in a weird moment that seemed to last forever. The flies wreathed her reflection, embroidering her like black satin fringes beneath a corpse.
“My transformation is almost complete,” she said.
She looked at me and smiled emptily. I realized that she was not wearing black contacts— somebody had dyed her eyes jet black. That was something I never dared to do. I didn’t trust the dye, or my hand. Blinding people was not the reason I became a tattoo artist. What good were tattoos that you couldn’t see?
The buzz of the light became louder. I flipped the switch for a small lamp I kept by my desk, by the counter, and then turned off the overhead light. The buzz persisted, louder than before. The crackling of flies in the bugzapper intensified.
She walked toward the door, then paused. She did not look back at me as she spoke.
“I saw the Devil once,” she said. “I looked at the cross, and I looked away. He was there, waiting for me. At the burning bottom of the world, where the dung is piled high and the souls are on fire, Ba’al Zebub spoke to me. Blessed me with his essence. In Phlegethon. The river of filth…the river of plenty.”
Beyond the window I could see sunlight bleeding between the buildings and the skyscrapers. Cars passed by as the world roused to a new day, its blood quickening with the dawn. She said no more. She stepped out and the doorbell rang in a way that seemed to wake me up from a long dream. Alarmed, I watched her walk from the sidewalk out into the busy street.
She dissolved as soon as the truck struck her, blooming into a swarm of flies that scattered out upon the city.
I watched her change.