This is without a shadow of a doubt the most disgusting, pig sty of a tattoo shop I have ever had the displeasure of visiting. It’s in the bathroom of an abandoned Shell station about ten miles off Highway 99 just south of Fresno. It reeks of urine and feces and is littered with used condoms and equally used sanitary napkins.
The walls are smeared with what looks like dried feces and graffiti written in the same substance. I hold my breath as I address the two thin, bearded white men in immaculate white doctor jackets with name tags reading, Alphonse and Dupree. Despite the doctor jackets, they are somewhat lacking in bedside manner.
“What the fuck you want?” from Dupree angry at the first sight of me.
“How did you find us? Who told you about us?” This from Alphonse as he reaches under his jacket and pulls out a silver revolver.
Mindy, Joe and Albert all told me this was a bad idea, but I didn’t listen, and now I wish I had. I hold up my hands as I back out of the doorway.
“Sorry, sorry, I was looking for a tat a, a special tat. And ahh… someone told me that you two did, did special tats.”
My mouth is dry, and my underarms are compensating by creating a river of sweat.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Alphonse seems serious as he points his pistol at me.
“You’re too fucking dark for a decent tat. You need to leave that with us Aryans.” From a sneering Dupree.
I take one more step back. “You may be right. I mean, that makes sense, yes. Sorry to have bothered you.” Now, twenty steps to my car and a very fast exit.
I’m halfway to my car when one of them yells, “Stop! Stop right there. I be a little curious about you, about what you’re really up to. What tat was you looking for?”
“You be quick and careful now boy. Why you here?” That from the other one.
I turn back to face them. “I’m looking for a roaming tat.”
Alphonse steps out the door now and aims the pistol at me. “Nigger, you better make sense quick.”
I blink the sweat out of my eyes and summon rusty words through my dry mouth. “A roaming tat. A tat that moves around on your body moves from place to place.”
Alphonse is there in an instant with the barrel of his revolver against my forehead. “Nigger, somebody playing a trick on your black ass or are, are you trying to play us for the fool?”
I swallow hard and concentrate on getting my tongue, lips and mouth to coordinate an understandable response. “I, I saw one. I saw one in the PI. In the Phil—”
“In the Philippines? You lying sack of shit!?” Dupree is so close he is spitting in my face. “Tats don’t move you, dumb motherfucker.”
“Wait, wait… describe it.” There is a change in Alphonse’s voice that catches Dupree’s and my attention.
Alphonse’s eyes are wider, and he has backed off the gun pressure against my skull.
“I was in a whore house playing cards with two Navy guys and a Marine. The Marine, had an old buffalo nickel tat on the back of both wrists. The buffalo was on the nickel on the right wrist, and the nickel was on the left wrist but without the buffalo.”
“Bull buffalo shit! I—”
Alphonse cuts Dupree off, not yelling or anything. “You shut the fuck up.”
Dupree starts to say something, but Alphonse has aimed his revolver at his doctor partner. Dupree now is the one sweating and looking anxious. Alphonse nods for me to continue.
I asked the Marine about it and he bet me a dollar that within an hour the buffalo would move from the right wrist to the left wrist. I took that bet. And the Navy guys wanted some of that, and they bet the farm.
“And the buffalo moved up his arm across his collar bones and down to the nickel on his left wrist.”
I’m fucking astonished at Alphonse’s words. We just look at each other for a minute.
Alphonse lowers his gun and steps back from me.
“Don’t look for that tat master. Leave it alone.” He turns and walks away.
I leave with prayers of thanks and lots of questions about Alphonse and his warning.
“Warren, you are so seriously fucked up. Why this fascination, no, this obsession with a tattoo. You are forty-years old, and you never wanted a tattoo before or a piercing not even your ears.”
Mindy, my girlfriend of ten years and mother of, Joy, our five-year-old daughter and I are sitting on the floor of our apartment as Mindy effortlessly rolls a slender joint.
“Mindy, I’m trying—”
“And what is this tattoo? Why won’t you even tell me that?”
I understand her brown-eyed frustration. I’m not even sure why I’m pursuing this madcap, impossible, improbable solution.
She gives me her cross-eyed leer that always brings at least a smile to my face, but not this time. This time I lean over and kiss her and pull her to me and hold her tight.
I tell her the story I told the two shit-house tattoo artist and then I tell her the rest.
The Navy Petty Officers were furious at their losses. The club was full of Navy. The Gunnery Sergeant was the only Marine I saw in the place.
My three Air Force buddies came to our table just as things appeared to reach the boiling point. I nodded to the Jarhead to come with us. That would at least give the gunney better odds. I didn’t like Marines or NCO’s back then. I still don’t. But, I like to see an individual have at least a fighting chance. The sergeant looked up at me with eyes as gray and cold as Thule fog. I took a step back. He picked up the dollar he had won from me, folded if carefully and put it in his shirt pocket. “Flyboy, one day this tattoo will save your life. Consider it my gift to you.”
He turned that barren, lost look on each of the Petty Officers. The two Navy NCO’s reconsidered whatever they had on their minds and retired to the bar without another word.
“Warren, what are you trying to say?”
I kiss her again, stand and go retrieve a letter from my dresser drawer. I look in on Joy sleeping with her stuffed Big Bird. I watch her for a few soft minutes before I return to Mindy and hand her the letter. As she reads her hand trembles, and she grows pale.
“Dear Mr. Alexander, per our discussion you have stage 4 lymph node cancer with widespread metastasis to lymph nodes, liver, and kidneys. As we discussed, your disease has advanced beyond the stage that surgical, radiation, or chemo treatment would be helpful.”
Mindy does not cry or moan. We talk well into the morning. She does not agree with my last ditch, wild shot, desperation gamble. She would rather the three of us celebrate our last days together enjoying each other and engaging in some of our favorite activities. In the end, I agree. I stop looking for a magic tattoo solution.
The magic tattoo solution finds me in Anaheim visiting Disneyland. I walk into the hotel barbershop deserted except for one black barber motioning me to his chair.
I sit. He hands me his cellphone. “Please make a selection.”
I think he is giving me pictures of hair styles, but when I look at the phone, I see the buffalo nickel tattoos from long ago. I swipe the phone, and there is fighter jet on a black runway and the empty runway. I swipe again and again. There is a rabbit peeking out of a hole in the ground and the empty hole. There is a bright colored red and orange elegantly feathered bird sitting on her nest and her empty nest. I stop after the first dozen.
I have a million questions, but I only ask the most important ones. “Will it keep me alive?”
“Yes, far beyond the normal human lifetime.”
“What does it cost? I mean, am I selling my soul?”
The brother looks bored with the whole process. “You have no monetary or service obligation to us. Someone prepaid for you long ago. We have no interest in your soul. The whole tattoo process takes sixty minutes, and there is moderate pain during the tattoo.”
I choose the colorful bird.
“I have to inform you that if you get these tattoos if you get this significant life extension you will not be able to commit suicide. We will not let you throw away the life extension we gave you. Do you understand this?”
I don’t understand. This whole process is beyond my understanding. I want to live. I want to see Joy grow up, and Mindy, and I grow old together.
The barber hands me a thin densely printed brochure. “Please read this carefully and come back tomorrow if you still want the tattoos.”
I glance at the pamphlet written in thick, impenetrable legalese.
“If possible, I would like to get this done now.”
“Are you sure?”
Sixty minutes later I have my tattoo.
I leave with the sinking sensation that I have made a fool of myself all in vain.
Mindy is not happy with the tattoos, but she understands my extreme anxiety.
Joy is delighted with the bright bird on my wrist.
The next morning Mindy and Joy are off to breakfast as I sleep in. I’m on the toilet when the room phone starts ringing. I’m looking through the barber’s pamphlet when a paragraph catches my eye.
“The recipient’s life is extended by the life expectancy of the person having the greatest life expectancy to offer the recipient. We always select the life donor that has the closest ties to the recipient.”
Now, there is a banging on the door to our room. Someone is yelling through the door. I pick out the words “Your daughter… Very serious… Come quickly.”
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