By Timothy Day
It started with a man who asked for a tattoo capturing the love he felt for his mother. A mother’s day present, he said. He was giving her his arm. And while Meg thought that his mother could probably use some new towels or perfume or even a pack of paperclips more than an arm, she still couldn’t help but be moved by the sweet gesture. It made her think of her own mother, and how far away she was from her arm. In fact, she imagined that if you cut off all the limbs of a body and lined them up next to each other, this still would not come close to resembling the distance between them. And when Meg started to give this man his tattoo, she had full intention of playing it safe and writing I love you mom down the side of his forearm. But somehow, as Meg moved the needle in a firm, precise motion over the skin, she began to produce an image of herself. Her hair came first, in long, inky strokes that flowed to the side as if facing a strong wind. She knew it was hers immediately, even before she saw her lip begin to form in a slight smile, her eyes coming alive over two of the man’s freckles. Try as she might to change the pattern, to turn the marks into some expression of mother love, her face continued to fill out until it became a bonafide portrait. When it was done, at the final stroke of her left earlobe, the man asked her what the hell that was supposed to be. Meg examined herself in his skin, her expression calm and hopeful, understanding something secret about the object of her gaze.
And she said, Serene, at the beach.
And the man huffed and puffed in the most literal way that a person could huff and puff and demanded a refund. Meg squinted at herself, there on the man’s arm, there forever, looking and understanding forever. There had to be some sort of connection.
Does your mom ever look at you like that? she suggested.
That isn’t the point.
Are you sure?
The man was sure; he wanted his money back. And Meg complied because she would be on this man’s arm until he died and they might as well be on decent terms. Her ego swelled a bit when he walked out the door without setting an appointment for removal. She looked over at Isaac, in the middle of drawing what looked like a smiling pit-bull on a bald man with coarse skin and leather everything. The pit-bull was standing and holding a cake between outstretched paws.
Is that what he asked for? Meg said.
Isaac frosted the cake.
Meg returned to her chair and swiveled.
I think something’s wrong with my needle, she said. It disobeyed.
Maybe it knows something you don’t.
Yeah, Meg said. But probably not, since it’s an inanimate object.
She left the parlor early and walked home to her apartment. There weren’t any pictures of her in there; pictures of people in their own apartment only worked when there was someone else there who could not see that person’s face when they went to the mirror. She made dinner even though it was only four o’ clock. It felt better to use the time for something and maybe while she ate she would think of an exciting activity to do when she was done. The last noodle of her pasta lingered, and she swirled it around the circumference of the plate, imagining a wheel of possibilities. Eventually she was able to produce four options, and she closed her eyes and tried to make her hand forget which option was where. The noodle landed on CALL ISAAC but she disobeyed because she was feeling antisocial and it was just a noodle that didn’t know anything. She threw it away. Two movies later, she picked up the phone and closed her eyes and blind-dialed a number. If Isaac answered the phone she would move to Italy and hang noodles above her bed that she’d worship twice a day because it would be nice to feel sure about something. And bow before them morning and night, her days bookended by certainty. But an old man answered the phone and he didn’t know any Isaacs and Meg took out the trash even though it was only half-full.
The next day started with a ponytailed woman who asked for a raven upon each shoulder. Her favorite poem in high school, she said. It was a nice idea, to have a favorite poem, to have something be a part of you like that. And Meg could suddenly feel the empty space inside of her that must have been the lack of this. She took sips of coffee between each stroke and focused so intensely on the image of ravens that she thought she might bring Edgar Allan Poe back from the dead. But feathers turned into hair, beak into nose, and instead of ravens there were Megs, each pair of eyes pointed down and to the side so that if their lines of vision met they would make a V, converging at the woman’s chest.
Sorry, Meg said, teeth clenched in apology. That isn’t what I meant.
The woman pursed her lips and paused, as if thinking of just the right complaint.
I understand, Meg said, if you shall come here—nevermore.
And the woman smirked and said, I don’t want to be rude.
Meg twisted her lip.
It’s okay, she said. It was presumptuous of me, putting my face on your shoulders and everything.
Are you hitting on me?
I just meant that if we were close, that’s something I might do.
Rest my head on your shoulder.
But we’re not.
Could I get them removed?
When it was done Meg gave the woman a refund and slouched in her chair, drawing a raven in the air with her fingers.
You’ve got to find a better outlet for narcissism, Isaac said, washing his hands.
Meg sat up straight.
Do you really think that’s what it is?
Isaac looked into the mirror above the sink.
Watch, he said. This is what I do.
Meg stared at him staring at himself, then stood and went to the door.
I think this is different, she said. I’ll be right back.
I’ll be here, Isaac said.
Outside, the sidewalks were crowded with people, some holding hands and some holding shopping bags. Meg crossed the street and went to the stationery store, walking in with an urgency that she imagined had never been seen in any stationery store, ever. She approached the woman behind the counter, set her palms down firmly, and said,
I need a piece of paper and a pen.
It was the stationery store equivalent of going to the Pentagon and asking for nuclear codes. With glasses resting on the bridge of her nose, the woman retrieved a piece of paper from the drawer underneath the register. She then motioned to the little jar on the counter, pens of every color resting inside.
Your choice, she said.
And Meg picked red because it was the color of emergency. Emergency, as in, not being able to control what you draw. The woman did not seem interested but at least moved her glasses up in recognition of the event’s significance. Meg held the pen firmly and set it to the paper, covering the space with ravens and I love you moms. She smiled in triumph when the page was filled and handed it over to the woman, wanting her to look it over and nod in approval. But all she did was file it into a second drawer, where all the doodles by people trying to disprove narcissism must have been kept.
Back at the parlor, Isaac was drawing a snake on the neck of a teenage boy. Another boy, possibly a friend of snake-neck, sat in the waiting area, looking at his shoes. Meg approached him and asked if he was getting a tattoo. He gave a solemn nod, and Meg led him back to her station. He sat down in a resigned, flop-like motion and mumbled something about a skull biting into a lemur, on his ankle, please.
You’re sure? Meg asked.
Okay, it’s just that removal is sort of arduous.
Why would I remove it?
You don’t seem enthused.
Meg went to work with a renewed confidence, feeling the buzz of her stationery store breakthrough as the skull took shape. But the boy’s face was melancholy, and she could feel reluctance in his ankle, a desire not to eat lemurs. And Meg’s hand started to twitch, needle covering the skull with skin and turning it into a face that was presumably alive. Her eyes, nose, and mouth followed, and the lemur she attempted to squeeze between her teeth became a wisp of hair flowing down from above. The boy squinted at the finished product. This time, Meg’s tattoo eyes were pointed up, meeting his gaze.
I’m sorry, Meg said. I have a problem.
No, the boy said. I mean wow. That is one menacing skull.
Meg was about to protest, to say no, that she had screwed it up again with her overpowering narcissism, but then she noticed something dancing in the boy’s eyes, something that could possibly resemble relief.
I even added some blood dripping from the lemur’s neck, she said, encouraged.
The boy nodded.
That night at the bar, Meg tested herself on Isaac, using a sharpie to draw a tuxedo on his thumb.
You see, she said. It must be the needle.
I don’t know, Isaac said. I just think you know me.
You know that I like classy thumbs.
The bar was an amber-lit ocean of shouting humanity. A man came over and sat beside Isaac, and they shouted each other’s names. Meg did not know the man and could not hear if Isaac had shouted DERON or AARON, so instead she said,
This felt more intimate anyway. And Isaac introduced her to Deron and suggested she try to draw a watch on his wrist.
Good idea, Deron said. I have to be home by 12:46.
Meg tried to imagine the different reasons why someone would have to be home at such a particular time. She could think of none. The idea of having to be home at any time when the next day didn’t involve work seemed alien, and she suddenly feared that she had forgotten some historic event that was scheduled to take place at 12:46, affecting the whole of civilization.
Nice, Deron said. But where are the numbers?
Meg pulled on his wrist and looked closely at her latest work; her face in sharpie, eyes gazing out from the window of wrist and resting on Deron’s abdomen.
When Meg got home, she did not look in the mirror, covering her eyes with her hands as she entered the bathroom. In the kitchen she put the dishwasher on because she liked to hear the noise as she lay in bed and it was nice to know that progress was happening even as she slept. But the plan was thwarted by insomnia, and Meg was still awake when the dishwasher made its last swish and gurgle. She lay quiet and still, and for a moment she felt nonexistent, as if her bedroom had somehow slipped out of the world and was no longer subject to its laws of time. And then she noticed the beating of her heart, a solitary mumble sending signals through her chest, reminding her that she was still a part of this.
The next day, Meg went to a salon in town, hoping that a change in appearance would throw off whatever cosmic force was behind her artistic crisis. The hairdresser had earrings and short black hair that Meg used as an example of desired length; it was the style she had kept throughout high school. The cutting proceeded in silence. Meg was grateful for the lack of small talk, which always gave her the sensation of treading water. Snips filled the air until the woman paused after cutting off a strand hanging over the back of Meg’s neck.
Meg tensed, unsure at first if the woman was actually speaking to her. But her voice had been quiet, a volume that can only be used when a mouth is within inches of an ear.
Your tattoo, the woman said. I like it.
Meg’s hair had been covering the back of her neck for years and she had nearly forgotten the ink that lay under it.
Oh, she said. Thank you.
I’ve been thinking of getting a tattoo.
Well, Meg said, I’m actually a tattoo artist.
Really? Could you give me one like this?
Meg smiled and nodded.
I can do that.
Timothy Day studied creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. Some words that might describe him are restless, absent-minded, and socially awkward. His fiction has appeared in Fiction Fix and The Apple Valley Review. You can visit him online at frogsmirkles.wordpress.com.