I've seen a lot of things here. A lot of things you don't necessarily see anywhere else.
Name's Nate. I run the tattoo parlor here at the Slaughterville Roadhouse. Been doing tattoos for well onto fifteen years now. Started here three years ago when Jim came into my shop in Hayesville and I gave him a tattoo of Crazy Horse across his left shoulder blade. Guess he liked how it turned out, cause he asked me to come work here.
You can pick a design off the wall or bring in your own. Don't matter to me. I've got a good eye and a steady hand. The only rule is, if you're drunk, come back later when you ain't drunk. Then we can talk tattoos. Last thing I want is some scrappy bitch come in asking me why the hell I inked the name of her husband's old girlfriend across the cheek of his ass.
I suppose there's been a few times I bent the rule. Every now and then a college kid comes in all shit-faced, showing no respect for my parlor, no respect for me, acting all belligerent. So I tell 'em, 'Sure, sit on down here' and I motion them over to my chair. Maybe I misspell their name. Maybe my needles slip.
But that's few and far between.
Mostly I've gotten a lot of compliments, a lot of referrals. Like I said, I've got a good eye and a steady hand. I've got a good reputation.
But it wasn't too long ago that my reputation had me on the verge of seeking another line of work.
I was already packing my needles away when I heard his hard black boots stomping slowly, deliberately on the wooden floor.
I didn't even look up. "Closed," I said.
I heard him stop, felt his shadow on me. Felt his eyes on me.
"You're a black man." He had a German accent.
"I guess you win the prize." I still didn't look up. "Black as they come."
The floor creaked with his weight. "I hear you're good."
"I do alright by the folks here."
Finally I looked at him. Bald, thin, muscular and his body covered with tattoos. I mean everywhere. On his face. His ears. All up and down the front of his back. He wore jeans and suspenders. No shirt. Just suspenders.
I caught myself staring at his teeth.
"Scrimshaw," he said, widening his smile to expose more detail. "An art practiced for centuries by sailors."
Each tooth was etched with a picture of a man hanging from a tree. The etchings disappeared into his throat.
"I'm familiar with the term," I said. "Never seen it on human teeth, though."
He circled the room, his hands behind his back as he examined my Polaroids of past customers. There was a large SS tattooed on his back over a red and black swastika. He flexed his shoulders.
"Any part of you not tattooed?"
He paused. Turned to look at me as if he'd been waiting for me to ask. "Why, yes." He nodded. Turned his attention back to the walls. Hands behind his back. An eagle covered his chest. Its talons clutched an iron cross. He continued to circle the room.
I knew Jim was out at the bar, a quick shout away. I also had a hunting knife strapped to my calf. But I've never been one to start trouble.
"I'm getting ready to call it a night here. Why don't you come on back tomorrow."
He pulled a wad of cash from his jeans. Peeled off three one hundred dollar bills.
"It's late," I said.
On his right bicep was a tattoo of Adolph Hitler. On his other arm was a figure in a white sheet illuminated by a burning cross.
"Do you want me to call Jim in here to show you the door?"
It's usually a reaction they're after. An excuse to blow up in your face with verbal or physical violence.
"I'm going to count to two," I said. "And then I'm gonna call on Jim."
He held up his hands. One hand said NIGGER in flaming letters. The other said DIE JEW. "I'll be back later. When you're not so - " He sighed. Then smiled. " - tired." He nodded. Turned swiftly on his hard leather boots, so shiny they reflected the room like a collage of photo negatives.
As he left, I saw another image on his back just below the left hook of the swastika. An image of Martin Luther King, a bullet slamming into his chest, blood spurting out and dripping from his outstretched hands, his face. The phrase 'DIE NIGGERS' was scrawled below it.
You might wonder why I said nothing about his tattoos. Why I didn't tell him they were offensive, why they caused my fists to clench and my jaw to tighten. Why, you might ask, didn't I tell him to get the fuck out of my place and stick his white dick up his daddy's Aryan ass.
I could tell you that I believe it's best to turn the other cheek, best to let him waste away in his own ignorance. That God's glory shines upon me and the pits of hell await his kind. I could tell you that, but I'd be lying.
Truth is I was just tired. And I wanted him to go away and leave me alone. Simple as that.
There are anomalies in this world and always will be.
Simple as that, too.
I thought of staying home the next day.
While I lay in bed that night, I told Rhona about him. Told her I felt like taking a day or two off. "I don't need that shit," I said.
She kissed me on the bridge of my nose. Her breath smelled like white Zinfandel. "You think he don't want exactly that?"
"Don't care what he wants."
I rolled away from her. Rolled away from her eyes, the moisture in them shiny and serious. I didn't want to smell her wine-coated breath, didn't want to feel the righteousness ooze from every pore of her naked body. I pretended to sleep. A married man gets to be good at pretending sleep after fifteen years.
She rubbed the small of my back. "Baby," she whispered in the loving way only a wife knows how.
In the morning, I fixed myself a plate of scrambled eggs. I went out back of our small brown house and split wood for the fireplace. I guess that's when the rage really came out. Started out just hacking at big old logs, splitting 'em half-heartedly, then all of a sudden I couldn't swing hard or fast enough. And when I was done splitting logs, I kept hacking at the goddamn tree stump where I done the splitting, kept hacking big chunks of it off, splinters of wood flying at my sweaty face, into my tear filled eyes until I heard Rhona screaming at me from the door jamb.
I stopped. Wiped the sweat away. Looked at the work I'd done to the stump and let the axe drop to the ground, the long wooden handle bouncing off my work boots. I walked past her into the house. I couldn't look at her. Not then. I didn't like it when she saw me like that. Losing control like that. I didn't like it.
I showered, changed into clean clothes, and drove to the Slaughterville Roadhouse.
I'd just finished a plate of egg rolls straight out of the bar's deep fryer when I heard his jackboots echo on the wooden floor. His shadow disappeared into my dark skin as he waited in the doorway.
"Are you awake tonight?" he asked. "Do you have time for a scumbag like me?"
"Just what the hell do you want? Don't look like you have space for any more tattoos anyway."
"There's one space left," he said. "One place that hasn't been touched by the needle. One place that is still pure."
"And you trust a nigger to do it? How you know I ain't gonna fuck it up?"
He smiled at my sarcasm. Pulled out his wad of cash, peeled off not three, but five hundred dollar bills.
"No," I said. "Keep it 'til I'm done. Then you can pay me." It was all I could think of at the moment to keep from plunging my needles into his neck and filling the wounds with ink.
"Fair enough," he said. He eased himself into the chair. I couldn't help but stare at his chest, his arms, his neck, images of hate covering every square inch of his body.
"Where do you want it?" I asked. "And what do you want? A couple more swastikas? A pile of burning babies?"
"Please." He closed his eyes. Reached down to his jeans.
He pulled a switchblade from his pocket.
I froze. My mouth turned dry as ash.
I don't know why I wasn't more prepared. I don't know why I didn't jump and try to take the knife away.
But I wish I had.
I wish I had.
He pressed a button on the switchblade's black pearl casing. A mean looking knife sprang out with a click.
"Redeem me," he whispered.
He could have easily stood from the chair and plunged the thing into me. Could've taken his damn time for as frozen with fear as I was.
But he didn't.
And I swear to God this next part is true . I swear to God on the life of my wife. On the grave of my mother.
"Redeem me," he said again, his voice pained as if something unseen had its hand around his neck.
He turned the knife's point to the top of his chest. Stuck his arm straight out, then brought it in quick with enough force to plunge through his sternum.
My legs went numb, my whole body. Why I didn't fall off my stool, why I didn't shit myself, I'll never know.
He opened his eyes. That's something I won't ever forget, something I see every time I try to sleep.
I realized at that instant that even his eyes were tattooed. What I thought had been blood vessels were tiny robed figures bowing toward his pupils. I wanted to look closer at his eyes, try to see inside his pupils, because I knew, I knew deep down in my soul that the tattoos continued on inside his eyeballs.
But my own eyes were drawn away. Drawn to the knife that sliced an uneven line down to his own belly. He set the knife down, breathing heavily. With long sharp fingernails (and my God, I swear, even those were etched with figures) he pulled back the skin on either side of the long jagged cut. I saw his ribs. Saw the intricate black etchings that covered them.
"Scrimshaw," I whispered, was all I could think of to whisper like some idiot child.
Each row of ribs depicted scenes from Hell. The bottom rows held creatures both human and non thrashing about and copulating in a sea of fire, and each row above that another scene, scenes of torture, mutilation, death, the figures gradually rising upward, reaching toward the sky, toward Heaven, their faces scratched with agony.
No. That's not right.
They weren't reaching toward Heaven.
They were reaching toward his heart.
It beat fiercely. The only organ, the only thing of this man's body left unadorned by the mark of a needle.
He pulled out one rib, then two, the crack of each making me jump. I watched his heart beat, watched it force blood through his arteries, watched the blood flow in and out, becoming purified in an endless cycle.
Blood spilled from him, soaking his jeans, pooling around his hips and dripping off the blue vinyl chair. His hand shook as he picked up one of the tattoo needles from the tray next to him. Sweat poured down his face.
"What?" I asked. My teeth chattered so much, I could barely speak. "What do you want me to do?"
"Finish it." His eyes bulged. "You know what to do. Finish it."
I wondered again what those hooded figures scratched into the sclera of his eyes bowed to, what was it exactly that was tattooed within the soft folds of his brain.
I took the needle from his hand, its buzz drowned out by the sound of my own heart beating in my ears.
I looked at his heart. I slowly reached in. Took hold of it. Felt it warm and pure in the palm of my hand. Never before had I experienced such an intimacy. It pumped hypnotically, forcefully.
I brought the needle to it. Started to draw.
Not a picture. But a word. The same word. Over and over. In large letters. Small letters. Block letters. Cursive letters. Over and over as his heart continued to beat in my hand, the main arteries still attached, strung between my thick fingers.
That was the word I wrote.
Over and over.
Over and over.
The only word pure enough for the sanctity of a heart.
He gasped as I placed it back in his chest. I took the pieces of rib from his hand and stuck them back loosely in place. I folded the flaps of skin back over the bone and noticed how even the insides of his skin were covered with tattoos.
He smiled at me.
Grabbed hold of my hand.
"Danke," he whispered. "Thank you."
I left him there to die. To live. I don't know which.
But I do know that when he finally left my chair it was as a redeemed man.
A pure righteous man.
I still got a good eye, but my hand ain't so steady anymore.