When Lanie called and said I should rush over, I knew it’d be something strange. Lanie is the bassist in my brother’s rock band, but also works as a mortician.
“Bring your inks,” she said.
And I said: “What, all of them?”
And she said no, not all of them. Just black would probably do it.
So I drove over there thinking, “Why in the hell does she want a tattoo in the middle of the day?”
One question tattoo artists get a lot is, “What’s the craziest tattoo you ever gave?”
I’ve heard some good answers. A guy who got a tattoo of himself strangling his boss. A girl who got Snow White getting fucked by the seven dwarves. Bill, who works in my studio, swears he once did a woman who got the words, “Does your wife know you’re dining here tonight?” right above her pussy. I only half-believe that one.
Mine used to be a kid who got “Joyce”—his girlfriend’s name—tattooed on his arm, then came back after they broke up and told me to put “James” in front of it.
“James Joyce was a famous writer,” he said.
“Then why not just tell people your ‘Joyce’ is for the writer, and not Joyce the girl?” I asked him.
He was insistent though, and I put the “James” on there.
Like I say, that used to be my best story.
I pulled up at the service entrance to Shirley Brothers Mortuary and took the gear out of my back seat. I was already feeling anxious.
A lot of tattoo guys have thought about mortuary school at one time or another, but not me. Just hearing about that stuff makes me flinch. Like if I’m having beers with Lanie or something and she says, “Man, I had so much work today!” I always think to myself, “That means ‘so many bodies.’ ”
I went up and rang the buzzer. Lanie answered the door.
“Got your inks?” was all she said.
I held up the case in my hand.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, but motioned me inside.
I followed her down a dingy white hallway. The place was like the service area of a hotel. It’s nice out front in hotels, but always messy and grim in the back.
I followed Lanie into a freezing cold room. Inside was a man’s body on a shiny metal table, and a young woman sitting on a metal folding chair. She was in her early twenties and Hispanic. And very, very pregnant.
Lanie looked at her and said, “Johanna, this is Ernie.”
I put down my case and shook the woman’s hand. I tried not to look at the body on the table. It was naked, and I could see the penis.
Lanie said: “Johanna, tell Ernie what you told me.”
In a quiet, practiced voice, Johanna explained that the body on the table was her husband Hector, who had been in the Marines in Iraq. A few months ago, he had been hit by a mortar and went into a coma. They airlifted him to Rammstein, and then back to the US, but he never got better. He’d finally passed away a couple of days ago.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My condolences.”
“He had a tattoo over his heart, for the name of our son,” Johanna said, pointing at the body.
Now I had to look.
I followed her extended finger and saw a small “Jorge” written right across the man’s heart.
“I know that Hector would want the name of his daughter, Ysabella, there also,” Johanna said. She patted her stomach as she said the word “daughter.”
Across the room, Lanie looked at me hard above crossed arms, as if to say: So, are you going to do this, or are you going to be a dick about it?
“No problem,” I said to Johanna. “It’ll take about thirty minutes. Write down the spelling for me. I’ll try to do it in the same script as the ‘Jorge.’ ”
Johanna wrote the name down, and I got my gear set up. Lanie left the room, but the pregnant girl stayed and watched.
I’d worked on flash and animal skin before, but something about doing a dead man really set me on edge. I had to steel myself. I took deep breaths.
At first, I tried thinking patriotic things, like how this was—or had been—a soldier, and how I owed him for keeping my country free. He’d been brave in battle over there in Iraq. The least I could do was be brave for a few minutes while I inked a name on his chest.
And that sounded good in my head, but it didn’t seem to work on my nerves. I still felt like it was creepy—like I was doing something wrong. Beneath me, his skin was pale and cold as meat.
Instead, I thought about the pregnant girl, Johanna—how she must be feeling, and how this tattoo meant so much to her.
Some people who have tattoos like to go off on boring, self-important tangents about how tats are a freedom-of-expression thing. They’ll ramble about how tattoos let you be your “true self,” and how they’re something “authentic” you do for yourself and nobody else . . .
But this tattoo wasn’t for the guy who was getting it. It wasn’t for him at all. It was precisely for other people.
I kind of liked that idea.
Soon, I felt relaxed enough to work.
I finished quickly, mostly because he didn’t bleed. (The body had already been drained, or whatever they do.) The lettering looked good. Simple. A name in black ink.
When Johanna leaned in to take a look, I saw fresh tears in her eyes.
“Thank you,” was all she said. She gave me a little hug, then walked out. Suddenly, I was alone with the body in the freezing room.
I looked at the man on the table for a moment longer, with the new ink under his dead skin. I didn’t mind looking at him now. Somehow, it was like we were friends.
For just a second, I thought he might move—might wink at me to say ‘thank you’—like something out of a ghost story. But he stayed still. Not even a twitch. He was just a dead body on a table.
I started packing up my gear and Lanie walked back in.
“Appreciate you doing this, Ern,” she said.
“No trouble,” I told her.
Then she tried to hand me some cash.
“I don’t feel like I should take money for this,” I said.
“No,” I said, gently pushing her hand away.
“Then how ‘bout I buy you some beers at our next show,” Lanie said.
“That’d be fine,” I told her.
Lanie’s a good woman.
A few weeks later, I was sitting on my back porch, drinking Jim Beam and looking at the sunset. It was one of those killer Indiana sunsets you get maybe twice a year in the late summer. Red streaks all through the sky and the curve of the sun looking like it’s just a couple of blocks away. A real ten out of ten.
I was sitting there drinking, and suddenly I heard someone walking up the gravel drive in front of my house. I got up to see who it was, and it was Johanna. A car—hers—was parked on the street, and she was standing on my doorstep, holding some kind of casserole dish.
She knocked on the door. I went in through the house to open it properly. I was drunk and looked like hell, but she still smiled when she saw me.
“Hello,” she said. “Do you remember me?”
“Sure I do,” I told her.
“Lanie, the woman at Shirley Brothers, said you wouldn’t take any money,” she asserted.
I gave a nod.
“I brought you this,” she said. “I wanted to give you something. I had to. Please accept it.”
When she handed over the heavy glass dish, I noticed she didn’t look pregnant anymore.
“Okay, thanks,” I said. “How are . . . Jorge and Ysabella?”
“Fine,” she said. “Resting at my sister’s.”
I invited her inside. My house wasn’t much, but she didn’t seem to mind. I poured her some bourbon, and then some more for myself. At first she tried to wave me off, but eventually she took it. I didn’t know much about casseroles, so I just put it in the fridge.
For a minute, we just stood there drinking in my cluttered kitchen. For some reason, I was having a hard time looking her in the face. The job on her husband had felt like a one-off thing—like a weird tattoo story to tell Bill about at work—but now she had reappeared and was inside my house.
Sometimes people you ink want to start a relationship with you, like you’re their “tattoo guy” the way some people have a dentist or a doctor. Only it’s much more informal. (Maybe you have seen them naked, though. So there’s that part to it.) I didn’t expect anything out of tattooing Johanna’s dead husband. That was ink on a corpse that was going straight into the ground.
But then—standing there, drinking that bourbon out of a plastic Rally’s cup—I started thinking, how many tattoos have I given? Hundreds? Maybe a thousand? And most of those were for people I never saw again, or hadn’t seen in years. So, just going by probability, some of them had to be dead too—at least a few. Had to. With my ink on their dead bodies.
So maybe Johanna’s husband Hector wasn’t the only one . . . or even the first one.
“I was just in the back, looking at the sunset,” I said to break the silence. “It’s a real killer.”
“A ‘killer?’ ” she asked.
“Is that good?” she asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “The best.”
I pulled an old, dusty wicker chair out of the junk room and took it outside for her. I set it up next to mine. We sat there, together, and looked at the sunset. It had moved lower in the sky, but was still a sight to see.
The dark red edge crept over the horizon and lit up the trees like neon lava.
“Wow,” Johanna said. “I see what you mean. ‘Killer.’ ”
“Killer,” I said.