Let’s make up Jack. No, Sutton.
Sutton would be thirty-two, an out-of-work machinist in a little town in Missouri. Because everyone in Missouri is a blue-collar cliché? OK, he’s a civil engineering student at SLU, back in school to finish his degree as an adult at the suggestion of his girlfriend, Chloe. Chloe? Elise. She’s tall—they’re both six feet—and she’s really good-looking in ways that we hint at but don’t say outright. She’s a combination of grit and grace, revealed in the unself-conscious way she dive bombs her cereal with her spoon, while the morning light catches in her tawny locks. She’s an out-of-work machinist.
Sutton’s attractiveness we didn’t think to determine, but we can’t have two good-looking people as principals. So, Sutton is wiry and unshaven, with craggy features and a big scar on his right cheekbone. Ugly, really, but in a very masculine, good-looking sort of way. He got the scar when he was a kid, playing with his brother at a construction site. That brother has been in prison, but he’s getting out this week. In fact, they’re going to pick him up this afternoon.
It’s been a source of tension with Elise. She’s been nothing but supportive, of course, and she’s gone with Sutton to see David at the prison plenty of times. But now that he’s going to be a houseguest, sleeping on an air mattress in their living room until he can get on his feet (God knows how long), there’s a fraught stillness in the apartment. No more unemployment jokes when Sutton gets home from class. No more impromptu drinking nights, the two of them on the kitchen floor with a cheap bottle of whisky. Vodka? Anyway, they’re not laughing as much, the sex has been weird, and they don’t even fight over TV shows, usually a favorite pastime. Sutton doesn’t suspect it, but he’s half the reason Elise is so anxious. She’s ready to make the sacrifice to help out a family member—she and Sutton are married, actually—but she can tell that her young husband has some demons in his past and that David is one of them.
They don’t talk about it. Sutton prefers telling her stories about how young the other students in his classes seem. They all text constantly, no one ever asks a question, no one has ever heard of any actor or band or writer. He can tell by their socks which ones have had sex before. In return she regales him with thrilling stories about using his student ID to access the library computers and look for jobs. Trading commiseration was enough, for a while, and with a strict budget, his loan money and her savings, it seemed doable. But now this other thing is hanging over them, and their apartment doesn’t have a room big enough for three people and the elephant.
Why is Elise a machinist? Let’s make her an out-of-work hair stylist, fired from her job at an upscale salon after butchering the bob of a wealthy, vindictive client. She screwed up only because she’s been worried about Sutton, and now this bored rich woman has done such a good job poisoning the well that none of the other high-end shops will touch her.
There we go. Woman works in salon, gets fired by overreacting second woman because third woman hates haircut. You know what? Elise is a machinist. She’s quick but precise on the turret lathe. She’s out of work because she punched her supervisor when he took his dick out in the break room. Broke his nose, which helped the other bosses convince her that any lawsuit would be bad news for everyone. Sutton wanted to kill the guy, and she wanted to let him.
Actually, she never told Sutton. She made up a story about getting laid off.
Actually, she did tell Sutton, but while he was upset on her behalf, he never seemed all that upset on his own behalf. He had a level-headed reaction, as if they’d seen the story on the news. A small difference, maybe, and maybe it was all in her head. But it bugged her.
We’ll need to do more research on being a machinist, throw in more vocabulary like turret lathe. Computer numerical control, servomechanisms. But not right now—peripheral research is a dead-end alley that goes on forever—unless there’s a big problem, like turret lathe itself being an out-of-date term. Which it is, since most modern CNC lathes have turrets. She’s quick but precise on the turning center.
They rise on the day of the brother’s release. Cereal, bed head, vulnerable bodies in delicate cotton. Something pretty outside, like birdsong, tempered with something annoying, like yard work. But specific, unique examples of those things—we can only think of cardinals and lawnmowers right now, so we’ll come back later. Sutton, skipping his fluid dynamics lab, is leaning against the counter and peeling an orange with his fingers. Elise is at the table, dive-bombing her cereal. Morning light catches on the toaster.
“How’d you sleep?” he asks.
“You were there,” she says.
Neither of them slept well. He makes a little stack of rind pieces on the counter.
“I figure if we leave around noon,” he says, “that gives us plenty of time.”
“Should we pick up anything?” she asks. “A get-out-of-jail present? Is that a thing?”
He doesn’t answer. He could be deciding if that’s a good idea or a bad one, or he could be thinking about fluid dynamics, but she knows better than to ask. His officious dejection is a choice, a moat that she must pace around until he’s ready to lower the gate. Or until she’s tired of waiting.
“How about a gift card?” she says. “To a strip club.”
“Hm,” he says.
“What’s the gnarliest strip club around here? A really funky one. Full services.”
“Hm,” he says.
“Somewhere with a Just Released discount. Floors stickier than fly paper.”
She’s funny. But is she also asking him pointedly? Is Sutton the type of guy who knows whether any nearby strip clubs have secret menus? Did he used to be?
“Maybe we’ll just have dinner,” he says.
After some more quiet domestic drama, they shower—separately—and get into the car to head to the prison. The car is hers, and it’s a maroon compact with missing hubcaps. Does the make matter? If we name a real company, that becomes a thing, and we’ll have to keep naming companies. Which is good for specificity but can be off-putting. Maroon compact is fine. A maroon, Japanese compact. Made by a company that was founded by Soichiro Honda.
No, they shower together, let’s not be squeamish. One of them has tiny nipples and one has lightly streaked underwear. The shower is completely practical—they don’t participate in each other’s routines, they certainly don’t kiss or caress. In truth they’d rather bathe separately, but they share an instinct to preserve some illusions. They reach around each other politely for the soap.
On the trip to the prison they pass something on the side of the road that makes for an extremely striking image. It’s something common and innocuous but freighted with a hard-to-pin-down menace. Like a giant tree, jaggedly shorn to keep the branches back from the power lines. But better than that.
We need to get to why David has been in prison.
David has been incarcerated seven-and-a-half years for robbing a gas station with a pistol. No—a knife, which is scarier because of the implied intimacy. And it was a pet store, the one he had been working at for six months, the longest he’d ever held down a job. His coworker, the one whose throat he’d held the knife to, testified that she had turned him down for a date on three different occasions. He denied this. We don’t necessarily believe her either, but the possibility casts a shadow.
Does it have to be a violent crime, though? Is that too on the nose? Is everybody’s brother in Missouri robbing everyone with knives? Does the backstory of everything have to be all mayhem, all the time?
How about a simple DUI. Extremely common, still serious, less garish. We’ll make it a third DUI. Plus a conviction for vehicular assault, because after draining the pint of vodka—rum?—he bumped over a sidewalk and plowed into a minivan at a drive-through, breaking limbs on three people.
The release point has a series of chain-link gates on wheels, and when they’ve all rolled back, David stamps through with his head twisting side to side, a kid without a hall pass. He’s three years younger than Sutton and a head shorter, and he has the same grim aspect that shouldn’t be appealing, but is. He looks like an actor made up to be ugly. David hugs them briefly, one at a time.
“Thanks for picking me up,” he says.
“Hope you weren’t waiting long,” Elise says, not entirely confident that the joke will fly.
“Hm,” David says.
On the ride home, we don’t mention the tree again. Partly because once is enough, and partly because now, with the long-separated brothers riding next to each other in the quiet cabin, a bisected tree might be too on the nose. Elise, sitting in the back seat, looks from her husband to her brother-in-law. They stare ahead at the road. She picks at some kind of crust on her pant leg.
“We’ve got the living room all set up for you,” Sutton says. “It’s a little cramped with the air mattress, but it ought to be fine.”
“I’m sure it will be,” David says. “Is there a window?”
“Yeah, looks onto the street. You can watch the neighbor’s dog shit on our sidewalk.”
“I’ll take it.”
The car passes the shorn tree, discs of lighter bark on the trunk where saw teeth severed boughs. The silence resumes. David rolls his window down a few inches, then rolls it back up. Sutton drums his fingers on the handle of the emergency brake, then stops. Elise sighs, perhaps louder than necessary. She picks off a piece of the crust on her jeans, an anonymous gray flake. Surreptitiously, she tries to flick it into Sutton’s hair.
She’s causing kind of a problem. This is a significant car trip: brothers together again, silence gravid with undisclosed details from their pasts, trees and other, better imagery scrolling by outside. She should be feeling knots in her stomach, stress that she can only partially attribute to the natural awkwardness of the situation. Instead, she’s throwing shit. There’s even a loose thread at the seam of her pants, only a few inches away from the spot of crap. Why can’t she pull on that metaphor?
Now that she points it out, though, maybe the brothers are sort of, if you look at it a certain way, kind of annoying. We’ve never been to prison, but is it that depressing when you get out? How long are these two going to brood before we learn “what happened”? And as far as that goes, what’s the revelation going to be? That their dad was an alcoholic? That Sutton was driving the car and David took the rap? That life sucks and then you scowl for fifty years?
What is Elise supposed to be doing in the backseat anyway? Sitting quietly and feeling feelings, with metered insight but grave intensity? Loving her husband while experiencing doubts? Surrogating efficiently? We established that when her boss dropped trou, she blasted him in the snout. Here she’s bored, waiting for these men to start making cryptic references to dark events in the past, then to get drunk and throw a few punches, and finally for someone to reveal that when they were seventeen, Uncle Emmett killed Aunt Lena with a hunting rifle, and that’s how they know love is bullshit and why talking to girls is hard.
“Hm,” she says.
So let’s skip ahead. David’s return to the world precipitates two emotional crises and the one physical altercation. Fissures in the relationship between Sutton and Elise become undeniable, then unassailable. After a couple of weeks, David leaves on a bus headed to Cedar Rapids, where a friend can get him on at a store that sells tractors. But it’s too late—alone together for first time in what seems like a long time, leaning away from each other in opposite corners of the kitchen, Sutton and Elise do not feel their hearts swell with a desire to make things right. They feel exhausted, guilty, a little desperate. Morning light catches in the broken shards of who they thought they were. Outside, a sweetly singing bird gets run over by a lawnmower.
Six months later, they get a divorce. They try to stay respectful throughout the process and manage OK. One night he gets home and hears her crying through the door, and she hears him put his keys back in his pocket and walk away. She doesn’t know whether he’s giving her space or just avoiding her. On another night, the same thing happens with the roles reversed, and she learns it’s some of both. They don’t have kids or dogs or boats, so the paperwork is easy. Everything is done in two weeks. Unless Missouri has a waiting period, which it does. It takes them a month.
Eleven years later, Elise is forty-two.
She works as a tattoo artist at a parlor in Dogtown, which she can walk to from her apartment on Victoria. It’s called Dogtown Tattoo Parlor. She still has the maroon compact, but uses it mostly on weekends. No—she sold the compact years ago and bought a used black coupe. But she does use it mostly on weekends, zipping out to the suburbs for friends’ barbecues and occasionally to conferences and studio residencies at other tattoo shops in the Midwest. She has become somewhat well known in that community. Her original designs are industrial and abstract, complex but never busy. For new clients, she has a five-month waiting list.
The decade has sharpened and accentuated her. Though in her twenties she wore flats to mitigate her height, her new uniform is an aggressive, open-toed heel, with turquoise or rich scarlet nail polish. She’s good-looking in a way that now we don’t mind saying outright. She’s handsome. If crows’ feet and laugh lines were products, she would be selling them on billboards. Her arms, always bare in sleeveless shift dresses, are covered with intricate work. The piece on the inside of her left bicep is the first one she ever got: a simple outline of a drinking glass with exactly one half shaded in, which she got the week she signed the divorce papers. She regrets it now, since it’s a little too on the nose. But it’s a fond type of regret, more like teasing herself.
That tattoo, after all, begat the second one. She loved the soft red leather in the room where she had them done, with the morning light catching on the chrome of the two-coil machines, always something obscure and excellent on the stereo. The vibe was very different from the milling and machining places that she stopped applying to. She picked up drawing where she’d left off in seventh grade. At the tattoo parlor she cleaned the floors until they let her clean the machines, and cleaned the machines until they let her apprentice. At home, she practiced with stick-and-pokes on her thighs. The nautical star on her right came out miles better than the one on her left, though she did them only a month apart.
Her walking commute takes her along the edge of Forest Park, and sometimes she detours through the fields if the weather is nice. The zoo is there, too, and admission is free—sometimes she detours all the way to the south entrance, turns left at the gift shop, and wends along the path of the River’s Edge immersion exhibit until she reaches the black rhinoceros enclosure. There she leans against the cold metal rails and gazes at the armored, weathered bodies of the rhinos, which are more gray than black, and reflects on the unlikely persistence of things in this world.
Although—no she doesn’t. She went to the zoo once and hated the smell. Her ruminations on survival occur with a mouthful of toothpaste and the view from her bathroom window: a bicycle locked to a telephone pole, stripped of its front wheel, back wheel, seat, gears, chain, and brakes. She wonders, does it still think of itself as a bicycle? How much do the little parts matter?
In her first appointment today she inks a design based on Irish runes for a college kid with an orange afro. In the second she does a geometric sequence on the underboob of a pre-school teacher. Her afternoon is reserved for one client, and he’s waiting in a seat by the window when she gets back from lunch. He would be forty-three but looks older, with a light beard unable to cover hollow cheeks, bony shoulders under his gray T-shirt. His jeans are too big, but they’re also embarrassingly new.
“Hi, Elise,” he says.
“Hi, Sutton,” she says.
This is the third time they’ve seen each other since the divorce. The first was to mark the anniversary of their separation; she had in mind an ironic annual dinner, which over the course of years might become a comfortable, amiable tradition. Instead it felt like a boring blind date, and they never tried again. That was nine years ago.
The second time was six months ago, at David’s funeral. Sutton called and invited her to Cedar Rapids for the service. She thought about taking him a bottle of the old floor-drinking whisky, or whatever it was, but decided against it, considering the circumstances. Instead she baked cookies and didn’t realize how bad they came out until she got hungry on the interstate and tried one. She pitched them in the trash at the next gas station and bought flowers in Iowa City. The funeral was short and conventional.
After that they started talking on the phone, short chats maybe twice a month. She guessed that, as little time as it had been, and as long ago as it was, Sutton wanted to talk to someone that had known his brother. His new wife had never met him, although they’d been married several years. At some point he asked about coming into the shop, getting some work done in commemoration, if that was a thing. She moved him ahead of the wait list.
“You look well,” Elise says.
“I look like shit,” he says. “But you look well.”
She leads him to the back corner. Together they look at the sketch she’s done—the shape of a small boat seen from overhead, surrounded by a vast latticework of wavy lines, baroque currents in a vast ocean. It looks lonely to her but also peaceful. She doesn’t mind input from her clients, in fact she likes it when they take an active role in the art that’s going on their bodies, but Sutton just nods.
“It’s great,” he says. “And I appreciate this.”
“I’m happy to do it,” she says. “And I’m charging you triple.”
He takes off his shirt, and she puts him on the massage table. She cleans his right shoulder blade and the area around it with rubbing alcohol, shaves it, cleans it again, and by then the thermal fax is done making the stencil. She rubs his skin with stick deodorant to prep for the transfer, and once the design is in place, covers it with ointment. When she fires up her machine to start the line work, she gives him a calming speech.
“This will be excruciating,” she says. “Worst pain imaginable. Like being flayed alive while you’re on acid.”
“Hm,” he says.
David had seemed to be doing well in Iowa. The people at the tractor store liked him, and he got his picture framed on the wall. He found an AA chapter and got his third bronze chip. He met a woman and they had a little girl, but the woman and the girl left for Minneapolis after a few years with no proposal. David got a DUI and went to jail for two years. The tractor store couldn’t use him after that, so he worked at a warehouse and then a carwash and then a paintball field. Sutton, paying his dues on the lower rungs of a midsize architecture firm, tried to make a trip up there every six months, but David’s path was pretty much locked in. He turned thirty-eight and asphyxiated in his apartment a few days later, getting the jump on his liver and his heart.
Elise places her left hand and right forearm flat on Sutton’s back. She holds the tattoo machine above the stencil. The tip hovers above the undulations that surround the boat. She has done this thousands of times, but here’s a moment of hesitation. Tattoos are permanent, that’s the point of them. You can’t get one, change your mind, and switch it to something else.
“What did Leah think of the design?”
Leah, his wife.
“She liked it.”
“Did you show her?”
Shirtless, his back is as scrawny as his shoulders suggested, the ridges of his spine pushing up like ruins in sand. Maybe she’s hesitating because it’s strange for her to feel the warmth of his skin through the latex gloves. This body that used to be a given in her daily life. Had, in fact, been officially given, in sickness and in health.
But we doubt it. She knows better. For one thing, she’s a professional. The human body is not her canvas—a colleague of hers uses that phrase, and she always responds with an armpit fart—but skin is a basic material of her job, and she doesn’t shudder at the significance of it any more than a contractor gets chills from pouring concrete.
“How’s Frank?” Sutton asks.
“Good,” she says. “He’s OK.”
She and Frank have been on again, off again for a few years. They’re off right now, though she’s been thinking about calling. He’s a chef at a restaurant a few blocks away, and they met because he wanted a large, flaming skull on his chest. She talked him down from that, which he resented, then respected, then thanked her for.
“Haven’t seen him in a while, to tell the truth,” she says. “He wanted me to get a dog, and I didn’t want one. Stupid as that sounds.”
“No, that makes sense,” Sutton says, although he doesn’t specify which part.
She changes her posture, readjusts her hands, gets situated again. She steadies the needle, but again she hesitates.
Let’s rule out sentimentality.
It’s not sentimentality because Sutton’s back just isn’t familiar. She is mildly surprised to realize it, but she doesn’t remember the terrain. The mole at the base of his neck, a thin scar on the other scapula, birthmark triplets low on his side—she doesn’t recall any of them, but she doesn’t remember their absence either. It’s a small thing to note, though. She’s not bowled over by a sudden awareness of the power of time. She doesn’t feel a knot in her stomach, or any mysterious stress that she can only partially attribute to the natural awkwardness of the situation.
Sutton says, “Life is funny.”
It’s like he can’t read her mind.
Although he’s face down on the massage bed, she knows the expression he would be wearing. Such a trite phrase, delivered with utter conviction and somber aspect. Of course, the effect would be altered somewhat with his face pressed into the opening of the headrest, squished up like a baby’s. This is such a wondrous mental image that she has to fight the impulse to bend down and inspect the real thing.
Instead, she focuses on the stencil, the waves, the client’s skin. The ink waiting in the coils. It may well be an important moment for him, some alchemy of grief and reflection brought on by her presence, or the tragedy that inspired the tattoo, or the seventies dance hall that we’ll have drifting in from a corner speaker. Maybe all of it together. But it’s his moment—the unifying scene of a story that he’s telling himself, in his head. Not that she’s apathetic, but her life is not being defined here.
Her moment might have been four years ago, when her flight out of Denver was struck by lightning and fell a thousand feet, and she surprised herself by speaking out loudly, calmly and seriously, to God. Or it might have been two months ago, when she and Frank stood outside the pet store in the mall, screaming about puppy mills and character defects with smoothies in their hands. Or it might have been the time she decked her boss for exposing himself, or the time she flicked crusty stuff into her husband’s hair and decided to get a divorce. Most likely it was all of these, and others to come.
For the afternoon, though, she doesn’t mind playing a supporting role in someone else’s moment. It doesn’t diminish her, and in fact she’s glad she can offer this service to a friend. He sighs in his serious way, and she smiles where he can’t see.
Tattoos are permanent, but they’re not mandatory. She’s just an aesthetic consultant and does not determine what people make of the things that happen to them, what they take from the sheer variety of experience available on planet earth, what becomes essential. She lowers the needle, anticipates the flinch, begins to work.
Let’s close with the little boat on the ink sea, pressed between Elise’s hands and Sutton’s back, a moment of intimacy ten years removed from their last.
Actually, let’s get the pressure off that image by following Elise home and having her dive bomb a microwave dinner while an early snow floats down outside the window. We’ll make it winter for that. But then let’s have something better than snow floating down outside a window, for the love of God. Let’s scrap winter, in fact.
It’s fall. Leaves float down outside the window.
Only, better than that.