Mattie heard the door alarm and put down her book. She listened as three people came into the shop and heard the heavy door slam shut. Well, give them a few minutes to see what kind of people they sounded like and if they were going to stick around. No use getting the old bones up for no reason.
“Shit. Look at the place. A dump, man. Let’s go.”
Nasty sort, that one, Mattie thought. Heard it before; guys who think they’re big and bad and treat people like crap. Any luck, they’ll turn around and leave, just like he wants.
“Hey, wait a minute, Bull” Another young male voice, but a completely different tone to it. “You’ve been saying for months you want a special tattoo for your twenty-first birthday and you’ve looked all over and haven’t found something you like. So at least look, ok?”
“You’re dumb. Eggshell. Just ‘cause someplace looks like a dive, you think it’s going to be all cool and mysterious, like it’s hiding something special. Shit, look at the dumb stuff on the walls. Cartoons from the ‘50s for crisake. Besides, how come nobody else knows about this place? Not in the phone book, either. You just happen to see it riding by on the bus.”
“But there is some pretty stuff. . .” Hmm. Teenage girl with fake ID.
“Fuck. I’m not after pretty. You’re as dumb as he is, Tushy Trishy.”
“I know that, and don’t call me that.”
“Something wrong with liking your ass?”
Mattie heard the them shuffling through the design binders on the counter as the rude one, the one they called Bull, accompanied their perusal with an almost continuous stream of derogatory remarks and snorts. After a few minutes of this she heard a binder slammed down.
“This is shit. I’m out of here.”
“Hold on Bull.” It was the other boy. “My dad told me that when he was a kid people had to ask to see the good stuff because tattoo artists kept their special stuff in back. I mean, you never know.”
“Well where the fuck is someone? Can’t someone hear us out here?”
“Um there’s a bell on the counter,” the girl ventured.
“So ring it.”
Mattie began uncurling herself from her chair before the bell actually rang. Once the damn bell rang you knew they were sticking around. If it had just been the girl and the one boy, she would have already been out front to help them. But that other one? Oh well, work’s work. The bell rang again.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” The beaded curtain across the door to the front area of the store clacked loudly as she came through and stood behind the counter. Not much to the front area – the counter with design books jutted out from one wall and barred easy access to the back room. A handful of plastic chairs with their backs to store windows flanked the front door. The three young people stood in the narrow space between the counter and the chairs. It wasn’t hard to figure out which one was her potential customer – he had the look about him that said he’d get a kick out of tying a cat to the back of a car and driving down the freeway.
“So you think my shop is funny, hunh?”
“You’re shittin’ me, right old lady? You run this place? This stuff is crap.” His laugh was hard as he gestured to the walls and books.
“Um, he really wants something weird, something maybe no one else has,” the other boy said apologetically. “He wants it for his birthday. See, he’ll be twenty-one and he figures . . .um, well.”
“Oh, come on, Eggshell, don’t crack on him now. I mean, after all, you found this place for him so don’t get all wimpy about it.” The girl’s voice had an edge on that Mattie suspected was for Nasty (no way was she going to dignify his pitiful existence by thinking of him otherwise).
Mattie looked at the girl. “Sounds like your friend isn’t impressed with my shop.” Her glance shifted to Nasty. “You rang the bell. Must mean you want something. Otherwise why are you still here?”
He answered her question with one of his own. “How come nobody knows about this place? Maybe you aren’t legal or something?”
“People find it when they really need it.”
“Yeah? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Mattie shrugged. “Whatever you want it to mean. So do you want a tattoo or are you leaving? I’m in the middle of a good book.”
“So go back to you book. We’re leaving.”
“Wait,” the other boy sad, grabbing Nasty’s jacket. He turned to Mattie. “He can be a real dick, but maybe you’ve got some other stuff? My dad told me the old tattoo parlors kept their good stuff under the counter or in back. You know, so people had to ask. . .like, people who knew to ask.”
Nice kid, this one, thought Mattie. Nasty and Nice. One of those kids who ends up running around with a jerk because they’ve known each other since first grade. Her voice gentled. “Your dad knew his way around, hunh? Smart guy. And you’re smart for paying attention.”
There was grit in her voice when she turned back to Nasty. “You ought to learn some things from your friend. And he’s right – I do have other designs in back. Not any of that new tribal stuff and I don’t do crude symbols or sayings so don’t expect anything like that. But I can’t think of anyone who looked that didn’t find what they wanted.”
“Yeah, well I don’t want anything everyone else has. I want something different. I want something so weird that people will just flip.”
“By the way,” Mattie said, “are you going to be able to pay? And it’s got to be cash. I don’t have a machine for plastic and wouldn’t trust one anyway. If you have to run to the bank before we start, that’s ok by me.”
“Shit. Now that makes me think you don’t trust me. I got cash all right and more than enough.”
Mattie shrugged, then turned and held the beads to the side, gesturing him to follow. “You can come too,” she said as she noticed the girl and Nice hesitate. The room behind the curtain was large. A single bright reading lamp beside one of the chairs was the only light. One side looked hospital sterile with a steel counter and cabinets running the length of the wall. Two sinks interrupted the counter at strategic points and an autoclave sat at one end. Two chairs and a masseuse’s table, all upholstered in dark leather with white paper draped over them were set far enough apart to allow ample work space around them. Pale linoleum stretched from the cabinets almost to the middle of the room.
Where the linoleum ended, the room abruptly changed its mind. Nondescript carpeting laid the groundwork for two clusters of furniture, each including a couch, mismatched armchairs and strategically placed coffee and end tables. Separating the two seating areas was a waist-high double-sided book shelf, its top providing a counter for all sizes of binders stacked on top of each other.
Mattie headed to the pile, flicking on a couple of floor lamps as she passed. “So where do you want this tattoo? I gather someplace people will notice?”
“I want it on my right arm and big enough so even if a person just gets a quick look they’ll know I’ve got the baddest tat they’ve ever seen. If you even have something that bad,” Nasty snorted derisively.
Mattie slid binders around, creating newly ordered stacks. Finally she slid a dark red, medium sized binder out from under a shortened stack and walked over to one of the couches. “Here. Sit down and find what you want,” she said, putting the book down and walking away.
She turned a radio on to a classic rock station and flipped on bright lights around one of the chairs. She glanced back to see the three sitting on the couch, their heads together over the book. She turned back and began readying her work space, rifling through cupboards and drawers for what she needed. Behind her, she heard pages being flipped and a mumbled conversation between the boys, pierced occasionally by a squeal from the girl.
Finally there was a moment of silence, almost as if they had stopped breathing. Then Nasty exploded, “What the fuck?”
“You find something?” Mattie asked, disinterest oozing alongside the words.
“This shit is fucking crazy.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yeah. Sure. But what the fuck is it?”
Mattie crossed the room and took the book. “Oh, that one. I call it ‘Deranged Mitosis’.”
Nice looked at Nasty. “Mitosis. That’s when cells divide to make new ones. I think it means crazy cell division.”
“That’s just plain dumb to name a tat design.”
”Don’t get it, Bull,” the girl pleaded. “It’s worse than gross – it’s ugly and scary. . .it’s wrong. I won’t touch you if you get it.”
“Oh yeah you will,” he sneered, “because you’re mine and you wouldn’t know what to do if you didn’t have me. My body, I do what I want and you’ll take it.”
“She’s right,” Nice interrupted. “There’s something wrong with that picture. Ok, so it sounds dumb but there’s something bad, something really sick about it.”
“Yeah. And that’s why I’m going to get it. How much is it?” he asked, getting up.
“Humph.” Mattie let the air hang for a moment. Two fifty. Paid up front”
Nasty pulled out a wad of crumpled, dirty bills and counted them into her hand.
“Have a seat” Mattie stepped over and got out the ink she would be need.
Mattie turned to the two on the couch. “You guys want to look at more pictures? Or I’ve got stuff to read over on those end tables.” She motioned to some stacks of magazines.
“Thanks, but I’ve got a book,” the boy said pulling a paperback from his jacket pocket.
Mattie looked at the girl. “You?” she asked gently.
“Do you have something. . .not like that stuff. . .maybe pretty stuff?”
Mattie walked over to the bookshelf and rifled through the piles again, returning with two very large green binders and a petit pink one. “You’ll like these,” she said handing them to the girl.
* * * * * * *
Nasty preened in front of the mirrors, turning to see his new tattoo from as many angles as possible. “Come over and look at this. People are going to absolutely freak out.”
Nice shut his book. “We’ve already seen it in the book and we’ll have to look at it forever from now on. Why don’t you got out and show it to everyone who passes by.”
“I’m going to do just that while you two pussies get your act together.” He bashed through the beaded curtain and then the front door opened and shut, the alarm taking swift notice.
Mattie watched the other two drag themselves off the couch. The boy looked sad and apologetic. “Hey,” she told him, “you’re not him. And I don’t know where that asinine nickname of yours came from but I came up with another one for you. So you take care of yourself, Nice.”
She watched his face go from momentary confusion to a smile. “Thanks. Wow. Thank you.” As he ducked through the strands of beads he called back, “Don’t take forever, Trish.”
It did look like the girl would take forever. With obvious reluctance she put the binds back on top of the bookshelf.
“Aren’t you going with them?” Mattie asked.
The girl scrutinized the floor. “Yeah. . .but. . .I don’t know. . .don’t know why I stay with him.” She looked up at Mattie. “You have a lot of beautiful stuff in your books. How come you don’t put them out front so people can see them when they come in?”
Mattie put her hand lightly on the girl’s back and guided her toward the doorway. “Your friend. . .the one you call Eggshell?”
“I’m not going to call him that anymore. I don’t care what other people think, I’m going to call him Nice.”
“Ok, well Nice knows why these books aren’t up front.”
“So people have to ask for the good stuff?”
“Yeah. When you’re ready, honey, you come back and ask. And bring that Nice boy with you. I’ll still be here.”
Mattie watched her join the boys out on the sidewalk, then turned and walked back through the beads. She stood for a moment listening to the music before turning the radio off. She went back to the chair, her chair – nobody else ever sat in it. Sitting down, she reached over and opened the cupboard in the bottom of the coffee table near her seat. She pulled out an overstuffed scrapbook, the corners of its fabric cover long frayed to dust, and set it on her lap. A cat slithered out from under a nearby chair, jumped up, and hunkered down on the broad padded arm of Mattie’s chair.
“Hey Chocolate.” Mattie whispered. “You going to keep me company?”
Mattie let the album fall open. She never argued with it, never tried to force her will on it. She looked at the photographs and news clippings in front of her now and thought, Of course. On the left page was a picture of a smiling couple. The man cuddled a new born baby in the crook of his left arm while they held their right forearms up to display tattoos. Taped under the photo was a small note card. Mattie smiled, remembering their choices and remembering how wonderful it was to receive the photo and note telling her how their lives had blossomed.
But it was a newspaper clipping on the right hand page that was pertinent to today. The article was headlined “Slumlord won’t stand trial for multiple rape charges – Doctors say mysterious, aggressive cancer will kill him before courts can take action.” The photograph accompanying the article was a profile mugshot of the man, Deranged Mitosis clearly visible on his upper arm.