ReadingRoom

Saturday short story: Fresh Ink, by Daniel Smith

"I was coming home on the Northern Express, and she was going to start her shift at Mitre 10 Mega": a romance by Daniel Smith, a New Zealand writer living and studying in California.

“Is this your first time?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I was just won - ”

“This is far from my first. It’s my fif- actually, probably closer to my seventeenth. My other ones are all in places where I would have to remove my pants to show you. Which I won’t be doing. Not out of embarrassment. But because I don’t feel comfortable enough with you. Especially not after being bombarded with an inquisition upon my tattoo sincerity.”

“I’m only asking cos the chest is a tough area for the first time.”

“Well this isn’t my first time.”

The pierced freak slumps into his chair and swivels off to his work-station. The back of his T-shirt displays the words Nazi Fuck Party. He’s got far more piercings than tattoos. His eyebrows more metal than hair. Nostrils extended to an unnatural width by way of brass rings. Dimples glinting steel. I assume the theme continues to the nether regions.

His name is Bucket. He didn’t introduce himself, but Ariel said that was his name. The shop seemed like it would be liquidated on its next health inspection. It’s a small humid room above a Northcote panelbeaters, crowded with leather tables sticky in the heat. Bare needles pile out of the bin like a robot porcupine.

Can you trust a guy with piercings to do tattoos? One named Bucket? Ariel had insisted that this was the best shop on the Shore. She can be very persuasive.

Bucket swivels around with a razor and a spray bottle.

“What are you doing?”

“I have to shave your chest man. I can’t tattoo around all that hair.”

I recline. My back squelches against the table.

Ariel will be happy. She has been trying to get me to a waxing session. A tattoo and a bare chest on the same day will have her ecstatic. When she’s ecstatic, things go well for me.

That’s the thing a lot of older guys don’t understand. You’ve got to keep a young woman happy if you want her to make you happy. Some guys pass 50 and lose all desire. I am one of the lucky ones.

Patricia hasn’t kept me happy in years. Some years back she began a steady decline into celibacy. I got dragged along with her into a cold pit in which sexual gratification could only be reached in the shower with the vanilla extract body lotion and the loofah.

One time Patricia walked in on me mid-session. I did not stop. I wanted her to see what she had reduced me to. I tried to make eye-contact through the steamed glass. The orange loofah wrapped around my manhood, projecting blame.

Patricia just wiped and left without throwing me a glance.

This was in the dark days before I met Ariel.

We came together with as much passion as eye-contact on the bus. I was coming home on the Northern Express, and she was going to start her shift at Mitre 10 Mega. We both didn’t reach our destinations. A brush of the calves led to an apology, an introduction, a funny story about a South African hippopotamus and it’s unfortunate owner, before my seduction was completed by my mentioning of a motel on the Shore with thick walls and Egyptian cotton.

The fact that I pay her doesn’t mean much. They are gifts. Gifts of cash mostly, accompanied by things like perfume and hand sanitiser. Sometimes she gets me to pay for her textbooks. She is studying at AUT to be an occupational therapist. Says she wants to help people. She certainly helps me. The girl has given me a new lease on life. We come together in a spectacular amalgamation of pleasures. I give her things and she gives me things back. Give and take. It’s a relationship.

Bucket has shaven a patch in my chest hair the size of a small pineapple. He sprays down the area with a sanitizer that smells like toilet cleaner. After the hairless area is damp and assumedly germ-less, Bucket applies the stencilled outline of Ariel’s face.

I had gotten Bucket to model the drawing off a photo taken before her Year 13 Ball three years previous. In the photo her teeth are grit and her eyes are wet. Her expression is if somebody has said something that hurt her feelings and she hasn’t come up with a response yet, but she is thinking hard. Her father stands behind her, but obviously I cut him out.

Bucket peels back the paper. It’s hard to tell from upside down, but the eyes look a bit uneven. Bucket seems to have enlarged a mole Ariel has on her right cheekbone, making it look more like a boil.

“Does it look okay?” Bucket asks, spraying his tattoo-gun.

“I can’t really see. Do you have a mirror?”

“No.”

She might be upset if I accentuated the mole. She’s kind of sensitive about it. One time I called it a beauty spot, and she told me that was what old people said. Then she shot me a look the meaning of which was hard to miss.

Ariel didn’t know what I was getting. It was going to be a surprise to celebrate the anniversary of our meeting on the bus. It had been a year of monthly meet-ups and weekly bank transfers. Patricia hadn’t noticed a thing. Or hadn’t cared.

I hadn’t tried to hide the fact that I had been having an affair. When I came home late, I gave the lamest excuses I could possibly think of; I elected for unpaid overtime; I had to push an elderly man whose electric scooter stopped working to the Four Square; I went to Auckland Museum, fell asleep and got locked in overnight in the marae. Each one of these Patricia answered with a practiced "Mhm", then logged back onto Trademe to check the watchlist on her vintage Mr Bear toys. That was all she cared about. Buying, restoring and reselling those infuriating humanoid bears. Her top twelve that were not for sale sat on a shelf in the hall between our room and the toilet. Their button eyes stared with menacing inquisition each time I walked past them. As if they knew what I did in the shower and were disgusted.

She had started with the Bears when Simon died. He had an acute cardiac event while riding his bicycle down the driveway. When his body lost control, he face-planted, and scraped to a stop. The doctor said he wouldn’t have felt a thing. He was dead before his nose touched the concrete.

The funeral director suggested we have a closed casket funeral, but Patricia wouldn’t hear of it. I wish she had. Simon’s skin was the texture of a burnt omelette, covered in foundation colouring him an unnatural beige, like a crooner out of the stage-lights. His lips were glued into a kind of pout that he would never have made. The funeral director came up to me after the ceremony to apologise. He said that he had done his best under the circumstances. That his whole team had worked around the clock. He was sweating profusely and kept wringing and unwringing a damp handkerchief in his hands. His lips trembled and he seemed to be on the brink of tears. So I told him that it didn’t look too bad. We both stood over the casket looking down at my son’s fucked up face and I told the shaking funeral director he had done a good job.

Afterwards I tried to talk to Patricia but there wasn’t anything to say. When there was something to say Patricia wasn’t interested. When she used to work on her Mr Bear’s in the living room I would sometimes hear her talking to them. Asking them if they had applied to bear university or gotten any bear girlfriends. When I asked her about it, she moved her workshop to the guest bedroom and installed a lock. This was years ago now. I’ve moved on. You have to. She should too.

Without warning Bucket starts in on my chest. The pain is sharp and shows no signs of receding. I try to find something to focus on that isn’t physical torment. I look at his piercings. Up close I see that a few are red and oozing. I turn away and start to think of what people are going to say.

Ariel is going to flip out. Hopefully in a good way. She knows that I care already, but this is going to take things to new heights. This is going to make paying three grand for her Chihuahua to get its stomach stapled look like nothing. This is commitment. That moment in August when she stopped replying to my messages, that was a real turning point. It showed me it would have to be all or nothing. And I am choosing all.

Patricia is going to flip. Hopefully in a bad way. When I left my phone open on Ariel’s Facebook page, she didn’t say anything. She hadn’t said anything to me for months, other than “Take out the rubbish”, and sometimes she wouldn’t even say that, she would just leave the rubbish bags piled up against the door to my den. I knew that she was hurting. Hell, I was hurting too. But I got over it. I talked it out with Dr Carlsen. "Shit happens’."was how the good doctor put it. Patricia didn’t talk to me or anyone. Other than those freaking bears.

Jesus Christ. Bucket is dragging the needle over my sternum. Feels like what I imagine a firebrand feels like. Extremely unpleasant.

I work myself up to looking down at the inkwork. Has Bucket given her a mono-brow? It’s hard to tell with the ink-and-blood-leakage, but it isn’t looking good.

Will she care how it looks?

I want Patricia to see how young and beautiful this girl is. I will come out of the shower. Naked. My mistress’s face in plain view on my chest. Her eyes smouldering through Bucket’s inkwork. Patricia will turn to me. It will all hang out. The infidelities. The love lost. Then she will care. Then she will say something.

What will she say?

Next week's short story is by Alice Tawhai.

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