by Laureen Vonnegut
The tattoo parlor was lit by a single bulb. I stared at the half-drawn blinds, reluctant to watch the shiny needle pierce my skin. A neon light blinked outside the window, sending shards of blue flashing into the room.
Earlier in the evening, when I first met Dr. Zero in Daisy’s Tavern, he handed me his business card.
I had read his name out loud, “Dr. Oh.”
He closed his heavy, blue-veined eyelids and said quietly, “Zero. Not Oh. Don’t fucking say Oh.”
It was the nativity scene tattooed onto his bald head that first drew me to him. The colors were remarkably clear, but in my inebriated state I mistook a bright yellow star above the manger for the Star of David. I raised my glass to him, shouted “Shalom!” and bought him the first of many whiskeys.
Several hours later, after we had drunk ourselves sober, we decided it was time to go to his tattoo parlor. For as long as I could remember, even as a young girl, I had wanted a tattoo. Black fish bones: a simple, elongated, twisting skeleton of a fish. I used to know what it symbolized, but not anymore, and certainly not then in the early hours of the morning.
Dr. Zero’s grip on my arm was as tight as a tourniquet. I leaned back against the rigid spine of the chair in which I sat while he concentrated on the needle pumping in and out of my reddened wrist. The outline of black ribs wound across my wrist bone and on top of my purple veins like a spiraling zipper. Pain cleared my whiskey induced bravery. “Do you think…Shouldn’t we use anesthetic?”
Slowly he tipped his bald head back, scrolling through the wise men and the camels until I could see his black eyes. Then he looked down to his work without speaking. I could smell the alcohol emanating from both of our bodies. My sight blurred.
“Dr. Zero…do you have anything to drink?”
He straightened up and glanced around the room. I followed his gaze around the cluttered surfaces, over the stacks of dust-covered tattoo magazines and hand-sketched designs. His eyes swept the walls, hung with pictures of his masterpieces and awards from tattoo aficionados.
He heaved himself out of his chair. His thick arms swung away from his leather clad torso as he stomped toward the kitchen. It occured to me that maybe I should be afraid of Dr. Zero, but I couldn’t rouse any feelings of apprehension or concern.
I noticed an animal lying under a table. It was a cat. With long and matted fur and ears which were black and torn. I thought it might be dead, but then its eyes opened and shined. I spoke directly to it.
“You know cat, tattoos aren’t always a bad thing. They can be art…a permanent flesh painting.”
I looked at my inflamed wrist. The tattoo was taking shape; a flared tail fin, spindly ribs, a rounded head with a vacant eye. To see it imprinted in my skin, finally, exhumed a strong sense of deja vu. The refrigerator slammed, I heard a vehement curse, the floor reverberated and Dr. Zero returned to the room.
I continued talking to the cat since Dr. Zero had become increasingly uncommunicative as the night progressed.
“Our skin, our flesh is so bare, so vulnerable. In a way, a tattoo becomes a…a timeless charm.”
Dr. Zero didn’t seem to notice my conversation with the cat, so I crouched next to it and shoved my wrist near its liquid eyes. “Look, fish bones, something you’d like. A symbol of everlasting…something.” I lowered my voice and whispered near its ear. “This is for my mother.”
The cat’s ears were in bad shape and when I examined them closely, I saw they were tattooed with tiny birds, mice and lizards.
Dr. Zero handed me a tin can full to the brim. I took a deep gulp and tasted vodka mixed with something unpleasantly thick and salty. I choked and resisted the urge to spit it onto the floor.
“Not to be ungrateful Dr. Zero, but was there something in the can before you added the vodka?”
“Read the fucking label.”
I read the label out loud. “String cut green beans.”
“And?” He held up his can for me to read.
“Sweet white corn.” I looked at him, not sure I understood. “You mean…you mixed vegetables with…vodka?”
“No. I dumped the fucking vegetables. But I figure I need vitamins, so I use the juice for drinks.”
“Oh, right. Makes an interesting cocktail Dr. Zero, thanks.”
Dr. Zero sat on a low stool and picked up the needle. A mechanical hum began. The muscle in Dr. Zero’s arm tightened and flexed. I moved my head to try and see the tattoo that wrapped around his upper arm. There was a lot of red and cherubs and men with swords.
“Very medieval. What’s the scene on your arm?”
“Don’t you college kids ever read the Bible?”
“No, well not now, not in the classes I’m taking.”
“It’s when the goddamn Romans murder all the first born sons to find Jesus. A bloody massacre.”
Not something to look at when a needle is pumping into your arm. I turned to the table next to me and studied an ashtray full of greasy candy corns. Above it hung a torn reproduction of the infamous four dogs playing poker. The needle punctures shot slivers of pain up my arm. I took a healthy gulp of Dr. Zero’s concoction and looked down. Entranced, I watched a drop of blood bubble up between my translucent hairs, wobbling there until Dr. O blotted it with a stained rag made of denim.
Dr. Zero moved his stool to the opposite side of my wrist and I scrutinized his other arm. I recognized this scene. Jesus rising from the dead.
“Easter. What is this? Are you religious?”
“I read the Bible.”
“Roman Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian? What are you?”
“None. That’s bullshit. I just read the Bible.”
“An independent scholar. And do you believe it, Dr. Zero?”
“You don’t?” He eyed me suspiciously.
“I believe it’s biblical history, but…well, you know there’ve been many translations and it was written a long time ago.”
“History is history.”
“A lot of religions have–”
Dr. Zero lowered his eyelids until all I could see was a slit of white. He clutched my wrist even tighter in his vise-like grip and my voice rose an octave. I changed the direction of our conversation.
“What other scenes do you have tattooed?”
“Moses, on my upper back, parting of the red sea–on my ass. On my chest, the creation of man. My bellybutton is the apple and my dick the serpent.”
He began to unbutton his vest.
“No, no, I believe you. Really.”
He dropped the idea of disrobing and picked up the needle again. I took another guzzle and spilled the sticky drink down my chin and neck.
“I’m doing this for my mother.”
“Yeah? My first one was for my mother. See.”
He pointed to his arm. I looked, but all I could see was a long-haired Jesus wearing flowing robes in front of an open tomb, surrounded by angels. He tapped his arm impatiently and then I noticed in the center of the scene, next to Jesus’ halo, a heart with an arrow and the word, MOM, written in it.
“Nice. I don’t mean like that exactly though, what I mean is that my mother has one also.”
“Mine too, a heart with my name. On her bicep.” He flexed his tattoos and stared out the window. “Mom and me, we’re close. We take a trip every year–she’s been going to Daisy’s before I was born.”
I was jealous of Dr. Zero and his mother. My mother kept me at a distance all my life, as if she were afraid of me. I have never felt close to her.
Lifting the can to my lips, I took a drink noticing at the bottom, two kidney shaped greenbeans floating toward my mouth. I jerked the can down and my lower lip caught on the edge. I touched my finger to my lip and then looked at my finger. It was smudged with blood and even though it didn’t hurt, my eyes welled up with tears.
Dr. Zero finished the tail fin and stood up. I had no idea what time it was in the real world, but I knew the sun was bound to rise soon and I was due to be at my family’s for Thanksgiving Day.
I walked home in the dreary early morning fog. It swirled around me, dreamlike and I felt peaceful, except for the throbbing of my wrist. Collapsing on the couch, I slept before heading to the holiday meal. I wore a long-sleeved dress with a extra long sleeves. The fabric rubbed against my wrist and the tattoo felt heavy, like an iron chain.
The house seemed to stand out brighter in the approaching dusk than I remembered. Moss-green house paint contrasted with the pink camellia bushes blooming near the varnished door. Wiping my feet on the straw welcome mat, I noticed the welcome had worn off.
In the kitchen, my mother appeared small and frail after the largeness of Dr. Zero. I hovered near the counter, wanting to be near her, to see if she would feel something different, maybe a new intimacy. But everything was the same.
A harsh buzzer sounded and she grabbed a flowered potholder, reaching into the oven. The bare bulb from the oven shone on her face. Her shirt sleeve rose above her wrist showing the aged, green numbers etched onto her loose skin and I reached down, gently touching my own wrist.
Laureen Vonnegut is an American writer living between Romania and Mexico.
June 2011 her novel, TWIN LIES, was released by Skorpion Press. Her previous novel, OASIS, was launched in New York by literary press Counterpoint/ Perseus Books.
In the United States she has had over a dozen short stories published in five different states. In the UK, she has had a short story in the VIRAGO anthology: THE NERVE – BOOK OF WRITING WOMEN and two excerpts from her novel HANDS DO LIE. In addition to a short story in STAPLE magazine and a script, CROTCH PIT, published in EM3 magazine, she was shortlisted for the Ian St James Award.
Currently she is workshopping her theater play, THE PORCINI TEST.
From the Illustrator:
I also looked for words and phrases within ‘Fish Bones’ that provided suitable imagery and inspiration to produce a spot illustration. The sentence ‘ The outline of black ribs wound across my wrist-bone and on top of my purple veins like a spiralling zipper.’ in particular, stood out to me. I like the idea of visually interpreting this description by combining the fish bones and the ‘spiralling zipper’ to create an image.