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“Dude,” Jack said with a gasp while gazing at the flickering neon sign, “let’s do it.” His friend, wide-eyed, nodded hesitantly. The sign read “AT OOS,” although every other minute or so the burnt out letters would revive themselves to read “TATTOOS.”
The old parlor sat right on the corner of 5th and Holden Street, approximately two blocks away from Jack’s house. Those two blocks, though, were like a bridge between two opposite poles. With each step in the direction of the parlor, the streets got dirtier, the grass was browner, and the air was filthier. Kids like Jack were scared by their parents to ever head in that direction.
“It’s not a place a boy like you should be hanging out,” his mother would say.
The sign buzzed and crackled. Jack slowly reached for the rusty doorknob. He had been in this part of town before, many times in fact. Right down the street was a shanty movie theater, Northfield Theatres. The building looked like it was about to collapse, and the sound and picture quality were crappy. But tickets were cheap and kids had no problem sneaking into R-rated movies. That’s actually where most of their business came from, so nobody really cared.
The hair on Jack’s neck stood up stiff. He had never before been inside the parlor. The moon was full, but it was hidden behind thick clouds, and even on a clear night, you could never see a single star in this side of town. The August breeze rustled, gently blowing around old newspapers and food bags. Jack held his breath, twisted the knob, and pushed.
The smell of rum and whiskey, cigarette smoke, and vomit rushed through the crack in the door, crashing into Jack’s nostrils simultaneously. He felt weak, but continued pushing until he was able to see the inside of the dumpy parlor. To his right, a man in a leather jacket and jeans sat sipping a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with his arm around a mean-looking chick with piercings all over her face. To his left sat a large, heavy-set guy, with a ponytail that reached his a**-crack and a goatee thick enough to house a squirrel. He had bulging biceps, covered in all sorts of tattoos. The back of his neck displayed in fine calligraphy the word “BAD.”
“Yeah,” Jack thought to himself, “that’s what I want. I want to be bad.”
The hefty man was biting down on the end of a Marlboro, while another man was drilling into the underside of his forearm, making some sort of gang symbol probably. Jack winced. He was able to see the dull needlepoint buzzing and growling as it moved across the man’s veiny arm. Jack wondered what the man must have said to his mother when he got his first tattoo. She must have been pissed.
Jack was so fixated on the man’s arm that he almost didn’t notice Louis. But out of the corner of his eye he was able to see his skinny, pale friend staring at his shoelaces, about ten feet behind him.
“What are you doing?” Jack said in a harsh whisper. Louis didn’t say anything. He just turned his shoulders and slowly started pacing away, gaining speed with each step.
“Where are you going? What are you, a p****?” Louis kept walking until he was practically out of sight. “Forget him,” Jack mumbled to himself. He took a small step forward and the heavy dungeon-like door slammed behind him. The entire shop went silent. The Jack Daniel’s guy, the pierced chick, and the ponytail man all snapped their heads around and stared at Jack. Jack felt sick to his stomach.
“Can I help you kid?” piped the man who was working on ponytail man’s forearm. He himself was covered in artwork from the neck down. The buzz from the giant needle was the only noise now.
“I, um, would like to get a tattoo,” Jack gulped.
“Is that so?” Sneered the man. “I thought you were looking for some candy or something.”
The ponytail guy chuckled.
Jack brought his hand to his face and gently rubbed his baby-soft cheeks and hairless chin with his sweaty palm.
“Well don’t just stand there like a fool,” said the man holding the needle. “Come grab a seat.”
The ponytail man had gotten up; he was all finished. But he didn’t leave. He was staring and smiling at Jack, like someone desperately in need of a laugh.
Jack started moving toward the beat up, red leather char where the needle-guy was. He passed a window, which had a gaping hole in the center of it, from a rock or bottle or something. He glanced at the hole, sharp glass around the edges, shaped kind of like a needle. It was raining outside. Not pouring, but it was by no means romantic.
“Serves you right, Louis,” Jack grumbled. He pictured his friend walking home, dripping wet and crying. He imagined Louis wishing he’d stayed at the parlor. But really, it was Jack that wished he had.
Jack slipped into the beat-up chair. His heart raced as he could now see the entire point of the needle hissing and shaking at him like a rattlesnake.
“What’ll it be?”
Jack hadn’t even thought about that.
“A skull,” Jack said impulsively. His voice squeaked and the man laughed, accompanied by the large chuckle of ponytail man in the background.
“And where would you like this skull?” the man said mockingly. Jack noticed the man had a nametag pinned onto his pitch-black Zeppelin shirt. It said Bulldog.
Jack rolled up his right sleeve and pointed to his shoulder, while he clenched his fist and made a muscle to try to make his bicep look bigger. Bulldog looked at him with a silly grin.
“As you wish, kid.”
Bulldog pressed a button on the needle and it buzzed even louder. It was practically screaming. Jack could not catch his breath. He felt so uncomfortable in the pungent parlor. It was warmer inside the parlor than outside. Bulldog had a small fan propped up on a table next to him, but it did nothing. Jack was melting into the leather chair.
Bulldog grabbed Jack’s forearm, squeezing really hard. Jack was going to yell out, but he realized Bulldog did it because his arm was shaking. He knew whole room was laughing at him now, even the pierced chick, but he couldn’t hear it over the buzzing from the needle.
Right next to Bulldog’s handheld fan was a miniature mirror, black framed and dirty. Jack was able to shift his body to the left to see his reflection. He stared at his face. He was paler than he’d remembered, and his forehead was visibly damp. He looked into his own hazel eyes. It reminded him of his mother – people had always said they have the same eyes. Jack would always awkwardly deny it, but secretly he enjoyed when people said that because his mother was beautiful. He was no longer looking at himself, but rather a reflection of his mother. She was standing, in her messy-white apron, shoulders hunched over from her restless day, but she wasn’t mad. Jack couldn’t understand it. Whenever he defied his mother in the past, it would result in a screaming match, followed by a grounding or some other unreasonable punishment. But no, there he saw in himself his mother, tired eyes, shaky hands, and she shook her head. She was disappointed in him. He was disappointed in himself.
The room was suddenly freezing to Jack. His neck shivered. The only warmth in the entire room was a tickling feeling on Jack’s right thigh. It was pleasantly warm, and it slowly made its way down his leg. For a moment, Jack was able to forget about the needle; or maybe it was because Bulldog had stopped. He was laughing so viscously hard that he had put the needle down. Everyone else was roaring too. The ponytail guy had to wipe his eyes, he was laughing so hard. Jack wiped sweat from his forehead and looked down. His light-blue Levi jeans had a large dark blue spot on it. Jack ran his fingertips over it. It was wet.
Jack’s eyes welled up with tears, and he stood up and quickly scurried out of the parlor and into the outside rain. He could still hear the laughter behind him as he walked the two blocks back to his house. He felt bad, and he didn’t like it.