Gene watched the tattoo artist, one Sid Sinowski of No Mercy Tattoos & Body Piercings, mix Luanne’s ashes into the ink. The tattooist grunted from time to time as he worked, scratched at his thick neck which was covered in art like the rest of his exposed skin (save for his scruffy face). Even the flesh that shone through the holes in his faded, sleeveless black t-shirt was an artist’s canvas.
Sid smiled, whipped his brown ponytail off his shoulder with a thrust of his head. “Sure. Safe as anything else, buddy.” His voice rumbled like a motorcycle, possibly like the chopper parked outside at the curb of the red brick building.
“As long as it’s safe,” said Gene.
Sid pointed to a topless hula dancer on his massive bicep, his finger on the grass skirt. “My dad’s ashes are in this one.”
“Nice,” Gene nodded. “Was he from Hawaii?”
“No. He was a landscaper. Where you want this thing?”
Gene had decided on the underside of his right forearm. The butterfly design he selected was the one Luanne had been eyeing before the aneurysm killed her two months prior. The butterfly was brown, black and gold. Where the lines on the wings formed skulls would be bone-yellow.
“How long were you married?”
“We weren’t married.” Gene climbed into what looked like an old dental chair. He stretched his arm out on a support which jutted from the side. “We were together for twelve years, though. So common law, I guess.”
“All the same pain,” Sid remarked and gloved up. The latex popped like a gunshot. He got a razor to shave Gene’s arm. “Since this a memorial type thing, I’ll throw in a Prince Albert for free.”
“I’m good,” Gene assured him. “Just the tattoo for now.”
“The offer stands,” he said and got to work.
Gene had two previous experiences with body art: a puzzle box on his left shoulder and the Rolling Stones lips and tongue logo on his right butt cheek. He was familiar with the sting and burn of the needle, but this butterfly hurt like hell. “Oh, wow,” he squeaked, half ready to call it quits.
“Well, no mercy,” Sid said, watchful of his handicraft.
“Should it hurt this bad? Is it the ashes?”
“Nah. Not a lot of muscle here.”
Gene objected, “There’s muscle.”
“Not a lot.”
“But there’s muscle.”
“Sure,” Sid said, undisturbed. “Tender area is all.”
“That’s all,” Gene agreed. “Probably just sore from working out or something.”
“Probably. You want I should stop a minute?”
Gene grimaced. “No.” He kept his eyes closed for strength as the needle’s motor whorled and buzzed in around the interior of his head. His arm felt as if it were being ripped apart.
“You go to the community playhouse any?”
Gene opened his eyes. “No,” escaped his tensed lips. A wildfire had ignited on his forearm and was spreading to the rest of him. Sweat pooled on his brow, his armpits soaked through his shirt. In his shoes he curled his toes.
“Oh, you should go. They do good stuff down there.” Sid looked at him, needle suspended mid-air. “Last weekend I saw Annie Get Your Gun. It was like a moment in church. Just as good as the tractor pulls and demolition derbies at the speedway.” He resumed his work and sang softly, “You can’t get a man with a gun, with a gun, with a gun….”
Gene was positive he had sweated himself into dehydration by the time Sid began filling in the butterfly’s colors, but his body managed to squeeze more perspiration from his pores. He thought in instances of extreme pain the brain was supposed to shut down or release some kind of natural painkiller. Gene’s brain seemed to have failed him, yet again.
“Mind if I ask how long your wife’s been gone?”
“Couple of months,” Gene replied.
Gene rested his head on the back of the chair. “Thank you.”
“I was married once.”
Sid’s eyes, momentarily, cut up to his client. “Yeah. Handful of years.”
Sid shook his head. “She was killed.”
Gene’s mouth went drier. “Killed?”
“I didn’t do it.” Sid continued with the needle. “Skydiving accident. She hit a mountain.”
“Well, she forgot her parachute, too,” Sid said. “She had a lot going on. That’s when I decided I didn’t need a lot going on. I cleaned up, sobered up. After a couple of years, I opened this place.”
Gene looked around at the metal band and horror movie posters on the walls, the pictures of smiling customers sporting new art. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
Sid took a moment and thought about it. “I have.”
The butterfly continued in silence punctuated by little bursts of conversation until it was complete.
Gene stared at the dark butterfly on his arm. The twin skulls in the wings gazed menacing and majestic.
“Thank you,” Gene said, lost in the perfect lines of the butterfly.
Sid rang up the amount, ran Gene’s card through the computer. “Would she have liked it?”
“Who? Luanne? No,” Gene said. “She would have hated it.”
Sid didn’t know whether to laugh or not. “What do you mean? Why would she have hated it?”
“Because it was the one she was going to get. Plus, she’s in the ink and we’re together forever now.” Gene smiled. “I got this out of spite. Spiting the dead is kinda pointless, but still. When she died, Luanne was packing her bags to leave me after twelve long years of hell. She made me miserable every single day. All the fussing, arguments, all her cheating. I hated her and she hated me.”
Sid had to sit down. “Why did you stay together?”
“We loved each other.”
“Holy shit.” Sid handed him his credit card. “Well, I hope you enjoy it or hate it or whatever it is you’re looking to get out of it.”
“I will,” Gene beamed. “Thank you.” He looked at the art on his arm. “It really means something.”
“Any time,” Sid said.
Gene paused at the door, he watched the cars outside on the street. He turned around to Sid with the hammer of an idea striking the anvil in his head. “Did you know there’s a tractor pull this weekend?” he asked the tattooist.