In Which Esther Gets a Tattoo
by H. W. Moss

It took two weeks to make the decision to get one, but once her mind was made up Esther had to spend another full hour selecting the absolute best image to have inked on her skin.

What she could not say, however, was why, exactly, she wanted a tattoo in the first place. Like having a tooth removed: It's forever.

Meaningful, Esther rationalized. Proclaims my individuality. Weren't Tattoo Tony and Tattoodles oodles and oodles of fun? Didn't Janis have one? Mom wouldn't like it. Billy wants me to get one. A gift, my gift to Billy. Besides, everyone else is getting them. Does it hurt?

No, she was told. Not really. Just a mosquito bite. But once you sit for one, you'll want another.

She did not understand why that was.

When at last she had worked up the courage, she stood in the confined room of a tiny tattoo parlor on Haight Street and tried to decide on a design. She sorted through sample sheets of thin paper imprinted with cartoon characters, clouds, fire and lightening, stylized lettering in Cyrillic, serif and Roman alphabets, idealized images of the sun, moon and stars, ornate butterflies, bees and flowers until she ultimately picked one out, the red lips from the Stones' Sticky Fingers album, as her image of choice.

One of Billy's favorite discs, she thought as she removed the paper from its cellophane wrapping.

Surprising herself with the firmness of her decision, she waltzed over to the shaggy-haired man with a ZZ Top beard standing behind the counter.

"Lemme see the flash," he said reaching out a hand. Her facial expression must have been one of total incomprehension because he immediately clarified his request: "What'd you pick out, lady?" Polite, but condescending nonetheless.

"Oh." Esthjer presented the slip of paper to him.

That'll be sevenny-five, lady." As she opened her purse and paid, he said, "Get in line. Got a zot and two colors of a rainbow to finish. Unless George over there can take you sooner."

She approached a bench and sat down to wait patiently with four other people, three men and a woman. The men were in line before her, each clutching a piece of paper with art work on it. The woman was not in the queue. She wore an enigmatic expression and held her hand over a white bandage on her upper arm.

The oldest among the men could not be in his late 30's. Esther had noticed him when she first entered the shop. He was shirtless, his upper torso adorned with a colorful peacock. Feathers wound around the right side of his body and blossomed in radiant plumage that splayed out along his back.

Ether admired the human canvas and caught herself staring.

The man sat alert to the bee-like whine of the electric needle bar busily at work in a booth across the room. Everyone could clearly hear the buzz of the drills and sometimes conversations in progress. She listened as one artist told an old joke about the woman who wanted Elvis tattooed on the inside of her left thigh and Liberace on the inside of her right.

He ended with, "I don't know who the other two fellas are, but that's definitely Willie Nelson in the middle."

The line moved and suddenly it was her turn. Her lot fell to the bearded man who had taken her money. She followed him to a leather covered table upon which he indicated she should lie down.

"Where you want this?"

Ankle, she said pointing to a spot above her right foot. She had picked it out as the least obtrusive, an area that could be covered by leotards or stockings if need be.

"Number three on the list of most popular places to be tattooed," he said as he nonchalantly twisted the foot in his hand and scrutinized the area in question.

She still had just that smidgen of doubt but was able to force resolve into her voice when she added: "Upside down."

The man looked up at her through squinted eyes. "That's a bit unusual. You sure about that?" When she nodded yes, he said, "Okay. It's your body.

"This doesn't hurt, right?" hoping her fear was masked by the question.

"Sure it hurts, dolly," he said hefting his needle gun and making it hum. An electric cord trailed out of sight behind him. "But don't you worry none," he said soft as a sparrow. "Ol' Doc Dread will take care of you. You won't even notice once I get started. Relax. Feels no more than like you was gettin' pinched."

She wanted to ask if he used a local anesthetic but knew the answer: that was not part of the process.

He leaned over her, propped the foot up and cinched a strap over her calf to hold it in position. Then he swabbed the spot with alcohol, let that dry a few seconds before spraying it with an aerosol deodorant. Next, he placed the tracing paper on her skin, image side down, and sat back to light a cigarette.

"Gotta let that set," he said with a wink. After several puffs, "That oughta do it." He reached across and peeled the paper off. A neatly traced black outline remained on the surface. "You want this in red and black? Maybe a touch of white on the back of the tongue?"

It took Esther a moment to realize she was supposed to make a decision. Anticipation was beginning to get the upper hand and an unreasoning desire to panic had begun to swell within her. She wanted to believe it was the same as visiting her family physician and allowed Doc Dread to take complete control as he manipulated the foot and prepared the overlay. He waited for her response.

"What colors do I have to choose from?"

"Hey, it's your choice, girl. I don't care if you want pink polka dots. Mostly, people get this in red and black, though."

Red and black, she said nodding her head and biting back a growing concern.

He placed several ink pots on a silver tray in front of him, dipped the tip of the needle bar in one and pressed a button. She lay back as the device began its work. The initial touch on her white skin was delicate, a lover's lips nibbling, warm breath tickling. Then the bit sank its fang deeper and deposited its first drops.

Esther felt a large, sharp hurt that ran all the way up her leg into her groin where it delivered a stunningly abusive blow that shook her entire body. It was a knife slash and a paper cut and a hammer hitting her thumb all at once and for one agonizing moment she felt as if someone had just slammed a bottle up against her head or punched her in the stomach. Every nerve in the leg began to scream for mercy as the needle continued its relentless work.

"Over the bone here," the artist observed casually as he stubbed the cigarette out with his free hand. "Bound to smart some."

She lurched in the chair and fought back tears. She clamped her jaws shut, clenched her fists and almost hit him in order to stop the agony. A muscle in her shoulder began to spasm and she tried to sit up.

He responded by leaning his body closer toward her, his left arm coming to rest on her belly which pinned her in place. His other hand never stopped working the needle bar.

Her suffering rose to a higher level than she had ever experienced. The punishment was grueling. A burning agony ran straight up her spine and seeped out of her every pore.

"Virgin, hunh?" Dread said as he forced her into acquiescence. "Be glad you're not getting a band. Anything an inch wide and I have to use the four-headed liner."

The torture was unrelenting. It increased with every passing instant, grew in size like a balloon filling with air. The electric buzz in her ears became confused with a blinding white light that clouded her vision as hot pain consumed her.

Her bladder felt full to overflowing and she feared spilling its contents.

"Jeeezus!" she shouted, gasped and sucked air. "Jeeezus that hurts like hell. Jeezus, omigod, omigod!"

Dread paid no attention to her plight as he continued his work. He stopped periodically to take a different or better angle but any respite for Esther was minor. He hovered over her and boiled her foot in oil with what she imagined to be ghoulish delight.

Time had no meaning for her as every second stretched into an eternity of anguish. There was no way for her to tell how long she squirmed nor how long the pain lasted but there came a breathless moment when it disappeared entirely and she felt a glow of golden warmth replace the jagged-edged torment in which she had been wallowing.

It began at the top of her head, somewhere in her hair she later told Billy and those of her friends who would listen to her detailed description of the experience. Joyful release flowed down and outward to her fingertips, along her outstretched body like the initial splash of water as it comes out of a shower head and covers you all over with warmth she would say with a zealot's wide eyes and undiminished enthusiasm.

Then came a total deadening of pain that allowed the whir of the needle as it worked its way under her skin to rise to the forefront of her mind. She exulted in the senseless sound it made. She became exhilarated with a chaotic quiet she had not enjoyed since her first acid rush and a beautific smile upturned her lips.

"Wondered when those damn endorphins would kick in," Doc Dread muttered, then sat back to admire his work. "That's it for the outline, darlin'. Now to get some color in that baby."

He dipped the needle in red ink, pressed the button and took aim. It did not occur to her the operation had only just begun.

This time as the sound reached her ears she felt higher than she had ever felt on Ecstasy and as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Her attitude changed from that of a cowering animal to a brazen daredevil. She felt exhilarated and capable of solving the world's problems. Bring on the Arabs, let's sit 'em down with the Israelis. Population explosion and food shortages? Not a problem. She found herself beyond pain, in a place she had never before visited and nothing Dread did could change that. He eased up and released his hold on her. She propped herself up on her elbows to look down the long path to where her foot joined her leg and emitted a low growling noise like an animal in heat that made her former tormentor glance in her direction.

He said nothing and continued coloring.

Several times during the course of his work he stopped briefly and swabbed blood away with a cotton ball. Occasionally he adjusted the bar's tension and numerous times paused in his work to dip the needle. Eventually, he turned the machine off entirely but by then Esther felt like asking him to continue.

"Nice job if I do say so myself," he said sitting back and admiring his efforts. "That what you wanted to see, honey?"

Esther was way beyond taking offense with his rude familiarity. She leaned forward and attempted to focus on the image irrevocably etched in her skin but the effort was muted by the lingering effects of her natural high.

Dread put a hand on her shoulder and gently pressed her back down on the table. "Looky here. This is gonna sting," he said as he swabbed the completed tattoo with a new cotton ball soaked in a white anesthetic. It shocked her back to her senses and she jumped in response to its touch.

With practiced hands, he opened a sterile gauze pad and applied it to her ankle. "Leave this on 'til tomorrow," he said as he taped it in place. "And replace it every day for the next five days. You're all done now, deary. Here, lemme help you up."

She felt woozy as she stood, but her legs held.

"There ain't no recovery room. Not enough space in the shop. Why don't you just sit on that bench over there 'til you feel like walking. I got another job to do."

Esther hobbled over and sat down. She now completely understood the strange expression on the face of the woman who had been sitting there earlier. It came from the worn out, wrung out, squeezed dry like a sponge feeling you had after eight hours of hallucinogens.

But her recovery was swift. In less than fifteen minutes, Esther felt fit enough to return to the outside world. Going against Doc Dread's orders, she peeled the sterile pad off before Billy got home and wiped the dry flakes of blood away from the surface of the wound. When she showed it to him after dinner, he hugged her and laughed about it being upside down.

She smiled at his bemused inquiry.

So I can admire it too, silly boy.

She did not tell him she already intended to visit Doc Dread again next week, this time to have him work on the other leg. Nor that she was planning on a butterfly for her right shoulder.

A peacock was a bit much, though. She would have to think about it. A floral arrangement. Now that was something to consider.