Thursday, October 24, 2013

Don't Breathe a Word

Graham was not the kind of kid who lied. Today though he’d worked out the birth date that would make him eighteen, and kept the number crouching there on the tip of his tongue just waiting to pounce. He walked up the three steps to the white clapboard house he passed on the way to school every day, and took a deep breath. “Nineteen fifty-three,” he whispered, and then repeated it. He knocked on the screen door trying not to think about his lack of muscles and non-existent peach fuzz.

No answer. So he kicked the door until it rattled. Graham could feel the piece of paper he had been working on all weekend softening in his hot hand. He peered up close to one of the panes of glass, painted black from the inside, and got a shadowy reflection of himself. Graham kicked again. He heard the inner door being unlocked and then the man appeared. He was tall and stooped. He held a cigarette tightly between his thumb and forefinger. With the screen door closed Graham eyed him through the mesh. He could just about see inside and wished he had clothes more suited to the place. Maybe something with a Stones logo on it. His Montreal Canadiens T-shirt embarrassed him.

“We’re not open yet,” said the man letting loose a long, chesty cough.

Graham stared at the grey beard growing in one straight line from just below his bottom lip.

“But can I book an appointment anyway?”

“For who? Your older brother?”

“No I don’t have an older brother.” As he said those words, Cynthia’s face came to him and he pushed it away as quickly as it had appeared. “It’s for me.”

The man laughed, “I’m sorry young man but you have to be eighteen to come here.”

He was just about to turn away when Graham flung open the screen door and pushed past him. He’d forgotten his rehearsals where he’d made up stories of growing disorders and hormonal imbalances, and worst of all he’d forgotten his made-up birth date. All of his practicing was useless once the man started shouting.

“Hey kid, get outta here!” he hollered, but Graham was already pulling the money out of his pockets and throwing the stolen bills onto the black leather sofa in the middle of the room.

“Please. Please. You don’t understand. I need to....” Tears crept up his throat, and as he swallowed them back down, the man picked up each note one by one – four fifties – and counted them.

“Two hundred dollars.” He pulled on his stringy beard and looked hard at Graham. “So what’s this all about? Where did you get this?”

Graham calmed himself, and the next bit came out with a naturalness that surprised him. “For the last four years, that is, ever since I was ten,” he said adding two years for good measure, “I’ve been mowing lawns in the neighbourhood. It all adds up,” Graham said using one of his dad’s expressions.

The man sat down on the sofa and asked Graham what he had in his hand. Graham held out the piece of paper.

“I see. Your girlfriend’s name is it?”

“Not exactly.”

Graham was hoping not to have to explain anything. Once he started talking he couldn’t stop. Like the time the principal, Mr Conklin, called him into his office to say how sorry he was and Graham ended up describing the accident and how he and Cynthia had swapped places and if they hadn’t she’d be the one still alive not him. He clenched his fists until his nails dug into his palms, and watched the man slowly re-light his roll-up while squinting at the piece of paper.

“OK, so where do you want it?” The man dragged hard on his cigarette to keep it burning.

Graham felt his palms relax. He lifted up his T-shirt and twisting from his waist pointed to a spot high up on his back. “There.”

The man stayed seated, and reaching up, let his fingers run along the dip between Graham’s shoulder blades. Graham couldn’t believe that the hands touching him were those belonging to the name he saw from the school bus every morning and afternoon:

Randall’s Body Art

Ontario’s oldest Custom Tattoo Parlour

Adults only

“How big?”

“Bigger than I’ve done it. I want it huge. I want it so that no one will forget it if they see it.”

“Gosh you must really like her.”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“In black ink?”


“Right my boy. Lie down on your stomach.”

Graham watched him pocket the money.

Randall then rummaged around out of sight, and came back with a needle attached to a long tube of red rubber, some cotton wool and bottles of transparent liquid, like the ones Cynthia had on her dressing table. He lined everything up on a stool next to Graham but before getting started he squatted, bringing his face level with Graham’s. The man’s grey watery eyes were those of old dog.

“Now you listen to me young man, we have a deal OK? I do your tattoo, and you keep your mouth shut. Right?”

Graham nodded.

“If anyone finds out, I’ll lose my license and get into loads of shit. And I don’t need more shit. You got it?”

Graham nodded again.

“I want to hear you say it. Tell me you won’t breathe a word. You won’t breathe a word – to anyone.”

Graham repeated, “I promise I won’t breathe a word.”

“And what if your mum sees it while you’re at the doctor’s or something. What will you say then?”

“She’s dead.”

“You’d say that?”

“No, I mean you don’t need to worry about that. She’s dead.”

“And your dad?”

“He’s still alive.”

“No I mean what if your dad sees you. I dunno swimming or something. What will you say?”

“Nothing.” Then Graham lied again, “he wouldn’t mind anyway, he’s got loads of tattoos.”

“I hope you’re telling the truth,” Randall said.

Graham didn’t reply in case he broke the spell and Randall changed his mind. He kept still and let him get on with swabbing his back. The cool liquid smelled like rubbing alcohol. Then Randall began tracing the letters with something like a ballpoint pen. Graham tried to imagine how the letters would look from the feeling of the pen’s nib against his skin. While Randall concentrated, Graham rolled his eyes upwards to look at the photos tacked to the walls. He had seen similar pictures in the magazines his dad kept under the bed. Some of the pictures were signed. A woman in a bright red bikini lying across a big black bike caught his eye. Graham could just make out the handwriting: ‘To Randi, Thanks a million, Luv Cindi.’ A tattooed snake coiled up her right leg. He thought it was some sort of sign that she almost had his sister’s name.

“Now, I don’t want you to look. Keep that head down.” Randall cleared his throat as he spoke and pushed down hard on the back of Graham’s head.

Graham heard him get up, and then a click. He lifted his head just enough to see Randall plug the long rubber tube into a socket. Then Graham felt the hand again. “I said don’t look. Believe me it’s easier for us both.”

Graham obediently hid his face in his forearms.

Randall turned the machine on, and over the whirring said, “this’ll hurt a bit. I want you to focus on the noise, not the feeling. You’ll see it’s a bit like a pinprick.”

As the man spoke Graham noticed a soft breeze on his skin. Then suddenly he felt it. It was worse than he expected. It wasn’t like a pinprick at all. It was more like the carpet burns he used to get on his knees and elbows when he and Cynthia wrestled.

Thinking of her helped him put up with the pain. Out of sheer stubbornness he wouldn’t allow himself to cry. He stayed as still as he could for as long as possible and let Randall go to work on his back. Once he felt the machine reach the middle point between his shoulder blades, he adjusted his head and noticed the tingling in his left arm. It had fallen asleep but he didn’t dare move in case Randall got angry or lost his concentration and then Graham would be stuck with ‘CYN’ or ‘CYNT’ on his back. He wondered if that ever happened. If there were people wandering around with unfinished words on their bodies.

During what seemed a very, very long time, Graham drifted off into thinking about Cynthia and about what he’d be doing right now if they were at home. Probably eating cookies. Their mum used to say that they would all turn into buckets of lard if she didn’t stop with the chocolate chip cookies. But Graham and his father never complained. When the pain deepened, Graham experimented with breathing at different speeds. When that didn’t help, he focused on the close-up leather of the sofa, trying to make out patterns. Just as he thought he could see the shape of a rocket, or maybe the Empire State building, Randall stood up.

He turned the machine off and Graham heard him say with a sigh, “there.”

Graham began to roll over and the man shouted, “stay where you are. Don’t move!” Graham froze, and then Randall said, “no need for alarm. I just want to tell you a few things before you do anything. Just stay on your front and we’ll let that scab do its thing for a while.” He left the room for a few minutes and returned with some pieces of paper. “You can read can’t you?” he asked.

Graham nodded.

“Good I want you to stay still for a bit and read these.”

He handed Graham some muddy photocopies. The top copy had a large title in bold letters ‘Keeping your tattoo clean’. Another one was headed ‘Keeping your tattoo bright’. The last one was called ‘What happens if you change your mind — removing your tattoo’. Graham scanned them all, not really taking them in.

“Right, I guess you’ll want to see it then,” Randall said as if reading Graham’s mind.

“Yeah.” Graham wanted to sound cool but the excitement was too much, and his voice cracked and went up an octave.

The man picked up a mirror and held it up facing a full-length mirror propped against the wall. “C’mon over then.”

Graham swung himself off the couch, his head reeling slightly. He stood between the two mirrors. The word was bigger and blacker than he had imagined, and the bubbles of drying blood only made it more impressive. Where Graham had drawn almost fearful squiggles onto his piece of paper, Randall had drawn impressive flourishes as if he’d plucked each letter from an alphabet designed for an April Wine album cover. The tail of the ‘y’ coiled back around the ‘C’ and the cross of the ‘t’ snaked around the dot of the ‘i’. He had taken Graham’s marks and made them into something beautiful, amazing, frightening. Graham would call it a work of art and Randall a master. Despite his amazement all he was able to force out of his mouth was, “wow”.

“Happy customer?”

“Yeah.” Graham wanted to stand and gaze at his back forever, but Randall put the mirror down.

“C’mon, it’s getting late, I’ve got people coming ‘round.” He handed Graham his T-shirt and then tossed him a bandage wrapped in cellophane. “And if it starts to act up put this over it. It’s medicated.”

Graham folded it and stuffed it into the back pocket of his Jeans. “Thanks,” he said, still transfixed by the image he had just seen.

“And come back and tell me what she thinks of it. This Cynthia of yours.”

“Yeah, OK.”

“Maybe she’ll come and get your name put on her back.”

“Yeah, Maybe.”

Graham winced as the cotton of his T-shirt brushed his tattoo. The man caught Graham’s expression and added, “and don’t sleep on your back for a few nights. It’ll be fine after that. You’ll never even know it’s there.”

Graham didn’t want to hear that. He wanted to feel it all the time, from the moment he woke up to the moment he curled up in bed. And when the pain of this one went, he would get another. He walked down the steps into the sunshine and jumped onto his bicycle. As he pedalled, his loose T-shirt flapped like the sail of a boat, brushing against his tender back. The faster he pedalled the faster the blood pumped around his body, and the more the black ink mingled with his blood, seeping into him, into a place so deep inside him. A place he had yet to name.

This story was long-listed in the 2012 Mslexia short story competition:

Also published in Riptide, 2011:

And joint first place winner in the 2010 Segora short story award:

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