It was Friday night and he stood at the crest of the street, with a wad of his severance pay clutched in one sweaty fist. He had made a conscious decision to be completely irresponsible with it; it would not go toward food or anything useful. He would blow it on experience. A colorful scar. A well-worn cliché. He would get a tattoo.
Old town was festooned with them. He had his pick of franchises, scary back-alley deals, and family mom-and-pop style places where children ran the till. On a whim, he went to one of those first. A tiny Chinese girl waited the counter, smiled at his money, and called back to someone behind a beaded curtain. An old man hobbled out, possibly her grandfather.
Studiously ignoring the money, the old man made an upward sweeping motion with his hand.
“Take off your shirt.”
The old man examined him for a moment before making a tut-tut noise and turning away.
“No good,” he called back, “can’t do.”
He shrugged it off, thanked the girl to blushing, and set out into the night.
The next place was called the “Odditorium” and doubled as a kitschy artifact shop. A Fiji Mermaid hung over the sign, a two-headed goat under glass shared the counter with the register and a bowl marked “humbugs.” He smiled at the clerk of ambiguous gender and neon hair and slid his money across the counter. The clerk stopped him with a hand.
The smile froze on his face. There was a minute’s muffled conversation in the next room, and a tall man with a flaming red Mohawk joined the clerk at the counter. He cocked his head and scrutinized the customer. Apparently nothing to his liking. Bolster returned to his cliffs.
“Give him his money back,” the giant called back over his shoulder.
Iration gave him back his tongue. “Wait,” he snapped pettishly, “why?”
He found himself nearly eye-to-navel with the giant.
“I need a reason?” the man grunted.
He collected his dignity and left.
What had been hope faded to disappointment as the story repeated itself in every parlor, every storefront he stopped into. He had not been entirely married to the idea in the first place, had even entertained the notion of backing out once the first pinprick fell, but the rejection now strengthened his resolve. It wasn’t the tattoo anymore.
The women down by the co-op who did theirs traditional soot-and-thread style rejected him. The Laotians locked the door behind him. A young man, neck to nuts Maori blue swirls, cracked his knuckles defensively as his sister, the artist, ushered the would-be customer out.
It was nearly the end of the night, the second night that starts not at sundown, but when day-shoppers retire to bed and those that live beyond daylight awaken, and he was dead on his feet.
There was one last sign. Jiro Tattoo.
He had just stopped to ponder whether it was grammatically incorrect, or whether “Jiro” was in fact the style of tattoo, when he saw an aged man shuffling to the open sign that was handwritten in block caps. He dashed to the door and crammed an elbow in before the old man could react.
The old man nodded slowly, seemingly resigned to one last customer.
“I would like a tattoo.”
The tense fear in his stomach abated somewhat when the old man waved him in.
“Come in,” he said finally, “I’ll make tea.”
While the old man moved about in carpet slippers, he examined the parlor. It looked as if it doubled as the old man’s living quarters in the daylight, and no effort had been made to disguise that. A visitor’s couch had a folded blanket and a pillow perched on one arm, as if waiting for him to leave. He realized the old man was looking at him.
“Your color…it isn’t right.”
Suppressing the obvious smartass answers, he replied, “I don’t see what my color has to do with anything.”
The old man studied him detachedly, as if considering a stretch of blank cement. A calico cat rubbed at his ankles, forcing one sock to inch downwards. He bent and stroked the cat, pulling his sock in the same motion.
“Take off your shirt, please,” Jiro said.
He shrugged, a hot irritation beginning to prickle at his eyelids, and complied. He slid off his shirt, revealing the off-white milk of his torso. His stomach shone like a globular moon, his nipples perched dark pink on skin just beginning to dip downward in soft conical mounds. Jiro tapped his teeth with a fingernail, sweeping his gaze left-to-right, right-to-left. Finally he sighed.
He let out an angry breath. “But for god’s sake, why?”
Jiro spoke while measuring scalding water into a cup with no handle. “Your skin is…wrong. Can’t think of the word for it. You would degrade my inks.”
He felt the anger settle sick into his stomach, and tossed his balled-up shirt at the older man.
“Come on, you must poke thousands of idiots a year,” he said, hating how it came out like a whine, “what’s different about me?”
The old man didn’t flinch at the polyester ball that hit his shoulder, didn’t look up from his tea. His cat sniffed the shirt.
“I am an artist. Like you say, I tattoo many people. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. But I can do nothing with your skin. It lacks character.”
“Character?” He barked laughter. “Character? If this is a money thing—”
The old man cut him off. “It’s not. It is…hard to describe. I have seen a few like you, coming to walk the street at night. But none of them have ever come into my parlor.”
He shook his head slowly. “I don’t…I don’t understand.”
The old man looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time. “You don’t? Permit me to help. You see that glass over there?”
Jiro pointed to what he had assumed to be an empty doorway. Now he noticed the ornate red frame, with characters outlined in gold. He’d assumed they were for good fortune.
“What does a glass door have to do with anything?”
The old man nodded toward the doorway again. “You’ll see. Go ahead.”
He approached it slowly, suppressing the urge to glance back at the old man every other step. If he was having fun, let him have fun. The money was still safe in his front pocket.
He came forward until he was almost nose to nose with the glass. It looked out on a room nearly identical to this one, for all its clutter. Its surface was dusty, streaked in places where people had probably grazed it with their fingertips. He did so now.
“I don’t see it,” he called back without taking his eyes from the surface.
The old man was rummaging in a utensil drawer, metal things clanked. “Keep looking. “
He made a fist around his money and gazed into the room. Was this a funhouse deal, something to jump out and scare him into shitting his pants and running away?
“It’s just an empty glass,” he called back again.
The old man appeared before him, so suddenly that he did jump. He had a long knife or a small sword in his hands.
“Not a glass,” Jiro told him, “mirror.”
The stab was icy-hot at first, then burning, burning his whole body until he felt made of flames, writhing on the floor with a thousand foul names for the old man swilling uselessly behind his tongue as he screamed and screamed and screamed and…
Jiro sat at the counter to finish his tea. He paged through the June Issue of Bon Appétit while he did so. Mii-chan bumped his elbow and meowed, he let go of the magazine to scratch her beneath the chin. As dawn touched grey to the far corner of the sky, he got up, stretched, and hooked his hands under the young man’s armpits. There was a back alley he used to store old junk that he wanted gone the next day. He laid the young man there now, confident that he would disappear with the daylight as well.