He called himself Sam, “like Uncle Sam.” No one knew what his real name was. He claimed he was the tattooed man for a circus, wandered far and long without a shirt to show his bare, white torso. He’d flex the fat under his flesh and call for us to touch the pictures that weren’t there.
This was long before milk carton pictures and PSAs, so the little our parents could do was warn against approaching him. Like that worked. He approached us. He’d walk up and make muscles, tell us the same thing every time. He was a tattooed man at the Scarborough Traveling Circus for twenty-odd years before they paid him to leave. He had a way of looking at you, straight on, no blinking. He didn’t move his eyes. If you were beside him, he’d turn his whole head to look.
When we’d back away, he’d jiggle his chest at you and shout: “whatsamatta? Ain’t I tattooed enough for you?”
My dad tried time and again to find out where he lived. To find some kind of higher authority to make him stop. Tattoo Sam answered to no higher authority than himself. He’d hijack any conversation and wax poetic about his body. We started running when we saw him coming.
The split-level at the end of the block had been empty since Mr. Perretti had gone and had a heart attack. Then one day we saw a family drive up with their boxes and their furniture and their daughter in a long white sundress. We knew what trouble looked like, and it was that shy smile on her face. The family hadn’t moved in but one day before Sam scented her.
I bet her folks taught her to be kind. To laugh and smile because people were generally good at heart. Her folks had never met Sam. We watched him scent her like a hound after a rabbit. He sat sweating in the sun, a great ice-milk of a man, with one hand on her shoulder pinning her in place. We didn’t need to hear him to know what he was saying. It was the same thing he’d said all along.
This girl didn’t have the skills we did, she smiled and sweated and waited for the end.
Sam said she could go just as soon as she touched his tattoo.
We know she must’ve asked, what tattoo? We could see her pink lips move in the sunlight. She let him guide her hand. She let out the most blood-curdling shriek any of us had ever heard.
In all the time he’d haunted our home, none of us cared to get too close to Tattoo Sam. This girl was right up against him and she set off running in the other direction. None of us ever saw her again.
He pointed his flat eyes at us and laughed. That laughter haunted us the rest of our days, spilling out of his painted-on mouth and oozing down the cream-white ink that dotted his body. He laughed right up the block, the tattooed man of the Scarborough Traveling Circus, and never came back. You see, Sam wasn’t tattooed. Sam was the tattoo.