Evening, last one in, Cubby sat inside a vintage Volkswagen cab while the driver, palming directions in his steering-wheel hand (a well-worn address, many times folded and unfolded), wended through narrow, rutted side streets and unpaved alleys, as deep into the inferno as one could get. In the rear, Cubby was bug-eyed; his face, puffed and distorted with drink and misdirected energy, was contorting into deformities, even worse than those of the passersby. The taxista discharged him before a block of battered storefronts. At one time, when the tumbledown street had been busy, the fronts had been painted like a fun-house, sharp pink against yellow. Now it was solid gang graffiti. Cubby knew where he was, and found a staircase leading up, hit a landing, passed through a metal gate with an unlatched asylum lock.

Beyond was a small apartment and a studio; every inch of wall was hung with flash; a weird array of sketches and photographs and wooden grape-crate slats decorated with abstract black tribal shapes, stark Catholic images; the Holy Infant and Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy and various miracle-working saints. The room reeked of hydrochloric acid, but it wasn't coming from the tattoo equipment, it was coming from the proprietor's skin; his sweat smelled like a car battery. He was perched on a grungy, mealy sofa in a vague lotus position. His feet, wrapped in heavy woolen socks, jutted over the edge; he was almost six and a half feet tall, and didn't fit the couch. Still, he had a settled look. A Parcheesi board sat on the floor beneath him, next to a grocery bag filled with reefer and some gems of local cuisine, three days old, half-eaten in a plate.

Cubby stood in the doorway, supporting himself, dumping perspiration. Swollen capillaries gave his eyes a severe, lusterless look; he focused them on the lotus man's chest. A scapular with a plastic cross hung there, and below that, on the skin, was a single, huge picture; a beautiful young Hindi boy, with his foot on the head of another beautiful young Hindi boy, who was dead.

The lotus man considered Cubby through fluttering eyelids. His name was Darius, but he went by 'Ant'. A joke, of course, referring to his size. Cubby could appreciate jokes like that. Ant looked like a marble carving; an intense pallor delved into the hollows of his cheeks, his lips were almost white. He was a junkie, and a certain lucidity arises in the skin of junkies, growing more intense in the weeks before they die. They begin to resemble sculptured shells, since the corrosion is moving from the inside out, like a corpse decomposing within a vacuum chamber. At the final stage, they fairly glow. Prevailing wisdom suggests that, since they are so close to death, the light is supernatural.

It was dusk, but a rooster was screaming somewhere. Ant unwound his limbs, pushed himself up, using a crutch cut from an acote branch. Acote was supposed to be spiritual wood, channeling potent energies. Barring intervention from one of the flash saints on the wall, he needed all the help he could get. He was from Oakland and was still a bit California cosmic; he'd come to Mexico chiefly for the dope. Cubby hovered in his doorway, briefly confused by the odd light and the smell. "Am I drunk?" he asked.

"Yeah, you're drunk, all right".

"Good; I fucking deserve to be".

An old dentist chair sat in the center of the room. Cubby lurched in, plopped down into it. He tore away his shirt and pants, sat naked. He handed Ant a pad of paper from the Jena hotel. "How hard would that be?"

Ant glanced at the pad, at the bloated, pasty, drying skin, but not too closely. "Easy or hard, that's how; like everything else. Depends on what you're willing to settle for."

Cubby displayed five thousand pesos in hundred-peso notes. That's what he was willing to settle for. Ant had no qualms about it; no matter the details. This was Cubby's seventh trip to the studio; his seventh session. He knew the situation; it never changed. Cubby was a good customer, and this would be the final visit; neither one needed a Harvard education to work that out. Still, it took Ant a little while to fire up his enthusiasm; it took a candle, some brown dust, a red-capped syringe to establish telepathic contact with his muse; but finally, eyebrows knit, he knuckled down with his needle bar, inscribing strange, polysyllabic names from the Jena pad onto Cubby's skin, one by one, in odd, but precise calligraphy, up an arm, down his back, the nape of his neck, on his leg, on his crotch, winding between past souvenirs, other names he'd scratched there in other sessions, names of young girls, of expendable children, of men with beard stubble. Names that drove the grammatical wife to distraction every time Cubby disrobed. Cubby couldn't care less; these names were more real than life. This time, Cubby wanted one on his hand, and Ant balked a little, though not too much: he'd lost that argument with clients before. "It's what you show the world, you know; and who knows what you're gonna have to do someday? Like, you wouldn't get one on your face, would you?"

"Yes," said Cubby.

Despite his chronic state, Ant worked with consummate skill; there were no stencils, and his strokes were long and relaxed and deep and decisive. It took nearly three hours to get everything down, every name. During that time, there was no sound but the hum of the tattoo machine and the demented rooster shrilling in the alley.

Last day in, at check-out time, the desk boy kept his eyes averted; the Jena manager grinned, "...I hope chu enjoyed chore stay, Mr. Deeler..." with a big mouthful of Chief Wahoo teeth, far too polite to mention the bloody bandages swaddling Cubby bare, haggard arms, much too ingratiating to mention Cubby's forehead, where 'Chucky Ley' was scratched in scabbed-over orange letters; nor was there any fuss made when Cubby performed his customary dry-out ritual, killing his seventh hotel goldfish; pouring the remainder of his Don Cuervo stash into the aquarium in the lobby.

Gallery Design and Hand Model:
Mike McCaffrey

© 2002 Artzar - All Rights Reserved