by Vivian Lawry
Charlie settles his junk into the leopard-patterned thong and turns side to side, admiring his ink. He hip-checks the dresser drawer that holds his work clothes: thongs in animal prints, solid metallic silks, leathers soft as bridal gloves, paisleys and florals, geometric designs, and specialty ones for holidays. The holiday designs—sequins, hearts, flags, fireworks, skulls, skeletons, pumpkins, turkeys, mistletoe, wreaths, and packages—always elicit comments from his viewers.
Banging rattles the metal door, and the barker yells, “Move it out, Payne. Showtime inTen!”
Charlie splashes baby oil into his left hand and smooths it over his chest and right shoulder. He uses so much baby oil that he buys it by the gallon, with pump dispensers. In seconds rippling muscles gleam from neck to toes. He steps down from his trailer, throwing an ankle-length cape around his body. Nobody gets to see his art without paying the price of admission.
Charlie’s stage sits low so people filing past before the show starts can get an up-close-and-personal look. The plexiglass barrier keeps them from getting too close or too personal. He moves quickly from one pose to another, flexing different muscles, showcasing various tattoos, whetting appetites for the show to come when the music starts.
Flexing his left pec draws the eyes of the audience to the face and skull on his left breast, the crow and box turtle. He has a phoenix rising from flames on the left side of his ribcage and a waterfall with mermaids swimming up it like salmon on the right. With fire and water covered, his butt cheeks had to be earth and air. On the left he has birds in flight, blue jays and bluebirds, house finches and goldfinches, cardinals and whitethroats. On the right garden snakes and black snakes weave among flowers—daisies, sunflowers, zinnias, artichoke blooms, and dandelions. A full rotation on stage always draws oohs and aahs from the crowd. That is one of the best parts of the show for him: the envy on men’s faces, the lust in women’s eyes—and the occasional hook-up after the last show.
The other good thing—no, the best thing—is that performing the ritual moves on stage is mindless. His thoughts can go anywhere. Often they trace his body biography.
His twin brother was driving when the semi plowed across the median on I-95 and hit them just left of head-on. Investigators later determined that the trucker was a suicide-by-motor-vehicle. Carl never wore a seat belt. He was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene. By the time EMS workers pulled Charlie from the smoldering wreckage, burns covered 80 percent of his body.
On stage or off, Charlie never dwells on the months in the hospital, the surgeries and grafts that led the doctors to claim they’d pulled off a medical miracle saving his life. Thoughts of Carl’s body harvested to save him always crush Charlie in grief, gratitude, and guilt. He never allows those thoughts to surface during performances. But he often thinks of the chain of circumstances that resulted in the birth of the inked man.
Charlie signed a consent form when he was too out of it to think clearly. The plastic surgeon created a replacement nipple on Charlie’s right breast. Charlie hadn’t noticed for days.
But after discharge he refused further plastic surgery.
The surgeon’s creation just sat there, a little hill nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding flesh, for four months. A tattoo artist who worked with various surgeons in the area inked in an areola identical to his remaining natural one. That’s when he’d decided: he’d redecorate rather than try to surgically repair the scarring. He sought out Ami, the tattoo artist who inked his nipple, and commissioned a zipper down his midline. The whole point of a zipper is to hold things together, and Charlie surely needed holding together. In the end, the upper edges of the inked zipper lay flat on his collarbones, open several inches like a quarter-zip pullover. The V was filled with windows. The zipper ended at his belly button—drawing the eye toward his so-obvious manhood. For Charlie that tattoo represented being ready to open his life to the world.
Charlie’s next big tattoo decision was to create a wraparound. He liked the idea that if his zipper actually opened his skin and laid it out, he would have a rectangular tapestry suitable for framing. Over the next couple of years, he visited the tattoo artist every two weeks or so. She charged $200 per hour but only for the time she was actually inking, not the planning and chatting. Fortunately, he had substantial funds from the trucking company payout. Each session lasted up to two hours, ending sooner if Charlie could no longer stand it. But he tolerated the pain well—not surprising, given that before each session he took a hydrocodone, left over from his earlier pain meds. He always took smaller doses than prescribed and never bothered to turn the extras back.
He needed a full back piece, of course. He started with the Chinese zodiac wheel, all of the symbols traditional except for his own sign, a psychedelic rooster inked as he had seen once when he was high on mushrooms. The hub of the wheel was red yin and black yang. Just inside the outer wheel, he put the astrological calendar. Charlie’s sign being Aries, he took particular care choosing the shades of blue for the ram’s hair and making sure the gold horns curled just right. Between the hub and the astrological calendar, he added a wheel of twelve
Native American symbols, a nod to what he called his six drops of Indian blood inherited from his Cherokee great-grandmother. This wheel included a bear for strength, a healing hand for protection, and a hummingbird for love and happiness. His personal totem, a turtle, he aligned with the cock and the ram in the outer wheels. The turtle means many things to many nations—all of them good—but at the deepest level it represents Grandmother Earth, who teaches her people to walk their paths in peace. Charlie rejected two arrows, the symbol for war. Looking at his brown skin and tightly curled hair, people seldom associated his high cheekbones and arched brows with Indian blood. Outside the central wheel, planets (Mars, Saturn, and Venus), flowers, cats, snakes, and birds adorned Charlie’s back.
As always, Charlie lingers with his back on view, giving people a chance to appreciate the complexity.
The front of Charlie’s torso exhibits his family gallery. Carl’s face is tattooed over his heart. Most people assume it represents Charlie’s younger self. They have no way of knowing that the face and the skull below it are respectively Carl as he once was and as he will now forever be. The mottled brown-and-yellow box turtle and inky crow are the personal totems that he and Carl chose when they were kids. When Charlie got the tattoo, he learned that a crow symbolizes death and transformation from the physical to the spiritual world. Had Carl sensed something, even back then?
Charlie and Carl went into the system at sixteen. They’d been at football practice when their parents and sister were gunned down in a mass shooting at the family diner where they all worked. For years the boys debated whether they were lucky their work shifts had been scheduled around football or just cursed by losing all their family.
Charlie inked his right pec to represent his grief: a pair of mourning doves standing in ashes under a weeping willow; wreaths of bay, cypress, feathers, and laurel decorated with daffodils, violets, jet, and bloodstone.
The twins went to college on football scholarships, the only way they could afford to go.
They’d worked hard before their parents died and with single-minded determination after. Carl was quarterback, Charlie a tight end. Together, they made the team almost unbeatable for four years and enjoyed star status on campus. They had an ongoing, albeit friendly, argument about which of them was the real key to their successful partnership. Once, for the hell of it, they suited up as each other. Charlie passed and Carl received, and the team marched down the field for another victory. No one tumbled to the deception.
Carl’s inked skull rests on a football.
Their mother always said Charles and Carlton could be doctors, or lawyers, or rich entrepreneurs. But Charlie’s interests and talents leaned in the direction of music and theater. He often wondered whether Carl would really have earned a law degree if he’d lived more than two weeks after graduation.
Charlie stayed in their college town for two more years—acting in community theater, picking up music gigs here and there, and working on his body art. He fell in love with Davide, an international student with obsidian hair and oval eyes. She seemed to understand him—what he needed or wanted—without being told. She petted his muscles and traced his tattoos with her tongue. Their emotional connection felt strong and unbreakable as iron bands.. As her graduation approached, Charlie asked Davide to marry him—more an affirmation of their future together than an actual question. She gasped, teared up, said she had to return to Israel, to her family, that she had always known she would and had thought he knew as well. Two months after she left, he heard from a theater friend that Davide had married.
Later, Charlie thanked Ami for dissuading him from inking Davide’s name on his body.
Instead he’d had amaranth, amethyst, and apricot flower on his left thigh to honor their love.
Later, on the back of that thigh, he added blown dandelions with only a few seeds remaining, broom plant, and a nightingale entwined with ivy.
Following Davide’s desertion, Charlie drifted. He stopped working, lived in a homeless shelter, and panhandled enough to keep himself fed. Most days he spent ten or twelve hours at the community gym.
He started his workouts with push-ups because push-ups—seeing nothing but his own hands and the green tile floor between them—were his least favorite exercise. He’d get them out of the way first. Squats, deadlifts, rows, curls, dips, shoulder presses—all the others—allowed him to see his audience. If he didn’t see them directly, he could see them in the mirror beside his own image. Women grinned and winked, men looked on with envy—or sometimes challenge—but all seemed mesmerized by his physique. He could bench press three hundred pounds.
By then, his entire body was tattooed with plants, animals, all things natural and symbolic—nothing mechanical or cartoonish. And although he lapped up admiration for his prowess, his tattoos were personal; he hated the stares, the often-rude questions at the gym. So he worked out in a sweatsuit. Always careful in the locker room, and he couldn’t always count on privacy in the shower—although he usually managed it by learning the routines of other regulars.
One evening, a short, mustached man approached him, offering a substantial salary, plus living quarters, to join his sideshow. He said he’d never seen such a beautiful body. The idea of being paid to exhibit his body art—when people actually went in expecting to see it—appealed to him. And if the little man was up to anything nefarious—well, Charlie could deal with him with one hand. Why not give the sideshow a try?
Being a star of the sideshow—some say the star—boosts his ego. Plus, he’s part of a community. Neither crew nor other acts look at him askance. The pretzel girl, the sword swallower, the Juggling Johnsons—everyone accepts him at face value. If he doesn’t talk much and keeps to himself most of the time, so what?
Maintaining and enhancing his appearance is a top priority for Charlie. Grueling workouts fill his mornings. He wears 35 SPF sunscreen daily to delay fading. Hands, especially, are prone to fading, and he has to have his snake fingers touched up every year or so. Despite Ami’s reluctance, he convinces her to tattoo the soles of his feet. Yes, the skin there is tough, and these tattoos, too, have to be frequently renewed, but Charlie is glad he insisted. One foot has horses for life’s journeys; the other has lightning bolts for power and speed. He’d considered matching soles, but people don’t see the bottoms of both feet at once anyway.
Charlie turns, smiles at a pretty twenty-something in the front row, and twitches his groin muscles twice. She blushes. His smile broadens, confident she doesn’t see the real him. But then, no one seems to. Over the years, he’s told the women he dates, “What you see is what you get,” but they don’t get it: his body really does reveal the inner man.
Turning under the spotlight, striking an Atlas pose, Charlie thinks about his 36-year-old body. He knows the research. If he continues to work out, he will be ripped into his sixties and even beyond. He hasn’t had a new tattoo in ten years. Should he shave his head and get his scalp tattooed? If he gets his face inked, it would always be on display. Now, when he wears street clothes, only his hands show, and even the snakes are easily hidden in pockets or gloves. No, he doesn’t need more ink. But he needs something.
Dancing sinuously to the soft music, it dawns on Charlie that his malaise isn’t about his body. It isn’t about his job either. He loves the audience’s attention and admiration. The work leaves plenty of time for the life of his mind, and the off-hours allow him to read voraciously, play his keyboard, and paint. Recently, he’s taken up woodcarving. For hours every day, he displays his body—virtually his entire body—but when he isn’t onstage, he’s guarding his privacy. In truth, he’s introverted and shy. So what is his problem? He misses Carl, misses having someone who has his back no matter what, someone who knows him intimately, knows his mood without being told.
Charlie smiles, blowing a kiss toward a woman with gray hair and too much weight. To the delight of the crowd, she laughs and blows a kiss back. Charlie rotates forty-five degrees and flexes his pecs. In the middle of row three, a woman with straight, black hair and oval eyes locks gazes with him. For a blink, he thinks he’s seeing Davide. Is the little boy at her side her son?
The realization hits Charlie so hard, his smile slips: he wants a family. And just posing under the lights won’t get one. If he wants—needs—to be seen beneath his ink, he needs to open up. How has he not realized that before? He laughs out loud. Drawing his right hand slowly down his midline as if he were unzipping his midline scar, he does a slow bump and grind.
Charlie thinks about the windows filling the V of the zipper tattoo: a windowsill holding a half-filled goblet, another with multicolored, blowing curtains, one framing a bird in flight, and another showing the sun—signs of possibility. He again faces the woman in the middle of rowthree, smiles, and sends a silent Thank you her way.
This Place Isn’t Mine
by Jezzelle H. R. Kellam
Vivian Lawry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than sixty literary publications, from Adanna Literary Journal to Xavier Review. Vivian has four books: Dark Harbor, Tiger Heart, Nettie’s Books, and Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction. A complete list of her publications can be found at vivianlawry.com.
Jezzelle H R Kellam (b 1999) is a graphite artist from Kent, based in the Northeast of England.
In her work, she represents the body, By making conscious decisions in removing heads and parts of a body this is where her practice has led her. She has used this compositional decision as a vehicle for her ongoing oeuvre that articulates her way of thinking. “By breaking down the form to how I see it, I attempt to encapsulate the physical, psychological, and physiological properties of what it is like to inhabit a form, a human body. By bridging a gap between the body and mind. My art and life are inextricably enmeshed. It is vital to portray a multitude of scars, body hair, cellulite and so on, These abrasive textures have been viewed as imperfections, but I want to share how beautiful these attributes are.”