Justin Hocking

      Here was Dean: 24 years-old and tall, two years out of art school and broke, standing alone dead center in what was supposed to be the fulfillment of his deepest aspirations--his own tattoo shop in Portland--but what was at that time nothing more than a dark, unfinished vault devoid of anything but corroded, moldy-bottomed linoleum and brown mineral-stained paint buckets that caught seeping rainwater. Standing alone in the damp, unheated November air, having the night before asked Sharla, his live-in girlfriend of two years, to marry him, receiving a vigorous, nearly violent blow-job instead of the earnest "yes" he’d hoped for. And waiting as always, waiting for his partner, Miles, to show up and help him with what was really a five-man job. Standing and listening to the rain pelt the ceiling, a miasmic smell of decay rising up from the floor, the word "Cholera" swimming around, inexplicably, in the muck of his thoughts.

     Not one to indulge in self pity, having risen from a stable family of Slavic heritage in Wisconsin, Dean tuned the portable radio to the heavy-metal station and began ripping up linoleum, dragging it out the front door into the rain, stuffing it maliciously into the already-overflowing dumpster. Back inside, he banged around the shop, knocking out a dirty partition wall with a sledgehammer for no good reason, Black Sabbath scalding on the radio. Nor was he prone to these harmless violent outbursts anywhere but in private. His nickname in the tattoo world was Friendly Dean; his work clothes usually consisted of a vintage bow tie and a clean white collar shirt, the cuffs rolled up to reveal thick, hairless forearms covered in full sleeve tattoos: Japanese tsunami waves on the right arm, an ominous black and blue ocean with white sea foam and wave-fingers reaching; a collage of traditional-style work on the left arm, colorful Mexican Kitty skulls, hovering red and blue swallows, hearts pierced with daggers, all floating against a backdrop of of small black stars. Dean’s easy way of talking, his smiling demeanor, and the bow-tie had a way of putting first-timers at ease--gave them the feeling (which wasn’t that far-fetched) they were visiting a trustworthy, benevolent country doctor for nothing more than a check-up and something like a prolonged vaccine shot. Unlike Miles, who had the steadiest hand of any young tattooist in the country, but the dry, inflectionless voice of a zombie. Dean hadn’t seen him really smile since maybe like 1996; customer relations weren’t Miles’ strong point. His skin was chalky white, especially in contrast with the ink black hair he kept greased back on his head. He was obsessed with horror movies and had a large Dracula tattooed on his right arm, a bright green Frankenstein on his left.

      Dean worked until the early afternoon, six hours past the time Miles was supposed to show up and forty-five minutes before his first appointment at Land Pirate Tattoos, the ratty shop in Gresham where he and Miles were working part time to support themselves while they remodeled the new shop. Dean locked up and walked back out into the rain, the clean smell of wet pavement a welcome contrast to the smell of decay in the shop. He got in his car, a 58’ Bel Air, baby-blue, a car that he’d restored entirely, from the ground up. He started it up and turned on the heater, the comforting smell of dust and hot engine oil coming out through antique vents. As he drove, beads of crystal rain collected on the windshield like ephemeral, vibrating jewelry. The Portland weather didn’t affect him like people had warned; not like the way it affected Miles. What he noticed most about the rain and the gray skies was the way they made the chrome on the fenders of the Bel Air stand out in brilliant, shining contrast, in a way it never had in the constant, dull Austin sunlight. And how clean the rain washed the roads, turning them to mirrors that reflected strokes of red and green off stoplights; at dusk every car pushing two bright stripes of white below the headlights, like horizontal candle-flames.

      He drove out of Portland, got on Highway 36 and headed north towards Gresham, thinking about his second appointment, a woman named Rian. She had called a few days earlier and personally requested Dean--one of her friends had recommended him. She had a soft, pretty voice, subtly tinged with something tense, something like pain. He’d heard the faint chirping of a young child in the background. The woman wouldn’t say what she wanted done, exactly, only that she wanted to meet with him first and talk about a "special request." Which usually meant they wanted a tattoo in close vicinity of an unmentionable area.

      Gresham was ten miles from the city, lying between the Willamette and Mt. Hood, and nicknamed "the Armpit of Portland." A fitting name, Dean thought. How they’d ended up working there was this: Miles had come out from Texas a year earlier, while Dean finished his last year of college. The plan was for Miles to work part time at River City emporium, the best custom shop in Portland. They knew the owners, they’d have no problem getting hired, Miles and Dean being two of the youngest, brightest stars rising in the tattoo world. Miles would work with a real estate agent to find a good shop with a good location in the city. Miles would do the leg work, and they’d be up and running by October.

      What happened in actuality, was that Miles’girlfriend in Texas, Holly, had, at the last moment, refused to move to Oregon, dumped Miles, and moved to Dallas with Hardy Drake, the legendary Texas Tattooer, a middle-aged man who had month-long waiting lists and a rumored income of over of $300,000 a year. Miles, heartbroken, moved anyways, and often called Dean in the middle of the night, drunk, his body and mind racked by insomnia. He was fired from River City for repeatedly failing to show up at work, and doing shoddy work from his lack of sleep. The only other job he could find was at Land Pirate--a dirty little Gresham shop that didn’t care how his work looked, or if he missed an appointment here or there. And he'd gotten another part-time job as a night watchman at a lumberyard, and never once contacted a real estate agent. Dean had to find the shop space himself, and it took the better part of the summer, through September.

      Dean pulled the Bel Air up to Land Pirate. It was located in an old strip mall with too much parking lot, stacked between a Chinese carry-out joint and a donut shop, both run by the same family. He walked in and found Miles sleeping fitfully on a fold out tattooing table, dressed in his heavy blue linen night-watchman’s uniform. Barker, the owner of the shop, was in the back, sterilizing his instruments in the old autoclave. Dean poked Miles’ arm, just above Frankenstein's head. Miles groaned, then sat up, slowly, his arms stretched out in front of him, like a vampire rising from his coffin. He took a comb from his back pocket and began slowly pushing his heavily greased hair back from his widow’s peak. Dean noticed that the usual bruise-colored bags were a shade darker, like two black eyes.

     "Man, you know how much trouble I have sleeping, why do you have to go and wake me up?" he said, in his slow, croaking Texas drawl.

     "You were supposed to meet me this morning at the shop, and now here you are taking a nap, at two in the afternoon."

      "What happened was this. I got a call from a fellow named Clarence Blivey, this fat old coot who covered for me a few weeks back when I called in sick. He has appendicitis and needed someone to cover for him, so I didn't really have much of a choice, now did I?"

      Barker walked out from the back. He was a fiery little Irishman whod spent a couple years in the Navy before being dishonorably discharged for tattooing his shipmates with a homemade machine. He wasn't more than a few inches over five feet, but he was stocky, with thick forearms covered with nautical tattoos--anchors and mermaids and an old-fashioned three-masted brigantine. Barker didn't do custom work--he worked from the large collection of numbered flash that lined the walls of Land Pirate. Customers came in the door, chose a tattoo--usually a panther or a dolphin or a skull--and wrote down the number on a slip of paper. Barker took the number, dug up a pre-drawn stencil of the same number, slapped it on and then quickly ground the ink in with his cruddy old machine. His kind of shop wasn't uncommon, in fact they were probably the most common and the most lucrative, like the fast food restaurant of the tattoo world. Dean couldn't work that way, so Barker reticently agreed to let him do what little custom work was to be done at Land Pirate, just for a couple months, till Dean's own shop was ready.

     "Guess who your first appointment is, Dean." Barker piped.

     Dean looked in the appointment book. "Some guy named Gary," he said.

     "Guess who Gary is," Barker said, smiling, revealing the dark slot where his left incisor used to reside. "I don"t know. I guess you got me, Barker."

     "He's the weird bastard that owns the Booby Trap."

     "Oh. Fantastic," Dean said.

     Miles, who had laid back down and closed his eyes, let out a guttural grunt, the closest thing to a laugh he could manage. The Booby Trap was the strip joint located across the street from Land Pirate, where you could buy sirloin steaks for $3.99, eat it while you watched full frontal nudity. Dean wasn't interested in the place, not like Barker, who had dated some of the strippers, and Miles, who ate lunch there whenever he could afford it. Dean had stared at the human body enough in his college figure-drawing classes, to the point where watching a stranger take off her clothes for money didn't do much for him.

     Gary came in about fifteen minutes later, along with a tragically beautiful young girl with bleached-white hair, a short black skirt and a pair of tall, black leather platform sandals. She looked dangerously skinny, but had disproportionately large, obviously fake breasts, that were stuffed inside a tight white half-shirt with a cartoon popsickle on the front. Gary looked to be in his mid-forties; he was balding and wore thick-lensed glasses, a pair of khaki pants and a dress shirt with a blue tie. He didn't fit the strip bar owner type--he looked more like a nervous family man who was having a fling with the young girl, who herself couldn't have been older than 18 or 19. Dean introduced himself to them--the girl said her name was Kitty--and he noticed they both kept sniffing, as if they had colds, and they spoke too fast, so that it was difficult to understand them.

     "What can I do for you, today?" Dean asked Gary. Kitty bounced skittishly around the shop, looking at the flash and giggling, biting her nails.

     "I want some money here," Gary rambled, pointing to his chest.

     "You want what?" Dean asked.

     "I want a big money symbol on my chest. You know, the money symbol. Denoting moolah, dinero, the green stuff. Dough. I want you to throw one on my chest, big guy."

     It was one of the worst ideas Dean had heard, but it was simple, and wouldn't take much more than a couple hours. It took him just under ten minutes to draw up the stencil, during which Gary helped Kitty pick out one of the numbered tattoos--a dolphin--for Barker to put just below her bikini line.

     The high-pitched electric buzz of the tattoo machines vibrated around the shop in staccato bursts. Fortunately, Gary held still, even while Dean ground ink into the thin skin just above his sternum. Kitty, on the other hand, had broken out into a full sweat before Barker even started. She flinched and let out a small yelp the minute he touched her with the needle.

     "It's all right, Kitty, I'm right here for you," Gary said, which calmed her down enough for Barker to continue.

     "She's never been able to handle pain," Gary said to Dean. "But she's going to have to learn. A face like that she's going to have to learn. She's dynamite, isn't she?"

     Dean wished he'd just shut up, but he was almost finished.

     "She certainly is beautiful," Dean forced himself to say.

     "You should come over to the club and see her in action."

     "I'm not all that crazy about strip bars," Dean said.

     "No? You're more of the private type. Tell you what, I've got just the thing." He pulled a card out of his pants and slipped it into Dean's pocket. "It's a new internet site, it's going to blow up. That's were the money is these days. But really, check it out. You can see Kitty, doing a lot more than stripping, let me tell you."

     "Listen, sir, I don't want to be rude, but every time you talk your chest moves a little--you're going to have to keep quiet if you want me to get this finished right," Dean said impatiently.

     Dean had about an inch of green shading to finish on the money symbol when Kitty began to squirm again.

     "You're going to have to hold still, Kitty, unless you want this dolphin to look like a sea-donkey," Barker said.

     "It's all right, Kitty. I'm still here," Gary said. Dean taped a bandage over the money symbol, so that Gary could walk over and comfort Kitty.

     "It's almost over now, honey."

     "I know, Daddy, but it hurts," she said, crying.

     Dean almost choked. He'd been right about Gary looking like a family man. He felt then that he'd had enough of it, that he'd chosen a scummy profession that serviced a scummy world. And it wasn't like his so-called partner was going to talk him out of anything--Miles was still in a dead-heavy sleep on the table. Dean cleaned up and then packed up his machine into the silver carrying case and made for the door, wondering how much a plane ticket back to Texas would cost for him and Sharla, and if his undergraduate grades were good enough to get him into a Masters program at an art school. On the way out, he fished Gary's business card out of his pocket and dropped it in the trash.

     "Wait, Dean, I need to give you a tip, some dinero for the dinero," Gary called after him.

     "Keep your stupid fucking money," Dean said.

     "What are you, abandoning ship?" Barker said. Miles let out a long, groaning snore.

     Dean walked out the door.

     He headed determinedly to the Bel Air, opened the trunk up and began placing his machine case in the large trunk. A car pulled up next to him, a beat-up Ford Escort. A young woman got out, with dark skin and long, straight, black hair that reached down almost to the bottom of her baggy sweatshirt. She walked up to Land Pirate, almost reaching the door, before Dean remembered the name of his second appointment.

     "Rian?" Dean called from behind the Bel Air.

     She turned around. Dean closed his trunk, walked up and shook her hand.

     "I'm Dean," he said. "The one you talked to on the phone."

     She eyed his tattooed forearms nervously, then looked in the shop's window, where Kitty was still crying under Barker's needle, and Gary was shooting Dean dirty looks.

     "Listen, we don't need to go in there right now. Why don't we go over to the donut shop and talk."

     They ordered coffee and sat down at a small booth.

     "So what can I do for you?" Dean asked.

     Rian pushed a strand of long hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear. Her cuticles, in contrast with her dark skin, looked like little oval-shaped pearls. Dean noticed a simple gold wedding-band on her long ring finger. He guessed she was somewhere close to thirty.

     "I'm thinking about getting my first tattoo, but I'd like to know more about you first, before I make any decisions."

     "Well, ok, I guess that's only fair. I've been tattooing for about five years, I have a degree in art from the University of Texas. I'm certified with. . ."

     "That's fine," she interrupted. "I already know that you're a good artist. What I wanted to know was more about you as a person, because I can't go through this with someone I don't feel like I know, at least a little bit."

     Dean scratched his ear. It was an unusual request. "Ok. What would you like to know?"

     "Where were you born, and what were your parents like?"

     "I was born outside of Milwaukee, in Wisconsin. My parents are two of the nicest people you'll meet."

     "What do they do?"

     "They're both doctors."

     "What do they think of your tattooing?"

     "They've always been pretty supportive, more than you might think. But I think they are a little surprised now that I'm out of college and still doing this. I think they kind of thought it would be a passing phase for me, rather than my career."

     She nodded, then looked around the donut shop. Her eyes wandered slowly back towards his. The lady behind the counter had gone back in the kitchen--Dean and Rian were alone in the shop.

     "This is going to be strange," she said, now looking at him intently, "and if you don't want to answer I'll understand, you can just get up and walk out and leave me sitting here. What I want to know is. . . what is the worst thing that's ever happened to you?"

     Dean sat, a little stunned. He bowed his head slightly, looking at the tumult of crashing waves on his forearm. He looked up. "To be perfectly honest with you, Rian, last night and today are probably the worst thing that's happened to me. I'm trying to start my own tattoo shop, but I'm running out of money and time, and I have basically a dead guy for a partner, who used to be my best friend. I just walked out on my job when you drove up, so technically I don't even work there anymore. So my life's all up in the air. . . I don't know what I'm trying to say here. . . but I love my girlfriend, and I thought that getting married would help, because really I have a sort of crazy job and sometimes I have to work on perverts and low lifes, not that they're all like that--most of them aren't, but what I need more than anything is stability in my life outside of work. But my girlfriend just fucks my brains out every time I propose, and won't give me an answer. I love tattooing more than anything, It's the only thing I want to do, but I can't live like this."

     As he finished, he realized he'd probably revealed too much, and he was embarrassed. But Rian put her arms in her lap and clasped the bottom of her sweatshirt. She lifted it up, slowly revealing her flat, smooth stomach, then her ribs. She lifted the shirt gently over her chest, revealing one small, shapely breast, and a large elliptical scar where the other breast had been.

     Dean felt the world go silent, still.

     "A year ago my husband and I got into a car accident," she said, lowering the sweatshirt. "We were on our way to pick up our daughter at daycare. My husband was killed. While I was in the hospital, they detected a lump in my breast."

     Dean bowed his head again.

     "I'm not telling you this because I'm desperate for help or sympathy, or because I want you to say anything, or tell me you're sorry. I'm telling you this because I want you to know who I am before you put something permanent on my body. I don't want to hide this scar, I just want it to look like something beautiful again."

     They spent the next half hour talking about designs. Rian wanted a large, Japanese Dragon to wrap around from her back, over her ribs, and up over the scar. Rian explained that both her husband and her daughter had been born in the year of the Dragon, that she was doing this for them, too.

     "I have one more request," she said, as they got up to leave. "Is there any way you could come to my house and do this, so I don't have to have people looking at me?"

     "At this point, that's really our only option."

     Dean drove home, feeling not as bad as he should've after walking out on his job. When he arrived at Sharla and his studio apartment, he found a note on the formica table. Tried to call you at work, they said you quit? Meet me at the club for Dancing and drinks. I am your sex slave, always. Love--Sharla.

     Dean drove reluctantly to the Bacchanalia, the club where Sharla worked as a cocktail waitress, and spent most of her nights, even her nights off. Friday nights were Acid Jazz, his least favorite. A bunch of drugged out hippies banging on drums and tooting flutes while a DJ spun techno music. Dean walked into the heat and the driving noise, pushed his way through the crowd, till he found Sharla on the dance floor. She had on bright red lipstick and a slinky red dress with thin shoulder straps that left exposed the flaming devil-woman holding a pitchfork that he'd tattooed on her right arm She had strawberry red hair shaped into a little pixie haircut. Sharla had trained to be a professional dancer, and had the body to show for it--long, strong legs, broad shoulders, a barely-existent waistline. She was dancing and grinding up against Shiva, another one of the waitresses, a voluptuous Indian woman with a pierced nose and henna tattoos covering her hands and stomach.

     Dean kissed Sharla on the cheek and told her he was going to sit down. She pulled on his arm to dance, but he wasn't in the mood. Sharla pouted at him, then went back to dancing with Shiva. Dean found a table in the back, ordered a coke. He sat by himself, drawing small sketches of dragons on the cocktail napkin.After a half hour, when Sharla still hadn't joined him at the table, he stood up to leave. On the way out, he found Sharla and Shiva up against the wall, kissing, their dancing tongues visible from the side. Sharla spotted him and followed him out the door, towards the car.

     "Weren't you going to say goodbye?" Sharla asked, sulking. She was drunk.

     Dean opened the passenger side of the Bel Air for her, then walked around the front and got in. He started it up and revved the engine, angrily. She smelled like cigarette smoke and vodka.

     "What's the damn problem?" she yelled.

     Dean put the car in gear and drove silently towards the apartment.

     "Since when do you get mad when I kiss girls?" she asked. "It never bothered you before."

     "You know what would be nice?" Dean asked.

     She giggled flirtatiously. "I always know what would be nice, Dean."

     "What would be nice is if I could come home after a shitty day and have someone to talk to about it. Someone who didn't go out dancing and kissing after they found out that I quit my job."

     "I'm sorry you had a bad day, honey," she said, placing her hand on his knee, "Let's kiss and make up." She moved her hand slowly towards his crotch.

     He grabbed her hand and moved it away, impatiently.

     "I'm going fishing," he said.

     "What?" she said hotly, giving him a stunned, exasperated look.

     "I said I'm going fishing. Tonight."

     When they got back to the studio apartment, Dean packed up his fly rod and a wicker fishing basket. He said good bye to Sharla, though she wouldn't speak to him at that point, and drove an hour to his uncle's cabin at the base of Mt. Hood. By the time he got there it was raining in thick sheets, so Dean brought in some drawing supplies from the Bel Air and made himself at home inside the rustic little cabin. He built a fire in the old stone fireplace, and sat near it while he worked on the dragon stencil, the reddish orange fire-glow reflecting off his somber face.

     The next morning he got up early and drove back to the shop in Portland. He worked all morning, building the two partition walls that would enclose his workspace. No sign of Miles. At noon he left for the appointment at Rian's house.

     He arrived at her door just after 1:00, his tattoo case and a box of ink and supplies in hand. She lived in a decent looking condominium complex in North Gresham. Dean put down his case to ring the doorbell.

     A few seconds later a little girl opened the door. She had the same dark olive skin and bright eyes as Rian. Her neck arched, she looked up at him confidently. "You must be the rat-tat-tooey man," She said, grinning. Rian came up from behind her in a bath robe, her hair in a pony tail. She took the box of ink for him and brought him into the small, clean kitchen.

     "Hey Jenna, how'd you like to help me mix up my Ratatouille tattoo ink?" Dean asked. Jenna nodded. He helped her put on a pair of rubber surgical gloves, which fit loosely over her small, perfect hands. Dean snapped on his own pair of gloves then set a squeeze bottle of bright green ink and a tiny paper cup on the kitchen table.

     "Now squeeze the ink into the cup, just like you're squeezing ketchup."

     "These are like the cups at the dentist's hospital," Jenna said, squeezing. The ink came out, making a bubbling sound. He gave her the other ink bottles--red, blue, and yellow.

     "Will it hurt mommy, like at the dentist's hospital?" she asked, squeezing yellow ink into the white cup.

     "It hurts a little, honey," Rian said. "But the pain goes away soon, faster than at the hospital."

     After helping Jenna finish the inks, he unrolled three sections of the dragon stencil from a long tubular carrying-case.

     "We can go ahead and place one section of stencil on your body, and then get started."

     "I want to do the most painful section first. To get it over with," she said, letting the top of her robe fall, exposing her chest again, which to Dean was as equally stunning and breath-takingly beautiful in its incompleteness as the first time.

     He spritzed the stencil with tap water, then placed it gently on her chest. He let her tamp it down on the skin. They let it sit for a few minutes before peeling it off and revealing a sequence of lavender ink-lines--the head of the dragon. He set up his machine and a chair to sit in while she put in a movie for Jenna to watch in the other room.

     Rian laid down on the couch.

     "Are you ready?" he asked, pulling up his chair. She nodded, almost imperceptibly, her lips pursed. She reached over and gently clasped his ankle.

     He touched needle to skin. She held perfectly still, tears streaming down either cheek. She stared up at the ceiling, a softly pleading look on her face, the whites of her eyes bared, lips parted; never loosening or tightening her tender, even hold on his ankle.

     On the way back up to the cabin he stopped at the gas station with a replica of a Sasquatch out front, and called Sharla to tell her he was staying another night at the cabin. She wasn't home, so he left a brief message. He went in the gas station and bought some pipe tobacco. He'd discovered his uncle's collection of old wooden pipes, and he wanted to try them out.

     When he arrived, there was a light on in the cabin. He thought maybe his Uncle had come down from Washington, which was unfortunate, because he really enjoyed his uncle's cabin more than he enjoyed his actual uncle. He peeked inside the window before knocking, and found Miles sitting by himself on the couch, staring into the fire.

     "Miles, what are you doing here?"

     "I've been looking all over for you. I called Sharla this afternoon, she gave me directions up here. Said to tell you she's fucking pissed."

     "Yeah, well. . ."

     "Listen, Dean, I think it's about time we had a talk."

     "Yeah, it sure is, Miles."

     "I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I feel pretty bad about the whole shop thing, man. What I mean to say is I know I ain't been pulling my weight."

     Dean felt a glimmer of hope--maybe Miles was finally coming around.

     "Uh-huh. And?"

     "Well, like I said, I've been doing some hard thinking, and what it boils down to is that I really can't stand people. You know that from working with me. If I didn't have to deal with anyone, just give them some laughing gas and slap the tattoo on while I slept, then I'd be a lot happier. But that's not how it works."

     "So what are you saying, Miles?"

     "What I'm saying, Dean, is that I don't much want to tattoo anymore, and I guess that's the main reason I've been slacking off with the new shop."

     "So what's your plan?"

     "Well, that's the thing, man. I think I found out about a new line of work that I think is really going to work for me, and I'm going to start taking some courses at Portland Community College."

     "For what? What kind of courses?"

     "I'm going to be a coroner's assistant."

     Dean put his face in his hands and pressed against his his forehead.

     "Miles, God damnit, you're one of the best tattoo artists in the country, and you're telling me you want to be a coroner?"

     "I cant do something if I don't like it anymore, now can I?"

     Dean got up grabbed his jacket. "Don't forget to lock the door on the way out, Miles." He opened the door to leave.

     "Does this mean you hate me now?"

     "No, Miles, it doesn't. You're the creepiest, most unreliable bastard I've ever met, but I don't hate you. I'm going home to see to Sharla."

     It was past 11:00 when Dean pulled up to the apartment. He heard laughter from outside the front door. He unlocked it and walked in, following the trail of laughter to the bedroom. He pushed it open and found Sharla in bed with someone else, who ducked under the covers when she saw him.

     "I wondered if you'd ever come home," Sharla said. The someone else's long white hair was sticking out from under the covers.

     "It's all right, Kitty, you can come out. He's not going to bite you."

     She poked her head out.

     "Hey, I remember you," Kitty said. "You're the one who gave my dad his money-symbol tattoo. Why don't you come get in bed with us?"

     "Yeah, Dean, why don't you? Or don't you think you can handle two girls at once?"

     Dean couldn't help but be tempted, but he had the picture of Gary and his money symbol in his head. He felt a little relieved actually, that Sharla had finally done something that made him dislike her enough to not want to have sex with her anymore.

     He drove back to the cabin, the opposite direction he'd just come from. He drove, and realized that now he was completely alone in the world. In Portland at least.

     Miles was gone when he got back to the cabin. He paced around, the cabin, thinking about hopping back in the car, driving back to Wisconsin. Instead, he went out to the creek and stepped in, frigid water pushing up around his thighs. He held himself and shivered, and cried in thunderous sobs.

     He spent five days at the cabin by himself, in a sort of daze, never bothering to go work on the shop, sleeping till noon and then fishing all day. He survived off tap water and the trout he caught and roasted on a stick over the open fire. He ate ravenously, hardly bothering to remove the skin. He didn't have any toiletries--he let his beard grow. At night he smoked his uncle's pipes and stared blankly into the fire.

     He felt a little better on Saturday morning, good enough to make it to Rian's for the second session of a four-session tattoo. She was alone in the condo; Jenna was at a neighbor's house playing. Dean worked the Dragon's upper torso, just over her ribs, which was a notoriously painful spot. She didn't cry this time, but still held on to his ankle. Afterwards they sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee.

     "You look like a caveman with that beard," she said.

     "You know how I told you those two days were the worst? Well it got worse. My partner's backing out so he can work with dead people, and I left my girlfriend."

     "So what are you going to do?"

     "I don't know, I've been thinking I might move back to Wisconsin and live with my parents. Save up money and try to get in a Master's program for art. Or something, I don't know, make some kind of new start."

     "So you're not going to tattoo anymore?"

     "Where am I going to work? I can't make a living doing house calls like this."

     "Then I don't want you working on me anymore, if you're going to give up like that. I'll find someone else to finish it."

     "Why? I want to finish it, it'll be like my Coda."

     "If you can't figure out why, then get the hell out, now."

     He drove around aimlessly through uniformly perpindicular streets of east Portland, somehow ending up back at the shop a few hours later. He walked inside and found the same old mess, along with a note from the landlord informing him that that the rent was already a day late, and they'd be evicted if it wasn't received by nine the next morning. Dean kicked a nearly full bucket of rain-water, sending a thin tide of tan water across the floor. He picked up an old roll of linoleum threw it across the room, into the puddle. He grabbed the phone, intending to throw it out the window. Instead, he dialed his parents house in Wisconsin. His mother answered. He listened to her say hello three times, pressing her comforting, intelligent voice up against his ear, and then hung up. He flipped through the moldy phone book, until he found an ad for a vintage auto dealership located nearby. He dialed the number, and after some hesitation, described the Bel Air to the older sounding gentleman on the other line.

     He worked like a madman for the next two weeks, building partition walls, single handedly standing them up plumb and attaching them to the ceiling. He hung sheet rock using two ladders, patched up the ceiling, laid down black and white checkered tiles, covering the old worn out floors, and rolled three coats of white paint onto the walls. He spent nights in the shop, shivering on an old pallet, rising every morning at dawn to shower and shave at the YMCA down the street. He'd received $5,000 for the Bel Air, and sunk every last penny of it into the shop. He left a message on Rian's machine the day before the Grand Opening. Appointments and walk-ins came trickling in that first day. Miles and Barker showed up, Miles wearing a suit and tie, and looking, for the first time Dean could remember, comfortable in his own skin. He tried to explain the joys of autopsy, but Dean was preoccupied with anticipation over the fact that it was getting late and Rian wasn't showing up. Dean waited until midnight, then locked up the shop and walked to his new apartment, alone.

     By May Dean had a nearly constant two-week waiting list, and was fortunate to find a new partner, Carlotta, who did beautiful work and loved people. Carlotta was a painter, as well, and secured a show for the both of them at a local studio. The rainy winter had turned into a rainy spring, punctuated occasionally by days like this one, when heavy clouds broke up at noon, and the sun came out and evaporated the water off the sidewalks into small, almost invisible stems of mist.

     Dean worked on a young skater, tattooing a three-quarter sleeve angel in a blue gown, with centrifugal, radiant beams of yellow light as a backdrop. He heard the front door open, and then someone spoke to Carlotta, who was working the desk while Dean tattooed.

     "I'd like to make an appointment with Dean," she said. "He and I have some unfinished business."

     Dean looked and found Rian standing there, smiling at Carlotta, with her ear lit up, oddly, by the afternoon sunlight streaming in the window behind her. Her ear was glowing vivid red--her actual internal blood illumined--giving him the feeling, like six months ago in a Gresham donut shop, that he was being afforded a view that few people would ever have the chance or the courage to see.

©Copyright Justin Hocking