Tattoos
by Michael Henson

Tommy Perdue looked to be about sixteen, but he could have been older. A little stiff brush of beard stuck out from his chin and a few, scattered spikes of beard followed the line of his jaw. Alan Mabry had to think back. Tommy was a newborn baby sleeping in an egg crate in the kitchen when Alan bought the Paradise Café. And that was — he did the math— seventeen years ago last month. It didn’t seem that long, but here he was.

Back then, Tommy was a little scrawny thing with the look of a skinned rabbit, his breath all raggedy and his cry a little, asthmatic bleat of a cry.

He was still small, but small like a jockey, a little wiry horsewhip of an almost-man. He was shirtless, so as to show off the broad tracks of his muscles and the flags of his tattoos. He was lean as a ferret, so lean that the veins stood up on his arms and raised up the lines of his tattoos as if they were living things. Tattoos ran across his chest and down his arms and across his back. There were tattoos on his fingers and on the shafts of his calves, so many and the pattern so random that Alan could not memorize which one was where and it seemed at times they were born and died one after another. Some of the tattoos were crude and child-like, others intricate and detailed as icons. L-O-V-E across the fingers of the left. H-A-T-E across the fingers of the right. Sun on the back of one hand., moon on the other. Born to Lose. Born to Love. MOTHER. FTW. Danielle 4 Ever. A dagger. A heart. A skull. A rose. Across his back, a panther leaped from right wing to left wing of his shoulder blades.

Alan Mabry was lean as well, lean as a withered tree. He had tattoos of his own, but they barely showed from under his shirt.

Together, they unloaded paint cans, tools, and ladders from the bed of a truck, took them through the door of the Paradise Café, and set them on a tarp laid out in the middle of the floor.

“That’ll do for tonight,” said Alan. “We’ll start paintin’ tomorrow evening after Donna closes.”

Alan started toward the door, but Tommy hung back.

“We’re done for tonight,” Alan Mabry said.

“But when do I get paid?”

“I already I told you.”

“Come on, man.”

“I told you, when you contract a job, you get paid when the job is done.”

“But I thought . . . ”

“I keep a record in this little book. Every hour you work. Then, when the job is done, I pay you what I owe you.”

Tommy got the shifty eye look Alan had seen before. “But I got to . . . ”

“I don’t pay nothing til the job is done.”

“Can you front me a little? Just a few dollars?”

“The job ain’t done.”

“Aw, man . . . “

“When the job is done.”

“But man, I been in jail for six months.”

“I know, but . . . “

“What if I do something extra? Ain’t there nothing else I can do?”

Alan Mabry was tired. Nine o’clock at night and he had been working all day at one thing or another and he still had one more stop to make.

“I’m tryin to get some money so I can help my mom,” Tommy said.

Alan was tired, so his guard was down. He thought, the boy’s probably lying, but how do I know?

Tommy asked, “Don’t these walls got to be washed down?”

Alan Mabry looked around; the boy was right. “Where’d you learn that?”

“Upstate.”

“They taught you good,” said Alan Mabry. “A lot of people wouldn’t think of that.” It was the sort of thing he made sure to teach his own boys.

Tommy pointed to the shelves of antique mining tools behind the cash register. “And all that stuff,” he said. “That’s got to be put somewhere. You don’t want to get paint all over those old tools” He nodded toward the kitchen. “There’s boxes back there. I can get all this stuff in the boxes. I can wash down these walls.”

“Son, I’m wore out.”

“So just leave me here. I ain’t like I used to be. I’ll take care of it. Come on, Alan. I got to help my mom with her rent.”

“What about Hector?”

“She threw him out. Come on, Alan. She thinks I’m getting paid for this.”

Alan rubbed his jaw and thought.

“So, if I front you something now, you won’t be naggin me night after night?”

“Naw, man.”

“And you’ll not get started back on the Oxys?”

“I’m done with that,” Tommy said. “I took a class up there and I’m done with that.”

“And you’ll not skip out on me you once you got a little change in your pocket?”

Tommy nodded. “I promise. Just let me stay here and work til you get back.”

Alan Mabry thought hard. It would be nice to have that bit of work done. But Alan had trusted Tommy Perdue before and always before he had been burned. Something got broken or something was missing and always there was some excuse.

But the boy was just back from six months in reform school and maybe he had learned a little something. Maybe now he was ready to change.

Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, to see Tommy turn around?

“I’ll not be long,” Alan Mabry said. “I just got to go over to Considine to collect some rent.”

“How many places do you own?”

“I got six more besides the Paradise. If this works out, I can keep you busy with any number of jobs.”

“I’ll show you, man.”

“When I get back, I’ll front you twenty dollars,” Alan Mabry said.

Tommy nodded.

“I won’t be but half an hour,” Alan Mabry said. “If you can get these tools boxed up and maybe start on these walls, that would be good.” He showed Tommy what to use and how to go about it. He took the account book out of his pocket, flipped it open, and erased the quit time he had written in for Tommy.

“Half an hour,” he said. “I’ll be back.

*

Alan Mabry collected no rent up on Considine. The lights were on and the radio played, but no one answered his knock at the door. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. Back door, front door, no one answered, so he knew he had been played and he cursed the man and he cursed himself for trusting.

He cursed again when he went back to his truck and found the left front tire flat, and again when he dismounted the spare from its nest under the bed of the truck and it hit the ground with a plush, empty sound. And he cursed yet again when he stood the spare up and leaned on it and it spread out like an old cat on a doorstep. Barely a breath of air in it.

Half a mile walk downhill to the BP station, then a half mile back uphill to return. A half-mile lugging the spare down and a half-mile rolling the inflated spare back. There was no easy way to do it.

Half an hour down, and half and hour back, on top of the hour he had already been gone. He worried every minute of it. He was certain Tommy would have robbed him blind in all that time. He had gone and left the place in the hands of a known thief, so he worried.

His back was throbbing by the time he had lugged and rolled the tire up and down and his back winced when he mounted the tire on its hub and winced again with each twist of the lug nuts and his back ached as he put away the jack, chocks, and tire iron and ached as he mounted the cab and fired up the truck.

His back continued to ache as he parked the truck in front of the Paradise and it continued to ache as he mounted the steps to the door.

The rap music was so loud it nearly deafned him when he opened the door. But there was Tommy Perdue on top of the ladder. His tattoos rippled as he scrubbed at the last grease patch on the wall around the vent.

Tommy looked once at Alan Mabry. “You all right, man?”

*

“So your back is tore up,” said Donna Mallicoat. Three burgers whispered on the grill. Donna Mallicoat flipped them, then gave a poke to a fistful of home fries and flipped them too. She raised a basket of French fries out of the oil and set it to drain.

“Your back is tore up and you got this place cluttered up with paint buckets and ladders and tarps and tools. My customers got to walk around it. My girls got to work around it. Everything’s gone helter and skelter and all cockeyed and now your back is tore up and you can’t even finish what you started.”

“I don’t want no cheese with that,” said Alan Mabry.

Donna Mallicoat laid out three slices of cheese on three hamburgers like a Las Vegas dealer. “How am I supposed to run a restaurant when you’re forever turning everything upside down and sideways?”

“So what do you reckon I ought to do?”

“Don’t start what you can’t finish.”

“Well, it’s started.”

“Why in the world do you want to paint it now anyway? In three months time you got a new vent comin in, but now you decide you’re gonna paint.”

“It was lookin dingy, so I just took a notion”

“Dingy nothin. Your notion got you a tore up back and a job you can’t finish.”

“I got to finish now.”

“You ain’t gonna finish nothing. You can’t barely move from one stool to another at this counter.”

“The doc says it’ll heal up in a week or two,”

“And he didn’t give you nothing for the pain?”

“Yes, he did. He give me a bottle of Vicodins.”

Donna shook her head.

“I know. I’ve seen what happens.”

“So, for a week or two, I got to trip over all them ladders and tarps and paint cans and what not in my kitchen while you sit here noddin out.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“You’re supposed to hire some help.”

“Like who? I done tried everybody this side of town.”

“What about Danny Burnham?”

“If he’d been around last night I probably wouldn’t have this problem now.”

“You had Tommy Perdue with you last night.”

“He says he learned paintin in the joint.”

“Well, there you go. There’s your answer”

“I don’t know,” he said. “He ain’t yet a painter.”

“Eat your lunch,” Donna Mallicoat said.

“The home fries was mine. The french fries belong to somebody else.”

Donna looked at Alan Mabry with a sharp, sidelong eye. She shoveled the french fries onto another plate. She turned to the grill, slid her spatula under the home fries and laid them on Alan’s plate.

“You’re gonna have to work with what you got. And what you got is Tommy.”

*

“Slow down, Tommy,” said Alan Mabry for the tenth or eleventh time. “I’m payin by the hour, so slow it down and get it right.”

Alan Mabry had to watch the boy close, else Tommy would be back to galloping across the walls with his roller slashing paint over the table tops and chairs and the hood of the stove.

“Slow it down and do it right,” Alan said, “and there won’t be near so much cleanup to do.”

Tommy would slow down for a minute, but he would be back at it as soon as Alan Mabry took his eye away.

It was not easy to sit and watch and do nothing. Alan Mabry’s hands itched to pick up a roller or a brush. Which he did, here and there, for just a minute at a time, to show Tommy how to cut in around the windows or how to get a good, even stroke on the roller and cover it right.

But as soon as he did, his back reminded him to sit back down, so he had to sit back down and watch Tommy and do his best to teach him right.

*

“You’re supposed to do the walls,” Alan Mabry said. “Not yourself.”

Tommy was shirtless again, and his chest and arms were dotted and streaked with eggshell white all over the blueblack tattoos of his arms, chest, and legs.

Tommy nodded. “It’s all good.”

“Seems like you’re about out of room.”

Tommy looked at him as if he did not understand.

“Your tattoos. It don’t look like you got any more room.”

“I got room.”

“I reckon you do,” Alan Mabry said. “I don’t even want to know where. But what’s the point? Why so many?”

“There’s nothing else to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s nothing else to do, so you shoot a tattoo.” He pulled his roller pan loose from its perch on the ladder.

“I thought you kept yourself busy paintin up there.” Alan Mabry got up, limped over to the five-gallon bucket and made ready to lift it.

But Tommy grabbed the handle first. He brushed Alan aside. “I got it,” he said.

“I can do that much,” Alan Mabry said.

“Donna said, don’t let you lift nothing.”

Alan limped back to his seat in a booth near Tommy’s ladder.

He watched Tommy Perdue in silence for a moment, then pulled back his sleeves to look at this own tattoos. Right arm, a wooden heart bannered with the name Paulette. Left arm, an eagle with claws extended. He laid out his arms on the table in front of him and stared at one, then the other.

He could not have told how long he stared from one to the other before he realized that Tommy was taking the shelves above the cash register loose with a screwdriver. He rolled his sleeves back down. “What’re you doin, buddy?”

“You didn’t want them painted, did you?”

“No, I reckon not.” In fact, he had not thought of it. But the boy was right. “Hold on,” he said. “I can show you a better way.”

He limped into the kitchen and shuffled among the tools until he found what he wanted. He snapped open a black plastic case and pulled out a cordless electric drill. He fitted it with a Phillips head and spun a couple screws loose to show Tommy how it was done, then handed over to Tommy.

“It’s new, ain’t it?”

“It’s new, and it cost me an arm and a leg. But it’ll last me a long, long time.

From his booth, he watched Tommy take down the shelves, one by one.

“You’re doin’ good, buddy,” he said. ”You’re doin’ a real good job.”

*

Seventeen —Alan Mabry tried to call himself back to what he was like at seventeen. He had not yet moved to the city. His father had got him a job with the County Highway to keep him out of the mines and the County Highway put him on the paint crew.

One day, they painted the guard rails in front of an old man’s trailer and the old man begged the empty five gallon buckets from them. The crew chief gave the old man the buckets —God only knows what for— and the old man went back to the steps of his trailer to watch them paint.

A lonely old crippled-up man sitting and watching the younger men work.

And now, he thought, here I am.

*

By the third night, Tommy had asked for his pay just one too many times.

“I’ll pay you when I pay you.” Alan Mabry regretted it as soon as he said it, for he said it sharp. He said it like a dog that snaps at the hand that reaches out to pet it.

Alan knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as he said it. He knew it was the wrong thing as soon as the boy gripped his paintbrush like a hammer and slapped the molding. He knew it when he heard the boy mutter under his breath.

But he could not unsay what he had said.

*

He had fallen asleep to the rhythm of Tommy’s roller, but the pain woke him with a sudden lurch, so sudden and so violent that he had to throw his hands out onto the table in front of him. The pain was seeded in the small of his back; it bloomed like a great somatic flower and left him; it crowded his lungs and left him gasping for air. He moved along the bench of the booth and the pain moved with him. He carried the pain over to the coat rack where his jacket hung on a peg. He fumbled through the pockets for his bottle of pills. Then he shuffled back to the booth.

Tommy, on his ladder, slashed away at the walls.

Alan tried to tap out a single pill, but two fell.

I shouldn’t take but one, he thought. But the pain demanded and he could not get the second pill back in the bottle. So he washed them down with cold coffee and waited, barely able to breathe

He knew for certain he should have taken just the one pill when he was so suddenly, so blessedly released from the pain.

*

He woke with Donna tapping at his shoulder. “Alan,” she called, as if he were far away. “Alan Mabry, you wake up.”

And he did. Slowly and reluctantly, he raised his head and raised the heavy sashes of his eyes and there was Donna Mallicoat still in her jacket and there was Tommy Perdue all streaked white and inked black.

Donna Mallicoat shook the bottle of pills in front of him. “How many of these did you take?”

“Just two.”

“Then how come it’s half empty?”

Alan Mabry did not know. “All I remember is takin just the two.”

“Whatever you took was way too many.”

Alan Mabry nodded. He was certain he had only taken the two. But he lifted the bottle and gave it a shake. He had started with thirty pills, but there were only a dozen or so left.

“My daughter’s on her way,” Donna Mallicoat said. “She’s gonna take you home and let you sleep this off. Me and this boy are gonna stay here and finish this job.

Alan Mabry went home with the daughter to sleep it off. But first, he flushed the dozen pills down the toilet.

*

Danny Burnham shifted his mustache and looked around at the freshly painted walls and ceiling of the Paradise Café. A woman sat next to him at the counter. She smoked a cigarette and did not look at the walls or ceiling.

“Not bad,” Danny Burnham said. “You boys didn’t do bad at all. Tommy,” he called to the kitchen,“I’m glad to see the street ain’t got hold of you yet.”

“Danny, I need your rent.” Alan Mabry was not in a mood to fool with the likes of Danny Burnham.

“I got you covered,” Danny Burnham said.

“I come up three nights ago . . . “

“And I wasn’t there. I know. Me and Cheryl was out doin’ a little hustle.”

“And… ”

“And we finally got paid. So…” He pulled out a wallet and began to peel out bills.

The woman took a quick glance at the money peeling off the billfold, looked away, and took a deep, long drag at her cigarette.

Alan Mabry took the money and stuffed it in a shirt pocket without counting it. He pulled a receipt book from his hip pocket, filled in a receipt, and handed it to Danny. Danny Burnham passed it to the woman and the woman tucked it into her shirt.

“So how’s your boy?” Danny Burnham nodded toward the kitchen where Tommy Perdue was packing up tools and tarps.

“He ain’t my boy,” said Alan Mabry.

“Looks like you’re pretty well adopted him.”

“I got boys of my own.”

“Which they’re all grown up and a thousand miles away. I’m just sayin’ . . . “

Donna Mallicoat came past with a pot of coffee. She re-filled Danny Burnham, then the woman. “That boy might have saved this man’s life,” she said. “That boy’s doin just fine.”

“Is that right?”

“He’s learned a lot, that boy has.”

Danny shifted his mustache and looked to Alan. “That ain’t the way you used to talk about him.”

“Things change,” Alan said.

“Well that’s good, but I got a proposal for you.”

“Are you proposing to pay your rent on time?”

“In a way. Cause I was thinking. You got that place across the street settin’ empty. You put us in there and get us some drywall and whatnot and we’ll fix it up for you.”

“I was gonna do it myself.”

“But how you gonna do it with your back tore up?”

“I got Tommy for a helper.”

Danny leaned close to Alan’s ear. “Tell the truth,” he said in a low voice. “What kind of helper is he?”

“He’s a damn good helper.”

“He just about painted the whole restaurant by hisself,” Donna said.

“And he don’t talk your ear off while he’s at it.”

The woman ashed her cigarette and looked away.

“Well,” Danny said. “I reckon that’s a good thing. But sometimes you want a little talk to make the time go by.

“He talked just fine,” said Alan Mabry.

In fact, Alan Mabry and the boy had talked, mostly Alan, but the boy as well. Alan talked about how he had moved to the city from a coal camp when he was a young man and how his father had died in the mines and why he kept his tools. The boy talked about his tattoos, where he got each one, why he did it, what it meant to him.

Tommy called from the kitchen door, “I got them tools packed up. You want ‘em in the truck?” Alan nodded and pulled out his checkbook from his hip pocket. He wrote out a check while Tommy carried a box out to the truck on the street. Alan tore the check out of the book and reached it to the boy when he came back in.

“I thought you was gonna pay cash.”

“I always pay with a check.”

Danny Burnham nodded. “That’s right, buddy. He always pays by check. “

“That way, I got a record.”

“But the other day you give me cash.” His voice was hoarse, his nose had gone red.

“That was an advance.”

A curse teetered on Tommy’s lips, but he did not speak it. He snatched the check from Alan Mabry’s hand and stalked out the door.

Danny Burnham stood. He shifted his mustache and nodded to Alan. “It appears your boy has some business on the street.” He stripped off a couple more bills onto the counter, and waved to Donna Mallicoat to keep the change. “We got to go,” he said. “We got a little tradin’ to do. So we can make the next month’s rent.

“You change your mind,” he said to Alan Mabry. “You know where to reach me.”

*

After Danny Burnham left, Alan Mabry stared over his coffee for a long time. Donna wondered, Is he back on the pills?

“How’s your back now?” she asked.

Hector called from the kitchen and drowned out his answer, if he answered.

She had little time to listen for an answer. There were half a dozen customers lined up with Alan at the counter and half a dozen more in the booths. And the new girl had called off sick. And Hector was cursing in Spanish back in the kitchen

Through it all, Alan stared across his coffee without a word while the radio played one heartbreak country song after another.

Finally, the half dozen at the counter and the half dozen in the booths had dwindled down to two or three. Donna stopped to freshen Alan’s coffee and he asked,

“Where’d you get that that radio?”

Donna looked up to the shelf. “It’s a cheap old thing I brought from home.”

“I can see that. What happened to the one I just bought a month ago?”

“I thought you took it home when you started to paint.”

“It’s not in the back?”

“Hector’s got his own radio”

“So what else did you think I took home?”

“Well, the microwave, for one.”

They didn’t use it that much, so it was usually covered in napkins and Styrofoam to-go boxes and paper bags. But now, the napkins, boxes, and bags lay right on the table.

“What else are we missing?”

“I wish I could tell you.”

“What about my drill?”

Donna pointed to the place where the shelves of old tools had been.

“No, not that one. You take that to a fence and he’ll tell you hold a yard sale. I mean my cordless.”

“I wouldn’t even know you had such a thing.”

“Nobody would,” he said. “Nobody but that little snake Tommy Perdue.”

Alan Mabry searched among the boxes of tools in the kitchen until he found a black plastic container. He hunkered down with it and snapped it open, then shut it with a slow shake of his head.

“Is it gone?”

“It’s gone.”

“You sure you didn’t just leave it somewheres?”

“I left it in the case. I remember it.”

“So you think Tommy stole it?”

“I know he did. He watched me put it in this case and he watched me put the case in this box.”

“I’ll call his mother.”

“His mother lost control of Tommy years ago.”

“But she might know where it is.”

“By now, he’s taken it to a fence and got him an Oxy or two. It’s gone up his nose or up a vein. Just like that check will be soon as he finds a way to cash it.”

“I thought he was doin’ so good.”

“It was a mistake,” he said. “It was all a big mistake. And I won’t make that mistake again.”

Donna Mallicoat watched the curses form on his lips. He cursed silently at first, then in a mutter. Then he stood and, in full voice, cursed Tommy Perdue for a snake, a liar, and a thief. Donna had her work to do out front, so she left Alan Mabry to his curses as he limped around the Paradise in search of whatever else might be missing.