Sarah considered spraying the Windex in his face. Its coloring and chemicals would get all in his eyes, causing him to fall to the floor in blindness. Then she could step over his body and finish cleaning the shop's front window. But she didn't. Instead, she and the odd man kept staring at one another. With the bottle in her hand like a gun, waist level with her finger around its trigger, the scene looked like a Wild West showdown.
Sarah's employees hid as best as they could in various corners of the tattoo parlor, playing the part of scared town citizens hiding behind saloon doors while the clock clicked its way to high noon. Except instead of growing more fearful with every tick closer to twelve, Sarah's staff became increasingly nervous as the clock in the waiting area wound away from 9:40am, her designated window cleaning time.
The weird man who had disrupted her routine kept moving into Sarah's line of sight whenever she shifted her gaze to the dusty glass. He had short, clean hair that was uncombed and a well-trimmed beard that somehow wasn't quite right. Was it higher on one side? He had on expensive jeans and a nice dress shirt, pressed but with one sharp crease running diagonally across the front. The overall effect was ambivalent, and Sarah couldn't decipher if the man was dishevelled or perfectly put together.
"I told you, we don't open until ten." she said, her voice rising unintentionally. She looked at the clock and it was 9:44. Her window cleaning was wrecked. She felt anxiety in her chest.
"The door was open."
"That was a mistake."
"So can I get the tattoo?" The man held his wallet in one hand. Sarah again considered pulling the trigger.
"We don't usually do walk-ins. We're pretty booked."
"That's why I came early."
"We're not ready."
"What, you have to clean the window?"
"Looks clean. Just do it later."
She tightened her grip on the paper towels in her other hand, crushing the cardboard tube. She tried to remember the breathing exercises her therapist had taught her to use whenever she felt anxiety. Breathe, he would say. Breathe. Think of something calming. She closed her eyes and the panic retreated a few steps.
Opening her eyes moments later, she returned to the shop and the man waiting in front of her. He seemed oblivious to her agitation. Sarah searched her mind and realized there weren't any refusals to choose from. They weren't busy. It was two weeks before Christmas and nobody got a tattoo in December.
"Do you know what you want?" she asked despite herself.
"Today's date in plain lettering."
"Just the date."
"I like being topical. So that shouldn't take long, right? You can squeeze me in?"
"Sure, Jake will take you."
Jake was Sarah's store manager and one of her best tattoo artists. He was a thin man in his early thirties who liked wearing bow ties and 1950s librarian bifocals. She looked over at Jake and caught him glancing sideways at her over the top of his lenses. She gestured toward the man, but Jake didn't react. He could be so lazy sometimes.
"Actually, I was hoping you could do it," the man said.
"Sorry, I don't really tattoo anymore."
"Fine." Sarah still had anxiety over the window and surprised herself by agreeing. She should have been trying to save what was left of her routine. She should have been worried about her shaky hands. But once she'd consented, she inexplicably felt better.
"What's your name?"
"It's a nickname. Listen, do you have a private room available? I don't really like being tattooed out in the open."
"You have to book ahead for a private room."
"Doesn't look too busy right now."
Sarah sighed and took T to her workstation at the back of the shop. It hadn't been used in over a month and was immaculate. She asked him where he wanted the tattoo and he said just under the neck. Sarah prepared the stencil and asked if he'd like to see it in the mirror before she started. T said he didn't want a stencil. He wanted the tattoo done freehand.
"It's just the date."
"Yeah, but I still need an outline to make sure it's straight and everything. I'm not going to just freehand some shit on you. Do you want it to come out all crooked?"
"No. I want it to be absolutely perfect. Like the circuits on a microchip. Precise."
"Then I need a stencil. And even then, it won't be that precise."
"No!" He suddenly became enraged, flinging his left arm out as if to roll invisible dice. "It will be! You will make it perfect!"
Sarah got scared and called out for Jake but nobody came. She backed away and was just about to run into the main room of the shop when T abruptly changed. He smiled and Sarah felt disarmed. She couldn't figure out why. She studied her patron as he walked over to the table, stripped down to his underwear, and laid face down with his forehead on his arms.
Shocked at T's unnecessary strip show, Sarah tried to say something but couldn't. He was horrifying and beautiful. His skin was lightly tanned and marked everywhere by smooth, old scars. They made intricate, mesmerizing patterns. His body was thin but muscular, with odd bumps and bulges in some places. One of his ribs poked out underneath the taught skin along his side, and the vertebrae running down his back were too close to the skin and slightly off-centre. His body looked like a luxurious coat, neglected and hung over a slightly damaged coat rack.
"I'm sure you have other customers, so I guess we should get started, huh? No stencil."
"I can't tattoo like that unl—"
Every instinct told Sarah to leave the room, get Jake, and throw T out of the shop. He was creepy and threatening. But also gorgeous and compelling. She shaved the area under his neck, cleaned it, and began tattooing. It had been so long since she had watched ink take shape at the end of her needle. It was exhilarating. She stopped every few seconds to check her work, getting more excited with each new, clean, even line.
"So what's with the date?" Sarah finally asked.
"What's with the window?"
"I'm commemorating a comeback, so to speak."
"What do you mean?"
"Today I was reunited with an old friend. We were starting to lose touch a bit."
"You always get tattooed for things like that?"
"Yeah, I guess it is a bit weird. Just feels like the right thing to do, you know? Kinda hard to explain. So what's with the window?"
"Sometimes, when the sun shines through in the morning, I can see all the dust and dirt on the glass and I just like to run a clean shop. Nobody wants a tattoo from a shop that looks all dirty and gross."
T jumped off the bench, right in the middle of a needle stroke, and glared at Sarah. She looked on in horror.
"You fucking liar." he whispered. He looked wild.
"Shit, man! Look at your back! Look at the tattoo! What did you do that for? Jesus!"
T twisted to look at it in the mirror. The D and E were perfect. The C, however, flew off on a ragged angle. Blood was trickling out from his back.
"Why would you lie to me?" His anger moved into sadness so quickly that it left Sarah disoriented and unable to fully react.
"I'm not lying."
"You are. Look at your hands... and your foot."
Sarah knew her hands had occasional tremors. It was a side effect of the medication. It was why, for the most part, she had given up tattooing. It was also why months ago she had tattooed on her own foot a delicate picture of a woman with her hands spread, like the Virgin Mary, calm and composed as a giant, abstract tidal wave loomed over her. She had done it to prove that, with enough concentration, her artistry could still trump everything else. But she wasn't sure why she chose the design she did. Like T's tattoo, it felt like something that just needed to be done.
"What would you know about my foot?" She had high boots on.
"Remember Dr. Hamilton?"
Sarah put the needle down and snapped off one of her latex gloves.
"How do you know him?"
"Alright, let's get back to it, right? Now fix what you've done. Remember, it has to be perfect."
Before settling back on the bench, T walked around the room and moved everything. Sarah's panic screamed at her from every part of her mind. The ink, the box of gloves, the disinfectant. They were all out of place. To Sarah the room was now a torture chamber. It heaped chaos on the neglect of the front window. Everything was a shambles. She felt the short-breath warning of a panic attack.
"But you wrecked it. I can't fix it." The anxiety continued to build. "Stop touching everything."
Obediently, Sarah began again, making the tattoo much larger to cover up the ink already under T's skin. Her hands were starting to shake, making the work much slower.
"Dr. Hamilton was the guy your parents used to bring you to, no? Did he cure you?"
"Sort of." Sarah moved to the E again. She exhaled and began to calm down. It was going to be alright. Then T jumped up. The middle line of the E cut across his back.
"Fuck! What the hell?"
Sarah dutifully started again. The tattoo was becoming very large.
"Don't blame him. He tried. It's a common technique for kids, you know. Externalizing a mental illness. Trying to look at it as something separate from you. A monster. A dog. A little cloud. Maybe that's all been discredited by now. Who knows? You used to draw out all your little worries as a furry hedgehog-looking thing following you around, remember?"
Sarah had a recollection of drawing furiously just before her sixth birthday.
She stopped tattooing. "I called it Toothier."
She stood up quickly, knocking over a container of ink. She didn't pick it up— or even look at it.
"What does 'T' stand for?"
"Fix this mess on my back."
There was a long silence. Neither of them moved.
"No," she said finally, changing the needle so she could tattoo the date on her own skin, just underneath the woman pushing back the waves. Over the hum of the needle Sarah could hear Toothie leaving but was too busy to watch him go.
Matt Peake lives, writes, hides and gets pulled over for speeding in Ottawa, Canada. He once had a poem published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which allows him to create the impression at dinner parties that he's a doctor. Matt is still not on Facebook or Twitter, and stubbornly continues to use his cell phone to make calls.