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Copyright © 2009

Ian Denning

Mark’s Tattoo Parlor


For a moment the rain turned to diamonds that clattered on the roofs of the parked cars like hail, but then Foley looked up at his umbrella and the rain was just rain again, washing the red leaves into the storm drains. A neon sign reading “Mark’s Tattoo” hummed in the chill air. Foley stepped under the awning and shook out his umbrella, then pushed open the door. He could feel the light burning and bubbling in his head—always the light in his head.


Framed artwork covered the walls of the tattoo parlor, and endless layers of flyers for punk rock shows and film screenings flaked off the wall like dead skin. A replica of a human skull sat on the counter, a wax candle melted down the face. There were no customers. Foley leaned his umbrella against a chair and tried to steady his hands by rubbing them on his wool pants. He thought of his apartment, with its black drapes and empty light sockets. There was too much light out here, too many things to see. Foley had never set foot in a tattoo parlor for God’s sakes. He was suddenly aware of how pale his skin must be.


Something scuffled in the back of the shop and a young man poked his head out from behind a partition and smiled. This was Mark, Foley’s sister Sarah’s son. “Don’t mind the décor, Uncle Foley—it’s all for show.” He set down his rag and can of stainless steel polish and wiped his hands on his jeans, then, with a bright pop, his eyes burst into flame.


Foley tried to gasp but choked instead. He leaned against the chair while he spluttered and thumped his chest. When he looked at Mark again the young man appeared normal, eyes intact. “Ah, ah, Mark.” He coughed again and swallowed down his spit.


“Are you okay?” Mark asked, walking around the front counter. “Did I scare you?”


“No, no. I’m sorry, I’ll be fine.” He licked his lips. “Stand up straight and let me get a look at you.” Mark blushed while Foley inspected his shaved head, the inked flames peeking up out of the collar of his black tee shirt, and the spider web tattoo covering his scalp. For a moment a black tarantula flashed on his nephew’s head, but as quickly as it had come the image disappeared. His head buzzed with light—the hallucinations were bad today.


“Is this your place? You own it?” Foley asked.




Foley pressed his lips together and nodded. “You must be doing quite well for yourself.”


“I do okay.” Neither of them knew what to say, so Foley busied himself moving his umbrella to the coat rack and settling his briefcase in the corner.


“Your father told you all about it, I assume?” Foley asked.


Mark nodded. “I’ve done this a couple times. You don’t have to worry about anything. Like I say, it’s safe and confidential.” He smiled. “Please, take your coat off.” While Foley carefully removed his jacket, Mark rummaged behind the counter. “I don’t usually do this, but since you’re family and all, and because of the—the procedure, you might want some of this. Here.”


Mark produced a bottle of expensive whisky. The golden brown color gave Foley a quick twinge—a bottle full of lion mane, savannah quick—but he shook it off and cracked his knuckles. “Thank you, Mark, but that won’t be necessary.”


Mark blushed and whisked the bottle back under the counter. “Yeah. Sure. I have to run downstairs and get the table prepped. Can you hang out for a second?”


Alone in the tattoo parlor, Foley snapped his fingers and examined the photographs of his nephew’s handiwork. The tattoos were well executed—subtle shading and clear lines. Foley remembered Sarah’s grin when she told him about Mark’s first gallery show. No—he had to stop thinking like that. In a few hours it would all be over—he could go home and pull back the drapes, screw in the light bulbs, maybe even watch some TV. He could walk the streets and not see diamonds when it rained or chariots in the sky when the sun rose. He couldn’t think about Sarah, or Mark, or his art.


“It’s all ready, Uncle Foley,” Mark said, startling him. “Just follow me downstairs.”


Foley held up his hand. “Hold on a moment.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a clip of fresh twenty-dollar bills. “For your trouble.”


“Oh no, no. You don’t need to do that.” Mark shuffled his feet and winced. “You’re family, Foley. You don’t need to do that. Put that away.”


“I’d rather you take it. You’re going to a lot of trouble for me.”


“No, no.”


Foley put the money clip on the counter, where it blossomed into a mound of clovers. “Take the money, Mark.” The light pounded in his head and the clovers slipped away.


Mark hesitated, but he pocketed the money. “I really wish you hadn’t.”


“Don’t worry,” Foley said, and sighed. “Let’s go.”


Mark led Foley through a door in the back, down a hallway and a flight of stairs, and into the basement. “Where’d you hear about trepanning anyway?” Mark asked while they walked. “It’s a pretty exotic procedure.”


“I saw it on National Geographic. Old shamans used to drill holes in their heads to let the good spirits in.”


Mark looked back over his shoulder, his lip twisted into an odd expression. “Or to let the bad spirits out?”


Foley frowned. “Yes.” For a moment his feelings hardened toward his nephew. What does he think of me, Foley thought. I’m the pathetic family pariah? I’m willing to do anything? Does he think he’s just humoring a crazy old man? He doesn’t know what he’s dealing with. Then the light came into his vision again and his thoughts caught themselves short, ashamed and confused. When the light left it would burn. Foley would be free and Mark would be hurt.


Mark led him into a basement room. The walls were bare brick, and the floor sloped down to a drain set in the concrete. A steel table sat against one wall, lined with the tools of the body piercer’s trade, along with some less common implements: scalpels, hammer, chisel, brace and bit, a power drill. For a second, Foley saw leg irons on the walls, chains hanging from the ceiling, but then the light in his brain bubbled up and the illusion disappeared.


Mark laid a pillow on the floor. “Lay your head on the table.”


Foley knelt slowly on the pillow, his knees creaking, and put his forehead down against the cold steel table. He felt a tingling on his scalp, near his ear. “Local anesthetic,” Mark muttered. “You ready?”


Foley put his fingers on the underside of the table and felt the rough edge. “Yes.”


He barely felt the scalpel at work behind his ear, the forceps pulling back a flap of skin and holding it in place, but he felt the drill bit clink down on his skull. “Okay, this is the hard part,” Mark said. “No matter how loud or how uncomfortable this gets, don’t try to move.” The battery of the power drill hummed to life and Foley gritted his teeth.


The force almost wrenched him off the table. His skull groaned and creaked and squealed and an acrid smell filled the room. Foley grabbed the table to stop himself from swatting the drill away. The light in his head began to boil. “Mark,” he gasped.


“Almost done,” Mark yelled over the drill.


“Stop, stop!” The drill whirred to a stop and Foley sighed. “I’m sorry, I—I just need a breather. Are you almost through?”


“We’re pretty close,” Mark said. “Take a minute.”


“Oh thank God.” Foley breathed deeply. The light pulsed in the corners of his eyes, whiting out his vision. The room spun and Foley rubbed his forehead. “I still have that sketch you made of your mother when you were a kid.”


“Don’t talk, just relax.”


“No, I have to tell you now,” Foley said, remembering the charcoal marks on the thick, grainy paper, the way Mark got the eyes and the hair falling out of her ponytail right. “It’s hanging on the inside of my closet door. Pretty good for a young gun. What were you, sixteen? seventeen?” He drew in a deep breath. The light burned the back of his eyes. “Sarah was always proud of your art.”


Mark was silent.


“I’m sorry I wasn’t better family to you.”


“That’s okay,” Mark said, and touched Foley’s shoulder. “No need to get all confessional. I know you have—” he hesitated. “Your busy, is all. You did the best you could.”


“Well after this I’m going to do better. No more problems. I’m going to take care of you, Mark.” Foley shifted his weight on his knees and gripped the table again. “I’m ready now.”


Foley felt the drill settle back into his head. “I’m glad you like my drawing,” Mark said. “You’d better hang on tight.”


The grinding returned and the light throbbed. Foley thought he might vomit, but he gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. Then the noise of the drill changed and something in Foley’s head gave way with a squelch.


“There, we’re done,” Mark said.


The white light in Foley’s eyes receded and he moaned softly. “I’m sorry, Mark. I’m so sorry. If I had known anybody else I would have asked them. I’m sorry, I just didn’t know what to do.”


“Hey, it’s okay. Let’s get you cleaned up and—”


The light left Foley’s head in a rush, like water splitting through a crack in a dam. Both Foley and Mark screamed, engulfed by the lightning sputters. A long, thin woman unfolded herself from the hole in Foley’s skull and nipped out the door. A daisy chain came out, and a sword made of glass, and a pride of lions. A rabbit wearing a waistcoat scuttled across the floor. And through it all, the light, the white light, burned and scoured the little basement room clean.


As quickly as it had begun, the torrent from Foley’s head ceased. The hanging lamp shook back and forth, casting shadows that shuddered and bobbed. Foley raised his fingers to his head and touched the scalp peeled back, the rough hole in his skull. His head felt light and clear.


“Jesus Christ, what was that?” Mark croaked from where he had fallen. Foley released the clamp holding back the flap of skin, stood, and brushed off his knees. “Uncle Foley, is that you? Are you okay?”


“I’m fine, thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you.”


“Did the lights go out? I think I hit my head or something.” Mark pushed himself to his knees, patting at the ground around him. “Can you turn on a light?”


Foley sighed. “I’m sorry Mark. I didn’t know who else to ask.”


“Hey, it’s fine—whatever,” Mark said, an edge of irritation in his voice. “Just turn on the light.”


“The light is on.”


For a few seconds the only sounds were the creaking of the overhead lamp and the hum of the power drill’s battery, then Mark’s mouth opened into an ‘O’ of surprise and he swore. “Did you do this?” He scrabbled across the floor and caught his arm in the cord of the drill, which clattered to the floor. “Goddamn it I’m blind!”


Foley pulled another clip of twenty-dollar bills from his pants pocket, set it on the steel table, and walked toward the door. Mark reached out for him. “What did you do, you old bastard? Foley! Wait, Foley. Please wait!”


Foley turned out the light and left the room, leaving the door open a crack. Mark’s cries followed him up the stairs, down the hallway and back into the tattoo parlor. While he retrieved his jacket, briefcase and umbrella, his gaze wandered over the framed artwork. Between a picture of a Japanese character and a design of crisscrossing diamonds hung a framed photograph that caught Foley’s eye.


It was a black and white print of Mark, his lips parted and brow furrowed with concentration, stooping over a young woman and working at her arm with the needle. Foley leaned in close. Mark in the middle of his creative act—had he drilled into Foley’s head with the same expression on his face?


A muted noise from below that could have been a pipe squeaking or a scream of rage raised Foley’s eyes from the photograph. He unhooked it from the wall and tucked it under his arm. It would go well by the sketch of Sarah, Foley thought. He unfolded his umbrella and stepped into the street, where the rain was only rain.