Monday came around and it was too familiar, like a dream, or watching your day through an out-of-body experience. People came in on time for their appointments, a few walk ins, some people had questions. The main question for the day was,
“Is this safer or is the Iron Press safer?” I could only answer in the way I knew how.
“Both are prone to infection if it isn’t properly cared for, like most things it is up to the recipient to care for the product.” Then the most famous of all questions,
“The needle tattoo hurts less right?”
The fear of pain is misplaced throughout the mind, physical and emotional. We think one is more powerful than another. What if that’s how magnets stopped working, the one stopped loving the other, or the reason cancer grows in the body is because the body loves us too much. The infliction of pain to one another is just as mutual as love. Before your mama poured that stingy-burning liquid on a cut she’d tell you this will hurt. It’s just no one tells us about that when it comes to life, love, or getting good at something. Struggle will hurt, something you really want will hurt no matter what. The girl sets an appointment for Saturday, she wants to find an image to put on her left shoulder blade.
Business is back to a pace but nothing like before, we’re doing better than The Crystal Needle. No one has been to that place since those news stories have hit the vine. Tupac is walking up to me, his hair cut a brush cut. He’s wearing a black shirt, blue jeans, white sneakers, and a black leather cap.
“Elwin, can I talk to you?”
“I’m giving you my two weeks.”
I got some lung butter caught in my throat when he said that.
“Nothing’s wrong. I got a job offer from World’s Only.”
“The tattoo school?” I said.
“Yeah, I know. I couldn’t believe it when I got that call. You have to know that this doesn’t have anything to do with how you treated me. I love this place, and I love you and Martha Jo, everybody here has been the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t know life could be so comfortable. You don’t need weed, or Jesus, you just need people around you who love you. Thank you for that Elwin.”
I just put my arms around Tupac and I hug him for what I know to be too long of a time but I don’t care. He’s leaving my world and I want to keep him here for as long as I can. I let him go of my grip and I tell him that he can break the news to everyone unless I’m the last to know. He tells me that he told me first because I deserved to know. He knows that he can ask me if he ever needs anything, Tupac leaves my office and I don’t until the end of the day.
Four days after Tupac came to me to tell me that he was leaving Daily came to me. I was closing up the shop organizing merchandise and dusting. Daily came to me and asked if we could talk outside and share a smoke.
We took our smoke in the back of the store and after her first exhale she spoke.
“I have to move back to Hawaii. My daughter died and the state will separate her children. The father is worthless and there is no one else to help. I have to go.”
“Why can’t the children come here?”
“It’s not that they can’t come. My daughter was a branch manager of the bank of Hawaii. She has an estate that has to be handled. If I died I wouldn’t have left my baby anything, she could have dropped me in a hole and moved on.” She said.
“What happened Daily?”
“She ran a red light and was T-boned by a tow-truck.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Saturday, this Saturday.”
Daily drops her cigarette and stomps on her and doesn’t twist her foot. She exhaled the last puff of smoke. I watch as it raises and dissipates in the air, it disappears quickly.
Friday night we went out for a going away party for Tupac and Daily, we went to a bar called Jimmy Toads. In downtown, not a usual spot for us, it’s a college bar, you don’t run into the smartest type of folk in this place. But they make a mean burger and they have the best drink specials in town that night so that’s where we are.
“Niles, I’m leaving and you’re not going to have a drink with me?” Tupac said.
“You know I don’t drink.” Niles said.
“Yeah I know, but one drink doesn’t count as drinking, drinking more than one counts as drinking. I’m asking you to have a drink with me. You knows how long it will be when you see all of us in the same room.”
“You’ve convinced me. What will we be drinking?”
“If Niles is taking a shot, I’ll buy.” Ruby said.
“What are you going to get?” Niles asked.
“Don’t worry, it will be gross enough that you won’t want to drink again but strong enough to enjoy it.” Ruby said.
Ruby got up from the table and stood at the bar. Ruby’s orange hair is draped down their shoulders. Wearing a top with a heart shaped chest-line, flats, nails colored the same, tight skinny jeans, and Ruby hangs on the bar provocatively. Just as Ruby gets the attention of the bartender a man steps next to Ruby.
“Whatever she’s getting I’ll pay for it.” He said.
“No, please don’t worry about it. My friends are moving and I’m buying the next round. I thank you for your kindness but no thanks.”
“Well I’m here with my friends, do you think we could join you?”
“It’s not that kind of party. And I’m sure we’re not what you’re looking for, especially me.”
“You disgusting fag.”
The man grabs Ruby by the wrist and pulls Ruby into his fist. The sound of Ruby hitting the ground caused me to move on instinct. In four long strides I’m already next to the bar my hand around his neck lifting him in the air. I toss him to the ground like a set of keys. I remember the time Fingers did the same to a kid and then stood on his throat. He said, “It’s important to stand on the carotid not the windpipe. That’s only if you want to kill them.” I had my foot on this throat. I didn’t know or care if I was on his windpipe or carotid.
No one could push me off of him and I couldn’t hear a thing from anybody, I couldn’t hear the music, the television noise, I couldn’t hear anything. It wasn’t until Martha Jo came to the front of me to smack me in the face. I saw her coming so I grabbed her wrist before she could hit me.
“Elwin. Get off of him.”
I get off of the man’s neck and I was going to step on his face but Martha Jo somehow moved me away from him. Once the man wasn’t in my sight anymore I remembered Ruby. I turned around looking for them. They had Ruby sitting on a chair holding their wrist while everyone surrounded.
“I think my wrist is broken.” Ruby said.
That was enough to get me to fly off the handle again. I turned and went after the man again, he was just getting to his feet. I put him in the choke hold Fingers used to do to everybody. Once again the world fades away and I can’t see or hear anything. Just when I know I’m holding the choke hold too long a shock jiggles my body and rattles my teeth. I turn to see what is the cause, it’s a police officer, I’m being tased. The effects don’t hurt, it’s feels like television static running all around my body. I set the man down and I lie on the floor.
While in-processing at the lock-up the man and I are separated. I use my phone call to call Martha Jo and tell her my bail is a thousand dollars but I’ll get out tomorrow after my trial. I’ll call you when I get out.
During my in-processing I’m made to fill out paperwork and I don’t. The guards get aggressive due to my reason for being in here. They think I’m being belligerent, they think I don’t want to fill out the paperwork instead that I can’t. The guard keeps handing me the pen and I continue to toss it back to him.
At my trial in the morning the judge has heard all about my attitude and calls me into his chambers. He asks me to sit down and I do. Once we are both seated he starts to roll up his right sleeve and shows me a hawk smoking a cigar I can’t read the words surrounding it.
“I got this at Hydrocephalus and I know who you are. I know you’re not this type of person. I understand that you were just helping your employee and that guy you choked out is doing six months. I have to ask you.” He slides over a sheet of paper in front of me. “Read this please.”
I stare at the judge with every ounce of revulsion and anxiety I’ve ever hoarded up.
“No, you can’t make me.”
“Yes I can. Listen Elwin, you’re an upstanding citizen you run a great business and this is the first time we’ve ever caught you in trouble. I’m sentencing you to take a reading program, it’s a year long program and if you don’t pass you won’t be paying a fine, you’ll be doing time.”
“I can’t sign anything if that’s what you’re asking. What do I have to do?”
The judge hands me a manila folder. “Everything is in here.” The judge peers down at his desk to look at a piece of paper. “Martha, can read these things to you. You can use my phone to call her I’ll get you processed out quickly. Good luck Elwin.”
Martha Jo is outside the jail in the car waiting for me. She doesn’t look mad, she doesn’t have a look on her at all like her face is asleep. I get into the car and put the folder on the floor. She drive off when I shut the door. We arrive home and I’m confused. We sit in the car.
“Why are we at the house?”
“You don’t need to be at the shop right now, we need to talk.”
“Judge Mullen called me and told me what your sentence is.”
“You know I’m not doing this.”
“Elwin. I’ve never forced you to do anything but this is something you have to do.”
“Martha Jo, we aren’t going to talk about this.”
“Then we’ll talk about what I will do. When you don’t finish this program and you go to jail, I won’t be in this house when you get out. I won’t pick you up when you get out, I won’t visit and I won’t put money on your books. You can’t go to jail, not with everything going on now.”
“That iron press shit isn’t going to last, we’re doing our usual business in both shops now, like you said it all shook itself out.”
“It’s not the iron press, Knuckles left. He’s gone, we went to his apartment nothing, called his phone it’s off. He didn’t rob the shop or anything we just can’t find him.”
I run my hand down my face. “He did rob us, he took secrets. The inner workings of any business is just as good as currency. He left to start his own shop.”
The shop has been running slow with only two tattoo artist and one piercer and I don’t run to run people back and forth between the two shops. You have to keep employee moral up more than anything. I close on any and all holidays, national pizza day, Labor day, Canadian Thanksgiving, I close the shop. I have to hire on but I don’t know how I feel about it. Ruby will be back but that will take some time.
At the end of the night Martha Jo and I are closing down the shop. She sitting at the desk and tears are falling from her eyes.
“Goddamn it Elwin.”
“What’s going on Martha Jo?”
“You know damn well. This literacy program starts next month and you’re not going to go and I’m going to lose you.”
“I don’t want people thinking I’m stupid.”
“People won’t need to think you’re stupid they will know. You will lose your business, your wife, everything you built because you’re fucking stubborn.” Martha Jo stands up and I can hear the keys jangling in her hands. “Come let’s go.”
“I’m not leaving with you. You think you can call me stupid and everything will be okay. I’ve done everything for you and I ask you to do this one thing for me and you can’t.”
“You want me to wait for you while you’re in jail for not wanting to learn how to read. It’s not as private as you think, everyone who knows you knows you can’t read.”
My stomach folds in on itself, all I can think about is how everyone is making fun of me behind my back.
“No one is making fun of you behind your back Elwin, it’s just difficult that we have to cater to you. You don’t do the register, you can’t do appointment scheduling, you can’t check inventory, or clean up your station when you’re done because you don’t know where the needles go.”
“I color code the bins.”
“And you can only do that for so long. This is the breaking point Elwin don’t you understand?”
“If this is, we will just see what spills out.”
I walk past Martha Jo and start to walk with no direction I just want to be away from her. Why do I have to change? I’ve lived this long without reading, with the help of Martha Jo. I learned so much without a book. I know there are something that only a book can explain but I’m neither better or worse for knowing these things.