The literacy center doesn’t look like a school; it’s like an educational hospital. Many chairs strung about, wider hallways, no lockers. I don’t remember any of my schools that much. I know the cafeteria and the smokers corner but if you asked me if the hallways were wood or linoleum I couldn’t tell you. If you asked me if the lockers were small on long I wouldn’t know. I didn’t pay attention to school. I only gave attention to what I wanted which is why when I saw Fingers tattooing I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
My first tattoo is a bumble bee on my left ankle. Fingers made everyone get a tattoo before he taught them. He would put you through the worst pain you ever felt to show you what you could end up doing to somebody. He had me lay on the floor on my side while he sat in-between my legs, it felt like he put his entire weight every time he dug into my skin. Every electric hum felt like a team of termites biting a canal in my skin.
He spit on my tattoo after he was done. He poured rubbing alcohol and iodine on everyone else’s. Is this what Veronica was talking about? What do I remember about Fingers? Only what I saw. I can’t recall anything he done to me. He never laid a hand on me expect for a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, on playful slaps whenever I made him laugh. Then what made me so special? What did the others do to make Fingers treat them that way?
“Elwin?” A voice I was unfamiliar with said.
“My name is Alfred Devaney. I will be your literacy teacher.” A bald man with circular glass and a grey beard. “Let’s go into my office.”
We walk into the door that is right next to me. The man’s office is a mess but if I was to guess he knows where everything is. Books are everywhere but I pick out the colors of the ones I think I would like. There is a bust of someone I don’t know, could be Mozart, there are paintings I know because I’ve tattooed them. His computer screen is a projector that is on the wall in front of his desk, the chair for a visitor is on the side of his desk. I take that seat.
“You aren’t my first court ordered student but you could be my first that drops out. I have never had anyone drop out on me because if I don’t have you wanting to learn to read by this day I never will. Not to say that you never will but I won’t be the one to teach you.” He clears his throat. “I looked you up. You own and run Permanent?” I nod my head. “I don’t have a tattoo and I don’t think I’ll ever get one. I just don’t get it. I spent so much time trying to cram things into my head I don’t want those things spilling out onto my skin.”
He starts using his computer and pulling up a certain website.
“How long will it take me to learn how to read?” I asked.
“You will never stop learning how to read. I learn new words every day and understand concepts old and new as well. Reading isn’t just the words, it’s trying to understand what a person is saying. You know how communication works through vocal and non-vocal. When trying to convey a concept with words you have to use life experience and hope the reader can formulate an understanding with their own knowledge.”
We sit in his office and just talk everything that comes to mind. Women, politics, drugs, movies, I’m not a sports guy so he skips that talk. He looks over at the wall and reads the time off projected screen.
“Oh my I might be late. I have to go I have a meeting. I will see you tomorrow. Here take this.” He hands me a book. There is a man on the cover covered in tattoos that are seamlessly together, his head and hands are the only thing that is bare. “The title is The Illustrated Man, and the author is a man named Ray Bradbury. You can have your wife read it to you can’t you?”
“Yes, Martha Jo would do that for me.”
“Good. See you soon.”
Martha Jo and I lied in bed unable to rest and unable to enjoy each other’s company. Everything had been better since I went to the literacy class and met Alfred. There was still a bit of a riff because of everything that happened at the bar. Martha Jo had never seen me get like that, she’d only known me as a silent person never angry person. All types of assholes come into the shop and I never get like that with them. She had to know that I’d do that for any and every one in my family. If it would have been her I would have killed that man, I really would.
“Do you know that if that had been you instead of Ruby, I would have killed that man?”
“Yes I do and that ain’t what scares me. What scares me is what is coming. That Veronica and Fingers situation, whatever could happen you could do it. What you’ve told me about Fingers you would have to strike first to make sure nothing would happen.”
Now that I’ve been thinking about it maybe Fingers wasn’t the mad dog I thought he was. Okay maybe he is a mad dog but a mad dog with a path? An act of nature, a hellish force?
“Did you want me to read you that book?” Martha Jo asked.
I put my head on Martha Jo’s shoulder and snuggled next to her. She cleared her throat and started to read.
“It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man.”
As Martha Jo went on all I could think about was Fingers. The tattoos of both men expanded in my mind. I don’t like it when anybody has their shirt off, outside of Martha Jo. Fingers worn a shirt sparingly and I hated seeing him like that. His skin was only outlined by his tattoos, it was his skin that bled through his ink. Fingers tattoos didn’t tell a story or didn’t collect a narrative about himself, only one did and that was the one he got when he was eighteen years old.
He never told me about the battle of Osan, he only told me about his time at the 8076th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. That’s where he learned how to tattoo people. The sergeant he learned from got his legs blown off. Fingers said that he would say that he was happy he never wasted money on dance lessons. The sergeant made a gun out of a hypodermic needle and mechanical pieces of a sewing machine to move the needle.
Fingers had multiple pieces of shrapnel in his body and was put next to the sergeant and they started to chat it up. He asked him what was he tinkering on and he didn’t know what he was talking about. A tattoo wasn’t the most common thing at the time. Finger hadn’t even seen one in a book. The one the sergeant had was on his right calf. He wanted a new tattoo on his arm and didn’t think he could do it on himself.
The sergeant’s tent was hit by a mortar and he just boxed up and shipped home thirty-five soldiers that day. His tent was the only one hit in the attack and he’s been put to work here. They said they needed his hands more than his legs. He told the staff that he did need a pair of legs and got Fingers on as an assistant. During the day’s work the sergeant would have Fingers practice on whoever they were boxing up. Even when they would get pieces sent to them the sergeant would have Fingers tattoo each one.
There was no way to get ink so Fingers would melt down tires in the morning and use it all up by the end of the night. The sergeant would do traces during lights out and that would be what Fingers did all day. A drill sergeant’s instructor badge, air assault badge, airborne badge. He said that repetition was key. The two months of Finger’s recovery he’d tattooed every part of the body and the only person who praised his work was the man teaching him.
It was time to put the time in on people who had an opinion of his work. They moved up to the sick call and med bay and took appointments they charged hundred bucks for a tattoo saying it was fifty for them and fifty for security, but that was bullshit The sergeant gave the money to Fingers. Fingers is an amazing tattoo artist. He could tattoo anything on anybody during an earthquake, he said that it was the shock of doing it on dead people which gave him a stone resolve.
He would dig deep into a body and nothing would happen. He could rake a person’s flesh as hard as he could and nothing would come of it. He didn’t have to talk to them, he didn’t have to deal with them moving around unlike people who are alive. The people in the med bay where injured well before they were sent to the army and war. Each person would spill their guts to Fingers while he worked. Talking about how they got the letter in the mail, “Go to war or go to jail.” Or the same when standing before a judge. How they joined up to honor thy father and country but now wanted nothing to with either of them.
Each tattoo represented the new person who was getting the tattoo. The private, sergeant, or the colonel who had Fingers escorted to his room to tattoo the word “Lucky” on his ass. Fingers wasn’t Fingers to these men he was Corporal Grimmond something and someone I had never thought of. The idea someone could be different than who you know them to be. Everyone you meet could be ten different people by the time you meet them. A tattoo to some is a mark of time a lock pasted on by pain and absorbed by your own blood. Something that is forever sentimental it keeps you in the past forever.
Fingers got his orders. He was heading back to the front lines and the sergeant was going home. The sergeant had finally sketched out what he wanted for a tattoo. The sergeant had drawn up in an exquisite font the words, “forgive me.” He had Fingers tattoo those words above his heart. After Fingers was done the sergeant told Fingers to spit on it. After the sergeant tattooed the eyeless grim reaper on Fingers forearm he spit on it. In the last week of Fingers’s tour he got a letter from the states. The sergeant killed himself.
“‘A cup of tea?” asked Wendy in the silence.” You see why I don’t want to have children?” Martha Jo said.
I chuckled and cleared my throat, “You can find something for you in everything can’t you?”
The Crystal Needle had been picking up business again. The owner of the corporation, Joseph John Ruckle had been hitting every radio show, day-time television show, that he could get time on and talk about how the iron press wasn’t only safer but the future. No passages of blood borne pathogens, no infections from improper care. And all of the incident were with the test trials and all signed waiver the same as one at a tattoo shop. Everything comes with risk he said.
I hadn’t seen Veronica since our car ride, I was happy for it. She was tied up in shit I left long ago. I’m peaking under my blindfold now, not seeing things in a new light but getting a new light. Thinking about how I thought I changed but how I never did. People say change is constant and every day is new but those people have never been on rock bottom long. When shits low, shit is low, and only yourself and the help of others is going to get you out.
I took the hands that were offering me a way out. Martha Jo as always stuck by my side. This time was different I had hit a wall with her that I never thought we would get to. I got comfortable with her which is strange to say. Should I get comfortable with her? I’ve been with her for twenty-three years and I couldn’t think of how to spend a day without her. She never complained about my illiteracy, I never heard a word of it.
It could have been because I knew how to get around the world without it being obvious. Video game instructions are color coded, hit the green button I swing my sword or shoot the gun, hit the pink square and I grab the block. Food is very tricky for a while, you have to listen and remember, they don’t have steaks and burgers everywhere, and breakfast is twenty-fours in some places. Grocery shopping is impossible, you can only get what you think it is for so long.
The rest is pretty easy, most places have a signature meal or drink. I learned everything with hands on experience. I don’t think there is anything that a book can teach me. What can a book show me that I haven’t learned from Fingers? If I wanted to pass on information I would just use video. Most likely this smug bastard Joseph John Ruckle would throw degrees in my face, stating that he just paid for his education and self-discipline instead of building it himself.
Am I always at a loss when it comes to this? The educated versus the self-educated, we all are self-educated because something failed us, may it be within ourselves or in other but it is a failing none the less. A lack of detail, a crack in the structural integrity of society, what makes a person other than their unknown traits and origins?
All of this new is rushing toward me and I cannot get out of its way. I can do the multiple things all of these things ask of me. I have to hire new people, to think I will read someone’s application for the first time. Not just going off a gut feeling but a somewhat complete understanding of a person. You can’t get everything about a person from an application let alone a first meeting, but being able to pick up on how they answer a question they write over one they speak are two different things.
Words will finally have meaning, no longer will they be flamboyant jumbles left everywhere. They attention they called for will be paid, but a debt in knowledge is one everyone has. I don’t know where I would start once I have my sea legs. With nothing to stand in my way what won’t I be able to do? I could still not understand what the constructed jabber means. I know, “see Jane run.” But I’ve never read it.
Ready for whatever comes my way and I hope I can stay motivated to want this. This is something I have to convince myself I want. I want Martha Jo and Martha Jo wants me to learn how to read. With new abilities come new responsibilities I can only think about everything that Martha Jo does for me. Things I don’t know about and things I can’t know about now. I thought I was being as useful as I could be to Martha Jo. I bring in money which she uses to better both our lives. She gets her a salary yes, but we use are money together to get things we both want or need. The arrangement was never complained about or ever needed a change up. It only takes one, one minute, one straw, and the difference a day makes.
I know Martha Jo would never use my ignorance against me. She loves me and has never shown anything to prove otherwise. She really wouldn’t have anything to gain from doing this unless this is how she got her ship rocking. Spending years with a person fucking with their mind and money only to turn them tits up and step on the broken pieces making it all worse. I brought it up with her on the ride home.
“I’m scared that I’m going to find something out. I don’t believe that you would be hiding something from me using my illiteracy. I have no doubt that you are an honest and loving person, I’m asking you only because I need to hear it. Are you hiding anything from me?”
“Elwin, no I’m not. I understand why you would ask that. Do you hate me for not trying harder to teach you how to read?”
“No, I didn’t want to learn anyway, it would have drove us apart.”
I’m sitting outside of Alfred’s office my mind is clear and it hasn’t been this clear in a very long time. I’ve pushed everything to the side even though I know I shouldn’t. I have to hire three, or four new employees, worry about Fingers, and try to learn how to read.
I hear the clicking of dress shoes on the hallway and I look up to see if it is Alfred. It is, he’s carrying a leather bag and two books in his left hand. He nods to me when we make eye contact. He goes for his keys in his bag and opens the door inviting me in.
“How is everything?” He asked.
“Please take a set Elwin.”
I sit down and Alfred moves close to me.
“We are going to start with the ABC’s today and I’m going to give you some worksheet packets after this lesson. You are going to have a heavy workload here.”
Alfred doesn’t go over the ABC’s in a sing-song way we go over the pronunciation of the letters. He shows me how to spell my name, Martha Jo’s name and the name of the shop. We take breaks every hour which just consist of us talking about idle things neither of us smoke so we stay inside.
“What do you think you’d be doing if you didn’t have Permanent?” Alfred asked.
“I’d be dead or in jail. I was dealing for a long time.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Got tired of carrying a gun and I was just about to get too deep. It was either jump in or get out at that point so I decided to jump out.”
“How did you and Martha Jo meet?” Alfred asked.
“Martha Jo was the biggest dealer in town at the time. She was getting everything, the pipeline stopped at her front door. Coke, weed, speed, shrooms, you name it she had it on tap. I was off loading my product onto her trying to scrap together what money I could to have a savings. Out of the blue she stopped by my apartment. She never been there but somehow knew where I lived. She came in and sat down at my couch and I sat across from her in my lazy boy.
“Did you get pinched?” She asked.
“Are you trying to flip me? The cops caught you and you think you can get me to buy this shit cheap and roll on me?”
“Okay, if you are just going to talk like this you can leave.”
“Why? Am I making you uncomfortable?” Martha Jo pulled a small handgun out of her pocket. It rests in her hand as naturally as a pencil. “If someone is selling me something at discount it means one of two things, you’re being flipped or you just had the first gun put into your face. I don’t think the second one applies to you. You’ve been holding a piece since you sat down at that lazy boy. Which means you are here to flip me so let’s talk.” Martha Jo puts the gun on the table.
I put my gun on the table as well.
“This is why I’m selling you everything I can cheap. I don’t want to have these kinds of interactions anymore. I want to invite people over my place who I’m not afraid will hurt me for money. Or if a person shows up to my house it’s a pleasant surprise not a reason for me to be on edge.”
“You don’t like the danger?” She scoots toward the arm of the couch.
“I use to but it stopped being danger when I got use to it. It’s dangerous when you first start out because you’re not used to it, but once you do it becomes routine.”
She lays on her belly on my couch just before she puts her feet on the couch she slips off her sandals. Her green colored toes nails are great to look at. I’m not a foot man, but everything about her had a smoothness. Like an egg running down a baby’s ass. She rested her head on the arm rest while we talked.
“What are you going to do for money?” She asked.
“I’m going to start a business.”
“A tattoo shop. I’ve been doing tattoos since I was fifteen and that’s what I want to do.”
“Once I buy your inventory you’ll have enough money to start said shop?”
“Almost. I’m looking for a partner they could put in whatever they wanted, the more money the merrier.”
Martha reaches into her pocket and takes out a cigarette case. She removes a joint from the case and lights up.
“I hope you don’t mind.” She said.
“Not at all.” She offers me a drag and I decline.
“You can’t trust a drug dealer who doesn’t smoke.” She said.
“An old wives tale, you should trust a drug dealer that doesn’t smoke you know they aren’t pinching your sack.”
Martha Jo laughs. “Do you have any equipment lined up?” She asked.
“Just the gun I built.”
Martha Jo springs up from the couch in a cat stretch
“Can you show me?”
I bring her into my bathroom where I’d been doing some tattooing. Some people like the bathroom because they think it’s clean, others like the bedroom for the comfort of the bed. I open the medicine cabinet and pull the gun out.
“Where is the needle?” She asked.
“I have a supply of needles I get from a guy I sell to who has diabetes. They are clean.”
“Could you give a tattoo right now?”
“Yeah, I got ink, needles.”
“Do you think you could put a sparrow right here?” She lifts up her shirt and points to a spot just below her belly button on the right.
“I can do it here or on the bed.”
“Famous last words.” She says.
“What happened next?” Alfred asked
“I gave her the tattoo.”
“Did you guys start dating after that?”
“Oh god no. She dealt for the next two years and got pinched, she only had a little amount of weed on her so she didn’t get any time just a fine and community service. She and I had the same lawyer. I was paying a lawyer to fill out my paperwork for starting the shop and we meet in the office and got to talking.”
“The guy she picked up from was killed and it was either take his spot or get out. She didn’t want to die so she got out. She asked me out one night to find out how I stayed out. I would just tell her about the shop and I would start complaining about all the paperwork for the shop. She asked me if she could take a look at it. Martha Jo handled the paperwork better than the lawyer. Our time together just brought us closer and we’ve never been apart since.”
“What story are you on in The Illustrated Man?” Alfred asked.
“The one with the astronauts stranded on the rain planet.”
“Fucked up right?”
“You said it.”
“That looks like our time. Same time tomorrow.”