Monday, July 11, 2011


Gary was not a tough guy. His dad was, but he wasn’t. Even his mom was probably tougher than him, but that was to be expected from a strung-out psychic hippie who ran a hostel for potheads and surfers. For being a not so tough guy, Gary was lucky, because his parents didn’t pressure him. They had a slight aversion to his softer side, but they didn’t bully or pester him about it, they just let it be, and bought him more violent video games. However, Gary had turned seventeen two months ago, and his lack of toughness trouble was about to come to a head. It was time for Gary to get a tattoo.

Gary’s father owned a beachfront building on Venice Beach. The bottom floor was a tattoo and piercing parlor, the second and third floors were dormitory—style rooms that served as the second most popular hostel on the beach, and the top floor was where Gary, his mother, his father, their mutt Rowdy, a temperamental cockatoo, and three hermit crabs lived. On the roof was a patio made for sunbathing, which Gary had turned into a garden, ostensibly to grow pot, but really for his hermit crabs to play in.

Gary’s parents made a tidy living for themselves through the hostel, the tattoo parlor, and psychic readings that Gary’s mother gave to tourists and the gullible. Gary had never been able to figure out if his mother really believed that she was psychic or not. In any case, she was very good at giving readings, and often had repeat customers. Gary’s father was a tattoo artist who was best known for his sprawling, involved, epic back pieces, but who was also adept at turning out quick, half hour adornments for drunken college students. Somewhere along his father’s line Gary was Jewish. This had had something to do with how their family came to own beachfront property, but Gary didn’t know the story, and his father wouldn’t talk about it.

As the seventeen year old son of a tattoo artist and a psychic, Gary had gone well past the age where he should have gotten his first anarchy, or at least communist, tattoo. His parents had started pointing out wicked tats that he should get, and even Rowdy, their dog, had a tattoo, but Gary couldn’t bring himself to inscribe something so permanently on his skin. Plus he was deathly afraid of needles, something he’d never admitted to.

Summer was coming to an end, the heat was oppressive, and with all his friends gone searching for cooler climate, Gary was left alone with his parents, and their plethora of epidural decoration. He spent most of his time on the roof in the shade of a half dozen avocado trees he’d grown from discarded pits reading Rolling Stone and National Geographic and listening to music. Gary wanted to become a music producer, and he and his parents had already socked away enough cash to get him through three and a half years at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston. His parents liked the idea of having a music producer for a son. Gary liked that they liked that.

While flipping through pages documenting the Persian Empire, Gary looked for tattoo designs. His parents would be fine if he didn’t get one, but they’d be so much happier if he did. Gary didn’t really mind the tattoo itself; it was the pain of getting it, and the permanence afterwards. The thought of his seventeen year old idea of cool being branded on him forever made Gary cringe. He knew that whatever he got, it’d look fine until he was about forty, and then his skin would start to wrinkle and sag from prolonged exposure to the sun. The ink would fade, the lines would blur, and he’d be left with a reminder of how old he was, and how young he used to be.

 As he was wrinkling his nose at this thought, his mother came up, her cockatoo on her shoulder, tarot deck in hand. She just wanted to know where more incense was. Gary told her, and she smiled her thanks. She was pretty when she smiled. That morning his father had left some imported pruning shears outside his door, a just-because gift for his bonsai trees. A little sign that even if he didn’t grow weed it was fine to garden, even cool. Tattoo or no, his parents loved him.

The august air made his face flush, his hair curl with sweat. Gary closed the magazine and went downstairs. Needles never hurt as bad as he thought they would, and a tattoo didn’t even use proper needles, just minuscule slivers filled with ink. He wouldn’t feel more than a tickle, if that. At least a tattoo would pass the day, make summer melt into fall, freeze into winter. Gary’s father looked up when he entered and smiled. He indicated he’d only done piercings, no one wanted to venture through the heat for ink. Gary smiled back and lay on his stomach on the dentist’s chair. His father looked disbelieving and asked him what he wanted.

 “Something on my shoulder. Surprise me.” Gary told him, and then gripped the chair, anticipating pain that would never come.

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