Joe gingerly peeled back the gauze on his neck and felt it immediately, the flash, the sting and his eyes lost focus.
“Ooh, that looks pretty sore.”
Joe recovered and looked in the mirror. It was the old guy from lumber who had come in to the men’s room and passed behind him as he was checking out his latest tattoo.
“It’s not that bad.” Joe said as he placed the gauze pad back over the spot. “It hurt like hell when they did it but after a couple of days I won’t feel a thing.”
The old guy was at a urinal now. “How long did that take?”
Joe pulled the collar of his t-shirt up as high as it would go over the bandage. “this time time about two hours. She has to fill in some coloring yet...should take about two more.”
“Sounds like a lot of work.” The old guy was at the sink next him now washing his hands. “Is it worth it?”
“Sure is. It’s one of a kind.” Joe said smoothing his hand over the gauze. “She did it from a sketch I did myself.” He put his hat back on. “Well, back to the grind.”
Joe went out to the garden department at the home improvement store where he worked. The sun was already beating down despite the fact it was only ten AM. It was going to be a hot one. He picked up the watering tank and wheeled it towards the annuals.
“Shit, what did you do?” Joe turned around and saw Dawn, the department manager looking at his bandage.
“Just got some new ink.” he replied matter-of-factly.
“Well I hope Tom or Janelle don’t see you. You know you’ve been warned.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is.” Joe said as he adjusted the sprayer. “It’s not that noticeable.”
“Yeah, well they think it is and you know they warned you about visible tattoos. If you get sent home I am going to be two people short.”
Joe’s luck held out until about twelve o’clock. Around that time Janelle, the assistant store manager, came out to the garden center with a customer to talk to Dawn. She shot Joe a dirty look when she noticed the gauze. She didn’t say anything then but about ten minutes later he heard his name over the intercom and was instructed to report to the office.
Tom’s door was partly open when Joe knocked. “Come in.” the manager said.
As soon as he walked in he knew he was in trouble. Tom was seated behind his desk in the cramped room, and to his left was Pam, the human resources manager.
“Have a seat.” Tom was all business now. He couldn’t even force one of his phony smiles.
“Is that permanent?” Tom said pointing his chin towards Joe as he looked at his neck.
“Uh..yeah... kind of.” He looked at Tom who was looking at a form on his desk. Then he glanced at Pam who had the usual pinched look on her face.
“I thought..no, I know we made it pretty clear what company policy was regarding visible tattoos and piercings.”
Joe looked down to avoid Tom’s eyes. “This one just got a little out of hand I guess.”
He heard Pam sigh and if it was possible to hear someone’s eyes roll he could swear he heard that too.
“We have no choice but to suspend you until we get word from corporate HR as to what to do next.” Tom said, totally without emotion.
“What?” Joe felt his face flush. “Seriously? Over a tattoo? This is bullshit!”
“It clearly states in the employee handbook that no store employee can have any visible body art or markings.” Pam said unable to keep silent anymore.
“I don’t see what the big deal is.” Joe said.
“Well our customers don’t like them, especially the older ones.” Tom replied.
“How do you know what people like?”
Tom sat back in his chair and pushed to form over to Pam who signed it. “I am not going to argue this with you Joe. You were warned and so was everyone else. You chose not to follow the rule and now there will be consequences.”
Joe looked up at Tom and then Pam. He realized he didn’t have a friend in the room.
Then he had a thought. “I could go back and work in receiving. They are out of sight.”
“Not really.” Tom said impatiently. “They have to bring the stock out on the floor and all of our employees are responsible for customer service.” He pushed the form in front of Joe now. “Read this and sign it. There is a space on the bottom for any comments you might want to make.”
Joe skimmed the document as well as his mind would let him. He knew this was probably just a step towards firing him and was tempted to write “Fuck You” in the comment section but restrained himself. He signed the bottom and pushed it away. “Is that it? He said.
“For now.” Tom said. “We’ll be in touch.”
That night as Joe was on his third beer and the Oxy he had “borrowed” from his roommate was starting to kick in, he was considering his circumstances. He hated that job anyway. There were too many managers there and most of them had a stick up there ass. It would suck having to look for another job, but he wasn’t about to change who he was. No, fuck them. They were almost as bad as his old man, pushing their bullshit norms on him. Except the old man was worse because he was such a hypocrite. He had never given Joe a rule that he hadn’t broken repeatedly himself.
Joe had stopped by his father’s place on the way home and had gotten into it with the old man. “You look like a God-damned carny.!” His father had hissed at him, stubbing out a cigarette. “Good luck getting another job if you fuck this one up.” Joe didn’t remind the old man that his was the first tattoo he had ever seen; a cross with the word “family” across his right biceps. His father’s tattoo had mostly faded now in the old man’s loose graying skin, but when he was a kid Joe thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen.
Joe went to his room and closed the door. He opened his window and put the box fan in and turned it on. The stale air in the room began to circulate, at least a little. Joe stood in front of the mirror that hung on the back of the door and peeled off his shirt and looked at himself in the mirror that hung on the closet door. There wasn’t much skin on his torso that wasn’t covered with ink.
He remembered getting every one. The adrenaline rush, the sting of the needle. He didn’t understand how people couldn’t see them as living breathing artwork.
He remembered his first one when he turned eighteen. It was a simple barbed wire pattern on his left arm. He new almost immediately there would be more. Now five years later he was up to ten, the most elaborate being the phoenix that covered most of his back. That one had taken five visits to the artist but was worth every painful minute. He remembered dreading putting a shirt on after each visit.
He drained the bottle of beer and put it on his dresser. He walked up close to the mirror and looked at the gauze bandage on his neck. He pressed his fingers into the gauze and increased pressure on it until he could feel the sting again. Then Joe slowly peeled back the gauze and stared intently at his latest.
“Fuck ‘em all” he said to himself.
© February 2015 David Coleman