Tattoo

“What’s this called, dada?” the boy asked, touching the tattoo on Joe’s chest.  They lay together on a summer afternoon in Barrington, bare-chested, the boy’s chest pale and sunken, the bumps from the wires holding his sternum together visible against the stretched white skin.  The man’s chest was brown from their last trip to California, fleshy with a thick layer of fat covering his ribs.

“It’s a tattoo.  I got it when you were a baby.  See your chest, see where your beautiful scar is?  Dad has one too.”

“Why?”

He didn’t immediately answer.  He’d gotten the tattoo one drunken night when D and Nathaniel were spending the weekend away with one of D’s friends.  Glad for the three-day break, he spent the first night drinking, smoking, playing video games, listening to music as loud as he could stand with the baseball game muted on the television.  The second night, he had three glasses of scotch and went to a tattoo parlor with a photo of Nathaniel’s chest.  He used his index finger to show the tattoo artist how long to make the scar, exactly the same length as the boy’s first incision.  Looking at his son’s long, lean body now it was hard to believe that his boy’s first neck to belly scar was only the length of an adult index finger.

The tattoo artist, a twenty-something bald guy, ears rimmed with piercings, thought the concept was cool, but he didn’t want to replicate the scar.  He suggested a rope or chain instead.  Joe agreed and chose a heavy chain pattern.  Sitting in the waiting room a chain tattoo seemed a great idea – symbolic both of Nathaniel’s scar and the link between boy and man.

“That one’s going to be eighty dollars,” the tattoo artist said.

He nodded.  The artist shaved the man’s chest, what few hairs there were, and wet-transferred a pattern onto his skin.  Joe sat up and examined the pattern in the mirror.  Screw it, he thought, good enough.  The tattoo gun whined, and he felt the needle burning into his skin.  He jumped.  Jesus Christ, he thought, this fucking hurts.  The needle ground away at his chest.  He squirmed in the chair, tried to focus on the pain Nathaniel must have felt.  Goddamn this hurts.  He wanted to slap the man’s hand away, and once when it actually felt like the artist was using a hot knife to cut into his chest, he decided to quit for the night, maybe come back when he was drunker.  Screw the tattoo.  Finally only the shame of not being able to take the pain of a small tattoo needle kept him in the chair.  He clamped his teeth together, thought about Nathaniel having his chest sawed open, once, twice, three times, the surgical report that said, “Used bone saw for initial chest opening, finished with chisel and hammer,” and he wept, an involuntary sob shaking his body.

“You okay, man?” the artist asked.  “You want to take a break?”

He waved him off.  “Just keep going, okay,” he said and closed his eyes.

“Lots of nerves in the sternum,” the artist said.  “You picked a painful spot for your first tattoo.”

“Guess so,” Joe said.  He lay there gritting his teeth, expecting to feel something other than pain, perhaps redemption, or catharsis, or something, but all he felt was discomfort and pain.  Now, a couple of years later, it all just seemed trite, an inconsequential, stupid gesture, even a little embarrassing sometimes.

He turned to the boy.  “Why did I get a tattoo?  Because I wanted to be like you,” he said to the boy.

“Oh.  Can I touch it some more?” the boy asked.  His fingers probed the tattoo, pulling a couple of hairs aside.  “When I am older, will I have hair on my chest, Dada?”

“Yes, I think you probably will. Yes you will.  Can I touch your scar again?” he asked the boy.

They lay together on that hot summer afternoon in Illinois, the man gently tracing the wires and bumps through his boy’s skin, wondering what each knob, dent, and jagged edge meant, watching the tiny, smudged hand push against his own chest, small fingers tracing the links on the chain.