Dead White Male Body
Laser is in bed with the
mother of the girl he’d served nearly a year in
prison for violating. All he’d done was tattoo the kid’s eyelids
per her request, though he’d been accused of more. After sentencing, he
became a registered sex offender for “lewd or lascivious acts with a child
fourteen or fifteen years old.” He’d thought she was eighteen. The
girl’s mother, transfixed by his tattoos, stares at his chest.
“What’s this hand?” She has eyes like her daughter’s,
but with long lashes that seem fake—her kid, he found out the hard way,
has alopecia, and hasn’t any lashes at all.
“It’s Mr. Antolini’s.”
Her eyes buck to his. “Whose?”
“Antolini’s. From a book. He’s a guy who pats a confused boy
on the head. That’s hair under the fingers.”
“Are they related?”
“They’re made up. It’s a book. He just cares about the kid.
Or whatever.” Her eyes drop back to the spot over his collar bone. Sometimes
it’s hard to see your own tattoos. It would not be cool to tell her that
her daughter inherited her eyes. Laser’s not one for lingering looks. One
early spring years ago when he was a teen he’d driven to the beach, and
at the shore he came upon a group of people, Hispanic, facing the water, some
knee deep in the surf, some standing on the sand. Someone named Papi had slipped
beneath the black waves. There were shouts of “Papi!” through cupped
hands at a surface that was blank all the way out until it met the sky. Laser
had stripped to his shorts and waded in up to his belly before the bone-numbing
chill struck him—that and the realization that he was a weak swimmer. The
undertow pulled at his hips and thighs like a pair of giant hands. Shaking his
head, he’d retreated to the packed sand, where he found himself facing
a young woman. The wind blew her dark hair straight at him, as though he lay
on his back and she bent over him. Through her hair he could see her eyes, and
they were full and empty at the same time. He’d run back to his car, shouting
without looking back that he was going to call for help, which he did when he
reached a diner five miles down the highway. Really, he’d only told a
waitress that she needed to call in an emergency, that someone was drowning.
People try to hold your gaze either to show you their wounds or to look for
yours, Laser knows. The woman reading his chest can’t see the setting sun inked
across his back. It’s got wriggling beams made up of words, one of which
“You’ve got a thing for hands—what about these?” Dana
“These right here, the clasped ones.” Her lips and the tip of her
tongue mark a spot just below his nipple, and her hair is under his chin, honey
blond almost to the roots in her pale scalp and smelling of expensive treatments.
If Laser hadn’t been propped up on his elbows, he might have patted her
“From another book,” he says. “Two guys on the deck of a whaling
ship are kneading a tubful of spermaceti—smooth, soft stuff from a dead
whale. They used to make perfume out of it. They were squeezing the lumps out,
and it felt so good they took each other’s hand.”
“Tastes fishy.” Dana smacks her lips. “I know, a whale isn’t
a fish.” She sits back on her heels and scans Laser’s body, maybe
for nautical symbols. “Whales are endangered.” She wears only his
denim shirt, unbuttoned. Her flesh, all he can see, is white and clean. “And
it’s a little gay, too.”
“Brotherhood,” he said. “The brotherhood of man.”
“What are you, a test all over? Who’s this?” She squints close
to read the name printed over his belly button. “‘S-V-I’—how
do you even say it? Did you—or whoever did it— spell it wrong?”
“I did it. It’s ‘Svidrigaylov.’ A character. He’s
Russian.” He doubts if Dana could tell this was the newest of his tattoos,
that hed done it in prison with a needle and homemade ink. He won’t tell
her that her daughter inspired it.
hands, patting heads
Laser had thought the girl’s mother would be smarter, or at least better
educated. She was a school principal, after all, though only elementary. Most
of what she’s asked about on his chest was from books he’d read in
high school. His body is kind of a test, though, and he can’t really say
she’s failed it, because none of the women he’s been with has offered
more than a general “Cool!” or “I like that one,” or “Those
scare me,” about his inkings. Only Willy Freeze, his first and only cellmate,
had picked up the references, and in a heartbeat. “Catcher,” he
about the patting hand, and “Moby-Dick” about the clasped
Laser gave him the hint about the spermaceti squeezing. He’d watched Laser
complete “SVIDRIGAYLOV” across his stomach.
“Dude, you’re lucky you’re borderline, man. If that girl you’re
in here for was as young as the girl that pimp Svid turned into a hooker in his
dream, you’d be fucked. And I don’t mean fucked, I mean dead. Child
molesters here, man, they’re dead-fucked. This shit you got inked all over
you—you already got a dead white male body.”
“Mmm.” Laser was finishing the second V. There was something satisfying
about the jab of the pin, the blue-black ink—something where there’d
been nothing on his belly.
“Damn—” Willy Freeze wagged his big Mr. Peanut head. “Dostoevsky
must have been messed up. Crime and Punishment. ‘Do the crime, pay the
time.’” Then he got excited. “Hey, man, you got to ink my eyeballs!
I heard about it, but never seen it. You got to ink em! Scare the shit
out of anybody who looks at me.”
“Never did it, but I’ve seen it. But you don’t really want
“You got to tattoo my eyes, man.” Willy’s voice and glare were
* * *
The mother of the
girl he tattooed is playing with Laser’s dick, which
isn’t stiffening, but neither of them is ready for more sex yet.
examining it the way she’s looked at his body art, like it’s
a curiosity, something that he has that she doesn’t. Laser had tattooed
eyes, turning the whites blue-black, and his cellmate had indeed been transformed
into one fearsome motherfucker: he looked like midnight had risen within
him and would never leave. Willie had laughed like a demon when he saw
the mirror. Then, within an hour, he’d gotten knifed in the yard
during a fight he’d started, and Laser never saw him again. There’s
also a “Willy” in Laser’s sunset.
* * *
Dana hates how she sounds. Like a coquette, like a little idiot, and here
she is, forty, and a professional. Forty-two. But what did people sound
they were having affairs? She has no script, but she’s deeply, daringly
involved in a scene with this man whose body is a museum—a library—of
prompts. She’s an unskilled teaser, and everything she says sounds
it’s Russian, why didn’t you write it in Russian?”
“I’ve inked in Cyrillic. But I don’t read Russian.”
They’d met when she’d rushed to his tattoo parlor, furious and frantic,
insisting that Laser remove the Stars of David he’d tattooed on her daughter’s
eyelids. Thrusting the branded girl in front of her, she screamed at the
figure in the tattooing chair. He was reading a newspaper under his work
“We’re going to shut you down!” She’d been hoarse, intending
to be as dangerous as she tried to appear. That morning, Dana had found
her daughter dressed and napping on top of her covers, as usual. The girl habitually
at dawn to shave herself smooth from head to toe: the hair the alopecia
left surfaced overnight in unsightly patches. Dana had started shaving the
preschool, but since the onset of puberty the girl had been doing it herself.
With adolescence, her daughter had spurned the brunette wig she’d
worn since kindergarten in favor of a hot-pink bob. The new wig complemented
fantasy life that excluded Dana. But it had been a relief to roll her eyes
at the superficial excesses of a daughter who, if not exactly a normal
at least overlapped with Dana’s idea of one.
“Up, sleepy head, time for school,” Dana had called. “Missed
you last night.” There’d been a late PTA meeting. Then she’d
seen the stars, which the girl fluttered drowsily at first, then defiantly as
why her mother was staring.
“Tattoos,” she said, and Dana shrieked. The SUV’s GPS directed
mother and daughter through commuter-clogged downtown streets to Laser’s
Tattoos and Piercings.
The large man with the ring through his nose and the ponytail and the ink-stained
arms lowered his paper, removed his glasses and nodded at them with a frowning
grin, as if he’d expected them.
* * *
The minute he’d agreed to tattoo stars on the eyelids of the whip of
a girl with the crazy pink wig and audacious, drawn-on brows, Laser knew there’d
be trouble. But the kid was right about the stars—she needed them.
tried to explain to the frenzied mother that he couldn’t really help.
“It’s a coincidence that my name is Laser. I don’t do laser
don’t have the equipment. There are clinics that do that. Try Tatt-off.
It’s a chain—there’s one in the mall near you.”
Near you. That’s the thing he shouldn’t have said. He’d known
not to say, Laser removal might leave permanent scars. He hadn’t said,
The stars look good, let her keep them. He’d said near
you, and it had
come out that he had driven the girl home after tattooing her. Given the questionable
safety of his neighborhood and the fact that she’d finally admitted to
being a month shy of eighteen, a ride seemed the right thing to do. He wouldn’t
have guessed she was only fifteen.
After the half-hour drive into the suburbs, he’d passed the entrance to
her gated community before pulling over—when he saw the size of the
houses and the lush lawns and the clean, broad, black streets on the other
side of the
gates, he’d decided to let her walk through them on her own. He had
to admit, anybody checking them out in his pickup might have been curious
their story—a girl in a pink wig with white gauze taped over her
eyes was not your everyday sighting. But her lids had bled a little, and
wanted to risk infection. Blind and oblivious, the girl had chattered about
pop movie stars the whole way. Thank God she knew her own address—probably
something she’d been forced to memorize in kindergarten. Without
his GPS, he’d never have found her neighborhood. She squeaked a little
when he pulled off the tape holding down the gauze pads, but it couldn’t
have hurt more than the tattooing. Part of the sassy eyebrows she’d
drawn on her forehead came off with the tape. He twisted his rearview mirror
herself. The bleeding had stopped. She closed one eye at a time, batted
her lids at herself,
then at Laser. It was twilight, and he only knew her eyes were green from
memory. She was smiling.
“I’m smooth, you know,” she blurted. Then she yanked off her
pink wig, revealing her completely hairless scalp. “Touch it,” she
said, and he’d patted her bald head. It was cool and dry. “I’ve
got that alopecia disease,” she said. “Don’t worry, you won’t
get it from touching me. I’ve had it forever. But I get patchy, so
I shave all over twice a day to stay smooth.”
“Uh-huh.” Laser was used to confessions. It took a long time to
ink people, and maybe something about the permanence of what was happening to
them made his
customers spill their crimes, infidelities, and aspirations. Other people’s
secrets buzzed continually around his head. But it was hard not to look
at a girl when she wanted to show you she was smooth.
“It’s itchy now, because the patches have started to grow in. I didn’t
tell you about the other tattoo I want—I want drops of milk coming
from my tit, like there’d been a baby nursing, someone pulled it
away. But you can’t let the drops look like blood. I want them right
Before Laser could protest she’d pulled up her t-shirt, and he turned his
head away a second after he saw her place a finger two inches below a little
nipple that looked like a boy’s.
“You need to cover up,” he said, staring hard into his side mirror
back toward her neighborhood’s gates because his eyes needed something
else to look at besides this girl’s nakedness. “I don’t do
breasts as a regular thing. Now cover up.”
* * *
“—the mall near you,” he’d said. Only at the Tatt-off
clinic in the mall, where her daughter wept with humiliation and pain at the
de-inking of her stars, did Dana wonder how he knew. The lasering left white
lines on her daughter’s lids, “which should fade, but no guarantees.” In
the SUV on the way home—there’d be no school for mother or daughter—the
interrogation, punctuated by “I hate you! I’m going to live with
Daddy!” finally yielded the story the child repeated in court, where her
baldness was hidden beneath her old brunette wig: “He covered my eyes and
told me he wanted to give me a special tattoo, and he lifted my shirt and touched
me where he said he’d put it.” Under her hand-drawn virginal
brows a small band-aid covered part of a fading star.
The girl had sat with her father at the trial, a man Dana thought the shadow
of an ideal parent. He’d been less than the shadow of a husband, though
he hadn’t actually used the phrase “better prospects” a decade
earlier when he’d left the big house in the gated community, and he never
ceased to provide for his ex-wife and child. With the attorney he hired, a golfing
buddy, he kept a close eye on the criminal and civil proceedings. He called his
daughter “Pumpkin,” which made her smile and blush.
It took a year, after the civil suit and the settlement that would be held
in trust until her actual eighteenth birthday, and just weeks before Laser’s
release, for Dana’s daughter to finally change homes. While the girl stood
at the front door, waiting among boxes and suitcases and rolled posters for her
father, she’d confessed, “He never touched me except for the
tattoos. All he did was give me a ride home. And I swore to him I was eighteen.”
* * *
“Your legs are as pale as all of me,” Dana says to Laser. “ Can
you tattoo me? Can you tattoo me now?” She’s right about the whiteness
of their bodies, all of hers, and his thick legs. Under the black hairs kinking
from his thighs and shins and calves, his flesh is like a frog’s belly.
Except for some sun-freckling on her forearms and the brown thatch between her
legs and the tits so dark they’re nearly black, she’s white,
too, but like a satin sheet.
The second after asking for a tattoo, she blushes fiercely, the color spilling
like warm soup from her cheeks down her neck to her chest. Laser had been
easy enough to find. She’d learned in court that his real first name was Lazarus,
and his address was a matter of public record. But she’d left her intended
apology unspoken. How could she apologize for the time he’d spent in prison
and the livelihood he’d lost? All she said when he opened the door to his
flat that first visit was, “She’s gone to her father’s,” as
if he’d been waiting for the news, and he’d invited her in and offered
her a cup of tea and a seat while he finished tattooing something on a young
man’s bicep. His tattooing machine was about the only thing he hadn’t
lost. His apartment smelled of the ink and antiseptic of his art, his business
conducted now without a license and by word of mouth.
While Laser bent over his work, inking with a steady hand, she found the
hum of the machine soothing until she saw the muscle of the young man flinch.
tattooed had to hurt. She tried to picture her daughter in Laser’s
chair, but remembered instead how she’d dreaded shaving the child’s
head each morning, hated the dark, bristled islands that would surface,
smell and the texture of the white cream she molded over them, and cringed
at the drag of the razor. But she’d been a faithful and cheerful
mother, humming a made up tune like a lullaby, the only lyrics the refrain: “Sooo smooth,
sooo smooth.” Didn’t anyone see the respect due her
for her endurance?
Now Dana’s attention again fixes on Laser’s tattoo of a hand patting
a head. Who is Antolini? That very afternoon, a few hours earlier, minutes
before she sent out the email canceling her faculty meeting so she could rush
lover, she’d touched the head of a third grader who’d been banished
from class for “bothering a girl.” Seth was a hard little boy
to like. He was unpleasantly overweight and smelled like baloney. She’d
asked him to take a seat and tell her what happened.
“I just said her name,” he whined.
“How did you say it?”
“OK.” Dana smiled. “But why?”
Seth’s gaze dropped to the floor, his lips rising toward his nose
to form a snout.
“There are better ways to show someone you like them,” Dana said.
She stood and moved to the child. His head was at the height of her hip. “Ways
that aren’t so silly. Try writing Jillian a poem. Or, if you want to keep
things private, just for yourself, keep a journal.” Then she placed
her hand on top of the boy’s head. Its gelled surface reminded her of the
glazed sugar crusting a pastry. After sending him back to class, she murmured, “LaserLaserLaserLaserLaser” like
an incantation while posting the meeting cancellation.
* * *
This woman in his bed examining his tattoos, back now for the fourth—the
fifth?—time, is small-breasted, like her daughter. He hadn’t
revealed the girl’s specific tattoo request in his testimony—said
nothing about the drops of mother’s milk, stating only that the
girl had asked for a tattoo on her chest.
“Your legs are as pale as all of me,” her mother says. He expects
her to ask why he hasn’t tattooed his legs, and he has an answer ready. “Did
you ever read Dante? Inferno?” he’d begin—and
by now, suburban wealth, school principal and all, he knows she hasnt Well,
at the very bottom of Hell, the worst offenders, those treacherous
to loved ones, they’re frozen for eternity in a lake of ice.
The worst ones are up to their eyeballs. Me, I picture myself in ice
up to my waist. My legs aren’t
available for inking.” If she asks, that’s what he’ll
say, but she doesn’t.
Laser reaches toward her and cups one slight breast. It’s warm,
like a dove. On the back of his hand is the fierce head of a Chinese
body twisting down his forearm, its stubby dog-legs clawed, its sharp,
reptilian wings spread across his forearm.
“Mark me,” he says in a too-deep voice. She won’t know he’s
doing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But her clean skin suddenly
goose-bumps, her eyebrows lift, and her lips purse. On one of his back’s
wriggling sunbeams there is a pair of B’s, followed by a second
pair with a line through them:
To be or not to be. He slides his hand down the woman’s
ribs to her hip. She’s smiling—he likes the tiny lines
that radiate from the corners of her eyes. Deeper creases frame her
lips, and he likes
* * *
“Mark you?” Dana mimics his tone, a contralto the lowest she can
with? Where?” Meaning covers the man who touches her, but she
feels blank. She waits. An answer doesn’t come, and she falls
forward, her palms threatening to sear fresh prints among the symbols
on his chest.