blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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It might not be the first tattoo he got, but it is the first he chooses to show me.

“Wanna see something, Missy?” He drinks one of Dad’s beers as we sit together on the basement couch. “Don’t tell, OK?”

I nod, unsure if the secret is the beer or the something he’s about to reveal. He begins to lift his shirt, which embarrasses both of us for a moment.

Then I see it: a huge black rat newly inked on his right pectoral. It rears up on its haunches, teeth bared, ready for attack. He smiles, happy. For a change, I am part of that happy.

“A tattoo,” I say, struck dumb by the god-awful sight of it.


“What’ll Mom think?”

A cloud eclipses his sunshine for a moment, then clears. “Fuck it,” he says. “Let’s find out.”

He throws his T–shirt across the room and finishes the beer in one pull. I can sit next to him, but I can’t look at that rat. It is the thing of my earliest nightmares. The rat who lived under my bed on Elm Street. The rat who came uninvited into so many nights of sleep, capturing my mother and dragging her off to the bathroom while my brother slept and my father fell deaf and I—three and alone—tried to rescue her, pulling on the bathroom door until the crystal knob came off in my hand, my mother limp and lifeless on the other side.

I don’t yet know that the rat is only one of the first of dozens of tattoos to come. I don’t know that, by the time he’s twenty, Matthew will have eagle wings on his back and the Virgin Mary covering his chest, nipple hairs growing out of her mane like weeds and that rat looming over her. He’ll add two full sleeves over the course of a few Christmases. Soon, the designs trickle down to his knuckles, branching into the words COOL HAND. They’ll creep into his pants, spawning lightning bolts and Jesus’s head. He’ll start a collection of ladies’ names, one after another, stuck like bumper stickers to his skin.

As we sit in the basement, waiting for Mom to discover what he’s done, he senses my discomfort and puts a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” he half whispers. “I know what I’m doing.”

I don’t see it then. I can’t. But years later, when he shoots himself and leaves behind his twenty-nine-year-old body (inked from neck to knuckles), I discover that he knew all along this thing he was doing and never could tell me.  

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