Big Mike fidgeted with his car keys while I finished sanitizing the chair.
For a brief second, I wondered if he was nervous about getting fresh ink, but I soon dismissed that thought from my mind. Big Mike had been coming to me for years to get tattoos, and never once had he batted an eye at an appointment. His back piece had taken a collective eighteen hours, and he’d done them like a champ over two sessions, hardly flinching at the outlining or shading. As far as easy clients went, Big Mike was at the top of my list.
When my station was properly sanitized and all my tools were ready, I invited Big Mike over with a wave of my hand. “Come make yourself comfortable, man.”
Big Mike’s nickname suited him. He lumbered past the front desk, the heels of his Timberlands hitting the stone floors with hollow thudding sounds. His open laces dragged and threatened to trip him. That would have been a terrible thing because, even though I was a strong guy, I would’ve had a hard time helping him up off the floor.
The man had to weigh close to three hundred and fifty pounds, more or less. He had thick arms, even thicker thighs, and a squishy midsection that happened to be the only place left with no ink on it. Well, that, his ass, his inner thighs, and maybe some more private areas.
Big Mike settled onto my chair. It creaked and groaned beneath him while I pulled up my rolling stool and clapped my hands together.
“What are we working on today, dude? Touch-ups? Fresh ink? You got a picture for me?”
The best part about Big Mike? He liked my style and trusted me so intensely that he always let me free hand the tattoos. With this gig, the monotony of the same tats could wear a guy’s mojo down. Sometimes I needed a break between the infinity signs, feathers, and Harry Potter quotes to do something that challenged me.
Big Mike rubbed his thin lips together and gave his head a little shake. “I actually had something else in mind.”
“You name it.”
“I’d like to get a piece removed.”
Did this mean he was unhappy with some of my work? In my head, I reviewed the last five sessions we’d had. We finished the dragon on his back, added a melting skeletal hand to the back of his calf sleeve, covered up an old cross on his shoulder, touched up some faded outlining on his hand, and went balls to the wall with a half-naked pin-up girl on his chest. Which one did he want erased?
Big Mike rubbed at his forehead, which beaded with sweat. “I have a confession to make.”
“Lay it on me, dude.”
He shot me a worried look before sputtering, “I went to Vegas a couple months ago with my girlfriend. Well, girlfriend at the time. We got a bit liquored up at the casino and one thing led to another…”
I blinked. “You got hitched?”
“What? No!” Big Mike shook his head so vehemently his jowls quivered. “No, worse.”
Worse? What was worse than marrying a girl you didn’t love in a sickeningly decorated chapel beside a car dealership in Sin City?
Big Mike let out a heavy sigh before rolling up the sleeve of his T-shirt, revealing a new patch of ink on his shoulder that I hadn’t done. I leaned in close and read the words written in cursive with great sweeping lines and flourishes.
Crystal Cleaver, Forever and Always.
Laughter threatened to bubble out of me, so I bit down on my tongue, hard.
“Well shit, Mike. This is worse.”
He groaned pitifully. “I don’t know how I let her convince me to do it. And right where we were planning to touch-up the skull and add in some shaded roses. Fuck me, man.”
“It could be worse.”
“It is worse. I haven’t shown you all of it.”
No fucking way. I leaned back on my stool, bracing myself with my hands on my knees. “Tell me you didn’t…”
He rolled his sleeve up the rest of the way, revealing more of the shoddy tattoo he’d gotten in Vegas.
It was Crystal’s smiling face, although she didn’t have much to smile about. For all I knew, in real life, Crystal could be gorgeous, but the inked version of her made the woman look deranged.
I couldn’t think of what to say.
Big Mike hung his head in shame. “I know, it’s terrible.”
“It’s worse than terrible, dude.”
“Can you remove it?”
Gingerly, I touched at his skin. The tattoo had healed nicely, but I could tell the artist had a heavy hand. The outlining work was sloppy and thick, making the tattoo itself look messy and juvenile. Crystal’s teeth look especially bad, with thick outlines and bleeding edges.
I’d be able to remove it, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant job, and we’d have to be mindful of all the other ink around the tattoos he wanted to preserve. “I can make it happen, but it’s going to be painful, and it’ll take some time. Is Crystal going to understand, or did you two break up?”
“Crystal was fucking crazy.”
“Oh, damn,” I said. Maybe the tattoo was more accurate than I’d thought.
“Don’t tattoo anything on yourself for a girl, man. Especially a girl like my ex. We got these tats and the next morning she was showing me pictures of wedding rings that cost half my annual salary.”
“She sounds charming.”
“She was batshit, man. Absolutely fucking batshit. She shaved my initials into her pubes.”
That was information I didn’t need, and yet, I was curious. “Like, BM for Big Mike, or MM, for Mike Mitchell?”
Big Mike stared at me like I was the crazy person in the room. “MM. Why does it matter?”
I pictured the crazy girl from the tattoo folded up like a pretzel in her shower, giving herself a downstairs haircut. Shuddering, I shook my head and shrugged. “It’s just, I’ve tattooed some M’s in my day. They’re pretty wide. It must have been a challenge to make them fit.”
He waved my statement away. “Nah, the girl had a bush like a hedge maze. She could have written my whole name in that thing. Including my middle name.”
I burst out laughing and he joined me.
“Sounds like a lovely woman,” I said, wiping tears from my eyes.
“If she hadn’t also thrown my fucking PlayStation into the bathtub, maybe things would have worked out. But this chick? She was trying to ruin me.”
“Please help me.”
Chuckling, I rolled up my sleeves and pulled on a pair of disposable latex gloves. “You came to the right place, dude. We’ll get this cleared up. It might take a handful of sessions, but I’ll make sure I hit all of it today to get us ahead of the game. Once it’s healed, give it a few weeks. Then you can come back and we’ll hit it with the laser again. We’ll regroup from there and see if it needs any more attention. Do you want it erased completely, or should we aim to lighten it and do a coverup?”
Big Mike chewed the inside of his cheek. “I’m sure a coverup would work fine, but truth be told? I just want her fucking face off my skin.”
Cracking a devilish grin, I picked up the tattoo-removing laser and dragged the machine over. “You should know, this is going to hurt like a bitch.”
“Not as much as watching my PlayStation drown.”
That remained to be seen.
Big Mike took the laser like a champ. He complained a bit, especially toward the end of the hour, but when he stood up and looked in the mirror to find Crystal’s face blurred beyond recognition, he cracked a big smile, gave me a massive tip, and booked his follow-up appointment for three weeks later.
While I cleaned up at the end of the night, I wondered why people insisted on getting such personal tattoos on their bodies. Self-expression? Sure. But to commit one person’s face to your skin for eternity, even after you’re dead? It seemed absolutely fucking crazy to me.
Then again, I’d been a cynic since the day I came out of the womb, and I’d never loved someone enough to want to capture their likeness on my flesh. Hell, I wouldn’t even want a matching tattoo with another person or someone’s initials on me. My body was my temple, and I’d be damned if I was going to graffiti it with testaments to someone else.
Most of my business came from people making mistakes like Big Mike’s. They fell head over heels, hard and fast, and when the glow wore off and they realized their partner wasn’t their forever-person, they turned to guys like me with the magic laser to erase their mistakes.
I made big bucks erasing love from people’s skin.
After locking up the shop, my cell phone rang. While I counted the cash in the register, I answered the call from my friend, pro-baller Chris Hampton. “What’s up, dude?”
Chris’s voice filled the line. “Just making sure you’re coming to the engagement party tomorrow night.”
Speaking of love, Juliette and Chris weren’t pulling any punches. After their engagement they’d jumped right into wedding planning, and naturally the engagement party was part of that.
I pulled the cash out of the drawer and put it in an envelope to deposit at the bank first thing the next morning. Moving to the back room, I opened the safe and left the envelope of cash on the top shelf. “Of course I’m coming. It’s not every day your best friend gets engaged, is it? Besides, I haven’t gotten laid in a while. Are there going to be any hot chicks at this party of yours?”
Chris let out an exasperated noise. “It’s not that kind of party, Davis.”
“What the fuck do you mean, it’s not that kind of party? There’ll be booze and celebrating and chicks. Those are literally the only ingredients I require.”
“It’s a kid friendly party.”
“I don’t plan on meeting a girl and fucking her right in your living room, dude. I’ll take her back to mine, obviously. No kids will be traumatized in the process.”
“You will not pick up any of Juliette’s friends, and if that’s the only reason you’re coming, don’t bother.”
Chris Hampton used to be a lot more fun before he fell head over heels in love with Juliette. Admittedly, they were great together. In fact, they might have been one of the only couples I’d ever met that I’d wager would grow old together. Perhaps Vanny and Rhys had a chance, too. Perhaps not. Life had a funny way of shaking things up when you least expected it, and I, for one, didn’t like the idea of having all my eggs in one basket.
What happened if the basket broke?
“I’ll behave,” I said finally. “Can I bring anything?”
“Vanny has all that stuff covered. Just bring yourself and your good behavior.”
“That’s a big ask.”
Chris told me he’d see me tomorrow before hanging up. I went about my usual closing routine before stepping out into the cool November evening. Nashville at this time of year was fresh and crisp, and it felt good in my lungs when I inhaled a deep breath and held it before releasing.
After locking up, I crammed my hands in my jacket pockets and made my way down the sidewalk to the side street where my truck was parked. As soon as I turned the corner, I spotted a man sitting with his back to the wall of the nail salon beside my tattoo shop. His face was hidden in the collar of a well-worn jacket with holes in the elbows, and he had his knees drawn up to his chest. His bare hands were stained from living on the street.
In front of him was an empty coffee cup with a paper American flag stuck through the lid. A small cardboard sign resting across his shins read: Homeless Vet, one of many. God bless.
I stopped walking.
Sighing, I moved toward him, crouched down, and called softly to him until he opened his eyes. They were electric blue, bright and vivid against weather-ravaged skin. He blinked a few times to bring me into focus before recoiling.
I reached under the collar of my shirt, caught the chain around my neck, and pulled my dog tags out for him to see. “I’m not going to hurt you, brother. Or take anything from you.”
He relaxed visibly, his blue eyes fixing on my tags.
I nodded down the block at a burger joint with a bright red open sign. “Let me buy you a burger and whatever else you want. We can swap war stories. Or we don’t have to say a word at all. Whatever you want.”
The old vet reached out shakily and collected his cup, flag, and cardboard sign. When I stood and offered him a hand up, he accepted.
I pulled him to his feet and patted him on the back of his dirty jacket. “Sergeant Davis Hall at your service, brother.”