Back at the shop, Charlie sat in his black leather chair, the one with the holes worn in it, and waited for someone to mosey over to his corner.
Occasionally, he’d read part of a book from the wire racks up front, but mostly he’d study his art magazines. Charlie’s station was clean, except for the walls covered with pictures of the tattoos he’d finished. Unpaid bills and boxes of latex gloves were a majority of his clutter.
From his corner, Charlie could see the tall sign that attracted drivers into the shop. “Tucker’s Oil” was spelled out in grassy green letters with gas prices listed underneath. There was a smaller, wooden sign hanging from the bottom that said, “Tattoo” in black. Charlie drew the sign and his neighbor hung it the day after the shop’s last inspection. Charlie’s portion of Tucker’s only met the minimal requirements to stay open, but it was all he had.
The sign shadowed Exit 22 off I-90 going west toward Wyoming. Tucker’s shared the Exit with a Stuckey’s that caught most business; the vans and the SUVs piled with kids on their way to a state park or a campground. Tucker’s got everyone else: locals who needed the classifieds and a coffee, or travelers checking directions.
Charlie got the mix. He inked locals and their teenage daughters. He colored bikers and semi drivers. Sometimes, he even tattooed himself.
Charlie stood up and walked out from behind the short walls that separated him from the rest of the store; the rotating sausages, coffee, and Moon Pies. He stretched his thin legs and smoothed his red t-shirt over his belly.
There was rumbling from the interstate — approaching bikers.
Three Harleys slid into the gravel in front of Tucker’s. The riders, all men, stepped off their bikes and into the store; they looked stern. Sara, the cashier, greeted them without looking up from her magazine.
“Y’all serious about that ‘tattoo’ sign or are y’all some jokesters around here?”
“No, it’s serious,” Charlie said, eyes wide.
“Great. Gear up, we want ’em, kid.”
In South Dakota, Charlie was still a kid, even at 26. But in his heart, he felt old. He’d been at Tucker’s for two years, but on his own for seven. He got his first tattoo at 17 from a college student and, like most, became addicted. He studied tattoos in magazines and on other people; he wanted to be a top artist in the tattoo world. On a good month, Tucker’s barely paid the bills. Charlie felt trapped. He had little savings and no support from his family. What he had were people on I-90 wondering if the tattoo sign was a joke.
“Sure, you guys got somethin’ in mind?” he asked the bikers.
“We want this symbol from our jackets.”
The ma with the long, triangle beard turned around and pointed to the back of his leather coat. The symbol was a medium-sized eagle made of geometric shapes. There was no feathers or facial detail. It was bright red and orange, like fire.
“Exactly like that?” Charlie asked. “Same size and all?”
“Yep. Can you do it?”
“Of course. Can I borrow your jacket to make a sketch?” The man stripped off his coat and tossed it at Charlie. “It will just take a second. You guys should get a soda over there.”
Charlie took the coat to his chair and sat down at his drafting table, a hollow, wooden wedge with a light inside and a sheet of glass on top. His eyes battled from the paper to the coat, paper to the coat. He drew quickly and concise, tapping his foot as he worked.
“Done guys,” he shouted. “Come on over.”
The bikers made their way to Charlie’s corner, behind the short walls. Charlie covered the tattoo chair in plastic and rolled a small stool close to it.
“Who’s first?” he asked.
The man with the hoop earrings stepped forward. “I’ll go.”
“Where do you want it?”
The man pointed to his right shoulder, where the eagle was on the jacket.
“Okay, shirt off and sit facing the chair.”
The biker removed his shirt, exposing what Charlie assumed to be a beer gut, and patches of hair on his chest. Charlie put on a clean pair of latex gloves and lathered soap on the shoulder. He reached for a disposable razor and shaved the fuzz from the skin. He pressed the stencil onto his canvas and peeled it back, revealing the eagle.
“Take a look in the mirror before it’s permanent”
Once the biker said okay, Charlie went into his zone. He leaned over the canvas and started his gun. The buzz vibrated his fingers and created a therapeutic hum in his blood. He outlined first, in black. Then he did the color by blocks, orange first and then red. He watched as the pigment bled into the layers of the skin. The bikers shared their story with Charlie, but he didn’t ask many questions. They were riding through the state on their way to Vegas, coming from Minnesota.
“You ever been to Vegas, kid?”
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED, FRIDAY, AUGUST 7
“Oil and Ink” is an original fiction piece written in 2007 by Holly A. Phillips. The story, characters, placement, and details mostly derived from a very vivid dream.