Great Winter Ink

By Linda Hällgren 

Lovehandle’s got three kinds of growl. One he uses to let folks know they are starting to annoy him, one he uses on other dogs, and one for when he’s scared. The mongrel’s growls are important because he never barks or whines or wags his tail to let you know what’s going on in his head. Right now, his growl is scared enough I open my eyes and sit up. It’s hard to get a decent view down the street. The city doesn’t shine its lights here at night because the taxpayers all go home at 5 PM. This time of year, the cold has scared away most of the strays as well. Me and Lovehandle, we’re packed and ready to go, only we’re still holding out for Harley, who went to turn a trick on Clark Street three days ago and never came back.

Coming down the street now is a shadow, swaying from side to side under the faint light of the moon. Lovehandle’s clever enough to be wary of drunks, but too dumb to keep quiet. I put an arm around his thick neck, pull him close, and clamp a hand around his muzzle. There’s a blunt but nasty looking six-inch blade rolled into my blanket. Sometimes, if folks get too friendly, I take it out, put on my best rabid face and wave it around. Faced with a raging hobo, most rational folk will back off. But only a drunk would trust another drunk to be rational, and I don’t drink. Drawing closer, the shadow becomes a man. His ankle-length coat hangs open and he’s got one hand pressed against his side, like he’s about to bend over and puke any second. He’s almost past us when he stops and turns to look straight at me.

“Keep moving,” I say. “I ain’t telling you twice.”

He straightens slightly, takes a deep breath. Lovehandle’s growl vibrates between my fingers.

“I’ve had a long night,” he says.

I let go of Lovehandle and reach behind me for the rolled up blanket. “About time you went home then.”

“No need to get your claws out,” he says. “Not that I blame you. I suppose all your nights must be long.”

“Keep moving.”

Lovehandle bears his fangs. The man chuckles, winces, and hunches over. He’s still got one hand clamped to his side. With his free hand he pulls a small card out of his front pocket and holds it up for me to see.

“A gift,” he says, and flicks the card.

It lands in my lap. Lovehandle gives it a quick whiff before turning his attention back to the man.

“Thanks,” I say.

“A card like that doesn’t come around every day. I would use it wisely, or not at all.”

I watch him walk away until he’s a shadow again, and Lovehandle keeps watching even after that.

 

 

“Great Winter Ink,” Manuel says between mouthfuls of burrito. “Never heard of it. What’s the address?”

“464 East River Road.”

“464? Baby girl, that’s the Tower. Even if they let you in, I’d bet my left nut against you finding a tattoo shop in there. Let me see that card.”

I give him the card and he hands me the burrito. If it were mine, I’d just hold it in my hands until it was colder than my fingers.

“It’s got blood on it,” he says.

“I know.”

 “Good for one design.“ Manuel shakes his head. “Esther, even if this place existed, you don’t want to get inked somewhere that hands out gift cards.” 

I rip off a piece of burrito and give it to Lovehandle.

“Harley back yet?” he asks.

“Not yet.”

“Sorry to hear it.” He takes one last look at the card before handing it back to me. “I need get back to work. You keep the burrito, and don’t go looking for that place, you hear?”

We spend the afternoon making our way to the central plaza. The Tower of Finance is tall enough you can see it from almost anywhere in the city, only what you see is never the tower itself. From street level all the way up into the clouds, the facade is made up of seamlessly overlapping mirrors. This way, when you look at the tower, what you actually see is things like hotels and shopping centers, art museums and luxury apartment buildings with rooftop terraces overlooking the plaza. At times I wonder if it wouldn’t disappear without something to reflect, like the moon without sunlight.

We watch for a while as the Tower’s rotating entrance swallows up and spits out smartly dressed men and women. Lovehandle’s on a leash I’ve made out of a scarf and shoestring, but folks still go out of their way not to pass too close to where we’re standing. It’s not long before a guard approaches us.

“Excuse me ma’am, but I’m gonna to have to ask you to move away from the entrance.”

“I’m admiring your building.”

“Do it at a distance. Your dog is making people uncomfortable.” 

The Tower is flanked by a garden to the north and an opera house to the south. To the east, it’s separated from the river by the railway and a single-lane road delving into the Tower’s underbelly. A woman sits in a booth, checking parking permits and operating the gate. She doesn’t notice us slipping past, or she doesn’t care. At the far end of the parking house there’s an entrance to the Tower proper, but this too is guarded, and we go back to try the lower levels. Lovehandle’s reluctant. He walks two steps behind, occasionally stopping altogether, his posture suggesting I’m about to empty a bucket of water on his head. By the time we reach the fourth level, his low growl reverberates like an engine between the pillars and empty spaces of the garage. A CCTV camera cranes its neck to look down on us. No one’s parked here. I take out the card and flip it over in my hands.

“Come on, Handles.”

I let the card slide from my fingers while we wait for the elevator to make its way down. A narrow corridor runs to the side of the elevator shaft. It’s unlit, but – like the distant beam of the lighthouse on days when the river is covered in fog – a faint light pulses somewhere down its length. I pick up the card and start walking down the corridor. Lovehandle’s not moving so I drop the leash, but the soft sound of his paws soon follows me in the dark. The corridor makes a right turn and the light becomes stronger. I follow it around another corner and on to a small room. A blue neon sign with the words Great Winter Ink hangs by the side of a steel door, and below the sign, a handwritten note: Open by appointment only.    

I knock. Lovehandle starts backing away, but he’s not leaving without me. After a while, I knock again, and when no one answers I slip the card under the door. The lock draws back with a sharp snap, and the door swings open.

“Yes?”

She’s got white bleached hair, fair eyes and a large septum ring in tarnished silver.

I glance at my card, which is in her hand. “That still good?”

“It’s not yours.”

“I don’t see a name on it.” 

“No, you wouldn’t.” Her gaze shifts to Lovehandle and an eyebrow goes up. “Where did you get it?”

“Someone gave it to me.”

She mutters something in a foreign language. “Someone gave you our card?”

Another woman calls out. “And she came. So you better let her in, Vera.”   

“Very well,” Vera says, and steps aside. “Leave your shoes and doubts at the door.”

“What about him?” I ask.

“The dog can come.”

Inside, there’s a small waiting area with a faux leather couch and tattoo sketches plastered on the walls.   

Vera motions for me to have a seat before disappearing down a hall. Another woman comes through carrying a coffee tray. She’s older than Vera, maybe in her fifties, but their features are similar enough.

“I’m Sonia,” she says. “Who might you be?”

“Esther. He’s Lovehandle.”

“Strange name for a dog.”

I shrug. “Strange place for a tattoo shop.”

“Depends on the tattoo shop.” She pours coffee into a cup and places it before me on the table. “Milk?”

“Sure.”

“Vera went to fetch Uma for you. She’s like the weather, that one.”

On her way out, Sonia pats a growling Lovehandle on the head. “I would tell you not to let him on the couch, but with you already on it, I don’t see how it would matter.”             

The sketches on the wall show variations on tattoos I’ve seen on a thousand bodies – Koi fishes, grinning skulls, snarling panthers, plump hearts, busty pin-ups, pink blossoms and coiled dragons. There’s the homeward bound ships, Celtic crosses and rising phoenixes. I count at least a dozen Tinker Bells spewing stardust from magic wands.

“Do you like my stuff?”

The voice, low and slurred, was not announced by footsteps. I whip around so fast I nearly slide off the couch. The girl’s been standing right behind me, but my reaction sends her back a couple of steps.

“Woops,” she says. “I’m Uma.”

Uma’s features are smooth like melting plastic, as if she’s wearing a latex mask that hasn’t been painted to look like a face yet.

“They’re all yours?” I ask.

She snorts. “Hell no. Only about a third, I’d say. You can tell Sonia’s because she does ‘em all traditional, like she’s got no imagination.”

Lovehandle’s come up to Uma and is pushing his muzzle against her hand so she’ll pet him. I point at a sketch of a saint which could’ve been copied off a religious icon. “Like this?”

She nods. “Vera’s alright with new concepts. Nothing radical or anything, just keeping with the times. I mean, she’ll make your pin-up look like Scarlet instead if Marilyn if that’s what you’re into.”

“I’m guessing Tinker Bell in drag is yours.”  

“Man says he wants a sexy Tinker Bell. Can you imagine his face when he saw the mustache? Priceless.”

I take a sip of lukewarm coffee. It tastes vaguely of sour milk and ethanol, and I nearly spit it back into the cup. “Would I get to decide who does my tattoo?”

Uma slumps down next to me on the couch and stretches out her legs. There’s pink pressure marks in the form of a half-circle on top of her bare feet, like she’s been wearing a pair of those elastic slippers they make you pull over your shoes in hospitals.

“The cards are special,” she says. “We don’t send them out unless we have a specific design in mind. Only Vera says you got it from someone else, and he’s been here already, which means the design we had in mind for the card is no good.”

 Lovehandle’s curled up on the floor, snoring.  

“What did he get?” I ask.

Uma is fidgeting with her necklace. It’s a silver snake coiled around a globe. “What he wanted.”

Vera and Sonia walk in. The older woman is carrying a sketchbook. It’s thick as a brick, the leather binding faded and frayed around the edges.

“You’ll get your design,” Vera says.

Uma pulls her feet off the table. “Really?”

“She has a card, and she came,” Sonia says. “It’s only fair.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” Uma says. “I’m just surprised you managed to dig up a design at such short notice.”

Sonia sets the sketchbook down on the table. “We didn’t.”

Uma slumps back into the couch, her arms and legs limp and splayed like a ragdoll’s. “Pro bono is not a business model.”  

“Don’t mind her,” Sonia says. “Uma forgets, but back when people with nothing had nothing else to offer, the price of a design was a patch of skin and few drops of blood.”

“And pelts and feathers were used as currency,” Uma says.

Vera waves for them to be quiet. “Here’s the deal, Esther. Sonia will provide a concept, Uma will do the sketch, and I’ll carve it in.”

Uma lights up. “You’ll let me do the sketch?”

“First things first,” Vera says. “Esther, yes or no?”

Vera’s got the kind of face that’s only attractive when you look her in the eyes. “I don’t get to see it before I decide?”

She smiles, but the sentiment never reaches past her lips. “If you want the pig out of the sack, yes is the magic word.”

“Already bought,” I say.

“Not bought,” Uma says. “It’s a free fucking pig, Esther.”

Sonia mutters at that but doesn’t say anything. There’s a ventilation window up in the corner. If all the noise of the garage and the tower travels this far, it can’t be heard above Lovehandle’s snores. He must be as beat as I am. I nudge him with my foot. Groaning, he pushes himself into a sitting position and puts his head on my thigh.

“You look tired, dear,” Sonia says. “Finish your coffee.”

“And don’t even think about saying no,” Uma says. “They never let me sketch designs.”

“What about these?” I say, indicating the sketches on the wall behind me.

“That’s different. They’re just tattoos.” Uma leans in close enough I can smell nutmeg on her breath. “Hobo girl, when you see my sketch, you’ll agree that even a kidney and two corneas wouldn’t be too high a price.”

“I’d be blind,” I say. “Hard to appreciate a tattoo if you’re blind.”    

“Not this tattoo.”

“Enough,” Vera says. “We have another appointment at midnight. Tic-tac, Esther.”

“Yes,” I say. “I want it.”

Uma squeals and springs out of the couch, startling Lovehandle.

“You have fifteen minutes while I set up my station,” Vera says. “Esther, come with me. And leave the dog.”

I follow Vera down the same hall they’ve been coming in and out of all night. At the far end there’s two doors, one on the right and one on the left. We go through the one on the right and into a studio. There are three stations, lined against the length of the outer wall, which is made entirely of glass.

“What’s with the glass?” I ask. “We must be halfway to hell down here.”

She pulls on a pair of black latex gloves. “It was built as an observatory. Migrating Salmon, I believe. Anyway, the river’s too filthy now. Can’t see shit.” 

I sit down in the tattoo chair and watch Vera arrange her equipment on a small steel table. It’s strange to think of the river flowing unseen on the other side of the glass, close enough I could reach out and touch it.  

“Where do you want it?” Vera asks.

When I don’t answer, she slaps me across the cheek with the back of her hand. “Snap out of it, Esther. You can sleep later. I need you to tell me where you want the tattoo.”

“I don’t know.”

“You definitely don’t want it on your back.”

“Stomach?”

“Good choice. You can lie down now.”

It’s not long before Uma comes in with the stencil. She passes it to Vera and stands waiting with her hands clasped behind her back. Lovehandle’s growling on the other side of the door. He’s angry.

“Can I see it now?” I ask.

“Better not,” Vera says.

“Don’t listen to her,” Uma says. “She lacks vision, which is why I know she’ll copy it down exactly like I made it, and not be tempted to change things around.”

“Line for line,” Vera says. “I’ll leave it as I find it, don’t you worry about that. As long as the two of you remember who orchestrated this mess.”

Uma snorts. “Like Sonia would let me forget.”

She bends down and pats me on the head, hesitantly, like you would a contagious person. “Don’t be nervous, hobo girl. I got it just right.” 

 

 

“Essie!”

In my dream, Harley’s calling my name through a storm; in the real world, she’s tugging at my tarpaulin shelter, dislodging wet lumps of snow to land in my face. I sit up, groaning. The skin of my belly is on fire.

“If I didn’t know better,” Harley says, “I’d accuse you of being hungover.”

My first instinct is to protest, but we’re back on our street, and I don’t even remember leaving the Tower.

Harley scoops up a bit of snow and pats it into ball. “See this, Handles? Fetch!”

Lovehandle follows the flight of the snowball, but makes no move to go after it. Harley sighs, and sits down next to me on the blanket.

“Where’ve you been?” I ask.

“Things got a bit out of hand,” she says. “Thought it might be best if I stayed away for a while.”

“You should have told me.”

“Didn’t have the time, really.” She pauses for a moment, and a smile spreads across her face. “I did, however, manage to sort out our winter accommodations.”

“Don’t tell me,” I say. “We’re welcome in some perv’s shitty basement?”     

Harley laughs. “Nothing quite so enticing. We got approved for subsidized housing.”

“They gave you that coat too?”

She shrugs, which probably means she stole it. “What’s this shit I hear about you getting a card for Great Winter Ink?”

“You know it?”

“It’s an urban legend, Ellis. Like Biscuits for Brains, or the Body in the Bed. Great Winter Ink is where you lay down to get a tattoo, and wake up to discover they’ve cut out your organs and sold them to a Chinese business mogul.”  

I wonder what it feels like to miss an organ, and whether I’m slowly dying even as we speak. I unbutton my coat and pull up my sweater. There’s a gauze pad the size of an open pocket book taped to my stomach.

“Hold on,” Harley says. “You actually found it?”  

I scratch at the tape, but my fingers are cold and stiff, and Harley soon takes over.

“What’d you get?” she asks.

I shrug. “Haven’t seen it.”   

Harley frowns slightly, but doesn’t say anything. This is one of the perks of dealing with homeless people: no amount of stupidity is likely to surprise us. She manages to peel the tape loose at one corner, and slowly pulls off the gauze pad.   

The design features a great hound with a five-pointed star trapped and glowing in its jaws, and chains trailing behind it in the snow. Riding the beast is a skinny girl, dressed in rags, crowned in iron, and armed with a wooden stick. The only part of the tattoo that is colored in is the Nordic light which spans across a starry night in the background.

“Is this supposed to be you and Handles?” Harley asks.

“Probably.” I glance over at Lovehandle, who’s on his back, rolling in the snow. “Looks like we’re striding into some sort of glorious fucking dawn.”

“And quite the royals, too,” Harley says. “Anyway, we’re supposed to come in and sign the lease at three. Better keep your noble steed out of sight though, or they’ll never hand over the keys.”