Black Petals Issue #106 Winter, 2023

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The Thing in the Yard: Fiction by Vincent Vurchio
A Forest Green: Fiction by Logan Williams
Clown Safe: Fiction by Taylor Hagood
Home Delivery: Fiction by Jon Adcock
Judith and Bobby Save the World: Fiction by Stephen Tillman
Many Wee Undead: Fiction by Marco Etheridge
Meat Pie: Fiction by Anna Koltes
Mexican Coffee and Burgers: Fiction by Fred Zackel
Leaving: Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Ghost of the Perfect Hotdog: Fiction by Mark Miller
The Illustrated Woman: Fiction by Jen Myers
Thrice in One Sitting: Fiction by Justin Alcala
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning: Fiction by Gene Lass
AI Self-Mortification: Flash Fiction by Christopher Henckel
Correct Mistake: Flash Fiction by Eric Burbridge
A Moment of Inertia: Flash Fiction by Sean MacKendrick
Get Your Kicks on Route 666: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Let's Do Lunch: Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
"Three Wishes": Flash Fiction by Ronin Fox
Woodsman's Revenge: Flash Fiction by Jada Maze
To a Crow: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Estranged: Poem by Michael Keshigian
At the Terminal: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Angler's Nightmare: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Last Thirteen Steps: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Murderous Words: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
My Childhood Snapshot: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
With Vampires About: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Zombies are Loose: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
Lil' Toe Dipper: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
Scattered Pieces: Poem by Andrew Graber

Jen Myers: The Illustrated Woman

106_bp_illustratedwoman_hstanton.jpg
Art by Henry Stanton 2024

The Illustrated Woman

by Jen Myers

 

The warning came by way of Kitty, shoved across the table with my rye, liquor splashing over the edge of the glass as her words hit me short and hard: “Bobby Leone’s looking for you. Drink up and get out.”

I raised the glass and swallowed it all in one go to hide how my body coiled right up like a spring. I knew it was coming, but I hadn’t thought Bobby, the big man’s ineffectual and not terribly bright son, would catch on so soon to the fact the numbers in the arcade books weren’t adding up. I had figured I had another few months to skim cash and doctor columns before it became a problem. But it was a problem now, and, if the way Kitty dropped her usual sweet talk like a door slammed in my face was any sign, it was an urgent one. Time to find a hole to hide in until I could get out of town.

I left the empty glass on the table in the corner and tossed a salute to Kitty where she scowled at me from the side of the bar. “Thanks, kid. I owe you one.”

“Don’t pull me into this,” she snapped. “I don’t even know you.” She turned her back to me.

I burst out of the bar’s twilight into the searing summer light. Every year when August blanketed Chicago I swore I’d spend the season somewhere cooler. Maybe this was my year. I walked a block down State and turned left on Harrison to check the scene at the arcade and see whether or not I could slip in and grab some things for the road. I hated to run empty-handed. I had done a lot of low-level jobs, from running envelopes to swinging blackjacks, before they gave me that place to manage and I had done it well, turning over their cuts plus extra, before I decided it was time to get something more for all my trouble. Maybe it would’ve been smarter to let it ride. Maybe sometimes I was just as dumb as Bobby was.

On the other side of the street and a block down from the arcade, I stopped to shake out a cigarette and peered at the arcade windows as I lit it. The joint was quiet in the afternoon, single men in shirtsleeves playing hooky from jobs with rounds of pinball or nickelodeon machines, dancers waiting for their evening shifts by tossing baseballs at targets. I could see the tattoo booth where a couple of baby-faced sailors from the naval academy waited for Walt to mark them with anchors or hearts or swallows to bring them home safe. I had a couple of those birds myself. They got me back from the war but then it turned out I was on my own.

Then I saw him, heavy brow and drooping trousers, lolling by the far end of the arcade windows as if he had nothing in the world to do but watch those dancers throw those balls. His oversized jacket billowed over the gun I knew he always had in his waistband. Rudy. That meant Bobby was up in my office now. He wouldn’t find the money there, but he’d get the books and likely a few other items I didn’t need him putting his eyes on. Kitty, bless her heart, hadn’t been lying to me this time.

I ran through safe spots in my head: bars, flop houses, backrooms. I could catch a taxi right to Union Station, but even Bobby would guess that move. Then I saw the open doorway next to the arcade windows. The door was held open by a chunk of brick and a set of wooden stairs headed up into the dark. Across the top of the doorway stretched sinuous red script: “Cora Lee - Tattoos.” As usual, I had forgotten all about Cora Lee, and I was willing to bet that Bobby had too. I found my hole to hide in. I slipped across the street, head turned away from Rudy even though he was still watching the women in the arcade, and went through the open doorway.

The stairs creaked as I took them two at a time and popped into Cora Lee’s dim little shop. She was technically part of my responsibilities. But she had been there before I was, always paid her rent on time and never caused trouble, so I never bothered her or with her. I heard some things about her in the neighborhood. They said she was a little strange, kept to herself but sometimes would help out folks who needed it, and there was an order of hands-off around her that supposedly came from Frank Leone himself. For my part, I hadn’t even laid eyes on her before.

I hadn’t been in her place, either. If she was half as strange as it was, she must be plenty strange. I’d seen a lot of tattoo shops over the years, but this one was half museum. There were tall, tilting piles of books and curio cabinets crowded with oddities. In the corner lurked a taxidermied mama fox, her kits frozen in permanent youth around her. Thick curtains drawn over the windows and half a dozen burning lamps. A work table lined with pots of ink and little metal machines. Sheets of tattoo designs papered the walls: butterflies, knives, panthers, ships. Naked women and broken hearts. Also on the walls were framed photographs, mostly of people standing outside carnival tents. Small people, large people, people with mouths open for swords, people with snakes wound about their necks, people with hands full of fire. Several centered on a young woman, tall, thin, angular, with wiry dark hair and royal cheekbones. She wore a brief bathing costume and her skin was covered from collarbone to wrist and hip to ankle with tattoos.

The shop stretched straight back to the end of the building into a jumble of shadows. She appeared like the flick of a match. Tall, thin, angular, with wiry dark hair pulled back from her temples with combs and cheekbones sharper than the photographs. She wore a blouse with long sleeves, buttoned precisely at her wrists, and long, swishing trousers, like a dusky Katharine Hepburn, if Katharine Hepburn had left New England to start a new life among the burlesque joints, bars, and tattoo parlors of Chicago’s South State Street. I never cared much for Katharine Hepburn.

The woman said nothing, so I asked, “You Cora?”

She eyed me steadily. “Can I help you with something?”

“Yeah, you can put a tattoo on me. A big one. I got some time to kill.”

“What do you want?”

I cast about among the designs fluttering on the walls and landed on a large eagle twining around a thrashing snake, claws tearing, fangs flashing. “This one.”

She twitched an eyebrow. “That’s a big one.”

“Like I said, I got the time.”

“It’s going to have to go on your back.”

I began to shrug out of my jacket. “Swell. I got that, too.”

Cora Lee considered me and I knew she knew something was up. But after a moment, she seemed to have decided that something didn’t have anything to do with her. She swung a chair around to her work table. “Sit here with your back to me.”

I took off my shirt and undershirt, draping them with my jacket over the chair’s rungs, and straddled the chair as ordered. Cora pulled the curtain cord and the light from outside hit me like a spotlight. I jumped up again. “Hey, no one needs to see me here.”

“There’s a one-story garage over there. No windows for someone to look through. Daylight is better than lamplight to work by.”

I hesitated. She took pity on me. “I’ll shut the front door. All right?”

“Yeah, sure.” I slowly sat back down as she did what she said she would, closing the door to the stairwell and turning its lock with a clunk. I ducked my head and rubbed my forehead. Maybe this thing was getting to me more than I had thought. Maybe even though hiding out above the arcade sounded real smart at the time I ran through Cora’s door, it was also still a pretty big gamble. What if Bobby took it into his thick head to ask the broad next door if she had seen me lately? If that rumor about her connection to Frank Leone was true, she probably wouldn’t feel much like helping me get away with fleecing him. But at this point it was more dangerous to show my face out there, so I was stuck. I had to wait until it cooled down enough to get somewhere else.

I watched as Cora washed her hands in a bowl on her work table. She had unbuttoned her blouse sleeves and rolled each up to the elbow. Tattoos bloomed over her forearms, dense gardens of dark blue lines and shapes faded with time but distinct and unerasable. As she dried her hands, moving in and out of the light from the window, I could see the lines ripple over her slim muscles. The lines looked elastic, as if they could stretch and change and reform into different images if they wanted to, or she wanted them to. Trick of the light.

Cora took out a clear sheet of something with the mirror image of the eagle and snake set into it. She dusted it with fine charcoal from a salt shaker, spread petroleum jelly over my back, set the stencil on me, then peeled it away. I couldn’t feel it, but I knew the battle was now outlined on my skin. “Do you want to check to make sure it looks all right?”

I waved her off. “It’s fine, just do it.”

“All right.” She fiddled with her inks and machines for a minute. “You’ve been tattooed before, so you know what it’s like.”

I smoothed the bird on my forearm. I had picked it up in California on my way to the Pacific Theater. A few months before that, I got the anchor on my bicep. On my chest was a cartoon dog smoking a cigar. I got that another time I was on the run, my first big run, when I left that mess at the college behind and my family ties with it. The dog was a silly tattoo, but it was a good reminder not to get too wrapped up in civility, or anything else.

I felt Cora lay her hands, dry and warm, on my back. “Ready?” she asked. I dropped a nod. The buzz of the machine filled my ears and the needles began to punch into my skin.

Pain was easy to deal with. I just shut off the connection to my body. I closed my eyes and let Cora’s machine trace lines of fire across me. She paused periodically to wipe away ink and blood, but she worked quickly and smoothly. I could tell she had been doing this sort of thing for a long time.

After a while, when the pain had plateaued, I broke through the machine buzz and human silence. “I never knew a woman tattooer before.”

She pulled the curve of a line across my ribs and I winced. “There aren’t many. I’ve only ever known one myself.”

“Did she teach you?”

“I learned most of it from my husband. He tattooed in the sideshows.”

I looked at the photographs on the wall, the younger version of Cora with her long, decorated limbs. “You were the tattooed girl.”

“My banner said ‘Illustrated Woman.’ But sure.”

She switched out some needles and my skin had time to start screaming at me about what I was putting it through. I thought about Rudy lolling through the alleys around South State and Bobby sifting through my office papers, yanking at locked drawers. I thought about the ticket booth at Union Station and trains rolling west and what the ocean breeze in La Jolla smelled like.

Cora pressed the machine to my skin again for patches of color, wide blurs of pain rather than concentrated lines, and I thought about the other times I had to run. I rarely thought about them but they bubbled up now all on their own. I thought about the jam in Buffalo when the best way out was to let Fred take the fall. It was a shame, but there wasn’t any other way to play it. Before that, there were a few women along the coast from Boston to Baltimore who maybe still wondered where I went. I don’t know if they ever figured out which of their rings or gold cigarette cases or mantel clock pieces went with me. I knew they didn’t say anything. They had already learned it didn’t pay. Sometimes a slap or two was all that would shut them up. They kept coming back, though, so it seemed like they should take most of the blame on that count. And, way back before all that, there was Clarice in that little dormitory room I spent so long coaxing her into. It was hard work keeping her quiet while she was in there and I had a feeling she wouldn’t stay quiet after she got out. I probably should have done something to make sure she didn’t get out. That would have been smarter. Instead, I lit out. Before that, and after that, filling my days from sunup to sundown, were a million other transgressions, big and small, that I got away with and from. I was good at running and I had never minded doing it. This time wasn’t going so easy, though. This time felt like a queasy stomach and a strained neck, and raw skin scored by needles and packed with ink. It felt like a creeping suspicion I might not get away this time.

I shifted in my chair. Cora’s machine cut off.

“You all right?” She hadn’t been gushing before but I sensed a new chill in her tone, as if she knew what was in my head, as if she saw the whole tapestry picture of everything I had ever done.

“I’m fine,” I snapped. “You done yet?”

My temper didn’t affect her. “Almost.” Another few minutes filled with tattoo machine buzz. “Now you’re running out of time?” she asked.

“Always, lady. I’m always running out of time.” All at once, I needed to get out of there. All at once, this too-clever plan of hiding next to the scene of the crime was no good and I needed to be moving somewhere, anywhere, just motion in place of thought.

The tattoo machine stopped. Cora wiped down my back and taped brown paper over the fresh tattoo. “Keep it clean. Don’t sleep on your back for a while.”

“If I sleep, I’ll remember that.” I was already on my feet, pulling on my shirt and jacket. My watch told me I’d been in there for a couple of hours. “What do I owe you?”

Cora was back at her basin, washing her hands and arms up to her decorated elbows. “I’ll get you when you come around again.”

“I can promise you I won’t be coming around here again. This is my last spin in Chicago.”

She unrolled her sleeves, buttoning each carefully at each wrist, hiding away her own tapestry. “Everything always comes back around.” She looked at me, her hazel eyes sparking in the fading afternoon sunlight, and tipped her head toward the back of the room. “The guy who works for me, Griffin, has a truck in the alley. He’ll drive you down to Kankakee and you can catch the train there.”

“I don’t have time for games.”

Cora began to seal her ink pots and clean her machines. “Get going, Mr. Cody. Bobby isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he knows he’ll catch real trouble if his father finds out what you got away with on his watch. You bought time, but you’re right—it’s running out.”

The stubborn part of me wanted to argue, not to fork over money but to figure out how she knew what was going on and why she was giving me an exit, but that pricking in the back of my mind won out. I rushed to the back and down the stairs to the alley, where, sure enough, a brawler in a pageboy cap sat smoking in the driver’s seat of a truck loaded with painted wooden signs and rolled-up banners. He jutted a thumb at the empty place next to him. I jumped in and he drove off. He didn’t say a thing all the way to Kankakee and neither did I. I don’t know how he knew what to do. I didn’t care. I leaped out before the truck came to a stop and stormed the tiny station to buy a ticket straight down to New Orleans, where later I’d find a route west.

An hour later, I was watching the Illinois prairie roll past from the train window and I could breathe again. Bobby, Rudy, the big man and his Middle-west empire, pretty Kitty and unsettling Cora Lee and her gorilla with the truck—they were all behind me now. Ahead of me was another fresh start. Cora didn’t know that things didn’t come back around if you were smart enough and fast enough.

The more my mind eased, though, the more my back stung. Big tattoos were a bear to heal, I guessed. And I hadn’t even seen the thing yet. I got up to find the washroom. Locked inside, I stripped my jacket and shirt, tore off the taped paper, and peered over my shoulder in the mirror.

Stretched over my left shoulder blade was the design I had picked out from Cora Lee’s wall: a green-and-yellow-scaled snake wrapped, hissing, around an attacking eagle with a red mouth, wings outspread, claws sinking into the snake’s flesh. Every line was clear, every color bright. It was a nice piece of work. It had saved me from the Leone noose and didn’t cost me a dime.

Something in the mirror squirmed. It wasn’t me. I wrenched my neck to get a better look. I could feel my skin prickle, like in a cold wind, but there was no wind blowing through the tiny train washroom. In the mirror reflection, I watched my back ripple, a pond surface disturbed by something in the depths. The lines that formed the snake and the eagle itched and burned, and then they moved. I saw them stretch, crawl, and reform, setting up new boundaries, patches of color sifting from one area to another like sand through an hourglass, and they made a new picture. I saw the face of Lydia from Baltimore, a red spot on her cheek from where I had struck her, a frozen tear in her eye. She morphed into Violet, Rita, Peg, and then Fred, a grimaced mug shot from when the cops pulled him in on my tip. And then, of course, the tattooed lines melted and blossomed into Clarice, her white legs across the bed and her hair falling over her weeping face. The skin around her, my skin, blared red and angry, a fresh wound that threatened to never heal.

Panicked, I pawed at my back, which set off a series of yellowjacket stings across my skin. I whirled and hunched over the sink. Even when I couldn’t see the tattooed lines I could feel them, inching like centipedes over muscle and bone. I could see Cora’s hands in her basin, soapy water oozing through her fingers, washing them clean of her ink and my blood, the tattoos on her forearms rolling over her skin. Back in the shop, they looked like they were moving. Maybe they were, they were then and they were now, moving, dancing, and laughing. Everything, Cora Lee said, always comes back around.

I felt a tentacle of tattoo ink unfurl on my back, as painful as if it were being marked in the moment by a buzzing machine, making another picture I didn’t want to look at, and locked in the tiny train washroom hurling its way south, I began to scream.

 

END

 

Jen Myers is a writer and technologist in Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in Coffin Bell, Yellow Mama, the Molotov Cocktail and Tales from the Moonlit Path. She has a website at jenmyers.net.