BUZZZZZZ. Shit, that hurts. BUZZZZZZ. He asks me if I’ve read Kant. I’m looking at the creepy clown tatted on his neck. I wonder why it has a roman nose. Then I wonder, Kant?
“I might have read Kant back in my Ph.D. program. Honestly, I don’t remember.”
He tells me he will have his associate degree and nursing credential done in a month. I congratulate him. He is 40 or older. BUZZZZZ. Mother fucker! That hurts worse than any of the others ever did. He dabs off what seems like a lot of blood, but the octopus tattoo is red and orange, so I can’t be sure.
He returns to philosophy. He tells me hipsters are bastardizing the stoics. He tells me he heard some idiot with a topknot saying Marcus Aurelius wasn’t a real stoic. “Can you believe that arrogant shit?” he asks. I say I believe him. If I’m being honest, I know jack-shit about philosophy. Even if I have a Ph.D. The philosophy part is a misnomer for sure.
BUZZZZZ. I bite my lip and wince when he hits the inside of my arm. It feels like a pissed off Murder Hornet jabbing me repeatedly with its stinger dipped in ghost pepper juice. Listening to him, I decide he is one of the most intelligent conversationalists I’ve had the pleasure of gabbing with, and I’ve spent 30 years in academia. I try to estimate how many hours I’ve sat in this chair getting my half-sleeves done. Forty? Fifty?
I look at his cauliflower ear. I remember he has a black belt in Jujitsu. I ask him how tattoo artists are viewed now verses when he started 20 years ago. “I always tell people, when you are a tattoo artist you’ll work with drug addicts, homeless people, drunks, and criminals…and those folks are just the other tattooers.” We both chuckle. He goes on to say now there is a continuum of people getting and giving tattoos. The shop we are currently sitting in is high-end, all the artists hand-picked by a famous ink artist. His clients often book a year in advance and fly in from New York and London to get his art sewn into their skin. But down at the beach or the poorer parts of San Diego, it’s still the good old days of pick a pattern from the wall art, pay up front, and pray your artist is sober enough to not fuck it up.
The song ’59 Sound comes on and we talk about Gaslight Anthem’s new album. We both love the band, and we end up having to Google Brian Fallon’s side-project Horrible Crows. BUZZZZ. I don’t feel much now…my arm is asleep.We play Horrible Crows, After the Hurricane, and sing along. I never sing but it distracts my focus on the pain.
We talk about him wanting to be psych nurse. I encourage him to go on to finish undergrad then do grad school. Psych nurses are in short supply, I tell him. Of course, he knows this already. Stop being a fucking professor. He tells me we are doing heavy shading now; it’s going to hurt. BUZZZZ. Yes, I agree; it fucking hurts.
I ask if he will stop doing tattoos once he graduates and finds a hospital job. “No. I’m going to do a day a week with handpicked clients. People who want real art. I love doing original stuff. I never want to do another lion with a crown or fucking dragon again.” We talk about the importance of having some artistic outlet in life. I tell him I started writing fiction this past year. He tells me he’d like to write a book someday…maybe something on the philosophical underpinnings of health care. Jesus. Who’s the academic here? I tell him my story about a stripper is coming out in a few days. BUZZZZZ. We’re done, he tells me.
I look into the mirror and see the new octopus coiled on my inner bicep, brighter than the old ink next to it. I know I’ll forget the pain soon enough and be back. Maybe a typewriter next time.
JD CLAPP writes in San Diego, CA. His work has appeared in The Milk House, Rural Fiction Magazine, Wrong Turn Literary, Revolution John, The Whisky Blot, among several others. He has forthcoming work in A Common Well Journal, Fleas on the Dog, and Literally Stories. His story, One Last Drop, was a finalist in the 2023 Hemingway Shorts Literary Journal, Short Story Competition.