Saturday, November 05, 2005

happy belated Halloween

Here is part 1 of a story I wanted to write for Halloween, only one week late.
Ink Magic

"Somethin' wicked trails you, boy."

Well, that was a line to get your attention, all right. I gave the old man a perplexed look, and then as the words registered, jerked my head around to look back. Nothing especially wicked presented itself on the San Francisco street. Oh sure, there was the bum peeing against a tree, but he wasn't following me. He was standing about where he had been when I walked past him a minute ago.

There was the elderly couple walking slowly this way, but they could hardly be following me since I had just passed them. They didn't seem so wicked either as they politely diverted their eyes from the man watering the tree. Behind them was a troop of serious-looking women bearing shopping bags. They were talking to each other and apparently not even noticing the water man. A bum sitting in a corner said something to the women as they passed and one of the women reached into her purse to hand him something without meeting his eyes. She didn't seem wicked. The bum shoved it into his pocket with his eyes diverted also; neither of them seemed especially proud of the transaction.

I turned back to the old man, a short black man with mangy white hair and the scrunched up face typical of old folks with no teeth. He looked like he could pull his lower lip over his nose with a bit of effort. The guy was glaring at me with his flat face like I had stepped on his dentures or something. I looked down at my feet but there was no evidence of crushed oral prosthetics.

"Can you pull your lower lip up over your nose?" I asked him.

He just glared at me.

"OK, then. Want to point out the wicked person trailing me?"

"It ain't no person, boy. You got a hoodoo on your back."

"Ooh! Get off!" I mock shrieked, brushing at my shoulder blades. Then I looked back over my shoulder and spoke firmly, "Hey, you! What do you think I am, a demon taxi or something?"

"Don't you mock me, boy, or I won't remedy you." He spoke with the peculiar smacking sound of the toothless.

"You've got a remedy for demon-on-the-back?"

"It ain't acshully on your back!" the old man shouted. "It's a-doggin' you. And if you don't git help it's a gonna find you!"

He seemed serious and I felt a little bad for making fun of the crazy old coot, so I thought I'd play along. "OK, how are you going to remedy me?"

"You need a tat." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the shop behind him. A tattoo parlor.

"Of course," I said. "You do a voodoo tattoo for a hoodoo. Woo hoo. And you got a great sales pitch there too."

The old man just glared at me.

"OK, grampa," I said, "I've never had a tattoo. Maybe I could get a small eagle on my arm or something. How much?"

"It's a remedy, not a decoration!" the old man snapped. "You'll get what I give you and you'll pay me what it's worth."

At that, I lost patience, raised my hands and turned around. Walked away.

"It's a-doggin' you, boy!" the old man shouted after me. "It's a closin' and you ain't got so long!"

I felt a small shiver up my back but kept walking. The old man had a good sales pitch all right; he probably sold a lot of tattoos to superstitious people. And probably took them to the cleaners too.

As I walked, I carefully stepped over the occasional dried rivulets stretching across the sidewalk --tiny rivers headed toward the sea by way of the gutter. When I first came to San Francisco, I had wondered why so many people were spilling drinks on the sidewalk, but those trails weren't spilled drinks; not all the bums were conscientious enough to walk over to a tree.

A block from the tattoo parlor I found the shoe store. It was a dumpy little shop selling expensive shoes in the middle of a dumpy neighborhood. I know that some people get a kick out of shopping on these downtown streets with the expensive shops scattered among the cheap dives, the jewelry and camera stores stocked with stolen merchandise, the massage parlors, and the hourly hotels. I didn't.

No, I didn't like shopping in the area, but this shop was the only one in the entire Bay Area that stocked Riverside shoes in size fourteen. Yeah, I wear size fourteen shoes and I'm not much over six feet tall; they used to call me "duck man" in high school. I could special order the shoes, but frankly --although I like Riverside shoes-- I have to admit that they aren't very consistent with sizes and dimensions. A shoe salesman once told me it's because they're made in Argentina. I don't get the connection.

Anyway, because the shoes are inconsistent in size and shape and because my feet need extra support, I have to try on several pairs of the same style to find a good-fitting pair so it just isn't practical to order them from the Internet. That's why I was in downtown San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon instead of hanging out at my usual coffee shop in Burlingame.

Shoe shopping was worse than usual that day; nothing seemed to fit. I tried on about a dozen different pairs of black loafers in three different styles but none of them was really good so I bought the pair that was least uncomfortable. The shoes were leather so they would mold a bit to my feet, but I hated to spend that much money on a pair of shoes that didn't fit really well. I guess the only reason I ended up buying them was because the saleswoman was so nice and I felt guilty for making her pull out all those shoes if I wasn't going to buy any.

As I was paying the saleswoman I made a bit of small talk, "Sorry I had to go through so many shoes. I guess you have some restocking to do."

"No problem," she said. The woman was a middle-aged Asian woman, probably Chinese, but she didn't have an accent. "At least you bought something. Some people come in here and try on twenty pairs of shoes and then leave without buying anything."

"You need to go talk to that old guy that runs the tattoo parlor down the street," I told her. "He can give you tips on how to sell stuff. Tell your customers that a demon is following them and they need your shoes to ward off evil."

She looked at me for a long time. "Did Robert tell you that you have a demon following you?"

"Well, a hoodoo," I said with a grin. "I guess that's a subspecies of demon. He offered to sell me a voodoo tattoo against hoodoo. Woo hoo." OK so sue me; I was in love with the phrase. I would probably repeat it every time I told the story.

"Robert doesn't sell tattoos that way," she told me seriously. "In fact he doesn't often sell Tattoos of Power to anyone. Some of the drug dealers around here have offered him tens of thousands of dollars for a Tattoo and he turns them down."

"Why does he have a tattoo parlor if he doesn't sell tattoos?"

"He sells tattoos," the woman said, "But just normal ones. The Tattoos of Power are special. And they aren't voodoo. Robert hates the voodoo people. If you want a Tattoo of Power, one good way to get it is to convince Robert that some voodoo priest is out to get you."

"Well," I said, "I can't think of any voodoo priests that I've pissed off lately, so why was he picking on me?"

"Robert has the Sight."

"Oh, well that explains it."

She didn't laugh. "Look, mister. I know you don't believe in that stuff. I didn't used to believe in it either until I started running a shop down here."

"I'm sorry," I told her. "I shouldn't mock other people's beliefs to their face. I should wait and mock them to my friends later."

"You should go and ask Robert for a tattoo."

"Look ..."

"No, wait..." she interrupted me and then was rude enough to pause for a long time, considering something. Finally she said, "I'll make you a deal. You go and get a tattoo from Robert, whatever kind he wants to give you, and I'll give you these shoes for free."

"I couldn't do that," I told her.

"I'm serious," she said, "I want you to go get that tattoo."

That's how I found myself back at Robert's tattoo parlor, looking at it from across the street. It was drizzling now; the city was taking a shower, trying to wash off the grit and grime and dried rivulets of urine. Unfortunately, most of the rivulets began under the awnings where they were safe from the rain.

I shared an awning with the headwaters of just such a rivulet as I looked across the damp street at the old man's tattoo parlor. I didn't have an umbrella and I didn't want to get out from under the awning to go over there but I had promised the shoe lady. I hadn't let her give me the shoes; I'd paid for them, so that wasn't really a contract, was it? I didn't receive any consideration so I wasn't legally bound to go over there.

Oh well. I sighed with the terrible burden of a man bound by honor to a silly task. I looked both ways down the one-way street before dashing across with my new shoes held over my head as a makeshift umbrella. Some wags make fun of over-cautious people by saying, "He would look both ways before crossing a one-way street." These wags have never tried to cross a one-way street in a city that has poorly-marked one-way streets and lots of confused tourists. In San Francisco, look both ways. Really.

Old Robert was no longer standing in front of the store. I stood under the awning and tried to peer through the glass panes in the door but it was dark behind them. I suspected the panes were painted black on the other side. The glass store front had some kind of shutters on the other side; they were open but I couldn't see very much through them because the glass was too dirty and it was covered with spider webs.

As I stood there considering, I felt a tickling in my hair so I reached back to brush it away. Something moved under my hand and I whisked it away, startled. Now I felt a thread on my fingers and when I looked closely, I saw that a spider was rappelling down from my hand on an invisible thread --a big, black spider. I raised it up to look more closely at my arachnid assailant and there was the little red hourglass on its belly. Yep, it was a black widow.

I wondered if she had bitten me. Brown recluse bites hurt a lot, but do black widow bites? A bite from something that big had to hurt at least a little, so I wasn't too worried, but I still lowered the spider gently to the ground and then squashed her with my toe. If she had bitten me, at least she died first.

Looking up, I saw that webs covered the underside of the awning. Could there be more spiders? Of course there could. Not wanting to stand there any longer, I reached out and turned the rusty doorknob. It turned without resistance as if it were broken, so I tried just pushing and the door gave reluctantly with a pained squeal, then the little rascal tried to shut again as I pushed through. Putting my shoulder into it, I slipped inside and let the door slam closed. It very nearly caught my new shoes.

Inside, the shop was surprisingly clean, a reassuring point. A large dental chair dominated the room and next to it stood a tray with an impressive collection of needles, jars, and various other equipment. Examples of tattoo art covered the walls. In the corner, on a rickety wooden stool sat the old man. He was leaning back on two legs and staring at me as if he remembering my smart-ass attitude. Actually, it was only an hour ago so he probably did remember, but he pointed to the dental chair anyway. I sighed and lowered myself carefully onto the chair. After the door, I half expected it to collapse under me, but it seemed firm.

The old man went over to close the shutters as I watched suspiciously. I thought to myself that this was really a bad idea; I would probably get some kind of infection or debilitating skin disease. I could just imagine explaining to my girlfriend why my skin was falling off in big chunks: "Well there's this creepy toothless old guy who runs this tattoo parlor, see?"

The old man walked around the store lighting some incense cones with a disposable lighter. "Open your shirt," he commanded.

"Where are you going to put it?"

"Over your heart."

I opened my shirt slowly. "How much?"

"Tell you what, boy. You come back in here one week from today and pay me what you think it's worth then."

Now that was a new one. "You trust me?"

"Why not?" said the old man. "You're trustin' me aren't ya?"

I wasn't sure how to answer that.

The old man dragged the stool over to the tray and sat down. He picked up a long, scary needle and dipped it into one of his jars, then he reached over to my chest with it. I flinched back against the chair, but he ignored me and quickly scratched a large circle on my chest. There was no paint but I could already see that he was planning to make something far larger than I was willing to allow. I tried to think of a way to suggest a smaller area without making him angry again.

Some time later I woke up. I've never been able to remember much of what happened from the touch of the needle until I woke up; I don't remember being drowsy. I remember some pain, but not much, I remember the smell of the incense, and I remember the old guy humming and singing as he bent over me. He had a surprisingly good voice. Kind of gruff and bluesy, and of course, sloppy because he has no teeth.

When I woke up, the shop was dark and I was alone. Faint light shone in through cracks in the shutters so I stumbled over to the window in the dark to open them. It was nighttime and I'd sat down in the chair no later than three o'clock in the afternoon. The rain came down harder now and I could see the thousands of tiny splashes in the harsh, monochromatic light of the street lamps. The deserted streets told me that it must be very late --near midnight.

I looked down at my new dermal decoration but could see nothing except a black blotch in the dim light ---a black blotch with two small glowing ruby spots. It spread at least five inches across my chest, a huge tattoo. I groaned and wondered how much it would cost to have the thing removed. The light switch by the outer door didn't work so I stumbled across the dark room to the door on the opposite side of the room and found a switch there. The light blinded me momentarily when I flicked it on.

The tattoo was a black cat, or possibly a leopard; its wide roaring mouth revealed a set of shockingly white and large teeth and its slit pupils seemed to glow like rubies. All in all, it was a beautiful tattoo. There was a large mirror and I went over to admire the cat in the reflection. Seen from a better angle, it was clear that this was not a house cat. I was no expert in big cats, but it didn't really look like a leopard either. Or a jaguar. Or any other big cat. The teeth were very large, but not large enough that this could be a saber-toothed tiger.

Still, it was striking. I stroked the animal's sable flank, amazed that the old man had been able to raise such a pure, glossy color on my skin. I supposed that the colors would fade soon because I'd never seen a tattoo so vibrant. Maybe I would keep it after all. I buttoned my shirt and then knocked on the inside door. No one answered, so I just picked up my new shoes and left.

It quickly became apparent that it was really late. I'd revised my guess from "nearly midnight" to "well after midnight". I walked down the glistening monochrome streets in the rain, keeping under the awnings where possible, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be soaked by the time I got to the parking garage. Luckily there was no wind and it was not very cold.

Suddenly I knew that I wasn't alone; I was being followed. I don't know how I knew, but I found myself trying unsuccessfully to catch glimpses of my pursuer in reflections of the glass storefronts. I tried to tell myself that it was just my imagination but knew it wasn't. There was someone out there. Someone who wanted to do me ill. The old man had drugged me and left me in that shop to be robbed. He just gave me the tattoo so that I couldn't prove later that he had been in on it. The bastard.

Much as I wanted to, I didn't start walking faster. Don't let them know I'm on to them, not until I can get a good look so that I can identify them later. Where were the cop cars? This late at night, you would usually see regular patrols of cop cars. And there were always other cars. And taxis. Where were the taxis? The next time I crossed a street I got into the shadows on the other side and I turned quickly, hoping to spot someone. Nothing. I stood there for a few minutes, carefully watching. No one could cross without being seen.

Then I saw ... it. Not a person. I didn't see how it could be a person; it was too big. The shape was wrong. It didn't have a shape. It was shadow, flowing like water, no, flowing like mercury --black mercury swelling across the street toward me. Was it several feet high or flat on the ground? I couldn't tell in the confusing light, but I could tell that it was ... tracking. Don't ask me how I knew, but I could sense that this thing, whatever it was, was tasting the street. Following a scent. Following my scent.

I know, I know. It sounds like a paranoid hallucination. I thought that to myself at the time, I thought: "I'm having a paranoid hallucination." But I knew I wasn't. I knew that this thing was after me. And I knew that it was evil. Something wicked trailed me.

The thing stopped suddenly, about half-way across the street. It reared up, tasting the air. It looked at me. I don't know how I knew. I didn't see any eyes, but I knew that somehow, it had suddenly become aware of me. It knew exactly where I was.

I turned and ran.

UPDATE: edited for voice and style. The original voice was too choppy and I was using too many passive sentences among other things.

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