an excerpt from Signs of Life
by Norman Waksler
It happened without warning, like being shot in a drive-by— though not quite— but something that changes your life forever (what’s left of it). Sunday afternoon, summer, trash day. Out went the green plastic barrels with our pizza boxes stuffed on top, the bright blue recycling bin, the bags of newspapers, the box of broken -down, clean cardboard. Everything was neat at the curb, like good citizens awaiting a civic parade. Out of nowhere a white rubber ball bounced in the street, arced over the recycling bin and the sidewalk and our waist -level chain-link fence, landed in our narrow side yard. Up the block a collection of local kids in shorts and tee T-shirts, whom I’d often seen as I walked or drove past, but never bothered to individualize. They were in condensed ball field array, one larger kid at home plate, a bat drooping from his hand. He pointed in my direction like Babe Ruth calling his home run, yelled to the outfielder nearest me, a much smaller boy, hair cut practically bald, rubbery little arms and legs, “Ask the old man if we can get the ball out of his yard.” The outfielder trotted toward me, I waved him off, hopped the fence, pegged the ball to him hard enough that it popped out of his hands, bounced and rolled up the street, “Thanks, mister,” he yelled as he chased it back toward the infield. I hopped the fence again, went down our driveway to the back door, and inside. Like being shot, the pain wasn’t immediate. First there was the thump as the encapsulated phrase “the old man” hit, the numb shock as the body closed down, and only a little later the agony. Because, although I was sixty-one, up to that point I hadn’t thought of myself as any particular age. I was just myself, Hugh Alper, balder, grayer, especially in the unextravagant moustache, wearing stronger glasses, somewhat more tired in the evenings, but old? I didn’t have jowls, I did have all my stalwart teeth, behind the bifocals my eyes were clear, while under my clothes, though my belly was pottish, the rest of me remained reasonably firm, no saggy man-breasts, no stringy arm muscles. And inside I was still eighteen, twenty-three, twenty-five at most. My actual sixty-one years were merely markers, like half-inch lines on a yardstick: your life is now this long. But that didn’t make me “the old man,” and anyway, to little kids any adult with gray looked ancient. Still, the phrase bounced around my brain the way a .22 bullet is said to do its damage, by ricochet, so I went looking for Madeline, and found her upstairs in her office. Madeline is a lawyer with a small private practice specializing in local real estate transactions, wills and trusts, helping tenants who are being screwed by their landlords, or small landlords by obstreperous tenants, or either by the city; she also acts as counsel for a neighborhood watch group, so Sunday was often another work day. She was on the phone uh-huh-ing a conversation towards its end, and I stood inside her doorway against the lintel. She raised sardonic eyebrows at me and let her mouth drop open, miming stupefaction. She’s a thin woman, a couple of years younger and a couple of inches shorter than me, cap-cut hair, round shoulders, a small, thoughtful face with small features and pale freckles: quiet-spoken, rational, the type of woman that others tend to underestimate because of her appearance and understatement — to their cost, naturally. As she encouraged the caller to wind down, I looked at her more carefully than I had in a while, checking for marks that would justify calling her “the old woman.” Well, her hair was mostly gray now, come to think of it; the flesh under her chin was loose, as was that under her upper arms, bare in a sleeveless maroon top, and I knew that inside those worn weekend jeans, despite her general thinness, a double fold of stomach sagged over a receding pubic hair line. But old? The old woman? “Another neighborhood watcher,” she said, hanging up the phone. “In a prematurely litigating mood. So anyway, what’s up wi’chu, Hugh?” “With me? I just had a little boy out front call me an old man.” “And?” “And I didn’t like it. I don’t think I’m an old man quite yet.” “Soooo?” “So I’d like you to tell me I’m not an old man yet.” “You’re not an old man yet.” “That’s not very convincing.” “Well, as you know, in many societies people our age are either dead or considered ancient. You’re sixty-one, I’m fifty-nine. That’s not exactly youthful.” “Not exactly youthful doesn’t mean old.” “True, but it does mean well on the way.” “And you’re comfortable with that? You’re comfortable with the idea of physical deterioration, walkers, wheelchairs, loss of intellectual acuity, senile dementia, nursing homes, death, complete disappearance from the universe except as recycled molecules?” “No. Of course not. Who is? But we might get lucky. Keep all our faculties until we die quietly at ninety. Or get run over by a bus before all that starts. But it doesn’t do any good to deny reality; and deterioration and death does seem to be the universal fate of all organic matter — which does include human beings, which therefore includes us.” I should have known better than to have looked for reassurance from Madeline; sometimes nothing’s worse than living with a chronic fact-facer. So now I was supposed to accept that if I wasn’t an old man yet, I would be any moment; that all those things I’d named were waiting for me at various trail houses on the downward slope of my life; that at each stop I’d trade in something for one of them: brains, health, strength, consciousness, and at the bottom, life itself. I couldn’t accept it. It seemed a dirty trick. I led such a peaceful, harmless, unintrusive, unobtrusive life — faithful husband, good friend, partner in a small, useful business. I never made great demands, never insisted on myself, never minded being just another guy, but now even those modest things I valued would disappear. I hated it. I didn’t care that every human had to face the same fate, this was me we were talking about, and I hated it and resented it and feared it. I had managed to avoid the conventional mid-life crisis. Satisfied with what I had and who I was and not alerted to the possibility of losing them, I’d hardly noticed mid-life, but I could see a late-life crisis looming instead. Wasn’t this the point at which men started an affair with a younger woman, bought a sports car, took sky diving lessons, anything to deny age, assert youth, potency, immortality? But I was hardly going to have an affair, I’d be silly in a sports car, and sky diving seemed a sure way of incurring what you were trying to avoid. I didn’t know what was appropriate for a case like mine, because all I really wanted was to not die, to not grow older, to hold my satisfactory-if-imperfect life right where it was. So how do I explain what I did do? Such a little thing, not any bigger in its own way than those three words “the old man.” To put it baldly: I got a tattoo. I didn’t plan it. Who actually plans their late-life crisis antidote? But a few weeks later my business — designing and producing catalogues for small colleges — took me to New Hampshire for ten days or so. Most of these New Hampshire schools sit in the country, and evenings when I didn’t go to dinner with an administrator I’d known for years, I drove from my motel to the nearest town to eat and wander around a bit. Forget your white church on the town green, these built-up New Hampshire towns generally have one main drag which is a compendium of all the strip malls in a small city — laundromats, pizza parlors, ethnic restaurants, funeral homes, real estate offices, karate studios, convenience stores, plumbers, tattoo parlors, and occasionally, a used bookstore. Which is where I was heading in the late afternoon, after a pleasing day in which I’d made a client out of Wilson Junior College, to browse before supper. But I never reached the bookstore, because two shops earlier there was the window of Barnaby’s Tattoos displaying a few white plastic sheets of tattoo possibilities — birds, new age symbols, flowers, barbed wire, devils, motorcycle logos — behind a pair of ink guns crossed like Colt .45s. I’d looked in windows like this before; with a change in Mass state laws, two parlors had opened not very far from my own neighborhood. But where previous windows had provoked only a low-grade curiosity, this spare display seemed suggestive, exotic, mysterious, the portal to another universe, and in a blink, I’d pushed open their really perfectly ordinary door and stepped inside. And about an hour of moderate pain later, I walked out with the tattoo of an eye staring straight ahead from the base of my throat, in the little notch at the top of my sternum. It hadn’t been a question of resisting or not resisting, choosing or not choosing, even deciding or not deciding. It seemed almost to have nothing to do with me, but when I saw it pictured on one of the white plastic display sheets along the wall — black line, ovoid, lightly lidded, black iris, white dot of a pupil, a few short lashes — it was as if a slow camera shutter had opened in me, exposing my nerves, or emotions, or psyche to an undefined but unmistakable import emanating from the tattoo. And when I saw it looking back at me from the mirror in the tattoo parlor, I knew the right thing had occurred, because there above my bare chest, the black iris and white pupil, weeping a little blood, but otherwise steady as a star that guides mariners, seemed to complete a circuit that I hadn’t known was imperfect. Friday I checked out of the last motel, dealt with my last college, took off jacket and tie, let the eye have some air, and began the four-hour drive home. The closer I got, the more concerned I became about Madeline’s reaction. I knew she’d have her doubts, and doubt in a marriage of equals is merely disapproval politely stated. I’d phoned every evening, hadn’t mentioned the tattoo. I’d considered it, if only as a way to accustom her to the idea, but I’d been unable to construct a sentence that wouldn’t be abrupt, sound silly, elicit a long silence, disbelief, ask for an explanation I couldn’t give, leave us hanging between phone calls, build an expectation of something disagreeable to be faced. Better to let her discover it, react once, live with it. After all, Madeline was a smart, tolerant, sophisticated woman, sophisticated enough to have essentially proposed to me those years ago. Her sense of proportion would recognize that the tattoo wasn’t a whole-body reproduction of, say, The Garden of Earthly Delights, only a little oval with a dot in it. It seemed to me that this time I’d benefit from living with the chronic fact-facer: Madeline would have her doubts, then she’d accept there was nothing to be done about it, then she’d get over her doubts, and I’d still have the eye. For that matter, I thought with a kind of giddy triumphalism, even if she didn’t get over her doubts, I’d still have the eye. I set my luggage down in the front hall at the foot of the stairs, took two steps into the living room, its solid Mission furniture and leather cushions, wide pine floor and colorful throw rugs, the large semi-abstract golden wheat field at sundown on the far wall, all as usual, not quite familiar after days away. Broadcast voices earnestly discussed in the library/TV room beyond. “Hello,” I called, “I’m home.” The voices stopped, and there was Madeline, thin-legged and slouch-shouldered, extremely un-lawyerlike in her jeans, blue T-shirt, leather sandals. “Hello. You’re home. How did it go?” “Good. Successful to the very end. Not only did I get Wilson Junior, everyone else renewed. How about you?” “The legal profession staggers on. The Gilkys passed papers on their condo today. Finally.” The Gilkys were a couple that included a transgendered female partner, and their long running attempt to purchase the condo included more than a suspicion of discrimination. So this represented a triumph for Madeline’s legal efforts. I held out my arms offering a congratulatory hug to be incorporated with the homecoming hug and smooch. We neared in the middle of the room, Madeline was even in the process of raising her arms when she stopped, mid-raise, mid-stride; her head jutted forward as she focused on the base of my throat. “Hugh? What is that?” “It’s a tattoo.” “It’s not real, is it?” “You mean permanent? Absolutely.” “That’s rather odd. What on earth induced you to get a tattoo? Are you planning a whole series?” “Nope. Only this one. It was an impulse, not a plan.” “An impulse. That strikes me as rather more than odd. It’s completely bizarre. What kind of impulse would lead you of all people to get a tattoo? And not just any tattoo. That one. There.” “It’s not so bizarre. Everyone and his brother, and his sister for that matter, is getting tattooed these days.” “Everyone and his brother and sister isn’t a sixty-one year old businessman who’s been married for thirty years. Anyway, if it were some other tattoo in some other location, like an anchor on your shoulder or a heart with our initials in it, I could take it as a bit of whimsy. But that’s disconcerting. What does it mean?” “I can’t say what it means. I saw it and it seemed right, so I did it.” “Like a drunken sailor? Stop in port and get tattooed? You didn’t get screwed and blewed too, did you?” “Madeline.” “Just asking. After all, you’re not the one who’s going to have that extra eye staring at you all the time, though at least you didn’t put it between your eyebrows.” “You know, this isn’t much of a homecoming,” I resented. “I wasn’t expecting you to come home with such an odd permanent guest. So tell me, what’s this got to do with your discovering old age on the horizon?” “Absolutely nothing.” “Of course not.” “Madeline,” I said. “I just had a four-hour drive after more than a week of seeing clients and sleeping in cheesy, albeit overpriced, motels, and eating really bad New Hampshire restaurant cooking. I’m tired, I’m hungry and I want to change. Let me get myself settled in and make some coffee and a decent sandwich, then you can be as ironic at my expense as you like. OK?” Madeline agreed by raising her eyebrows, and I went upstairs, changed into jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, threw my dirty clothes in the laundry basket, washed my face in cooling water. The eye was a flop; my sophisticated, tolerant wife was more than doubtful; she was, in her own calm way, downright hostile. I didn’t have reason to feel in the wrong, guilty, badly, on the outs, though in unavoidable spousely fashion, I nonetheless felt exactly that way. But the eye, which stared back at me from the medicine cabinet mirror unblinking and unmoved, told me I wasn’t just any sixty-one-year-old businessman who’d been married for thirty years, any guy like any other guy who happened to have certain tastes in books, music and food, a graying moustache, a few old friends, a strong, smart wife, this or that psychological quirk. I was the guy with the eye, and therefore these emotions didn’t really count — they weren’t as important as having the eye. The weekend, however, wasn’t as bad as homecoming had promised. After the shock of their first meeting, Madeline and the tattoo seemed to reach a modus vivendi as her sophistication and level-headedness did kick in, exactly as I knew it would. She responded the way you do to a character flaw in someone you like a good deal otherwise: acknowledge it ironically and decide not to let it interfere. She’d find herself eye to eye with the tattoo, perform a variety of possibly involuntary sardonic facial movements, look away. I reciprocated by not responding to her reaction. But we did talk about it again. “So tell me honestly, Hugh. Reaction to coming old age?” “Honestly? All right. Maybe so. Conservative older man’s version of buying a motorcycle.” “But why that particular tattoo? That’s what really puzzles me. What does it mean?” “I don’t think it means anything. It just is. I think that’s what appealed to me about it. Do you really hate it that much?” “Honestly? Yes. It’s an affront somehow.” “Really?” I touched a forefinger lightly to the spot which was still slightly raised. “That’s curious. Why?” “Perhaps for the same reason it appeals to you. Because it’s there. And for that matter, why there? Why not over your belly button or something? That would have been funny at least.” “Not to be humorless, but it seemed like the perfect spot. Centrally located, symmetrically correct, a little socket all ready.” “So it was only a matter of aesthetics?” “I suppose.” “I don’t believe it.” “Your privilege, my dear.” Sunday night, a sign of accommodation, we made love in our own quiet way. However, Madeline also made a point of shutting off the lights before we rolled together. That weekend the eye went public for the first time, an occasion of self-conscious pride, as if everywhere I went, everyone I saw would distinguish and embarrass me by pointing at the tattoo and saying, wow, cool, awesome, or whatever was their particular expression of amazed admiration. But either nobody noticed, or anyone who noticed pretended not to, because I saw no reaction.
Not so with my partner, Thom Astin, however. He was a khakis-and-plaid-shirt, top-button-buttoned kind of guy: short, plump, sarcastic, stiff, one of those precise and asexual types who if they never found their métier would only be thought of as hopelessly eccentric. In the past few years he’d cultivated a flourishing beard, now completely white. He’d also developed the habit of patting it as if it were a friend in need of consolation. We’d known one another in college, met again years after, Thom with the plan for this niche firm, and full of design skills and ideas that he knew he couldn’t sell, but thought my unaggressive, low-key style could. So Alper and Astin: Catalogue Consultants had been born.
The first words out from behind his facial hairs were, “What the heck is that?” “And hello to you too, Thom,” I said. “And thank you for all the congratulations you’re heaping on me for presenting your so-brilliant ideas in such a clear and irresistible way that I got the Wilson contract and all those renewals.” Thom ignored me. “Have you joined a cult of some kind, or are you having a nervous breakdown?” “No, and also, no.” “Then what is that?” “What does it look like? Whatever it looks like, that’s what it is.” I’d always been able to deflect Thom’s sarcasm by not taking it seriously, one of the reasons I’d been one of his few functioning acquaintances in college. Today I found it easier than usual not to take him seriously. “It looks like the eye on the dollar bill. Maybe you’ve become a federal agent. I hope you didn’t flash that at our clients.” After twenty-three years of partnership, Thom and I were hardly what’s thought of as friends. We rarely spent time together outside the office; I knew his interests (pen collecting, Dickens, Dutch graphics), but had only the vaguest idea of his personal life, and though he asked regularly after Madeline, Thom seemed to have minimal interest in mine. Yet he was clearly waiting for some sort of explanation, as though we’d made a pact never to go below a certain level of superficiality, and I had betrayed our agreement by interposing this strange personal mark between us. So besides assuring him that I’d shielded the clients from the dreadful sight, I knew I had to say something, not to satisfy him particularly, but because otherwise he wouldn’t leave it alone. “Look, Thom, have you ever been window shopping and unexpectedly found yourself attracted by something you never thought of owning before?” “Sure, I saw an anaconda at a pet store once, but I didn’t buy it.” “Well, I bought it.” Naturally then, he asked the same question as Madeline, more or less. “But what is it you bought? What the heck does it mean?” “Its meaning is in the eye of the beholder.” “Give me a break, Hugh. Seriously.” “Seriously? It’s like a pair of socks with a nice design. It doesn’t mean anything.” “You must have intended something.” “Nope.” “It’s damned peculiar, that’s all I can say.” After that we got down to business; he very obviously avoided eyeing the eye, but a little later, as though compelled, he patted his beard a few times, then said, “You know, that’s really creepy. It’s like you’re spying on me. You look elsewhere and the whatsis is still looking at me.” “Don’t be paranoid, Thom. It doesn’t see a thing.” I suppose I should have felt stupid at not having an explanation for the eye, but that open shutter and that sense of completion were so pure and satisfying that really I didn’t care, though the me that had functioned quite nicely for so many years without behaving inexplicably was occasionally curious, the way, I suppose, one idly wonders if there’s a meaning to life, but, without any great impulse to work for an answer, simply proceeds as if the question were irrelevant. Then one afternoon in the underground T-stop, a leftover hippie sidled up to me, a tall, long-armed guy with a gray ponytail, a red bandanna around his forehead, a long face sculpted by encounters with a thousand drugs, skin pebbly and browned like deep-fried tofu. “So what’s up, man,” in a voice hoarse probably from forty years of smoking pot, “you wearing your third eye on the outside, or is it the all seeing eye of Shiva?” “Neither,” I said. “It’s not the evil eye, man. You don’t have those vibes. And you ain’t no member of the Illuminati. So maybe it’s the eye of Maat.” “Maat?” “The Egyptian mother of the Truth. Omni-sighted. Don’t you know any of this shit?” I shook my head. The hippie considered me for a minute. “Man, you’re wearing one of the most potent symbols in the universe, and you don’t know what it’s about? That’s like a carrying a loaded gun with the safety off and your finger on the trigger and not even knowing it. You better get on the train, brother.” Walked away, shaking his head. Could he be right? Had I through the so-called collective unconscious tapped into the power of a cosmically significant mystic symbol? I was a rationalist, and up to now I’d always thought a symbol was only a symbol, and the thing it stood for was something else entirely. Pledge allegiance to the flag, and the republic for which it stands. So this possibility was as foreign to me as the idea that space aliens were operating on earth. But if the tattoo was like a puzzling dream that someone else has to interpret for you, why not accept the hippie’s reading, accept that the tattoo wasn’t merely a satisfying mark of obscure import, but an open channel to the essential controlling powers of the universe. If so, they would have been the wrong powers.
One night a couple of weeks after I returned from New Hampshire, Madeline and I had made love and rolled apart, lying on our backs, breathing evenly, looking into the dark. “Nice,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. Silence for a while, then I said, “Not to spoil the moment, but are we always going to have sex with the lights off now?” “I’m afraid so, Hugh.” “Because of the tattoo? You find it that repellent?” “I must admit, to a degree, but also it rather focused my attention on our no-longer very attractive, aging bodies. I’d rather just feel them than see them bumping together.” “There’s nothing wrong with your aging body.” “Thanks. But I know better.” A while of silence, then: “You know, Hugh...not to spoil the moment, but I’ve been thinking about turning the guestroom into my own bedroom.” “What? You mean permanently? Separate bedrooms?” “Uh-huh.” “But why? Don’t tell me that’s because of the tattoo too?”
“Obliquely, yes. Your getting it makes me think there’s a way in which you don’t need me anymore. I think that happens with married couples. It’s one of those paradoxes. They grow more and more together, and because they’re so confident of one another, they become more and more independent. So they do certain things for their own comfort or pleasure, because they can count on the other person to live with it.”
“And you’re saying you’ll be more comfortable alone than sharing a bed.” “I don’t feel like adjusting anymore. You move, I move, the mattress bounces, I bounce. I feel cramped. If I sprawl, I bump into you. It’s not necessary.” “Let’s get a bigger bed. Or twin beds. We can be like Rock Hudson and Doris Day.” “If I remember correctly, in some movies they had separate bedrooms.” “They weren’t married in that movie.” “OK. Nevertheless, I’d also like an unshared room. Where I can sprawl, or pace, or get up the middle of the night and think, without being afraid of disturbing you or having you ask what’s wrong. You know it’s perfectly normal for couples to have separate bedrooms; it doesn’t mean the end of the marriage.” “Sure. And then what happens to sex?” “We’ll have to make an appointment. It’s not like we’re two lust-filled kids jumping one another at random times of the day, anyway.” There’s a particular kind of dead feeling that strikes at moments like this, when it turns out that an important piece of your life, which you’ve always considered perfectly comfortable, the person closest to you can hardly bear. I liked bumping into that warm body next to me, hearing her breathe, her occasional cough. When I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and touched my way back into bed, it was a comfort to feel her there, outlining my spot. And if we weren’t two lust-crazed kids jumping one another at random, there were still those nights we reached for each another and perpetrated one of those wonderful sleeping acts that made you wonder in the morning if it hadn’t been a dream. And here it was, my own impetuous and still-unexplained deed putting an end to all that. However, given this development, I shouldn’t have been surprised at what happened next. Thom’s “We need to talk, Hugh,” should have alerted me immediately. But I’d felt so disjointed since Madeline’s decision, and her rapid transformation of the guestroom, that I actually thought he was going to probe for reasons I’d been uncharacteristically distracted recently. Of course, it turned out that he’d been so preoccupied with his own intentions that he hadn’t even noticed my mood. “You know, Hugh,” he said cheerfully, “I’m going to hit sixty-three in two months.” I hadn’t known. “To put it bluntly, when I do, I’m going to retire.” “You can’t be serious.” “Never more.” “But what about the firm?” “It’s all yours. Between our pension plan and social security and some really smart investments, I’m going to be quite comfortable, so you can have it all. I’d settle for a pretty moderate buy-out, if you have some spare cash lying around.” “But I can’t run the firm without you. I can’t handle your end of the business.” “Hire somebody. There’s all kinds of young, clever design people out there dying for a job with an established firm. You’ll have your pick of the litter at half the salary I’m taking.” “This is terrible. Why are you doing this?” “Why does anyone retire? You work all your life and even if you like it, it’s still work. So you decide you’d better play before you’re too old or too dead. I’ll tell you the truth, Hugh: when you came in with that thing on your neck, it annoyed the heck out of me. Maybe you noticed. I thought it was the stupidest, strangest thing for a man your age to put on his own skin, and without even knowing why he was doing it. But then I thought, Now wait, Thom, maybe there’s a message there.” “Good God,” I muttered, “Not you too.” “What?” “Nothing. Go ahead.” “I thought, maybe there’s a message there. Maybe it’s time to start doing things for their entertainment value, even if they don’t make sense to anyone else, or seem appropriate, or are completely egotistical.” “Jeez, Thom,” I said, not caring to imagine at the moment what inappropriate things he might have in mind. “Can’t you at least hold on till I can hire someone to do the work, and you can train them?” “We can discuss that. But let me make another suggestion. Maybe it’s time to kill the firm. You know, what with desktop publishing, Internet catalogues and whatnot, there’s no guarantee it’ll continue to be a moneymaker anyway. You could take your cultic eye and retire too. Get into being tattooed all over, unless you already have tattoos you’re not showing — ears, noses, mouths somewhere else on your body.” “But we have commitments for the coming year. I can’t just walk away from them.” “You could work something out, I’m sure.” “But I don’t want to kill the firm. We do good work. And I’m only 61. It’s way too early for me to retire.” “People do it all the time, but what the heck, it’s your choice.” So there I was. I still didn’t understand why the eye, and now I couldn’t understand why it was having such a disastrous effect. But that was OK, because pretty soon incomprehension was blown away by a cannon shot from the only person who wholeheartedly approved of the eye. Sunday, I went to visit my cousin, Rob Zimmel. We were of an age and had more or less grown up together. Rob was an economics professor, and he lived with his wife, Jessica, and daughter, Claudia, in one of the comfortable small cities adjacent to Boston, in a gabled and timbered Old English pile of a house. Rob had two sons out of college and working, but Claudia was a late-in-the-marriage child, and he often lamented that a man his age shouldn’t have to cope with a teen-aged daughter. He opened the door wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a half-opened Hawaiian shirt. A little taller than me, he’d been wiry when young, was pouched out now, had very hairy arms and chest, a week-end growth of salt and pepper beard on his rounded cheeks. “You look like a beachcomber,” I said. “I haven’t combed a beach in weeks. How are you? Come in. Jess is out, Claudia’s somewhere, probably with her headset on in a chat room with somebody she’s never met. How’s Madeline? What’s new? Let’s go out back. It’s cooler. What are you drinking? I’ve got beer, lemonade, iced coffee, iced tea.” Across the entry hall, Rob stopped at the foot of the staircase and called up, “Claudia! Uncle Hugh is here.” Technically, Claudia and I are cousins, but from a little kid, she’d called me “Uncle.” Recently I’d suggested that she drop the honorific, but Rob wouldn’t allow it. Down another hall, into the kitchen, I acquired an iced coffee, then went out to the screened-in porch that looked onto Rob’s back yard, where a variety of fairly ancient trees asserted themselves against the sun, and Jessica had flowered the borders and alleys with pale reds, purples, lavender, cream, and deep blues. When we’d settled into the cushioned wicker, Rob said, “Never mind telling me what’s new. I can see it.” He touched his throat. “Is that really a tattoo?” “Indeed it is.” “It’s really weird. Why an eye? Why there? What’s it mean? What are you doing getting a tattoo?” So I went through the story, what there was to it, including Madeline’s and Thom’s reactions without however mentioning their resulting decisions. If I’d hoped Rob would be sympathetic, if not approving, I was wrong. Of course. “I can’t blame them,” he said. “That’s really off-putting. It’s —” “I know. It’s as though I’m staring at you when I’m looking somewhere else. It doesn’t make any sense for a man my age. I should. for God’s sake, at least know what it means and why I did it.” Rob nodded. “All that. But on the other hand, you never have quite grown up anyway. You’ve always been childishly impulsive and self-indulgent, doing things because you felt like it, and not bothering to consider the consequences.” There was a bitterness in Rob’s tone which took me aback almost as much as his assessment of my lifetime behavior. “I beg your pardon. What are you talking about?” “You see, you don’t even see it. Don’t you remember things like going to work at that restaurant at the shore when you were really needed at the store, or dropping that girl you’d been dating through college and taking up with that beatnik painter woman as soon as you graduated? “For God’s sake, she dumped me after two months for being too square.” “Still. Then you applied for an Adams grant for graduate school, and when you got it, you turned it down. It took you years to get married, years to settle on a profession. You decide one day at Thanksgiving dinner to go into the stock brokerage with Larry, and a month later you back out. Now this. I think people who don’t have children never do grow up.” If being called “the old man” had been like a single, well placed shot to the self-image, this was like a blast from an Uzi, a splatter of small-caliber bullets perforating my view of myself in seconds. Of course, I’d never imagined that Rob had compiled this list of transgressions which he’d been marinating in resentment all these years, and I’d never seen myself as childish or self-indulgent. I said, controlling my feelings — anger, hurt — exactly what you’d expect at a point like this. “You can hardly say that Madeline isn’t a grown-up.” “It’s different with women,” Rob said with vast certainty. “They’re grown up to start with.” “When did you become such a damned feminist?” I asked. “And anyway,” I went on, “When you’re twenty-two, it’s considered normal, not childish, to have a grand and wild love affair; and as for the Adams grant, I realized I didn’t want to be an English lit professor, and I decided it would be impossible to work with Larry, even if he did become a multi-millionaire. And anyway, I worked at the store the next summer.” “You can defend each action on its supposedly justifiable individual grounds, but when you put them all together, it makes a very clear pattern.” “Of childish impulsiveness?” “Exactly. Of self-indulgent, childish impulsiveness.” “Well, I don’t think so.” Seeing that we’d reached the says you, says me stage of this discussion, who knows what kind of a fight we might have had if Claudia hadn’t appeared on the porch at that moment. Sixteen, wiry like her father used to be, she was pale-skinned with large, dark, innocent eyes like her mother. Her spiky hair practically black, she mooched in barefoot, wearing baggy camouflage shorts over a modestly cut blue bathing suit. “Hey, Uncle Hugh! How are you?” “Hi, sweetheart. How’s it going?” Old enough to be her grandfather, I’d always treated her with grandfatherly indulgence. She was a smart kid, who did very well in school, and frankly I thought Rob was too hard on her, his theory of women’s inborn maturity not extending to his daughter. So even now, when she was going through what was really a relatively mild teen independence fight (a battalion of earrings, the spiky hair, militant vegetarianism), which nonetheless drove Rob crazy and Jess a bit desperate, I always took her side, and we managed real conversations when left alone to talk, or on the phone. “I didn’t think you could hear me,” Rob accused. “I was finishing a section of the summer writing project, and I didn’t want to lose my train of thought,” Claudia challenged. “I knew Uncle Hugh wouldn’t run away without saying hello to me.” “Your Uncle Hugh has done something really peculiar this time. Show her, Hugh.” I’d been slouched in the wicker chair, chin half-covering the tattoo. I straightened and tilted my head back. Claudia stared a moment, then broke out in a grandly beautifying grin. “That’s so cool. You’re so cool, Uncle Hugh. When did you get it?” “A couple of weeks ago. In New Hampshire. See, Rob, your daughter has good taste anyway.” “If you want to think that something you like is OK because a dizzy teen-ager approves of it…” “Oh, thanks a lot, Dad. Not only do I approve, but as soon as I’m on my own, I’m going to get one just like it.” Rob threw me a see-what-you’ve-done look, then said, “You want to get one just like it, but I bet you don’t even know what it means.” Rob obviously intended one of those unanswerable professorial trick questions. Claudia, on the other hand, said right off, no hesitation, “I do, too. It’s a pun. ‘Eye,’” she pointed to the tattoo. “‘I.’” She touched her chest with her index finger. “As in, ‘I am’ or ‘Here I am.’ It’s a declaration of existence. Right, Uncle Hugh?” Blown apart entirely, I said nothing. Claudia said, “That is right, isn’t it?” With a sudden loss of confidence, as if she’d demonstrated stupidity, not more insight than I had into myself, or than any other adult had managed, at least consciously. “Absolutely,” I said. “You’re right on the money.” “See,” she said to her father, giving a little wiggle of triumph to her lean body that would have infuriated any parent, though I found it endearing. “Well,” said Rob, “I always knew you existed.” So there I was. “I.” An aging man with a banal and idiotic pun on his throat. That certainly took the mystery out everything. If it still seemed an enigma, something strange and impenetrable to others, I saw it now as an embarrassing fraud. A dimwitted eye, which confronted me in every reflection as an encounter with my own unconscious ridiculousness, so that I immediately looked away. Insisting on my existence. Really. Apparently, because I’d hated getting old, and feared what came after, I’d wanted to stop time, so I’d planted “here I am” on my throat as if it would guarantee continuation, act as an antidote to death, exempt me from the common fate of humankind. No wonder everyone was angry at me; even if they couldn’t articulate it, they must’ve felt themselves confronted by an act of supreme egoism. No wonder everyone had been insisting on their own existence in response. My first thought was that I had to get rid of the damned tattoo. Of course, at some point then I’d have to confess to Madeline that I was no longer enamored with the thing, that she’d been right, and Rob had been right; that it was a foolish, childish, presumptuous impulse. I called my health plan and spoke to the dermatology department from whom I learned that I could have the thing lasered off in about six visits — at the cost of $327 per visit, because naturally reversing self-indulgence wasn’t a covered procedure. $2000 to remove a fifty-dollar tattoo. Not that it would break us. Madeline might even encourage the expense, a rational move that would return everything to the way it was before. But the disproportion seemed indecent, almost as if I were stealing the money from Madeline to pay for my foolishness. Besides — and clearly up to now I’d been a person with no conscious relationship to his true motives, but I understood this one — I was definitely reluctant to see the eye disappear little by little, month by month. So, Madeline off counseling her neighborhood watch group, I stood in the kitchen contemplating the edge of our finely honed French steel vegetable knife. With it, I could peel away the skin layer by layer, until I passed the deepest penetration of the ink, though I had no idea how deep that was, and such an attempt was seriously contraindicated by the prospect of the accompanying pain, not to mention the blood—a fleshly disaster to emphasize my organic nature. I changed the angle of the blade and touched the eye with the point. Alternately, I could plunge this very sharp little blade directly into the tattoo and finish the whole business on the spot. Stop time. Never grow older. Never have to face all those things I hated and dreaded. Skip deterioration, go directly to death. I had to laugh, at myself, and at the silly illogic of the idea, the idiot paradox of killing oneself because one wanted to live forever. I also laughed because I knew I was playing another childish game, flirting with the extreme to avoid the obvious. There was a simple solution. The eye was so plainly fashioned that it would be no problem to fill it in with black. Granted, it would be a mildly repulsive area of apparently dead skin, but perhaps after a while everyone would forget that there had been an eye there at all. Only problem, I’d disappoint Claudia, my one advocate. I called her cell phone and when she answered, I could hear some kind of jagged teen music in the background, though it snapped off as soon as I identified myself, “Claudia, sweetheart, I’ve got to tell you something.” “Sure, Uncle Hugh.” “I’m afraid I’m going to have to get rid of my tattoo.” “But why? I really like it.” “I know. But you’re the only one. Everyone else hates it and they hate me for having it. You heard your father, and Aunt Madeline is thoroughly annoyed with me. Apparently it’s OK for someone your age to go around proclaiming, ‘Here I am,’ but for a sixty-one year old doofus like me, it’s redundant. I’m either here, or I’m dead.” I explained what I was going to do. Claudia said, very logically, “You’ll be hiding it, but everyone will know it was there. I mean, once they saw it, they can’t not have seen it, can they?” “They’ll forget about it after a while. Anyway, I wanted to tell you because I didn’t want you to think I didn’t care what you thought about it.” “I know that, Uncle Hugh. But you do whatever you think you should. You’re still my favorite uncle.” “And you are, as always, my favorite niece, though don’t tell any of your cousins I said so.” The two tattoo parlors near my neighborhood were located in the latest Cambridge square to have become the place for college students, café habitués, and bookstore browsers to hang out. All I had to do was take a short walk. Yet inertia, the absolute counter of my first impulse, anchored me in place. I kept not remembering to get it done. And each time I remembered that I had forgotten, I said to myself, Oh, right, that, OK, tomorrow, and then a melancholy sense of loss made the notation fade. Finally though, remembering and opportunity coincided. On the subway home from work, I saw a young woman with a butterfly on her ankle, the train stopped in the square, and there I was. Half a block’s walk brought me to the first of the parlors, which, with its red and black tile floors and low counter, seemed as much like an old-fashioned cafeteria as anything else. The guy behind the counter had the motorcycle gang look, however; large, round, fat, muscled, T-shirt filling; beard, shaggy hair, innumerable tattoos of the dragon, motorcycle, panther variety. A voice that hinted at raucousness decided reserve at seeing this obvious business type. “What can I do for you?” I lifted my chin. “See this tattoo?” “Oh yeah. That’s novel. Never saw one quite like it before. What’s it mean?” I shrugged, and then, instead of what I’d come to say, I said, “Just below it, but not so it shows over a T-shirt, I want you to do something else. A grim reaper, as simple as you can.” The guy perked up. “Grim reaper? The scythe, the hood, the skeleton?” “Yeah, but like this one. Black line, cartoon figure. Don’t need the skull face.” The guy grabbed a sheet of lined paper and a ball point. Sketched out a grim reaper, with impressive and unexpected artistry from his stereotype. A dozen swift blue lines, and there was the creepy figure, floor-length robe, long triangle of the scythe blade, bony fingers. “Perfect,” I said, “Only, so tall,” holding thumb and forefinger two inches apart. “No problem.” I knew that this one, being larger and more complex, was going to hurt more than the first, but why not? I might hope someday to bring my wife back to our bed, but covering the eye wasn’t going to do it, nor would it unretire my partner, and while it might placate my cousin, it wouldn’t change what he’d thought of me all these years. Claudia was right. What’s been seen can’t be unseen, so in the end I’d be the same aging guy, but with a black blob on his throat. So, why not? I’d been lying low forever, as if by being unobtrusive, I wouldn’t be noticed by the universe, and could therefore be exempt from its rules. But I’ll tell you, my next tattoo is going to be something with a symbolic meaning I choose and like and know precisely how childish and ridiculous it is, one of those spread-wing eagles, or a roaring lion, or two fanged snakes rearing their heads while wrapped around what will soon be my flabby old biceps. Any one of a number of signs of life.
NORMAN WAKSLER has published fiction in a number of journals including Ascent, Greensboro Review, Kansas Quarterly, Story Quarterly, Potpourri, Madison Review, Hanging Loose, Bibliophilos,Chaffin Journal, as well as in Best American Short Stories. He received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Fiction for 1998 and the Chaffin Award for Fiction in 2004. A collection of stories,
The Book of Regrets is published by Main Street Rag Press. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, the sociologist Frances Chaput Waksler. A picture of his Cairn Terrier, Glennis, can be seen at NormanWakslerFiction.com.