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TAT MASTER - Part 2 of 3

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I woke up the next morning with my throat parched. Was I coming down with something? My throat was the weakest part of my body. Whenever I got sick, I felt it in my throat first. I tried gargling with salt water but it only made me thirstier.

I spent extra time cleaning my teeth and drying my hair. I wore a dress that I had bought on the Venice Boardwalk on a whim. I knew that I was being stupid, but I couldn’t help it. Two years without a man was actually a long time.

Once I turned into our parking lot, I noticed it immediately. The manga shop was completely empty. I quickly parked—it happened to be in a customer’s spot, but I didn’t care—and peered into the store. There were no books on the shelves. Not even crumpled up newspapers or Styrofoam peanuts on the bamboo floors. It was as if nobody had ever moved in. As I looked up at the tattoo shop, Roberto’s grinning face was visible through our window.

When I entered the shop, Roberto was filing his nails. “How was your date, by the way?” he asked and laughed.

“How do you know I went?”

“I saw you on TV,” he said. “You looked like you were in love.”

My fingertips grew cold and clammy; I felt faint.

“What happened to your boyfriend, anyhow? He seemed like he left in an awful hurry.”

“You saw him leave?”

Roberto shook his head. “When I came in, the whole store was cleared out.”

I went to my station and pretended like I was busy arranging my tools. I felt thirsty again and drank two cupfuls of water.

Roberto gave me an update about an hour later. “Heard more stuff about your boyfriend. You know, that space wasn’t even rented out. He wasn’t supposed to be there. I think that the police might want to talk to you.”

The police? I pinched the loose flesh underneath his arm and twisted. “Do not tell anyone about me going out with that man. I know nothing about him. Not even his name.”

“Ow, all right, all right.” Roberto pulled his arm free. I know that I had got him good because his eyes had teared up. “My lips are sealed. Didn’t know you were so touchy about talking to the cops.”

* * *

I knew that my days were numbered at Sawtelle Tattoos. I had been on cable television and now the police might want to question me. I had overstayed my tourist visa ages ago and didn’t have a proper work visa. I had to leave Los Angeles, but for where? Nobuo had ties in Las Vegas, New York City, and Hawaii. San Francisco was too obvious and small. Seattle was a possibility. I used to like gray weather, but Southern California had spoiled me. I felt like a wilted plant which was getting a little bit stronger in the sun. To return to dreariness again didn’t appeal to me. But what choice did I have? I should have never let my guard down and gone out with that manga store owner or whoever he was. One night, one kiss, and I was in a big mess again.

I told myself that this would be my last week at the tattoo parlor. Even though Roberto irritated me, he had been my constant for a while. To leave him and the shop would be like leaving the familiar again and I wasn’t looking forward to the change.

My first customer that afternoon was a black teenager who came in with a kanji. “I want this. Dog, right?”

The kanji was wrong. It was missing a dash above the right side of the character, but I didn’t care. Without the dash, it was okii, or big.

The teenager was scrawny, his arms the thickness of broomsticks. “You eighteen?” I asked. We were pretty informal about those things, but I didn’t need any more legal trouble as I made my way out of town.

The teenager nodded and showed me his driver’s license.

The rest of the day was a blur. For dinner I ordered a green tea boba and then two rice balls—one with a pickled plum, the other with dried bonito fish flakes—from the neighboring Japanese grocery store. Then I went to the Internet cafe down the street and did some research. There were some tattoo shops in Portland. Nobuo would never think of looking for me there.

When I arrived to work the next day, a middle-aged black woman and man were waiting for me by the counter.

“What did you do to my son? After that tatttoo you gave him, he just ballooned. Just look.”

I focused on the man’s face. It was the same face of the teenager, only he was about a hundred pounds heavier. His body was humongous.

“He’s only a minor. Under age. Don’t you have to be a certain age to get a tattoo on his own?” she asked Roberto, who wasn’t smiling.

I said there, stunned. Blood raced through my body. “He said that he was eighteen. I saw his ID.”

“Well, he’s seventeen. I’m going to report your shop to the authorities. To the Health Department. To Channel 2 News. What you all are doing here just ain’t right.”

“Ma’am, ma’am,” Roberto was using his serious business voice, “I’m sure that we can work this all out.”

I retreated to my work station and tried to think hard. He wanted dog, but he got okii. It couldn’t be. The kid must have taken some kind of drug that he wanted to hide from his mother. His increase in size had nothing to do with my tattoo. I mean, how could it? Roberto and the woman were going back and forth and the other tattoo artists were pretending not to listen, but I knew that they were hanging on every word.

I finally interrupted Roberto. “Maybe he’s allergic to that ink. Let me try something else.”

I took a different color ink cartridge and loaded my tattoo gun as the boy sat in my chair again. If okii had made him this way, how about plain hito, or person? It wouldn’t be difficult to change a stroke here and there. The work looked ugly, but I didn’t care. Within forty-five minutes, I was finished. Almost immediately, the teenager’s body visibly shrank.

“Damn,” he murmured, looking at his transformation in the mirror and tightening his now loose sweat pants.

“You’ll be hearing from our lawyers,” the mother said before the two of them left.

Both Roberto and I were still in a state of shock.

“Am I on some reality TV show?” he asked, searching the walls of the shop for some hidden cameras. “Are you playing a trick on me, Eye?”

I wished I was.

* * *

After that incident, I wrote down all my customers from the previous day: Buddhist goddess for peace and the kanji for yuuki, courage. Not bad attributes to have. But then I recalled my fourth customer—a punk rocker who opted for the kanji, shi, or death.

“My last customer yesterday, did he pay cash or credit card?” I asked Roberto.

“Check. Why?”

“Give me his check.”


“Give me the check, Roberto!” I never yelled, so to hear my voice rise like that even frightened me.

Roberto was afraid too, and handed off a slim stack of checks from underneath the cash drawer in the register. I quickly went through the checks; there weren’t many. All I knew was that this guy owned a car alarm business in Palms that he ran out of his home. I found his check—Shawn Finche—with a phone number.

I called from my cell phone outside the tattoo shop. Only a dial tone and then a message machine. It was a woman’s voice, “You’re reached Finche Alarms.” Who was this woman? His wife? Finche didn’t seem like a family man, but you never knew about these things. I tried again an hour later and then again and again.

At ten o’clock at night a person finally answered a phone. A woman, whose voice sounded like the one in the message, only much more subdued.

“Is Mr. Shawn Finche there?” I asked.

“Who is this?”

“Ah—he’s been working on my car alarm.”

“He’s terribly ill. He went into the hospital last night.”

“He is not dead,” I couldn’t help but to blurt out.

“Who is this again?” she then asked and I hung up the phone. The phone then began ringing so I turned it off.

Had I helped to kill Shawn Finche? What had that nameless manga store owner done to me?

* * *

Part 3 >>


* This story was originally published in THE DARKER MASK: Heroes from the Shadows, edited by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers.


© 2014 Naomi Hirahara

author fiction naomi hirahara tat master tattoo artist Tattoos