(Originally Published in “Too Much, Not Enough, and In The Wrong Place”)
You learn a lot of things when you’re in prison. The first thing you learn, you learn the minute you step off the bus chained in a line with the other newbies, this is a very different world. They taunt you, walking in a line with the others. Every one of the established people there eye fuck you the moment they see you. It’s almost like a planned parade in the place every Tuesday.
I met him the day he came in. But when he stepped off the bus, you could tell he was no first time fish. He walked with the swagger of a killer. He was a killer. If the step in his walk and the ice in his eyes didn’t tell you, the ink on his arms would. He was covered in ink. Black and grey… a little bit of blues and reds too. There was no order to it, no theme on his body. It was a patchwork of things.
They still tried to taunt him walking in. The younger wolves. They were still out to test him. But it was no big deal, standard procedure in the pen. They test everybody. The older guys, and anyone else who had been in the yard long enough to spot a stone cold, they left him alone. The yelling and the indecent proposals didn’t make him flinch though. He kept walking in that straight line looking at the back of the shaved head of the skinhead in front of him. The skinhead looked a little nervous though, the Tattoo Man did not. He walked right on into the lion’s den, under the shotgun escort of the guards. His sleeves were rolled up. He let the ink do the talking.
We ended up in the same cell. He didn’t talk outside in the yard or in general population. But he talked to me in the cell, the tiny concrete walls don’t hold in his secrets, but it’s not like what he said was a secret at all.
He didn’t talk about how he got there. It pretty much spoke for himself. He had the quiet reserve of a killer. Not a drug dealer, or a paper gangster. He wasn’t one of those idiot kids who idolized the “Scarface” movie and got here thinking it they were living real life. No not at all. He moved, talked, drank, ate, and slept quiet. He didn’t give any more conversation than he needed. All of a sudden, my little two bit snatch and grab armed robbery seemed like small potatoes. I couldn’t explain it, but when I saw him take out a small gang of inmates who tried to break him, I knew I should be concerned I felt like I was in a cage with a jungle cat. He wasn’t hungry. Yet.
I always used to laugh at those Women’s self defense classes and books that flood the market. The ones that teach you how to “stay alive.” I always thought those authors made money off of other people’s fear. Now I found myself trying to remember there advice when in close quarters with a dangerous person. They always say that you should try to talk to your predator. Make a “human” connection, so it’s harder for them to kill you when they are robbing you. I tried this, but it was like talking to a pacing tiger in a cage. I rarely got a response.
One thing he liked to talk about was his tattoos though. They were his, pretty much all custom. He talked about the time and effort it took him to come up with each one. He talked about the commitment it took to get them all and carry them with him through life. And he really talked down about the trend.
The trend, that’s what he called it. The new thing to do was get tattoos. All flashy shit. Right off the walls, Vibrant and colorful. Back in the day, a tattoo was an outlaw thing. When you got one that showed in plain sight a few decades ago, people got out of your way, it was a respect of fear if anything else. Nowadays, any punk kid or frat boy, or half ass jock, or wannabe gangster can get one. He doesn’t even have to earn it, just be able to pay the artist when he got it. Not him. He got his the old way. One by one. There was no connection to them, it looked like a bad scrapbook put together on his leathery skin. Portraits, letters, quotes, pinups, mermaids, ships, cars, daggers, guns, and symbols. He told me when he dies, they can strip him naked and see everything he had done. They might even be able to understand it if they knew his code. It was fascinating.
The really fascinating part of the story came weeks later. When I could see the tiger in him getting more restless. There was a series of tattoos, he told me, which tell what he is going to do, not really what he had done. But the thing is, they were all in code. He showed me the tats.
They were different, he explained, because he was sent by a higher power to exterminate men more wicked than him. He told me about the dream in vivid detail. The deity taken a form of a twisted Lady Justice, with a blindfold over her all seeing eyes, holding a balancing scale on her severely scarred arms. If he wanted a secure afterlife, he needed to pay the balance and rid the world of other criminals.
The code was interesting. There was a musical note, he explained, for the drug dealing jazz musician he was prophesized to kill last month. There was a broken heart with a banner over it with a female’s name, he explained that girl was one of the first uncaptured female mass murderers in the U.S. whose M.O. included eating human hearts. He went on and on.
Listening to stories of evil men made me think of the worst thing I had actually done, when I was younger. Drunk and high, on a substance of something I should not have been on. I had been pulled over before, and lost my license. It didn’t stop me from getting behind the wheel one more time though, and I crashed through the house of a man sleeping in his bed, killing him. The case never made it all the way through, luckily with rich parents and excellent attorney, I did not get time, just parole and therapy. I was twenty years old. Eventually everyone gave up on me, and I resorted to robbery which is how I got in the pen, but I never forgot about my first trial, and my first and only death. It’s a good thing he was only looking for real monsters.
He stopped speaking while I drifted off inside myself. He was looking at me strangely. I pointed to a bare spot of skin on his arm I never noticed before. It was an obvious spot for a tattoo, and I was surprised it wasn’t filled in. “You should get something there,” I told him, “It’s blank.” He smiled at me and said “Thanks.” “Why?” “You can’t see what’s there,” he said, “It’s a rule that you shouldn’t see your own judgment.” With that he took a shank from a sharpened toothbrush end and jabbed it into my neck as fluid as water. I watched as the floor of our cell turned red and gasped, choked, and sobbed.
Out of body experiences are interesting. I float around as the guards inspect the mess. There is a shadow in the corner beckoning me to go. I always thought I would see light.