She looked up, quite possibly thinking: Oh, this is one of those birthdays where Kevin’s difficult. Yey me? Shawn explained, “His Daredevil shirt that he was wearing got wet and he went to his office to get another one, but all he had there was a white T-shirt, and Kev’s not all that into the James Dean look today, or something.” This mostly fictional dialogue has been approved by Kevin M. Quigley.
I said, “I’ll just duck into New England Comics and grab something. I’ll be right out.”
Tracey cautiously bit her lip and nodded. Why all the fear, Tracey?
Oh. Ten minutes later, as casually as possible, Tracey appeared inside. “Hey!” Tracey’s mock joviality is endearing and hilarious. “Did you need any help?”
“I want that Who T-shirt, but the lady said that all the T-shirts were self-serve, but I can’t find a Who T-shirt down in the bins!”
Ever so momentarily, Tracey’s eyes widened. I did not survive my mother to go through this. Then she said, “Well, maybe let’s find another shirt you might like.”
Moments later, Tracey discovered a retro Dungeons & Dragons shirt, which, in all honesty, was going to work a lot better for my birthday than The Who. I might not be a gamer, but I play one on the internet.
Thus shirted, we headed over to Chameleon. All at once, Shawn looked startled. “Hey, what tattoo are you getting?”
“Nothing,” I said gaily, “la la la!” We headed into the shop and found Kelly the Wonder Tattooist, looking beefy and resplendent as always. I handed him my paperback of It and told him what to do.
Shawn’s eyes went dark. “What tattoo are you getting?”
Tracey, ever the mediator, said, “It’s the title of the book It, but it’s really okay! It has a lot of meaning to Kevin, and…”
“I hope you’re prepared to sleep alone for the rest of our lives together,” Shawn said. “I mean, I just want you aware that that’s going to happen.”
“You know,” I shot back, “I put this on my blog. You should have been aware of this.”
Tracey looked from Shawn to me, then back to Shawn. Backing away slowly with a cyberfoot isn’t easy, but Tracey managed to do it: step, scrape. Step, scrape.
Things could have gotten dark, but right then, Shawn told me the precise reason why it was that word, those letters that I couldn’t get. I won’t go into it, but it relates to a childhood trauma that’s still haunting him. Now, you know me. Childhood trauma is my bread and butter. I get that, I understand the horror of it. So when Kelly came out with the photocopy, I said at once, “Hey, Kelly, last-minute change of plans.”
He looked at me, crumpled up the paper, and tossed it behind him. “Okay, what’s the change?”
“I’m going to do a different word. Timshel.”
Kelly looked at me for a second, then burst into a full-on grin. “You Steinbeck nerd.”
I looked from Shawn to Tracey, all of us with identical shocked expressions. Tracey sidled up next to me and whispered, “Okay, maybe this is meant to be.”
Kelly called me into his office to look at fonts. I shot a glance back at Shawn, who was looking a little weirded out in the chair. I smiled and shot him a thumbs-up, just to let him know that everything was cool. I think he got it, because he smiled back.
“Okay,” Kelly said, “What font would you like?”
Because I’m a font geek, too, I knew. “Papyrus.” [2012 note: I didn't KNOW, okay!?]
Tracey grabbed at my shoulder. “Ooo, Papyrus is a good one!” I looked at her and she looked at me. Why we don’t have more shame, I’m not sure.
The font thus picked, Kelly called me up and things started. I doffed my shirt, handed it and my glasses to Tracey, and settled in.
You know how it’s painful to get tattoos? Like, it’s good, right? You always reach that moment of clarity where you’re either so deep in the pain that you stop feeling it, or you’ve risen to a euphoric place above the pain? But still, let’s not gild the lily here, folks: it’s pain for art. And you know what makes that pain worse? Getting it done on a neck that’s been recently waxed.
Tracey reached out and tentatively touched my knee. “You okay?”
“Awww,” she said, then clumped closer on her cyberfoot to take pictures. Maybe I need to start whining less.
Kelly distracted me by explaining why he knew timshel off the top of his head. “It’s a tattoo I want myself, actually. Except I wanted it in the original Hebrew, but there’s like no translation of it. I even called the Hebrew National Council, but no luck.”
I decided to add my own bent to the story. “I asked my grandfather. Because he’s Jewish.”
“Ah,” Kelly said, clearly uninterested. We talked more about Steinbeck; how he’s Kelly’s favorite American author and how I should read Sweet Tuesday if I liked Cannery Row, and how he’s given his girlfriend until Christmas to read Orwell’s 1984 before he breaks it off with her. Well, Kelly talked. I mostly grunted. Talking’s hard when you’re bent forward with needles in your neck, and I was afraid of causing the ink-jet to jitter with too many plosive consonant clusters.
Tattoos always take forever and are done entirely too quickly. I had no idea he’d even started filling in when he told me to get up, I was done. Tracey snapped a picture and Shawn popped his head in.
“So explain this one again,” he said.
Kelly took it: “It’s from East of Eden. The character Lee – best character in the book – explains that there’s this word in the Bible, timshel. An early translation had it meaning thou shalt, which was a command. Another had it meaning thou wilst, which is prophetic. But then they came to the real meaning. Thou mayest. It gives man the option of free will.”
To have a good life. To have great friends. To have a wonderful day set aside for just me. To change my mind at the last minute to keep my sweetie’s goblins away. To be a good guy, as good as I can, and still have a shitload of fun.