The morning I found the tattoo on the back of my hand, I was surprised that I could not wash it off. Temporaries had appeared on my skin before, with some frequency, because I found happiness in lots of ephemeral things: catching sight of an attractive man on the sidewalk, watching Wimbledon highlights, discovering a new Puerto Rican restaurant. My father died three years ago—the day before the tattoo’s appearance. I had loved him deeply, but a permanent tattoo of him was already drilled into my right pectoral muscle, and I had hated the airplane he’d turned into our home—but fondness can take the edge off the sourest of memories. I expected the tattoo to go swirling down the drain like all the others that represented brief spikes of happiness, slaking off like dirt, but the airplane engine the size of a Tic Tac box that emerged along the ridge of my knuckles in thick strokes did not melt into black tentacles that drizzled down my fingers to leave splotches in the clamshell of my bathroom sink. I rubbed at it so hard my skin turned red and threatened to crack, tightened and sucked dry by the bar of soap I ran over my bones. When I patted it dry, I stared down at my hand, confusion seeping into me as though the ink was tinged with a slow-diffusing poison.
When my father received his inheritance after my grandfather died, he sold our house and bought an airplane and some land near Kingdom City, off Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Columbia. I was sixteen.
“What,” my mother said when he told us we needed to start packing, “is wrong with you?” She followed his instructions but in miniature: she tossed her face creams, her favorite caged-back sweaters, and two pairs of jeans into a suitcase and kissed me on the cheek. She gave me a sad look and said, “Good luck, kiddo. This isn’t for me.” Then she hopped in a cab and disappeared in a swirl of dust. When I turned to my father, he shrugged.
The tattoo of my mother was my first. I was two years old, and it emerged on my lower back just above my left glute. Her likeness is lopsided on my skin, cartoonish, but a perfect rendition of what a toddler sees when he looks at his mother. All of my tattoos are monochromatic, black etchings that are yearning for color. When she was changing my diaper and saw it the first time, my mother gave a little yelp and stared at it, then spent thirty minutes crying, as if I had hurt her deeply. My father pointed out that he hadn’t appeared yet—and it would be another two years before his much more human face emerged on my chest—but she shook her head. I never pointed out to her that, to my knowledge, I had not emerged on her skin at all in sharp realistic portraiture or as a bendy Picasso face. I told myself that I was on her, somewhere, perhaps a private place that she could not show me. As long as I never asked, I never had to disbelieve.
For the first few days I flinched when I saw my hand in my periphery, thinking that a large spider had landed on me. I continued to rub at the engine when I showered. I ground my fingers with extra soap when I washed my hands, digging my nails into the tattoo’s edges. When I scrubbed dishes, I let degreaser rest on my skin until it burned. But the lines held true.
My other most obvious tattoo was an eye set in my left deltoid, at the crease where it met my chest. Although it, like the others, was black, I liked to imagine the iris was a sharp, pale blue, the color of tanzanite. I knew the crow’s feet that extended from the lids well, the tight swing of the lashes that were lush and long and appeared brushed on but were not. When I first found it, I was surprised that it was an eye and not the marbled map of an upper back or another solid shoulder pressed into mine, because those were the first things I noticed about Jim, the man who my father hired to exact his plans for the airplane. Jim: the first man I loved, the first one who never knew of my affection, the first one to leave me feeling a raw thirst that no amount of water would slake.
At first, after she left, I wasn’t so upset. Yes, I was bummed that my mother was gone; we’d spent lots of nights sitting up late eating homemade chocolate cakes, the only thing she could produce in the kitchen that didn’t taste burnt or too salty. We’d let frosting smear our lips and sit together, our bodies in a state of sugar shock, waiting for my father to come home from work. In the spring he was gone until late, tax season bludgeoning him with audits and spreadsheets and trips to the farm supply company that was his major account—their logo was etched in a tiny relief behind his right ear—and sometimes he arrived home smelling of chicken feed and hay, despite his claims that he spent all of his time in their corporate office. I thought maybe they kept decorative bowls of the stuff where people would normally have individually-wrapped mints or chocolates on their reception desks.
When my father told us about the plane, I thought for a moment he meant for us to take trips around the world, that we were free from the shackles of his accountant life. My mother knew better. My father did not have plans for sightseeing in Rome and Aruba and beach-bumming in Jamaica and Phuket. Instead, the day we settled into the U-Haul that held our possessions he said, “Now we can get started!”
I stared at him, wondering if something would come bursting through his skin—his throat or chin or forehead—revealing a map toward whatever it was that was bouncing around in his head, but he was clean and unchanged as he revved the truck’s growly engine.
People asked each other about their tattoos. Lying by a swimming pool, in bed post-sex, standing in line at the grocery store: a cacophony of voices inquiring, wanting to disentangle the mysteries of the tattoos like hieroglyphs, pictograms. As if we were all detectives trying to solve a mystery, save a life, prevent a disaster, unearth a treasure.
The first person to ask about the plane engine was a tow-haired boy. I found him at a bar where he leaned over an unfiltered wheat beer, a squeezed slice of lemon bobbing in the froth. I slid up next to him and ordered, not looking at him, but leaning so that our shoulders touched. He glanced my way, and I nodded at him, then offered up a silent cheers when my drink was delivered. By the end of the night he was crawling on top of me, his breath smelling like a fall harvest. His body was pale, unmarked.
In the morning, before he left, he traced his fingertip over the back of my hand and asked about the airplane engine.
“It’s complicated,” I said.
“They’re all that way, aren’t they?”
I pointed at my chest, smearing my finger against the delicate slope of my father’s nose. I was about to say, This one isn’t, and then I realized how wrong that was. Instead, I said, “Yes, I guess you’re right.”
“You just have to use your imagination,” my father said. I was sweating, the back of my shirt damp, my arms clammy and slick. His high forehead was shiny, too. I asked if we could go back outside.
My father’s plan was to live in the airplane, in a cutout on the forested land he’d purchased along with the aircraft.
“Are you insane?” We were standing in the tiny galley between the cockpit and business class, half a dozen rows of flexible seats. I imagined bankers and lawyers shuffling from O’Hare to Lambert, drinking tiny splits of champagne while the haggard economy passengers shuffled by in their wrinkly t-shirts and jean shorts.
My father tried to razzle-dazzle me with talk of the sun room that the cockpit would become, how the pair of narrow bathrooms would be kick-ass places to take a piss. When he told me to close my eyes and picture the cargo hold as the sickest basement I’d ever seen, I wondered aloud why we couldn’t just renovate the basement we already had, which had a pool table we’d have to leave behind because we couldn’t get it up the stairs.
He just hummed a jaunty tune and pretended not to hear me, pumping his fist like he was listening to The Chemical Brothers.
The tattoo pulsed with a ghostly energy. I felt as if ants were streaming across my skin. When I thought of my father and the airplane and his death—his boring, irrational death: heart attack—I was hit with a sour ripple. I slapped at my left hand with my right, but my fingers stung and throbbed as if the tattoo were imbued with the power of real steel. I tapped it with a spoon, but there was no metal echo. The skin went pink, as if the engine were blushing.
“It’ll only be for a few weeks,” my father said when we arrived at the motel where we would stay during the renovation. Our room reeked of chlorine and vomit that had stewed in the hot sun. As soon as we walked in, I walked out, banging my father’s shoulder as I jostled my way into the warm, fresh air. I took several deep breaths and then, turning to my father, announced in certain terms that I would not stay there until someone deep-cleaned the carpet and changed the sheets.
“It’s not so bad,” my father said. “A little air freshener will fix her right up.”
And then he zoomed back to the U-Haul and magically produced a can of Renuzit and a spray bottle of Febreze. I watched from the doorway as he emptied both into the room. Everything smelled like a sanitized hospital bed. My father grinned. I dropped my duffel bag onto the bed nearest the door.
I spent the last few weeks of high school wandering in a face-punched daze. We’d moved from St. Louis, where my former school had been sleek and new, computers in every classroom and skylights in the cafeteria that served vegan options. Everyone at my new school seemed to undergo daily sedation before first period, including the teachers. The hallways smelled like cheese, most of the classrooms like rotting cheese. Rings of mold surrounded every ceiling vent, and none of the windows opened. When it rained I could hear dripping noises in the science lab where a bored woman who would have lost a footrace to a sloth pretended to be interested in teaching us about the bones in the human skull.
My father kept saying that things would be better when the renovation was done, as if the installation of the last screw and shelf would release a genie who would make our dreams come true. When he said this, I would give him a baleful stare, looking up from my heavy tome of short stories written by dead white men in which women were always the sacrificial lambs or the slutty villains. I would ask him when Mom was coming back, knowing he had no answer. He would shrug and turn on the television, and I would go back to my reading. Then he would ask what I was reading. I would sigh and hold up the book and say, “English homework.” Another silence would follow, and then he’d ask, “What kind of English homework?” and I would name the story and he would inevitably say, “Haven’t read that one. Any good?” and I’d tell him it was okay, and then we would sit there, a laugh track mouthing off on the television, and eventually my father would fall asleep, and I would turn the thing off on my way to brush my teeth. Then I would switch off the bedside lamp and stare at the ceiling, trying to call Jim to my dreams. In the morning I would check my body for new tattoos, unsurprised by the unchanged landscape, my body a disappointment that made my joints feel like they were metal gone rusted.
I expected, everyday, that the tattoo would transform, though that had never happened before. Mine either remained the same or washed away, leaving behind the familiar underbelly of veins and hair and moles and scars. In the moments before I fell asleep I relived those awful years in the airplane: the constant failures of the air conditioning; a strange, Willy-Wonka contraption held up by a labyrinth of boards and screws attached to one of the ocular windows above one of the wings; the auditory murder that was the weeks a landscaping company spent digging through the fescue and ryegrass and then laying down blocks of cement that trailed out to the nearest winding rural route; the insanity of changing our mailing address so my father could cancel the PO box we used while living in the motel, a process that involved so much paperwork that I felt a deep guilt over our contribution to the razing of the Amazon rainforest; the lonely boredom that came from my unwillingness to invite anyone out to the airplane because it was, simply, too goddamn weird of a place for a person to live.
But not everyone thought so. From time to time some magazine—style, travel, home design—would offer my father a lump of money to be the subject of an article and to allow photographers to come rooting around snapping photographs. I would spend hours scrambling to clean the place up because my father wouldn’t tell me about these visits until the night before, and he saw no good reason why we should wipe down our tiny dining room table that jutted from one of the cabin walls or pick up our dirty socks from our bedroom floors. He would watch me scrub the bathroom sink in bemusement.
When I left for college, he couldn’t understand why I didn’t drive the two-and-a-half hours to see him more often. His cell phone service in the airplane was spotty, and when he would call me, or I him, half of his words disappeared into thin air, and I grew frustrated when he asked me to repeat myself to the point that I often just yelled over and over that I couldn’t hear him and would hang up, throwing my phone on my bed and pretending I didn’t hear it vibrating when he tried to call back. When I did eventually pick up, he was the one to pretend: that I had not ignored him, that I had not deleted his voicemail unheard, that he was not desperate to hear another voice pinging through the tube of cold steel that he now occupied alone.
I knew nothing about planes and neither did my father, and it seemed that there was no one in the Western Hemisphere who did, either. It took my father two weeks to find Jim who not only knew how to rip out the plane’s interior, but also how to dispose of the destroyed control panels and electric components from the cockpit and tear out the galley and seats. Jim had a southern drawl and a hairless, muscled torso which I discovered when we made our first visit to the site and he was in the nitty-gritty with his crew, hammering and sawing and ripping and twisting and measuring. His back pulsed with what looked like hundreds of tiny, twitching muscles. All of his tattoos coalesced there in an intricate, busy mural, a cacophony of blue shapes that crashed into one another, undulating like an ocean as he drilled into the plane’s metal hull.
Once, he was marking the plane’s floor for where the toilet would sit. He smiled at me and called me over; his eyes squinted because the sun was lasering through one of the windows. I took in every inch of that stare. It scarred its way into me, the warmth and careless strength of that eye. The next morning, it had etched itself onto my body.
Nothing, of course, happened between me and Jim. He was in his thirties, muscled and world-weary (he told me, once, while waiting for my father to arrive to discuss something having to do with sink faucets, about the months he spent in Beijing and Beirut between semesters in engineering school). I was a doofy, under-sunned adolescent boy who had never done a push-up in his life. Even if he’d wanted a man, I wouldn’t have been the kind of man he’d want.
What did happen was that Jim finished the airplane in two months and led my father and me on a grand tour, pointing out flourishes and features that meant nothing to me. He was gregarious and excited, like one of those decorators on HGTV showing off a remodeled bathroom or new deck. My father and Jim slapped each other on the back at the end, and then he vanished in a cloud of dust and flattened grass. I imagined the airplane joining the chorus on Jim’s back, and I desperately wanted to peel off his clothes and examine his spine, look for a smidgen of me on him. But instead, I watched his truck disappear into a shimmering pinpoint.
“Now what?” I said when my father and I went inside.
“Now,” he said, “we start living.”
When my father died, he did not know that every year my mother and I met over a long weekend in Columbia, splitting a green pepper and black olive pizza at Shakespeare’s. We wouldn’t talk much about him, but she would ask periodically about the plane. I would tell her that everything was fine, which, for the first two years while I was still living there, it was. In fact, I told her once, my father seemed content. I didn’t say happy, because I could imagine the infinitesimal break that would run through her face knowing that my father was thriving without her. But I also couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the first months of my freshman year of college when I was living in Edwardsville, Illinois, too far away from Kingdom City to make frequent trips home and that when I did, my father looked wilted, droopy, like his loneliness was slowly pulling his skin toward the earth. Instead I told her of my own life. I came out to her when I was nineteen, and she let out a little squeal and hugged me over the table, then ordered a beer and slid it to me when our waiter’s back was turned. She gave a little clap, the bangle bracelets on her wrists clattering like tambourines. When she asked if I was in love with anyone, I shook my head no. She never saw the tattoo of Jim’s eye; I was eternally careful to keep it covered up in her presence, because I didn’t know the answers to the questions she would ask.
Each year that went by, my mother appeared unchanged, as if she’d been flash frozen in the moment she left me and my father. Her hair was the same thick blond forest that she pulled off her neck in a messy bun. Her lips were painted the same alien aquamarine. Wrinkles had made no progress along her mouth or eyes, and her arms were the same tight tubes of soft muscle they had always been. Her voice and laugh were a Mobius strip. I kept an eye out for tattoos, but her skin gave nothing away, at least not the parts I could see.
My mother sent me a postcard three months after she left. It appeared in the PO box. I had no idea how she’d gotten the address. The card was run-of-the-mill, a panorama of some paradise, all palm fronds and clear, winding water, a cartoonish macaw in the bottom corner. On the back, her familiar scrawl in heavy ink: Missing you, kid. XOXO. Mom.
I did not share the card with my father. I tucked it into my English textbook, buried like an IED between pages of Charles Dickens. There was no way to write her back, because she had included no return address, and the postmark was smeary, illegible. When I was alone, I flipped the postcard over, back and forth, burning her words and the Edenic scene into my brain. The next morning, I found a tattoo of a river wrapped around my right elbow. I was worried that my father would see it and have questions, but when I showered it fell away, turning to splotches that caught on the arches of my feet before disappearing down the drain.
“Oh, this was such a tragedy,” my mother said. A year had passed since my father died, and for reasons I couldn’t sort out she wanted to visit the field. I’d managed to sell off the airplane for surely less than my father bought it, to some billionaire collector of weird things, the kind of man who bought up trinkets of travel and living: old Winnebagos; ancient, rotting carriages; abandoned storage pods. When he saw the airplane, he let out a little gasp, his forehead crinkling, mouth puckering like a sphincter. I took his check to the bank, and the manager had to be called over to clear its deposit.
We—I, still owned the land which I’d not yet put up for sale because of the complex braid that was property and realty law. The grass that had been smothered beneath the airplane’s belly had largely regrown, but as my mother and I stood on the cement pad that had been our little parking lot I could see the outline of old grass and new. Though it’s possible the distinction was all in my head.
My mother stuffed her hands against her hips, shook her head, and then hefted her humongous Gucci bag onto her tanned shoulder. “I mean, really,” she said. “I’ll never know what he was thinking.” She swiveled toward me. “Weren’t we happy?”
I nodded. “I think so.”
“Well, I don’t think so. I know so.” She shook her head. “But I also feel like everything I knew about him was wrong.”
My mother was wearing a lollipop-red sundress with spaghetti straps that skated around on her bony clavicle. I could see the upper reaches of a tattoo, most of its bulk obscured by the fabric. This new one was some wavering figure, a pair of black paintbrush peaks, like the lipped top of a swirl of ice cream. I did not ask her what it was. I knew that her story was spinning away from me, just as mine was from her, and no amount of ink could pull our narratives back to one another.
The boy from the bar found me at the place we first met. He said nothing by way of greeting. Instead, he ran his fingers over the airplane engine, laying his palm atop my hand. His skin was slick and warm, and I wondered if it would melt away the ink, that maybe this kind of human touch was the secret to rubbing away the things I did not want to keep.
“And what is so wrong about it?” he said later that night, when our bodies were curled in commas next to each other. We were both looking at my hand.
“I hated that plane. I don’t understand what it’s doing here.”
“Well,” he said, “maybe your body knows what you feel better than your brain does.”
“My brain is part of my body.”
“Your heart then.”
“Also part of my body.”
“Maybe your tattoos are different. Maybe they’re of things you hate.”
“I don’t hate my parents.”
I felt his hand dart beneath the sheets and worm its way to my lower back where my mother’s strained visage was painted. His arm curled over my hip like a boa constrictor. That he knew the map of my skin so quickly and easily made me shiver more than the lick of his fingertips near my coccyx.
“Maybe love and hate aren’t so different, then,” he said.
“And you’ve never felt either?” His body was blank, void. I’d searched it when he stripped the first time.
He shrugged. “Maybe my tattoos are just invisible.”
I said nothing to this. He kissed me, taking his time with his tongue. His free hand wheeled at the portrait of my father. He moved and his lips were on Jim’s eye. His fingers were still caressing my mother. I imagined that he was stroking her hair. And then he lifted his fingers from my parents, and his mouth from the eye, and placed all three on my left hand, his thumbs fencing in his lips, and he started sucking, drawing up blood toward the surface, wetting the hairs there, pulling against the bones. Then I saw it: on the back of his neck, a shape emerging. I recognized the lips as my own, parted just so, revealing the way my front teeth overlapped. A blooming warmth wended its way through me from the tips of my toes and fingers, pouring into my crotch.
I closed my eyes and let out a soft gasp, which was really a prayer. I wasn’t sure what I was asking for, whether I wanted his mouth to go dark with ink or for the lines on my hand to darken with his spit, settle in deeper, course so far that they took up into my blood and ambled straight through to my center.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec Magazine, Barrelhouse, Zone 3 Press, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2016 and was a 2019 Lambda Literary fellow in fiction.
Joe Lugara began creating digital paintings in the 2010s, debuting in a 2018 solo exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art in his home state of New Jersey. Lugara’s work has been featured in several publications (multiple in ACM), and has appeared in more than forty exhibitions in museums and galleries in the New York metropolitan area, including the New Jersey State Museum and 80 Washington Square East Galleries at NYU.