by Gregory J. Wolos
followed by Q&A
She expected it to smell like seared flesh and hot tar, but the tattoo parlor doesn’t. It smells like hand sanitizer, and a little like nail polish remover—probably the ink. It doesn’t look like anything now because she’s got her eyes closed. Not everyone does lids. Almost nobody does lids. Laser, of Laser’s Tattoos and Piercings does lids, but Jenna had to take two buses to get to here. And she knew the minute she stepped onto the first bus outside her gated community that she’d forgotten her smart phone: no calls, no texts, no tweets. She might as well have forgotten one of her senses. But since it’s never, ever happened before, leaving her phone behind is a kind of message, isn’t it? Laser says nothing when Jenna says she’s eighteen.
“Stars of David,” she says. “One on each eyelid.” Twenty-five dollars per lid. Duct tape covers rips in the arms of the chair she’s settled into, as if customers had been tearing at them. “Won’t you hit my eyeballs? I heard that you slide a spoon under.” She shivers, imagining the spoon she plunged into her breakfast grapefruit cupping her naked eyeball, its handle pressed into her cheek, her lid stretched spoon-shaped.
“No spoon. I’m careful,” Laser says. He’s squat, but a big squat, like a giant dwarf. He’s neckless, and his head is square. Before she shut her eyes, he was fiddling with his inking tool, checking its sharpness on stiff paper. The apparatus works with a foot pedal, like her grandmother’s sewing machine.
“Yeah,” she says, “because you don’t want me leaking out my viscous fluids.” She imagines her cheeks wet with something like egg whites, like thick, sticky tears. “I wish I could watch.”
“Should I tape ’em down? Hard to do that and tattoo ’em.”
“You don’t have to. What will it feel like?”
“Weird,” he says. “You’ll love it. Stars of David.”
“Yeah. Yes,” she says, and holds her breath. Laser hasn’t got a single tattoo, has he? Cool. It makes him more of an artist somehow. Does he notice her lack of eyelashes? That she has no eyebrows? Can he guess that her pubes are shaved? That under her hot pink wig her head is as smooth as a beach ball? Could he guess that she’s devoted to the spunk and spirit of Annabelle Hadley?
“I’m starting” Laser says.
“See you later,” someone, a man, calls. Jenna doesn’t remember anyone else having been in the parlor when she got there, and she nearly peeks. Whoever it is must have been in the back—there’s a door, isn’t there?
“Later,” Laser says. The front entrance jangles when it opens and shuts.
There’s a hum, and Jenna pats her thigh, but there’s no phone. Then her lid is alive with the crawling feet of bees. On Youtube she’d seen a man’s face dripping with a live-bee mask. Through the tickling she feels the push and nip of Laser’s tool: the first star is being formed. Intersecting triangles will make a Star of David for each wink, double stars when she blinks. Annabelle Hadley is Jewish and probably had a bat mitzvah. Jenna’s Jewish, too; her parents aren’t religious, but she’s been to the bar and bat mitzvah’s of relatives. She imagines Annabelle Hadley’s sweet voice filling the sanctuary as Annabelle chants her Torah portion. Those lucky enough to have been there must have died listening, but been reborn as something better—flowers or butterflies. Or stars. Annabelle has made two record albums, but her lovely voice drowns in guitars and synthesizers.
“Hummm—” Jenna buzzes along with the tattooing.
“Hurts?” The pressure of the tool’s point lifts, and the bee dance stops.
“Then shush. Shush unless it hurts.”
“I thought you’d use a spoon.”
“No spoon,” Laser repeats. The hum resumes. Annabelle Hadley is smooth. Slick as a seal. Alopecia universalis. No hair at all—that’s the “universalis” part—perfect, because it’s total. Annabelle’s total baldness is a one in 100,000 shot, which is a sign of her blessedness. The wigs no one knows she wears are made of natural hair, grown by young women hired to grow it for her. Annabelle pays them with money from her Scaredy-Cat clothing empire and whatever she’s saved from the movies she used to make. They live in a special house, these girls, but nobody knows where it is. Growing their hair long for Annabelle is their sole occupation. They’re like priestesses. Once their hair is shorn, they never allow it to grow again; they shave themselves totally smooth, out of devotion to their employer. Then they move to upper floors in the special house, which is in a gated community, Jenna believes, much like hers. Jenna wishes she could give up her hair for Annabelle’s wigs, but she can’t. Jenna has alopecia, too.
But Jenna’s alopecia isn’t perfect like Annabelle’s. Jenna’s is “totalis,” a funny word for “partial.” Jenna’s hair is patchy, and her mother shaved her head and fitted her with her first wig before she was five. That first wig was like a golden helmet, the wig of an aging Broadway diva, or a grandmother. Now Jenna chooses her own wigs, shocking pink and purple, and shaves herself smooth.
It’s Annabelle Hadley’s alopecia, not her problems with drugs and alcohol, that has kept her out of movies since she turned twenty. She’d grown tired of hiding it. Her addictions are a front. Her disease is probably the most closely guarded secret in Hollywood. Jenna might be the only one who knows. Hairlessness changes the way you see the world. You learn about hiding and intuiting.
Fifteen is paradise! Fifteen and smooth, and she’ll have stars and stars and stars every time she blinks. Jenna has an idea for a tattoo of a pair of baby lips about to take her nipple. Unlike the voluptuous Annabelle Hadley, she’s flat-chested. Jenna’s mother and her Nana are also small-breasted women. But though a tattoo of a pair of baby lips about to take a nipple is a beautiful idea, how do you do it? Could you tattoo the indentation in the breast made by the baby’s cheek? The tiny lips would be hovering in the air. How do you tattoo the air?
Jenna’s eye tears—not from pain, but for Annabelle and her secret suffering.
i am the little girl of svidrigaylov’s dream
This was the first tweet she read of Annabelle’s, before Jenna understood. She’d loved Annabelle in Super Siblings, the first movie she’d ever seen, and had worshipped the young star in her last hit, Cool Girlz. But what was this tweeted “svidrigaylov’s dream”? Jenna Google-searched, and found:
1. Svidrigaylov: a Russian noble in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment; Svidrigaylov’s moral decay is illustrated by his dream of rescuing an impoverished little girl who transforms into a prostitute before his eyes.
2. Svidrigaylov’s Dream: a film begun by director Raymond Walchuk (see Son of Kong, Teddy); production was terminated when Walchuk was accused of making “inappropriate sexual innuendoes” to ten-year-old costar Annabelle Hadley (see Journals of a Princess, Super Siblings, Cool Girlz, “Celebrity Rehab,” Scaredy Cat Enterprises.) The subsequent scandal, settled out of court, effectively ended Walchuk’s career and launched Hadley’s.
“First one’s done. Need a break?”
“Un-unh.” Jenna smells blood now, faint, through the odors of sanitizer and ink.
“Okay. Keep ‘em closed.” Tickles and nips on her second lid—Jenna again reaches for the phone she forgot.
i am the little girl of Svidrigaylov’s dream
That tweet, the beginning of history, is seared like a beautiful scar onto Jenna’s brain. Accompanying the movie reference Jenna found a photograph of Annabelle Hadley at ten dressed and made up as the dream prostitute. The brassy wig Annabelle wore was identical to Jenna’s childhood wig! (That wig had frightened her classmates. Why else had they avoided her?) The young Annabelle’s Scaredy-Cat green eyes, her lids, lashes, lips, cheeks and brows, all painted provocatively, had mesmerized Jenna. Poor Annabelle! Had she been bald already? Or had the trauma of playing a prostitute at ten, of suffering the director’s inappropriate advances, shocked her system into rejecting her hair? Jenna has studied Annabelle’s subsequent films; she has poured over celebrity shot after celebrity shot. Everything is a wig! Jenna knows: swathed in borrowed hair, Annabelle Hadley mourns her stolen childhood.
Late afternoon is the prickliest time for Jenna, and sitting in Laser’s warm chair is nearly unbearable—so many hours after she’d risen at five a.m. to complete her first shaving. Before bed she’ll shave again, every square inch of skin, polish herself with creams, and luxuriate in the coolness of her sheets. And each morning, dark, bristly islands will have re-surfaced.
There would be new tweets from Annabelle if Jenna hadn’t forgotten her phone. The messages are a disguise, nonsense about “clubbin” and “parteez,” each tweet like a band-aid strip covering a wound. Jenna peels away the band-aids and translates the tweets into feelings: Annabelle needs something to nurture. A baby would make up for the childhood she’s lost.
“You pluck out your eyelashes?”
Jenna doesn’t answer.
“Because some people can’t grow them.” Laser’s monotone doesn’t harmonize with the buzz tracking across her lid. “Some people don’t have hair anywhere,” he says. Jenna tenses. There’s something beneath Laser’s words. She’d told him she was eighteen and would have forged a document to prove it. Does he suspect something about her or Annabelle? A wave rises and falls inside and a blush warms her cheeks. This morning she’d drawn her brows to match the arches over the green eyes of Annabelle’s Scaredy-Cat logo. (The tops were for tweens, and Jenna wouldn’t dare wear them. But seeing Annabelle’s eyes branding the chests of little girls never fails to steal her breath.) Did boys hurry home to their locked bedrooms after school, dreaming of her and Annabelle’s eyebrows?
“Your parents going to like ’em? They know you’re here?” Laser asks while he works. “They going to like you starry-eyed?”
“They’ll be surprised. What’s not to love?” Her mother rolls her eyes at Jenna’s pink and purple wigs, as if to say, “I was young once.” Her father never seems to notice them. The stars will be a declaration. The stars are a way to see and be seen, and with them she’ll rise to the heavens with Annabelle Hadley.
Before Annabelle, Jenna pulled clumps of hair from her Barbies and hid the dolls. After intuiting Annabelle’s perfect alopecia, she resurrected them, pulled out the rest of their hair, and moved the bald Barbies into her box of treasures. She could ask Laser: Do you do invisible tattoos?
Jenna feels a cool blot on the first tattooed lid. There’s a whiff of disinfectant.
“That’s a pad,” Laser says. “To stop the bleeding. Almost done. Ready?”
Jenna can’t remember the interior of the tattoo parlor. Did the walls display strange shapes, symbols, and creatures? Elaborately lettered slogans meant to last a lifetime? She’s forgotten the shop’s exterior, too, and its address. It would have been in her smart phone. There’d been bus rides through deteriorating neighborhoods. She might as well be deep in a forest, inside the witch’s house with Hansel and Gretel, the house made of candy and cookies; she’d left nothing to mark her trail home. She sees footprints on midnight pavement shining under ultra-violet streetlamps. Above, countless six-pointed stars twinkle in a deep purple sky. She squirms, and the buzz, tickle, and nip stop.
“Sorry.” If she asked, would Laser tattoo a drop of milk, two drops, leaking from her nipple onto her breast—like milky tears? How much would that cost? But the drops of milk might look like blood. A moist weight compresses her second lid.
“Okay,” Laser says. “Just sit for a couple of minutes.”
“I want to see.”
Laser’s voice is very close and far away at the same time. She smells smoke. He’s smoking while they wait. She wouldn’t smoke, but she’s not against it. Annabelle Hadley smokes.
“Do you know Annabelle Hadley?” she asks. “You know who she is, right?”
“The rehab slut?”
Jenna’s whole body frowns, but then there’s a glow like the illuminated footprints she’d envisioned outside the parlor. She sees beneath Laser’s words: She’s beautiful, he means! What does he look like—no tattoos? A face like a bull’s?
“You’re not really eighteen.”
“Next month. Sorry I lied.” Fifteen must be the legal age of something.
“You live a long way from here, right? You needed directions when you called.” Smoke wafts into Jenna’s face. Her eyelids sting under the pads. “You need a ride?”
“I guess. Can I see what I look like?”
“In a second. You live in the hills, right?”
“Way out. In a gated community. In a cul de sac.” She knows so little about her own neighborhood. Gated. And not half a mile from hers, another gated community. Maybe Annabelle Hadley’s girls, the ones who supply her hair, live there. Or maybe they live on Jenna’s block, safe behind her neighborhood’s gate.
“I’ll drive you. Let’s get these off.”
The pressure on her lids lifts, like tiny birds taking flight. Jenna squints. Laser has turned off the work light. The parlor swims in shadows. She exercises her lids as if they’re the drying wings of a new butterfly.
“Here.” Laser hands her a mirror. Why had she thought he wasn’t tattooed? The backs of his hands, his thick arms, even his neck are nearly black with arabesques, figures, and obscure lettering. But his face is square and flat, as if it had been squashed into a large glass cube. A gold ring pierces his septum and hangs over his upper lip. The hair he’s pulled back into a ponytail is threaded with silver. His eyes are small and black, and his teeth are very white, even though he smokes.
“Crazy wig,” he says as Jenna stares at her new self. At first she can’t see the change—the light is dim, and her lids retract like a baby doll’s. She closes one eye, and there it is! A beautiful star, etched in thin lines of ink and blood. She switches eyes—the second star is as beautiful as the first. She flutters her lashless lids, and, the stars twinkle—perfect under Annabelle Hadley’s Scaredy-Cat brows. She giggles, and bats her stars at Laser, who nods and flashes his teeth. He looks at her closely, admiring his work. He examines her so thoroughly, she feels him inside of her.
“I’m an artist,” he says.
Jenna remembers the bills folded in the pocket where her phone should be and tugs them out. “Thanks,” she says, and holds the money toward Laser, half-expecting him to refuse it. But he doesn’t; the bills disappear into his tattooed hand. He steps back and takes in all of her.
“Nice eyes. Crazy wig. It’s gonna be dark. I’ll take you home now.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Jenna stands for the first time in an hour. Figuring out the bus would have been a drag, though she could have showed off her stars. Her legs are weak. Laser takes her arm; his fingers test the firmness of her tricep. His touch is as gentle as the pressure of his tattooing tool had been on her eyes—she feels like one of those fancy Easter eggs.
“Annabelle Hadley,” he snorts. “Loser.”
Jenna is charmed by what she knows lies beneath his words.
“Wait,” Laser says. His face is inches from hers. His attention is on her stars. “You’re still bleeding. Got to put the pads back on. Jenna has an urge to wipe the oil glistening on his flat nose with a sterile towelette.
She waits, gripping the frame of the door she’s been led to, as Laser dabs at each of her eyes. It stings. She smells antibiotic cream and tobacco on the fingers that swab her lids and lay fresh gauze over them. Tape adheres to her forehead and cheeks. She worries—silly, she knows, after tattooing— about the instant of pain when the tape is stripped. And won’t her Annabelle Hadley eyebrows be marred?
“I’ve got to lock up. Don’t want to get robbed,” Laser says, and leaves her, sightless, at the door that surely leads through a back room to an alley where his car, maybe a pickup truck, awaits. She hears the grating and clanging of metal—Laser is dragging the steel barriers across his shop front. The parlor feels empty and frigid. If she could see, her breath would be visible. She remembers there’d been someone in the shop when she’d arrived, someone who left after she closed her eyes. Just a voice. Maybe it was somebody clean, the tattoo-less figure she’d confused with Laser. It’s nice to think of Laser having a friend.
He’s back. Jenna anticipates his touch; his cigarette breath warms her face. She hears a deep sigh. If this were a fairy tale, Laser would be devoted to her service. She might be a distressed damsel—she’d lost the royal infant the queen had placed in her care! Together, she and her protector must find a child to replace the missing baby. They could look in one of the gated communities, where there are plenty of children. Jenna sees herself elevating a fresh, cooing, squirming infant before Queen Annabelle Hadley. Even if Annabelle guesses the child isn’t her own, nobody will mind. Behind Jenna, Laser would be kneeling with his square head bowed.
“Ready?” Laser asks, as if he knows what Jenna is imagining and has the story by heart. She paws the air for him. What will he say when she reveals her smoothness?
Gregory J. Wolos’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Storyglossia, elimae, Apple Valley Review, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Fiddleback, the anthology Surreal South, and other journals. In the last year his stories have earned recognition in several competitions, including a 2012 Pushcart Prize nomination. One of his stories was selected as winner of the 2011 Gulf Stream Award for fiction, and another won the 2011 New South Writing Contest. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His website is: www.gregorywolos.com.
Q: What was the genesis of this story?
A: My story “Smooth” emerged from an ever-expanding collection of linked stories I’ve been working on for the last year, Svidrigaylov’s Dream and Other Stories. The stories spin off from the obsessions and hijinks of an idiosyncratic filmmaker. A sequel to “Smooth” will appear in the journal FRiGG later this summer.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: An oboe: it has a plaintive wail, the quality of its sound often depends on the weather, and accomplished players make their own reeds
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: Salinger, Melville, Kafka, Chekhov, Carver
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: For me: any small, windowless room with a good lamp, a comfortable chair, and a closed door one would think twice before knocking upon.