Marshall and his older brother William were never particularly close. They had been born five years apart, which was just too long for them to be in high school together, and just too short for them to have the cross-generational bond that seemed to solidify brothers like concrete when they were far enough apart. They had gotten along okay, both audibly respecting the ties brought by blood, but where other brothers’ lives were lived on one big earth, theirs ran parallel, the same space hosting two disparate dimensions.
So it was a great surprise to Marshall, on his eighteenth birthday, received a phone call from William, and told him he was coming to pick him up in an hour and would he be ready?
And Marshall was ready. William’s leased Hyundai pulled up at more or less the prescribed time and they went to a tattoo parlor in a neighborhood Marshall had never seen and they met up with an artist named Cujo, a drug buddy of William’s but who did amazing work for not only the prize, but for the glazed look in his eye and the inability to recognize that Marshall was in more pain than he was doing his damndest to let on.
“No regrets.” That was what his tattoo said. It was inspired by William’s approach to life, which he never ceased explaining
As bad as the pain from the tattoo needle gun was, that wasn’t what got Marshall the most. What got him the most was the dull whine of the seven or eight other artists mutilating the flesh of their clients in the various booths and reclining chairs that was like that same needle gun in his ear, the dim hum existing simultaneously above and below any frequency his brain could readily comprehend. It just went on and on and on and on, like an oil drill on some ancillary Alaskan island, digging in ink, for symbolism, and toward permanently scarred meaning among the calligraphy and wounds.
“Badass,” William said, gesturing with his head and chin at Marshall’s wrist, elevated and swollen red with the letters going parallel to the veins running marathons up and down his arm. It throbbed and burned with each heartbeat and he could almost see the blood pulsing across the field of his wound, matching the cardiac metronome pushing life through him at every beat. It hurt so badly, but in some strange way that he approved of and couldn’t define.
But definition didn’t matter; when William dropped him off, the high of spending time with his older brother had dulled the pain of the needles and scars and sent him to a high cloud of brotherly euphoria in which siblings were teams, joined at the hip and the wrist wounds that they’d paid $150 for—each—and they became closer through their scars. They’d drawn together like magnets, opposite polarities dragging them only inches apart.
Nearly two years later, William had overdosed on heroin. The police had broken down his apartment door after complaints from his neighbors, who’d complained about the smell and the loud techno music that’d been playing on repeat for three straight days, and the cops had found the dead with rubber tubing tied around his forearm, the needle retracted and thrown across the room like a streamer for a birthday party celebrated two months prior.
Marshall had gone to visit William in the hospital, but only William’s corpse was taking visitors. As it turned out, William had indeed been on what would be his highest/lowest bender, and his heart had only failed about two hours before the cops kicked down the door. After identifying the body—neither of their parents felt like showing up for what, at that point, was an implied acknowledgment of failure—Marshall took the pocketknife from his inside jacket pocket and slid out the largest possible blade it contained. Pointing the tip at his two-years-prior birthday present from the brother who laid on a slab in a hospital morgue close enough to bend down and kiss on the forehead, he scratched a large X through the “No” of his “No regrets” tattoo.
The blood rushed immediately from the punctured skin and William grabbed a handful of paper towels from in the corner, above the sink, and pressed them to his wrist. He had known friends in high school who were cutters—many of whom couldn’t stop advertising it, their own brand of blood-red iconoclasm in white-bread suburbs—but he was shocked at how much it bled. He kept tossing drenched sheets and applying handfuls of new ones, the blood flowing through and sopping through to his clenched fingers, the tips getting drips of warm lurching up from the towel onto their edges.
After the blood had finally stopped flowing—or slowed down, anyway—the corner trashcan was more full than he’d anticipated or hoped. Still clutching a wad of them to this wrist, he used his foot to push the contents down, but as he removed his shoe, the soaked clumps rose up higher, unconstrained by his foot, edging toward the lip of the garbage can, but never ascending further. He took his shoe completely out and noted what looked like just a few splots of blood on its toe. He took one final paper towel and did his best to draw them from it.
Walking alone to the nearby bus stop, Marshall stuck the clump of nearly worthless paper towels up the sleeve of his ratty old hoody—a hand-me-down from William—and situated them in a prime position to absorb whatever remaining plasma and pus vacated itself from the new scarring.
His first tattoo hadn’t been painless either, he thought to himself, pushing himself up the bus’ entry stairs and inserting the $0.85 fare into the coin slider. This one would heal, too.