W

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Patsy’s rheumatism was acting up; it always did in humid weather.  She was about 2 blocks from the Quarter, in Marginy Fauborg.  Parking was such a bitch in these areas.  Still, she stiffly hobbled on, stalwart as a soldier.  As she got nearer, the ripe smells of the Quarter assaulted her.

    “It smells like ass,” Wanda would’ve said.  Fish, sweat, garbage, cigarette smoke and dog turds boiled and mingled together in a fetid jambalaya.

    Patsy could hear Wanda tut-tutting from somewhere.  “Why, Pats?  Why are you doing this?  Jesus, you hate the city!”

    “Shut up.  I’m doing it for you,” she muttered under her breath.  A group of Negro boys in hip-hop gear (“Tupac Lives,” one of the shirts said) looked at her funny.  She didn’t care.  Let them think she was crazy.

    Besides, who could say that she wasn’t crazy?  She heard Wanda everywhere.  It was as if she’d never died.  In fact, the Wanda that she heard was more vibrant, more Wanda, than the shriveled creature attached to beeping machines and needles she’d known in those last few moments of her life.  This invisible Wanda had all the piss and vinegar that Patsy knew and loved.  But all the same, she missed her eyes, deep puppydog brown, her tousled and slightly greasy Jheri curl that never changed since the late 70s, when both of them shared sloe gin fizz nights, being hit on in Roscoes in Metairie, laughing in an cigarette haze,  and swimming through the warm waters of Barry White’s voice.  She even missed Wanda’s smell, with its mixture of bacon fat and baby powder.

    “Damn,” Wanda said now.  “You sound like you was in love with me.  Talking bout how I smell…”

    Patsy grinned.  “Don’t flatter yourself, girl”

    She’d finally reached the street she wanted.  It was only a few doors down.

    “You sure you wanna do this?”

    “I’m sure.”

    The neon sign for Electric Ladyland was off; it was garish and gaudy in spite of that.  The haphazard squiggles looked like graffiti.  Even though it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, business was bustling.  Tattoos were no longer limited to 2AM drunks and sailors on shore leave, Patsy reminded herself.  A young Negro in a skullcap, (“Doo-rag,” Wanda reminded her gently, “and, it’s African-American now.  You never did get it right.”) pushed past her, to enter the shop.  Patsy woke from her trance of inaction, and followed in on his heels, before the door slammed shut.

    The walls were covered with tattoo examples from floor to ceiling.  It was all too much to take in at once.  She walked over to the wall, and looked at some of them.  One section had girly tattoos, fairy girls with butterfly wings, and whimsical ponies.

    Patsy’s eyes roamed to another section, inhabited by Lord of the Rings crap, dragons, giant spiders, and various demons.  Wanda’s son had been into D&D for a while. 

     Tribal armbands and abstract designs leapt out at her.

    Her eyes stopped at a particularly disgusting photograph of a tattoo.  Bugs Bunny’s head, with bloodshot eyes, floated against a lurid red background, which Patsy realized with horror, were female private parts.  “That’s All Folks” was scrawled across the work, in a parody of the Looney Tunes.

    “Sweet Jesus,” Patsy said.

    She glanced around, and caught a girl looking at her.  This girl was pierced in every available space on her face.  She wore fishnet stockings and her hair was stiff and  dyed black-and-white; it looked like a cross between a fiber optic lamp and Cruella DeVille.  Patsy was suddenly self-conscious and felt every one of her 63 years.  Her joints ached.  Her hair was too thin to support massive dye jobs (they’d just end up looking blue).  The music over the stereo system, with its guttural male vocals and clanging sound effects, telegraphed hatred.  The distant whine of the needle coming from one of the back rooms was as potent a warning as a wasp’s buzz.  All eyes were on her.  This was a bad idea.  Who was snickering?  Wanda was silent.  She was just an old fool.

    “Ma’am?  Ma’am, can I help you?”  The voice was light and tiny: the voice of one of the tattoo fairies on the wall.  Patsy spun around, as fast as her rheumatism would allow her.

    The counter girl looked like a 50’s porn star.  Her hair was jet black, and formed into a helmeted, Joan Crawfordesque wedge.  Two braids depended from her hair like black Twizzlers.  Her lipstick was whore-red and stark against her powdered white skin.  She wore a tight, sleeveless shirt; tropical tattoos swarmed against her arms, a living bayou.  And yet, her voice was kind.

    Patsy didn’t know what to say, at first.  The customer before her—the man with the doo-rag—had apparently slipped into one of the backrooms while she was being overwhelmed by the wall images.  She was the next in line.

    “I….” she started.

    And the world blurred, tattooed angel, fairies, goblins and porn.  She was just a foolish old woman, blubbering like a damn baby.

    “There, there,” said the pornographic angel.  She’d stepped from behind the counter, and put her hand on Patsy’s shoulder.  She was gently pushing her towards one of seats in the waiting area.  Patsy sat down, and fished around in her handbag for a Kleenex.  Anything to avoid the countless eyes on her.  Shame made her study her orthopedic shoes, and the linoleum.

    “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” said the clerk.

    Patsy didn’t look at her face.  Instead, she focused on the swamp scene on her arms: a furl of ferns, the eye of a heron.

    “I came here to get a tattoo,” she said.  Her voice was steady; sobs, however, where threatening to break out anytime.  “My friend—my best friend in the whole world, I’ve known her since junior high, Wanda, she, she passed a couple of days ago...”

    The girl’s hand soothed her back, the space between her shoulder blades.

    “Do you have an idea of what you’d like?”

    Patsy paused; the girl was taking her seriously!  She dabbed her eyes with the balled up tissue she’d dug out from the depths of her purse.  (It was probably the same one she’d used when she heard Wanda take her last breath, a deep sigh full of wet, ruined lungs).

    “Yes, I do.”  Patsy touched her right upper arm.  “I want a W, a big one, right here.  In blue ink.  Blue was her favorite color.”

    The clerk nodded.  “Do you have a font that you want to use?”

    “A what?”

    “A font…a style of lettering.  Wait, I’ll show you some examples.”

    When the girl got up--to retrieve something, apparently--Patsy composed herself.  And Wanda (or at least her voice) returned.

    “You gonna go through with it, huh?”

    “Yeah,” Patsy snapped open a mirror that held the red clay sludge of old foundation, and checked her face and her hair.  “You ain’t worth it, though.”

    “Ma’am?” Patsy shut her mirror with a decisive snap.  She put a book of lettering styles on the chair next to her, and handed Patsy a steaming cup of coffee.  “You can look through this.  It’ll be about 15 minutes before Ted can see you.  After you pick what you want, you can come up to the cash register.”

    “Thank you….” Patsy hesitated.

    “Yes?”  She was really a pretty girl, in spite of her outlandish looks, Patsy realized.

    “Does it…does it hurt?”

    The clerk smiled warmly.  “It feels like a scrape, and it’s tender for a couple of days.”

    Patsy chuckled, the first time she’d laughed for months, it seemed.  “I feel worse than that every morning.”

    When the clerk went behind her desk, Patsy flipped through the book she’d given her.  Gorgeous Ws enticed her; but she’d know the right one when she saw it. Wanda would tell her.

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