Joe guided me to the Baltimore Tattoo Museum, researching their reputation, the hours of business, and if they took walk-ins. I was jittery, anticipating the flesh-grinding pain. Joe bought two donuts and a candy bar, insisting that the surge of blood sugar would dull the pain. I’d end up eating the candy bar although I’m not certain the prescription worked. It didn’t matter, though; it was Joe’s effort that counted.
We wandered around the joint, very clean by most standards of tattoo parlors, thumbing through page after page of designs: some old school military, others of the pit bulls with machine guns blazing, graphic sketches of vaginas forever on someone’s skin. I had my design already solidified; I wanted a cross that vertically said Daddy and horizontally read Dad, the two “A”s meeting in the center, and a banner with Bob’s name.
We spotted one cross, an intersection of two bones, and I stared at it. What if I got two Milk Bones? Two Milk Bones in milk boney brown. It felt perfect, divine really, because Billy had saved up for Milk Bone memorabilia from box tops several times, scoring a red blanket with Bob Slobbers embroidered in white, a water bowl with Bob's name emblazoned on its side, and one of the many charms on his collar.
We spoke with George, one of the artists who turned out to run the place, a middle-aged guy with thinning hair and enough tattoos on his body to warrant circus status. He sketched something quickly then went about refining it until it felt right to me. He added a few flourishes, ones I hadn’t thought of, led me into the room, went about his business. He stopped to talk to anyone who happened by, a blessing because most times when he was talking, he wasn’t tattooing. Almost two hours later, the pain of the needle turning quickly into a familiar soreness on my bicep, I looked in the mirror and smiled a broad, knowing smile.
I’ve always had tattoos done when I was alone, a solo adventure, every single one of them except the stupid one on the back of my neck I got at a company Christmas party. I’ve never had company, not even during the tattoos before Billy left, but Joe proved a good companion, sitting quietly and patiently while I writhed in agony to the sound of the insistent buzz of the needle. Immediately afterward, when I stood up, admiring my new skin in the mirror, Joe was there with his camera. I’m glad he was.
The color will settle down, the anger of the wound is going to subside, the slobber from his name will be slobber-colored. Bob will always be in my heart and now he’ll be forever on my arm. I’m proud to wear his name under my sleeve.