Pam Parker ‘81 is community forum editor for The Lyon Review. “Marking Mildred” first appeared in The Potomac Review in Fall 2010. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in Grey Sparrow Press, The MacGuffin, The Binnacle, elimae, the Marquette Literary Journal and other print and online venues. Links to some of her stories can be found at pamwrites.net.
Mildred Collins opened the door and stepped inside Tattoo Tango, not sure what to expect. Bells rang above her, not modern electronic ones, but pleasant, old-fashioned ones, like at the corner store decades ago in Cedar Falls.
She considered leaving. Clutter abounded – piles of binders were stacked on the floor in front of a counter and more spread on the countertop. A grouping of red, white and green notebooks reminded her of the Italian flag and the trip she and Henry took for their 35th anniversary, years ago, shortly before Henry died. Pictures and posters covered the walls – skulls, spiders, snakes — all sorts of shudder-inducing images. For a second, just a second, Mildred wondered if she had crossed a dreaded threshold entering this store. Had she drifted from sweet old lady into a daft one?
Frozen on the welcome mat, Mildred adjusted her pocketbook, regretting that she had taken this bag. It was big and heavy, too much for her arthritic spine and shoulders to comfortably manage.
A tall, thin young man appeared from a curtained door behind the counter. “Sorry, I was busy in the back. Can I help you?”
He pushed a pile of binders to the side and leaned on the countertop. Mildred saw some inky artwork on his arms and wondered what designs he wore. His hair was black and short, as black as his tee shirt, except for a long light purple lock dripping off one side.
Mildred bit her lip. Don’t laugh. Don’t stare.
She thought of her daughter, Judy, fretting and stewing over Jake, Judy’s first born away at Ohio State, and his recent venture into tattoos, piercings and multiple hair colors. This too shall pass. That was Mildred’s line for Judy. That and, calm down.
Mildred approached the counter, which she could tell was going to be just tall enough to be a nuisance. She used to be five feet tall, but the years had made her shorter, and this counter was for normal-sized people, like that young man, that…what did his nametag say? Mildred squinted. “Well, thank you, Kyle. I think you can help me.”
“Okay, need directions?” Kyle asked, making it clear he couldn’t fathom why else an old woman would stand at his counter in Tattoo Tango.
She laughed. “No, I know exactly where I am and where I’m going. That’s why I’m here.”
Mildred liked the sound of her voice, decisive, firm. “You see,” she hesitated, decisiveness slipping away, “well, you see, like everyone, I know my days are numbered, but it so happens that I’m fairly certain my countdown, as you might say, has begun.”
Kyle stood up, his dark eyes adding concern to his teen-angst-filled face.
“Oh, don’t worry young man. I won’t be dropping dead on your floor.”
He leaned again on the counter. Mildred could see a heart on his arm, below his tee shirt sleeve. “Mom,” was printed there and Mildred swallowed her relief. He must be a nice young man.
“So, um, what can I do for you?”
“I’ve decided I want a tattoo, something small, tasteful and natural. I believe your generation would call it ‘organic.’” He didn’t say anything, so she continued. “You know, a seashell, a flower, the sun, something like that. I’ve drawn a few sketches, if I can find them here in my bag.”
She began to fumble in her suitcase of a purse, and pulled out a piece of paper. Pushing it across the counter, she watched as surprise flashed on Kyle’s face. Was he appalled at her poor drawings? Then he stood, nodding. She thought he seemed impressed, but she didn’t understand why.
“Okay, so you know what you want,” he said. “Not everybody does.”
“Does that shock you?”
“Not at all, ma’am, nothing much surprises me here.” Then he laughed. “Well, my reasoning might be very strange for you.”
“And that is?” Mildred removed the pocketbook from her elbow and placed it up on the countertop. She adjusted the sleeve of her yellow cardigan, bunched up there.
“Well?” he said.
She smelled an antiseptic hint in the air, glad that this store must stress cleanliness. “The thing is, I want a tattoo near my scar because I think it might give the undertaker a laugh one of these days. I like that idea. I like it very much.”
She looked at him and waited. Here it comes. He would laugh and she would leave in embarrassment, all decisiveness and confidence fading into fog.
“That’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever heard,” Kyle said.
“So, where’s your scar?”
“On my left breast,” Mildred responded, unabashed. Before cancer, she had been timid about naming or discussing body parts, especially her own. Radiation and countless visits to multiple doctors and technicians had helped her shed any modesty or shyness. But Kyle, she noticed, blushed.
“Um, ok, so first thing is, you need to select a design. We can use one of yours, but we do have lots of options here you could check out.” He grabbed a red binder and opened it, turning and pushing it toward her.
“Hey, I’m sorry, I should’ve asked. What’s your name?”
“Mrs. Collins, or if you prefer, you can call me Mildred.”
“Well, Mrs. Collins, have a peek at these.”
“Oh, but I should ask first about price. I’m not at all sure what a tattoo costs.”
“It depends on size and detailing, of course, but we have a whole range of options there too. You can get a little one for around thirty bucks and after that, you can spend as much as you want.”
He pointed to the bottom of a page. “The prices are there on each page.”
She was relieved to see delicate roses, sweet daisies, lovely artwork, nothing like her quavery kindergarten-style sketches. “Oh my goodness, these are wonderful. I didn’t know you would have anything like this.”
Kyle smiled. “There’s tons. Probably way more than you need to look at. Why don’t you have a seat over there?” He gestured to a small table across the store with a lamp on it.
“And I’ll bring you over this binder and one other and you can see if you find something you want. Um, when were you thinking of getting the tattoo?”
Mildred grabbed her bag from the countertop. “I’d like to get it done today. Is that possible?”
Kyle headed around from behind the counter and moved past her to the table. “Sorry, can’t do it today. Lily’s off and she has to be here. Company policy, you know, have to have a female in the room when I’m working on a female.”
A twinge of discomfort poked under her ribs. This gangly young man, probably her grandson’s age, would do the work? Mildred managed a nod and kept walking toward the table, where Kyle stood, having placed the binders there.
“But Lily’s on tomorrow, can you come by sometime in the morning?”
Mildred smiled, her knees cracking as she sat, dropping her purse under the table. “I’d be glad to.”
“Ok, well, you take your time here. I’ll be at the counter. Have to check the messages and take care of some orders on the computer. You holler if you need me.”
“I will.” As he walked away, she remembered her manners. “Thank you very much.”
As Kyle had suggested, Mildred did take her time, peering through her bifocals, carefully turning the pages in their plastic covers. Examining the many flowers and leaves, she wondered what Henry would think. Years ago, he rather appreciated her breasts, with his hands, his lips, his whole stubbly face in the early morning. She smiled, flipping past a page of palm trees. Too big. Some nice tulips on the next page. Henry had loved the red and yellow tulip bed back at their house on Elm Street. He hadn’t loved their maple trees, especially in the autumn, but she had. He died before the cancer invaded and before she said good-by to their home, their tulips and maples, and moved to County Road Apartments. No Henry, no tulips, no maple trees, no house, but cancer. It was all too much and she was tired then.
She had tried to tell the surgeon, who looked about twelve to her, as if he had barely started using acne cream, “Take the breast, just take it.”
Why did she need it anymore?
But Dr. Burwell insisted,“It’s unlikely your cancer is very advanced. And, if that’s the case, you don’t need to go through the trauma of a total mastectomy. That’s much harder to recover from. You can have a lumpectomy and we’ll follow that with radiation. I doubt you’ll need chemo. Lumpectomy and a course of radiation is standard protocol these days in cases like this, and very effective.”
She hadn’t fought him on it. She surrendered with fatigue.
Besides, Judy seemed to go along with him too. Judy had played the Henry card, “You know Dad would want you to do what’s best for you for an easy recovery.”
So, her left breast was still attached to her body, instead of in some hazardous waste bin. Where did detached breasts go after surgery? Hers was right here, under her cardigan, with a bold three-inch scar. A scar that needed a flower, or something to adorn it. But not that thing on page twenty-two. That was hideous, looked like the ugly silver artificial tree she saw in a window next to Coopee’s Funeral Home last year.
She loved imagining Mr. Coopee discovering her tattoo. Before Henry died, she barely gave Mr. Coopee a thought. He lived down the block, but they were not friends. If she drove by while Mr. Coopee worked in his yard, Mildred waved and he waved back. They were merely waving acquaintances. He was a nice, rather formal gentleman who had prepared her sister, her neighbors, so she felt confident going to him when Henry passed. She didn’t care about the old biddies at church and their whispers about his sexual preferences. When Mildred needed him, Mr. Coopee was so kind. She hadn’t expected to find comfort in the undertaker of all people. He did such a lovely job on Henry’s face; she wanted to find a way, besides payment, to thank him. He had even raked the brilliant red maple leaves for her that fall, when she wept so much. One day, as he worked, she came out and invited him in for tea.
He thanked her, but politely refused. “Thanks very much, Mrs. Collins, but I have to get over to the funeral parlor soon. Always work to do,” he said, leaning the rake on the shoulder of his navy v-neck cardigan.
His neatly trimmed moustache reminded her of an old Clark Gable movie, which reminded her of Henry, and she bit her lip. Everything here reminded her of Henry.
“I’m thinking of moving,” Mildred said, surprised at the words. She hadn’t spoken this to anyone. Mr. Coopee glanced up the street at some children throwing a ball. “Well, don’t rush into anything. You’d miss the house, I think.”
“I would, but it’s too hard here.” She swallowed. “Without Henry.”
She shuffled her feet and listened to the leaves crackle.
“Well, you do what’s best. I heard County Road Apartments are really nice. You know, that new development over in Brookfield? Might be worth a look, if you’re anxious to go,” he said, returning to the raking. “Don’t you just love maple trees in October?” he asked, grinning.
“That I do,” she said, heading back into the house, determined to start apartment-hunting and to stop crying.
Now as she sat perusing Kyle’s binder of drawings, she hoped to find the right thing to give Mr. Coopee a surprise and a chuckle. She could see him smiling as he opened her blouse, and the thought was not gruesome in the least. It was simply amusing. At last she saw what she wanted. Setting her bag on the chair, Mildred carried the opened binder over to the counter.
Kyle turned from the computer, “Did you find something?”
Nodding, she slid the binder toward him, “That maple leaf on the bottom.”
A maple leaf. And only forty dollars, less than her self-imposed limit of fifty. Yes. That was it. And, it was perfect.
“Ok, cool. We can do that. Did you want any fill-in colors?”
“No, thank you, just the outlines.” She wanted to be able to look at it and imagine any season she chose – light green in June, darker in later summer, flaming red in autumn, brown and covered by snow in winter.
“That won’t take long at all, or hurt much, in case you were worried. You gonna come tomorrow?”
“Yes. Do I need an appointment?”
“Probably safer if I write you in. Tomorrow’s pretty busy.” He opened an appointment book. “We have slots at 10:30 and 1:00. After that, we’re booked solid. Sorry we couldn’t get you in today. Monday’s are always slow, but like I said, Lily’s off.”
The door opened and a young man came in. Mildred recognized him. Darn it. He was one of Jake’s friends. They had been inseparable in high school. She looked back at the counter quickly.
Kyle nodded, acknowledging the young man. Clearly, they knew each other. “Hey Travis, we’ll get started in a couple minutes.”
“Ten thirty tomorrow is fine for me. I’ll see you then.” Mildred adjusted her glasses which seemed to be slipping.
“Okay, hang on. Let me give you this, in case you change your mind or anything comes up. That’s got my number.” He handed her a business card and she realized she needed to go back and grab her purse.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you very much.”
“No problem. Come on back, Travis.”
“Hey Mrs. Collins,” Travis said as they walked past each other. “Good morning.”
She slid Kyle’s card into the front pocket of her handbag and hurried out, grateful that Travis hadn’t said anything else.
That evening, after rinsing her soup bowl, the buzzer rang for the front door of the apartment building. Mildred jumped. She glanced at the calendar on the fridge. No, she hadn’t forgotten anything. She wasn’t expecting company.
“Yes?” she said, holding down the button and speaking into the box. With her other hand, she leaned on the wall as she stood on her tiptoes.
“It’s me, Mom,” Judy said.
Mildred pushed the button twice to activate the door downstairs and wondered what brought Judy over now. They had seen each other yesterday for Sunday dinner at Judy’s house. Mildred glanced around her living room and then her kitchen. Everything was where it belonged, nothing to be concerned about. Even with her own daughter, Mildred wouldn’t be comfortable having her walk in on any untidiness. She couldn’t say Judy shared that feeling. Sometimes the disorder in Judy’s house made Mildred shake her head, not on the outside, but inside she was tsking and muttering.
A knock at the door sent Mildred over to open it. Judy came in and leaned to give a quick hug.
“Certainly, why, what’s wrong?”
They headed into the kitchen.
“Can I get you anything?” Mildred asked, but Judy was already standing with the fridge door open.
“No, I’m just going to have a glass of juice. You want anything?”
“No,” and Mildred sat down. “So, what brings you over at this hour, and on a school night?”
“I had to pick up some red pens at Walgreens. All of a sudden my supply at home is dead.” Judy taught high school English and was infamous for her marks and comments on student papers. “Since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d stop by.”
She sat down, hooking her handbag on the chair back and placing a glass of orange juice on Mildred’s drop leaf oak table. She missed the placemat, but quickly moved the glass onto it. Mildred noticed that Judy’s gray roots were showing, but didn’t say anything. She remembered those years in her late forties when the visits to the hair salon came closer and closer together, until she gave up. Judy would have to give up soon.
Biting her lip, Judy looked at Mildred before speaking. “Travis, you remember Travis, Jake’s friend? He stopped over late this afternoon to borrow Jake’s old guitar.”
Shoot. Mildred knew what was coming. She nodded. “Yes, of course I remember Travis. I thought he was away at college, but I saw him today.”
Judy gave Mildred an unreadable look, perhaps a practiced look of blankness that she pasted on at parent-teacher conferences. “Yes, I heard about that. That’s why I’m here actually. Why in the world were you in that tattoo shop today Mom?”
Mildred fidgeted with her cloth placemat. She had bought these three weeks ago at JC Penneys, the perfect shade of rust for her kitchen and on clearance too.
“Well?” Judy asked.
“Not that it’s any of your business, dear, but I’m planning to get a tattoo.” Mildred pressed her placemat flat with her hands, watching her crooked fingers try to straighten.
“What?! Are you out of your mind?”
“No.” Mildred gathered her thoughts, preparing to blurt them out so Judy couldn’t interrupt. She looked in her daughter’s angry eyes. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about since I finished my cancer treatments and now I’ve had a year and a half of all clear check-ups, and I want to get one. I’ve made up my mind.”
Mildred breathed deeply and stared at her placemat.
Judy sipped her juice, then set the glass down. Mildred felt the table shake. Question marks zipped across Judy’s forehead as she brushed her dyed brown hair back, flashing that unfortunate root-streak again. “You are kidding, right? Why would you do that to yourself?”
Mildred stood up. “I’m seventy-eight years old and I’ve spent decades doing what everybody thought I should or what they told me to. First my parents, then your father, then you – for once, just once, I want to do something that I want to do, and I don’t care what anyone thinks. Do you think I don’t understand how odd this is?”
Judy remained silent, and seated.
“I really don’t care,” Mildred said. “I’m getting one. This is my business, not yours. Please, stay out of it.”
Judy sighed and got up, rinsed her glass and set it in the dishwasher. She grabbed her bag from the kitchen chair and gazed at Mildred, who braced herself for a battle. She didn’t expect Judy to surrender, so Judy’s sigh was surprising.
“Okay, whatever. You’re a big girl. But I hope you’ll reconsider. Travis said they hurt like hell.”
“I’m not afraid of pain.” Mildred walked over to the door. Judy followed. “So, where are you planning on getting one? A little one, I hope?”
Mildred turned and glared at her nosy daughter, “We’ll talk tomorrow, dear.”
Judy leaned down and kissed her cheek, “Okay, but think about it, please?”
Mildred closed the door after Judy and turned the deadbolt.
The next morning, Mildred was up at her usual 5:15 a.m. She didn’t mind the early hour rising. The apartment complex was quiet. Unlike her friends, Mildred’s hearing hadn’t diminished yet. Pretty much everything else about her was diminishing, but sounds were not. She sipped her coffee and read. Lately she was enjoying rereading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. One of the advantages of getting old was being able to read something she had read years before and the majority of it was new to her. Mildred had found a way to cheat missing memories of their power.
Later, in the shower, she stood under the hot water, enjoying the feel of her stiff joints loosening up. She wondered what she should wear to this appointment. Would it be like at radiation? Would they put one of those little gowns on her? Well, she should wear something she could remove easily, that was certain.
At 10:15 a.m., Mildred found a parking spot along Highland Avenue, right in front of the tattoo store. She had switched to a smaller handbag and grabbed it from the car. After she plugged a few quarters in the meter, she opened the door, expecting and hearing the pleasant ring of the bell. A cute young lady with bleached white hair stood at the counter. Her eyebrows raised as Mildred approached.
“Yes? Can I help you?” Mildred didn’t feel any of the welcoming warmth she had received from Kyle. Where was he?
“I’m Mrs. Collins. I have an appointment.” She expected the girl to introduce herself, but she didn’t.
“Really?” The girl’s voice reminded her of one of Jake’s first girlfriends. Her name was Sandy, and Mildred nearly called her Snotty Sandy several times. A glance at the nametag on the girl’s black shirt confirmed her identity, Lily, the necessary Lily according to Kyle.
“Okay, yeah, I see you in the book,” flashing lime green fingernails, the girl pointed at Mildred’s name, in Kyle’s handwriting on the page. A thin black ink spider web stretched around the girl’s arm. Mildred reminded herself not to stare. “You’re getting a tattoo? For real? Don’t you think that’s kind of bizarre? We don’t get a lot of people over forty in here, never mind,” and then the girl stopped. She didn’t look embarrassed or show any recognition that she had been thoughtless.
Mildred gripped her purse tightly as she felt anger rising. Whatever happened to treating a customer right? Goodness, Mildred remembered when shopkeepers were ladies and gentlemen, all of them. She gathered her thoughts as Lily stared at her from under albino locks, which needed a good snipping. Her bangs hung in her eyes. “Perhaps it is bizarre, but isn’t it my decision?”
Lily didn’t say anything, but was clearly suppressing a smile, and the smile was winning. “Yeah, it sure is. Hope you know what you’re doing. Let’s get you set up in Room two. Kyle’s finishing up and we’ll get started soon.” She walked around from behind the counter and Mildred saw her black spiky heels. Lily trounced by without so much as a “Come this way.”
Mildred was glad this young “lady” wouldn’t be operating the equipment for her tattoo. She followed Lily down a hall she hadn’t noticed yesterday at the back of the store. “So, you ready?”
Mildred nodded, uncertainty brewing in her stomach like overcooked coffee. She wanted to see Kyle. She needed to see Kyle, but there was no sign of him.
Lily opened a door on the left and flicked on a light switch. Mildred stepped in to the small room, and saw a cloth covered table, very white and clean. It reminded her of hospitals, everything neat and crisp, no piles of binders or strange pictures on the walls. Unfortunately, the walls were sponge-painted in ugly shades of mauve.
“Put your purse down there,” Lily said, pointing to a Formica-covered counter. She was standing by a metal cart that Mildred could barely see. “And, take off your bra. You can put your blouse back on, if you want, but leave it unbuttoned. I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”
Mildred noted the drippiness in Lily’s voice, the smirk curling under her words. Sometimes she wished she could swear as easily as her grandson. Kids these days had filthy mouths. Would it feel liberating to say, “Screw you,” to that little witch? Jake would say something else, she knew that, but that word wasn’t ever leaving her lips. Mildred shook her head and watched Lily leave. Such a pretty name. It really didn’t fit that girl’s personality. After the door closed, Mildred sighed. Was Judy right? Was this a crazy idea? She fumbled with the buttons on her blouse and wrestled herself out of her Playtex 34C bra, the only brand she bought. For a brief moment, she traced her finger along the bright pink bump of the scar, wondering if the tattoo would be palpable too. She put the bra in her purse, not wanting to leave it out, draped on a chair all by itself. So much for her supposed lack of modesty, she thought.
Despite Lily’s orders, as Mildred put her blouse back on, she re-buttoned it. Then, she struggled up on to the table. A stool would have helped. She lay on the table, looking up at the ceiling, remembering the thunk and buzz when she was on a similar table in a lead-lined room. The French fry machine, concentrated heat, burning her skin. That’s what she had thought of radiation. A sound burst from behind the walls. It reminded her of the bug lights she and Henry used in the backyard on mosquito-filled summer nights. Zap. Zap. What was that? Was that the noise of whatever they used to apply the tattoo? Zap. Zap. At least she didn’t hear any screaming. They’d better hurry up, she thought, as worries fluttered in her mind like leaves in the wind. The tattoo dots to mark the radiation field on her chest had hurt, but just for a few seconds.
She could still say no. But what about Mr. Coopee chuckling as he prepared her body for her wake? Hadn’t she decided she owed that kind man a good laugh? And, a story. She didn’t mind thinking of him telling some close friend about the little old lady with the tattoo. Zap. She could leave and forget this whole idea. Judy obviously thought it was a bad plan. Henry wouldn’t approve, but he would want her to do what she wanted. It couldn’t hurt for very long. Could it? There was a loud knock on the door.
“You ready?” She heard Lily’s voice.
Oh, not you, Mildred thought, “Yes.”
The door opened and Kyle came in first, “Morning Mrs. Collins.”
“Good morning, Kyle.”
Mildred felt relief pouring over her skin like soothing aloe-scented lotion. Lily stood, leaning on the counter, staring at the wall while Kyle washed his hands in the sink. Then he put on gloves, just like a doctor would, and Mildred suppressed a smile. He pulled a small rolling metal table over, like Mildred had seen at the dentist’s office, twice a year for most of her life. But no dental tools were on the table. She saw a print of the design she wanted, and a doo-dad that looked rather like Henry’s old Phillips-head screwdriver, the one he was always losing track of, except this gizmo had a needle at one end and a cord at the other.
“So, any questions?” Kyle asked, rolling near her on a small round seat.
She glanced at him and said, “No. Go ahead.”
Across the room, leaning on the counter, she saw Lily roll her eyes. Mildred glared at her. Kyle glanced over at the white-haired girl. Mildred noticed his sweet eyes get a hardness in them.
“Excuse me two seconds please, Mrs. Collins. Lily, I need to speak to you outside for a moment.”
They stepped out, unaware that Mildred had sharp ears. Kyle hadn’t completely closed the door and she could hear disgust in his tone. “I don’t know what your problem is, but Mrs. Collins wants a tattoo, for a damn good reason, and I’m going to give her one. You just stand there and don’t do anything. We’ll talk about this more later.”
They returned. He smiled a little at Mildred, who grinned back. She didn’t look at Lily. Take that, you snot.
“Alrighty, let’s get started,” Kyle leaned in and opened Mildred’s blouse. He didn’t look at her face, but stared intently at the buttons. For a brief moment, she thought of Henry unhooking her buttons when his fingers had been young, like Kyle’s. She pushed that thought away and stopped looking down at Kyle’s hands; instead, she watched the ceiling as he wiped something cool on her breast, right above her scar. The faint aroma of rubbing alcohol reminded her again of a clinical setting.
“Right about here?” Kyle asked, gently pushing a plastic-covered finger into her flesh above the scar.
“All right. Hold still. I’m sure you know this will hurt a bit, but it will be over quickly. If it gets too much, don’t move, just yell at me that you want a break, ok?”
She nodded again, the muddy coffee feeling churning in her gut. She stared at the white bumps in the textured ceiling, reminding herself of her mission. Statue-like on the white table, Mildred thought of being a corpse and smiled. That’s right. That’s what this is for. Mr. Coopee at my demise. Kyle leaned in, bringing the Phillips-head needle close.
Zap. Zap. Bzzzz.
Mildred closed her eyes, envisioning bright red maple leaves floating to the ground.
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