Beginnings: Pit

It was useless asking Auntie Al if he was certain in his choice. The man had made his mind up long before, and the only reason it had taken so long to do this in the first place was finding the time to make the trek across the city to the most reputable tattoo parlor. These sorts of things could not be entrusted to just anyone, after all.

Sweetie went with him, not so much for moral support as for providing an opinion and backup if needed. Even though this tattoo parlor was supposedly the best in not just Stokes but all of Southern Maryland, it still felt a bit shady to Sweetie. He was nervous as they walked in, expecting devious men to jump out at him from the shadows and pierce something without his consent. He folded and hugged his arms against his chest as he stood next to Auntie Al, the two of them looking over one of the many walls of samples. Price was no object, and Auntie Al already had a good idea of what he wanted. But he had to find just the right thing before he proceeded.

Some were too small, some too skinny, some far too large and elaborate. Bigger wasn’t always better.

“How about that one?” Sweetie suggested, nodding his head towards a small heart on the wall. “Number two hundred and thirty-five.”

Auntie Al eyed the suggestion carefully. The heart was of the pudgy, round variety, and the size was just about right to fit the names around it properly. “It would have to be a different color, of course,” he said. Sweetie nodded. Al wanted it as bright and red as it could go. Blood red.

“How can I help you two fine gentlemen today?”

They looked behind them to see a man standing here, representing the quintessential tough guy tattoo parlor nightmare. He wore tight, black, leather pants and a matching vest which was open and had nothing underneath. In this way, large tattoos showed clearly on his chest and arms, as though a walking billboard for the shop. He was a large man, with muscles and a bit of a gut, with dark brown hair and a receding hairline, with gentle brown eyes and a kind smile.

“I’d like to get a tattoo,” Auntie Al said, his hand straying unconsciously to his upper arm where he wanted it placed. His hand rubbed up and down. “Just a simple heart with three names surrounding it. Can you do that?”

The man nodded. “Of course. Did you see something you liked here, or do you just want to go with the standard heart shape?”

Auntie Al pointed and explained about the color difference. The man said he could do that. Then he directed them over to a corner on the other side of the shop, where a stool sat. Auntie Al sat down upon it and took off several layers of clothing. Off came the teal knit sweater and the white dress shirt with its thin blue stripes. He left his sleeveless undershirt on, however, and handed the discarded clothing to Sweetie to hold.

The man dragged over a cart of equipment and began readying it. “Gonna have to see some identification first,” he told them. “Can’t give a tattoo to a minor, you know.”

Auntie Al stared at him, and Sweetie did the same. Though Al didn’t look especially old, he certainly looked more like his forty years than eighteen or younger. Auntie Al couldn’t even remember the last time he’d been carded. Surprised, he made a move to go to his wallet and the tattoo artist erupted in peels of laughter.

“Chill out,” he said, patting Auntie Al’s back. “I know you’re older than I am. I was just trying to get you to relax a little.” His hand went from Al’s back to his front, in ready-to-shake position. “My name’s Fred, by the way.”

Sweetie and Auntie Al exchanged looks.


“Fredrick is the name I want written right under the heart,” Auntie Al said. He small, folded piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it as he explained. “That was the name of my partner.” He spoke clearly and unashamedly, ready to take whatever came of it.

Fred nodded as he brought out a box of gloves. “Are you allergic to latex?” Auntie Al shook his head. Then, without skipping a beat. “Are you gay?”

Auntie Al nodded at that. “I am.”

Sweetie broke in. “We are. Got a problem with that?”

Fred chuckled. “Only if you try making passes at me while I’m inking.”

There was a bit of a pause. Then Sweetie asked, hesitantly, “So… are you?”

“Gay as a goose.” Fred nodded, taking a pair of gloves out and handing them to Al, then putting on a pair, himself. “I’m out and proud, baby.” He pointed to the rose tattoo on his bicep, which was violently rainbow-colored. He looked up at Sweetie. “I take it you’re not Fredrick?”

“I’m not. I go by Sweetie,” he explained. “It’s a nickname.”

“I should hope so,” Fred chuckled. Still trying to relax his tatooee, he patted Al’s arm. “And you, beautiful?”

“Auntie Al,” he said. “But if you need to see identification…”

“I’m all for nicknames,” said Fred. “But, yes, if you’ve got a driver’s license on you, I need to take a gander at it.”

Auntie Al got off the stood to slip his leather wallet out of his back pocket. He handed the whole thing over, and Fred looked at the driver’s license through the clear plastic window in the billfold. Al stood in the meantime, then took the wallet back, tucked it away, and sat back down on the stool.

“Great, thanks. Now I’ve got to ask you a couple standard questions. Are you drunk?” Al wasn’t. “Are you capable of giving consent for this?” Al was. “Any history of skin infections or allergic reactions to inks or metals.” Al didn’t have any, but Fred gave him a fast, quick patch test on the lower portion of his arm first just in case. As it turned out, Auntie Al was just fine. “And I’m assuming you’re not pregnant or nursing,” he joked. Al laughed. At the sight of the gloves he’d been growing nervous again, but Fred had him loosened up nicely.

“Okay,” said the tattoo artist, gazing at the piece of paper Al had presented him with. “You’ve got a heart here, with minimal shading so that it’s as bright red as it’ll go. And you’ve got three names to be written in script, in black. Fredrick at the bottom, and at the sides you have Steven and Carol. Is that right?” Al nodded. “Do you want the names on the sides just placed there, or do you want them to curve around the sides of the heart?” Al thought about this for a moment or two. Then he decided it would make more sense for Fredrick and Carol to be on either side of the heart, hugging the curve, and for Steven to be beneath it.

Fred sketched out the change and Al approved it at once. “You’re sure this is what you want?” Al was sure. “And you want it right here on this arm?” Al did.

“Great.” He readied the equipment. He opened a new pack of sterile needles where both men could see, and fixed several onto a large electric device. He poured ink of various colors into several disposable canisters and set them all on the cart on the fresh layer of clear plastic he’d placed there. “Last chance to back out.” Auntie Al was going nowhere.

Sweetie did walk over and stand next to Auntie’s Al’s side for support and Al took a big breath as the electric tattoo machine started up. It drove a small set of needles into the skin something like one hundred times a minute, and Al winced when he felt it the first time. But then he got used to the sharp sensation.

The application went quickly. Frequently Fred stopped to change colors or wipe away excess ink. It looked sloppy and streaked at first, but then he gave it another wipe and the permanent ink beneath the surface was revealed. Though he’d built up a nice, casual rapport with them, Fred didn’t talk at all during the procedure, concentrating on it entirely. Sweetie and Auntie Al, thusly, remained silent.

“How’s that look to you?” Fred finally said, spinning the stool so that Auntie Al’s arm faced a mirror on the side of the wall.

Eyes widened. “That’s perfect. Oh my Lord, that’s beautiful.” He looked up at Fred, his expression one of intense gratitude. “Thank you so much.”

Fred nodded, smiling. “Eh, no need. I’m just glad you like it. I’m always real worried when it comes to names, but I assure you I got the spelling right.”

Auntie Al laughed and looked it over one more time. Then he nodded his approval. “It really is perfect.”

Fred disposed of the needles in a sharps container with a biohazard warning on the side. Then he wrapped everything from the unused ink to the gloves up in a plastic bag and disposed of it. Then he applied a bandage, wrapping it around the arm gently. “We recommend you keep the bandage on for twenty-four hours and avoid contact with water for a few days. They’ll give you a pamphlet up front with care and instruction when you pay on your way out, but you should be pretty much good to go now.” He patted Auntie Al’s back and Al put his shirt and sweater back on again.

They both thanked Fred again, and dropped a sizeable chunk of change at the counter on the way out. “Did it hurt a lot?” Sweetie asked as they headed out of the tattoo parlor.

Auntie Al began shrugging it off, then stopped and laughed. “Yeah, it did. But I’m a tough old guy—”

“You’re not that old,” Sweetie laughed.

They headed down the sidewalk and around the corner, into the parking lot for the city block. Parking was five dollars an hour for the first four hours, and they hadn’t been there more than two. Sweetie dug a tenner out of his pocket at the same time he took out his car keys.

It was your standard crisp, overcast, day in early autumn. Both men were a little cold as they stood outside the car, breathing white puffs of breath and waiting to get inside the presumably equally cold car. Sweetie finally unlocked the door and got in, then lunged over across the car to pull the button up and unlock the passenger side door. Auntie Al hurriedly got in and buckled up immediately. He rubbed his hands back and forth together briskly to warm them up.

Sweetie pulled his seatbelt down and buckled it, as well. Then he put his foot on the brake and stuck the key in the ignition. Nothing happened when he turned it. He tried again. The car sputtered and died, practically coughing up its engine. “What in the world?”

Auntie Al coughed over a laugh and pointed at the knob by Sweetie’s left knee. It was pulled straight out, indicating that the lights were on. Well, they weren’t on any more, that was for sure. Sweetie groaned and laughed. “I’ll go in and call Nik.” If he couldn’t come or didn’t answer the house phone, he could call Olly in an emergency. And if all else failed, there was always AAA, though there was no telling how long it would take them to respond. Not that it was going to be useful to have Nik or Olly around. Neither really knew anything much about cars, especially not Nik. Sweetie and Auntie Al thought they’d be able to figure out how to jump start a car, though they’d never done it before. They did know it was going to be impossible to do without having another car there, though.

So, deciding it was best to stick together in case further decisions had to be made concerning how long various courses of actions would take, they both got out of the car.

The two were not five feet from it when they ran right into none other than Fred. He wore a pleasant grin and a yellow and black windbreaker. “Let me guess: you gents couldn’t get enough of those tattoos and you’re going back for more?”

“The car battery was run down, so our car won’t start,” Sweetie said, passively, on purpose.

“We left the headlights on,” Auntie Al elaborated.

Sweetie rolled his eyes briefly and accepted the blame. “I left the lights on.”

“Well I didn’t turn them off, either,” Auntie Al pointed out.

Turning to the older man to carry on the conversation between the two of them now, “That’s because you weren’t driving. I was.”

“Yes, but it’s my car. I do bear some responsibility.”

“We only took your car because you’re not stupid enough to leave your car home alone with Nik.”

Fred laughed heartily. “You guys are really something else. Are you planning to call someone for assistance?” They nodded. “Look, you don’t have to do that. I’ve got my truck just around the corner and can give you a jump.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Oh let’s not go there.” Sweetie looked at him blankly. “You say I don’t have to, I say I know but I want to. Then you say I don’t have to waste my time on you all, and I say it’s not a waste of time and that I want to help out. It’ll be my good boy scout deed for the day. And then, ten minutes later, I finally convince you I’m capable and willing to help out, and by then we could have had the damn tow truck on the scene. So let’s just skip the whole thing, okay?”

Especially amused, Sweetie nodded. “Okay. If you’re sure about it.”

“Yeah, of course I am. I’ve got jumper cables right in the back of my car. It’ll just take a minute to drive over. Which one’s your baby?”

Auntie Al turned and pointed. “That ugly, old, gray Citroën over there.”

“I’ll meet you there in a flash,” Fred promised, nodding towards the car before disappearing around the block towards what was probably the private parking lot for the employees of the shops on that strip.

Auntie Al and Sweetie walked leisurely back to the car, the same thought in their minds. “We could certainly use someone like him around.”

Sweetie burst out with a laugh. “What, around the club or around the house?”

With a shrug, “Either… but I was thinking…”

“We just met the guy. I can’t just invite him to move in.”

“I’m not suggesting you do,” said Auntie Al, reaching the car and leaning against the hood. “I said someone like him. He seems incredibly nice and talented and—”

“And did you see those muscles?” Sweetie finished, laughing.

Auntie Al nodded and joined in with a laugh or two.

It was then that Fred pulled up in an old, red Ford pickup truck. He managed to maneuver about so that the front of his car was facing the front of the Citroën. Luckily, the parking lot wasn’t the least bit busy. “What are you two laughing about?” Fred asked good-naturedly, as he left his keys in the ignition before he stepped out.

“Just admiring how well-rounded you are. Artistic and good with cars,” said Sweetie.

“A jack of all trades,” Auntie Al added.

“Oh that’s nothing,” Fred said, as he walked around and pulled down the back hatch to the flatbed. He climbed up and walked across, his heavy steel toed boots stomping loudly on the metal to make his footsteps sound far worse than they really were. He found the cables and jumped out, over the side of the truck with them in hand, much to the surprise of his onlookers. “You should have met me a few years ago. I’ve had no fewer than fifteen jobs in the last few years.”

“No kidding? What did you used to do?”

Fred popped the hood of their car open and then carefully hooked up the set of red and black cables between their vehicles. As he did so, he ran through his list. “I’ve been a gas station attendant, a plumber and a handyman, a furniture mover, a vending machine servicer, a bouncer, a bartender, a night watchman, a night auditor at a motel, and this past summer I was a deliveryman for UPS. Not a fun job in the summer heat, I can assure you. Got to use the standard UPS air conditioning which is two fifty-five.”

“Two fifty-five?” Sweetie repeated, having never heard of that.

Fred turned around, grinning. “Yeah. Having two doors open and going fifty-five down the highway.” They all laughed. “But you gotta get work where you can, huh? Gotta stay ahead of the bills. Hey, start up your car for me in a second, okay? I’ll tell you when.”

With only a minimal effort, they got the car up and running in just a few minutes. Fred turned off his truck and hopped out, slapping his hands together as though they were dirty. “There you go. All set. Nothing to it.”

“Says you,” said Sweetie, getting out of the car again to thank him. “You have no idea how complicated that might have taken hours if you hadn’t come around. You should think about getting a job at an auto club or something.”

Fred laughed. “Actually…” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and leaned back against the front of his truck. “That’s not far off from my dream job.” When prodded for that, he relented easily. “My dream is to own my own motorcycle store. Sell the bikes, of course, but also parts for bikes and cars and do repairs.” He shrugged, smiling. “A year or two back I had a bit of extra money and thought seriously about it. Even put together a business plan and shopped it around trying to get a loan. But things didn’t work out and I definitely don’t have extra capital to burn. Not that I’m ready to give up on it yet, though.”

Sweetie and Auntie Al exchanged another look. Al clearly wanted Sweetie to say something Sweetie wasn’t ready to say yet.

“It sounds like an admirable dream,” Auntie Al said. “There’s nothing quite like a ride on a motorbike, is there?”

“Hey, that’s the truth,” said Fred, smiling again. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his pocket. He tapped the carton against his palm until one thin stick slid out. He lit up with a quick flick and breath inward. Then he blew smoke out and his shoulders lowered a bit with relaxation.

Yet another look was exchanged between Sweetie and Al, this time a quick one, though Fred didn’t see it since he was looking down at his feet or the concrete ground of the parking lot or seeing something else entirely.

“Anyway here we are again, thanking you,” said Auntie Al. “Maybe you’ll let us buy you a drink?”

Fred shrugged again. “Hey, if that’s an offer, I won’t say no. A drink sounds great. There’s a place up the street I sometimes hit.”

“Actually, I have another place in mind. On the other side of town.” Fred smirked. “A place called Strokes. Have you heard of it?”

Fred nodded. “I prefer the bear bars, to tell you the truth. It’s a little easier to find someone… compatible with me, if you know what I mean.”

Chuckling, Sweetie said, “Yeah, I bet you’re a handful. Tough and tenacious like a pit-bull, am I right?”

“You’re not wrong.” He took a long drag of his cigarette.

“So, are you coming with us for a drink or not?”

Fred nodded. “Yeah, I’m in.” He pushed himself up off the truck and started over to the driver’s side, intending to follow the old, gray Citroën to its destination. He paused at the door, though, one hand on the handle. “Strokes is a nightclub, though, isn’t it? What would it be doing open at this time of day?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Sweetie. He jangled his keys, holding the ring by the plastic keychain in the shape of a horse. “I can get us in.”

Fred looked at him curiously, then nodded and hopped into his truck. Both vehicles started up just fine. In the Citroën, Sweetie could feel Auntie Al looking at him. “We’re just going to test the waters a little more,” Sweetie said. “That’s all. Really.” Al started at him. “Really,” Sweetie insisted.

Auntie Al buckled up. “He’ll be moving in within the week, won’t he?”

Sweetie turned the key in the ignition and it started up. “Probably,” Sweetie whispered back. Of course, the smoking was going to be an issue. And he would have to pass a background check, naturally. But Sweetie had a feeling this was going to work out, and he was rarely wrong about these things.