When Grace Gund walked into my
shop the first time, I couldn’t believe it. We'd had a few
classes together in high school, but I hadn’t seen her in
the five years since we’d graduated. Of course, we never
exactly traveled in the same circles. I'd hung out with the
druggies and the drinkers and dated the biker chicks; she
hung out with—well, she didn’t hang out with anybody.
“Hi,” she said, in that same
breathy voice I remembered from the few times she'd
spoken--only when called on--in history class. She stared at
her shoes when she said it. Walked around the shop, checking
out the artwork on the walls. Skipped over the military
designs; most of our business is from gung-ho new recruits
assigned to Fort Eustis and the Yorktown Naval Air Station.
That wasn’t what she wanted.
Grace stopped in front of the
display of flowers. Her fingers walked across several
designs and came to rest on the petals of a replete scarlet
rosebud, so detailed that it included a droplet of water on
one of the petals. She was the only person in the shop; I
couldn't help but watch her. A little more threadbare than
she'd been in high school. Skinny. Insubstantial. Dirty
blond hair, fine as a baby’s, sagged down her back. Was she
still wearing her sister’s hand-me-downs? Duct tape cinched
the top of her shoe to its sole. Her eyes, pale blue under
stubby lashes with unkempt eyebrows. She was faded. . .
neglected. I don’t know why I remembered her at all.
She continued her tour of the
displays, fingers tracing one of the sets of wings. I’ve got
four different pair, and she liked the ones that also happen
to be my favorite.
“Pretty,” she whispered, not
raising her head.
“We could do that if you want
to. Not all today, of course. Those would take several
“No, I want the butterfly,” she
said, gesturing over to the east wall. She’d picked my most
colorful piece—that butterfly is glorious, a meld of reds,
blues, pinks, greens and a vibrant orange that I mix myself.
I love doing that butterfly. It's not small, either, and
it's a surprising choice for someone's first tattoo. Usually
people start with something more modest, then work their way
up to the bigger pieces.
“Good choice. Where do you want
“Side of my leg, I think.
After she signed the paperwork,
she climbed up on the table. I cleaned her leg with alcohol
and explained how everything would happen, how it would
feel. I wondered if she was noticing my own art; I’d added a
lot to it over the years and I wear a muscle shirt in the
shop to show it off. Grace didn’t say a word.
“So what’ve you been up to
since high school?” I try to keep conversation up while I
work--helps distract customers. Some of them will stare at
the needle, fascinated, as the tip of it sews in and out of
their skin. Others, like Grace, lean their head back and try
to ignore it, faces fixed, lips tight, willing it to be done
quickly. Grace was so bony, I think it probably hurt quite a
bit. But she didn't say anything, didn't even wince. Tough
“Where do you work?” The
outline of the butterfly was done, and I started to fill in
the colors. First the blue, then the violet.
"What do you do there?"
“Well, Grace, I gotta tell you.
I almost fell over when you walked in today. If anyone had
told me that Grace Gund would be walking through the doors
of Tidewater Tats, I woulda called ‘em a liar.” I saved the
orange for last; it’s my favorite color, and there’s
something about that color that makes that butterfly come
alive. The design has a little shadow around it, so it’s
like a real butterfly landed on her leg and could fly off
with the slightest movement, a breath of air. At the same
time, you can’t quite tell where butterfly ends and skin
We didn't talk after that until
I finished; then I gave her the standard speech about
keeping it clean until it healed. Gave her a complimentary
tube of Neosporin. Told her to keep sunscreen on it to keep
it from fading. She paid her seventy bucks and walked out
without another word. She hadn’t looked me in the eye the
whole time she was there.
I watched her get into a
beat-to-shit Datsun fossil, then three Navy guys came in and
demanded service. I forgot about Grace Gund before I’d even
put her money in the register.
Grace surprised me again when
she walked into the shop about three months later,
especially because I barely recognized her. She acted the
same, shy and afraid, and she was dressed in faded and
crummy clothes, but she was changed. Her zits had cleared up
and she had gorgeous skin--and I know skin. At first I
thought she was wearing colored contacts, her eyes were so
blue. Her hair was lighter, fuller. Her cheeks and lips were
pink, and I could tell it wasn’t makeup. She was actually
pretty, and I'd never seen a hint of that beauty in her
“Hey, Grace, how’s that
butterfly working for you?”
A faint smile crossed her lips,
coming and going so fast that if I’d blinked, I would have
missed it. She still didn’t meet my eyes. “I love it.” I
could barely hear her.
Again she wandered around the
room, trying to choose her art. She stopped at the wings
again, the same pair as before.
“I could probably do a lot of
work on those today,” I said. “Been real slow.”
She shook her head, touched the
wings again, and moved on. I waited; I was starting to
figure her out a little bit.
Finally, she stopped at the
animal section. “I want the tiger,” she said.
“You sure?” I asked, surprised.
Usually big burly guys chose the tiger; I'd never known a
woman to pick it out. I like that tiger though--he’s
powerful and confident, and his yellow eyes stare at you
like he’s daring you to fuck with him. I’ve thought about
getting that tiger myself.
“Yeah.” She got up on the table
and rolled up her shorts to expose her upper thigh.
“Sorry, but you’re going to
have to take them off. They get in the way.”
Scared eyes focused on mine for
the first time, and for a minute I thought she’d bolt out of
the shop. But she surprised me again by slipping out of her
shorts quickly, revealing plain cotton underwear that was
dingy gray, threadbare, with a rip near the waistband.
“So how’d you get interested in
tattoos?” I asked her as I outlined the imposing tiger. I
felt her shrug. I said, “I got into ‘em because my dad had a
bunch, and when I was a kid, I wanted to be like him.” I
wanted to keep talking to distract her, because the tiger
was bigger than the butterfly, and it was going to hurt. The
last one of these I did, after I got the outline done, the
guy left. Said he couldn’t stand the pain of the blocks of
color to be filled in. Grace, it seemed, was tougher. “Got
my first one when I was 14," I pointed to a small six-sided
Dungeons and Dragons die in blue ink on my bicep. "That's
the thing about tattoos; you have to live with them forever.
The D&D phase passed, but the memory lingers," I laughed.
"Still, it kind of goes with the one next to it, and I like
that it represents something I was really into back then."
The die is sort of nestled in the neck of a large green
dragon with multi-colored scales and a long tail that wraps
twice around my forearm and ends on my wrist.
“Nice,” she said, barely
“So why the tiger?” I asked.
She shrugged again.
Her tattoo took almost four
hours, and although she winced several times, she was a
trooper. I wish all my customers could sit that quietly for
so long without fidgeting or bitching about how much it
“That’ll be $120,” I said.
“I thought it was $180?”
“Call it the Denbigh High
“Thanks,” she whispered, and
quickly smiled. The first time I’d ever seen her really
smile, and I felt a little tug. After she walked out, I
didn’t forget her quite so quickly.
She came in again at the end of
summer, only this time she didn’t come alone. She brought
her boyfriend, a guy I knew from my druggie days. Back then
Jake Burgess was only into consumption, mostly weed. I knew
from seeing him lately cruising Yorktown beach that he’d
expanded into sales and distribution. Word was that he could
get you anything but specialized in crack. A guy to steer
“Hi, Tony!” Grace said as she
walked into the room. She was so different that I wondered
if she was coked up, but her eyes were clear and she was
even prettier than she had been the last time she was in.
Her hair was lightly curled and bounced as she walked. A
short skirt and heeled shoes revealed long lean legs. A hint
of makeup accentuated the blue of her eyes, and she smelled
wonderful, like a flower garden after a rainstorm.
“Tony, you remember Jake
Burgess don’t you?” We nodded cool hellos.
Together they went around and
discussed the artwork, Grace practically chattering. I
figured Jake was getting the work done this time, but it
turned out to be Grace again. I saw her fingers stop at the
wings, but I spared her the sales pitch. I didn’t want her
getting the wings while Jake was here. She leaned up and
boldly kissed Jake on the mouth; he bent over and whispered
in her ear and she laughed, a melodious laugh.
“Tony, I believe I want the
fish today. This fish right here.” She pointed to a large
Japanese koi, mostly dark gold, but with a light wash of
rainbow colors. He had large pink lips and was nestled in
colorful seaweed. “And I want it right here,” she said, as
she stepped out of her skirt and pointed to a round buttock
accented by a miniscule pink thong.
I didn’t say a word as the
needle zipped in and out of creamy skin.
“I want to take you
snorkeling,” Jake said, holding her hand.
“Can’t swim,” Grace said. “I’m
actually kind of afraid of the water.”
“I’ll teach you, baby,” he
said. “Like I’ve taught you everything else.” She laughed
and her ass jiggled ever so slightly; I had to stop for a
minute so I wouldn’t mess up the work. I turned my head as
Jake tongued her tonsils. I finished up the fish; it
glistened and seemed ready to swim off her skin. No Denbigh
High Alumni discount for the koi today.
I don’t know what it was that
made me close the shop and go down to the beach later that
week. Maybe it was jealousy, or maybe I wanted to see her
again. I hadn’t been there long when they pulled up in
Jake’s Shelby convertible; he went off to transact business
while I watched in appreciation as she walked down to the
water’s edge. She held her chin and walked so confidently,
so unlike that girl I went to high school with, or that girl
that walked into my shop that first day. I was glad that
she’d hooked up with asshole Jake if he made her that happy.
I called out her name, but she
didn’t hear me. I was surprised when she waded out into the
water and dove in; Jake must have been a good teacher to get
her over her fear that fast. She stayed under the water so
long that I started to worry, but her head broke the surface
as Jake swam out to her. They kissed and embraced, mostly
naked bodies pressed tightly together.
I packed up my towel and went
home and tried to forget about Grace Gund.
February can be a nasty month
in coastal Virginia, and that year it was a doozy. We had
rain and snow; the roads were bad and hardly anyone was out.
I sat in my shop day after day and wished a sailor or a
soldier would come in for some work. Mostly I read skin art
mags, or drew new designs. I was glad when the bell jangled,
but I was especially glad it was Grace.
She was still beautiful, but
her eyes were red from crying. “Hey there, kid.”
“Hi.” She tried to smile, but
it was the saddest thing I ever saw. She began her slow trek
around the room, stopping in front of the wings, then moving
on. Today was not the day for those.
I have a big collection of
hearts. Hearts with names in them, hearts with arrows
through them, broken hearts. She frowned at the display. “Do
you have a repaired heart?” she asked.
“My heart is broken…” she said.
“I want one that’s fixed.”
I thought for a minute and
brought a notebook from under the counter--new stuff that
I’d been working on this winter. I showed her a three-inch
wide heart with a jagged tear and dripping blood. The heart
was sewn together with large, crude x-shaped stitches. I’d
designed it with occasional visiting biker gangs in mind.
“That’s it! That’s what I
“You’re sure?” Her other
tattoos were truly beautiful; this one was bold, but crude,
rough. "Give me some time; I can make you a custom--"
“No, that's the one I want.”
Her eyes begged. I’ll do anything that makes her happy, I
“So what happened?” I asked. I
tried to be professional and not ogle the nipple on the
breast I was tattooing, not to think about the warm handful,
but it was difficult. Funny that I was so attracted to this
girl when I had been practically repulsed by her when she
came in the first time.
“He dumped me. I found out he
was selling drugs, which was bad enough, and then I caught
him in bed with some—some woman. He wanted me to fool around
with both of them!”
“I’m so sorry. How long ago?”
“It was back in September. And
I can’t get over it.” She wiped at her eyes.
At that moment, I wanted to
take her in my arms, comfort her, hold her, make the pain go
away and make the memory of Jake disappear forever. But I
couldn’t. She needed to get over him, or I’d be the rebound
guy. I’d wait until her broken heart healed, then maybe we
could go out, take in a movie. I’d never hurt her like he
The work was good, and she let
me admire that beautiful breast and its adornment for a
second before she put her shirt back on.
“How much?” she asked.
“On the house.”
“Thanks, Tony.” She gently
touched my cheek and smiled. I felt sad when the bell
jangled as she left into the cold.
I couldn’t stop thinking about
her after that.
I planned to call her, but I
kept finding ways to talk myself out of it. Was the time
right? Is she over Jake? Then I figured I’d waited too long
and that she had probably found another guy. Timing was
never my strong suit.
But then she came into the shop
in May. She seemed happier, and was even more stunning than
“Hi, Tony,” she greeted me.
“It’s been a while.”
“It sure has. You look great.”
She’s too happy, I thought. She’s in love with someone.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been by.
I’ve been busy; I got promoted at work, and I’ve been giving
swimming lessons at the Y.”
“That’s okay. I’ve been
thinking about you.”
“I’ve been thinking about you,
too,” she said, and smiled. “Do you think we could go out
“Yes. Definitely. For sure. How
“How bad will I hurt if I get
these done?” She walked over to the wings that she’d admired
so many times.
“Well, we can’t do those all in
one day. That’s a several day job, and we can’t do it all at
once. I’ll do the outline first then fill in. It doesn’t
look like it, but there’s a lot of fill.” The wings were
angel wings and they started on each side of the neck and
spread out over the back and touched the top of the
buttocks. There were hundreds of feathers, and each one was
individually shaded and seemed three dimensional. From far
away, it’s black and white, but up close, you can see all
kinds of colors. I’d never actually inked them on skin
before. “We're going to have to allow time to heal in
“Let’s do it,” she said. “I’ll
have to do it on weekends; I don’t have much free time
because of my job. I don’t care how long it takes, though, I
want those wings.” She skimmed off her t-shirt and bra and
climbed up on the table. She grinned at me. “Make sure you
don’t do so much that we can’t go out tonight, okay?”
The next few weeks were the
happiest in my life. I inked her, and we hung out. The work
took longer, because we talked and I wanted it to be
perfect, so I went extra slow. Many times we gave up the
needles entirely and made love in my apartment in the back.
She became more beautiful as time went on, and as the angel
wings spread in greater and greater detail across her back,
she began to glow. When you have work done like that, it
becomes a part of you and you become a part of it. And as
you keep getting the needle, you go to this other mental
place. If you’ve ever gotten tattooed, you’ll understand
what I’m talking about.
Finally, after almost of month
of dating and inking, I was almost done. I had something
special planned for that last night. "I'm down to the last
feather," I said. "God, this is gorgeous. Gonna have to take
lots of pics; every one of the magazines is going to want
you on the cover."
"Tony," she whispered. "Stop
"What?" I did stop. "All this
work; I have to finish. It's like maybe ten more minutes."
"No. Don't finish." Her head
was down and she was talking into the padding of the table.
I could barely hear her. "I'm afraid."
"Afraid?" I put down the
needle, went over to the head of the table, tilted her chin
up to look at me. "What are you afraid of, sweetie? The
worst is over."
"I'm changing. I can feel it
changing me." A tear dripped down her cheek.
"We talked about that, honey.
Tats do change you. They're permanent; they show the world
an aspect of what you're like inside." I stroked her hair.
"It's going to be okay."
"But I think it's more..." she
"Do you trust me?"
"Do you love me?"
She smiled through her tears.
"Yes... Tony, you're the best thing that's ever happened to
"Then let's finish this up, and
let's start planning how to spend the rest of our lives
together." I kissed her forehead.
"But Tony..." She stopped. "I
love you, and I trust you, but I think we shouldn't finish
"What could happen?"
Grace was silent, and I took
her silence for permission to continue. She didn't get up or
try to stop me as I put the finishing touches on the last
feather of her angel wings.
I put the ink away and cleaned
up the workspace as she admired her back in the three-way
mirror. It was my best work yet. So realistic; you knew
exactly how those feathers would feel if you could only
touch them. "They're perfect, Tony. I'm sorry I wasn't going
to let you finish. A masterpiece, your masterpiece, on my
I had heard people described as
"radiant" before, but until I saw her smile at me, standing
in my studio, I'd had no idea what they'd meant. She had an
inner fire. So special. What had happened to that shy,
pathetic girl that had come in to my shop a little over a
year ago? The homely frightened caterpillar had turned into
a beautiful confident butterfly. My butterfly. Mine.
I smiled. “I have champagne. We
I went into the kitchen to
retrieve the bottle and glasses. As I closed the fridge, I
heard a loud whoosh from the studio, like a large bird.
Walking back in, a pure white light blinded me.
Grace’s glow had become a
piercing brightness, and the noise was her gold and white
angel wings slowly opening and closing. Grace faced away
from me, and I watched as my artwork came to life, as
fantasy became reality. What was going on?
Slowly Grace turned to me.
Tears filled her eyes, but she seemed happy at the same
time. “I was afraid this might happen,” she said. “I love
you Tony. I love you so much. I always will.”
What had I done? How had it
happened? Her wings flexed again as the door to the shop
opened by itself. I couldn’t do anything but stare as Grace
flew skyward, became a light dot against the dark sky.
I miss her always. My angel.