I Love Cautionary Tales

Eventually, I’ll get back to offering writing advice, but for now, I’m going with another short story. This one first appeared in the anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire published in 1998. It has been reprinted a number of times since. It’s one of my favorites and is loosely based on my teenage years in Atlanta (and someone I knew way back then). Memories can be amazing sources of story material. Feel free to let me know what you think.

 

Tiffany waited for Don to open her door, then slid out of the car slowly, so he’d get an eyeful as her fashionably short skirt rode up during her exit. It was the least she could do in exchange for his willingness to cut Friday afternoon classes with her and provide protection on the trip to Cabbage Town, ground zero for much of Atlanta’s down-and-out.

Most white teens wouldn’t have the nerve to drive into that part of town under normal circumstances, let alone a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but when Tiffany set her mind to doing something, it usually got done. Neither the law nor common sense could dissuade her.

She leaned seductively against Don’s side and patted his cheek, then moved away. “C’mon, it’s got to be around here somewhere.” She searched for street numbers but few of the squalid buildings displayed them. The cracked cement sidewalks, littered with cigarette butts and broken glass, provided treacherous footing. She stepped around a shirtless derelict lying on his back against a storefront; a huge parrot tattoo obscured his chest.

Don frowned at the man on the sidewalk, then looked at her.  “When your old man finds out you got a tattoo he’ll kill you. No–he’ll kill me for helping you!”

Tiffany laughed. “It’s only going to be a little one, not like that monster.” She pointed at the bum’s chest. “My parents are so anal, they never let me do anything. Besides, Daddy probably won’t even notice it; he never looks at me anyway.”

Don gave her the kind of long, appreciative gaze she’d come to expect from all males. “Yeah, sure.”

Tiffany held his hand as they walked past more squalor and misery. They stopped near a wall covered with posters for rap concerts while a breathy preacher railed against the ungodly from an unseen radio. Tiffany touched a square of hand-lettered cardboard taped to a door. It read: “Old World Skin Art.” She thought briefly of turning back, but when Don held the door for her she realized he was daring her to go through with it. Fine, she’d show him, too.

Inside, a thin, old woman with skin the color of dried blood sat in a folding chair to one side of the nearly empty room. A boy, not more than twelve, leaned against the wall behind her smoking an unfiltered cigarette. The stale smell of tobacco smoke mixed with the heavy odor of sweat in the poorly lit room.

Beside the woman stood a rickety card table, its surface crowded with small bottles and jars of various colors. A wooden mallet and a pair of finely honed icepicks lay beside them. A gooseneck reading lamp rounded out the array.

Tiffany eyed the collection hesitantly before speaking. “I want a tattoo.”

“No shit,” said the boy. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew smoke rings toward the ceiling. “Well, Mama Bim’s the best, if you got enough money.”

Tiffany shrugged. “How much for a ladybug?”

Don put his hand on Tiffany’s elbow. “I don’t think–”

“Butt out,” she said. “How much?”

The boy dropped his cigarette on the floor and crushed it under his basketball shoe. “That depends. How big? Where you want it?” Mama Bim stared at her but remained silent and still.

“I want a tiny one, here.” Tiffany slipped off her sandal and raised her leg. Resting her foot lightly on a corner of the table, she pointed to a spot on the top, between her ankle and her toes.

“Come on, Tif, this–”

“Get a life, Don!”

“Two hun’erd,” said the boy.

“That’s a lot.”

“Like I said, Mama Bim’s the best. You can always find somebody cheaper.”

Underage and impatient, Tiffany had few choices. “Can she do it now? How long will it take?”

The boy patted the old woman’s shoulder gently. She nodded and spoke, her voice like gravel in a can, “I do quick.” She clicked on the lamp. With a few strokes of a stubby pencil, Mama Bim sketched a dime-sized cartoon on a scrap of paper and handed it to Tiffany. “Like that?”

The girl smiled. “Yeah! Only make it smaller.”

The boy shoved a wooden chair toward her, and Mama Bim patted it with the flat of her hand. “Foot go here,” she said.

Holding Don’s shoulder for balance, Tiffany raised her leg. The seat of the chair felt cool against her instep. The old woman massaged her foot with papery-skinned hands. Tiffany shivered as if the devil had licked her spine.

Mama Bim put a bottle of black ink on the chair and adjusted the lamp. As she reached for an icepick and the mallet, Tiffany’s mouth went dry. “Wait a minute. I thought tattoos were done with some kind of electric gizmo.”

“Mama Bim’s tattoos are different. So are her methods.”

Tiffany blinked. “Will it hurt?”

The boy lit a cigarette and waved out the match. He looked at her with cold, reptilian eyes. “Hell yes,” he said.

~*~

On Monday, as soon as her summer school Civics teacher turned to the chalkboard, Tiffany slipped off her sandal, extended a smooth, tanned leg up the aisle between the desks, and waited for someone to notice the ladybug. Surrounded by guys, she knew the discovery wouldn’t take long.

“Check it out!” whispered a tall blond from the swim team. He pointed at the red and black figure and smiled. “Way cool, Tif. Where’d you get it?”

Tiffany brushed a cascade of perfect curls past her shoulder and shrugged. “Downtown.”

“I thought you had to be eighteen.”

“Not if you have connections.” She flashed her brightest smile at him.

“Did it hurt?”

Tiffany felt the shine fade from her smile as the memory of the ink-tipped icepick came back to her. She forced those thoughts aside. “Sure it hurt, but it was worth it.”

“What’d your folks say?” asked the dark-eyed running back in the desk just ahead of hers.

Laughing, she said, “Watch,” and slipped her foot back into her sandal. The strap across the top completely covered the tattoo. “They haven’t said anything.”

The running back grinned. When the bell rang, he accompanied her from the classroom and down the hall. “It looks awesome, but weren’t you afraid of catching AIDS or something?”

“You sound like my dad,” Tiffany said. “The first time I told him I wanted one, he got really pissed. Told me I’d end up with hepatitis or cancer or… or dandruff! He owns a car dealership–what does he know about tattoos?”

“Was it expensive?”

“A little. I’m supposed to go back in a week or two because they said they needed to ‘fix it,’ or something, but that costs extra. Besides, it looks fine; there’s nothing to fix. They must think I’m stupid.”

~*~

Within two weeks, everyone who mattered had seen the tattoo, except her parents. Tiffany resigned herself to covering her feet whenever they were around, which meant she’d have to be careful out by the pool. She smiled just thinking about alternative places to sunbathe. Whenever she climbed into a bikini–the only swimwear she owned–she preferred to be in a place where somebody other than her parents could see her anyway.

Tiffany stepped into a pair of sporty new loafers as she prepared to go shopping, and was surprised to see the ladybug in plain view. She’d tried on dozens at the mall before she found a pair that was stylish and kept the tattoo hidden–perfect for wearing around the house. Yet, there it sat, in plain view, and the colors didn’t even match her outfit. Had the idiot clerk given her the wrong pair? She inspected them, but everything appeared normal.

Kneeling, she inspected the tattoo as well. Suddenly, her breath deserted her. Not only did the artwork look larger than before, it was noticeably closer to her ankle. Not even the shape remained as it had the day she got it.

Feeling sick, she sat on the floor, grabbed a phone and called Don. He answered on the second ring.

“Don! Thank God. I need your help. It’s my tattoo. I think it’s moving!”

He laughed.

“It’s not funny, damn it!”

“It’s funny you suddenly need me again. You haven’t said two words to me since you got that thing.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.” She let her voice go soft. “Will you let me make it up to you? Please?”

“I don’t–”

“Please?” She whispered her plea.

“I guess.”

Tiffany imagined the smile on his face. “Good, I’d like that.” She held her breath for a moment, then went on. “So, can we go back today? I’m free this morning.”

“I’m not,” Don said. “How ’bout tonight?”

She’d have to cancel her date with the running back. No problem. “Fine. Around five? I hope they’ll still be open.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” She hung up and took another look at the tattoo. The oval ladybug had become rectangular, its six legs had become eight. The lines drifted into four distinct pairs. Even the polka dots were losing their shape. What had been a cheery, colorful design was rapidly turning into an ugly smear.

~*~

The streets of Cabbage Town were more crowded than before. They had to leave the car farther from the shop, and Tiffany huddled close to Don as they walked. She half expected to see the sleeping drunk they’d stepped over the last time.

They reached Mama Bim’s ratty storefront and opened the door. The room’s sole occupant was the chain-smoking boy. He sat in the old woman’s chair and glanced up as they entered. “Well, look who’s here.”

Tiffany stuck out her foot and pointed to the tattoo. “I want this fixed, now!”

“Can’t,” said the boy. “I don’t know how. And Mama Bim, she don’t work this late.”

“It’s not even six o’clock,” Tiffany said. “Besides, this is an emergency.”

The boy laughed. “Mama Bim don’t do emergencies.”

Don clamped his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “How’d you like an emergency of your own?” He applied pressure until the boy squealed.

A door opened. “What’s goin’ on?” asked Mama Bim, her voice raspy. Using a cane for support, she stood at the back of the room. “You want trouble?”

She rapped on the wall behind her, and the drunk with the parrot on his chest stepped into view. The design had changed. The bird’s wings were spread, and the man’s Adam’s apple made its head appear three-dimensional. The whites of the derelict’s eyes seemed oddly bright; he had a hunted, feral look.

“No, we don’t want any trouble,” Tiffany said. “We’re here because there’s something wrong with my tattoo. You said we should come back so you could fix it.”

The old woman shook her head. “Too late. Last week maybe I fix so it don’t change. Too late now; change already started.”

“What do you mean?” asked Don.

“She tol’ you,” the boy said, rubbing his shoulder. “If she don’t lock in the first design–fix it–it’ll change, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

“It’s just a stupid tattoo,” shouted Tiffany. “They aren’t supposed to change!”

“No! Not just tattoo.” Indignation gave the ancient woman a regal look. “Art–art from life.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Tiffany said. “When I tell my father what you’ve done to me, he’ll have you thrown in jail.” She walked to the door and stopped. “Now’s your last chance.”

Mama Bim shook her head. “Last chance was last week.”

~*~

It took Tiffany’s father several days to calm down, but eventually, he managed to share a meal without shouting at her. “I’ve arranged for you to see a specialist,” he said over breakfast. “He’s a laser surgeon. I’m told he’s had great success in removing tattoos.”

“I know what it is, now,” Tiffany said. “It opened its eyes this morning.”

“Did you hear me? I said–”

“Yeah, laser surgery. When?”

“Friday was the earliest he could work you in.”

Tiffany nodded, her eyes slightly unfocused. “I’ve only got to live with it for five more days.”

“I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said, pushing his chair back from the table. “The police still haven’t been able to find this Mama Big person.” He stood up and finished the last of his juice.

“Mama Bim.”

“Whatever. See you tonight.”

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

He looked at her as if he wasn’t quite sure who she was. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

“It’s a little frog.”

“Charming.”

~*~

By the time Tiffany reached her late morning biology class, the diminutive red and black frog had moved above the top of her white sweat sock. Tiffany hadn’t been feeling well, but when one of the other girls in the class saw the frog and made a big deal of it, Tiffany felt even worse. She’d even developed a nervous twitch that seemed hysterically funny to several classmates.

She slapped a hand over the tattoo and prayed that the lunch bell would ring soon. When it finally did, the room emptied. Tiffany intended to be the last one out.

“May I see it?” asked the teacher as Tiffany walked past her desk. “It’s none of my business, and I really don’t want to embarrass you, but, frankly, the story’s all over the school.”

Tiffany felt her composure crumble; she couldn’t keep her lip from quivering. The teacher stepped around her desk and put her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m just scared. I don’t know what’s happening.”

“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.”

“I’m going in for laser surgery on Friday,” Tiffany said. “That should be the end of it.”

“You’ll feel better when it’s gone.”

“I hope so, ’cause I sure feel lousy now.”

The teacher felt Tiffany’s forehead. “I’m not surprised. I think you’ve got a fever. Why don’t you sit and relax for a minute? This is your lunch period, isn’t it?”

Tiffany nodded and dropped into a chair beside the desk. She leaned back and stretched her legs.

The teacher stared down at the tattoo. “I’m amazed at how life-like it is–a dendrobate, I believe.”

“The tattoo? No. It’s a frog.”

The teacher smiled. “Correct. A tree frog.” She retrieved a book from a shelf behind the desk and quickly flipped to a selection of color plates. “Here,” she said, pointing to a full-page photo. “That’s a dendrobate–they live in the jungles of Central America. Their skin contains a neurotoxin which the native people sometimes use on the tips of their hunting weapons. In fact, they’re commonly known as Poison Dart or Poison Arrow frogs.”

“Poison?” Tiffany began to feel even worse.

The teacher nodded. “Yes, and quite deadly to smaller animals.”

Tiffany’s pulse quickened. “Would it kill a person?”

“Oh, I doubt it, but there’d probably be enough of the toxin in a single frog to make you pretty sick.”

“I think I’d better go home,” Tiffany said.

~*~

Tiffany couldn’t eat, but whether it was illness or her discomfort with her parents’ anger, she couldn’t tell. Nor did she really care. They’d remained strangely silent through most of dinner. “What is it?” she asked, finally. “I already admitted I made a mistake. What more do you want from me?”

Her father frowned briefly and then looked at his wife. She shrugged. “It’s not you. We heard some disturbing news today.”

Tiffany relaxed a little.

“I received a call from the detective who’s investigating the woman who put that thing on your leg.”

“Mama Bim,” Tiffany said.

“Yes. The detective told me she’s wanted for questioning in connection with the death of a vagrant, some poor man with a tattoo covering his face.”

Tiffany shivered. “Was it a parrot?”

Her father flushed. “How did you know?”

“I saw him earlier. How’d he die?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Daddy! I’m not a child–don’t treat me like one.”

He shrugged. “Apparently, the man choked to death.”

“He was strangled?”

“No,” he said. Tiffany’s mother stood and left the room. “His windpipe was blocked with parrot droppings.”

~*~

Friday had come at last. Tiffany sat in the doctor’s waiting room, shivering. She’d felt too ill even to apply make-up. Waves of nausea alternated with chills as cramps twisted the muscles in her arms and legs. A woman who looked constipated herded her two small children away from Tiffany to the far side of the tastefully-appointed room. Tiffany didn’t care.

She almost wept when her turn finally came. A nurse guided her into the treatment room where the doctor waited. He frowned when he saw her. “You should be home in bed.”

Tiffany shook her head. She forced her words past a tongue grown slightly swollen. “No, I want it off–today. Now!”

“I really hate to do this if you aren’t feeling well,” the doctor said. “While laser surgery isn’t particularly taxing, we can’t guarantee how every patient will react. You understand that we’re going to destroy the dye that’s coloring your skin. You won’t feel much now because we’ll use an anesthetic, but later there’s going to be some discomfort.”

The meaning of the doctor’s words slowly filtered through to her. “Will removing it be as painful as putting it on?”

“Probably worse,” he said. “That’s why I’d prefer you to be strong and healthy before we begin the procedure.”

“No. I can’t afford to wait.” Tiffany searched his face for sympathy. “Because of the frog; it’s trying to kill me.”

The doctor gave her a quizzical look. “The tattoo frog?”

“Yeah.”

He laughed. “Well, we’ll just get him first, then! How about that?”

Tiffany nodded, too weak to discuss it.

The doctor examined her leg. “The important thing is to hold still while I’m working. If you’re all shivery and tense, I won’t be able to focus the beam. You’re sure you feel up to it?”

Tiffany’s muscles ached from cramping, her head hurt as if someone had danced on it, and her mouth was almost too dry to talk. At least the twitching had stopped. Maybe, if she truly concentrated, she could hold her leg motionless while he worked. “Yes,” she said. “But please hurry.”

~*~

Tiffany’s father smiled at her as he took a seat in a chaise lounge beside the pool. “You’re looking chipper,” he said.

She smiled back at him. The laser surgery had been a success. Only a trace of the tattoo, on her calf, remained. In the weeks since the surgery, Tiffany’s health improved steadily. She felt wonderful.

“Nice swimsuit,” he said, “but kinda skimpy. Is it new?”

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “I needed a white one.”

He shook his head. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you out here all summer.”

“Please, don’t remind me.” Tiffany rolled over on her stomach and propped herself on her elbows. “I’ve neglected my tan too long. I’m as pale as this suit.” She pushed a tube of suntan lotion toward him. “Still, I don’t want to get burned. Would you give me a hand?”

“Sure.” He knelt beside her and squirted a dab of lotion on her back. After smoothing it across her shoulders, he worked his way down her legs, then stopped. “That’s funny,” he said. “I didn’t know you had freckles.”

Tiffany sat up quickly. “Where?”

“All over your legs.”

Grasping her knees, she peered intently at the little spots. The color drained from her face.

“What is it, Tif? What’s the matter?”

“They aren’t freckles,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek. “They’re tadpoles.”

~End~

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in short fiction, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to I Love Cautionary Tales

  1. Don says:

    My oh my. Life in Atlanta, probably why I avoid the downtown area. This must be a true story because I read it on the internet. Enjoyed.

  2. Amanda Robinson says:

    Enjoyed it!

  3. dorisreidy says:

    Another amazing crumb from the deep dish pie that is your imagination.

  4. Oh, man. Great story. It reminds me of hearing about scratching a spider bite and little baby spiders run out. My stomach feels queasy, but I loved it!

  5. polinto says:

    I remember this story. It’s as creepy as ever.

  6. polinto says:

    Every time I try to comment, it tells me not only do I not belong to my own e-mail address but that I’m making a duplicate comment.

    >

  7. Eddie Rhoades says:

    Love that ending.

  8. sonyabravermanaolcom says:

    Oh wow! Good story, Josh.

  9. Betty Smith says:

    Like Pam, I remembered your story – still creepy.

  10. Barry Womack says:

    Nice curve ball. Never saw it coming, you left me standing at the plate with my bat on my shoulder and the Ump yelling “He’s out of there!”

  11. Margot says:

    cute scary story with imaginative ending.

  12. Charmayne says:

    Wow! What a story! Who Know? What will come after the tadpoles? Will they continue to reproduce? I was thinking about getting a dainty little elephant tattoo. I’m cured. Thank you Doctor Langston.

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