"Star Tattoo," a non-fiction story by me, appears in the current issue of the Blue Lyra Review. You can read it at the Blue Lyra Review website here or below.
As I pulled back the screen door, I was happy with anticipation. But something had gone wrong. Three sweating white males crowded the readily available space and monopolized the air. In opposite corners were two women. The only sound: the scrape-scrape panting of a hound.
The younger, slutty woman was a stranger. I studied her. She was looking, alternately, absent and then focused and then absent again, like a black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV, oscillating between clarity and static.
I know the small woman in the other corner. She is a food bank regular. I don't know her name. I know her enough to like her and care about her looking cornered and scared. She's tiny. She wears worn but conservative skirts and blouses, even in this heat. She has neatly cut and permed hair. She has stopped me in the street, downtown, and told me that angels have informed her that she must relocate to Minneapolis.
She was snarling like a weasel trapped someplace rectangular and domestic; she was shooting looks and balling her fists. One of the guys, sleekly bare-chested, like the others, but with tattoos, was smirking. This guy was maybe in his early 20s. He was like a human razor: economically designed for mental or physical assault. He stood out as the leader of his own pack: another, blonde boy, the substantial hound, and the slutty blonde teen.
I'm big. Taller than the average woman, big-boned, and I walk a lot so I look sturdy. Before I got sick, and came to need food banks, I had been a teacher. I demanded, just with my body, "What's going on here?" and I announced, with my body alone, "Whatever it is, it had better stop." I created a passageway. The Small Woman took it, sliding behind me, bolting out the door and up the steps. I glared at the tribe of Smirkers. They deemed me unworthy of eye contact. But I knew that they had "heard" me. The Smirkers shot challenging looks at the third man. The third man suddenly seemed very alone, under their stare. He's an organic farmer, another food bank regular, a man I know, and a new father, but I'm not sure of his name. Taking their cardboard boxes and their time, the Smirkers sauntered out, one by one. Even their hound was surly.
I was now alone with the Farmer in the basement. I looked at him. He volunteers his truck and his back to gathering food at drop-off points – restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets – and bringing it here. He was sweating from his exertion. He was fuming with righteous rage.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
"It's not worth talking about," the Farmer announced. He knows that this food bank, that materializes every other Wednesday, is as much my place as his. I, too, have unloaded the trucks full of expired soymilk and day-old loaves for our vegetarian, low-impact, food-bank-cum-lefty-political-powwow. I've put in hours in the dim light and cat-piss smell and instructed newcomers to sign the waiver (the back of a recycled sheet of paper, usually some political flier) stating that they won't sue if they get sick from spoiled food. I, too, have adjured patrons to donate (into a coffee can with a slotted plastic lid) and begged them to volunteer (to carry stuff in off the trucks; to watch the many toddlers that accumulate underfoot like dust under a dresser, so that they don't fall on the concrete stair). The Farmer doesn't know my name, but he's seen me do this work; he wasn't dismissing me or being unkind. It's just that he is a farmer, and his idea of what is worth talking about and my idea of what is worth talking about, are two very different ideas. But I was frustrated, and I was curious. My route back to serenity out of such a frightening stand-off is words. His route is silence.
We opened some boxes and stacked some shelves. We greedily pocketed some goodies for ourselves alone – I grabbed the lone can of mandarin oranges. We set some goodies aside for others: "Cashew butter! Jed will love that. His kid's allergic to peanuts." I love cashew butter, too, but I did the math in my head: added my hours of volunteer work, subtracted the mandarins, multiplied by Jed's kid's allergy, and found my balance could not cover the cashew butter.
Eventually, the Farmer did speak. The head Smirker, the dark haired one, with the tattoos, had once beaten up a woman friend of the Farmer's. That Smirker – that batterer – had yet to repent. The Farmer wouldn't have that. He needed the guy to publicly state, "I did it. It was my fault. I'll never do it again" before he'd allow him back into the community.
The Smirker, fresh from prison following the battering, had showed up this morning at the food bank, surprising everyone. The Farmer, apparently thinking, at that moment of the Smirker's arrival, that it was worth talking about, had dropped a comment about the Smirker's rap sheet. "You smell like prison," he had said. The Farmer repeated the line to me. He had meant this as an open door, he explained. The Smirker could apologize, and lose that smell.
The Smirker had been bending over a box. He stood up straight. He did not apologize. Rather, he stated, loudly and clearly, "Takes two to tango." The Farmer was infuriated. But, he decided to just let it go. Some things are not worth talking about.
The Small Woman, as far as I could make out, had never even seen the Smirker before, and knew none of his story before she arrived. She's just a food bank regular. She just walked in on it all. She just overheard. She just wanted to brain the Smirker, the batterer, the bare-chested man/boy ex-con with the tattoos – I never learned his name. She just itched to torpedo her small, marginal, girly body, which had maybe never done violence to anything more threatening than a pack of tofu, and make him, just, just, make him sorry, just show him what it's like, make him know, make him … just, make him. The Farmer had had to hold her back. Everyone had been staring their challenges when I walked in.
"Mmm." I nodded. I went back up the stairs and outside.
I found the Small Woman hyperventilating in front of a sun-drenched, bee-thick patch of Jerusalem artichoke growing in my neighbor's yard. Careful of the bees, I approached. The sun was punishing. I squinted. I had no idea what the appropriate thing to say would be. I didn't have much vocabulary here. The tough looking Smirkers in the basement hadn't actually said anything after I'd entered – had they? The Small Woman had merely muttered. Had I understood everything the Farmer just told me? Had he told me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Whatever had just happened was something I was feeling, not reading. I didn't even know the Small Woman's name, either, though I'm sure that at one point she had told it to me. It was something Midwestern, like "Betty," "Sue," or "Jane," not the kind of coastal name associated with those who speak with angels that you'd expect in Berkeley or The East Village. Not knowing what else to say, I settled on, "Do you want me to stick around?" My large body will never make a man fall in love with me, or land me the lead role in just about anything. But I have known, since kindergarten, that I can use it to make smaller people safer, when that is needed and I like the smaller people.
"No, no. That's cool. I'm fine. I'm leaving Indiana soon anyway. I think I'm supposed to be in Minneapolis. That's where my fate awaits me. But you know…no, no. I'm fine. That's okay. You don't have to stick around. That son of a bitch." She was still hyperventilating.
I stuck around without calling it "sticking around," until the Small Woman got into her rickety, perforated compact car and drove off.
If it's a good haul, I get two weeks' worth of food, or at least two weeks' worth of something – bread, soy milk, cereal – on a given Food Bank Day. But then I need to transport the boxes back to my room. I usually do this by stationing myself next to my boxes of food and gazing hopefully at other food bank patrons as they pass me, returning to their jalopies. I never have to ask. They ask me. And they do go out of their way.
The Smirker approached. I could smell his sweat. I could hear the air bruising the thick, dry sycamore leaves above my head. He sized up my load. "Come on," he said to me, with a jerk of his head toward his rusted Caddy. "Get the dog in the backseat," he directed this to the younger, blond guy, the deputy Smirker. "Get her boxes in the trunk. Get that shit out of the way," he said to the blonde girl. "Here. Sit here. Where you going? Okay. I know the way."
I sat next to him in the front seat. I was afraid.
I wasn't afraid of physical assault. I've been there and done that so many times, from both ends, that maybe nothing scares me less than flying fists, which I know is not a healthy or normal response. I was afraid of being awkward. I was afraid of saying something stupid. I was afraid of being struck dumb, indicting him with a silence so icy it could only be understood as, "I'm a woman and I've been beat up and I think scumbags like you should have your balls cut off and shoved down your throat. You hillbilly gangsta geek, you'll never get a decent job in your life, ever; I'm better than you, and I'm taking your ride, but I will not talk to you." I was afraid of saying something school teacher-y, Politically Correct, "Oh, so you are a batterer, how nice, and do you have other hobbies? Everything is beautiful in its own way." I was afraid of failing, of not being equipped, of not being cool. I was so focused on adrenaline and ego that if a Hoosier had cartwheeled naked in front of the car, I would have missed it.
Then I realized that my focus was pathetic. So I drew my focus away from my fear. Lacking any other handy targets for my racing brain, I folded my hands in my lap, as our nuns used to encourage us to do when we prayed silently at our school desks, and, just, sat, quiet, listening, seeing, and waiting, making myself ready for the voice of God.
It was the Smirker who spoke. "I am not seen."
Someone nodded ascent; maybe the deputy smirker, the out-of-focus girl, or the hound jammed into the backseat with three-people-and-a-dog's-two-week haul of foodstuffs. I thought I heard some kind of "Amen" back there. I looked at the man/boy holding the steering wheel.
"I'm seen as a label. I refuse to be a label."
His biggest complaint was not that the Farmer rejected him, pretty much ensuring that his post-prison readjustment would have to proceed without benefit of the only food bank in this small, tightly-knit town. His biggest complaint was not that I was stiff and silent while sitting next to him. His label metaphor impressed me.
He asked, "Is a person the worst thing he has ever done?"
I gasped and stared really hard. I resisted the urge to dive in and lead a discussion analyzing this very question.
"They don't react to me. They react to the image inside their heads. They never say anything about us, and we were 'us.' But forget her. I'm more than that. When you turn a person into a label, you're not talking about a human being any more. I'm not going to participate in that."
The Lead Smirker, the Bare-Chested Tattooed Man Who Has Done Time, melted. The unlabeled struggled to communicate himself to me during our timed car trip. Apparently, he, too, had been trying to find the right thing to say. He looked younger. He looked human. Same species as I, as the Farmer, as the Small Woman, as the girl he had battered.
There was another long silence. Tossing out the hope of saying anything pertinent, I tilted my head and asked what seemed most immediately pertinent to my curiosity, "How does your mother feel about all those tattoos?"
"Pfft. My mother? I would not know. I ran the fuck out of there when I was fifteen." The way he pronounced this suggested that he was unaware of the full dimension of the dictionary definition of the word "mother." I immediately lunged at the clock of our time, trying to slow it down, so that things could be said and done that would expand the world and make it better.
I saw where we were. "Yeah, that's it, right there. That's what I call 'home.'" He pulled up. Our journey was ending.
They insisted on carrying my boxes of food inside and putting them on the table, though I could have easily done so, and usually do. I was confined in my room with two scary, bare-chested men; the dog and the girl were out in the car. As they had in the basement, they did take up space, these men/boys; no, they throttled it, with their muscled bodies claiming the sole possession of limited things like the space in a room, or the dignity.
I was no longer afraid. I knew I wouldn't say the stupid thing. It was a hot day. They had worked hard. I said the obvious thing. I offered them some juice, or water, and homemade cookies. They took water. I plopped in some ice cubes. The Lead Smirker had a five-pointed star tattooed on his back. It was solid and dark blue.
"Why a star?" I asked.
"Five points," he told me. "Like a human being." Demonstrating, he slapped his head, point one; his hands, points two and three; and, lifting them, the soles of his feet, points four and five. Ah, of course, a human being. "It's not satanic," he insisted. "That's bull cooked up by the officials." As he explained, he seemed tall, though he hadn't, before. Suddenly I realized that I was looking up at him, which I hadn't realized, before, either. He seemed a professor, with worthy knowledge he was happy to pass on. "In prison, they strip you; they penetrate you; they take everything. They give you a number instead of a name. They can't take away your tattoo." It was time to go. He left.
Before their departure, the younger guy, the deputy Smirker, hesitated – stalled – not the right words at all – took time, made time, to stand at my door, make eye contact with me, and shake my hand.