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Fiction

Bulletproof Tattoos

Allen was watching news of the nearest shooting when he decided he needed a tattoo to cover his neck. He had one over his heart, and one on each eyelid. His forehead and cheeks were covered, and enough of his lungs that he might live if he got lucky. He didn’t have the money to ink his back or chest, but he had saved enough for the neck, where more and more people were getting shot these days, he explained to his wife.

“More and more people are not getting shot in the neck,” she said, lighting a joint, her eyes narrowing to slits as she dragged. He could just see the little islands on her eyelids. “People are going for the eyes now, and your eyes are uncovered.”

They were sitting in their apartment on the twenty-ninth floor, looking out the door of the balcony, where they never went. Allen had turned off the news. It had been a deli this time, three dead beneath the glass cases of capicola. The sound of gunshots, sporadic this early in the evening, drifted up from below. In the center of the city, the glass Gloch building caught the last sun.

Emily exhaled, counting off points on her fingers. “Most of your stomach is uncovered,” she said. “And your back. Your lower ribcage. Some of your chest.” She took another drag. “Besides, it’s safer to stay in.” She waved a hand. The gunshots were coming closer together now. “The air is all bullets out there.”

She found this so funny she was soon coughing, holding the joint up as if to save it. He took it from her and walked to the balcony door—bulletproof plexiglass—and looked down. He could see the brief white light of gunshots far below, like meteors falling on a summer night from his childhood.

“The air,” he said, laughing with her now as he exhaled, “is all bullets. That’s good. You should write that down.”

In the morning he went out to make an appointment. He disarmed the security and pushed the big steel door open and went down the stairwell. Most floors smelled like kerosene—some people had spent their electricity money on tattoos and were using lamps. He wanted to go back upstairs and crawl in bed beside Emily and watch her work. He loved to watch her work, even when he wondered why they were working so hard to make the world bulletproof.

There had been two shootings in the neighborhood this week. Other parts of the city were much worse. In their old neighborhood near the heights, the hearses were out every morning and he could not sleep for all the firing. Every time he drifted off, the crack of a gunshot would jerk him awake. Sometimes they could hear bullets hitting the walls. Emily would be sitting up beside him, covers pulled to her chin, face so frightened it hurt him. Back before they got covered, they were afraid of everything.

“I’m so tired of living like this,” she would say, and he would hold her until her breath evened out.

In their new apartment, the walls were bulletproof. And the doors and the windows and parts of their skin. Sometimes when Emily was high she would laugh, smoke leaking out of her mouth, her voice still down in her stomach. “My bulletproof ads got us a bulletproof apartment,” she’d say. “But we can’t go outside until we are.”

The air was not, in fact, made of bullets. But every night the news showed more shootings. At schools, at factories, at office buildings. In old apartment buildings that didn’t have security.

Emily did not have to go out. She could write her ads from home and send them electronically. Her paycheck was electronically deposited. Anything she wanted—food, marijuana, morphine—she could buy online.

He did have to go out. When the number of gun deaths per year had hit a hundred thousand, he’d started a small company installing bulletproof doors in old apartments. Sometimes, when the job ran too long and dark fell on him out in the world, he could hear the gunshots all over the city as he walked home. Not so bad during the day, but night smelled of cordite and fear. During the day, everyone he saw had a few visible tattoos, enough vital areas covered by ink that stray bullets might bounce off. At night, everyone was covered, either by ink or old armor—Kevlar helmets, flak jackets, vests.

Emily was almost covered with ink now. They could not afford it themselves—ink was still far too expensive for most of the middle-class to be fully covered—but she had gotten hers gratis when she had come up with the “Bullets bounce off black babies” ad that showed a white child inked all black, bullets bouncing off its skin. That one had made lots of money.

She got paid in ink. Her eyelids were covered with scenes of blue sky and small islands, and her cheeks with ocean waves. On her chest swam a koi fish, bright orange, surrounded by seaweed. Her breasts looked like lily pads. When she had first come home, he had lain awake for hours looking at her. He was afraid to touch her. She looked more alive, and he did not know if that was because it was less likely she would die now, or because of the way the ink sat on her skin, like breathing art.

• • • •

The tattoos had been invented out of necessity. Hamstrung by the gun lobbies, the government found itself unable to do anything about the dramatic rise in gun deaths—school shootings, workplace shootings, men shooting their wives for burning dinner. There was no way to stop the socioeconomic factors or the mental health issues that contributed to the growing epidemic, no way to get millions of guns off the streets.

Then military research into bulletproofing hit a breakthrough. Within a year, the first ink was drying on the first soldier. The technology leaked into the private sector. Allen still remembered the first TV ad, a man with a small swallow inked over his heart being shot with a .357 Magnum at point blank. He went down in a heap but rose a moment later, the swallow unscathed, his heart intact.

The next morning the streets were full of people clamoring for ink, though it took a few years for the industry to make the new tattoos widely available, and even then only a few could afford them. The ink was costly and the new Laser Imaging and Engraving System even more so. But more and more shootings convinced people they needed more and more coverage, so people saved, or spent their savings for safety. They all got the small swallow over the heart, the heart being the first thing that got hit.

Those who could covered themselves. After the French ambassador was shot seven times outside the embassy in DC, even the politicians put themselves under the laser, engraving elaborate symbols of state on their skin: the Washington Monument, Capitol Hill, the Constitution.

The number of deaths did not go down far, but the streets seemed safer. People went to work more colorful and less afraid, at least the ones who could afford the privilege of ink. The bullets, Allen heard, left a bruise and sometimes broke ribs, but they bounced off.

Assuming, of course, they hit a protected area.

“Are You Fully Covered?” had been another of Emily’s ads. They appeared often on the slick pages of magazines and on digital billboards that also advertised the same guns that necessitated the tattoos. In her ads, there was always a woman wearing almost nothing, her skin inked in bright red or sky-blue, some scene computer-designed to enhance the natural beauty of the body, to make one forget why the tattoos were needed in the first place.

The gun ads were much simpler, appealing to fear instead of fashion. The newest one had two images: a Beretta 11mm automatic hand-rifle, and a naked woman with a tiny tattoo over her heart, so small you could hardly see it.

“When the bad guys come,” the copy read, “Which of these do you want to protect you?”

• • • •

Outside, it was a fine day in late fall. The cars idling against the curb leaked exhaust like warm breath. The trees along the streets of their neighborhood—their good neighborhood, he reminded himself—had lost their leaves and leaves went skating down the sidewalk in the wind. Some people on the street had designs drawn on their faces, but he wasn’t sure if the designs were ink. People had started hand-drawing their own facial designs in the hope that a shooter might think their faces were bulletproof, and so shoot at their chests, where they actually were covered.

He went along looking into the wired windows of the shops, stopping occasionally to examine some item, a small hover-copter or handgun. He went past Medgar Evers Elementary, where the children’s voices were muted behind the walls and men on the roof watched the street with their rifles, and JFK Junior High, which looked like a concrete bunker.

By the time he made it to 20th, where the tattoo parlors were, Emily’s new advertisement was already up. There were digital billboards everywhere, shifting every few seconds so he saw several ads on each one. Many were throwbacks to older advertisements, updated now: “Got Ink?” one said. “Just Do It.”

On this billboard a long-limbed woman—her name was Netta, and she worked for Emily’s ad agency—struck a seductive pose. A great red heron poised in mid-flight across her chest, sea mist and waves in the background. Her neck was draped in white lace, only it wasn’t lace and it wasn’t draped. On her face, pale white stars stood in the shape of some constellation, the black backdrop of space shaded into her cheeks. Her ears had been inked to look like the rings of Saturn.

Beneath Netta, the ad read, “The Air Is All Bullets. Become Bulletproof.”

Below that was the name of one of the better tattoo shops. He wondered how much Emily had gotten paid, if she would get more of her skin covered as payment. He wanted her covered. Even the whites of her eyes, and even then he would tell her that anytime she went beyond the apartment walls she must keep her eyes shut.

• • • •

There were far more people in front of the tattoo shops than there should be. There had always been tattoo parlors along 20th, but after bulletproofing, the number of shops multiplied by a hundred. Now, long lines spilled from all the doors up and down the street. Allen felt a fever go through him as he got in line beside a man wearing an old World War Two steel helmet and a coat hand-sewn with steel plates. The man’s son stood in front of him, fine blond hair lifting in the wind. He wore a stainless steel skillet on his head, tied by string beneath his chin.

“What is it?” Allen said. “Another one?”

The man nodded upward, where above the shops the ad screens were now showing film footage instead of advertising. The same scene played again and again—a masked and armored gunman firing an M-7 into a crowd of people. It took Allen a minute to realize it was the playground of an elementary school, and the children had been lining up to come in from recess. Their bodies jerked when they were hit with bullets. The material of their coats puffed out. A girl’s head exploded.

Allen looked at the lines again, knowing that after every school shooting more and more parents got their children covered, even if they couldn’t afford it. Even if they had to take out second mortgages or sell their kidneys or turn to prostitution. Some of the people had their faces tattooed. Most of them wore coats festooned with steel: silverware, skillets, pots and pans. Most of them had children, hands clasped to their children’s shoulders to keep them close. Some of the children had their cheeks tattooed and some had their necks inked and their shaved heads shaded, and all of the parents were alternating between looking up and down the street wildly and watching the same scene play out on the screens again and again: the man closing in on the schoolyard, bringing his assault rifle to bear. The bullets burping out of the barrel, ejected so fast you could see only the empty shells and the exhalation of gas. The children falling and screaming, the wide eyes of the teachers and their uncovered faces as the children dropped. One teacher ran toward the shooter in an attempt to protect the children, but only made it a few steps before her body crumpled. The children’s mouths hung open like tomb doors until the SWAT teams closed in on the shooter, bullets shredding his skin, his face disappearing just like the little girl’s had. The camera swept the schoolyard to show dozens of bodies bleeding onto the sidewalks.

He had watched it 117 times by the time he made it to the door of the tattoo shop. More people came to stand in line behind him, talking of the newest shooting.

“This is the world we live in now,” he heard one woman say.

• • • •

When he got home, Emily was working. He looked at the new campaigns lined up on her drawing board.

“Don’t Let Your Breath Become Bullets. Get Your Lungs Enlivened.” This was accompanied by another waifish woman—not Netta, but cut from the same cardboard—whose ribs were inked to look like wings.

Another said, “Color Your Cranium With Kevlar.” This one showed a woman whose hair had been sheared and a helmet tattooed on her head. Her cheeks were protected by the chinstrap.

The last one said, “Make Your Mind Bulletproof—Your Brain Will Breathe Easier.” The ad showed only an unattached brain on white canvas, and below it the particular details of bulletproof tattooing—locations, prices, a few samples that others had inked on themselves: a football helmet (Dallas Cowboys), a portrait of a child (possibly Anne Frank), a spaceship (Millennium Falcon.)

“What do you think?” She had no shirt on, and the koi fish seemed ready to take flight, fins like wings spread just above her breasts.

“Your new ad is already up,” he said.

“I called it in last night, while you were in the shower.” She stood and came over to him. “They gave me enough that we can afford your neck piece.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I thought the air was all bullets anyway?”

She kissed him. Her mouth tasted of pot and the gelatin coating of pills. “If it makes you feel better,” she said, “I’ll get it for you.” She paused. Her eyes were half-lidded, and he could just make out the idyllic islands inked on them. “I heard about the shooting today,” she said.

Her voice was so small it hurt him. “I saw it on the screens,” he said.

She nodded. “The company wants more copy. Sales always go up after. ‘Time to hit them hard,’ my boss told me.”

She looked away, as if turning from the idea toward something more pleasant but not quite making it.

• • • •

The lines were still long when he went back for his appointment a few days later. The final count at the school—somewhere in Connecticut—was twenty-six, twenty of them children, and the fear that resurfaced after every sensational shooting still hung around. For three days, Emily had written copy. She worked late at night, after he got home, which was later and later as more and more orders for bulletproof doors came in. She would start off with a joint, then pop a Klonopin or Percocet, but Allen did not have the heart to stop her. Most people he knew were doing whatever they could to get through the day.

Her bosses had thrown out “Guns May Kill People, But Ink Never Does,” but they had liked “Think Ink” and “You Can’t Buy Happiness, But You Can Get Ink.” They had loved “Ink Is The Answer,” and had promised her another bonus for it, full coverage on her lungs and back.

He asked her if she was going to get it.

She shrugged. “It’s free,” she said. “Can’t hurt. Besides, I like the ink. It makes me feel different.”

“Bulletproof?” he said.

She rolled her eyes, though they were slow in response. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Just different.” She stretched out an inked arm. “Like I’m wearing new skin.”

In the morning he went downstairs and out the lobby, past the small shops that sold increasing numbers of home security or personal safety items—mace, blackjacks, helmets, stun guns, .22s and .357s, M-4s and M-16s and AR-15s.

On 20th, he slipped past the long lines and went into the shop. At the desk, a young girl with her head shaved and ram’s horns inked on her skull looked up as he approached.

“We don’t have any open—”

“I have an appointment,” Allen said, handing her the card she had given him a few days before. She looked at him, checked the computer screen, then nodded.

“Brandy will be with you in a moment,” she said.

He sat on a couch in the corner, looking out through the glass walls at the people waiting outside. The shop was like a long hallway, and he could see small stalls where the artists were working, heads bent over prone bodies, their guns buzzing. At the higher end shops, the artists would use lasers that made no noise, but here the buzzing soothed him. He had stolen a Xanax from Emily’s stash, but wished he had taken two. Or one of the Dilaudid drops. Most doctors would prescribe anything from Xanax to Demerol for anxiety, the simple fear of walking the fucking streets. They had begun to prescribe tattoos as well, though the health insurance companies would not cover the cost unless the person was a cop or a fireman or a school teacher.

When he looked up, Brandy was standing before him. She wore only a bikini. A great red dragon wrapped around her body. The background was all green forest, an ancient land long forgotten. Above her breasts little birds flitted through the forest. Mossy streams ran down her cheeks. Her eyelids were yellow lanterns.

“So what are we doing today?” she said, leading him back to her small stall. Hung on the walls were pictures of tattoos she had done: swallows and stars and dragons and teardrops.

He pulled out a picture of Emily and handed it to her.

“Portraits are becoming more and more popular,” she said, looking at the picture. “She’s beautiful. When did she die?”

He could not see the lanterns of her eyelids now, but where her eyebrows should have been were small swirls of storm clouds. Behind the clouds, lightning lingered—he was sure of that, faint as the suggestion of the ink was.

“She’s not dead,” he said. “I just wanted to . . .”

Brandy was already turning from him, though he did not know if it was because she was embarrassed or because she needed to get started. She was laying out her instruments and measuring ink.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that people usually get portraits of loved ones after they are lost.” She pressed a button with her foot and the tattoo gun buzzed. “Now get ready,” she said. “This is going to hurt.”

• • • •

When he got home, Emily had pulled the couch close to the balcony door and was looking out at the city. She did not look up when he came in. For a moment he thought she was dead. Her eyes were glazed over. The koi fish on her chest barely rose and fell.

When he got closer, he saw that she had been crying. In the streets below them, the lights were just coming on. He had soundproofed the sliding door so they would not have to hear the gunshots, but he could see the sporadic flashes below. Downtown, in the windows of the Gloch building, the office lights were going out at the end of the day. It made him wonder what the world was coming to, how small humans were, so shallow-sighted and angry, inconsolable and aggrieved.

“What is it?” he said, sitting beside her.

She laid her head on his chest and for a long time he just held her. His neck hurt where the tattoo of her was. When Brandy had finished, he had looked at it for a long time, unable to find the right words. It looked more like Emily than he could have imagined. She seemed to smile at him. Brandy had drawn it over his jugular, and each pulse of his blood moved through her.

Emily shook into him as she cried. He could feel her heart beating too hard against his. When her breathing slowed, he raised her chin up. He saw her eyes flicker to her face tattooed on his neck, but either she was too tired or too deep in grief to take it in.

“Netta killed herself,” she said. Her voice was full of painkillers. “The model I work with, the one we use in all the ads. She swan-dived from the Gloch building this afternoon.”

Her voice broke on the last word. Allen saw again the advertisement with her on it, the great red heron poised in mid-flight on her chest, and he wondered, in the way such thoughts strike in times of tragedy, if she had thought she might fly. He knew why she didn’t use a gun.

“Why?” he said, knowing it was not the right thing to say but needing to say something.

Emily’s voice came across some chasm he couldn’t comprehend. “I don’t know. I knew she was sad. She was taking ten Tramadol a day.” A muscle twitched in her neck. “I guess it wasn’t enough.”

He waited, knowing there was more, that she didn’t swan-dive off the roof of a building because she was addicted.

“She just couldn’t live any longer,” Emily said. “She left a note. It said ‘No one is bulletproof.’”

• • • •

The first snow was falling when they went to the funeral. In the early afternoon, the lights were already on in the city. The few cars on the street honked and swerved angrily. He heard a gunshot or a backfire several streets over.

Emily had been too distraught to notice the new tattoo. He had held her until very late, both of them looking out at the city, the distant lights winking like the collapse of stars. His neck hurt but he did not move. Brandy had told him to take care of the tattoo, that without proper treatment the lines could blur and he could lose her likeness, but she had fallen asleep against him and he did not wish to wake her.

She woke up once, very late. “I knew she was taking a lot of pills,” Emily had said, “but everyone who works there takes pills. Everyone is sad.”

When she went back to sleep, he slipped a hand into her pockets and found a bottle of Vicodin. He took two, hesitated, took two more. In fifteen minutes, the lights of the city seemed washed, faded. Her advertisements were hung all around the walls of the apartment—he saw Netta’s face again and again.

When he woke in the morning, Emily was working. When he asked her why, she said she had to do something to take her mind off Netta.

Her new ad featured a woman with a blank face—Allen realized she couldn’t draw Netta again. “No One Is Bulletproof,” the copy read, “But You Can Come Close.”

“They won’t like it,” Allen said, wrapping his arms around her from behind.

She put her hands on his, leaned back into him. “I know. But I had to start somewhere.”

When they got to the cemetery, the snow was swirling around. The church service had been short, and now they stood in the snow while the minister’s words were torn away by the wind. A dozen or more models, all with the same stark figure as Netta, stood like storks at the graveside. The company men were all covered, faces as dark and blank as the long coats they wore.

Netta’s mother wailed as the casket was lowered. Her father stared at the spot where the sun should have been. Both of them had small black swallows beneath their eyes, the only visible ink on them. Allen imagined them at cocktail parties, telling anyone who would listen that their daughter was the bulletproof girl. The bare trees bent in the wind and little birds were blown off course.

They had just thrown the first dirt on the lowered casket when the gunman entered the cemetery. Allen saw him first, but in the wind and the gray light, he felt as if he were underwater, as if he were a stranger standing in someone else’s skin. He watched as the bullets blew from the barrel, little bits of orange flames, and those standing near the grave began to fall. In the wind, he could hardly hear, even when the screaming started. The company men drew their own guns from their long overcoats and began firing back. More bullets broke from the man’s machinegun and Netta’s mother fell into the grave. Her father clutched his heart.

Allen turned then, remembering all the ads Emily had hung up around the apartment, thinking that the air was full of bullets, that ink was the only answer. The ground was cold and hard as he began running. He vaulted a gravestone and kicked over a few flowers but kept going. He might have heard Emily behind him, but he could not stop.

He was almost to the gun when the man saw him. His face was hidden behind a mask. His eyes were white. He aimed the machine gun at Allen—the barrel seemed smaller than the first swallows that men got to cover their own small hearts—and pulled the trigger.

Later, in the aftermath, the darkness and despair that came down, he would wonder how he was not hit. He saw the barrel belch and heard the bullets fly. One came close enough to his neck that he could feel the air of its passing. Another snagged the arm of his overcoat. Then he tackled the gunman and his hands were around the man’s neck, and then the gunman was gasping and then he was no longer doing anything except being dead.

Allen did not hear the screams as he walked back to the gravesite. Only the wind, loud as the last days of the Earth. Netta’s mother had been hit in the forehead. The sound her husband made as he knelt beside her was like the wind. Of the models, a half-dozen were down, most not moving, eyes staring unseeing at the hidden sun. One of the company men was holding another’s throat, applying pressure while blood slipped between his fingers and the man’s mouth worked and the sounds of sirens came from far away.

He found Emily lying beside the open grave. He pushed through the crowd and knelt beside her. The ground around her had been churned to mud. The company men were caring for the models. A few of them still had their guns out. One walked over and put six bullets in the gunman, his body bouncing with each shot. Allen wondered if he was bulletproof.

He could not tell, in the confusion, if she had been hit. He did not know if the blood at her throat, in the soft empty place her tattoos did not cover, was hers. How could he, he would think later, when there was so much of it everywhere? You can’t cover enough to stop every contingency, he thought. He would have to tell her that one, get her to draw it, though he knew, as soon as he said it, that her bosses wouldn’t like it.

“Are you all right?” he said, cradling her head in his lap.

She nodded, but it could have meant anything. Her hand was cold on his cheek. She blinked back the tears the wind had torn from her. For once she wasn’t stoned, and he could see in her eyes the realization of how awful everything was.

“How stupid we were,” she said. Her voice came as slow as her shallow breath. She looked up at the grey clouds. “So stupid to believe something as simple as ink could protect us.” In her eyes, he could see the stars. “How ignorant to think it could be that easy.”

Paul Crenshaw

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart PrizeApex MagazineInterzoneOxford AmericanGlimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.