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The hotel was warm but winter had come, persistent despite all blankets. Ping looked at his phone, ‘We have to wait for the restaurant to open,’ he repeated again.

My new tattoo was healing quickly. Ping had done a good job. Still, I wasn’t satisfied.

‘Just gonna take a nap,’ Ping closed the blinds. Late-morning light streamed through the veil, filling the room with incessant dimness.

‘Turn off the T.V.’ I pointed towards the glowing rectangle.

‘You don’t watch T.V.?’ Ping hit power on the remote.

‘I’m writing,’

I wrote.

Then, ‘I’m writing,’ to Ping.

My phone dinged. It was Josy, half my age, half a world away. The little darling only used Facebook to talk to me. We were both too old for her. I looked at the yellow face she’d sent. An emoticon. The symbol was already evolving, adapting to new technologies. In a century, it would be part of a new language: emoticon. It was evolving already. 

I set down my phone, tried to nap, but my mind kept racing, kept trying to figure out how to get rid of my new tattoo.

‘Got three clients competing in the show today,’ Ping continued searching for Thai restaurants on his phone, snuggled cozy beneath blankets, his cot beside my bed. ‘One is already at the convention, one is on the way, and one is still in queens.’

‘Sounds about right,’ I laughed. The tattoo industry was as laid back as it was earnest. No one really gave a damn about anything.

‘How you spell Valentine day?’ Ping asked.

‘There’s an ‘s’ at the end,’ I looked up at the ceiling, at the spears of light stabbing through curtains. Someone above me was having sex. I could hear the ancient rhythm beat desperate against the wall. Valentine’s day. Everyone in the hotel was exchanging orgasms- everyone but Ping and myself.

Ping and I had come to win a competition.

I pulled out my pipe and grinder, ‘Want some?’ My stomach grumbled angrily. It was late morning and the little soldier was hungry. Yesterday we managed to land a free breakfast. Today we weren’t so lucky.

‘If we leave now,’ Ping ran the math again, ‘we get there by 11:30…’

I put on my glasses and moved to the window, feeling the cold press in, radiating through the glass, ‘When do they open?’

‘Twelve,’ Ping sighed sadly. ‘I call to make sure.’ He dialed the restaurant a second time, ‘You open now?’

‘We open at 12,’ the voice squawked loud in the silent room.

‘Mother fucker,’ Ping hung up. ‘No time for twelve.’ He googled another place. ‘How far is 5 miles?’

‘Ten Minutes,’ I dug through my backpack, looking for the good lighter.

‘This place looks decent,’ Ping found another restaurant. ‘They have noodle!’ He said excitedly, ‘but they don’t open until 12.’ His face fell, confused and angry, ‘Why everyone open so late?’

‘Why everyone open so late?’

I typed into my phone, ‘It’s Sunday.’

‘It’s sunday,’ I said.

I wrote, ‘and this isn’t New York.’

‘Fuck,’ Ping sulked deeper into his cot.

I took a hit and opened the window. Most of the exhale fled back into the room, pushed by savage motes of desperate cold. It was February, and the first hard freeze. Even the air wanted to be inside.

Drug smoke eased in from the corners, smoothing bumps, softening winter’s ache. I packed another bowl, feeling the medicine spread, trickling into my core. ‘Did the girls make it home?’

There had been girls in the car on the drive out. Ping tattooed one of them. Her piece, like mine, failed to win a trophy.

‘Didn’t ask them,’ Ping was distracted, still searching for open Thai restaurants.

‘They were trouble,’ I looked outside at the desolate suburbia, then took another hit. This time I stuck my head out the window, blowing smoke in the direction of the wind. The billowing column poured down and out, disappearing as the cold claimed another victim.

‘We should leave soon,’ Ping’s eyes were almost closed. He peered up at the ceiling, lost in his cot. ‘It’s almost 12.’

I’d been ready for hours. If Ping wanted to leave he would have to get out of bed on his own.

‘The Internet is fucking slow here.’ hHe went back to looking at pictures of restaurants.

I nodded blankly, no longer worried about the world and its sorrow.

• • •

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‘I’ll have the fried coconut ice cream,’ I handed the dessert menu back to the waitress. ‘And put a banana on top of it.’

‘My client is at the convention already,’ Ping tried again to get me to hurry.

‘A fried banana?’ The waitress looked at the menu, confused.

‘No,’ I shook my cotton candy head, ‘put a slice of pre-fried banana on the side.’ I illustrated on the side with my hands.

‘We gonna be late,’ Ping warned again.

‘We were late before we left for the restaurant,’ I took a sip of water, ignoring his sudden urgency. ‘I want fried ice cream.’

Dessert arrived on a heart-shaped valentine’s day plate. Two elegantly curved banana halves surrounded the fried ice cream, repeating the contours of the plate. ‘Happy Valentine’s day,’ I winked at Ping.

Ping watched stoically as I ate a few bites, then even he couldn’t resist.

‘The banana is good,’ he took a bite of fried ice cream, then hit the lump thoughtfully with his spoon. ‘I could eat all day.’ He looked around the the room, at ease for the first time in days, ‘Noodle is my drug,’ he took another bite of banana, ‘I been eating hamburger for two days,’ he shook his head, remembering the horror. ‘Fucking hamburger,’ he closed his eyes, but the wound was fresh. ‘Fucking cheesesteak…’ He took a deep breath and leaned back, letting the pain flow through him, ‘Noodle is my drug.’

Each of us had decimated an army’s worth of pad thai, the empty plates, like carcasses, were scattered across the table.

Ping picked up the menu again, ‘We get food to go. Then eat it later. Instead of stupid burger.’

‘Yeah,’ I scooped another bite of fried ice cream. ‘That’s a good idea.’

‘Can I get some chicken fried rice to go?’ Ping called across the empty restaurant. Our waitress looked up from her conversation.

‘And I’ll take some spring rolls,’ I raised my hand to indicate which of us was talking.

‘You order spring roll and nothing else?’ Ping looked at me suspiciously.

‘Noodle is your drug’ I pointed my spoon at the Thai master, ‘spring rolls are mine.’ I looked out the window, ‘I don’t think you should enter this competition,’ my neck cracked as I sagged into the seat. For days I’d been standing, trying to sell tattoos, trying to sell art. ‘We’re three hours late. It’s going to be a rush job. You might fuck up this dude’s arm.’

‘Nah, man,’ there was steel in Ping’s tone, a certain iron I’d only heard in rich men’s voices. ‘I’m gonna win.’

‘The other artists have already been working for three hours.’

‘Noodle will help,’ Ping said seriously. ‘Noodle is my drug.’

We both began to laugh.

• • •

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I parked the car in a vacant lot ten blocks from the convention center. The distance was absurd, but we saved a fortune on parking. Ping was already at the convention center, tracing the stencil for a tattoo that didn’t stand a chance. He was a genius, but even Picasso needed time to work.

Depressed, I pulled out my stash, feeling the ache of my new tattoo, crisp against the press of clothes. This was no longer my war. My soldiers had already fallen.

I stood on stage, shirtless, and cold. Two judges stared at my arm.

‘How long did it take?’ The male asked mechanically.

‘Six and a half hours,’ I fumbled with the painting, holding it up with pale, wiry arms. ‘It’s a portrait of Bukowski,’ I explained, ‘he’s meaningful.’ I looked at the painting, ‘Ping chum is the tattoo artist. ‘ I turned to show them the tattoo again.

‘Thank you,’ the female judge made a note on her piece of paper.

The male gestured me away.

‘That’s it?’ Ping asked as I stepped down from the stage.

‘I guess.’ It happened so fast. We’d both spent weeks designing the piece, and now it was over. We hadn’t won a thing.

I took another hit, exhaling into the car. It was a long, cold walk to the convention center.

• • •

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‘Are you painting today?’ Kat was the shop girl three booths down. Like all shop girls, she floated ethereal, as if her essence had been distilled from a reality slightly better than our own. I’d been trying to flirt with her all weekend.

‘Nobody wants what I’m selling,’ my eyes were bleary, marijuana the only thing keeping me awake, ‘People are here to buy tattoos, not paintings.’

‘That sucks,’ Kat smiled sympathetically.

For two days I’d given everything I had, attempting to pay for the trip with hustle. I’d made $20. This, while my tortured arm itched and burned, rife with fresh-scarred ink.

I returned to our booth and found Ping’s client for the day, shirtless as he waited for a tattoo, his body similar in shape to that of a gorilla. ‘What are you getting today?’ I asked.

‘The King of Thailand.’ His chin raised proudly, his neck ropes entwined with shoulders the size of basketballs. ‘He God,’ the man continued seriously. ‘He bring the rain.’

Sure enough, taped to the light stand next to the arm cushion was a piece of paper with an image of the face of the King of Thailand. The disembodied head, confident and beautiful, floated in the clouds. Towards the back of his head, the King of Thailand’ s hair grew faint and wavy, transforming into mashed potato piles of cumulonimbi. These clouds, which were also the head of the king, rained on a group of peasant farmers. The peasant farmers tended their rice paddies, happy and well-fed, cheering, thankful for their God’s sacred gift. To the left, where clouds turned once more into His Holy Face, a single, blessed finger extended, almost, but not quite, touching his thoughtful lips. Beneath the hand, a golden symbol, glowing and indecipherable.

‘That’s quite the composition,’ I said seriously. Ping had sort of modified the design for my tattoo, replacing bukowski’s head with Bhumibol Adulyadej’s, and my gentle hearts with the story of his people.

‘You gonna win?’ I asked the new guy, wondering if he understood the question.

‘We will win,’ the gorilla nodded, his narrow eyes magnified by a fashionably large pair of glasses, ‘Ping the best.’

‘Totally,’ I agreed, afraid he might accidentally kill me when he beat the shit out of Ping for rushing his tattoo.

‘Time to begin,’ Ping squeezed into the booth, holding the stencil he’d made based on the design he’d mimicked for the tattoo I’d envisioned which had already failed to place.

‘Only four hours left,’ I warned, looking around at the massive auditorium. Over 1,000 of america’s best tattoo artists had set up camp for the weekend, inking loyal fans and drinking heavily each night. Ping avoided their parties, seizing any edge on his path to victory.

‘Maybe you should lay in the lines and shade it later,’ I tried to find a middle ground. It was a good design. With enough time, it could be a great tattoo.

‘No way, man,’ Ping sat down and began transferring the stencil onto the gorilla’s arm, ‘we gonna win.’

For months Ping had searched for clients. For months he had designed tattoos. Now the test, now the fire and its forge. He was competing with a handicap, cut off from the food in New York, his only sustenance an occasional hamburger.

‘You’re tired and four hours behind, bro.’ I repeated, too exhausted to mince words.

‘It’s ok,’ Ping continued setting up his machine, ‘I have noodle now.’

I looked at the gorilla in the chair, the one with no neck and basketballs instead of shoulders. If he understood what was happening, his face showed no sign.

‘Fuck it,’ I’d tried. I was weak with exhaustion, nursing a hamburger hangover. Chills radiated from my new tattoo. The entire arm was traumatized, healing, and sick. No one was buying my art. The entire trip was a disaster.

I left the booth and began to wander.

• • •

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As I wandered I met Frank Frazetta’s grand daughter. He’s one of my artistic heroes, so I bought one of the iPhone 6 cases she was selling with her grandfather’s artwork on it.

‘Who did this?’ I asked the artists in the booth.

The guy with a rockabilly haircut looked up. ‘Tony,’ he flicked his pompadour in the direction of a small Mexican.

Tony dipped ink into the whisper-smooth needles of his machine, ‘Hey.’

‘I like your work,’ I pointed at his portfolio.

‘He has a light touch.’ The guy with the rockabilly haircut stood up, showed me the side of his shaved head, ‘Tony did the scroll work on my temple.’

The lines were dark, delicate, beautiful. The perfect showpiece for any collector.

‘Think you could fix my tattoo?’ I took off my coat.

‘What you got?’ Tony raised his chin, giving me permission to remove my shirt and approach.

As the portrait of Bukowski came into view, tony set down his machine. He stood, tinier than I’d imagined, a delicate creature with small shoes, khaki pants, and gang signs tattooed across his face.

‘When did you get this?’ His trained eyes swept over the piece.

‘Two days ago.’

‘It’s good work,’ Tony was gentle and quiet. He touched my arm with delicate fingers, ‘It’s healing fast.’

‘Holy shit!’ Two girls stopped to admire my exposed arm.

‘That’s fantastic!’ Said the taller of the two.

‘I hate it,’ regret cut through.

‘Why?’ Asked the spunky one.

‘He outlined the areas of color,’ I pointed to each place where Ping had failed to live up to the expectations in my head. ‘He added shadows where there shouldn’t be shadows. I told him to improvise, to take my design and make it his own, but I didn’t-’

‘-This is your design!?’ Asked the taller girl.

‘Sort of.’

‘You can paint!?’ Asked the spunky one.

I nodded.

‘It’s good work,’ said tony.

‘That’s so cool that you can paint!’ The spunky girl took a drink of her alcoholic beverage.

‘You should be proud,’ the tall one came closer, admiring the details, ‘your artwork is on your body.’

‘No,’ I shook my head, ‘my tattoo artist’s artwork is on my body.’ Anger came bubbling to the surface, each word snapping, cold like the wind.

‘He can’t do your work,’ Tony looked up at me, ‘he can only do his.’

And then it hit me.

I’d been treating Ping like a puppet, telling him what to do, directing him, just like my idiot clients in my previous life as a graphic designer.

I told him what to do, then got mad when he did it. And now? I was assassinating him behind his back- to his colleagues.

I was the monster I’d been sent to destroy

I looked at my hands,

I looked at the world

I looked at my hands

But in a new way.

‘I guess I should shut the fuck up,’ something inside died, some vestige of an older self. Another remnant of fear annihilated.

‘I’d give anything to have that piece,’ said the tall one.

I put my shirt back on, suddenly proud of my tattoo.

• • •

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Second Place for Back Piece, Ping Chum, Philadelphia Tattoo Convention February 14, 2016

‘Third place, for best back piece:’ the announcer squawked over the intercom. Five thousand visitors paused to listen, ‘Ping Chum!’

Third place. Ping would be devastated. Still, congratulations were in order. With a grunt, I stood and began the 10 minute obstacle course to pass security.

‘Now,’ the announcer continued over the intercom, ‘I can’t believe I have to say this again, ‘but you are not allowed to wash your new tattoos in the bathroom sinks! That’s fucking disgusting!’

All around the convention center boos, hisses, and cat calls rose from the crowd.

‘Your tattoo is effectively an open wound, you stupid pieces of shit!’ The announcer kept talking. Good-hearted laughter erupted from the crowd. I took off my coat and let inspectors search my bag for weapons.

‘If you wash your open wound in a shitty bathroom sink, you run the risk of contaminating the area. You might infect yourself or someone else!’ He was really riled up this time. It was almost as if someone had engaged in the behavior he was ranting about.

No one had, of course. His speech was informational, a public service announcement to first-timers. I had been in the bathroom a lot that weekend, chronsing the shit out of any number of porcelain thrones. It was the hamburgers that set me off, the stupid fucking hamburgers. After 98 trips to the bathroom, I realized no one was actually rinsing new tattoos in the sinks. The thrice-daily announcements were a warning, not a newscast of recent violations. The announcer’s words were harsh, but his intent was kind. This was love in the curse-laden language of the marginalized.

‘So keep ‘em clean, but don’t clean them here, you filthy fucks,’ the announcer finished his rant. The crowd applauded itself. Everyone was glad. The children had been warned.

‘Second place, for best back piece,’ the announcer returned to his listings. I waited in line at the ticket check.

Ping took second the last time he’d competed at this convention. His failure haunted him. He had returned for revenge, to prove that his honor had been slighted. And now, the back piece he’d been working on for over a year barely placed. I was proud of him, but I knew he would be disappointed.

‘Second place, for best shoulder or half sleeve…’ The announcer continued. I no longer cared. We’d come. We’d tried as hard as we could. It didn’t work. Sometimes you get a trophy, sometimes you eat hamburgers and go home ashamed.

I pushed through the glut of newly admitted tourists. They dispersed into the center of the room, fresh and full of wonder.

‘First place,’  the angry-but-amenable MC continued reading from his list, ‘for a shoulder piece or half sleeve,’ I dodged a giant drunk guy,  ‘Ping Chum!’

I dropped my bag. My mouth fell open. I picked the bag back up. I ran forward, pushing my way through the crowd, smiling big.

‘You did it!’ I shouted as I rounded the corner, breathless.

‘Told you,’ Ping winked, holding a pile of trophies, plaques, and loot. The freshly-tattooed Thai gorilla stood beside him, grinning like a yeti. ‘I just needed my noodle.’

• • •

The ride home was glorious, each of us beaming, satellite moons reflecting the light of our valiant star.

‘Civilization!’ I cried as Manhattan came into view. New york, that jagged line of crumbling teeth, bloody with lights, laughing at the face of god; buildings and bridges piled one on top of the other, each believing itself a king, each searching for the spotlight.

‘Gonna eat so much noodle,’ Ping changed the volume of the music slightly with one practiced hand.

The Thai gorilla said something to Ping in their native tongue. Ping answered. Both of them chuckled.

The laughter spread, filling the car. Triumphant, we crossed the Washington Bridge, each of us a legend in his own mind.

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end.