Monday, August 24, 2009

Available Surfaces I: Uncle Ernest’s Tattoos*

character c.1315, from O.Fr. caractere, from L. character, from Gk. kharakter "engraved mark," from kharassein "to engrave," from kharax "pointed stake." Meaning extended by metaphor to "a defining quality."    

I grew up in a place and time wherein the art of tattooing was virtually unknown—or, to be more accurate, was beyond the pale. A map of local businesses would not have included a tattoo parlor, any more than a list of the local houses of worship (and that would have been a lengthy list) would have included a Church of Elvis, however many Elvis worshipers might actually have lurked among us.
The only member of my family who had tattoos was my Uncle Ernest, who we rarely saw, because he lived Elsewhere. Furthermore, he came from Elsewhere, as he was “only” an uncle by marriage anyway, having courted and won Aunt Eunice after the Great War; and Aunt Eunice was not “really” an aunt in any case, as she was adopted (though she was in fact Family, being the daughter of another aunt and uncle, both of whom perished in the Great Train Wreck, but that, children, is another story).
As if that weren’t enough, Uncle Ernest obtained his tattoos in an even more distant Elsewhere. During the Great War he had been a marine, serving in the Pacific Theater, where, I gather, he saw a good deal of combat on islands whose names, when I was a child, were utterly strange to me. I remember hearing him tell a story about lying on his belly firing his rifle (from under a jeep? Or have I imagined that detail?) while the bullets of an unseen enemy inscribed furrows in the sand to the left and right of him.  From there, I understood, it was somehow a natural step to the tattoo parlor.

Uncle Ernest had an anchor on his shoulder and a naked woman on his forearm. Both were tattoos of the crudest kind available from a professional--utterly stereotypical hack work executed in one color: mimeograph blue. Uncle Ernest was deeply ashamed of them, and always wore long-sleeved shirts. He would display them only rarely, under a combination of duress and the influence of a drink or three.   My connection to my Uncle (actually Cousin-By-Marriage) Ernest, therefore, was both complicated and distant. 
When I was a small boy, he was, in my mind, indistinguishable from his tattoos, though the tattoos were almost always hidden. From my point of view, they were the secret inscriptions that defined him, and by virtue of their existence—and beyond them, the marks in the sand written there by the guns of an invisible enemy, which were somehow both the cause and the underlying meaning of those crude pictures he carried on his skin—made Uncle Ernest “Interesting.”  

I feel reasonably certain that this assessment would surprise Uncle Ernest to no end, if he knew of it. His life was, I suspect, reasonably ordinary, full of the usual difficulty and quiet desperation, and generally devoid of adventure. He had three children, and spent his life providing for his family by working at the usual sort of job: he did something or other (sales, I think) for Kraft Foods (they of the utterly bland cheeses). 

His tattoos were hidden away under the long sleeves of his closet full of shirts—hidden from his employers, from his customers, from his friends, and mostly from his family, except during such moments as we children importuned him into compliance and he revealed them. When he did, a momentous history, fraught with enormous possibility and full of danger, came into view. Somewhere there was another kind of life; somewhere there were tattooists and jeeps and sand; somewhere there were people who would shoot you.     


I was a very small boy when it became obvious to me that I was a writer. As soon as I understood that books were not facts of nature like trees, dogs, and cabbages, but were made by people, I also understood that I wanted to be one of those people who made books. I came to this knowledge before I even knew how to write (though I had begun to know how to read). 

Concerning what it actually meant to be a writer, of course, I was clueless, and untroubled by being clueless because I was ignorant even of my own ignorance. I carried this sense of vocation lightly, and denied it often when someone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up: when adults asked this question it always seemed unserious to me, and so I gave frivolous answers (cowboy, spaceman, doctor, fox). My writer-self I kept close by but hidden away, like a smooth stone in my pocket.  

When I was five and not yet in school (this was before the invention of kindergarten, gentle reader, for I grew up before not one but several floods) my brother, four years older and hardwired for levels of practicality forever unavailable to me, asked me that archetypal question, but when he asked it, I took it as a serious thing. What will you do when you are grown? I will be a writer, I said. Oh, no, he said, you mustn’t do that. Why? What if no one wants to read what you write? How will you make a living?  

Tattooists, I suppose, have an advantage over writers, especially poets: they have shops, in front of which they put out signs; people see the signs, go inside, and buy tattoos. If a poet put out a sign, who would turn up? Who would buy? Perhaps I should have told my brother I wanted to be a tattooist when I grew up, but it would never have occurred to me to say that, any more than it occurred to me to say I would be a poet.  

I didn’t say “poet” to my brother; I said “writer.” I doubt whether the word poet was included in my vocabulary when I was five. The vocation of poetry would arrive, for me, much later. In the meanwhile it was necessary for me to learn to hold a pencil; it was necessary for me to form a certain relationship with paper, which in those days seemed to me an exotic commodity, and for my purposes looked different from the paper in books, which never had blue lines to keep the writing straight, or holes punched in the margin. I had, in short, a very long way to go.  

But: there were stories, and in the stories were characters; and there were books, which were filled with ranked rows of characters. The work of learning lay in the seam between character and character: between the alphabet and the cast of actors who could be invoked by the proper marshalling of marks on a page. The extent to which the act of writing was a balancing of character against character within character was as yet unknown to me; and how it became extended—by metaphor, as the dictionary tells us—to central facts about myself, I had not even the glimmering of a hint.  

Nowhere could a determined seeker have found a less likely literary paradigm than my Uncle Ernest, and yet to me he was a walking book. He had a cover, and inside there were surprising things fraught with meaning.  

It was typical of him, in this sense, that on the day of my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday—the same grandmother who had adopted the infant Aunt Eunice out of the Great Train Wreck—as the family was gathering for a gigantic celebration-cum-reunion, Uncle Ernest died. As he journeyed to Here from the Elsewhere he so insistently and perversely inhabited, driving the car with his family in it toward our distant point of reunion—his heart exploded. Or perhaps it imploded—my uncle had become massively obese in his middle age, generating more and more personal gravity; I can easily imagine that his heart collapsed like a dying star, into a black hole through which he vanished, taking his tattoos and the deepest secrets of his existence with him.  

In any case—though his dying transformed our celebration into a funeral—I never saw him again. I never even saw his grave; as he had lived Elsewhere and died Elsewhere, so he was buried in an Elsewhere I have never to this day visited. Rest in peace, Old Soldier; hail and farewell. The end.  


But not quite. I never saw his grave, but I did see a photograph of it: a typical piece of granite, almost but not quite white, inscribed by the unswerving hand of a journeyman carver holding his imperious chisel: Ernest McCollum. Kharakter, kharassein, kharax: In those letters everything was present, even through the grainy scalloped black and white snapshot Aunt Eunice sent. Here was a complex regression that felt to me as weighty as The Wasteland would one day feel: the photo revealing the carved stone revealing the name revealing the life that hid the images of a hidden world that was his and his alone, but that through him was also mine.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]

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