The Art of Dying


Twenty till and the old man shuffles in from the boardwalk, starts paging through the tattoo shop’s flash art books. Just another grizzled Boomer with a patchy beard and decaying motorcycle boots. Lydia’s about to point out the sign–last customer served thirty minutes before close–but she reconsiders. She needs the money more than she needs to close on time. He limps over and shoves the book across the counter, pointing with a dirty fingernail at a predictable pin-up illustration, big tits and a tacky mouth. “This is what I want, just like this,” he says. He lifts up his sweatshirt, smacks his ribcage. Most of his torso is already covered in tattoos. Crude, ugly lines. “Running out of real estate,” he says, “so how about here?”

“It’ll hurt,” she says. Ribs always do.

“I’m counting on it.”

So she shrugs and tells him to take a seat, but as she traces the pin-up with stencil fluid she feels his eyes on her, oozing like an oil slick. “You’re running out of space too,” he says. “What’s a nice girl like you doing this for, inked all over like them ghetto bangers?”

Lydia keeps her back to him. Creeps come with the job. “Nice girl,” she says. “Hey buddy, don’t assume.” But she glances down, taking in his pale, vacant eyes. “Do I know you?” Something about his voice, the sandpaper scratch of it. She tightens her calf muscle just to feel the hard outline of the revolver in her boot, a dangerous security blanket.

“Nah. I’d remember a fine ass like that.”

He takes off his shirt, and that’s when she realizes.

Holy fucking Mary.

His right arm.

She’d recognize this guy anywhere.

The faded half skull, half hand grenade tattoo just inside his elbow, leering over a banner with curving Latin script.

Ars moriendi.

She remembers all of it: ski-masked and strung out, the guy slammed into her father’s tattoo shop, demanded all the cash in the register, like some fucking cartoon robber. He got what he wanted, shooting Jimmy St. Clair in the chest on the way out while Lydia stood there stupefied, ten years old and watching the black and white tiled floor turn dirty red as her dad bled out. Four bullets for two hundred bucks.

Now, they’re alone in the shop, and her skin prickles. But there’s no recognition in his face. And no wonder: twenty years and a few hundred hours of ink on her own skin, she doesn’t look like that helpless kid anymore. A gift, this. Delivered to her by the universe.

Lydia squeezes her leg against the revolver again as she presses the stencil against the piano keys of his ribs, speechless for a millisecond. “Don’t move,” she says finally.

The buzz of her tattoo machine fills the shop while her father’s face fills her vision. Without him, she grew up everywhere and nowhere. Meanwhile, this human garbage lived long and hard and free. She inks the first line, digging in.

“Ooh, you weren’t kidding,” he says. “That’s nice, that’s real nice.”

She inks a curve, her hand vibrating. “You like that?”

“It’s like that song. Hurts so good.”

Lydia wipes the ink away, smudging the stencil. But it doesn’t matter.

“You know what I mean? I bet you do. I bet you like that sweet hurt just like I do.”

She changes position, getting the line down faster. The gun digs into her leg, a sweet hurt of its own.

“You don’t say much.”

“Don’t need to.” She smiles down at her linework. Perfect, as always. The only thing she could ever do right.

She steps away, lets the guy stand up, hobble over to the mirror.

“What the fuck?” he says, leaning in close to the glass.

His torso, red and angry, the black lines like stitches.

Jimmy St. Clair.

“Bitch, are you crazy? Who the hell’s Jimmy St. Clair?”

“You really don’t know?” He stares at her in the mirror. A heavy understanding settles into his eyes when sees the gun in her hand.

Ars moriendi,” she says. “The art of dying.”

She’s only got two bullets.

But she only needs one.

~ fin ~

Kristen Lepionka is the author of The Last Place You Look, forthcoming in Spring 2017 from Minotaur Books. She grew up mostly in a public library and could often be found in the adult mystery section well before she was out of middle school. Her writing has been selected for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Grift, and Black Elephant. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.