Art of Reconciliation

 After my wife left me, and then returned,

I wrote a one-act play about it, which we

performed on a Sunday afternoon at the

local bookstore.  She, as the “repentant

spouse,” me, a “cocky but forgiving god.”

Later that evening, she rammed my car

through the back end of our new garage.


So what’s at stake in a story? Ideally you should be able to express the core plot in a sentence or two, in about the same space and style as program listings in TV Guide. If this sounds original, fine; if not, don’t worry. Nothing is original. It’s in the telling and in readers’ reactions that it becomes unique. There are always new readers and readers who weren’t ready for this when they read something similar to it before. But now for the teller and for the listener there has to be something real. As someone once said, “Go for broke. Don’t do this like an exploratory operation; it is life and death surgery.”


A Brief History of My Tattoo

 It was, say, twenty-three or twenty-four years ago, in my parents’ Upper Peninsula cabin. I had on a tank top and was doing something at the kitchen table with my two young kids. My mother said, “Oh I forgot you had a birthmark on your arm.” This wasn’t very startling, but then she said something that set me wondering for years. “When you were born you had a birthmark on your forehead as well, but we had it removed.” I had never heard this before. Over the next couple of months I looked at my earliest baby pictures and none gave any indication of there being a birthmark on my face. It was one of those surreal moments when you wonder, were babies switched in the hospital? Are these my real parents? I even wrote a poem about it called “The Changeling.” In fairy tales elves exchange one of their young for a more-valued human when no one is watching. The changeling—the elf raised by humans—is always somehow foreign to the environment he grows up in, though he knows no other. I had a niece who, when she was born, had a strawberry birthmark on her brow. It was removed by laser treatment. I have since concluded that my mother in her old age mistakenly attributed this to me.

            Thoughts like these were still in my mind as I entered the tattoo shop in Janesville last year. I had an appointment for a tattoo that would cover the birthmark on my arm.  The parlor itself was a cross between a third world medical clinic and a neon-lit carnival freak show. Dragons, skulls, and snakes (at least drawings of them) lined the walls. This was not a place for the faint of heart, and I was basically a coward. But a coward who was fed up with a large tan birthmark. 

Ever since I was a kid I was razzed with, “What’s that shit on your arm?” I found myself wearing t-shirts when I could have gone shirtless or leaving the towel over my shoulders after showering at the gym. It was a symbol of my difference that in subtle ways caused me to act differently. I was a changeling.  At one point as an adult, I thought I would be like the character, Blind Pig, in The Man with the Golden Arm. Because he couldn’t see he decided he would be a filthy, unkempt mess and contaminate the vision of those who could. I wore tank tops and proudly displayed my birthmark. If I wasn’t perfect, people were going to know that the world they saw wasn’t perfect either. But if at heart I wasn’t an introvert, I certainly wasn’t an extrovert either.  As time passed I realized something had to be done.


*                       *                       *

Did I mention that my mother had disowned me, my wife decided to move out, and that the tattoo artist’s name was Holly. The next day, after her remark about my birthmark, my mother and I got into an argument about religion. She told my wife of the time that I was “no child of hers.”  It didn’t mean anything in reality, but coming so soon after her confusion about which baby had a birthmark it was curious.  And just eight months before getting a tattoo, my second wife, Talia, decided life would be simpler if she lived on her own. In fact that’s why I finally concluded, why not get a tattoo. 

            People ask if it was painful. What, sitting for 3 ½ hours perfectly still on a stool and having vibrating needles stabbing into your skin? It’s like being cut with dozens of razor blades at once, but what is difficult to explain is that you’re so anxious it will be botched that you are too petrified to look, much less feel the pain or think about whether or not getting a tattoo is really a good idea. I had gone in for a visit a week earlier and shown this woman the art nouveau design I’d xeroxed out of a library book. She recognized the style of the drawing and seemed genuinely interested in doing the tattoo. She traced my birthmark very carefully and I went home to enlarge the design to its proper size. Now, this afternoon, she was carefully shaving the spot, rubbing it with cleaning alcohol and studying her “canvas” intently.

            Holly transferred the design to my arm and began the arduous task of using the electric tattooing needles to push the ink under the top layer of skin. I didn’t know if I should talk or not. I needed her to want to do a good job, but I didn’t dare disturb her concentration. It turned out that a little conversation was fine.

            She was a single mother of two young children. They lived in a small apartment above the studio. She’d originally done the bookkeeping for the business and later would clean up drawings people wanted for tattoos.  She had studied art in school. She would stop every two or three minutes and carefully pat the spot she was working on with cotton swabs of alcohol. Long streams of blue-green ink were running down my arm. I was afraid to look but comforted by her gentle touch. How right it seemed that a woman was tenderly paying such attention to this mark that had been the source of such lifelong embarrassment. The healing process had begun.

Holly had no tattoos. Her skin was very white, almost translucent in the glare of the room.  Her eyes, red rimmed. She had a direct gaze and pleasant smile, though I noticed one of her gums was discolored over a front tooth. She was slight in stature and wore brown coveralls and disposable sanitary gloves. Her children came down twice.  The second time her eight-year-old son showed me a cartoon strip that he had drawn because his mother told him I was a publisher. The pictures were funny. At that point the mother cleaned off the tattoo—which was almost done—and the boy and his younger sister in unison said, “Wow!”

            My arm was so numb and red you could no longer see the birthmark through the design of the tattoo. She carefully put some ointment on it and wrapped it with strips of gauze. I paid her $350 with a $20 tip for her kids and stepped out into the now cool night air. I nearly passed out. I drove a mile then pulled over into a restaurant for a hamburger and fries. There was a tremendous sense of relief. I had done something that I dared myself to do. But besides the throbbing pain, the intensity of the last four hours and a fear that this was a mistake that would mark me for the rest of my life made me physically sick and mentally disoriented. And, of course, there was the anxiety over what my wife (now having returned to our marriage) would think. She was working in Madison that evening preparing a new restaurant, where she was a waitress, for their grand opening. I did make it home and into bed. Talia arrived an hour later. The unrolling of the gauze was like a scene in a B-movie in which the hero undergoes plastic surgery and holds a mirror in front of him as the doctor unwraps bandages to reveal his new face. I think she was relieved by what she saw. She knew I was going to get a tattoo but I had not shown her the design. I’m sure she feared it would be a cartoon bunny (my nickname).

            But the climax came two days later at the opening celebration of the Clay Market Café in Madison (this was it’s real name, not “The Quill Driver”). It was crowded and festive. As I’ve said already, Talia was one of the hosts that night. I had told her I would wait until she was done and we could go out somewhere else for a bite of dinner. Eventually the hors d’oeuvres were gone and customers thinned. Then it was only staff and one or two tables of hangers-on. Talia had told the others about my tattoo and one of her friends came over and asked if she could see it. Since it would involve taking off my shirt, I didn’t think it was appropriate and said, “No.” But one of the waiters said to the friend, “I’ll show you my tattoo,” and rolled up his sleeve to reveal a little design. The new maitre d’ said, “Take a look at mine,” unbuttoned his shirt and wiggled out of a sleeve to reveal some small grapes and grape leaves. By then a small circle of the staff had gathered and I said, “Well if everyone is showing their tattoos, I’ll show mine.” Remember, I am the person who for fifty-eight years had done everything possible to avoid showing the top of his arm to anyone. I unbuttoned my black shirt, twisted my left arm free of the sleeve and (there was no longer any gauze bandage) moved directly under the light.


John slowly begins to roll up his sleeve.


            There it was, gleaming under a fresh application of skim cream. The new bluish ink ten times darker than any of the other tattoos. The art nouveau design of a large flowing medieval plant like a knight’s emblem, bold, proud, ornate—yet stunningly simple—positively glowed from my arm.  Was it my imagination or were people staring in awe. And was I mistaken or was that a new glint in my wife’s eye as she silently clapped her hands.

            The transformation was complete. I’m sure people at the gym think I’m vain when they catch me glancing at the tattoo in a mirror. It’s not that. I’m just delightfully amazed. If you look carefully you can still see the birthmark against which the single-color pattern is silhouetted. I like that. There was nothing wrong with having a birthmark; it just needed a proper frame.




Rewriting Chapter One

In the first chapter of my beloved

wife’s semi-fictionalized account

of our lives two characters with

soap opera names, Gray Becket

and Sylvia Caldwell, meet through

a personals ad.  He entices her

with poetry and gifts only a woman

could  think of for a  man to give.

My wife’s friends love it, and me.


However, after my slight flirtation

with a female friend, she rewrites

the chapter. Now the first person

narrator finds her way despite

the insensitive nature of the male

sex. My spouse’s peers cheer

the work’s new  fierceness and

with her pray all women may be

delivered from evil (such as me).


Time passes…and most of that

seems less important somehow.

In the new Chapter One (which I

barely am  allowed  to see) she

turns to God. Men–even women

who are complete strangers soon

agree–are superfluous; without

them life, as well as writing, flows

just so much more (well) easily.


But what about Gray Becket and

Sylvia Caldwell? Like a TV show

that switches from one time slot

to another they take up residence

in my verse. She, eyes lowered,

dreams of unrequited love while

sipping café latte as he, lost in his

own imagined world, churns out

enough poems to last an eternity.


 For a couple winter months my wife and I did something pretty interesting. Each night at six o’clock we would sit down with a couple glasses of wine and write for twenty minutes in our journals. After we were done we took turns reading what we’d produced to each other. I named this “co-journaling.” Here are three of my writings from consecutive nights. I titled them…


My Ideal Woman


                In the movie, The Heartbreak Kid, the central character marries a folksy twenty-something Jewish woman and they go to Miami for their honeymoon.  She gets a terrible sunburn the first day and while she’s confined to her hotel room for a few days, he is smitten by the young Cybil Shepherd (this was twenty-five or thirty years ago).  She is the ideal white American Protestant male’s dream woman.  He eventually leaves his wife, doggedly pursues Cybil and at the end marries her in a refined ceremony that is in great contrast to the ethnic celebration of his first marriage that began the movie.

            Now I always thought that this premise was wrong. How could someone fall in love with one person and really want just the opposite? But I have wondered about something else. What if a man, for example, fell in love with a woman because she looked a certain way, had a particular manner and there were pleasant dynamics between them and then met another woman who had all the same characteristics but to an even greater degree. There would be a dilemma!  He would love the new person, not because she was different but because she was even more of what he desired. That may seem improbable but I can tell you from my own experience, it is possible. You say, well perhaps someone could be taller, more slender, have a better figure, but her personality would be different or she would be less fun to be with, right?

            Last week at a bookstore-reading a female science fiction writer, Joan Vinge, claimed she had written her latest book because she fell in love with the male character. That got me thinking about Sylvia Caldwell, the character who is my wife in her semi-fictional autobiography (Gray Becket is the man impersonating me). Now he is of little interest to me—I get enough of myself as it is. But Sylvia is another matter. She is like my wife, but perhaps a little taller and more slender; she has all my wife’s personality traits but I only see Sylvia on her good days. And the sex? Well everyone knows that reality can’t compare with fantasy.  There is only one thing that troubles me.  What if these two should find out about each other, or even worse, what if they should meet. Perhaps they will.


           “And try to make it so there isn’t that ‘glick, glick, glick,’ noise when you shift,” Talia said as we pulled into the downtown area. She had already told me where to exit and where to park and now was back to harping on me about the way I drove.

            “I’ll let you off right in front,” I said, “Then park the car.”  But please shut up, I was thinking, please dear God, a moment of peace and quiet.

            We were going to a grand opening of a new, overpriced Madison restaurant called (give me a break) “The Quill Driver.”  My wife, Talia, was one of the wait staff, but tonight’s event was being catered, so her function was to be hostess–greeting and conversing with invited customers from the restaurant’s old location while I…(and I smiled at this as I left the car down the block and walked to the new establishment), …while I…would sit in a corner, drink champagne and scarf down free hors d’oeuvres.

            As it turned out, though, we were a little late, the skimpy bits of food were already almost all gone.  Wow, I thought, there must have been a mob waiting at the door who waged a major attack on the free d’oeuvres as soon as they opened and it doesn’t look like any reinforcements are on the way.  “Oh well,” I sighed and sat down at a back table after accepting a glass of champagne offered by one of his wife’s colleagues.

            There Talia was, her hand on the arm of the no-chin owner Rodney, talking to one customer while she was smiling at another.  I had to admit, she did look good. There was an animated quality about her that was infectious and appealing, at least from a distance.  I was hunched over my glass of champagne and thought, I should really sit up straight, when I heard a voice like butterfly wings at his ear. “Why John,” the female’s well-modulated tones exclaimed, “what a joy it is to see you here.”

            I turned (while straightening up slightly and pulling in my stomach) to see alone at the table next to me (why hadn’t I noticed her when I sat down) a stunningly attractive woman, about the same age and height as his wife, but with hair…, well hair that looked like the woman’s pictured on a hair coloring box.  My God, I thought, it’s Sylvia Caldwell.


 “Won’t you join me,” she purred.

            I was sitting next to her, drink in hand, before she finished the sentence.  Good Lord, is she here alone, I thought, quickly searching the restaurant to see exactly where my wife might be.

            As if in answer to my unasked question she sighed, “I came with Gray Beckett, that other white-haired gentleman in a black shirt, talking to Rodney over there.”

            Shit, I thought.  But turning my head I could see the direction in which she was looking. There was Rodney and that pretentious, smug Gray Beckett standing next to him.  Ah, well.  I was envious.  What was the big deal with this guy anyway?  So much for Sylvia Caldwell, I thought, then Rodney, in the midst of pointing something out on the wall across the room, put his hand suggestively on Beckett’s shoulder. “What the hell,” I murmured to myself, as I remembered Beckett was a designer. “Maybe they’re gay!”

            “Haven’t they done a nice job decorating the restaurant?”  Sylvia said.

            “Huh?” I answered, turning back to her.

            “And don’t you just love the name, ‘The Quill Driver.’ It’s an old fashioned slang term for writer.”

            “Why, yes,” I said and turned my head again, this time to make a pretend cough so she wouldn’t notice me rolling my eyes. “Do you like writers?” I managed to ask (hoping that since I was one, the answer would be “yes.”). “I mean, what’s your favorite book?” I continued, trying not to be quite so obvious.

            Now, because there was this striking resemblance to my wife, I braced myself for an answer of The DaVinci Code, Conversations with God or Jaguar Woman.

            “Why,” Sylvia smiled warmly, “it’s your poetry book, Dogs Dream of Running. I can’t tell you how often I’ve read it, John, and each time I find something new and exciting in it.”

            I was melting at her feet; drool was running from my mouth and my privates were playing tom-tom. “Why thank you,” I uttered, “how kind of you to say that.”

            What I wanted to say was that I was madly in love with her. I looked at her face beaming at me and wanted to sweep her into my arms and into my life.  But something held me back… Why? She was perfect. What was the problem? 

            Then it struck me. It was exactly that . . . the fact that she was perfect and I was not. She had everything she wanted in her already perfect world. I saw my wife now, out of the corner of my eye talking to the ugly sister of one of her friends, making her feel welcome and special. I could tell Sylvia of my love but it would mean nothing to her. What I had was a wife who also had needs. Someone whose life I was important to. 

            And here was Talia coming over to our table with a bottle of champagne to refill our glasses. (slowly) Sylvia Caldwell—who, now that I thought about it did seem to resemble a young Cybil Shepherd—was fading into the background.