Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Three

When Rae was fifteen and living in Covington, Kentucky, she fell in love with a man some thirty years her senior named Bernard Spaulding. An award-winning graduate of the Cincinnati School of Design, Spaulding had also studied on a scholarship at San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and with a number of private tutors in Paris. His specialty was trompe l'oeil, at which he excelled with an insouciant, imaginative originality. But in those days and in that part of the world, who wanted trompe l'oeil enough to pay for it? Proctor and Gamble, that's who, and so Spaulding worked at their in-ouse agency by day, rendering bars of soap, "stealing" familiar compositions from Ingres, Mary Cassat, and Camille Beaux, democratizing a motherhood eager to rid the world of juvenile dirt thanks to P & G soaps. By night and on weekends, Bernard Spaulding pursued a more sensuous and sensual vision, painting and drawing, hopeful of gallery showings and enough sales to allow him to use advertising as a mischief, much as Andy Warhol did.

Prolific and good as he was, Spaulding never achieved the sales he sought, much less the recognition. What he earned instead was a too-intimate relationship with amphetamines and other chemical energizers, with the result that his break-away from P & G came literally as a result of being asleep on the job one time too often.

By the time Rae met Spaulding, he'd moved from Cincinnati across the river and state line to Covington. The Bernard had morphed to Buster and his chief d'oeuvre had changed from bars of soap and Norman-Rockwell-like paeans to personal cleanliness to grittier semiotics such as hearts that dripped blood, boas that constricted with a wrenching sense of realism, dragons that seemed to breathe actual fire, and death's heads whose eye sockets, although empty, appeared to track the viewer from every perspective.

Rae's motive in approaching him had to do with his artistic reputation and his role as proprietor of Buster's Tattoos, Covington KY, USA. Some said the addition of the USA to Buster's logo was the real touch of genius, but Rae believed it was the quality of the man's work. Her initial hope was that Buster would do for her upper left forearm what he had done for the night-shift checker in a Kroger's supermarket. Instead of giving Rae the life-like Mona Lisa she'd requested and was ready to pay for, Buster gave her a lecture on the social consequences to a girl such as herself of having the wrong kind of tattoo. Wouldn't that make someone a dandy master's thesis in sociology or anthropology? In mitigation of the Mona Lisa, Buster offered to do a free life-like and life-sized ladybug just above the prominent outer bone of her left ankle if she would take a day or so to think over her desire to be tattooed.

The first time Rae told me the story, she claimed to have thought things over for nearly a week, spending much of her time on the day-bed of hr rented room in Covington, alternately checking help-wanted ads on Craig's List and extending her left leg at all possible angles, imagining what strange and wonderful things a life-sized ladybug could bring into her life. In another version of the story, Rae admitted that her curiosity got the better of her within two days and returned to Buster with what was a remarkably mature question for a girl of her age: "What will a ladybug on my ankle do for me that a Mona Lisa on my arm won't?"

By that time in his life, Buster had added Coca-Cola with either Southern Comfort or Meyers hundred-fifty-one-proof rum to his pharmacopoeia. He mixed himself a drink at his usual stern proportions and gave Rae a Coke with a dollop of Southern Comfort. "A woman with a Mona Lisa on her arm, even a Mona Lisa of my doing, will advertise her appeal to the kinds of men who require brute sex, who frequently hit their women out of jealousy or impatience, and who invariably expect them to be the primary wage earner."

At the time, Rae had twelve hundred fifty dollars, given her by a man, as well as the promise of five hundred more in six months (which I will tell about later). The subjects of men and money had begun to interest her. "And the ladybug?" she asked, sampling her drink.

Buster twirled the liquid in his glass. "The ladybug will attract men who are able to distinguish eroticism from brute sex."

"What kind of man is that?" Rae inquired.

"A cultured man," Buster replied with deliberation. "An educated man."

"A man like you?"

"Now that you mention it."

A man like me as well, although I'm getting ahead of myself again.

I'd seen Rae three times before that muggy August afternoon in the days when air travel was more an adventure than an existential nightmare. Quite by accident I sat next to her on a flight o a Piedmot Air flight from Tri-Cities in Bristol, Tennessee, to Atlanta. By the time we were aloft and the Fasten-seat-belts sign was off, I'd made the connection of who she was. Violent if not murderous impulses burned forth with the same intensity as the onset of my duodenal ulcer during my last year in graduate school. Then I saw the ladybug on her ankle.

Rae stayed with Buster for three years, working for a time at the check-out desk of the Mongan branch of the Covington Library, tiring of that, lying about her age and working at a waitress at a strip joint, giving that up and bussing the six miles into Cincinnati every day to attend a beautician school.

During that time, the metaphorical ice of her resistance to tattooing having been broken, Rae variously tried to get Buster to do a rose bud on her right shoulder blade, a butterfly on her left shoulder blade, and after she'd read a book on the tenets of Buddhism, a lotus blossom on her inner thigh. Buster kept refusing, telling her the ladybug was all she needed. "You must learn the basic laws of aesthetics, girl," he insisted. Less is more. This is particularly true for you. You have enough beauty for one woman. You have no further need of adornment. None." But in a drunken whim after celebrating Rae's eighteenth birthday and some pestering for just one more tattoo, Buster rendered a near-perfect image of the famed One-Penny Black American postage stamp after which he would never touch her with a needle again.


R.L. Bourges said...

ah-ha.Do I detect an arc forming in the primal fault line?
Spaulding, huh?

Lori Witzel said...


Rae. (I hear a faint chorus of "Santa Lucia" at that.)
"Buster" Spaulding. (*snork*)
The Tri-Cities Airport (which is, of course, smack up against Blountville, Tennessee.)

And the stamp...poifect.

Factoid: I am tattoo-free, mostly on account of being a contrarian in a time when tats are popular, but also having considered asking for a rendering of Kandinsky's "Yellow-Red-Blue" and deciding no one I know who works a needle could get it right.

R.L. Bourges said...

lori: try a lissitzky - early period. Very cool.