Five Points is pleased to announce that James Rioux’s essay “Tattoos, Death Metal, Shaving, and other Ironies” has received the title of Notable Essay in the 2013 volume of The Best American Essays, edited by Cheryl Strayed! Rioux’s essay first appeared in Five Points vol. 14, no. 3. This well-crafted and heartfelt essay about loss and remembering those closest to you.
Tattoos, Death Metal, Shaving, and Other Ironies
“Go I.” —M.R.
I still rub at it now and again, as if it might smudge on my wrist, as if I’ve yet to fully accept its epidermal permanence. I must admit I’m pleased it’s not ornamental. God knows, I’ve had to work hard enough to establish any kind of masculine assertiveness; it doesn’t hurt to have rudimentary letters inked into my skin—letters just strange enough to possibly suggest some drunken ritual or mishap, or, better yet, a stint of long-term incarceration.
But it’s rarely exposed to others, as the inside of the wrist is mostly turned toward one’s own body, allowing even wrist-cutters a convenient anonymity. And then there’s always the long sleeve shirt. When I hide it it’s to avoid the awkward questions, or, more specifically, the potentially long and sometimes emotionally tedious answers. Go I? What does that mean?
I drove that day with a friend of mine to a tattoo parlor a couple towns over—a trip that might, on any other day, have created some anxiety. Living with severe agoraphobia is, for me at least, a constant navigation of boundaries that shift according to a complex set of variables (though, I think now, this describes the lives of most of us). On this day, nothing was stopping me from doing what I felt I had to—in this case, it meant convincing myself that my body was the place where my recently dead friend Matt was to be given a voice.
Put simply, Matt, a quadriplegic with severe cerebral palsy, was unable to speak for the thirty-six years of his life. When I met him in his early twenties, Matt was just learning to use a communication device that enabled him, with the use of an infrared head pointer, to activate icons on a screen that were programmed, when triggered in patterns, to generate a computerized voice. In another words, it allowed him some access to communicating his needs and wants. I could go on to mention how we all take this kind of activity for granted, etc. . . . but, frankly, after living so much of my life in the company of Matt, I’ve come to take such revelations for granted.
There’s something you should know about death metal. More specifically, about the way it’s recorded (at least as I’ve been told by some practitioners). Having done a lot of studio recording myself as a musician and engineer, I understand a little something about the rudimentary technical factors involved, and I’ve been able to replicate with some degree of accuracy the distinctive rumbling scream-growl that is typical to this particular genre of music. For the uninitiated, most death metal, or black metal, consists of a bed of distorted bass and pounding drums often played at a speed that requires immense strength and athleticism (I’ve tried!), layered with muscular stabbing guitar riffs, and above (or is it beneath?) it all, these guttural blasts of inarticulate vocals. Which brings us back to my point: these guttural blasts are, in fact, hoarse whispers recorded at incredibly close range with a mess of distortion and an industrial truck load of amplification. There is no other way a human voice could sustain the kind of depth and volume heard in these songs.
One of which was being played the day I walked into the tattoo parlor by a band I can only imagine had some such name as Vikings of the Apocalypse (for some reason unknown to me, the Scandinavians excel in this genre). Anyway, being a migraineur in addition to other neurological challenges, I was not pleased. This was not your typical tattoo shop, however; it lived up to the name parlor. Sleek and modern looking artwork adorned a hip waiting area with dark leather couches.
“Do you guys have an appointment?” a gangly young man with thin arms crazed with colorful animation asked my friend and me.
“No,” I said. “Is that a prob . . .” But he had walked away. I didn’t know if we should leave, and yet I was determined to get this done.
I watched the gangly young man whisper something to someone else behind a desk in front of a computer. The other young man stood, and as he got closer I saw that his arms were covered with what looked like dull smudges of paint. This was not promising (I would learn later, however, while he was tattooing me, that he was having his old ink lased off so he could have a fresh canvas).
“So what is it you guys wanted?” He seemed disinterested. “Just a couple words,” I said. “On my wrist.”
Matt loved hearing stories. Broken down cars, minor bumps and bruises, scrapes with authority, the wide variety of human frustration—these things amused Matt to no end. He was a connoisseur of minor calamity. What I also learned fairly quickly from Matt, however, was that his use of the communication device offered him no opportunity to tell his own stories. This was something I set out, with the help of his unceasing enthusiasm, to change. Before my introduction of narrative devices, a typical string of words from Matt might sound like this: “Go I store drink walk downtown Jim outside people talk walk pathfinder [the name of the communication device] vocabulary stretching home administrative.”
In addition to implementing a wider range of feeling words for Matt to use I wanted to find an easy way to distinguish one event from another and place those events into a sensible order of occurrence. After about a year of hard work (Matt would literally break out into furious sweats as he craned his head around to activate each sequence of icons, several hundreds of which he had memorized), Matt began to insert the simple word “then” to signify where one action ended and another began. The difference, though subtle, began to give Matt a narrative voice: “Van go I Portsmouth. Then go I outside walk downtown. Then people talk pathfinder. Then food drink I. Then go I van home I. Then pathfinder vocabulary. Then TV couch sit Jim. Then drink. Then administrative. Then Jim goodbye.”
Nick Filth (I can’t even make up a name like this, though he obviously did) walked me back to what looked like a dentist’s chair for my time with the needle gun. I tried to break the tension.
“So this is the last song on this album, right?” I asked, referring to the death metal.
“No,” Nick said. “Why?”
“Oh, I get it,” I said. “You guys have to live up to the whole tattoo tough image thing.” I was already regretting my attempt at a joke.
“We play all kinds of music here,” he said flatly.
I kept waiting for him to warm up, to try to make me feel comfortable. That was how I had imagined things transpiring. I had hoped for some kind of question, for instance, about the tattoo I was getting. Nothing. I should have been anxious, but all I could think about was how funny Matt would think this all was. The actual pain of the pulsing needle, kind of like a series of wasp stings of varying intensity, came as a welcome distraction from the awkward social interaction. Before we started he turned my wrist a couple times to get the right angle.
“Like this,” he said. “And try to stay still.”
And then without warning he pulled out a razor and put it to my wrist, scraping clean of hair a swath of skin to get things ready.
The morning of the day Matt died I shaved his face. At this point he was no longer able to communicate with his Pathfinder. A respiratory accident, due to illness and over-medication, had changed his life dramatically. He had been living in an assisted care facility for over four years, in and out of the hospital due to pneumonias, UTI’s, MRSA, bedsores, etc. . . . We had to wear gowns and gloves when in close contact with him—to protect him or ourselves or both I was never clearly told.
And yet on the days I shaved him I broke those rules. I needed the direct contact with his skin in order to stretch it gently to allow the razor a smooth surface. On this morning he was non-communicative. At this point he would answer questions with a sharp up-look “yes” with his eyes (if he was enthusiastic) or by looking at one of two fists we held in front of his face.
This morning I was getting nothing. Blank stares, even when I tried to joke about my dog keeping me up all night.
Until I mentioned a shave. Then his eyes shot up. I had other opportunities to see Matt after his body had gone cold and lifeless that day. I would be invited later into the ICU to “see him at peace.” But I choose to remember him this way:
I remove my gloves. I prepare his face with a hot towel and shaving cream. I turn his head carefully to each side, sliding the razor over tender folds I pull taut on his neck. I ask him if he wants me to leave his mustache. And then it happens—a brief smile and another look-up yes.
“You look like a cop,” I say. Then one last laugh, which now is a fuller smile accompanied by a wheezing from his trach.
Then I re-heat the towel with warm water and lay it around his chin like a soft white beard. Then I dab some loose stubble from around his stoma. Then I look Matt smile. Then tired Matt. Then touch I head soft last. Then go I