I’ve just been told my short story Koi has been chosen as an honorable mention for this year’s Rebecca Pitts Fiction Award. (I have to wonder how many entries they had that I made honorable mention!)
Jeremy’s attention jerked away from the magazine on the counter he leaned against, as the bell above the door signaled customers. Three women—no, four—staggered in the door, loud, boisterous, drunk. “Good evening, ladies. Have a look around. Let me know when you’ve picked something out.” One of them nodded in his direction. The rest ignored him. They set, right away, to ooh-ing and ahh-ing, while pointing at the colorful images that lined the black-painted walls.
“Mandy, you should get this one!”
“Ooh, Shelly, this one’s so you!”
This scene repeated itself every weekend. Jeremy knew that, more than likely, the women would stumble around the room for a while, picking out the images that they thought best represented their true, inner, spiritual selves, until they sobered up enough to realize maybe they didn’t really want tattoos after all. Jeremy went back to his magazine. An hour or so later, the bell chimed again as the flock of animated birds left the store.
When he finished reading, Jeremy looked up and was surprised to find the room was not empty. One of the four women, the last in the door, the one he almost hadn’t counted, stood staring up at a blue koi, pinned close to the ceiling. Walking from behind the counter, he asked, “You know they stand for love, right? The woman turned her head to appraise him with wide eyes.
“And children,” she said.
“And dragons,” he replied.
She squinted at him, suspiciously. Turning back to the wall she said, “I’ll take that one. On my shoulder.”
“All right, then. Just step around here.” Jeremy thought she wasn’t bad looking, but dressed more conservatively than her companions had. Up close she looked older than he thought she was at first. She didn’t fit the type of his typical customer. “Are you sure you want to do this now? It’s pretty late already, and this tattoo is pretty involved. We’ll probably be here a while. Why don’t you come back tomorrow?” He felt a sudden obligation to talk her out of it.
“No,” she said, “I’ve waited long enough.” For some reason this woman unnerved him. She reminded him of Jennifer.
“You know, my ex-girlfriend used to keep koi in our back yard. Probably still does, I don’t know.” Jeremy assembled his needles and inks while the woman slipped off her blouse, her back turned to him. There wasn’t much difference in color between the pale pink silk and the flesh of her shoulder. Even when it healed, the blue ink would stand out like a bruise.
Jeremy began to work and thought of the koi pond. According to mythology, the carp who came close but failed to leap the dragon’s gate waterfall were rewarded with the dragon’s colors. Those who succeeded became dragons themselves.
When Jennifer asked him to leave, he’d been feeding the fish. The miniature dragons writhed beneath the surface, swarming to be fed, every scale articulated in the sunlight. They might have made it if he’d been willing to settle down. He gave her the baby she wanted, but he couldn’t give her the rest.
For the first few months of her pregnancy, Jeremy really tried hard to be glad about the baby. He went to the doctor appointments. He tagged along as Jennifer picked out clothes. He painted a bedroom in her house. But Jeremy was just too used to doing what he wanted, when he wanted. Late nights at the tattoo parlor meant he wasn’t available when Jennifer needed him. Even if he wanted a regular job, the dragon-colors on his arms ruled out most lucrative work. And he had far too much fun flirting with his female customers on the weekends.
By the time she asked him to leave, three months ago, Jeremy was only coming around once a week or so anyway. And Jennifer couldn’t put up with the other women. “I’ve waited long enough,” she’d said. The baby was only a couple of weeks away. Really, it could come at any time. He wanted to be there, but he wasn’t sure that he could do it.
The woman winced, and Jeremy turned his attention back to his work. “So, why the Asian carp?” he asked.
“I’ve got to leap a waterfall,” she said.
“That’s pretty cryptic.” Jeremy figured she just didn’t want to talk. But after a moment, she continued.
“My son’s been in an institution. In a few days, I’ll bring him home. I don’t know what to expect. His mental illness came out of the blue. I don’t know what life will be like for us, now. They tell me he’s ready to come home. No matter what, I’ll have to face it.”
Jeremy didn’t know what to say, so he just kept working, refashioning the head of the carp into that of a dragon. He wasn’t sure that Jennifer would even speak to him if he called. But he would do whatever he could.