… a squalid little squid of a bar possessing all the moist charm of a toxic fart laid at the root of the nose. The Three Jolly Maggots, the sign said, and offered to the discerning pubic eye three creatures eerily glowing, and these I unquestionably supposed to be the maggots in question. One of the sepulchral pupae hoisted morosely foaming beer, while the other rifled the pockets of the third drunk and passed out in something he had pissed out or delicately secreted upon his person.
As a rule I steered clear of such places but here (and here’s my oath on it) there were only such places. The Toad in the Bog likely offered the same sort of refreshment as the Three Jolly Maggots, but I chose the latter because a) I was thirsty, b) I was already there, and c) a reason I cannot disclose. Moreover there were no scabrous navvies milling around in front of it, puking in three colors and languages.
The host drew me an ale with nothing floating on the top. He was a thin man who had once been a fat man. He was a bald man, too, and he drew up all of his extra skin so that it gathered at the top of his head. He tied this skin in a kind of topknot, which gave him a surprisingly youthful appearance. I supposed he was about my age, and fond of hot peppers. Upon his left cheek he sported a tattoo in the style of Rubens –- a fat, naked nymph smiling flirtatiously at a naked shepherd, who was waving a live squirrel over his head in an enticing manner. There would be love in the offing if they ever escaped from the pubman’s skin. And not for the last time. The squirrel, I should add, was also naked, but seemed aware of and content with his minor role in the composition. To know one’s place and joyfully keep to it, even if it is one hemisphere of Marco’s face, that is something, after all.
I remembered seeing a tattoo, or rather a painting, quite like it when I visited the gallery of Prof. DeLonghe, though there was less squirrel evident. It was a painting (or a “canvas tattoo” as he sometimes called them), it was a painting, I say, striking in its squirrellessness. When I asked Marco about his tattoo, he answered through his mouth that the artist was indeed a relative of Rubens. He also felt strongly the lack of squirrel and was sure that the great Rubens would have recognized the superiority of the version injected into the side of Marco’s head. I tipped Marco with one of my heavier coins and tipped to him also my hat wide and full of thunder. He offered to animate the scene with deft facial manipulations, but it was late, the gravity was growing, and I was developing a rash with a pungent aroma.
Marco undid the topknot and sagged. He looked to me now like a melancholy little man peering out of a skin bag. I had the vivid impression of Marco as a small hoarding rodent being digested alive by his own body. I almost said something, but I could feel him bite back the bitter banter.
I have heard of such things, things more easily believed than written down. Sad things that mutter to themselves in the haze and then wake to find they have not been dreaming. Sleepy things that know nothing of plump nymphs, naked shepherds, and squirrels that may or may not be called for by the strictest rules of composition, squirrels whirling motionlessly around a motionless point until Marco adroitly touches his cheek – so – and jolts the tableau into motion.
Marco had at first denied that it was a tattoo, that it was a most strange and wonderful birthmark boding this and that. But when I made a sound into the bottom of my mug of ale, he grew shy and admitted that he’d had it commissioned. The squirrel’s left eye was in fact a mole of which Marco was particularly self-conscious, resembling, as it did, the left eye of a tattooed squirrel that was being rotated by a naked shepherd. I almost gagged on pride when I reflected that I lived in a country where such things were still possible, where a man being digested in his own skin could commission a distant relative of a famous artist to tattoo a squirrely version of a dull painting onto the cheek of a shrunken man in order to hide a mole so small that no one could see it anyway in the smoky damp of a pub that was dangerous to breathe in let alone to drink in. Then my pride returned to the pit of my stomach where it belonged when I recollected that I was not in my country, but in a country that I didn’t wish to come to in the first place, a lowland country where the flag boasted a night crawler writhing on a hook.
Awaking from my reverie, I saw poor Marco as he really was –- a sad little raisin furred with mold and time.
Boaz MacNutt is a surfer/somnambulist from western Pennsylvania.