portion of the artwork for Gregory J. Wolos's fiction

Dead White Male Body
Gregory J. Wolos

Laser is in bed with the mother of the girl he’d served nearly a year in prison for violating. All he’d done was tattoo the kid’s eyelids per her request, though he’d been accused of more. After sentencing, he became a registered sex offender for “lewd or lascivious acts with a child fourteen or fifteen years old.” He’d thought she was eighteen. The girl’s mother, transfixed by his tattoos, stares at his chest.

“What’s this hand?” She has eyes like her daughter’s, but with long lashes that seem fake—her kid, he found out the hard way, has alopecia, and hasn’t any lashes at all.

“It’s Mr. Antolini’s.”

Her eyes buck to his. “Whose?”

“Antolini’s. From a book. He’s a guy who pats a confused boy on the head. That’s hair under the fingers.”

“Are they related?”

“They’re made up. It’s a book. He just cares about the kid. Or whatever.” Her eyes drop back to the spot over his collar bone. Sometimes it’s hard to see your own tattoos. It would not be cool to tell her that her daughter inherited her eyes. Laser’s not one for lingering looks. One early spring years ago when he was a teen he’d driven to the beach, and at the shore he came upon a group of people, Hispanic, facing the water, some knee deep in the surf, some standing on the sand. Someone named Papi had slipped beneath the black waves. There were shouts of “Papi!” through cupped hands at a surface that was blank all the way out until it met the sky. Laser had stripped to his shorts and waded in up to his belly before the bone-numbing chill struck him—that and the realization that he was a weak swimmer. The undertow pulled at his hips and thighs like a pair of giant hands. Shaking his head, he’d retreated to the packed sand, where he found himself facing a young woman. The wind blew her dark hair straight at him, as though he lay on his back and she bent over him. Through her hair he could see her eyes, and they were full and empty at the same time. He’d run back to his car, shouting without looking back that he was going to call for help, which he did when he reached a diner five miles down the highway. Really, he’d only told a waitress that she needed to call in an emergency, that someone was drowning.

People try to hold your gaze either to show you their wounds or to look for yours, Laser knows. The woman reading his chest can’t see the setting sun inked across his back. It’s got wriggling beams made up of words, one of which is “Papi.”

“You’ve got a thing for hands—what about these?” Dana asks.


“These right here, the clasped ones.” Her lips and the tip of her tongue mark a spot just below his nipple, and her hair is under his chin, honey blond almost to the roots in her pale scalp and smelling of expensive treatments. If Laser hadn’t been propped up on his elbows, he might have patted her head.

“From another book,” he says. “Two guys on the deck of a whaling ship are kneading a tubful of spermaceti—smooth, soft stuff from a dead whale. They used to make perfume out of it. They were squeezing the lumps out, and it felt so good they took each other’s hand.”

“Tastes fishy.” Dana smacks her lips. “I know, a whale isn’t a fish.” She sits back on her heels and scans Laser’s body, maybe for nautical symbols. “Whales are endangered.” She wears only his denim shirt, unbuttoned. Her flesh, all he can see, is white and clean. “And it’s a little gay, too.”

“Brotherhood,” he said. “The brotherhood of man.”

“What are you, a test all over? Who’s this?” She squints close to read the name printed over his belly button. “‘S-V-I’—how do you even say it? Did you—or whoever did it— spell it wrong?”

“I did it. It’s ‘Svidrigaylov.’ A character. He’s Russian.” He doubts if Dana could tell this was the newest of his tattoos, that he’d done it in prison with a needle and homemade ink. He won’t tell her that her daughter inspired it.

“ ‘SVIDRI-GAY-LOVE … SVIDRI-GUY-LOVE’ … Really. Holding hands, patting heads …”

Laser had thought the girl’s mother would be smarter, or at least better educated. She was a school principal, after all, though only elementary. Most of what she’s asked about on his chest was from books he’d read in high school. His body is kind of a test, though, and he can’t really say she’s failed it, because none of the women he’s been with has offered more than a general “Cool!” or “I like that one,” or “Those scare me,” about his inkings. Only Willy Freeze, his first and only cellmate, had picked up the references, and in a heartbeat. “Catcher,” he said about the patting hand, and “Moby-Dick” about the clasped ones after Laser gave him the hint about the spermaceti squeezing. He’d watched Laser complete “SVIDRIGAYLOV” across his stomach.

“Dude, you’re lucky you’re borderline, man. If that girl you’re in here for was as young as the girl that pimp Svid turned into a hooker in his dream, you’d be fucked. And I don’t mean fucked, I mean dead. Child molesters here, man, they’re dead-fucked. This shit you got inked all over you—you already got a dead white male body.”

“Mmm.” Laser was finishing the second V. There was something satisfying about the jab of the pin, the blue-black ink—something where there’d been nothing on his belly.

“Damn—” Willy Freeze wagged his big Mr. Peanut head. “Dostoevsky must have been messed up. Crime and Punishment. ‘Do the crime, pay the time.’” Then he got excited. “Hey, man, you got to ink my eyeballs! I heard about it, but never seen it. You got to ink ’em! Scare the shit out of anybody who looks at me.”

“Never did it, but I’ve seen it. But you don’t really want that.”

“You got to tattoo my eyes, man.” Willy’s voice and glare were iron hard.

* * *

The mother of the girl he tattooed is playing with Laser’s dick, which isn’t stiffening, but neither of them is ready for more sex yet. She’s examining it the way she’s looked at his body art, like it’s a curiosity, something that he has that she doesn’t. Laser had tattooed Willy Freeze’s eyes, turning the whites blue-black, and his cellmate had indeed been transformed into one fearsome motherfucker: he looked like midnight had risen within him and would never leave. Willie had laughed like a demon when he saw himself in the mirror. Then, within an hour, he’d gotten knifed in the yard during a fight he’d started, and Laser never saw him again. There’s also a “Willy” in Laser’s sunset.

* * *

Dana hates how she sounds. Like a coquette, like a little idiot, and here she is, forty, and a professional. Forty-two. But what did people sound like when they were having affairs? She has no script, but she’s deeply, daringly involved in a scene with this man whose body is a museum—a library—of prompts. She’s an unskilled teaser, and everything she says sounds stupid. “If it’s Russian, why didn’t you write it in Russian?”

“I’ve inked in Cyrillic. But I don’t read Russian.”

They’d met when she’d rushed to his tattoo parlor, furious and frantic, insisting that Laser remove the Stars of David he’d tattooed on her daughter’s eyelids. Thrusting the branded girl in front of her, she screamed at the figure in the tattooing chair. He was reading a newspaper under his work lamp.

“We’re going to shut you down!” She’d been hoarse, intending to be as dangerous as she tried to appear. That morning, Dana had found her daughter dressed and napping on top of her covers, as usual. The girl habitually rose at dawn to shave herself smooth from head to toe: the hair the alopecia left surfaced overnight in unsightly patches. Dana had started shaving the child in preschool, but since the onset of puberty the girl had been doing it herself. With adolescence, her daughter had spurned the brunette wig she’d worn since kindergarten in favor of a hot-pink bob. The new wig complemented a rich fantasy life that excluded Dana. But it had been a relief to roll her eyes at the superficial excesses of a daughter who, if not exactly a normal teenager, at least overlapped with Dana’s idea of one.

“Up, sleepy head, time for school,” Dana had called. “Missed you last night.” There’d been a late PTA meeting. Then she’d seen the stars, which the girl fluttered drowsily at first, then defiantly as she realized why her mother was staring.

“Tattoos,” she said, and Dana shrieked. The SUV’s GPS directed mother and daughter through commuter-clogged downtown streets to Laser’s Tattoos and Piercings.

The large man with the ring through his nose and the ponytail and the ink-stained arms lowered his paper, removed his glasses and nodded at them with a frowning grin, as if he’d expected them.

* * *

The minute he’d agreed to tattoo stars on the eyelids of the whip of a girl with the crazy pink wig and audacious, drawn-on brows, Laser knew there’d be trouble. But the kid was right about the stars—she needed them. He’d tried to explain to the frenzied mother that he couldn’t really help.

“It’s a coincidence that my name is Laser. I don’t do laser removal—I don’t have the equipment. There are clinics that do that. Try Tatt-off. It’s a chain—there’s one in the mall near you.”

Near you. That’s the thing he shouldn’t have said. He’d known not to say, Laser removal might leave permanent scars. He hadn’t said, The stars look good, let her keep them. He’d said near you, and it had come out that he had driven the girl home after tattooing her. Given the questionable safety of his neighborhood and the fact that she’d finally admitted to being a month shy of eighteen, a ride seemed the right thing to do. He wouldn’t have guessed she was only fifteen.

After the half-hour drive into the suburbs, he’d passed the entrance to her gated community before pulling over—when he saw the size of the houses and the lush lawns and the clean, broad, black streets on the other side of the gates, he’d decided to let her walk through them on her own. He had to admit, anybody checking them out in his pickup might have been curious about their story—a girl in a pink wig with white gauze taped over her eyes was not your everyday sighting. But her lids had bled a little, and Laser hadn’t wanted to risk infection. Blind and oblivious, the girl had chattered about pop movie stars the whole way. Thank God she knew her own address—probably something she’d been forced to memorize in kindergarten. Without his GPS, he’d never have found her neighborhood. She squeaked a little when he pulled off the tape holding down the gauze pads, but it couldn’t have hurt more than the tattooing. Part of the sassy eyebrows she’d drawn on her forehead came off with the tape. He twisted his rearview mirror so she could admire herself. The bleeding had stopped. She closed one eye at a time, batted her lids at herself, then at Laser. It was twilight, and he only knew her eyes were green from memory. She was smiling.

“I’m smooth, you know,” she blurted. Then she yanked off her pink wig, revealing her completely hairless scalp. “Touch it,” she said, and he’d patted her bald head. It was cool and dry. “I’ve got that alopecia disease,” she said. “Don’t worry, you won’t get it from touching me. I’ve had it forever. But I get patchy, so I shave all over twice a day to stay smooth.”

“Uh-huh.” Laser was used to confessions. It took a long time to ink people, and maybe something about the permanence of what was happening to them made his customers spill their crimes, infidelities, and aspirations. Other people’s secrets buzzed continually around his head. But it was hard not to look at a girl when she wanted to show you she was smooth.

“It’s itchy now, because the patches have started to grow in. I didn’t tell you about the other tattoo I want—I want drops of milk coming from my tit, like there’d been a baby nursing, someone pulled it away. But you can’t let the drops look like blood. I want them right here—”

Before Laser could protest she’d pulled up her t-shirt, and he turned his head away a second after he saw her place a finger two inches below a little nipple that looked like a boy’s.

“You need to cover up,” he said, staring hard into his side mirror back toward her neighborhood’s gates because his eyes needed something else to look at besides this girl’s nakedness. “I don’t do breasts as a regular thing. Now cover up.”

* * *

“—the mall near you,” he’d said. Only at the Tatt-off clinic in the mall, where her daughter wept with humiliation and pain at the de-inking of her stars, did Dana wonder how he knew. The lasering left white lines on her daughter’s lids, “which should fade, but no guarantees.” In the SUV on the way home—there’d be no school for mother or daughter—the interrogation, punctuated by “I hate you! I’m going to live with Daddy!” finally yielded the story the child repeated in court, where her baldness was hidden beneath her old brunette wig: “He covered my eyes and told me he wanted to give me a special tattoo, and he lifted my shirt and touched me where he said he’d put it.” Under her hand-drawn virginal brows a small band-aid covered part of a fading star.

The girl had sat with her father at the trial, a man Dana thought the shadow of an ideal parent. He’d been less than the shadow of a husband, though he hadn’t actually used the phrase “better prospects” a decade earlier when he’d left the big house in the gated community, and he never ceased to provide for his ex-wife and child. With the attorney he hired, a golfing buddy, he kept a close eye on the criminal and civil proceedings. He called his daughter “Pumpkin,” which made her smile and blush.

It took a year, after the civil suit and the settlement that would be held in trust until her actual eighteenth birthday, and just weeks before Laser’s release, for Dana’s daughter to finally change homes. While the girl stood at the front door, waiting among boxes and suitcases and rolled posters for her father, she’d confessed, “He never touched me except for the tattoos. All he did was give me a ride home. And I swore to him I was eighteen.”

* * *

“Your legs are as pale as all of me,” Dana says to Laser. “ Can you tattoo me? Can you tattoo me now?” She’s right about the whiteness of their bodies, all of hers, and his thick legs. Under the black hairs kinking from his thighs and shins and calves, his flesh is like a frog’s belly. Except for some sun-freckling on her forearms and the brown thatch between her legs and the tits so dark they’re nearly black, she’s white, too, but like a satin sheet.

The second after asking for a tattoo, she blushes fiercely, the color spilling like warm soup from her cheeks down her neck to her chest. Laser had been easy enough to find. She’d learned in court that his real first name was Lazarus, and his address was a matter of public record. But she’d left her intended apology unspoken. How could she apologize for the time he’d spent in prison and the livelihood he’d lost? All she said when he opened the door to his flat that first visit was, “She’s gone to her father’s,” as if he’d been waiting for the news, and he’d invited her in and offered her a cup of tea and a seat while he finished tattooing something on a young man’s bicep. His tattooing machine was about the only thing he hadn’t lost. His apartment smelled of the ink and antiseptic of his art, his business conducted now without a license and by word of mouth.

While Laser bent over his work, inking with a steady hand, she found the hum of the machine soothing until she saw the muscle of the young man flinch. Getting tattooed had to hurt. She tried to picture her daughter in Laser’s chair, but remembered instead how she’d dreaded shaving the child’s head each morning, hated the dark, bristled islands that would surface, despised the smell and the texture of the white cream she molded over them, and cringed at the drag of the razor. But she’d been a faithful and cheerful mother, humming a made up tune like a lullaby, the only lyrics the refrain: “Sooo smooth, sooo smooth.” Didn’t anyone see the respect due her for her endurance?

Now Dana’s attention again fixes on Laser’s tattoo of a hand patting a head. Who is Antolini? That very afternoon, a few hours earlier, minutes before she sent out the email canceling her faculty meeting so she could rush to her lover, she’d touched the head of a third grader who’d been banished from class for “bothering a girl.” Seth was a hard little boy to like. He was unpleasantly overweight and smelled like baloney. She’d asked him to take a seat and tell her what happened.

“I just said her name,” he whined.

“Whose name?”


“How did you say it?”


“OK.” Dana smiled. “But why?”

Seth’s gaze dropped to the floor, his lips rising toward his nose to form a snout.

“There are better ways to show someone you like them,” Dana said. She stood and moved to the child. His head was at the height of her hip. “Ways that aren’t so silly. Try writing Jillian a poem. Or, if you want to keep things private, just for yourself, keep a journal.” Then she placed her hand on top of the boy’s head. Its gelled surface reminded her of the glazed sugar crusting a pastry. After sending him back to class, she murmured, “LaserLaserLaserLaserLaser” like an incantation while posting the meeting cancellation.

* * *

This woman in his bed examining his tattoos, back now for the fourth—the fifth?—time, is small-breasted, like her daughter. He hadn’t revealed the girl’s specific tattoo request in his testimony—said nothing about the drops of mother’s milk, stating only that the girl had asked for a tattoo on her chest.

“Your legs are as pale as all of me,” her mother says. He expects her to ask why he hasn’t tattooed his legs, and he has an answer ready. “Did you ever read Dante? Inferno?” he’d begin—and by now, suburban wealth, school principal and all, he knows she hasn’t— “Well, at the very bottom of Hell, the worst offenders, those treacherous to loved ones, they’re frozen for eternity in a lake of ice. The worst ones are up to their eyeballs. Me, I picture myself in ice up to my waist. My legs aren’t available for inking.” If she asks, that’s what he’ll say, but she doesn’t.

Laser reaches toward her and cups one slight breast. It’s warm, like a dove. On the back of his hand is the fierce head of a Chinese dragon, its scaled body twisting down his forearm, its stubby dog-legs clawed, its sharp, reptilian wings spread across his forearm.

“Mark me,” he says in a too-deep voice. She won’t know he’s doing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But her clean skin suddenly goose-bumps, her eyebrows lift, and her lips purse. On one of his back’s wriggling sunbeams there is a pair of B’s, followed by a second pair with a line through them: To be or not to be. He slides his hand down the woman’s ribs to her hip. She’s smiling—he likes the tiny lines that radiate from the corners of her eyes. Deeper creases frame her lips, and he likes these, too.

* * *

“Mark you?” Dana mimics his tone, a contralto the lowest she can dip. “What with? Where?” Meaning covers the man who touches her, but she feels blank. She waits. An answer doesn’t come, and she falls forward, her palms threatening to sear fresh prints among the symbols on his chest.

Gregory J. Wolos’s Comments

“Dead White Male Body” emerged from an ever-expanding collection of linked stories I’ve been working on for the last year, Svidrigaylov’s Dream and Other Stories. The stories spin off from the obsessions and hijinks of an idiosyncratic filmmaker. “Dead White Male Body” is a sequel to my story “Smooth,” which appears in Prime Number this summer.

Return to Archive

FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 33 | Summer 2011