Love and Strangulation

The philosophers of the old romances say, and many specialists today concur, that desire is nothing more than the result of a necessary and continuous projection of the self into others; an unattainable wholeness is represented in an outside object, a body, or a soul. That it must be unreachable is both integral to the relationship and maddening. Some renounce the quest altogether and go shopping. Others retreat into darkness.

Lack, crime in the hallway
Crime in the Hallway, Acrylic and spray enamel on board, 36” x 48” , 1984, by Stephen Lack

Those who monitor behavior in the mental hospitals of Uptown describe a phenomenon in which patients scratch words on their skin with their fingernails or sharp instruments. Some can even make brief defining messages or images appear via the power of the diseased mind alone. Locked away in their heads, relishing their solitude, they seek contact with the outside world, yet they touch no one.

A more social, if trendy, alternative exists in the ancient tribal rite of tattooing. The very longevity of the tattooed image or mark, at first a choice, can, over time begin to seem as if it were prescribed, imposed, imprinted by outside forces. This may, of course, merely be buyer’s regret manifesting as identity.

Bernadette had a friend who did tattoos at a place called Kaligraphy Studios on Broadway and Montrose. This friend, Marcus Boggs, claimed to be related to the banjo player Dock, although, unlike Dock, he had a strong mystical bent. He believed that the black tattoo ink was the symbolic blood of the Black Goddess Kali and, therefore his art was sacred because it mingled the blood of humans and gods. This idea was the origin of the studio name.

Boggs was in his twenties but looked older, due to his long black beard and signature style of dress, which was part low-rent rabbi, part 19th century snake-oil salesman. His favorite book was The Illustrated Man by Bradbury. He’d loaned it to Bernadette and one night came to get it back. Thus started a bullshit session with peculiar consequences.

Sophie was there and steered the conversation toward her interests—serial killers with romantic names: The Green River Strangler, The Mississippi Muskrat, The Sunnyside Slasher. She had just read a criminal case study about a guy from Texas known as The Red Spider. When they caught him, he claimed his homicidal anxiety was caused by the little red spiders tattooed all over his hands and arms—a kind of post-coital arachnophobia, i.e. after the fact. In any case, he eventually felt he was being attacked by his own skin.

There were lots of examples if you looked for them, Sophie said, of people getting trapped in a metaphor of their own design—bad poets, false gurus, bad lovers, megalomaniacal despots, etc.

Bernadette knew a story about a guy in West Virginia: a man who had thirty-seven butterflies tattooed on his body. He was called Butterfly Bob by the locals. He was also an artist and drove around in an old Ford pickup truck painted with Victorian fairies. Bob had a collection of small animals preserved in jars. He thought of them as babe magnets. And he was kind of handsome in a West Virginia way. In fact, he managed to pick up women at the local bar. The women were scared, of course, but they were also game. For a while they had the thrill of not knowing whether they’d be dead or alive when the night was over.

One day a gunshot wound from a jealous husband inspired a religious conversion and Bob began to court, and eventually marry, the aging Mexican caretaker of a motel outside Madison. He met her in church and she gave him purpose. It turns out her family was from a small village in Michoacan, the central Mexican state where the Monarchs winter.

“See,” Sophie said.

“See what?” I asked.

“See, we all end up victims in the end.”

“Victims of what?”

“Of the little things—dreams, obsessions.”

Boggs had a theory: tattoos were a lot like paranoia, he said—they begin as fantasies and end as fate. Simply having the words “Born to Raise Hell” on your arm can change your life—you end up killing a bunch of nurses or stabbing your best friend in a card game because you somehow had a picture of yourself doing it. The image becomes a dare forcing a bifurcation in your personal timeline. You can also look back and say it wasn’t your fault: “the image made me do it.”

People will never stop baiting themselves forward through life with such ideas. “Eventually” in cosmic time becomes “inevitably.” But the opposite is also true—events that actually should be expected end up being a surprise. You just don’t know where you’re at in the probability continuum.

Which brings me to the story of Robert Arno, which was a surprise because it turned out Boggs and I both knew the guy. The summer after high school, me and Arno were both flipping burgers at Johnson’s Grill on Highway 41. Arno was just old enough to drink back then. He quit in the middle of his shift one night and got drunk with this guy Tim “Buck” Catertoe, or Timbucktoo as we called him. They often went to this motel bar across the road on their break. They met women there and sometimes didn’t come back to work.

Timbucktoo eventually got fired. So did Ron Ugly. Ron was the guy who put the butcher knife through the kitchen side door for fun. There was a spate of firings that season. Spinner got fired, and Johnny Flange, two weeks earlier. I got fired myself. But this was all years ago. Then, in the early ’80s, Arno turned up in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. He and his mother had moved to Albany Park to be near their cousins after his dad died. But Arno quickly drifted east, drawn by what he perceived as bohemian freedom. He was the boyfriend of one of Berny’s girlfriends, so he was sometimes at her place for parties.

Turned out Arno knew Boggs via Baltimore back in the day. And lately he’d been going by Kaligraphy to get some work done. It was a big job, full chest—some violent Hindu demon perched on a volcano with fire and fish spewing out of it. The volcano was ringed by skulls with worms winding through their eye sockets.

Arno also had, covering each shoulder, these sinister-looking swans whose wings seemed to form epaulets. Their elongated necks reached down the biceps, circling around and ending in toothy beaks a few inches past the inside elbow. Then on the inside of each wrist was the small black Q of a curled serpent. Arno called them the Nagas of Vedic mythology. The whole tableau had a sort of comic-book quality.

I only know all this because, one night at Berny’s, the tattooed people got drunk and started taking off their shirts. After Arno left, I wondered out loud if his torso of violent cataclysm coupled with the Eastern mysticism symbolized a confluence by which he might eventually break on through to another side—a new and better man.

Shortly after that, Bernadette threw me out. She had to work the next day.

But it wasn’t even a month later when she called: “You gotta come over, man.”

“What?”

“Just come over.”

When I got to her place, a few people were there. Boggs told his story. Apparently, a few days earlier, Arno came to his shop acting even weirder than usual—kind of irritable, distracted, and there was a noticeable tremor in his voice. Boggs didn’t think much of it because Arno was so full of shit anyway and he was always over-dramatizing his emotions.

“So how’s Stacey?” Boggs had asked.

“Gettin’ on my nerves, as usual,” Arno replied, pacing around.

“I know what you mean, man.”

“No, really, I wanted to fuckin’ strangle her this morning. I mean I just could not listen to her anymore.” He said the word not with a certain finality. “I mean I love her but . . . but you know, I have a few drinks or something, I go hang out. So fuckin’ what? She’s always gotta be on my back.”

Boggs tried to placate him. “Yeah, I know. I feel like killing Margaret almost every week. Funny thing is—she’s still around. It’s our fate man. You know the cliché. Can’t live with ’em . . . .”

“Ain’t no good dead either, I guess,” Arno said, looking at the floor.

Then they had some beers and watched part of the Cubs game. That was a few days ago.

But here’s the thing—just that morning, a friend found Stacey in her apartment on West Cuyler. She was naked on the floor, cold and blue with her tongue hanging out, looking very much broken and raped. Cops were asking questions. Arno was in the wind. Then Boggs remembered that tremor in Arno’s voice, the emphatic “not,” and said it should have been a clue.

Sophie got riled and blamed Boggs. She said maybe Stacey would still be alive if Boggs hadn’t put all that ink on him, turned him into a freak. “Think about it,” she said. Sophie was always a little hostile toward Boggs anyway. She thought he was pretentious.

Bernadette came to his defense. She said, “If you’re going to think that way, you might as well not speak either. For that matter, better not even get out of bed. There’s no telling what sinister chain of events you will start just by your presence in the world. It’s the anxiety of influence. It’ll freeze you in your tracks.”

Boggs just sat there looking worried.

Then one night about a week later, I got one of those “2 am phone calls” that you know are bad news before you even answer. The phone seems to glow and your hand trembles above the receiver and you feel like you’ve entered a Hitchcock movie or something. I picked it up anyway, half asleep. It was Boggs, calling from his wife’s house in Baltimore.

“What the fuck?” I said, a little irritated.

“I don’t know man, I been thinking about this whole thing.” He was talking sort of crazily but slow and deliberate.

“Well don’t,” I said. “Think about me, sleeping. I was sleeping, you know.”

Boggs ignored me and went on. “I’ve become like a cameraman of my own future life, which plays out before me like some kind of strange experiment. What I mean is—there is no actual morality, there is only data that we receive, read, and act on. The mind computes, we make the story out of it later.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, not sure what he was getting at.

“I’m telling you, I’m not in it,” he said, “I’m always a couple of steps behind. There’s like this slight delay and it’s been getting longer recently. If I keep going like this I’ll be able to witness my own death and there will still be enough time left for me to . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence.

“I feel that way myself most days,” I said. I was being dismissive. “I think you better come back, man. It’s not good to be alone.”

He only got more adamant, “No, see. See, that’s the last sadness: You realize—that if you had known all the time you could have changed things.”

“Look, I don’t know what you mean, but . . .”

He interrupted me again. “You know, I can kind of understand where Arno was coming from. God is happy despite the subtle crimes. The universe computes. Everything is on track.”

As he spoke, I realized Boggs had an odd tremor to his voice, too, probably just exactly like Arno had a few weeks earlier. I started to imagine his wife’s body on the floor, as if the murder scene was being replicated, splitting and growing like a cancer cell in the social imagination.

I asked about his wife. “How’s Margaret? She all right?”

He didn’t answer. Then I wondered why Boggs was calling me anyway. He was better friends with Berny.

“What’s going on, man? You talk to Berny?”

“Yeah. Yeah. No, her phone was out. I’m fine. But listen, if you talk to her, tell Berny I’m OK. I’m not coming back though, not for a while.” There was a voice in the background, a man’s voice, a whining voice. It sounded familiar.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“I gotta go,” he said.

“Yeah, all right. Sure.” Silence.

I phoned Bernadette immediately. Contrary to Boggs’s claim, her phone was working. I said I thought Boggs had gone off, and that maybe he even knew where Arno was, that he might be in communication with him. I didn’t know for sure, but I had this feeling.

“He doesn’t know.” Her voice was anxious but quiet.

“What do you mean?”

“Because he’s here,” she whispered.

“What? Where?”

“He’s on the couch, in the other room.” She hung up.

The rest of the night passed in a blur of sirens and flashing lights, unwanted phone calls and anxious glances. Berny had told the cops, probably because she was afraid. Arno slept in holding that night. The rest of us drank but only got morbid. I ended up walking Sophie back to her apartment at about four in the morning. It was raining a little when we reached her building. In the streetlight, her skin glowed white and wet, like apple meat, contrasting with the red skin of her lips. Her hair lay flat against her head. It gave her that seductive gamin-like look which, for some reason, always triggered my savior complex. We were exhausted, depressed, stunned into submissiveness. She thought we should do something about the situation. I wanted to believe we could.

–“Love and Strangulation,” by Carl Watson, from Sensitive Skin #13.

Sensitive Skin 13 available here in PDF format here for just $4.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.