The visions started soon after Tattoo Tommy caught sight of the empty spot at the bottom of his back. It was the only tattooless spot on his body, minus his face and head, and it lived right below a tattoo of Mary that looked like one of those statues people put out in their gardens. They started small—serpents and skulls crossed with bones. Then they grew into ferocious, evil things like goat heads filled with pentagrams and red devils with horns and hooves for feet. They weren’t outside of him but were what he saw inside his mind. He felt ashamed of his thoughts and wondered if he was losing his mind or if the devil had come to claim his soul.
He figured that the visions must have been connected to his discovery of the empty spot, so he thought that if he got a tattoo on there, the visions would go away. He thought day and night about what to get. It had to be great or at least as good as the tattoos he already had. Besides the Virgin Mary on his back, he had one on his chest of Jesus nailed to a crucifix with blood dripping down. His arms were covered with the face of Jesus, crowns of thorns, and chalices; his legs with crosses, angels, and Jesus fish. He thought of his body as a song of praise to the Lord.
“Tommy, I got to bring the kids to school now,” his wife, Joan, called to him as he was staring at the spot in his bedroom mirror.
“Okay, angel,” he said, “I’ll be right down.” Even in a rush, he was like a slow-moving machine with his strong sturdy body that had once survived a car falling on top of it. But despite his tough exterior, he was a softy when it came to his family. His children, Michael and Sarah, stood beside their mother at the bottom of the steps in their maroon-and-gray plaid uniforms.
“Daddy, we have our Christmas party today at school!” Sarah said, her round little face lit up like a carnival ride at night.
“That’s great, little angel, but don’t forget what Christmas is all about,” Tommy said.
“To celebrate the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ,” Michael said, smiling big and holding his head high.
“That’s right, little guy.” Tommy patted his son on the head.
As soon as they left, he felt tempted to run upstairs and stare at the spot. He thought that if he looked at it long enough, the perfect image might come to him. But the clock on the stove said half past seven and he had to get to his shop by eight for an appointment. He grabbed a plastic travel cup and filled it with what coffee was left in the pot and was on his way. He pulled out of the driveway with his white Chevy truck kicking up dust and dirt, and squinted in the glare of the bright morning sun.
When he arrived at his shop and saw his loyal client, Jim Bob, waiting for him on the porch. From the outside, the parlor looked more like someone’s home, a humble small off-white adobe. The inside consisted of two rooms—one in front, where all the images were displayed on the walls, and one in back, where Tommy put tattoos on his clients. They headed straight to the back room, as Jim Bob always knew just what he wanted and didn’t need to look at any images for ideas.
“Hope you weren’t waiting long,” Tommy said.
“Just got here,” Jim Bob said, smiling through his crooked teeth.
“So what are we doing today?”
“A dragon. A ferocious, fire-spitting dragon.”
“Thought you already had a dragon.”
“I do, but it’s a peaceful dragon.”
“I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“Oh yeah, there is.” Jim Bob spoke as if dragons weren’t fantastical.
“What about a crucifix? Or the Virgin Mary?”
“You’re gonna try to sell me religion again, Tommy. C’mon.” Jim Bob waved his arm in the air.
Tommy knew, well, the uselessness of trying to convince Jim Bob of religion. He was the same as all his other clients and despite his parlor being filled with pictures of Christian tattoos, he didn’t attract many Christian clients. Most of his clients had no religion and although he could look beyond their ignorance and see the light in their dark souls, he often wished for clients with whom he could have some decent conversation.
“You hear about the rattlesnake robber?” Jim Bob said as Tommy got the table ready for his tattoo.
“No, I didn’t hear about him.”
“Well, he goes around holding people up and instead of a gun, he uses a rattlesnake. Pushes it right in their face.”
“I’m not worried about no rattlesnake robber. I got the Lord on my side.”
“Well still nothing.”
“How’s the Lord gonna protect you from a rattler?”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“Well then, how does it work?” Jim Bob turned serious.
Tommy shook his head and sighed and then explained that the Lord kept such tragedies from happening to people like him, so he didn’t need to worry. Jim Bob looked as if he understood completely but Tommy could tell that nothing was getting through. He was glad that Bible study was in a few hours, and soon he’d be surrounded by others like himself.
He got to Bible study to find the usual rat-colored folding chairs formed in a circle and one of the members reading from Corinthians. He sat and tried to listen but his mind drifted into thoughts of images for his new tattoo. He thought of The Last Supper which would have fit perfectly in the empty space. He considered a biblical verse that would have also been a good fit. He thought of angels, crosses and rosary beads. He dismissed them all. He wanted something he could see himself in.
He thought and thought and thought, through the meeting and on the ride home. As he drove, he watched the brilliant pink sky turn to blue and then to black, and with the blackness, he saw the devil laughing at him. He’d begun to feel that the satanic images had left his mind. They’d returned with vengeance it seemed. What if they never went away? What if he died with these images in his head? If he did, he’d die alone. The devil would chase his family away. He filled with sadness, heavy and endless. He used to get this same feeling in his younger, darker days when whatever drug he’d taken had worn off.
When he passed a cactus covered in lights, he remembered that it was Christmas and the heaviness inside lightened a bit. He loved Christmas and had loved it as a little boy but the holiday stopped being exciting the year he found out that Santa was no more than a story his parents told him to keep him happy. His dad had spilled the beans during one of his drunken rampages. Tommy thought he’d never find happiness in Christmas again, until the December of his twentieth year when he was walking in front of a local parish and he heard the church-goers singing praise to Jesus. Something stirred inside him and rose up, like a brand-new bird that had just learned to fly. He wasn’t raised Christian. He wasn’t raised anything. Still he felt something he had never felt before, like Jesus was right there talking to him, encouraging him to go inside and join in. So he went inside and joined in the singing. His singing felt like it was burning out all the sin that had been rotting away inside him for years, and the louder he sang, the faster it burned.
With the memory of his past pain still fresh in his mind, he was more determined than ever to find an image for the empty spot. He was sure that once this spot was filled, these visions would never again re-emerge. As hungry as he was, he almost wished he could skip dinner but he would never miss a chance to break bread with his family.
“You seem distracted today,” Joan said as she put a plate of pork chops on the dinner table.
“Sorry, honey. What did you say?” Tommy said.
“She said you seem distracted,” Michael said.
“Oh yeah, I have a lot on my mind with work and all,” Tommy said as he tried to think of other excuses. His mind was blank though, probably worn out from fighting with itself all day.
“Broccoli again,” Sarah said as she sat down.
“It’s your turn to say grace, Sarah,” Joan said, ignoring her daughter’s complaint.
Dinner was short, but seemed long to Tommy. After dinner, he sat down in the den and began thinking, and for the first time that day, he felt how tired he really was, and despite his efforts to stay awake, his eyelids continued to slide down over his eyes as if forced against their own will. He drifted off but wasn’t asleep long when he was awakened by Michael, who had fallen and hit himself on a ceramic elf.
“Daddy, I hurt myself,” Michael cried through his tears. He had a red mark on his right knee.
“I know what’ll make it better,” Tommy said. “Some Christmas cookies!”
He picked his son up and carried him into the kitchen, where fresh-baked cookies, shaped like Christmas trees and angels were cooling on a tray.
“Can I have some milk with my cookies?” Michael asked.
“Sure, little guy,” Tommy said, opening the refrigerator. He poured him and his son two glasses of milk and sat down at the table. He felt like he was enjoying Christmas for the first time all season. Something had changed in him; he closed his eyes and saw the same demons that had been haunting him for days but they were small and looked more comical than scary. In that second, he remembered who he was. He was bigger and stronger and better than any demon. He’d been forgiven by God for his past sins and he walked with Jesus now.
A full-size nativity scene sat in the center of the table, complete with the Three Kings, the Star of David, and some sheep. Tommy stared at the scene as though he were seeing it for the first time. And in some ways, he was. He never noticed the familial love between mother, son, and father the way he had at that moment. He looked down at his son, who had quickly forgotten about his sore and been contently eating some cookies. He looked at Joseph and then he looked at himself in the reflection of his milk glass. And then it became clear to him. He had found what to put on his empty spot—the nativity scene. He zealously began sketching. He was a good artist and had gotten even better since Jesus had come to him. He took a break from sketching to stare at his reflection in the glass again, and for a quick second, he thought he was seeing Joseph himself.