I met the most peculiar man one day and my life has never been the same since.
It happened one afternoon when I decided to get a new tattoo at a shop owned by a friend downtown. I’ve been getting inked for a good three years now and I’ve never been proud of my “pieces”. It is true what many people say. You become a walking gallery once you start getting inked up. My first tattoo was a drawing I asked my only daughter to pen on me. It was a strange looking scribble of circles and odd shapes and underneath had the word “Daddy” written in her childish hand. It grew from there. From the simplest to the most complicated of designs, slowly, over the years, my body became covered up by magnificent colours and creatures; some with significant meaning, while some were just a result of an alcohol based decision, but none were the least bit regrettable.
The shop was not entirely busy that afternoon when I came in for my appointment. My tattoo artist, “Gizmo” as he proudly calls himself though I do not know why, was just laying about with a magazine in his hand. “Take a seat,” Gizmo said the moment he spotted me. “I’ll get my stuff ready.”
It was at the bench in one side of the shop where I met this most interesting man. He was an elderly gentleman in his mid-fifties wearing an almost perpetually white suit. He was short and a little stout and had a pleasantly plump face, the kind that you will only see in children’s picture books. At best, he looked like a cartoonish Colonel Sanders.
I sat there next to him, quietly tapping my phone and browsing my messages when he began to speak.
“Do you collect?” he asked, looking straight and blankly at the wall across us.
“Pardon?” I said, convinced that the man in white was talking to himself.
“Do you collect?” he repeated. “Art, I mean. Do you collect art?”
I was a little bit confused. My eyes strayed to my arm and studied the details of a Chinese tiger (like the ones you see in parades). “You mean tattoos?” I asked the man in white.
“Yes. Indeed. They are quite extraordinary, aren’t they?” he replied. “Extraordinary pieces of art on their own.”
He had a throaty voice; the kind that reminds you of Danny DeVito if you would close your eyes. It was throaty, but, oddly enough very friendly.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“So,” he pressed. “Are you a collector?”
“I think so.” I stretched out my arms in front of him, revealing the intricate patterns and designs that left no skin uncovered in brilliant colours and shades.
“Astounding!” he said in the most interested and amazed voice. “I have never seen such artistry before!” His eyes fixed on my arm and moved to the tattoos peeking from under my shirt collar. I think he may have felt my discomfort that he turned his eyes back to the wall across us. He sat silent for a minute as if studying the wall like someone who could not figure out what to put up on it.
“I too am an art collector,” he said. His eyes still fixed on the wall.
“Really?” I asked, trying to break the ice. “Do you have any on you?”
“Oh no! No! I’m afraid that I am far too ancient to have some permanently painted on my old, dry skin.”
“I collect art pieces and mount them in frames,” he continued. “Extraordinary pieces. Nothing that anyone has ever seen before.”
“How long have you been collecting?” I asked.
“Quite some time now. My collection is quite extensive and, shall we say, eclectic?”
Gizmo appeared from the back room of the shop. “Oi! You ready?” he called out.
“Coming,” I said and turned to the man in white. “It was nice talking to you.”
“And you,” he said as he bowed his head. “You need to see my collection some time. I have a feeling that it will make such an impression on you, and you on it.” He handed me a card with nothing more than an address.
“Of course,” I said, as if on impulse.
“Magnificent!” smiled the man in white. “I will be expecting you soon.”
An uneventful week came and went and the final details of my tattoo were under way. I never saw the man in white, and when I asked Gizmo about him he said that he shows up from time to time just sitting there quietly, sometimes keeping the customers entertained while they wait. “He doesn’t make any trouble, so we just let him sit there,” Gizmo explained. “Why do you ask, anyway?”
“Nothing, really,” I said. “It’s just… well he seemed interesting.”
“Interesting?” Gizmo snickered. “I’d say weird. But then again, he makes no trouble so we let him be.”
“Any idea who he is?” I asked.
“Not a clue. He likes to talk about his art collection a lot though. I got talking to him once, friendly bloke. Asked me if I wanted to see his collection.”
“Did you go see it?”
“Nah, my schedule was packed that time he invited me. Although I might check it out next week. I need some inspiration anyway. I feel like I’m losing steam. But yeah, don’t get too creeped out by him. Just think of him as our shop mascot.”
I sat there with my back to Gizmo, trying to drown out the thought of the man in white under the buzzing of the tattoo gun as it broke my skin and painted the final details of my piece; Gizmo’s arm moving up and down like the snake tattoo that covered it in delicate precision.
Six months later I decided to drop by the shop unexpectedly to talk to Gizmo about another tattoo I would like to have made. It was a breezy Sunday morning and the streets were packed by people doing all sorts of things, going to all sorts of places.
“Gizmo around?” I asked one of the artists as I entered the busy shop.
“Gizmo?” said the shop keep: a lanky kid of eighteen or nineteen who gave me the impression that there are people out there who could be thinner than Gizmo. “He hasn’t been around for months now.”
“What?” I asked, a little surprised.
“Yeah,” answered the shop keep. “He does that sometimes. Last time I saw him he says that he’s going to see this old bloke about art and stuff. Says he…”
“… needs inspiration.” I interrupted.
“Yeah. Didn’t say when he’s coming back though, if that’s what you want to know. Maybe I can help you with that tattoo,” he said after noticing the sheet of paper in my hand with my next piece.
“No, thanks,” I said politely. “Maybe I’ll just come back when he’s around.”
“Suit yourself, mate.”
Peckish, I decided to get something to eat and sit at a bench watching life go by. The morning was wearing out into high noon and here I was with nothing else to do since my ex-wife had our daughter for the day.
I crumpled a napkin in my hand and stuffed it in my pocket when I felt a tiny item jab my finger. I pulled it out and found a white card with just an address on it. A present from the man in white I met at the shop months ago. Somehow, I could hear his voice clearly at the back of my head inviting me to see his collection; his cartoonish face flashing before my eyes as I blinked the blindness from the sun away.
I guess there’s no harm in checking it out, I thought to myself.
A can of soda and a few blocks later, I reached a place a little outside the neighbourhood I was familiar with. There were not much houses in that part of town. It seemed like it was a place that was forced to be forgotten.
The address on the card led me to an old house. It was an echo of the old days when people used to have wide porches and white paint was the most fashionable colour of the era. It was wide and had two storeys; impressive even in its obvious age and disrepair.
The front door swung open and there was the man in white waving at me and inviting me inside. He had the most pleasant smile on his face as if seeing a relative he has been out of contact with in years.
“I have been expecting you,” said the man in white as he led me into his home.
“Were you?” I humoured him.
“Yes,” he replied. “Although I have to admit that I was already losing hope that you would visit.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to…”
“Nonsense!” he said as he grabbed my arm and pulled me into a giant room. The main parlour he called it. It was carpeted and had tall windows around covered by wispy curtains that danced in the wind. The furniture was old and so was the smell of the room. Something about it reminded me of an old, dusty library or an antique store. At the very centre of the wall across from where I was standing was an impressively huge painting. The man in white might have caught me looking awestruck by the painting that he began to speak.
“Beautiful is it not?” he asked. There was pride in the sound of his throaty voice.
“It is!” I said.
“It’s the pride of my collection. Took me years to acquire it in its entirety.”
The painting was massive and almost covered the entire wall it was hung on. I could feel the man in white smiling behind me as I studied the painting a little more, although I have not moved an inch from where I was standing.
It looked like a great collage of images put together to create this gigantic piece. I knew little of art, but I noticed that the illustrations had distinct details; each more unique than the next. It was obviously not by one artist’s hand, I concluded.
“I have many others,” said the man in white, breaking my stupor. “Some of them small, some of them big: all around the house in hand crafted frames.”
My eyes moved around the room and to the hall outside and noticed a number of framed paintings in different sizes. There were Japanese paintings, modern pieces, even cartoon characters. There were several Marilyn Monroes in the style of Warhol, and there were several of those melting clocks by that artist with the weird moustache; a number of portraits of what seemed to be a random assortment of people also covered his walls.
“Who made these?” I asked with genuine curiosity. “Do you know the artist?”
“Artists,” the man in white corrected. “And no. Unfortunately I have lost track of the artists who made these. None of them were popular, I can assure you that. But they are, as you can see, as equally impressive as their mainstream contemporaries.”
My eyes strayed to one corner of the room and noticed an easel covered by a sheet. “What’s under that?”
“Hm? Oh! That’s a piece I have recently acquired a few months ago that I am carefully restoring,” said the man in white. “This one is proving to be a challenge since it’s a little difficult to stretch it to the frame. Not much canvass to work with, but the pieces on it are brilliant!”
I was reminded again of the heavy smell of the room. There was something chemical in the air that I could not figure out that made me dizzy and swoon a little. I let out a cough to clear my tightening throat.
“Oh, goodness!” exclaimed the man in white. “Where are my manners? Please sit down and I shall bring something to eat and drink!”
“You really shouldn’t bother,” I said politely as I sat down.
“I insist,” said the man in white. “You are my guest and I would not be able to forgive myself for being such a terrible host!”
He left the room and I tried to regain my senses. All around, the paintings that decorated the room seemed to have made everything else in it insignificant. The porcelain animals and the antique furniture paled in comparison to even the smallest frame hanging on the wall. My eyes moved from one painting to another and to the giant tapestry on the wall. All were impressive and yet had a very strange and eerie way of making an impression on you. The kind of impression that sent chills down your spine. I did not admit this to the man in white to not offend him. But there was something about these paintings that, even in their magnificence, made it’s physical existence a little “wrong”, like it should not really exist, let alone be displayed in gilded frames.
I stood and studied the paintings and found myself particularly drawn to the one in the corner, mounted on an easel, hidden under the sheet.
In the other room I could hear a familiar scratching sound, like steel being dashed across something rough like stone. It went on and on in a strange cadence.
I walked towards the easel, walking past the giant tapestry of images and the dusty vases on the floor. My heart began pounding madly in what I can only assume was anxious anticipation to see what was underneath. The air in the room seemed to have become heavier as I approached the easel. The heavy scent that hung in the room pierced my senses and I began to gag and choke. Gathering my senses, I reached a hand out and began to slowly lift the sheet and reveal the piece on the easel.
What came next was too much to stomach. Up on the easel was a floppy canvass of disproportionate size that danced as the wind blew through the windows. The canvass was cold to the touch and had a sickly hue of grey. It was leathery and almost dry, but even though the canvass was turning into a morbid hue, there were unmistakably brilliant colours that covered it. There were faces and illustrations of different kinds covering almost the entire thing; illustrations that were frighteningly familiar, images that I have unmistakably seen more than once in my life.
My heart began to pound even heavier in my chest as my eyes began to be drawn to one image on the leathery canvass: an image that I have seen only months ago. I looked closer to validate my fears and saw that it was there, that ornate snake that only one person could have had. That ornate snake that I have last seen on an arm that painted the final details of my piece in the shop not far away from this house.
I may have heard someone walk from behind me while my eyes were still deeply transfixed on the snake painted on that greying canvass and what happened next was a complete haze after feeling the cold sensation of steel across my neck.