I see you lookin’ at my tats. Every splash of ink tells a tale. Take this serpent here on my right forearm. My nephew was having a rough go of it, his dad having died in that farm accident, and his mom, my sister Diane, having a real hard time getting out of bed after that. So I’d told my sister I’d take Ronnie, that’s my nephew, on a bike trip.
We left Casselton about nine in the morning and hit Medora about four and a half hours later. I’d long ago taken to “roughin’ it” and packed light and didn’t much care for camp sites or being around people when I was trying to be out in the wild. I knew a little god forsaken dirt path, not even gravel, just outside Teddy Roosevelt Park where I could take the bike in about 15 miles, far away from everybody.
We drove in there, tossing and jumbling the whole way, little Ronnie loving every bit of it, and then I finally pulled over and we set up camp and had some beans and jerky and decided to go explore a bit.
We set off toward a little hill a way off so we could just sit there and gaze at the valley awhile. And then I heard it. Just to my left, amongst the cacti and scrub grass and little pebbly dirt. I heard it before I saw it and my body lurched and I tried to yell, but it was already too late. The gol dang rattler, brown and grey and camouflaged in that wasteland—that gol dang awful, beautiful wasteland—lashed out and bit Ronnie in the left calf. I pulled out my 9 mm then, and I shot that gol dang sonofabitch three times in the head, which solved that problem, but now I had a bigger problem, that being my nephew, little Ronnie, with a snake bite out in the gol dang wilderness.
So I grabbed him in both my arms and started running back to camp, which was still 15 miles from civilization—if you can call Medora civilization, which you probably can’t, but maybe there was a doctor staying in one of those motels; and I’m thinking, God, my sis, my lil sis, my own flesh and blood, Diane, she’s never getting out of bed again. And I aim to do a little good in the world, just a smidge, and the gol dang devil comes out and rears its head at me.
Well, I’ll skip to the end. Ronnie turned out ok. They airlifted him from Medora to Bismarck and gave him a shot or two of antivenom, and he didn’t die, and he actually thought the whole thing was quite the adventure. Funny how kids are. But after I’d had the screaming lecture from my sister, which I took like a good brother, and said goodbye to Ronnie, I went straight to the ink shop and got this here rattler to remind me that the gol dang devil is always prowling and lurking about, ready to strike. I especially like the rattle. When I’m in a real meditative mood, which I am from time to time, I’ll just sit there and stare at it, and I swear, honest to God, if I’m real quiet and real meditative, I can hear the gol dang rattle, like a maraca. Like a low hum over the whole world.
I see you looking at the mushroom cloud on my left bicep. Well, like I said, every splash of ink tells a tale. That one there included. So my best buddy Earl and I had been in a long-standing argument about whether another A-bomb would get dropped. This was in the early ’80s, before the Curtain came down and all that. There was still a lot of genuine fear and hysteria over nuclear disaster. Especially if some gol dang crazed dictator in some hellhole-ish place in the Middle East or the Far East got their hands on one, all bets were off. Now, I always argued there was enough reason and commonsense left in the universe to stop nuclear warfare. Once we knew what it’d done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one would ever use it again. But good ole Earl, he wasn’t convinced. He said, Haven’t you ever read the Bible, buddy? There was a brother named Abel and a brother named Cain, he’d preach. One brother was good, the other bad. And do you know what happened? he’d say time and again. That mother-f—in’ devil Cain killed his brother. And you know who founded civilization? he’d ask. Cain. And you know who our common parent is? Cain.
Well, to make a long story short, Earl won the bet. Well technically I haven’t lost yet, but it’s inevitable. You see, Earl was gunned down in some gol dang little bar in Watford City. Watford City! He was minding his own business, chatting with a local name Denise, I think, when Denise’s old guy came in fresh off parole and saw Earl standing there by his old lady and shot him, one time, point blank in the chest. Gol dang makes me want to weep even now. Earl was a good one. Here we’d survived Vietnam together and all its gol dang snakes, only to meet the serpent again in North Dakota of all places. And that’s when I knew there was no stopping it. The mushroom cloud will rise again. It’s inevitable. Only a matter of time. Which is why I got this here tattoo, as a bitter, brutal reminder of that.
Gol dang it, I miss that guy. Sometimes in the middle of the night, when I wake up, dark thoughts come to me. And I try to close my eyes, to hear his voice. To remember it. His gravelly yet calm voice amidst the shouting and the cussing and machine gun fire of that forsaken place. And it’s all quiet. Eerily silent. And then suddenly, BOOM! A single explosion. Like a gol dang pistol shot. Or the booming of a buffalo drum. Or could it be the solitary blast of an A-bomb? It sounds like the whole gol dang world just cracked in half. And that’s scary you know. Because you know the sound I hear after? Nothing. The sound of silence.
But my favorite tattoo? That would be this one here, on my back, between my shoulder blades. You don’t know who that is? Hell, world’s gone to shit when you don’t know who Antonín Leopold Dvořák is. How’d a scum bag, hell-raiser like me get a tattoo of the greatest composer of all time between my shoulder blades? Well, like I said, every splash of ink tells a tale. This one’s no different.
So this was back in ’97. Admittedly I was feeling low, lower than I’d ever felt before, because of Leslie—that sweet woman, that most woman of women, all flesh and joy and dark hair and her teeth always blazing a smile, her having been in the grave only a couple days—and that gol dang drunk driver in his F250 XLT 7.3L Powerstroke Diesel destroying all the beauty and music in the world with his gol dang engine creating hell on earth and his deciding to take eight shots of Wild Turkey and then get behind the wheel and run down Leslie—sweet, sweet Leslie, soul pure as a cloudless North Dakota night when all the stars in the galaxy are a shining. Ran her down just east of Dickinson. I was low then. Way low. Deepest pit of despair and hell I’d ever been in and ever hope to be in. That kind of darkness you can’t walk out of. When all the noise in the world alternates between an Iron Maiden song and soul-crushing silence. And there’s only one thing to do when that happens. Get on the bike and ride.
And that’s what I did. Got on the bike and rode, straight through, to the gol dang Grand Canyon. So there I was sitting on the edge of one of them grey and red rocks, my feet hanging over the side, a drop of what felt like a mile or two immediately beneath me. I looked out over that hole, that huge hole, that almost unbelievable hole that seemed endless. And that’s how I felt. That there was a gol dang Grand Canyon-sized hole in my chest. And a million laborers with a million shovels couldn’t fill the hole in a million years. And that a million steps a day for a million years wouldn’t get you across it.
Now I’m not saying I was thinking of jumping. Because I don’t think that’s something you think about. But I did start dreaming about falling. Letting myself go and falling into that deep, deep void. That nothingness. I closed my eyes and let the breeze blow over my face.
And then I heard it. Gol dang laughter right behind me. I knew immediately it was some gol dang kids, not a care in the world. And I looked back ready to glare at them. There were five of them. Three boys and two girls. I knew right away they were Europeans, you know, just by their clothes and hair and stuff, how they carried themselves. And I was just about ready to yell at them, to get the hell off my rock, you know, since it was the gol dang Grand Canyon after all and surely there were other places to have their little orgy. But right as I was opening my mouth, they turned it on. Turned him on. And it was like a lightning bolt to my soul. How to describe it? Power. That’s how. It’s like this guy had somehow harnessed power, had somehow reached out and bottled the power and music of thunder and the wild ocean surf and icebergs cracking into the sea and earthquakes splitting and bellowing and a heard of bison, yes, millions of them running crazy on the prairie like they used to—gol dang it, what a sound—and even the hum of being itself, of stars hanging there in the sky, and butterfly wings, silent to our ears but pitch perfect I am sure when beaten if we could but hear it, and even grass growing. Yes, even the music of grass. As if this man hadn’t so much composed a song as written down what was already there, like a stenographer in a courtroom.
So my heart leaped, and my soul leaped, and gol dang my whole being leaped then, and I said, What’s that? And the teeny boppers, those Euro kids, sort of looked at me funny, and then looked at each other, and didn’t say anything. So I pointed at the boombox they’d set on a rock and asked again, What is that? And one of the kids, a dude who looked sort of like Sting, back when he was still Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, looked at me and said, Eet’s friggin’ Dvořák, man. And I just sat there then, taking it in, taking him in, taking in the music—that glorious music—and I turned back around and looked back over the canyon, that rightly named Grand Canyon, only now it didn’t seem so endless. Didn’t seem so infinite. Gol dang, you won’t believe me, but I swear to God, I felt then like one step and I’d be across it. One step and I’d be on the other side. That’s how I felt then.
Later that day I road down to Flagstaff and found a parlor, and me and the guy had to go to the public library to find a picture of Dvořák, but we found it at last. Which is why I have this magnificent ink of him on my back.
Know what I like best about it? Sure, he looks kinda like a Sturgis biker, crazed half bald head like he’s just taken off a do-rag, wild-ass shaggy beard, even that suit with the funny tie-thingy, looking like a five-year-old boy whose mom dressed him up for church. But none of that’s it. It’s his eyes. Gol dang most intense eyes I ever saw. You can’t tell what he’s staring at or glaring at. But whatever it is, he sees it. Sees right to its innermost core. I suppose that’s how he made that gol dang beautiful music he did. By seeing so intensely, so clearly.
And that’s why Dvořák sits right alongside the other most important ink in my life. The one here to the left of Leslie, and up there on the right shoulder blade the one of Earl, in his Vietnam fatigues. And this bison head, gol dang, I like that one. What a powerful beast. Down there lower on my back, Sitting Bull, majestic, magnificent, noble. And of course the Virgin, here in her starry blue mantel. And I like them all. But my favorite will always be Dvořák. Gol dang friggin’ Dvořák.
Jeffrey Wald is an attorney and writer. His writing has appeared in journals such as Dappled Things, The Windhover, Touchstone, New Oxford Review, The Front Porch Republic, The University Bookman, and Genealogies of Modernity.
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Photo: Antonin Dvorák (1965). Public Domain.