Surviving IceBy: K.A. Tucker
Ned pauses to stretch his neck and roll his right shoulder once . . . twice . . . before lifting the needle to his customer’s arm again, humming along with Willie Nelson’s twang, a staple in Black Rabbit for as long as I can remember. After all these years, the aging country singer still holds a special spot in my uncle’s heart. He even sports the matching gray braids and red bandanna to prove it.
“You’re getting too old for the big pieces,” I joke, pulling my foot up onto the counter, where my ass is already parked, to tighten the laces of my boot. I finished my last appointment an hour ago and could have left. Should have left, since the CLOSED sign hanging from a hook on the door is dissuading any potential walk-ins. But every once in a while I like to just sit here and watch my mentor work—his hefty frame hunkered down in that same creaky plastic-molded chair. It brings me back to my nine-year-old self, in pigtails and scuffed Mary Janes, trailing my older cousin to the shop so I could draw BIC pen tattoos on burly bikers while they waited for the real thing. It’s within these dingy black walls that I discovered my life’s passion, all before I turned ten. Not many people can say they’ve made that discovery, at any age.
“Too old, my ass,” he grunts. “Make yourself useful and grab me my damn dinner.”
I slide off the counter with a smirk, hitting the button on a cash register that belongs in a museum so I can grab a twenty. “Foot-long again?” The sub shop two blocks away gets at minimum fifty percent of Ned’s weekly food budget.
“Don’t forget the jalapeños.”
“The ones that almost put you in the hospital last time?” At fifty-eight, my uncle still eats like he’s in his twenties, even though his body is showing signs of revolt, his thickening midsection and aging digestive system begging for more exercise and less fatty and spicy food.
“I let the girl apprentice here when she was eighteen, and then she abandoned me as soon as she got her license. I let the girl come back six years later to work out of here without paying a fee to the house. I let the girl sleep under my roof without paying rent . . .” he mutters to no one in particular but loud enough for everyone to hear. “If I wanted grief about my life choices, I woulda gotten hitched again.” There’s a long pause, and then he throws a wink over his shoulder at me, to confirm that he’s joking. That he loves his niece and her smart-ass mouth and her acidic personality, and he’s ecstatic that she decided to come back to San Francisco and work alongside him again. He’d never take a dime of rent money from me, even if I tried to pay.
And I have tried. At two months, when the wanderlust bug hadn’t bitten me yet and I realized that I’d be staying longer than my usual four months. At four months, when I was afraid I was wearing out my welcome and started talking about finding an apartment to rent, and Ned threatened to kick my ass out of Black Rabbit if I did. At six months, when I left five hundred bucks cash on his dresser and came home to a note and the money pinned to my bedroom door with a steak knife, telling me never to bring up the subject of rent ever again. Except he put it in more colorful language.
I’ve been here for seven months now, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I’m feeling no itch to leave. Between working alongside Ned six days a week, hanging out with Dakota, an old friend from high school who moved here from Sisters, Oregon, about a year ago, and hitting the streets at night with a crew of guys who are as into decorating walls as I am, I’m loving San Francisco. This time around, at least.
“I’ll be back.” I turn to leave.
Dylan, the guy sitting in the chair with arms as thick as tree trunks, clears his throat rather obnoxiously. This is his fifth session this month. One of those bulky arms is nearly all covered in Ned’s elaborate ink.