Christopher Rosales
Mama don’t remember Tío Kiko taught me to tattoo myself—I bet no one does but me. We were sitting out in the big back yard behind the kind of long flat house we got in California, leaned against his Bronco in the shade of the avocado tree like we all got in California too. He said proudly, with his mustache flared, “All you need’s a bic pen, a lighter, and some shoe polish, Lil D. Why don’t you go on a mission?”
He’d been in the army a long time ago. Mostly, he’d been in the pen. Still, he liked sending me on missions. Sometimes they were missions for him, like to the fridge for a cold beer. But sometimes, like this time, the missions he sent me on were meant for no one but me. 
I brought him the pen and he stripped it like a rifle. He tugged the ink and roller out with his teeth and spat the piece at me. I understood that I should hold it because he could make you understand things like that with those dark eyes, those thick eyebrows that when they moved up or down seemed to weigh how much you were worth. Then he put the needle in place at the tip of the empty pen and melted the plastic around it until the pen gripped the needle in black folds like lava. 
We practiced drawing pictures in a plastic Frisbee, him blowing away the tiny worms of plastic that coiled from the needle’s tip as he carved. The little skeletons he drew were happy but nearly invisible. He covered them with shoe polish that he rubbed in with his thumb and I bit my tongue because I’d thought he’d ruined them. But then, he spat on his clean thumb and rubbed again. This time the extra shoe polish faded and the skeletons danced to life. Looked like they would dance there forever, too dark to fade. “Your turn,” he said, floating the frisbee’s characters across the grass and against the wall where they fell. He took a seat on the Bronco’s tailgate. “Where you want it?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Feeling that if I gave the wrong answer after he’d shared the entire ritual with me would be some kind of insult—no, disappointment—I looked for his tattoos. The ones on the neck were girls’ names scrolled and curled. The ones on his chest and his back he wouldn’t talk about. On one arm he had two faces, one smiling and the other crying and I liked that they were clownish and sad at the same time. It made me wonder what kind of adult I’d be. I offered my right arm up, raising its weight with the other, the way you lift your hands at communion.

Mama scrubbed at it with a rough sponge that night, while all the others slept low to the ground. From my place sitting on the sink, I could see the empty beds, ransacked of pillows. Could see the huddled shapes on the floor, where it was safer from bullets. The phone had just stopped ringing and I liked the quiet. 
Mama didn’t. She could hear how hard she’d been scrubbing and she went easier. 
Tío Kiko wouldn’t stop calling the house. My sister was out with some one else. When the new guy had come to pick her up, I asked, “Who’s the fag in the Honda?” and she smacked the back of my head, clicked her dark lips and told me, we ain’t need to hang with no fucking criminals no more. From the front window I watched her drop into the passenger seat of the low car, but that was just a technicality; you could see by their silhouettes in the windows she was the one giving him the directions, telling him where to go. 
Now Tío Kiko’s Bronco rumbled in their place. 
He kept calling the house, and calling out his window, and waving his pistol out the window too. He said he’d shoot everyone and circled the block. He just wanted to know where she was, he kept saying. 
I knew he couldn’t just drive away, cause that would mean quitting. But he couldn’t sit out front just waiting on her, either. Even I knew that.
The phone rang. Mama stopped scrubbing. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
The flesh of her eyes was tired, but the eyes themselves were frantic. The only answer I could think of was, “It hurts when you scrub so hard.”
	Outside, tires screeched. Sirens said someone finally called the police. 
	“Mijo,” Mama said, and started scrubbing again, softer now, barely touching me at all. I could see she wasn’t in the room, not really. “He won’t hurt us. He’s a crazy. He’s on drugs. The cops’ll get him now.” 
But when she said that I just cried harder, and it hurt in my ribs and my throat, until after a while she left me to cry sitting alone on the sink. I touched the tender skin on my arm, and traced the tattoo’s shape he’d drawn there. There were no faces. Not sad or happy. Like all along they’d been a couple of ghosts.

Christopher David Rosales is the author of Plata o Plomo, winner of the McNamara Creative Arts Grant and short-listed for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award.  He is also a three-time winner of The Center of the American West’s Writing Award. Most recently, his work has been featured in the anthology One for the Road, and he is a Writer in Residence with Colorado Humanities. He currently teaches writing at

Fiction:  A Missionary