Ghost Pain

E. R. Womelsduff

Knowledge is not power, knowledge is paralysis, is crippling. Knowledge is reaction, is indirect, is change. I threw away my curling iron. I found people with names like Roxie and Ash. I rubbed my hands against the greasy tattoo parlor vinyl so I could see the dirt, so I could touch it, so I could wash it away. I asked the man to mark me, to set down the time in my skin, and he did so without anyone’s consent but mine. I kissed him on the lips and he smelled like disinfectant. I came back time and time again to lift my shirt over my shoulder blades so he could trace with his blue latex finger what he had left on me.

I thought about Jenny. My other, the dead one.


I began failing for her. I took my GPA and I chloroformed it when it wasn’t looking and when it woke up, it was missing a kidney. I took my hair out of my ponytail and dipped it in dye and traced it with bleach and said Jenny, what do you look like? I crawled on the roof and stared at the stars or the clouds or the jets or her face made up of dark, wet tree branches. I looked at her limbs, and I hated her for changing everything. I hated that I wasn’t given the chance to know when it would have made a difference in how I lived.

I threw away my curling iron. I kissed the tattoo man. I gained, I lost Jenny.
 She said she was eighteen, but she was pale and all-over small and had the look of someone who had suddenly stopped eating or sleeping, or who had gotten sick and didn’t have the will to get over it.

She had money, so he told her to lie down and roll her shirt up over her shoulders so he could print a memory, as she put it, on her spine. Most people did that—put memories on their skin, because they didn’t want to forget. She was different, though. She wanted him to put it down because she didn’t want to remember. He didn’t ask—there are some people you can ask and some you can’t—just set the needle down and did his work and for the fifty-five minutes it took, she didn’t make a sound. When he was done and wiped the blood away and rubbed Aquaphor over the angry red mark, she stood up and rolled her shirt down and kissed him.
 I was in the attic searching for an old pair of grandma’s pearls because things like that were always tucked away in odd tubes and latch-clasp purses and hideaways in the wall and whenever I was bored or happy or sad I went up there to find things. I didn’t find the pearls. But I did find a box. It was filled with papers—my parents’ marriage license, all sorts of insurances and proofs of purchase, and tucked in the back, my birth certificate. It had my
birth date, my weight, and the color of my eyes. But it didn’t have my name. I went downstairs.
My parents sunk me like a fishing lure into the darkness, and said there had been a Jenny. There had been a baby girl, a girl just like me. Except I needed a transplant, and Jenny volunteered (how can a four-year-old volunteer?), and there were complications and Jenny died. And I ask why they didn’t tell me and all they say is they never planned to tell me because what good would it have done? They are old—uncomfortable like statues perched on an abandoned cathedral. I tell them I want a picture—I want a picture and they are scared, they didn’t plan for this. I take the forfeited Polaroid and I go to bed and I go to sleep. I feel my kidney through my skin, that piece of Jenny, and I tremble at the ghost pain of an entire disappeared sister.
She had red hair this week. It was always different, and somehow it always fit. She said she was eighteen, so when she walked up to him and stood there, staring level at his chest, he knew he wouldn’t go to jail when he remembered her memory for her, when he bent his neck those few inches to where her mouth waited for his and temporarily returned what she’d—with the seventy-five dollars he charged for those first fifty-five minutes—entrusted to him.
I flung my hair upside down in front of the heater in the hall until my temples beat with blood and my hair was hot to the touch. I wore black lipstick, I wore white; I wore bare lips when I went to see him. At home, my parents didn’t refer to her. At home, my parents didn’t refer to me.

Roxie and Ash had tattoos. They’d told me about the place on Grant and Fifth. I’d driven past it on my way to school every day for three years and never saw it before they pointed it out. Roxie and Ash said they’d go with me if I wanted them to, and I thought about it, and then I didn’t even tell them, I just saw it on my way home from school in the winter-dark and then I was parked and then I was inside and then there was ink cooling on my skin, and pain. I showed them a week later, and then we didn’t talk about it. That’s why I like Roxie and Ash.

My teachers say nothing. It’s not so unusual, nowadays. People have problems. They act out or they don’t. They get over it, they get help, or they don’t. And if they don’t, the world still spins and babies are still born and kids go through the class until the teachers retire and then the kids are teachers and the unborn babies, the ones that make it, are students and everyone grows younger, older, and you either get help or you don’t.

I tried green that week.
Her hair was green this week. Somehow, it wasn’t ugly. It was like she was trying for it to be ugly, and it wasn’t. Something about her reminded him of mermaids, of cold, dark water. He started taking her in the back room, not because he wanted to hide what they were doing—not that they were doing anything—but because it seemed too solemn for the bright fluorescents of the open front room and the clang of the door bell if someone came or left and the squeak of the fake circa 1950 vinyl booth lining the outer wall.

Sometimes he gave her a Coke, sometimes not. He wasn’t even sure what her name was, although he could easily look up the release form she signed when she first came in. Maybe her name wasn’t important. Maybe her name was everything. He didn’t know. He just kissed her.
The roof was cold and wet more often than not with the constant danger of sliding off into the concrete drive or the wrought-iron handrail leading up the steps to the front door or the holly tree or the woodpile or the metal-peaked shed. I went up there to look at the ancient lines of her face. She was four years old in my picture of her; in my picture of her, she was me. Sometimes she spoke, told me she didn’t mind dying, it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes she didn’t say anything. My hair was white today, and the snow was deep. Today, Jenny wasn’t talking.

My parents didn’t like me up there. I told them to pretend they didn’t know, just like they’d pretended for fourteen years that they’d only had one daughter. They turned and walked out of the room, and I continued going up to the roof.

Roxie and Ash sometimes went up and got me. I’d forget to come down, so they’d come and get me and take me somewhere and eventually take me back home when the house was dark and I could walk to my room stumbling like the blind, the drunk, but I wasn’t blind and I wasn’t drunk and I wondered if my parents could hear me falling through the house and I wondered why they stayed quiet behind their door and I wondered why they let me go out at all.

On the really bad days, they took me to Grant and Fifth, and they left me with him.
The other two (he didn’t know their names, either) brought her in sometimes, but more often than not she came alone. Sometimes once, twice, three, four times a week, sometimes he wouldn’t see her for a month. He always kept a supply of Coke on hand, the kind in the old glass bottles that were hard to find. He didn’t owe her anything. He thought maybe he should be annoyed—and the tattooed and pierced receptionist he and his business partner had hired certainly thought the girl was a freak—but somehow he just didn’t mind.

She made him sad. She was paler than before, smaller somehow. When he traced her tattoo, he could feel her bones.
Jenny was inside me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t get her out, couldn’t free her, couldn’t let her go. She didn’t want to talk to me much, anymore. She was sad all the time, sometimes even angry, and I tried to figure out a way to sever us because she couldn’t sleep. The only time her face disappeared was when he traced her on my skin; the only time I could forget was in that back room.

A collection of glass bottles stood on my windowsill, bending light. Roxie and Ash worried about me. I tried pouring Jenny into the glass bottles. She didn’t fit.

She hurt me, her face in the trees, and I was trying to find the will to tell her to keep going, to drain me until there was nothing left to find, but I couldn’t sleep and it all hurt and the sun was just barely too warm on my face for me to feel completely cold.

And then there was Jenny’s face in the tree branches, shivering under snow. She was tired. She was tired of this.
He didn’t see her for two months.
Roxie said maybe Jenny wasn’t angry. Maybe Jenny wanted me to have her kidney, and to use it, and to live and be happy. I asked Roxie if Jenny wanted to die. I asked her if Jenny knew what the hell she was saying yes to. I asked Roxie how my parents could ask that of a tiny little kid. Roxie would look at Ash. Ash would look grim. I would look away.
There were always customers. Dry spells happened, like in any business, but the door rang daily with someone who wanted to remember something. Some teenager, just turned eighteen, who wanted to rebel. Middle-aged women who thought they were still young, bored men who had covered the majority of their bodies already and were looking to fill up the last bits of skin, bikers and caterers and police officers and dancers and teachers and actors and bus drivers. People. People needed to not forget. So they came to him and they gave him money and he wrote down whatever it was, no matter if it was what was put down or the act of putting it down that was important. They were all the same in that they all had a different reason. But he remembered her. And he kept cold Cokes in the mini-fridge of the back office, just in case.

It was such a bright spring. Water flooded rivers the snow melted so fast while wildflowers popped through patches of ice. The ice melted off the roof, which made it less dangerous. I went up there less often. Jenny was sleeping most of the time. I got papers back at school and for some reason my GPA was waking up from the coma I’d put it under. It was all returning, the water going down and the banks weren’t flooding anymore, and the path of the river had reverted to its original course and I didn’t know how to handle the fact that maybe my parents were right, maybe it didn’t make a difference, maybe it didn’t matter at all.

Applications on the kitchen table; half a dozen. My parents told me the deadlines were coming, were about to pass, and where did I want to go to school? All I had was a Polaroid of a long-dead girl, and they didn’t get it. They didn’t pause, they didn’t stop, they just moved on, fourteen years in fast-forward so they couldn’t ever feel it; her ghost, her name, her face in the goddamn trees. I wanted to scream so they could hear, but like gargoyles they were deaf and dumb and simply stood there under the onslaught of whatever weather there was to bear.
I stood on the roof and took off my shirt and tried to see what he’d set down in me, but of course I’d intentionally placed it somewhere I couldn’t look.
Three months, and the bell clanged on the front door. He was tattooing a bird on a girl’s ankle while her friend held her hand in sympathy. He called out that he’d be there in a minute, since it was a Sunday and their receptionist was off. He finished a wing and looked up and then he set down the needle gun and told the girl he’d be gone for a few minutes and walked to the back room. She faced him, didn’t touch him, always didn’t touch him, looked as lost as any of the trash that walked through his parlor, and said, “I can’t remember.”

He sat her down behind his desk and watched her roll her shirt up, up over her shoulder blades, over the bones. For the first time, he took off the blue latex glove that separated them and traced the tattoo with his bare finger and beneath the touch she shook and told him there had been a Jenny, there had been a girl just like her, and she didn’t know what to do about it and she was forgetting just like her parents had but she had to remember, it was important, it was everything.
I went home and asked my dad if we could talk about her. If we could slow down and let the circulation return enough so that it could start to hurt. I asked my mom if she had any stories. I cried so hard my teeth hurt; I had the lady at the salon turn my hair back to the color it started as; I recycled the glass bottles; I graduated and said goodbye to Roxie and Ash and then I went back. I went back and I asked him to show me how to do it. How to help people remember. He handed me a Coke and gave me a set of gloves and said this is the ink and this is the gun and had me mark down my name on his skin.


  1. says

    You really got me.
    I was just checking out the magazine, Dappled Things (led from a Gilbert Magazine ad) and was sampling the poems and art and fiction. when I started Ghost Pain I did not think I would finish.
    but I soon got hooked by the style and the psychological drama. It is like the story unfolded under some sort of cloaking device. I thought the girl odd (I’m 62 and a bit old fashioned) and then I became sympathetic towards her with each paragraph and at the end I really liked her and was happy she resolved some of her angst. I wonder, is there something symbolic going on her that i am missing. Is the kidney (that piece of Jenny) and the tattooing spiritual metaphors?
    It was a good read. Very entertaining and a bit spooky.

  2. Joshua Hren says

    This is remarkable language art, substance for hope in the future of fiction to feed on.