The Marked Man
After a thorough sweep of the workroom floor and a double-check to make sure all the used needles are bent, I lock the parlor and step into the municipal lot.

My car protests when I turn the ignition. It’s been doing this lately and I’m not sure if it’s just the cold. Tonight is certainly one for the history books; 26 mph northwest winds gusting to 33 so that the 7-degree temperature feels like -20. I’ve heard winter’s the hardest season on a car battery, but the same mechanics tell me I need a new air filter every time I come in the shop. If you’re not discerning about the voices speaking, you’ll believe anything and live most of your life in fear.

The car finally starts and I let it sit for a minute or two, warming up, while I deliberate if I really want to do this.

Simina’s text message has been on my mind all day.

“Had a nightmare that seemed to last all night that you died in a car accident. In case I am having my first ever premonition, be careful out there today!”

I already know my destination. Laurel Park, a solid 25-minute drive.

I shift the car from park.

In the municipal lot, the wind kicks up something awful and flurries start to fall. We’re supposed to get an inch of snow tonight.

The in-town drive from the tattoo parlor will take five minutes, if that. The downtown square gives way to a neighborhood that’ll take me straight to the highway. The speed limit climbs as each house becomes further from the last.

Delacour, Ill., like most rural towns downstate of Interstate 80, is pretty much a ghost town, but it’s the only one in Mass County with a Walmart and a vibrant downtown square. At least I like to think it’s thriving, given that my work partner and I located on the square about two years ago. Delacour is certainly better off than the other two cities in the county — Quito (its pronunciation of quit-o should explain how it’s faring) and Antiock (the spelling should do the same).

Co-owning a tattoo shop is difficult. Aside from the impractical overhead created by state regulation that can be at times impractical and overbearing, there’s the debt accrued from years of paying $5,000 as an apprentice and the initial three-year loss guarantee from building a market.

But you certainly meet some interesting people.

To try to cater to walk-ins, we work alternating shifts. Each week, I take three days and three nights and my partner does the same. Sundays are off.

I’ve just finished a slow night shift, the kind that makes you check the clock every five minutes. The only thing that happened was an appointment with a guidance counselor who asked for an image of Croesus and the Delphic Oracle on her back.

It was a complex one, with meticulous details and colors. It’d cost her a pretty penny but she seemed willing to pay it.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a guidance counselor.”

“At a school?”

She laughed. “Yeah. At a school.”

“Sorry. It’s just, we don’t get too many guidance counselors.”

“I’m sure you don’t get too much Greek mythology either.”

“Sure don’t. But I did use some classical Western imagery when I did my sleeve.”

“Oh cool. It’s always good to see a tattoo that means something. I work with a lot of seniors who choose tattoos that ‘look cool.’”

“We get a lot of that — stars and barbed wire and stuff.”

She laughed. “Do you know the story behind Croesus?”

“I did some research on it to come up with the drawing.” In the story, Lydian king Croesus asks the Delphic Oracle if he should invade Persia. The oracle says he’ll destroy a great kingdom if he does. So he attacks and destroys a great kingdom — his own. “But I don’t really know why you chose this one over any other.”

“It’s one that’s always stuck with me. In grad school, we had a psychology course that covered the neo-Jungian movement. I got exposed to a lot of mythology. Like, we talked about this Russian myth where one of the kings — I can’t remember his name — is told he’ll be killed by his horse so he sends it off. He’s told that the horse died in the desert but it’s not good enough. He has to see the bones. They take him to the bones. When he gets there, he kicks them and a snake leaps out, bites him and kills him. My prof compared it to co-rumination and how if you talk too much about a problem, you run the risk of making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. You think too much about it and it seems much worse than it actually is. It’s good to talk about things, sure, but sometimes it’s better to just leave it alone.”

“So why’d you settle on this one?”

“In all these myths, these men are marked. In the end, it’s Croesus’ own pride that killed him. Good thing to remember, don’t you think?”

This morning, running late in spite of not having to be in ’til noon, I shoveled down a bowl of cereal. The only thing about Simina’s text that surprised me was that she was thinking of me. The premonition stuff was just like her.

I try not to put too much stock in these things. It’s like the guidance counselor said. A man can believe anything if he dwells on it too much. Besides, I saw a Facebook post before I went to bed last night with a song and dreamt—

In the comfort of my apartment, I paused. That’s weird. That’s really weird.

I looked at my cereal and had a sensation that I’ve had only a few times. I thought about my arms, the way so many parts responded to stimuli unconsciously, the way I reacted to the mundane with muscle memory. How strange it is to exist, whatever that means.

In my dream, Simina and I sat in my car at Laurel Park.

“We need to go home,” Simina said.

“Just listen to this song,” I said. “The best part is coming up. You have to be quiet.”

It was Thom Yorke’s cover of “All for the Best,” a song about coping with death, a poignant tribute from Yorke to the original writer, Mark Mulcahy, after his wife died.

The part where he says, “And I had some regrets but if I had to do it again, well, it’s something I’d like to do…”

No, that’s The Eels’ “Things the Grandchildren Should Know…”

“Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done. Walk away from trouble… Say you love me…”

I texted Simina back.

“That’s so weird. I had a dream we were in my car at Laurel Park. We were late going somewhere, but I can’t remember. Was it a specific location?”

“I didn’t recognize the road,” Simina texted back.

I’m sure I have a CD with that Thom Yorke song on it somewhere. Maybe even the Eels song. I need to play those for this drive.

I fumble with the CDs stocked on my passenger seat, trying to keep my eyes on the road as I peruse the permanent-markered recordables.

I wonder if ice is going to be a problem tonight.

I realize the CD must be among several that fell to the floor. I lean down, stretching for a stack lying askew. If there’s a surprise on the road and I crash, I’ll surely be paralyzed.

There. Got ’em.

I come up, adjusting my steering wheel a bit.

It doesn’t take long to find the song.

When I first finished my tattoo sleeve, Simina didn’t seem to mind. We’d only been together for about a week so I didn’t know how she’d react. She seemed open-minded.

“I’ve never gotten a tattoo,” she said. “I don’t like the idea that I’ll have it with me the rest of my life.”

“The first tattoo I got during my apprenticeship was across my chest. It says ‘Nothing Permanent.’ That’s something we think of a lot in this business.”

“Nothing permanent? But the ink is permanent. I mean, look at your arm. You’ve marked yourself for life. Doesn’t everything have meaning?”

I smile. “Simina, when you get into sleeves, some of it becomes more about aesthetic than meaning. For example, I really like early Western art, the way it fuses mythology with everyday life, tells stories of heroes and heroines fighting monsters no one’s ever seen in the midst of very straightforward images of people in the church. So I filled in a lot of stuff with classical Western influence.”

“But that’s permanent.”

“Nothing in my line of work is permanent. You want permanent? Check out Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. That was made in the 1500s and it’s still around. My work goes on living skin and one day it dies.”

Outside, the wind howls. The flurries intensify. I look behind me in the rearview mirror. Even in the mirror, I see them pushed violently by the unseen hand of an ever-vengeful God.

“Have you ever seen wind with your eyes?” Of course I’d think of Kateri on a trip to Laurel Park.

“Sure, I’ve seen trees sway in it—”

“But have you seen the wind yourself?”

“No…I…guess not.”

“But you know it’s there. Because of the trees and stuff.”

“Sure.”

“That’s the essence of faith, my friend.”

No. That’s the presence of ghosts. The fruit of the tree, as enticing as the very fruit Eve gave to Adam, falls on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and he conjures gravity, an unseen force that did not exist until that moment. Yet, we carry with us the notion that it’s existed all along. We ruminate about it until it becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy, the mechanics’ infallible word regarding our dirty air filters.

Kateri is an outspoken girl who has Potawatomi roots.

I first met her in Laurel with Simina.

Laurel is so small that it’s not even a blip on the map. I would’ve never known of it had I not dated Simina. Simina’s interest in all things socially activist took me to Laurel because of its historical significance.

Laurel Park has a marker recognizing it as a spot along the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death.

We gathered for a prayer around the marker, standing in a circle.

“That marker…the date is my birthday.” I pointed.

“Oh wow,” Simina said.

Sure enough, the marker commemorated the Potawatomi’s passage through the park on the date in which I’d be born some 146 years later.

“There must be a reason you came here,” Kateri said.

My initial reaction was to be wary, because a man can miss the big things in life looking for trivial signs. But Kateri’s statement didn’t annoy me like Simina’s do.

Kateri’s grandmother, Kewanee, walked by each of us, wafting smoke from burning sage, cedar and a little sweetgrass. She moved from the ground up for me and from the top down for Simina.

Around the picnic table, Kewanee would explain that the smoke is good for the spirit, carrying the prayers of each individual that those who suffered would find rest.

Kateri was the leader of a group of college students in Kansas who decided to spend a summer walking the Potawatomi Trail of Death backward in 30-mile increments a day to galvanize support. They intended to take proposed legislation to Washington, D.C., in protest of their city’s leasing of a sacred Potawatomi burial site to a strip mall developer.

I tagged along with Simina.

I’d never found myself particularly attracted to American Indian women, but Kateri had a fire about her that really turned me on. Even though I had Simina by my side, a girl that would make most men in Delacour envy me, my shoulders still slumped a bit when Kateri introduced me to her boyfriend, Wabaunsee. I don’t know if that was his birth name, but he’d certainly adopted it for the trip.

He was Kateri’s pair.

“It’s not Potawatomi,” Kateri said. “It’s Potawato-we!”

The entire group, which consisted of about 10 people, had a pair. The group had to be an even number. This was Kateri’s push — an idea of community that we are not effective unless we are in pairs.

“My grandmother used to scratch my back when I’d get worried,” she said. “She’d tell me that the best way to handle my anxiety is to get it out in the open. Anxiety loves secrecy. But when it’s out in the open and in the light, it’s rid of its dark powers.” She looked around at the park. “If you come to a place where great suffering has happened and you have an attitude of forgiveness, you can disarm that negativity.”

That day the sky was clear, the temperature suitable for short sleeves and we hardly noticed the slight breeze contributing to the benign weather.

Now, my car gets pushed back by a blast of frigid wind trying to pull me off the road. My headlines don’t illumine much in front of me.

Shoot. I forgot to let Simina know I’m making this trip. I fumble with my phone, eyes darting between what’s in front of me and my lap as I punch in a text message.

Be slow about it…one letter at a time…

The wind jerks my car to the side. I grab the steering wheel and wait for it to die down.

…look back at the road…there…

“I decided I’m driving to Laurel Park.”

The response comes pretty immediately. “What? No. Just go home! Or walk.”

Simina will freak out about this. She takes this superstitious stuff pretty seriously.

I get the sense now that this drive is rebellious and immature, like I’m a teenager trying to slip “Fuck the System” T-shirts past my Mom.

I wonder what I’m rebelling against. A notion of God? The faith Kateri talked about? The ghosts?

Do I want to die? I try to take the question as seriously as possible, though it’s hard to take a question like that seriously. The thought of dying is about as unnatural as the thought of Sir Isaac Newton’s gravity having at one point not existed. We’re aware of it, but it’s never happened to us.

Again, I have that strange sensation that I’m existing. The lights illuminating what’s immediately ahead on the road… How strange this is.

The truth is, if Simina had a premonition and I’m supposed to die, then why try to avoid it? If it’s going to happen, I may as well get it in the light. I’ve led a pretty productive life. Nothing to be ashamed of. Could it have been fuller? Sure. But we don’t get to choose that. Why even pretend we can?

“All right, God,” I say. “You’re in control here. It’s all in your hands.”

Wabaunsee turned out to be a pretty good guy. The march was important to him because his great-great-great grandmother had walked the Trail of Death. He was a citizen-band Potawatomi, belonging to a group of American Indians that traded their land for citizenship.

“Want to join us?” He motioned to a domed hut made of willow branches.

“What is it?”

“A sweat lodge.”

“Sure.”

The sweat lodge, Wabaunsee explained, is supposed to symbolize the spine of your mother. Warming stones are brought inside during the enipi ceremony and the men climb in to sweat and pray. Nudity is forbidden, but I was encouraged to go in my boxers because it would get that hot.

“Many years ago, a sweat lodge like this was probably built around here,” Kateri said.

“It’s probably long since been buried,” Wabaunsee said.

“I know that. I’m just saying, it was probably meant to be here again.”

I’d been in a sauna before and expected it to be similar.

The stones were heated and set in the center of the hut. They threw a blanket over us.

Heated stones. Can it really get that hot?

It could. My pores really opened up and I wished nudity wasn’t forbidden because my boxers were soaked.

“It’s supposed to represent rebirth,” Wabaunsee said.

When Simina and I were ready to leave, I knew something had happened while I was in there. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but this day would live on in my memory for quite some time.

I know I’m getting close to Laurel when I reach the indicative green sign and leave the main highway for the back roads.

At this point, the flurries are full-fledged snowflakes and the roads look slick with ice.

I thought my headlights were bad on the highway but they are worse on this road. I flick on my brights, passing the first unmarked turn to the left.

I know I’m looking for a right turn.

The road flies in front of me at 50 mph. If I slide off and crash, I’ll suffer consequences. I’m driving at fatal speeds and yet it feels harmless.

The wind hits and I fight for control of the car. I can’t take these back roads for granted the way I do the highway. These aren’t the kinds of roads the crews clean when it snows.

I slow down to less than the speed limit.

I don’t remember the right turn taking this long. Great, now I’m going to not see the park and I’m going to get lost. Maybe I should turn around.

Then Simina will ask about Laurel Park and I’ll say I didn’t actually go. I’ll sound like a man with no conviction.

I have to go. I hit the gas, a stubborn resolve setting on my face.

If you let enough time pass in which you’d rather talk about art, coffee, TV satire, anything but social activism, you become militant to any socially activist endeavor that comes up.

That’s how I felt when Simina found out about a Keystone Pipeline protest 45 minutes south of us. We drove down for a special city council meeting regarding the pipeline, which would ship crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to as far south as Texas.

A group of kids — college students maybe — attended. They made me feel old, the way they were so intense. Too intense for me to take in more than small doses…

“We really need to get this conversation started at the political level…”

It was everything I’d believed as a college student, except I’d become jaded.

“Conversations in the political arena about these issues, if they do arise, are not going to be successful,” I wanted to say. “Politicians won’t listen; they’re too busy listening to the people with money who are funding them to vote special interests. They’d probably vote in favor of this damn pipeline while you struggle to make ends meet fighting for what you believe.”

But I held my tongue.

We sat through three hours of public comment. The first 15 minutes were designated to chief executive officers voicing their support and the rest of the time went to everyday people repeating the same arguments for why the pipeline was a bad idea.

At one point we got to talking with the college students.

“Good for you for coming out tonight,” Simina said. “You have to start somewhere.”

I couldn’t hold it any longer. “Don’t try to change anything,” I muttered. “I’m certainly not.”

Our break-up was inevitable.

On the back road, the right turn I’m supposed to make finally shows up. I hit the brakes as I make it, but I still go faster than I probably should. I’m expecting to slide any moment, but I don’t.

If my memory serves correctly, I go down a hill, up a hill and then make a left turn.

For being in the middle of nowhere, the road to Laurel is pretty straightforward. Some of the roads I’ve been on are nothing but twists and turns. This is mostly farmland, divided into square blocks. I’m thankful for that.

There’s the left turn.

The snow’s sticking to the ground as I make it, but it’s fresh — not the day old stuff that’s mostly ice and awful for driving.

As I begin the final stretch that again feels longer than it should, I have a sickening feeling that I’m going to miss the park. I’ll drive right by it and then wonder where I am. I’ll get lost in this terrible weather with Simina’s premonition hanging over my head…

I need to shake this premonition if I’m to prevent a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I dwell on it, the more I’ll mark myself like that Russian dude who kicked his horse’s bones.

I do know that the park is mostly tucked away and somewhat out of sight from the road. It’ll be awful to discern in the dark, so I’ll have to pay close attention.

I don’t miss it. I’m actively looking for it, so I find it.

I pull in, my brights illuminating the sweat lodge, which is still standing after more than half a year. I park and take a moment to simply stare at the lodge.

I should just turn around—

No. I drove 25 miles out here. I need to make something of it.

It’s 10:30 p.m. The park is closed. Anything I do now is suspicious.

I don’t care. There are like 50 people that live in this town. Tonight feels meaningful, even if I am being superstitious. I have to check it out.

I turn the car off.

After Simina and I broke up, I decided to drive to Laurel Park. It’d been three months since our fateful day with the Potawatomi.

It was similar to tonight in some respects. When I pulled in and saw the sweat lodge still standing, I thought about leaving. I reached the same conclusion as tonight, though; the drive took 25 minutes and I needed to make something of it.

While admiring the hut, I heard the water in the creek. I hadn’t noticed it three months ago, but we’d had a series of summer storms and I’m sure the waters rose dramatically from them. I decided to check it out.

Carefully making my way down a steep muddy hill, I saw a Dad and his son. The Dad noticed me first.

I waved. “I was just checking out the sweat lodge,” I said. I wanted to see if it was still standing.”

“They sure know how to build ’em, don’t they?”

“Yeah, we had some big storms, but it’s still standing.”

We introduced ourselves.

“My son and I are catching crawdads,” the man said. “Ya know, Laurel isn’t much, but when you’ve got scenery like this…” He surveyed the woods. “…it’s worth it.”

“I’m with you on that.”

“Besides, we’ve got a pretty good education system here.”

“Is it Quito School District in this area?”

“Delacour. We’re in a kind of in-between zone.”

“Ok, I live in Delacour.”

“It’s a good system. He comes to me all the time talking about stuff that I don’t even know about. Like, the other day. He was talking about how there’s this bird that sits on a rhino’s back and it eats parasites off the rhino’s back. ‘It’s called symbiosis, Dad!’”

I laughed. “It’s all about pairs.”

The Dad didn’t get it the way I did, the way my frame of reference had been powerfully shaken a mere three months ago. He chuckled. “He’s a good kid.”

Approaching the lodge now, the wind slaps me in the face. I duck my head under my coat, pulling the zipper up as high as I can. I force my hat down as far as I can, shuffling my feet rigidly, my breath bouncing off the coat rim against my chin.

The wind still manages to get under my hat into my ears.

When I reach the sweat lodge, I find snow collecting on it, the willow slick with ice. Just six months ago, I’d wished I didn’t have to wear my boxers as they soaked with sweat. And now it’s ice.

I could walk over to the creek…

It’s too cold for this. Memorable experience or not, it’s not worth it. I rush back to the car.

The car hasn’t yet lost all its warmth. I’m a little annoyed with myself for getting so carried away by Simina’s text message. A man gets superstitious and he’ll convince himself of anything.

I turn the key in the ignition. The car protests. Doesn’t start.

I curse. It’s too cold to deal with this. The cold’s already begun to seep in. The heat won’t last forever and I lost a lot of it from opening and shutting the door twice.

They say that you should keep blankets in the car in case you get stranded. Hypothermia is no laughing matter.

Call Simina.

I try the key again. Still no luck.

I fumble with my phone and call Simina. She answers on the third ring.

“Simina, I—”

“Did you really go to Laurel Park?”

“I…I did.”

“I can’t believe you. I’m worried about you and you have to make a joke out of it.”

“I’m sorry, Simina. I…I just felt like I needed to come here.”

“To make a joke out of—”

“No, I—”

“Then what?”

“I needed to process some things. When you told me about your dream…I dreamt that you and I were here. Except…Simina, I’m stuck. My car won’t start.”

“You’re stuck?”

“At the park.”

“You’re stuck?”

“Can you come pick me up?”

“You want me to pick you up?”

“I know it’s—”

“I can’t pick you up. It’s almost 11. I have to work tomorrow.”

“I know…”

“Besides, are you kidding? I just had a dream that you were going to die in a car crash. You’re marked. You’ve got a curse. I can’t pick you up.”

“Right.” I sigh. “I’ll…I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll try someone else. Goodnight.”

As I hang up, I want to mutter something about how I have the worst luck. Truth is I’ve marked myself, the way I chose to have “Nothing Permanent” tattooed on my chest, the way I came to Laurel Park when I saw that the Trail of Death commemoration was on my birth date. Simina said she had a dream about me crashing my car. So I went for a drive.

I try the car one more time. A man, not discerning the voices speaking, will believe anything.

Jake Russell is a previously unpublished creative fiction writer. He has had poems published in the Open Window Review and Weekenders Magazine and has poems slated for publication in the Emerge Literary Review. He is a reporter in Jacksonville, Ill., who has had similar stints in Omaha, Neb., and Washington, D.C., since graduating from Greenville College with a bachelor's degree in English in 2007.

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