On November 18th, Future Tense Books will release the first collection of short stories from Meredith Alling, Sing the Song. Alling’s fiction has appeared in places like The Guardian, No Tokens, Spork, and Tin House. We’re pleased to present an excerpt from her collection today–namely, the story “Zero.”
Even legs get wrinkles. This is something that never occurred to me. I’ve been lying in bed beside the dog on Saturday mornings looking at my arm skin, the skin inside of my elbows to be exact. I’ve been twisting it and smoothing it with my index finger, which makes it wrinkle. The man at the tattoo parlor said, “I can’t tattoo a circle there for two reasons: 1) it’s really hard to tattoo a circle and 2) your skin is so thin. Look at how thin. See the veins? See the little blue deaths? That’s just going to get worse. See how you’re constantly hurtling forward? I notice you want to sit down. Stand up and come with me.”
I followed him to a back room. White buckets were stacked on the floor. A bare bulb hung from a brown string. He leaned over a computer and pointed to an enlarged Google image of a small, frail arm.
“Look at this arm,” he said. “How old do you think this arm is?”
I took a guess. “65?”
He laughed and minimized the image.
“That arm is 12,” he said. “Surprised?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I actually don’t believe you.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“That’s your prerogative,” he said. “But I’m not going to give it a circle, and I’m not going to give you a circle.”
We went back out to the main room and I saw a woman getting a large frog tattooed across her chest. It looked splattered. I sat down on a black leather sofa and moved my skin around. The man brought me a cup of Pepsi then went to help someone at the desk. I sipped and listened to the needles buzz. I tried to make the sound between my teeth—zizizizizizz zzzzz zizizizizzz—and dribbled Pepsi onto my chin.
The man finished his work at the desk and sat down next to me. Air escaped from the black leather cushion when he landed. He took my arm and began to rub it with his thumb, which was rough like a bad tongue. We watched my skin ripple and fold. He found a spot where it didn’t, a section of upper arm above the elbow. He lingered there tugging on the taut fat.
“So,” he said. “What are you going to do now?”
“I guess I’ll try to get this circle somewhere else,” I said.
I thought I felt him shudder, but he was just shifting to get his cell phone out of his pocket. He pulled his hands into his lap and sent a message, then put the phone back in his pocket and returned to my arm. He refocused his efforts on the thin places, the weak places.
“No matter what, it’s not going to look good,” he said. “Even if it looks OK now, it’s going to look bad later.”
“So what?” I said.
“You don’t value quality.”
“Teach me, pa.”
He laughed and let my arm go. It dropped limp and careless into my lap and I saw all of its potential—the sweet meaning of zero.