A Stranger's Boots, part 2: The bad-ass

By Joe Steele
published June 3, 2019

Mike’s outlook changes when he spends the day wearing the boots.

Mike walks around his neighborhood for just half an hour before the boots start to hurt. They’re not quite big enough. His toes are hitting the steel caps with each step. The arches of the boots aren’t lining up properly. His feet have started to ache all over.

He sits down on the next bench he sees and takes off one of the boots to feel around inside it. The thick boot socks are bunched up at the heel. He takes the sock off and sees angry red spots on his big toe and heel. Fuck, he thinks. After waiting this long.

Maybe the heavy socks are taking up too much space between his feet and the boots. He checks his phone. There’s a sporting-goods spot about five blocks over. He finds a pair of cheap tube socks that are tall enough. He swaps out his socks on a bench in the shoe department while a teenager looking at overpriced basketball shoes gives him a curious look. Maybe envy.

With thinner socks the laces reach the twentieth pair of holes with just enough to spare. The boots fit better in the shaft as well as the foot. He wanders around the city with no purpose except to enjoy the boots. These are the tallest boots he’s ever owned. The unfamiliar sensation of so much leather wrapped around his legs is keeping him pretty hard. He stops at a shoeshine stand on the street. The young guy’s not bad-looking, not anyone Mike would take home, but feeling him work on the boots gives Mike a boner. It’s extra for knee-high boots and Mike gives him a nice tip on top of that.

A text comes in from Eric, one of his college friends. Not a bad guy, Eric’s gotten a little stiff since taking a job on Wall Street. A number of them stuck around after finishing NYU ten years ago. Eric is drinking like he’s still in college, but Mike has moved on. “I know you won’t want to join but no harm in asking. Going out for beer & shots at eight with some guys from the office.”

On occasion Mike can be talked into going to a bar to be social, like if his boss wants to take the team out after work. He always orders a beer for the sake of appearances, and never drinks more than half of it. But today the idea of hanging out and drinking seems to Mike like… a fine idea. He texts Eric back – “sounds good. where.” A row of shocked and amazed emojis comes back, followed by a midtown address.

A door opens near where Mike is standing. Deep-voiced laughter and the buzz of tattoo machines are carried out to the sidewalk, then the door drops closed again. Tattoos have never interested him, so he’s never been in a tattoo shop, though in truth his disinterest may have actually been intimidation. But today he’s suddenly curious about tattoos.

In the tattoo chair, Mike takes in the manner of the intense, quiet artist as he drags the needle of the buzzing tattoo machine across Mike’s skin. It’s a big piece, extending from elbow to wrist, along the outer side of his arm. The guy is almost finished laying down the linework. But Mike doesn’t really remember anything after he walked into the tattoo shop. He wonders – Did I have a blackout? There’s epilepsy and some mental illness in his family but he’s never experienced any. Yet.

He thinks about making the artist stop, but he’d look like an idiot and the outline of the tattoo is already drilled into his skin.

“You okay?” The artist is still leaning over Mike’s arm, tattoo machine poised above Mike’s skin, but he’s shifted his eyes upward to look Mike in the face. “You zoned out and then you sort of… shivered.”

“I’m okay. Keep going.”

“First tattoo, right? The pain can stack up and overwhelm you. Don’t hold your breath when I hit the tender spots. If you feel like puking or passing out, tell me.”

“Got it,” Mike says. He’s not going to embarrass himself by puking or passing out. No way.

It takes three more hours for the artist to finish. At first Mike does a lot of squinting his eyes and cringing. But by the third hour he’s not reacting at all, especially when the artist goes over spots that he already hit earlier. Mike.leans over from time to time to check out what the artist is doing. He sees the blood oozing up and very slowly running down his skin, watching the artist wipe it away from time to time. Usually the sight of blood makes Mike queasy but today it’s nothing.

Finally the tattoo is finished. The artist wipes Mike down thoroughly and gestures him over to the mirror. The tattoo is an enormous, ornate cross, bathed in fire, barbed wire, and scrollwork. Hard blacks and soft grays, shades of red. Mike doesn’t remember choosing this design, but he can’t really say anything to the artist. He’d sound crazy. But wearing this potent symbol of a faith he doesn’t belong to – How did this happen?

But then he thinks, wow, this is awesome. A good start. I wonder what I should get on the other arm.

But then he thinks, fuck, how did I end up with something this big? I never even wanted a tattoo before today.

“You OK?” the artist asks

“It’s… big,” Mike manages to choke out.

“You made the right decision,” the artist says neutrally. “It needs to be that size to get the detail packed in. And you said you wanted to get started on a full sleeve.”

Continuing to look at the tattoo in the mirror, it occurs to him – He looks more than ever like the guys he likes. Tattooed and booted. Well on his way to being a bad-ass.

The artist wraps Mike’s arm in white bandage and tape from elbow to wrist. Mike gives the guy a wad of cash and shakes his hand. Mike doesn’t know it because it’s his first tattoo, but the intense hunger he suddenly feels is par for the course after you’ve gotten a big tattoo. And he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. He thinks about a big bowl of greens and quinoa, maybe some vegan Indian food with plenty of chickpeas. He is definitely craving protein. He looks at the storefronts within view and sees nothing suitable. Right across the street is a burger place. Gross, he thinks. He hasn’t eaten meat in several years. But then his stomach rumbles again, his jaw aches, and he feels himself salivating.

He’s sitting at the bar of the burger place, halfway through a double cheeseburger, fries, and a pint of beer. An empty pint glass sits alongside it. He barely remembers going in and ordering. What the hell. He’s momentarily horrified but then keeps on eating until it’s all gone. Wow, that was good.

Belly distended from the mass of greasy food and alcohol, Mike expects to feel sleepy, like he does at the office every day after lunch, longing for a nap while he is obliged to sit upright in his chair and make a show of being productive. But he feels great. What’s next? he thinks. He checks his phone. It’s excellent timing. Eric and the other guys should be at the bar pretty soon.

The guys make a predictably big deal that Mike showed up, and they lose their shit that he just got a tattoo. They hound him to peel the bandage off and show them, but the tattoo artist said leave it on until the next morning. Mike has to say no several times.

But that’s the last time he says no that evening. Beer after beer, whiskey shots, half a joint in the men’s room. Mike’s two-pint head start at the burger place doesn’t slow him down. The other guys needle one another with ersatz insults and laugh too loudly. Mike’s having more fun than he’s had in a long time. It’s when these guys turn their attention and commentary to women that his interest, and his feeling of belonging, evaporates. He thinks about leaving, but… well, that’s what guys do. They look at women. And Mike can see that there are some good-looking ones at this bar.

Amid the din that is making conversation a chore, one of the guys makes the smoke-a-cigarette gesture to the others and heads for the door of the bar. After a pause, the others follow him. Mike tags along rather than be left alone to wait for them to come back.

Outside the bar it’s now decidedly not just night, but late at night, the sky pitch-black, the storefronts all closed except for places to eat, people on the street obviously out to have fun on a Friday night. A taco truck rolls lazily by, too late to the neighborhood to find a place to drop anchor.

Mike’s friend Eric doesn’t light up, but the other guys do. Mike watches them take drags off their cigarettes and blow the smoke out in curls, wafting upward.

“Got one for me?” Mike asks the guy next to him, whose name he can’t remember. Thinking nothing of it, the guy gives him one and lights it for him.

Eric shakes his head. “You don’t smoke.”

Mike takes a drag and pulls the smoke in deep. The throat hit is unfamiliar and an acrid burn moves into his nostrils. For fuck’s sake, don’t cough. You’ll look like an idiot. He suppresses the cough and then exhales out of the side of his mouth like a longtime smoker. He gets a little head rush, and a momentary flash of nausea. He looks over at Eric and shrugs. “I don’t.”

The other guys laugh at the obvious absurdity, but they don’t know Mike very well. It’s Mike’s first cigarette ever.

Eric makes a weird face and says “What did you do with Mike?” Then he laughs a little to make a joke out of it.

“I think he’s home playing video games in his boxer shorts,” Mike roars drunkenly. The other guys bust out laughing but Eric just looks at Mike, bemused.

“Eric, your buddy here is all right,” one of the guys says, clapping Mike on the shoulder with his cigarette hand, dislodging a chunk of ash that lands on the shoulder of Mike’s t-shirt. “Sorry man,” he says, and swipes at it, managing only to grind the ash into the fabric and leave a charcoal trail. Mike looks down at the smear. He’s surprised he doesn’t care.

They go back inside and keep drinking. Mike gets completely fucked up, to the point they have to take him home and put him in bed. It takes two of them to unlace and remove the massive boots. “Ferchrissakes,” one of them says. “Why are they so big.” With his boots removed at last, they leave the rest of his clothes on before dragging a blanket across him.

“Mike,” one of the not-Erics says. But Mike is drifting on the edge of consciousness. The guy goes to the head of the bed and peels one of Mike’s eyelids open. “Mike,” he says in a louder voice. Mike’s eye shifts in its socket to face the guy.

“Don’t wear those fucking boots next time you come drinking with us or you’re going to be sleeping in them.”

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