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Adventures in Regret IV

June 04, 1995|David Foster Wallace and David Foster Wallace | David Foster Wallace lives in Bloomington, Ill., "more or less in the middle of a cornfield." He is the author of a novel, "The Broom of the System," a story collection, "Girl With Curious Hair," and a book of nonfiction about rap music, "Signifying Rappers," written with Mark Costello. "Infinite Jest," from which this piece is excerpted, is due from Little Brown in February, 1996. "Part of the book is about tennis, and part of the book is about drugs," says Wallace, "and I learned all sorts of stuff about both things that I didn't expect. I know that's very lame."

For a while, the corporate attorney and new Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery Home resident Tiny Ewell got first keenly interested and then weirdly obsessed with people's tattoos, and he started going around to all the residents and the outside people who hung around Ennet House to help keep straight, asking to check out their tattoos and wanting to hear about the circumstances surrounding each tattoo. These little spasms of obsession-- like first with the exact definition of alcoholic and then with Morris H.'s special tollhouse cookies (until the pancreatitis flare), then with the exact kinds of corners everybody made their bed up with--these were part of the way Tiny E. temporarily lost his mind when his enslaving Substance was taken away. The tattoo thing started out with Ewell's white-collar amazement at how many of the folks around Ennet House seemed to have tattoos. And the tattoos seemed like potent symbols of not only whatever they were pictures of but also of the chilling irrevocability of intoxicated impulses.

Because the whole thing about tattoos is that they're permanent, of course, irrevocable once gotten--which of course the irrevocability of a tattoo is what jacks up the adrenaline of the intoxicated decision to sit down in the chair and actually get it (the tattoo)--but the chilling thing about the intoxication is that it seems to make you consider only the adrenaline of the moment itself, not the irrevocability that produces the adrenaline. It's like the intoxication keeps your tattoo-type person from being able to project his imagination past the adrenaline of the impulse and even consider the permanent consequences that are producing the buzz of excitement.

Tiny'll put this same abstract but not very profound idea in a whole number of varied ways, over and over, obsessively almost, and still fail to get any of the tattooed residents interested, although Bruce Green will at least listen politely, and the clinically depressed Kate Gompert usually won't have the juice to get up and walk away when Tiny starts in, which makes the little attorney seek her out vis a vis tattoos, though she hasn't got a tattoo.

But they don't have any problem with showing Tiny their tatts, the Ennet House people with tattoos don't, unless they're female and the thing is in some sort of area where there's a Boundary Issue.

As Tiny Ewell comes to see it, people with tattoos fall under two broad headings. First there are the younger scrofulous boneheaded black-T-shirt-and-spiked-bracelet types who do not have the sense to regret the impulsive permanency of their tatts, and will show them off to you with the same fake-quiet pride with which someone more of Ewell's own social stratum would show off their collection of Dynastic crockery or fine Sauvignon. Then there are the more numerous (and older) second types, who'll show you their tattoos with the sort of stoic regret (albeit tinged with a bit of self-conscious pride about the stoicism) that a Purple-Hearted veteran displays toward his old wounds' scars. Ennet House resident Wade McDade has complex nests of blue and red serpents running down the insides of both his arms, and is required to wear long-sleeved shirts every day to his menial job at Store24, even when the store's heat loses its mind in the early a.m. and it's wicked hot in there, because the store's manager believes his customers will not wish to purchase Marlboro Lights and Massachusetts Lottery tickets from someone with vascular-colored snakes writhing all over his arms. McDade also has a flaming skull on his left shoulder blade. Doony Glynn has the faint remains of a black dotted line tattooed all the way around his neck at about Adam's-apple height-- along w/ instruction-manual-like directions for the removal of his head and maintenance of the disengaged head tattooed on his scalp--from the days of his skinhead youth, which now the tattooed directions take patience and a comb and three of April Cortelyu's barrettes for Tiny even to see.

Actually, a couple weeks into the obsession Ewell broadens his dermo-taxonomy to include a third category, Bikers, of whom there are presently none in Ennet House but plenty around the area's AA meetings, in beards and leather vests and apparently having to meet some kind of weight requirement of at least 300 pounds. Bikers is the metro-Boston street term for them, though they seem to refer to themselves usually as Scooter Puppies, a term that (Ewell finds out) non-Bikers are not invited to use. These guys are veritable one-man tattoo festivals, but they're disconcerting because they'll bare their tatts for you with the complete absence of affect of someone just showing you like a limb or a thumb, not quite sure why you want to see or even what it is you're looking at.

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