Brunetti commands a special section in our 10th-anniversary anthology, released in 2011, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.
“There is something that I must say. That I want to do this to you, the clown lips. That’s my only goal now — is that you let me paint the clown lips. You will always be sad. You will always feel broken without me. But please, let me paint the clown lips.”
She said nothing. What could she say? She backed off a little bit. We were in my dressing room. I was a nobody but I had a dressing room. I can’t even say how I ended up there, in the dressing room. It had a broken wooden chair, a slipshod greasy mirror and blown-out track lights. A single sad bulb dangled from a wire, 40 watts. There was also a desk, a coat rack, and Marla. That was her name.
“Marla I’m a depraved man,” I went on. “I have no idea why you ended up with me or what you see in me. But this is the last tango, the last dress rehearsal for us. After this, I’ll leave forever and you’ll stay with the upturned clown lips. Do you understand that that’s what I want? That I just want you to have those upturned clown’s lips and I’ll be satisfied for eternity.”
Marla said nothing.
Forty-five minutes later we were in the tattoo parlor down the block. A poorly lit street corner was outside the plate-glass window. We sat in ink-stained, strawberry-red seats with metal armrests. The armrests felt cold. There was a man there with a tattoo needle. He was dabbing on a piece of paper — testing it out. The ink dripped. He ignored us for a while. Then he turned to us and said, ‘Next.’
‘Marla,’ I said. I told the man that Marla was a clown. That she and I were in showbiz. That we were the greatest partnership since—Brangelina. The man waited for me to shut up. Then I said, ‘Listen, it’s over. Marla will be suicidal from here on out. I want you to tat some clown lips on her. I want you to red-band her lips but put the upturned corners at each end. That’s most important: the upturned corners. If you don’t tat the upturned corners on her lips, Marla may die.”
“That what you want?” he said, turning to Marla, who said nothing. She stayed sitting in her seat. She looked like a girl who’d had a grapefruit mashed into her face, sour and damp.
“Get up,” I said. Marla got up.
“Listen, man,” the tattoo guy said. “This doesn’t seem consensual. I mean, it doesn’t seem like her idea. Anyway, she’s got to sign a waiver.”
“She’ll sign it,” I said.
“I’ll sign it,” Marla said. “I like clown lips.”
He did the tattoo. Halfway through I went across the street and drank a beer. When I came back, Marla had the clown lips but they weren’t ruby red — they were baboon’s-ass blue. It was magnificent.
“That’s better,” I said. “That’s better than I could ever have asked for.”
“I’m a genius,” the tattoo man said.
“So you are,” I said. “And so is Marla.”
We were all looking in the mirror. Then Marla took a needle from the counter and jabbed me in the eye. It plunged in straightaway like a bee stinger into a bare butt. I screamed a little and dripped some blood around. “Motherfucker,” I said. I dropped into one of the red chairs. The tattoo guy stood there looking at me. Marla stood beside him and put the needle back on the counter. There was some blood on it. “Motherfucker,” I said again.
Marla picked up the needle again. I looked her in the eye — with my good eye. Then the tattoo guy came over with some balled-up paper towel. I took the ball from him and pressed it into my eye socket.
“I’ll call 911,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“No,” Marla said.
She came over and sat in the opposite red chair. She reached out and took the paper ball from my hand and pushed the ball into the socket lightly. Then with a little more force. I grunted. The tattoo man sat down on a high stool behind the counter and lit a cigarette. I looked at Marla’s bright blue lips, the upturned corners of her mouth. She was smiling.