Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose

My Tattoo


I dry my face and look up into the mirror. Two days have left my face overgrown with bristles, a dark five o’clock shadow. My jawline is fuzzy. I look rough. Weathered. I reach for my shaving cream.

Without my glasses, I have to lean in to see my face. Has my beard always had this much gray in it? It was only a couple of years ago that I started shaving. Just recently, it seems, my face was soft and I only had to worry about a little bit of down that would accumulate every week or so.

I put the can down. When did I get like this? My whole face is peppered with gray––and is that white? How did this happen?

I face my reflection every day, but somehow I haven’t noticed the change. I guess time catches up with you after a while. When I was a kid, every day was a chance to try something new and different. I would go to school for what felt like forever, then still have the rest of the day to explore my neighborhood. Growing up is a process of letting habit and routine shape your days into uniform copies of each other, and time just slips away. Aging is so gradual you’ll go to bed a teenager and wake up middle-aged or retired before you know what happened. Hair color changes. Has my hair changed?

I turn my head and my temples are indeed a tarnished silver color. There are some wisps of rusty brown remaining, but most of my hair is fading, like a Polaroid developing in reverse. I raise my hand to my forehead and trace my hairline with a crooked finger. When did it recede? Didn’t I have more hair?

I should call Steven. He’ll know what’s going on.

Steven’s dead. I hear the flat voice speaking from the back of my mind. How could that be true?

He had a heart attack. Don’t you remember?

No––no, I don’t remember. Who has a heart attack at twenty-five? Isn’t that how old we are?

My eyes look back at me from the mirror. I’m shocked to see trisected creases at their corners, sagging bags beneath their lids. I squint and half of my face turns into accent lines converging on the bridge of my nose. What is going on? I don’t look like myself. I look like an old man.

You would think I would remember getting old, but after a while, your laps around the sun all blend together. Life just passes by and you’re left to fill in the narrative gaps however you can. It seems I have a lot of gaps.

I remember dropping out of college. I remember graduating high school. I can remember dances and first kisses, summer camps, sleepovers, birthday songs. There was that song we used to sing at Vacation Bible School. I can remember the tune even though I’ve forgotten the words.

A shocking thought occurs to me. Am I married? Do I have kids? I hold out my hands, palms up, bearing witness to my wrinkles. Sure enough, there’s a wedding band on my finger. When did I get married? Where’s my wife? Why can’t I remember?

I look around the bathroom for clues. The small room is empty and white. There’s only one toothbrush in the cup, one white towel on the rack. A roll of toilet paper. No sign of feminine hygiene products––not much of anything, it seems. I look in the medicine cabinet. There’s peroxide, Vitamin D supplements, IcyHot, dental floss, aftershave. A can of shaving cream sits on the bathroom counter. No Viagara, no Midol, nothing that would suggest I share this bathroom with anyone else.

When I close the door, there’s someone in the mirror behind me. I pat the porcelain countertop to find my glasses, then turn around to face them.

It’s a woman, leaning up against the outside of the doorframe, her arms draped across each other and the toe of her shoe pivoting behind her other heel. What is she doing here? Is she––is she my daughter? She must be in her forties! It takes a second for her to notice me staring.

“You were shaving,” she says with indulgent eyebrows.

“Shaving.” I wipe my hand across my face, still damp from the wash. “Are you––has my hair always been this gray?”

“Long as I’ve known you!” She says, with a jaunty smile, like she’s said it a thousand times already. “Now you just take your time and I’ll be right here when you’re finished.” She’s wearing blue scrubs.

I turn back toward the mirror, blinking. With my glasses on, I look just like my grandfather in his seventies. Am I seventy? That can’t be possible. I don’t understand what’s happening.

Reaching for the shaving cream, I notice some black marks on the underside of my wrist. They don’t rub off, not even with soap and water. It’s some kind of tattoo.

I raise my hand to make out the words. They read, You have Alzheimer’s in plain, factual lettering.

Now I remember. When I was nineteen, my grandmother died from Alzheimer’s and I learned that it’s a genetic disorder, passed down through the maternal line. I thought about getting a tattoo to remind myself of my condition if I ever fell prey to the same sickness. I thought it would help me if I was confused.

Alzheimer’s. What a depressing thought. I look at my face in the mirror, that dumb look of sagging incomprehension. Is this what it looks like? Constantly wondering where I am and what I am doing?

Three to nine the voice said. That’s how many years you have after being diagnosed. The tattoo was still black, but the edges of the letters had started to feather. It’s already been a few years.

That means in a few more years, I’ll be dead. I’ll lose more of my memory until my muscles themselves forget how to work and I’ll have to be carted around in a wheelchair, fed through a tube shoved straight down my esophagus because I can’t remember how to swallow.

My friends will die, or I’ll have to perpetually remember that they’ve already died. My parents must be dead already if I’m this far gone. Is my sister still alive?

Now my eyes look sad, like my own reflection is pitying me. At least if my tattoo is true, I won’t have to dwell on it for long. It’s better if I just let it pass, let myself fall back into forgetfulness. What a painful reminder. I roll down my sleeve, covering my tattoo for the time being, and notice a woman standing behind me.

She catches my eye in the mirror and says, “You were shaving.”

I look down at the can of shaving cream in my hand. “It would seem so.”

As I spray the white foam into my palm and start to rub it over my beard, a verse from a song that I haven’t sung since childhood floats back into my head. This time I remember the words. I hum quietly to myself:

He’s got the whole world,
In his hands.
He’s got the whole wide world,
In his hands.
He’s got the whole world,
In his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands!

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes
Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose