Tagger Down

But what if they suspected him? They always suspected the boyfriend, the husband, the lover.

He still had her backpack.

He had it and hadn’t looked inside since. 


He heard the paint cans rattle. 

Felt the weight of it. 

He should turn it in. 

He should call the police.  Tell them he had her backpack. Explain what happened—no, he should call and say he found it. That she left it at his place. Oh hell, she’d never even been to his place. They’d probably figure that out, right? No, he always went to her place. Her place. With the neon light shining, blinking through the bedroom window. He should leave it. Outside her building, outside the tattoo parlor—no, in the bar. But what if someone saw him leave it? What about his fingerprints? He should throw it away—no, you fucking coward—he should tell them exactly what happened. 

But exactly what happened?

He should tell them she was Tagger B, right? Yeah, he should tell them about the tattoos and the graffiti, and how he figured it all out, how he figured her out—her secret, her talent, her genius, her skin, her tattoos. How they shifted in the blinking neon light. The texture of her skin, gardenia scented. Wild, wild hair, bright eyes, wide mouth, her tinkling laugh like that little fountain in the park where they sat on the grass eating tacos—no, that wasn’t any of their business. But he should tell about her art because the story didn’t make sense without her art. How she was on a mission to beautify the city—a public service, really—just like she had beautified her body, transferring the art that decorated her skin onto the skin of the city. And he had figured it out. He had cracked her code. And now he had to tell. 

But what if they suspected him? They always suspected the boyfriend, the husband, the lover. Was he? Her lover? But it was more than sex. It was talking and laughter, and he had met her friends, her boss—for Christ’s sake, he wanted to meet her parents. And she looked at him like he meant something. She let him in; he let her let him in. She even designed a tattoo just for him, and he stood up to her needle. Just like he had climbed up on that roof for her—well, maybe for him—climbed to finally see Brynne become Tagger B. 

After her shift at the tattoo parlor, after she finished inking a vintage Cadillac with the name Reginald curled around it on the back of a fat guy from East Passyunk, she asked him if he wanted to come with. Hell yeah, he saidThey drove north with the windows down and her dreads rose in the warm night air and he asked what she was going to do and she said Wait and see, and he started guessing, wracking his brain for the tattoos on her body that he hadn’t found on the walls of the city yet. 

See, since he’d figured her out, he’d been playing a game with her, mapping the ink on her body to the paint he found on the streets, and driving around town became a treasure hunt for Tagger B, so that night he guessed Pentagram with a candle in the middle? (No.White roses with drops of blood? (Nope.) Emerald ring with the inscription: He loves me not? (Ha! No.) And he’d said Who broke your heart? I’ll kill ‘em! (Ha—no one. Yet.) Sandcastle that looks like the Linc? (No, I regret that one.) and then she said We are here, here being a decrepit brick building up in North Philly and he asked Which wall? and she said We are going to the top, baby! What top? Up there? and she said Yes! and way up there on the roof was a big ol’ white chimney that she’d had her eye on for a while—hell, everyone had, but no one had yet dared it—and now that she had her trusty partner—he said Sidekick because all the glory was hers—Okay, trusty sidekick to accompany her on her quest, now the chimney was hers, and he asked But how are we going to get up there? It’s what? Six stories? and she said Seven, and she had good intel because her uncle had worked here when it was a brewery back in the day and everyone used to smoke on those fire escapes, see? But are they safe? and she said Yes! and he believed her. 

He insisted on going first because he was the guy and he carried her backpack because that’s what a guy does, too, and they zigzagged their way up the fire escapes, all the way up to the top, seven creaky flights, and the view of the city was spectacular with the vast field of pinpoint lights burning in the darkness and the black band of the river winding through, and he could breathe up here and he shouted into the night, and she laughed and shushed him at the same time. Then she went into her bag and pulled out a head harness with a light on it and a camera and he asked Are you a spelunker? and took the camera saying Sidekicks do the filming and she grinned at him, and he captured her smile through the viewfinder, but she held up a hand and told him No faces, so he pointed at the chimney, and she began painting cats. 

She was so quick and accurate and amazing, and he immediately knew which tattoo she was painting, freehand, not drawing, not tracing, no preliminaries, just painting, amazing cats that emerged from the white of the chimney as if conjured, and soon there were cats climbing, dancing up the side, black silhouettes against the white she painted them, with so much character, so much expression, each cat its own self, she was brilliant

She painted them as high as she could reach, and he surprised her and lifted her up, and her shout became her tinkling laugh, and that was worth everything, and she did five cats, five black cats like the ones that climbed up her leg, and to the left of the string of cats she painted: 

October 5

and he asked her what the date signified, and she showed him her watch and it read: 

12:07 | Oct 5. 

Then he pointed to her leg, to where the cats climbed next to October 5 and said But that date is tattooed right next to the climbing cats on your leg, and she said Falling cats. What? The cats are falling, she said, not climbing, ‘cause, you know, cats always land on their feet, and he said But it’s the same date. How did you know? How did you know we would be up here, on this date? and she didn’t answer. She became distant and quiet for a bit, and he felt like he’d stepped in something, but then she turned and looked at her work, spread her arms and let out a Whoooo! like she had crossed something off of her bucket list, and she turned to him and laughed and was Brynne again, right here, and she thanked him because he made this all possible and people would be able to see the cats from the river, they were so high, and now it was time to go, so he helped her pack up her bag, and that’s when he heard the breaking glass from down below. 

Someone was breaking into his car, and he shouted down, You there—stop! (not at all meaning to sound like some guy in one of those old black-and-white movies she loved) and What the fuck! and she said Shhhh. We don’t know who’s down there, but he was pissed and told her Wait here. Then he stormed down the fire escape, and he saw the man and the man saw him and jogged off—not even running because how much of a threat could a white boy who drove a Honda be?—and he chased after him for too long—oh, why did he do that? Because he was pissed—and he lost him in the dark and he didn’t know that part of town and he went back and called for her to come down—no answer—but he heard a noise, a door slam, and he called again—no answer. Then he climbed the seven zigzags of creaky black metal and—where’d she go? Backpack. Still here. Her, no—door slam?—where’s the door? Found it. Locked. Brynne, where are you? Silence, lights in the darkness, Brynne? What’s going on? Come on. We’ve gotta go. Cold lights in the darkness, hoisting her backpack, walking the roof, walking the roof, trying the door. Brynne! Silence, descending, zig, zag, zig, zag, zig, should he zag, or should he zig? Brynne, you down here? What the fuck? Unlocking the car, glass on the seat—fucker—turning on the headlights, beeping the horn, silence, Brynne? Calling her cell, ringing in her bag, tossing her backpack in the back, driving toward the building, asphalt with grass straining through the cracks, nature’s gonna nature, circling, headlights on brick and brush and trash, around the corner, around, out into the street, circling, how long? Back to the building, the streets, a relentless beat of helpless tire on asphalt, waiting, can’t leave, waiting, daybreak, circling, heading home.

Didn’t know. Did she suffer? Didn’t know. Was she still alive when he—? Didn’t know, God Damnit! Didn’t know. Until. 

Earnest eight o’clock news anchor: “Jane Doe found dead—”

“—base of an abandoned brewery—”

“—North Philadelphia—”

“Fallen?     Accident?      Pushed?” 

“Anyone with information—”

Didn’t see. Was that her? Who else? Had to be. Who else? Never saw. Someone saw. Her. Someone found. Brynne. Why didn’t he? Didn’t know. Didn’t see. Didn’t he? Had to try. Didn’t he? Didn’t he have to help figure out? How the sixth cat had fallen?

FELICIA A. RIVERS lives in the Greene Townes west of Philadelphia (her parents moved from the city for better schools—and trees), where she escaped the corporate majority and joined the artistic minority. Rivers earned her MFA from Bennington College, and her poetry has appeared in The Ampersand, The Battered Suitcase, Boston Literary Review, and a tiny Philadelphian street sheet that had a short, but happy life. “Tagger Down” is an excerpt from a novel of linked stories that explores the lives of artists as they thrive, fall, live, and die in the studios, galleries, and streets of Philadelphia.

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