Best American Essays

by Megan Sexton  ·  November 05, 2013

Five Points is pleased to announce that James Rioux’s essay “Tattoos, Death Metal, Shaving, and other Ironies” has received the title of Notable Essay in the 2013 volume of The Best American Essays, edited by Cheryl Strayed! Rioux’s essay first appeared in Five Points vol. 14, no. 3. This well-crafted and heartfelt essay is about loss and remembering those closest to you.


James Rioux
Tattoos, Death Metal, Shaving, and Other Ironies
“Go I.” —M.R.

I still rub at it now and again, as if it might smudge on my wrist, as if I’ve yet to fully accept its epidermal permanence. I must admit I’m pleased it’s not ornamental. God knows, I’ve had to work hard enough to establish any kind of masculine assertiveness; it doesn’t hurt to have rudimentary letters inked into my skin—letters just strange enough to possibly suggest some drunken ritual or mishap, or, better yet, a stint of long-term incarceration.

But it’s rarely exposed to others, as the inside of the wrist is mostly turned toward one’s own body, allowing even wrist-cutters a convenient anonymity. And then there’s always the long sleeve shirt. When I hide it it’s to avoid the awkward questions, or, more specifically, the potentially long and sometimes emotionally tedious answers. Go I? What does that mean?


I drove that day with a friend of mine to a tattoo parlor a couple towns over—a trip that might, on any other day, have created some anxiety. Living with severe agoraphobia is, for me at least, a constant navigation of boundaries that shift according to a complex set of variables (though, I think now, this describes the lives of most of us). On this day, nothing was stopping me from doing what I felt I had to—in this case, it meant convincing myself that my body was the place where my recently dead friend Matt was to be given a voice.

Put simply, Matt, a quadriplegic with severe cerebral palsy, was unable to speak for the thirty-six years of his life. When I met him in his early twenties, Matt was just learning to use a communication device that enabled him, with the use of an infrared head pointer, to activate icons on a screen that were programmed, when triggered in patterns, to generate a computerized voice. In another words, it allowed him some access to communicating his needs and wants. I could go on to mention how we all take this kind of activity for granted, etc. . . . but, frankly, after living so much of my life in the company of Matt, I’ve come to take such revelations for granted.


There’s something you should know about death metal. More specifically, about the way it’s recorded (at least as I’ve been told by some practitioners). Having done a lot of studio recording myself as a musician and engineer, I understand a little something about the rudimentary technical factors involved, and I’ve been able to replicate with some degree of accuracy the distinctive rumbling scream-growl that is typical to this particular genre of music. For the uninitiated, most death metal, or black metal, consists of a bed of distorted bass and pounding drums often played at a speed that requires immense strength and athleticism (I’ve tried!), layered with muscular stabbing guitar riffs, and above (or is it beneath?) it all, these guttural blasts of inarticulate vocals. Which brings us back to my point: these guttural blasts are, in fact, hoarse whispers recorded at incredibly close range with a mess of distortion and an industrial truck load of amplification. There is no other way a human voice could sustain the kind of depth and volume heard in these songs.

One of which was being played the day I walked into the tattoo parlor by a band I can only imagine had some such name as Vikings of the Apocalypse (for some reason unknown to me, the Scandinavians excel in this genre). Anyway, being a migraineur in addition to other neurological challenges, I was not pleased. This was not your typical tattoo shop, however; it lived up to the name parlor. Sleek and modern looking artwork adorned a hip waiting area with dark leather couches.

“Do you guys have an appointment%3