“Cool tatt,” I said, nodding at the lines peeking out from under Sean’s sleeve, “Who’s the artist?”

“Oh, he’s back in Maine,” he explained, rolling up the sleeve of his t-shirt to reveal a massive outline of trees, flowers and very artistic nudes, embracing. “This is just the linework, none of it’s been filled in yet. I’ve got to get it finished because it really looks pretty dorky this way.”

He was in his early 20s, muscle-bound and smiling, and he’d walked up to the only open checkout line in the grocery store shortly before midnight on a Saturday night.He stood patiently, waiting for me to empty my cart onto the conveyor…

I’m occasionally asked how I find all these odd little stories, and I tend to give a stock answer: “I dunno, they just happen.” But that’s a lie. They don’t just happen, I look for them. People ARE stories; all you have to do to find a good story is pick somebody, pay attention, and ask.

Unless you live on a desert island, you’re probably walking past ten or twelve great stories every day. The homeless guy on the corner, the old lady at the bus stop, the guy at the next gas pump over–if you look the least bit interested in them, they’ll probably connect and tell you some amazing things.

Try it sometime. But to get back to the story…

“I think you were ahead of me,” I said politely, nodding him on.

He blushed, “I’m only buying a pack of cigarettes,” and he opened his arms wide, apparently showing me his grocery-less state. That’s when I saw the tattoo, and as he moved into line, I mentioned it.

We introduced ourselves while the clerk fetched his cigs, and he explained the artwork that spread from his elbow past his shoulder. “It’s the tree of life, and it shows all the temptations we face but how, in the end, our love will help us succeed. I want it to remind me to resist temptation.”

“So will you get it finished in Maine?”

“I was going to,” he said seriously, rolling his sleeve back down, “But now I’m not sure. See, Maine is my home and I only came out here to fight wildfires. I’m a fireman, I work the line. It’s good money, but it’s pretty seasonal and I didn’t think I’d like it here, not enough to stay.”

“But  I met this girl and, well, you know how it is…” I nodded, gravely, and Sean grinned, “She’s really something, and I’m trying to get on with a fire department out here because she’s got family here. She’s close to them and she’s never left Oregon, she’d be homesick…”

“So, welcome to Oregon,” I laughed, “You know, Portland is like, tattoo city, and they’ve got some wonderful artists here–why don’t you just get the tattoo finished here?”

“Yeah, I’m really paranoid about strangers giving me tattoos. I’ve got a tatt on my back that’s all screwed up. I didn’t know the guy and he gave me an infection. I don’t want to go through that again, and I don’t know who’s good.”

“My boyfriend’s guy is pretty good,” said the clerk, “I’ll write his name down for you; he just does freehand but he might work. He did mine and it looks really good.”

I glanced over, didn’t see any obvious tattoos and she gave me a look, “It’s not where you can SEE it,” she said.

Sean folded her paper carefully and put it in his back pocket. I recalled Portland Art’s tattoo show this summer and suggested he try their URL.

“Whoa–an art museum has tattoos?”

“That’s Portland,” muttered the guy in line behind us, rolling his eyes.

Sean smiled. “What a neat place! Thanks!” he said, and walked off.