Issue Three - February 2002

Tattoo Emporium

Kip Robinson Greenthal

My daughter Mattie calls me from downtown and says she needs my signature so that she can get a tattoo. She is sixteen, and she needs to be eighteen to get one. I am unhappy about this, but I get in the car anyway and drive to where she has asked me — the Tattoo Emporium. A mood, dense like coiled vapor inside my head, follows me as I drive through the dulled rainy air of city streets.

I recall years ago standing with a five-year-old Mattie and her father on the crest of a field, flying a kite the shape of a small red bird. The sky is cobalt over the ocean which lies at the foot of the slope. We are laughing as the kite sweeps down towards us in the wind draft, and then darts back up into the blinding sun. The motion reminds me of a small hawk I’d seen learning to fly from the field’s edge.

Then I remember driving a three-year-old Mattie in the snow to the hospital in the middle of the night when she had an asthma attack, and I try to recapture that simple power of loving, when parents do anything to protect their young. At points of danger when she was a child, I’d say to her: “Mattie, do what I ask because I’m asking you,” and Mattie would always do it. We loved each other: curled up in each other’s arms reading fairy tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham, or planting peas in the warm earth, talking about kind people and why some people do cruel things. But in the past few months, I’ve been picking up Mattie at two in the morning because she’s drunk too much beer and I’ve found her retching on a friend’s bathroom floor. I grip my hands on the steering wheel as I drive down Pike Avenue towards the Tattoo Emporium, and my stomach rolls like a steel drum.

Two months ago, I was washing dishes in the kitchen late at night. Mattie came up behind me, stood so close, her breath fire against the skin of my neck.
“Please, I have something to tell you now,” she said. I turned. My hands were still in the warm water. Mattie’s face was tear-streaked. She had left school that day, gone downtown, and had stolen underwear. Expensive bras, underpants, indigo and sea-green lace, totalling $455. Security guards had picked Mattie up and called me.

“What do you want to tell me, Mattie?”

“Dad makes me…” She stopped, then choked. “Sleep with him.”

My hands, still in the water, dripped out towards Mattie. But she backed away, staring at me, as if startled by her own words. The ceiling light blazed like a disc over our heads while “makes me sleep with him” clanged around the room.

Suddenly, my life became a single sense — sight. I had not seen this happen, so how could it be? My thoughts raced, a spring coil — the face of Mattie’s father ricocheted in front of me. We divorced three years ago, one day a week Mattie stays with her father. I wanted to pluck out my eyes. Falling against the sink, I tried to unsnarl the muscles in my voice so that I could speak.

“When, Mattie?”

Mattie didn’t like the question. She looked at me sideways, her dark half-face.

“I’m not sure…” she hedged.

My head felt compressed between slabs of ice.

“Mattie, tell me, when does he make you sleep with him?”

Mattie stared down at her feet, ground them into the floor.

“I can’t tell you exactly.”

“Mattie, this is serious, I need to know.”

“Just believe me, Mom.” She sounded angry.

“Can we talk?”

“No. I just needed you to know.”

Mattie ran from the room.

I remember the plate I was holding when she told me this, the pale blue glaze, the line of chocolate brown trim. Mattie’s words fired into the plate and became its shape. I saw her face, the face I loved more than any other in the world, her eyes large, a whole of beauty unto itself. The air I breathed scraped inside my lungs.

That night I lay in the dark, my eyes wide open. They wouldn’t close, the eyes that hadn’t seen Mattie’s father make her sleep with him. I loathed my eyes. Mattie’s father looked at me from the ceiling and his face rolled as though it were floating under a river. I saw all three of us flying kites again and the image cracked in ten thousand pieces.

A red scripted neon light burns a patch through the rain from the side of the street. Tattoo Emporium glows through the slit window of a store front, and I am relieved to find this place. Mattie has given me good directions. I park my car, go to the front door, and walk in. The narrow room is yellow and old, posters hang from the wall with large exaggerated pictures of lions, naked women, kangaroos and bears. There is the smell of crushed ink. Two men stare at me from behind a counter, muscles in their forearms blimped through their skin. They must lift weights. Ink snakes, leaves and flames twist up their arms. Dressed in black leather vests and pants, hair oiled back, they look at me indifferently, then bend back to drawing tattoos on other people’s arms behind the counter.

I stare at the blue ink lines flowing like blood from the needle in the men’s hands. I hear a whirring whine sound, the staccato beats of the needle point, circles, mermaids and “Mom” in a heart. In their skin I see an imaginary world and catch my breath.

A voice startles me. “Are you Mattie’s Mom?”

I turn to see a pale, thin girl who has come out from a back room.

“Yes,” I nod at her.

Mattie comes out from the back room, and looks at me with sweet, watery eyes. Standing a foot from the girl, her short blond hair waves a delicate pattern around her face.

“Thanks for coming, Mom,” she says.

In my mind, I hear Mattie’s screams. Earlier this same day, we’d yelled at each other. I’d told her she could dye her hair black, she could pierce her nose, those were things she could change. But once she got a tattoo, it would be permanent.

“That’s just it,”she yelled at me, slamming the door, “I want something that can’t be changed.”

And now I am with her in the Tattoo Emporium, with the pale girl, maybe five years older than Mattie, speaking to me while Mattie stands beside her.

“I need your driver’s license along with your daughter’s,” she says. I pull my license out from my wallet and hand it to the girl, and she takes Mattie’s too and puts them in the photocopy machine, and she takes the picture. Mattie and I are copied together — Mattie’s face next to mine, our birthdates alongside — and the light fuses us together, ignites our skin. I sign my name, scrawling my signature as if it’s important.

“Mom, will you come in the back with me while I get my tattoo?” Mattie’s tone has sweetness in it.

I’m startled by this gesture of intimacy after days of barely talking.

“Sure,” I say, slightly numb, scarcely knowing where I am, still seeing my face bound under the light with Mattie’s. I follow her into the back room with the girl.

Mattie goes over to sit on the black leather bench. She pulls out a picture from her pants pocket that she hands to the girl. “I want this.”

The girl studies the picture — a hawk etched on the shield of a Greek warrior — and holds it to the light. As she looks, her skin matches the pallor of the dirty yellow walls, and the dirty brown rug beneath her. There is the scent of wet chemicals in the air. I sit in the chair beside Mattie, watching her stretch out on the black leather table, thinking to myself that I’m holding my daughter’s hand while she is getting a tattoo.

“I only want the hawk,” Mattie says.

“Not the shield?” asks the girl.

Mattie says no.

The girl walks to the back of the room with the picture and photocopies it. There is a whir and a slip of light like a flashlight in the forest. Coming back beside Mattie, the girl holds up the hawk for us both to see, the fine-lined curve of its wings. This bird will fly through my daughter’s skin. Mattie lies suppliant, and her long, stretched out body makes me think of her father lying beside her. But I cannot see her body against his.

I cannot see this.

But I can see Mattie’s father. I see him on a motorcycle, his legs strong, bowed out; he’s ready for the road under a heavy sky. Mattie acts as if she expects nothing from him now.

He’ll tell you it’s lies,” she said.

I feel nervous in the Tattoo Emporium, and need to talk.

How did you get into this business?” I ask the girl while she studies the hawk. I want her to think my sitting here holding my daughter’s hand while getting a tattoo is normal, as if Mattie were getting a polio shot when she was little.

The girl looks at me, eyes flat as buttons.

It’s limitless,” she smiles at me, her skin suddenly brightening. “Drawing tattoos is limitless.”

“Oh,” I say. The walls of the room are floating in my mind. The girl takes another photocopy from the machine and comes back to the black leather stretcher on which my daughter lies. Reaching out, the girl’s fingers touch my daughter’s hip.

“Where do you want the bird?” she asks.

Mattie unfastens her belt and lowers her jeans.

Here,” she says, pointing to the small hollow where the upper thigh meets the pelvis. She tells the girl she wants the bird just beneath her pelvic bone. Her hip bone is like a small mountain curved in the blue air. I swallow hard. The girl pushes the image down to where my daughter’s fingers lay.

“But the bird is flying away from you,” the girl says quietly as she lays the image on her skin. My daughter’s eyes meet hers, then shift down along her body. She sees the fine lined bird going away from her and looks confused.

“I can reverse the image,” the girl says quickly, “So that it will fly towards you.”

“Yes,” Mattie says, looking at the girl. “I like the bird coming towards me.” Her fingers move down to the hollow spot. “Put it there,” she says.

The girl smiles. Turning the paper, she reverses the image, pushes the bird in on Mattie. Purple lines on tracing paper stare back, and the girl turns, gets the needle ready. The point vibrates, and the girl fills it with dark blue ink and pushes the needle down. It whirs in and out of Mattie’s skin like tiny jets, fragments that shoot a trail of stars. The needle moves down through the flesh, and leaves an image of wings, an arched head with some blood, and Mattie’s flesh shakes, loose and fragile. Mattie closes her eyes, holding my hand. She takes in the pain of the sharp needle.

“I’m glad the bird’s coming towards me,” she says looking up at me. And the slow, emerging shape flies up through the soft folds of her, and reaches over her skin to light there, holding out its wings as if to dry in the fragrant air.

But that hawk flies right into me — rips open my heart. I sit watching my daughter. How could she have told me the truth any other way? The bird comes low over the pelvic bone, into the field of the dark triangle of her; it comes to stay there forever.

©2002 Kip Robinson Greenthal