"Mary at the Tattoo Shop"
Mary at the Tattoo Shop
by Marcus Jackson
She counted her money
before we went in,
avenue beside us anxious
with Friday-evening traffic.
Both fourteen, we shared a Newport,
its manila butt salty to our lips.
Inside, from a huge book
of designs and letter styles,
she chose to get “MARY”
in a black, Old English script
on the back of her neck.
The guy who ran the shop
leaned over her for forty minutes
with a needled gun
that buzzed loud
as if trying to get free.
He took her twenty-five dollars
then another ten
for being under age.
Back outside, the sun
dipped behind rooftops,
about to hand the sky over to night.
Lifting her hazel hair,
she asked me to rub
some A&D ointment
on her new tattoo;
my finger glistened in salve
as I reached for her swollen name.
The title, with the name "Mary", smacks of other whimsical titles, like Alice in Wonderland, or Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. What’s in a name? What does it tell of someone? Particularly of someone with a "swollen name”.
Mary is probably not her name. She just opted for it, is all. And, she wanted it tattooed onto the back of her neck, not in colour, but in “black”, and not in some modern lettering but in “Old English script”. All this underpins an innocence, some retreat into tradition or some old fashion. But “black” spells a corruption of this. Throughout there is an aura of darkness, of something sinister, in this poem. “Friday-evening traffic” and “black” prepare us, later, for “the sun/dipped behind rooftops,/about to hand the sky over to night”.
Lines 1 to 4 effect a double entendre. There is an impression of something illicit, layered, like a tattoo, over an innocent act of counting money. The third and fourth lines, of a street full of vehicles passing, whose drivers are ‘anxious’, could well give the first impression of some payment for services, from people like those unseen drivers.
Another such layering, like the “tattoo” over the underage girl’s skin, can be seen in the lines from “The guy who ran the shop” to “for being under age.” Here, there is an indication of danger in “needled gun” and “trying to get free”. Standing by themselves these lines, this “tattoo”, can also be seen as if this is some pimp brandishing a weapon, usurping more than his share of some girl’s business.
Below this “tattoo”, line five assures us that this female is, after all, just a teenager, a child already past pubescence. The sexual connotations of the next line (“butt salty to our lips”) tell us she is on the onset – or the “lip” - of adulthood. Other sexual innuendos, like “rub”, “finger glistened in salve”, “her swollen name”, “leaned over her for forty minutes”, compound this.
Money is broached from the first line, its positioning right at the end of the line giving it prominence as an end-stopped word. “Money” concretizes into “twenty-five dollars” and “ten”. Further down the lines, there are several instances of counting, of numbers: “counted her money”, “fourteen”, “forty minutes”, “ten”, “under age”. This is like a countdown to something, a passing of time - a passing of innocence.
This poem appears in this July’s edition of The New Yorker.