MY MOTHER GOT HER THIRD TATTOO on my seventeenth birthday, a small navy hummingbird she had inked above her left shoulder blade, and though she said she picked it to mark my flight from childhood, it mostly had to do with her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.
“Stella-Stella,” he said when we entered. He sat in a black plastic chair in the waiting area, flipping through a motorcycle magazine, and he looked up and smiled. Big teeth, freckles, alarmingly cool. “Good to see you.”
He put the magazine down as the bell above our heads dinged when the door closed behind us. He was tan and toned and a little bit sweaty, and he wore a dirty-blond ponytail that hung to his shoulders. His sharp eyes were so blue, I thought of swimming pools and icicles the first time I saw him. My mother told me about Johnny Drinko after he gave her the orange and blue fish on her hip, but I’d expected him to be as unlikable as the other burnouts Stella hung around with back then. I had not expected him
“And you brought your kid sister this time.” He winked at her, and I popped a bubble with my piece of pink Trident, listened to the hot hiss of the tattoo needle inking skin somewhere inside the shop.
The hummingbird was Stella’s third tattoo, but it was the first time she let me come along, so she was nervous, her hips shifting from left to right inside her tiny white shorts. It took a lot to make her shaky, and I could tell she wanted a beer or maybe a highball of vodka, but I knew she’d go through with it since I was there watching. Once she made her mind up, there was no going back. It was one of the things I liked and disliked about my mother.
“Lemon’s my kid,” she said to Johnny, and she tucked a panel of frizzy bleached hair behind her ear.
She’d gotten a perm a few weeks earlier and was still adjusting to the weight of the nest hovering above her shoulders. It was the first and last perm she ever got, but I’ll never forget the vast size of her head with her hair frazzled and sprung out around her face like that.
“I figured it’d be good to bring her along, let her see how much it hurts,” she said, and I thought of our argument the week before when I announced I wanted a tattoo of my own.
“Like hell,” she had said when I told her about the sketch of the oak tree I found in an art book at school. We were in the apartment, and she was making baked chicken for dinner. Again.
“You have two,” I reminded her.
“I also have nineteen years on you and my own job.” She peeled back the skin of the bird’s breast and shoved a pat of butter underneath.
I rolled my eyes. “I’ve got my own money,” I said, which was true. I’d been saving my allowance and slipping five-dollar bills from her purse when she wasn’t paying attention.
“You’re not even seventeen yet, and I’m your mother. No. Chance. In. Hell,” she said, and she put her hand up like a stop sign as if directing traffic, signaling that the conversation was indisputably over.
Johnny Drinko wiped his palms on his jeans and ran his eyes over the curves of my body. “Lemon, huh? How’d you get a name like that?”
And then my mother used the laugh she saved for men she wanted to screw when she wasn’t sure they wanted to screw her back. “Look at her.” She nudged me forward toward him. “Sharp and sour since the day she popped out.”
It never ceased to amaze me that she insisted on using this line for explaining my name, when really we both knew she picked Lemon on account of her obsession with the color the September I was born. She was a recreational painter, and each month she randomly selected one shade to use as the base for all her work. September of the year I was born was the month of Lemon, a muted yellow paint she found in an art store when we lived in Harrisburg.
Johnny Drinko sat down behind the cash register and lit a Marlboro Red while my mother leafed through binders of tattoo sketches. The shop smelled like plastic wrap and cigarettes and sweat, and I could feel Johnny watching me from behind the counter, so I cocked my hip and put my hands on my waist, reciprocating.
I’d lost my virginity that spring to a senior at school, and even though we only did it four times before he got suspended for selling weed at a soccer game, I considered myself to be experienced. The first time the pothead and I tried it regular, the second time he did it from behind, and the last two times he used his tongue first, so even though I was just getting started, I thought I knew what felt good and what didn’t. I’d learned enough, at least, to recognize that a guy like Johnny Drinko could teach me all the things I still wanted to learn.
I moved next to his chair and looked at the photos taped on the wall behind his head: Polaroids of bandanna-wearing bikers and big-haired blondes with crooked teeth showing off sharply inked dragons and crosses on forearms and ankles. “Roughnecks” we called them, the townies who never left town, never went to college or got a real job, the grown-ups who never grew up. There were also photos of sports-team emblems tattooed on fine-tuned athletes and pictures of girls in low-slung jeans sporting new tramp stamps: fresh flowers and vines inked at the base of their spines. Aerosmith played from a set of cheap speakers mounted on the wall, and a fan blew warm air inside from a corner by the window while Johnny leaned over a leather notebook sketching a tree with long-reaching roots and thin, naked branches.
“You going to the race next month?” he asked me.
I shook my head, and behind us my mother said, “Oh, I think I like this one” to no one in particular.
Stella and I lived in a small city in southern Virginia that had a NASCAR racetrack built on the outskirts of town. We’d been living there for over a year and a half, and race weekend happened twice a year, but the closest I’d come to going was parking with the pothead in a cul-de-sac near enough to the track that we could listen to the buzz of cars between beers and awkward conversation.
“I must have inked a hundred NASCAR fans last spring. This one guy had me do a foot-long car driving up his back. It was pretty cool, really.” Johnny nodded to the photos on the wall. “I did a good job.”
I shrugged and popped another pink bubble, my trademark gesture that fall. My mother called the habit white-trash, but my friend Molly-Warner read an article in one of her magazines about the importance of drawing attention to your lips when flirting with boys, and she insisted we follow the rule.
“His old man had been a racer, got killed back in ’81 in a crash,” Johnny said between drags off his smoke. “That tat was really important to him.”
I could see the black ink of a design inching up the back of his neck, and I suddenly wished my mom wasn’t there so I could reach over and take a drag off his Marlboro. I needed my mouth around the tight white tube where his lips had just been. I was looking at him, and he was looking back, but then a woman with bright red hair pushed aside the white sheet that separated the waiting area from the tattooing room, spoiling the moment. She had wet, glassy eyes and a square of Saran Wrap taped below her collarbone.
“All good, Suzie Q?” Johnny asked, and they moved to the register.
“It’s a keeper.” She smiled at him and then at me.
I nodded like I knew exactly how it felt to walk into a room without a tattoo and to walk out of the same room permanently adorned. She shifted her attention back to Johnny, who was eyeing her with a slick smile slapped across his face, and I had a quick but detailed vision of them screwing in the truck bed of a white pickup. She was on top, bucking back and forth with her palms pressing into his chest, and his eyes were closed while his body pulsated beneath all that pumping. He might have liked it, or maybe not. I couldn’t decide.
My mother called my name then, and I looked up and winked at Johnny before I turned away from him, checking to see if I could get his attention the same way Stella and the redhead had.
It took about twenty minutes for Stella to settle on the hummingbird, then she handed Johnny the sketch and leaned over the counter where he sat. “You mind?” she said, and she took a smoke from his pack. I thought of her mood swings back when she quit and the nervous way she used to chew her fingernails. She caught me watching her when she brought the Marlboro to her lips. “See something you like, kiddo?” she asked, and then she followed Johnny Drinko to the customers’ chair behind the white sheet.
The other tattoo artist, a man with a thin black braid, finished cleaning his gear while Johnny completed the stencil and poured ink into tiny white paper cups sitting on the stand next to his chair.
“I’m taking lunch,” the other guy said, and he pulled off a pair of pale blue surgical gloves and tossed them into the trash.
And then it was just me, my mom, and Johnny Drinko squished inside the heat of the tattoo room.
That was the third town we had lived in since we’d left Denny, and I liked it best, because of the low mountains and the sticky summers and the way our apartment smelled like fresh bread all the time, since we lived next to the sub shop by the mall. It was a rough ride to get there after the six months at the Jersey Shore with Rocco from the pool hall, and I was glad to be in Virginia, where my mom seemed calmer and the men she dated were quieted by the innate laziness of a small town. My best friend, Molly-Warner, had a car and a fake ID, and we had spent the summer making out with boys from school and smoking cigarettes at the public pool in town. I’d finally found my lady curves, as Stella called them once while watching me under raised eyebrows, and when school started that month, Molly-Warner and I would head to the neighborhood park after class and spend our afternoons in our bikini tops, lying out, reading books, and gossiping about our teachers, our classmates, the latest school scandal. Stella liked to take her notebooks up to the Blue Ridge Parkway on the weekends to sketch split-rail fences and ragged farmhouses she’d paint back at home. It was the first time I felt like we were ready to put Denny and Rocco and those last years behind us, and I hoped we stayed in town until I finished high school. It was my senior year, and I was sick of moving boxes and cheap motels and having to make friends every time my mom picked a new place for us to live. I needed to finish driver’s ed. I needed to stay in one place long enough so I could recognize the faces in the crowd when graduation finally happened. I’d finally found a group of friends, mellow kids like me and Molly-Warner who partied a little but also knew how to keep out of trouble, and the librarian at school liked me enough to drop the late fees I’d accrued over the summer. Plus, Stella had a good job working in the jewelry department at J.C. Penney, and I could tell she liked the cheap rent and the apartment that smelled like bread too.
Johnny Drinko was pressing the hummingbird stencil against my mom’s skin when she licked her lips and said, “Get me a mint from my purse, Lemon. I need something to suck on.”
It was not the first time I’d watched my mother throw herself at a man. She’d been throwing herself at men in each town we passed through ever since we left Denny after the black eye. She was pretty and thin and wore cute clothes, and after all the drama when she and Denny split up, I was just glad to see her back on her feet. I knew she liked the game—the chase and the satisfaction of getting what she wanted—but there was something about Johnny Drinko that made me nervous, something I sensed right away that day at the shop. He was mysterious like he had a secret, and controlled like he knew what he wanted, and that had me worried. If Stella wanted him and he didn’t want her back, if the game lasted too long, she’d walk away. While we’d been living in Virginia, things had finally evened out, but I was constantly afraid she’d get bored or, worse, vulnerable, and I knew it would be someone like Johnny Drinko who would send us moving again.
I used to tell my friends my mother was made of metal and glass. She was smooth and sturdy on the surface, but there was always that part in danger of shattering, a childlike aspect that never disappeared. I resented that unpredictability and tiptoed around the threat of her cracking apart, of her dragging us out of one city and into the next.
“Let’s motor,” she said as she took the breath mint from me, sucked it between her lips with a smile, and settled into the chair. Then I watched Johnny Drinko ink a perfect permanent hummingbird above her shoulder blade.