Barbara Churchill

Five p.m. on Friday, Jangles’ Tattoo Parlor at Dupont Circle is deserted except for us. Heather, her blonde, leggy, sixteen year-old self.  Me, a mom in teacher clothes, pacing in a somber, black pinstripe. Dave arrives straight from work, looking like an undertaker (he’s not).   Around us in the closet-sized waiting room, tattoo options cover the walls: Jesus, many, many Jesuses, the Blessed Virgin, lots of her too.  Crosses. Snakes entwining crosses.  Skulls. Snakes from eyeholes of skulls, which make me jumpy. Hearts.  Flags. Tweety Bird.   I’m getting a headache from the music.

The proprietors-each a symphony of tattoos and piercings, weird ear-lobe elongating things, chat behind the counter, ignoring us and our suburban queasiness. Earlobes don’t go back to their original shape you know. Closing them back up requires surgery. What happens ten years from now when these kids go for a job interview? Then I think, leave it, Toots.  That’s the last thing on their minds; just go with it. At least Heather didn’t sneak off and get one of her friends to sign the release form; well, she did, but that was a couple years later.  Gross–the guy behind the counter has a steel bar running through the skin on the back of his neck, like a guy I saw on ER with a piece of a steering wheel piercing his abdomen which had missed major organs so he was still awake and talking.

We fill out forms. I wonder if the clipboard is sterile. We wait. I get up to find a bathroom. When I come back, Dave’s sitting upright as a statue, no Heather. I grab his arm.

“Where is she?” I hiss.
I had every intention of accompanying her, checking the autoclave.Do they use disposable gloves? What do the  artist’s fingernails look like? Clean hair? Is the chair sterilized between customers? Why didn’t Dave check?

Now, I don’t even know which door she’s behind. I give up on my useless mute of a husband.

From somewhere in the back comes a high-pitched whirr like a dentist’s drill only louder, unceasing. Do I smell burning flesh? The volume of the music, not my favorite heavy metal, cranks up. Have I imagined it, or has the volume been creeping up every since we got here? I need air. Outside on the sidewalk in front of the neon signs advertising Jangles, a pale teacher lady doesn’t warrant much attention.

“Never mind me.  I’m just taking a break from ‘Tattoo Island.’”

I might throw up. I take deep breaths and wish Dave would come down to check on me.  But, I want him up there for when they carry her out so we can get her to the ER before a blood infection sets in.  I should’ve given her prophylactic antibiotics before we came  I wonder where he’s parked.

What’s taking so long? Dave comes down, looking a little sick himself. I realize it’s worse for him; I’m around teenagers all day long, and I know they’re crazy. He only has two samples to judge from and, until today, they seemed pretty sane. I have to go back up—I can’t stand it out here with all these normal looking people who aren’t letting their youngest daughter mutilate her body  Who haven’t signed away her future health and beauty to some hacks in a shop above a television store. If Dave throws up, we’re toast.

Eventually, Heather comes out, self-satisfied looking, betrayed only by red eyes and a nose looking raw and sore, albeit with a new, tasteful jewel gleaming from a little hole in one nostril. She stops by the display case and coolly selects a few more ornaments and rings for when this one can be swapped out. We hand Tattoo Man our MasterCard, sign, pick up the receipt and leave.

No one has thrown up. I have not made a single joke about Nez Perce, and Heather looks enormously pleased with her freedom.


Barbara Churchill lives and works in Bethesda. She taught high school and college for many years but is now focused on her own writing as she shapes a new life in retirement.  In addition to writing, Barbara does volunteer work, travels and marvels at the adult lives her children are crafting.  She has a Creative Nonfiction piece coming out in the January issue of Soundings Review.