Dorothy Parker's Elbow

Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos


By Kim Addonizio

By Cheryl Dumesnil

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In the bestselling tradition of Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing: Great Writers on Great Times comes a hip collection of classic and contemporary stories, essays, and poems about tattoos.

Previously considered the domain of bikers and a rite of passage in the army, tattoos have crawled out of society’s fringes and onto the ankles of starlets and the biceps of bankers. While still risque enough to raise a mother-in-law’s eyebrow, tattoos have come to be one of the most popular forms of personal expression. DOROTHY PARKER’S ELBOW brings together some of the most erotic, humorous, and vivid fiction, essays, and poetry that explore the mysterious fascination and the intensity of emotion attached to the act of being tattooed. Readers will join great writers, including Flannery O’Connor, Rick Moody, Elizabeth McCracken, Sylvia Plath, and more in celebrating the tattoo experience in all of its rebellious glory.



Copyright © 2002 by Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil

Contributions copyright: "After the surgery…" copyright © 2002 by Susan Terris; "Convict K00457," copyright © 2002 by Robert C. Allen; "Dyeing a Three-Dollar Bill," copyright © 2002 by Frank Martinz Lester; "For Lysa, Who Tattoos Me in Her Miami Living Room," copyright © 2002 by Lisette Mendez; "I bring my book—prepared to wait…" copyright © 2002 by Cherise Wyneken; "I do not have a tattoo…" copyright © 2002 by Susi Richardson; "I got my tattoo at a time of great upheaval…" copyright © 2002 by Darcey Steinke; "I'd wanted to get one for years…" copyright © 2002 by Rick Moody; "In 1992, I had the tattoo on my arm redone…" copyright © 2002 by Leslee Becker; "Incision," copyright © 2002 by Garnett Kilberg Cohen; "Mando," copyright © 2002 by Steve Vender; "Portrait," copyright © 2002 by Kirsten Rybczynski; "Skin," copyright © 2002 by Joseph Millar; "Snakes," copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Armstrong; "Tattoo Pantoum," copyright © 2002 by Denise Duhamel; "Triangle Tattoo," copyright © 2002 by Cheryl Dumesnil; "True Tattoo," copyright © 2002 by Maureen Seaton; "When I muse about tattoos…" copyright © 2002 by Joy Williams; "When I was a kid…" copyright © 2002 by Larry Crist; "Wings, Fish, Star," copyright © 2002 by Laura A. Goldstein. See pages 263–264 for additional copyright information.

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

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New York, NY 10017

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First eBook Edition: October 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56853-1

Thanks to our agent, Rob McQuilkin, for his enthusiasm for this project and his understanding of what this book is about; and to Amy Einhorn and Sandra Bark at Warner, for making it fun. We're also grateful to the Santa Clara University English Department for administrative support, especially Christine Mielenz, Ahmad Ahmadi, and Carole Wentz, and to all the writers who lent their support and their voices to keep the project alive. Special thanks to our partners, Robert Specter and Tracie Vickers, for staying up late to discover proofreading skills they didn't know they had.

from The Illustrated Man


It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. Walking along an asphalt road, I was on the final leg of a two weeks' walking tour of Wisconsin. Late in the afternoon I stopped, ate some pork, beans, and a doughnut, and was preparing to stretch out and read when the Illustrated Man walked over the hill and stood for a moment against the sky.

I didn't know he was Illustrated then. I only knew that he was tall, once well muscled, but now, for some reason, going to fat. I recall that his arms were long, and the hands thick, but that his face was like a child's, set upon a massive body.

He seemed only to sense my presence, for he didn't look directly at me when he spoke his first words:

"Do you know where I can find a job?"

"I'm afraid not," I said.

"I haven't had a job that's lasted in forty years," he said.

Though it was a hot late afternoon, he wore his wool shirt buttoned tight about his neck. His sleeves were rolled and buttoned down over his thick wrists. Perspiration was streaming from his face, yet he made no move to open his shirt.

"Well," he said at last, "this is as good a place as any to spend the night. Do you mind company?"

"I have some extra food you'd be welcome to," I said.

He sat down heavily, grunting. "You'll be sorry you asked me to stay," he said. "Everyone always is. That's why I'm walking. Here it is, early September, the cream of the Labor Day carnival season. I should be making money hand over fist at any small town side show celebration, but here I am with no prospects."

He took off an immense shoe and peered at it closely. "I usually keep a job about ten days. Then something happens and they fire me. By now every carnival in America won't touch me with a ten-foot pole."

"What seems to be the trouble?" I asked.

For answer, he unbuttoned his tight collar, slowly. With his eyes shut, he put a slow hand to the task of unbuttoning his shirt all the way down. He slipped his fingers in to feel his chest. "Funny," he said, eyes still shut. "You can't feel them but they're there. I always hope that someday I'll look and they'll be gone. I walk in the sun for hours on the hottest days, baking, and hope that my sweat I'll wash them off, the sun'll cook them off, but at sundown they're still there." He turned his head slightly toward me and exposed his chest. "Are they still there now?"

After a long while I exhaled. "Yes," I said. "They're still there."

The Illustrations.

"Another reason I keep my collar buttoned up," he said, opening his eyes, "is the children. They follow me along country roads. Everyone wants to see the pictures, and yet nobody wants to see them"

He took his shirt off and wadded it in his hands. He was covered with Illustrations from the blue tattooed ring about his neck to his belt line.

"It keeps right on going," he said, guessing my thought.

"All of me is Illustrated. Look." He opened his hand. On his palm was a rose, freshly cut, with drops of crystal water among the soft pink petals. I put my hand out to touch it, but it was only an Illustration.

As for the rest of him, I cannot say how I sat and stared, for he was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. When his flesh twitched, the tiny mouths flickered, the tiny green-and-gold eyes winked, the tiny pink hands gestured. There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest. The people themselves were in twenty or more odd groups upon his arms, shoulders, back, sides, and wrists, as well as on the flat of his stomach. You found them in forests of hair, lurking among a constellation of freckles, or peering from armpit caverns, diamond eyes aglitter. Each seemed intent upon his own activity; each was a separate gallery portrait.

"Why, they're beautiful!" I said.

How can I explain about his Illustrations? If El Greco had painted miniatures in his prime, no bigger than your hand, infinitely detailed, with all his sulphurous color, elongation, and anatomy, perhaps he might have used this man's body for his art. The colors burned in three dimensions. They were windows looking in upon fiery reality. Here, gathered on one wall, were all the finest scenes in the universe; the man was a walking treasure gallery. This wasn't the work of a cheap carnival tattoo man with three colors and whisky on his breath. This was the accomplishment of a living genius, vibrant, clear, and beautiful.

"Oh yes," said the Illustrated Man. "I'm so proud of my Illustrations that I'd like to burn them off. I've tried sandpaper, acid, a knife…"

The sun was setting. The moon was already up in the East.

"For, you see," said the Illustrated Man, "these Illustrations predict the future."

I said nothing.

"It's all right in sunlight," he went on. "I could keep a carnival day job. But at night—the pictures move. The pictures change."

I must have smiled. "How long have you been Illustrated?"

"In 1900, when I was twenty years old and working a carnival, I broke my leg. It laid me up; I had to do something to keep my hand in, so I decided to get tattooed."

"But who tattooed you? What happened to the artist?"

"She went back to the future," he said. "I mean it. She was an old woman in a little house in the middle of Wisconsin here somewhere not far from this place. A little old witch who looked a thousand years old one moment and twenty years old the next, but she said she could travel in time. I laughed. Now, I know better."

"How did you happen to meet her?"

He told me. He had seen her painted sign by the road: SKIN ILLUSTRATION! Illustration instead of tattoo! Artistic! So he had sat all night while her magic needles stung him wasp stings and delicate bee stings. By morning he looked like a man who had fallen into a twenty-color print press and been squeezed out, all bright and picturesque.

"I've hunted every summer for fifty years," he said, putting his hands out on the air. "When I find that witch I'm going to kill her."

The sun was gone. Now the first stars were shining and the moon had brightened the fields of grass and wheat. Still the Illustrated Man's pictures glowed like charcoals in the half-light, like scattered rubies and emeralds, with Rouault colors and Picasso colors and the long, pressed-out El Greco bodies.

"So people fire me when my pictures move. They don't like it when violent things happen in my Illustrations. Each Illustration is a little story. If you watch them, in a few minutes they tell you a tale. In three hours of looking you could see eighteen or twenty stories acted right on my body, you could hear voices and think thoughts. It's all here, just waiting for you to look. But most of all, there's a special spot on my body." He bared his back. "See? There's no special design on my right shoulder blade, just a jumble."


"When I've been around a person long enough, that spot clouds over and fills in. If I'm with a woman, her picture comes there on my back, in an hour, and shows her whole life—how she'll live, how she'll die, what she'll look like when she's sixty. And if it's a man, an hour later his picture's here on my back. It shows him falling off a cliff, or dying under a train. So I'm fired again."

All the time he had been talking his hands had wandered over the Illustrations, as if to adjust their frames, to brush away dust—the motions of a connoisseur, an art patron. Now he lay back, long and full in the moonlight. It was a warm night. There was no breeze and the air was stifling. We both had our shirts off.

"And you've never found the old woman?"


"And you think she came from the future?"

"How else could she know these stories she painted on me?"

He shut his eyes tiredly. His voice grew fainter. "Sometimes at night I can feel them, the pictures, like ants, crawling on my skin. Then I know they're doing what they have to do. I never look at them anymore. I just try to rest. I don't sleep much. Don't you look at them either, I warn you. Turn the other way when you sleep."

I lay back a few feet from him. He didn't seem violent, and the pictures were beautiful. Otherwise I might have been tempted to get out and away from such babbling. But the Illustrations… I let my eyes fill up on them. Any person would go a little mad with such things upon his body.

The night was serene. I could hear the Illustrated Man's breathing in the moonlight. Crickets were stirring gently in the distant ravines. I lay with my body sidewise so I could watch the Illustrations. Perhaps half an hour passed. Whether the Illustrated Man slept I could not tell, but suddenly I heard him whisper, "They're moving, aren't they?"

I waited a minute.

Then I said, "Yes."

The pictures were moving, each in its turn, each for a brief minute or two. There in the moonlight, with the tiny tinkling thoughts and the distant sea voices, it seemed, each little drama was enacted. Whether it took an hour or three hours for the dramas to finish, it would be hard to say. I only know that I lay fascinated and did not move while the stars wheeled in the sky.

Eighteen Illustrations, eighteen tales. I counted them one by one.

Primarily my eyes focused upon a scene, a large house with two people in it. I saw a flight of vultures on a blazing flesh sky, I saw yellow lions, and I heard voices.

The first Illustration quivered and came to life….

A Toda Máquina


She was hanging around the parking lot at an AM/PM in Sacramento, a little Chicanita with tight jeans tucked into lizard-skin cowboy boots and a small suitcase held together with duct tape. Her sunglasses sparkled with rhinestones, giving her a glitzy look that didn't fit in around here among the trash and homeless pushing shopping carts. This was the rough part of Sacra, where desperate women turned tricks in cars under the shadow of the State Building. She wasn't exactly hitchhiking, me entiendes, but she didn't need a sign that said here was a huizaready to split Dodge.

I'd nearly finished pumping the fifteen gallons of Supreme when she came up behind me and said, "Can I ride with you to the freeway?" Her voice had something about it that made my stomach tighten up a notch.

I turned around real slow like and there she was in the shimmering heat of the parking lot, suitcase at her feet, hands on her hips, and jeans that looked like she'd taken a brush and painted them on, being careful to detail the seams and pockets. I didn't know if she carried good luck or bad, but I should've known. Lizard-skin cowboy boots. Rhinestone sunglasses. A wild bush of hair framing her oval face. I've always been a chump for women, so I said, "Órale, hop in."

Without another word she threw her suitcase in the backseat and slid in front, against the window, away from me, a coil of plastic bracelets bunched up on her left wrist. I'd been a long time in the country without female company except for Sage Pumo, a Hoopa Indian, wide as a bear, so this little smoke of a woman had most if not all my attention.

I floored the Camaro and shot out of the parking lot. "So what's your name?" she asked. I told her mine and she told me hers—Adelita Guerra. "Nice to meet you," she said. "It's always good to make new friends." She offered her hand, and I shook it. It was a worker's hand, rough and stained from picking walnuts, maybe yesterday. She dug into her front pockets for a frayed pack of Juicy Fruit and offered me one. "Naw. Go ahead," I said. I didn't tell her I hate gum. She chewed smacking her lips, happy as a kid on a school trip. I had Los Lobos playing on the tape deck, "La Pistola y el Corazón," music that makes you crave a nice cold one. It'd been years since I'd drunk a beer, but you never forget.

When we came to the freeway on-ramp, she sat up. "This doesn't look good. Can I ride to the next town?" I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, and that tightness in my stomach just got tighter. I couldn't exactly kick her out in the middle of nowhere, so I hit the on-ramp with a thump and revved the Camaro out, angry at what I'd gotten myself into.

I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the road, not wanting to look at her. Still, I could sense her gauging me, like a good hustler on the prowl. On my way to Sacra I'd seen a head-on collision by Redding, two cars twisted into pretzels with no survivors, and that's what I was thinking about a few minutes later when she asked, "Pues, where we going?"

I checked the rearview mirror for Highway Patrol and ignored her question. Adelita shrugged as if she didn't care, and tapped her boots, grooving to the music. It took a few miles before I settled in to enjoy the big monster working under the hood of my cherry-red Camaro Z-28 that made the white stripes of the road zip by in a blur. A string of red-and-black magic beads swayed from my rearview mirror, keeping time. Then she started drumming her fingers on the dashboard, like she was playing a piano or something, and I had to sit up and pay attention. She held her head up, like a prize filly, with arrogance and confidence. That's what first pulled me to her, made me question myself. I moved into the fast lane to get clear of an eighteen-wheeler that was hogging the road, but I had no real hurry to get anywhere. I pulled on my goatee and pondered her question. Where are we going? We? I hadn't thought about us as we. More like—her there, and me here. ¿Qué no? I lived happy outside of Weaverville, along a desolate stretch of gravel road at the edge of the Trinity Wilderness, a free man, just me and my music. My nearest neighbor, Sage Pumo, occupied a cabin several miles down Highway 299. At night, I had a clear view of the stars in the California sky. So I didn't need complications, and I had enough grief since my dog Reagan got squashed by a logging truck.

I looked her in the eye. "I'm headed south."

"Then I'll ride with you. I'm going to Vegas."

I took a closer look at her. "Why's that?"

"I'am a singer. I sing rancheras, huapangos, boleros. I also play the accordion. I'm going to be a star."

"There's a lot of talent in Vegas. Lots."

She frowned for just a second, like that thought had never crossed her mind.

"But I'm good, I'm real good. When I sing, I feel it all inside me. In here." And she jabbed a thumb at her heart.

Man, some people are real naïve. I didn't want to discourage her with tales of good girls gone bad selling themselves for a dime of meth, so I flipped the tape to the other side.

We were crossing the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, miles of tomatoes and strawberries separated by irrigation ditches, and crop dusters flying low, spraying a fine pesticide mist over the perfectly laid-out furrows. Two thin vapor trails, almost faded, crossed in the eggshell blue of the sky. The sun was slanting down behind us, setting the mountains on fire. Adelita removed her sunglasses and laid them on the dashboard. She squinted at the mean farm fields, and the corners of her eyes crinkled up where the first crow's-feet were beginning to take a grip. She crossed one knee over the other, drummed her fingers some more on the armrest, and hummed a tune I couldn't make out. I didn't want to stare at her, but she was kinda pretty in a country sort of way. In her late twenties, I guessed. Don't get me wrong, Adelita seemed game, like she'd been around the block a couple of dozen times. Her mouth had that hard edge women get after twenty-five when they figure out life's not going to treat them right.

But I wanted some details. "So where you from?"

She tossed her head back over one shoulder. "From there."



Colusa, land of dust and walnuts. I could see why she'd want to leave. "How'd you get to Sacra?"

She answered with a throaty, wicked laugh that stood the hairs on my arm at attention.

I took a wild guess. "You running away?"

"You could say that."

"A bad relationship?"

"Sort of."

"What? Husband?"

"Are you loco? No husband"

"You have family? Kids?"

"You sure ask a lot of questions."

"Maybe you should go back."


"The kids'll be worried about you. I can always turn around."

"Try it and I'll jump out right here. I'll never let a man tell me what to do. Ever. I'm through with that."

I could tell she was serious. And it really wasn't my business. We passed Santa Nella and I had the Camaro doing eighty and thinking that driving alone ain't so bad. I checked the fuel gauge and figured out when I would need to make another pit stop. Up ahead, a black, ominous cloud funneled out of the middle divider; something was burning. I eased off a notch on the gas.

I noticed she was staring at my tats.

I had the Virgen of Guadalupe emblazoned in India ink on my right forearm. Two chubby angels beneath her feet unfurled a banner that said Perdóname Virgencita. On each knuckle of my right hand was tattooed a letter. My other forearm had a blue heart, and inside the heart Norma/PorVida. I was sixteen when I did that one. I even had a little Native American glyph on my shoulder for Sage.

Adelita was eyeballing the Virgen, so I said, "You want to touch? Go ahead."

She scooted closer to me and touched the Virgen de Guadalupe. Her fingernails were like needles puncturing my skin. She left her hand on my arm a second longer than necessary, as if feeling my strength.

"Ever seen tats like these?" I said.

"Not really. Where'd you get them?"

I shrugged. "Tough tattoos. Long, sad stories."

"You don't want to tell me, do you? What's the matter, don't you trust me?"

"It's not a question of trust.'

"What is it then? You afraid I'll tell The National Enquirer?"

Crazy woman. I don't know why I said, "You'd look real fine with one."

She shot a look at me that burned right through my skull.

"Where would you put it?"

That surprised me. Where would I put it? Where would I tattoo her for life? I pressed my thumbnail just under her blouse into her shoulder, leaving a red mark like a half-moon. The air around that part of the valley must have been highly charged with electric particles, because touching her hit me like a live wire. A pure jolt of energy. I would not lie, carnal. At the same time, I saw the object on the middle divider was a semi rig that had jackknifed, the steel cab all mangled, charred, and smoking like a plane wreck. A fire crew hosed the wreckage with streams of water, but it was too late. No man could have survived that accident. We passed by it in a flash.

Adelita scooted back to her seat and I mentally rehearsed the business I had in El Ley. Under a false compartment in the trunk were forty Ziploc bags of red-haired sinsemilla. This stash belonged to Sage, her whole harvest. Her first husband had left her seven hundred acres of prime mountain real estate complete with underground springs; her second husband had left her a tractor. I was just her neighbor and a hired hand, but already I felt like husband number three. I helped plant the crop during the spring and watered it in summer, running a PVC pipe from the underground source to the budding plants. Sage held the main percentage, and I usually made enough to keep in buds during the winter months, and, if I was lucky, to survive till the next harvest. This year, though, I had offered to unload the crop with my main man in Pico Rivera. Tyrannus Mex was a boxcar of meanness, the main connect in East Los, and he paid cash on the line. So I was making the run with ten pounds of the highest-grade herb in the world. Real triple-A stuff. Sage and I were looking at maybe fifty grand in pure profits, just like the big boys running paper scams. My percentage would be enough to live in style for a whole year.

But working up close in the mountains has a way of stripping you down to bare emotions. After toiling in the herb garden, I would relax with Sage in the sweat lodge, where I had a chance to consider her ample, hairless body and her sizable breasts under braided black hair. One of her nipples pointed up and the other pointed down, and that just increased my curiosity. During those late summer months a female bear had taken to showing up every morning around my cabin, and when the bear started looking good, I feared for my sanity. So instead I squeezed my skinny hips between Sage's broad thighs, and she rubbed us both to warmth and human comfort.

The night before my trip, Sage and I were snuggled under her Pendleton blanket. Suddenly she sat up. "Maybe you'd better not make this trip. I had a dream last night about you, and your luck's about to run out." "Naw," I said to Sage, "I don't believe in dreams." Then we humped like bears in the woods, with lots of growls and thrusts and groans and moans, but not much passion. Sleeping with Sage Pumo wasn't exactly love, but it was convenient.

I did have other business in El Ley, and the thought of it kept me quiet for miles. El Ley had stopped being my town a long time ago. I was going back to bury my only brother, a half brother really. Even though he was the product of my father's affairs, and we never lived in the same house, we spent a lot of time together as teenagers. We have a saying in the barrio that fit the two of us—Blood is thicker than mud. But he'd been on the streets awhile, and I'd lost touch with him. Ten years maybe without hearing from him, then the yellow envelope from the V.A. office with the cold notice. He'd either been robbed or beaten, or both, nothing in his pockets but thirty-four cents when they found him drowned in the El Ley River. The El Ley River that's about three inches deep. I wondered if they would bury him with the box full of medals he'd brought back from Vietnam. He'd been an honor student in high school—who would have guessed this would be his end? But it was. And the anger of it kept me burning, kept me awake many nights. I was going back because it was the right thing, but I wanted to leave quick and clean before the jaws of El Ley clamped down on me again.


On Sale
Oct 31, 2009
Page Count
288 pages

Kim Addonizio

About the Author

Kim Addonizio is the author of five books. Her most recent collection of poetry, Tell Me (Boa Editions, 2000), was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her awards include two NEA Fellowships and a Puchcart Prize.

Cheryl Dumesnil is a graduate of Syracuse University’s M.F.A. program. Her poems have appeared in Bakunin and Calyx, among other notable literary magazines.

Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil both reside in California.

Learn more about this author

Cheryl Dumesnil

About the Author

A poet, essayist, editor, and writing instructor, Cheryl Dumesnil earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Her writing has appeared in Bakunin, Barrow Street, Calyx, Louisville Review, Many Mountains Moving, and Nimrod among other literary magazines. From 1994-2001, Cheryl Dumesnil taught essay and poetry writing at Syracuse University, Santa Clara University, College of Notre Dame, and Foothill College. Currently she teaches private writing workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in Walnut Creek, CA.

Learn more about this author