“The roaring twenties” she chimes, voice like magnolia soap bubbles and chinking crystal. Her dark bob, hard as a beetle shell, her eyelashes, Iver Johnson handlebars, and her face, with its silver-lining cheekbones, soft-focus foundation, locomotive kohl window sills, is as full as a marble moon. Her porcelain legs are kicked over the side of a martini glass and the fringe at the end of her drop-waist gown billows in gin. One of her arms rests on the glass’s rim, the other is bent and held high with a stiletto black cigarette holder pinched between her maroon nails, and while she is lounging right in front of me, I feel the gap of years weigh between us like a great stack of chapters; each page, another implied wall, until our only commonality is the nickname associated with our positions in time.
I stare up at her from my stained, beaten mug with my elbow propped up on the handle. The black coffee laps at the hem of my denim jacket and its long since gone cold. “Must be strange for you seeing the twenties come back.”
Her eyes are as flat as overexposed film, but the snickered pout to her painted lips tells me she likes my attention. ‘Well, kid. When you’ve been around the block a few times, the seconds pop like champagne bubbles and the years slip by half-full.”
“What was it like?”
“Well, yes but no. What was it like to squeeze the juice out of life?”
She takes a long drag off her thin cigarette and blows a memory through her wine-red lips. “We drank too much, smoked too much, danced too much and by damn, we looked great doing it. We had to, you see? Seemed like every one of us was one step away from death- the flu, the war, the mobs- all that death adds up.” She hugs a green olive the size of a balloon and runs her thumb over the flat, jellied surface of its pimento. “And even if you made it, there were so many spooks out there. I could see ‘em, you know? Taste ‘em. The bitters in the giggle water, the wail of the coppers, the leering eyes behind green speakeasy door flaps. I don’t know if we danced to shake ‘em off or shake ‘em up.”
“Did you always dance to avoid feeling haunted?”
The crystal headband crowning her bob glints as she tilts her head back. “No, I suppose, but I danced best when I was. The best drinks have a hint of bitter in ‘em to balance out the sweet.”
Resting my head on the rim of my mug, I ask, “Why a martini?”
“I guess I was always trying to take the edge off. Didn’t realize cuts with dull knives heal crooked.” She loosely flips her hand like a white handkerchief in my direction. “Why coffee?”
“It just feels like there’s always something that has to be done. It doesn’t stop. I don’t know how else to keep up.”
“It won’t stop, darling. Not until your heart does.”
I tap ripples in the dark surface of my coffee until my reflection is reinterpretted in a million bended self-portraits. “You got advice for someone heading into the twenties?”
With a dark, arched eyebrow, she sizes up my tattered denim jacket, lumpy sweater and bare face. “Dress sharp,” she teases.
I toss a handful of coffee in her direction and it splatters against the side of her glass. Her laugh is like China beads hitting a parlor floor. “At least I’m comfortable,” I offer as I lean back on the edge of the mug.
“In your skin, maybe, but are you comfortable in your spirit? Don’t be afraid to dazzle them, darling. If you glow bright enough, there won’t be any dark places for vermin to hide. Either they’ll run- which is great sport to watch- or they’ll fight, and it’s a well known fact that one of the best sensations in life is the crunch of a cockroach under a new pair of heels. It’s bar none besides the feeling of silk on skin, the clatter of beads in movement or the resonance of a truly interesting conversation.”
She reaches behind her back and pulls out a bamboo bayonet. Leaning over the edge, she holds the sword by the blade and points it in my direction. ” You’ll need this where you’re going.”
I take the handle. As I run my fingers along the part of the grain stained with olive juice, she rests her folded arms on the martini glass’s rim and stares down at me with eyes like stars. “Listen, darling: don’t take any wooden nickels and don’t sell yourself short for the metal kind, either. You’ve got gold coming out of your ears and pearls dropping out of your mouth. You are the Queen of Sheba; straighten your crown and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”