“The roaring twenties,” she chimes to no one as her words hover like magnolia soap bubbles. Her dark bob is like patent leather, her eyelashes, Iver Johnson handlebars, and her face, with its silver-lining cheekbones, soft-focus foundation and locomotive-kohl window sills, is as full as a marble moon. Her porcelain legs are kicked over the side of a martini glass, the fringe on her drop-waist gown billows in gin, and while she is lounging a few feet away from 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 inside my stained, beaten mug. Black coffee laps at the hem of my denim jacket. The surrounding air is dense with the desperate smell coffee adopts long after it’s gone cold; like brownie mix against cardboard and the ink-bleck of a chewed pen. I clear my throat to get her attention, then say, “Must be strange for you seeing the twenties come back.”
She stares forward. Her eyes are flat like overexposed film, but the snickered pout to her painted lips tells me she appreciates company after all these years. “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?”
“Getting old?” she says.
“Well, yes but no. What was it like to squeeze the juice out of living?”
She takes a long drag off her stiletto cigarette holder then blows a memory through 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 if you made it, there were spooks out there. I could see ‘em, you know? Taste ‘em. 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. Good giggle water has a hint of bitter 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 from dull knives heal crooked.” She loosely flips her hand like a white handkerchief in my direction. “Why coffee?”
“It feels like there’s always something. 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 oil-dark surface of my coffee until my reflection is re-interpreted into a mosaic of bent 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 laughter is like clinking crystal glasses at a dinner toast.
“At least I’m comfortable,” I offer, leaning back on the edge of my 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 life’s best sensations is crunching 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 challenge of a truly captivating 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 wet grain, all stained with olive juice, she rests her folded arms on the 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.”
And as if she planned it, the shriek of the first firework punctuates her sentence. The dozen brassy bellows of a grandfather clock beckon us rightly, and from the comfort of our elixirs, we watch blaring dahlias bloom, then wither, time and time again.