Andra Land is a displaced Hoosier freelance writer living near the New Jersey shore. In addition to writing articles for publication on various informational websites, she writes short stories and poetry, and is close to completing her first novel.
Field of Lavender
She wasn't looking at Luce.
That young bartender was the finest sight a tired, old woman might have seen all day long, but Marjorie’s gaze was fixed past Luce's shoulder, beyond the row of liquor bottles that lined the shelf behind the bar. She watched the slow blinks of her own yellowed eyes in the silver glass wall that mirrored the bottles.
In her mind, she made a declaration.
“This is, for sure, my last dose of poison in this tavern.” She telepathed to her reflection.
Narrowing her eyes, she leaned closer to the mirror. She'd always thought those bottles looked like soldiers, standing tall in formation, guarding the space between her body and her smudgy image in the glass.
“One more look around, then I’m gonna get up off this stool, have a last swallow of whiskey, then I’m gonna pay. Then I’m gone.”
All around her were chumps and liars and she wasn’t one of them. She was in the wrong place. She was just visiting. It had been a long visit, but she wasn't trapped, like some of these dead-beats. She smirked, taking inventory of the men in the tavern. They dressed like they'd spent a long day working at some high paying job, but Marjorie knew from experience there wasn't a business card in even one of those flappy pockets. They were day-jobbers, every last one (if they even had work). They’d slipped into their springtime Sunday church suits right after a factory whistle blew, then showed up here smelling like last years’ Christmas cologne. The tavern door closed behind them and suddenly they were all the Barons of Wall Street. One of them would ask you to dance. They’d tell you about their special knowledge of music and money. And they’d say, “You’re a beautiful woman, Marjorie. I’d like you to meet my Mama.” And a woman would fall for that line, because she wanted that fake, pastel-colored dream to be real.
Marjorie's bony fingers clutched her glass. With concentration, she guided the glass to her lips and took a drink. She held the sticky liquid in her mouth. Summoning a surge of resolve, she reminded herself, "This will be my last pitiful measure of Black Honey whiskey."
It didn't taste anything like honey.
It tasted like stale melted candy from Grammas cut glass dish of Sweet Amber Jewels. Back in the distant day, that sparkling candy dish was a fixture, perched on Grammas windowsill. Sunlight cascaded through the decorative glass prisms in that dish to splash rainbows on the walls every season of the year. The warmth of it fused the candy into a solid clump. Marjorie pined for that candy. She'd rush to the dish the minute her little feet crossed Grammas creaky doorstep. All she could think about were those warm, musty candies. It was joyful work to pry one off that frustrating sculpture.
“Wonder what became of that candy dish.” She thought.
Marjorie shook her head. Whiskey was her candy now. Smokey blue bar lights had replaced Grammas dancing wall rainbows.
She placed the toe of her shoe on the sticky floor and shifted her frame just enough to turn the bar stool. Now she had a good look at the crowded, pocket sized dance floor. Tiny speakers were blaring music. The thumping beat was obscenely loud. She felt it throb inside her rib cage. Marjorie squinted. Dancing drunk people looked like a pile of bugs that had been suddenly exposed to sunlight under a corner of rotten carpet, bumping together and scurrying to nowhere. She studied the dancers faces. It looked like all of the women had shared the same shiny tube of wet lipstick. Their lips seemed to drip as the women bobbled their heads to the music. The men must have watched those lips until they were hypnotized. All of them were under a spell. They flopped and pumped like they were having sex right there in front of you. It was ugly. People didn't used to dance that way.
She closed her eyes and remembered the first time the girls from work had told her she should come along with them to the tavern. It was a hot July Saturday, right after Marjorie was hired on at the foundry. She was 18. She'd never been out dancing. She'd never been inside a tavern. Marjorie thought it was gonna be like Cinderella's ball. Oh, how it made her smile to think of those early days of hope and innocence. She wore a green dress, the color of her eyes. Mama gave her that dress. Mama had let her choose any one she liked from the cedar wardrobe closet. It fit almost perfectly. They had to take it in a little because, like Mama said, she wasn’t as blessed in the chest as some girls. Not being blessed didn’t bother her, though. Back then, when life was different, having a lot of flat nothing under her blouse helped her have room to stretch her arms across to reach the clamps on the line at the foundry. Even before that, in her school days, she sure could run faster than stacked girls. It always seemed like they were huffing along with those pendulous things flopping all around.
Marjorie began to giggle and nod her head at the memories. She could see her sister Jenny, trying to keep up as the two of them ran home from school on their secret shortcut through the late spring clearings and overgrown lavender fields. Marjorie loved to run. It was freedom. It was flying.
Jenny would call after her, cussing her, saying, “Marjorie, slow down your stinky, skinny-ass.” And she would. She’d slow down to let her catch up for the last mile or so. It wasn’t like she was running fast to be mean to Jenny. Marjorie ran to feel the wind and smell the wildflowers crushing beneath her feet. You couldn't help stepping on wildflowers back then; they grew so thick. If you ran in a field, you were gonna crush a wildflower. And when you did, no matter how fast you were running, the air exploded into what must have been the smell of sugar coated, rain-soaked angels’ wings. Marjorie breathed deep, recalling it. Then she opened her eyes. The memories of sweet smelling flowers and the comfortable company of Jenny were gone.
Her nostrils were full of the wet, cold fog of cigarette smoke, liquor and old bottles of aftershave. Marjorie emerged from her clear, vivid thoughts to the despair of the dim, cloudy tavern. Behind her, she heard the familiar voice of the bartender.
“Fill your glass, Marj?” Luce asked.
She shrugged so Luce would know she was thinking about it. Before she turned from the dance floor to face her mirror-image again, Marjorie glanced at the clock on the wall above the tavern door. It was nearly midnight; four hours until she had to face the cold, brightly lit bus stop, then the long ride to the foundry. It made her tired to imagine it. Once more, she reminded herself, "it's time to get up, pay the man, and get going".
“Marj?” Luce said again.
She turned around to meet her gaze in the mirror. Two tall, brown-bottle soldiers framed her head like fate and destiny. Those soldiers quieted her thoughts. Marjorie’s weary eyes flicked just a bit to the right of the bottle destiny. A man, seated on the stool beside her, tipped his hat to her. That was something Marjorie didn't see every day. A man in a hat. The chumps in this place never thought of wearing a nice respectable hat. The man was smiling at her. He motioned to Luce to fill Marjorie's glass. Boy, she didn't need any more whiskey, but this fella was gonna pay for it. He had out his wallet. He didn’t look like a loser. He looked like a real upstanding sort of guy. He smelled nice too. Luce poured whiskey into her empty glass and set the bottle in front of the smiling man.
"If I was an artist," The man told her. "I'd paint your picture."
He pretended to dip an imaginary brush into an invisible cup of paint and twirled the unseen brush in the air above Marjorie's forehead. The cigarette smoke hanging in the air swirled in the dim blue tavern light. It was beautiful, in a certain way. It was like a picture she remembered from somewhere. Marjorie’s senses relaxed. She wasn’t bothered by the sweaty thump of the dancers’ heavy feet or the roar of the boozy, hollow music. No, not anymore. Everything was fuzzy and far away, except the hand of the Man with the Wallet. The Artist. His hand was reaching for her. She placed one hand in his and lifted her glass with the other. It was the best decision.