Still Life With Moon.
Isis can chart whole sections of her life by smell. For instance, there was the sandalwood era of childhood that was blended with a light bitter orange and something more flowery and low to the ground, jasmine perhaps, because that’s the kind of perfume her mother wore at the time. Not a spray, it came in a tiny glass bottle and she applied it to her wrists and neck and on the inside of her knees, saying, “This is what French women do,” breathily, with a little laugh. Springtime; a rosy tilt to the air, each day like turning the pages of a worn and beloved picture book. And that peach tree in the back yard; Isis could tell when the peaches were ready to eat without having to feel for softness; they smelled sweet and round and she knew just when they would be a sweet eruption in the mouth. This was a spring of new handbags, large ones with the earthy smell of leather that her mother hoisted onto her shoulder when she took Isis to bars. She ordered Isis cherry cokes, while she talked to the bartender, or to other men.
Isis liked the smell of bars. They smelled of home: muscular, sour and wet. They smelled of cigarette smoke and sick-sweet whiskey and thick, polished wood of counters, and the burnt-sugar smell of heartache. The sounds of music and low voices and glasses and ice were a kind of poetry written on the nerves. Christmas lights flickered on surfaces like oil slicks. The faces of the patrons were dewy: quick to tears and laughter, throats congested with love songs, words released into the cozy space. People were friendly to Isis in bars in a way they weren’t outside; they showed her tricks and laughed when she said things that were funny and paid close attention when she said things that were serious. They clapped and whistled when she learned to yo-yo; when she got roller-skates they watched her careen from one wall to the other. Their breath had the jolly, happy smell of beer, or the fruit-gone-bad smell of whiskey, or the wintergreen smell of gin, or the icy, nearly invisible smell of vodka, which was what her mother’s breath always smelled like. Isis learned that even bad smells could provide pleasure and comfort.
In bars her mother would snake an arm around her shoulders and say, “Isis turned out so gorgeous. She’s seven miles out of my league!” and her high-heels would click against the leg of her stool while her skirt, short and brightly colored, would ride up her leg and Isis would shake her shiny blonde head and men would laugh indulgently and say, “a knockout, alright!” Her mother’s smell always filled a bar completely. It bewitched, niggling into every corner, like a snake-charmer’s music. Men waited breathlessly for Isis’ mother to speak. They came up close to her and smelled the air around her reverently, with their eyes closed.
Isis could ask for anything in bars and her mother would give it to her. “Can I wear your shoes?” Isis would ask, and her mother would give her an alligator smile and take off her shoes and hand them to Isis. They smelled warm and sour and familiar and she would put them on and shuffle around the bar in them while men laughed and said jokingly, “what’s your sign, doll?” Isis could say, “can I have money for the jukebox?” and her mother would give her five dollars and she would go to the jukebox and put on the songs her mother liked. She knew all the words, and everyone clapped while she mouthed them into an imaginary microphone. The only thing Isis couldn’t ask in bars or any other place was about her father.