[Originally written for an assignment having to do with details and the five senses. I haven’t posted anything specifically creative–of my own–in awhile so I figured I’d drop this in here.]
As Silver pushed the canvas flap out of her way, the smell of roasted peanuts and freshly popped corn wrapped warmly around her and slithered away to leave her cool in the night air. Inside the crimson and ivory striped tent, the audience continued to roar, still dazed by the aerialist’s death defying act. Every crowd was the same. The tinny accompaniment never changed. The same costumes, the same tricks… Silver could do her act with her eyes closed and often performed with a blindfold, but life had snuffed the thrill of her art out long ago.
Walking across the circus grounds to the airstream trailer she shared with Madge, she breathed in the chill and exhaled a damp cloud. Every step was a monumental effort. By the time she reached the trailer, her arms covered in gooseflesh, all she wanted was to crawl into bed and feel the embrace of a sleeping pill, but Madge’s sharp eyes would notice something was wrong.
“You look like the elephants trampled you,” Madge said, her throaty voice raspier than usual, the ubiquitous Virginia Slim clamped between her index and middle finger. “What’s wrong, princess?”
“Just tired, I guess,” Silver said, managing a gloomy smile. “I think I might be pms-ing.”
Madge squinted at her then raised one painted eyebrow skeptically. However, she only added, “Best get some rest then. Go ahead and get cleaned up, and I’ll make some hot cocoa.”
Silver examined her reflection in the three-paneled mirror ringed in bright bulbs. She had already washed off her stage makeup in the sink, and her features looked pinched and sickly in the bright lighting. What had happened to her? A year ago, her eyes would have sparkled, and her cheeks would have been rosy from the rush of performing. In fact, she would probably still be in the circus tent, watching the rest of the performance like an eager child.
She turned abruptly from the mirror and picked up a bottle of expensive lotion—a gift from an admirer. Flicking the cap open, she breathed in the cherry almond scent and felt tears prick her eyes. As she moisturized, her gaze lost its focus, and she saw her mother sitting at a dilapidated vanity, slathering on cherry almond lotion as if it would miraculously spin back the hands of time.
“Always moisturize,” she said in her soft Southern drawl. “If there’s anything your grandmother ever taught me, it was to moisturize religiously.”
Sitting cross-legged on the foot of the full bed they shared, Silver picked at a scab on her knee and wrinkled her nose. “But why?” she asked, confused by the nightly ritual.
“Because you only have the one skin,” her mother replied. “When your grandmother passed, she looked not a year over forty-five.”
Snapping out of her reverie, Silver muttered, “And what good is young looking skin when cancer takes you?” She slammed the lotion onto the vanity. “What good is it if you’re dead?”
Her mother’s funeral had been on a chilly night like this one. Only a scraggly handful of mourners were in attendance. None of them said anything. Silver’s eulogy was choked, and the cloying smell of too many lilies—her mother’s favorite flower—sent her into a coughing fit.
In her cheap casket, Silver’s mother looked even more drawn than she had in her last days. The cancer had wasted her body, performed a deadly liposuction, and taken even her dewy skin. Silver could hardly bare to look at the corpse before the funeral director closed the lid of the coffin. With all the arrangements paid for from her earnings with the circus, Silver did not linger. There was nothing left to mourn.
Madge slid a steaming mug of hot cocoa across the table to Silver, watching as the younger woman held it tightly between her hands. “Don’t burn yourself,” Madge warned, lighting up another Virginia Slim.
“Don’t,” Silver spat.
Madge froze, cigarette halfway to her mouth. “Don’t what?” she asked.
Wordlessly, Silver took the cigarette and stubbed it out in the ash tray. “That’s what killed my mother.”
Madge made a fluttery move to protest, then settled on holding her own cup of cocoa. “I didn’t know.”
“No one does,” Silver said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. She took a scalding sip from her mug, wincing at the pain but appreciating the clarity it brought her mind. “What does anyone really know about me anyway?”
Madge kept silent.
Silver took a more cautious sip, swirling the liquid around in her mouth, tasting the sweetness. Her mother, older, with thinning hair from the chemo, stirred a battered saucepan on the hot plate. A teenaged Silver observed the process, taking mental notes.
“Use good chocolate, Silver,” she was saying. “Belgian or Swiss if you can find it.”
Silver watched as the tiny chunks of broken Hershey bar disappeared into the heavy whipping cream in the saucepan.
“And never heat it too high or you’ll burn the milk. Nothing quite so unforgiving as burnt hot chocolate.” She smiled at her daughter. “And then what do we add?”
“You added nutmeg,” Silver said with surprise.
“I thought I would try something different,” Madge commented proudly. “I’ve been reading those Martha Stewart magazines, and she’s always dressing up the basics. I figured I’d give it a whirl.” Her smile faltered. “Do you…not like it? I can make some more without the nutmeg…”
Silver shook her head. “No, no…it’s wonderful, Madge.” Her roommate beamed. “It just reminds me of my mom.” She began to cry, wiping at her tears ineffectually.
“Oh…” Madge got up and knelt awkwardly next to Silver, putting one of her bony arms around her. Silver could smell stale cigarette smoke on her. Rather than be repulsed, she turned into the awkward embrace and buried her face in her friend’s ratty bathrobe and cried as she had not cried at her mother’s funeral. She cried for the loss of her mother, and she cried for the impossibility of new memories. All she had was the smell of lotion, the taste of nutmeg in hot chocolate, the smell of lilies and cigarette smoke. It would never be enough.