The Old Broads of the Mermaid Beach Apartments
It’s March, and the sea air sparkles. On Thursday afternoons at four we meet at Ruth’s, but first we have our errands and chores. The lucky bimbo who lives long enough becomes, in the eyes of others, just an old lady, but we old Florida broads know who we are. Our ankles may be no longer trim, but we can clip-clop proudly into the bank where the cashier greets us by name. Or visit the deli to pick up a delicious little something. At home we dust and hum, or toothbrush-scrub the grout between pink shower tiles, recalling the flashy, dubious men who took us to the Hialeah racetrack where we watched shrimp-fed flamingos and glossy horses, like us then, pampered captives.We skip lunch so we can eat whatever we want later. We freshen up and visit Armando, or Justin, who will fuss over our hair and make it fuller, like whipping air into cream and coaxing a curl. With just that hint of blue in the silver, as Justin says with a fond smile as he picks up the little envelope that holds the tip.
And then we go home, where our apartments greet us, fresh and ready for our preparations. We keep our little treasures neatly arrayed. We still own ashtrays, although the last of us to smoke was Helen. We have martini sets and silver dishes for mixed nuts where our fingers can still find the occasional rare Brazil. We have cedar-lined closets with double shoe racks. We used to go before Thanksgiving to retrieve our furs from Burdines cold storage, parading out with the bags over one shoulder to where the man was pulled up, waiting, in his washed and polished car. Full-length chinchilla and such we’d sell after the giver was gone, but we’d keep a little mink jacket, or a wrap, which was as much as you’d need in winter then, now not needed at all. And Burdines is long gone. Still, in the closet’s depths a stole dangles, paws down within its muslin pouch.
We change into good slacks, then put on a bright linen blouse and pearls or the laid-out sweater set to which we affix a Haskell brooch. We re-powder our cleavage and lavish on the lipstick to distract from everything the sun has done. Then we tuck a handkerchief into the purse we hang over one arm, pick up our contribution to the party, toss a kiss towards the mirror by the door, and take the elevator.
On Ruth’s screened balcony we sit, enjoying the laughter of ice in the pitcher as we recall particular men of the past, their sass, their nerve. Some of them we married, even trusted. In front of one of us, a man would love to talk about knowing the angles. Calling his bookie. His special trick of staying on the right side of the Boss. All so playful sounding, really, like he had it under control, until he didn’t.
“That was the moment,” I say, “you had to catch.”
“When he asked you for a favor in a certain tone,” says Elaine.
“Or when he introduced you to a guy he’d told you to be especially sweet to, and you—” Ruth touches her throat. “You tasted danger.”
Jackie, who has joined our group since we lost Helen, looks like she might have something to add, but doesn’t.
Elaine nods at me. “As Marie says, you had to catch the moment—and then you had to save yourself.”
“Yes,” I say. “That’s the tough part.”
We sigh, watching the little wild parakeets darting about in the bottlebrush tree below us and, farther off, the arc of sprinklers.
Then Ruth says, “Ready for cards? And, of course, we have to eat.”
And leaving the sliding doors open and the curtains pulled back so the breeze can follow us, we go inside.
At the sideboard, we fill square lacquer dishes from the bowls and platters we brought, and set them on Ruth’s linen-covered table. We freshen our drinks again, before we sit. We’ve been teaching pinochle to Jackie, but the complexities of scoring melds are still too much for her, so we play bridge.
Through the shuffling, dealing, and bidding, we nibble and compliment each flavor. Then we settle in. The cards unfold their patterns while we eat and rattle ice and swallow cool, astringent liquor.
After we total up the first rubber and start the next, with a glance at me, Ruth leads off, and we begin to tell our tales about the wonderful bimbos we knew who didn’t make it. But what we celebrate is the bravado it took to escape places they barely mentioned, which with us they didn’t need to. And their gorgeousness, and guts, and vivid laughs.
When we turn to her, Jackie offers us a new one, and while the sky outside blushes and fades, their names become a song that only we remember.