Maureen tapped her salon nails on the edge of the piano bar. Under the lights, the black surface of the baby grand softened her reflection as she listened to the music. She was intent to hear every note, as if each one might be the last.
She dressed as a 76-year-old should, with a reindeer-patterned sweatshirt to soften the osteoporosis, and denim slacks to cover the varicose veins. Her shoes were canvas slip-ons. Heels were out of the question, as with such weak ankles, she could no longer take five steps without losing her balance.
Waitresses cruised between the half-occupied tables, careful not to spill their trays. The lounge was congested with smoke and old men with old values. Along one wall, lost women hunched over the brass-railed bar like vultures waiting for the smell of money to waft through the door. To pass time, they flirted with the young men who mixed their watered-down drinks.
Maureen’s son Harold was seated at the keyboard, playing The Lady is a Tramp. For weeks, he had laboriously practiced the piece on the living room upright after a customer complaint had sent him into depression. The drunk had reached into the over-sized brandy snifter and taken back his dollar tip while he complained.
“If you expect to get paid, you have to know how to satisfy people,” the man had said. Harold liked to satisfy; he always had, so he practiced. Tonight, he was adding his own improvised tinkling beneath the melody. It was doubtful he would ever see the customer again, but it didn’t matter. Harold would be perfect, just in case.
Maureen felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Mo? Mo Selznick? Dear lord in heaven girl, is that you?”
The woman obviously had work done. Her face was frigid with over-sized lips, and her breasts nearly exploded from the blue-sequined matador jacket that framed them. Her eyebrows and cheek bones were higher than could be expected from a woman her age, and the nose was much too sharp. But somehow, these features were muted by the woman’s makeup. It was perfection only a cover-model could achieve - burgundy lipstick that barely hinted of color, with matching rouge that blended evenly across her bronzed skin.
“Don’t say you don’t remember. It’s me, Bunny Shelby. Well, back then I went by Bunny Blake, but that’s neither here nor there.” She flipped her feathered hair and winked with a performer’s panache.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Maureen said, lifting herself down from the barstool. “You haven’t aged a day.”
“Oh honey, you are too sweet.”
The women hugged as old acquaintances will when they need time to think of something else to say. Bunny pulled out a stool, then leaned her toned arms gently on the edge of the baby grand. Smooth skin flashed through the slit of her blue sequined skirt when she crossed her legs.
“Just look at you,” Bunny said. “Living the American dream, I’ll bet.”
Harold finished his song and transitioned into I Get a Kick Out of You. His tip jar was half empty.
“Honey, seeing you brings back memories,” she continued. “How long has it been, fifty years? Oh please don’t say it’s been fifty. Now tell me, what have you been up to?”
Maureen waved her hand, and a waitress appeared to take the drink order.
“Cosmo,” Bunny said.
Bunny spread out her fingers for inspection as if she were suddenly alone and clipped her thumbnail with her teeth. When she was satisfied, she smiled at Maureen.
“Now tell me,” she continued, patting her old friend’s knee. “Just what exactly have you been doing with yourself all these long, lost years? You must tell me everything.”
Maureen nodded toward Harold. “We’ve been here for just about ever,” she said. “He’ll be 58 this April.”
“Oh Lord, you mean to tell me that handsome dollop of a man is your son? He plays divinely. I just have to get him to play something for us.” Bunny rifled though her purse for a dollar bill. “What’s that tune from the Bogart and Bergman film, you know, the one the black piano player wasn’t supposed to play but he did it all the time anyway?”
“As Time Goes By.”
“No, that doesn’t sound right. You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, da da da da da da- Come on, you know the one.”
“As Time Goes By.”
“Maybe your boy knows. Oh, he has to play that song for us. For old time’s sake.”
Bunny stood up and sashayed to Harold as if she had been part of his act for years. She curled her hand on his shoulder and leaned in to whisper. After a moment too long for a simple request, Harold nodded, and Bunny returned to her seat.
“What a charming gentleman,” she said. “You must be so proud. But, correct me if I’m wrong, and maybe my radar is off a bit, but is he, you know, a little gay?”
“You’d have to ask him that,” Maureen said. “I’m just his mother. Don’t get me wrong, now. I enjoy that he lives in my basement and brings strange men into my house late at night.”
“Fabulous, but it’s still a shame,” Bunny said. “For a man as winningly handsome as that to have taken such a wrong turn, it’s a heartbreaking shame. But still, fabulous nonetheless.”
Bunny looked around the room for the waitress.
“Mo, honey, it really has been too long,” she said. “You know, the last I saw of you we were doing that shoot in the desert. You remember. It was just outside of Reno for some skin-mag, lace-bustier, stag-something-or-other. You had those cute black stockings, and that god-awful pair of alligator heels I tried talking you out of wearing. Oh, that brings back memories.”
Maureen began to tap her fingers on the bar again, only this time, she cracked a nail.
“It was for Reveille Magazine, and those shoes made my ass look like a million,” she said.
Harold was adding his flourishes at the keyboard by dropping minor notes on the chorus.
“I’d completely forgotten about that night till just now,” Bunny continued. “That crazy rain storm blew in, and of course we drove down in a convertible, so instead of getting soaked we all holed up in that horrible motel with the God-forsaken bar. You, me, and what’s his name, that back-alley photographer with the thin lips.”
“Paolo Veretti,” Maureen snorted.
“That’s right, Paolo. What a slime ball. Did I ever tell you that after we left the bar that night he came to my room and tried to get fresh? I told him I was having my lady’s time. I swear if it wasn’t for that bull-shit line, he would’ve had his way no matter what. Thank God my mother didn’t raise a fool.”
Bunny rummaged through her purse to find a compact. She opened it, checked her makeup, and kept right on talking.
“Well, it’s a good thing I kept friendly with that louse, because thanks to a word from him I picked up a USO tour in Korea a month after. I was billed as ‘Heartbreak Bunny, the sweetheart of Seoul.’ It was no Bob Hope Review, of course, but that’s neither here nor there. Then it was off to L.A., where I did some screen work for Paramount before signing a deal with Playboy. Let me tell you honey, between you and me, Hefner is not at all he thinks he is.”
Maureen listened to Harold improvise the melody. With her cracked nail, she traced the floating notes in the air as they converged toward the end of each phrase, creating a fresh harmony.
“It was Paolo’s car,” she said. “He promised to keep us safe.”
“If you say so,” Bunny grinned. “It was never a man’s promises I was paying attention to, you know. I wonder what ever happened to that old alley cat. I’ll bet he’s still working in the same grimy, fifth-floor walkup studio, luring in naïve young things like us.”
Maureen shook her head calmly, and spread her fingers out for inspection.
“Paolo was shot in the head back in 1967,” she said, picking at the chipped nail. “They never found out who did it, and I’m not sorry. The bastard should have made right by us.”
Bunny shot a look toward Harold.
“Oh honey, I didn’t know-“
“After Paolo left your room, he came to mine. I didn’t know what to say, or yell, or scream for that matter. I guess my mother did raise a fool.”
The waitress returned and placed two drinks in front of the old friends. Water droplets rolled down the sides of the fresh glasses to pool on the black surface of the piano.
“Then Harold should have been-“
The minor notes became bolder as Harold rushed toward the finale.
“Yours,” Maureen said, biting into her nail.