Mary Bland from Baltimore isn’t much of a student and, truth be told, she’s a downright terrible athlete, but she has the face of an angel and is very good at following directions, so the Marianist nuns at Our Lady of Sorrows like her, even the phys ed teacher, who once told Mary’s parents that she was the most obedient girl he had ever met—she would run into a wall if he asked her to—and especially the marching band director, who says she blows the saxophone with the force of a Category 4 hurricane and should apply to the Peabody Conservatory, but Mary’s mother says no, it’s simply not sensible, and, when Mary graduates, she gets a job in accounts receivable on the docks where she sometimes wistfully watches ships come into the harbor and leave for the sea, until she learns that her office is being merged into the company’s headquarters in New Orleans but will keep anyone who is willing to relocate and, having just turned 21, she thinks, Why not?—Aunt Trixie always says that Baltimore is a two-bit town. So, Mary decides to move.
Mary takes the train for the first time ever, her family seeing her off from Baltimore’s Penn Station (not to be confused with the one in New York), and everyone is crying except Aunt Trixie, who discreetly gives her $20 and says that she should call anytime with questions she can’t ask her mother. The train passes through Washington, D.C., Virginia, and states where Mary has never been, finally gliding through the slow-moving bayou as if a pontoon boat instead of a train and arriving in New Orleans, warm, damp, and fragrant with possibility at 4:00 a.m. on a Spring morning. She goes to the Ursuline convent where her mother has arranged for her to board, showers and dresses for work, then heads to the port.
“Bonjour, cher. Don’t you look as sweet as one of those angels on the ceiling of the Vatican?” After they talk for twenty minutes over very thick coffee, which Mary drinks even though she finds it unpleasantly bitter, the office manager, Mrs. Barbeau, takes Mary to a windowless file room packed with cardboard boxes and says, with a sympathetic smile, “The company needs to establish a world-class document management system to merge all these records from Baltimore with the ones here in New Orleans.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Barbeau,” says Mary. “I’m excited to begin.” And Mary is excited to begin, not just the job, but her life.
In just a matter of weeks, Mary cleans the file room until it sparkles, acquires the additional file cabinets she needs, and almost finishes organizing the hard copy files so that she can begin scanning them into a digital database. So, on a Tuesday evening in May, she decides to go to the Apple Barrel, an admittedly seedy-looking bar but one that advertises an open mic night, no professional experience required. She chooses a table for two near the window and puts her saxophone on the other chair. When Mary returns to the convent shortly after midnight, flush with success after a solo that was nothing short of seismic, the wrought iron gate on the front door is locked, and her suitcase is on the street.
Mary begins walking and tries to puzzle out what to do next. She heads down eerily dark Chartres Street, gas lamps barely cutting through the soupy night air; across slightly brighter Esplanade, no vacancy signs adding unwelcome light; then up Decatur, into a cacophony of neon and noise. Mary can no longer think about where she will sleep or how she will make herself presentable for work in the morning but only about how to get through this crowd, menacing men standing and talking and smoking in the middle of the sidewalk, boisterous boys sitting on the curb and blocking her way when she tries to escape to the street, a wailing woman sprawled out at the corner while a dog licks blood off her foot. She forgets to care whether she will bump into anyone with her suitcase as she pushes through the menacing men, boisterous boys, wailing woman, and blood-thirsty dog and darts between cruising cars to the quieter side of the street. She turns around only because a man shouts, “Stay away from the river, cher. It’s dangerous over there.”
Mary doubles back on Ursulines Street, passes the convent and sits on the sidewalk in front of the patisserie she goes to most mornings, securing her saxophone behind her back, resting her head on her suitcase and, against all odds, falling fast asleep.
“Mon dieu, cher!” Mary wakes up to see the counter girl, Camille, crouched down and staring into her face. “Did you sleep here last night?” she asks. Mary nods and notes that the nuns had thrown her out, for missing curfew it seemed. “Those Ursulines are unforgiving,” Camille mumbles and then proceeds to unlock and roll up the gate. “Come, we will figure this out.”
Camille makes coffee, brings it to a table and sits down across from Mary. After quietly assessing her, Camille says “An apartment is available upstairs. While you are at work, I will check whether you can move in tonight.”
“Thank you,” says Mary, “but how much is the rent?” When Camille gives a figure just shy of $400 a month, Mary shakes her head no, “I’m sorry, Camille. I can’t afford it.”
“Cher,” says Camille, gently lifting up Mary’s chin and coaxing her to make eye contact, “You won’t find a decent apartment for less. You can work here on Saturdays and cover the difference, yes?”
Mary nods, “Yes, I can do that.” Seeing customers waiting outside, Camille stands up: “Freshen up in the ladies’ room and leave your suitcase and sax with me while you’re at work. You can meet me back here at the end of the day.”
When Mary is heading out the door, Camille says, “Ne t’en fais pas, cher.” Mary looks at Camille quizzically and, instead of telling her not to worry in English, Camille says, “There is no curfew, Mary, but you will need to be careful.”
Over the summer, Mary becomes the go-to gal at the shipping company, finishing digitalization of the New Orleans and Baltimore documents, beginning to retrieve hard copy files from satellite offices and helping with the bookkeeping and anything else Mrs. Barbeau needs; and at the patisserie, adding on the Sunday shift when Chef says he doesn’t know how they ever got along without her. But what she loves most is jamming at jazz joints, grabbing any gig she can get from Frenchman to Freret whenever a band needs a sax. Mary comes to understand why she moved to New Orleans on what seemed like a whim, that she is able to speak with her true voice, her sax. So, over the next several years, she keeps working at the shipping company and the patisserie and the clubs, has her heart bruised but not broken by a succession of drummers and never goes back to Baltimore, not even once, although Aunt Trixie sometimes drops in during the horse racing season.
The 1990s end and, suddenly, she is 30. On the third of July, Mary walks into a bar for a gig, and her band has another substitute drummer. This one is Beau from Montreal; he isn’t showy and keeps a steady beat, which is exactly what they need. When the band goes on break, Beau asks Mary if he can get her anything and doesn’t blink when she asks for an iced tea; they sit in the backyard and drink their tea, together. When they see their bandmates passing around a joint, Mary asks, “Do you smoke?” and he says, “Only intermittently.” When he gently presses her against the wall and kisses her after the gig, Mary aches for him and thinks that this drummer is the one.
Beau is tall and lanky, with shaggy brown hair and a wardrobe consisting mostly of T-shirts with the names of obscure bands and other items that fit into his backpack. Mary gets pregnant the first time they have sex, and she has to agree with Beau that they don’t really know each other and shouldn’t rush into getting married. But when he suggests that she get an abortion, Mary can’t agree and says she will understand if he moves on. But Beau moves in instead of on, and Mary puts him on her health insurance. Bouncing baby Donna Lee brings the total to three, and before you can get to the bottom of whether Charlie Parker really wrote that tune, Mary’s gigging days are gone.
By the time Donna Lee starts talking and calling herself Dolly, Mary can’t ignore that Beau’s beverage of choice is actually bourbon and that he smokes pot “only intermittently” if that means as a palette cleanser between other drugs, and when she confronts him, he says he’s had enough, throws clean T-shirts and underwear into his backpack and heads over to Brandi, the fiddler who doesn’t give him any crap but probably gave them both an STD. He comes back a week later when he has gone through his clean clothes and then drifts in and out as the Gulf breeze moves him.
Soon, Dolly is asking every man she meets, “Are you my Daddy?” The patisserie in particular is a target-rich environment, and while the men are usually charmed by Dolly, who has Mary’s angelic face on a 3-foot, 2-inch, body, the wives of the older ones twist their faces as if spoiled milk had been frothed into their decaf cappuccinos. After closing one Sunday, Chef and Camille have no choice but to tell Mary that she can’t bring Dolly to work with her anymore, or at least until she gets over her “Are you my Daddy?” phase.
After tapping everyone from the shipping company’s daycare aides to the least scary fortune teller in Jackson Square, and having Aunt Trixie stay for a few weeks, there comes a Saturday when Mary is out of other options and asks Beau to watch Dolly. Before she goes downstairs to work, Mary lays out a clean T-shirt for Beau and a sundress for Dolly and packs cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches in a soft cooler in case they go out in the sun. In between customers, Mary peers out the window hoping for a glimpse of Beau and Dolly and finally sees them leave a little after noon. Mary and Dolly blow each other kisses, and Dolly blows kisses at the male customers too, as Beau pulls her out of sight.
When Mary comes home from work that afternoon, Beau and Dolly aren’t there yet, so she cleans up their left-over breakfast, makes chicken salad with toddler-sized grapes and flips through the fluff that Aunt Trixie has left—the latest edition of Entertainment Weekly, a stack of racing forms and a pamphlet for a jazz residency program—before getting into the shower. As the water cascades over her head, Mary imagines herself at an audition laying down the beginning melody of Donna Lee as the bored expressions of men taking notes turn to interest and, one by one, they leave their seats to join her, Bud Powell taking his seat at the piano, Tommy Potter standing up his bass, Max Roach, well, she avoids making eye contact with him given her history with drummers, and Miles Davis leaning against the wall with his trumpet, each of them finding his way into the groove at the perfect moment, while Charlie Parker watches and murmurs appreciatively, then the Marsalis family appears and shadows the earlier all-stars before they recede, and, when she floats the final note, they not only accept her for the residency but offer her a scholarship with free room and board for her and Dolly… Dolly… Where is Dolly, she wonders with a start when she is out on the balcony air-drying her hair and sees that even though the late afternoon haze has turned to dusk, Beau and Dolly are still not home.
Mary leaves to look for them, walking briskly to the small playground around the corner, but they aren’t there, and on to the huge Joan of Arc statue a few blocks away, but they aren’t there either, then breaking into a run toward the park along the river where Dolly has told her there is a carnival. Soon she sees it swelling up to meet her, colorful canvas canopies appearing like phantasmagoric foothills, a rickety roller coaster rising above them, tourists and teenagers thronging around her, as canned calliope crams her cranium. She passes by the concession stands as hawkers hawk, balloons burst and children cry, but there is no sign of Dolly, not there, not riding a pink motorcycle on the merry-go-round or careening downhill on that rickety roller coaster, not watching the creepy juggler who may not even work for the carnival, not anywhere in the chaotic cacophony. When Mary shows a photo of Dolly to the security guards, one of them says he saw her with a junkie, but the guy’s ID matched the tag sewn into the little girl’s dress, so he couldn’t do anything about it; he tells Mary she might want to look in the park a little farther downriver.
Before long, Mary has left behind the Quarter and the carnival and is closing in on the canal, clinging to the street-side of the park where streetlights illuminate her way and diffuse some of the murkiness between her and the river as she strains to see Dolly, Beau and Dolly, a group that Beau and Dolly might be a part of, junkies and a toddler. But the night is thick and inscrutable, and, she realizes, silent. Mary tells God that if he ever intends to reveal himself to her, now is the time, but she will not bargain with him because she has already given up enough. She is startled when a golf cart pulls up alongside her, and it is the security guard “Joe,” according to the perfect cursive stitching on the left pocket of his shirt. He tells her to get in; they have Dolly back at the carnival.
When Joe drops off Mary and Dolly in front of the patisserie, Camille is standing there with Mary’s saxophone and says that an outdoor concert is about to start by the French Market; Camille refuses to take Mary’s no for an answer. They walk the short distance to a stage that’s been set up and slide into seats just as Jason M’s quartet is finishing its first number. “Now, we’re going to play an old Creole lullaby and put these little ones to sleep, because I have a story to tell the grown-ups.” The band plays an especially sweet version of Fais Do Do, Dolly falls asleep on Mary’s shoulder and Jason, surveying the scene and looking satisfied says, “This, my friends, is the soundtrack of a woman’s life, not as she planned it but as it played out.” He begins alone under a spotlight on the otherwise darkened stage, singing Nina Simone’s Baltimore, then motions for the lights to come up; he joins the band in O G D (Road Song), lands on The Sunny Side of the Street, coos A Kiss to Build a Dream On, segues into Careless Love, and Donna Jean, momentarily brightens the mood with Hello Dolly, brings it back down with a soul-wrenching Abandon, and Basin St. Blues, and Buddy Bolden’s Blues, buckets of bayou blues, before saying “We need some sax. Come on up here, Mary B.”
Camille has already taken Dolly off Mary’s shoulder and slid the sax onto her lap, and Jason pulls her up on the stage and calls one tune after another that just can’t be played without sax. Mary sees Dolly marching on her chair and clapping clamorously while Camille makes sure she doesn’t crater; Mrs. Barbeau is there too, with Chef, Charlie Parker’s All Stars, the Marsalis family—even Jason who she thought was on stage with her, and Aunt Trixie. She also thinks she sees the Marianists, the Ursulines, her mother and Beau, backlit by the moon.
When Jason tells Mary to call the encore, she chooses Interlude (Night in Tunisia). For the first time ever, Mary sings, then she solos on her sax, conjuring moonlight and midnight and magic. And release. And peace. As she walks home after taking her final bow, she can faintly hear an especially mournful version of Just A Closer Walk With Thee in the otherwise silent night.
© Bridget Rohde
Born in Baltimore, Maryland and living in Brooklyn, New York, Bridget Rohde is a lawyer who has worked as a criminal defense attorney and a federal prosecutor, including as Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She has had legal writing published in the New York Law Journal and Law360, among other publications. During the pandemic, she focused on writing fiction.