The newlyweds were in Chicago only three weeks before Mason announced that blues musicians were a dime a dozen and New York Jazz was where it’s at. Mary stood bravely as he kissed her goodbye, promising to send for her when he got settled, and then Mason walked out the door headed to New York City. His aunt Liz and Uncle Ike dried Mary’s tears and assured her he’d be back. Mary felt in her heart this was the beginning of the price of Job.
Chicago heat was different than Mississippi heat. Instead of baking, you drowned in it, you suffocated in it, you died from it; and Mary hated the heat, the noise, the smog, the stink; and the rats were something out of her worst nightmares. And the Cordova building with its dark bricks and shaded courtyard — Mary felt the giant old tenement looked like a castle or a factory from a movie. But after Mason left, she shared a room with four of his cousins in a crowded apartment in that building.
During the day, to earn her keep, Mary took over housekeeping and minding Aunt Liz’s two youngest daughters…and told herself she wasn’t being a maid and a mammy. And at night she’d go up on the roof, write postcards home, read letters from Mason, and look down on the city lights and up at the stars and wonder how she got there.
At first, Mary heard from Mason every week, sometimes twice; always lamenting the struggle to find steady work in the many jazz clubs in New York. When he finally found a gig in a club in Harlem, the letters came less frequently, but he sent pictures of himself with Dudley Emmons and the Uptown Jazz Marvels.
In March of 1936, on the table in Aunt Liz’s kitchen, Mary welcomed Mason Carter Junior into the world. The tiny boy with the angry face looked just like her papa; and even as she fell in love with her newborn, Mary’s heart ached a little whenever she looked at him.
It was a chilly day in April when Mason’s band came to town for a four-week gig opening for Cab Calloway at the Regal Theater, and after the first show, Mary vowed to never attend another one. She just didn’t have the glamour of the women who followed the band. Mason promptly took a week’s salary and bought Mary a sparkly black dress, and a slinky gold dress, and a red dress with fringes that wiggled when she walked; and the next time she stepped backstage, the whole band whistled and Cab Calloway himself kissed her hand.
While Aunt Liz watched the baby, Mary spent every night in the front row; and after the show, she’d go to a local club and sit on Mason’s lap and watch the jam sessions. If somebody handed her a whiskey, she’d sip it, and if somebody handed her a reefa, she’d smoke it, and if Mason wanted a kiss, she’d give him one right there in front of everybody. With Mason and his music, this was the high life he’d promised her and when the Chicago gig was over, Mary was ready to hit New York.
“Now Mary, Harlem ain’t no place for a country girl like you!”
“But Mason, you promised!” Mary stamped her foot. “You promised and then you left me here for almost a whole year. My papa told me—”!
“Oh, here we go again! Well, my mama is a maid and ain’t no shame in that! As soon as I get enough money, I’m’a get us a nice—!”
“No! I’m not waiting another minute! Either I’m goin’ with you or me and the babies goin’ back to Mississippi!”
“Aw woman, stop talkin’ crazy, you ain’t…wait…what…babies?”
“Yes, Mason” Mary sighed. “I think I’m having another baby.”
Mason ran his hands through his hair and paced the rooftop. He pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and offered one to Mary. She accepted and lit it off of his.
“Are you sure?” Mason asked.
“But when? I just got here…?”
“What the hell you tryin’ to say, Mason Carter?” Mary snapped. “I been waiting for you for all this time, and you didn’t ‘just get here,’ you been here for over a month! I know why you don’t want me to come! You probably the one two-timing…got some hussy up in Harlem while I’m here having yo’ baby and you out with the reefa and the liquor—!”
Mary’s rant was cut short by Mason’s kiss and her ire was further quelled when he wrapped his arms around her and held her until she forgot her anger. “Please Mason” Mary begged. “I don’t wanna go back home. Take us with you.”
Even though the heat seemed worse than Chicago, Mary loved almost everything about life in Harlem. She kept their three bedroom apartment spotless and hardly ever saw any roaches. She kept the windows open to let in the light and the street music. Some nights, she’d go to the club and listen to the band; and when she got too big to go to the club, Mason would bring the band home and they would jam until the morning.
Baby Rose came in February, and in April, Mason stormed out of the apartment when Mary told him another baby was on the way. They named the twin boys Charles and Peter after their fathers.
At nineteen years old, with four small children, Mary grew a sharp tongue and a short temper. She would never say Mason abandoned her because he provided well, but after he joined a new band that paid more, he travelled a lot, leaving her alone for weeks at a time. There were rumors of other women and whenever Mary caught him at the club with a floozy, she cussed him out and told him to never come home. Of course, he brought gifts and tried to remind Mary they were still married. Sometimes she’d let him stay, other times she’d send him packing, but in the end, they always made up, and Mary prayed for no more babies.
It was during one of these fights that Mason Jr. got the fever. Miz Cleo from upstairs said it was measles and would pass in a week or so; and sure enough, the four-year-old broke out in a brownish rash and lay shivering while Mary pressed cold towels to his head. When the coughing and wheezing started, the poor boy thrashed about so much, Mary had to lay beside him to keep him safe.
As the fever continued for the third week, and the boy grew weaker, Mary cursed her husband and called on God, something she hadn’t done since she left Mississippi. When her baby looked at her with unseeing eyes, she took to her knees, promising to never sin again. And when four-year-old Mason Carter Jr. wheezed his last breath, Mary climbed in bed beside her first born to keep him warm; and three-year-old Rosie told the old man next door that mommy won’t talk and Mase’ won’t wake up.
Mason Sr. came home a day after the burial and Mary slapped him. She slapped him and spit on him and kicked him and cussed him and damned him to hell for leaving her to bury their child alone. And her husband held her and loved her and promised her another son; and showed her a tin with a needle, a spoon, and brown powder and told her it would make the hurt go away.
“Mason, I don’t want no dope.”
“Aw girl, what you think reefa is?”
“Well, this all the dope I want then.” Mary said, taking a deep drag on the tiny pungent cigarette. “I ain’t puttin’ no needles in me.”
“I’ll do it for you. It don’t even hurt.”
Mary looked into her husband’s sleepy, bloodshot eyes. “I said ‘no’.” She crushed out her cigarette and kissed him before he could try harder to convince her. He would be leaving for a four-week gig in a few days and Mary wasn’t about to waste a minute of their time together.
A week after burying Mason Jr., Mary watched in horror as fevers and a brownish rash appeared on Rose and two-year-old Charles and Peter. She stayed up around the clock, bathing all three children in cool water at once, keeping them beside her at all times, begging the club to find Mason…sending telegrams to her mother.
In the third week of the fever, Miz Cleo visited with candles and tea and medicine. “This is Sulfa Elixir.” Miz Cleo had said. “It’s for fevers and sore throat and stuff. My daughter didn’t need it but maybe you might use it. A little spoon every few hours, it says.” Mary hugged the older woman and rested for an hour before Rosie’s convulsions woke her.
Her vision blurred by tears, Mary gave all of her children medicine and screamed to the heavens. She ran to her closet and pulled out all of the shiny dresses and stomped on them. In the kitchen, she poured all the liquor down the drain. She tore open a flour sack and tied it on as a dress and emptied the contents on every ashtray in the apartment on her own head. She tore out her hair and scratched herself until she bled, all the while begging God for mercy.
By sunrise Rosie was cold. She never touched Charles or Peter.
Mary sat smoking a cigarette and watching her husband’s face. She wished she could comfort him, but she’d nursed and buried four babies alone. He would hafta handle the news like a man.
He opened his arms to her, his lips moving soundlessly.
Mary slowly shook her head.
He dropped to his knees, laying his head on her lap.
She pushed him away.
Mason got to his feet and staggered around the living room then down the hall. Mary heard him enter the children’s bedroom and cry out.
She wished she could cry with him, but she had no tears left.
Two hours later, Mary opened the children’s bedroom door to find her husband on the floor beside a small bed; a needle still sticking out of his arm, a brown mosaic of dried blood pooled under his elbow.
She closed the door.
No tears left.
The price of Job had been paid.
It was time to go home.