For the third Saturday night in a row, May woke to the lifeless, tin-can sound of “Happy Days are Here Again” from the local Mummers string band marching down her street. Behind sepia-toned eyelids she tried to picture dark men in pinstriped suits dancing, white smiles glinting in the sunlight, brass instruments and umbrellas bobbing in time. A smile started and quickly faded with a sour chord. This music wasn’t so sweet. She opened her eyes and peered out the window in time to see Irish men marching down Two Street, their friends trailing with pitchers of beer. Some days, she thought, you need a passport to come to this part of South Philly.
They were all practicing for the upcoming Mummers’ parade New Years Day, a bizarre local custom May didn’t understand where more than ten thousand people, mostly drunken men, get dressed up and dance down Broad Street. She had been hearing about it since she moved to Philly four months earlier. People she met in Philly swore she would love it, they swore it was just like Mardi Gras. May was certain that anyone who said that had never really been to Mardi Gras.
She had to sleep. She had to be up early to work the brunch shift. Already her back and feet felt like they had aged twice as fast as the rest of her. May got out of bed and went into the bathroom to retrieve the heavy-duty moisturizer. She sat at the edge of her bed and bent over till her tight brown curls touched the hardwood floor. She wrangled her hair into a headscarf and sighed. Her skin was ashy in this northern winter. Her hands cracked from bussing her own tables. She began to massage her feet and listen to the slow fade of the cheerless tune outside her window.
It had been only months since her life was swept to sea. Since Katrina came and ate her everything. May made her way slowly up north. To the cold, to find the only remnants of her family—Aunt Louise, her father’s sister, who left home following some fine man when she was only seventeen. Now she had grey streaks in her thick braids and, standing tall on the stoop with her babies, and their babies, she welcomed May in from the rain.
The last of the racket turned the corner and May climbed back into bed to toss and turn for the rest of the night.
· · ·
The next Saturday night, alone in bed again, piled under blankets, cursing a lazy landlord and a cold December, May heard the off-kilter sound of “Oh ‘dem Golden Slippers,” like a child’s jewelry box with the mechanism dying, slowly winding its way towards her. Her hands curled into fists around the edges of the blankets. Her lips changed from their usual full rich brown pout to a tight thin white line scratched across her face. If my father could hear this, she thought, and threw the covers off and slammed her feet to the ground.
She threw on sweater upon sweater, several pairs of mismatched socks, and oversized cat slippers. The cacophony drew nearer at an alarmingly slow pace as she made her way down the four flights of rickety stairs to the street.
Arms crossed against her chest, she glared as jovial men in matching satin jackets passed by. Smiles wide in the wind, their eyes looked at her and twinkled. Mistaking her appearance for support, a few winked and played the tune with increasing enthusiasm. The family across the way cheered and toasted, with coffee mugs likely filled at least part way with whiskey. They beamed at May too. As the last row marched past, May’s shoulders relaxed. A lonely saxophone player with blonde hair scraping his collar passed by and the notes he played sparked a tiny smile. His eyes watched the ground and his own fingers. Her arms dropped to her sides, she remembered watching her daddy march along playing dirges en route to the cemeteries. This musician didn’t have her father’s boisterous mannerisms, but instead had a quiet nervous charm that made her watch his back march the rest of the way down the street. After he had rounded the corner she turned and drifted back upstairs, humming the tune.
That night the saxophone player weaved into dreams of water rising and May lost in the shadows. Again and again she reached out in the dark floods for a hand she had been holding.
· · ·
Days passed and, unable to escape the thoughts of the longhaired saxophone player and the dreams she always dreamt, she ran an errand to Harry’s Occult. The shop was not filled with posters of the goddess and sage smudge sticks in bright open rooms like the other stores she’d seen since moving to Philly. It was filled with dirty jars of spices and scents. Oils with foreign names, and cheap looking candles of every saint. All the workers there looked related, each a shadow lurking behind the counter, the whites of their eyes rimmed red. May swallowed, tucked her hands into the front pockets of her jeans. Her black curls were tied back away from her face, and she watched their reflections in the glass of the display cases. Suddenly so aware of her relative paleness, she kept her eyes downcast.
The day before, on the phone with Aunt Louise, she asked for a true Voodoo shop.
“Well child, I don’t know about that,” Louise said.
“Oh, now you play innocent,” May said. “I saw your trunk, at Thanksgiving, still stinking of incense, like a cheap priest in the old quarter.”
“Well, if I had to go somewhere,” Louise said, “I would go to a place on South Street I might have heard of. Place by the name of Harry’s. Isn’t much by the look of it, but you tell them you want to go in the back room, you’ll find what you need.”
“The back room? How do you know there is a back room if you are such a good Northern Christian?”
“Mayfair Parker, there is always a back room in places you shouldn’t be.”
· · ·
In the store, May’s aunt would have fit right in. Obsidian skin and deep-set eyes with lines etched around them that spoke of a woman who had been on both the right side and the wrong side of a few fights in her life.
The walls were crammed with beaded crosses, dead flowers, African masks, and scratched carvings of idols and men. She ran her hand slowly over the edges of skull candleholders from Mexico and cracked clay pots filled with course salt in odd colors. In the corner of the store was a curved mirror for surveillance and a bird skeleton peeking out from behind it. The bird had one glass eye, a cloudy marble, watching her.
May stepped lightly from one foot to another and chewed the corner of her lip, pretending to peruse incense holders. Finally a man slunk over to her.
“Can I help you?” His mouth barely moved and his accent was still thick from the small island where he was born.
“Nothing good out here,” May said, a Yat accent so thick she could barely understand herself. “Where you keep the real stuff for after the tourists leave?”
He looked her up and down, her mother’s light eyes, and chocolate freckles over coffee skin. “Where you from?”
“New Orleans.” He nodded, turned his back and went through the beaded curtain. May followed.
The back room was little more than a walk-in closet filled floor to ceiling with dust covered oddities and bits of broken prayers. May closed her eyes and smelled the room. She knew these people didn’t know Voodoo; they played at Santeria. She could smell the blood of chickens on their hands, stained into the cement floor. She looked down at the floor, and saw it was the only clean bit of the place, with a French drain in the center. Nothing gets rid of that smell, she thought, even after the stains fade from red to brown. No amount of water can wash away the scent of death.
May squared her shoulders and grabbed quickly from the shelves, loading her hands with old small bones from a Tupperware container and a jar of dirt with flecks of ash and sand in it. These items did not come from China. These might be the last relics shipped up here from Juju Marie or Louis Door, the last two spirituals in old New Orleans. May wiped absently at her cheek, expecting to find a tear, but in the end only smearing a bit of dust there.
For good measure she grabbed a Saint Anthony candle from the front of the store and then let the shadow man ring her up. He overcharged her by twenty percent, but May just handed him her hard-earned money.
· · ·
After the storm, May found a job quickly. The guilt of everyone’s failure still fresh in their minds, a Cajun place with a passable Po’ boy hired her on the spot. They loved her accent and put Mayfair on her nametag. She objected, saying only family called her anything but May. They said she was a little slice of the city herself, and didn’t bother to change the nametag.
May’s only thing close to a friend was a girl who worked lunch shifts with her named Hailey. She had straight blonde hair and green eyes that always looked suspicious. They stood out back of the restaurant between tables, smoked cigarettes and bitched about customers, small tips, and, of course, the cold.
“What did you do this weekend?” Hailey asked.
“Nothing. Watched reruns of some sitcom on TV, tried to sleep, was woken by those stupid Mummers again.”
“Oh I know. One of the troupes hangs out at the bar I’ve been pulling nights at.”
May found out that Hailey’s night job was only a few blocks from her apartment. She promised to drop by one night that weekend to check it out and keep her company for a few hours.
As they walked back inside May looked over and spotted two businessmen at a table against the wall. She ducked into the ladies’ room, locking the door behind her. She washed her hands and then leaned over the sink to splash water on her face. She dried off with a scratchy brown paper towel ripped from a roll next to her and watched the water swirl down the drain. She walked back out to the dining room with her shoulders back and perfect teeth gleaming.
While taking their drink orders she noticed the men were in near identical grey suits. One of them would have looked like a frog if it weren’t for thin-rimmed glasses he wore. The other had politician hair and a smile that never reached his eyes. By the time she got back with their diet Cokes the men were fidgety.
“What can I get for you two gentleman today?”
“You have a lovely accent, where are you from originally?” the frog asked. His friend nodded.
“New Orleans,” May said, the words one drawn out word that rhymed with darlin’.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Almost four months.” she said.
“Was it . . .” He trailed off, his friend still nodded.
May wove a tale for them of generic tragedy that could be true for any one of thousands of people that year. It wasn’t, however, true for her. She talked about a beloved dog, and a great roommate that never came out the other side of the storm. She talked about sickness and hunger, which were universal. She constructed it to let them feel close to the tragedy, but kept them far from the smell of rotting corpses.
May didn’t tell anyone her story, but dreamt it every night for the past four months. She was back home, water rising in the night. No sign of life, no signs of help. After twelve hours, May let her daddy’s fingers slip from her hand. The shadows so dark and the waters so deep, his body was gone while her outstretched fingers could still have touched his rigid hand. Every dream May was a shadow in the storm. Holding on tight to something that wasn’t there anymore.
Four months was a heartbeat, and she still cried when it rained.
· · ·
Saturday night, after the last musical notes faded, leaving her corner of the city to return to a soundtrack of sirens and stoop conversations, May made her way to see Hailey at the neighborhood bar. Walking in alone, she stood taller, eyes focused on Hailey standing behind the taps. There was a ripple in the crowd of slight confusion, as if they had never seen a black woman walk into there before. May thought they might not have in that part of town.
The place smelled like bar rot and cheap beer. Cigarette smoke hung like smog above their heads.
She took a seat by the taps, and Hailey popped open a Yuengling lager for her.
“I didn’t think you’d actually come out,” Hailey said.
“I needed to get out.” May looked around to find the bar was dingy and poorly lit. It looked like the last time it had been decorated was 1963, with a checkerboard linoleum floor that looked like it had last been swept about the same time. There were two dartboards being used exclusively by small crowds of pot-bellied men. There was a jukebox, its top covered in half empty plastic cups and overflowing ashtrays.
A few guys in their late twenties walked in and were greeted with a half dozen hellos from the crowd. They were scruffy, in denim and work boots. One of them was the saxophone player that May had seen the other night. He didn’t notice her as he walked by and eased himself onto the corner stool. As Hailey did her best to make small talk, Hailey turned on her stool to watch him out of corner of her eye.
“Did any friends come up to Philly with you?” Hailey dropped another beer bottle in front of May.
“What about family?” Hailey asked. Her voice held the slight tension of a person asking if that wire they are holding is live.
“My aunt was already living up here.” May began to peel the corner of the label off her bottle.
After that beer, May made her way to the bathroom. Along the route she found the saxophone player nursing a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon by himself. The crowd jostled and she brushed up against him. May muttered an apology and he gave a wide smile and a quick nod before turning back to his can of beer. She smiled back after he looked away.
In the bathroom May held her left hand out and counted three long dirty blonde hairs picked off his flannel. Leaning against the wall, she smiled, closed her eyes and sighed out a thank you.
· · ·
Christmas at Aunt Louise’s brought the smells of May’s gogo recipes drifting through the small row home. May relished the scents of her childhood Christmases from the living room with nearly twenty cousins and neighbors.
The table was laid out with every imaginable treat. Pork chops, crawfish, rabbit, chicken gumbo, and boudin sausage fresh from the Italian Market all took center stage to the baker’s dozen of vegetables and side dishes.
After dinner they traded gifts, May’s pile all sweaters, leggings, and heavy socks. She laughed and thanked everyone. Even neighbors had brought her gifts, having heard from Aunt Louise about the few hundred dollars she had come north with. Her cousins teased her about what a mild winter it was, as May tried to put on everything she had just been given for the short walk back to her little apartment.
Out the door, her smile lapsed and she trudged home through back alleys and thought about her father and all the Christmases back home.
When she got home she moved all of the furniture out of her bedroom into the hallway by herself, leaving only a picture of a dark man with a saxophone slung around his neck and his arm draped over a beautifully freckled red haired woman she’d been told was her mother. Mouths open in the photo, laughing or screaming or singing so hard, May felt like she could see them move.
Her daddy had told her that he met her mom leaving St. Augustine’s in Tremè. He was playing the saxophone in a jazz funeral for a dead junkie named Huck who had played the drums at a club in the Quarter. Half of the city had turned out to celebrate his music and his pain. May’s mother had been close with Huck; her daddy had never met him. They got drunk on the street that night as May’s mom told him crazy stories of her throwing everything Huck ever owned off the balcony of his apartment one night when he didn’t come home till dawn.
May pulled candles and chalk from a chest in her closet. She placed them around the room and sat in darkness, save the moonlight that streamed in between curtains. She began to braid the three long blonde hairs she had retrieved. It took a bit, working in moonlight, but when she was done, she lit the candles in an esoteric sequence and began to move like water between them. May was not herself, she was fluid, she was chanting. And focusing her energy she began to call out old prayers to lay the dead at peace.
· · ·
New Year’s Eve was crisp, and the sounds of the city reached in through closed windows. May headed down to see Hailey at the bar again. The atmosphere was different this time. A crowd of people flowed into the bar along with her, and she thought no one even noticed her. Everyone in paper crowns and Mardi-Gras beads hugged and sang with Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox about the glory days. May fought her way up to the bar and Hailey had a shot of cheap whiskey and a beer waiting for her. May smiled. Hailey laid out the same for herself and the girls cheered the New Year, and downed the shots.
May found the saxophone player to her right nursing a beer by himself, a sad smile played at his lips. Tradition had it that certain Mummer clubs would drink all night and all the next day, muscle memory the only thing letting them play in that prolonged stupor.
The bar counted backwards at the top of their lungs, and ushered 2006 in with screams of delight. Auld Lang Syne started up, and Hailey leaned across the bar to plant a kiss on May’s cheek. The saxophone player turned and wished May a happy New Year. May feigned drunkenness and placed her hand on his shoulder to steady herself. She fiddled with his long hair and he leaned in to give her a New Year’s kiss. His eyes half closed, wobbling on his seat, he didn’t feel her weave something into the bottom of his mane of hair.
· · ·
New Year’s Day was bitter and slow as May huddled beneath her blankets, watching the Mummers’ Parade on her small TV. Aunt Louise told May weeks ago that after the parade on TV there was a special parade in South Philly as the clubs all march down Two Street. Friends, family, neighbors in the street, cheering and singing, doing the Mummers’ Strut as each club played their way to the end of the makeshift route.
After the TV coverage ended, May made her way down to the beginning of the second parade. It was slow going, the sidewalks were so thick with joyous drunks. People spilled out into the road. She scanned the crowd for the twentieth time. The men were too small on her TV to see his face, so she had no idea what his club was dressed as. She finally saw her saxophone player lined up at the back of his band. All of them were dressed as giant playing cards; he was the Ace of Clubs. Slouched with the weight of the instrument, thirty pounds of cardboard and glitter, and twenty-four hours of beer, he put his lips to the mouthpiece. They began the opening notes of “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
May pulled a figure from her pocket. It was made of matchsticks and small dirty feathers, held together with bits of braided hair. There were crusty brown dots for eyes, and she flicked a lighter to its feet. The smell of burning hair and feathers hit her nostrils and in a flash of fire it was gone. May watched as a shudder shook the saxophone player from his long scraggily hair all the way down to the cement.
The saxophone player left formation. He began to move with the rhythm, suddenly finding his instrument and costume weightless. His notes rang louder and he wriggled like a fish upstream. He took the lead on the band, the saxophone becoming louder than all the other musicians combined. People were screaming and dancing, a sound that would wake the gods. He looked over at May and saw her. He winked, all smiles and light. May, reflected in the moonlight, began to dance. Her body broke free of the cold. She was warm; she was moving and singing out for that little piece of home.
The crowd sang out, “We are trav’ling in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before.” A wrinkled old man grabbed May’s open hand. He spun her once and sang, “And we’ll all be reunited, on a new and sunlit shore,” he pointed up.
May saw the first flakes of snow were floating on a small breeze. Eyes wide, she had never seen real snow. The flakes began to land on May’s face, and melting, they mixed flawlessly with her tears, and with the crowd she began to sing the refrain.
She sang to her father and she sang to her friends. She sang to a city lost beneath the tide. And in the cold northern night, she sang the long forgotten prayers to put the dead to rest, accompanied by the sharp loud ringing of a saxophone requiem playing just for her.
Patricia Mastricolo is a member of the editorial board of Philadelphia Stories.