Sunday Pages: "Mary Jane"
An excerpt from a new novel by Jessica Anya Blau
Here’s what happened this past week: There was a deadly heat wave in the left half of the country, with temperatures into the hundreds and severe drought. Meanwhile, the subway system of the largest city in the right half was underwater. In the South, the ICUs were filling up with the unvaccinated-by-choice, as the Delta variant wreaks havoc. One of our two political parties won’t admit the January 6 besieging was a big deal, let alone that climate change is real. And Team USA, featuring all-time greats Kevin Durant and Dame Lillard, lost to Nigeria in a basketball game.
Yeah, things have a decidedly Book of Revelation sort of feel. All that’s missing is the Whore of Babylon—although we did get Kimberly Guilfoyle at CPAC, so maybe it’s a wash.
At any rate, I’m content to pass the baton this week to my brilliant and prolific friend Jessica Anya Blau. I featured her once before on “Sunday Pages,” calling her work “delightful,” a description the New York Times Book Review has purloined for its review of her new novel, Mary Jane. It’s the 1970s, it’s Baltimore, and the eponymous 14-year-old girl is the summer nanny for the daughter of a psychiatrist—who winds up spending the summer helping a rock star dry out.
Here’s what Nick Hornby had to say about it: “I LOVED Jessica Anya Blau’s novel. Mary Jane is about an oppressed teenager being given a jolt of life and joy by an eccentric found family of therapists, a child, a rock star and a movie star in the 1970s....If you have ever sung along to a hit on the radio, in any decade, then you will devour Mary Jane at 45rpm.”
So let us leave sort-of-post-pandemic 2021 and go back in time, to the halcyon days when crooked presidents had the wherewithal to resign, and rock stars still mattered…
MARY JANE by Jessica Anya Blau
Mrs. Cone showed me around the house. I wanted to stop at every turn and examine the things that were stacked and heaped in places they didn’t belong: books teetering on a burner on the stove, a coffee cup on a shoebox in the entrance hall, a copper Buddha on the radiator, a pink blow-up pool raft in the center of the living room. I had just turned fourteen, it was 1975, and my ideas about homes, furniture, and cleanliness ran straight into me like an umbilical cord from my mother. As Mrs. Cone used her bare foot (toenails painted a glittering red) to kick aside a stack of sweaters on the steps, I felt a jolt of wonder. Did people really live like this? I suppose I knew that they did somewhere in the world. But I never expected to find a home like this in our neighborhood, Roland Park, which my mother claimed was the finest neighborhood in Baltimore.
On the second floor all but one of the dark wood doors were open. The bottom half of the single closed door was plastered with IMPEACHMENT: Now More Than Ever bumper stickers and a masking-taped poster of Snoopy dancing, nose in the air. Everything was slightly angled, as if placed there by a drunk on his knees.
“This is Izzy’s room.” Mrs. Cone opened the door and I followed her past Snoopy into a space that looked like it had been attacked by a cannon that shot out toys. An Etch A Sketch; Operation game board; Legos; paper doll books; Colorforms box and stickies; Richard Scarry books; and a heap of molded plastic horses: No surface was uncovered. I wondered if Izzy, or her mother, swept an arm across the bed at night, pushing everything to the floor.
“Izzy.” I smiled. Our neighbor, Mrs. Riley, had told me her name was Isabelle. But I liked Izzy better, the way it fizzed on my tongue. I didn’t know anyone named Izzy, or Isabelle. I’d never even met Izzy Cone. But through the recommendation of Mrs. Riley, and after a phone call with Mrs. Cone, I’d been hired as the summer nanny. I had thought the phone call was going to be an interview, but really Mrs. Cone just told me about Izzy. “She doesn’t like to play with kids her own age. I don’t think she’s interested in what other five-year-olds do. Really, she only wants to hang out with me all day,” Mrs. Cone had said. “Which is usually fine, but I’ve got other stuff going on this summer, so . . .” Mrs. Cone had paused then and I’d wondered if I was supposed to tell her that I’d take the job, or was I to wait for her to officially offer it to me?
A five-year-old who only wanted to hang out with her mother was someone I understood. I, too, had been a girl who only wanted to hang out with her mother. I was still happy helping my mother with the chores in the house, sitting beside her and reading, or grocery shopping with her, searching out the best bell peppers or the best cut of meat. When I did have to socialize with kids my age—like at the sleepovers to which every girl in the class had been invited—I felt like I was from another country. How did girls know what to whisper about? Why were they all thinking about the same things? Depending on the year, it could be Barbies, dress-up, boys, hairstyles, lip gloss, or Teen Beat magazine, none of which interested me. I had no real friends until middle school, when the Kellogg twins moved to Baltimore from Albany, New York. They, too, looked like they didn’t know the customs and rituals of girlhood. They, too, were happy to spend an afternoon by the record player listening to the Pippin soundtrack; or playing the piano and singing multilayered baroque songs in melody, harmony, and bass; or watching reruns of The French Chef and then trying out one of the recipes; or even just making a simple dessert featured in Good Housekeeping magazine.
The more Mrs. Cone told me about Izzy on that phone call, the more I wanted to take care of her. All I could think was how much nicer it would be to spend my summer looking after a little girl who had no friends than going to our country club pool and being the girl who had no friends. I barely listened when Mrs. Cone told me how much they’d pay. The money felt like a bonus. Before the call had ended, I’d decided I’d save everything I earned and then buy my own record player at the end of the summer. One I could keep in my room; maybe it would even have separate speakers. If there was enough money left over, I’d buy a radio so I could listen to American Top 40: the songs from the records that my mother would never let me buy.
Downstairs I could hear the front door open and then slam shut. Mrs. Cone froze, listening, her ear tilted toward the doorway. “Richard?” she called out. “Richard! We’re up here!” My stomach clenched at the idea that Dr. Cone would ask me to call him Richard. Mrs. Cone had told me to call her Bonnie, but I couldn’t. Even in my head I thought of her as Mrs. Cone, though, really, she didn’t look like a Mrs. Anything to me. Mrs. Cone’s hair was long, red, and shiny. She had freckles all over her face and her lips were waxy with bright orange lipstick. Draped over her body was either a long silk blouse or a very short silk dress. The liquid-looking fabric swished against her skin, revealing the outline of her nipples. The only place I’d seen nipples like that was in posters of celebrities, or women in liquor ads. I’d never seen even a hint of my mother’s nipples; the couple of times I’d entered her bedroom when she was in her bra, it was like seeing breasts in beige armor.
“What?!” Dr. Cone yelled from the bottom of the stairs.
“Mommy!” Izzy yelled.
“Richard! Izzy! Come up!” It was more hollering than I’d ever heard in my own house. Once, just before bedtime, my mother had loudly said “Damn it!” when she’d stepped on a shard of glass from a plate I’d dropped in the kitchen earlier in the day. I had thought the world was about to cave in like a tarpaper shack being consumed by fire. It wasn’t only the words; I’d never seen my mother barefoot before. My eyes must have been bugging out of my head as I watched her pull the shard from her heel.
“Mary Jane,” my mom had said, “go upstairs and fetch my slippers so I can mop this floor the right way.” She had stood over my shoulder and supervised when I had mopped up after breaking the plate. Obviously, I hadn’t done a good job.
“Why are you barefoot?” I asked.
My mother only said, “This is why we should never be barefoot. Now go get the slippers.”
“You come down!” Dr. Cone yelled up the stairs. “Izzy made something!”
“I made something!” Izzy yelled.
“Mary Jane is here!” Mrs. Cone yelled back.
“Who?” Dr. Cone shouted.
“MARY JANE! The summer nanny!” I smiled nervously. Did Dr. Cone know I had been hired to work in his house? And how much hollering could go on before someone moved closer to the other person?
“Mary Jane!” Izzy’s feet made a muted thunk thunk thunk as she ran up the stairs and into the bedroom. She had a face from a Victorian Valentine’s card and the energy of a ball of lightning. I liked her already. I bounced back and received the hug.
“She’s been so excited for you to get here,” Mrs. Cone said.
“Hey. So good to meet you!” I ran my fingers through Izzy’s coppery-red curls, which were half knotted.
“I made something!” Izzy turned from me and hugged her mother.
“It’s downstairs.” Dr. Cone appeared in the doorway.
“Mary Jane! I’m Richard.” He stuck out his hand and shook mine, like I was a grown-up. My mother thought it was nice that I’d be working for a doctor and his wife for the summer. She said that a house with a doctor was a respectable house. The outside of the Cones’ house certainly looked respectable; it was a rambling shingled home with blue shutters on every window. The landscaping was a little shabby (there were dirt patches on the lawn and half the hedges were dead and looked like the scraggly arms of starving children), but still, my mother never would have guessed at the piles of things lining the steps or strewn down the hall or exploded around the room where we stood just then.
And my mother also never would have imagined the long sideburns Dr. Cone had. Tufty, goaty things that crawled down his face. The hair on his head looked like it had never been combed—just a messy swirl of brown this way and that. My own father had a smooth helmet of hair that he carefully combed to the side. I’d never seen a whisker or even a five o’clock shadow on his face. No human under forty would have ever called my father anything but Mr. Dillard.
If my father knew I was working for a doctor’s family, he would have approved. But he didn’t pay much attention to matters concerning me. Or concerning anyone, really. Each night, he came home from work, settled into his chair by the living room window, and read the Evening Sun until my mother announced that dinner was ready, at which point he moved into the dining room, where he sat at the head of the table. Unless we had a guest, which was rare, he continued to read the paper while Mom and I talked. Every now and then my mother would try to include him in the conversation by saying something like “Gerald, did you hear that? Mary Jane’s English teacher, Miss Hazen, had a poem published in a magazine! Can you imagine?”
Sometimes my dad responded with a nod. Sometimes he said things like That’s nice or Well, I’ll be. Most often he just kept on reading as if no one had said a word.
When Dr. Cone stepped deeper into the room and kissed Mrs. Cone on the lips, I almost fainted. Their bodies were pressed together, their heads only an inch apart after the kiss as they whispered to each other. I would have listened in, but I couldn’t because Izzy was talking to me, pulling my hand, picking up things from the floor and explaining them to me as if I’d grown up in Siberia and had never seen American toys. Of Legos she said, “You click the blocks together and voilà!” Then she threw the blocks she had just coupled straight into the air. They landed, nearly invisible, in a heap of Fisher-Price circle-headed kids that lay beside their upside-down yellow school bus.
Dr. and Mrs. Cone continued talking, their mouths breathing the same thin slice of air, while Izzy explained the buzzer in Operation. The twins had Operation and I considered myself an expert. Izzy held the tweezers against the metal rim, purposefully setting off the electric hum. She laughed. Then she looked up at her parents and said, “Mom, you have to see what I made!” Dr. and Mrs. Cone snapped their heads toward Izzy at the exact same moment. Their bodies were still touching all the way up and down so that they were like a single two-headed being.
Izzy led the charge down the stairs, almost tripping over a cactus in a ceramic pot. Mrs. Cone was behind her, I followed Mrs. Cone, and Dr. Cone was behind me, talking the whole way. They had to get going on the third floor. They needed a better mattress on the bed, and they’d need better lighting, too. It could be a very comfortable guest suite.
As we entered the living room, Mrs. Cone picked up the inflated raft and sailed it into the dining room. It hit the long junk-covered table and then fell silently to the floor. The four of us assembled in front of the coffee table, which was covered with books, magazines, and a package of Fig Newton cookies that looked like it had been ripped open by a wolf. Beside the Fig Newtons, on top of a teetering pile of paperbacks, stood a lumpy papier-mâché lighthouse. It rose about three feet high and curved to the right.
“That’s beautiful,” I said. “Is it a lighthouse?” Mrs. Cone leaned to one side to get a better look.
“Yes! On the Chesapeake Bay!” Izzy had been at a sailing-and-craft camp down at the Inner Harbor. Today was her last day. Mrs. Cone had mentioned the camp in our introductory phone call. She described it as “a bunch of bratty private school kids who think nothing of excluding Izzy from every game.”
“It’s magnificent,” Mrs. Cone finally said. She picked up the lighthouse and went to the fireplace. On the mantel were more books, wineglasses, bongos that appeared to be made of ceramic and animal hide, and what I thought was a ukulele but was maybe some other kind of stringed instrument. She set the lighthouse on top of the books.
“Perfect,” Dr. Cone said.
“Sort of looks like a giant dildo.” Mrs. Cone said this quietly, maybe so Izzy couldn’t hear. I had no idea what a dildo was. I glanced at Dr. Cone. He seemed to be holding in a laugh.
“I love it!” Izzy took my hand and pulled me back upstairs. Maybe her instinct was right and I was like a visitor from Siberia. I had never met anyone like Dr. and Mrs. Cone. And I’d never been in a house where every space was crammed with things to look at or think about (could it be that all messes weren’t evil and didn’t need to be banished with such efficiency?). I’d felt instantaneous affection for Izzy and was happy that I was to be her nanny. But I was happy for other things too: that I’d be doing something I’d never done before, that my days would be spent in a world that was so different to me that I could feel a sheen of anticipation on my skin. Already, I didn’t want the summer to end.
Jessica Anya Blau was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. Her novels have been featured on The Today Show, CNN and NPR, and in Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Bust, Time Out, and other national publications. Jessica's short stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. Jessica co-wrote the script for Love on the Run starring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey. She has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and The Fashion Institute of Technology. Currently, Jessica divides her time between Baltimore and New York.