June Fourth, 1920
Dear Hadley Porter,
I thank you for your open support of me and my family. Your leniency with our rent as you know has been a leading factor in our persistence as we struggle in our hopes to create a small business. From the start of our time as partners in this financial trade you have been looking out for all my children and I know they have come to see you as a figure they look up to. That is why it brings me great sorrow to inform you that it has come to that time where we must depart. With Emmanuel and William both now at a suitable age for university we set our sights on cities where they might thrive as black men. And of course little Luce is no longer little and now a young woman. I hope to find her a suitable man of a reasonable background and I fear all we have here is family. So with a sad goodbye but the idea of new horizons we must leave this grey city to one of more light and opportunity. I have left this month’s rent enclosed in this envelope. I hope it finds you well.
Forever your friend,
Valentine is not my mother’s real name and Luce isn’t mine. I can’t remember the exact age when she started calling me that but it was around the same time her relationship with my father, Ezekiel, started to wane. The same age my brothers’ names were also replaced with the Shakespearean titles of our new life. A time when we were only home on weekends and the rest of the time she kept us hunkered down in a dingy apartment two blocks away from the small house she was renting from Mr. Porter. I always wondered why we couldn’t stay with my father and his new baby or in that little house on Towns Road but both my questions were answered on the same day. The day the police came to our family house looking for our uncle. The same day we went to our little rental to find the windows broken.
It was the break of dawn and my mother had received a call that triggered her to hastily venture down from our loft, her children in tow. She had hid us in the bushes when she entered the house. She came out a few minutes later, her left hand clutched around a few shiny beads that clinked as they rattled together in her fist. There were four and I remember her looking down at them in her palm and looking each of us in the eye, she didn’t have to say anything, it seemed my brothers understood. They were fifteen and sixteen at the time but I was just twelve, I had no idea what was going on.
That day was one of the more fun days I can remember. The sun was still rising when she took us to one of the black diners nearby for breakfast, she said we would need the energy. For the rest of the morning, in the hot sun, she had us sweep and pick up any last shards of glass while she installed new window panes. Towns Street was relatively quiet but every time she heard a car in the distance she would hurry us around back until it passed. By the end of the day the house looked better than before and Mr. Porter never found out what had happened.
That night in our apartment my mother refused to open the windows and I was left in a sweltering heat. I couldn’t tell if it was sweat or tears dripping down my face because the day had taken a turn for the worse and my mother wouldn’t stop urgently whispering to someone on the other side of her call. She was stressing me out and I couldn’t sleep with her constant voice so I went and found William who said she was upset because she couldn’t find her brother, our uncle.
Now seven years later I know everything, and I understand it all. Seven years later and our unplanned move out of Boston to New York was promoted by one call, one glimmer of hope that maybe my mother might be reunited with her brother and the prospect of faster and better money.
I knew she was sad to leave our gloomy neighbourhood and restless parks and I knew she was even more sad to leave Mr. Porter, for they had formed a real friendship, and though she could never tell him of our real comings and goings out of his rental house, I always assumed he knew. Somewhere along the line he might have stumbled across the house with dim lights lit in the windows during the witching hour or maybe he noticed that one week when a group of men were staked outside the house day after day. Either way, he never questioned us and never pried for information because he, too, also cared for us like his own. Our favourite days were those when my mother left us to spend a few fleeting hours with him while she “took care of some business”. I didn’t want to leave him and it hurt me to leave Boston but I hadn’t talked to my father for years. I couldn’t go back to him. I was raised by my mother and her ideals, follow family, so that’s what I do.
June Sixth, 1920
As your daughter I feel it is my duty to alert you of our departure from Boston. For your sons, my mother hopes they will be able to continue their education in New York. They have their sights on many schools tailored for the black men of America and the hope for the advancement of our people. My mother will be taking them to the city and settling down in order to stay close to them. As you know she has always had a strong attachment to the boys and would never imagine leaving their side. As for me, I am a legal adult and while I do have the ability to stay here I assume you wouldn’t take me back in after my years away. I understand the risk it would pose for the rest of your family, your mother and your son. I hope they are both in good health. I wish grandmother many more years and I don’t doubt Lawrence is growing up to be a fine young boy. As for you, I haven’t talked to you for a long time so I don’t know what your life has held recently. I can only hope that you are still writing to the city council, reaching for our rights as black people in this country. I can’t say I am doing the same, I am at a crossroads, deciding whether I should continue down this road of crime or try to be like you. I hope you know you have been an inspiration to me, even though I never got the chance to show it. I don’t know if this will get to you but if it does know that I will miss having you close.
When we got to New York it was much as expected. Narrow streets and alleyways forever damp by rain. Ripped awnings and candles in windows ready to tip, threatening to lace the city in flames. By the time we got to Harlem my shoes were digging into the heels of my feet and rubbing my skin raw. Every other step was a struggle and I looked like a deer just learning how to walk compared to my mother who still carried herself with poise and excitement. Emmanuel’s hat was half off his head and William’s suit was splattered in the brown street water of New York.
When you convince yourself that something is impossible and untrue to the point where you believe it’s impossible even though you don’t know the truth, it comes as quite a shock when you find said idea to be reality. A block away from our new apartment my mother started to speed up to the point where I was skipping to keep up. The closer we got to our promised new home the more her smile grew. I was still sceptical, unsure whether we were following a lie or if he could really be here. My pessimistic views were shattered when my mother’s short trots turned into a desperate sprint, leaving the three of us behind. I brought my eyes up from tracing the cracks on the ground and saw the same man who disappeared seven years ago. My mother let out a shriek and jumped into his arms and I looked at my brothers’ on either side of me wondering if I would ever be that happy to see them.
One by one he took us in brief hugs. Uncle Richard didn’t sound right when it came out of my mouth to thank him. He was never my uncle, nothing more than a man who happened to live with us. Nothing more than a man who was always at those midnight meetings and “taking care of business” with my mother. Still, I was grateful for the quiet real new home that I stood outside of. It was thin, it’s walls intertwined with the surrounding buildings as they snaked up the sky along with the blossoming trees. Entering that house that day would be one of the only times I felt comfortable there. As quickly as we picked up and left Boston, our new life in New York started. The crime scene in this city was more treacherous than the one at home and our safe house became a rare place of our ventures. With the feeling of eyes on our back every waking and sleeping moment, we avoided the nice house at all costs, afraid we would bring home unwanted demons. Our beds became floors of generous partners and the streets became our living room, school and workplace.
Two weeks in and I had discovered a whole world obscured from my vision by my own mother. The Spade family of Boston spread much wider than I once thought. A small family of crime morphed into a gang widespread in New York. At one point collaborating with the Monroe family who was already an established drug dealing group, created a fancy network of crossing webs and paths. The Spade-Monroe Gang dominated pockets of Harlem and outstretched its reach to the whole of Manhattan. Running the numbers and dealing drugs, the life of thrill became bigger than my being and any thoughts of leaving left my head. There was no way out and the only way in was to bear one of the esteemed names or years of trust built up to the point where names didn’t define family.
July Twenty-First, 1920
Dear Valentine Spade and family,
I have received your money and it is safely deposited. I thank you for that. The last time I had renters leave off in the night they didn’t leave a penny and in my old age I was too tired to search them out. It should come as no surprise to you that I am saddened by your abrupt move. While I do understand your eagerness to leave this city, I wish I could have said goodbye. I will miss the little ones that are no longer so small. Emmanuel, William and Luce have all grown up into wonderful young adults and I am sure they will all find their way in the world, doing whatever they would like. As for you Mrs. Spade, you did puzzle me. You had more perseverance than anyone I had ever met and the stories you told me of your life before you made this family had me pondering how someone could overcome so many hardships and keep going. As much as the kids looked up to me, I looked up to all of you. Please, do let me know if you are ever in town again, I would like to see you all before my days come to an end. Stay out of trouble in your new home.
The distribution of drugs was led by Liam Monroe, eldest son of recently passed Cal Monroe, the original establisher of the gang. In the start they had avoided dealing within the black community, not wanting to damage their own people, but as the years went on and drugs became in higher demand in their own homes they started to give in. The illegal lottery was headed up by my mother’s brother, with her, his close second. The money from our side of the gang was spent on drugs resold for more, circling back to us so we each got our fair share. Emmanuel and William tagged along with my mother and uncle, hidden in the shadows, lurking and watching their backs as Richard and Mother roamed the streets. My job was hidden in my head, and walking down the street no one would have suspected a young girl to be capable of it, the most powerful numbers runner because of one small offset in my brain.
My job wasn’t new, I had been appointed to said job at the age of ten before I even knew it. It was all a game to me, a game that my mother and I played. She would come home at night to our small apartment and sit me down, read out a string of numbers, pausing in between sets, filling my brain with meaningless combinations that meant nothing to me. Yet, without a doubt, the next morning the numbers would still be as clear as day. Sometimes she would take them from me that coming morning or wait days to extract them from my head again. The game was still a game but at nineteen I knew the rules. The more numbers I held, the higher my cut, and I was crowned champion. Competing against Henry Spade, a cousin I didn’t even know I had. He was a man and therefore allowed out to collect numbers himself, while I was hidden away, patiently awaiting my fix for the day.
A few times I convinced my uncle to take me out but the third time I travelled the night streets stray bullets flew in our direction and he forbade me from collecting, even with a chaperone. That night we screamed in one of the shared apartments. I said that bullets hurt men the same as they hurt women and therefore there was no reason for me to be locked up. There were only two women in the gang and it wasn’t a good look to have one half of them under house arrest. Richard said that I needed to be protected and tapped me on the head, I promptly slapped his hand away and shouted once again. After that Richard was no longer the one bringing me numbers.
After a month I got physically sick of being in a stuffy house, only seeing the light of day when they moved my location. Nights dragged on and on and the few minutes of peace when someone would feed number combinations through their dull voice were fleeting and became less of a relief as my brain gained space to hold more. The numbers of my youth, eleven combinations, were no longer enough to satisfy my urge of remembering. Twelve combinations of anywhere from three to six numbers was all Henry could remember. A month in solitude and I could remember seventeen, in crystal clear sound and pictures. The number line in my mind had doubled and each combination took a different colour of the rainbow, some of them the same but a different shade. All of this and I was still locked up.