On a morning like most, I sit beside Mama at the dining room table, eating my bowl of Sugar Frosted Flakes and watching her work. She’s on the telephone, its receiver in the crook of her neck as she records her customer’s three-digit bets in a spiral notebook, repeating each one. The crystal chandelier blazes above.
“Five-four-two for a quarter. Six-nine-three straight for fifty cents. Is this both races, Miss Queenie? Detroit and Pontiac? Okay. Three-eight-eight straight for a quarter. Uh-huh. Four-seven-five straight for fifty cents. One-ten boxed for a dollar.” Mama writes the numbers 110, draws a box around them, hesitates. “You know, I got customers been playing one-ten all week. Yeah, it’s a fancy number. Oh did you? What’d you dream? He was a hunchback? Is that what The Red Devil dream book say it play for? Now that I didn’t know. I know theater plays for one ten. Well, I can take it for a dollar, but since it’s a fancy, I can’t take it for more than that. You understand. What else, Miss Queenie? Six-eight-four for fifty cents boxed, uh-huh. Nine-seven-two straight for a dollar.”
I find comfort in Mama’s voice, in the familiar, rhythmic recitation of numbers. I bring the bowl to my lips and drink the last of the sweetened milk before I rise and kiss Mama’s forehead. She mouths “Bye-bye” as I join my sister Rita, who’s waiting on the porch; together we walk three long blocks to Winterhalter Elementary and Junior High School, passing by the lush Russell Woods Park. I’m a first grader.
In class, I wait in line to show my teacher, Miss Miller, my assignment. We’ve had to color paper petals, cut them out, and paste them onto a picture of a flower. I like mine, as I’ve glued each one just at the base, so that the petals now reach out, into a pop-up flower. Miss Miller looks over my work, gives it one star instead of two, and stops me before I can return to my seat.
“You sure do have a lot of shoes,” she says. Last week, she asked what my father did for a living, and because I knew never to disclose the family business I said, “He doesn’t work.” She asked: “Well, what does your mother do?” I froze. “I’m not sure,” I lied. I knew my mother was in the Numbers, but I also knew not to tell that to anyone. I worried that my vague answer was the wrong one, but I didn’t know a better response. No one had told me yet what I should say.
Now with Miss Miller staring at me I look down at my feet, which are clad in — I still remember — light-blue patent leather slip-ons with lace-trimmed buckles. A favorite pair bought to match a brocade ensemble I’ve just worn for Easter. I nod, not knowing what else to do.
My teacher’s blue eyes fix on me with something I can’t name, but which I’d now call disdain, and she orders me to take my seat.
“Before you sit down, I want you to name every pair of shoes you have,” she insists. “Go ahead.” There’s no lightness in her voice.
Anxious, I go through a mental inventory of the shoes that line the built-in rack in my bedroom closet. I manage to recall ten pairs in various colors and styles: the black-and-white polka-dotted ones with a bow tie; the buckled ruby-red ones, the salmon-pink lace-ups….
“Ten pairs is an awful lot,” says Miss Miller. Her blue eyes fix on me with something I can’t name, but which I’d now call disdain, and she orders me to take my seat.
I can feel my classmates staring at me as I return to my table. Is it wrong to have so many pairs of shoes? Did my mother get them in a bad way?
The next day in class, Miss Miller calls me back to her desk. I can smell the hairspray in her teased blond bouffant. “You didn’t mention you had white shoes,” she snaps.
Indeed, I’m wearing a white version of the same pair I wore the previous day. I feel as though I’ve been caught in a lie, and I know I’ve disappointed my teacher. I worry that I’ll get in trouble. At school, or worse, at home.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. Miss Miller shakes her head in disgust and dismisses me with a wave of her hand. I return to my desk, trying hard not to look down at my shoes. I am ashamed of them. That evening, I tell Mama what happened. But I wait until after she’s finished taking her customers’ bets and before the day’s winning numbers come out. I’ve already learned that the best time to tell Mama difficult news, something that could get you in trouble, is during that brief, expectant pause in the day. That’s when Mama is least distracted, and still in a good mood.
She listens, and when I confess I forgot to tell Miss Miller about the eleventh pair of shoes, her dark eyes flash with anger. I fear a spanking.
“That’s none of her damn business!” she says. “Who does she think she is?” Before I can feel relieved that she’s not mad at me, Mama says, “Get your coat and let’s go.” I do as I’m told. Mama throws on her soft blue leather coat, the color of the periwinkle crayon in my Crayola box, and together we slide into her new Buick Riviera; are we headed back to school to confront Miss Miller? Thank God, no, as Mama heads south, away from Winterhalter Elementary; she soon turns onto Second Avenue, drives to the corner of Lothrop, and parks in front of the New Center building. There sits Saks Fifth Avenue.
We enter through regal double doors and I instantly fall in love with the store’s marble floors, brass elevators, and bright chandeliers. I feel lucky just being here. Mama takes my hand and leads me to the children’s shoe department, where an array of options is spread before us. She points to a pair of yellow patent leather shoes. “Those are pretty,” she says.
When we get home, Mama says, “You’re going to wear these to school tomorrow. And you better tell that damn teacher of yours that you actually have a dozen pairs of shoes, you hear me?” The next day, I wear my brand-new shoes with a matching yellow knit dress. Nervous as I walk up to my teacher’s desk, I announce: “Miss Miller, I have twelve pairs of shoes.” She looks down at my feet and then levels those blue eyes at my face. “Sit down.”
Miss Miller never says another word to me. I feel her rejection but I’m also relieved; I no longer have to worry about what I wear to school or feel bad about my nice things. I feel both protected and indulged by Mama. Growing up, that’s how it was for me, and my three older sisters and brother. We lived well thanks to Mama and her Numbers, which inured us from judgment. My mother’s message to black and white folks alike was clear: It’s nobody’s business what I do for my children, nor how I manage to do it.
The fact that Mama gave us an unapologetically good life by taking others’ bets on three-digit numbers, collecting their money when they didn’t win, paying their hits when they did, and profiting from the difference, is the secret I’ve carried with me throughout my life.
The family secret, a handed-down order, was well in place by the time I was born. I am hardwired not to tell. I can still hear Mama’s voice, hear her warning: “No good can come from running your mouth.”
My mom’s livelihood transformed my life and the lives of so many others. I wanted that fact known, because I was so proud of her. Yet I had no idea what other people would think of my mom once they found out. And so I took the biggest risk I’ve ever taken: I defied my mother and told her secret. I wrote a memoir about her.
Every time someone who’s read my book says to me, “I love your mom!” I know they see her as I did: a bad-ass woman making a way out of no way. And I know the risk was worth it. Turns out, every once in a while, some good can come from running your mouth.