I was born. I know that for sure. Everything else I’m not.
I never knew my Mom. She died birthing me. I was told her name was Mae. She wanted me to be called Mattie for her Mom. So, I’m called Mattie Mae; for both.
What I remember was what was. There was Violet who watched out for me. There were all the ladies who did little things for me. And there was the constant chores. Those just were.
I lived in a house on Basin Street in New Orleans, not that I ever got out to see it much; the street. I spent all my time inside. There was always something to do. Clean the floors. Clean the doors. Clean the kitchen. Clean the rugs. Clean the clothes; the never-ending piles of clothes.
And the ladies were always busy taking care of the johns.
It was a whore house after all.
I was what you call a “trick baby.” The ladies who worked in the house would sometimes get “caught” and most times they would call Black Annie. She would come early in the morning with her black satchel to deliver the babies. Sometimes she came and left with the baby; in another satchel. Sometimes she would come just when the woman would begin to show and when she left the women didn’t show anymore. I was told that was none of my business, but I knew. I was just glad I got to be born.
Early on I leaned to keep out of the way. During the day most of the ladies were asleep, having worked all night. I woke early and started the day cleaning. There was always enough to eat and no one cared what you wore and I got to sleep in a closet so I guess it really wasn’t so bad.
Violet was the closest thing I had to a mother. I leaned that she had loved Mae. They often did tricks together. I knew what she meant so I never asked for more. But when she died, Violet promised Mae she would take care of me. At least she let me live. But Violet ran the house and everyone had to pull their own weight or they were thrown out. I leaned this from the start. I ate if I did my chores. I got clothes, mostly hand-me-downs from someone else, if I did my chores. I didn’t get cuffed upside my head by Violet’s man Sidney if I kept my mouth shut and did what I was told. We called him swinging Sid. I think the ladies called him that for other reasons too. Sometimes he slept with no clothes on.
But I did learn things.
Most of the ladies didn’t pay me much mind as long as their clothes were clean and I stayed out of their way. But Miss Elizabeth, I called her Lizzie, was different. She had wanted to be a teacher but when she turned thirteen, a boyfriend raped her. Her family disowned her as now she was “spoiled goods” and couldn’t be married off. So, she left for greener pastures, ending up on the streets of New Orleans. Very soon she got “selected” by an employment agency for our house. It wasn’t much of a choice I learned. It was more like being kidnapped. But she did make more money than she ever would as a teacher so she hadn’t left yet. She taught me to read and write and how to do ciphering. I loved playing with numbers. I would often do pages of problems; which Lizzie would write out and then grade for me, showing me where I was wrong. I got pretty good at it too.
In fact, after a while Violet saw that I was getting so good with numbers that she asked if I would help her with the book-keeping. Even whore houses need to keep books.
To me it was a great game. I would put all the names of the ladies in one column and how many johns they had and how much they were to pay Violet for each one. Any tips they kept for themselves. Sid would watch me count the money each night at closing and make sure all the accounts added up. Then he would make sure the cops got their cut and the rest he took to the bank the next day.
It got so that I could spot a mistake even as Violet was checking the accounts; viewing the books upside down on the table in front of me. The numbers just popped out for me. I don’t know how. They just did.
With me cleaning up afterwards and helping with the books, I earned my keep and I got by.
But then Lizzie but and vanished. I just woke up one day and her clothes were gone and she was gone. No one ever spoke of her again. When I asked a bit, I either got hit side of the head or told never to speak her name again. NEVER!
So, I went up to the back of the house, climbed way back under the storage, and I cried. I don’t think I had ever cried before, for a person that is. But I did for Lizzie. But deep down in my heart I knew she would never be really gone. If anyone had ever showed me love, it was Lizzie and love is forever. I decided to make her proud of me. I was her only student and I didn’t want her to ever think she had failed with me.
But after that, things changed. I knew there was more to life than this place. And when everyone was taking care of business or worn out from the night before and before I was to get at the cleaning, there was time to explore. Lizzie had read me some, about great adventures far beyond this here house. And I made up my mind I was going to get me some of those adventures. But the thing is, adventures only really happen when you don’t plan them. They just sneak up on you and finds you. But then, maybe that just living?