Short Story by Taylyn Grace Cogswell
125th street in Harlem had all but frozen over that bitter December day in 1969. Stepping out of the metro station, Michael was met with a chill that bit through his clothing. He took notice of his breath escaping his body, curling like a plume of smoke into the sunless sky above. Nor’easter was in full-swing and the storm was not going to let itself go unnoticed by a soul for miles and miles of this very place. Michael trudged along a narrow edge of the sidewalk that had been scantily cleared by the tenants who resided beyond them, a grey snowy slush seeping into his loafers. He pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears in a futile attempt to retain some of his warmth.
“Forget that,” he muttered through chattering teeth as he began to pick up his pace.
Usually, Michael loved the sight of Manhattan Island in the wintertime; he felt the snow was like a clean blanket over the city, masking its filth, smells, and signs of neglect underneath the ice. I just wish I didn’t have to feel the cold, he thought. Soon he would be welcomed in by the warm-toned brownstones that lined his path. Morningside Avenue was now in his sight. He approached building ninety-two and hurried up the steps. Using the key that the neighbors had given him, he let himself inside his aunt’s residence.
“Sorry I’m late, aunt Queenie!” Michael said calling out into the dim apartment shaking off his damp coat and removing his muddied shoes. “I think this storm has got the best of everyone. You wouldn’t believe how few people there were on the four-train. And on a Monday, imagine that!”
“It’s frightful out there,” Queenie signed and let out a shaky cough as Michael began to busy himself in the kitchen. The old woman sat in a plush pink chair with bronze hardware along the bottom, its delicate, decorative nail heads that forming a lovely pattern on the back that resembled ocean waves. The chair was positioned in front of a window with a surprisingly lovely view of Morningside Park and on the same exterior-facing wall was a small electric heating unit that she kept on constantly that winter. Her prolonged time indoors had driven the old woman back to her terrible vices and even more terrible memories; the ashtray next to her already held the remains of half a pack of cigarettes. “What day is it?” she asked.
“The 29th,” said Michael returning from the kitchen with two steaming mugs of coffee and a plate of pastries he had found in Queenie’s refrigerator. The old woman seemed to be grateful as she wrapped her freezing, skeletal hands around the warm ceramic mug, but she didn’t say thank you. No one ever remembers her to have had any manners. Of course, this didn’t bother Michael.
As he came to learn from old newspaper clippings he found is his father’s office a long time ago, his aunt Queenie was the notorious Stephanie St. Clair, who established control over gambling in Harlem during the 1930s. To do so, she had fought the likes of mobsters and police to protect her territory. Her past was a bit fuzzy, even to her, coming to New York from a small French Island in the south Caribbean Sea during her early adolescence. She had worked in servitude before eventually making a life for herself through rather unconventional means.
Queenie had always been shrewd, as Michael could attest to, and other times outright menacing, as he came to understand from her stories; but, for a black woman in the 1930s, these qualities were not such a bad thing.
“Days like these remind me of winters in Bedford Hills,” Queenie said, the lines around her eyes and mouth seemingly sinking deeper into her skin, making the old woman look like death in the dim light. Queenie didn’t trust many people in the world, but speaking with her nephew, she noticed, felt a lot like speaking to her younger self. At least with him, her thoughts had someplace else to go, and this catharsis was a relief to her old mind.
“The women’s correctional facility?” Michael asked, this was a story he was not familiar with. Often times, Michael forgot Queenie had ever been incarcerated; it had occurred so many years before his birth. He assumed that Queenie had been charged with gang activity, illegal gambling during prohibition, or that the Sicilian Mob had framed her for one of these criminal activities, but he did not know for certain.
“Yes,” she replied as thunder roared outside, a stiff wind rattling the window, sending a chill down each of their spines. “Every one of those ten winters was another year we aged, and every year we got older the less equipped our bodies were to fight the cold. I watched more than one of my friends in there get sick and succumb to the pain, the squalor, the chill…I can’t say I know how I managed to survive it, myself,” Queenie sighed before taking a long sip of the coffee that had since cooled, her stained teeth only a few shades lighter than her skin.
“How did you get through it, a whole decade locked up?” Michael wondered, astonished. He did his best to conjure up an image of Queenie in the 1930s, successful, intimidating, cruel. She had managed to escape the worst of the Depression due to her life of crime and illegal earnings, and perhaps she avoided the most devastating effects of the war, being locked up for all of its duration, but still Michael wondered what she had really missed about being in the free world during a time of such change, with a glimmering hope of prosperity amidst the then bleak present.
“You know, even though we were in prison, a great deal of us still knew what was going on in the world,” Queenie reminded Michael, “It might have been hard for us in there, but I promise you it was even harder for the free people out on the streets, especially those of us in Harlem. Before I was sent away, those white mobsters, Lucky Luciano among them, tried to take over my organization for the first time,” Queenie let out a muted laugh at this, remembering her small victory. “Times had been tough to the point where nobody could respect one another’s turf. This was especially true for us black folk, we had been subjugated for so long and I believe it continued even after I went to Bedford Hills. But, while I was in the slammer, an incredible woman was free, changing the world as we know it, and I couldn’t help but notice.”
“Who was it, Aunt Queenie?”
“Attorney Eunice Carter,” Queenie answered, her eyes still watching the storm.
Michael bore a puzzled expression at this mention. Surely, he knew about the legendary Eunice Carter, a college-educated, black female attorney in New York during the 1930s. She was credited with taking down Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the chairman of the board of New York City’s Five Families, notorious for their criminal operations. Perhaps this had slipped from Michael’s mind, or better yet, the world had already cast a shadow over her memory and left him in the dark, unaware of this monumental figure. But Queenie would never forget such a person.
“Carter was a young black woman like myself, around my age, too. She was the only woman put on a board of male attorneys as the women’s court prosecutor here in the city. It was Eunice Carter, that revolutionary woman, who connected multiple cases of illegal prostitution in the state to an entire ring of brothels operated by Lucky and his dirty family.”
Queenie seemed joyful remembering this, she had hated Luciano. But, then again, there were only a handful of people Queenie did not hate. Michael had made that short list somehow, and despite their generational differences, the old woman had felt Michael needed her. She was his age when she first gained her freedom to work and live in the states. She had needed him too, but that was something he may have never known.
“The remarkable thing,” Queenie continued, “Is that was the only crime Lucky was connected to after everything the bastard ever did, and it was Eunice who was the one to bring him down for good. I always knew what she was up to after that. The guards at Bedford would sneak me in a contraband of news clippings from her latest cases. All at once I’d feel so proud of the sister but riddled with envy,” Queenie explained this with a furrowed expression.
“We were so much alike. She ran with the white men in the courthouse and was respected, just like I had done in an Irish street gang when I was your age,” the old woman smirked remembering her own mischief. “I like to think we wanted the same things, to see the same changes in the world, for women, for immigrants, for all of us.”
At the precipice of the Civil Rights Movement many years ago, Eunice Carter was something of an unsung hero, representing the value that not only a woman could bring to criminal justice, bettering society, but a black woman, at that. Michael did not know that Queenie had these feelings towards the attorney. The old woman had not led an honest life, but somewhere deep inside her, she believed that if life not been so cruel to her in her early years that perhaps she could have avoided the pain, torment, and destruction that plagued her.
“Sometimes I liked to imagine she was me, in another life, in another body, but made of the same stuff underneath,” she said. At this, Queenie took a bite of the stale pecan pastry her nephew had brought her. The apartment had begun to feel warmer and the inside of the living room window began to fog at its edges.
The old woman’s somber tone suddenly began to liven.
“The difference between us was this, I was looking out for myself! And boy, was I good at it. No one took care of Queenie the way I took care of myself. I wanted to find a way to be wealthy, I wanted to wear my beautiful furs, and I wanted to make everyone that ever crossed me regret that they had,” Queenie looked wistful when she said this, a twisted smirk curled onto her lips and Michael could tell that she had been proud of the earnings she once had, nevermind how she had made them.
Her money had been steadily dwindling away in the last twenty years or so, but her small home still bore the evidence of someone once fabulously wealthy. Her furs hung on a rack next to the door where Michael had left his coat, which was now dripping into a small pool on the wood floor. Queenie had ornate frames on the walls filled with photographs of herself that appeared in the papers many years ago; she had looked like an heiress, and Michael found it hard to believe that she had acquired such affluence and status all on her own. The old woman’s thin, veiny hands were still adorned with jewels, multiple rings on every digit, a pearl, a ruby, an emerald, and three sapphires from what Michael counted that day.
“I knew things were going to get better for us after Eunice Carter did away with Lucky,” Queenie said, “And I knew I wanted to be part of the change once I got out. That hope kept me strong for those ten years,” Queenie said. This was true. After Queenie was released from prison, and was able to devote herself to the Civil Rights movement for many years with the protection of her lifelong friend Bumpy Johnson, who had been a mob boss in Harlem and a former associate of the Luciano family. Michael learned this when Bumpy died eighteen months ago, and Michael could tell that Queenie had not fully recovered from her loss.
“I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to me to happen to someone else just because of the color of their skin, their reputation, or anything else… We all have the right to due process, if I am not mistaken, but I sure didn’t get a fair trial if I’d ever seen one.”
Michael grew curious, “Aunt Queenie, what do you mean? Weren’t you locked up because of the gambling ring and the numbers racket? Weren’t you guilty?”
Queenie looked slightly taken aback by the question; lately she had a habit of giving away too much information to her nephew. This wasn’t typical of the tight-lipped and hot-tempered woman. In her old age, the stories seemed to flow from her without much control anymore. No longer could she direct the narrative of her life or decide what people would hear of it. Perhaps she was never meant to. She readjusted herself in her chair.
“They caught me for the only thing I didn’t do,” She half-smiled when she said this, but it quickly faded away into a dark expression and Michael followed Queenie’s gaze to a thin gold band around her left ring finger that he hadn’t quite noticed among her gaudy jewels before.
Queenie had been sentenced to ten years in prison after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of her husband, Sufi Abdul Hamid after he succumbed to his gunshot wounds in 1938.
Michael decided not to press into this particular memory. Queenie’s expression told him everything he needed to know and much more than he wanted to. The old woman lit a cigarette and raised it to her thin, chapped lips. The microscopic embers at its tip smoldered at her inhale.
A few moments later, after Michael and his aunt had taken their last bites of breakfast and refilled their mugs with a fresh, steaming brew, Queenie rose from her exquisite armchair with a degree of difficulty that startled Michael. He knew better than to voice his concerns, for Queenie would certainly reprimand him for challenging her independance. The old woman, stiff from the prolonged cold, shuffled her way over to a dusty, cluttered corner of the living room. Beyond her lie some old, chipped chests and luggage that has yellowed, and on top a stack of newspapers, each from different news organizations, and all of which were dated October 1935. She bent over to scoop them up in her frail arms and hastily dropped them on the coffee table in front of Michael, causing a cloud of dust to form, swirling its way into Michael’s throat and eyes. Before he could so much as cough to clear his suddenly contaminated airways, Queenie spoke.
“I wanted to show you these,” she sputtered, before retiring to her regular position.
Michael rubbed his eyes and noticed a large image of a scowling young Queenie on the cover. He hadn’t seen this issue before. One after another, he sorted through the pile and found each had the same image and the same bold headline written above it. Before reading another word, he gazed up at Queenie with concern. “What are these about, Queenie?” he asked, almost sickened to know what kind of tumultuous event could have led to this kind of press coverage, he wanted the answer from to come from her, and not from the cold, heartless words off the antique, torn, and wrinkled papers.
“Eventually, once Lucky decided he wanted my organization, I had to give it over to him,” she said, a growing bitterness tinging her voice. “It almost cost me everything, but the Five Families had given me no choice. Even Bumpy at that time couldn’t help me…” Queenie’s eyes became misty as she said this. “Dutch Shultz was among those men who forced me to give up my turf here in Harlem, and before I knew it, he had already gotten himself into a great deal of trouble,” said Queenie pointing to a line on the frontpage of the topmost paper. Michael skimmed it. Dutch had decided to go through with an assassination that was not authorized by Lucky and was taken out by Luciano’s men. Before he died, however, he remained conscious for an entire day in agony from his gunshot wounds. During this time, Queenie had a telegram sent to the hospital.
“These were my last words to him,” Queenie leaned over and fanned out the papers across the coffee table, her bony finger running along the headlines of each one which all read the same, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
Michael was horrified. The man died only a few moments after receiving Queenie’s telegram. Michael wondered if this was some kind of sick and twisted justice but felt an immense heaviness and despair that he could only describe as empathy for the dying man. Would I wish this kind of death upon my own enemies? he thought to himself, trying to grapple with Queenie’s cruel and icy words. But Michael never once made an enemy.
Dutch had only been a pawn in Lucky’s wicked game after all, but Queenie’s message inflicted fear into the core of the mob men and sent shockwaves through the nation when it made headlines across the United States. The message held a fate deadlier than a gun: If the law didn’t catch up to the Luciano family first, the Lord would be sure to punish them all in the end.
Queenie had not led a blameless life, and her sins would be paid for just the same as any other. But, deep in her soul, she knew that every action she made was out of necessity and self-preservation. She had no regrets.
“Aunt Queenie,” said Michael finally, “Why did you keep these?”
Queenie’s met Michael’s for a moment and she gave him a look that was filled with caution, “I still mean it,” said Queenie, her eyes still misty. Instantly, Michael understood that he too was meant to heed the message on the papers. This Galatians verse was not only meant to condemn the guilty, but warn the innocent, people like him, from being led astray. “You can live a better life than I have,” Queenie admitted as a single tear escaped her eyes.
Michael parted shortly after, having rolled up one of the newspaper copies and tucking it inside of his inner coat pocket. He was soon facing the raging Nor’easter storm once again on his way to the Washington Square District. His mind would fill with thoughts of Queenie for years from this very day with the same questions plaguing him, most of them concerning Queenie’s salvation. Could she be forgiven? Had her activism after her release from prison redeemed her? Did she feel remorse for anyone that had been hurt in her ruthless climb to power so many years ago? Would she be reunited with her husband one day in some eternal realm? Michael could not reach so much as an opinion on these things that was consistent from one day to the next and he wondered if God could either.
Queenie sat alone in her apartment that afternoon, gazing out her window as the rain and snow began to clear. For a moment the sunset was visible over the trees in Morningside Park just so the brilliant oranges and pinks reflected off the snow and ice and filled the dim living room with a warm glow. This caused a slight smile to creep over Queenie’s wrinkled lips as she took a deep inhale of her cigarette before putting it out in the ashtray beside her. Just then, a crushing pain seized her chest and without a moment’s hesitation, she gave herself over to the shimmering light that glistened atop the icy Manhattan skyline. Queenie’s last exhale carried a plume of smoke from her lungs that curled around her lifeless body and encircled her in a warm embrace as her tormented soul departed its earthly home.