Dancing on the Edge of the Roof

Dancing on the Edge of the Roof


I was on my own.

I didn't have much money. Just what was left of my workers' comp check from last year. I didn't tell the kids about that or they woulda had me spend it. I thought maybe I'd run out of money before I got where I'm going, but I could always work. And maybe I'd get lost, but I bought me a map. So I just made up my mind to go where the wind—and the Greyhound—would take me: to the end of the line. To a new life.

Bought two suitcases from the pawnshop.

"Juanita, you need a gold necklace today? I got one just perfect for your slender neck. Just came in." The man behind the counter held out a sparkling strand of gold.

I looked at that man sideways. I ain't never had no slender neck.

"No thanks, not today," I told him, glancing behind the counter. "I need a suitcase, though. Do you have any?"

"Do we have suitcases! Are you kidding?" He took me into the back room where at least fifty suitcases stared back at me.

I had to sort through twenty of them before I found the right ones: not too old, not too new, not too big. I felt like Goldilocks.

"You gonna get your VCR out?" the man behind the counter asked me after I paid him.

"No," I said. "Going away for a while."

"Oh, that's nice. Vacation?"

"No," I said, walking out the door. "New life."

The man called after me.

"New Life? Where's that?"

I'll tell you when I get there, I said to myself.

Wasn't too hard to figure out what to take, I don't have much. Folded-up jeans and T-shirts and socks, some lightweight summer things, some in-betweens. Put sneakers on my feet, left the heels and the Sunday clothes at home. Packed a couple of sweaters, left nail polish and stuff in the bathroom cabinet. If I needed more, I could buy it. Took the Bible my grandma gave me, left all those romance novels behind. I would write my own. Folded up my hospital uniforms and left them on the edge of the bed. Maybe Bertie could use them.

At last I was ready. At eleven in the morning, I had already done more in a few hours than most people do in a whole day. Packed two suitcases, one small cooler, a tote bag, quit my job…I felt like Mighty Mouse.

I came out of my bedroom carrying the suitcases and my tote bag, stuffed to the seams. Bertie was just folding up the sofa bed. Teishia was on the floor, playing with her toes. Bertie looked pissed.

"Momma, where were you? I had to get up at eight-thirty with T this mornin'." Noticing the suitcases for the first time, she asked, "Where are you going?"

"Going away for awhile," I replied. (In my "old" life, I would have used "I said." In my new life, however, I "replied.")

"Goin' where?" asked Rashawn, who came out of the bedroom, yawning and scratching.

"Momma, you didn't tell nobody you was goin' nowhere."

"That's 'cause I'm forty-some years old," I told him as I knelt down to give T a kiss.

"I don't need to tell anybody anything."

Rashwan frowned.

"How long you be gone?"

"Don't know yet."

"Momma, you trippin'!" exclaimed Rashawn. His deep voice rumbled like thunder in the small living room. "What's up widchu?"

"What you mean you don't know?" screeched Bertie. "What about your job at the hospital? Who's gonna keep Teishia for me?"

I kissed little Teishia again and set her, squirming, back onto the floor.

"In the first place, Bertie, I quit the hospital this morning. In the second place, you don't have a job or anything else to do. You can keep Teishia yourself."

I felt as if I had blurted out a complicated math problem. I couldn't help but grin. Of course, Bertie didn't think much of my idea.

"But Momma! I think I'm pregnant again! What am I gonna do? I need my rest!" she wailed, tears streaming down her face. "I'm gonna need some money . . ."

"Momma, what's wrong widchu? You gone crazy?" Rashawn's face was dark like a thunderstorm about to break. Now he reminded me of his father—the way Tyrone looked just before he broke my jaw. Once, a long time ago, I would have been scared. Now, I simply did not give a damn.

"No, Rashawn, I'm not crazy. Bertie, you'll just have to get along. You're young, you can work. They always need aides at the hospital."

"I can't believe you! Just leavin' us like that," Rashawn bellowed. "I can't believe it."

"Well, believe it," I shot back. He acted like he and Bertie were ten years old!

"You got shit for brains?" he roared at me. "You read them books, think you a white woman or somethin'? Think you just gonna dance outta here and into a new life? Like you got somethin' somebody wants?" He got up in my face so close I could see the flecks of gold in his eyes. Mean, nasty eyes. Like his daddy's. "Well, here's the news, Momma, and it's up to the minute. This is real life. And in real life, you ain't nothin'."

I slapped him. Hard. All six feet, two inches and one hundred ninety pounds of him stumbled back toward the couch.

Bertie gasped. Looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was.

"I'm your momma. Don't you ever talk to me like that! I may not be much to you, but to myself, I'm enough."

Rashawn didn't say anything. Just looked at me like he hated my guts.

"Now you both listen to me, and you listen good. And you can pass this on to Randy, too. All your life I have taken care of you, most of the times by myself, too. I paid the rent, the food, everything! I paid for Teishia, and I work my fingers to the bone for y'all, for Teishia. And what have I got to show for it? I'll tell you: I ain't got shit! Unless you count grown children who expect me to wait on them hand and foot and give them money. You all will use me until you use me up and there's nothing left. Well, I'm through with that. I'm taking the little bit of me I got left and gettin' outta here. You can take care of yourselves."

"But Momma! Where you goin'?" whined Bertie. "When will you be back?"

"Momma? Momma?"

I closed the door behind me. "I don't know where I'm goin' or when I'll return," I told them in my new voice using my new words. I am a new woman now. And I must use new language. "I'll call you."

How could I answer their questions? Heroines who have great adventures don't have time limits and they don't have . . . what they call them things? Agendas. They don't have no agendas. They take what fate hands out. They go where the wind blows.

My tote bag was full but not with novels. I was leaving them at home. I had packed spiral notebooks and pen refills instead.

I was going to write about my own great adventure.

And I wasn't going to do it with no ninety-nine-cent pen either.

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Excerpted from Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams. Copyright © 2002 by Sheila Williams. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.