When I was forty-two years old, I decided to run away from home. Just pack up and go.
Wouldn't take dishes or nothin', no "household goods," stuff like that. Just my own stuff. What I could get into two suitcases.
Wasn't runnin' away exactly, just movin' on. I wanted to see things I'd never seen before, go places different from here.
I had been here too long.
Wasn't nothin' happenin' here. Not a damn thing.
Sometimes, you hear people say they want to find themselves. Well, I didn't need to do that. I knew where I was. That was the problem.
When I was a kid, I watched the Popeye cartoons on Saturday mornin' before my momma waked up. Swee' Pea, the baby, he was my favorite. He would feel like he wasn't bein' treated right, so he would tie up all his things in a bandanna (like the ones my son Rashawn wears on his head now) and put it on a pole and crawl away, him in his pjs. And he'd see monsters and China and the ocean-the exciting things he'd never seen before.
It was like a big adventure.
That's what I wanted. A big adventure, all my own.
Now, you know there was a lot workin' against me. I'm not what you call educated or nothin' like that. I ain't never been nowhere, don't have much of a life as it is. Got a COTA bus life-I go where the bus go: to work, to the carry-out, then home.
And I'm not the kinda woman that you would think could have adventures. I'm not brave or smart. Not pretty or important. I ain't nobody you ever heard of. Ha! I'll never be anybody you heard of!
And to most folks, I ain't much. But that's OK. I was smart enough to know that I couldn't stay here. Couldn't keep living the same old piece of life, doing the same old thing. Somebody said "life is not a dress rehearsal." I know what that means.
You don't get a second chance.
I think it's time to leave. Juanita's great adventure.
Even if I don't get very far, it will still be farther than I've been.
If Swee' Pea can have an adventure, then so can I.
Now, I didn't come to this way of thinking overnight. It took a long time.
Bertie's voice took me out of my daydream.
"Momma in there?" I heard my daughter yell back to her brother.
"Bertie, she in there," Rashawn yelled back. "She just writin' in that notebook again, that's all. You know how she gets."
"Momma, you in there, or what?"
Bertie's pounding was starting to get on my nerves.
"Whatchu want, Bertie? And quit banging on my door! You gonna tear it down?"
"Sorry, Momma," Bertie said. But she didn't sound like she was sorry. "Momma, can you keep Teishia for me? Me and Cheryl goin' to the Do Drop."
"Then you and Cheryl needs to take Teishia with you," I said. "I want some peace and quiet tonight."
"Aw, Momma! I ain't been out in two days!" she whined. I hate it when Bertie whines.
"I won't be gone long, I promise," she lied. "Besides, Teishia'll be good. She go right to sleep."
I sighed. That was the right word. Sigh . . . I closed my notebook and went to put it away.
"Bertie, the last time you said that, that baby kept me up till two. And you and Cheryl didn't come home till mornin'." I opened the bedroom door. My daughter was standing there, dressed and ready to go. Teishia was sitting in the middle of the floor, playing with a Bic lighter. I ran over to her and snatched it away.
"Bertie, you a fool or what? You got t' watch that child every minute! She mighta set herself-and us-on fire! And put these up!" I clicked the lighter. The flame jumped up an inch.
Bertie rolled her eyes like she thought I was stupid.
"Girl, you roll those eyes like that again, you be pickin' them up off the floor!"
"Momma, she only a baby. She can't work it."
"And you a fool." I stashed the lighter in my robe pocket.
"You gonna keep her or not?" Bertie's hand was on her hip, and she was getting a definite attitude. I woulda got one with her but I had just come off a ten-hour shift at the hospital. I was tired. All I wanted was for this baby to go to sleep so I could relax. I could always jump an attitude with Bertie some other time.
"She better go to sleep," I told Bertie. Teishia stuck one fat finger in her mouth.
Bertie lit out that door so fast, it made your head spin.
She left an empty Doritos bag, four Coke cans, and a full ashtray behind her. Not to mention a stack of magazines and the TV blasting. I clicked off the TV and started to pick up some of the mess. Found one of Teishia's dirty diapers under the pillow on my couch. That really made me mad. I'm gettin' sick and tired of pickin' up after that girl.
The sound of a sonic boom came from Rashawn's room.
"Turn that stuff down!" I shouted. I heard voices. It sounded like someone said "Shhh . . . y'all. It's my momma."
I banged on the door. Somebody turned down the volume-but not enough.
"Rashawn, you got somebody in there with you?"
More voices . . .
Teishia grunted. I looked over at her. She had a funny look on her face. The smell made my nose itch.
Shit . . .
"Rashawn!" I knocked again, this time with my fist. I tried the doorknob, but it was locked.
"Rashawn, who's in there?"
Teishia grunted. I looked over my shoulder. Oh, Lord, it was gonna be a big one.
"Just Tiny and Pete, Momma."
Well, that's just great, I said to myself a few minutes later as I wiped Teishia's stinky behind. Pete was OK, but Tiny? "Tiny" was almost seven feet tall, and had four babies by three girls that I knew of. He was a crackhead most of the time. And a thief. He stole the little Walkman my momma gave me for Christmas. He took money outta Bertie's purse once and even took Rashawn's twenty-two, tho' Rashawn had no business keeping a twenty-two in my house in the first place. Tiny was always grinning and bobbing around, gettin' up in my face with "Good mornin', Miz Louis, good evenin', Miz Louis. You all right? You need somethin'? I'll set you up. Get you straight." Negro was always tryin' to give me somethin'. Shoot. He didn't have nothin' I wanted. Well, 'cept maybe for my Walkman he stole. Other than that, Tiny was a lyin', stealin', dirty junkie, and I did not want him in my house.
But tonight was not the night for that either.
I let Tiny stay a little while. I told Rashawn to turn the music down again. He said "Shit." Then he and Tiny and Pete left.
I washed the baby up and put her to sleep in the fold-up playpen. Took me a bath with Calgon and laughed. What does that commercial say? "Calgon . . . take me away."
I sat on the couch and smoked a cigarette. Watched the baby sleep. Heard sirens screaming down Main Street. Lots of noise outside. It sounded like Mardee was havin' another party across the hall. I blindly watched the figures dancing across the TV screen. Ducked down when I thought I heard a gunshot. I drank a Coke and listened to Mardee's party and to the cars going by.
Then I took out my notebook. It's pretty, covered with fabric. A "paisley" print, the saleslady had told me.
I had the pen in my hand-a real ballpoint. It cost me good money at the flea market. It wasn't cheap or nothin'. I took a deep breath, got ready.
My hand didn't move.
What was I gonna say?
You're supposed to have a juicy story to tell on pages like this-a hot love affair like the ones they talk about on the TV, or a long trip to a far-off place.
I looked at the empty page. Then I looked at my good ink pen. I closed the notebook.
You don't write about a COTA bus life in a paisley-fabric-covered notebook.
And you can't write the story of a ninety-nine-cent life with a three-dollar-fifty-cent Parker pen.
A ninety-nine cent-life goes something like this:
At home they call me "Momma." At work, I am "Nita" or "Hey, you!" But my name is Juanita Louis. And I like to be called "Juanita."
I live in the projects. They call it low-income housing now. But when I came along ("back in the day" as my kids would say) they called 'em projects. My parents worked hard to move us kids outta there, Daddy worked three jobs and Momma worked two. I remember when we finally moved outta there and into a small two-story frame house off Cleveland Avenue. Mom and Dad were so proud. Nowadays they try to make the projects look like someplace you wanna be, glamorize gunshots and crackheads. Now, it's called the 'hood.
Excerpted from Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams. Copyright © 2002 by Sheila Williams. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.