A New Dance
by Nova C. Hooper
Skin pop. Skin pop. Pop it. Pop it.
I can’t wait to get out of boring ass Mrs. Clemmons’ class. She gets on my damn nerves. She better hope I don’t tell my momma about her. Momma wouldn’t waste one minute before she’d tell her off. Nobody messes with her baby. All day Mrs. Clemmons’ mouth: “Clark, get out of your hair. Stop playing in your hair. Clark, stop trying to act cute. Clark, spit that gum out.” I think she’s jealous because my hair hangs down my back, and she has that tired old short nappy afro. I can’t wait until next year when I go to the fifth grade and get out of her class.
In fact, everyone’s jealous of me up in here. I’m just as fine as Momma, and I’m still growing. I have long jet-black hair like Momma. She says that we have Indian in our blood. That’s why we have good hair that doesn’t need relaxers. She calls it wash and wear hair. I’m not light skinned like her, but damn near close. She says I’m what people call red-boned.
Momma is still young and beautiful, but the last few months she hasn’t been feeling too well, so she doesn’t look as healthy as usual. She’s still better looking than some of these old hags that come to school to pick up their kids. One afternoon, in the cafeteria, me and some of the other girls went around the table and said how old our moms were. I proudly announced that mine was twenty-three, only thirteen years older than I am. When I turn eighteen, Momma will still be young enough to hang out. We could even double date. I’m so lucky. I have the hippest, coolest, prettiest mom in the whole school, possibly in the whole city, maybe in the whole state.
I never met my daddy, but according to Momma, he was never good enough for us. He was nineteen when him and Momma made me. Momma said she told him that she was sixteen, not her real age of thirteen. Once I was born, she never heard from him again, and didn’t know where to find him, but she still named me after him.
Skin pop. Skin pop.
I can’t get that out of my head as Mrs. Clemmons is going over fractions, and the sun’s kissing my right cheek. I’m glad I sit in the back next to the window. Looking out the window, I’m thinking how much I can’t wait to get home. Momma and me live in a two-bedroom apartment off of Spencer Avenue. She works late at night as a dancer in what she calls a gentlemen’s club. I know that means she’s a stripper. I don’t care. She’s the best dancer I’ve ever seen. I watch her practice in the middle of our living room. Sometimes I copy her and try to dance like her. Some stuff she’ll let me do, and other dances she’ll tell me to stop, that I’m being too fast. Popping my butt to the beat of the music, Momma stands off to the side, laughs, and claps. “Shake it, Baby. Show ‘em what you’re working with.”
I love watching her, as she gets ready to leave at night. She has to be at the club by nine Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I carefully pack her costumes while she curls her hair in front of her dresser mirror. She could be a model. She looks way better than that Tyra Banks. I wish I could go and watch her dance, but she tells me that it’s not a place for kids. So, I’m left at home all by myself.
It’s supposed be our secret. I’m not supposed to stay home alone because if anyone found out, I could be taken away from my momma. If that ever happens, I don’t know what I’d do. Who will take care of her when she’s sick? She hasn’t been doing to good. It’s my job to look after her. When she goes off to work, I do get scared sometimes, but Momma tells me that I have to be a big girl, and I have to be mature. I make sure the door is locked, the windows are closed, and the stove is off.
Some nights though, the sky is so black and it’s so quiet outside, I get nervous. I sit by the window listening for anything: a car going by, or a dog barking—something. Noises don’t scare me. It’s the silence. So, I turn on the television to help me fall asleep. I’m supposed to be in the bed at 10pm, but most of the time, I stay up late, lie in Momma’s bed, and watch movies. I keep the volume low enough for me to hear her keys jingling in the lock. Then I hurry up, turn off the television, and pretend I’m asleep.
I worry about Momma while she’s out late at work. Sometimes she gets in the bed next to me, and we cuddle. That’s the best sleep ever because I know she’s there protecting me, and I’m there protecting her too. Other times, if she brings home company, she’ll wake me up, tell me to go to my room, and get in my bed. I like it better when I can sleep with her, but as long as I know she’s made it home safe, I don’t mind going to my own room.
Pop it. Skin pop.
Damn it. I can’t get that out of my head.
I sure hope Momma’s in a good mood tonight. It’s Friday, and she said that she’s not working. I hope she’s not sick again. She looked so bad last weekend. I had to take care of her. I think it was the flu or something. She shivered all night, and all I could do was wrap myself around her to keep her warm, but other than that she didn’t really seem cold. I sure wasn’t. I was hot as fire, but the way Momma was shivering, I didn’t know what else to do but hold her tight and try to keep her warm. She was sweating so much, the next morning the sheets, blankets, and my nightgown were soaked. I slowly got out of bed and took that wet thing off.
Momma just needed a good meal. She hadn’t been eating much, and she looked a little thin to me. I’d decided to make her pancakes, eggs, sausage, and some coffee. I’d been cooking ever since I was seven, and I know what Momma likes. When she got up, she ate every bit like that was her first meal in a hundred years. Then she took a shower. I made Momma all better, and we went to the movies and to the park. We spent the whole day together.
Good. Good. Good. I wait for Mrs. Clemmons to dismiss us, and I rush out the classroom door, out of the building without saying “bye” to anyone, and out into the sunshine. I start walking down Davis Street on my way to Spencer Avenue, and the sun is trying to cook me alive. I’m walking a little faster than usual. Have to get home and see Momma. When I was getting ready this morning, I heard her on the telephone talking to her best friend, Marisa, who works at the club with her. “Girl, I got to skin pop tonight,” I heard Momma say. Skin Pop? That has to be a new dance. Momma knew all the new dances before anyone else did. She would teach me, and when I did them at school, I could see the jealous looks in the eyes of all the other girls. I want to learn a new dance. So, when I get home, Momma can teach me how to skin pop. I would practice it all weekend, and by Monday, I’ll be showing out in Mrs. Clemmons’ class.
Skin Pop. Skin Pop. Pop it. Don’t drop it. Can’t nobody stop it.
I start skipping home. Pulling the key from the chain around my neck, I notice that it’s all wet from me sweating. When I get inside, I start calling her, “Momma. Momma.” I look in her bedroom. “Momma.” She’s not here. Damn it. Oh well. She’ll be back soon. I go into my room and throw my book bag on my unmade bed. My room is all purple. That’s me and Momma’s favorite color. There are so many dolls on my twin bed; there is barely any place for me to sleep.
I could go outside and jump rope with all the other girls in my neighborhood, but I don’t feel like it. Later for them. So, I decide to play my video game. I go into the living room to get ready to be “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and tear up some vampire asses, but my Playstation 2 is gone. I start turning around in circles. Did we get robbed? Nah, nothing else is gone, but I better double check. First, I look around our living room. There’s not much furniture, just a couch, a recliner, and our entertainment center—minus my Playstation. Next I search our small eat in kitchen. Everything’s where it’s supposed to be. Nothing’s wrong in the bathroom. Last, Momma’s room is perfect.
I go back to the living room. I’m looking at the spot where my game is supposed to be. I know I’m not imagining it, because I can see where it should sit on top of the TV. There’s dust everywhere but in that spot.
I’m standing there stupid, when Momma walks in. “Hey Baby, how was school?” She sounds funny, almost like she’s half sleep. Her clothes are all wrinkled and her face looks like someone let the air out. I’m surprised she left the house looking like that. She usually never leaves before making sure her hair, clothes, and make-up are perfect. Before I answer her, she’s walking to her room. Oh God, I hope to Jesus she’s not sick again.
“Momma, my game is gone.” She doesn’t say anything about it.
“Clark, wake me up at 7 o’clock,” she slurs.
“I thought you’re not going to work tonight,” I whine. She doesn’t say anything. She tries to shut her door, but doesn’t push it hard enough. I can see her through the crack. Momma falls onto the bed and immediately starts snoring lightly. She’s lying on the bed with her legs hanging over the edge and her head half hanging off the other side. Her long beautiful hair is falling to the floor. It looks wet. Probably sweat from walking outside in the hot sun. I go into her room and turn on the fan, so she can cool down and sleep better. Then I take off her sandals and put them in the closet.
Now what am I supposed to do? I want to learn a new dance. I walk back into the living room to watch television. I sit on the couch, and nothing good is on. Flipping through the channels at least three times, I decide to just watch cartoons. My eyes get heavy. I lie down and fall asleep.
A few hours later, my body jumps up all of a sudden like someone was screaming my name. My heart is beating so hard and so fast. I can almost hear it. The clock on the TV says 6:59. In Momma’s room, she’s in the same spot she was in when I left her. I rub her back.
“Momma . . . Momma, It’s time to get up.”
She doesn’t move. Lying down next to her, I put my arm around her. I say a little louder, “Momma, wake up.” She begins to wiggle around and then she stretches.
“It’s time already?” She asks me.
“Uh huh,” I answer. “Are you sick again, Momma? Do you want me to make us something to eat? You always feel better after you eat.”
“No. I’m going out.” She sits up. My heart is broken. I was hoping she would stay home and we could rent movies or play Monopoly. That reminded me.
“Momma, my game is gone.”
“What game, Baby?” She’s all the way out of the bed, and looking through her closet for something to wear later.
“My Playstation is gone.”
“Oh. I’m so clumsy,” she chuckles. “I bumped into the TV earlier today and accidentally knocked it down and broke it. I’m sorry. I’ll get you a new one next week.” She pulls out a tight fitting red dress from her closet.
“It’s okay.” I try to hide my disappointment. There are dark marks under Momma’s eyes. She doesn’t look too good. “Are you sure you’re okay? You could stay home and rest some more.”
“I’m fine, Clark. I just need a shower,” She snaps. Momma takes off her clothes and throws them in the corner. I try not to stare at Momma’s naked body, but I can’t help it. She looks so skinny. Her skin is hanging off her bones. Instead of the golden honey color it usually is, it looks gray. One night while Momma was at work, I watched an autopsy special on HBO. Momma reminds me of the gray dead body. She walks into the bathroom. When I hear the shower running, I pick up her clothes and put them into the dirty clothes hamper. Then I make her bed. Shoot, I keep her room cleaner than mine. I don’t care. I know Momma likes her things nice and neat.
She comes out of the shower and back into her bedroom, where I’m lying on top of the now made up bed. She does look better. Her skin color is almost back to normal, and the dark purple marks under her eyes have almost faded away. I watch her begin to get ready. She dries off and rubs oil on her body from top to bottom. Then she puts on black lace thong panties. She combs her hair in front of the dresser mirror and puts on her makeup. Last, she slips on her red dress and I rush over to zip up the back. It’s supposed to fit tight, but it hangs from her bony shoulders.
“How do I look?” she asks me.
“Girl, you look fierce.” I stand back with my hands on my hips.
“I don’t know. Something’s missing,” she stares at herself in the mirror. “Clark, let me wear that gold chain your Grandma gave you for your birthday.” Running to my room, I go and get it. When I return, she takes it from me and puts it on. It looks funny on her, but I don’t say anything. It’s a small chain with a charm—a teddy bear holding a heart. It’s not something I’ve ever seen a grownup wear.
I almost forgot. “Momma,” I say with excitement. “Can you teach me how to skin pop?”
“What the hell did you say?” She turns away from the mirror and looks down at me. I see something in her eyes I’ve never seen before. I’m confused.
I want to learn a new dance. So, I speak louder and clearer so I can make sure she understands what I’m saying. “Can you teach me how to skin pop before you leave?” Momma raises her hand high above her head and brings it down hard across my cheek. The sting sends tears flying from my eyes before I even realize what happened. Then she grabs my shoulders and starts shaking me. More tears are flying from my eyes.
“Don’t you ever let me catch you with any drugs! Do you hear me?” She’s screaming and shaking me so hard, it feels like my head is going to fly off of my neck. “I will fucking beat the skin off of you! Do you hear me?”
I’m screaming and crying. “I’m sorry. Momma, please. I won’t. I’m sorry.” She finally lets me go and turns around and punches the wall. She punches it like an angry grown man would on TV. Her knuckles are bleeding.
“Momma . . .” I begin walking towards her. I want to help her with her hand.
“Get out of here, Clark.” She doesn’t even turn around to look at me.
Crying, I go to my room and gently close the door. I don’t want to make too much noise and upset her more. I just lie on my bed and hug my pillow. I can’t stop crying.
“I’m sorry, Momma. I’m so sorry.” But I don’t know what I did. I squeeze my pillow and rock myself back and forth. I hear footsteps in the hall and then a few seconds later I hear the door close. I don’t get up. I lay in my room—in the dark. Light is too good for me. I just want to die. Momma has never hit me before. She’s never been mad at me. A new set of tears start up, and I’m crying all over again. I cry until I fall asleep.
I hear a noise. Momma must be home. I want to apologize to her and make everything okay again. So, I sit up in my bed and wipe my eyes with the palm of my hand. My eyes feel like they’ve been glued shut from my dried up tears. My nose is stuffy like I have a cold. I tip toe out of bed and walk into the living room.
Momma is sitting on the floor in front of the sofa. I walk towards her. When I get closer, I see that she is asleep. She’s sitting up, but her head is lying back on the seat of the couch. I see her bare neck and notice my necklace is missing. She has on one black tattered high-healed shoe, and I don’t see the other anywhere. I don’t want to wake her up, but I need to talk to her. I can see her right arm, and there are purple bruises on the inside. On the floor next to her I see a burnt spoon with the handle bent back and a needle next to it. I’ve watched enough television to know what it is.
Skin pop. Skin pop.
“Girl, I have to skin pop tonight.” I hear Momma say in my mind, now I understand what it means.
“Momma?” I walk farther into the living room.
“Hey. Who do we have here?”
I almost jump out of my skin. I turn to my right and there is a man sitting on our recliner with his feet up. I didn’t even notice him when I walked into the living room. He is short, plump, and almost bald. If it weren’t for a patch of kinky hair on top of his head, I would have thought he was a white man. His skin looks bright red. It looks like his skin is on fire.
“What’s your name, Sweetness?”
“Clark,” I almost whisper. “Momma?” I start back towards her.
“Oh, she’s just sleeping. She’s all right. My name’s Clyde.” He grins so big. I can see spaces where teeth should be. I don’t want to leave Momma alone with this man, but it makes me feel funny the way he’s looking at me. He looks at me like he’s starving and I am a steak. I turn around and walk—almost run to my room. I close the door and get into bed with my clothes still on, and pull the covers over my head.
It is already hot in our apartment, and ten times worse with my clothes and blankets, but I don’t care. I want to hide. I want that man to leave. I want him to stay away from my momma. She’s brought other men home, but there’s something strange about Clyde. I can’t put my finger on it. I hear my bedroom door open and I pull my blankets tighter around me. I wait a few seconds and hear nothing. Then I pull the covers away from my face and look over by the door.
Clyde is standing there, grinning. He is starving and I am a steak. He walks into my room and closes the door behind him. Tonight I’m learning a new dance.