By Morgan Green
It’s 1979, and I’m eight years old. My legs dangle off the edge of a beat-up leather barstool like braids. I swing them back and forth with a shy smile, picking at the edge of the seat with one hand, holding a glass of water with the other. I’m pretending I’m drinking whatever the adults are, so that I feel like I belong.
Mama’s always been a natural with the mic. You could tell she was into a song when she took her time. Eyes closed, she'd tip her head to the side, ever so slightly, and caress the mic. She had that same look when she hummed while washing my hair. Her favorite song to sing, as her fingers weaved their way through my curls, was Moody’s Mood for Love by King Pleasure. “My granddaddy would always come in singing that song,” she once told me. Then she started singing, dragging out the lyrics while she ran the wide-tooth comb through my hair, from tip to root.
“It’s okay, baby'" she said, after I flinched. "Come on sing the next part with me.” I joined in. I had no idea what the hell I was singing back then, but we sang it so much that, finally, I knew the words to the song like I did my own name.
“Good, Nettie.” She kissed my forehead before singing the next verse. I flinched again as the comb yanked at another part of my hair. “These tangles of yours don’t seem to behave either,” she joked. “Gimme the high note.” I smiled up at her through clinched teeth, and she wiped a tear from under my left eye. I added a little vibrato to each drawn out word.
“Yes, baby girl!” She grabbed a finger full of curling custard and began to spread it through my hair in sections. “Doesn’t singing make you feel better? It’s like for a moment you forget you’re in pain. With a voice like yours, everyone around you might just forget, too.”
My favorite part of each day was when she’d do my hair, not only because it was the guaranteed thirty minutes of alone time with her, but also because sometimes she’d get sentimental enough while singing to tell me her stories.
"She isn’t looking at me anymore. She’s holding her mic in the air and swaying her hips to the music playing."
Tonight, like most nights, I must share Mama with other people. They’re snapping and humming along as she sings about police, thieves, drugs, and love. I just watch Mama. Sometimes she drifts off while singing. The crowd doesn’t notice, but I recognize the look in her eyes—it’s the one she gets after hitting the needle. She stares up at the ceiling like she can see stars. Whenever she does this, I look up at the ceiling, too. Try to see what she sees.
“I have a special surprise for y’all tonight,” Mama says to the crowd. She winks at me from all the way up there on that stage and smiles. “Annette, baby, come up here with Mama”
The ripped leather tears a seam in my stocking before I run up the steps. She isn’t looking at me anymore. She’s holding her mic in the air and swaying her hips to the music playing. Once I get to the stage, she smiles and hands me my own mic. Then she turns her head to the side and sniffs.
“Ladies, fellas of Smooth’s," she says to the room, "Y’all think I can sing? Wait until you hear my baby girl. She can’t just sing. She can sang. She’s gonna be a real star one day. Come on now, clap for her.” And they do. And for the first time, I think I feel what she felt all those nights, and I understand why she never would—no, never could—do anything else but take that stage.
This is the first night my hands ever hold a real mic, not a makeshift one made out of brushes or combs or empty beer bottles. I cry as I sing because when I look up, I finally see the stars. Women in the audience call me baby and sweet pea. Men gently direct me to take my time. And I do. Mama and I smile at each other, finally knowing one another, or at least the part that matters. Our voices blend beautifully. She sings notes that are low like her nights on the street, when we’d sit outside with an open guitar case and sing in front of fountains.
She’d found the guitar in a dumpster, somewhere on South Street, and pawned it. She didn’t get much for it, but it was plenty to pay for enough studio time to record one song. She didn’t, though. She used the money for heroin. She said it kept her creative juices flowing. She kept the case, however. She took a red marker and wrote “Corrine and Annette’s Album Fund,” on the inside.
That was 1977, before Mama found Smooth’s, when men would invite her over so that they could have her, and she’d let ‘em, if it meant it gave her baby a place to sleep for the night.
“My mama always told me the only thing I’d ever be good for was layin’ on my back," she said to me one night as she washed my hair in this guy’s tub. She yanked hard so she could get the braids right. “She was right,” she said, “but it got me you,” She kissed my forehead. “It got me you, and that’s all I need, baby.” I smiled because I was too young to understand fully what she meant or how to respond.
In 1980 I’m nine. I walk into my mother’s dressing room one night and watch as she flicks the lighter and takes a drag from a pipe. I can tell it isn’t her first drag of the night because she takes a deep breath and smiles up at the ceiling, leg twitching until she hears me.
She jumps and the pipe slips out of her hand onto the ground. She flinches as it bounces but I’m at a loss for words. She stares at me, her shock mirrored in my eyes.
“What are you doing?”
She doesn’t know how to answer. Instead, she looks down, ashamed, then starts to cry. I walk over and hug her. “Don’t cry, Mama,” I hush her, “I love you.” I kiss her forehead, pretend not to notice her stare longingly at the crack pipe still resting on the floor.
Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.