Promise Goodday a little black girl eight years old, wakes up one Saturday morning wanting to go to Astroworld, the see her favorite singer at the amusement park. However it’s also the day of her brother’s funeral. She complains of being tired of going to funerals and all of the sadness. Obviously her mother and grandmother won’t let her go to any amusement park. At the last minute she hatches a plan to run off and take a bus to Astroworld.
Unfortunately the driver is a serial rapist/killer who takes advantage of her when she is left on the bus alone. This molestation robs her of her childhood naivete and her life is forever changed. Promise eventually winds up in a brutal mental institution. She escapes and finally makes her way to Astroworld. What will she find when she gets there?
Promise sat in bed and yawned. She listened to the telephone ring. It stopped and she heard her mother call out the name Susan. Big Mama’s voice took over the phone. “Yes dahling. Yes , baby, anything you bring we can use it. All right.” Promise sighed. She knew there wouldn’t be a sweet anything in that bag of whatever her Aunt was bringing later that day. Streaks of morning sunlight blazed through the Venetian blinds and warmed her room. She frowned at the red and blue lights pulsating from the lopsided mirror on the wall before suddenly springing out of bed. “The police! The police,” Promise shouted as she hit the floor. “They got the ‘Leaky Eye!’ They got the ‘Leaky Eye!’” Her shoulders sank as she peeped out the window. A cop stood with his foot on the bumper of his car writing out a ticket to a man on a bicycle. Nowhere in sight was the “Leaky Eye” with his hands hoisted to the sky and gray water pouring from his eyes as Promise had expected. She sighed and raised the blinds. The window was cool to her nose pressed against the pane. It was fall. The sky was brilliantly blue. Trees planted next to the broken swings had turned orange and looked as if they had bits of fire in them. Whitish sunlight danced off the red brick duplex apartments where she lived. The duplexes stretched two by two down Lyon’s Avenue like rows of glazed cakes. Her good friend LaKeisha Ann’s shaggy mutt, bounced on his three good legs as he chased his tail. She lifted her skinny arms, and snapped her fingers like the girls on Soul Train. “Astroworld, Astroworld, baby girl,” Promise chanted and danced around the room. Someone grumbled outside her door. She stopped and listened as her grandmother’s feet shuffled down the hall. When the bathroom door slammed, she relaxed. “This is a good day,” Promise said listening to the bathwater run in the tub. “Just like my name Goodday.” She looked for Sweetie Pie. Her flimsy pink robe clung to her like a net as she searched the closet and under the bed for her doll. Promise sighed. She had an idea who had kidnapped Sweetie Pie and she was going snatch her back. Her hand brushed a stiff white dress hanging on door as she reached for the knob. She frowned, closed the door, and grabbed her cigar box from the dresser. She rummaged until she found her lucky penny next to a half eaten peppermint stick. Uncle Bobo had sworn the penny had been in a dead man’s pocket and was good luck if you breathed through the hole in the middle of Abe Lincoln’s face. Promise blew a breath and chanted, “Please, Mama, let me go to Astroworld. Please Mama, let me go to Astroworld today.” She said it a third time for good measure and ran down the hall to her Mother’s room and burst through the door. “Mama, can I still go today? You said so last week.” “Go where, girl?” “Astroworld,” Promised answered. Marsha stopped combing her hair. A fist full of coarse strands stood straight from the back of her head like a rooster’s tail. Promise avoided her Mother’s piercing eyes. She stuck her tongue out at Nettie who lay curled and drooling on a towel across Marsha’s bed. Nettie smiled and grunted. Her bosom swallowed Sweetie Pie’s face and one of the doll’s discolored eyes bulged from its head. “Nettie is killing Sweetie Pie.” “Nettie ain’t hurting that doll. And stop sticking your tongue out at her. I swear sometimes you act like you don’t have as much sense as Nettie—asking me some foolish question about Astroworld. You know today is Jonathan’s funeral.” Promise winced at her Mother’s brittle voice. She knew Marsha was angry when she compared her to Nettie. “But Mama, I’m tired of going to funerals,” Promise said quietly. “The police have Daddy all chained up between them. Sirens be screaming. People crying and hollering . . .” “Those men aren’t cops. They’re prison guards.” Promise ignored her Mother and continued pleading her case. “All of them gangs be standing around outside the Church puffed up like they goin’ to bust open. And you Mama, you always cryin’. If we went to Astroworld we’d be happy.” “Promise, there won’t be no gangs at this funeral. Jonathan wasn’t that kind of boy.” “You can say that again.” A nasal voice penetrated the wall next to Marsha’s bed. Marsha rolled her eyes at the wall. She sighed and looked at Promise. “Let me fix your hair. I told you to tie it up in a scarf last night. It’s all over your head now.” Marsha scooped a dollop of grease in her fingers and rubbed it in her palms. She smoothed her hands over Promise’s stiff straight hair. She combed the grease through and took the smaller end of the comb, looped a finger of hair around it and created bangs that came to a stop right above her eyebrows. She smoothed them down with more grease. Promise’s forehead shined as if waxed. Marsha combed the rest of Promise’s hair into a flip that flared out from her ears. “I haven’t seen you shed nary a tear for your brother,” Marsha said as she combed. Promise stared at the floor. “He mentioned you in this letter he wrote before he died.” Marsha stopped combing and searched underneath papers on the nightstand. She pulled out a sheet of lined notebook paper. Her hands trembled as she read:
Little Sister I love you with all my heart, but I’m going to leave you soon. You must be the light of hope in this family. That’s what Promise means--hope. Take care of Mama, Big Mama, and Nettie. You are the grown one now who must help Mama see after things. Help her with the dishes and cleaning. I hope to see all of you in heaven one day. I pray that the Lord understands me more than Big Mama thinks he will and that he won’t send me to hell for who and what I loved. I love Mama, you Promise, Big Mama, and Nettie more than I loved anything else. That ought to give me some credit with the lord. Promise, be good always.
Your Brother Jonathan
P.S. Mama, give David my sapphire cufflinks
As Marsha read the letter, Promise fidgeted and twirled a string hanging off her robe. The faint odor of smoke drifted in through Marsha’s window. Promise looked out the window. Jonathan’s cot lay in a heap near the trash pile waiting for the trash men. A few days ago, she had stared out the same window watching smoke rise and the sparks darting like red fireflies near Big Mama as the old lady burned bed sheets Jonathan had soiled. “Mama, I did cry for him.” Promise looked at her Mother. “When?” “When you weren’t looking.” Marsha sighed, put the letter down, and picked up a brush. She brushed her hair vigorously. “Promise, go eat you some cereal, then get ready for Jonathan’s funeral. I have something for you to do. Mama’s already ironed your dress.” “LaKeisha Ann never have to go to no funeral.” “LaKeisha Ann’s Mama was blessed by having only girl children. No hardheaded fools to go and get themselves killed or die from AIDS,” Marsha responded. “And now some of them gals is having girl children,” Big Mama said through the wall. Marsha looked at the wall and then at Promise. “Don’t say nothing else about Astroworld. You hear me, Promise?” Promise shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Mama, when they goin’ to catch the “Leaky Eye?” “I have no idea. The Leaky Eye is the least of my concerns this morning.” “Why he do nasty things to Paula?” “Because he’s a devil. And Paula’s Mama didn’t have any better sense than to let that gal wear makeup and act like she was some kind of woman,” Big Mama said standing in the doorway. “And what’s all this talk about going to some darn carnival? You forget Jonathan’s funeral is today?” Big Mama’s thick gray wig fit like a hat. The lenses on her bifocals were cloudy as waxed paper. She clutched her flowered robe to her neck as if trying to keep evil out of her bosom. Her legs were smothered in thick brown stockings tied in a knot below the knee. “Promise ain’t but eight, Mama. I’m trying my best to teach her.” “Well you better teach her quick, else that imp will be going to Astroworld instead of burying you when your time comes.” Promise hated when Big Mama called her an imp. LaKeisha Ann said an imp was a “scrunched” up little black thing with horns, a long tail, and lives in the ground with the devil. “Why Big Mama call me a imp? I don’t have no tail.” “Well stop acting like you got a tail and act like you have some sense.” “I wish I did have a tail.” “Stop sassing your Mama, girl. I’ll take a switch to you this morning. You need a tail whipping. That’s what you need!” Big Mama said. Promise huffed and snatched Sweetie Pie from Nettie’s arms. She scooted past Big Mama’s raised hand. By the time Big Mama called her name, Promise was passing through the living room. “Funerals!” she snorted. Her dead brothers smiled from tarnished frames on the coffee table. She stuck her tongue out at them. She was about to pass Big Mama’s favorite chair, but suddenly stopped in her tracks. The spot marking where Jonathan had vomited when he died loomed like a large foot-shaped cloud in the blue linoleum. All of that scrubbing Big Mama had done with ammonia the morning of Jonathan’s death had the effect of pulling back a scab on a wound instead of covering and healing. “Should have left it alone. Time would have covered it up,” Marsha had told her Mother. Promise climbed onto the couch, crawled over the arm, and jumped to avoid walking in the area close to the spot. Lakeisha Ann told her it was bad luck to walk where someone had died. Even Big Mama shuffled around the mark on the floor where Jonathon had thrown up something foul smelling and green as grass. Promise plopped down at the kitchen table and slammed Sweetie Pie into a chair next to her. The doll peered through one eye. Promise picked her up by the foot and shook her roughly until both eyes popped opened. She flung Sweetie Pie back in the chair. Behind her, the refrigerator buzzed as if an insect was trapped in its motor. The stove made popping noises as it cooled. Above the stove, the ceiling was parched like dried skin and bits of wallpaper peeled. Sticky brown spots dotted the wall. Broken crayons, a coloring book, Big Mama’s red coffee cup, and Nettie’s blue eyeglasses littered the dinette table. Promise swept her hand over them, pretending to knock everything to the floor. She imagined stomping on Nettie’s glasses until they were a million pieces. A thump against the wall rattled the dishes in the sink. Promise scrunched her nose and stuck her tongue out in the direction of the noise. On the other side of the wall lived her best friend LaKeisha Ann Jackson and her family--three girls, a mama and a daddy who worked at the Welfare office. Several days ago she and LaKeisha Ann had fussed over who was the cutest rapper, Sugar Face or Pretty Fat Ed.
LaKeisha, Ann, How can Pretty Fat Ed be cute? He got a big ol’ stomach.”
“He cute because he got a cuter face and more money.”
“Sugar Face got the most money. He paid a million dollars for his car, and the girls in my class say he the cutest.”
“You and them ‘hoes’ don’t know nothin.’”
“He got eyes just like Sweetie Pie.”
“You tired carrying around that ol’ ugly doll.”
“Sweetie Pie ain’t ugly.”
“It is ugly. Sugar Face’s eyes is gray, but not all cloudy like that ugly thing,” LaKeisha Ann had said pointing to Promise’s doll.
“Then your old mangy dog is ugly.”
“At least Chester is real. That doll ain’t real, silly bitch,” LaKeisha Ann said as she slammed the door to her side of the duplex.
Promise picked up Sweetie Pie and walked over to the sink. She opened a small flap in the doll’s back and filled the tiny reservoir with water. She closed the flap, held the doll in her arms, and squeezed. Water squirted through the doll’s eyes and ran like tears down her plastic cheeks. “LaKeisha Ann don’t know nothing,” Promise thought to herself, rocking Sweetie Pie in her arms. The console television from the Jackson’s apartment blared before someone turned it down. Promise looked at the tiny TV in her kitchen. It leaned on a stack of telephone books atop the drain-board. A finger had traced a question mark into the greasy screen. For the entire summer, the TV teased her with bright scenes from Astroworld--squealing kids on rollercoasters, clowns walloping each other with plastic bats, and mouths gulping hotdogs and sodas like something wild. Uncle Bobo had promised he was going to get the family tickets. He knew someone who knew someone who sold them dirt cheap. But Jonathan’s sickness consumed the summer and smothered anything remotely fun. Marsha wept or drank too much. Big Mama swept, fussed, prayed or cuddled Nettie. No one had time for Promise and Astroworld dreams. The someone who knew someone had to leave town suddenly. Now it was fall and today was the last day before Astroworld closed for the season. Promise wanted to turn on the TV, but Big Mama had forbidden her to touch it. “The whole house got to act like it’s dead because Jonathan is dead,” Promise thought to herself. The muffled voices of Marsha and Big Mama drifted into the kitchen. Their tone was sharp and made the hair on her arms prickly. She sat scratching until the garbage can squeaked and startled her. She picked up the broom and threw it at the can. The pail gonged and sent a rat scampering up through the lid to disappear behind the stove. “Be quiet in there,” Big Mama hollered. The rat reminded Promise of the woman who had kissed her the night before at Jonathan’s wake. The woman’s coat was brown and a loose black belt hung down her backside. She remembered pieces of the woman’s conversation. “Poor baby, you done lost your Brother . . . Marsha, try not to take it so hard . . . Child, even rich boys die from AIDS . . . The white woman I work for, her son died from the same thing . . .” The woman’s breath stunk like Bobo’s when he was full of wine. Promise watched her Mother frown as the woman fawned over them. She thought her mother was going to hit the woman, but Marsha pulled Promise close to her and brushed powder off her cheek. “My mama is over there, Miss Ella,” she said pointing to Big Mama on the other side of the room getting fanned by her Church sisters. “Why do the people have to talk so much,” Promise asked Sweetie Pie. “Why couldn’t they just go look at Jonathan and sit down like I did?” Promise poured cereal and milk into a small white bowl. The milk ran over the bowl and made a clover shaped puddle on the table. She studied the puddle for a moment before blowing to see how far she could scatter it. “Big Mama says Heaven’s got milk and honey rivers. Honey might be okay, Sweetie Pie. But a lake of grape soda water would taste better than milk--unless it was chocolate.” Sweetie Pie seemed to nod in agreement, but it was just a loose spring in her neck that made her head bob. Promise lifted Sweetie Pie’s head and thought about the other stories her grandmother told about Heaven. Lions and lambs sleeping on a bed of leaves together didn’t excite her. Her favorite TV show was Wild Kingdom. It was more fun watching lions chasing other animals than peering at them lying around at the zoo. She couldn’t imagine lions eating grass like lambs. “If we lived in Heaven, we would make the lions eat up the Leaky Eye, wouldn’t we Sweetie Pie?” Promise imagined her and Jonathan in long white robes scooting along the sky on skates looking for the Leaky Eye. They armed themselves with heavy rocks to throw at his head. Their lions snarled and chased after the man, rendering him to a pile of bones. “Mama, do I have to die and go to Heaven before I become an angel?” Promise yelled at her Mother’s room. There was no answer. She took a piece of paper and scratched out the letters S O L with a red crayon. She held the paper in front of her. “Soul, soul,” she chanted. She then turned to Sweetie Pie. “Why Big Mama say Jonathan going to burn up if he didn’t save his soul? I thought only bad people got burned up when they die. Jonathan wasn’t bad like the Leaky Eye. He made us laugh when he acted like Big Mama be acting in her Church.” “Ooh Sala! Ooh Sala, Whoo Whoo! Loose me, Devil! Whoo! Whoo!” Promise leapt around the kitchen like a monkey imitating her Grandmother caught up in the “holy spirit” speaking in tongues. Sweetie Pie’s pale blue eyes appeared to follow her around the kitchen. “What you doing in there, gal?” Big Mama hollered through the wall. “Don’t make me come in there with a switch.” Promise crept back to her chair. “Pig Latin and collard greens--that’s what that whooping and hollering is--just pig Latin and collard greens. Jonathan was right. Big Mama is a devil.” Promise tasted her cereal. The milk was warm and the flakes had turned to mush. She pushed the bowl away and watched a roach scramble toward the spilled milk. Roaches fascinated her, especially big ones with long spindly legs. She liked to pull off their legs and watch them spin on their backs or scoot on their bellies. As she reached for the bug, rain came crashing like a string of beads against the window. Promise jumped and peered through the curtain at the bullet-sized drops. She snapped her fingers at the thought of the rain canceling her brother’s funeral. She then realized the rain would close Astroworld. She moped back to the table and rested her face in her hands. Sugar crumbs scratched her elbows. “Sugar water,” Promise said to herself. The pantry door squeaked when Promise opened it. She heard Big Mama grunt and eased the door closed. She tipped over to the sink and pretended to be interested in the dirty dishes in case her grandmother walked into the kitchen. Sweetie Pie chimed and one of her eyes shut--signaling the little water cup that held the doll’s “tears” was empty. Promise put her finger to her lips and mouthed, “hush.” The bell quieted. Promise put her ear to the wall. When Big Mama coughed and bopped the pillows on her bed, Promise knew the old lady was “resting her nerves.” She tipped back to the pantry and twisted the top off the glass sugar barrel. Her jelly glass held half a cup of sugar and half a cup of water. Promise wanted ice cubes. She liked to crunch her teeth into cold sugary cubes. The house was too quiet for her to jiggle the ice trays out of the freezer. Noise hid her “mischievous ways.” A screaming siren muffled the cookie jar’s clinking lid, or the crash of glass breaking. The stereo blasting muted her drum solos with pans and spoons. The radio blaring Big Mama’s “church music” hid the “cuss” words she liked to shout out loud when she thought no one was listening. Promise had to settle with plain ice water poured over the sugar. As she sipped the milky concoction, she thought about what Lakeisha Ann had said about eating too much sugar. Listening to Lakeisha Ann had earned her a lick upside her head.