Excerpts from the Novel THE ROAD TO ASTROWORLD
Promise's Letters to Her Best Friend
Dear LaKeisha Ann:
Do you remember that rainy day, when the rain trapped you in my house, (when the rain was to me like Christmas tinsel and not razor blades), and we played husband and wife? Do you remember that day? My Big Mama dozed in front of the TV as "Another World" flickered in front of her closed eyes. Eric snoozed. The sheets formed a tent from his erection. We watched that tent rise and fall in time with his breathing. I didn't know then, but now I know why we all of a sudden wanted to play husband and wife. The rain fills people with romantic notions. That's why I can forgive a certain bus driver.
We argued over who was going to be the husband coming in from the rain from working hard on the job. You won when you said the husband had to be a boy. Why I thought a woman could be a husband, I don't know. I knew I didn't want to be no boy.
You wore my Mother's colander for a hard hat and a "Ninja Turtles" lunch kit was your tool box. You went outside on the front porch and stood for a few minutes while I pretended to be the wife inside the house washing dishes. You kept coming in before your time and I had to keep sending you out.
"Wait a minute, boy . . . I'm washing dishes . . . No you can't come in yet, I'm watching 'The Young and the Restless' . . . Okay now you can come in 'cause I'm cooking your supper . . ."
You came in and pecked me on the cheek, looked in my pot at the imaginary beans an rice and said they smelled good. Then you said you had to get out of your wet clothes. I said "you can't get naked in the kitchen. You got to go in the bathroom or the bedroom." And you said, "where they at?" And I said, "silly husband, you don't know where your bedroom or bathroom is?" You twisted my arm and made me tell you. Behind a big old blue vinyl dinette chair where Big Mama had some red flower pots, was the bathroom. You said you had never seen a red commode. I said pretend it's white. Underneath the kitchen table was our bedroom.
You went into the "bathroom" and took off all of your clothes for real and pretended to take a shower. I stopped cooking to look at you. You said, "Woman, you can't see when I'm taking a shower because there's a wall there." I said, "the wall fell down. Our bad children knocked it down." You said, Okay you was going to whip them when you got out of the shower. So you got through showering and put a dish towel around your waist and came back into the kitchen and asked which one of our children knocked down the wall? I pointed to my dolls and said all of them did. You told the dolls "I'm going to whip you for knocking down that wall." All the dolls that had on panties, you pulled their panties off and spanked them with your hand. The ones that didn't have on panties, you whipped them harder with an extension cord because they were nasty for not wearing panties and had been doing the "nasty" with some boys.
Then you tried to whip me with the extension cord. But I
told you you couldn't whip me like that because I was a grown woman and your wife. You said okay, but I got to beat you 'cause you let the children tear down the wall and you don't have my supper ready. and I said okay, but a man beats a lady with his fists. You pushed me around and pretended to give me a black eye. I found a Magic marker and drew a half moon under my eye. After you beat me I went out on the porch and acted like I was crying. You came out on the porch still wearing our dish towel. I forgot we was playing and said, "Girl, you can't come out on the porch in a dish towel!" You said a man can go on the porch in a towel or his drawers as long as he ain't naked. I said, Okay.
I pretended to cry some more. I said I was going to go to a woman's shelter. You said, baby come back in the house. I'm sorry I beat you. So we hugged and made up and we went back into the house and I finished cooking your supper. You sat down at the table in the dish towel. I said hold on wait a minute, you can't sit at the table in a towel in front of the children. You said I"m a man, I can do whatever I want. And I said I'm the woman of the house, and I say a man has to be dressed when he eats in front of the children. You never see the daddy on the "Cosby Show" eating in a towel in front of his children. And he don't beat his wife. You said yes he do when nobody's looking.
I started to cry for real and said, "Please LaKeisha Ann, play fair! Yo never want to do things the way I want to do them. And you said, "Shut up, silly bitch. I don't want to be your husband anyway. Next thing, you'll want me to put a carrot between my legs and poke you in your snatch."
You whipped off the dish towel, put on your clothes, and went home. The sun came out and painted the kitchen gold. But all I could do was sit down at the table and cry. I cried and the dolls cried too because they wanted their Daddy. And ever since that day I've been curious about carrots. They served some here the other day and it made me think of you.
PS. I told the story to Big Fingers and he said a carrot is a poor substitute for a man, but he like the part about us playing husband and wife.
I sleep all night. Nobody shoots a gun and I would sleep all day except the blinking lights wakes me up. It’s a red light. It flashes off and on all over my room and over my doll’s faces. The red light makes them look like devils. I think for sure it’s the Police and they done caught the “Leaky Eye.” I jump out of my bed and run to the window. I look through the steel bars and want to see that mean nasty man with his arms stretched to the sky and the police putting their guns in his stomach. But it’s no Leaky Eye. It’s just a policeman with his foot on the bumper of his car. He writes a ticket to a man on a bicycle.
I feel bad. I press my nose to the window and look at the orange leaves on the tree outside my window. I like orange better than green, except green means summer and orange means fall and it’s going to get cold. Well not real cold. Uncle Bobo said Houston winter is like a cold beer in hell. Time you open it, it’s warm as spit. Big Mama get after him for talking about hell. Me personally wouldn’t mind going to hell. Not for long though, just for a minute to see that Devil sticking everybody in the booty with his pitchfork. I bet I would laugh. Mama heard me say that and almost cried Big Mama wanted to beat me, but Mama didn’t let her do that.
My nose makes a greasy dot on the window. I try to look through the dot, but I can’t see the sky. I want to see things this morning and want to go somewhere. I knows where I want to go, but I can’t say the name. It ain’t hell either.
The sun is all orangy too. I can see almost all the way down Lyon’s Avenue where I live. I used to be scared of my street because I thought lions lived on it. That was when I was little. I’m a big girl now. I’m eight. When I was five I got hit by a car because I was scared to pass some bushes. Jonathan told me lions lived in the bushes and that’s why they called our street Lyon’s Avenue. One day Mama sent me to Kwong’s store and I had to walk by these tall weeds. I seen something jump in the bush. Then I seen a big ol’ bushy tail switching in the leaves. I thought it was a lion for real. I ran into the street and a cab car knocked me almost to the end of Lyon’s Avenue. Turned out it was a cat in the bush. Mama almost put Jonathan out the house for getting me scared. Then they told me our street was named after a man named Squatty Lyons. Mama drilled into my head L Y O N S not L I O N S. She made my head hurt, but I wasn’t scared of the street no more. I’m glad they didn’t name it Squatty. I wouldn’t want to live on no street named that. Squatty sound like something you do when you go to the bathroom.
There goes LaKeisha Ann’s mangy mutt bouncing on his three legs left. The other one got drug off by a car that hit him. He knows if he catch his tail and bite it, he’s going to holler. Big Mama says he got his no sense from the Jackson’s. Lakeisha Ann’s people is the Jackson’s. Lakeisha Ann’s mama write poems. She wrote them all over the place until they put her in jail for writing on the side of one of the project buildings. Now she write them on paper and paste them all over the walls in her house. She say in a poem the projects look like glazed cakes. Big Mama says Mrs. Jackson is a fool. But Paradise Valley do kind of look like big brown gingerbread cakes to me. I don’t know why they call the projects Paradise Valley. It don’t look nothing like the valley the Green Giant live in. I bet Astroworld…Oops I wasn’t supposed to say that word. I can’t say that word this morning or I might get a whipping. Shoot! I’m a say it anyway . I’m going to say it loud. As loud as my breath can whisper it. “Astroworld, Astroworld, baby girl!”
I hear voices outside my door, so I got to stop saying Astroworld.” It’s Big Mama talking to my Mama. I hear her feet scraping the floor. She moving down the hall like she carrying something heavy. There goes the bathroom door creaking and closing. I’m safe now.
I look out my window again. The tree got a bird in it the color of Sweetie Pie’s eyes. The sun is shining and everything outside looks like a coloring book. I have to say that word that I ain’t supposed to say. I have to say it. Maybe Mama be in a good mood. I throw on my pink robe. My hand brush the stiff white dress hanging on the door knob, but I don’t pay it no mind. I run to my Mama’s room.
“Mama, can I still go to Astroworld today? You said so last week.”
My Mama stop in the middle of combing her hair. A fist full of her hair stands up straight from her head like a rooster’s tail. I don’t look at Mama’s eyes. I look over at Nettie curled and slobbering on a towel across Mama’s bed. Nettie smile at me and grunt. I don’t think she really smiling at me. I thinks she just smile because that’s all her retarded self know how to do. Uncle Bobo say she’d smile at a snake coming at her. Mama don’t like it when Bobo say that. Nettie’s thick arms is folded around Sweetie Pie so tight her blue eyes bug out like they going to pop out all over the floor. Mama goes back to combing her hair.
“Nettie is killing Sweetie Pie,” I say to Mama.
“Nettie ain’t hurting that doll. 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”
I hunch up my shoulders. Mama’s voice raises to a screech about to turn into a scream. I know she mad when she compare me to Nettie.
“But Mama, I’m tired of going to funerals,” I tell her. “The policeman’s have Daddy all chained up between them. That man in them robes be just hollering at us . . .”
Mama says “Preacher,” to correct me. I get all them kind of men confused in my head. Preacher, Priest, Pope all look the same to me. I keep on talking and pleading with Mama. Sometimes you can just wear her out and she give you what you want.
“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.” Big Mama’s voice comes through the wall next to Mama’s bed.
Mama roll her eyes at the spot in the wall where the voice had come. She looks at me.
“I haven’t seen you shed nary a tear for Jonathan.”
I stare down at my feet.
“He thought about you in this letter he wrote before he died.” Mama searches underneath some papers on her dresser and pulls out a sheet of lined notebook paper. Her hands tremble like leaves when she reads:
Little Sister I love you with all my heart, but I’m going to leave you soon. You must do like your name says and Promise to 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
While Mama reads that letter I twirl the belt hanging off my robe. I think I smell smoke. I look out Mama’s window at the old Barbecue pit Big Mama used to burn the rags after she cleaned Jonathan. Wind get in the ashes and flutters them up. And the whiff of smoke comes in the window.
When Jonathan first got sick Big Mama wore a mask when she cleaned him. But she stopped that after she looked in the mirror one day and liked to scared herself to death. I’d watch her back while she burned them rags. Big mama looked like the devil’s wife with her hair standing all over her head and that fire crackling up in front of her. She could feel my eyes on her back. When she turn around, I’m looking up pretending to be studying the moon.
Mama calls my name. The letter she holding is limp like a rag.
“Mama, I do cry for him,” I say to Mama.
“When?” she asks.
“When you ain’t looking.”
Mama grunts, puts the letter back on the dresser, and goes back to combing her hair. “Girl, go get yourself ready for Jonathan’s funeral. I have something for you to do.”
“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,” Mama says.
“A flock of gals—even them older gals is having girl children,” Big Mama says through the wall. Mama look at the wall and then at me.
“Don’t ask me nothing else about Astroworld. You hear me, Promise?”
“Gal, how can you talk about going to some kind of carnival like a heathen? You forget your Brother’s funeral is today? Big Mama appears in the doorway wearing her gray wig. Her big glasses about to fall off her nose. The glass part looks like wax paper. Jonathan said she didn’t need sunglasses, because them glasses so cloudy. She got her robe bunched up at the neck like she trying to keep something out of her chest or keep something in it. Her brown stockings is tied in knots below her knees. Mama speaks up for me. She always most times do the opposite things Big Mama say or do.
“Promise ain’t but eight, Mama, she don’t understand these things. 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.”
I hate when Big Mama calls me an imp. LaKeisha Ann says an imp is 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.”
“My Lord, you hear that?” Big Mama moans. “That child is sassy this morning.”
“Girl, go eat and get yourself ready,” Mama hollers
I huff and snatch Sweetie Pie from Nettie. I scoot past Big Mama’s raised right arm. By the time them two call my name, I’m passing through the living room. “Funerals!” I stick my tongue out at my dead brothers. Somebody always making a funeral. I plop down at the kitchen table and sit Sweetie Pie in the chair next to me. I don’t like her one eyed look so I grab her and shake her until both eyes pop open. I throw her back in her chair. Everything makes me mad. The stove popping and the refrigerator humming like a thousand flies made me want to throw my shoes at them. I want to knock Nettie’s blue eyeglasses and Big Mama’s ol’ red coffee cup to the floor and mash them together until they nothing but powder. The wall starts thumping and that makes me madder.
On the other side of the wall is where Lakeisha Ann and all her sisters live. LaKeisha Ann called me a silly bitch the other day and now got nerve to be bumping my wall. I wish I could stick a knife through it, but all I can do is make the ugliest face I can at the wall. We fussed over whether Sugar Face was cuter than 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 whores 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.”
“Then your old mangy dog is ugly.”
“At least Chester is real. That doll ain’t real, silly bitch.”
I wish LaKeisha Ann could see the face I makes. It would scare the black off of her.
I need somebody to make me feel good. I take Sweetie Pie over to the sink, open her back and fill her up with water. Then I hold her in my arms and squeeze her until water tears run down her face. “LaKeisha Ann don’t know nothing,” I tell Sweetie Pie as I rock her in my arms.
The television from the Jackson’s apartment blares up before somebody turns down. The portable TV in our kitchen sits on a stack of telephone books on the drain-board. Mama and Jonathan used to watch All My Children on it until Jonathan got real sick and couldn’t make sense out of nothing. The screen’s black and greasy like somebody’s ugly face. I won’t call that somebody’s name no more. She don’t need no name. I want to turn it on the TV and watch cartoons, But Big Mama say nobody touch it for respect to Jonathan. The whole house got to act like it’s dead because Jonathan is dead. I bang my fist on the table. Big Mama and Mama’s voice come in the kitchen through the wall. They sound like cats do when Uncle Bobo throw hot grease at them. I feel like pins is sticking in me.
For a house that supposed to be quiet, it’s sure making a lot of noise. I hear a rat scratching in the garbage can. I grab the broom and throw it at the can. The rat come tumbling out and runs behind the stove. “Be quiet in there,” Big Mama hollers.
The rat make me think of the woman who kissed me last night at Jonathan’s wake. The woman’s coat was brown with a loose black belt that hung down her backside like a tail. Her voice was likes bells that never stop.
“Poor baby, you done lost your last Brother . . . Marsha, try not to take it so hard . . . Child, even rich boys die from AIDS . . . The white woman I worked for, her son died from the same thing . . .”
The woman’s breath stink like Uncle Bobo’s when he’s full of wine and tries to kiss me. Mama frowns while the woman’s bells keep ringing. I think Mama going to fight the woman, but instead she brush powder off my cheek and say to the woman, “Miss Ella, my Mother is over there.” Mama points in the direction of Big Mama who is being fanned by her Church Ladies.
I don’t know why people have to talk so much. They could have just went and looked at Jonathan and sat down like I did.
Our refrigerator knocks and then hums. I open it and get the milk from besides Big Mama’s plate of ugly pigtails. I hope the milk ain’t sour. They say cheese is sour milk, but I don’t believe it. Sour milk ain’t orange. Just stinks. Stinks to high heaven the white lady say who come and inspect our apartment. Heaven is way up high. I wonder if Jonathan still flying to heaven? He died on Thursday. Miss Bloom my science teacher say it takes seven years to get to Saturn. They say heaven way on the other side of Saturn. Maybe he be there by the time I get married. Big Mama say she got married at sixteen. When I get sixteen I’m going to marry Sugar Face. He gonna be a good husband. Ain’t gonna be like these crazy men around here that beat up women and go to jail. Mrs. Jackson half crazy ‘cause her husband hit on her with an iron. Jonathan said he was trying to iron the naps out of Mrs. Jackson’s head. Mama say he put more trouble in her head. She say a man come in this world to put trouble in a woman’s head.
I pour the milk too fast and it spill off the cereal over the bowl and on the table. I pretend Sweetie Pie did it. I would whip her, but the milk puddle shaped like a flower petal. Big Mama say this how the milk runs through heaven—except the milk’s mixed with honey. The honey might be okay, but a waterfall of orange soda water would be tastier. And what if the milk be sour like ours be sometime? All them angels swimming in it would be stinky. Grown-ups don’t think about that. They just talk about lambs and lions laying down on the same bed of leaves. I bet they wouldn’t lay down either. Lambs be eating grass and lions come and eat them. That’s how it is on TV and in Africa too, Bobo says. Uncle Bobo say the lions in the zoo too lazy. He say niggas ought to be in the zoo laying on rocks and eating peanuts and hay, and lions ought to be out in the street running things. I think me and Sweetie Pie got more sense than Uncle Bobo with all that crazy talk.
If me and Sweetie Pie lived in heaven we would make the lions eat up the Leaky Eye Now that would make sense. Or either me and Jonathan be in our angel clothes scoot in heaven on the motorcycle he wanted but never had, and throw rocks at the Leaky Eye’s big head. I want to ask Big Mama if I have wait ‘til I get to Heaven before I can be an angel, but all that yelling on the other side of the wall make me change my mind. She did say Jonathan was 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. He made me and Sweetie Pie laugh whooping around the house like a Indian saying that was Big Mama speaking in tongues. I think they going to have Jonathan’s funeral at Big Mama’s church. I hope he jump out of his casket and act like all them fools speaking in in them tongues. He said they sounded like a bunch of drunks speaking pig Latin dipped in collard green juice.
I get caught up in thinking about Jonathan and start to whoop around the kitchen. “What you doing in there, gal?” Big Mama’s voice is sharp. “Don’t make me come in there with a switch.” I creep back to my chair and ease Sweetie down.
“Pig latin dipped in collard green juice—Jonathan was right.”
The cereal done turned to mush. I push the bowl away and watch a roach run to the spilled milk. Now he going to make my day. I fish in my pocket and pull out a safety pin. I wait ‘til he good and happy lapping at the milk. His antennas twitching like a baby’s legs. Then down go the safety pin right in the middle of his back. His wings flare up like fans and he turn from the milk. He turn all the way around, but he can’t go nowhere. I take the edge of the spoon and chop half off of each one of his legs. Then I let him go. He try to run but he keeps toppling over. Wings beat like a bunch of fans. Then he stops and his antennas slow down like he’s going to sleep. I stick him in the back with the safety pin. He dance all over again. He stumbles toward some sugar crumbs, stops and acts like he wants to eat one, but I think the pain in his legs make him forget the sweet sugar and he kind of dives on through tumbling to the end of the table. I stick him again in his back and the pin sticks to the table. He stuck good and ain’t going nowhere. “Sugar water,” I say to myself.
I tip over to the pantry. The door squeaks and I think I hear Big Mama grunt from her room. I ease the door closed and go stand by the dirty dishes in the sink. I put my fingers to my lips and hush up Sweetie Pie. Then I hear Big Mama moan and bop the pillows on her bed. I know she laying down to “rest her nerves.” I tip back to the pantry and twist the top off the glass sugar barrel. I scoop out half and pour it into a big jelly glass. I want ice cubes, but the house too quiet for me to get ice cubes out the tray. I need noise to be me. Sirens hide me opening cookies or if I break a glass. Big Mama’s church music on the radio hides the cuss words I like to shout out. One day I almost got caught. The radio up real loud a woman is crying about Jesus. I holler “bitch” real loud. Big Mama come in the kitchen and look at her radio real hard. Then she look at me. She don’t look at Nettie sitting at the table looking like a drunk fool. Nettie make a screech noise. Big Mama turn the radio down and shuffle on out the room. I whisper low a whole bunch of cuss words at Big Mama’s back. Only noise I got now is a big rain outside. The wind beats it against the window like hands clapping.
My teeth grinds the sugar. It sounds like somebody rubbing sand on the floor. I think about what Lakeisha Ann said about eating too much sugar and how listening to her got me into trouble.
“You can die from eating too much sugar,” LaKeisha Ann had said to me. We had snuck a cup of sugar water from my kitchen and was sitting on the back porch of my house. We watched the ants trying to swim through the syrup.
“How sugar going to kill you? It tastes good. That’s what they make candy out of,” I argued back wither her.
“They say my Big Mama had too much sugar in her and that’s why she died. Why you think they call it Sugar die beats?”
“You said your Big Mama had heart attacks.”
“I’m talking about my other big Mama.”
“Girl, sugar can’t kill you.”
“Eat that cupful then,” LaKeisha Ann said.
“I did last night. I drank a whole cup last night,” I lied to her.
“I didn’t see you.”
“You ain’t got to see me do everything. You ain’t seen me have a baby either, but I had one.”
“Your Aunty had that baby. It wasn’t yours. You don’t even know how to have a baby. You probably think you sit on a toilet stool and have a baby.”
“I had it for my Aunty. You ain’t got to see everything I do. I ate a whole bowl of sugar last night. You can ask my Brother Jonathan. It didn’t do nothin’ to me.”
“I ain’t going to ask your stinky brother nothing,” LaKeisha Ann said before she jumped on her own porch and slammed her screen door.
That night behind her back, I poured a whole sugar bowl of sugar into Big Mama’s night mug of coffee. She put her own two spoonfuls of sugar and went to stirring. She stirred it until it looked like syrup. She looked funny at the coffee and took a sip and spit it out. She slapped me like she knowed I did it and called me a damned fool. She didn’t keel over and die from anything. Lakeisha Ann don’t know everything.
“Gal, you hurry up with that breakfast. I can hear you moping. I’m counting to ten!” Big Mama shouts into the kitchen. I stick my tongue out at Big Mama’s room. The roach is still stuck to the table with the safety pin. I pick up Big Mama’s coffee mug, flip it over, and cover the roach. I press the cup to the table and listen to the roach making noise like paper rattling.
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