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Authors: Barbara O'Connor

Taking Care of Moses

BOOK: Taking Care of Moses
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For Janet Zade
with thanks for all you do
and all you are
R
andall Mackey had a secret. He knew who left the baby in the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
He worried and worried about the secret, not knowing whether or not he should tell someone. But Randall was afraid that if he told even one person, something bad might happen to Queenie.
His worry felt like a hot, heavy blanket, covering him from head to toe. After worrying for three days, Randall decided the answer was no. He wouldn't tell anyone. Not even Jaybird.
“What's wrong with you, anyway?” Jaybird said, poking Randall with his pointy elbow.
“Nothing,” Randall said, hoping Jaybird couldn't see the worry that was jumping around inside him.
“Then how come you acting so weird?”
“I'm not acting weird.”
“Yeah, you are, too.”
Randall dropped three peanuts into his soda bottle. Plunk, plunk, plunk, fizz.
Randall and Jaybird sat on a tattered blue tarp under Jaybird's front porch. It was cool and damp under there. They could look out at the world through the spaces in the crisscrossed wood of the rotting lattice that surrounded the porch. They could see who came and went at Jaybird's house. Could identify them by their shoes, going up or down the steps.
When they saw Althea's plaid sneakers stop at the bottom of the steps, they sat as still as statues, not making a sound.
“Preacher Ron said that baby has the grippe,” Althea called out into the air.
Randall and Jaybird sat frozen, grinning at each other. Blinking. Quiet.
Althea's face appeared outside the latticework. She peered into the darkness under the porch.
“I
said
, Preacher Ron said that baby has the grippe,” she hollered.
“What's ‘the grippe'?” Randall asked, ignoring Jaybird's elbow jab. Randall and Jaybird had made a pact never to speak one word to Althea again. But Randall couldn't help it. He wanted to know about the baby.
“How should I know?” Althea said. She stuck her chewing gum under the steps and skipped down the
crumbling sidewalk toward the street. But then she stopped. She came back over to the porch and squatted down, peering through the lattice again. “That baby has a hammertoe, too,” she said.
Jaybird crawled over to the lattice. “You don't know nothing about nothing,” he said. “Get your ugly self out of here before I'm forced to spit on you again.”
Althea stood up and jabbed the toe of her shoe into the red dirt, sending dust and gravel spewing into the fort.
“And that baby's got scaly worm,” she said.
Randall crawled over to the lattice and tried to see Althea's face. All he could see was her skinny brown legs. “Did Preacher Ron say that?” he asked.
“Maybe.” Then Althea skipped off down the sidewalk and out of sight.
“She lies bigger than anything,” Jaybird said, still peering out through the lattice. Then he whirled around to face Randall. “I thought we wasn't gonna talk to her no more,” he said.
Randall didn't answer. He stretched out on the blue tarp and looked up at the wooden boards of the porch above them. Sometimes Althea dropped things through the cracks. Raisins or gum wrappers or chicken bones. Once she poured cherry Kool-Aid down on their heads, making Jaybird scurry out from under the porch and pinch her. Hard.
Randall Mackey was grateful for Jaybird Gilley. All of Randall's other friends had moved away, one by one. And each time one family moved out, a black family moved in. Before long, the Mackeys were the only white family left on Woodmont Street. Randall had needed to make a new friend, but it seemed like the black kids who moved into his old friends' houses weren't much interested in him.
But Jaybird was different. The very first day the Gilleys moved in, Jaybird had spotted Randall and had hollered, “I got a secret fort. You wanna see it?”
Randall had dashed across the street and crawled up under the porch with Jaybird. They had scooped the damp earth with their hands to make a comfortable place to sit. Then they had watched Jaybird's aunts and uncles and cousins and stepbrothers carry furniture and boxes up the steps and into the house. Jaybird had put a name to each and every pair of shoes. Cousin Eula Mae in the blue flip-flops. Uncle Irving in the dirty work boots. Stepbrother Curtis in the high-top sneakers.
Randall had never seen so many people in one family. He hadn't had that much fun in a long time. But best of all, he had watched Jaybird's little sister, Althea, try and try to join them in their fort under the porch. But no sooner had she poked one leg up under there than Jaybird smacked her with a yardstick. Hard.
Althea had yanked her leg back and hollered, “Dang, doggit, you, Jaybird. I'm tellin'!”
“No you ain't, you little she-devil,” Jaybird had called out through the lattice. “'Cause you're a chick, chick, chicken.”
Then that leg of hers had started kicking at them so fast Jaybird couldn't even hit it with the yardstick.
Randall had never heard kids talk as peculiar as Jaybird and Althea. And he had never seen such hitting and kicking. He was delighted. Randall didn't have a brother or sister. He could only dream about smacking someone's leg with a yardstick.
Now their fort under the Gilleys' porch was all fixed up with a blue tarp, an assortment of supplies (like playing cards and saltine crackers), and a shoebox full of gravel for hurling at Althea.
“You think that baby really has a hammertoe?” Randall said.
Jaybird shook his head. “Naw.”
“Maybe that's why that baby got left there for Preacher Ron to find,” Randall said. “'Cause he's got so many things wrong with him that couldn't even his mama fix him.”
“Naw,” Jaybird said. “That don't sound right.”
“Why else would someone leave a baby like that?”
Jaybird shrugged. “Just didn't want him, I reckon.” He tossed his soda bottle into the plastic milk crate he
and Randall used to haul stuff to the fort. “I wonder who left that baby, anyway,” he said.
Randall's stomach clumped up into a knot. He kept his face away from Jaybird and dug his feet into the cool, damp dirt along the edge of the house.
Randall Mackey had a secret. He knew who left the baby in the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
R
andall had thought about telling his secret to Mr. Avery, but then he decided not to. He figured Mr. Avery probably had enough stuff to worry about now that his wife, Queenie, was acting so peculiar.
Mr. Avery was the custodian at Thomas and Sons Insurance Agency where Randall's father worked. Ever since Randall was little, Queenie had loved his drawings. She taped them on the walls of the Averys' tiny apartment in the basement of the insurance agency. She taped them on the cupboards and doors and windows. She always told Randall he had a gift.
“You got a real gift, Randall,” she'd say. “And you know what? Can't nobody take your gift away from you. That's the best kind, isn't it?”
Randall would smile and blush and feel good about himself and his gift.
But then something strange started happening to
Queenie. Sometimes when Randall came to visit, she called him Monroe.
Randall would say, “You mean Randall.”
At first Queenie would say, “Randall. Yes, that's what I mean. Randall.”
But after a while, when he said, “You mean Randall,” Queenie would cock her head and squint at him. She'd grin and say, “You're just teasin' me, right, Monroe?”
Mr. Avery told Randall that Monroe was Queenie's brother, who had died twenty years ago.
Then one day Queenie went to the beauty parlor in her nightgown. Agnes Worthy had phoned Mr. Avery to come and get her because she was talking crazy and hollering at all the ladies sitting under the hair dryers. Agnes told Randall's mother that Queenie had been drunk.
But Randall's mother said, “Why, I've never known Queenie Avery to touch a drop of liquor in her life.” She shook her head and said, “Isn't that strange?”
Then things got worse. Queenie ate cat food. Queenie used swear words in church. Queenie wouldn't change her clothes. Not even to sleep. And then Queenie started wandering. Right out the back door of Thomas and Sons Insurance Agency and clear on down the street until Mr. Avery went running after her and brought her home again.
Queenie would look at Mr. Avery with wide, surprised eyes and say, “Well, hello, mister.” That's what she called him. Mister. Long after she stopped knowing who anybody was anymore—even folks she'd known her whole life—she knew Mr. Avery. And she always called him mister.
After a while, folks started telling Mr. Avery that Queenie shouldn't stay in the basement apartment with him anymore. They said Queenie belonged in a special place where she could get the care she needed.
Whenever anybody said that, Mr. Avery got mad. “I can take care of Queenie. We been taking care of each other for forty-seven years.”
The ladies from the Rock of Ages Baptist Church would sit on Mr. Avery's tattered sofa, sipping iced tea and talking in soft voices.
“But, Felton,” they'd say, “Queenie's in a bad way. She might wander off and get lost or hurt. You wouldn't want that, now, would you?”
But Mr. Avery wouldn't listen. So folks took turns staying with Queenie while Mr. Avery worked upstairs in the insurance agency. And every Sunday someone stayed with her so Mr. Avery could go to church.
But more and more, folks wagged their heads and muttered about poor old Mr. Avery and pitiful little Queenie and how something really needed to be done. They told Mr. Avery that if Queenie kept wandering off
like that, he was going to have to send her away to a special home so she would be safe.
Randall felt bad for Mr. Avery. He wished he could do something to make him feel better. So he kept bringing his drawings over to their basement apartment, even though Queenie called him Monroe all the time now. Sometimes Mr. Avery looked really sad, and once he said to Randall, “If my Queenie gets sent away, I might as well lay down and die.”
So when Randall had seen Queenie shuffling up Woodmont Street in the dark, he got scared. He didn't know what to do. He was supposed to go straight home from Jaybird's house after supper. Jaybird's mama had called Randall's house and said he was on his way home. Randall had seen the front porch light flick on at his house. He knew his mama was waiting. She would be spitting mad if he didn't come home right away.
“Queenie,” Randall had called out in a loud whisper.
But Queenie had kept on walking, right up the middle of the street, clutching her big red purse. Her thin nightgown clung to her bony legs. She wore high-heeled shoes that flopped on her feet and made scuffling noises on the asphalt street.
She turned the corner at Randall's house and kept walking toward town. Randall stopped at the corner. He
looked at his house, then he looked at Queenie, getting farther and farther away. His thoughts were yanking him back and forth. Home. Queenie. Home. Queenie.
Randall raced up the street after Queenie. She had turned onto Cold Creek Road, heading toward the church. The sound of her scuffling high heels echoed in the still night air. By the time Randall caught up with her, she had stopped to watch moths fluttering around the dim streetlight. Randall started to say something, but a noise made him and Queenie both look over at the church. And that's when Randall saw who left the baby in the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
Of course, he didn't
know
there was a baby in the box. The person who left the box didn't look at Randall or Queenie. The person just set the box down and ran away, disappearing into the night.
Before Randall could get his head to settle down and think about what was going on, he heard footsteps on the sidewalk behind him. He turned to see a flashlight bobbing in the darkness toward him.
“Queenie?” Mr. Avery called out in a trembling voice.
Queenie smiled and said, “Hello, mister.”
Mr. Avery draped his ratty old sweater over her shoulders and said, “Come on home now, Queenie.”
And then he saw Randall. His whole face dropped down so droopy and sad that Randall felt a stab inside himself.
“Hey, Randall,” Mr. Avery said. “I didn't expect to see you out here so late.”
“I ate supper at Jaybird's,” Randall said.
“Oh.”
Mr. Avery and Randall looked down at their feet. Queenie started humming.
“Queenie was looking for that mangy old cat that's been hanging around our place,” Mr. Avery said.
“Oh,” Randall said.
If a lie could come alive, like a living, breathing thing, Mr. Avery's lie would have danced all around them out there under the stars in the middle of the street.
And when Randall looked at Mr. Avery's face in the shadowy glow of the streetlight, he could see all the words that Mr. Avery didn't say. “Please don't tell anyone you saw Queenie wandering out here like this,” his face said. “They want to send Queenie away,” it said. “But I need her to stay with me.”
And Randall hoped that his own face showed the words that he didn't say: “I won't tell anyone that I saw Queenie wandering out here like this.”
And then Randall heard his mama calling his name, loud and irritated from his front porch.
So he said goodbye and ran toward home. When he got to the corner, he turned to look back. Mr. Avery and Queenie were walking slowly, arm in arm. The sound of Queenie's humming and scuffling grew fainter and fainter.
Mrs. Mackey had been really mad that Randall hadn't come straight home. He had wanted to borrow Mr. Avery's lie about the cat. “I was looking for a cat,” he had wanted to say. But Randall was a terrible liar. So he just said, “Sorry.”
He had gone to bed that night thinking about Queenie and knowing for sure he wasn't going to tell anybody that he had seen her wandering in the street in her nightgown.
But the next day, Randall found out something that made his stomach squeeze up into a worry ball. Preacher Ron had found the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church. And inside the box was a baby! A squealing, gurgling baby. Tucked inside the box with the baby was a note. “Please take care of me,” it read.
And then the whole town of Foley, South Carolina, began to buzz. “Who in the world left that baby?” they buzzed. “Where on earth did this child come from?” they said.
Randall knew right away that he had a problem. If he told anyone that he had seen who left the baby
in the cardboard box, wouldn't he have to tell about Queenie, too? Wouldn't somebody say, “What in tarnation were you doing way over at the church at night like that?”
Yes, somebody surely would. And Randall couldn't tell the truth. If he told the truth, somebody might send Queenie away. And then Mr. Avery would lay down and die.
If he couldn't tell the truth, then he would have to tell a lie. And Randall was a terrible liar. That just left one choice. Randall Mackey would have to keep his secret all to himself.
BOOK: Taking Care of Moses
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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