hat Sunday Randall sat between his mother and father in the middle of the third row on the right side of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church. He had been coming to this church for eleven years, his whole life, and had never sat anywhere else. One time Jaybird tried to get him to sit with the Gilleys in the sixth row on the left side, but Randall said no.
Randall was glad the Gilleys had decided to join the Rock of Ages Baptist Church. Mrs. Gilley had needed a church that she and Jaybird and Althea could walk to, since she didn't drive and Mr. Gilley wasn't much of a churchgoer. But then she found out that none of the other black folks on Woodmont Street went there. In fact, no other black folks went there at all.
“I don't know, Iris,” Mrs. Gilley had said to Randall's mother. “Maybe we should go on over to Southside Baptist where my sister goes.”
“Well, that's just plumb crazy, Lottie,” Mrs. Mackey had said. “That church is clear over in Duncan Springs. How are y'all gonna get there? Besides, the Rock of Ages Baptist Church prides itself on being âthe little church with the big heart,'” Mrs. Mackey had told her, quoting the sign on the wall behind the organ. “Your family is welcome in our church.”
So now every Sunday Mrs. Gilley and Jaybird and Althea sat in the sixth row on the left side of the tiny brick church on Cold Creek Road.
While the offering plate was passed around, Randall glanced back at the Gilleys. Jaybird looked stiff and miserable in his brown suit and green tie, but Althea looked happy as anything. Her braids stuck up every which way and wiggled as she bobbed her head in time to the music. Her fingers played an invisible organ on the back of the pew in front of her.
When Mr. Avery started snoring, Althea clamped her hands over her mouth and glanced gleefully around her to see if anyone else had noticed. If they had, they didn't let on. Most everyone figured Mr. Avery needed some rest after cleaning the insurance agency and taking care of Queenie every day.
“BROTHERS and SISTERS,” Preacher Ron shouted, making Randall jump. “I speak to you now of BROTHERLY LOVE.” Preacher Ron said the last two words slow and loud, then paused for a long time. The room
was quiet except for the soft rustle of paper as folks fanned themselves with their church bulletins.
Randall doodled in a small spiral notebook in his lap. He didn't really listen to Preacher Ron's sermon, but every now and then one of those loud words would bust through and interrupt his doodling. SALVATION. DESPAIR. GLORY. INFANT.
Infant? Randall looked up. Preacher Ron was sweating. He loosened his tie and leaned over the pulpit. “Somewhere in our little town of Foley, South Carolina, lives a troubled soul,” he said.
Randall's mother nodded. “That's right,” she said softly.
“Somewhere in our little town of Foley, South Carolina,” Preacher Ron went on, “lives a troubled soul in NEED of a flock.”
Mrs. Mackey nodded bigger. “That's right,” she said again.
“And WE are that flock.” Preacher Ron banged on the pulpit.
Someone in the back of the church hollered out, “Amen!”
Randall's stomach flipped and flopped while Preacher Ron told the congregation all about the baby in the cardboard box. How the box had been left on the steps of the church. How that was surely a sign that the flock of brothers and sisters of the church must embrace the
baby and seek out the troubled soul who had given the baby to them.
Folks called out “Yes, brother,” and “Praise be,” but Randall sat still and quiet. He watched his mother's hands, folded in her lap. Her fingers were short and plump, white and freckled. Then Randall looked down at his father's feet, planted firmly on the dusty wooden floor. His black shoes were scuffed and worn. He tapped his toe when the Celebration Choir sang “Love Lifted Me.”
After the service, Randall waited for Jaybird outside the Fellowship Hall behind the church.
Jaybird limped toward Randall. “I don't care what Mama says,” he said, “I'm taking these dang shoes off.” He untied his shiny brown oxfords and yanked them off.
“I'm tellin',” Althea sang out as she skipped up the sidewalk toward them.
“Like I care, you creeping crud ball.” Jaybird wiggled his toes inside his socks. His skinny ankles stuck out from beneath the cuffs of his trousers.
Althea stuck her chin in the air. “I'm going in to see the baby 'cause Mrs. Jennings said I could baby-sit.”
“Babies can't baby-sit babies,” Jaybird said. “Right, Randall?”
Althea turned her cool gaze to Randall.
“Right,” he said, bracing for whatever pain Althea was about to inflict on him.
She stomped the heel of her patent leather shoe on his foot. Then she skipped off down the sidewalk and into the Fellowship Hall.
Randall and Jaybird followed her into the cinder block building. Inside, it was hot and noisy and smelled like coffee and after-shave. Grownups stood in clusters or sat on folding metal chairs and talked while kids darted in and out, snatching brownies and pound cake from the tables that lined the walls.
Randall followed Jaybird through the crowd to where a group of women huddled. Right in the middle of the huddle sat Althea, holding a tiny baby.
“Look,” she said, pushing back the pale yellow blanket to reveal the dark brown face of the sleeping baby. “His name is Moses. Ain't that perfect?” she said. “Like in the bulrushes and all?”
“Says who?” Jaybird snapped.
“Says me,” a voice behind them said.
Randall and Jaybird looked up at the smiling face of Mrs. Charlotte Jennings, the preacher's wife.
“A baby's got to have a name, right, boys?” she said.
Althea rocked the baby back and forth. Her petticoat made a swish-swish noise against the metal chair.
“What are you going to do with it?” Jaybird asked.
Mrs. Jennings said. “The baby is a
. And I'm going to swaddle him in the brotherly love of the church until such time as the troubled soul who has forsaken him comes forward to reclaim him. Like a lost LAMB, he has come to us.”
Jaybird looked at Randall and Randall looked at Jaybird. Mrs. Jennings was as good at preaching as her husband, sprinkling her conversation with those loud words like that.
“How are you going to find the troubled soul?” Jaybird asked.
Randall's heart beat fast inside his stiff Sunday shirt. He wondered if his secret showed on his face because the voice inside his head kept hollering, “I know who the troubled soul is.”
Mrs. Jennings smiled down at the baby in Althea's lap. “We will BIDE our time and hope that LOVE shows the way,” she said.
Randall tugged on the sleeve of Jaybird's jacket. “Let's go get some pound cake,” he said.
That night, Randall tore a page out of his sketchbook, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it into his wastebasket. Babies were hard to draw. Randall could draw just about anything. But babies were hard to draw.
Instead of a baby, Randall drew a wagon. Then he drew a cardboard box inside the wagon. Then he drew
a tall woman with wild black hair looking into the box. He tried to draw a floppy straw hat on her head, but it looked funny. He erased so much the picture was beginning to smudge. Instead of a hat, Randall put a bow in her wild black hair. He carefully tore the page out of his sketchbook. Usually he saved his drawings for Mr. Avery and Queenie. But not this one. This one he folded into a small square. Then he opened his underwear drawer and pushed the square of folded paper way down under his socks.
He kneeled beside his bed and said his prayers. He ended the same way he always did. “And please watch over â¦”Then he went through his usual list of the people he thought needed to be watched over. (Sometimes Althea was on the list and sometimes she wasn't.) But this time Randall added a new name. Moses.
know somethin' you don't know,” Althea sang.
Randall looked at Jaybird.
“Don't pay her no mind,” Jaybird said. “She's just trying to get us riled up.”
“I know somethin' you don't know,” Althea sang again. She waved a garden hose in a figure eight, sending water plopping down onto the porch above Randall and Jaybird. It was so hot out that they didn't mind the cool water dripping through the cracks onto their heads.
“Hey, Althea,” Jaybird hollered through the crisscrossed wood of the lattice. “Go tell somebody who gives a hoot.”
Althea brought the hose over to the porch and sprayed water onto the ground, turning the red dirt into goopy red mud.
“Okay,” she said. “I'll go find somebody who wants
to hear all about how Mrs. Charlotte Jennings and Miss Frieda got into it big time, and Miss Frieda called Mrs. Jennings a nosy do-gooder.”
Jaybird held a finger to his lips and said “Shhhhh” to Randall.
“And I bet I know plenty of people who want me to tell them about how Mrs. Jennings said âShut up' to Miss Frieda and then she said she was gonna pray for her. Then she had to push Miss Frieda's foot out of the door so she could slam it.”
Randall grinned at Jaybird. Jaybird sure was good at tricking Althea into telling stuff.
Althea swished her feet around in the puddle of dirty water beside the porch.
“And I'm gonna make somebody real happy when I tell 'em all about how them two ladies were fighting about Moses,” she went on.
Randall scurried out from under the porch.
“Why were they fighting about Moses?” he said.
“I ain't telling you, you dirty rotten nose picker,” Althea said. She aimed the hose at Randall's feet, splattering red mud up his legs.
“Come on, Althea,” he said. “How come they were fighting about Moses?”
Althea flicked the hose, sending water into the air and then splashing down on Randall's head.
“Who told you that anyway?” Randall said.
Jaybird crawled out from under the porch and tugged on Randall's arm. “Let's go,” he said. “She don't know nothing.”
“I know Miss Frieda had a hissy fit on Mrs. Jennings's front porch 'cause I saw her,” Althea said. “Mama give me some baby clothes to take over there, and I seen everything with my own two eyes, and I heard everything with my own two ears.” She kicked water at Jaybird.
“But why were they fighting about Moses?” Randall asked again.
“'Cause Miss Frieda wants to take him away from Preacher Ron and Mrs. Jennings,” Althea said.
Althea shrugged. “Just wants to, I reckon.”
“That don't make no sense, Althea,” Jaybird said.
“Uh-huh.” Althea twirled the hose around in circles, hopping over the water like it was a jump rope. “Miss Frieda says
the foster mama.
gets the babies, not Mrs. Jennings.”
“Let's go over to Miss Frieda's,” Randall said to Jaybird. “Maybe T.J. knows what's going on.”
They climbed over the chain link fence behind the Gilleys' house and raced up the alley to Sycamore Road. Miss Frieda lived in a duplex, her on one side and her sister, Earlene, on the other. Jaybird knocked on Miss Frieda's rickety screen door. Inside, a baby was
crying. Somebody hollered, “Clean that up off the floor right now, you hear me?”
Two small boys came out of Earlene's side and stared at Jaybird and Randall.
“Is T.J. home?” Jaybird asked.
Just then Miss Frieda's screen door burst open and T.J. ran out.
Someone hollered from inside the house, “Tyrone Jamal, get yourself back in here before I come out there and make you sorry for what you done.”
T.J. leaped off the porch, brushing past Randall and Jaybird, and disappeared around the back of the house.
Miss Frieda came out on the porch with a rolled-up magazine clutched in her hand. She shook the magazine in the air and hollered, “This'll be waitin' for you when you get home, boy!”
Jaybird grinned at Randall.
Miss Frieda turned her head real slow and narrowed her fighting-mad eyes at Jaybird.
“What you laughin' at, Jaybird Gilley?” she said.
Jaybird's grin disappeared. In its place he set a look of sweetness and seriousness all mixed together.
“Nothin', Miss Frieda,” he said. “We just come over to ask T.J. about Moses.”
Jaybird poked Randall.
“That baby that was left in the box over at the church,” Randall said.
Miss Frieda fanned herself with the magazine. Sweat rolled down the side of her face. She pulled a damp paper towel out of the top of her dress and wiped her neck.
“What you wanna know?” she said. She squeezed her eyes up into a look of suspicion. Randall looked down at his sneakers. He was hoping Jaybird would jump in and take over from there, but he didn't.
“Why do you want to take Moses away from Preacher Ron and Mrs. Jennings?” Randall said, trying hard as anything to make his eyes stop looking at his feet and start looking at Miss Frieda.
Miss Frieda snorted and flapped her hand at Randall.
“Those folks got no business with that baby,” she said. “Me and Earlene's the ones to tend to that child. He belongs right in there with all them others.” She jerked her head toward the screen door.
A small girl wearing a pink shower cap poked her head out of the door.
“Buddy puked again,” she said.
Miss Frieda opened the screen door. “Y'all run on now,” she said to Randall and Jaybird. “And if you see T.J., tell him to get hisself on home.”
Randall had the sudden urge to follow her inside. He wondered what it would be like to sit on that ratty old couch beside the other kids and watch cartoons and eat graham crackers. He tried to imagine how it would feel if Miss Frieda was his foster mama and called him “baby” and “sugar” and “lamb” like she was always doing to the kids she took in. Randall knew Miss Frieda acted mean sometimes, but mostly she loved all the children who needed her. And he was pretty sure that she had never hit anybody with a rolled-up magazine in her life.
That night after supper, Randall went out on the back porch. He sat in the rusty glider and opened his sketchbook. He used his colored pencils to draw a cardboard box. Then he drew a hand on each side of the box, reaching for the bundled-up baby inside. One hand was white. Underneath that one, Randall wrote, “Mrs. Charlotte Jennings.” The other hand was black. Underneath that one, he wrote, “Miss Frieda.”
Way up in the corner of the page he drew a big floppy hat. It looked better than the hat he had tried to draw the night before. Randall was pleased that he had
finally gotten the hat right. He wished he could show the picture to Mr. Avery and Queenie. But he couldn't. He had made up his mind that he definitely wasn't telling his secret. Not to Mr. Avery. Not to Queenie. Not even to Jaybird. He would put this picture in his sock drawer with the other one.