zra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job,” Althea sang out. Her jump rope slapped the sidewalk, sending puffs of dirt into the air.
“Althea sure wants to win that Bible drill, huh?” Randall said, peering out through the lattice of the fort.
“She's too dumb,” Jaybird said. He scooped peanut butter out of the jar with a cracker.
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John;
Acts, Romans, Co-rin-thee-ans.”
Althea's sneakers made little squeaky sounds on the sidewalk as she jumped. Slap, squeak, squeak. Slap, squeak, squeak.
Suddenly two legs appeared outside the fort. Randall recognized them. Sunburned. Freckled. Dirty sandals with thick rubber soles.
“Hey, Mom,” he called from under the porch.
“Hey, boys.” His mother hooked her fingers through
the lattice and squinted into the darkness of the fort. “I need y'all to take some macaroni salad over to Queenie Avery,” she said.
Randall and Jaybird crawled out from under the porch. Althea tossed her jump rope into the bushes and ran over.
“Can I go, too?” She grinned up at Mrs. Mackey. A cherry Popsicle had left blotchy red stains down the front of her T-shirt.
“No!” Jaybird said, giving Althea a shove.
“She's going or you ain't,” someone called through the screen door.
“Hey, Lottie,” Mrs. Mackey called up to Jaybird's mother.
“Hey, Iris,” Mrs. Gilley said. “I've got something for Queenie, too. Althea, come in here and get this corn bread.”
Althea tossed her head and poked her chin in the air as she stomped past Jaybird and up the front steps.
“Come on in and have some iced tea,” Mrs. Gilley called down to Mrs. Mackey.
Randall, Jaybird, and Althea walked down the sidewalk toward Thomas and Sons Insurance Agency. Althea walked with one foot on the curb and the other
in the street. Up, down, up, down, she went, calling out books of the Bible with each step.
“Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah.”
“Hush up, ninny brain,” Jaybird said. “Nobody wants to hear your nasty self.”
“Ephesians, Philippians, Thessalonians,” Althea called out even louder.
“You left out Colossians,” Randall said.
“Yes you did.”
“Althea, you did bigger than anything. You said Philippians and then you said Thessalonians.”
“No, I most certainly and definitely did not.” Althea stamped her feet as she marched along the curb. Up, down, up, down.
Randall looked at Jaybird, but Jaybird wasn't interested in books of the Bible. He was busy tossing the foil-wrapped corn bread into the air, higher and higher with each toss. Every once in a while, it landed on the sidewalk with a splat.
Randall wished he could just haul off and swat Althea like Jaybird would have. But Randall had never been very good at hitting. He admired the way Jaybird could smack someone so easily and not even feel bad about it.
When they got to Thomas and Sons Insurance Agency, Randall handed the macaroni salad to Althea.
“Wait here,” he said.
Sometimes Randall's father got mad when they came to his office. If he wasn't busy, he was happy to see them. He might even let them make paper-clip necklaces or take pictures of their hands on the copy machine. But if he was busy, he got mad. So Randall always went in first to check things out.
When Mr. Mackey saw Randall, he smiled and pushed a stack of papers aside. Randall motioned to Jaybird and Althea through the front door, waving them in.
“Hey there,” Mr. Mackey said. “What're y'all up to?” He brushed crumbs off his lap and stood up. His stomach bulged over his belt and his shirt gaped open where a button had popped off.
“We've got stuff for Queenie,” Althea said, holding up the macaroni salad.
“Oh, yeah?” Mr. Mackey nodded toward the slightly flattened foil-wrapped package in Jaybird's hand. “Is that your mama's corn bread?”
“Yessir,” Althea said. “Want some?”
Jaybird gave her a look, but she yanked the package from him and handed it to Mr. Mackey.
“Have some,” she said. “Queenie won't care. She don't eat nothing anyway.”
Mr. Mackey chuckled. “Naw, I can't take Queenie's corn bread.”
“We're going downstairs,” Randall said. Jaybird and Althea followed him along the dark hallway to the back of the office. They had to wind their way through a maze of boxes and file cabinets. A rusty fan, a soda machine, some dead houseplants, a bicycle. A cat darted in front of them and disappeared behind a pile of dusty books.
They made their way down the dimly lit stairs to the basement. The walls were covered with Thomas and Sons calendars. Every single year since 1962.
Randall knocked on Mr. Avery's door. Althea hummed while they waited, and Jaybird said, “Shhhh!”
When Mr. Avery opened the door, the smell of onions drifted into the hall.
“Hey there,” Mr. Avery said, wiping his hands on a dish towel.
“We brought some stuff for Queenie,” Randall said.
Mr. Avery's long, droopy face lifted into a smile. His thin gray hair hung in greasy clumps down the back of his neck. A stubble of white whiskers covered his chin.
“Come on in,” he said, stepping back to let them in.
Althea pranced into the tiny room and plopped down on the couch, cradling the bowl of macaroni salad in her lap.
“It stinks in here,” she said.
Mr. Avery laughed. “That dern little ole window won't stay open.”
They all looked at the only window in the room, way up toward the ceiling. Long, narrow, and dark with sooty dust.
Mr. Avery went over to the grease-splattered stove in the corner of the room and stirred something in a pan. The door to the bedroom was only open a crack.
Randall heard Queenie's soft snoring. Lately, she slept a lot during the day. Sometimes she slept sitting right there in the kitchen, her head resting on the table beside a bowl of soggy cereal.
Randall reached in his pocket and brought out a folded piece of paper.
“I brought this,” he said.
Mr. Avery unfolded the paper and inspected the drawing. “Downy woodpecker, right?”
Birds were Randall's specialty, and Mr. Avery knew a lot about birds. Randall always wondered how he knew so much about birds when the only thing he could see from his basement window was the sidewalk above. Sometimes the legs of folks walking by. A dog or two once in a while. But hardly ever a bird.
Mr. Avery smoothed the drawing out on the coffee table. “That's real good, Randall,” he said. “I'll show Queenie when she wakes up, okay?”
“Okay.” Randall stood up. “We better go.”
“I don't have to go,” Althea said. “I can sing to Queenie.”
“You can't, neither,” Jaybird said. He snatched the macaroni salad off Althea's lap and handed it to Mr. Avery.
Althea jumped off the couch and shoved Jaybird with both hands. He grabbed one of her spiky braids and yanked. Randall hurried toward the door.
“Come on, Jaybird,” he said. “Bye, Mr. Avery. Tell Queenie we said hey.”
On the way home, Althea rubbed her arm.
“I'm tellin' Mama you knuckle-balled me,” she said.
“Go ahead, toad booger,” Jaybird said. “Then I'll knuckle-ball your other arm and you can tell again, okay?”
“Hey, look.” Randall pointed across the street.
“There's Preacher Ron and Moses!”
They raced across the street. Preacher Ron sat on a bench outside Agnes's Cut ân' Curl beauty parlor, pushing a stroller back and forth with his foot.
“Well, do help us!” he said. “How yâall doin'?”
“Fine,” Randall said. “Is that Moses?”
“Yes, it is.”
The baby slapped his tiny hands against the front of the stroller and smiled up at them.
“He likes me,” Althea said. “Watch this.”
She stuck her face down in front of Moses. He squealed and wrapped his chubby fingers around one of Althea's braids.
“See?” Althea beamed up at Preacher Ron.
“When do you think his mama is going to come get him?” Randall said.
“Well now, I can't say.” Preacher Ron ran his hand over his smooth, evenly parted hair.
“What if she doesn't ever come back?” Randall said.
Preacher Ron looked down at the baby clutching Althea's braid. Moses made a little noise that sounded like “B-a-a-a-a.”
“Well, I reckon we gotta just take this thing one day at a time,” he said. “No use in fretting about what-ifs when we got plenty of for-sures to fret about. Right?”
A bell tinkled when the door to the beauty parlor opened, and Mrs. Charlotte Jennings came out. Althea peeled Moses' fingers off her braid and ran over to Mrs. Jennings.
“Can I feel your hair?” Althea said.
Mrs. Jennings looked irritated, but she leaned down to let Althea pat her stiff blond hair.
“This is called a French twist,” Althea said to Randall and Jaybird. “Ain't it, Mrs. Jennings?”
“Yes, Althea, it is.” Mrs. Jennings fiddled with the pale blue blanket tucked around Moses.
“Is Miss Frieda gonna take Moses to be with her foster kids?” Randall asked.
Mrs. Jennings stood up straight and stiff. “No, Randall,” she said. “Moses was delivered to the brothers and sisters of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church. That is the PLAN for Moses. You know about how there is a DIVINE PLAN for each and every one of us, Randall.” Mrs. Jennings had slipped into her preaching way of talking, saying particular words real loud so everyone would be sure and get the point.
“But what if the divine plan is for Miss Frieda to take care of Moses until his mama comes back?”
Randall knew he was liable to rile Mrs. Jennings up good, but he just couldn't seem to stop himself.
Mrs. Jennings pursed her lips together tight. Red splotches began to appear on her neck. She glanced at Moses and then said in a low, quiet voice, “But that
the divine plan, Randall.”
“Stop right now,” Randall told himself. “Don't you say another word.”
But no matter how hard he tried to keep quiet, the words “How do you know?” came out of his mouth.
Mrs. Jennings turned to Preacher Ron. She cocked her head at him and waited.
Preacher Ron cleared his throat. “Well now, Randall, we knowâ”
“That couldn't be the divine plan,” Althea interrupted.
“'Cause Miss Frieda don't go to church. She's a heathen, ain't she, Preacher Ron?” She ran her hand over Moses' fuzzy black hair.
“Besides,” she added, “Miss Frieda already has lots of kids and Mrs. Jennings don't have any.”
Preacher Ron stood up. “I expect we better get on home now,” he said.
Randall watched them push the stroller down the sidewalk and disappear around the corner. His thoughts were so tangled he didn't even answer when Jaybird said, “Let's go look for cans behind the Winn-Dixie.” And he didn't pay attention to Althea saying, “Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.”
He looked over at the empty space where, just minutes before, the stroller had been. Then he looked up and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass door of Agnes's Cut 'n' Curl. He saw his squeezed-up eyebrows and his turned-down mouth, and he knew there was only one word for that look. Worry.
Randall Mackey's secret was starting to stir up a little cloud of worry. And Randall knew that sometimes little clouds turn into big storms.
ause I got a piece of paper that says so, Iris,” Miss Frieda was saying to Randall's mother. “
the one here in Foley that takes in the children. Can't just anybody up and keep a baby like that.”
Her voice was loud and gravelly, booming down to Randall and Jaybird from the porch above them.
The floorboards squeaked and groaned as the women rocked. Back and forth. Back and forth. One of them rocked faster than the others. Randall figured it was Miss Frieda. Her voice sounded like the voice of someone who was rocking fast.
“You're right, Frieda,” Randall's mother said. “But maybe there's no harm in Charlotte tending to that child for a day or two.”
“She's had that baby over a week now.”
“That's right, Frieda,” Jaybird's mother said. “She
had that baby for a week.”
a week,” Miss Frieda said. “She ought to be made to do the right thing instead of whatever she dern well pleases.” The rocking chair was moving faster now. “She's got no intention of doing what's right,” she added.
“Preacher Ron said they reported everything like they were supposed to,” Mrs. Mackey said.
“Iris,” Miss Frieda said, “pardon me if I stir up some muddy water here, but that preacher man's got a way of making everything sound like a gift from heaven sent special delivery to him and that wife of his.”
Randall sat still, waiting. He could picture his mama's face: pinched up and twitching. All anybody had to do to get a rise out of her was to say something bad about Preacher Ron.
“Well, Frieda,” Randall's mother said, “you
caring for an awful lot of children right now. I can't see why you're making such a fuss about Charlotte keeping just
Back and forth the conversation went. Every so often, Mrs. Gilley said, “That's right” or “Uh-huh!” Randall and Jaybird grinned at each other every time Miss Frieda said something nasty, like when she called Mrs. Jennings a high-and-mighty starched shirt. Then when she said Mrs. Jennings thought she could stick her head in a bucket of slop and come out smelling like a rose, they had to cover their heads with a beach towel to keep from laughing out loud.
“Let's go see if T.J. and them are shootin' hoops,” Jaybird whispered to Randall under the towel.
Randall shook his head. “Naw, it's too hot.”
Outside, the air was thick with heat, but under the porch, it was cool and damp. The scraggly marigolds along the edge of the porch were dried up and brown. From his dug-out seat in the dirt of the fort, Randall could see the steamy heat rising up off the street in waves. The asphalt basketball court behind the school would be even hotter. Besides, Randall wanted to stay and hear what else the women were going to say about Moses.
Jaybird threw the beach towel off their heads and lay back in the dirt.
“Who you think oughtta take care of Moses?” he whispered.
“His mama, I reckon.”
“Naw, I mean if his mama is gone for good.”
“She's not gone for good,” Randall said.
“How do you know?”
“Why would anybody just up and leave their baby like that? Think about it, Jaybird.”
“Shoot, Randall, sometimes you ain't got a lick of sense,” Jaybird said. “Mamas leave babies all the time. Why do you think Miss Frieda has all them kids?”
The rocking chairs stopped rocking, and the porch
steps creaked. Randall and Jaybird watched Miss Frieda's ugly brown shoes go down the steps and up the sidewalk. The screen door above them slammed when Mrs. Gilley and Mrs. Mackey went inside.
Randall and Jaybird started to crawl out from under the porch but stopped when they heard Althea's voice.
“Hey, Miss Frieda.”
“Althea. How you doin', lamb?”
“I'm doing fine, but T.J. ain't.”
“What you mean?”
“He lit a firecracker and made somebody cry.”
“A firecracker?” Miss Frieda hollered. “Who cried?”
“Inez Dawson,” Althea said. “And then her big ole son come out and grabbed T.J. You know her son? That man named Henry?”
Randall and Jaybird watched through the lattice as Miss Frieda stormed off up the street, her shorts making a swish, swish, swish noise.
Althea skipped toward the porch, clutching a paper bag.
“I got somethin'
want,” she sang into the fort.
“Oh, yeah?” Jaybird hollered through the lattice. “Well, that's good, 'cause we want something to make you drop dead and disappear.”
“Okay,” Althea said. “I reckon I'll just give these ole firecrackers to somebody who wants 'em.”
Randall and Jaybird scrambled out from under the porch.
“Give me that,” Jaybird said, grabbing for the bag.
“It's mine.” Althea jerked the bag behind her back.
“Give it here.”
Jaybird dove for Althea's legs, knocking her into the dirt with an “Oompf.”
“Get that bag, Randall,” he called out while he held Althea down. Her skinny legs kicked and flailed in the air.
Randall looked up at the porch to make sure Mrs. Gilley and his mama hadn't come back out. Then he snatched the bag away from Althea and peered inside.
“It is firecrackers,” he said.
Jaybird shook Althea's shoulders. “Where'd you get them firecrackers?”
“T.J. give 'em to me.”
“'Cause that man Henry was gonna bust him one for scarin' Mrs. Dawson, and T.J. was crying and all and saying it wasn't him and then he threw that bag to me and I come on home.”
Althea grabbed at the bag, but Randall jerked it away from her.
“I hate you, Randall Mackey,” Althea said. “And you ain't invited to the party for Moses.”
“The party I'm having when I baby-sit.”
“You lie like a rug, Althea,” Jaybird said.
“I do not.”
“I already told you, Althea. Nobody's gonna let a ninny-brain diaper head like you baby-sit.”
“I am too.” Althea stamped her foot. “I'm gonna be a mother's helper, and I start tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is church day,” Jaybird said.
“I know that, you smelly rat-breath baby,” Althea said. “I get to hold Moses while Mrs. Jennings sings with the Celebration Choir. And then when I win the Bible drill, I get to be a mother's helper every Sunday.”
“What if you don't win the Bible drill?” Randall said.
winning.” Althea tossed her head and skipped off down the sidewalk.
That night, Randall crawled way down under his sheet with a flashlight. He made a fist and inspected it. Then he tried to draw it. Fists were tricky, but he kept trying until he got it right. Then he drew another fist. Perfect, he thought. Two punching fists. One black, one white. Then, up at the top, he drew the floppy hat and the wild black hair, looking down at the two angry fists.