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Authors: Barbara O'Connor

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BOOK: Taking Care of Moses
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A
nd what else do you think needs to be planted in your Garden of Life?” Preacher Ron said.
He put both hands on the pulpit and leaned over to gaze out at the congregation. The room grew quiet. A few church bulletins flapped as folks fanned themselves. Someone coughed. A ceiling fan whirred lazily above them.
Preacher Ron had already told them about how they needed to plant plenty of peas, like “politeness” and “prayer.” And then they needed squash in their Gardens of Life, to squash gossip and squash lies.
The room was so still and quiet Randall could hear Carl Langley's wheezy breathing from way in the back row.
“LETTUCE!” Preacher Ron hollered, making a few folks jump.
He leaned farther over the pulpit and said almost in a whisper, “
Let us
be faithful.”
Randall's mother nodded.

Let us
be unselfish.”
Nod. “Amen.”
“And
let us
LOVE one another.”
All around the room folks raised their hands and said, “Amen.”
“But our Gardens of Life need one more thing,” Preacher Ron said.
Randall tried to think what it could be. Corn? Naw. Potatoes? Probably not.
“TURNIPS!” Preacher Ron shouted.
Randall's daddy chuckled and poked Randall in the ribs. Some kid laughed out real loud. Randall figured it was probably Althea.
“TURN UP for church,” Preacher Ron said, grinning out at everyone.
“And TURN UP with a smile.”
“Amen, brother,” Mrs. Mackey said.
Preacher Ron went on some more about pulling the weeds of evil habits and bad tempers out of your Garden of Life, and then he called Hank Dowlings up to give the announcements.
Hank gave the Sunday school attendance report and the score of the softball game with the Gospel Light Church over in Aiken. He announced the next
Partners in Prayer meeting and gave an update on the cost of repairs to the church bus. He reminded all the young people about the Junior Bible Drill next Sunday night, and then he asked if anyone had any questions.
Someone in the back of the room called out, “Any word on finding that baby's mama?”
Randall felt his heart pounding in his chest. He kept his eyes on the hymnal in his lap so nobody could see what surely must have been written right there plain as day on his face: “I know who left that baby in the cardboard box.”
“Well now, Howard,” Preacher Ron said. “I'm glad you asked that.”
He looked over at Mrs. Jennings sitting in the front row.
“Charlotte and I have reported everything to the authorities, and now all we can do is take care of little Moses like we were chosen to do,” he said.
Mrs. Jennings set a smile on her face and nodded, glancing around the room. Her blond French twist glittered with hair spray. Then she stood up and faced the congregation and asked that baby Moses be cradled in the arms of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
“He is a lamb in need of a flock,” she said.
Randall fidgeted on the hard pew. His mother put her hand on his knee and gave him a look that meant “Quit that fidgeting.”
Then Mrs. Jennings announced that the winner of the Junior Bible Drill would get to take care of Moses every week during choir practice. Randall looked back at Althea. She was sitting up straight and stiff, with yellow bows on every braid. She grinned and wiggled her white-gloved fingers at him.
After church, Randall waited in the Fellowship Hall for Jaybird.
“I told you I was gonna be a mother's helper every Sunday,” Althea said.
Randall wrapped some brownies in a paper napkin. “You have to win the Bible drill first,” he said.
“I
am
winning the Bible drill.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.” Althea licked frosting off a cupcake.
Jaybird tiptoed up behind her and yelled, “Boo!”
Althea just kept licking that cupcake like she hadn't even heard him.
“Mama said you have to help her pack up Queenie's lunch,” Jaybird said to Althea. He loosened his tie and examined the dessert table.
“You can't have the peach cobbler,” Althea said. “It's only for grownups.”
Jaybird scooped peach cobbler onto a paper plate.
“I'm tellin'.” Althea disappeared into the crowd of folks clustered in groups around the Fellowship Hall.
“What you want to do today?” Jaybird asked Randall.
Randall shrugged. “I don't know. What do you want to do?”
Jaybird shrugged. “I don't know.”
Just then the sound of Jaybird's mother's voice could be heard above the noise of the crowd.
“Says who, Charlotte?” she was saying.
Randall looked over to where a group of women huddled around a playpen.
“Come on.” He motioned for Jaybird to follow him.
The two boys made their way over to where the women were. Moses kicked and gurgled on a rainbow-colored quilt in the playpen.
“It seems fairly obvious, Lottie,” Mrs. Jennings said to Jaybird's mother. “This church was
chosen
to take care of Moses.” She gestured toward the gurgling baby. Her shiny gold charm bracelet jangled up and down her arm.
Several of the women nodded at one another. A few mumbled, “That's right.”
Mrs. Gilley looked down at Moses, then back up at Mrs. Jennings.
“All I'm saying, Charlotte,” she said, “is that Miss Frieda has much more experience with this sort of thing. And she's
licensed
for foster care.”
Moses started to whimper. Mrs. Jennings scooped him up and held him against her, jiggling him and smiling at Mrs. Gilley.
“I appreciate your concern, Lottie, really I do. But whoever the troubled soul is who gave us this child knew what she was doing.”
“How do you know it was a woman that left him?” Mrs. Gilley said. “Maybe a man left that baby.”
Mrs. Jennings kept jiggling Moses. “Well, one thing I
do
know is that this child wasn't left on Miss Frieda's front steps,” she said.
The other women nodded at one another.
“Besides,” Mrs. Jennings went on, “maybe whoever left him figured Miss Frieda had about all the children she could handle.”
Mrs. Gilley kept her calm gaze on Mrs. Jennings.
“Maybe,” she said. “I guess we'll know for sure when the police find whoever it was that left him.”
With that, Mrs. Gilley turned and walked out of the Fellowship Hall.
The women stared after her. One of them said, “Well!”
“Let's go.” Jaybird pulled Randall's elbow, but Randall stayed rooted to the floor. He watched Mrs. Jennings's face getting red and splotchy.
“Are the police really trying to find his mama?” Randall asked.
The women all turned in surprise, as if they'd never seen Randall Mackey before.
“Well, yes, Randall,” Mrs. Jennings said. “I imagine they are.”
“Do you think anybody knows who she is?” Randall kept his hands in his pockets and tried to look like he wasn't all that interested in the answer to that question.
Mrs. Jennings rocked Moses back and forth, smiling down at him. She ran her hand over his hair. “Well, Randall, think about it. If somebody knew who this child's mama is, they would tell us, now, wouldn't they?”
Randall struggled to keep looking like somebody who didn't know who left the baby in the cardboard box. He nodded. “Yes, ma'am, I suppose so,” he said.
“Come on.” Jaybird yanked Randall's arm again. “I got to go.”
Randall followed Jaybird out of the Fellowship Hall. As they headed down the sidewalk toward Woodmont Street, Jaybird chattered away about a cat he'd been feeding and maybe his daddy would let him keep it and they could make a bed for it down in the fort.
But Randall wasn't listening. He was thinking. His mama was all the time saying, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” But he hadn't exactly deceived anybody, had he? Naw. Not a single person.
Then how come his web was feeling so tangled?

T
hat preacher man is gonna get in trouble,” T.J. said.
Randall wiggled a stick around in the dirt, leaving squiggly lines in Miss Frieda's dusty yard. “How come?” he said.
“For keeping that baby.”
Randall stopped wiggling the stick and looked at T.J.
“What do you mean?”
“Them church people can't keep Moses. They ain't licensed to have foster kids.”
“How do you know?” Jaybird asked. He fiddled with the dial of a beat-up radio on the porch. Every now and then a crackly, static noise spewed out of it.
“Miss Frieda said so,” T.J. said.
Randall tossed the stick into the street. “Maybe they got a license and Miss Frieda doesn't know about it.”
T.J. shook his head. “Naw,” he said. “She knows. She went over to Spartanburg to the foster care office.” T.J. threw a rock up onto the roof of the house. It rolled down and dropped onto the porch beside Jaybird.
“Why'd she do that?” Jaybird asked.
T.J. shrugged. “I don't know. But she said just 'cause Preacher Ron and Mrs. Jennings are church folks don't mean they can break the law.” He threw another rock. This one went clear over the top of the house and landed with a clatter on the garbage cans in the alley. “She said anybody else in Foley would've been made to give that baby up to her and Earlene.” He scratched in the dirt for another rock. “Besides,” he added, “she says he belongs with his own kind.”
“How come?” Randall said.
T.J. shrugged. “Just does, that's all.”
They all looked up at the sound of feet slapping against the sidewalk. Althea was running toward them. She was wearing a bathing suit and shiny black church shoes with ruffly pink socks. Instead of her usual braids, her hair stood out in a fluffy black halo around her head.
“Guess what?” she said.
Randall, Jaybird, and T.J. waited.
“There's a policeman over at the church,” Althea said, taking big gulps of air to catch her breath.
Randall's heart began to thump hard inside his chest. “What for?” he said.
Althea swatted gnats away from her face. “I bet Mrs. Jennings is going to prison.”
“Prison!” Randall's heart had gone from a trot to a gallop.
Althea nodded, her eyes wide with excitement. “I bet she is.”
Jaybird got up off the porch and came down into the yard. “Althea, get your dogmeat face on out of here.” He tossed a rock at Althea, hitting her in the knee.
She grabbed her knee and hopped around the yard, yelling, “OWWWWW!” Then she picked up a bigger rock and hurled it at Jaybird. It whizzed past him and onto the porch, hitting T.J.'s radio.
“Now look what you done,” Jaybird hollered.
“You're paying for that,” T.J. said, jabbing a finger at Althea.
“Y'all hush up,” Randall said. He turned to Althea. “What's the policeman doing?”
“Taking Mrs. Jennings to prison,” Althea said with a grin.
Jaybird kicked dirt at Althea. “You better go weed your garden, booger brain, 'cause you got some big ole LIES growing in there.”
“I don't care what you think, Jaybird Gilley.” Althea
turned to Randall. “Your mama said you got to go over to Mr. Avery's and pick up some dirty sheets and stuff.” She held her nose in a pee-yew kind of way. Then she tossed her head and skipped off down the sidewalk. Even after she had disappeared around the corner, they could still hear her singing.
“This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine …”
 
 
Randall knocked on Mr. Avery's door. He could hear the television playing loudly inside. Probably Queenie watching soap operas. Sometimes she talked to the ladies all dressed up in their furs and diamonds and stuff.
“He's lying to you, you bimbo,” she'd say. “Can't you tell a cheater when you see one?”
When Mr. Avery opened the door, Randall was surprised at how old and tired he looked.
“Hey, Mr. Avery,” Randall said. “I came to get the laundry.”
“Aw, now, I don't want your mama doing my laundry,” he said.
“She wants to.”
“Well, I admit it sure is a help.” Mr. Avery motioned for Randall to come in. Queenie didn't look up from the television. She leaned way out of her chair, pushing
her face up close to the screen. Randall could see her pink scalp through her thin gray hair.
“Ha!” she yelled at the handsome soap opera man in the black tuxedo. “Serves you right!”
Mr. Avery sank into his beat-up easy chair with a sigh. He ran his hands through his greasy hair. “It's been a long day, Randall.”
“I brought this,” Randall said, handing Mr. Avery his sketchbook.
Mr. Avery's face brightened. He took the book from Randall and began turning the pages.
“Well, look at this,” he said. “A hermit thrush.”
“Actually, that's a wood thrush,” Randall said. “You can tell 'cause it has more red on its head and the spots are rounder.”
“That's real nice, Randall,” Mr. Avery said. “Shoot, I think you know more about birds than me now.”
Randall shook his head. “Naw,” he said, “I just get all that from my bird book.”
Mr. Avery turned another page. “This is the finest bird nest I ever saw. Look at this, Queenie.”
Queenie glanced at the sketchbook, then flapped her hand and said, “Be quiet, mister.”
“It's an oriole's nest,” Randall said.
“Now, what's this?” Mr. Avery asked, turning to another page.
Randall leaned forward to look at the page. His stomach balled up into a knot when he saw the drawing of the floppy straw hat.
“Oh, that's just an ole junky picture I drew one time,” Randall said. “I thought I tore that out of there.”
“Look at this, Queenie.” Mr. Avery pushed the sketchbook in front of Queenie. She flapped her hand again, but her eyes darted to the drawing.
Her mouth opened into an “O.” She narrowed her eyes and leaned down so close to the drawing that her nose nearly touched the paper. She pushed her hair out of her eyes and jabbed a finger at the drawing.
“Not her again!” she said. “What's she doing here?”
Mr. Avery chuckled. “What you talkin' about, Queenie?”
Queenie traced the drawing with her finger and nodded. “I know her,” she said.
Randall's stomach flopped. He reached for the sketchbook, but Queenie clutched it against her.
“I want this,” she said.
“I'll draw a better one,” Randall said. “That one's no good.”
“I like this hat.” Queenie smiled at Randall. “I remember this hat.”
Randall tugged at the sketchbook, but Queenie slapped his hand and said, “Stop it, Monroe!”
Mr. Avery put his hand on Queenie's knee. “That ain't nice, Queenie,” he said. “You give Randall his book.”
Queenie tossed the book at Randall and stomped into the bedroom. Mr. Avery turned his sad eyes toward Randall. “Sorry about that, son,” he said.
“That's okay.”
“It's a nice hat,” Mr. Avery said.
Randall tore the page out of the sketchbook. He folded it and tucked it into his pocket.
“Mr. Avery,” Randall said, “what would you do if some bad stuff started happening and you could make it stop if you told a secret? Only, if you told the secret, then something
else
bad might happen?”
Now, why had he gone and said that, Randall wondered. He sure never meant to. He watched Mr. Avery's bushy gray eyebrows arch up and a look of pure puzzlement come on his face.
Randall looked down at the faded green carpet. On the television, some woman was singing about how clean her clothes were.
Mr. Avery scratched his whiskery chin. Finally he said, “Hmmm, that's a hard one.” He scratched his chin some more. “A bad thing happening if you don't tell, and a bad thing happening if you do. Right?”
“Right.”
“Hmmmmmm.” Mr. Avery kept scratching his
chin. “First off, I'd remind myself to be careful about tellin' stuff.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, son, lettin' the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin' it back in.” Mr. Avery leaned toward Randall. “You know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“Next,” Mr. Avery went on, “I'd ask myself a question.”
“What question?”
“I'd ask myself which would be worse, telling the secret or not telling the secret. And then …”
Mr. Avery sat back in his easy chair and folded his hands in his lap.
“Yeah?” Randall said. “And then what?”
“And then I'd do the right thing.”
Randall felt a big lump of disappointment plop down inside him.
“But how would you know what the right thing was?”
Mr. Avery looked at Randall with his sad, watery eyes. “I'm afraid I ain't got an answer for that,” he said.
 
 
Randall took the long way home. The heavy basket of laundry bumped against his knees as he walked. By the time he got home, he had a picture in his head. He went straight back to his bedroom and pulled the drawing
of the straw hat out of his pocket. He smoothed it out on his desk and opened his tattered box of colored pencils. He turned the paper over and drew a lady with a blond French twist.
He sat back to examine it. “Yep,” he thought, “that looks just like Mrs. Charlotte Jennings.” He used his ruler to draw a thick black square around her. He made up-and-down lines from the top of the box to the bottom, right over Mrs. Jennings. Like prison bars.
He sat back and looked at Mrs. Jennings in prison. Then he laid his head down on his desk and thought and thought about doing the right thing. But no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't figure out what the right thing was.
BOOK: Taking Care of Moses
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