efore long, it seemed like Foley, South Carolina, was split right down the middle. One side made no bones about the fact that they thought Moses should most definitely be with Miss Frieda. The other side was of the strong opinion that Mrs. Charlotte Jennings was the one who should be taking care of Moses.
And right in the middle of all that arguing was Randall Mackey, whose insides were flip-flopping around like a trout on a riverbank.
Finally one day he just up and asked Miss Frieda, “What if somebody knows who left Moses at the church but isn't telling?”
He used all his willpower to keep his face looking calm and innocent, but he didn't have enough willpower to stop himself from blushing. He could feel the red creeping up his neck, across his cheeks, and right on up to the top of his head.
Miss Frieda didn't seem to notice. She let out a snort.
“I'd say that person sure in tarnation better have some grits and gumption,” she said.
“'Cause if somebody knows who that baby's mama is but is just sitting back and watching us get all riled up like this â¦” Miss Frieda paused.
Randall leaned toward her, waiting.
“ â¦ then it would take grits and gumption to do the right thing and fess up,” she said.
There it was again.
The right thing
. Randall studied the dirty steps of Miss Frieda's porch.
“What if that person doesn't have any grits and gumption?” he said.
Miss Frieda fanned herself with a
. “Then that person would be some kinda low-lying liver-bellied buzzard bait.” She squinted her eyes at Randall and added, “Don't you think?”
Randall shrugged. “I reckon.”
Miss Frieda slapped her knee and laughed so loud her mangy old hound dog scurried out from under the shrubbery and stared at them. She put her arm around Randall and squeezed him against her. She smelled like bacon grease and talcum powder all mixed together.
“I swannee, Randall Mackey,” she said, “you're about the most serious child I've ever seen in all my born days.”
Randall put a smile on his face and made himself let out a little chuckle.
Miss Frieda jiggled his shoulder. “Seems to me like we need to get our lives back to the way they supposed to be instead of all fired up at each other every dang minute of the day. Maybe I ought not to be making such a fuss. I know Charlotte wants a child of her own. But that child's not hers, andâ”
T.J. burst through the screen door and grinned at Miss Frieda. “Cora Lee spilled a whole bag of flour on the kitchen floor,” he said.
“You think that's funny, Tyrone Jamal?” she said, grunting as she pushed herself up off the steps.
T.J. wiped the grin off his face real quick. “No, ma'am,” he said. “Can I go now? I finished them chores.”
Miss Frieda flapped her hand at him and said, “Go on,” before disappearing through the screen door.
“What you wanna do?” T.J. said to Randall.
“Let's go over to Jaybird's.”
They raced up the alley to the Gilleys' house. Jaybird sat on the edge of the porch, dangling his legs over the side. Althea stood on top of two rusty tin cans with a
long loop of string tied to each one. She held the strings and took high, jerky steps up and down the sidewalk. The cans came down with a clank.
“What y'all doing?” Randall asked.
“I got stilts,” Althea said. She held up a foot and showed Randall the can. “And Jaybird has to help me win the Bible drill.”
Jaybird waved a piece of paper at Randall and T.J. “I'm asking Bible questions and then she's gonna get me some more firecrackers.”
get firecrackers,” Althea said. She took a few stiff, jerky steps on her tin-can stilts. Clank, clank, clank.
“Ask me another one,” she said to Jaybird.
Jaybird studied the paper in his hand. “Okay, say that Proverbs verse you kept missing last night.”
“Aw, that's easy.” Althea jumped up and down on the tin-can stilts while she shouted, “âHe that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.'”
“Betimes?” T.J. said. “What's that?”
“Hush up, Tyrone Jamal,” Althea said.
“Well, what is âbetimes,' Miss Bible Queen Genius?” Jaybird said. “You're supposed to know what all the words mean.”
“Be-TIMES,” Althea said, “means like there
when you want to chasteneth and there
when you don't want to chasteneth.” She glared at T.J. “Any idiot knows that.”
T.J. grinned and poked Randall.
“Then what does âchasteneth' mean?” Randall said.
Althea galloped away from them on her tin-can stilts. When she got to the end of the sidewalk, she turned and said over her shoulder, “If you don't know, I ain't tellin' you, Randall Mackey.”
Just then Miss Frieda came storming up the walk toward them. Her fists were balled up at the end of her big, stiff arms, and her shorts went swish, swish, swish as she came closer.
T.J.'s eyes widened. “Uh-oh,” he said. “What'd I do now?”
But Miss Frieda swished right past T.J. and Randall. She nearly knocked Althea plumb off her stilts. She stomped up the steps without even looking at Jaybird and banged on the Gilleys' screen door.
Mrs. Gilley came to the door wiping her hands on a dish towel. Before she could say anything, Miss Frieda said, “That gol-dern church has got
“What you talking about?” Mrs. Gilley held the screen door open and motioned Miss Frieda inside.
Randall raced over to the side of the house and crouched under the open window to listen. Jaybird and
T.J. joined him, crawling behind the shrubbery on their hands and knees. Randall motioned for them to keep quiet, but Althea was making so much noise with her clanging tin cans that Randall could catch only bits and pieces of what Miss Frieda was telling Mrs. Gilley.
“ â¦ them social workers from Spartanburg came down and â¦”
“ â¦ must think she don't have to be licensed like everybody else â¦”
“ â¦ ought to take that child away from her â¦”
Every now and then Mrs. Gilley would say, “Well, I never,” or “Don't that just take the cake?”
“I'm telling you, Lottie,” Miss Frieda said, “that woman thinks she don't have to do things like the rest of us just 'cause she's a preacher's wife. She's got them folks up in Spartanburg letting her rule the roost and making everybody think she's got the keys to the Pearly Gates.”
Mrs. Gilley muttered some indignant words of sympathy, and then Miss Frieda's hollering came right out the window clear as anything.
“Maybe them folks up there need to learn that the bucket always brings up what's in the well,” she said.
Randall looked at Jaybird and T.J. What did that mean, he wondered. Jaybird cupped his hand over his mouth to stifle a giggle.
The boys had been so busy trying to hear Miss Frieda that they hadn't noticed that Althea had disappeared.
Suddenly those tin cans clomped down the porch steps.
“Miss Frieda said she's going right to the top,” Althea called out.
“What's that mean?” Randall asked, brushing dirt off his knees.
“It means she's calling the FBI to take Mrs. Jennings to prison for kidnapping Moses.” Althea hopped off her tin cans and began swinging them over her head by the strings. Randall had to duck as the cans whipped around.
Jaybird and T.J. crawled out from behind the shrubbery.
“Yeah, right, Althea,” Jaybird said. “Like anybody believes
“And when the FBI finds Moses' mama,
going to prison, too,” Althea said. “'Cause it's against the law to leave your baby in a box.”
“How're they gonna find his mama?” Randall asked.
“Miss Frieda's gonna keep lookin', but she's got to hurry up 'cause she's gonna die.” The tin cans made a whirring sound as Althea swung them around and around over her head.
Jaybird jumped up and grabbed for the strings, pulling the cans down with a clang. “What you talking about?” he said.
Althea yanked the tin cans away from Jaybird and began to swing them back and forth, closer and closer to Jaybird with each swing.
“Miss Frieda's gonna find that baby's mama if it kills her, and the way she's been feeling lately, it's liable to. And then Mrs. Jennings will get to keep that baby over Miss Frieda's dead body.”
Althea swung the cans harder. “
,” she said, pushing her chin up and glaring over at Randall, “she said Moses belongs with his own kind instead of over there with them highfalutin do-gooders at that church.” She stopped swinging the cans and pranced off toward the house. When she got to the porch steps, she stopped and said, “I heard her with my very own two ears.” Then she disappeared into the house, dragging the clanging cans along behind her.
Jaybird and T.J. were laughing and carrying on, but Randall didn't think what Althea said was so funny. Randall was feeling his worry get bigger and bigger. Everything was turning into a big, scary messâand all he had to do was say, “I know who left the baby in the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.”
But he couldn't.
know y'all will want to join me in congratulating Miss Maddie Shadd on her fine, fine performance in the Junior Bible Drill last night.” Preacher Ron smiled down at the beaming girl. She pushed her shiny red hair behind her ears and waved a gloved hand at the congregation. Everyone clapped. Someone called out,”Thatta girl, Maddie!”
Randall looked back at the Gilleys. Althea was slumped so far down in the pew that only the top of her head was showing.
Preacher Ron nodded at Maddie. “Why don't you recite those verses about the sluggard?” he said, then turned to the congregation and added, “That was the final question that made Miss Maddie here our Junior Bible Drill champion.”
Maddie jabbed the toe of her shiny white shoe into
the floor and did a little curtsy, holding her long, yellow skirt out like butterfly wings. Then she stood up straight and stiff, lifted her chin in the air, and called out, “âGo to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.'”
She paused while folks clapped. Then she cleared her throat and added, “Proverbs 6, verse 6.”
From the back of the church came loud, thunking noises. Everyone turned to look at Mrs. Gilley glaring down at Althea.
Maddie smoothed her hair again and recited, “âAs vinegar to the tooth, and as smoke to the eyesâ'”
Althea jumped up and pumped her fist in the air. “â
'!” she hollered. “âAs vinegar to the
She grinned at the congregation, then added, “Ha!” before sitting down again.
Randall felt a twinge of excitement. Church was usually so boring it was fun having something out of the ordinary happen. All around him, folks were whispering and shaking their heads and wagging their fingers at Althea. Randall's father chuckled, and Mrs. Mackey poked him.
After Preacher Ron gave Maddie her shiny gold Junior Bible Drill medal, he told her she was now the official helper for Baby Moses.
Mrs. Jennings smiled and bounced Moses on her lap.
Then Preacher Ron motioned for Maddie to sit down and he began to preach.
“I call today's sermon âCHILDREN Are Our TREASURED Gifts.'”
He was using his preaching way of talking, hollering out the important words and saying the others real low and soft so everybody had to lean forward a little to hear.
“I know because the BIBLE tells us so in the Book of Psalms, chapter 127, verse 3,” he said.
“In fact,” Preacher Ron continued, “did yâall know that the word âHILDREN' appears in the Bible FOUR HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-TWO TIMES?”
He pounded his fist on the pulpit with each word, then paused.
Randall wondered if Preacher Ron had actually counted all those words in the Bible.
“THAT is how important children are to this church,” he went on.
A couple of folks hollered out, “Amen.”
“Their souls are precious to us,” Preacher Ron said softly. “They are the FUTURE of this church.”
“Yes, brother,” someone called from the back of the church.
“And so I say to you that we must stand firm and accept our role as FAMILY to a child who was given to us by a troubled soul.”
Uh-oh. Randall felt that worry knot tumbling around inside him. He squeezed his eyes shut and recited to himself, “Don't talk about Moses. Don't talk about Moses.”
But Preacher Ron did talk about Moses. On and on and on. And then suddenly he was talking about troublemakers.
“We must AVOID the troublemakers,” he said. “The Second Book of Thessalonians tells us so.”
Mrs. Jennings nodded and called out, “That's right.”
Then Preacher Ron started pounding the pulpit loud and hard and saying how troublemakers were trying to take Moses away from this church family.
And that's when Mrs. Gilley yanked Jaybird and Althea up by their collars, and marched right up the aisle and out the door.
Later that day, Randall and Jaybird lay on the blue tarp under the Gilleys' porch. Randall rested his head on his hands and stared up at the damp, mildewed boards above them.
“Do you think your mama really means it?” he asked Jaybird.
“Uh-huh.” Jaybird tossed a wadded-up candy wrapper from hand to hand. “She says she ain't never stepping
so much as a big toe in that church again. She says Preacher Ron is trying to poison our minds with lies about Miss Frieda.”
“This sure is a mess.”
“Yeah,” Jaybird said, “all 'cause of one stupid baby.”
“I wish that baby's mama would come and take him home,” Jaybird said.
“Yeah.” Randall nodded. “I wish she would, too.”
That night, Randall crawled up under the covers with his sketchbook and flashlight. He drew a bird, but it looked funny, so he scribbled over it. He started drawing a house, but it was boring, so he erased it. Then he began to draw himself. He was good at drawing himself because he had practiced a lot, staring in the mirror as he outlined his mousy brown hair hanging down over his ears and his nose that was too big for his face. When he got to his mouth, he drew it open, like he was talking. Like maybe he was telling his secret. Then he drew a big circle coming out of his mouth, and in the circle he wrote: LAVONIA SHIRLEY.
It felt so good to write those words that he traced over the letters two more times. Then he took a black marker and scribbled over them. Back and forth, back and forth, until all that was left was a big black blob.
He turned off the flashlight and lay back on his pillow. He closed his eyes and whispered his prayers. After asking for all his usual stuff, Randall asked for grits and gumption.
But when he opened his eyes, he still felt like some kind of low-lying, liver-bellied buzzard bait.