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Authors: Barbara O'Connor

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BOOK: Taking Care of Moses
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R
andall wanted everything to go back to the way it used to be. He wanted everybody to stop taking sides and arguing and acting downright hateful. He wanted the Gilleys to sit in the sixth row on the left side at church. And he wanted his mom to sit on Mrs. Gilley's front porch and drink iced tea and talk about kids and husbands and the best place to buy ground beef.
But no matter how hard Randall wished for it, he couldn't make it happen. Everybody kept arguing, the Gilleys stopped coming to church, and his mom didn't visit Mrs. Gilley anymore.
“I don't have to sit there and listen to her and Miss Frieda talk ugly about my church,” Mrs. Mackey told Randall.
Sometimes she would come over to the Gilleys' to tell Randall to go home for supper. She would nod at Mrs. Gilley and say, “Evening, Lottie.”
“Evening, Iris,” Mrs. Gilley would say from her rocking chair on the porch.
“Time for supper, Randall,” Mrs. Mackey would say, then turn and head back up the sidewalk.
Randall would look at Jaybird, and Jaybird would shrug. And Randall would feel awful. He missed the friendly chatter between their mothers. But more than that, he missed the Gilleys in church.
“I'm glad we ain't going there no more,” Althea said. “I hate that church.”
“You better stop saying that, Althea,” Jaybird said. “It's bad luck to say that.”
“I don't care.”
“Lightning's gonna come down and zap you right on the head.”
“So?” Althea said. “I do hate that church.” She poked her tongue out of the corner of her mouth while she colored her fingernails with a purple marker.
“How come?” Randall said.
“'Cause everybody at that church is stupid,” Althea said. “Especially Maddie Shadd.”
“You're just mad 'cause you lost that Bible drill,” Jaybird said.
“I am not.”
“You are too.” Jaybird poked Randall. “I guess she ain't as smart as she thought she was, huh, Randall?”
Althea lunged at Jaybird and swiped her marker
across the front of his T-shirt, leaving a squiggly purple line. Jaybird yanked the marker away from her and tossed it up on the roof of the house.
“Everybody knows what the longest chapter in the Bible is,” Jaybird said.
Althea chose another marker and began coloring her fingernails again. Orange.
“Psalm 119,” she said.
“Too late, dumbo,” Jaybird said. “You should have said that in the Bible drill.”
“So, who cares?” Althea said. “Not me.”
Randall drew in the dirt with a stick. A cat. A bicycle. A wheelbarrow.
“Church is boring without you,” Randall said to Jaybird.
“Yeah,” Jaybird said. “And we gotta ride all the way over to Duncan Springs with a bunch of people I don't even know to go to a church that ain't even got an organ.”
“Yeah,” Althea said. Then she jumped in the middle of Randall's dirt drawings and shuffled her feet around, sending dust swirling in the air around them.
 
 
That Sunday, Randall sat in church and drew a flock of geese flying in a V shape across the page of his notebook. Preacher Ron preached and the Celebration Choir sang and folks hollered out “Amen” and “Praise be.” Randall just kept on drawing, even when Smokey
Dobbins got dunked in the baptismal pool and came up sputtering and coughing and carrying on.
Every now and then, he looked back at the sixth row on the left, but the Gilleys weren't there. He watched a fly settle on the shoulder of the lady in front of him. He counted how many times Arthur Bennings blew his nose. He tapped his pencil in time to the hymns. Then he glanced out the window, and his heart dropped clear down to his stomach.
He sat up straight and craned his neck to see better. Maybe he was just imagining things.
Nope. He wasn't. A woman sat on the curb across the street from the church. A woman wearing a floppy straw hat.
Randall jerked his head around to see if anybody else was looking at the woman in the hat. No one was. Everyone else was singing or yawning or whispering to their squirming kids.
Randall felt his heart bumping inside him. He looked out the window again.
The woman stood up and stared over at the church. For a minute, Randall thought she was looking right at him. He looked away. He joined in the singing. “Yes, we'll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river …”
When he looked out the window again, the lady in the straw hat was gone.
R
andall and Jaybird each held a handle of the laundry basket as they headed toward Thomas and Sons Insurance Agency. Althea trotted along behind them.
“Let's see if we can take Queenie somewhere,” she said.
“Like where?” Randall said.
“To the Winn-Dixie to buy Hershey bars with almonds. That's what she likes.”
“Okay.”
It was past suppertime, and the insurance agency was closed. Randall, Jaybird, and Althea headed around back to the alley. The back door was propped open with a milk crate. Just as they got there, Mr. Avery came out carrying a wastebasket.
“Well, hey there,” he said. “What y'all doing?”
“We brought your laundry,” Randall said.
Mr. Avery shuffled over to a nearby Dumpster and
emptied the wastebasket. His baggy pants hung down so low they dragged on the ground as he walked.
“I appreciate that. You thank your mama for me, Randall,” he said. “Let's go in. I bet Queenie would like to see y'all.”
When they stepped inside the back door of the office, they could hear Queenie singing down in the Averys' basement apartment.
“She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes …” Loud. The same verse over and over again.
When they came into the apartment, she stopped.
“I've been looking for that,” she said, pointing to the laundry basket.
“Look who's here to see you, Queenie,” Mr. Avery said. “Your favorite friends.”
“They took that from me.” She jabbed a finger at the laundry basket. “My mother gave me that.”
“That's our laundry,” Mr. Avery said. “Ain't that nice?”
“Well, I don't know why they keep taking it when I told them to stop.”
Althea slapped her hands over her mouth and hunched her shoulders up, trying to stifle a giggle.
Queenie picked at the tiny balls of lint on the sleeve of her sweater. Randall wondered how she could stand wearing a sweater in the summer, but she didn't seem to mind.
“We'll take Queenie to get Hershey bars,” Althea said.
Queenie stopped picking at the lint and looked up. “I'll go,” she said, and hurried into the bedroom.
She came out with her purse.
“You have to wear shoes,” Althea said, pointing at Queenie's feet.
Queenie leaned over and looked down at her sagging black socks. Then she straightened up and frowned at Althea.
“Who told you that?” she said.
Althea looked at Mr. Avery.
“Hang on, now, Queenie,” he said. “Don't run out of here yet.”
He disappeared into the bedroom and came back with a pair of beat-up moccasins. He put them on the floor in front of Queenie. She slipped her feet into them and said, “Thank you, mister.”
Mr. Avery tucked two dollars in her hand and kissed her on the forehead.
“Bring me a candy bar, okay?” he said.
Queenie pushed him away and hurried out the door.
 
 
On the way home from the Winn-Dixie, Althea and Queenie sang. Every now and then Queenie would stop and take a bite of her candy bar.
“She sure likes chocolate, huh?” Jaybird said.
“Yeah,” Randall said. He watched her eat the candy, and thought about how she used to bake. Cupcakes and cookies and pies. And always with chocolate in them. One time she made a giant chocolate chip cookie for all the children in Vacation Bible School. But then she started making mistakes. Like leaving out the flour or putting in a dozen eggs instead of two. When she left cupcakes in the oven so long they caught on fire, Mr. Avery had to make her stop baking. She got so mad she didn't say one word for four whole days. But then Mr. Avery brought home Hershey bars with almonds and Queenie stopped being mad.
“Come on, Queenie,” Randall said. “We got to get home before dark.”
“Where's Lavonia?” Queenie said.
Randall felt his face grow hot. “Come on, Queenie.”
“Where's Lavonia?” Queenie repeated.
“Who's Lavonia?” Jaybird said.
Randall shrugged. “Who knows? Probably somebody from a long time ago.”
“You know Lavonia,” Queenie said to Randall. “That one with the hat.”
Randall tried to make his face look relaxed, but he could feel a little twitch by his right eye.
“Oh,
that
Lavonia,” he said. “She's gone.”
“Who's Lavonia?” Althea said.
“This lady that used to live around here,” Randall said. “But she moved away.”
“I saw her,” Queenie said.
“Naw,” Randall said. “You didn't see her. She's gone.”
“I saw her and that box,” Queenie said.
“What box?” Althea said. She crumpled up a candy wrapper and licked each finger with loud smacking noises.
They all stood there, watching Queenie. Randall tried to think of something to say to make Queenie stop talking about Lavonia.
But before he could think of anything, Queenie shuffled off down the sidewalk, clutching her purse with both hands.
 
 
On the way home from Thomas and Sons Insurance Agency, Randall tried to keep talking. About the stifling hot weather. About the kittens that had been born under T.J.'s porch. About the colored pencils he was saving his money for. About anything he could think of to keep Jaybird and Althea from asking about Lavonia.
But it didn't work.
“Who's that Lavonia lady Queenie was talking about?” Jaybird said.
Randall shrugged. “Aw, just some lady that used to live near here.”
“Where'd she go?”
“I think she moved in with some of her kin out there off Highway 14,” Randall said.
“I wonder why Queenie was talking about her.”
“Aw, you know Queenie,” Randall said. “She talks crazy.”
“Yeah,” Jaybird said.
Randall was glad when Jaybird stopped talking about Lavonia. He need to concentrate on the thought that kept popping into his head. He had been trying to push it away, but now he let it settle down and sit there for a spell. The thought was this: I've got to do something about Moses.
After a while it seemed like just
thinking
about doing something about Moses let in a little tiny spark of feeling better. But the problem was,
what
could he do about Moses? And if he thought of something to do, then
when
should he do it? And if he thought of when to do it, then
how
should he do it?
It seemed like every time one question popped up, along came another one. By the time Randall got home, all those questions were buzzing around inside
his head like flies in a barnyard. And no matter how many times he tried to shoo them away, they just kept coming back.
But the very next day something happened that made Randall stop thinking and start doing.

I
'm starting to worry, Randall,” Mr. Avery said.
But the look in his eyes said more than “worry.” The look said “scared.” The look made Randall feel scared, too.
“I don't know where she could be,” Mr. Avery said. “She's never gone very far. I've always been able to find her.” He clutched his gnarled fingers together. “But this time I'm worried she may have gone off too far.”
“I bet she went to see those kittens again,” Randall said.
Mr. Avery shook his head. “I looked there.”
“Oh.”
“She didn't even take her purse.” Mr. Avery clutched Queenie's big red purse in his lap. Queenie's favorite soap opera blared from the TV.
“What about the church?” Randall said. “I bet she went there.”
“Been there.” Mr. Avery shook his head again. “I'm just going to have to call the police. There's no telling where she is. She was talking all crazy this morning.”
Inside, Randall was thinking about how Queenie talked crazy most all the time, but he didn't say it.
“What was she talking about?” he said.
Mr. Avery stroked Queenie's purse. “Aw, you know, going on and on about Lavonia Shirley.”
Randall felt his heart beat a little faster. “Lavonia Shirley?”
“Yeah, you remember that woman that used to live over there on Pritchard Street?”
“Wonder why she'd be talking about her.”
“Who knows,” Mr. Avery lifted his sad eyes up to look at Randall. “I guess I'll never figure out what's going on in that head of hers.”
Randall's mind was whirling.
“Then maybe she went over to Pritchard Street,” he said.
Mr. Avery's head shot up. “That's it!” He tossed Queenie's purse onto the couch and stood up. “Why didn't I think of that?” he said. “I bet you anything you're right.”
Mr. Avery took his beat-up baseball cap off the coffee table and placed it over his scraggly hair. “I got to go,” he said.
“Can I go, too?”
Mr. Avery opened the front door and said, “Sure,” as he started up the basement steps.
“Mr. Avery,” Randall called after him.
Mr. Avery stopped and turned back to look at Randall.
“I wouldn't ever tell anybody about Queenie wandering off, okay?” Randall said.
Mr. Avery nodded. “You're a good boy, Randall,” he said.
 
 
When Queenie saw them, she grinned and waved.
“Hey, mister,” she called out.
Randall had never seen Mr. Avery move so fast. By the time they caught up to Queenie, he was breathing loud and wheezy. One hand clutched his heart, and Randall thought for sure something terrible was about to happen.
Mr. Avery hugged Queenie, and she said, “I have to get my hair done. I'm late.”
“For crying out loud, Queenie,” Mr. Avery said. “You trying to scare me into the grave?”
Queenie's grin dropped. “Where's my purse?”
“At home,” Mr. Avery said. “Let's go get it.”
“Lavonia better go get that box,” Queenie said. “Don't you think so, Monroe?” She cocked her head at Randall.
Randall shrugged. “I don't know, Queenie.”
“Lavonia don't live out here no more,” Mr. Avery said. He took Queenie's hand and coaxed her to start walking. “She took all them young-uns of hers and moved way out on Forest Avenue. Shoot, she may not even live in Foley anymore.”
Queenie nodded so hard her wispy hair bounced on top of her head. “She does.”
Mr. Avery looked at Randall and rolled his eyes. “Okay, Queenie,” he said. “Let's go home and get your purse.”
“My purse!” Queenie hollered. Then she took off so fast Mr. Avery and Randall had to scurry to keep up with her.
 
 
That night after supper, Randall got out his sketchbook. He turned to a blank page and began to draw. First he drew a box. Next he drew a church steeple, a fist, a straw hat, and a purse.
Then he used a black marker to draw a line from one object to the next, until they were all connected. He sat back and looked at the drawing. It looked just like a web. A giant spiderweb with all that stuff tangled up inside it. But something was missing. Something that Randall knew was important to the web.
He picked up his pencil and drew himself—right in the middle of the spiderweb.
Then he tore the page out, folded it up, and pushed it way down under his socks with the other drawings.
He turned out the lights and said his prayers. For the umpteenth time, he asked for grits and gumption.
“I need it for sure by tomorrow,” he whispered into the darkness of his bedroom. “'Cause tomorrow I'm doing something to fix this mess.”
BOOK: Taking Care of Moses
6.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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