In the far corner of the Mackeys' garage, Randall's father had an office. At least, he called it an office. Actually, the only thing there was a teetering card table piled with moldy cardboard boxes bulging with papers. Under the card table was a metal file cabinet.
When Randall was little, he used to look through the file cabinet. It was crammed with letters, old calendars, Christmas cards, and boring magazines with titles like
Randall was pretty sure he remembered something else that used to be in the file cabinet. A map of Foley.
He looked behind him to make sure his mother was still inside. Then he stepped over paint cans and garden tools and made his way to his father's office. He pushed a cracked flowerpot out of the way and opened the file cabinet.
He searched through the jumble of papers in the
drawer. Sure enough, he found it. “Your complimentary map of Foley, South Carolina, from your friends at Nelson's Brake and Tire Company.”
Randall opened the map and smoothed it out on the garage floor. He figured he could probably find his way around the heart of Foley blindfolded. But he wasn't too sure about some of the narrow country roads that forked off the main streets and headed on out to the red-dirt fields outside of town.
Randall squinted down at the map, running his finger along the roads. Suddenly he jabbed a finger at the map. There it was. Forest Avenue. Where Lavonia Shirley had moved with all those young-uns.
Randall used his finger to trace the route from Forest Avenue, down, over, down some more, until he ended up at the spot on Woodmont Street where his own house was. How far was that, he wondered. It didn't look too far on the map, but Randall had a feeling it was farther than he had ever been by himself before. Could he ride his bike there? Maybe. But wouldn't he have to tell his mother? And wouldn't she want to know why in the world he wanted to go clear out to Forest Avenue? Of course she would.
What if he didn't tell his mother? What if he just went? Randall had never done anything like that before. Just the thought of it made him squirm.
Nope. He'd never get away with it. First off, his
mother would want to know where he'd been and why he was gone so long. All those things that mothers want to know. And if, by some miracle, that didn't happen, surely nosy ole Althea would find out somehow, like she found out every little thing that happened in Foley.
Randall folded the map up and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. He was going to have to think about this one for a while.
Preacher Ron nodded toward Inez Dawson. “Inez, you want to give us the Sunday school report?”
Inez stood up and faced the congregation. She looked down at her clipboard and cleared her throat.
“There were forty-two children in Sunday school last week,” she said, pausing while a few people clapped. “However,” she continued, “there were only thirty-one Bibles brought to Sunday school last week.” She lowered her head and peered over her glasses at some of the children scattered around the room.
Then she reminded everyone about junior choir practice and sat down.
Randall used a blue colored pencil to fill in the eyes of the little boys and girls on the cover of the church bulletin. The curly-headed children laughed and danced in a field of daisies. A fluffy baby lamb trailed along behind them.
Mickey Ross gave the church treasurer's report.
$22.40 collected in Sunday school. $632.48 collected in tithes and offerings.
Randall colored the center of each daisy bright yellow. Church seemed to get longer every week. And without Jaybird, it wasn't even fun going to the Fellowship Hall afterward. Usually he just grabbed a cupcake and went out back to watch the other kids play tag.
“And now please join me in singing hymn number 38, âStanding on the Solid Rock,'” Preacher Ron said.
Randall stood up and rested the hymnal on the back of the pew in front of him. He moved his mouth, pretending to sing. His head was too littered up with other stuff to be thinking about singing.
If he didn't do something soon, Queenie was going to tell somebody about Lavonia Shirley and the box. Maybe nobody would believe her, since she talked so crazy. But maybe somebody would. And maybe that somebody would tell somebody, and on and on the news would go, spreading through Foley like wildfire. And everyone would know Queenie had been wandering at night, and would make Mr. Avery send her away.
And even if that didn't happen, the foster care folks from up in Spartanburg were liable to come to Foley and take Moses away because of all the fussing and fighting going on. Leastways, that's what everybody was gossiping about.
There was no doubt about it. He couldn't wait any
longer. He had to talk to Lavonia Shirley and tell her to come get her baby. That's all there was to it. But how?
Then, as if his thoughts had made their way through all that hymn singing and floated skyward, a miracle happened. Randall looked out the window of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church and there was Lavonia Shirley, sitting on the curb in her floppy straw hat.
Randall felt like somebody had flipped the switch of the world to “off.” Everything stopped. The singing all around him. His father's feet shuffling on the wooden floor. The old man coughing in the back of the church. Seemed like even his own heartbeat had stopped.
Then he felt himself lean toward his mother. Heard himself whisper, “I'll be right back.”
The next thing he knew, he was outside squinting in the bright sun. Organ music drifted out of the windows and swirled around in the still summer air.
Randall looked across the street. The curb was empty. Lavonia was gone.
He shielded his eyes from the glaring sun and searched the empty lot across from the church. Nothing. He raced to the corner and around the Elks Lodge. Then he spotted her, hurrying up the sidewalk away from town. She hiked her flowered skirt up above her knees with one hand and clutched her straw hat with the other.
Randall ran after her. The slap of his sneakers
echoed down the empty street. Lavonia glanced over her shoulder, walking faster. Just as Randall was about to catch up to her, she whirled around to face him.
“What you want?” she said, glaring at Randall. Her voice was hoarse and raspy. She kept one hand on her hat.
Randall was surprised how young she looked. Her bushy black hair seemed to struggle to escape from under the hat. Big looped earrings dangled to her shoulders and glistened in the sun. Her skin was dark and smooth, and her eyes were a peculiar color. Almost gold.
Now that Randall had caught up to her, he felt foolish. He must have been crazy to run after her like this.
He looked down at the sidewalk, wishing the words he should say to her would be written there.
She took her hand off her hat and peered down at Randall. “I
, what do you want?”
“I know you're the one who left Moses at the church.” Randall kept his eyes down, afraid to look up at Lavonia.
She let out a small breath, like a sigh, and was silent.
Randall looked up. She was studying him through narrowed eyes. She put her hands on her waist. Her arms were long and thin. Her sharp, pointy elbows formed perfect “V”s.
“I don't know Moses,” she said in that raspy voice.
“He's a baby,” Randall said. “The baby in the box.”
Lavonia's arms dropped limply to her sides, and her shoulders drooped slightly, but she kept her gaze on Randall. He wondered if she was thinking about lying to him. Maybe she would say it wasn't her. That he must have her mixed up with somebody else.
“You're right,” she said. “It was me.”
“Oh.” Randall's mind went blank. What was he supposed to say? Why had he done this, anyway?
“What do you want from me?” Lavonia said. Her voice had a sadness to it that made Randall feel bad. He wished he could turn around and go home. But he couldn't. Not now. The cat was already out of the bag. He couldn't put it back.
“Everybody's fighting over him,” Randall said.
Lavonia paused for a minute. She kept those gold-colored eyes of hers on him, and he felt himself blush.
“The whole town is all stirred up and taking sides,” he said. “Some folks think Miss Frieda ought to take care of him, and some folks think Mrs. Charlotte Jennings ought to. And now the Gilleys don't even come to church anymore.” He paused for a minute, but when he saw she wasn't going to say anything, he went on, “Queenie Avery saw you, too. And she keeps talking
about you and she's even gone looking for you, and Mr. Avery is scared somebody will put her away in a home. And those foster care people up in Spartanburg are going to come and take Moses away.”
There. What else could he say?
Randall studied Lavonia's face. Slowly, slowly, slowly, it softened. She lifted her head slightly and gazed up at the sky. Then she looked at Randall again and said, “His name ain't Moses.”
“His name is Nathan.”
Lavonia nodded. She took her straw hat off. Her wild hair sprang up high on top of her head. Then she pulled her skirt up over her knees and sat down right there on the sidewalk.
Randall sat across from her, waiting.
She shook her head slowly. “I just didn't think I could take care of another baby,” she said.
“Every day I'd open my eyes and feel such a dark heavy thing over me,” she went on. “And all my kids needing me. Just needing me all the time.”
She fingered the brim of her hat. She had rings on every finger. Rings with colored stones and rings with tiny pearls and plain silver rings.
“How many kids do you have?” Randall said.
She chuckled. “Seems like a hundred sometimes.” She twisted a ring around and around on her finger. “Nathan makes six,” she said.
Her shoulders lifted as she took a deep breath. She let it out with a whoosh that blew her hair off her forehead. “Six kids and no man,” she added.
“I moved in with my cousin Rozene, but that's not working out so good.” She put her hat back on and tried to tuck her hair up under it, but little spirals of curls kept springing back out. “Rozene's got her own kids to take care of and all,” she went on. “I was trying to find me a job, but what could I do with Nathan?”
She lifted her eyes to look at Randall.
“Uh â¦” Randall tried to think of a good answer, but before he could, Lavonia continued.
“Rozene said her diaper days are over. So there I was. Way out there in that house with all them kids and all and â¦”
She looked up at the sky and shook her head.
“I told Rozene and my kids and everybody that Nathan was with his daddy's people.”
She looked at Randall. “I just keep making mistakes,” she said. “You ever make mistakes?”
“Sure,” Randall said. “All the time.”
“I never should have left that child like that,” she said. “I knew it the minute I did it, but my old sorry self just did it anyways.”
Okay, Randall thought, now is the time.
“You've got to go get him,” he said.
Lavonia nodded. “I know. But now I'm scared to.”
“What if they put me in jail?” she said. “Ain't you ever heard of child abandonment? That's what I done. Abandonment.”
“Aw, nobody'd put you in jail. Not if you go back and get him.” Randall tried to make his voice sound sure and confident, but actually he wasn't so sure. What if they
put her in jail? What would happen to Moses then? And all those other kids of hers, what about them? Randall was starting to think he hadn't done the right thing after all.
“What's your name?” Lavonia said.
“Randall Mackey,” she repeated, twirling a ring around on one of her long fingers. “Who would've thought I'd need a little ole boy like you to shake me up?”
“I didn't mean to shake you up,” Randall said. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”
Lavonia reached out and put a hand on Randall's
knee. Her touch was warm. It made Randall's swirling-around insides settle down to an easy calm.
“Then I reckon I got to do the right thing, too, huh?” she said.
“Okay, I will.” She pushed a tuft of hair out of her eyes. “I got to go home and see to things first,” she said. “And then I'll come get my Nathan.”