e have been blessed with a visitor today,” Preacher Ron said,”And we hope our visitor gets a blessing from us.”
Most everyone tried to act like they weren't staring at Lavonia Shirley, but most everyone was.
Randall's whole body felt like one big twitch. From the minute Lavonia had walked into church, he had felt like he was going to bust wide open. He tried to make his face look curious like everybody else's, like he didn't know why in the world Lavonia Shirley would be showing up out of nowhere like this.
Every now and then he glanced back at her. She wore a long, flowing robe with layers and layers of silky cloth. A yellow-and-orange turban covered up her bushy hair. Randall had never seen anyone in Foley dress like that. She looked like someone right out of a storybook. Like an African queen, or something. It was
for certain she didn't look like anybody else sitting there in the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
“We're just down-home folks,” Preacher Ron went on, “raised on corn bread and chicken. And we welcome ALL who choose to join us in this blessed place of brotherhood and worship.”
A few people called out, “Amen.”
Randall sat on his hands and thunked his heels against the pew until his mother squeezed his knee to make him stop. How was he ever going to sit still through the whole service? What was Lavonia going to do? Was she going to jump up and say she was the one who left Moses on the front steps of this church?
Suddenly a thought popped into Randall's head. What if Lavonia said “Hey” to him? What if she said, “Why, hey there, Randall Mackey”? Or worse yet, what if she told everybody about him chasing after her and all? What if she said, “Randall's the one who saw me leave my baby on the steps of this church”?
Randall couldn't believe he hadn't thought of that before. Why hadn't he told Lavonia that all this mess he'd gotten himself in with Moses was a secret? Why hadn't he explained to her about Queenie and why he couldn't tell anyone why he was outside the church that night?
It was too late now. But at least the few times he had
glanced back there at Lavonia, she hadn't even looked his way.
Preacher Ron kept yelling out words:
“Don't just take up SPACE,” he hollered, pounding his fists on the pulpit. “Make IMPROVEMENTS in this world.”
People held up their hands and nodded their heads and called out, “Yes, brother.”
When the service was over, folks began wandering over to the Fellowship Hall. Randall watched Lavonia out of the corner of his eye. Her silky robe fluttered in the breeze as she walked along the sidewalk connecting the church to the Fellowship Hall. Her bracelets made tinkling noises with every step. She looked straight ahead, not stopping to speak to anyone along the way. When she came nearer to Randall, her gold-colored eyes flicked in his direction, then, just as quickly, flicked away.
Randall followed her into the Fellowship Hall. By the time he got inside, she was crossing the room toward a cluster of women on the other side. At first the room was buzzing with chatter. Then, slowly, a hushed silence settled in.
When the women in the group across the room realized Lavonia was heading for them, they nervously patted their hair and cleared their throats. Mrs. Charlotte Jennings jostled Moses on her hip and set a smile on her face.
Lavonia stopped in front of Mrs. Jennings and nodded her head toward Moses.
“That's my child,” she said.
Moses let out a squeal.
Mrs. Jennings's mouth twitched and she shifted him to the other hip. “I beg your pardon?” she said.
“That's my Nathan.”
“Nathan?” Mrs. Jennings chuckled nervously and looked at the women around her.
Lavonia nodded. She reached for the baby. The flowing sleeves of her robe fell away, revealing more bracelets than Randall had ever seen on one person. Shiny silver bracelets stacked clear up to her elbows.
“I'm afraid I don't know you,” Mrs. Jennings said. She took a step backward and held Moses against her with both arms.
“I'm Lavonia Shirley.”
“Lavonia Shirley?” Mrs. Jennings narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. “Well now, I think maybe I do remember you. I haven't seen you around town in a long time. I thought you moved away.”
“Still, I don't really
you,” Mrs. Jennings went on. “I can't be giving this baby up to just anybody. Pardon me for casting doubt on you, Mrs. Shirley, but how am I supposed to know he is really your child?”
Some of the women nodded. Moses waved his chubby arms and squealed again.
Lavonia lowered her hands and lifted her chin. “That baby was left in a cardboard box on the steps of this church on the evening of June 15. The box came from behind the Winn-Dixie. It had âNabisco Saltine Crackers' written on the side in red. He was wrapped in a yellow-and-white-striped blanket. Three extra T-shirts were tucked in there. Plain white. He wore socks with kittens on them. There was a note written on blue paper with a sunflower at the top. The note said, âPlease take care of me.' I meant to put some apple juice in there, too, but I forgot.” Lavonia took a deep breath. “He loves apple juice,” she added.
No one moved. No one spoke. Randall watched Lavonia's face, so calm and peaceful. If she really had been scared like she had told him she was, then she must have wrestled that scared feeling and won.
Now it seemed like all eyes in the room shifted from Lavonia to Mrs. Jennings.
Mrs. Jennings kept the smile frozen on her face. Her white neck was flushed and blotchy. And in that brief minute, Randall could tell she had built a wall between
herself and Lavonia. Not a wall you could see or touch, but a wall that was solid with bad feelings.
And then Lavonia said, “I want to thank you folks for taking care of my child. You gave me the help I needed to pick myself up and carry on.” Lavonia stood straight and tall. She glanced around her at the crowd that had gathered there in the Fellowship Hall. Then she looked at Mrs. Jennings and said, “This is a fine church, and you are fine people.”
Mrs. Jennings's face began to change. Slowly, slowly, slowly. The hard edges softened. The tight line of her mouth relaxed. There was no doubt about it, Randall thought. That wall was beginning to crumble.
Lavonia stood there in the middle of all those silent, staring church folks and smiled at Mrs. Jennings.
“I been watching you,” she said. “Seeing all you done for my Nathan.”
Moses made a cooing sound and patted Mrs. Jennings's face. Lavonia nodded toward the baby that Mrs. Jennings clutched with both arms.
“Looks like you take to babies like a snake to a woodpile,” she said.
Mrs. Jennings blushed. The corners of her mouth began to twitch into a smile.
“You've been a good mama to him,” Lavonia said.
Crash. That wall came tumbling down.
andall turned to look at the clock on the wall in the back of the church. He could hardly believe only four minutes had gone by since the last time he had checked. How could an hour take so long? It seemed like he'd been in church forever.
Randall slid farther down on the hard church pew. He sure was missing Jaybird. And not just in church. The Gilleys had gone to visit Jaybird's cousins down in Georgia. They'd been gone over a week now, leaving Randall to sit under the porch all by himself, day after day.
Mrs. Mackey poked Randall with her elbow and whispered, “Sit up.”
Randall sat up and stared glumly at the pulpit, where Preacher Ron held the collection plate out with both hands.
“We've got to open more than our hearts,” he was saying. “We've got to open our wallets.”
He handed the collection plate to Wayne Chumley.
“Wayne is coming around to collect money for the Shirley family because they are in NEED.”
Randall jumped. He'd been coming to this church his whole life but he still couldn't guess which word Preacher Ron was going to holler.
“They are in NEED of our love,” Preacher Ron went on. “They are in NEED of our faith. And they are in NEED of our dollars.”
Folks nodded and reached into their pockets and purses.
Preacher Ron wiped his face with a handkerchief. “Those little ole Shirley children and their mama are sheep in the same flock as the rest of us,” he said. “And we must not let them DROWN in a sea of troubles.”
“No, sir,” someone called out.
“That's right,” called another.
“We are the little church with the big heart.” Preacher Ron clutched a Bible to his chest. “And we MUST not forget it.”
“Before we join our voices in song,” he said, “Charlotte has an announcement.”
Mrs. Jennings stood up and faced the congregation.
“After the service,” she said, “the Wednesday night Partners in Prayer group will be meeting in the choir room to discuss the current situation with MosesâI mean, Nathan.”
Randall jerked to attention. What did
mean? What current situation? Nathan was back home with Lavonia, and everything could just get on back to the way it was before. Why did anybody have to go and discuss stuff?
After church, Randall tiptoed downstairs and stood outside the choir room. The door was closed, but bits and pieces of muffled voices drifted out into the hall.
“ â¦ those children â¦”
“ â¦ this church â¦”
“ â¦ I think â¦”
“ â¦ they said â¦”
Randall pressed his ear against the door and tried to hear all the words instead of just pieces that didn't fit together. But it was no use.
Before long, the sound of metal chairs scraping the linoleum floor made Randall dash back up the stairs just as folks came filing out of the choir room.
Randall raced over to the Gilleys' and scrambled up under the porch. He could hardly wait to tell Jaybird everything he'd missed while he'd been away. Jaybird
was waiting for him. He put a finger to his lips and said, “Shhhhh.” He pointed to the floor of the porch above them. “Althea's up there,” he whispered.
“I heard you!” Althea yelled. She poked a stick through the cracks and jabbed it up and down, up and down.
Randall jerked back out of the way, but Jaybird grabbed the stick and yanked, breaking it with a snap.
“Mama-a-a-a-a,” Althea whined.
The screen door slammed above them. Randall and Jaybird laughed. Then Randall told Jaybird everything. He told him about how Lavonia had finally taken Nathan home, and how the ladies from church had sat up nearly all night with Charlotte Jennings 'cause she was so pitiful without that baby. Then he told Jaybird about how those people from social services up in Spartanburg had come down and called on Lavonia and how they said they had concerns.
“What you mean, âconcerns'?” Jaybird asked.
Randall told him what all the church ladies were saying. That Lavonia needed some help being a mama, or else those social services folks might take Nathan away.
“No way,” Jaybird had said.
So Randall went on to tell him about how Mrs. Jennings had gotten an idea.
“What idea?” Jaybird said.
“To have a Play and Pray Group.”
“A group where mamas can bring their kids to play while they talk and pray and stuff with the other mamas,” Randall said.
“And then Lavonia can come and bring all her kids and the church ladies can help her take care of them.”
Althea's face appeared outside the lattice of the fort. “But
the one who helps with Moses,” she said.
“Hush up,” Jaybird said, jabbing the broken stick through the lattice. “You ain't even going to that church no more.”
Before Althea could start hollering, Randall hurried to tell Jaybird the rest. About how Lavonia didn't seem too interested in coming to the Play and Pray Group, even when the welcoming committee kept calling on her. And how all the ladies couldn't figure out what to do.
,” Randall went on, “they decided Miss Frieda was the one to do it.”
“Talk some sense into Lavonia.”
“Sense about what?”
“About coming to the Play and Pray Group and bringing her kids and all.” Randall stopped to catch his breath.
Althea poked her head inside the fort. “Then what happened?” she said, before ducking back out.
“I heard Mrs. Jennings is going over to Miss Frieda's today,” Randall said.
“Naw!” Jaybird slapped his knee and shook his head.
“Let's go.” Randall scrambled out from under the porch and took off running toward Miss Frieda's. He could hear Jaybird's bare feet slapping the sidewalk behind him.
When they got there, T.J. was throwing a tennis ball against the side of the house.
Miss Frieda stuck her head out of the window and hollered, “Stop that racket, boy!”, then ducked back inside.
T.J. grinned at Randall and Jaybird.
“That church lady's in there,” he said.
Randall looked toward the house. “What's she saying?”
T.J. shrugged and bounced the ball in the dirt, sending up puffs of dust.
Randall crouched beneath the open window and motioned for T.J. and Jaybird to join him.
Just then Althea came bursting around the corner. Jaybird grabbed her arm and yanked her over beside him.
“Be quiet or go home,” he whispered.
She made a face, but she kept quiet. They all
grinned at each other and looked up at the open window above them.
“ â¦ seems reluctant to come to our Play and Pray Group,” Mrs. Jennings was saying.
Miss Frieda didn't say anything.
Mrs. Jennings went on, “So I've been praying and asking for guidance.” She paused. “To help me know what to do,” she said.
Miss Frieda just went “Mmmmm.”
“And that's why I'm here,” Mrs. Jennings said. “'Cause I see how you take care of these children, and I know you understand what Lavonia is going through.” She paused, but when Miss Frieda didn't say anything, she continued. “And I know in my heart that you are the person who can help.”
“Help do what?” Miss Frieda said.
There was silence for a minute and Randall could hardly keep himself from peeking in the window to see what was going on.
“We were hoping you could convince Lavonia Shirley to come to our Play and Pray Group,” Mrs. Jennings said. “So we can help her with the baby and all,” she added.
Again there was silence.
“I know we've had our differences in the past, Frieda,” Mrs. Jennings said. “But I know that when it's all said and done, well, we both want the same thing.”
“And what is that, Charlotte?”
“To help Lavonia and those children.”
Randall, Jaybird, T.J., and Althea all huddled together beneath the window, waiting. Althea started to giggle and Jaybird clamped his hand over her mouth. They could hear Miss Frieda's heavy breathing. Heard her grunt as she stood up. Her heavy footsteps across the floor.
“I reckon she
use some help,” Miss Frieda said.
“Then you'll speak to her?”
There was silence. Randall figured Miss Frieda must have nodded her head yes, 'cause Mrs. Jennings said, “I
Preacher Ron you would help us.”
“But I ain't making no promises,” Miss Frieda said.
The screen door squeaked and then slammed shut. The children flattened themselves against the side of the house as the two women went down the front steps to the red-dirt yard.
“Thank you, Frieda,” Mrs. Jennings said.
Randall watched her head off down the sidewalk toward the church.
Suddenly Miss Frieda's voice boomed down at them from the porch.
“Tyrone Jamal! Get your sorry self on in here right now!” she hollered. “And tell them other young-uns to go on home.”