, Mama,” Althea whined.
The screen door slammed, and Althea stomped on the porch floor, making the boards over Randall and Jaybird rattle.
“Don't argue with me, Althea,” Mrs. Gilley called from inside.
“Please, please, please.” Althea stamped her foot with each “please.”
“Come on,” Randall said, motioning to Jaybird. “Let's go see what's going on.”
He crawled out from under the porch and brushed the dirt off his knees.
“Mrs. Jennings said I could, Mama,” Althea hollered through the screen door. “
But Mrs. Gilley didn't answer. Althea marched down the porch steps.
“What you whinin' about?” Jaybird said, crawling out from under the porch.
Althea crossed her arms and sat on the bottom step. Her lower lip quivered and she swiped at a tear, leaving a streak of dirt across her cheek.
“Mama is so mean,” she said.
“How come?” Randall said.
“Lavonia Shirley is going to the Play and Pray Group, and Mama won't let me go.”
Althea picked the peeling paint from the banister along the steps.
the one who's supposed to take care of Moses,” she said.
“His name is Nathan,” Randall said.
“Well, I'm calling him Moses.”
“But that ain't his name, dog breath,” Jaybird said.
Althea glared at him. “So what?”
Randall watched Althea peel the paint and flick it into the shrubbery.
“Why won't your mama let you go?” Randall asked.
“'Cause she's mean.”
“You better hush up,” Jaybird said, glancing toward the open front door.
“She said we don't go to that church no more.” Althea flicked a chip of paint at Jaybird. “'Cause everybody said Miss Frieda was a troublemaker,” she added.
“I bet if Mrs. Jennings talked to Mama, she'd
change her mind and then we could come back to church,” Jaybird said.
Randall shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Ask her,” Jaybird said.
Althea nodded so hard one of her braids flopped over into her face. “Yeah, ask her,” she said.
“Ask who what?” Randall said.
“Ask Mrs. Jennings to come over here and talk to Mama.”
“Yeah,” Althea said, “ask Mrs. Jennings to come over here and talk to Mama.”
Jaybird shot her a look.
Randall shook his head. “I don't know.”
“She'd do it if
asked her,” Jaybird said. “She likes you.”
“Yeah,” Althea said. “She don't like us too much.” Jaybird shot her another look.
“I don't think so,” Randall said.
“Come on.” Jaybird nudged Randall. “Don't you want us to come back to church?”
“Sure I do,” Randall said. “But I don't think Mrs. Jennings will listen to
Althea jumped up and clasped both hands together. “Please, please, please.” She shook her clasped hands in Randall's face.
“Oh, all right,” Randall said. “I'll try.”
When they got to the church, piano music floated out of the basement window.
“Choir practice,” Jaybird said.
“Yeah,” Randall said. “Maybe we better come back later.”
“No, now!” Althea hollered. Then she softened her face and lowered her voice and said, “Please, Randall.”
Jaybird and Althea followed Randall through the back door of the church and down the stairs to the choir room. They tiptoed in and sat on the metal folding chairs along the wall.
“Okay, then,” Mrs. Jennings was saying. “We'll sing âWhen the Roll Is Called Up Yonder' first and âHe Is Mine' second.” She closed her hymnal and gathered sheets of music off the table in front of her. “See y'all Sunday,” she said.
As the choir members filed out of the room, Randall stood up.
“Mrs. Jennings?” he said.
She looked up. “Well, hey there, Randall,” she said. “What're y'all doing?”
“We came to ask you a favor.”
“Althea wants real bad to be the helper for Moses, uh, I mean, Nathan, at that new play group of yours,” Randall said. “And, um, she was wondering, I mean,
was wondering, well, Jaybird and Althea, and â¦”
Mrs. Jennings chuckled. “Wondering what, Randall?”
“If you would go over to the Gilleys' and make Mrs. Gilley come back to church,” Randall said. “'Cause Jaybird and Althea really want to.”
Mrs. Jennings pressed her lips together. “But does
want to come back to church?” she said.
Althea ran over. “She does,” she said. “I know she does. She hates it over at that other church where we been going. She said them busybodies over there are worse than you.”
Jaybird punched Althea in the arm. Mrs. Jennings's face twitched slightly, but she smiled.
“Well now, Althea honey, your mama knows this church opens its doors to everyone.” She put the sheet music into a folder. “Even those who have shut the doors of their hearts to
,” she added.
“She ain't shut no door,” Althea said. “She just needs you to lead the way to putting away the wrath.”
Althea grinned at Jaybird and Randall. Mrs. Jennings's eyebrows shot up.
“Putting away the wrath?” she said.
“You know, like it says in the Bible,” Althea said. “âLet all bitterness and wrath be put away from you with a mallet.'”
Mrs. Jennings smiled. “âWith
,'” she said. “That's Ephesians.”
Althea nodded. “I know it is. I know all them verses perfectly. I should've won that Bible drill, 'cause Maddie Shadd is so stupid andâow!” Althea grabbed her arm where Jaybird had punched her again.
Randall stepped forward and said, “I just figured, um, I mean,
just figured â¦” He glanced back at Jaybird and Althea. “We just figured that since this is the little church with the big heart and all â¦ and â¦ um â¦”
Randall watched Mrs. Jennings's face go from hard to soft.
“All right,” Mrs. Jennings said. “I'll see what I can do.”
Randall and Jaybird made Althea sit at the very edge of the fort.
“You keep one arm and one leg
of our fort or else you can't sit here at all,” Jaybird said.
Althea nodded. “I will.”
Randall motioned for them to be quiet. They sat still, staring up at the porch above them. Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Gilley were talking.
At first Mrs. Gilley's words had come out quick and sharp.
“Yes?” “I see.” “Oh?”
But before long she was sounding like somebody who might give in and say, “Yes, we'd love to come back
to the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.” When Mrs. Gilley offered Mrs. Jennings some diet cola and Mrs. Jennings said yes, she'd love some, Randall made a thumbs-up sign to Jaybird and Althea.
Finally the two women stood up and Mrs. Jennings said, “See you Sunday, then.”
Randall and Jaybird and Althea high-fived each other and Jaybird let Althea move just a few inches farther inside their fort.
e're selling candy,” Althea said when Miss Frieda came to the door.
Miss Frieda stepped out onto the porch. Two small boys came out after her.
“Y'all get on over there to Earlene's like I told you,” Miss Frieda hollered at the boys, jerking her head toward the other side of the duplex.
After the boys had scampered away, Miss Frieda sat in a rickety lawn chair on the porch.
“What y'all selling candy for?” she said.
“For church,” Randall said.
Althea sat on the porch beside Miss Frieda and grinned up at her. “For the Rolling Pulpit,” she said.
Miss Frieda's eyebrows squeezed together. “Rolling pulpit? What in tarnation is that?”
“It's like a traveling church,” Randall said. “So old people and sick people and all canâ”
“So people can pretend like they're in church even if they have their pajamas on,” Althea said.
“Preacher Ron and the Celebration Choir and everybody can come right to your house,” Randall said.
“Only it costs money,” Jaybird added. “To use the church bus and all. So the Sunday school is selling candy to help pay for it.”
“I thought y'all quit that church,” Miss Frieda said to Jaybird.
“Mrs. Jennings came to talk to Mama,” Jaybird said.
“Oh, she did?”
“Yeah,” Althea said. “And she told her to put away her wrath with a mallet.”
Miss Frieda chuckled. “Lawd, you sure can talk some talk, Althea.”
Althea grinned. “
,” she said, “Mrs. Jennings told Mama to be ye forgiving. Do you know what âye' means?”
Before Miss Frieda could answer, Althea said, “It means âyou.' That's Bible talk.”
Miss Frieda's stomach jiggled as she laughed. “And did your mama be forgiving?” she asked.
Althea shook her head. “Not at first,” she said. “At first Mama told her she shouldn't have waited till her crow got cold.”
Miss Frieda laughed and slapped her knee.
Althea grinned. “Mama told her she was liable to choke.”
Miss Frieda wiped at tears with a balled-up tissue. “Why was she liable to choke?”
“'Cause the easiest way to eat crow is while it's still warm.” Althea beamed at Miss Frieda. “The colder it gets, the harder it is to swallow.”
At that, Miss Frieda held her stomach and laughed so hard Randall thought she was going to fall right out of her chair.
Althea had a look of pure delight on her face. “And now we're going back to church, and I get to be the helper for Moses at the Play and Pray Group,” she said. “Ain't that nice?”
Miss Frieda settled back in her chair and shook her head. “Lawd, I swear, child, you take the cake.” She wiped the back of her neck with the tissue. “Yeah, I reckon that is nice,” she added.
Jaybird poked Randall, and Randall said, “We got to get on back to the church. Do you want to buy some candy?”
“Sure, I'll buy one.” She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at Randall. “But I don't want no church rolling into my house,” she said.
Miss Frieda went inside and came back with a dollar bill and a brown paper bag.
“Take this over there to that praying group of yours,” she said, handing the bag to Randall.
“What is it?”
“Just some old stuff I had around here that's getting in the way. Some baby clothes and a couple of little ole toys.”
“Thank you.” Randall went down the porch steps and put the bag in the wagon with the boxes of candy bars.
Althea skipped off down the sidewalk. “If you want the Rolling Pulpit to come, just holler,” she called over her shoulder.
Miss Frieda flapped her hand at Althea. “Git on outta here,” she said.
When they got to the church, Randall, Jaybird, and Althea took the wagon around back to the Fellowship Hall. Inside, tables had been set up for kids to turn in their money and pick up more candy bars to sell.
“Let me pull the wagon,” Althea said.
“No,” Jaybird said, pushing her hand away.
“Then let me count the money.”
“I already counted it,” Randall said. “Eight dollars.”
“Thenâhey, look!” Althea pointed at a group of
children who had just come into the Fellowship Hall. One of them was carrying a baby. Behind them was Lavonia Shirley.
Lavonia crossed the room, smiling and nodding at some of the church ladies. Her hair was tied back with a silk scarf that floated out behind her as she walked.
Mrs. Jennings looked up from counting money. “Well, hey there, Lavonia,” she said.
“I came to help,” Lavonia said.
Althea pointed to one of the girls with Lavonia. “She can be on my candy team. What's her name?”
“Miracle,” Lavonia said.
“Miracle?” Althea cocked her head. “What kinda name is that?”
Mrs. Jennings put her hand on Althea's shoulder. “Where are your manners, Althea?” she said. “Have you met Mrs. Shirley?”
“I heard about her 'cause of Queenie.”
Randall's heart dropped clear down to his stomach. They weren't supposed to be talking about Queenie.
“Yes, ma'am,” Althea said. “Queenie's all the time talking about Lavonia Shirley.”
Randall wanted to jump on Althea. Knock her right down to the floor and cover her mouth.
“Poor ole Queenie.” Mrs. Jennings shook her head. “She sure does talk crazy sometimes.”
Althea grinned. “She sure does.”
“Anyway â¦” Mrs. Jennings put her arm around Althea's shoulder, “Lavonia, this is Althea Gilley.”
Randall let his breath out with a whoosh. Maybe they weren't going to talk about Queenie, after all.
“And that there is her brother, Jaybird.” Mrs. Jennings nodded at Jaybird.
“And this is Randall Mackey,” Mrs. Jennings said.
Randall watched Lavonia's face as she shifted her gaze from Jaybird to him. She nodded and said, “Pleased to meet you, Randall Mackey.”
And then, just ever so slightly, she winked.
“We will load up our FAITH and our PRAYERS and ALL of the goodness in our hearts,” Preacher Ron was saying. “LOAD it right up onto our Rolling Pulpit and spread it A-A-A-LL over Foley, South Carolina.”
All around the church, folks raised their hands and waved their Bibles and called out.
Preacher Ron took his jacket off and loosened his tie. His hair hung in wet clumps on his forehead. “We MUST spread the good works of this church to our friends and neighbors.”
Randall watched the preacher wave his Bible in the air. A fan whirred back and forth from a chair beside the pulpit, spreading a cool breeze from one side of the room to the other.
Randall's mother had let him take his jacket off, but his shirt was still damp against his back. Even with all the doors and windows open, the air inside was thick with heat. Randall folded his church bulletin and fanned himself.
“And now, brothers and sisters,” Preacher Ron said, “let us lift our voices in celebration and praise of the good works of this church by singing hymn number 27, âWhen the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.'”
He nodded toward Norma Jakes at the organ, then motioned for the congregation to stand.
Randall stood between his mother and father and watched the Celebration Choir sway from side to side with the music. Folks began to sing, and soon feet tapped the floor, hands clapped, and heads nodded.
Bucky Farwood stood beside the organ with a microphone and sang out, “Hallelujah.”
At first Randall sang soft, like he usually did. But before long the whole room seemed to vibrate with the rhythm of stamping feet and clapping hands, and Randall began to sing louder.
“When the r-o-l-l-l-l is called up yonder â¦”
He tapped his toes and drummed his fingers against
the wooden pew in front of him as the music swirled around the room.
Mrs. Charlotte Jennings stood in front of the choir, waving her arms in time to the music. Her head jerked, making her stiff hairdo quiver from side to side.
Randall looked back at the sixth row on the left. Althea was standing right up on the seat of the pew, lifting her skinny legs clear up to her chin as she marched to the beat. Even Jaybird was singing, wagging his head from side to side, every now and then grinning up at his mother.
Way in the back, Mr. Avery held his cap in his gnarled hands. His eyes were closed and his thin gray hair bounced slightly as he nodded with the music. Randall wondered if maybe he was thinking about Queenie, sitting at home on their old couch, clutching her big red purse.
Beside Mr. Avery, Lavonia Shirley waved one hand gracefully in the air, the sleeve of her silky robe fluttering. Her silver bracelets and shiny rings glittered in the morning sun that streamed through the open windows. She bounced Nathan on her hip. Up and down. Up and down. Her other five children stood shoulder to shoulder beside her.
When the music stopped, everyone clapped and mopped their foreheads and wiped their necks with tissues.
Preacher Ron called out, “I FEEL the love!”
Mrs. Mackey hollered, “That's right.”
Someone in the back of the room called out, “I feel it, too!”
Then Preacher Ron leaned over the pulpit and gestured toward the ceiling. “This little ole building of brick and mortar is NOT the Rock of Ages Baptist Church,” he said.
Then he threw his arms out wide and hollered, “These PEOPLE are the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.”
Randall looked around the room. Everyone was nodding and grinning, and Randall felt himself grinning, too.
Then Preacher Ron pointed to the sign over the organ and said real slow, “We
the little church with the big heart.”
Shouts of “Amen” filled the room.
Randall looked back once more at Lavonia Shirley. She turned her gold eyes to meet his and smiled. Then she winked that tiny little wink again.
Randall winked back.
Then he looked around him at all those people in that little church, and he called out, “Amen!”