Harlem Tate hadn't been in Freedom, Georgia, more than three days before it was clear that nobody wanted anything to do with him. Nobody except me, that is. I had a burning desire to be his friend.
All everybody else saw in him was a silent, glaring kid who didn't smell too good. Me? I could tell by his scowling face that Harlem Tate didn't get many chances to see the good in folks. Like me. And something about his hunched-over way of walking told me Harlem Tate's insides were churning up with needing something. Like mine.
So when I sat on Miss Delphine Reese's front porch going over my day like I always do, I told her my plan.
"He's gonna be my friend," I said, watching her pick dead leaves off the potted plants.
"Is he now?" Miss Delphine stuffed the leaves in the pocket of her jeans and smiled at me.
"Well, maybe." I propped my feet up on the railing in front of me and frowned at my legs, all skinny and bruised up. How come I couldn't have legs like Celia Pruitt or Charlene Stokeley? Maybe I could sit with them at lunch if my legs weren't so ugly.
I told Miss Delphine everything I knew about Harlem. How he came here from Valdosta to live with Mr. Moody. How he's taller than anybody in sixth grade and even taller than lots of the eighth graders. I told her how he has this hunched-over way of walking and how he glares all the time and how everybody thinks he looks mean and acts dumb.
"He sits way in the back of the class and if Mrs. Moore asks him something, half the time he don't even answer," I said. "Brian Sutter said he's been in the sixth grade for three years."
Miss Delphine pressed her lips together in that way that makes her dimples show.
"Aw, phooey." She flapped her hand at me. "I wouldn't listen to talk like that," she said.
"Harlem is tall," I said. "You should see him."
Miss Delphine clicked her Passion Pink fingernails on the arm of her chair while I told her more stuff.
"Everybody at school says he's living with Mr. Moody because his daddy's in prison and his mama choked on a chicken bone at the Holiday Inn," I said.
Miss Delphine smiled and combed her fingers through her fluffy red hair. "Sounds like he could use a friend."
Anybody else might have had something more to say about a boy showing up out of nowhere to stay with a crazy old man who chews tobacco and lives over a tattoo parlor and looks for cans on the side of the road. Anybody else might have said if Harlem looks so mean and acts so dumb, then why in the world do I want to go and be his friend? But not Miss Delphine. She's beautiful inside and out. She treats everybody like they have worth--even those worthless kids at school who treat me like dirt for no good reason. And she has a talent for finding the good in everybody--and, believe me, that's hard to do in this town. Some folks in Freedom are so mean in spirit they don't deserve anything better than a good kick. But Miss Delphine, she can look right through their mean spirit and find something the rest of us overlooked.
So I told her some more about my plan. "Nobody else wants to be his friend, see, so that means he's available for me," I said. "I think it was kind of a stroke of luck, don't you? Him coming to Freedom and not having any friends and all?"
She nodded. "A stroke of luck, for sure."
"I took one look at him and I said to myself, 'Bird, here's your chance. Make friends with that kid,' I said, 'before somebody poisons his mind with lies about you.'"
Miss Delphine arched her eyebrows. "Now, who's gonna go and do a thing like that?"
I frowned at my ugly legs again. "Shoot, we'd be hereall day if I start naming 'em all." I licked my finger and wiped dirt off my knee.
She put her hand on top of my hand and squeezed. Her skin was pure white. Not even one little freckle.
A bell jingled from inside the house.
Miss Delphine stood up and ruffled my hair. "I'll be right back," she said.
The screen door slammed behind her. I could hear her voice from the back bedroom and then the hoarse grumble of Pop Reese. I wrinkled my nose just thinking about that old man laying back there in the bed, all teary-eyed and drooling.
Sometimes I feel selfish being so glad that Miss Delphine had to leave her fancy job in Atlanta after her daddy had a stroke. Lucky for me her goodness is so big that she didn't bat an eye when her sister, Alma, told her she better come home and take care of Pop. She just packed her things and came on back to live next door to me again. Mama is all the time telling me to stop pestering Miss Delphine. But I can't help it. There's not much of anything I'd rather do than visit Miss Delphine. Besides, she seems like she don't mind being pestered.
While I waited on her porch, I could hear her bustling around inside, talking real sweet to Pop. Then she came out and sat beside me on the porch again. She smelled like medicine. Her blue eye shadow glittered in the late afternoon sun. I wish my mama would let me wear glittery blue eye shadow like that.
"I love those boots," Miss Delphine said.
I looked down at my dirty white boots. They had been my sister Colleen's marching band boots. I love them 'cause they're so soft and broken in. I was glad Miss Delphine loved them, too.
"Celia Pruitt said they're loser boots," I said. "But I saw Harlem looking at 'em. I could tell he liked 'em."
Miss Delphine smiled and gazed out at the magnolia tree in the front yard. Its leathery leaves spread out across the ground like a giant tepee.
"I remember when Pop planted that tree," Miss Delphine said. "Just look at it now, all grown up and fine as can be." She patted my knee. "Just like Bird," she added.
I grinned and felt my insides swell up with love for Miss Delphine, who always makes me feel good about myself.
"So what do you think about my plan?" I said. "For Harlem Tate to be my friend."
She cocked her head at me and winked. "I think it's a good plan."
"Okay, then, I'll do it. Starting tomorrow, Harlem Tate is gonna be my friend."
I nodded my head real big and sure, like I had confidence. Like my plan was good. Like Harlem Tate really was going to be my friend. But I was glad Miss Delphine couldn't see what was on the inside of me, 'cause inside, I wasn't too sure at all.