Taking Care of Moses

Barbara O'Connor

Frances Foster Books

Taking Care of Moses
Randall Mackey had a secret. He knew who left the baby in the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
He worried and worried about the secret, not knowing whether or not he should tell someone. But Randall was afraid that if he told even one person, something bad might happen to Queenie.
His worry felt like a hot, heavy blanket, covering him from head to toe. After worrying for three days, Randall decided the answer was no. He wouldn't tell anyone. Not even Jaybird.
"What's wrong with you, anyway?" Jaybird said, poking Randall with his pointy elbow.
"Nothing," Randall said, hoping Jaybird couldn't see the worry that was jumping around inside him.
"Then how come you acting so weird?"
"I'm not acting weird."
"Yeah, you are, too."
Randall dropped three peanuts into his soda bottle. Plunk, plunk, plunk, fizz.
Randall and Jaybird sat on a tattered blue tarp under Jaybird's front porch. It was cool and damp under there. They could look out at the world through the spaces in the crisscrossed wood of the rotting lattice that surrounded the porch. They could see who came and went at Jaybird's house. Could identify them by their shoes, going up or down the steps.
When they saw Althea's plaid sneakers stop at the bottom of the steps, they sat as still as statues, not making a sound.
"Preacher Ron said that baby has the grippe," Althea called out into the air.
Randall and Jaybird sat frozen, grinning at each other. Blinking. Quiet.
Althea's face appeared outside the latticework. She peered into the darkness under the porch.
"I said, Preacher Ron said that baby has the grippe," she hollered.
"What's 'the grippe'?" Randall asked, ignoring Jaybird's elbow jab. Randall and Jaybird had made a pact never to speak one word to Althea again. But Randall couldn't help it. He wanted to know about the baby.
"How should I know?" Althea said. She stuck her chewing gum under the steps and skipped down thecrumbling sidewalk toward the street. But then she stopped. She came back over to the porch and squatted down, peering through the lattice again. "That baby has a hammertoe, too," she said.
Jaybird crawled over to the lattice. "You don't know nothing about nothing," he said. "Get your ugly self out of here before I'm forced to spit on you again."
Althea stood up and jabbed the toe of her shoe into the red dirt, sending dust and gravel spewing into the fort.
"And that baby's got scaly worm," she said.
Randall crawled over to the lattice and tried to see Althea's face. All he could see was her skinny brown legs. "Did Preacher Ron say that?" he asked.
"Maybe." Then Althea skipped off down the sidewalk and out of sight.
"She lies bigger than anything," Jaybird said, still peering out through the lattice. Then he whirled around to face Randall. "I thought we wasn't gonna talk to her no more," he said.
Randall didn't answer. He stretched out on the blue tarp and looked up at the wooden boards of the porch above them. Sometimes Althea dropped things through the cracks. Raisins or gum wrappers or chicken bones. Once she poured cherry Kool-Aid down on their heads, making Jaybird scurry out from under the porch and pinch her. Hard.
Randall Mackey was grateful for Jaybird Gilley. All of Randall's other friends had moved away, one by one. And each time one family moved out, a black family moved in. Before long, the Mackeys were the only white family left on Woodmont Street. Randall had needed to make a new friend, but it seemed like the black kids who moved into his old friends' houses weren't much interested in him.
But Jaybird was different. The very first day the Gilleys moved in, Jaybird had spotted Randall and had hollered, "I got a secret fort. You wanna see it?"
Randall had dashed across the street and crawled up under the porch with Jaybird. They had scooped the damp earth with their hands to make a comfortable place to sit. Then they had watched Jaybird's aunts and uncles and cousins and stepbrothers carry furniture and boxes up the steps and into the house. Jaybird had put a name to each and every pair of shoes. Cousin Eula Mae in the blue flip-flops. Uncle Irving in the dirty work boots. Stepbrother Curtis in the high-top sneakers.
Randall had never seen so many people in one family. He hadn't had that much fun in a long time. But best of all, he had watched Jaybird's little sister, Althea, try and try to join them in their fort under the porch. But no sooner had she poked one leg up under there than Jaybird smacked her with a yardstick. Hard.
Althea had yanked her leg back and hollered, "Dang, doggit, you, Jaybird. I'm tellin'!"
"No you ain't, you little she-devil," Jaybird had called out through the lattice. "'Cause you're a chick, chick, chicken."
Then that leg of hers had started kicking at them so fast Jaybird couldn't even hit it with the yardstick.
Randall had never heard kids talk as peculiar as Jaybird and Althea. And he had never seen such hitting and kicking. He was delighted. Randall didn't have a brother or sister. He could only dream about smacking someone's leg with a yardstick.
Now their fort under the Gilleys' porch was all fixed up with a blue tarp, an assortment of supplies (like playing cards and saltine crackers), and a shoebox full of gravel for hurling at Althea.
"You think that baby really has a hammertoe?" Randall said.
Jaybird shook his head. "Naw."
"Maybe that's why that baby got left there for Preacher Ron to find," Randall said. "'Cause he's got so many things wrong with him that couldn't even his mama fix him."
"Naw," Jaybird said. "That don't sound right."
"Why else would someone leave a baby like that?"
Jaybird shrugged. "Just didn't want him, I reckon." He tossed his soda bottle into the plastic milk crate heand Randall used to haul stuff to the fort. "I wonder who left that baby, anyway," he said.
Randall's stomach clumped up into a knot. He kept his face away from Jaybird and dug his feet into the cool, damp dirt along the edge of the house.
Randall Mackey had a secret. He knew who left the baby in the cardboard box on the front steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
Copyright © 2004 by Barbara O'Connor