He’s what they call in the juvenile justice system a frequent flyer. Truancy, petty theft, breaking and entering, attempted burglary. Not even old enough to shave, just barely old enough to drive, his life is already a broken record. White trash is what they’re called. Not just poor, poor and ignorant. The thing that got him picked up the last time was too stupid, even for him. Technically it was against the law, but littering? Tossing trash out a window? Who wants that spread around? Better to have it known that you assaulted somebody, and so that’s just what he did. Resisting arrest wasn’t enough, no, he had to go and knock the officer off his feet. That was the beginning of the end for Mason Hollingsworth, an unlucky boy born into a world that had no use for him other than to blame him for everything that is wrong with the world.
“It’s either jail or the Army, boy. What’s it gonna be?”
“I got a brother to look after.”
“Guess you shoulda thought about that before you went and threw that shit outta old man Mosley’s truck. ‘Course it mighta helped if you had a brain in that ragamuffin head of yours. They weren’t givin’ out brains the day you were born, were they?”
“Hey! For your information, I was trying to throw it in the back of the truck, but the wind caught it. You gonna send me away for somethin’ the wind did?”
“No, I’m sending you away to fix you, boy. Fix you good. You will never knock a policeman’s feet out from under him again. I guarantee that.”
“I don’t need fixin’. We was coming from church. Me and Jake go there ever Sunday. I been looking after him since he was little. Ain’t nobody else cares ‘bout neither one of us. I’m all he’s got.”
“Boy, I hate to break it to you, but you ain’t worth havin’. That little brother of yours is better off without your sorry ass showin’ him how to break the law. It’s one sob story after another with your kind, ain’t it? Unwanted by your mamas, abandoned by your daddies, forced to make do with whatever can be begged or stolen. Now, what’s it gonna be?”
“The Army, I guess.”
“Good. That’s the first smart thing to ever come outta your mouth. Now sit down and shut up ‘til I get back from the courthouse, and don’t even think about runnin’ off. I got eyes everywhere.”
Old man Mosley had given Mason Hollingsworth and his little brother, Jake, a place to stay in exchange for working in his junk yard. He pays Mason twenty-five dollars a week to haul scrap and unload trucks that come in carrying worn out appliances and other junk nobody wants. Jake picks up a little pocket change raking leaves and burning trash. The boys are allowed to live in a metal tool shed on the condition that they show up to work every day except Sunday. Sundays they have to be in church. That’s old man Mosley’s rule, and the boys abide by it religiously.
Jake likes Sunday school. They serve cookies and Hawaiian Punch. He fills his pockets with Oreos and drinks his weight in the sugary nectar that gives him a bright red mustache. Mason on the other hand, does not like church. He sees how the others look down on him and Jake for showing up week after week in old man Mosley’s old clunker of a truck, wearing the same clothes and shoes two sizes too small. He doesn’t care what those church folks think. He doesn’t want their charity and he doesn’t want their pity.
“These cookies ain’t charity, Mason. I earned ‘em. Here, have one. They’re good. We get one ever time we say a Bible verse. Wanna hear the Bible verse I learnt today?”
“I don’t want no damn cookies, Jake, and I ain’t in no mood for no damn Bible verses.”
“Hey! I don’t think you’re supposed to say damn Bible verses.”
“Get in the truck. If you’ll shut up ‘til we get to town, I’ll stop and get us a burger on the way back to the junk yard.”
That was the last time Mason and Jake went to church together. It was the last time they went anywhere together. Mason came to say goodbye and then he was gone, gone away to the Army to be a soldier. Jake wanted to cry, but he didn’t. Instead he stood as tall and as still as he could. Old man Mosley leaned against the porch rail with his hands in his pockets and the two watched the police car pull away with Mason in the backseat.
“What you gonna do now, boy?”
“I might not be strong enough to unload trucks,” Jake tried to sound businesslike, “but I can organized the junk yard and keep it from getting too, well, too junky.”
“You oughta be in school. I ain’t got no money to pay for full time yard work. You can’t drive. I need somebody can drive.”
“I can get my permit next year. Let me stay. Please. I promise I’ll work real hard. I won’t be no trouble. Please Mosley, I got nowhere else to go.”
“Go on, get them leaves raked up and don’t give me no reason to call the police, hear?”
“Thank you. You won’t be sorry. I’m gonna get this place good and straightened up so there won’t be no snakes around here no more.”
That was the day Jake Hollingsworth became a man.