When Wade first showed up at school, he let me know right away that he didn’t have any use for me. Thanksgiving was three days away, and the class was working on a report about the Pilgrims when he marched into Mrs. Steinhart’s fifth grade class with a huge scowl on his face.
He was wearing a pair of dusty blue jeans with black grease marks below the knees. His faded sweatshirt was a bit ragged at the neck, and the sole of one shoe was pulling away at the toe.
“It’s nice to have you in our class,” Mrs. Steinhart welcomed Wade with a smile.
“I’m not going to be here long,” he grumbled. “I have better places to go.”
“Well, we want to make sure you’re comfortable while you are here,” Mrs. Steinhart answered, as polite and cheerful as always. She looked around the classroom. “Why don’t you take that desk back by James,” Mrs. Steinhart said, pointing at me. Suddenly I felt sick. “James, will you make sure Wade feels comfortable? Answer his questions and help him in any way you can.”
Wade stomped back and dropped into the desk next to mine. I turned toward him, and he muttered, “Just stay out of my way, kid. I don’t need anybody holding my hand.”
I tried to pretend that Wade wasn’t there, but I couldn’t help sneaking a glance at him now and then. He was big for fifth grade, probably the biggest kid in the class. Once Mrs. Steinhart had him read out of our social studies book, and he stumbled over the words, even some of the little ones.
At noon, he snapped at me when I told him where to get his tray and pick up his milk. “I’ve been in a cafeteria before.” But not our cafeteria! He picked up a plate from the wrong side of the counter, and the cook yelled at him. When he left the serving area, he went out the wrong door, and Mr. Hansen, the principal, made him go back and use the right one. He found a place to sit—at the sixth grade table. Mr. Hansen made him move.
I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, even though he had been so unfriendly. “You can sit over here with me,” I offered. He glowered at me and found a spot at the end of the table by himself.
Wade wasn’t any friendlier on his second day of school. He didn’t speak except to snap at someone or brag about how much money his dad made. At recess he sat in a corner of the playground and glared at the rest of us as we played.
The next school day was the last before Thanksgiving break. When I got home, Mom called me into the kitchen. “James, Sister Wray called. Wilbur ran away again. She’s wondering if you’d mind looking for him.”
“Not again. Why doesn’t she just get rid of that crazy cat? He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”
Mom smiled. “Sister Wray loves that old cat, and you do, too. Maybe you could bike around the neighborhood and see if you can spot him.”
Grumbling a little, I buttoned my coat, climbed onto my bike, and started riding around. A couple of blocks from home, I spotted the big orange tomcat dart down a dirt lane to a vacant lot overgrown with bushes and trees and filled with junk. It was just the kind of place that Wilbur loved to explore.
I was so busy looking for him that I didn’t notice that I’d ridden right up to a small trailer. Wade and a younger boy were in front of it, smashing aluminum cans. Wade and I were almost face to face before either of us realized it.
“What are you doing snooping around here?” Wade demanded. “This is private property.”
I stood straddling my bike. I’m l-looking for my n-neighbor’s cat,” I stammered.
“Well, we don’t have him,” Wade fired back. “Now get out of here!”
The younger boy stepped forward. “I’m Wade’s brother, Russell,” he said with a friendly smile. “I saw a big orange cat over there just a minute ago.” He pointed to a pile of trash near the tiny trailer.
We all looked. A moment later, Wilbur’s tail twitched into view, and then his head peeked over a cardboard box. “That’s him!” I said.
“Well, take him and get out,” Wade growled. “Dad doesn’t like anybody coming around here without permission.” He stomped into the trailer.
“Don’t mind Wade,” Russell remarked, mashing a soda can and tossing it into a rusty barrel. “He’s just embarrassed for people to see where we live. You’re in Wade’s class, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “I’m James.” I pressed my lips together. “So, you collect cans?”
Russell set another one down. “It’s the only way Wade and I get any spending money.” He stomped on the can, then shrugged. “Mostly though, we give the money to Dad for milk or something.”
I looked around. “I didn’t know anybody was living here.”
“Dad works over at Mr. Aylor’s wrecking yard. Mr. Aylor owns this place, too, and he said we could stay here if we’d clean things up. Dad’s trying to get enough money so we can move to Colorado. He thinks he can get a good job there so we won’t have to stay in a dump like this.”
“Where’s your mom?” I asked.
Russell looked away. “She died a couple of years ago. Dad looks after us, but it’s not the same as when Mom was here.” Russell smiled. “Dad can’t cook, so Wade and I are learning.”
“Why are you still here?” Wade barked from the trailer door. He clomped down the shaky wooden steps. “Get your cat and go. We have work to do.”
“I was talking to him,” Russell said. “I was telling him that we’re going to move to Colorado if Dad can get that job.”
“Don’t tell him anything. It’s none of his business. He’ll just go back to school and tell everyone how we’re living here, and they’ll start making fun of us.” Wade jabbed an angry finger at me. “You open your big mouth, and you’ll answer to me! Now go away and stay away.”
Slowly I went over and picked Wilbur up, then started back to my bike. “I’ll say whatever I want,” I called back. “I’m not afraid of you.”
Wade started toward me, but Russell grabbed his arm. “Leave him alone, Wade. He doesn’t mean any harm.”
I took Wilbur to Sister Wray, then went home. As I started up our walk, I took a good look at our house. We weren’t rich or anything, but we had a real house and a nice yard. I had a mom and a dad, three sisters and a brother. I hadn’t ever thought of myself as having a lot, but compared to Wade and Russell, I was rich. I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like living in a tiny trailer surrounded by trash and weeds, without a mom, and not knowing how long we’d be there.
I wanted to dislike Wade, but I couldn’t, not without feeling guilty. The last few weeks in Primary, Sister Pearce had talked about Jesus and what He did when people were mean to Him. What would Jesus do if He ran into somebody like Wade? I wondered. I knew one thing for sure—He wouldn’t just walk away and forget about him.
As I pushed my bike into the garage, I spotted a plastic bag that was lumpy with several dozen empty pop cans. I wondered what it would be like to collect aluminum cans just for a little spending money. Or for buying milk.
Mom was making pies. “Are we having lots of company tomorrow?” I asked.
Mom sighed. “Not this year. Your Aunt Renae and Uncle Albert were going to come, but they’ve had a change of plans, so it looks like it’ll be just us. Do you think we can eat all this food by ourselves?”
“What if I invited somebody to help us out?”
Mom laughed. “Just tell me how many and how hungry.”
I returned to the garage, grabbed the bag of cans, and rode my bike back to Wade’s. He and Russell were still smashing cans. Wade saw me coming. “I told you to stay away from here.”
I climbed off my bike and handed him the cans. “We had these in the garage. I thought that maybe you could use them.”
Wade glared at me without moving. Russell took the bag. “Thanks. Every can helps.”
For a moment we all stared at each other without speaking; then I asked, “Could I help smash cans? I’m not doing anything right now.”
“Are you just trying to—”
“He wants to help,” Russell cut him off. “We don’t have to be mean to everybody. He didn’t have to come back, and we’re already behind.”
“Nobody comes by just to help. Nobody ever has. You wait and see what happens,” he barked at Russell. “He’ll be telling everybody about us.”
“You obviously don’t know me very well,” I said quietly.
Ignoring Wade, Russell said, “We’re supposed to have all these smashed by the time Dad gets home.” He jabbed a thumb toward Wade. “Don’t mind him. He’s not half mean.” He grinned. “Sometimes he’s even nice.”
For a long time Wade just watched as Russell and I stomped cans flat and tossed them into the barrel. Finally he bent over and started helping. We worked fast, none of us saying much. Thirty minutes later we were finished.
“Thanks,” Russell said. “You can help anytime.” He grinned.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I asked him.
“Dad has to work late tomorrow. But he is going to pick up some chicken for our supper.”
I chewed on my lower lip. “Why don’t you and Wade come over to my place for dinner? Usually we have lots of company for Thanksgiving, but not tomorrow. There’ll be plenty to eat. I already told Mom to set a couple of extra places. She’ll be upset if you don’t show.”
“We have work to do,” Wade spoke up. But he didn’t sound as gruff and angry. He even looked a little disappointed. “Thanks anyway.”
Russell nodded and motioned around the trailer. “We’re supposed to clean a bunch of this up.” He shrugged. “Dad’s counting on us.”
“I’m not doing much tomorrow. What do you say I come over and give you a hand?” I looked at Wade. “Then—if it’s OK with your dad—you can come eat with us and still have supper with him tomorrow night.”
“What are you doing this for?” he asked suspiciously, but he was starting to soften.
I thought for a moment. “Everybody can use an extra friend. Even guys like me.” I smiled. “I’ll be here early in the morning. Then we’ll head over to my place for dinner about one—unless we get hungry before then. Mom always has a few things we can snack on before the big dinner.” I grinned and started for my bike.
“Hey, wait,” Wade called to me. I stopped and turned, half expecting him to growl at me again. “Thanks.” He glared at the ground, then sneaked a look at me. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”