The Seventh Most Important Thing

BOOK: The Seventh Most Important Thing
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Trouble Don't Last

Crooked River

All of the Above

All Shook Up

Jump into the Sky


This is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters with the exception of some well-known historical and public figures, are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Where real-life historical or public figures appear, the situations, incidents, and dialogues concerning those persons are fictional and are not intended to depict actual events or to change the fictional nature of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2015 by Shelley Pearsall

Cover art copyright © 2015 by Karin Åkesson

this page
this page
courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pearsall, Shelley.

The seventh most important thing / Shelley Pearsall.

pages cm.

Summary: “In 1963, thirteen-year-old Arthur is sentenced to community service helping the neighborhood Junk Man after he throws a brick at the old man's head in a moment of rage, but the junk he collects might be more important than he suspects. Inspired by the work of American folk artist James Hampton.” —Provided by publisher

ISBN 978-0-553-49728-1 (trade) — ISBN 978-0-553-49729-8 (lib. bdg.) — ISBN 978-0-553-49730-4 (ebook)

1. Hampton, James, 1909–1964—Juvenile fiction. [1. Hampton, James, 1909–1964—Fiction. 2. Artists—Fiction. 3. Folk art—Fiction. 4. African Americans—Fiction. 5. Community service (Punishment)—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.P3166Se 2015



eBook ISBN 9780553497304

Random House Children's Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.






n a bitter November day in Washington, D.C., when everything felt metallic—when the sky was gray and the wind stung and the dry leaves were making death-rattle sounds in the alleys—thirteen-year-old Arthur Owens picked up a brick from the corner of a crumbling building and threw it at an old man's head.

It wasn't an accident. The brick didn't topple off the decrepit building. It didn't fall from the heavens. Arthur Owens grabbed the brick with his own hands. He held it for a minute, noticing the cold weight of it—and then he raised his arm and flung it at the old trash picker known as the Junk Man, who was pushing a rusty grocery cart down the street.

Lucky for Arthur Owens, it was a windy day and his ability to see things at a distance had never been good. Also, the front wheel of the grocery cart wobbled off the sidewalk at precisely the right moment. As the old man leaned to straighten the cart, Arthur's brick slammed into his shoulder, sending him crumpling to the ground and the grocery cart skidding into the street.

If it hadn't been for the wind and the wobbly cart and Arthur's bad aim, it could have been a lot worse, everybody said. In the hospital later, the Junk Man told a newspaper reporter he believed it was an act of God.

“You being saved?” the reporter asked, already jotting down the answer he expected to hear.

“No” was the Junk Man's odd reply. “Me being hit.”


Those were the facts. On November 9, 1963, the story ran in all three of the city's newspapers. One headline read:
Then, in smaller type below, it said:
Man Saved by Good Samaritan.

Most people didn't care much about the facts, though. They didn't care about the particular place where the crime happened—not a bad neighborhood, but not a good one either. Or how a newspaper delivery truck driver who'd taken a wrong turn spotted the injured man on the sidewalk and rushed him to a nearby hospital.

What everybody wanted to know was why.

Arthur Owens spent three weeks in the Juvenile Detention Home, better known as juvie, asking himself the same question.


lot happened during the three weeks Arthur was locked up—the worst being that President Kennedy was killed. Then the guy who killed President Kennedy was killed. And then the Thanksgiving holiday passed by without much mention in juvie or anywhere else. Arthur didn't mind missing it. Along with the rest of the world, he didn't have much to be thankful for.

Four days after Thanksgiving, Arthur was brought to the courthouse for the hearing that would decide his fate. He was seated in a long row of bad kids, so he figured it was going to be a while.

Unfortunately, the judge assigned to hear Arthur Owens's case was not a listening sort of man. Judge Philip Warner liked his billowy black robe and the sound of his own voice too much. He reminded Arthur of those big horseflies that get stuck in your window in the summertime and buzz like mad and won't quit no matter what you do.

As the morning dragged on, the temperature in the courtroom rose. If Arthur had ever wondered what the fires of hell were like, Judge Warner's courtroom was giving him a pretty good idea. People who had come in wearing their winter coats and wool suit jackets were down to their shirtsleeves.

Arthur kept his suit jacket neatly buttoned and his sleeves down. He knew it was what his mom would want.

Doing his best to stay awake, he tried to focus on the walls of the courtroom, which were covered with vertical panels of grooved wood. Arthur thought maybe the design was supposed to make the room appear sleek and modern, but the longer he stared at the panels, the more they seemed to ripple in sickening waves. He began to believe that even the walls had been designed as a kind of punishment.

The combination of all these things—the swimming walls, the heat, the sweat, and the judge's endless voice—made him feel as if he just might puke when his turn finally came.

“Arthur T. Owens, approach the bench,” the bailiff called out.

It was only a few steps from his chair to the judge's bench, but to Arthur it felt like miles. He could sense the breathing, sweaty mass of people behind him the way you sense the weight of bullies right before they're about to smash you into a wall of lockers at school.

There had been a lot of bullies in juvie—it was practically a bully vacation spot.

No doubt some of the people in the courtroom were surprised to see what Arthur Owens looked like as he walked to the front. He wasn't your typical juvie thug. He didn't have meat slabs for hands, or full facial hair, or an insolent grin.

He thought he could hear a few whispers behind him. “That's him?”

Arthur Owens was slender, pale, and moody-looking. Maybe he was a little taller than some thirteen-year-olds—his father had been tall—but mostly, he was someone who wouldn't get noticed walking down the street. When his brown hair flopped over his eyes, Arthur had the bad habit of leaving it there, which drove his mother crazy. He also didn't smile much.

As Arthur glanced nervously at the long row of juvenile delinquents, he could tell he was one of the youngest of all the young criminals waiting on the judge that day. And from what he could see, he was the only person who was wearing an almost-new funeral suit that didn't fit him very well.

BOOK: The Seventh Most Important Thing
4.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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