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Authors: Jerry Spinelli

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BOOK: Maniac Magee
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*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 40

 

He ran far that day, away from the town, letting the wind wash him.

When he returned to the West End, he heard in the distance Mrs. Pickwell whistling her children to dinner. Though he had heard the whistle many times, he had not answered it since his first day in town. Now he felt, as he had that day, that it was meant for him.

This time, of course, there was a difference. He was no stranger. He was Maniac Magee, the kid who had walked barefoot through the dump near their house. The Pickwell kids cheered when he showed up and treated him like a legend in the flesh. Mrs. Pickwell did better: she treated him like a member of the family, as if she would have been surprised if he hadn't come on the whistle. Nor was Maniac the only visitor for dinner. Mr. Pickwell had brought home a down-and-out shoe salesman in sore need of sympathy and a good meal.

As Maniac ate and talked and laughed his way through dinner, he couldn't help thinking of the Beales. How alike the two families were: friendly, giving, accepting. So easily he could picture the Beales' brown faces around this dinner table, and the little Pickwell kids' white bodies in the bathtub at 728 Sycamore. Whoever had made of Hector Street a barrier, it was surely not these people.

Fortified by his good time at the Pickwells', Maniac returned to the McNabs'. After the East End scare, Russell and Piper no longer demanded stunts of him in return for attending school. On the one hand, this was a relief to Maniac; on the other, it left him with less influence over them.

He could always extort a day or two in class from them with the free weekly pizza. Beyond that, he goaded them toward school any way he could. He organized a marbles tournament that could take place only in the schoolyard during recess. He tried reading to them, as he had to Hester and Lester and to Grayson, but they paid as much attention as the roaches. He took them to the library, then scrapped that idea after their shenanigans left the librarian blubbering and blue-faced.

Then May arrived with its warm weather and blew away what little power he had left. The boys began again to dream of travel. Wood appeared in the backyard. They were building a raft. "Gonna sail down the river to the ocean," they said.

One day he heard frenzied horn-honking and screaming. He turned to see an ancient, rusty, gas-hog convertible rolling by, with Russell behind the wheel and Piper jumping up and down and shrieking in the back seat. By the time Maniac caught up, they were gone and the car was shuddering against a telephone pole.

Another time, he had to run them down and haul them back to Dorsey's Grocery, where he made them empty their bulging pockets of the fifty bubblegums they had stolen.

It was a maddening, chaotic time for Maniac. Running in the mornings and reading in the afternoons gave him just enough stability to endure the zany nights at the McNabs'. When he asked himself why he didn't just drop it, drop them, the answer was never clear. It wasn't so much that he wanted to stay as that he couldn't go. In some vague way, to abandon the McNab boys would be to abandon something in himself: He couldn't shake the suspicion that deep inside Russell and Piper McNab, in the prayer-dark seed of their kidhoods, they were identical to Hester and Lester Beale. But they were spoiling, rotting from the outside in, like a pair of peaches in the sun. Soon, unless he, unless somebody did something, the rot would reach the pit.

And yet he held back. Oh, he prodded and persuaded and inspired and bribed the boys to do right, but he never forced them, never commanded, never shouted. Because to do so would be parental, and he was not yet ready for that. How could he act as a father to these boys when he himself ached to be somebody's son?

 

But then one day the boys went too far. He found them playing with the old glove Grayson had given him for Christmas. As if that weren't bad enough, they were using it as a football, punting it back and forth.

Maniac exploded. He popped off for a good ten minutes, got it all out. This was the last straw, he told them. From now on it was gonna be different. No more Mr. Nice Guy. "When I say 'Jump,' you say 'How high?' Got it?"

They got it. For the first time in their lives, the boys were speechless. Speechless as they did their homework that night. Speechless as they went to bed at nine o'clock. Speechless as they went off to school next morning.

The peace lasted three days. Shock accounted for the first day. The second and third days were a new game, called Obedience, or Being Good. When the game lost its appeal, Maniac lost his power. He told them to sit, they stood. He told them to stand, they sat. Instead of going to school, they worked on their raft. Instead of doing homework, they played war in the pillbox. They brought their plastic weapons down from the hole and stationed themselves at the two small gunnery slots in the cinder-block wall and blasted away at anyone moving through the house, not to mention imaginary "rebels" streaming through the door and over the windowsills.

"Stop!" Maniac finally yelled, and snatched the two red gun barrels protruding from the slots. In a moment, two more barrels appeared.

"Stop!" he commanded.

"Ain't shooting you," Russell whined. "We're shooting them rebels. Bam-bam-bam! Pow! Got one! Pow! Bam! Got another! Bam-bam!"

"I said STOP!" Maniac grabbed the guns, threw them on the floor, and stomped on them. He didn't stop till they were plastic splinters.

The only sound was that of the turtle scratching somewhere in the room. The gunnery slots framed the boys' dumbstruck faces.

Russell was the first to speak. "Get outta my house."

"Yeah," sneered Piper, "outta here."

Maniac went upstairs, got his satchel, and was gone.

 

That night and the next night he slept at the park. The following day, as he sat reading in the library, in came the McNab boys. They rushed to him. "Hey, Maniac," blurted Piper, "we been lookin' all over for ya. Ya gotta come to my birthday party. I'm having a party tomorra. Waddaya say, huh? Ya comin'? Huh?"

Maniac couldn't believe it. The ugly feelings of the other day showed nowhere on their excited faces.

"C'mon, Maniac. You gotta!"

And just like that, as he stared at them, the idea came, an idea as zany as they were. The words seemed to lift right off their faces, like sunburnt skin peeling. "Well, okay," he said, "on one condition."

"What's that?"

"If I can bring somebody with me."

"Sure! Bring everybody! We're gonna party!"

The librarian edged closer to the phone.

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 41

 

The McNab boys didn't know whom they did expect Maniac to bring to the party, but one thing for sure --- they did not expect him to come walking through the front door with a black kid.

And that was only half of it. From the way the kid swaggered in, from the candy bar that jutted like a chocolate stogie from the corner of his mouth, from the rip-stone-evil scowl on his face, the kid had to be none other than Mars Bar Thompson himself. If black meant bad, if black meant in-your-face nastiness, if black meant as far from white as you could get, then Mars Bar Thompson was the blackest of the black.

Here. In the middle of their living room. Stopping the party --- the neighborhood kids, the Cobras, even George McNab --- stopping them dead as traffic. Just walked in through the front door, the steel door. Breezed right on in. Past the bars. Standing there, I-own-this-jointing there, before they knew what was happening, before anyone could reach for anything.

Which, of course, is just what Maniac had had in mind. Remembering how little Grayson had known about black people and black homes. Thinking of the McNabs' wrong-headed notions. Thinking of Mars Bar's knee-jerk reaction to anyone wearing a white skin. And thinking: Naturally. What else would you expect? Whites never go inside blacks' homes. Much less inside their thoughts and feelings. And blacks are just as ignorant of whites. What white kid could hate blacks after spending five minutes in the Beales' house? And what black kid could hate whites after answering Mrs. Pickwell's dinner whistle? But the East Enders stayed in the east and the West Enders stayed in the west, and the less they knew about each other, the more they invented.

It hadn't been easy: finding Mars Bar, taking all his lip about cheating on the race, taking some bumps, some shoves, Mars goading him to fight. But keeping his own cool, matching Mars Bar glare for glare, telling him he wasn't as bad as he thought he was. Really stoking him now, making him slam his candy bar to the ground. "No? You wanna tell me why I ain't so bad, fish? Go ahead, 'fore I waste ya." Chest to chest.

Keeping cool. Letting Mars do all the huffing. "Simple. You don't cross Hector. You stay over here, where it's safe. How bad would you be over there?"

Stepping back then, folding his arms, smugging it up just enough, standing there in his white skin, gazing nonchalantly about, six-blocks-deep in the heart of the black side: "Guess that makes me badder than you."

 

They did not go straight to the McNabs'. First they went to the Pickwells'. Maniac wanted Mars Bar to see the best the West End had to offer.

The little Pickwells made as much fuss over Mars Bar as over Maniac. They believed, as did all little kids in the West End, that he carried a hundred Mars Bars with him at all times. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Pickwell never batted an eye when she saw who was coming to dinner.

It was quite a sight, all right --- sixteen Pickwells plus Maniac, plus a down-and-out golf caddie --- eighteen so-called white faces and Mars Bar Thompson. To his credit, Mars Bar didn't use the words "fishbelly" or "honky" once, though on one occasion he did bend the truth a mite. When a Pickwell kid asked him if it was true about the famous race in April, did Maniac really beat him going backward? --- Mars Bar studied his fork for a minute and said, "Yeah, he went backward. But you got the story wrong. Wasn't me he beat. Was my brother, Milky Way." The little kids couldn't understand why the grownups laughed for five minutes after that.

As for Mars Bar himself, his expression never changed until the dinner was almost over, when the littlest non-baby Pickwell, Dolly, called him "Mr. Bar." And even then it wasn't so much a smile as a crack in the glare.

Even if Mars wasn't letting on, Maniac could tell he was pleased to learn his fame had spread to the West. When they left, half the Pickwell kids followed them, begging Mars to perform his legendary feat of stopping traffic.

"Don't," Maniac warned. "It might not work over here."

But the Pickwells persisted, and when they reached Marshall Street, Mars Bar commanded, "Stay here," and stepped into the traffic.

Not only did he shamble, jive, shuck, and hipdoodle at his own sweet pace, he did something he had never even done in the East End - he came to a complete and utter halt halfway across and let nothing; but the evil in his eyes take care of the rest. He stood like that for one full minute. By the time he finally moved on to the far side, so the legend goes, twenty three cars, several bicycles, and a bus were stacked to a dead stop in both directions. Maniac hurried across while the Pickwells stood at the curb, cheering and waving good-bye.

But no one was cheering now in Fort McNab. And Maniac knew that despite the swagger and the scowl and the chocolate stogie, Mars Bar Thompson was one uneasy dude.

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 42

 

George McNab was the first to speak up. He was stretched out on the only new piece of furniture in the house, a tilt-back lounge chair. Said McNab: "What's he doin' here?"

The awkward silence that followed was mercifully broken by Piper, tugging on Maniac's arm: "Where's my birthday present? Wha'd you get me?"

Maniac pulled the present from his pocket. Piper exclaimed: "A watch!"

"No," said Maniac. "A compass. It tells you which direction you're going."

"Like to the ocean?" asked Russell.

"The ocean, Mexico, anywhere in the world. Only one thing."

"What's that?"

Maniac took the compass from Piper's hand. "I'm keeping it till school's over. If you go every day --- both of you --- then you can have it back and sail around the world."

"On our raft!" Piper cheered.

"Is it a deal?"

Piper and Russell and Maniac did a three-way highfive. "It's a deal!"

George McNab pulled himself up from the easy chair and shuffled into the kitchen. He wore barebacked slippers over bare feet. His white ankles were dirty. He took a beer can from the fridge and headed for the steps. "Let me know when it leaves," he said and went upstairs.

Maniac could feel the voltage that surged through Mars Bar and crackled black lightning from his eyes. Quickly he clapped his hands. "Hey --- isn't this a party? Where're the games?"

So they played games. Silly games, whose main object seemed to be shrieking and screaming. Mars Bar allowed himself to be dragged into them, but his jaw was clenched and his eyes kept straying to the gaping hole in the ceiling --- and to the Cobras, who were slouching against the walls and baseboards, sipping beers and watching his every move. None of them had spoken since Mars and Maniac walked in.

Of course, as far as the little kids were concerned, the highlight of the whole party was not the birthday boy, Piper McNab, but the McNab's new pillbox. They found every excuse to stay inside it. They fought over space at the narrow gunnery slots. When Mars Bat whispered to Maniac, "What is that?" Maniac said it was a bomb shelter.

Then Russell called: "Let's play Rebels! Whites in the pillbox, blacks outside."

A cheer went up, and a dozen kids stampeded into the pillbox. Their gabble circled the cinder-block walls and popped from the gunnery slots.

"I'm gonna be white!"

BOOK: Maniac Magee
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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