Authors: Jerry Spinelli
Tags: #Children/Young Adult Trade
So what did the kid do? He bunted it. He bunted the frog, laid down a perfect bunt in front of the plate, third-base side, and he took off for first. He was half-way to second before McNab jolted himself into action. The kid was trying for an inside-the-park home-run bunt --- the rarest feat in baseball, something that had hardly ever been done with a ball, and never with a frog --- and to be the pitcher who let such a thing happen --- well, McNab could already feel his strikeout record fading to a mere grain in the sandlot of history.
So he lumbered off the mound after the frog, which was now hopping down the third-base line. As a matter of fact, it was so close to the line that McNab had a brilliant idea --- just herd the frog across the line and it would be a foul ball (or frog). Which is what he tried to do with his foot. But the frog, instead of taking a left turn at the shoe, jumped over it and hopped on toward third base. He was heading for the green fields of left, and the runt kid, sounding like two runners with his flap-soles slapping the bottoms of his feet, was chucking dust for third.
Only one hope now --- McNab had to grab the frog and tag the runner out. But now the frog shot through his legs, over to the mound, and now toward shortstop and now toward second, and McNab was lurching and lunging, throwing his hat at the frog, throwing his glove, and everybody was screaming, and the kid was rounding third and digging for homy, and --- unbe-froggable! --- the "ball" was heading back home too! the ball, the batter, the pitcher all racing for home plate, and it was the batter, the new kid out of nowhere, who crossed the plate first, at the same time scooping up his book, twirling his borrowed red cap back to the cheering others, and jogging on past the empty stands and up the hill to the boulevard; McNab gasping, croaking after him: "Don't stop till yer outta town, runt! Don't let me ever catch ya!"
And that's how Jeffrey Magee knocked the world's first frogball for a four-bagger.
*¤* nihua *¤*
And how he came to be called Maniac.
The town was buzzing. The schools were buzzing. Hallways. Lunchrooms. Streets. Playgrounds. West End. East End.
Buzzing about the new kid in town. The stranger kid. Scraggly. Carrying a book. Flap-soled sneakers.
The kid who intercepted Brian Denehy's pass to Hands Down and punted it back longer than Denehy himself ever threw it.
The kid who rescued Arnold Jones from Finsterwald's backyard.
The kid who tattooed Giant John McNab's fastball for half a dozen home runs, then circled the sacks on a bunted frog.
Nobody knows who said it first, but somebody must have: "Kid's gotta be a maniac."
And somebody else must have said: "Yeah, reg'lar maniac."
And somebody else: "Yeah."
And that was it. Nobody (except Amanda Beale) had any other name for him, so pretty soon, when they wanted to talk about the new kid, that's what they called him: Maniac.
The legend had a name.
But not an address. At least, not an official one, with numbers.
What he did have was the deer shed at the Elmwood Park Zoo, which is where he slept his first few nights in town. What the deer ate, especially the carrots, apples, and day-old hamburger buns, he ate.
He started reading Amanda Beale's book his second day in town and finished it that afternoon: Ordinarily, he would have returned it immediately, but he was so fascinated by the story of the Children's Crusade that he kept it and read it the next day. And the next.
When he wasn't reading, he was wandering. When most people wander, they walk. Maniac Magee ran. Around town, around the nearby townships, always carrying the book, keeping it in perfect condition.
This is what he was doing when his life, as it often seemed to do, took an unexpected turn.
*¤* nihua *¤*
John McNab had never in his life met a kid he couldn't strike out. Until the runt. Now, as he thought about it, he came to two conclusions:
1. He couldn't stand having this blemish on his record.
2. If you beat a kid up, it's the same as striking him out.
So McNab and his pals went looking for the kid. They called themselves the Cobras. Nobody messed with them. At least, nobody in the West End.
The Cobras had heard that the kid hung around the park and the tracks, and that's where they spotted him one Saturday afternoon, on the tracks by the path that ran from the Oriole Street dead end to the park. He was down by Red Hill and heading away from them, book in hand, as usual.
But the Cobras just stood there, stunned.
"I don't believe it," one Cobra said.
"Must be a trick," said another.
"I heard about it," said another, "but I didn't believe it."
It wasn't a trick. It was true. The kid was running on the rail.
McNab scooped up a handful of track stones. He launched one. He snarled, "He's dead. Let's get 'im!"
By the time Maniac looked back, they were almost on him. He wobbled once, leaped from the rail to the ground, and took off. He was at the Oriole Street dead end, but his instincts said no, not the street, too much open space. He stuck with the tracks. Coming into view above him was the house on Rako Hill, where he had eaten spaghetti. He could go there, to the whistling mother, the other kids, be safe. They wouldn't follow him in there. Would they?
Stones clanked off the steel rails. He darted left, skirted the dump, wove through the miniature mountain range of stone piles and into the trees... skiing on his heels down the steep bank and into the creek, frogs plopping, no time to look for stepping rocks... yells behind him now, war whoops, stones pelting the water, stinging his back... ah, the other side, through the trees and picker bushes, past the armory jeeps and out to the park boulevard, past the Italian restaurant on the corner, the bakery, screeching tires, row houses, streets, alleys, cars, porches, windows, faces staring, faces, faces... the town whizzing past Maniac, a blur of faces, each face staring from its own window, each face in its own personal frame, its own house, its own address, someplace to be when there was no other place to be, how lucky to be a face staring out from a window...
And then --- could it be? --- the voices behind him were growing faint. He slowed, turned, stopped. They were lined up at a street a block back. They were still yelling and shaking their fists, but they weren't moving off the curb. And now they were laughing. Why were they laughing?
The Cobras were standing at Hector Street. Hector Street was the boundary between the East and West Ends. Or, to put it another way, between the blacks and whites. Not that you never saw a white in the East End or a black in the West End. People did cross the line now and then, especially if they were adults, and it was daylight.
But nighttime, forget it. And if you were a kid, day or night, forget it. Unless you had business on the other side, such as a sports team or school. But don't be just strolling along, as if you belonged there, as if you weren't afraid, as if you didn't even notice you were a different color from everybody around you.
The Cobras were laughing because they figured the dumb, scraggly runt would get out of the East End in about as good shape as a bare big toe in a convention of snapping turtles.
*¤* nihua *¤*
Of course, Maniac didn't know any of that. He was simply glad the chase was over. He turned and started walking, catching his breath.
East Chestnut. East Marshall. Green Street. Arch Street. He had been around here before. That first day with the girl named Amanda, other days jogging through. But this was Saturday, not a school day, and there was something different about the streets --- kids. All over.
One of them jumped down from a front step and planted himself right in front of Maniac. Maniac had to jerk to a stop to keep from plowing into the kid. Even so, their noses were practically touching.
Maniac blinked and stepped back. The kid stepped forward. Each time Maniac stepped back, the kid stepped forward. They traveled practically half a block that way. Finally Maniac turned and started walking. The kid jumped around and plunked himself in front again. He bit off a chunk of the candy bar he was holding. "Where you goin'?" he said. Candy bar flakes flew from his mouth.
"I'm looking for Sycamore Street," said Maniac. "Do you know where it is?"
"Yeah, I know where it is."
Maniac waited, but the kid said nothing more. "Well, uh, do you think you could tell me where it is?"
Stone was softer than the kid's glare. "No."
Maniac looked around. Other kids had stopped playing, were staring.
Someone called: "Do 'im, Mars!"
Someone else: "Waste 'im!"
The kid, as you probably guessed by now, was none other than Mars Bar Thompson. Mars Bar heard the calls, and the stone got harder. Then suddenly he stopped glaring, suddenly he was smiling. He held up the candy bar, an inch from Maniac's lips. "Wanna bite?"
Maniac couldn't figure. "You sure?"
"Yeah, go ahead. Take a bite."
Maniac shrugged, took the Mars Bar, bit off a chunk, and handed it back. "Thanks."
Dead silence along the street. The kid had done the unthinkable, he had chomped on one of Mars's own bars. Not only that, but white kids just didn't put their mouths where black kids had had theirs, be it soda bottles, spoons, or candy bars. And the kid hadn't even gone for the unused end; he had chomped right over Mars Bar's own bite marks.
Mars Bar was confused. Who was this kid? What was this kid?
As usual, when Mars Bar got confused, he got mad. He thumped Maniac in the chest. "You think you bad or somethin'?"
Maniac, who was now twice as confused as Mars Bar, blinked. "Huh?"
"You think you come down here and be bad? That what you think?" Mars Bar was practically shouting now.
"No," said Maniac, "I don't think I'm bad. I'm not saying I'm an angel, either. Not even real good. Somewhere in between, I guess."
Mars Bar jammed his arms downward, stuck out his chin, sneered. "Am I bad?"
Maniac was befuddled. "I don't know. One minute you're yelling at me, the next minute you're giving me a bite of your candy bar."
The chin jutted out more. "Tell me I'm bad."
Maniac didn't answer. Flies stopped buzzing.
"I said, tell me I'm bad."
Maniac blinked, shrugged, sighed. "It's none of my business. If you're bad, let your mother or father tell you."
Now it was Mars Bar doing the blinking, stepping back, trying to sort things out. After a while he looked down. "What's that?"
Before Maniac answered, "A book," Mars Bar had snatched it from his hand. "This ain't yours," he said. He flipped through some pages. "Looks like mine."
"It's somebody else's."
"It's mine. I'm keepin' it."
With rattlesnake speed, Maniac snatched the book back --- except for one page, which stayed, ripped, in Mars Bar's hand.
"Give me the page," said Maniac.
Mars Bar grinned. "Take it, fishbelly."
Silence. Eyes. The flies were waiting. East End vultures.
Suddenly neither kid could see the other, because a broom came down like a straw curtain between their faces, and a voice said, "I'll take it."
It was the lady from the nearest house, out to sweep her steps. She lowered the broom but kept it between them. "Better yet," she said to Mars Bar, "just give it back to him."
Mars Bar glared up at her. There wasn't an eleven-year-old in the East End who could stand up to Mars Bar's glare. In the West End, even high-schoolers were known to crumble under the glare. To old ladies on both sides of Hector Street, it was all but fatal. And when Mars Bar stepped off a curb and combined the glare with his super-slow dip-stride slumpshuffle, well, it was said he could back up traffic all the way to Bridgeport while he took ten minutes to cross the street.
But not this time. This time Mars Bar was up against an East End lady in her prime, and she was matching him eyeball for eyeball. And when it was over, only one glare was left standing, and it wasn't Mars Bar's.
Mars Bar handed back the torn page, but not before he crumpled it into a ball. The broom pushed him away, turned him around, and swept him up the street. The lady looked down at Maniac. A little of the glare lingered in her eyes. "You better get on, boy, where you belong. I can't be following you around. I got things to do."
Maniac just stood there a minute. There was something he felt like doing, and maybe he would have, but the lady turned and went back inside her house and shut the door. So he walked away.
*¤* nihua *¤*
Maniac uncrumpled the page, flattened it out as best he could. How could he return the book to Amanda in this condition? He couldn't. But he had to. It was hers. Judging from that morning, she was pretty finicky about her books. What would make her madder --- to not get the book back at all, or to get it back with a page ripped out? Maniac cringed at both prospects.
He wandered around the East End, jogging slowly, in no hurry now to find 728 Sycamore Street. He was passing a vacant lot when he heard an all-too-familiar voice: "Hey, fishbelly!" He stopped, turned. This time Mars Bar wasn't alone. A handful of other kids trailed him down the sidewalk.
Coming up to him, Mars Bar said, "Where you runnin', boy?"
"You runnin' from us. You afraid."
"No, I just like to run."
"You wanna run?" Mars Bar grinned. "Go ahead. We'll give you a head start."
Maniac grinned back. "No thanks."
Mars Bar held out his hand. "Gimme my book."
Maniac shook his head.