Authors: Jerry Spinelli
Tags: #Children/Young Adult Trade
Maniac didn't answer. Amanda didn't understand that most of the hurt he felt was not for himself but for her and the rest of the family. She stomped her foot. "You gotta stay!"
"I don't gotta do anything."
"You go, you'll starve."
"Was I starving before I came here?"
"You'll freeze to death in the winter. Your fingers'll get so stiff they'll break off like icicles."
"I'll go somewhere."
"Somewhere? Like the deer pen?"
"I'll be okay."
"Or maybe Prairie Dog Town, huh? How about that?" She jabbed him. "You could live in a gopher hole. You'd be starving, so that would be perfect, because then you'd be so skinny you could fit right down there all snuggly in their little tunnels."
He shrugged. "Sounds cozy."
This was driving Amanda honkers. He was acting so different, all glum, and wiseacre answers. As if he didn't care, not about anything.
"Yeah?" she sniffed. "Well, what're you gonna do for a pillow, huh? I know you put my pillow on the floor."
"I'll use a hibernating gopher."
"Fuh-nee. And bathroom, huh? Where will you go to the bathroom?"
"The bushes. McDonald's. Lots of places."
She hated it. An answer for everything. And the scariest part was, he was probably right. If anybody could survive on the loose, it would be this kid who showed up from Hollidaysburg. Who slept on floors. Who outran dogs.
He was making her so mad!
She pointed at him, she sneered, "Well, I'll tell you one thing, buddy boy. You better shut the door on your way out and lock it, because if I get my room back, I'm not giving it up again. So don't ever come crawling back around here." She kicked him in the sneaker. "You hear?"
"Don't worry," he said flatly.
"And don't think you're taking any of my books with you this time, either. And you can forget about --- ever --- getting a chance to open my encyclopedia A, which I was almost ready to let you do before you went and started acting all poopy."
He said, "I'll join the library."
She jumped up. "Hah! You can't."
"No. You need a library card."
"I'll get one."
"Hah-hah! You can't get a library card without an address!"
She regretted it as soon as she said it. His head swung, his eyes met hers. His eyes said, Why did you say that? Her eyes couldn't answer.
He got up and went out and trotted up the street.
Amanda cried. She tore a magazine in half. She punched the sofa. She kicked the easy chair. She kicked Bow Wow. Bow Wow went yelping into the kitchen. "See!" she yelled at the front door. "See what you made me do, Jeffrey Magee! Jeffrey Maniac Crazy Man Bozo Magee!"
He wasn't back by lunch.
He wasn't back by dinner.
"I'm going looking," Amanda told her worried parents. No one tried to stop her.
She rode her bike all over. East End. West End.
She even went over to Bridgeport, practically got herself killed on the bridge. She never pedaled so much in her life. She didn't come home till after dark.
When her parents headed upstairs to bed, she asked if she could stay up to watch TV. They looked at each other and said okay. She was nodding off in the middle of some late, late movie when the door opened and in he walked.
"What're you doing up so late?" he said.
"I'm incubating an egg," she snarled.
He shrugged and went upstairs. She closed her eyes and smiled.
Next morning a little kid from three blocks away came knocking at the front door. His yo-yo string had a knot fat as a mushroom.
As Amanda watched Maniac tackle the knot, an idea slithered into her brain. When the little kid left with his string good as new, she said, "Jeffrey, if I knew some way that would make it okay for you to stay, would you?"
"What do you mean 'okay'?" he said.
"I mean, that even if there's one or two people who aren't too wild about you now --- and that's all there really are --- that even they would like you. And everybody else who already likes you, they'll like you even more."
Purely out of curiosity, Maniac replied, "How's all that supposed to happen?"
Amanda told him about Cobbles Knot.
*¤* nihua *¤*
If the Wonders of the World hadn't stopped at seven, Cobble's Knot would have been number eight.
Nobody knew how it got there. As the story goes, the original Mr. Cobble wasn't doing too well with the original Cobble's Corner Grocery at the corner of Hector and Birch. In his first two weeks, all he sold was some Quaker Oats and penny candy.
Then one morning, as he unlocked the front door for business, he saw the Knot. It was dangling from the flagpole that hung over the big picture window, the one that said FROSTED FOODS in icy blue-and-white letters. He got out a pair of scissors and was about to snip it off, when he noticed what an unusual and incredible knot it was.
And then he got an idea. He could offer a prize to anyone who untangled the Knot. Publicize it. Call the newspaper. Winner's picture on the front page, Cobble's Corner in the background. Business would boom.
Well, he went ahead and did it, and if business didn't exactly boom, it must have at least peeped a little, because eons later, when Maniac Magee came to town, Cobble's Corner was still there. Only now it sold pizza instead of groceries. And the prize was different. It had started out being sixty seconds alone with the candy counter; now it was one large pizza per week for a whole year.
Which, in time, made the Knot practically priceless. Which is why, after leaving it outside for a year, Mr. Cobble took it down and kept it in a secret place inside the store and brought it out only to meet a challenger.
If you look at old pictures in the Two Mills Times, you see that the Knot was about the size and shape of a lopsided volleyball. It was made of string, but it had more contortions, ins and outs, twists and turns and dips and doodles than the brain of Albert Einstein himself. It had defeated all comers for years, including J J. Thorndike, who grew up to be a magician, and Fingers Halloway, who grew up to be a pickpocket.
Hardly a week went by without somebody taking a shot at the Knot, and losing. And each loser added to the glory that awaited someone who could untie it.
"So you see," said Amanda, "if you go up there and untie Cobble's Knot --- which I know you can --- you'll get your picture in the paper and you'll be the biggest hero ever around here and nooo-body'll mess' with you then."
Maniac listened and thought about it and finally gave a little grin. "Maybe you're just after the pizza, since you know I can't eat it."
Amanda screeched. "Jeff-freee! The pizza's not the point." She started to hit him. He laughed and grabbed her wrists. And he said okay, he'd give it a try.
*¤* nihua *¤*
They brought out the Knot and hung it from the flagpole. They brought out the official square wooden table for the challenger to stand on, and from the moment Maniac climbed up, you could tell the Knot was in big trouble.
To the ordinary person, Cobble's Knot was about as friendly as a nest of yellowjackets. Besides the tangle itself, there was the weathering of that first year, when the Knot hung outside and became hard as a rock. You could barely make out the individual strands. It was grimy, moldy, crusted over. Here and there a loop stuck out, maybe big enough to stick your pinky finger through, pitiful testimony to the challengers who had tried and failed.
And there stood Maniac, turning the Knot, checking it out. Some say there was a faint grin on his face, kind of playful, as though the Knot wasn't his enemy at all, but an old pal just playing a little trick on him. Others say his mouth was more grim than grin, that his eyes lit up like flashbulbs, because he knew he was finally facing a knot that would stand up and fight, a worthy opponent.
He lifted it in his hands to feel the weight of it. He touched it here and touched it there, gently, daintily. He scraped a patch of crust off with his fingernail. He laid his fingertips on it, as though feeling for a pulse.
Only a few people were watching at first, and half of them were Heck's Angels, a roving tricycle gang of four- and five year-olds. Most of them had had sneaker-lace or yo-yo knots untied by Maniac, and they expected this would only take a couple of seconds longer. When the seconds became minutes, they started to get antsy, and before ten minutes had passed, they were zooming off in search of somebody to terrorize.
The rest of the spectators watched Maniac poke and tug and pick at the knot. Never a big pull or yank, just his fingertips touching and grazing and peck-pecking away, like some little bird.
"What's he doin'?" somebody said.
"What's taking so long?"
"He gonna do it or not?"
After an hour, except for a few more finger-size loops, all Maniac had to show for his trouble were the flakes of knot crust that covered the table.
"He ain't even found the end of the string yet," somebody grumbled, and almost everybody but Amanda took off.
Maniac never noticed. He just went on working.
By lunchtime they were all back, and more kept coming. Not only kids, but grownups, too, black and white, because Cobbles Corner was on Hector, and word was racing through the neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of the street.
What people saw they didn't believe.
The knot had grown, swelled, exploded. It was a frizzy globe --- the newspaper the next day described it as a "gigantic hairball." Now, except for a packed-in clump at the center, it was practically all loops. You could look through it and see Maniac calmly working on the other side.
"He found the end!" somebody gasped, and the corner burst into applause.
Meanwhile, inside, Cobbles was selling pizza left and right, not to mention zeps (a Two Mills type of hoagie), steak sandwiches, strombolis, and gallons of soda. Mr. Cobble himself came out to offer Maniac some pizza, which Maniac of course politely turned down. He did accept an orange soda, though, and then a little kid, whose sneaker laces Maniac had untied many a time, handed up to him a three-pack of Tastykake butterscotch Krimpets.
After polishing off the Krimpets, Maniac did the last thing anybody expected: he lay down and took a nap right there on the table, the knot hanging above him like a small hairy planet, the mob buzzing all around him. Maniac knew what the rest of them didn't: the hardest part was yet to come. He had to find the right routes to untangle the mess, or it would just close up again like a rock and probably stay that way forever. He would need the touch of a surgeon, the alertness of an owl, the cunning of three foxes, and the foresight of a grand master in chess. To accomplish that, he needed to clear his head, to flush away all distraction, especially the memory of the butterscotch Krimpets, which had already hooked him.
In exactly fifteen minutes, he woke up and started back in.
Like some fairytale tailor, he threaded the end through the maze, dipping and doodling through openings the way he squiggled a football through a defense. As the long August afternoon boiled along, the exploded knot-hairball would cave in here, cave in there. It got lumpy, out of shape, saggy. The Times photographer made starbursts with his camera. The people munched on Cobble's pizza and spilled across Hector from sidewalk to sidewalk and said "Ouuuu!" and "Ahhhh!"
And then, around dinnertime, a huge roar went up, a volcano of cheers. Cobble's Knot was dead. Undone. Gone. It was nothing but string.
*¤* nihua *¤*
Bugles, cap guns, sirens, firecrackers, war whoops... Cobble's Corner was a madhouse.
Traffic had to beep and inch through the mob. Kids cried for autographs. Scraps of paper fluttered down in a shower of homemade confetti.
A beaming Mr. Cobble handed up a certificate to Maniac for the year's worth of large pizzas. Maniac accepted it and said his thanks. The undone knot lay in a coiled heap at Maniac's feet. Mr. Cobble grabbed it. Already people were guessing how long it was. *
*It turned out to be four and a half blocks long. Someone tied it to a stop sign and started walking, and that's how far he got before it gave out.
The yelling went on and on, the way yelling does if only to hear itself. But one person wasn't yelling: Amanda Beale. She was holding one of the homemade confetti scraps, gaping at it. Then she was scrambling across the sidewalk, the street, shoving people's legs aside, grabbing more scraps, crying out, "Oh no!... Oh no!" And then she was running.
Maniac saw. He leaped from the table. He picked up a scrap. There was printing on it, about Africa. He picked up another; this one mentioned ants. Another: Aristotle.
The encyclopedia A!
He followed the scrap-paper trail up Hector and down Sycamore, all the way to the Beales' front steps. The only thing left of the book was the blue-and-red cover. It looked something like an empty looseleaf binder. Amanda was hunched over, rocking, squeezing it to her chest. "It was my fault," she sobbed. "I got careless. I left it in the living room. Anybody could look through the window and... and..." She clenched her eyes so tightly it was a wonder the tears got out.
More than anything, Maniac wanted to hug Amanda and tell her it was okay. He wanted to go inside, be with his family, in his house, his room, behind his window. But that wasn't the right thing. The right thing was to make sure the Beales didn't get hurt anymore. He couldn't keep letting them pay such a price for him.
He turned and headed back up Sycamore. Maybe the man with the can-of-worms voice was right: "Back to your own kind... back to your own kind..."
He never got farther west than the far curb of Hector Street, because McNab and the Cobras were there to meet him, grinning, leering, hissing, "Yo, baby, we hear ya got a little pizza prize there... come on back... we missed ya... we been waitin' for ya..." So he turned and started walking north on Hector, right down the middle of the street, right down the invisible chalk line that divided East End from West End. Cars beeped at him, drivers hollered, but he never flinched. The Cobras kept right along with him on their side of the street. So did a bunch of East Enders on their side. One of them was Mars Bar. Both sides were calling for him to come over. And then they were calling at each other, then yelling, then cursing. But nobody stepped off a curb, everybody kept moving north, an ugly, snarling black-and-white escort for the kid in the middle.