Authors: Jerry Spinelli
Tags: #Children/Young Adult Trade
And that's how it went. Between the curbs, smack-dab down the center, Maniac Magee walked --- not ran --- right on out of town.
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If you were the baby buffalo at the Elmwood Park Zoo, maybe it would have gone something like this:
You wake up. You have breakfast, compliments of mother's milk. You mosey on over to the lean-to. Surprise! A strange new animal in there. Bigger than you, but a lot smaller than Mom. Hair, but only on top of its head. Sitting in the straw, munching on a carrot, like Mom does.
Every morning, same thing. You get to expect it. Some mornings, you forget Mom's milk and head right on over to the lean-to. The creature offers you a carrot, but all you know how to deal with is milk. You nuzzle the new, funny-smelling, hairy headed animal. It nuzzles you back. Mom doesn't seem to mind.
After the nuzzling, the stranger climbs over the fence and goes away, not to return until that night. Only, one morning the stranger falls from the fence and lies on the ground, on the other side. It doesn't move. You try to poke your nose through the chain links, but you can't reach, you can only watch... only watch...
The old man was bumping through the zoo in the park pickup when he spotted the body clumped outside the buffalo pen. He wheeled over, got out. "A kid!" At first he could only stare, at the body, then at the baby bison, whose large brown eye seemed to be watching them both. The mother came lumbering over, nodding, as if to confirm: "A kid."
The kid looked terrible. His clothes were scraps, rags. Wherever his body showed through, it was bony and dirty and scratched. The two bison, staring, staring, seemed to say, "Well, do something."
The old man gathered his own bones and muscles as best he could and managed to hoist the kid and get him into the pickup. He laid him on the seat, bent his legs so he could close the door.
He knew he should take the kid straight to the hospital, or a doctor, someplace official, someplace right. But the pickup just sort of steered itself back to the band shell, and there he was, lugging the kid into the baseball-equipment room.
The season was over by now, but the army-green burlap bags still stood ready for the next ump to call, "Play ball!" He yanked out a couple of chest protectors and laid the kid down, careful with his head. At least he was breathing.
Though it wasn't cold, it seemed as if the kid ought to be covered, so the old man took his winter work jacket off the hook and laid that over him. Then he waited and watched. With trembling, dusty fingers, he touched the kid's limp, scrawny hand. He had never held, never really touched a kid's hand before...
The kid's voice was barely a squeak, but it threw him back. He dropped the hand.
"Where am I?"
The old man cleared his throat. "The band shell."
"The band shell?"
"In the back. Equipment room."
The kid's eyes squinted, blinked. "And you?"
"What about me?"
"Who are you?"
"Grayson. Do I know you?"
He got up. "Guess you do now." He went to his hot plate, heated up some water, and made some chicken noodle Cup-a-Soup. He gave it to the kid, who was sitting up now. "You want a spoon?"
He looked as though he could hardly lift the cup. He held it with both hands and gulped it down. "Huh?" he said.
"Never mind. You still hungry?"
The kid flopped back down. "A little."
"Wait here," said Grayson, and left.
Ten minutes later he was back with a zep, a large. It took the kid less time to polish it off than it had taken Grayson to get it. He told the kid not to eat so fast, he'd get sick. The kid nodded.
Grayson said, "Where'd you get them scratches?"
"Oh, some picker bush."
"What were you doing there?"
"Hiding? Who from?"
The kid pointed. "Somewhere out there. Some other town." He crossed his legs Indian-style on the chest protector. "Can I ask you a favor?"
"Can we go somewhere and get some butterscotch Krimpets?"
Grayson squawked, "Krimpets! You still hungry?"
"For them, I am."
Grayson threw the greasy zep wrapper into the wastebasket. "I don't know. Maybe you oughta do something for me first."
"Like tell me your name."
"It's Jeffrey Magee."
"And where you live."
"Well, I did live on Sycamore Street. Seven twenty-eight."
"I guess I don't anymore."
The old man stared. "You said Sycamore?"
"Ain't that the East End?"
With his fingernail, he scraped a path of dirt off the kid's forearm. He stared at it.
"What are you doing?" the kid asked.
'Seein' if you was white under there."
Neither spoke for awhile.
At last the kid said, "Anything else you want to ask me?"
The old man shrugged. "Guess not."
"Ah, come on. Don't stop asking."
"I'm asked out."
"How about the zoo, huh? Don't you want to know what I was doing at the zoo? At the buffalo pen?"
The old man sighed. "Okay, what?"
"I was living there."
"With the buffaloes?"
"Yep, with the buffaloes."
"You like buffaloes?"
"It was dark when I got there. I thought it was the deer pen."
"They switched the deer and the buffaloes around last month."
"Okay with me. I got along better with the buffaloes anyway."
"Well, I'll tell you one thing." The old man sniffed. "You sure do smell like one."
The kid laughed. They both laughed. When they finally calmed down, the kid said, "Any chance of those Krimpets now?"
Grayson reached for the pickup keys. "Let's go."
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Gayson got the Krimpets all right. He bought a whole box of three-packs. With ten packs to a box, that was thirty butterscotch Krimpets. Maniac thought he must have climbed out of that buffalo pen right into Heaven.
Then Grayson took Maniac home. Home for the old man was the Two Mills YMCA. He lived in a room on the third floor. But he didn't take Maniac up there. He took him downstairs to the locker room. He got him a towel and a cake of soap, told him to take off his rags, and pointed the way to the showers.
Maniac stayed in the shower for an hour. He hadn't done this since his last bath with the little ones. He smiled at the thought of them shrieking and splashing. The shower needles stung his scratches, but it was a good, welcome-back-to-town stinging.
When Maniac finally forced himself from the shower, he found the old man waiting with clothes. Grayson's clothes. "I called the U.S. Army in to haul them buffalo rags away," he said. "They come in with gas masks on, and they used tongs to pick 'em up and put 'em in a steel box, and they took the box away to bury it at the bottom of the first mine shaft they come to."
Maniac couldn't stop laughing. Neither could Grayson, especially when he got a load of the kid drowning in his clothes.
An hour later, after a minor shopping spree, Maniac had clothes of his own.
For the rest of the afternoon, they cruised around town, talking and eating Krimpets.
"So," said the old man, "now what're you gonna do?"
Maniac thought it over. "How about a job? I could work for the park, like you."
Grayson didn't answer that. He said, "Where you think you're gonna stay?"
Maniac's answer was prompt: "The baseball room. It's perfect."
A tiny idea was beginning to worm its way into Grayson's head; he could barely feel it as it brushed by all the claptrap in his brain. He ignored it. He said, "What about school?"
Maniac was silent. Some butterscotch icing had stayed behind on a wrapper. He scooped it up and mopped it from his finger, wishing it were Mrs. Beale's, and not his own.
Grayson, who was not comfortable asking questions, was even less comfortable waiting for answers. "I said, what about school?"
Maniac turned to him. "What about it?"
"You gotta go. You're a kid. Ain't ya?"
"I'm not going."
"But you gotta. Doncha? They'll make ya."
"Not if they don't find me."
The old man just looked at him for a while with a mixture of puzzlement and recognition, as though the fish he had landed might be the same one he had thrown away long before. "Why?" he said.
Maniac felt why more than he knew why. It had to do with homes and families and schools, and how a school seems sort of like a big home, but only a day home, because then it empties out; and you can't stay there at night because it's not really a home, and you could never use it as your address, because an address is where you stay at night, where you walk right in the front door without knocking, where everybody talks to each other and uses the same toaster. So all the other kids would be heading for their homes, their night homes, each of them, hundreds, flocking from school like birds from a tree, scattering across town, each breaking off to his or her own place, each knowing exactly where to land. School. Home. No, he was not going to have one without the other.
"If you try to make me," he said, "I'll just start running."
Grayson said nothing. What the kid said actually made him feel good, though he had no idea why. And the brushing little worm of a notion was beginning to tickle him now. He kept on driving.
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They got back to the band shell just as they finished the last of the Krimpets. Grayson looked at his watch. "Guess it's time to quit the job I never did today. Time for dinner, too."
Grayson was joking, but Maniac was serious when he piped, "Great! Where to?"
Dumbfounded, the old man drove back out of the park to the nearest diner, where he sat with a cup of coffee while the boy wolfed down meatloaf and gravy, mashed potatoes, zucchini, salad, and coconut custard pie.
Grayson had a way of jumping into a subject without warning; it was during Maniac's dessert that he abruptly said, "Them black people, they eat mashed potatoes, too?"
Maniac thought he was kidding, then realized he wasn't. "Sure. Mrs. Beale used to have potatoes a lot, mashed and every other way."
"Mrs. Beale. Do you know the Beales? Of seven twenty-eight Sycamore Street?"
The old man shook his head.
"Well, they were my family. I had a mother and father and a little brother and sister and a sister my age and a dog. My own room, too."
Grayson stared out the diner window, as if digesting this information. "How 'bout meatloaf?"
"They eat that, too?"
"Sure, meatloaf too. And peas. And corn. You name it."
Maniac beamed. "Oh, man! You kidding? Mrs. Beale makes the best cakes in the world."
Grayson's eyes narrowed. "Toothbrushes? They use them?"
Maniac fought not to smile. "Absolutely. We all had our toothbrushes hanging in the bathroom."
"I know that," said Grayson, impatient, "but is theirs the same? As ours?"
"No difference that I could see."
"You didn't drink out the same glass."
"Absolutely, we did."
This information seemed to shock the old man.
Maniac laid down his fork. "Grayson, they're just regular people, like us."
"I was never in a house of theirs."
"Well, I'm telling you, it's the same. There's bathtubs and refrigerators and rugs and TVs and beds..."
Grayson was wagging his head. "Ain't that somethin'... ain't that somethin'..."
It was after dark when they got back to the baseball equipment room. The worm in Grayson's head had long since ceased to be a tiny tickle; it was now a maddening itch. As with all such itch-worms, it would exit by only one route, the mouth. He said: "Uh, I was thinkin', uh, maybe you want to come over to my place. This here floor's pretty hard." He tapped his foot to show how hard.
The grizzled, gray old parkhand could never know how much Maniac was tempted, or how deeply the offer touched him. Neither could Maniac explain that the bad luck he always seemed to have with parents had led him to the conclusion that he'd better stick to himself.
"Oh, it's not so bad here," he said. "Look --- " He lay down on the chest protectors and closed his eyes. "Ah... just like a mattress. I can feel myself dozing off already." And then, not wanting to hurt the old man's feelings, he quickly added, "Hey, I told you everything about me. How about you?" He pulled Grayson's coat over himself. "A bedtime story."
Grayson snorted. "Story? I don't know no stories."
"Sure you do," Maniac prodded. "About yourself. You know about you. Everybody has a story."'
"Not me." Grayson was edging for the door. "I ain't got no story. I ain't nobody. I work at the park."
"You line baseball fields?"
"Yep. I do that."
"You live at the Y. You drive the park pickup. You like butterscotch Krimpets."
Grayson shook his head. "Not as much as you. I was just eating 'em to be friendly, so's you wouldn't have to eat 'em all by yourself."
"And there's another thing about you." Maniac joked. "You're a liar."
They both laughed.
Grayson opened the door.
"Wait---" called Maniac. "What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?"
Grayson paused in the doorway. He looked out into the night. "A baseball player," he said. He turned out the light and closed the door.
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