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Authors: Jerry Spinelli

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Maniac Magee (9 page)

BOOK: Maniac Magee
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One day the kid wrote on the blackboard:

I see the ball.

And the old man studied it awhile and said, slowly, gingerly: "I... see... the... ball."

Maniac whooped, "You're reading!"

"I'm reading!" yipped the old man. His smile was so wide he'd have had to break it into sections to fit it through a doorway.

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 28

 

The first book Grayson read cover to cover was The Little Engine That Could. It took almost an hour and was the climax to a long evening of effort. At the end, the old man was sweating and exhausted.

The kid's reaction surprised him. He didn't jump and yippee like he did after the first sentence. He just stayed in the far corner, seated on a stuffed and lumpy equipment bag. He had kept his distance all during the reading, letting Grayson know there would be no cheating, he had to do it on his own. Now he was just staring at Grayson, a small smile coming over his face. And now he was making a fist and clenching it toward Grayson, and he said, "A-men."

"What's that?"

"A-men."

"What's that for? Who prayed?"

"I learned it in the church I used to go to. You don't have to wait for a prayer. You say it when somebody says something or does something you really like." He hopped off the bag, thrust both hands to the ceiling, and shouted: "Aaaay-men!"

And suddenly the kid was hugging him, squeezing with a power you never suspected was in that little body, unless you had seen him pole a baseball almost to the trees in dead center field.

"Okay," said Maniac, clapping his hands, "what'll it be? I'll be the cook. Whatever you want."

Maniac had a toaster oven now, compliments of his whiskered friend. In fact, little by little, Grayson had brought him a lot of things: a chest of drawers for his clothes, a space heater, a two-foot refrigerator, hundreds of paper dishes and plastic utensils, blankets, a mat to sleep on (which the kid ignored, preferring the chest protectors). In time the place was homier than his own room at the Y.

"How 'bout a corn muffin?" said Grayson, choosing something easy on his bad teeth and aching gums.

Maniac went to the bookcase that served as a pantry. "One corn muffin coming up. Toasted?"

"Yeah, why not."

"Butter?"

"Sure, butter."

"Something to drink with that, sir?"

"Nah, muffin's enough."

"The apple juice is excellent, sir. It was a great year for apples."

Live it up, thought Grayson. "Yeah, okay, apple juice."

"Coming right up, sir."

After the snack, the kid proved himself as good a mind reader as a cook. "Why don't you stay overnight?" he said. "It's late."

While he groused about so preposterous an idea, the kid laid down the mat he never used, bulldogged him down to it, pulled off his shoes and draped a blanket over him. He protested, "This is s'pposed to be yours."

The kid patted his chest protectors --- "I'm okay... I'm okay" --- and he knew that was the truth of it.

The old man gave himself up willingly to his exhaustion and drifted off like a lazy, sky-high fly ball. Something deep in his heart, unmeasured by his own consciousness, soared unburdened for the first time in thirty-seven years, since the time he had so disgraced himself before the Mud Hens' scout and named himself thereafter a failure. The blanket was there, but it was the boy's embrace that covered and warmed him. When somebody does something you really like. "A-men," the old man whispered into the corn-meal- and baseball-scented darkness.

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 29

 

For most of November, winter toyed with Two Mills, whispered in its ear, tickled it under the chin. On Thanksgiving Thursday, winter kicked it in the stomach.

But that didn't stop the old man and the boy from joining the ten thousand who thronged to the stadium on the boulevard to see the traditional high school football game. The arctic air laid panes of ice over the crayfish edgepools of Stony Creek. The effect was the opposite on human noses. Maniac's and Grayson's ran like faucets, and not a handkerchief in sight. They deputized their sleeves and grabbed handfuls of napkins from the refreshment stand.

Two Mills won the game, thanks to a last-minute 73-yard TD pass from quarterback Denehy to James "Hands" Down. From the instant his old trash-talking sandlot pal cradled the ball in his long brown fingers, Maniac was jumping on his seat, screaming trash at Hands's pursuers every step to the goal line (and glancing about to make sure Mrs. Beale wasn't hearing).

By the time they got back to the baseball room, they were nearly frozen. But the freeze was good, for it made the warmth of the little apartment all the more welcome. Within fifteen minutes the space heater had the place positively tropical, while in the toaster oven their five-pound Thanksgiving chicken was already beginning to brown. A pair of hot plates and a squad of pots were pressed into action, and by midafternoon the two were sitting down to a feast of roast chicken, gravy, cranberry sauce, applesauce, SpaghettiOs, raisins, pumpkin pie, and butterscotch Krimpets.

Maniac thought of Thanksgivings past, of sitting around a joyless table, his aunt and uncle as silent and lifeless as the mammoth bird they gnawed on. He said this grace: "Dear God, we want to take this opportunity to thank you for the best Thanksgiving dinner we ever had... well, I ever had. I guess I shouldn't speak for my friend Grayson---" he peeked across the table. "Grayson," he whispered, "is this your best one, too?"

The old man opened one eye; he shrugged. "Don't know. Ain't tasted it yet."

Maniac glared, rolled his eyes upward, hissed: "Gray-son."

The old man flinched. "Uh, yeah" --- he squinted one-eyed at the chicken --- "yeah, I guess it is."

"The best," Maniac prompted.

"The best."

Maniac went on: "And we want to thank you for this warm house and for our own little family here and for Grayson learning to read. He's already read thirteen books, as I'm sure you already know. And one more thing. If you could find some way to let the Beale family know I'm wishing them a happy Thanksgiving, I'd really appreciate it. They're the ones on seven twenty-eight Sycamore Street, in case there's any other Beales around. Amen."

"Amen," said Grayson.

They stuffed themselves silly, then collapsed and listened to polka music. Grayson had brought over a record player a week before, along with his entire music collection: thirty-one polka records. Grayson loved polkas.

Of course, one cannot listen to polka music for long before getting up and dancing, which is what the two thanksgivers did as soon as their bloated stomachs allowed. They danced and they laughed, record after record. Whether it was the polka that they danced is another question.

It was nearly dark, both of them having re-collapsed, when Maniac said, "Is there any paint around?"

"Guess so," said Grayson. "What for?"

"You'll see. Can you get some, and a brush?"

The old man dragged himself up. "What color?"

"How about black?"

Five minutes later the old man was back. "Got brown. That do?"

"Fine," said Maniac. He opened the can, stirred the paint, put a jacket on, grabbed the brush and went outside. Grayson followed. He watched the kid paint on the outside of the door, in careful strokes:

101

Maniac stepped back, admiring his work. "One oh one," he proclaimed. "One oh one Band Shell Boulevard."

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 30

 

If Thanksgiving was wonderful, Christmas was paradise.

By now Grayson had officially moved out of the Y and into 101 Band Shell Boulevard. Thanks to his long acquaintanceship with the locker room attendant, he and Maniac were privileged to continue using the Y's shower facilities at their pleasure.

For decoration outside, they nailed a wreath to the door. There was only one small window, but it had no sill to hold a candle, so some spray snow had to do.

Inside was another story. Santa's elves themselves would have felt at home. Strings of popcorn swooped across the ceiling. Evergreen branches flared at random, dispersing their piney aroma. Wherever there were a few vacant square inches, something Christmassy appeared: a matchbox crèche, a porcelain Santa, a partridge in a pear tree.

One day Grayson dragged a pair of tree limbs in and started sawing away. When he was finished, a wooden reindeer stood in the room, big enough for Maniac to ride.

Of course, the tree got the most attention of all. By the time the two of them finished trimming it --- their tree-trimming instincts having languished for so many Christmases --- hardly a pine needle could be seen under the tinsel and balls and whatnot.

In fact, though they were delighted with their effort, the urge to trim was still full upon them. One room was simply too small to hold the spirit bursting. So they went outside and crossed the creek and tramped the woods until they came to a fine and proper evergreen, and there, their footsteps muffled by the carpet of pine needles, their every breath and whispered word arrayed in frosty white, they trimmed their second tree. This time the ornaments were nature's brilliant red-and-yellow necklaces of bittersweet, pungent pinecones, wine-red clusters of sumac berries, abandoned bird-bodied boats of milkweed, delicate thumb-size goblets of Queen Anne's lace.

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 31

 

It was still dark when Maniac awoke on Christmas morning. Within an hour or two, the holiday would come bounding down the stairs and squealing 'round the tinseled trees of Two Mills. But for the moment, Christmas bided its time outside, a purer presence.

Maniac shook Grayson awake, but stayed the old man's hand when he reached to turn on the light. They bundled themselves and ventured into the silent night. Maniac carried a paper bag.

Snow had fallen several days before. In much of the town it had been plowed, shoveled, and slushed away; but in the park --- along the creek, the woods, the playing fields, the playground --- it still lay undisturbed, save for the tracks of rabbits and squirrels. Beyond the tall pines, stars glittered like snowflakes reluctant to fall.

They visited their tree. They stood silently, just to be near it, letting the magic of it drift over them. In the pine-patched moonlight, the Queen Anne's goblets looked for all the world like filigreed silver.

They walked the creek woods all the way to the zoo, meandering wordlessly throughout the snowy enchantment. As if by design, they both stopped at the same spot, above the half-submerged, rooty clump of a fallen tree. Somewhere under there, they knew, was the den of a family of muskrats. The old man laid a pine branch at the doorway. Maniac whispered: "Merry Christmas."

They visited the animals at the zoo, at least the outdoor ones, wishing them a happy holiday. The ducks seemed particularly pleased to see them.

By the time they came to the buffalo pen, dawn was showing through the trees. Before the old man finished saying, "Wanna boost?" Maniac was up and over the fence. If mother buffalo was glad to see the fence-hopping human again, she didn't show it. But Baby came trotting on over, and the two of them had a warm reunion. Before leaving, Maniac reached into the paper bag and brought out a present. "For you," he said. It was a scarf --- or rather, three scarves tied together. He wrapped them around Baby's neck. "Next year I'll get you stockings for your horns," he grinned, "if you have them by then." A final nuzzle, and he was back over the fence.

They headed back home as the town awoke. Breakfast was eggnog and hot tea and cookies and carols and colored lights and love.

As in all happy Christmas homes, the gifts were under the tree. Maniac gave Grayson a pair of gloves and a woolen cap and a book. The book did not appear to be as sturdy as the others lying around. The cover was blue construction paper, and the spine, instead of being bound, was stapled. The text was hand-lettered, and the pictures were stick figures. The title was The Man Who Struck Out Willie Mays. The author's name, which Grayson read aloud with some difficulty, was Jeffrey L. Magee.

Maniac, in his turn, opened packages to find a pair of gloves, a box of butterscotch Krimpets, and a spanking, snow white, never-ever-used baseball.

He was overjoyed. He rushed to the old man and hugged him. The old man put up with that for a second, then pulled away. "Hold on," he said. He went to one of the baseball equipment bags and reached in, tunneled down to the bottom, and came up with another package, this one wrapped crudely in newspaper. "Hiding this'n," he said. "Didn't know if you're the kinda kid sneaks looks."

Maniac tore it open --- and gaped helplessly when he saw what it was. To anyone else, it was a ratty old scrap of leather, barely recognizable as a baseball glove, fit for the garbage can. But Maniac knew at once this was Grayson's, the one he had played with all those years in the Minors. It was limp, flat, the pocket long since gone. Slowly, timidly, as though entering a shrine, the boy's fingers crept into it, flexed, curled the cracked leather, brought it back to shape, to life. He laid the new ball in the palm, pressed glove and ball together, and the glove remembered and gave way and made a pocket for the ball.

The boy could not take his eyes off the glove. The old man could not take his eyes off the boy. The record player finished the "Christmas Polka" and clicked off, and for a long time there was silence.

Five days later the old man was dead.

 

*¤* nihua *¤*

 

 

Chapter 32

 

Most mornings, Grayson would be the first one out of bed. He would turn on the space heater, visit the band shell lavatory; then heat up some water, get breakfast ready, and finally wake the boy with a gentle shake of the shoulder. On December thirtieth, it was the silence that woke Maniac, and the cold. The space heater wasn't on, no steaming cups sat on the table, the old man was still under the covers.

BOOK: Maniac Magee
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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