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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Maniac Magee
A Sneak Peek of Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush?
A Sneak Peek of Jason and Marceline
A Sneak Peek of Eggs
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ONE BY ONE MY STEPFATHER TOOK THE CHICKEN BONES OUT OF the bag and laid them on the kitchen table. He laid them down real neat. In a row. Five of them. Two leg bones, two wing bones, one thigh bone.
And bones is all they were. There wasn't a speck of meat on them.
Was this really happening? Did my stepfather really drag me out of bed at seven o'clock in the morning on my summer vacation so I could stand in the kitchen in my underpants and stare down at a row of chicken bones?
"Look familiar?" I heard him say.
"Huh?" I said. I wasn't even sure he was talking to me. I wanted to go back to sleep.
He said it again. "Look familiar?"
He swept his hand over the bones. "These?"
"What about them?"
"Ever see them before?"
"These bones!" he sort of yelled.
He picked up a leg bone and drummed it in front of my eyes. "I know you did it, Jason."
He stuck the bone under my nose. I could smell it. "Jason. I know you did it."
I called out, "Mom. I'm tired."
My mother sang in from the dining room, "Don't call me-ee—" like I was some stranger.
My stepfather said, "Know how I know it was you, Jason?"
"Me what?" I said.
"You who ate the chicken. My chicken. For my lunch."
"I'll tell you then." He counted on his fingers. "One: because it wasn't Mary. She hates chicken." (Mary is my cootyhead sister.) "Two: it wasn't Timmy. He doesn't steal. Yet, anyway." (Timmy is my little brother. He does too steal. My dinosaurs.) "And three and four: it wasn't your mother, and it sure as heck wasn't yours truly."
"Who's that?" I yawned.
He yelled again. "ME!"
"Hon-ey!" My mother's voice came floating in all sing-songy. "Neigh-bors."
Was this really happening?
He toned it down again. He pulled the bone away from my nose. He stared at it. He smiled at it. He kissed it. "I would have loved you," he whispered.
I wasn't surprised that my stepfather talked to a bone. Not only is he a teacher at the community college, but he also does amateur acting. So you never know when he's serious. His name is just right: Ham. It's short for Hamilton, and it describes the way he acts pretty good too.
He went on whispering to the bone: "I would have taken you to lunch today. It would have been beautiful. Delicious. But Jason—ah—Jason did not want us to be together. He did not want me taking you away from home. He wants me to get a fast pickup at the cafeteria, not to mention a nice case of heartburn."
"Can I go back to bed?" I said.
He didn't seem to hear me. He said, "Am I that mean to you?" Silence. "Jason?"
"What?" I said.
"Answer my question, please?"
"I thought you were talking to the bone."
"What was the question?"
"Am I that mean to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Am I a cruel stepfather?" I waited, on purpose. "Well?"
"Nah," I said. "Not really."
"Okay, so"—he put the bone down, put his hands on my shoulders—"what do you think's going to happen if you tell the truth?"
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"Think about it. Seriously." He was being the teacher now. "I'd like to know what's inside your head. Do you think I would string you up against the rafters in the cellar?" I tried to twist away but my shoulders wouldn't move. "Come on, seriously. Is that what you think?"
"Nah, I guess not."
"You guess not?"
"Nah. Just kiddin'."
"Well then, do you think I'm going to beat you?"
"I guess not. Nah."
"Okay. So far so good. Do you think I would—uh—throw boiling water in your face?"
"Put your head in the washing machine and turn it on?"
"Nah." I laughed.
"Run you over with the car? Chop your arms off? Force your mouth open and dump a thousand Brussels sprouts down your throat? Make you kiss Mary? Is that what you think?"
"I thought we were supposed to be serious," I said.
"Right. Okay—okay—now. Serious again. Just what is it you are afraid might happen if you tell me the truth? Exactly what?"
I shrugged. "Nothin'. I guess."
"Aha!" He clapped his hands. "That's right! You are absolutely right. Nothing at all is going to happen to you. Not a thing." He put the bones back into the bag. "Okay, look: we won't even talk about these anymore. Just don't do it again, okay?"
I shrugged and started to walk away. "Okay," I yawned, "but I didn't do it."
All of a sudden the top of me stopped. Then the rest of me. He was palming my head. I was stuck there facing my mother in the dining room. She was misting a fern.
Finally the hand went away. I heard the refrigerator door open. I felt the cold. I wished I had more than underpants on. I heard a strange sound. Sort of like an animal or something. Croaky. It was his voice. It turned into words.
"… I hid it. See? There. I hid it right there… good as I could. I figured, I said to myself, 'Put the chicken in the bag and hide it there… in the crisper… under the cucumbers… and nobody will find it. Nobody. Nobody looks under the cucumbers. Nah. Who would look there? And then, then when you come down in the morning, there it'll be: your lunch.' But I came down"—his voice was whispery amazed—"and they were gone. I took out the cucumbers—"
I heard something plop onto the kitchen floor, I didn't have to look; I just knew it was a cucumber. Then the others came plopping, one by one. My mother was poking her head into the fern, misting like mad. I could tell she was cracking up.
"—sure enough: gone. And then I saw the bones." The refrigerator door closed. "Somebody… had eaten my chicken. But nobody did it. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?" He laughed. I pulled in my toes. "A contradiction in terms. A logical impossibility. How can something be eaten and there not be an eater? To be consumed without a consumer. Impossible, you say. Aha—but no! It has happened here. Right here in this kitchen. Sometime during the night a miracle took place. The chicken was consumed but there was no consumer." The back door twanged open. He called out. "A miracle!"
He actually did it, yelled to the whole neighborhood. Mom started pulling little brown leaves from the fern. They fluttered to the floor. The back door closed.
His voice was softer now. He just kept saying the same stuff over and over. "A miracle… a miracle… right here in this house… this kitchen… a big fat mother of a miracle… right here…"
My mother flicked her head for me to go. Her eyes were teary from laughing. The last thing I heard on my way upstairs was Ham saying, "… it's just sad, honey. Cruel really…" And my mother saying, "No, not cruel…"
So after I finally got a little sleep I heard Richie calling in the driveway.
I looked out the window. "What do you want?"
"Let's go baggin'."
We went to the A&P. We go there when we need money. Pretty soon we're going to start saving it all up, so by the time we're old enough to drive we can buy a custom van and go to California—if there's still gas.
Bagging was slow. Not many people were buying food that day. And the ones that were, were mostly men and mothers. You never get anything off them. They see you coming and they right away snatch up a bag and start doing their own. By lunch we had a measly 90¢ between us.
"What we need here," said Richie "is a flock of old ladies."
So we were splitting a soda and some chocolate cupcakes (as usual there was nothing left over for the van) when all of a sudden Richie yells "old lady!" and the soda goes spilling and the both of us go racing up to the counter where this old lady is just starting to get rung up. It's a good thing the cashier didn't turn around, because we were laughing and choking and spitting out cupcake like a couple of chocolate geysers.
The old lady didn't seem to mind. She just kept smiling away at us. I never saw her before, but I had a feeling right from the start that she was rich. You could just tell. She had this big pin like an egg on her dress. It looked like a diamond. And she had this animal slung around her neck. Dead, of course, but it still had its face and feet. The rest was brown and furry.
"Look, Rich!" I whispered. "A mink stole!"
He squinted at it. "Looks more like a fox to me."
"No, no, I'm telling you, it's a mink. I'm telling you—she's rich!"
I was even surer she was rich when I saw the lamb chops. I had a lamb chop once, and it was about the best thing I ever ate. Ham and my mother ruined theirs by putting mint jelly on them. Sometimes parents' tastes are so weird. I put good old grape jelly on mine, and that was fine. I asked Ham why we didn't have lamb chops more, and he said what he always says about everything: "Inflation." Well, the old lady had four of them. The rest of the stuff was mostly dog food, bottled water, and prune juice. Ugh!
After paying the bill the old lady just kept grinning and nodding away. I started thinking I might be wrong and that she might be from the state nuthouse, which is only a mile away. Then the cashier leaned over. "Why don't you guys carry her things home." He leaned over more. "She can't hear."
So Richie and me each took a bag and we almost went dancing down the street after her. Richie started saying "hey" louder and louder, but she never turned around. Then he screamed right into the back of her head: "BOO!" She didn't flinch.
"Yahoo!" I yelled. "Diamonds—lamb chops—mink! We got ourselves a millionaire!"
"What do you think we'll get?" Richie yelled.
"Millions!" I yelled. "Jillions!"
The mink face kept staring at us from the old lady's shoulder. With its black eyes all round and wide, it looked as impressed as we were. Then we saw her house. It was a row house, scrunched in between all these other skinny brick houses on this dumpy little side street.
Richie kicked me. "She ain't no millionaire." He started to put his bag right down there on the sidewalk and walk away.
"Hey, c'mon, don't do that," I said. "You can't tell nothin' by somebody's house. She's eccentric."
"That's how a lot of rich people get. The more money they make the poorer they look. They don't want people to know they got a lot of money."
"So they don't get robbed, hemorrhoid head."
"Okay." He poked me in the forehead. He knows I hate that. "If she don't want people to know she's rich, how come she's wearing a diamond?"
I poked him back, a poke a word. "Be. Cause. It. Ain't. Real."
That surprised him. "Huh?" he goes.
I told him, "They don't wear their real jewels outside. They wear fakes that just look like the real ones."
"So where's the real one?"
"In the house someplace. In a safe."
"Okay," he said, "so what about the mink?"
Just then I noticed the old lady was gone, and the door to the house was wide open. We went up the steps. "Bet it's crummy," I said. "Rich eccentrics always live in crummy houses."
Sure enough, it was crummy. Not crummy-dirty. Crummy-old. And dark. You could hardly see. I almost bumped into the mink hanging on a coatrack. The furniture was all these old antiques, and there were egg-shaped pictures of old-fashioned ladies with black dresses up to their necks, and the walls had wallpaper.
"Toldjuh," I said.
We put the bags on the kitchen table. Then we saw the cat—this humongous shaggy thing that was the craziest color—orange!—and was so fat it waddled like a duck. It just waddled over to the foot of the table and plumped down and looked up at the bags. Then before I knew what happened, the old lady whips out the lamb chops, drops one of them onto the floor—no plate—and the cat goes at it like it's ten rats.
"Man!" said Richie.
I just stared. I wanted that lamb chop.
"Man!" Richie kept saying.
When the old lady got her bags unloaded she took two glasses from the cupboard and put ice in them. Ah, soda, I'm thinking, but she just filled them with water and handed them to us. That smile on her face was getting a little stupid by now.
"Let's go to the bathroom," I said.
Richie's mouth got little and round and laid an ice cube. It plopped into his glass. "I don't have to go," he said.
I nudged him. "Get a look upstairs."
I turned to the stupid smile and I knew we had a problem. How do you tell a deaf and dumb old lady you have to go to the bathroom? Well, I'm standing there for about an hour moving my lips and trying to make all kinds of signs without getting too gross, and then I look over and there's Richie going plop! plop! plop! with his ice cubes into the water. I cracked up and we just took off upstairs. I almost broke the banister laughing.
Upstairs was scary. Old deaf lady or not, we tiptoed around. Sun was coming in here and there, but even the sun seemed dark, it was all so quiet. It was like nobody lived there for centuries.
The only thing that moved in the whole place was a drop of water coming out of a bubble on the end of a faucet (there were two of them, one Hot and one Cold). Almost every ten seconds a drop dropped, and where it hit there was this orange and green stain in the sink. It made me think about erosion. No matter how hard something is, if a little bit of water or wind hits it for long enough, like a couple million years, it will wear away. If I waited there long enough that water would drip right through the sink. That's time for you. The bathtub had squatting legs on it and there wasn't any shower.
"Where's the safe?" Richie whispered.
"How do I know?" I said. "You think she's gonna leave it in the middle of the floor?"
We looked in a couple rooms. Nothing but beds and closets and wallpaper. The wallpaper was these French poodles and fancy ladies with black pointed feet, and swans. It was all brownish-yellow. Where the edges of the paper met, little pieces about the size of cornflakes were coming off.
There was one room left, at the end of the hallway. The door was shut.
"Go ahead," I said.
Richie pushed the door open. It smelled—I don't know—old. It was dark. Three windows had long green shades pulled all the way down, even below the windowsills. But the shades had these little pinholes in them, like the sky at night, only it was sun coming through instead of stars, and where these rays of sunlight were crossing the room you could see millions of specks of dust just moving, moving; they never stopped.
What a crazy room! There was a giant bed, and lying down right on the bed was one of those big old-fashioned radios shaped like a tombstone. There was lots of other stuff too. A big stack of records. A wooden rack with these heavy black men's suits hanging on it. A row of old shoes—crazy—they went from real tiny baby shoes to big men's ones, right up the line. And next to the shoes a row of dolls, all sitting up against the wall. An old sword. An army helmet. A rocking horse. On the wall over the bed was a real long picture. It showed a bunch of dogs, big ones, and they were all looking down at this little white kitten playing with a pink ball of yarn. The funny thing was, the dogs sort of had expressions on their faces, like people.
We were looking at all this from the doorway. I pointed to the long picture. "The safe's probably behind there." I could see what Richie was thinking. "Oh no," I said, "I ain't lookin'."
Richie leaned in for a look at the side of the room behind the door. "Look," he said. "Doughnuts!"
There they were. A stack of powdered doughnuts on a silver tray. Next to lamb chops I love doughnuts. I could actually feel a hole in my stomach open up to the size of about three of them.
"C'mon," I said, but Richie was a mule in the doorway. So I grabbed hold of his shirt sleeve with one hand and stretched myself out till I could reach the silver tray with the other. I grabbed a doughnut and pulled it in.
Something was wrong. It wasn't powdered sugar.
"Dust!" Richie said.
He was right. My fingers were sunk into it. I dropped the doughnut, clapped my hands, slammed the door, and beat it downstairs all at once.
"Shit," I said in the hallway. I was even madder because I had promised myself I was going to slide down the banister on the way down and that damn doughnut corpse made me forget.
Richie said, "Look."
The old lady was sitting in a rocking chair in a corner of the living room. Her eyes were closed. She wasn't moving.
"She's dead," I said.
Then she snored.
Richie looked at me and I looked at Richie, and it was like our eyes said to each other: We ain't getting paid.
Richie said, "Wanna steal the diamond?" He was all excited. Then he remembered. "Oh yeah, it's just a fake."
So we just sort of left in a daze. When we passed the stupid wide-eyed animal on the coatrack, I gave it a smack in the face. We were a couple blocks away before I could finally admit it to Richie. "You were right," I told him, "it's a fox."
Next day me and Cootyhead went to my father's for our monthly weekend. One thing for sure: when we go there I don't have to worry about stepfathers or deaf old ladies trying to starve me. My father loves to eat, and he lets us make pigs of ourselves.
It starts right at the train station, where he meets us. We spot him right away by his white shoes; he started wearing them when he moved away. We go over. Cootyhead runs. I walk. (Timmy's not there. He's Ham's.) Then all this hugging with Mary and handshaking—well, now it's hand-slapping—with me. Then he puts Cootyhead down and spreads out his arms and says so loud you get embarrassed: "It's all yours, kids! What'll it be?"
He means we can have anything we want to eat in the whole station. And we aren't limited to one thing either. We go a little crazy. We head off in different directions to the places we want to start at. Like me to the pizza and Cootyhead to the water ice. We get there and start yelling across the station for my father to come pay for what we got.
I walk out of there feeling like there's a hump in my stomach. Ice cream, hot dogs, candy, sodas, soft pretzels—anything I want. And every time—it never fails—by the time we get to my father's place one of us has to vomit.
My sister was the vomiter this time. After an hour or so I was ready for food again. In my father's refrigerator there's always a couple good things and a couple weird things. I love looking into it. It's not like at home. ("What are you looking for? You just looked in there two minutes ago. Did you think something appeared in there in the last two minutes? Shut the door.")
"What's that?" I asked. I always ask now. One time I chomped into something I thought was a cherry turnover and it turned out to be full of mashed chicken livers.
My father took it out and held it in front of me. He pulled it away when I went to touch it. "Ten dollars and ninety-five cents a pound," he goes. My father does that a lot, tells you the price of a thing instead of the thing. He was looking at it like grandparents look at babies.
I didn't even know if it was meat or fruit or what. It was sort of shiny and wet and in thin slices and orange-pink. Somewhere in color between a basketball and Cootyhead's face when she gets mad.
I said, "What is it?"
"Lox," he said.
"What's that?" I said. Crazy name.
"Fish? I never heard of it."
That sounded strange. "Smoked? What do you mean?"
"They build a fire under it and let the smoke flavor it."
"Who would want to do that?" I asked him.
This thin little grin came over his face. His eyelids lowered. He put his hand over the fish like he was healing it. "Jews," he said.
Ah, well, that explained it. Sort of, anyway. See, my father, since he moved out, wants to become a Jew. "Bet he has a Jewish girlfriend," was the first thing my sister said. I don't think so. I think it started with the delicatessens. Delicatessens are sort of Jewish grocery store-restaurants. They're famous for sandwiches. Well, when my father went to live in the city, he found it was crawling with delicatessens. And there's one way my father is just like a kid: he can eat all day. "Found a new deli," he's always saying happily.
So I guess my father figured if the Jews could come up with delicatessens, they must have a lot of other good stuff going for them too. So he decided he wants to be one.
But I guess it's not so easy. As far as the Jews are concerned, my father says, everybody who's not a Jew is a Gentile. Everybody. Whether you want to be or not. Me and an African pygmy and an Eskimo—we're all the same to a Jew: we're Gentiles. If there are any Martians out there, they might not know it, but as far as the Jews are concerned, they're Gentiles too.
So you see, it's almost impossible to become a Jew. If you weren't born one, you can practically forget it. You can't sneak in either, because the Jews can spot a Gentile a mile off. Funny thing, though, if you're a Gentile and a Jew happens to be standing right next to you, you probably wouldn't even know it. To look at them, they seem just like us. But I don't know… when you hear about some of the weird stuff they do.… Like, they eat fishballs. In a soup! And they wear these little beanies in church—which they go to on Saturday. I also heard they're scared to death of pigs; they think pig meat's poison to them. (Well, personally, I don't know about that. Maybe it's true about the adults, but there's a Jewish kid in my math class, Marty Renberg, and he eats in the dining hall with the rest of us, and once I saw him eating a BLT and he didn't keel over.)
Anyway, the main thing about Jews is "life," according to my father. He says they used to throw fire and apples into the air. And they dance in a circle and smash glasses with their feet when they get married. There's something he says almost every time he's sitting in front of a mile-high corn beef sandwich with Russian dressing. He says it real slow and serious: "The—Jew—knows—how—to—live." And then he sinks his teeth into the sandwich, and the Russian dressing oozes out and runs a little down his chin.
When I think about what would happen if my father ever manages to become a Jew, I wonder mainly about two things:
1. Would that make me Jewish too?
2. What about Christmas?
At first I used to think the Jews had it really bad because they don't have Christmas. But then I heard they came up with their own holiday about the same time. It's called Hanukkah. There's no tree or trains, but they do get the best part: presents. One present a day for eight days. Now, that may not sound so hot, but I talked to Marty Renberg and he says maybe you only get eight, and maybe they come at you slow, but every one of them is a winner.
Later that night we all walked to a deli. My father had to get a bagel to make a sandwich with his lox. Mary asked him if he was a Jew yet.
" 'Fraid not, Peanut," he said. "They won't let me in." He was sad.
We went into the delicatessen and got the bagel, but as usual my father wanted to hang around the meat and salad counter awhile. He was pointing out the different stuff to us, pronouncing their names in Jewish. You could tell that made him feel a little better. I started thinking about my father's teeth chomping into those corn beef sandwiches, and how bad he wanted to dance and smash glasses. Then I remembered that the Jews go to church on Saturday, and this was a Saturday, and we were in a delicatessen, and my father was almost even kneeling down in front of the counter like it was an altar, and he was saying Jewish words and I thought to myself all happy: Hey, Dad—you made it! You are one! You're in!
I CAN'T BELIEVE IT. SUMMER'S ALMOST OVER.
Summer has a funnel shape. It seems real wide at first, and deep. Slow. Like it will last forever. You just float on top of it.
But all the time it's getting smaller and smaller. And before you know it the summer days are getting sucked down faster and faster. You're helpless. You can't stop it. You're like a bug in a toilet that was just flushed.
One sure sign that summer is coming to an end is that I start liking the kids on the corner again. There's these little kids that always play on the corner in the warm weather, and I'm sort of their hero. Like, they always stop me when I'm going by on my bike and give me paper and ask me to make them paper airplanes, which I'm an expert at. I also have to settle their little arguments and all.
Early in the summer I don't mind it much. Then it gets to be a drag. But then, I kind of start liking them all over again. I guess because I know that as long as they're out there playing on the corner, summer isn't over yet.
Baseball: you can feel it dying. Every morning we meet at the field in the park: me, Richie, Calvin Lemaine, Peter Kim, and Dugan. All day we play. We can feel September closing in. We hit a little harder, run a little faster, stay a little longer. We try to squeeze out of the summer every base hit left in it. So far I have two hundred and forty-seven homeruns this year. (I keep track.) I'm shooting for last year's record of two hundred and ninety-five.
I get home and I kind of don't want to wash. Because I know the day is coming when I'll have to wait nine months to get this dirty again. When I oil my glove and put it away in the shoe box—that's when baseball will be officially over.
I ride my bike more now, when I'm not playing. I go farther and farther from home.
I guess my biggest regret is that another summer is gone and I still didn't learn to spit between my teeth like Dugan.
THE FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL IS OVER. I HATED IT. I'M NOT GOING back.
- On Sale
- Jul 15, 2014
- Page Count
- 235 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers