If you want to be in our gang, you have to prove your courage,” Tyler said. “Just peek into the Crazy Man’s workshop and then tell us what you saw.”
I swallowed hard and looked at the little yellow house and white workshop almost hidden among oak and elm trees. There was a chain link fence all around them, and the gate was locked. A big sign said KEEP OUT!
“Who is the Crazy Man?” I asked, barely getting the words out in a wheeze, “And why does he live alone in that creepy old place?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Royce snorted.
“So why do you want to bother him?”
“You’re chicken!” Tyler muttered, turning away.
“I’m not either!” I protested loudly, but I felt an aching in my stomach.
“Do it then. He won’t catch you. He eats supper at this time of day.” Tyler wasn’t smiling.
Royce grinned. It wasn’t a friendly grin, but I was new here, and these were the only friends I had. I didn’t want to lose them.
“Will you wait for me?” I asked.
Royce nodded. “Yeah—we want to hear about it. Now get going.”
Slowly I crossed the street. All I knew about the Crazy Man was what Royce and Tyler had told me. He lived by himself and carried a heavy walking stick and didn’t talk to anybody. All day long he could be heard pounding and sawing and talking to himself inside his shop.
All the kids were afraid of him. They said that he was making coffins in there. They said that if anybody went into his yard, the Crazy Man would beat him with a stick and lock him in an underground dungeon. I didn’t quite believe all that, but I didn’t really want to find out, either.
I stopped at the fence and peered into the yard. There was no grass, just lots of weeds and brush and trees. I studied the house. The blinds were closed, and nobody seemed to be looking out, so I pulled myself over the fence and dropped behind an oak tree.
The sun was going down, and huge, creepy shadows were everywhere. Hunched over, I crept through the bushes and weeds to the workshop behind the Crazy Man’s house. I was just standing up to look in a window, when I heard a screen door bang. Then I heard someone coming—someone who was talking to himself! Without really thinking, I tried the door of the workshop. It wasn’t locked, so I opened it and went in to hide.
The workshop was almost completely dark because there were only two small windows. I leaned against the wall, sucking in big gulps of air. Then the door was flung open, and in walked the Crazy Man!
He didn’t see me at first, because I was behind the door and everything was still dark. He slammed the door and walked to the middle of the shop and pulled a string. A bright light flooded the shop.
I wanted to run and never stop, but I was too scared to move. The shop was filled with parts of beds and dressers and cabinets and all sorts of things. I couldn’t see any coffins.
The Crazy Man started working with his back to me. Then he turned to grab a board and saw me standing there. I could feel my eyes swelling up until I was sure they were going to pop right out of my head.
The Crazy Man was old. He had deep wrinkles in his face and black bushy eyebrows. He looked as mean and crazy as Tyler and Royce had said he was. “What’re you doing here, boy?” he growled, taking a step toward me. “Who let you in here?”
I tried to think, but the only thing that came into my head was a picture of the Crazy Man dragging me down into his dungeon.
“Can’t you talk?”
“I came to see you,” I finally managed to whisper.
“Well, I don’t like kids bothering me while I work. You aiming to bother me?”
I shook my head furiously.
“And I don’t let kids just hang around and do nothing. Are you going to help me?”
“Wh-What do you want me to do?”
“I need that four-by-four in the corner.”
I didn’t waste any time. I grabbed the four-by-four and took it to the Crazy Man, and he started working on it. He talked the whole time. He asked me about my family—why we’d moved, who my friends were. Sometimes he just muttered to himself, complaining about the wood, the tools, the light, or anything else that bothered him. He made me work, too, but I didn’t mind. I figured that as long as I was working, he wouldn’t throw me in his dungeon.
“Boy,” the Crazy Man growled at me, “there’s a big box of old scrap boards in the back corner. You could make yourself useful and haul them to the woodpile outside.”
I breathed a sigh of relief—I could slip away without the Crazy Man knowing. I hurried to the back of the shop and found the box. As I grabbed an armful of scrap boards, a stick caught my eye. It was round and long, with neat carvings all over it: flowers, people, animals, suns. I pulled it from the box and studied it. It was one of the prettiest pieces of wood I’d ever seen. “You don’t want to throw this away, do you?” I asked, holding it up.
The Crazy Man squinted toward me. “What is it?” he demanded, coming over to where I stood. He grabbed the wood from my hands, looked at it, then tossed it into the box again. “That’s nothing,” he muttered. “Throw it away.”
“But it’s pretty,” I protested, reaching for the stick again. He shook his head. “It’s just something I practiced on.”
“Practiced for what?”
He waved his hand about. I had been too scared to look closely at the things in the shop before. Nearly all of them had carvings on them. Beautiful carvings. There was a huge bed headboard with a giant smiling sun in the middle. There was a dresser with flying geese carved in the front.
“You made all these things?” I gasped.
The Crazy Man nodded.
“Wow! That’s great carving for a crazy m—” I stopped suddenly and covered my mouth with my hand. I thought I was going to faint.
The Crazy Man started to laugh. “Crazy, eh? Is that why you came, to see what a crazy man was like?”
“I didn’t mean … ,” I croaked, but the rest of the words got caught in my throat.
The Crazy Man went back to his work. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. I won’t hurt you.”
I glanced at the door, then back at the pile of scrap boards. After a moment I started hauling the boards out to the woodpile. When I was finished, I watched him work on a small table.
“My name’s George,” he said suddenly. “George Blake.”
Funny—once the Crazy Man had a name, I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. “I’m Jimmy—Jimmy Johnson.”
A while later, Mr. Blake said, “Do you think it’s right to trespass on private property?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t seem like the kind of boy who would play tricks on an old man. Whose idea was this?”
I told him about Royce and Tyler without using their names.
“They thought I was dangerous,” he said, “but I didn’t see them rushing in to save you. Do you think that they’re really your friends?”
I shook my head. “Could I come again tomorrow?”
“If you want to.”
The next day after I had helped Mr. Blake for a while, he nodded toward a back corner. “There’s something there that you might want to look at.”
I looked in the corner and found a walking stick just my size. The bottom part was smooth and round. It got thicker near the top. The very top was carved into the smiling face of a boy, and there were small carvings beneath that. Jimmy was carved down the stick.
“The varnish is still drying, and it needs another coat. But it should be ready by tomorrow. That one wasn’t for practice. You can keep it. It’s for helping me yesterday.”
While we worked together, Mr. Blake said, “Listen, boy, I know it’s hard being new in town. But stick to what’s right, and you’ll find friends who feel the same way. Then you and I can teach them how to make walking sticks and lots of other things.”
I grinned. “You’re pretty nice for a crazy man.”
“Hand me that chisel,” Mr. Blake growled, but I knew he wasn’t really angry. Yesterday he had been “the Crazy Man.” Today he was my friend.