I catch sight of us in the window of the bakery, and we look like two homeless kids. “Where are we going?”
The air is crisp and clean and quiet. In the distance, the Purina Tower, our tallest building, is lit up, and beyond it the bell tower of the high school.
Outside Bookmarks, Finch pulls out a set of keys and unlocks the door. “My mother works here when she’s not selling houses.”
The bookstore is narrow and dark, a wall of magazines on one side, shelves of books, a table and chairs, an empty counter where coffee and sweet things are sold during working hours.
He stoops behind the counter now and opens a refrigerator that’s hidden behind it. He digs around until he comes up with two sodas and two muffins, and then we move over to the kids’ area, which has beanbags and a worn blue rug. He lights a candle he found near the register, and the light flickers across his face as he carries it from shelf to shelf and trails his fingers along the spines of the books.
“Are you looking for something?”
Finally, he sinks down beside me and runs his hands through his hair, making it go off in all directions. “They didn’t have it at the Bookmobile Park and they don’t have it here.” He picks up a stack of children’s books and hands me a couple. “They do, thank goodness, have these.”
He sits cross-legged, wild hair bent over one of the books, and immediately it’s as if he’s gone away and is somewhere else.
I say, “I’m still mad at you about getting me detention.” I expect some fast reply, something flirty and flip, but instead he doesn’t look up, just reaches for my hand and keeps reading. I can feel the apology in his fingers, and this takes the wind out of me, so I lean into him—just a little—and read over his shoulder. His hand is warm and I don’t want to stop holding it.
We eat one-handed and read our way through the stack, and then we start reading aloud from Dr. Seuss—Oh, the Places You’ll Go! We alternate stanzas, first Finch, then me, Finch, then me.
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
At some point, Finch gets to his feet and starts acting it out. He doesn’t need the book because he knows the words by heart, and I forget to read because it’s more fun watching him, even when the words and his voice turn serious as he recites lines about dark places and useless places and waiting places, where people don’t do anything but wait.
Then his voice turns light again and he is singing the words.
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.
He pulls me to my feet.
With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
The two of us are doing our own version of flip-flapping, which is a kind of leaping over things—the beanbags, the rug, the other books. We sing the last lines together—Your mountain is waiting. So … get on your way!—and end in a heap on the floor, candlelight dancing across us, laughing like we’ve lost our minds.
The only way up the Purina Tower is the steel ladder built into the side, and there seem to be about twenty-five thousand steps. At the top, we stand—wheezing like Mr. Black—beside the Christmas tree, which sits planted all year. Up close, it’s larger than it looks from the ground. Past it, there’s a wedge of open space, and Finch spreads out the blanket and then we huddle on top of it, arm to arm, pulling the rest of the cover around us.
He says, “Look.” On all sides of us, spread out below, are little white lights and black pockets of trees. Stars in the sky, stars on the ground. It’s hard to tell where the sky ends and the earth begins. I hate to admit it, but it’s beautiful. I feel the need to say something grand and poetic, but the only thing I come up with is “It’s lovely.”
“ ‘Lovely’ is a lovely word that should be used more often.” He reaches down to cover my foot, which has found its way out of the blanket. “It’s like it’s ours,” he says.
And at first I think he means the word, but then I know he means the town. And then I think, Yes, that’s it. Theodore Finch always knows what to say, better than I do. He should be the writer, not me. I feel jealous, just for a second, of his brain. In this moment, mine feels so ordinary.
“The problem with people is they forget that most of the time it’s the small things that count. Everyone’s so busy waiting in the Waiting Place. If we stopped to remember that there’s such a thing as a Purina Tower and a view like this, we’d all be happier.”
For some reason I say, “I like writing, but I like a lot of things. Maybe out of those things, I’m best at writing. Maybe it’s what I like best of all. Maybe it’s where I’ve always felt most at home. Or maybe the writing part of me is over. Maybe there’s something else I’m supposed to do instead. I don’t know.”
“There’s a built-in ending to everything in the world, right? I mean, a hundred-watt lightbulb is designed to last seven hundred and fifty hours. The sun will die in about five billion years. We all have a shelf life. Most cats can live to be fifteen, maybe longer. Most dogs make it to twelve. The average American is designed to last twenty-eight thousand days after birth, which means there’s a specific year, day, and time to the minute when our lives will end. Your sister’s happened to be eighteen. But if a human was to avoid all life-threatening diseases and infections and accidents, he—or she—should live to be a hundred and fifteen.”
“So you’re saying I may have reached my built-in ending to writing.”
“I’m saying you have time to decide.” He hands me our official wandering notebook and a pen. “For now, why not write things down where no one will see it? Write it on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall. Of course, for all I know, you may suck at it.” He laughs as he dodges away from me, and then he pulls out an offering—the Bookmarks napkins, the half-burned candle, a matchbook, and a lopsided macramé bookmark. We lock them into a flat Tupperware container he’s confiscated from his house and leave it sitting out in plain view for the next person who comes here. Then he’s up and standing at the edge, where only a knee-high metal guardrail keeps him from falling to the ground.
He throws his arms out over his head, fists clenched, and shouts: “Open your eyes and look at me! I’m right bloody here!” He shouts all the things he hates and wants to change until his voice is hoarse. Then he nods over at me. “Your turn.”