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All the Bright Places (Page 69)

All the Bright Places(69)
Author: Jennifer Niven


Remaining wanderings 1 and 2

Milltown, population 815, sits close to the Kentucky border. I have to stop and ask someone how to get to the shoe trees. A woman named Myra points me toward a place called Devils Hollow. It doesn’t take long to run out of paved road, and soon I’m driving down a narrow dirt trail, looking up, which is what Myra told me to do. Just when I think I’m lost, I come to a fourway intersection that sits surrounded by woods.

I pull the car over and get out. In the distance, I can hear the sound of kids yelling and laughing. Trees stand at all four corners, their branches filled with shoes. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes. Most are draped across the limbs by the laces like oversized Christmas ornaments. Myra said she wasn’t sure how it began, or who left the first pair, but people travel from all over just to decorate the trees. There’s a rumor that Larry Bird, the basketball player, left a pair up there somewhere.

The quest is simple: leave a pair behind. I’ve brought a pair of green Chuck Taylors from my closet, and a pair of yellow Keds from Eleanor’s. I stand, head tilted back, trying to decide where to put them. I’ll hang them together on the original tree, the one heaviest with shoes, which has been struck by lightning more than once—I can tell because the trunk looks dead and black.

I pull a Sharpie from my pocket and write Ultraviolet Remarkey-able and the date on the side of one of the Chuck Taylors. I hang them low on the original tree, which looks too fragile to climb. I have to jump a little to reach the branch, and the shoes bob and twist before settling. I hang Eleanor’s Keds beside them.

That’s it then. Nothing more to see. It’s a long way to drive for trees of old shoes, but I tell myself not to look at it that way. There might be magic here too. I stand watching for it, shading my eyes against the sun, and just before I walk back to the car I see them: way up on the highest branch of the original tree, hanging all alone. A pair of sneakers with fluorescent laces, TF in black on both shoes. A package of blue American Spirits pokes up from the inside of one.

He was here.

I look around as if I might see him right now, but it’s just me and the kids who are laughing and hollering from someplace nearby. When did he come? Was it after he left? Was it before that?

Something nags at me as I stand there. The highest branch, I think. The highest branch. I reach for my phone, but it’s in the car, and so I run the short distance, throw open the door, and lean across the seat. I sit half in, half out, scrolling through my texts from Finch. Because there aren’t many recent ones, it doesn’t take long to find it. I am on the highest branch. I look at the date. A week after he left.

He was here.

I read through the other texts: We are written in paint. I believe in signs. The glow of Ultraviolet. It’s so lovely to be lovely in Private.

I find the map, my finger following the route to the next place. It’s hours away, northwest of Muncie. I check the time, turn on the engine, and drive. I have a feeling I know where I’m headed, and I hope it’s not too late.

The World’s Biggest Ball of Paint sits on the property of Mike Carmichael. Unlike the shoe trees, it’s a designated tourist attraction. The ball not only has its own website, it’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s a little after four o’clock by the time I get to Alexandria. Mike Carmichael and his wife are expecting me because I called them from the road. I pull up to the structure where the ball apparently lives—in a kind of barnlike shed—and knock on the door, my heart beating fast.

When there’s no answer, I try the handle, but it’s locked, and so I walk up to the house, heart going faster because what if someone has been there since? What if they’ve painted over whatever Finch might have written? It’ll be gone then, and I’ll never know, and it will be like he was never even here.

I bang harder than I mean to on the front door, and at first I think they aren’t home, but then a man with white hair and an expectant smile comes walking out, talking and shaking my hand and telling me to call him Mike.

“Where are you from, young lady?”

“Bartlett.” I don’t mention that I’ve just come from Milltown.

“That’s a nice town, Bartlett. We go there sometimes to the Gaslight Restaurant.”

My heart is beating into my ears, and it’s so loud, I actually wonder if he can hear it. I follow him to the barn-shed, and he says, “I started this ball of paint nearly forty years ago. The way it came about, I was working in this paint store back in high school, back before you were born, maybe back before your parents were born. I was playing catch in the store with a friend and the baseball knocked over this can of paint. I thought, I wonder what would happen if I painted it one thousand coats? So that’s what I did.” Mike says he donated that ball to the Knightstown Children’s Home Museum, but in 1977 he decided to start another one.

He nods at the barn and unlocks the door and we walk into a big, bright room that smells like paint. There, in the middle, hangs this enormous ball, the size of a small planet. Paint cans cover the floor and wall, and another wall is lined with photographs of the ball in different stages. Mike tells me how he tries to paint it every day, and I cut him off and say, “I’m so sorry, but a friend of mine was here recently, and I wanted to see if you remembered him, and if maybe he might have written something on the ball.”

I describe Finch, and Mike rubs his chin and starts nodding. “Yep, yep. I remember him. Nice young man. Didn’t stay long. Used this paint over here.” He leads me to a can of purple paint, the color written on the lid: Violet.

I look at the ball, and it isn’t purple. It’s as yellow as the sun. I feel my heart sink. I look at the floor and almost expect to see it lying there.

“The ball’s been painted over,” I say. I’m too late. Too late for Finch. Too late once again.

“Anyone who wants to write something, I get them to paint over it before they leave. That way it’s ready for the next person. A clean slate. Do you want to add a layer?”

I almost say no, but I didn’t bring anything to leave, and so I let him hand me a roller. When he asks what color I want, I tell him blue like the sky. As he searches the cans, I stand in place, unable to move or breathe. It’s like losing Finch all over again.

Then Mike is back and he has found a color that is the color of Finch’s eyes, which he can’t possibly know or remember. I dip the roller into the tray and cover the yellow with blue. There’s something soothing about the mindless, easy motion of it.

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