When I’m finished, Mike and I stand back and look at my work. “Don’t you want to write anything?” he says.
“That’s okay. I’ll only have to cover it up.” And then no one will know I was here either.
I help him put the paint away and clean up a bit, and he tells me facts about the ball, like that it weighs nearly 4,000 pounds and is made up of over 20,000 coats of paint. Then he hands me a red book and a pen. “Before you leave, you have to sign.”
I flip through the pages until I find the first blank spot where I can write my name and the date and a comment. My eyes run over the page, and then I see that only a few people were here in April. I flip back a page, and there it is—there he is. Theodore Finch, April 3. “Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!”
I run my fingers over the words, the ones he wrote just weeks ago when he was here and alive. I read them again and again, and then, on the first blank line, I sign my name and write: “Your mountain is waiting. So … get on your way!”
As I head home to Bartlett, I sing what I can remember of Finch’s Dr. Seuss song. When I pass through Indianapolis, I think of trying to find the nursery where he collected flowers in winter, but instead I keep driving east. They won’t be able to tell me anything about Finch or why he died or what he wrote on the ball of paint. The only thing that makes me feel better is that, whatever Finch wrote, it will always be there, underneath the layers.
I find my mom and dad in the family room, my dad listening to music on his headphones, my mom grading papers. I say, “I need us to talk about Eleanor and not to forget that she existed.” My dad removes his headphones. “I don’t want to pretend like everything’s fine if it isn’t, like we’re fine if we’re not. I miss her. I can’t believe I’m here and she isn’t. I’m sorry we went out that night. I need you to know that. I’m sorry I told her to take the bridge home. She only went that way because I suggested it.”
When they try to interrupt me, I talk louder. “We can’t go backward. We can’t change anything that happened. I can’t bring her back or bring Finch back. I can’t change the fact that I sneaked around to see him when I told you it was over. I don’t want to tiptoe around her or him or you anymore. The only thing it’s doing is making it harder for me to remember the things I want to remember. It’s making it harder for me to remember her. Sometimes I try to concentrate on her voice just so I can hear it again—the way she always said, ‘Hey there’ when she was in a good mood, and ‘Vi-o-let’ when she was annoyed. For some reason, these are the easiest ones. I concentrate on them, and when I have them, I hold on to them because I don’t ever want to forget how she sounded.”
My mom has started to cry, very, very quietly. My father’s face has gone gray-white.
“Like it or not, she was here and now she’s gone, but she doesn’t have to be completely gone. That’s up to us. And like it or not, I loved Theodore Finch. He was good for me, even though you think he wasn’t and you hate his parents and you probably hate him, and even though he went away and I wish he hadn’t, and I can never bring him back, and it might have been my fault. So it’s good and it’s bad and it hurts, but I like thinking about him. If I think about him, he won’t be completely gone either. Just because they’re dead, they don’t have to be. And neither do we.”
My dad sits like a marble statue, but my mom gets up and kind of stumbles toward me. She draws me in, and I think: That’s how she used to feel before any of this happened—strong and sturdy, like she could withstand a tornado. She is still crying, but she is solid and real, and just in case, I pinch her skin, and she pretends not to notice.
She says, “Nothing that happened is your fault.”
And then I’m crying, and my dad is crying, one stoic tear at a time, and then his head is in his hands and my mom and I move like one person over to him, and the three of us huddle together, rocking a little back and forth, taking turns saying, “It’s okay. We’re okay. We’re all okay.”
Remaining wanderings 3 and 4
The Pendleton Pike Drive-In is one of the last of its kind. What’s left of it sits in an overgrown field on the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis. Now it’s like a graveyard, but in the 1960s the drive-in was one of the most popular sites around—not just a movie theater, but a kiddie park with a mini roller coaster and other rides and attractions.
The screen is the only thing that remains. I park on the roadside and approach it from the back. It’s an overcast day, the sun hidden behind thick, gray clouds, and even though it’s warm, I shiver. The place gives me the spooks. As I tramp over weeds and dirt, I try to picture Finch parking Little B*****d where I parked my car and walking to the screen, which blocks the horizon like a skeleton, just as I’m walking now.
I believe in signs, he texted.
And that’s what the screen looks like—a giant billboard. The back is covered with graffiti, and I pick my way across broken beer bottles and cigarette butts.
Suddenly I’m having one of those moments that you have after losing someone—when you feel as if you’ve been kicked in the stomach and all your breath is gone, and you might never get it back. I want to sit down on the dirty, littered ground right now and cry until I can’t cry anymore.
But instead I walk around the side of the screen, telling myself I may not find anything. I count my steps past it until I’m a good thirty paces in. I turn and look up, and the wide white face says in red letters, I was here. TF.
In that moment, my knees give out and down I sink, into the dirt and the weeds and the trash. What was I doing when he was here? Was I in class? Was I with Amanda or Ryan? Was I at home? Where was I when he was climbing up on the sign and painting it, leaving an offering, finishing our project?
I get to my feet and take a picture of the skeleton screen with my phone, and then I walk up to the sign, closer and closer, until the letters are huge and towering above me. I wonder how far away they reach, if someone miles from here can read them.
There is a can of red spray paint sitting on the ground, the cap neatly on. I pick it up, hoping for a note or anything to let me know he left it for me, but it’s just a can.
He must have climbed up by the steel latticework posts that anchor the thing in place. I rest one foot on a rung, tuck the paint can under my arm, and pull myself up. I have to climb one side and then the other in order to finish it. I write: I was here too. VM.