(I put this story to paper over a decade ago, and chose to dust it off this week as a way to celebrate this one year anniversary of The Palest Ink. The events themselves took place nearly fifteen years ago. I remember Finn and pray. The Lord softens our hearts towards certain people, doesn’t he?)
We had lived in our Texas home for three years when Finn arrived. Several families had come and gone during those dry, hot summers. So when another moving truck rattled onto our street, I thought little of it.
Our brick home was situated on a dead-end street, which was perfect for the children to ride bikes, play baseball, pull wagons, and chase each other. One summer morning our children and several neighbors were doing these things while I weeded the flower beds. I thought I heard a new voice and as I looked up, there stood a young boy, perhaps ten years of age. I remember thinking, My goodness, he looks like something straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.
The boy was much too thin with large hazel eyes and dirty blond hair that was tangled. A slight overbite became obvious when he quietly spoke, and dark circles lay under his eyes. His shoes were completely worn out and far too tight….I made a mental note of the fact that it was over 100 degrees yet he wore a long-sleeved shirt.
I had a sudden urge to take him inside, scrub his hands and face with a warm washcloth, and feed him a triple decker sandwich washed down by cold lemonade.
Would anyone like some water? I asked instead.
A resounding yes was the answer, but I noticed the new boy hung back while looking down the street.
So I stepped inside, and upon returning with the pitcher and cups, he was gone.
His name is Finn, my son Caleb informed me. And he’s frightened.
Over the course of that summer we got to know more about Finn, albeit by piecemeal. He gathered with the boys and other neighborhood kids after dinner (the only time the temperature seemed to fall below 95 degrees) for games of kickball, football, and baseball. I watched carefully…discreetly. Soon I discovered that he would have small conversations with me as long as I was preoccupied with other activities such as walking the dog, picking weeds, or helping Lauren Olivia on her tricycle.
Finn’s father remained mostly in the house that summer with the blinds closed tight. I saw Finn’s mother only when she pulled in from work each evening and collected her mail. Occasionally she would wave. Finn usually greeted her, but without much enthusiasm. And she called him Dalton….not Finn.
Your name is Dalton? I inquired one evening as I brushed our dog in our driveway. He shrugged. I’d rather be called Finn.
He kicked a few stones and kept his gaze low.
Finn suits you…I like that name. He smiled briefly.
The Texas heat was brutal that summer, and I wondered why Finn rarely sought the coolness of his air-conditioned home. The boys asked him why he was always outside and he shrugged, glancing back at his house.
I have more fun out here, was the reply.
While the neighborhood children played with abandon and freedom and joy, Finn remained anxious, having spurts of fun followed by quiet. Finn’s twin sister occasionally emerged from their home as well. She and Finn were a study in opposites. She was pudgy with short chestnut hair, thick coke-bottle glasses, and fair skin. For all of his quietness and reluctance to speak, she was a chatter-bug with a lisp.
Dalton doethn’t like to be at home, she spoke freely to me, as was her custom.
He doesn’t? I answered, noting the use of Dalton again.
No……me neither. I nodded, waiting for her to continue.
At that moment, Velma, our next door neighbor, hollered my name in order to discuss an upcoming garage sale. I watched as Finn’s sister waved a cheerful goodbye to me, absentmindedly pushing her thick glasses up towards the bridge of her nose before skipping home. She was pleasant, simple, and unremarkable for as long as I knew her.
Her twin brother, Finn, remained elusive. He did engage our sons in whatever they played outdoors. Occasionally, the boys would come home with tall tales woven by Finn. I was pretty sure that he escaped reality by devising a fictional life that he needed to believe. Once the summer began to wane and school started, we didn’t see him as often.
As with any shared story, details are never complete. The story must be pulled from ongoing lives that have their own twists and turns, beginnings and endings. I do not recall every event from that fall. Our family life was full with school, sports, ministry, extended family visits and the like.
I do, however, recall snapshots:
Finn outdoors, on school nights, until ten pm. The evenings gradually growing colder and Finn without a sweatshirt or jacket, riding a skateboard.
His older, teen aged brother, adorned in black, with dyed hair hanging over his eyes shouting for Dalton to get his rear end home.
Finn’s father, an imposing and intimidating man, always in a trench coat, never acknowledging his son, but walking straight inside the house after work.
Finn’s mother, waving over the mailbox, friendly yet detached. As elusive as Finn, and as forgettable as her daughter.
Finn’s grandmother, babysitting most afternoons. A chain-smoking woman, snapping at her grandchildren, and ignoring everyone else. I was told that she shooed her grandchildren outdoors while she caught up on her soaps and cigarettes.
Other neighborhood kids rang the doorbell most afternoons, beckoning our children to please come out and play. Not Finn. He would simply wait in our driveway, kicking pebbles in the street, head hung low.
One day I stood by our dining room window and watched as my Caleb and Jacob ambled outdoors with a football in hand. Caleb called out a hello to Finn. Finn’s shoulders relaxed and he smiled wide. The moment was so unrehearsed and so unusual and so very real that it took my breath away. Such happiness on his small face. I knew at that moment he felt safe. I wondered right then if his mother ever gave him a tight hug just because.
It would be a few months later that Finn rang our doorbell and stepped into our home. An unforgettable day.
Spring was especially beautiful that year in Texas, and I spent many afternoons outdoors, snapping pictures of the wide blue sky and fragrant flowers beginning to bloom. Neighborhood children loved our large dead-end street, and emerged many afternoons to play pickup games of football, baseball, and soccer. Bikes were scattered everywhere, and I recall mixing lots of lemonade to share. Finn guzzled it down and always thanked me, eyes cast downward.
He loved Caleb and Jacob, that was clear. Perhaps love is the wrong word….I believe he felt safe with them. They didn’t tease, but listened and encouraged him. We discovered that Finn was an avid reader and I wasn’t surprised. His vocabulary was as strong as his imagination.
One afternoon I overheard Finn talking with the boys. Do you fellows have chores?
They nodded. Yes, we have lots of stuff we do to help Mom, said Jacob.
Like what? Finn seemed interested.
Let’s see…walking the dog, emptying the trash, clearing the table, setting the table, cleaning our rooms, making our beds–
Finn, uncharacteristically, interrupted. You make your beds?
Sure do. Every day. Caleb answered.
And then when Mom washes our sheets, we have to make the whole bed from scratch. Jacob’s brown eyes became round, just thinking of all that extra work he didn’t particularly enjoy.
Wow. Finn looked surprised. He glanced my way and I suddenly became very busy fiddling with my camera. His voice grew quiet.
And then: No one’s ever washed my sheets. And they don’t smell good either.
He paused, waiting for some reaction. My boys looked at each other, uncertain.
And finally, Caleb: It’s okay Finn. He patted his back. Let’s go play frisbee.
Towards the end of March, I planned a neighborhood birthday party for Caleb and Jacob, who are slightly less than two years apart in age. I chose a Saturday in April, and the boys distributed the invitations to friends on our street. Several of them told us they would be there, but I only received one official phone RSVP, and that was from Finn’s mother.
Dalton will be there. Her voice wasn’t unfriendly. Thank you for inviting him.
She was reserved and articulate and distant. I was left wondering how the day would unfold.
Precisely 15 minutes before Caleb’s and Jacob’s birthday party was supposed to begin, our doorbell rang. We had decorated simply, and as my eyes scanned the room, I decided everything looked fresh and clean, festive, yet simple.
I opened the front door. There stood Finn. My heart caught in my throat and I again suppressed the desire to pull him through the front door and adopt him as one of our own. My goodness, the lengths he had obviously gone to for this party.
Hello, Ma’am. All formal, perfectly rehearsed. I am a bit early.
Finn’s hair had been parted and combed down with scented hair gel. He wore a clean, new collared shirt, and a new pair of sneakers that I had seen on big-time sale at Walmart earlier in the week. I found my voice.
Finn, honey, come right on in.
I closed the door behind him and called upstairs to the boys, who tumbled down the stairs. They welcomed Finn as his gaze wandered around our house. He turned to me and whispered.
It is so nice and bright here. It smells good too.
I thought about the drawn blinds about his house, the smoke and soap operas.
Thank you, Finn. And then: Would you like me to take those from you?
It was only then that I noticed four gift bags in his hands. He smiled.
I saved my money and actually bought something for all of your children.
He sounded so grown up and so proud and it was beautiful and sad all mixed up together. My husband walked into the room.
Finney! he called out and shook Finn’s hand. Jon has a way with nicknames, and Finn was glowing like a Christmas tree.
His smile was wide. I noticed several large bruises on his arm. Well, then. Not the time to ask about that. By this time the doorbell was ringing again, and several other boys entered our home, two of whom informed me immediately that no, they didn’t like ice cream cake, and by the way, did we have party favors to pass out?
Then I turned back to Finn, who was on one knee telling our little Lauren Olivia and Marcus that he picked out something special just for them, too.
Dear Lord, make him yours, I prayed.
After everyone had arrived, Caleb and Jacob opened their gifts and expressed their thanks. I cannot even remember what Finn gave them, but when Caleb and Jacob high-fived him and repeated their thank you’s I knew that the giver was more blessed than the receivers.
He was careful all party-long to say: please and thank you, and that was delicious, Miss Kristin.
I was in my element waiting on him, and making sure he had as much to eat as he wanted. The dark under his eyes was pronounced, and as he sat next to Jacob, I realized that my boy was the picture of health next to this poor little guy.
Okay, boys! Jon rubbed his hands together. Who is ready for the outdoor competition?
The boys hollered, and for a moment Finn paled. I needn’t have worried. Jon tousled his hair.
Come on buddy. We’ll have a great time. Finn’s shoulders relaxed and they all raced out the front door.
Isn’t this party great? Jacob smiled and brushed by me out the front door.
Simplicity and the great outdoors. That was the ticket. If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s intricate and expensive birthday parties. My birthday boys were having the time of their lives. I scooped up Lauren Olivia, and we followed the party out into the front yard, where Jon was explaining the contests, all of which involved football.
Finn stood quietly, earnestly listening to the instructions, his small face upturned towards the sunlight. He chewed his lower lip, a habit I had grown accustomed to over the past eight or nine months. In contrast, twin brothers who were also our guests at the party, largely ignored Jon and began arguing over who was going to compete first. Jon glanced at me and I rolled my eyes. He shushed them and finished his explanations.
The competitions began and I remember cheering for all of the boys. Finn held his own, but didn’t win anything at first. Caleb and Jacob won a few, as did one of the twins, while the other sulked miserably on the sidewalk. Caleb and Jacob were having a blast, as was Finn.
As best as I can recall, the last competition involved catching a long pass. I couldn’t have written a better script if I had tried. Everyone had had a turn, and there were many drops. Jon lobbed the ball high and deep, and Finn ran. His small body in those new Walmart shoes seemed to fly. He looked over his shoulder and placed his arms out to catch the ball. And he did. Our family cheered and the boys ran and high-fived their friend. The twins sulked off to the side, claiming something was unfair. Jon chose to ignore them.
Finney….that was the catch of the day, man! Jon patted his shoulder and Finn’s smile stretched to his eyes. I walked over to him.
You are something else, Mr. Finn!
He glanced shyly at me and whispered a thanks. Jon passed out medals, and Finn was awarded the gold, for the catch of the day. We passed out gift bags and the party was over.
Late that night, long after our children were asleep, I stood silently at the window, watching as Finn played in the street, gold medal around his neck, football in his small hands.