In this scene from BETTING ON THEO, the story of three outsiders banding together to challenge the Cherry Street School establishment, Theo and school bully Bobby Danforth face off in a wall-crawl challenge. If Tom Sawyer and a whitewashed fence come to mind, well, so be it.
The idea of crawling around the wall of Cherry Street School nudged Theo up County Road and into the school’s deserted parking lot. Why’d Jacob make it sound like such a big deal?
He jumped onto the cement base. Clinging with one hand, Theo ran a finger over a couple of the textured bricks and felt the sharp ridges. He thought there must be a lot of kids with little cuts on their fingers. He dropped back to the ground.
Halfway down the right side of the school stood a three-story metal fire escape with platforms on the second and third floors at emergency exits and sets of steps that crisscrossed to the ground.
He wondered if you have to crawl around it, or could you jump back to the ground and walk to the other side and then climb back onto the wall.
As he examined the fire escape he reached up to touch hand and foot holds that would make it possible to climb it and never touch the ground. No worse than climbing the walls and hay chutes in Anson’s old barn, he thought. The hay wagons would back up and Theo and half the kids it town it seemed tossed the bales from the wagons to the loft and then on slack days climbed up the piles along ladders nailed to the walls and jumped or slid to the hay covered floor boards, or slipped down the chutes of the feeding bins to a loose pile of hay below.
Theo smiled at the memory of walking home pulling hay out of his hair, shirt and pants.
He turned to the sound of footsteps at the front of the school.
“You’ll never do it, you know, Thee-awful-lee,” said Bobby Danforth, leaning on the corner of the school. “If Mr. Younger catches you, he’ll put you in detention for a month.”
Theo tipped his head to one side and released a scoffing breath. “How many months you been there?”
Bobby Danforth grinned back. “I don’t get caught. But you, a new kid? Country boy, you don’t know how things are done here. There’ll probably be a note on Mr. Younger’s desk on Monday.”
“I’ll make sure I check,” Theo said before starting to walk away around the back of the school, but stopped. “Why are you following me? Or are you here to practice so you can beat your brother on the wall crawl?”
Bobby Danforth stiffened. “You think you know so much. I can do better than he did. I can do better than you.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard. I ain’t ever done it.”
“Put you’re money where your mouth is. A buck to who stays up the longest.”
Theo stared back at Bobby Danforth’s scowling face and tried not to smile. “Sure. You go first. I need to see, ya know, how it’s done.”
“Candy from a baby,” Bobby Danforth said. “Start here,” and he walked to the front door where the top of the slanting cement base was about two feet high, reached up with both hands to a row of bricks a foot or so above his head and pulled himself flat to the wall.
That was easier than I thought it would be, Theo mused.
Bobby took a deep breath and slid his feet along the cement and with one hand at a time grabbed a new slot in the bricks. The wall took an outward ninety-degree right turn to a new wall, and he easily stepped around the corner and worked along the new twenty-foot wall to another outward corner which this time turned right toward a third wall.
He was breathing harder and coughed out a few breaths of dust. At the next corner, an inward facing ninety-degree turn, he paused and reached to his right across the space to the new wall and tested his balance. He bounced on his toes and with a grunt, shifted his right side across the opening and for a moment straddled the corner before trying to correct his stance. His feet were too close together and his hands could not grab a gap between the bricks. He swayed and slipped down the face of the wall, his fingers scraping on the sharp edges of the bricks. He hit the ground and fell backward, his left hand clutching the bleeding fingers of his right hand. “Damn it.” He winced and reached for his handkerchief to wrap his fingers. “Beat that.” He stood up and limped a few steps. He had cracked his left knee on the cement.
“You okay?” Theo asked.
“No big deal,” Bobby Danforth hissed through clenched teeth. “Your turn.”
Theo stepped to the front of the school, thinking with a tiny smile, thanks for the lesson. He rubbed his hands together, spit on them, and rubbed them again as he examined the brick face. He reached up with his right hand and found a deep gap in the bricks and pulled himself up. He spread his legs wider than Bobby Danforth had and stood on his toes rather than the soles of his feet. Theo alternated the height of his reach as he crossed the wall. At the third turn, the one that had tripped up his opponent, Theo paused. He noticed that the depth of the gaps between bricks on the new wall at his eye level were shallower. That’s what messed up Bobby, he thought. Less to grab.
Theo tip-toed closer to the corner before stepping across the gap. The shift reduced the length of his first step and helped maintain his balance. “Whoa,” he cried and then seemed to slip, before crossing the gap and taking a deep breath.
Theo cling to the wall and seemed to be resting when he heard Bobby Danforth groan and mutter, “Crap.”
Theo slithered along the wall for another ten feet to a set of windows that created a fifteen-foot gap in the bricks. The bottom of the window frames was chest high, but ten feet from the ground with a sloped, wooden sill. Theo reached under the frame and found a space between the top of the bricks and the sill and grinned. Gotcha. He leaned back a little and fumbled along the wall for a few apparent slippery steps and then pushed off. He landed on his feet, but rolled just for the effect.
“Windows are tough,” he said, brushing off his jeans and shaking his head with determination. “I’ll have to remember that.”
Bobby Danforth sucked on two fingers to stop the bleeding. He pulled out a dollar bill and handed it to Theo. “Beginner’s luck,” he said. “I pay my debts.”
“Maybe,” Theo said as took the bill and watched Bobby Danforth turn and leave. He wiped the blood on his jeans and smiled.
Good thing I won, I didn’t have a buck.
“Hey, Bobby,” Theo yelled. “Stop messing with Dev.”
“Whatcha gonna do about it, Thee-awful-lee? First things first. You, then her.” He waited for a reply; when none came he walked off.
Theo smiled and rubbed his hands, feeling the scrapes on the tips of his fingers. Everyone gets theirs in the end.