Presenter of the National Book Awards

2003 National Book Award Finalist:
Young People's Literature

Richard Peck

The River Between Us

Dial Books / Penguin Group USA

Excerpt continued 1, 2

Dad's plan was to keep the Mississippi River on our right side and try to be in the vicinity of Chester, Illinois, by nightfall. We made good time on dry roads south from Dupo and didn't have our first flat until very near Waterloo. In all, we did pretty well with only four flats that day, one in each tire. But it seemed like the Ford was on a jack more than it was on the road. We pumped the tires up by hand. The last sign we saw for free air was outside Columbia.
The little boys needed a steady flow of water from the bottles we'd brought. This made for endless stops at the side of the road. This was a strictly men-only expedition, so we occasionally all four stood in a row over a ditch when the road was empty both directions. An hour of driving would pass before we'd see another car.

We'd pull up by open pasture and drop a ruler into the tank to gauge the gas level. The tank was set in right under the front seats, so it was like riding a bomb, though I never heard of one going off. On our stops, the boys could run wild in the field, wrestling and tussling and mauling each other like puppies. I couldn't remember being that age.

While we were watching them, Dad said, "Twins run in families and tend to skip a generation."

"Was your dad a twin?"

"My mother and her brother are twins. You'll meet Noah. They all live together in the homeplace. My dad and mother and my aunt and uncle. People lived however they could in years past, sharing out what they had. Seemed like most of my dad's patients paid him in fish out of the river and vegetables out of their gardens. A doctor doesn't get rich in Grand Tower."

"So you had four parents," I said.

"In a manner of speaking I did." Dad watched the boys. "It wasn't a bad way to grow up. They taught me how to make do, and to keep private business private. Pretty good lessons."

Down around Red Bud the ruts were deeper, and there was more standing water. We were getting father into Southern Illinois, the territory they call Egypt for some reason. The farms were hardscrabble yellow clay. They plowed around trees growing clumped in the middles of fields. Two or three hills were so steep that we had to turn the Ford around and go up in reverse. So when the sun was getting down in the west, it was time to call it a day.

Two things my dad mistrusted: water from an unfamiliar well and all hotel rooms on the Illinois side of the river. He could give you a short and sweet scientific description of the common bedbug that made you happy to spend the night on the same car seat you'd bounced along on all day.

We pulled off the road just at dusk and built a little campfire. The boys found sticks to roast wienies on. Now we were early explorers, of the Lewis and Clark party, sitting cross-legged around the wilderness fire. Dad sat just out of the glow on the running board. With any luck, we'd be in Grand Tower tomorrow night by this time.

He must have wondered what the place would look like to us city boys who until today had thought the whole world was paved.

"There never was a lot to Grand Tower," he said, "though it showed some progress after the war. When I was a boy, they had a saddle factory, a cigar plant, a gunsmith shop or two, a brick works. Enos Walker started a sawmill that peeled logs and made strips for splint baskets. My uncle Noah worked there for years."

The little boys' eyes were glazing over. "But it's not much more than a ghost town now," Dad remarked.

This alerted the boys. They looked around with big eyes. The trees were black with night, and now they noticed where they were. "A ghost town isn't quite the same thing as a ghost," Dad said. But seeing he had their full attention, he added, "Of course, every little old town had a haunt or two."

From back in the trees came the rushing of some night bird's wings. The rusty creak of a turning windpump sounded across the darkness.

"There's a hill over the town called the Devil's Backbone," Dad said.

Ghosts and now the devil. He had us in the palm of his hand.

"The house where I grew up straddles the Backbone about halfway along. Now a road runs between the Backbone and the river. A ghost or something very like it has been seen crossing that road on dark nights like this."

I suspected Dad was playing up the story for us, but it worked on me like a charm. The boys were about in each other's laps.

"It's a woman," Dad said, " in old-time skirts with gray hair streaming down her back. She'll dart out in the road, running hard, making for the river, where she seems to throw herself in. It's been reported for years. Any number of horses have shied, and buggies turned over. There are people who won't go down that road after dark."

Steadying my voice, I said, "Dad, did you ever see…anything?"

"Not me." He stood up, working the kinks out of his back. "You know how these old stories grow in the telling." But then he added, "I don't know what my mother thought. I know she didn't like to hear talk about that particular ghost. Too close to home, I suppose."

Then we were all too sleepy to make it through another moment. We pulled up the roof of the Ford and rolled the boys in car rugs to settle them on the backseat. They were joyous at turning in for the first time in their lives with dirty faces and necks. Dad drifted off, sitting bolt upright behind the wheel with his necktie in place. The rusty sound of the distant windpump turned in my dreams until daylight.

We made it to Grand Tower by the next afternoon, though we'd overheated at Rockwood. The road nearly played out past Fountain Bluff. Then we were coming down a last hill, above the town, steeping like tea in the deep summer damp.

Above the town Dad pointed out a long, sharp-backed hill as the Devil's Backbone. Across the river on the Missouri side another stone outcropping rose straight out of the water. This was Tower Rock, and it gave the town its name, Dad said.

The whole heat-hazed place looked as old as the rocks it nestled among. It didn't seem likely to me that anybody had ever been young here.

We drove up the Backbone as near to the house as we could get. I remember it now like a moving-picture show of that time, without sound and all in black and white.

I see the little old lady on the porch with her hands in her apron. Grandma Tilly: a tiny face wrinkled like a walnut, and wisps of hair drawn back in a knot. Behind her apron she's slender as a girl, and there's something young about her. She dances with the pleasure of seeing Dad stride up the hill. To her, he's "young Bill," we're young Bill's boys. She's been waiting for this moment.

Behind her in a rocker is her husband, older than she is, ancient. Waxy with age, trapped by the years and his chair, but alive behind his eyes. He has a shock of fine white hair and a curling, somehow military mustache. He wears a once-ivory alpaca suit in this stifling afternoon, and a high collar under his chins. He's too old to stand, but his loose-boned, veiny hand comes out to Dad, and his eyes are wet.

The camera of my memory ducks under the tin-roofed porch and enters the house as everybody did, through the kitchen door. A black iron range stands before the old open hearth. A door to the hall shows the way upstairs. There are big square bedrooms above, smelling of old times, and the old. A big chest of drawers stands in the upstairs hall. Beyond it in the best room that looks out on the river is Dad's aunt Delphine, in a four-poster bed.

The room hangs in lavender scent. It's so crowded with things, you could miss a smaller woman in the bed. But my great-aunt is very stout. Her hands, restless on the turned-back sheet, look like little pillows. Rings are embedded in her fingers. She's propped below a picture on the wall of a man with yellow hair in an old-fashioned costume.

She turns startling violet eyes on us. Under her beribboned bed cap, he black hair is in ringlets like a girl's. She had a faint mustache. When she sees my dad, her plump hands fly to her mouth, and the tears flow in dark streaks down her face.

In the moving picture memory makes, Great-uncle Noah is under the window of his wife's room, weeding one-handed in the heat of the day. But that can't be. The garden ran down from the far side of the house, and Uncle Noah would have been on the porch with his sister Tilly to greet us. He was certainly there on the day we left-only a little bent over, in his shirtsleeves, one of them pinned up above the missing arm.

In the first moments of our visit, even the little boys were all eyes. They'd been promised snakes around the woodshed and catfish they could catch themselves. They'd banked on shoeless days and bathless nights. But just for a moment they were caught in the grip of this place. They felt the weight of its history, and mystery.

So did I. The paper was loose and peeling on the walls. I wondered how many layers you'd have to scrape away until you came to the time when these old people were young. If they ever were.

I wondered how quiet you'd have to be to hear the voices of those times.

1, 2