What This River Keeps: A Novel

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In the rolling hills of southern Indiana, an elderly couple copes with the fear that their river bottom farm-the only home they've ever known-will be taken from them through an act of eminent domain. The river flowing through their land, where the old man has fished nearly every day of his life, may be dammed to form a reservoir. Their son, meanwhile, sinks deeper into troubles of his own, struggling to determine his place in a new romantic relationship and the duty he owes to his family's legacy. What This River Keeps is a beautiful and heartfelt novel that reflects upon what it means to love a place and a family, and the sometimes staggering cost of that love.

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Chapter One

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The two old men slept on the bank of the dirty flooded river, and from above they would’ve appeared as dead men—corpses washed ashore and left to rot in the coming sun. The river, swollen and thick in the predawn light, looked capable of carrying bodies along with its load of sticks, spinning logs and bottles. Here and there floated a child’s ball, a doll’s head. The men were not yet dead, but the morning’s heat hadn’t arrived to revive them from their jagged sleep. In a small depression in the sand between their prone forms smoke crept from a chunk of wood. Both men lay partially covered by sleeping bags, and they reposed with pieces of clothing knotted under their heads. They slept as men who had spent many nights on riverbanks. They slept on the sand that the river had carried for miles and for centuries and they slept on the earth as if they belonged to it.

Even in his sleep Frank was aware of his spine. He opened his eyes and his back woke up with him, and its pain yawned and grew. Above him was the soft gray light of early morning. His backbone felt as cold and dead as a lead pipe, like rigor mortis had set in and fused the vertebrae together. The pain hadn’t been a dream. Waking up to it was like feeling the first cold splashes of rain from a storm that had been thundering just over the ridge for hours—a confirmation.

 

Chapter Two

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Ollie drove to the hardware store in Logjam on Saturday morning because all but one lightbulb in the trailer had burned out. What were the odds of such a thing? Only the light in the hallway still worked. He could see into the bathroom with its glow, but the bedroom and kitchen were secured in darkness. He had to use the TV to illuminate the living room. Coming in late last night, still drunk and tired, he’d pretty much fallen over in every room as he made his way back to bed. He could no longer see what in the hell he was doing.

The bell hanging from the door jangled when he walked in and the air conditioning was already on. He walked across a concrete floor painted red and the entire store smelled pleasantly of metal tools and rubber tires. He felt pretty good this morning. His mouth stunk and he was thirsty, but really he felt pretty good. It was early enough that he could still do something with the day once he got this one errand run. Then he remembered that Coondog wanted him to come over in the afternoon to make final adjustments to the demo car before that night.

 

Chapter Three

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The act of leaving—motoring upstream against the current and will of the river, trailering the boat, and throwing gear into the truck bed— broke the night’s spell and made Frank worry about getting home to his wife. He left her alone many nights, even now, but always to fish. Still, Ethel was not as strong as she once was. Years ago they’d owned a dog they kept tied to the barn, but it’d died a long time ago and these days there was nothing around to protect her. He hadn’t worried all those hours they’d been fishing, but now they weren’t, and he just wanted to get home and make sure she was all right.

Frank took Chub to his house but couldn’t leave until he’d looked at his old garden tiller. Frank knew the routine—Chub would find anything he could to postpone being left alone. Even though Frank was tired and knew she’d be waiting lunch on him, he had to take a look, at least. Chub had been talking about his tiller the entire drive home.

“It ran fine last week but now the old girl is actin like she got fed bad gas,” Chub was saying. “Yesterday I couldn’t start it.”

 

Chapter Four

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Saturday afternoon came around, and the Shipley County Fair had been held in the outskirts of Green City, the county seat, since Sunday, so the week was about to reach its pinnacle. The 4-H’ers had held their “Breakfast of Champions” that morning, the animals were sold at the auction shortly thereafter, and tears were cried as the prize and prized animals were loaded into strange stock trailers bound for slaughterhouses. Kids from every town in the county were starting to wander down the muddy driveways and through puddled parking lots. Heavy bass beats emanated from their rusty but polished cars. Country music played from loudspeakers mounted on utility posts, and the smell of popcorn and fried batter wafted across the grounds. A few animals remained in the barns, those headed back home instead of the meat locker, and some people went in and gazed on them and reached over the fences to pat their noses. Most of the younger people passed on the barns and walked the pathways of wood chips, eyeballing kids from towns ten miles away.

 

Chapter Five

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As the afternoon wore on, the sun slipped below the peak of the barn roof, momentarily setting it ablaze, and then the house fell into shade and immediately cooled. Frank knew exactly what time the sun would drop behind the barn in July. It changed about a minute, later or earlier depending on the season, every day. In winter the sun fell to the side of the barn, but he still timed it. He’d watch it set and then consult the clocks. As soon as it was completely hidden by the roof and the barn swallows were out swooping around the yard, he said to Ethel, “You better go feed your chickens.”

He no longer had cows to feed and worry over. His father had kept a herd of about twenty Herefords, even before Frank was born, and so some of his earliest memories were of his father holding him over the cows’ heads as they ate from the manger in the barn. And Ethel’s father Tarif had also run cows. Over the last forty years, Frank had cared for as many as fifty head at one time. He’d been there to check on pregnant heifers in the blue cold hours of the night, gone into the barn to feed them on sunny days and on days when tornados threatened. He’d buried some calves and bottle-fed others to health. There’d always been cattle in his life, but there were none now. He knew something of the life of an amputee.

 

Chapter Six

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Now what do ya think of that folks?” Jerry Sallus yelled through the PA system, addressing the grandstand crowd. “He calls the car Every Mudder’s Nightmare’ and comes from Logjam! Name of Trent Smalls. And folks? The boy is only seventeen!”

Ollie watched as the tractor pulled the wrecked cars out of the ring. The station wagon that’d done so much damage to the Impala had won the heat, and now to find out the driver was some punk kid from their town? Some kid half their age, almost like a version of themselves before they grew up? Coondog would be hot. The lights overhead burned, illuminating the busted cars in the ring. The open mouth of the grandstand looked dark, but Ollie knew it was chock-full.

The volunteer fireman driving the tractor left Coondog for last. When they finally looped the chain around the Impala’s bumper and pulled it back into the ring, Coondog came squeezing out of the window of the welded-shut door, orange helmet leading the way. Even from where he stood, Ollie could see it was the wrong thing to do. The firemen yelled at him and told him to stay the hell in his damn car.

 

Chapter Seven

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Frank woke up and noticed the breeze lightly blowing the faded curtain that hung over the window by their bed. Ethel had sewn the curtains herself, and now the white fabric with its flowered border rose into the room and billowed up before being sucked back against the screen. He watched it do this for some time. It followed the same path but it didn’t. Not an exact pattern he could predict, anyway, lying on his back this Sunday morning in their bed where he’d slept regular nightly hours for the last forty-five years. The window frame had been painted white, but it was chipped in places where he’d hit it with his cane coming around the bed. Dead flies and other insects collected in the corner of the windowsill. The wind blew the curtain in, where it hung in the air for just a moment, before the undercurrent pulled it back to the window frame. Then the breeze would lift the curtain again with almost, but not quite, the same motions. He watched it and thought about how the river breathed the same rhythms.

 

Chapter Eight

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Sunday morning came down hard on him, sleeping in the hot, airless bedroom of his trailer. The window stood open, the screen behind it torn and pulled away from the frame, but no breeze came through. The dew had long since burned off and a green fly that had spent the night outside on the windowsill felt the sun warm its wings and walked through an open corner of the screen and buzzed over Ollie’s sleeping mouth on its way to the smells of the kitchen. It was gravid with eggs and seeking a rotting mass suitable for the raising of maggots. Somewhere in his unconsciousness he sensed the reverberations of the fly’s wings and woke up. He was sweaty and waking up hot pissed him off, but then he thought of her and he felt himself smile. Summer.

The room smelled of sweat and beer and the sheets clung to him in a dank mess. On his wall, the antique Pabst Blue Ribbon sign with the built-in thermometer read over eighty degrees. He closed his eyes again.

He had found Coondog, and they’d walked the emptying fairgrounds together until they ran into Troy Beasley, someone Coondog used to work with. Troy gave them a ride back to Coondog’s place in an old ‘69 Firebird that had been painted red with black flames on the hood and front quarters. Once there, all three of them got drunk while throwing horseshoes under the security light in the backyard. At close to four in the morning, Troy gave Ollie a ride back to the fairgrounds, where his truck was still parked in the pits. Troy was leaving then anyway to go wake up his ex-girlfriend to try to have sex with her. A long night, but today Ollie would not go to work, and that pleased the hell out of him.

 

Chapter Nine

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By Sunday afternoon it was raining again. This time it came gently over the woods to the west of them, descending slowly like a down blanket being laid over a sleeping child. The rain fell on the leaves of the trees and each drop formed a soft rhythm, a million tiny heartbeats advancing through the woods. Frank cocked his ear to the open door of the barn and listened to its approach.

They always got a lot of rain in July—thunderstorms, mostly—but this summer felt more like a monsoon. He stood in the barn and watched the rain fall first on the garden, then the yard. It hammered the metal roof overhead. He’d been cleaning up the boat, and was about ready to stop anyway. Now he’d get wet on the way to the house. He shut off the lights and grabbed a piece of plywood to serve as an umbrella. With his cane in one hand and the other holding the plywood over his head, he walked out into the rain. He looked down at the wet grass and remembered how he would gather nightcrawlers for bait on rainy nights when he was a kid.

 

Chapter Ten

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By the time Summer finally reached for her milkshake, Ollie thought, enjoy your warm milk. Watching Spring go after her miniature cone was like seeing a possum turned loose on the buffet tables. Ice cream was smeared on her hands, face and hair, and he’d watched as a dollop flew from her finger over his head. Summer about had to make napkin-handling a full-time job. He sat across from them and played with his empty cup. At least the crowd had gone and they were alone at the tables.

“Darn. I think it’s going to rain on us,” Summer said, looking out at the sky over the Dairy Queen parking lot.

“Nah, not today,” he said, examining the clouds.

“So, if you’re named after a tractor, I guess you grew up on a farm?”

“Yeah, pretty much. My folks still live out there. It’s north of town a good ways. My dad, he don’t do the work anymore though.”

“Do you do it?”

He snorted. “Hell no. They rent it out.” He looked at the baby. She was getting fidgety. “What’s your dad do?” he asked.

 

Chapter Eleven

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It was not yet five Monday morning, the window still faintly lit with predawn light, but already she lay alone in bed. She wondered how he’d managed to dress without waking her. Then again, after all the commotion yesterday afternoon, it was no wonder she’d slept through it. She doubted he’d slept at all, as wrought up as he was. She knew why he was up so early, and why he’d been so chatty last night. She remembered the little yellow face with its wet-looking brown eyes, and those tiny ears that hung like pieces of soft cloth. My goodness, this is going to change things, she thought. She took her glasses from the nightstand and rose from bed.

In the bathroom mirror she took notice. Her hair was overdue for an appointment. The skin under her eyes drooped, and a fold of skin looped from her chin like something she might see on one of her chickens. She examined her face, looking for moles that had grown or changed shape. They all looked familiar. Today she didn’t lift her nightgown to inspect her back and chest. Young Dr. Mulferd had told her to do this every day, so she usually did. She was also to examine her breasts for lumps. This morning she gave herself a little less time to self-examine. She used the toilet and got dressed and hurried downstairs to the kitchen.

 

Chapter Twelve

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At six-fifty Monday morning Ollie parked his truck in the gravel lot in front of Sellers Sawmill. Even though it was still chilly he rolled his windows down so when he came out at lunch the cab wouldn’t be burning up. He knew it’d already be eighty on the sawmill floor and by three it might reach a hundred. Despite that knowledge he looked at the pole barn that housed his employment and smiled. When he’d left work on Friday he hadn’t even met Summer yet. If, say, some little kid asked him for a pearl of wisdom, this is one thing he’d learned about life: A good weekend makes all the damned difference.

Ray Jackson pulled in then, his minivan jerking to a rest next to Ollie’s truck. Even seeing Ray didn’t dampen his mood, and he waited for him so they could walk in together. Ollie couldn’t stop smirking. Ray climbed out of the van and reached back inside for the giant coffee cup he always hauled to work.

“You look like you spent the night hammer-jacking twin Olympic swimmers,” Ray said.

 

Chapter Thirteen

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Frank knew the sounds of most of the vehicles likely to pull into his driveway. He was familiar with the pitch of their engines, the way their leaf springs flexed when they hit the dip in the driveway out by the mailbox, the range and timbre of their exhausts. The imported car of Hattie’s whirred like Ethel’s sewing machine coming up the lane, while Chub’s Dodge coughed and roared. Wayne Shipp’s truck sounded like money, because it was new and always brought the land rent check. Ollie’s pickup had been quiet, too, until he paid for louder pipes. He hadn’t been by in so long Frank had almost forgotten what they sounded like. But Frank definitely didn’t recognize the sound of the vehicle pulling into his driveway now, waking him up from his post-lunch nap. Either someone had a new truck or someone was lost.

Getting up from his chair took too damn long, so he hollered for Ethel, but she was outside working in her garden. They had said it would only get hotter as the day wore on, and she wanted to pull more weeds. He figured she went back there in part just to get away from him. He couldn’t begrudge her that.

 

Chapter Fourteen

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Ollie turned left at Peterson’s Market and drove toward her house. Was it really smart, coming out here without calling first? He wondered about that. On one hand, no one liked being surprised in her own home. On the other hand, he’d showered after work, thrown on a clean shirt and two splashes of cologne. It seemed like a waste of a shower if he turned back now, and what if she was just sitting around, thinking about him? She had kissed him, unprovoked. Wouldn’t that be an amazing thing, to suddenly appear as if her thoughts alone had conjured him?

He decided to drive by her house first. If it looked busy he’d go home and call, not mentioning that he’d been out driving past her mailbox. If it appeared calm maybe they could all go get something to eat. He hated to revisit the Dairy Queen, but driving to the next closest restaurant would take over forty minutes, round trip.

Her house would be coming up just beyond this cornfield, and he slowed to look it over. He glanced down her driveway, back to where she parked her Omni under the trees. But there were two vehicles parked there! Mouth open, he looked at the road and then back, quickly. Sure enough—a big Ford pickup with a construction bed, an orange water cooler in a rack on the side.

 

Chapter Fifteen

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The yellow shreds of scrambled eggs swirled and made their way down the drain. He usually ate everything Ethel put in front of him, and she worried about his health as she finished the breakfast dishes. She’d already washed the lunch plates. It was early afternoon, and she’d been working on a crossword puzzle while he sat at the table, reading an Indiana Prairie Farmer. Before she could ask him about the eggs they both heard the combine coming down the road. He perked up at the sound—the diesel engine, the low hum of big tires on gravel. He stood up, too quickly, and fell back against the table. “Slow down! Watch what you’re doing!” she exclaimed, but he ignored her and went to the living room window. It was Wayne all right, coming to get started on the wheat. The orange lights blinked atop the green machine. The combine, hulking and otherworldly, looked as foreign as the space shuttle itself on the narrow country road. And this was just the combine—the wheat head would be trailered in later, because it was too wide for even a two-lane highway. He’d been wondering when Wayne was going to run the wheat.

 

Chapter Sixteen

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Tuesday after work Ollie drove over to Hapgood, a pilgrim in a dented truck seeking Coondog as one might go visit a sage. If it were possible for one man alone to figure out this current situation, he felt certain it’d be done by now. He’d sure as hell given over enough man-hours to thinking about it. When he was a lot younger his mother had asked him to sort chickens by breed and age, and Summer was turning into something like that. When he got a thought chased into a corner he went back for another one and the first one shot between his legs or squirmed out a hole in the boards. He felt like he had loose feathers floating in his head. When he pulled up to the house, Coondog was out in the yard, his legs sprawled underneath the giant bucket truck he used in his tree trimming business. The hood was up. Ollie walked over and nudged the leg with his foot.

Coondog recognized the boot of his only true friend. “What say, stranger? Long time no see, you bastard.”

“You could say I been real busy.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

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In the middle of the week, there’d been the excitement of the straw baling. Two days after Wayne had combined the whole wheat field in several hours, Charlie Wolfing baled the straw with the help of five gangly high school boys. They’d started in the morning and worked all day while Frank watched them from a lawn chair set under his oak tree. Catfish stayed with him and barked at the boys as they rode the wagons around and around the field. Charlie drove the tractor and baler while two boys stacked the load. Three others hauled the full wagons back to Charlie’s with a pickup, where they unloaded it onto an elevator and stacked it in his hayloft before bringing back the empty wagons. Frank sat in his chair and counted the loads. Every hour or so Ethel brought him another glass of iced tea. The field was now an even blanket of wheat stubble, marked in regular patterns with tire tracks where the combine and the tractors had flattened the stalks. So there’d been that, and now he wanted to call Chub and head for the river. He wanted to see if it looked different—see if those government assholes had been driving stakes down there. But then the green beans came on and he spent inordinate amounts of time helping Ethel snap them.

 

Chapter Eighteen

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A year or even a month ago, he would’ve been worried sick about his truck. The dents would rust where the paint was broken and he hated driving a banged-up vehicle. But instead Ollie spent the week planning their first real date. He’d called Summer and set it up for tonight, and if she’d been too upset about the deer, he couldn’t tell it. She promised to take the little kid to her mother’s house and leave her overnight so it’d be just them. All week at work he thought about the date and also what it might be like to slide those blue shorts down over her hips. There were red warning stickers on all of the dangerous equipment at work, and someone should’ve slapped one on his forehead.

They’d built a new movie theater over in Green City. The Shipley Current ran a photo of the building under construction. He only happened to see it because Doug Sellers left the newspaper in the toilet stall at the sawmill. He hated like hell to drive an hour each way to Green City, but seeing a movie was a real date and that’s what she deserved. They’d be on the highway most of the way, but if they got stuck behind some farm equipment being moved from field to field it might add another twenty minutes. And last but not least, he wasn’t going to pay about fifteen bucks to see a movie with a bunch of cartoons running around. He wanted something with people shooting stuff in it—maybe some nudity if he could get it. He intended to pick her up, drive to Green City, check out the movie times, and eat at Pizza Hut.

 

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