It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then. The government people had hearings all spring to solicit the views of residents on their plans. That’s what they called it, soliciting views, but every last person in Miller’s Valley knew that that just meant standing behind the microphones set up in the aisle of the middle school, and then finding out afterward that the government people would do what they planned to do anyhow. Everybody was just going through the motions. That’s what people do. They decide what they want and then they try to make you believe you want it, too.
Donald’s grandfather was at every meeting, his hands shaking as he held some sheets of loose-leaf he’d been reading from so long that they were furred along the edges. He carried a big file with him everywhere, even when he went to the diner for breakfast. Early on he’d switched out the original file for the accordion kind because the first one got too full. But it was full of the kind of stuff old guys pull together, newspaper clippings with uneven edges, carbon copies of letters ten years old, even the occasional sales receipt for a sump pump or a new well, as though someone was going to be inclined to pay him for all the years he’d spent fighting the water. I always wondered if they wrote him off because his name was Elmer. The government people talked a lot about the future. Elmer was such an old guy’s name, a piece of the past.
“The best we can do is make sure we get as much as we can out of the bastards,” Donald’s grandfather said at what turned out to be the next-to-last meeting.
“There’s no need for that, Elmer,” my mother said. She meant the profanity. She was as interested as the next person in milking the government for money. A lifetime working in hospitals had shown her the wisdom, and the ease, of that. She was upright but not stupid.
My mother was a person of stature in Miller’s Valley. She’d lived there all her life. Her mother had raised her and her younger sister, Ruth, in a one-story three-room house at the edge of the valley with a pitted asphalt roof and a falling-down porch, and when she’d married my father and become a Miller she’d moved to his family’s farm, right at the center of the valley, in its lowest place, where the fog lay thick as cotton candy on damp mornings. She was a Miller of Miller’s Valley, and so was I. People thought my mother could take care of just about anything. So did I, then.
The government people were all job titles instead of proper names. They dealt out thick business cards with embossed seals; we found them in our pockets and purses long after there was any point to it. There were geologists and engineers and a heavyset woman with a sweet smile who was there to help people relocate after the government took their houses. A resettlement counselor, they called her. She had the softest hands I’d ever felt, pink and moist, and when she’d come toward my mother, her hands like little starfish in the air, my mother would move in the opposite direction. It’s hard to explain to kids today, with everybody touching each other all the time, kissing people who are more or less strangers, hugging the family doctor at the end of a visit, but my mother wasn’t a huggie person, and neither were most of her friends and neighbors.
“She can just forget about patting me, that one” is what she always said about the resettlement counselor.
I felt kind of sorry for the woman. It was her job to make it sound as though one place to live was just as good as another, just as good as the place you’d brought your babies home to from the hospital fifty years before, just as good as the place where your parents had died and, in a few cases that you could tell made the government people -really uncomfortable, were buried. They could make moving to a new house with a nice dry basement sound like a good deal, but there was no way they could put a pretty face on digging up a coffin that went into the ground before the First World War.
When people would talk about the government’s plans, at the hospital, in the market, someone would always say, “Can they really do that?” The answer was yes. “They can do what they want,” my mother said, and when she did, Donald’s grandfather held his file in front of him like a shield and said, “Miriam, I don’t think you understand the situation.” But that wasn’t true. My mother always understood the situation. Any situation.
“I figure by my breathing I’ll be gone by Sunday,” she said years later when she was dying, and she was right on schedule.
At all the meetings they handed out little pamphlets with a drawing on the front of people walking around the edge of what looked like a big lake. There were sailboats, too, and a woman behind a motorboat on water skis with one arm held up in the air. Inside the pamphlet said, “Flood control, water supply, hydroelectric power, and recreation: these are the advantages of water management in your area!” On the back it said, “A bright future through progress.” It’s a wiggly word, progress:
a two-lane gravel road turned into four lanes paved that makes life a noisy misery for the people with houses there, a cornfield turned into a strip mall with a hair salon, a supermarket, and a car wash. Corn’s better than a car wash. We washed our own cars with a garden hose until our kids got old enough to do it for us.
My eldest nephew, the smart one, did a project once about Miller’s Valley, and he interviewed me one afternoon. “Why didn’t you fight?” he said.
I understand. He’s young. Things seem simple when you’re young. I remember. I’m not like some older people who forget.
There were people who fought, although there were fewer and fewer of them as the years went by. Donald’s grandfather had printed up bumper stickers and buttons and tried to get people riled up, but there weren’t that many people to begin with in the valley, and by the time it was all over there were hardly any at all.
I may have been the only person living in Miller’s Valley who had read all the geologists’ reports, looked over all the maps, knew what was really going on. Somewhere there’s an aerial photograph taken before I was even born, and if any reasonable person looked at it, at the dam and the course of the river and the unused land and the number of houses involved, they’d conclude that there was a big low area just begging to be filled in with water. I’d seen that photograph when I was seventeen, sitting in a government office with gray walls and metal furniture, looking at the center point of that big low area, at the roof of our house. I knew better than anyone what the deal was. When I was a kid I’d play in the creek, stack up stones and sticks and watch the water back up behind them, until finally it filled a place that had been dry before. The difference is that with a real dam, sometimes the place that fills up with water has houses and churches and farms. I saw a picture once of a big reservoir behind a dam in Europe that had a church steeple sticking up on one side during a dry spell.
That’s what they meant when they talked about water management, the government people, except that we didn’t have a steeple high enough in the valley to stick up and remind people that there had once been a place where the water would be. A bright future through progress. There was just a handful of us in the way.
Everyone was waiting for my mother to fight, although no one ever said that. Everyone was waiting for her to say that they couldn’t do this, take 6,400 acres of old family farms and small ramshackle homes and turn it into a reservoir by using the dam to divert the river. Everyone was waiting for her to say that they couldn’t just disappear our lives, put a smooth dark ceiling of water over everything as though we had never plowed, played, married, died, lived in Miller’s Valley. It wasn’t just that my mother had lived in the valley, had dealt with the water, her whole life long. It wasn’t just that she was the kind of person who preferred to solve her problems by herself, not have some people come in from outside in suits and ties and work shoes that weren’t work shoes at all, to handle things for her and her neighbors.
It was that she was someone, Miriam Miller. There are just some people like that. Everyone pays attention to what they say, even if they don’t even know them well or like them much.
My mother went to every meeting the government people held, but she never spoke, and when people would try to talk to her before or after she was polite but no more, asking after their children or their arthritis but never saying a word about the plans to drown Miller’s Valley. I drove up from the city for that one meeting at the church, even though she said there was no need for me to miss school or work, even though my desk was piled high with things that needed to be done. I guess I did it because I’d been there from the very beginning years before, when I was a kid selling corn from a card table outside of our barn, when the talk about turning Miller’s Valley into a reservoir first began, when no one really thought it would amount to anything.
It’s so easy to be wrong about the things you’re close to. I know that now. I learned that then.
When the meeting was over my mother and I drove home together down the dark back roads to the farm, and as I took the curves fast, curves I’d been taking since I’d gripped the wheel of the truck while sitting on my father’s lap, she stared out the window so that the sickly green of the dashboard dials just touched the corner of her set jaw.
“You do understand this, right?” I’d said. “If this goes through they’ll take the house and the barn and the little house. If this happens you’ll have to move. You’ll have to pack up all your stuff. You’ll have to find a place for Aunt Ruth and pack up all her stuff. You’ll have to find a way to get her out of there. Then it’s going to be like none of it ever existed. They’re going to put the whole place under forty feet of water.”
“I’m not stupid, Mary Margaret,” my mother said. The night was so quiet you could hear the wood doves comforting themselves with their own soft voices in the fields.
“If this happens they’re going to make the valley just disappear,” I said, my voice harsh in the silence.
A deer ran through my headlights like a ghost, and I slowed down because, like my father always said, there’s almost never just one. Sure enough, two more skittered out. They froze there, staring, then moved on. I was ready to start talking again when my mother spoke.
“Let them,” she said. “Let the water cover the whole damn place.”
I grew up to the sound of my parents talking in the kitchen on my mother’s nights off, and the sound of the sump pump when it rained. Sometimes, all these years later, I wake up in the middle of the night and think I hear one or the other, the faint pounding of the throttle or the murmur of those two low voices. On a wet night the best I could ever make out was a little muttering even if my mother and father were talking loud. If you properly maintain it, and my father did, a sump pump makes a throaty chug-a-chug noise, sort of like a train without the whistle. My brother Tommy always said he liked the sound, but I think it was because it meant he could sneak out at night without anyone hearing. My mother didn’t mind it because her shift work meant she was hardly ever at home at night, and so tired when she got home that nothing kept her awake.
My room was in the back corner of the house, right over where the sump pump sat on the cement basement floor two stories below. From the window in my room you could see the path up to the back end of the property and the lights through the trees of my aunt Ruth’s house. She kept at least one light on all night long. I liked looking out and seeing that light in the darkness, something that had always been there, that I could count on. It was real quiet most of the time around our house at night, so quiet that sometimes I could tell what Aunt Ruth was watching on television because I could hear the theme song of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
There was a heating vent right behind the head of my bed, and if you followed it down it stopped at the heating vent behind the kitchen table before it ended up at the old cast--iron furnace in the basement. When I was five I thought my room was haunted because just as I was dropping off to sleep I would hear a moaning sound underneath my bed. Years later my brother Eddie told me that Tommy had put his mouth to the vent and made the noise and Eddie made him stop when he caught him, and all of that made sense, including Eddie saying he hadn’t mentioned any of it to our parents.
The thing was, listening to my parents through that vent was like a bad radio broadcast, one of those where you’ve got a song on you really like but it’s from fifty miles away and it drifts in and out and you have to fill in the gaps by singing along. I was good at filling in the gaps when my parents talked, and I probably heard a lot I shouldn’t have. If it had been LaRhonda listening, the whole town would have known, too. You could close that heating vent with a little chain at one corner, and I always did when LaRhonda slept over. But the rest of the time I paid attention to whatever I managed to hear.
She’s got cancer in that breast, my mother might say.
That’ll be hard on Bernie, my father would say.
Bernie? It’ll be hard on her, is who it’ll be hard on. From what I hear Bernie has plenty of female companionship.
Gossip, my father would say. Then silence, and I would fall asleep.
Or, That baby is going right into the state hospital, no questions asked, my mother might say.
That’s a sad thing, my father would say.
Sadder to keep it at home, my mother would say.
Guess so, my father would say. She was always sure of things. He almost never was, except maybe about the government people and their plans for Miller’s Valley. Over the years there was a lot of talk about that at night in the kitchen.
Talked to Bob Anderson yesterday, my mother might say.
Got no business with a real estate agent, my father replied.
Asking for you, my mother said.
Fine right where I am, my father said.
Clattering pans in the sink. Tap running.
Why I even bother, my mother said.
“Meems, you up?” Tommy whispered, pushing open the door. When he wanted to he could move through the house like a ghost, even when he was drunk. Maybe especially when he was drunk.
“How come you’re home?” I said, sitting up against the headboard.
Not listening to one more word on the subject, said my father.
“Oh, man, not again,” said Tommy. He sat down on the edge of my bed and canted his head toward the vent so that a piece
of hair fell down on his forehead. It was confusing, having a good-looking brother. I tried not to think of him that way, but LaRhonda wouldn’t shut up about it.
“What are they talking about?” I said. “Who’s Bob Anderson?”
“Did the water department guy stop by here today?”
“Did some guy in a Chevy sedan come by to see Pop?”
“There’s somebody who came by and had some kind of business card from the state. Donald says he talked to his grandfather, too. He says he went to the Langers’ house and some other places.”
“That’s what they’re talking about, then. The damn dam.”
“Mr. Langer says that all the time,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s the problem for sure. The old guys say that when they built the dam, when they were all kids, there was a big fight about it. They figure now they put it in the wrong place, or the water’s in the wrong place, or something. They want to flood the whole valley out.” And both of us looked out toward the light in Ruth’s window.
“What about us?” I said.
I knew about the dam. It was named after President Roosevelt, but the one with the mustache and the eyeglasses, not the one with the Scottie dog and the wife with the big teeth. We’d gone to the dam on a field trip. The guide told us it was made out of concrete and was for flood control, which didn’t make sense because we had flooding in the valley all the time. A lot of the kids were bored by the description of cubic feet and gallons, but we all perked right up when the guide said four workers had died building the dam. Our teacher said she wasn’t sure we needed to know that.
It was probably hard for people to believe, but we didn’t pay that much attention to the river, even though it was so big and so close and had a big strong arm that ran through the center of the valley. They called that Miller’s Creek because years ago it had been just a narrow little run of water, but once the dam went in it turned into something much bigger than that. I’d spent a lot of time around creeks when I was younger, looking for minnows and crayfish, and that was no creek.
It was mainly out-of-town people who went to the river. The current was too strong for swimming, and it was nicer at Pride’s Beach, which was a stretch of trucked-in sand on one side of the lake south of town. The fishing was better in the streams in the valley, although you had to be pretty good at fly casting to get around the overhanging branches.
There was a loud grinding sound through the vent, two wooden chairs pushed against the surface of my mother’s chapped linoleum. “Oh, man,” Tommy whispered. “You got matches?”
“Why would I have matches?”
Tommy sighed. “I had plenty of matches when I was your age.”
“Shut up!” I said, and “shhh,” Tommy said. My parents passed by on the way to their room. “I can’t ever keep track of where he is or what he’s doing,” my mother said, and in the moonlight I saw Tom waggle his eyebrows. Both of us knew our parents were talking about him.
Ever since he’d finished high school my brother had been at a loose end. At least that’s what my aunt Ruth called it, a loose end. It’s not like school had been so great, either: unlike Eddie, who was class valedictorian, Tommy had always been a rotten student. Maybe he had one of those problems they didn’t figure out until later, which I see now all the time, a learning disability or dyslexia or something. He had handwriting so bad that there was no one who could read it. Even he couldn’t make it out sometimes. The only tests in high school where he had a fighting chance were true and false, although even there he occasionally made an F
that looked too much like a T.
He’d squeaked by, but at the time it didn’t feel like it mattered much; when he strode across the gym and hoisted his diploma, the cheers were louder than they’d been at the end of the class president’s speech.
But then he was out in the world and found it hard to make a living with nothing but his easy ways. He would have been great at politics; instead he’d worked in a car repair place. But he lost his license for six months after he got popped on Main Street late one night speeding, with open beer cans in the car and a girl throwing up out the window; the police officer who stopped him was the father of the girl, and when he looked in the driver’s side window it was easy to see that his daughter wasn’t wearing any pants. Tommy’d met the girl because her uncle owned the car repair place, so he was twice cursed. A lot of what Tommy got into seemed like a story someone was telling, except that it was true.
He worked around the farm, too, but he made my father crazy. “He’s a careless person,” my father would say, not even checking whether Tommy was around to hear him. “I ask him to move some hay and two days later I find a pitchfork rusting by the rain barrel.”
“Tell the old man I went to get gas for the tractors,” Tommy’d say to me, and then he’d disappear for a couple of hours. “You seen your brother?” my father would say, and I’d open my mouth and he’d say, “Don’t tell me he’s out getting gas again because both those tractors are full.” I didn’t have a face for lying. “Just stand behind me,” LaRhonda always said when we had to lie to her mother.
“You got any money?” Tom whispered after he’d heard my mother go from the bathroom back into her bedroom.
“No,” I said, but he kept on staring at me, and finally I said, “Seven bucks.”
“I’ll pay you back,” Tommy said.
“You never pay me back.”
He shoved the bills in his pocket, pushed back the shock of hair on his forehead, slid around my door and was gone. I never even heard a car start up. The sump pump was thumping again. That always made it harder to hear Tommy’s getaway.
Copyright © 2016 by Anna Quindlen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.