A Follow the Rivers Book
MOVIE & TV TREATMENT
Logline: When tragedy strikes, Jake Rivers feels that the flow, an ultimate plane experienced by generations of the Rivers family manifested in lives saved, extraordinary athletic feats, and other uncommon happenings, has turned against his family.
Gray Boy Rivers, fifteen, extends his daredevil torso forward and uses his oar to guide a flat-bottom homemade boat past the treacherous timbers and rocks in Blue Bottom Creek, a tributary of the Sulphur River in northeast Texas. It has come what the locals call a young flood and the creek churns with fury. His shouted instructions echo off the high banks of the deep creek in the early morning fog. In the back of the boat, cousins Shep Rivers and Arliss Lee Boggs still their oars and struggle to hear, but it is too late.
The boat strikes a large rock and snaps in half like a brittle twig. Water moccasins, already upset with the raging current, resent the intrusion of boys into their water. Gray Boy suffers two bites, the other boys one each. Shep clings to a log and manages to swim to shore, but Arliss, the poorest swimmer and the heaviest, goes under. Gray Boy pulls him to shore, cuts the wound and sucks out the venom. Sunlight peeks over the banks of the deep creek as Gray runs for help.
At Bartlett Clinic and Hospital in Cooper, nine-year- old Jake Rivers, Gray Boy’s brother, holds two-year-old Tuck Rivers’ hand as they stand beside Arliss Lee’s hospital bed. Arliss fluffs his pillow, sits up and challenges Gray and Shep to prove they were bitten. Gray shows him the fang marks on his neck and ankle and Shep shows him his arm. “How come I nearly died and you didn’t even get sick?”
Gray Boy shrugs. “We didn’t feel too good there for a while.”
Jake looks up at his brother. “Why don’t you tell him about the flow?”
Gray Boy looks out the hospital window. “You tell him, piss-ant. He won’t believe it.”
Jake tries. “Papa Griff says flow is the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be. It’s in the Rivers blood.” He holds up Tuck’s hand. “Tuck here is part of it. Doctor Olen says he’s a miracle. He’s wasn’t even supposed to be born.”
Arliss smiles and shakes his head. “What did this flow ever do for you?”
Jake looks down. “Nothing, yet.”
Sister Trish, top scorer on the school basketball team in spite of her small size, is scheduled to graduate first in her class at sixteen. Gray Boy, also a top athlete, is blessed with charismatic charm that causes others to follow him like the Pied Piper. Jake has not been touched by the flow and suffers in mediocrity.
On the dilapidated front porch of the family’s century old farmhouse, Jake Rivers sits in his underwear, dangling his feet off the tall porch on a hot spring night. He watches headlights that look like two bullfrogs on lily pads coming down Texas 24. He hears the downshift and tires squealing as the ’39 Ford turns off the highway and onto their gravel driveway on two wheels. “Gray Boy”, he whispers.
Jake runs into their shared bedroom, finds the hole in the floor where the brothers urinate, and fires away. The olive green Ford slides to a stop just as Jake jumps into bed and feigns sleep. He winces when he hears his father grumble about Gray’s wild driving.
Jake hears a rooster crow the next morning as his father makes his daily walk down the dogtrot. Hands behind his head, he contemplates the tattered wallpaper hanging from the pine board ceilings and walls. The spring on the screen door squeaks as Rance Rivers steps on the front porch to watch the sun rise. Jake glances over at Tuck, asleep on his side. He drops his bare feet to the splintery wood floor, picks up a shirt and a pair of jeans, and follows his father.
Rance does not acknowledge Jake as he buttons his shirt and pants. Jake picks up a small chicken rope, dangles his legs off the porch and starts roping his feet. Dressed in overalls with one gallus unhooked, a khaki long-sleeved shirt, and brogans, Rance drinks cowboy coffee from a saucer. He has straight, coarse black hair and eyes so dark brown they look black, his skin the color of an old copper penny. Jake has his father’s black eyes and dark skin, but his hair is fine and blond.
Two small dust devils blow up on the dirt driveway that leads from the Rivers’ house to highway 24, reminding Jake of the drought. The once proud oak trees that line the short road have shriveled and are dying from thirst. Jake follows his father’s look into the glaring Northeast Texas sky, both seeing nothing but a sky that looks more white-hot than blue.
Mattie Rivers comes through the screen door carrying the last of the pan-boiled coffee. Mattie leans her back against Rance. “When are you going to fix that hole in the porch? Tuck could fall completely through it.”
Rance looks at the hole as he tosses the grounds from his coffee into the yard. “The first day it rains.”
Mattie shakes her head. “That could be years.”
On Saturday night, Jake is an unwelcome presence in the back seat as Gray Boy and Shep head to Cooper for the picture show. The older boys are both dressed in white t-shirts and starched button-fly Levis without belts. Gray Boy has thick, black hair cut into a flattop, with the sides left just long enough to succumb to a comb. Shep also has a flattop, but his hair is brown and full of unruly curls that have already started to defy his comb. Jake and Shep accept that Gray Boy is the brightest star in their small galaxy and are satisfied to bask in his reflected light.
Jake takes his place at the end of the line in front of Sparks Theater. The downtown Cooper Square is awash with people as Jake slowly advances to the front of the line of white moviegoers, a dime and two pennies - the price of admission - clinched tightly in his fist. The Sparks theater marquee reads “On the Waterfront---Marlon Brando.” He turns and stares longingly at the brighter marquee of the Grand Theater behind him with flashing lights surrounding “Last of the Pony Riders--Gene Autry.” The line of colored people waiting for entrance into the Grand snakes all the way to the end of the street and around the corner to City Hall.
Jake shoves his twelve cents into the slot in the glass booth. Mrs. Sparks pulls his ticket off a large perforated roll and hands it to him without expression. Inside, he hands his ticket to Mr. Sparks and stares at the popcorn machine. With money for only one snack, he settles on Milk Duds and enters the cool, dark sanctuary of the theater. He sits on the opposite side, as far away from his brother and cousin and their girlfriends as possible.
Movietone news is followed by The Three Stooges as Jake watches young couples kiss in the dark until Marlon Brando’s image appears. He groans inwardly as they leave Cooper after the movie and head down dirt roads that lead to Piss-Elm Crossing, his brother’s favorite parking place. Huge elm trees stand sentry on both sides of the old wooden bridge and keep the area in almost total darkness. Gray cuts the engine and turns in his seat to stare at his little brother. Jake knows the drill and steps out on the rickety bridge. He walks the rows of their bottomland cotton patch until he hears the horn honk, Gray’s signal to return.
At Sunday School in the First Baptist Church in Klondike, Jake keeps his hands under his legs just above the knees and focuses on a dead cricket between his feet. Blood rushes to his face, warming it, then to his ears, tingling them, as the teacher asks the question he has been dreading. “Please raise your hands if you have been saved by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”
All of his Sunday school classmates raise their hands. Jake sits on his. At home, he asks his mother if God knows about the flow and if He will punish them if He finds out.
Jake and Tuck play hide-and-seek in the bottomland cotton patch. Tuck sits between the rows of cotton shoots, both fists pushed tightly against his eyelids. Jake hides in the dry bottom of Blue Bottom creek and looks over the creek bank. A small cottontail rabbit hops up and sits between Tuck’s legs. Tuck opens his eyes to look for Jake, sees the rabbit, and smiles.
A small squirrel moves to the other side of Tuck, sits back on its haunches, and intently watches the small boy. Tuck pays little heed to the squirrel or the rabbit, but seems to welcome their presence. As he starts toward the woods to find Jake, the rabbit and squirrel follow.
Rance watches from the ragged quilt Mattie has spread for their lunch. “I’m surprised that a mockingbird isn’t sitting on his head or shoulder.”
Mattie draws both knees close to her chest and rocks back and forth. “He just sits there like he’s talking to them without saying anything.”
As they climb into the car to leave, a shadow crosses the sun, clouds cover the sky, and they hear the first clap of thunder a second after seeing the first streak of lightning. Drops of rain make large circles on the dusty hood. The rain stops when they cross the railroad tracks. Rance stops the car and steps out to look back toward the cotton patch. A solid gray line of rain falls only on the cotton field. Tuck seems not to notice.
At bedtime that night, Jake hears his parents’ whispered argument about whether Tuck had made it rain on the bottomland cotton patch. Mattie doubts it because he has not made it rain on the cotton patch near their house. Rance argues that their pools still have water and their neighbors are dry.
A mockingbird sits on Tuck’s shoulder and cows reach over the fence to lick him as Jake cleans the cow lot. He brushes lime dust off his face and clothes, saddles his horse, Scar, and rides across Blue Bottom Creek to their hay meadow. He puts his hand where it doesn’t belong when Gray is working on the baler and draws back a crushed thumb. Doctor Olen Bartlett treats and bandages it.
The next morning, Jake draws water from the back porch cistern and fills a wash pan and a Garrett’s snuff glass. He is brushing his teeth with baking soda when Griffin Rivers, his grandfather, rides up on his horse, Buddy. Jake’s grandfather claims to hear calming music in his head everyday.
At Little League tryouts the next Saturday, Jake makes the team in spite of his thumb. He hitchhikes to the first practice and is picked up by his new coach, Kirk Simpson. Rance asks Jake to tell him when he finds the flow.
Jake hears often-repeated stories about his great-grandfather riding home from the Civil War with a bullet in his chest and surviving because of the flow. Rance tells him, “He said he sort of allowed himself to die so he could live.” Each time Jake heard the story, he expected to hear something that would explain the flow, something that would allow him to experience it.
Jake makes a few good plays in baseball and continues to question his father about being in the flow. Rance always answers. "Only you can know that, Jake. The flow is all about knowing what is going to happen before it happens. Experiencing the Rivers’ flow is like having God lay His hand on your shoulder." That makes Jake even more concerned about Sunday School and he asks God to talk to him, to help him find the flow.
When Jake seems to obsess about finding the flow, Mattie expresses concern to Rance.
Rance cautions Jake. “I want you to forget about the flow. Just enjoy the game.”
During the last game of the season, Jake is at shortstop when he hears a voice that sounds like Tuck’s but the words are enunciated clearly. He sees Tuck standing near third base, his small fingers entwined in the cyclone fence. A great feeling of calm washes over him and with one incredible play, Jake knows he has found the flow. His enthusiasm turns to devastation quickly when he does not make the all-star team. At home that night, he tells his father. "I was in the Rivers’ flow tonight. It’s something that kinda comes over you when you least expect it, ain’t it?”
Jake follows Runkin Slater, his father’s black friend as he drags the last sack of cotton from the bottomland cotton patch to the trailer to be weighed. At the gin, Tuck sits on Jake’s knee as they watch the World Series on the first television set they have ever seen.
Mattie sets up a bed in the dogtrot and Jake begins sleeping with Tuck instead of Gray. The Rivers enjoy the best Christmas they will ever have.
Just after Christmas, a blue norther brings snow and Jake and Tuck play in snowdrift tunnels. Tuck awakens during the night with a cough, sore throat and a red rash on his neck and chest. Dr. Olen diagnoses scarlet fever and diphtheria. An ice storm brings down tree limbs and power lines as Tuck stays in the hospital.
Jake wanders around the hospital and finds Runkin Slater sitting in the colored waiting room. Runkin is there for his sister, Nellie, as well as Tuck. Nellie drops into Tuck’s room to visit and is ushered out by Dr. Olen because she has syphilis.
Jake and Gray are finishing the morning milking when they see Griffin Rivers ride Buddy through the icy fog. Griffin tells them that Tuck has died. Jake feels that God has taken his little brother because He is angry – angry with Jake for not being baptized and angry with the Rivers family because of the flow.
At the cemetery, birds swoop over the grave tent and come to rest on the cemetery fence a few steps from Tuck’s grave. As they drive away, a mockingbird glides under the tent and comes to rest on the red wreath on Tuck’s coffin.
In the dogtrot that night, Jake watches the naked, dark, light bulb over his bed after pulling the string to turn it out. Suspended from the fourteen-foot ceiling by a long cord, the bulb’s movement is barely perceptible. Jake feels that Tuck is moving the cord.
Rance blames himself for the poor living conditions that may have caused Tuck’s illness and starts to drink. Mattie withdraws within herself, singing old, sad songs. Jake and Gray’s arguments become physically violent. Trish marries and moves away.
After a violent episode with his father and brother, Jake runs away to Mattie’s parents where he hides in an old barn where he and Tuck used to play. Tuck returns to him there and the two of them suck the sweet liquid from honeysuckle blossums.
When his grandfather Lee Pelt finds him, Jake asks him if he knows about the flow.
Lee Pelt laughs his hearty laugh. “Anybody that knows the Rivers men as well as I do knows about the Rivers’ flow. Why?”
“You believe in it?”
“If a man believes in something strongly enough, then it becomes true for him, regardless of what others may think.”
Jake vows not to play baseball during the next season until his coach talks him into it. “Jake, your daddy used to tell me that baseball is like life. You win some and you lose some. If you can handle both in the game, you can handle both in life. He wouldn’t want you to be a quitter.”
The family stops attending Jake’s games.
The Rivers house catches on fire while Jake, Gray and Rance are milking. Mattie sadly nurses a cup of coffee in the kitchen, unaware that sparks from the chimney have caught the roof on fire. A young photography student on his way to college classes runs into the dairy barn and tells them. In black horn-rimmed glasses, a white shirt and narrow tie, the student stays to help put out the fire.
After the fire is out, the student reaches into his car and withdraws the biggest camera that Jake has ever seen. He tells them that a mockingbird slowed him down by flying dangerously close to his windshield. When he stopped the car to take a picture of the bird, it started circling a flock of white cowbirds in their driveway. “There was something else. Right in the middle of those cowbirds was a cottontail rabbit and a squirrel. They looked like they were all playing together, and the mockingbird seemed to be watching over them.”
Putting out the house fire takes the last of the well water and Rance has to rig a pipeline to their stock pond, the only remaining water on the place. Mattie asks Rance, “Where’s your Rivers’ flow now?”
The sun is mid-morning high as Jake ties his horse to the hitching rail outside and walks into the kitchen of Griffin River’s two-room shack. His grandfather is saucering a cup of coffee, looking out his kitchen window at scratching chickens.
Jake sips the bitter coffee he is offered. “Papa Lee says you live most of the time in the flow. How do you do it, Papa?
Griffin stares at his grandson. “I’ve practiced enjoying life long enough to be good at it.” The old man asks Jake if he has lost faith in the flow. “The fact is that a man has a lot more control over his thinking and his body than most folks ever use. The flow’s all about using that power more. Simple as that.”
Jake can’t understand how a family gifted with the flow can be so miserable. Griffin tries again. “It’s the little things in life that make a man happy.”
Jake looks up at his grandfather. “You’re saying that all it takes to make you happy is a good cup of coffee and some ham and eggs to go with it?”
“On some days, you bet. Other days, it’s the feel of a good fiddle and bow, the sound of a guitar being strummed slow and easy, sharing a laugh or two with a good friend, a hug from a grandchild. Sometimes, it’s the touch of a good-lookin’ woman.”
Mattie begins reading the bible daily and attending evangelical revivals. She forces Jake to go with her. Jake feels guilty because God has still not called him to walk down the aisle during any of the fervent invitations. A tall and stooped man wearing worn and rumpled clothing, his black hair wiry and unruly, steps behind the pulpit. His face is dark and craggy, his eyes deep-set, green, and piercing, his eyebrows thick and unruly. The congregation grows quiet. Jake cannot take his eyes away. The man’s voice seems to emanate from another source.
During the invitation, a man seated in the back pew bolts from his seat and runs down the aisle as unintelligible words seem to flow from some evil presence within him. He flops on his back in the aisle next to Mattie’s pew, rips out his false teeth, and waves them in the air. The man’s tongue shoots out of his mouth and flops on his chin.
Jake is close enough to smell the dust and the bruised goat weeds and grass the man is wallowing in. The preacher walks to where the man is writhing, kneels and whispers in the man’s ear. The man stops his writhing and shouting, gets up and takes his place in the line of souls waiting to be saved. The preacher stops beside Mattie and whispers in her ear. “God is not punishing your family. Your husband and your children need you.”
Mattie sits motionless for a long time. The tent is empty when she finally turns to face Jake. “What does it feel like to be in the flow, Jake?”
Mattie starts to become a new person. Jake starts to read the child’s bible he has been given years before. In the dogtrot bedroom he shared with Tuck, he watches the old light bulb and communes with the spirit of his little brother.
With the last of the water rapidly depleting, Rance decides he has to sell his dairy cattle. As they gather calves for loading, Jake ropes his first calf from a horse and feels the flow again.
On his way home from his new job on a neighbor’s dairy farm, Jake is stopped by Claire Hurt, a woman who comes to the school on religious holidays to read to the children. She tells him the story of the little girl she lost at the same time Jake was born.
She reveals her rage at God at the time and inspires Jake to reveal his own feelings about Tuck. Then she tells him how a young evangelist came to a camp meeting and delivered a sermon that changed her life by introducing her to a kinder, more loving God than the one she had always imagined. The evangelist seems to be the same one that whispered to Mattie.
Claire puts her hand over her heart. “I believe God resides here.” She put her other hand over Jake’s heart . . . “And here.”
Jake sits beside his mother on the third pew of the morning-sun-aisle of the small church in Klondike, clutching his Bible. He stares at the huge painting of the crucified Jesus that hangs behind the preacher. Blood flows from Jesus’ palms. His concentration wanes as he watches the spring sun peek through the church windows. He follows the path of the dust particle tunnels created by the sun’s rays and envies the people they seem to point to, wondering if a magical quality is attached to the tunnels of light.
As the collection plate is passed, he opens the cover of his Bible for a sneak peek at the inscription. “To Jake Ridge Rivers for six consecutive weeks of Sunday school and church.”
Jake feels eyes on him and looks up to see Claire Hurt smiling at him. Visits to the Hurt home are now frequent and comfortable for Jake. Jake’s mind wanders during the invitation.
Trish visits from Houston and brings Jake a new glove and tough talk on being a team leader during his final season in Little League. Jake sees a small boy get out of a car near the cornfield by the baseball diamond two days later. The small boy walks toward the baseball diamond alone. He has Coke-bottle thick eyeglasses and has not grown to his teeth or his ears. The car looks familiar to Jake, but he cannot recall where he has seen it before.
Wilbur Penny is allowed to join the practice and the team. He invites Jake over to his house for a Coke float. A slight man in a rumpled white shirt and loose, narrow black tie greets Jake absently without looking up. Jake studies Wilbur’s father, thinking that he has seen him somewhere before. He finally recognizes the man who helped them save their house from fire – the man who was stopped by a mockingbird. Jake asks how his photographs came out.
Wilbur puts his hand on Jake’s shoulder and takes him down a hall to an eight-by-ten photograph in a black plastic frame. Jake studies the picture. White cowbirds hover in an almost perfect circle over a rabbit and a squirrel. Sitting between the squirrel and the rabbit, a mockingbird sits on the shoulder of a blurry, transparent image of a little boy. Jake outlines the image with his finger. “You see that?”
Wilbur squinted through his thick glasses. “Do I see what?”
Jake shook his head and looked away. “Nothin’, I guess.”
Wilbur becomes the catalyst that allows Jake to become a true leader on his team. On the night before the last game of the season, Wilbur spends the night with Jake and Jake gets to see his home and family through Wilbur’s eyes and point of view. Things he had been ashamed were fascinating to Wilbur and his enthusiasm turns Jake’s shame into pride.
In bed that night, Jake is hesitant as he sees Wilbur snuggle into what had been Tuck’s spot. Trish returns for Jake’s final game and rallies Gray and Rance into a coaching session for both boys.
Behind by one run with two out, Wilbur, ninth in the batting order, hits his one and only single. Thunder rolls and lightning flashes in the cornfield as Jake steps to the plate. The public address system is unplugged and the crowd starts to leave. Jake sees Gray behind the left field fence, astride his Indian motorcycle. Dust devils kick up in the infield as the air turns cooler and starts to swirl.
As Jake steps into the box, drops of rain make splotches the size of quarters on home plate. He hears his father shout to swing for the fences, feels Tuck’s presence. He knows what is going to happen as he swings. The ball is on a steady and swift rise as it goes over the shortstop, headed for left field. Gray reaches for it but it is just out of reach.
Rain pours as Jake runs the bases. Mattie and Trish stand alone in the bleachers, cheering Jake. Tuck sits on his father’s shoulders, clapping, then fades away into the cornfield. Jake touches home place and looks back toward left field. Gray Boy, standing in the bed of a pickup, holds the baseball high in the air.