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Father Figure

Father Figure

by Richard Peck

NOOK Book(eBook)


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After his mother dies, 17-year-old Jim realizes he must raise his younger brother, Byron, alone. But when their father shows up with plans to take them to Florida, Jim wonders if the reunion will last.

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101664346
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/01/1996
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 443 KB
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

Born in Decatur, IIlinois, Richard Peck has written over 41 books for young readers. He is the winner of the 1990 Margaret A. Edwards Award, a prestigious award sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association in cooperation with the School Library Journal; the 1990 National Council of Teachers of English/ALAN Award for outstanding contributions to young adult literature; and the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. In 2001 Mr. Peck was awarded the Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder.

Read an Excerpt

“Get away from him!”

“Get away from Byron,” I say, starting quiet. “I’ll take care of him.” Then the floodgates really open up in my head. I’m cutting loose, louder and louder. “Get away from him!”

Dad isn’t looking at me, but he isn’t moving.

“Don’t, Jim.” Byron’s shaking his head. “Don’t say bad things.”

But I’m chock-full of bad things, eight years’ worth. “You! I’m talking to you!” Dad knows who I’m talking to. I’m leveling at him over Byron’s head. “You leave him alone. You gave up your rights to him. You walked out before you ever heard his voice. You think you can make that up now with a couple stinking aspirin?”


Are You in the House Alone?

The Ghost Belonged to Me

Ghosts I Have Been

Lost in Cyberspace

Representing Super Doll

Through a Brief Darkness

Table of Contents


When my mom died, I spent a lot of time—maybe too much—trying to visualize how it happened. My kid brother, Byron, was going over it in his mind too, in his own way. Even at a distance I like to believe I can hear him thinking, and I thought I ought to be ready if he ever asked me anything.

When somebody dies alone, you try to fill in the details, maybe to make up for not being there and changing the whole history of the thing. It’s one of those times you want to be able to account for. An alibi for some higher authority than the police: James Atwater, where were you on the night of April twenty-ninth between the hours of . . .

It was a Tuesday night, symphony night for my grandmother. She’d gone to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with her friend, Mrs. Schermerhorn. They’ve got season tickets, and they’ve sat in the same two seats every week for maybe thirty-five, forty years. Mrs. Schermerhorn lives on Joralemon Street, directly behind us. Her old stretched Cadillac Fleetwood is garaged in the alley between. Her garage doors face ours.

I can picture Nathan, her chauffeur, nosing the old Fleetwood out of the alley that Tuesday evening, braking at the corner, the red taillights turning the alley red. Swinging around to Joralemon Street to pick up Mrs. Schermerhorn on her front steps. Then doubling back and creeping up Remsen Street, where my grandmother always waits in the bay window, leaning on her Lucite cane and looking at her watch.

That night my brother, Byron, had gone with a bunch of kids from his school and somebody’s father to the Botanic Garden to see a display of bonsai trees, those little stunted trees the Japanese train down to potted plants, miniature versions of the real thing. Byron’s not particularly into stunted trees, but anything interests him. At the age of eight he’s picked up weird snatches of higher learning from somewhere. Where, I couldn’t say. That isn’t the way my mind works.

I was all the way up in the Bronx in Van Cortlandt Park that night. It’s down the hill from my school, the Van Cortlandt Academy for Boys. Our playing fields are across Broadway at the edge of the park. There’s a hill farther in, where one of Washington’s generals lighted signal fires during the Revolutionary War. The place is full of cross-country runners, West Indians playing cricket on their own pitches, and our ball diamonds.

I’m kind of sub-coach for the Lower School ball team. Not what you’d call a team. Put it this way: I’m father figure for our own Bad News Bears. We practiced late that night because the floods were on in the park in spite of the energy crisis. The little guys thought being out this late was a big deal. I never pushed athletics with Byron, who doesn’t even go to my school. What he wants he takes on his own, and you can push a kid only so hard.

I had a couple fourth graders off to one side swinging leaded bats for muscle building, and a double row of fifth graders organized to play pepper. Then I gave my sixth graders a little running commentary on the rock-bottom basics, like don’t bunt into short grass, and try to hit to the right if there’s a man on second. We don’t get much past the fundamentals. Not with a self-taught coach who learned to slide by watching the ground come up at him. I don’t know if they learn anything, but they like the attention.

When it got really dark, some of the younger ones started glancing up at the sky and out past the lights. So I yelled for them to wrap it up and get all the equipment together. I wear this chrome whistle on a lanyard the kids gave me for a present, but I never use it. I’m not that much of a coach type. So I just yell a lot. But they like to see me wearing the whistle as a badge. They grouped up in a convoy behind the two biggest sixth graders for the walk to the subway. They’re committed to their tough image, but none of them wants to tackle the subway alone at that age. I wouldn’t want them to, anyway.

I stayed on in the park by myself, running the bases a few times, practicing my hook slide which is reasonably dependable but nothing to look at. Then it got too dark even for me. You could see the white legs of people pumping along the park paths in the distance, but in New York you don’t know if they’re jogging for health or running for help. I took the subway home, grabbed something to eat out of the refrigerator since Almah wasn’t on duty in the kitchen, and went up to bed. Probably I figured my mom was already asleep. She needed a lot of rest by then.

So once I account for everybody else, I have to think about how Mom died. That’s what’s left. She died in her car. A Buick Skylark, not new. I can almost see her in the driver’s seat, with one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel, kind of resting there the way she always drove, and the seat-belt strap pulled tight over her left shoulder. It’s hot in the car and getting stuffier. There’s an arc of beaded haze clouding up the rear window and getting bigger. Hanging down from the ignition key is the ring with the silver heart Byron and I gave her last Easter. The New York State inspection sticker’s peeling on the windshield.

Outside the car it’s completely dark. But still, Mom sees pinwheels and zigzags of light in front of the hood. The air’s heavy and sweet, like up in the country, where the roads tunnel through the trees. It’s like not being outdoors at all. There’s the sudden light from fireflies and the glowing eyes of little animals crouching on the center stripe, hypnotized by surprise, until the last second when they make a run for the ditch.

I feel the tiredness creeping up on Mom, fogging her thoughts and her eyesight, making the dark brighter. She takes her hand off the wheel for a moment to scoop the strands of hair back from her forehead the way she always did when she was really worn out. I can see her slipping past thinking and maybe dreaming something meaningless, the way you do sometimes when you’re really still awake. I can imagine her not having any pain or fear. Then between one moment and the next: nothing.

When Byron came home that night, I suppose he checked to see if I was in bed. I think I remember the door opening and closing. He usually made the rounds at night, looking for his cat, Nub, using this as a standard excuse to look in on me. Even though he knew I always threw Nub out of my room before I went to bed because he’d sleep on your face if he got the chance. Also Nub sometimes brought in a little tribute and left it on your pillow: a dead mouse, an exhausted roach, a moth missing its wings—something like that.

Grandmother came in about eleven as usual, though I was completely out by then and didn’t hear her cane on the stairs. It was Mrs. Schermerhorn’s chauffeur, Nathan, who found Mom early the next morning, the last day of April. He was out in the alley by six, wiping down the Cadillac with a KozaK cloth. Nathan’s pretty much in charge of the alley, always going around to see that everybody’s garbage can has a tight lid, and keeping a ring of all the garage keys for people who are always losing their own.

He must have seen our garage windows were fogged over. By then the Buick had run out of gas, so he wouldn’t have heard the engine idling. Anyway, he must have worked through his ring of keys till he came to ours—he color-codes them. Then when he swung our garage door up he must have seen the hose running from the car’s exhaust and snaking up into the wing window. He found Mom sitting upright in the front seat, where she’d killed herself.

I can picture Nathan jerking at the door handle and finding it locked. I can even see his old fist wrapped in the KozaK cloth shattering the driver’s side window with one blow. His arm with the snow-white cuff turned back is angling inside through the broken star of glass to ease the door lock up. And then he yanks the door open, holding his breath against the carbon monoxide. He reaches out to Mom still held in place by the shoulder-strap seat belt, with her head resting back. I can see Nathan’s hand reaching for Mom’s wrist, even though he’d know there wasn’t any life left in her.


All the details of death on TV shows are lies. All those beautiful female mourners with short black skirts and great legs and dark glasses. All those silent Mercedeses winding through acid-green graveyards in a fine mist. The pin-striped undertakers. The organ music outdoors. And no real grief.

The night before Mom’s funeral, friends are invited to call at Loring and Sons’ funeral establishment in Manhattan, a high-rise mortuary with a different deceased on every level and people in the elevators calling out the names of the dead to be sure they get the right floor. In a way Loring’s is a class act, not like the Brooklyn funeral parlors along Atlantic Avenue where you can see the body from the front door.

I spend most of two days feeling fairly numb, trying not to go too near myself, trying to keep Byron in sight without hanging over him. But he isn’t saying anything. And I don’t know how to begin with him. He isn’t doing anything either, and usually he’s got a dozen projects lined up and going.

The guy in charge of the evening at Loring’s has his own image: no pinstripes or white hands. He’s trim looking, in a blue suit from Barney’s, with wide lapels. I get weird vibrations off people that night. I think maybe he’s just jogged over from a couple of fast tennis sets at the Grand Central Racquet Club. His hands are square, and he has a firm, dry handshake.

When we get there in Mrs. Schermerhorn’s car, people are already signing the guest register. They stand around in knots ankle-deep in the carpet, glancing over at Grandmother and Mrs. Schermerhorn and Byron and me. Mom’s coffin is between two floor lamps with torch-shaped glass shades. The lid’s closed, according to Grandmother’s instructions. Since there’s nothing to see, people stay away from it. Grandmother’s thought that through in advance.

All the heads in the room are half bowed. Some of the men hold their chins in their hands. The women brush things off their sleeves, and nobody speaks above a low hum. They hold back from coming over to us, nobody wanting to be first.

I watch how Grandmother grips the crook of her cane and tries not to lean on Mrs. Schermerhorn while they move very slowly across the room.

You don’t second-guess Grandmother. I don’t know what she’s thinking. The biggest irony in the world must be to lose your own child, your only one. Maybe Grandmother thought she was the one who should be in that closed coffin. Maybe she thought there’d been some vast cosmic mix-up. And maybe there had. Whatever she was thinking, she was thinking it with a clear head. Dr. Painter had come around to the house that afternoon, bringing a bottle of Valium. But I don’t think Grandmother took any. It’s hard enough for her to accept a cane. She’s not about to give in to a crutch.

Byron and I hang around the door while she and Mrs. Schermerhorn head for a sofa in the corner away from the coffin. Their heads are close together: Grandmother’s nearly white, with every hair in place; Mrs. Schermerhorn’s hair mahogany-dyed, springy and thin. Then Grandmother settles onto the sofa, giving her cane the usual little wrist action to scoot it behind her heels, where people won’t fall over it or even notice it.

“Would you and your little brother like to . . . step up . . . nearer your mother?” I wonder if the undertaker in the Barney’s suit is new on the job. He doesn’t seem to have it together. I look down at Byron. It’s a long way. I’m five eleven, practically, and he hasn’t grown a quarter of an inch in six months. He’s wearing a tie I knotted for him. No coat, and the tie’s too long for him. It laps down over his fly. He doesn’t seem to be noticing anything much, so I nod to the undertaker, and Byron and I walk down the center of the room to where Mom is. The undertaker keeps a half step behind us, and people make way.

When we get to the coffin it’s like standing on the rim of a cliff. We’ve gone as far as we can go. Polished bronze, and a big spray of white rosebuds without a card or ribbon or anything. I think Grandmother asked Mrs. Schermerhorn to order the flowers. But there’s nothing real about any of this scene.

Byron must be thinking the same thing. He speaks for the first time all day. I barely hear him. “Is she in there, Jim?”

I knew whenever he finally said something, I wouldn’t be ready for it. “Yes, Mom’s in there, in a way. In another way, she isn’t.”

“I don’t mean the difference between the body and the soul,” he says patiently. “I mean, is she cremated yet or not?”

“Not yet. Tomorrow, after the funeral.”

I can feel people’s eyes on us. Since our backs are to them, they’re free to look. The dead woman’s two sons paying their last respects. I never know what that saying means: paying your last respects. My hand automatically goes to my back pocket to see if I’ve remembered to bring my billfold.

This doesn’t make any sense, so I think about trying to keep the communication open with Byron.

“She was dying anyway, By. You knew that. Nobody made a big secret of it.”

“I know,” he says. “She was hurting bad. Especially in the night.”

I really need to cry now. A simple biological need. I’m too old just to stand there looking solemn like Byron. I have other—needs. I can’t let him see me falling apart. Still, it’s beginning to happen. SON COLLAPSES IN GRIEF ACROSS SUICIDE MOTHER’S COFFIN. Headlines blare inside my head. I can feel my face crumpling, from the chin up, and my throat closing. The undertaker’s hand falls on my shoulder, resting there without pressure. And this nearly pushes me over the edge.

But help’s on the way. The white rosebuds on Mom’s coffin are beginning to run together when a woman steps up, invading the neutral circle around Byron and me. I can’t be sure, but I think she waves the undertaker away. His hand leaves my shoulder.

“You’re Jim Atwater?” she says. I look at her, blinking like crazy. Byron peers around me. She’s familiar in a way, some friend of Mom’s who used to drop in occasionally. Not anybody too close. I think once when Mom had just come from the hospital this woman stopped by and left a stack of magazines or something.

“Yes, I’m Jim. This is my brother, Byron.”

“I’m Winifred Highsmith. I went to school with your mother. You know, Katharine Gibbs, the place where they taught us to wear white gloves and type.”

Byron’s giving her his total attention. Her voice has a cutting edge. But other people in the room start talking a little louder. Since somebody’s made the first move toward Byron and me and the coffin, the decibel level rises.

She must be Mom’s age: forty-six. She looks it. Tired New York eyes, jet-black hair pulled back tight, drawing her eyebrows up. She’s nearly as tall as I am, and her eyes make contact with mine and won’t let go. “I don’t suppose they allow smoking in here.”

“I don’t know.” My throat seems to be opening up again.

“It doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t help.” She shifts the long strap of a purse higher on her shoulder. “Listen,” she says, “I forgot you were going to be so grown-up. I never can keep track of people’s children. One day they’re wearing Pampers; the next day they’re flunking out of college. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“I’m not married. Never was. No kids. I always liked your mother.” She talks in a jerky way, and her hand flips at the catch on her purse, going for a cigarette that wouldn’t help, I guess. “I won’t say all those things you’re about to hear from other people. I’m rotten at that. I’ll just talk a couple minutes and then leave. Okay?”

“Sure,” I say. “That’s—fine.” I can see her clearer. My eyes aren’t blurred. She looks kind of fierce.

“Where’s your sister? Aren’t there three of you?”

“She can’t come. She’s married and living in Germany. Her husband’s in the Air Force.”

Married? Oh, well. I suppose I must have known that. What is she, about twenty?”


“Ye gods.”

“And she couldn’t travel. She’s pregnant.”

“How far along?”

“Seventh month.”

“So you and Byron will be uncles.”

“Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that. I guess we will.”

“Let’s see. Her name’s Lorraine, right? Did she marry a nice guy?”

“Better not ask Grandmother, but yes, she did.”

“Not up to the mark with Granny?” Winifred Highsmith runs her tongue along the inside of her cheek.

“Not quite. He’s a sergeant, and Grandmother thought the least Lorraine could do was aim herself at the officer class.” I’m beginning to forget we’re standing two feet from my mother’s coffin, from my mother. It’s like a regular conversation. I’m probably even hanging too loose.

“Your mother wouldn’t have given two hoots about that kind of thing. That’s one of the things I liked about her. I suppose your father isn’t here.”

“He—he may be here tomorrow,” I say fast, wanting to keep off the subject of Dad with a stranger while Byron’s there at my elbow, all ears.

“Oh, yes.” Winifred Highsmith rolls her eyes. “That’s your father to a T. A dollar down and a day late, as they say.”

“He’ll probably be here,” I say in a low voice, feeling stupid for trying to cover for him.

“But where was he when she needed him?” she says, looking fiercer. “How long was she sick—really sick? A year? Longer? Look, I’m sorry. Forget it. Howard’s your father, and I should keep my big mouth shut. I never really knew the guy anyway. People’s husbands—who can keep track?”

“I don’t remember him that well myself. It’s been about eight years or so since he left.” It was exactly eight years. I know because Byron was only a baby at the time.

“You don’t see him?” Winifred says.

“He lives down in Florida. It’s a long way.” There I go again, covering for this crumb.

“Yes,” she says. “Hell of a long way. No planes, no phones, no word sent or received. Supplies sent in annually by native bearers. There, see? I can’t keep still. Forget it, will you? Your mother was better off without him. Besides, she had you. Look, I’ve got to go now. I can take just so much of this type atmosphere. I came because I read about Barbara—your mother—in the Times. She was a great gal, you know what I mean? A little under your grandmother’s thumb, if you know what I mean, but then who wouldn’t be? And I really liked her—your mother, I mean. How many people do you really like in a lifetime?”

I shrug, not knowing. “Okay, I’m going to cut out now.” She hitches the strap up on her shoulder again and opens the catch on her purse. “I’m truly not gifted at things like this. I probably won’t see you again, either of you. I mean like day after tomorrow I’ll pass you on the street, and you’ll be married with five kids, and it’ll be 1999. You know what I’m saying? I never can keep up with people’s kids. You’ll be fine now. In situations like this, it’s getting through the first part that counts. The trouble is, I never can stick it out past that. Here come the rest of them.”

Then she’s gone, taking long strides across the room. She has thick calves, like a dancer. And she doesn’t slow down going past Grandmother.

The rest of them move in, advancing on Byron and me from three sides. My throat tenses up again. But I can control it. Winifred Highsmith’s way out in the hall now, waiting for the elevator, fumbling in her purse. She’s seen me, and Byron, through the first, bad part. And it must have cost her something. She never looked at Mom’s coffin. Maybe she couldn’t.

The others surround us. I’m very bad with names. Friends of Mom, and older people, friends of Grandmother. Neighbors from Brooklyn Heights: arty types, banker types. Grandmother’s entire Monday Evening Club, moving in under the direction of Mr. Carlisle Kirby.

“Sorry,” the men say, like they bumped you in the subway. And handshakes. Quickies, lingerers, grippers, wet fish, double-handed ones that put your hand and your elbow in a vise. Mr. Carlisle Kirby’s knuckle-crusher to show what he has left at the age of eighty. And the women who want to say something appropriate about Mom, and something careful. All Brooklyn Heights knows how she died. “You can keep anything here but a secret,” Mom used to say. And what Brooklyn Heights knows spreads over the Bridge, infiltrates Manhattan, Westchester, Bergen County, finally ending up in the mental files of people who don’t even know Mom firsthand.

The women cup Byron under the chin, try to pull him against them. They can barely keep from patting him on the head. He’s taking it okay, but I want to punch them out. Then the tide ebbs, and I can begin to breathe again. The Monday Evening Club moves across toward Grandmother. I catch a glimpse of Mrs. Schermerhorn’s hand touching Grandmother’s arm to alert her. Grandmother’s head comes up, ready to handle their sympathy. Then she’s lost in a small sea of gray heads and lace handkerchiefs.

My best friend from school, Kit Klein, comes in then. His mother’s with him. To keep my mind occupied, I try to figure the logistics of this. Did she come to make sure he’d come? Or did she tag along with him? I decide he’s come on his own. And she’s come not because she’s pushy or morbid. They live over on Park Avenue, so it’s no big pilgrimage. I begin to think about handling sympathy. Just take it, don’t ask questions. Don’t dissect.

“Listen, man, I’m really sorry,” Kit says. He’s wearing the school tie like I am, the only ties we own. Little wine-colored shields on a green silk background with gold daggers in between. They’re symbols, but of what nobody knows. We’re both wearing winter tweed sports coats. Kit’s forehead is greasy. He’s bigger than me, taller, wider across the shoulders, thicker in the neck. Wrestling team. “This is my mother,” he says, remembering not to jerk a thumb at her.

My head goes a little haywire, and I nearly say, “And this is my mother.” I even start to glance back at the coffin but catch myself.

“We’re very sorry,” Mrs. Klein says, shaking my hand. I introduce her to Byron, and she shakes his hand too, keeping her distance, no head patting. Then she steps back and melts into the crowd.

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