At the Creek by Sue Neal Roberts

inally, it is the 30th of May. Daddy has the day off, his first weekday off since New Year’s Day, and we are going to the creek for the first time of the summer like we always do. Daddy loads about a dozen six packs of cokes into the car that his Coca-Cola dealer delivered to the garage. Momma has packed a picnic basket full of food. We load up folding aluminum chairs with blue and green webbing, and Ben and I wear just our swimsuits in the back seat of the car. Mine is red with a blue and white striped fish on it. My cousin Mary Bess has one just like it except hers is blue and the fish is red and white. Mary Bess and her brother and baby sister will be there, and Aunt Sue Nell and Uncle James Ivan. They are always there on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and Labor Day, even if it’s cloudy and maybe even raining a little. Today my Mammy and Neno are going to be there and my other four cousins (all of them little boys) and my other two aunts and uncles. 

It takes a long time to get to the creek, but we are finally going down the gravel road that goes down to the ford. We have to drive across the creek to get to the sandbar where we will have our picnic. It’s a little bit scary, but Daddy is a good driver. As soon as he stops the car, Ben and I jump out and run to the creek to see how cold it is.  It really doesn’t matter because we will go in the water no matter what. The water is dark green, especially on the other side where it is deep enough to swim. Or learn to swim. 

Everyone is already there, and Daddy helps to build a fire for the hot dogs. He sharpens some sticks with his pocket knife and lays them on the rocks that he put in a circle around the fire. He puts the cokes to chill in the shallow water. The cans are all colors: orange and purple and red and green and I can drink as many as I want today because the rules don’t apply. I eat a whole can of Vienna sausage and some potato chips and some store-bought cookies and take one of the inner tubes that Daddy brought from the garage into the water. Ben and James Finley are already jumping off the shale shelf on the other side of the creek into the cold water. In the water, Ben works and works on learning to swim.

“Kick your feet, Ben! Paddle your arms!” the grownups yell. And don’t you know, he is swimming on his own in the water that comes up to his skinny little chest. I try to learn to swim, too, but I am scared of what might be under the water. The grownups give up trying to teach me when I start to cry. I’m the oldest and the only one of the big kids that can’t swim. It’s embarrassing. I sit on the gravel with my feet in the water. 

Someday I will remember how the snake doctors skim over the water, how the little black snails crawl over the slippery rocks. I will still be able to smell something dead somewhere sort of far away, maybe a groundhog. I will bring back the grownups laughing in their lawn chairs, and I will remember that someone has cut open a watermelon that was chilling in the creek. I will still feel the cold thrill of taking a bite from my slice and letting the juice run down my chin and onto my swimsuit, knowing that on May 30th it’s okay because I can wash off in the creek. I will remember Daddy wading up the creek in his hip boots, casting his lure out in front of him and letting it drift in the current. I will understand how he needs to be by himself for a while. I will still see the little boy cousins digging in the gravel on the sand bar near the shallow water. I will feel again the first sunburn of the summer on my face and shoulders. In my memories Ben and Mary Bess and James Finley still jump off the ledge into the deeper water. It is shady where they are. They make a lot of noise. I remember how it felt to wish I was brave.  

Sue Neal Roberts grew up in Scottsville, Kentucky, the daughter of a school librarian and an Oldsmobile dealer. She is a graduate of Centre College and Ohio University and taught high school English for 31 years in Brown County, Ohio, and Allen County, Kentucky. She and her husband have three adult children and two granddaughters. They live on a farm in Holland, Kentucky.