Bicentennial Evenings

By Elizabeth Glass

he summer of ‘76, when Sam turned eleven and Rosie turned five, Madison and BelAnne joined a soccer team called “The Bicentennials” that practiced every week at the Water Tower by the Ohio River. Sam hated the red, white, and blue polyester uniforms, and refused to be on the team, and Rosie wasn’t old enough yet, so while the other two practiced, their father allowed Sam to take Rosie down to the river to watch the boats pass while he coached The Bicentennials. It was just a short walk away, maybe half a mile, past the fields where hundreds of kids all dressed in red, white, and blue, with teams like “The Flags,” “America,” and “The Spirit of ‘76” practiced soccer, baseball, softball, and football. Sam could have been on any of the teams had she wanted, but she liked the time she got to spend alone with Rosie; besides which, she felt herself more of a pastel person, which none of the teams that season wore.

The first week they went to the river they stayed far from the water, just tossing gravel into it occasionally to hear it plop. Sam tried to teach Rosie how to skip the thin shale that they found, but Rosie got frustrated because the rocks were so light that she always threw them high into the air, arching up, before they dropped down into the brown water. She couldn’t make the gravel skip, either, and looked for other rocks. There were a lot of smooth, round stones, greenstones brought to Kentucky by huge icebergs from the north millions of years ago, and left there when the icebergs melted. She tried to skip the greenstones, but they were just as difficult as the gravel, though she did like the way they looked, and filled her pockets with them to take home and put on her dresser.

They sat beneath a large maple tree playing with the helicopter seeds that fell all around  them, throwing them into the air and watching them twirl back down, sometimes into the river, sometimes not. After a while, Sam opened the Coke she had brought for them to share, but Rosie wouldn’t drink any because it wasn’t Pepsi. Ever since Grandmommie Q had knitted her a red, white, and blue hat including the cut-out fronts of Pepsi cans—showing the Pepsi logo—with holes punched into them so they could be knitted into the hat, Rosie wouldn’t drink any soft drink other than Pepsi. For about a week, she wouldn’t even drink Kool-Aid until her father convinced her that she wasn’t being disloyal to Pepsi by drinking it.

The next week, Sam took Pepsi. She and Rosie did the same things again, but also took their shoes off and put their feet into the water.

“If we do this, you can’t ever tell Dad, okay Rosie?” Sam said.

They weren’t allowed to go barefoot at all. Even after they got out of the bathtub, they had to put house shoes on before leaving the bathroom. Their father was fond of telling them the story of the time their mother had questioned his rule, and refused to wear shoes after they had first gotten married. She grew up on Serendipity Farm, after all, she reasoned, and nothing had ever happened to her feet in years of romping around without shoes there. They had just moved from an apartment into the house while she was pregnant with Sam, when she stepped on a nail that went all the way through her foot. He had to drive her to the hospital with the nail still sticking through her foot. At the hospital they had to give her a tetanus shot, and she had quite a painful recovery. “She was lucky she didn’t have to have surgery,” he told them. “And it all could have been avoided by wearing shoes.” They knew that if anything happened while they were barefoot, they would be in a lot of trouble. But the water felt cool lapping at their ankles while the humidity made sweat drip down their backs and off their brows.

As the weeks passed, they began wading out a little. Just to where their knees touched the water. They watched the Jesus bugs skimming along, and if they stood very still, minnows swam close and nibbled at the hair on their legs, which tickled, like a breeze lifting the hair on their necks.

As the summer wore on, and the evenings grew more sticky with heat, Sam and Rosie began slipping out of their clothes on the bank, and gliding into the water. For several weeks, they were careful not to allow their hair to get wet for fear that their father would stop letting them go to the river by figuring out what they were doing. But one night they had been on the way back and stopped at the water fountain that shot up warm metallic water. While Sam was drinking, Rosie had puffed out her mouth with water, and hit her cheeks, squirting Sam with the water. Sam did the same to Rosie. They returned soaked, laughing as they told their father what had happened. He pretended to be angry, and walked toward the car. Just as he got by the fence, he reached down and grabbed the cooler he filled with soft drinks for the team each week, which was now empty except for melted ice, and slung the water toward them. They were dripping by the time BelAnne and Madison saw them.

From that point on, Sam didn’t worry if they got their hair wet. If questioned, they just said they got it wet in the water fountain to cool themselves. They swam around the shallows of the river, holding onto large pieces of driftwood for safety. When it was nearly time to leave, they would run back up on the bank and dress quickly. Those nights after their baths, Sam would carefully wash the sand and dirt on the bottom of the tub away before climbing into her pajamas.

The last evening of summer soccer matches, Sam and Rosie shed their clothes as soon as they got to the river. They jumped into the water yipping and whooping and splashing more than usual. The large piece of driftwood they had held on to in the water was now primarily on the bank because the river was low since it hadn’t rained for a while. To be in the water, they were out farther than usual, and were startled by how close boats were passing, which had previously seemed far off. Sam felt her feet moving with the current, and not having the driftwood to grasp onto, decided that they should get out of the water. She looked around to tell Rosie, but couldn’t see her. Finally, she saw her bobbing head bobbing, out farther than they had ever gone, where she was sure Rosie couldn’t touch. She knew Rosie could swim, or doggy paddle, but Sam wasn’t sure how long she would be able to.

She called to Rosie to come in.

Rosie nodded and started to swim toward the shore, but was being swept west with the current. Right past the area where they played the Water Tower jutted out into the river, and it didn’t have a shore where Rosie would be able to climb out. If she couldn’t get out of the water by the time she got there, she would have to go all the way around in deeper water, and come out of the water half a mile down. Sam didn’t know how she would get to Rosie if that was the case, unless she, too, went in the river, since she would have to run at least a mile to get around the Water Tower up front.

Sam could tell Rosie was doggy paddling with all her strength, but was making little progress toward the bank. It seemed that if she swam as hard as she could, she was able to fight the current some, but not much. Sam stood with the water pushing against her thighs, calling to Rosie as she drifted farther away.

Not knowing what else to do, Sam swam after Rosie. When she reached her, Rosie grabbed Sam’s shoulders, making it nearly impossible for Sam to move them. “You have to swim, too.”

Rosie was sobbing, pulling in water with the air she gulped. She was beginning to choke, waves were washing them up and down like driftwood. A barge was passing them close enough that they could feel heat off of the tug’s engine.

“Sam,” Rosie cried over the engine roar, “are we gonna see Mama soon?”

When Sam heard Rosie, she thought of her father learning that they were dead. She remembered him crying after their mother’s funeral, and imagined what it would do to him if they died, too. She knew she didn’t have long before they would be tossed into the stone walls of the Water Tower by the waves that the barge was creating, and that she had to get them into shallow water fast. She had been on the swim team for three years, but that summer had faked doing many of the laps, by walking them, or by turning around half way down the lane. She wished she had swum every lap the coach had told her to, and promised that if she and Rosie got out alive, she would swim twenty laps every day.

She pulled and pulled, kicking as much as she could with Rosie hanging on her back. The waves washed over them, pushing them not only toward the shore, but toward the Water Tower. Sam struggled to keep them from going toward the Tower. She used every bit of strength that she had, feeling her muscles shiver as if they were made of jelly underneath her skin. There was no strength left in her, and she went limp. A wave of peace washed over her body as she went under the water, Rosie still clutching her neck. They sank to the bottom of the river, and brushed against the gritty river floor.

Sam opened her eyes, then held Rosie’s arms tight with her hands. Her legs were bent, and she sprang off the bottom with enough force that it sent them forward several feet. It wasn’t enough, Sam thought, and knew she didn’t have the strength to do that again, but this time when she brushed the bottom, it was with her knees rather than her feet.

By the time they crawled out of the water, they were both crying and gasping for air. They were sure they were late, and that their father would catch them lying on the bank not only barefoot, but also without clothes, but they were too tired to get up and dress. They held each other close and stayed on the beach for what seemed like hours before getting dressed.

As they headed back, they were amazed that their father hadn’t come for them yet, and expected to see his car speeding down the gravel road any time to find them. They walked slowly, not having the strength to go as fast as they wanted, for it didn’t seem that it would be over until they were back; only then would they be safe.

As they approached the soccer field where The Bicentennials played, they were surprised to find the game still in progress. Their father waved at them from the edge of the field where he hollered plays to the team. They wanted to run to him, fling their arms around him, and tell him what had happened. But the game still being played made them stop. Life around them continued like before, as if nothing had happened. Sam didn’t know how to respond, but she plopped into the grass and pulled Rosie into her arms. They rocked and as time passed they came to the silent understanding that they would never tell what had happened. It was their secret, as deep and fast as the river where it occurred.

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Elizabeth Glass has a Masters in Creative Writing from Miami University and is the recipient of grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Still: The Journal; The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature; Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal; Writer’s Digest; Chattahoochee Review; The Single Hound and others. She lives in Louisville, KY with her two wonderful dogs.


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