by Emily Painton
The street we grew up on was one block of steep hill that dead-ended at The Creek. It was more of a runoff ditch but we all called it The Creek. Old Mr. Underwood who lived across from Jane’s house at the end of our street told us kids that when he was young, before they concreted it up, there used to be polecats and other critters running amok down in that crick. I couldn’t help but imagine our now tamed culvert as a once wild and dangerous place teeming with big cats, something akin to cougars or leopards. That is until I found out that polecat was just another name for a skunk.
On foot and sometimes by bicycle, we used The Creek as our own secret highway to traverse our small town of Norman, Oklahoma. Usually heading north because that’s where the parks were, we’d sneak under bridges and streets, behind houses, and through neighborhoods to get to Lions Park. There The Creek turned from a wide-open concrete channel to a deep trench with native stone-lined walls that extended above our heads. To exit, we’d be forced to climb out by gaining a foothold, the toes of our little sneakered feet jammed in between the big red boulders that made the walls.
Eventually, The Creek would lead us to the bigger, more exciting Andrews Park, with its huge outdoor amphitheater constructed from the same red Oklahoma stone, a log cabin to explore that usually had a few discarded liquor bottles and cigarette butts inside, a terrifyingly tall and wonderfully dangerous straight slide, and a new Big Toy with a swinging rope bridge. We never explored much farther north than that, but when we followed the trickle of water south we eventually came to a place where the concrete dropped off. There it turned into a rugged tributary heading to who knows where. We certainly weren’t going to risk a polecat attack to find out.
At the end of jagged concrete, the stream briefly became a small waterfall splashing into a pool, where we were astonished to find crawdads, turtles, and small fish swimming about. It seemed like a magical place we had discovered like a sacred cenote hidden there behind all the suburban sprawl of tract housing. We had fun clambering about around the falls until one day when a rusty piece of rebar ripped my favorite pants and slashed open my right knee. It was a drawn-out, painful limp home along The Creek’s sloping embankment, and then my mom insisted on taking me to get a tetanus shot.
In the winter when the water would freeze over, Jane and I would play with my ice skating Dorothy Hamill Barbie doll. With our assistance, her spins and jumps on the ice were phenomenal. If we were lucky and the ice was thick enough, our neighbor Buddha would hitch up his blue-eyed husky named Khalu to our Flexible Flyer sled. Khalu would enthusiastically pull Jane and me along as the ice groaned and cracked beneath us.
Thunderstorms in Oklahoma are common, especially in the spring. When we’d get a real soaker The Creek would turn from babbling brook to wild rapids. We knew better than to get close to the filthy rushing waters lest they carry us away. Almost always there were a few fools upstream from us—probably college kids, Mr. Underwood would say—who would decide to blow up a raft and brave the raging river. What we knew and they didn’t was that there was a pipe at the end of our street, sewage or utilities, that crossed The Creek. It was invisible beneath the high frothy runoff, but it would violently upend any raft attempting to cross it and eject its passengers into the swift brown water. There was no way to warn them or for them to stop if we could have; all we could do was wait and watch.
In early summer along the banks of The Creek, we found a large empty field of tall grass that reached past our waists. Like jungle explorers, we pushed our way into the middle where we flattened the long blades with our small feet until we made enough room to lie down side-by-side, staring up at the sky and hiding from the world. With the sweet smell of soil and broken grass all around us, we sometimes drifted off to sleep for an afternoon nap. We forged for pungent, spiky green wild onions and nibbled on the lemony tasting clover-shaped leaves of the wood sorrel. Mr. Underwood had called it sheepshire and told us it was safe to eat.
Another summer we came upon large sheets of cream-colored linoleum in Jane’s backyard. The smooth surface was perfect for riding fast down the grassy berm and it protected our behinds from the swift incline of rough concrete. We couldn’t always stop in time to avoid sliding right into the rill, but it was usually shallow and in the hot summer, it could be rather refreshing. When Jane’s dad caught us using his newly purchased and apparently pricey linoleum that was intended for one of their rental houses, we got quite a stern talking to, but Jane and I agreed he shouldn’t have left it lying around.
By the time we turned eleven, I had moved a couple of blocks away from Jane and McFarland Street, but The Creek still connected us. Jane and I would each hike a small stretch of The Creek alone to meet up under the bridge before walking together to our new middle school. The bridge was only a little way down The Creek from Jane’s house, where we could still hear her parents if they hollered for us, but we were just out of sight. Under the bridge, we felt invisible to the world. After school, we’d hang out under there before we had to head our separate ways. Noticing a few old faded things scribbled on the walls, we began to pull out markers and paint-pens from our backpacks to add our own. We’d graffiti the names of boys we liked or the boys and girls we didn’t. We wrote what we thought were funny and wise sayings, some we’d heard, others we made up. We covered the walls with our pre-teen thoughts, dreams, and desires.
Soon the boys discovered us and our not so secret lair. They brought us gifts of cigarettes and cans of black spray paint. We quickly smudged out and scribbled over the embarrassing things we’d once written on the walls under there to replace them with cooler-sounding, less honest words. Along came older friends with driver’s licenses and cars, taking us to places like the circle, a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that was planned but never built, where kids parked and partied until the cops came; or Campus Corner, where the college kids and punk rockers roamed; or the river, where guys built bonfires and handed out cheap ice-cold beer. More and more our lives began to be lived on the surface and The Creek slowly lost its allure.
The Canadian River was the only river in town, so we didn’t bother using its proper name. It was the river to us. The skinny thing twisted and turned way out west, snaking its way from north to south until it curved and slithered toward the east just south of Norman, cradling our town for a moment in its watery embrace. In truth, the river wasn’t all that wet most of the year. A lot of the time it consisted of a wide, flat swath of sandy orange soil with a trickle of rusty water running down the middle that we rarely ventured far enough to find. The few times we did make our way to the water’s edge, kicking the dirt around, we stumbled on rose rocks, the state rock of Oklahoma. A hardened mixture of barite and sand shaped like a blooming rose that had formed 250 million years ago, back when much of Oklahoma was covered in ocean waters and shallow bays. Often the river’s stream wasn’t much wider than our well-loved creek, which fed into it, but when a big rainstorm bore down upon our town, the river would fill to its capacity and become a vast torrent, often washing away trailer homes that had foolishly set up on its usually dry banks.
On the weekends in high school, after the sun went down, we’d head out to the river, only a ten-minute drive from my house. I’d find myself bouncing around in some boy’s Jeep or truck, driving over the sandbanks and uneven terrain. Sometimes we were out there trying to track down a party, hoping to bump into someone who knew which way to go through the dunes in the pitch dark to find the inevitable bonfire. Other times we were there merely to drive around. Off-roading, the guys called it. Getting knocked around in the backseat of Andy’s white soft-top Jeep next to a boy named Russ, stealing mental snapshots of his profile in the dim light and trying to decide if I thought he was cute or not, and holding on for dear life so Jane could hang out with Andy, who was cute and who liked her. Spinning tires in the rain-filled mud holes, the Jeep tipping wildly to and fro, I wondered out loud if we might flip over. Russ yelled over the blaring metal music on the radio, pointing out the Jeep’s roll bar to me, and explained, “That’s what that’s for,” which I didn’t find the least bit reassuring.
We treated the river and its surroundings as if it was public land, but it wasn’t. That’s probably why we usually went there under the cover of darkness. Luckily, most of the property owners didn’t live nearby, didn’t know we were there, or didn’t care. It was unusual for anyone to report us, but the police did show up sometimes, and the wild chase that would ensue could easily be more fun than the party they were busting.
“Cops!” the calls would ring out among the dunes. Guys would whoop and holler, kicking sand at the fire to put it out, rapidly gathering and folding up canvas lawn chairs, and dumping ice chests for swifter dragging. Jane and I would tear through the sand, blindly aiming for where we thought the truck we had arrived in might be, often kicking off our sandals and hoping to run fast enough to keep up with our driver. Some nights we had to settle for a lift back into town in another vehicle with a friendly stranger.
There were plenty of Oklahoma boys with big four-wheel-drive trucks who were happy to give a few girls a lift to and from a party at the river, but one night we tried to make a go of it on our own. Our friend Christy borrowed her sister’s beige Ford Granada, which immediately got stuck in the wet sand. Each time she put the pedal to the metal the tires only dug deeper. Giving up, we trudged through the darkness and miraculously happened upon a huge heavy-duty wrecker parked with its engine running and its lights on. Desperate, Christy jumped up on the side of the truck to explain our plight to the man inside. The driver unlocked the door and waved us in. We scrambled into the cab, and he cheerfully agreed to pull our car out. As Christy guided him to where we abandoned it, I noticed how oddly the inside of his truck was decorated. Christmas lights festooned the interior. The seat, the doors, and the ceiling of the cab were upholstered in dark purple velvet. Gold tassels trimmed the ceiling, dangling alongside an odd array of small stuffed animals hanging and bouncing above our heads. Through the gaping heavy purple curtains behind the seat, I caught a glimpse of a purple satin-covered bed littered with larger stuffed animals. We didn’t ask about his choice of decor. Once we got to the car he quickly and easily pulled it out of the mud, free of charge.
More and more, by the end of our senior year in high school, we began to choose the lake over the river. On the weekends, Jane and I would drive thirty minutes west to the edge of town with Christy and her brother Sam, to swim and run around filming wildlife and ourselves with Sam’s camcorder.
A tributary of the Canadian River fed into Lake Thunderbird, or Dirty Bird as we locals liked to call it. In the 1960s, the city planners erected a dam along the tributary to create a municipal water reservoir for Norman and the surrounding towns, and thus Dirty Bird was born. Almost all of Oklahoma’s lakes were man-made. They said we had the largest number of lakes created by dams of any state in the United States, and with more than two hundred lakes in Oklahoma, we had more miles of shoreline than the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts combined. Somehow, it never felt like Dirty Bird measured up to all that bragging.
In the fall, the lake would turn and become an even murkier mess, accompanied by a terrible stench. During the hot summer months, the waters would warm up all the way to the bottom of the lake. Come fall, with its cooler nighttime temperatures, the cold water at the top would sink to the bottom while the warm water rose, causing the lake to turn over. The algal blooms that died off ended up at the bottom of the lake, but the turnover stirred the taste and odor from the dead algae into the water.
Our drinking water came from the lake. Despite the sometimes-musty taste and odor, they said it was still safe to drink.
The lake waters, usually the color of whiskey, were often a vibrant red next to the shoreline where the lapping waves stirred up the crimson soil. Along the banks, our feet sunk into the wet red clay. It sucked at us, pulling us ankle-deep, and made horrendous squelching sounds with each labored step we took toward deeper water. Invisible lake weeds tickled and tangled in between our toes, trying to pull us down. It hardly seemed worth the effort.
Lake Dirty Bird was best enjoyed by boat, and luckily Christy’s family owned a sailboat. They kept it docked at the marina and let us take it out from time to time. Jane and I had no idea how to sail, but Christy and her brother Sam did.
It was hot and sunny when we sailed out into the middle of the lake where the water was deep and slightly less hazy. It felt like the perfect moment to jump off the boat and swim around. We three girls leaped off the bow, shrieking with laughter. For a moment it felt like we might be in some exotic sea, like the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. We frolicked and swam in the cool water until the sun started to set and the wind picked up. Deciding we should get back to the boat, we paddled toward it, but each time we tried to grab hold of it, it slipped away from us and drifted further out of reach. Jane, Christy, and I were decent swimmers but were beginning to tire as we continued to chase and grasp at the boat. Seeing this, Sam suggested we wait and he would bring the boat to us.
We were forced to tread water for what felt like ages while Sam maneuvered the boat further away so he could sail it back around. I was suddenly more grateful than ever for the many swimming lessons my mother, who herself could not swim, had enrolled me in as a child, including several water rescue classes in which they made us tread for prolonged periods among other rescue drills.
Stranded and kicking, eggbeater style, I couldn’t help but imagine what might be lurking below in the turbid liquid around me. Certainly, there were huge catfish, with their gaping mouths and tickling whiskers. Oklahoma was well known for producing some rather large specimens. Perhaps there were also alligator gar. I’d read somewhere that they were in some Oklahoma lakes and rivers and were among the largest freshwater fish in North America. Folks said they could grow to over three hundred pounds and up to ten feet long, with a long, broad snout and sharp teeth. Though both appeared rather ghastly, I didn’t think either fish was particularly aggressive, and likely they were just as afraid of me as I was of them.
I had heard there had been a town in the river valley when they dammed it up and flooded it to make Lake Dirty Bird. What disturbed me more than the fish was the thought of the trees, which they didn’t bother to cut down or haul off, still possibly standing upright in the water beneath me, their branches reaching out to scratch at me. That I might possibly kick one with a bare toe irrationally terrified me. Soon Sam brought an end to my worries as he sailed up close to us and I grabbed on for dear life, swiftly climbing up to safety.
After the dam, Lake Dirty Bird continued on, eventually working its way back to the Canadian River. The Canadian slipped past Norman and continued west until it joined up with the Arkansas River as it entered the State of Arkansas. There, it marched its way across the state until it bumped up against and spilled into the Mississippi River. After college, I followed the waters of my youth, moving eleven hours south, down to New Orleans for graduate school.
The Big Muddy, as they often call the Mississippi, is swift-moving, murky, and brown, much like the Norman creek could be on a rainy spring day, but it’s a huge and monstrous thing compared to the tiny trickle of the creek or our Canadian River. Water from thirty-one states ultimately drains into it. When I make my way down to the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, I stand mesmerized, watching the rush and churn of its deep expanse of water, which is opaque and coffee-colored due to the enormous amount of silt the river drags down with it from across the country. A vast web of tributaries feeds the hungry river, from as far as British Columbia in the northwest, from New York State in the northeast, and even the waters of The Creek from my small Oklahoma town.
Emily Painton, a painter and writer, grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, but now lives in New Orleans. She earned an MA in Art History from Tulane and an MLIS from the University of Texas at Austin. She loves to travel and one day hopes to be able to spend every hurricane season in Berlin. Her work has appeared in Third Wednesday, Route 7 and X-R-A-Y Literary, and is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine. Find her on Twitter, Facebook and at paintongallery.com.