It was the spring of 1959, and the water was rising. It had been raining for days. That is why Sister Emerenciana let the children of St. Mary’s go home at lunchtime. It wasn't coming down as bad as the Easter of ’52 when the muddy waters of Miller Creek submerged Pina Tognetti’s garden gate, but Police Chief Fortino didn’t want to take any chances. Miller Creek had flooded before, so the kids who lived on Walnut Lane, Chestnut Street, and all along Murray Avenue were ordered home to moms frantically packing station wagons and to dads loading dogs and TVs onto pickups. Everyone on Gilroy’s east side was heading to Grandma’s in Hollister or the El Camino Motel in Morgan Hill. Even the local chapter of the National Guard was called to help with the evacuation. But safety was the last thing on Kate McCarty’s mind.
Today was the day she was going to “walk the pipe.” She was nine and the pipe had been suspended under the Miller Creek Bridge as long as she could remember. Her father told her Fredo Hanna put it there before their subdivision even existed. When Walnut Lane was just miles of orchard and Fredo and his dad, Sando, irrigated their trees, draining the water away from IOOF Avenue. It was nice to know the pipe had a history. It was even nicer to know that if the Water Project finally did something about Miller Creek, chances were it wouldn't touch the pipe. None of the kids who lived on Walnut Lane could imagine life without it, for they marked their passage from kid to cool with that old duct. Walking the pipe was their Confirmation. If you made it, you were in. If you fell, you were out. It was that simple.
No girl had ever walked the pipe. Kate was determined to be the first. And it had to be today, because today in reading group Roy Malino double-dared her to do it in the rain. Kate couldn’t back down because Roy Malino was a bully. He hated girls and didn’t think they could do anything. Kate had to walk the pipe today because when it came to bullies and girl-haters, she agreed with her dad and Ward Bond on Wagon Train—guys like Roy Malino “needed whuppin’.”
Fire trucks were already parked on the road and Perry Construction was bringing in sandbags when Kate and her friends Nita, Matthew, and Matthew’s little sister, Marci, slid down the muddy creek bed. Their school uniforms were drenched and dirty when they reached the bottom, and Roy Malino was already there taunting Kate from the opposite bank.
“Kate Bait! Hurry up. Pipe’s almost gone.”
“I can still do it!” Kate yelled back.
“Not if you’re chicken.”
“Takes one to know one!” Kate ripped off her raincoat and made a big show of stuffing it in Nita’s arms. Just then, a police car drove slowly over the bridge, lights flashing. Roy ducked behind a bush. Kate, Nita, and Matthew crouched down and waited anxiously for the car to pass. It was all too much for Marci. She stood in the rain, tears welling in her eyes.
“Don’t do it, Kate! You’ll kill yourself and get arrested and go to hell!”
This gave Kate pause. Marci had a point. Suicide was a sin, and Kate hadn’t even thought about the possibility of dying. Matthew, as always, was the voice of reason.
“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Matthew told his sister. “You know what Father Dwyer said in assembly.”
“I don’t remember,” Marci whined, drying her eyes on her wet coat sleeve.
“Kate is making a sacrifice. If she kills herself and gets drowned it’s not a sin like hari-kari or anything,” Matthew said.
“How come?” Marci whimpered.
“It’s like The Martyrs, stupid,” said Nita. “Kate is St. Lucy.”
“She’s not getting eaten by a lion.”
“That’s Agnes. Lucy got her eyes gouged out.” Nita turned to Matthew. “I told you your stupid sister was too little to come.”
“She’s not stupid, she’s scared.” Matthew turned to Marci. “Kate is St. Lucy only with eyes, and she’s making a noble sacrifice against Roy Malino.”
“Who is evil,” said Nita.
“And a fat jerk,” added Kate, eyeing Roy on the opposite bank, arms folded and smirking.
“Talk or walk, Kate Bait!”
“I’m walkin’ better than you, Malino!” Kate removed her soaked sweater and let it drop in the mud.
Nita picked it up. “Your mother’s going to kill you.”
Matthew brushed Marci’s wet bangs out of her eyes. “If Kate falls in the creek and dies she’ll go straight to heaven and get her name in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.”
“Really? Oh, Kate, you’re going to be famous!”
“Hold my shoes,” Kate said, whipping off her oxfords and handing them to Marci. She liked the reward of heaven and the idea that her story would be told in a gold-embossed encyclopedia along with St. Thomas Aquinas and Bernadette of Lourdes. But right now all she could think about was climbing onto the big, slippery pipe.
Kate had been preparing for this day for months. Walking the narrow top rails of the wooden fences running up and down her alley. Traversing miles of irrigation pipes in the garlic fields. Building a tree fort in the tallest live oak behind the Purla’s shed. Balance, endurance, heights, sure all of it helped, but now, looking out at that big rusty pipe tied to the bottom of the old bridge, Kate could feel a tingling in the back of her knees that only meant one thing—fear.
She knew the distance from the north side of the bridge to the south was sixty-one feet. She knew the pipe was two feet wide, had eight ties, and hung sixteen feet over the water. But, today, in the pouring rain, with fleeing families rumbling above, water rising below, Roy calling her “chicken girl” and Marci bawling, all of a sudden the Miller Creek Bridge looked like the Golden Gate. Kate whispered a prayer, “Angel of God, my guardian dear, in whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide.”
She was six feet from the bank before she knew what she was doing. The rain was coming at her sideways; she could barely see. The rule was you could hold onto two ties if you needed to, but if you were really tough, you’d go the distance “no hands.” Kate wasn’t sure how to proceed. As far as she knew she was the first kid, boy or girl, to walk the pipe in the rain. Maybe she could hang onto three ties. Who was she kidding? Roy Malino wouldn’t give her a break. She could see him in his yellow slicker and rain hat on the other side of the creek, just waiting for her to fail. He’d tell everybody in school all the gory details too. She couldn’t let that happen. Kate scanned the opposite shore looking for something to fix her eyes upon like Mr. Renoff taught her to do in ballet class. Ballerinas always kept their eyes on a mark when they did tour jetes and Kate needed to steady herself now. Her eye found something shining in the mud—an A1 Root Beer bottle. A1 was her favorite. It was a sign. Smiling, she put her bare feet in ballet second position, extended her arms and made a beeline for the bottle.
It was slippery as she inched along. Nita was yelling “Go Kate!” behind her, but Kate didn’t dare turn or wave. One foot in front of the other, she took it steady and slow. Nobody said anything about how fast you had to do it. So far, so good. No hands, and no stumbles. Then, she heard a car. It was getting closer. The bridge was starting to shake. Water hit her from above. Her right foot slipped. There was a tie up ahead. She reached for it just in time. It wasn't a car. It was a truck. The whole bridge rattled for what seemed like an eternity. Kate swung on the tie like a tetherball. When the tremor passed, she dared to look down.
Miller Creek didn’t look like water. It looked like chocolate milk spilling fast down the sink. Walnut branches flew by, and boxes, and somebody’s rake. Kate had never seen water so brown, so churned up. For some reason it didn’t scare her. Maybe it was because the water was so close, just inches from her toes, and moving so impossibly fast. Like a freeway. What was it about a flood that made everything rush? Made the rain come down in sheets instead of drops? Made the lawns swell like pregnant tummies, and the drains back up like Saturday turnstiles at Candlestick Park? What was everyone’s hurry? Why did they scramble to grab a teddy bear, a book, a lamp? Why did they make split-second decisions, toss everything in the car, and speed off to Grandma’s only to get there and worry about what they left behind? Why didn’t anybody stick around? Didn’t they want to see what the water wanted? Kate wondered if floods didn'’t happen so creeks could claim their favorite things—branches, boxes, rakes—and steal them away somewhere safe like Aromas or Santa Cruz.
Kate wanted to know where the creek would take her. She wanted to dive into the brown rapids and ride somewhere beautiful like San Francisco. She tipped slightly, shifting her center of gravity, mesmerized by the hypnotic stream folding in upon itself like batter in a blender. Her brain told her she should be scared. Diving in would be stupid, she could die like the conquistadors in the Amazon. But her body didn’t care. It was hearing voices in the braided foam telling her to let go and swim like a dolphin all the way to China. Her fingers relaxed on the tie. Then Nita screamed.
“Your mom’s coming! Hurry!”
Kate faltered. Off center, she fell to her knees. She clutched the pipe like a bareback rider, ankles and thighs stinging and gripping the rusted metal. She grabbed for the tie again, holding onto it harder this time—to pull herself up, to break the creek's spell, to get her balance back because her mother was coming and she was damned if she was going to let her mother ruin her noble sacrifice. Kate straightened up, eyed the A1 bottle, and carried on, step by treacherous step, one foot in front of the other, no hands and no mistakes, all the way to the other side.
She leapt off the pipe with a flourish and sank knee-deep in the freezing mud. Nita waved Kate’s raincoat, Marci wept for joy, and Matthew danced in the sludge. But it was the sight of Roy Malino glowering under his rain hat as he slipped and slid his way up to the street that pleased Kate the most. She put her fingers to her lips and blew a fierce victory whistle. Then she heard her mother's voice calling her name.