Our big sister Theresa ran away forever on the day that we climbed onto the roof and threw sandwich baggies of hot pee at her boyfriend. Her disappearance wasn’t part of the plan, and the three of us definitely paid for what we did.
But if ever a guy deserved to be hit with bags of hot pee, it was him. Manboy, we called him. He worked as a dishwasher and got kicked out of school for selling weed, which was fine with us, but he had a mustache and looked more like her uncle than her boyfriend, which was not fine with us at all.
Theresa was barely even a freshman in high school, a few years older than us.
Our parents must have thought Manboy was creepy, too, because they banned him from coming around when Dad wasn’t home. Theresa’s response was to devise a system in which Manboy would drive by our house in his powder-blue Chevette and then she’d pretend to take our dog for a walk. He’d park in the shade of a Winnebago up the block, and she’d throw the dog in the back of his car and then they’d …
In truth, we had no idea what they were up to in his broiling Chevette, which was why we commando crawled single file through the gutter – bare feet, gym shorts, no shirts – until we spotted his car, standing out like a tropical fish on our drab street. We slipped into the closest lawn and ripped up all the grass our fists could hold. We stooped near the wheel wells and, on three, burst up and threw handfuls of grass into the windows and …
We were expecting to catch them smoking a cigarette or whispering about Lovely Love, but instead we caught them Frenching.
We stared at our bare feet, unable to move, until our dog jumped out of the car window and broke our trance.
We’d been planning Manboy’s demise ever since their first date, but the plan had always been abstract – until now.
We sprinted straight home and gathered supplies. We leaned a ladder against our house and scrambled onto the roof. Our bladders thrummed as we wizzed into sandwich baggies, the cheap kind that folded over.
We could hear Manboy’s Chevette revving through the neighborhood. The car had hardly even braked to a halt before Theresa was running toward the porch with grass in her hair, yelling.
Maybe she’d assumed we were already inside telling Mom, and she was hoping to cut us off, to concoct a scenario in which Manboy had needed CPR or something – anything but Frenching.
Manboy ran toward the house behind Theresa as if his presence might help her cause. He was even stupider than we’d thought.
We stood directly over the porch, shingles warm beneath our toes. Our baggies of pee were briney and alive, like something in the jellyfish family.
“Hey, Manboy. Up here!”
He stopped in his tracks and bombs away: Our three hot baggies hit him with military accuracy, two on the head, one on the shoulder.
All three sloshed open on impact. He got pretty dripping wet, but that was just phase one of our plan: the Pee Drench.
Phase two happened when he was spinning around on the driveway below, spitting and clawing at his eyes. That’s when we leaned over the roof with the 5-pound sack of flour. We sucked in school, but we were really good planners.
The idea was that this storm of powder would mingle with the pee and turn Manboy into a doughy yellow monster caked with a paste that was impossible to clean off. We’d imagined the flour taking the shape of a cloud as it fell, billowing around him and swallowing him in its poof.
Only it didn’t happen like that: Seconds after we upended the sack, he looked up and the flour came crashing down not as a cloud, but as a cylinder, holding the form it had in the sack, and clobbered him between the eyes.
We sucked air through our teeth: Ouch!
He stumbled toward the porch, gasping like a mummy in a horror film, no doubt terrified of what might drop next.
Mom and Theresa came rushing out. Mom first saw him, then she saw her flour spilled on the driveway like crime scene chalk. As Mom wiped his eyes and performed triage on his ego, Theresa screeched at the sky. Particles of flour circled through the air like ash.
“Get down here!” Mom said.
We refused. No good could come of that.
We watched her walk to the side of the house and lower the ladder to the grass.
“Your father’s on his way.”
They went inside and closed the door. Then we heard the ungodly sound of Mom walking through the house, closing all of the windows, as if to minimize the reach of our screams.
She knew what was coming.
The giant had been awakened.
We spent all afternoon stranded on the roof watching shadows shift, waiting for our father.
He had a collection of leather belts in a rainbow of colors, and each performed its duty well, but by the time we were in grade school, they no longer contained the presence he was after in his punishments. He invited an old bread board into the arsenal and seemed pleased by the way it was soon scarred by sliced toast and denim rivets, seasoned by skin and tears.
When the bread board splintered one Sunday morning, Dad went to the lumber yard and bought a slab of black walnut, then he spent the entire day fashioning a new paddle in the garage. Mom said it was a healthy way to focus his energy, but our souls withered with each swish of sandpaper, each ping of the chisel. When it was finished, he swung it through the air with admiration, his hairy knuckles twitching in the breeze.
The dread we felt was temporarily broken when Manboy came out of the house alone and wogged to his Chevette, holding a bag of frozen peas to the bridge of his nose.
We were miserable but couldn’t resist.
“Hey, Manboy! You got peas on your face!”
As he drove away, we yelled loud enough to ward off any potential suitors.
“Next time we cut out your tongue!”
Somewhere below us, we could hear Theresa roaring about the injustice of being born.
“You,” Mom yelled back, “are in even worse trouble than your brothers!”
We felt bad for Theresa. She soon stormed out hugging a paper grocery bag, her clothes spilling across the driveway like the remnants of an evacuation.
“Where are you going?” we said, worried.
“Anywhere but here,” she said, looking at the sky. “Dad is coming, you idiots!”
“Take us with you?” we said, but she was gone.
We sweltered up there, curling into the shade. We tried to pretend we were birds but were too old, so we just felt worse.
Five-thirty came around. We could sense our father climbing into his station wagon 17 miles away, his rage already trembling within the house, through its pipes and wires.
We hid behind the ridge as he parked and climbed out of the car. He poked the flour in the driveway with his toe. Without looking up, he leaned the ladder against the gutter, then quietly went inside.
He was giving us a choice: Climb down and run away, as Theresa had, or climb down and face him.
By the time we approached the front door – single file like a centipede, all sobbing as one – he was sitting on the porch waiting with a cracked belt on one thigh, his walnut paddle on the other.
His eyes glowed red. We’d never seen him happier.
Many months passed, and Theresa just never came home.
We could still smell her perfume in the bathroom, and her hairbrush still jammed the drawer each time we tried to find a Q-Tip.
One day at the mall, when we were shoplifting king-sized chocolate bars for our teachers, we saw Theresa walking head down carrying a maroon apron in her fist. Our first thought was to tackle her before she disappeared again, but instead we followed her from a distance.
We trailed her past the fountains, past the old men smoking indoors, and ended up at a country buffet place with a sign that said Roast Beef ‘n Juice $5.95! She tied on the apron.
We came up with a plan – a nice plan, not one with baggies of pee. At the Hallmark store, we bought a greeting card and the smallest stuffed animal in the world, a fuzzy koala that clipped to the end of your pencil.
The card said, “I’m sorry,” and underneath it we wrote “We’re sorry for what we did” to Manboy.
We signed it carefully:
Back at the restaurant, we sat in a booth far away from all the drooling geezers. We were unsure whether Theresa would fly into a rage the way she used to, so we placed the card and the koala in full view. Soon she walked up with a tray and slid three Cokes before us. She was wearing a lot of makeup. She sat down and lit a cigarette.
She asked how we were holding up, and we shrugged. She laughed and said she stopped seeing Manboy not long after the ambush, and we were lucky he hadn’t killed us. She asked about Mom, and we told her she seemed fine, but when we started saying Dad, she held up her hand.
“I don’t want to hear about Dad.”
We slid the card and koala across to her.
She opened the card, and her smile went away. She took a deep breath.
“Listen. Guys. You don’t need to apologize. It’s not your fault.”
We didn’t understand. It was our fault, we told her. Bags of pee didn’t just fall from the sky.
“I’m sorry I left you guys there. I just couldn’t take you with me.”
We still didn’t understand.
She put out her cigarette and leaned forward and gripped our wrists together like a bundle of flowers.
“It might feel like you don’t have a choice,” she said, “but you do. There are so many ways to be. He’s just one out of many, many ways, OK?”
Now we really didn’t understand.
Theresa took a pen out of her apron and clipped the koala to it. She opened the card, concentrating just like she used to when we did homework together after school. Then she crossed out our last name, whirling dark clouds across it until it completely disappeared.
“There,” she said, and we felt the world go quiet. “See? Poof. He’s gone.”