We’re standing on the corner of Main and Grant when Sarah announces she wants to explore the sewers.
‘No way, Sarah. Ma will kill us,’ I say.
Before I’ve finished, my sister is on her knees trying to lever up the manhole cover. She’s a pre-teen stick figure with skin, all knobs and bones and wild hair, bare feet caked with tar and mud, and doesn’t have an icicle’s chance in hell to slide that steel disk.
‘Help me,’ she says.
I look at my Sunday suit, shaking my head.
‘Come on. Help me. Don’t you want to see?’
‘What’s there to see in a sewer?’
‘I don’t know. Sewage, maybe. Stuff. Something else.’
For a minute, I weigh the prospect of sewage-staring with the inevitable feel of Pa’s strap on my bare ass. The scale tips heavily in the direction of being able to sit for the next week.
‘No,’ I say.
‘Not as lame as you’re going to be when Ma sees your pinafore.’
Sarah’s a hot mess of sidewalk crumbs and frayed linen. When we get home, Ma sends her to bed without supper and Pa drags me to the woodshed anyway. For not stopping her.
At the church dance, Sarah is supposed to stay with Jonathan, but doesn’t.
‘You’re too – I don’t know – clean,’ she said before we headed out.
‘I’m too clean?’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant, but I didn’t care for the red dress she’d chosen. ‘Has Pa seen that?’ I asked, nodding at her skirt.
Sarah dodged the question. ‘Let’s go.’
Ten minutes after we arrive, Sarah’s in a corner with some James Dean wannabe.
Three minutes later, she’s out the back, lighting a Camel off James Dean’s half-smoked butt.
‘Ma’s gonna kill you when she smells the smoke,’ I say.
Sarah throws me a smirk. ‘Maybe you should try it sometime.’
‘Because it’s different.’
I get married to Mary Jo from town. Sarah doesn’t show, but calls me late that night. She’s high and giggly and drops the phone twice during our conversation.
‘Congrats, big bro,’ she says.
‘Yeah. Thanks. Where are you?’
Sarah lets out a sigh. ‘You should come. It smells – I don’t know – neat. Not clean neat, but cool. Like there’s something going on, man. You know?’
I don’t know. I don’t know the Sarah who calls me ‘man’ and says ‘cool’ and ‘neat’ and doesn’t remember where Tennessee is anymore. I don’t know the Sarah who escaped to Mexico and likes it because it smells.
‘Come home, Sarah,’ I tell her.
She says something in a language I don’t understand, but it sounds like ‘no.’
‘Why not? You don’t want to stay down in that sewer.’
There’s another sigh, pregnant with twenty-five years of distance. ‘Don’t you ever want to see something else?’
I want to tell her I do. Sarah hangs up before I get the chance, like she knows I’d be lying.