Getting Caught


First Person

toilet-paperBefore our fathers lost their jobs, before the kid at school collapsed on the practice field, before our grandmothers forgot our names, before the first big uprooting, the tug of bourbon, and the crises of faith, there was a shameless season along the cattail-flanked pikes of northeast Nashville, a season as tough to fathom now as it is mortifying to confess, when our biggest concern, at least on weekend nights late, was whose house to roll with toilet paper.

We were restive, brother. We were hemmed in by hills. There were no wars to fight. High-speed Internet had yet to invade the South. So under cover of catching a movie or playing pickup in the church gym, we pooled pocket money and raked the grocery clean of twelve- and twenty-four-packs of tissue. The cashier women could have tipped off the cops. There was no mistaking our intent for a collective case of irritable bowel syndrome. Still they shooed us through the sliding doors, perhaps wagering we might repay their clemency by passing over their cul-de-sacs.

We rolled Laura, the sweetest girl you ever met, and Tyler, the most likely in our class to find a cure for cancer. We rolled whole blocks of strangers. We rolled our next-door neighbors. We rolled Laura again. And in one ballsy feat not likely to be bested this millennium, we rolled our high school basketball coach, a Brobdingnagian who, when he got to shouting, sounded like Darth Vader passing a kidney stone in an echo chamber.

For weeks afterward we awaited a summons to his office; to our astonishment he never said a word. In fact, for all the yards we hit, for all the Bradford pears, magnolias, maples, southern pines, oaks, dogwoods, dog houses, crepe myrtles, horse trailers, fencerows, and hay bales we barnstormed, for all the reams of toilet paper we put to flight beneath complicit stars, the porch lights that winked on, and the beagles that gave chase, we got caught only once.

That was the semester that Ryan, ringleader if ever we had one, came down with a broken heart to make a country singer bawl. Erin, the culprit, was a year older than us. A senior, a cheerleader. She had pond-green eyes and a geranium petal of a mouth that spread clear across her face when she so much as approximated a smile. Beauty makes umbrage unworkable. Indeed it was difficult to level a grudge at Erin but out of respect for our wounded compadre we feigned disgust, genuine outrage, and when, on a wind-strafed winter night several weeks after the split, Ryan said he wanted revenge, we were primed.

Throwing toilet paper requires force and finesse, arch and accent, the power of a Hail Mary and the touch of a fadeaway jumper. It also takes speed. Within seconds of us pulling onto the grassy shoulder in front of Erin’s parents’ place, the trees paralleling the road at the property bottom were turning white.

The moon was up. No one who had wheels was home. What rolls the wind didn’t slap across the two-lane unspooled quick fast from our red fingers, looped over bare branches, and rappelled down the flip side in long, taut, unbroken belts. We dressed trunks. We scribbled in tissue along the front yard all manner of stall-wall worthy enjoiners. The wreckage was compact but not inconsiderable. The tree row had become a mob of resurrected mummies.

It was time to bounce. As Ryan shot last-minute video of the mess, headlights and their icy emanations macerated the outer dark. How our shadows lengthened on the lawn as we tripped to the car! Soon we were doing seventy-plus on slender unlit back roads with Erin’s father on our tail.

We ought to have shaken him easy. Ours was a newer model SUV, his an aging half-ton truck. But somewhere, who knows where, we took a bad turn. The road and the off-road grew exceedingly foreign. Early Outkast gave way to quiet as the soundtrack of choice. Rather than turn round and risk a face-to-face with our pursuer, Ryan killed the lights and snaked into a driveway, tree-shrouded, a little creek flowing alongside.

In skittish silence we waited for the pickup to blow by, waited for the minutes to coalesce, for time to give sanctuary. We were right there waiting when the old man pulled in behind.

Cornered, fumbling for excuses, our bowed heads silhouetted in the high beams, we readied for a lecture, a rumble, at minimum a phone call home. But Erin’s father refused to dignify our shenanigans with anything resembling ire. He chatted briefly with Ryan about cleaning up the next morning. He cupped his hand against the side window to take stock of the rest of us, climbed back in the truck and rode away.

Seldom has escape felt less euphoric. Per normal we repaired to the Waffle House to refuel and color commentate, but there was a general sense, unspoken, irrefutable, that something had ended, something beyond our dumb run of toilet-papered yards. Our picked-at eggs, our fork-gored waffles, they darkened, they drowned in pools of cold syrup, every song on the jukebox a song about a broken heart. The waitress brought the checks. They might as well have been notices of infraction. The fine for pretending to be invincible: $5, $6 a pop.

In the weeks that followed, we tried to recapture the old magic, branching into sloppier brands of horseplay—doing bottle-rocket drive-bys, emptying into random yards mammoth bags of popcorn pinched from the dumpster behind the cineplex—all to no avail. It wasn’t long before our weekends had disentangled and with them our fraternity, which had been tight-knit since elementary school.

To differing extremes we drifted. Some hit the bottle. Some worked on cars. One rapped at clubs downtown. One read Camus.

Inevitably there came a day when we awoke to find our own houses had become targets, but by then it hardly mattered, we had moved on. Finally on the receiving end of our own foolishness we walked with our fathers out into the fog and, like Ryan on that morning after we first got busted, began the sorry business of bagging the toilet paper in the trees.

Drew Bratcher is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.