The moment we heard Mr. Brown scream, “Get on the floor and eat that noodle!” my brother Joe and I ducked beneath their kitchen window, crouched on our knees, afraid to make a sound.
“Put that fork back on the table! You suck it up! God didn’t give us food to waste!”
Except for Mr. Brown’s voice, their kitchen was quiet. After Henry ate the noodle off the floor, we heard him cry, not a loud cry, but the choking, hold back the tears kind of cry. The same crying Henry did at school when kids teased him after his pencil was shaking too much to write his name on the paper.
Though there was nothing Joe and I wanted more than to be away from that window, we were afraid to move. All we had wanted from this visit was to ask the boys to join us for a game of kick-the-can, but after hearing their father scream, we knew our presence would shame Henry, and it would anger his father enough to hit us.
After we heard the forks rattling against the plates and the glasses being set down, we crawled along the side of the house until we were free.
“I hate that man!” Joe said, his face puffy, close to tears. It was rare that we used the word hate. We wanted to hate but we afraid it would lead to our own death, a death that would surely land us in hell.
We were always comparing our family to the other families on the block. Sitting on the front porch with Mom, we talked about the more wealthy families and wondered what it’d be like to live in a house with a color TV, an organ, and a fish aquarium.
“Things aren’t always like they look,” Mom told us. “We got it plenty good. They got their own problems. Believe me,” she added as if she knew something we didn’t know, another one of those adult secrets.
But we saw things Mom didn’t see. Not only did we hear Mr. Brown tell Henry to suck a noodle of the floor, we saw Mr. Brown’s penis. “He came out the front door and pulled his dick out of his pants for us kids to see. He even laughed. We just stood there. Didn’t say a word. His own kids weren’t around, “ Joe explained to Mom.
No matter what we said, Mom always found ways to defend Mr. Brown. Even Grandpa, who lived next door to the Browns, told Mom horror stories about the man, and Grandpa never exaggerated. If a man didn’t drink, it was easier for Mom to forgive him. She forgave the drunks too, but not as quickly because they were likely to kill an innocent person driving down the road.
“Mr. Brown must be under a lot of stress,” Mom said.
“I think he’s crazy!” Joe said.
“Stay away from him then.”
“Ma, don’t you believe us?” Joe screamed. “We were just standing on the corner, and he walked up to group of us and pulled his dick out. When he saw Mrs. Brown walk to the porch, he put it back in his pants and left. That ain’t normal.”
“God will deal with him.”
Mr. Brown was a deacon in our church. I kept my dime the following Sunday when he passed the offering plate because I could still see his penis hanging over the plate. Until I could tell that God had dealt with him, I intended to keep every dime.
Mr. Brown didn’t fit in with the rest of the neighbors on Seventeenth Street. If a father was young and not Christian Reformed, he drank, yelled loud, and drove fast. The Christian Reformed fathers were quieter than the wives of the drinking men. Without making any noise, they seemed to disappear to their jobs and then slip home at six, unnoticed, just another body at the dinner table. Mr. Brown was neither a drunk, Dutch, or Christian Reformed. Mr. Brown was a scrawny man, but he had wicked teeth with jagged edges like a dog who chews rough bones. “Cars and televisions are works of the devil, “ Mr. Brown told the neighbors, smiling so wide his gold tooth stared at our faces threateningly. Still, the neighbors pitied the man.
When the Browns adopted the Korean girls, they were Baptist. It wasn’t until our neighborhood Reformed church started giving his family more generous donations than his small Baptist church that he quit being a Baptist and became Reformed. Then Mr. Brown made sure he got a deacon position at our church. After receiving all those generous Reformed Church donations, Mr. Brown bought a red van, and he drove like the devil, out of control and hitting everything in sight. He was too proud to admit that he didn’t know how to drive.
I liked the Brown boys well enough and the younger Korean girl, but Doris, the one that was a year older than I, was an unlikable as her father. Doris and Heather, her next-door neighbor, walked past our house every day holding their breath. Mom said, “Be nice to them. Doris doesn’t know any better. Pray for her, and she’ll change. Invite Doris over. She needs a friend.”
Maybe it was because I didn’t pray for Doris that she got so mean, mean like an old hungry donkey. One day while walking home from school, Doris and Heather were in front of me, and Doris turned around and said, “Your mom’s going to die soon, and I can hardly wait!”
That was it. I couldn’t stand any more. In an uncontrollable fit of anger, I pounded on Doris. The more Heather tried to pull me off Doris, the harder I hit. In order to hit harder, I bit my own fist and swung with the other fist, retaliating for the physical pain I was inflicting upon myself. I looked possessed, felt possessed, and when I finally felt relieved, I pulled Doris’s pinkie back, slowly, as far as it could bend, looked her in the eye, and said, “She won’t die.”
Before I arrived home, both of their mothers had walked to our house, waiting for me to return. But I didn’t go directly home. I went to the railroad tracks and waited for a slow train, longing to ride the rails with the hoboes. Anything but live on Seventeenth Street.
Mom was furious. She knew I got into fights, but never with girls, just boys. “Those girls went home a bloody mess! You got to buy Heather a new shirt. And you broke Doris’s finger. It’s a good thing her mom’s a nurse or you’d have to pay the doctor bills. What is wrong with you? I couldn’t tell her what had been said. “You’ve disgraced our family. I gotta live with a husband that embarrasses us and now a daughter that embarrasses me.”
I never regretted hurting those girls. I only regretted having to use my money to replace Heather’s blouse. Late at night, I slid the money under Heather’s front porch door, every penny that she said I owed.
Even Mom once admitted having creepy feelings about Doris. Mom told me she had dreamed that Doris entered our house during the middle of the night and suffocated her with a pillowcase.
“Oh, but it was just a dream,” Mom explained. “I shouldn’t have told you about it.” Late one night after our family was in bed, we heard someone knocking on the door. It was Mrs. Brown and the kids.
“Please hide us,” the mother cried. Mr. Brown was threatening to kill them with a butcher knife. Dad loaded a rifle and went back to bed. No one asked Dad not to shoot him. No one called the police, even after Mr. Brown came to our house and beat on the windows. But I couldn’t sleep, worrying that Doris might get up during the night and kill my mother.
In the morning, they left. No shots were fired. No pillowcases suffocated anyone. Life went on as usual on Seventeenth Street.
Everyone was afraid of death in a peculiar way.
A few years later on Christmas Eve, when the Brown’s house went up in flames, looking like a large bonfire beneath the starry, snow filled sky, the neighbors gathered silently, but none of us offered the Browns our home. Someone whispered that the preacher could take care of them.
But I looked at Henry who was home on a break from the Kalamazoo State Hospital and wept, knowing he was better off having Christmas in the psychiatric ward, far away from Seventeenth Street. Watching Doris’s Christmas gifts burn, I finally felt guilty about breaking her finger.
The neighbors stood in front of the burning house with heavy jackets and hats, fearing God’s power as much as their own. Any father was capable of threatening his family with a butcher knife. And I knew that Doris was right. My mother was going to die. I only hoped it wouldn't be soon. It didn’t matter how much we prayed. We were a street that knew no justice.