About Mr. Brown
By Tristan Mason
We tried to kill Mr. Brown when we were in the seventh grade. We knew it was wrong –but- someone had to do it. Ana, Richard and I plotted to end his life at the school’s annual Christmas play in which he played Saint Nick. In the final scene, Ana, the North Pole’s “number one elf,” would hand Mr. Brown a magic cup of candy cane cocoa and wait for him to drink it. Mr. Brown would gleefully take a sip and then-dramatically die of a hazelnut-induced allergic reaction. Instead-Mr. Brown “accidentally” spilled the cocoa onto Ana’s white stockings, apologized as she ran off stage crying and wished the audience a merry Christmas. Mr. Brown reprised his role as Saint Nick for the next nine years. I know Ana is replaying the incident in her mind when she overhears her mother talk about the play in the kitchen.
“She just won’t shut up,” Ana murmurs. “Ever since I got home, it’s been drink-drink-drink, talk-talk-talk, throw up from drinking, and THEN… talk some more.”
“You. Need. To. Relax,” I say, tapping on a vintage pillow to the jingle in a candy commercial. My best friend is always anxious. One can tell by the amount of times she fidgets with her hair during the course of a day. When the airport delayed our flight, Ana stormed into the ladies room and came out three minutes later with a French braid. When our pilot mentioned turbulence, Ana made a fishtail and attempted to order sushi from first class. While her mother rambles on about the play, Ana mimics her bobbed hair and her faux mid-Atlantic accent.
“Don’t you think you’re being just a little bit resentful? I mean, would you rather be at my mom’s ‘romantic literature’ book club tonight?”
“I can’t believe we’re here again.” Ana stares into a glass of white wine, tapping her feet to the rhythm of the mahogany, grandfather clock that sits in the corner of her mother’s living room. A cartoon Christmas special plays on TV. Ana and I watch it every year. “I thought…when we graduated college, we’d be living in some beach town with our closest friends. ”
“In this economy?”
Ana smirks and sips with her eyes closed. I inch closer to her cushion, kicking my feet over a coffee table. In her silence, I know we share the same thoughts: where the hell is Richard…will we feel obligated to go the Christmas play? We fidget with our fingers. We listen to the clock tick. We laugh at the cartoon. We check our cell phones. Ana sips her wine. I look out the window. Then we finally blurt out the words, “want to go for a walk?”
“Thank you!” Ana throws her hands in the air and claps. She notices my subtle gaze and adjusts her creamsicle-striped sweatshirt over her faded blue jeans. “I want to get out of here before the drunken Christmas party begins. You know, that party my dad has where he pretends he’s a modern Jay Gatsby and invites every adult in town.”
“Won’t most of the adults be at the play?”
“Only the ones with kids. The divorcees, widowers and middle-aged bachelors come around six-thirty.”
Ana used to love those parties. She would dress up like a flapper with a pink scarf and a frilly dress. Richard and I pretended we were gangsters by wearing oversized suits and sucking chocolate cigars. Ana’s parents wouldn’t let us near the party until they were too sloshed to care. We played in the basement until we heard the adults singing show tunes around the piano and dancing the Charleston. The year we couldn’t kill Mr. Brown- Ana sat in the basement, watching tiny pieces of coal melt in the furnace.
“Darlings!” Ana’s mother enters the living room with arms stretched to the ceiling. She saunters toward us in a drop-waist, sleeveless dress composed of gold metallic cloth. She adjusts the ribbon on her white, helmet shaped hat and leans down to kiss me on the cheek. I squint. Her lips feel soggy like the tongue of a slobbering dog. “Damien. Baby. Look at you, all dolled up. You’re the cat’s meow…the cat’s meow! Tell me, Damien, are you a darb now that those fat cats at the Daily Spin hired you?”
Ana cradles her face in her hands.
“Well the starting pay is not great,” I reply. Ms. Kendall blinks. She wears long extensions. The smell of molasses flavored tobacco lingers on her breath. “I really enjoy it. I’m covering the local sports section, the high school and college sports teams. It gets a little crazy and my parents don’t like it but I love the local sports culture-”
“And how! Well, I’d love to beat my gums all night but I have to bring out the giggle water-“
“Mom, can you please stop talking like that.”
“You’re such a bearcat!” Ms. Kendall taps Ana on the head. Ana folds her arms and scowls. “Level with me darling, why do you look like you’re in a jiffy?”
“Because Damien and I are going to the Christmas play and we don’t want…”
“Darling, the Christmas play already ended. All the finest Swells, Drugstore Cowboys, Dumb Doras and Flappers will be coming over soon.”
“I swear you got that off of a website. What are you talking about?”
The doorbell rings. Ms. Kendall waltzes to the door and hums the melody of its corresponding music. Ana mumbles a string of obscenities. Ms. Kendall opens the door and exclaims, “Mr. Joseph Brown! How absolutely marvelous that you could make it after your debut performance.”
Mr. Brown looks like he has not aged in nine years. His chestnut blond hair has not greyed or receded. He wears it smooth, plastered down, brushed back from the face and parted from the left. His horn rimmed spectacles rest on the brim of his nose. I remember him taking them off and blowing on them when he watched Ana, Richard and I sweep the stage in our elf costumes. I remember his swamp tinted eyes fixating on our green tights as we moved around the props on stage like rats in a wooden maze.
“Ana, Damien, you remember Mr. Brown, right?”
We stare blankly into each other’s eyes. My fingers tremble against the fabric of my khaki pants. Ana’s lips contort and quiver. Ana grabs a reddish brown chunk of hair and knots it. She is making a chignon, a coil of her hair arranged on the back of her head. Ana last crafted this hairstyle when Peanut, her tabby cat, “ran away” while she was living at college.
“It’s quite all right,” Mr. Brown says, sliding his suit jacket over his cornflower blue tie. “I’ve taught thousands of students over the years. I wouldn’t recognize you two if Cynthia hadn’t told me who you were.”
Ms. Kendall waves her arms and laughs loudly in her faux accent. Mr. Brown laughs from his stomach. We laugh from our throats.
We give Mr. Brown two clammy handshakes and disappear into the kitchen.
“Some party your parents throw.” A pale, feminine man from the flat below leans against a marble table, sporting a glass of white wine in his trembling left hand. A dab of shaving cream dangles from his rosy white cheeks. “I’m glad that Joseph arrived. You should see him on the piano kids. When he plays, he’s truly the life of the party.”
“I…can’t say I remember but I’ll…take your word for it.” Ana grabs a tray of hors d'oeuvres from the table and plops a deviled egg into her mouth. I put my arm around Ana’s shoulder and direct her to the cast iron sink. “If you’ll excuse us.”
The gentleman nods and raises his glass.
“What are you doing? You can’t bring those out there. Do you really want to force a conversation with him? We can go for a walk. We can walk back to my place. You can stay over…like you used to during these things.”
Ana stares into the living room and clenches her fists. Two more flappers have arrived. Mr. Brown chats with the ladies, brushing against their feathered skirts. Ms. Kendall waves her arms around and laughs. They clink their glasses together and chug. Mr. Brown spots Ana out of the corner of his eye, smirks and casts his head down.
“No. I think we should stay here tonight.”
The last time we stayed, the three of us tossed our tights into the furnace and watched them disintegrate. We heard Mr. Brown from upstairs talking about his trip to Great Neck, Long Island. He met a widowed schoolteacher with a couple of kids. Mr. Brown mentioned that he wanted kids of his own. He courted the widow at the finest art galleries and took her son and daughter out to Steppingstone Park while she worked. Mr. Brown bought the children ice cream that dripped under the hot sun. Mr. Brown built the children sandcastles that collapsed under some powerful waves.
Ana and I depart to her room. Two flappers lounge on the staircase and puff Cuban cigars. Doughnut shaped smoke rings rise to the ceiling and penetrate the dimly lit chandelier. One flapper grabs onto the cuffs of my pants and hisses. The sight of her yellow stained teeth churns my stomach and expels vomit into my cheeks. I swallow and shake my foot loose. A fistful of green feathers fly from her skirt. The flappers cackle and take another puff of their cigars. Ana tugs my arm. Two boys in blue cardigans roll marbles on top of the staircase.
“Have you seen our Uncle Brown?” they ask, almost at the same instant. “He promised us some magic tricks.”
Ana storms down the hall and into her room.
“I’m sorry boys. I have not seen your Uncle Brown.”
The noise from downstairs permeates the walls of Ana’s room. Her father is playing show tunes on the piano. The room sings along. Mr. Brown, a tenor, leads the choir of drunkards. His voice sounds different. He sang like a baritone at the last party we attended. Ana sits atop her waterbed with her face buried in her cell phone. She exhales through her nostrils.
“Come on, Ana, I know you’re not texting anyone.” Ana nods. I know she is playing a game on some social networking website. Sometimes I wish she could live without a cell phone, especially one with an internet option. The firewall serves as just another wall she could hide behind.
“Dammit, Ana. Do you remember when we used to actually talk about the things that bothered us? Do you remember when we sat on your bed and talked until my mom called your mom to send me home? Can we do that again?”
The cell phone slides from her fingers onto her satin sheets.
Ana gazes at me with damp eyes.
I take a seat next to her.
She places a hand on my waist.
She leans in and whispers into my ear, “I think we should kill Mr. Brown.”
“I knew you were going to say that…” I break eye contact and fix my eyes on a dot on the ceiling. I hear people clapping and clinking their wine glasses together. Mr. Brown begins another song. His vocals show a higher range than he had nine years ago. “I still think about it too. I still think about lying on that costume box and focusing on a pair of marionette frogs to keep my mind off the pain. They made me think about the pond in back of my grandma’s house in New Hampshire. I’m glad we went to school there.”
“We can give him some hazelnut cookies. We can make him some hazelnut flavored cocoa. They’re both in the kitchen.”
“Ana, I think it’s time to move…” I lose my focus and think about the boys on the staircase. The term “magic trick” sends shivers down my spine. We endured Mr. Brown for less than a year. They will endure him for much longer and they won’t be able to tell a soul about all the magic tricks he performs. “I think it’s time to move…”
“See. You can’t even say it. I have tried to let go for the past nine years. I thought about telling someone. I thought about telling someone until I reached the age where it didn’t matter anymore. Then I tried to let go, but, I couldn’t. I couldn’t let go when I thought about how many other students he’s had over the years.”
I rub my eyes with my thumb and index finger. Ana’s hair hangs over her forehead like window drapes. I thought about Mr. Brown over the years too. I thought about telling my dad, a retired police officer. I thought about telling Richard’s dad, a child psychologist. But they were Mr. Brown’s good friends. They played poker with him and watched sports on his big screen TV. We refused to tell our fathers. Our fathers wouldn’t believe that their best friend was capable of such unspeakable acts.
“I’m going downstairs.”
“Please think about what you’re doing, Ana.”
“We’re not going to do anything yet.”
I follow Ana to the dining room a few minutes later. She stands in the corner of the room, her eyes glued to her cell phone. A sea of middle aged people in roaring twenties clothing gather around a wooden piano. Mr. Brown stands next to a woman in a black wool dress, eyeing her pasty white legs. He pulls a silver pocket watch out of his suit jacket and smiles. The initials “K.B.” are carved into the body of the watch. Mr. Brown would look at his watch when he waited for us to take off our elf costumes.
“Do you like it?” I look around the room a few times until I realize that Mr. Brown is speaking to me. I meet his swamp tinted eyes with a stiff gaze and a contorted lip. He laughs under his breath. “It was a gift from a dear departed one.”
I nod and try not to stare at the small cut marks that wrap around the wrinkles of his fingers. I try to redirect my attention to the piano but I cannot see Ana’s father through the crowd. I look at Ana who is texting rapidly and tapping her foot to the rhythm of the song. I lift my phone from my change filled pockets. The screen is black. It’s dead.
“Cynthia tells me you have a job as a local sport reporter at the Daily Spin.”
I nod and focus on the messy toupee of a man in front of me. “Yeah, they hired me in August.”
“You know, I interned there during my undergrad. No wonder I ended up teaching journalism! Do you like it? Does old Mr. Sponder still work there? I can tell by the look in your eye that he does. Ha. That old bastard. When I worked there, the staff threw him retirement parties every year just so he’d get the hint.”
I try my best not to smirk. “I’m surprised a dinosaur like Mr. Sponder stepped into the digital age. He recently instructed me to bring the Spin to the “world wide web” and do what we whipper snappers call “socialized networking.”
Mr. Brown laughs from his belly. Ana looks up from her cell phone and mouths the words “what the hell.” I shrug my shoulders and shake my head. Mr. Brown always knew how to make us lower our guard.
“That’s a riot. Mr. Sponder stepped into the digital age! This is the man who opted for a typewriter when the Spin got their first set of computers. He claimed that computers were just a trend. If you don’t mind me asking, do you do all right at the Spin? Do you make enough?”
“Well, Mr. Sponder pays me well but can’t hire me full time yet.”
“Poor guy. It’s amazing that he’s stayed in business for this long. The newspaper is a dying art.”
We share look of understanding. Our eyes hold a mixture of nostalgia and sadness. I wonder if he really forgot about me. I wonder if he really forgot about us. How could he forget about us? Ana exits the room and walks into the kitchen.
“Uncle Brown!” Mr. Brown’s nephews throw their arms around his legs. He scratches their heads and pats them on the waist. “Uncle Brown! You promised us a magic trick. Can you show us! Please?”
“I certainly will. Let’s go somewhere quieter.”
They clap, jumping up and down. Mr. Brown places his hands on the boy’s shoulders and escorts them into the kitchen. He bows his head and smiles. I wring my fingers together over my stomach and feel my face turning blue. Mr. Kendall finishes his song. The crowd applauds. My vision distorts. It looks like the crowd is applauding in slow motion.
Their multicolored outfits distort like television station on standby. It sounds like the crowd is chatting in slow motion. I can’t discern what they’re talking about but I hear Mr. Brown clearly through the lead paint walls. He shouts “abracadabra.”
I run into the kitchen. Ana sits at the table with her arms folded on top of the tiles. She turns her head and widens her eyes. “Damien? What is it?”
“Mr. Brown is in the basement with his nephews.”
Ana squints. I feel the floor spinning beneath my sneakers. I think about those marionette frogs. I think about Mr. Brown saying that magic word as his shadow overcame us. “What…should we do? Should we tell someone?”
“Who are we going to tell?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. We have to tell to someone. There must be someone we can tell.”
I think about the first time I tried to tell someone. I was in my room, sprawled across my bed, listening to the music of my favorite rock band on high volume. I picked up an old sports magazine and sifted through the pages. I stumbled upon an article about the Montreal Expos. The article mentioned the comeback the Expos mounted against the Philadelphia Phillies four months earlier. The win put them in striking distance of the NL Wild Card. Richard told me they would never come that close again. He thought the manager would sell the franchise within the year. My father told me to like the Red Sox, Yankees or Mets like a “normal” New England sports fan. I laid the magazine on my pillow and shook my head. They were wrong. The team had too much heart. If the Expos could come back from an 8-0 deficit, they could come back next season and slug their way to the playoffs. I laced up my sneakers like closer Luis Ayala laced up his before recording the final out and proceeded downstairs into my kitchen.
I saw my father carrying two brown paper bags into the kitchen with potato chips in them. It was poker night. Richard’s father and my father alternated Thursdays for Poker night. I scratched my head and tip toed toward him. He laid the chips on the counter and shook his head.
“Now I know baggy pants are in style but do you really want the world to see your underwear,” he said, scratching his chin with his ape sized thumb. “Don’t tell me. All the kids in school are doing it and all the girls love guys who wear baggy pants.”
“Yeah, dad, that’s exactly it…there’s actually something I have to tell you. It’s pretty important.”
He laid his badge on the counter and said, “Sure, Dame, what is it?”
Mr. Chung, Richard’s father, and Mr. Brown, walked into the kitchen moments later with additional groceries. Mr. Brown held a grinder in one hand and a case of beer in the other. His cheeks were plump with baloney. He licked a string of mustard off his lips and smiled at me.
“Kaleb, you’re going to eat yourself into an early grave,” Mr. Chung
joked. “You could take a cue from your brother, the vegetarian, or at least cut down on the salty stuff. You share everything with your younger brother. You share the same profession, the same hobbies. You even the same allergies. You might as well share the same diet.”
Before my dad could ask me what I wanted to talk about, I grabbed my Montreal Expos jacket off the table and headed into the cold, December night. Richard was right. The Expos didn’t stand a chance.
“Damien.” Ana waves a hand in front of my face. “If we’re going to someone, we have to do it now.”
Ms. Kendall stumbles into the kitchen with a bottle of wine in her left hand. Her mascara and her lipstick smear her face like a circus clown. Mr. Kendall, a man who stands a few inches shorter than his wife, keeps a hand behind her. Beads of sweat fall from his shiny forehead. His bowtie dangles loosely from his tux.
“What is all the…all… the commotion going on in here.”
Mr. Kendall catches his wife as she dances backward toward the dishwasher.
“Easy, darling, take it one step at a time.”
Ana shakes her head and exhales through her nostrils.
“You think the wife of an American lit professor would know how to distinguish reality from fiction by now…” he mumbles.
“I need another brick, darling.”
“No you don’t, sweetie. We’re not actually at a speakeasy.”
“Ana don’t,” I whisper.
“Dad. I’m hearing some weird noises from the basement. Could you check it out for me?”
Ms. Kendall collapses on the marble table. The pot of hazelnut hot cocoa and the plate of hazelnut cookies topple onto the floor. The pot rolls toward my foot. The pot is labeled “coffee” with permanent marker on a strip of masking tape. Brown and white liquid ooze from the spout.
“I’m fine darling. I will be up in a minute.”
Mr. Kendall removes her from the table and places her onto a chair. “I can’t deal with this right now. Ana, why don’t you show me what’s going on in the basement.”
We hear the children scream.
The three of us run toward the basement at full sprint. Mr. Kendall forces the door open, practically tearing if off its hinges. We scurry downstairs, dodging a magic wand, a stuffed rabbit and a pair of handcuffs. Mr. Kendall stops at the last step. He bites his lip and drops his hands to his sides.
The children cry over Mr. Brown who lies on the concrete floor by the furnace. Mr. Brown lies with his arms at his sides and his eyes wide open. His swamp tinted eyes fade into their sockets. Red blotches decorate his face like the squares on a checkerboard. Brown saliva dangles from his lips and splashes his suit jacket. I stare into his shrinking pupils and feel my heart sink into my chest.
“My phone is dead!” Ana lies.
“Mine is too.”
“For Christ Sakes. Use the phone in our kitchen! 9-1-1 is on speed dial.”
Instead of running toward the kitchen, Ana runs through the living room, bumping into guests. Wine glasses shatter on the floor. I dodge two flappers and a man in drag. I grab Ana’s hair and her shoulders and pull her toward my chest. “What the hell did you do?”
“Something we could have done a long time ago.”
She scratches my arm and breaks free from my grasp. She opens the front door and pauses. Richard stands on the doorstep with a case of beer in his arms. His smiles at us. His smile disappears when he notices the blood dripping from my elbow.
“What’s going on guys? Is everything okay?”
“I finally killed him.”
“I finally killed Mr. Brown,” Ana whispers with a slight smile.
“Stop messing around, Ana.”
“Richard, I’m serious.”
“Ana, that’s impossible. Mr. Brown died three years ago from a massive heart attack. I’m glad you’re comfortable enough to joke about it now but I really want to move on. I need to put this beer in your fridge so it gets cold.”
“What the hell do you mean, Richard?”
He shakes the case of beer at my chest. “I mean move on and move out of the way.”
Ana and I step to the side. She vomits on the welcome mat.