The block association welcomed the new neighbors by throwing a pipe bomb through their window. In the suburban tract housing development, created decades before for newly minted veterans in search of the American Dream, every house was identical. This meant the attackers strategically tossed the bomb through the window of the room most people used as the master bedroom, potentially leaving two children instantly orphaned. I’m sure the sounds of the four am explosion rattled my neighbor, Cal, unleashing a few wartime memories. We didn’t have the language to talk about the impact of war back then and the term PTSD wasn’t yet in our vocabulary. But the word the kids called the new neighbors, one we can thankfully no longer say aloud without fear of concrete consequences, was still spoken.
As smoke rose from my neighbor’s house, I watched Cal shriek, cry, and drink from a flask he had pulled from his robe pocket, before he ran into the flames, ready to serve. Cal was able to help the family escape without any physical injuries. In my town he wasn’t labeled a hero. Instead, the block association let him know his actions weren’t aligned with their mission by mildly vandalizing his home. The block association didn’t take credit or get charged for the welcoming activities, although everyone suspected the few members behind them.
The new neighbors put their house up for sale. The old neighbors said Cal only helped because he wasn’t quite right. These were once Cal’s buddies. Afterward he openly discussed his repulsion for their behavior, “Like I learned in the war, you don’t get to know people talking to them,” he told my parents, “only by their actions.”
The morning after the bombing, the faint smell of smoke still clung to the humid air, as I stood in our yard, I heard my neighbor Paula say to my mom, “They moved to this town, what did they expect?” I was old enough to know this wasn’t a question in search of an answer.
Later that day, reporters milled about the block, asking questions. One of them asked if I played with my new neighbors. Paula spotted me with the reporter and raced over to us, her hair in curlers, calling out, “Stop! Don’t answer him.” She reprimanded the reporter, “Questioning a child? Who does that?”
As the reporter walked away, I asked Paula, “Who blows up someone’s house?” “Oh Sweetie,” Her doughy hands touched my face, “When you’re older you’ll understand.”
I was around the same age as Cal the night he raced into the house, when a video clip filmed in my old neighborhood went viral. Residents threw rocks at Black Lives Matter protestors and shouted at them to leave their neighborhood. My family hadn’t lived there in decades, but I still scanned the crowd for aged familiar faces. I wanted to find Paula and call out to the screen, “you’re wrong. I don’t understand,” even though she couldn’t hear me.
Alison Lowenstein is a freelance writer and author of children’s books, guidebooks and plays. She’s written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Narratively, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other publications and websites. Her fiction has been published in Fiction, Portland Review, Molecule Tiny Lit Mag, and other journals. She has a piece forthcoming in 101 Words. You can find her at brooklynbaby.com and on Twitter @cityweekendsnyc