When I was almost three, a dark man and woman knocked on the door of our gold, shoebox house on Locke Avenue and wanted to buy it, so we moved “Out to the Country”. We lived in a square white house with two levels and black shutters and a concrete front porch, sporting rectangular pillars. A Weeping Willow yawned in the front yard near the ditch that ran along Eighth Avenue; the ditch I squatted by and caught pollywogs and fat brown toads and made mud-pies with Johnny Height, my next-door neighbor with wild blond curls and a cap-gun. My brother and I weren’t allowed guns, so Johnny cut an unsettling figure, running around the neighborhood like a renegade, bare-chested with cut-off blue jeans and a holster slung low about his hips.
The gun wasn’t the only dangerous thing about Johnny. He never got spankings, for one thing, and he had a dirty mouth. He was an only child and I remember seeing his parents only a few times, when my brother was lost in a book and my desire for a playmate outweighed my fear of knocking on Johnny’s door. His mother was a left-over Hippie, with straight black hair that fell down in front of her shoulders. She had yellow teeth and a cigarette in her left hand and she never addressed me by name or seemed very interested in me, or in Johnny, either. I think she invited me in once, in the five years we lived there. The house was strewn with cigarette butts and dog hair and when I came home my mother scrubbed my hair and clothes to get out their smell.
Johnny’s dad looked a lot like Johnny, but bigger, and wore a bare chest with just as much ease. He parked a beat up Chevrolet in the back yard some time before my memory; put it up on cement blocks and left it there. Black-Eyed Susans and wild rhubarb grew up around it, in the thick, uncut grass. Johnny showed me the best patch of rhubarb, alongside the back wall of his house. He cut gigantic purple stalks with his jack-knife and gnawed on the juicy ends.
The Heights didn’t go to church and had an old hound named Reefer. Johnny thought this name was funny and liked to say it a lot, but once, when the subject surfaced at home, my dad grew angry and my mother’s posture drooped. She turned quiet and sighed and I thought she was going to cry. Johnny Height and his parents and his dog became my first demonstrable link to the word “heathen”.
One time while we were playing hopscotch in the driveway, my stomach knotted up with conviction and wouldn’t let go. I took Johnny by the hand and led him to a shadowed corner of my basement, behind a rocking chair, and made him pray the Sinner’s Prayer. He didn’t really want to, but my vivid explanation of the torments of Hell made him more willing. I could be pretty persuasive already at five or six. I waxed eloquent, like a tent-revival preacher and tried to measure my effectiveness by Johnny’s face. He teetered on the edge of decision, his eyes shifting from me to the marbled shag carpeting, to the stairway that led back outside. Time to close the deal:
“Anyway, I won’t play with you any more until you say it”, I blurted, thinking of mud-pies and tadpoles and rhubarb and hoping he didn’t hold me to my words, in the event that he was blinded to the truth and damned, after all.
“Okay.” He shifted his agile body awkwardly, and half-closed his eyes.
“Repeat after me,” I said.
When we had finished a sufficiently salvific prayer I told him we were done. He opened his eyes.
I looked for the bare-chested cowboy with hands quick on the draw, hands which caught twice as many frogs as mine and were both surer and freer with a Frisbee or the branches of a tree. Johnny’s hands lay folded strangely on his lap, his face was flushed and funny and he wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“Can we play now?”
“Yes”. I stood up, suddenly tired and wondering why my legs were shaking and why I felt so crummy when I’d just saved a soul.
It was maybe ten minutes before Johnny’s movements quickened again and the fire lit in his sky-blue eyes, but it was ten years before I tried my hand at Conversion again.
We played long into the summer evening shadows that day and many other days, and when my family moved, the summer I was eight, Johnny was the only one who saw me sneak around the side of my house to hug it at the back corner and to look one more time at the Black-Eyed Susan’s and the broad-leafed rhubarb in his backyard.