It's a hot June day at First Lutheran Elementary. We're making construction paper baskets and filling them with candy. I'm pleating tissue paper between my fingers, sneaking jelly beans when no one's looking. Vacation Bible School would be a trial if not for the crafts and the sugar. Through the jalousie windows, I see Gloria's mom. She's carrying a box and I'm happy because her peanut butter and chocolate cookies are the best.
Our candy baskets are going to the nursing home; we'll take them on Friday, a parade of eight and nine year olds, little Lutherans doing good deeds. I've been doing good deeds since before I started school, urged on by my mother and my personal theme song, as sung by my father: "There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead, when she was good, she was very, very good" and every time he would smile and hug me. I'm 10 before I hear the last line ~ and when she was bad she was horrid
~ and it stops me in my tracks, shocked to hear that a good girl can go bad.
I feel dozey in the Oklahoma heat and I want to get out of here, home, where we'll play baseball all afternoon and run the neighborhood with Danny and Tim and John. It's an idyllic childhood, which I don't actually know until I'm grown up and see how most kids live in the age of electronics. I just know that summer days mean absolute freedom outdoors catching frogs at the pond, playing baseball, swinging statues and red rover, spying on neighbors, staying out til dark uninterrupted but for meals, and it's heaven.
My sister and I are the only ones who have to do Bible school, a fact the neighbor boys point out with some frequency. Danny and Tim and John barely even go to church. I'm envious of their freedom and their families' casual approach to religion. They don't do many good deeds either, those boys. Danny in particular is a rowdy boy my age and he's pretty bad. Rough, a little mean, quick to hit or throw a baseball bat. I know this and I feel a little bit smug. Of all of us kids, I'm the best, the sweetest. I am very, very good.
We're set free at noon and my sister and I walk home. Walking home, from Sunday School, from church, school, it's expected. It's not an ordeal, we don't whine and cry. We cut through yards and wave at neighbors and imagine we're grown up and living on our own. We're absolutely safe in this northern Oklahoma town, and so we are fearless, free to roam and dream and pretend we're all grown up. We imagine our lives 10 years down the road, how we'll go anywhere, live anywhere we want. Good girls grown up, out in the world.
At the corner of brick street Elmwood and Overbrook, we turn right, away from home, so we can buy grape bubble gum at Jack's market. Down the hill and then back up, we pass Mr. Johnson's house both times, but on the return trip, he's outside and we smile and wave because we're friendly girls, Lutherans fresh from Bible school, good girls.
He motions to us to come over, says he's got something he wants us to see and we follow him around to the back of his house. There are no backyard neighbors. Mr. Johnson's house sits on the creek we float after summer rains. There's no one around and no houses nearby in the aptly named Acre Homes, and Mr. Johnson's got something we simply must see, he tells us this as he opens the back door and ushers us inside.
This feels wrong and I'm torn between being a good girl, obeying an adult, and telling a lie about having to go home. His TV is on and he's got a little table set up with brownies and a pitcher of milk. Has he prepared this for us? This is weird. My eight year old brain knows this and in between his shutting the door and our moving to the table, I get a little kick of fear.
But this is Mr. Johnson, our neighbor, a grown up, and he's made brownies for us and so we sit with him and watch TV and eat. When we're done, we thank him and start for the door, and he says he's got something else to show us and tells us to sit back down. He brings out a box full of geodes, cut open, but unpolished and we do find them enchanting, the crusty round stones with the crystal centers.
I'm picking up each rock, testing the weight, looking closely at the crystals when Mr. Johnson moves behind my sister and rubs her shoulders. I catch Margene's eye and she has the frozen look my little Easter rabbit had when Zachariah scared him to death. The cat ran up on the rabbit and never touched him, but the bunny died of fright, eyes staring straight ahead as he shook to death in my hands.
Mr. Johnson is touching my sister and he's scaring her, me too. He's rubbing her nine year old shoulders and I don't know what to do so I drop a rock on the table and he startles, a wash of anger before he smiles again and says it's okay. He lets her go, though, to check the table. There's a tiny dent in the top and he licks his finger, rubbing his spit into the dent making it darker than the rest.
He's focused on the dent, licking his finger again, and we're standing up, saying our thank yous and goodbyes and moving toward the door when he's suddenly in front of us. His fly is open and his back's to the door and he's saying "I'll bet your mother's wondering where you are, do you think she's worried" and other things that scare us near to death and all of a sudden, I know how the bunny felt when Zachariah pounced.
I want out of this house and I want my sister safe too but I'm shaking and scared and I don't know if good girls can die of fright like rabbits, but I feel sure I'm going to. My sister is a zombie, unmoving, and I give her a shove and shout "my mom is waiting for us right now and she'll call the police if we don't come home" and he's out of the way, the door magically open and we're free, running. I look back to see him in the dark of his house and he's not human to me, he's evil, a demon and we've escaped.
Margene and I are running and fragments of the 23rd Psalm loop through my mind. We're crying and breathless and because we're little Lutheran girls, we're not supposed to fear any evil in the valley and the Lord's supposed to be with us, but I'm petrified and we're alone. We're running, running up the hill, all the way to the safety of brick street Elmwood, home and inside.
There's my mother in the kitchen, smiling just like it's any other day, and she hugs us and asks us why we're running, why are you crying and she says "What did Danny do to you?" and sweeps us into her arms, kissing our heads, holding us close. This is safety and it smells like White Shoulders and it feels soft and warm and I think of the demon inside that house and my heart races while my mother holds me tight.
We stay in the rest of the afternoon and my sister and I, we never talk about it, never mention it again. When we walk down Elmwood, though, going to Jack's, to Miller Market, we don't ever walk on Mr. Johnson's side. We look away and hurry past that house, the white house with the blue trim and a demon inside.
I am 14 years old and it's after school. I'm standing on the library lawn where the bad kids go, learning to inhale the Salem in my hand. My friends have mostly mastered this art and I want the bad girl cool that comes from smoking. Danny comes over where I'm standing and says "that pervert died, a fire truck hit him" and I say who? but I know that somehow Danny knows about Mr. Johnson, about the things he likes to show little kids, about his open fly and what he keeps inside. How could that be? I say "Johnson?" and Danny nods and we both smile. The demon is dead and I'm a bad girl now, working on cool. It's okay to be glad.
Labels: bad girls, good girls, Lutheran school, perverts, sex offenders, vacation Bible school