First of all you should know that my neighbor is an actor. Our lives on this street of thickly planted starter homes, all with porches, vintage early 1900s, are divided by two thin strips of driveway with a wisp of shrubbery between. He talks to nobody, which arouses suspicion and contempt. Well, he talks to me.
Before ever we conversed, I knew of Jerry and his wife (a sometime actress) from bits of their private lives slung across their kitchen and ricocheting out the window up to my bedroom at 5:30 a.m. on summer mornings. All couples spat but this was Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I gave the marriage a year. That was a dozen years ago, and scads of people on my street have split since then, while they're still together, still doing their thing at 5:30 a.m. I have finally realized that this is just the way thespians argue. I roll over and go to sleep.
A man in my church years ago named Dick Kauffman would move into a neighborhood like Rommel into Libya and plot a strategy for conquering it for the kingdom. He and his wife walked the dimensions of their new territory (that's how they looked at it), praying for each of its human contents. That was phase one, to be followed by door-to-door invitations to an open-house party. Then, relationships. Then, the gospel.
That's how to do evangelism. Now back to me and Jerry. There is no doubt in my mind that he has made an exception for me in his general moratorium on noticing the existence of the neighbors because he has never stood this close to a real religious fanatic before. How he knows I'm a religious fanatic I can't say. The LeQuires, on the other side of me, still assume I'm a Sunday Christian, having seen little evidence for another theory.
So here's Jerry bounding down his steps, heading somewhere with a cotton drawstring bag flung over his shoulder, and here I am coming home from the café; we meet in the middle of the street. You spend your lifetime waiting for a wedge into conversation about meaningful things with most people, but with Jerry we get from zero to 60 in seconds. I don't remember how it happens but I am soon describing partial-birth abortion in graphic detail, and he is generating all kinds of scenarios about women dying if they can't have one.
You will have the wrong impression if you imagine this discussion proceeded in anything like a coherent or even civil fashion. There was nothing linear or logical about it, which is very painful for me. This was rabbit chasing, point-scoring, and multiple violations of Proverbs 18:13: "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." A dozen topics were floated, none getting traction: bird flu, John Stuart Mill, Krishnamurti. He is the faster thinker, has Borsch Belt timing. He took off his glasses for emphasis, leaning his face into my face, violating the 20-inch-space rule. He gesticulated wildly and I pictured him in that one-man Einstein show he did at the Walnut Street Theatre.
I happened to notice, when we first greeted under the Paxson-Edgeley street sign, that my neighbor with the adopted Guatemalan kids was buckling them into the stroller for a walk. But they had long since returned now and had disappeared into the house. My father had arrived with a load of mulch, deposited it, and gone on his way. Time-lapsed photography would have revealed abrupt materializings and dematerializings, streaks where cars passed, eerily lifelike shifting shadows of houses and sycamores, with me and Jerry the only stationary dot on the screen.
One forgets, after an hour or so, the surrounding world-the open windows, the walls that have ears, the odd pedestrian. Words like sin and true guilt and Jesus were flying like welders' sparks, shattering the middle-class quiet of Glenside, wreaking who knows what collateral damage.
I went home praying for those stray sparks, praying for Jerry, second-guessing my evangelism, and feeling a bit ashamed that, between you and me, I really don't know squat about John Stuart Mill.