Saturday, December 08, 2007

Child Labor

Judging by the obnoxious and persistent knock at my front door at noon today, I expected the person on my fieldstone porch to be a burly UPS man bringing me some big holiday box, or at the least, a pair of hardy Jehovah's Witnesses -- they're always strapping and unflappable.

Instead, when I pulled open my heavy, squeaking door, what I saw was a tiny child, no more than four or five, with short braids and an elfin smile. When I said hello, I saw her take in a small breath and ready herself for her script. That one tiny movement, how she pulled herself together to perform, made her not just adorable, but poignant and alarming. She pushed out her arms to display two small packages loosely encased in bubble wrap, one in each hand.

"Would you please buy a candle for only ten dollars so my daddy can give me Christmas?" she said, perfectly enunciating.

At the end of the walk, a tall lean man in a heavy coat and a black knit cap waited, faintly smiling.

I'm used to door-to-door solicitors here -- it's a "nice" neighborhood and as you'd note if you read my entry in October titled "Bad Candy," I don't always feel good about these transactions. On good days it's kids raising money for something -- teenagers from Central High School, say -- wanting empty cans and bottles for cheerleading camp or their trip to Washington, D.C. I always turn away the JW's, usually with some pagan and brusque remark like "I have my own God" or "Save your breath for somebody else."

But this kid was cute. And it was cold -- ten below freezing. I looked at the man at the end of the walk. He had his hands in his pockets and shifted from foot to foot. I looked back at the little girl, who remarkably held her smile. She had frigging dimples. I don't know how I looked to her: frowsy with Saturday lethargy, but aroused by this small event. Why not give her what she asked for?

But I was angry at the man at the end of the walk. The little girl shook off a miniscule shiver.

"Stay here," I said. I closed the heavy door. I can't say I closed it in her face -- of course I didn't. But I did close the door. I stood in my little foyer for a second to decide what to do. I got my purse and pulled out ten dollars, five ones and a five, and opened the door.

"Come up here -- I want to talk to you," I called out to the man.

"It's okay, just give the money to her. She's okay. She really my daughter," he said.

"No, I want to give the money to you." I don't know why it seemed crucial to me to get him up on my porch. I wanted to look him in the eye. He ambled up with just the right amount of, shall I say, humility. I felt distinctly icky.

"I don't feel good about this -- you're using this little kid," I said. "Here's the money but I don't feel great about giving it to you."

Like the little girl, his smile didn't waver. He took the bills and put them, and his hand, right into his pocket.

"We've hit a spell of financial trouble," he said.

"Okay," I said. The little girl stuck out her arms again, offering me both candles.

"Just one," I said. She seemed reluctant and kept both arms up with their cargo.

"Just one," I said again. "Save the other one for somebody else."

I took my candle and closed the door, firmly this time. When the two of them walked back down the walk, they didn't say anything.

I wish I'd looked out the window to follow them. Did he take her hand and say, "Good job, darling"? Did she say, "Why wasn't that lady nice?" Were they for real? Will that child be okay?

Seventeen days before Christmas, I hate my brittle suspicions.

Just Thursday night I hosted a party with the best of everything -- great wine, ten kinds of desserts -- and there was so much left that afterwards I put five bags of it in the freezer. The house that night was warm, and a welcoming log burned in the fireplace. On the face of it, no worries. We had all night. We stood around in our nice clothes talking about writing and gossiping about the university and making jokes. I have a lucky life. So why this miserly heart on a cold December day?

I wish I'd gone to my freezer and pulled out a bag of leftovers from the party for that little girl -- several dozen chocolate cookies, miniature cream puffs and tiny pumpkin pies, say -- something frivolous and fun and delicious. The little girl could have eaten them later, when she got home.

I put the candle on the mantle. It's nothing fancy, but it smells like lavender. That's the smell we're all supposed to love, that makes us feel serene. It's not working.


darkpoet said...

The reason we have "brittle suspicions" is because there are actually people in the world who take advantage of others, and use kids just to make a buck.

I'm not a huge fan of the door-to-door salesman religious people, and I've actually had one person come to my door with a small child to try and talk to me about going to church. I don't remember a time when I was angrier at a complete stranger. At least they gave you a candle, and not a "are you sure you're going to heaven?" speech...and they may have really needed the money.

Macy Swain said...

Indeed. One reason I felt conflicted about it was that it is possible they really needed the money and if they made candles together as a family and sold them as a family, isn't that something to be admired and encouraged?