The Joyless Child

Well, the great candy-fest has come and gone. I spent an intense two hours Halloween night standing at my front door, ready to spring into action the moment my doorbell rang. Youngsters dressed as The Incredible Hulk with green faces and foam-rubber muscles have the patience of a gnat and will destroy the doorbell if you don’t respond within nano-seconds. Had I ever sat down, I would have been too slow springing up again.

Although I can’t call Halloween my favorite day (I outgrew that several years ago), I still hand out candy so I can see the little ones in their costumes.

As we writers know, humans in all guises are fascinating creatures and an endless source of writing material. My doorstep saw the polite, well-mannered children who greeted me and thanked me. Then there were the barbarians, too young as yet to be hooligans, but give them about four to six more years and a driver’s license. You haven’t lived until a ten-year-old brandishes a wooden dagger at your throat and demands your Snickers Bars or else!

Of course, the best entertainment in my small-people watching came from the little ones. The two-year-olds just don’t get it yet. The three-year-olds are the ones reaching to grab candy for themselves. The four-year-olds are circling the group for second and third helpings.

The top charmer was the toddler in a T-Rex costume who was so fascinated by the cement dog on my porch that not even the prospect of candy could lure her attention away from the engrossing process of inserting her index finger into the dog’s mouth. The best costume of the night went to the clever young lady who was dressed as a bag of jelly beans. She’d designed and made the costume herself, but she confessed that it was terribly hot. Runner-up was the child who came as a candy cane–complete with red-and-white striped tights–and carried a Christmas stocking to hold her swag. She was young, but she already had style.

And then there were the kids who’d tried to make costumes for themselves despite next-to-nothing to work with. Those take me back to my childhood.

My first costume was home-made by my mother. I went as a ghost fashioned from a bedsheet and one of Dad’s old white undershirts, and Mom gave me strict orders not to say a word so no one would recognize my voice. Let’s just say that no one at school guessed who I was, and I was thrilled to be Caspar the Friendly Ghost.

I can recall having only one store-bought costume. It was black with a skeleton painted on it. I got it when I was seven, and it had to last through several other Halloweens until I completely outgrew it. Thereafter, my outfits were always home-made, devised first by my innovative mother and, later, myself.

Last night, I saw kids who’d been pretty clever, given limited resources. Some had painted their faces. Others wore hand-me-down party frocks for the Princess look. The least imaginative were the boys clad in football jerseys. But perhaps they were fantasizing about someday playing for the OU Sooners.

And then … there came my last trick-or-treater of the night. A grim-faced little girl of maybe ten in a cheap school dress and stringy hair, carrying a battered plastic Walmart sack. No face paint, no hat, no borrowed finery or ghoulish robes. She came alone, without any buddies to giggle with in the dark spans between houses.

There was no excited shout of “Trick or Treat!” and no “Thank you” for what I gave her.

Her eyes held a dull determination, and there was no smile on her face. Certainly there was no joy in her heart. I saw no excitement in her, no giddiness, and none of that eager-to-greedy anticipation that had carried the others before her.

There wasn’t much candy in her sack either.

When I closed the door, I couldn’t forget her, this joyless child. My writer’s imagination leapt to work, immediately playing the “what if” game. I had to speculate on what could so deaden a child’s sense of fun and adventure.

Was she out there against her will? Was she sulking because she didn’t have a costume? Or had there been domestic trouble in the family that evening to spoil the outing for her? Did she have an alcoholic parent who’d shouted at her, or belittled her before she went out?

Maybe she was unhappy because she had no friends or siblings to go with. Or maybe she was the unfortunate kid who didn’t get invited to the big Halloween party.

Was she afflicted with a lack of imagination? Was there no adult in her family sufficiently interested in her to even try to dress her up? How much effort does it take to work a bit of magic with a tube of lipstick or even a smear of shoe polish or Magic Marker?

Maybe too much, if no one cares.

And yet, how did she come to be tramping doggedly alone in my neighborhood after dark if no one had bothered to drive her there? Or did she walk to our houses, a stolid little figure braving the shadows alone? At the age of ten, I would have loved doing that. But this child was not having fun.

I shall never know this odd little girl who came last. I can only imagine what brought her to my door and where she went next.

She’ll appear in one of my stories someday. Of that, I can be sure.


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4 responses to “The Joyless Child

  1. What a picture you give me. And the sudden realization of how much I have enjoyed, been blessed with, in my life. Thank you, dear friend.

  2. Yes, and you’re most welcome. I have much to be thankful for, too. It’s good to be reminded from time to time, isn’t it?


  3. LauranceS

    I have seen that ten year old girl’s face on a boy about forty years ago. Back in the 70’s I was growing up in a neighborhood where you could always tell whose father had recently received a promotion by the appearance of a brand new Buick in the driveway. That is where I met a boy named Jack.
    Jack was around nine and me a couple of years older. He and his mother moved into the three bedroom ranch house two doors down from my home. They moved in at the beginning of the summer. Jack received a friendly welcome from the neighborhood kids. He promptly joined our upper middle class suburban bicycle gang. He and his purple Schwinn Stingray could jump farther using the neighborhood Evil Knievel plywood jump ramps than anybody else. This made him the envy of every boy for a half mile in all directions. He seemed to be a happy kid that had everything that all of us kids had except a father.
    Jack’s mother was a trophy wife that had passed thirty and the make-up bottle could no longer polish the tarnish from her face. Jack’s father had decided to trade Mom in for younger trophy. While Jack’s mother was starting to show the cracks that time leaves on every face, she still possessed the curves of youth. This was enough to bring the neighborhood fathers around to see if she needed any help cleaning out her gutters and to bring out the cat claws in all of the neighborhood mothers. Her looks left her floating alone in the midst of a sea of stay at home mothers.
    Jack’s mother attempted to replace Jack’s biological father. Mom found a new boyfriend, a fifty year old branch manager of a savings and loan, after dating for a few months the banker moved in with her and Jack. That is when Jack’s bike stopped flying farther than all the other kids. His happy face was replaced with lips that never curved up at the corners and eyes that mostly looked at his shoes. Jack told us that he was afraid of the banker. We kept going by Jack’s house and asking for him to come out and play. Jack came out to play less and less. Most of the time his mother or the banker would meet us at the door and tell us that Jack was with his father and could not come out and play. Finally one day one of the neighbor kids went by Jack’s house and his mother told us that Jack had moved to California with his father and that he would never be there again. We all missed Jack.
    We did get to see him one more time. About a month later Jack banged on my neighbors door at six in the morning. He had escaped from his own house. He was in his underwear, skinny as a death camp survivor and bruised all over. My neighbors took him in and called the police. It turned out that Jack’s mother was pregnant and the banker was beating and starving Jack. The banker had impregnated a girlfriend about ten years before and that girlfriend’s twelve year old daughter had disappeared without a trace. The banker and his previous girlfriend had reported the daughter as a runaway but she was never heard from by anyone ever again. Jack’s mother and the banker both went to prison but Jack may have been lucky.
    I hope your little girl meets with a better fate than Jack. I am afraid that there are a lot more monsters out there than the ones we see on Halloween.

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