Volume 27, Number 2

The Children’s Charities

Jason Peck

When I was younger, a woman with graying hair and a mouthful of lipstick would come from a children’s charity to cut my hair for free. Her way of giving back, she said, to those in need. I suggested every possible style; she’d smile and comply. Comb-overs, flairs, fades. Mohawked like Hiawatha, unkempt as Einstein, punk like Vicious. I walked past classmates without shame, made dares the rich kids couldn’t answer.

I had dental exams from volunteer students every four years, free toys for children every Christmas, recycled Happy Meal toys with scuff marks, stuffed animals with the musty smell of an old attic, donated clothes from onesies at birth through high-tops.

Another charity—office pools chipped in for baseball tickets for the disadvantaged. On game days, a volunteer adult would accompany me, pretend to be my father. He’d try for small talk. In summer camps, an Eagle Scout would sub for an older brother I didn’t have. Like real brothers, they lacked tact.

The fuck is wrong with your hair, they’d ask.

I had sour milk with cereal, street corners where I couldn’t linger. I had welfare checks and food vouchers, a one-bedroom apartment where my mother and I had alternated between a couch in the living room and a mattress in the bedroom from the time I was three.

I’d spent three nights in a shelter; from the starched-sheeted bed, I’d stare at the stars painted in the ceiling and try my best to sleep. Program directors shared phone numbers; I made all the mailing lists.

Every fall, a charity for school supplies—pens and pencils, pocket calculators with cracked screens, pink-covered notebooks that I colored in with black marker. Once a month, the food pantry in a church basement, stuffed with oversized cans. I learned fried beans, tuna fish sandwiches and fruit cocktails. Every Thanksgiving, cans of veggies and candied yams; from the kitchen always the clinking of tin in the wastebasket. The turkey, microwaved.

But the haircuts were best. I asked for tips that made me stand out more—styling gels, Superglues, dyes gaudy as neon lights, checkboard patterns shaved into the back of my head. Eat it up, rich kids. I saw jealous gazes and laughed.

Oh please, my barber would smile at every suggestion. But still she would agree.

Charity after charity—Clothe the Kids, Feed the Children, Children Are Our Future. Save them, convert them, uplift them. Keep their heads above the water, though they snort it up the nose.

And then I was 18. Childhood had passed through slippery fingers, and I watched the things I hated vanish—the sour smell of emptied cans in the wastebasket, the bags of chalk-flavored knock-off cereal, cold stethoscopes from bumbling med students. The reduced-price lunch tickets that marked a charity case, the mentors with their catcher’s mitts and motivational posters. That look they gave—poor thing, they’d say without speaking, pity I didn’t need.

Poor thing. Conveyed in tones melancholic, contemptuous, disdainful. Poor thing, poor thing, poor thing.

Suddenly, no more. Something brushed the corner of my eye, and I checked the mirror to see my hair grown past the eyebrows. I held the ends between two fingers to see how far it would go, how long this new life would last.