The Sign

Our son was an early reader. This skill has raised some interesting issues as we were not given the luxury of either faking him out (he could read the newsletters the preschool sent home, where sometime issues of adult relevance were discussed) or the ability to hide from him things which can be difficult to explain to such a young child. An example: favorite letter? X. Where do you see X's most often? XXX Topless, All Nude Review. We've been dodging that bullet for three years now.

Today, as I was cleaning up the office from the aftermath of new windows being installed and my own lousy record-keeping (shredding acres of trees in the form of credit card offers, glassine envelopes, and bills I'm not sure would be any use to even the most fastidious auditor) I came across a huge sign that our son had taped on his bedroom door last year. It reads, in jagged but perfectly legible letters:

PLEASE HELP

It hung on his door for the better part of preschool. It was an interesting plea, one that entertained more questions than answers. Help how? Help where? Help why? Clearly our son was the one who needed the help, but beyond the request itself there was no hint as to what kind of assistance was required.

This was the mystery that faced my husband when he looked at the door; I however knew what it meant.

I remember stumbling upon the sign as our son was carefully taping it up, having patiently written, correctly spelled and mostly centered on the page in big purple letters, his request. I watched as he proudly adjusted the crooked tape, a small self-satisfied grin barely skimming his lips at his accomplishment. "Why do you need help?" I asked.

"I need money," he answered.

Earlier in the day we had driven down one of Portland's less picturesque streets on our way to the store, or to visit Grandpa. It was a cool day, but bright: late autumn. Check-cashing stores and Lotto signs, gas stations and unwelcoming apartment complexes make up the landscape, and on one prime corner, at the intersection of 39th and Powell there is always one or another panhandler standing with homespun cardboard and Sharpie signs asking for lucre.

That day's hard luck case was particularly striking for her utter despair. No teeth, wheelchair, sallow, overweight. She was almost devoid of sex; the only way to tell she was a woman were her uncomfortable breasts which looked like just another burden heaped upon her by the cruel wheel of fortune. Her identifying characteristics were instead carved by grief, in lines and wrinkles, swollen legs and yellow pallor. Impossible to tell her age, she looked as though to lay her head down permanently was preferable to whatever she had faced thus far. Her message was simple: Please Help.

"Why does he need help?" my son asked, confirming the gender confusion.

How doesn't she need help? I wondered. I explained that many people were far less fortunate than us, either because of bad luck or losing their jobs, or from circumstances beyond their control they could not get enough money to live. She needed money, for food, for shelter, for medicine.

He chewed on this for a while.

And, being a sharp cookie, he realized that all he needed to do was make a sign and the answer to his problem of too few Matchbox cars might be solved.

I don't think I gave him any money, though I appreciated the sentiment. But he had discovered the power of the written word.

Later in the school year he wrote his father a note while he was gone on business. I found it in his cubby at preschool where he had diligently and clearly penned in blue ink on green construction paper his opinions about preschool itself:

DEAR PAPA THIS IS BORING

I guess it would be if you could already write about it.