Really neat

The neighborhood horde swarms up the street, yelping and howling, waving goblin robes and inhuman limbs. From the kitchen window, I watch them pour into our yard. In the lead, as always, runs Jenny neck and neck with our neighbor's burly boy. Somewhere in the thick of things is my five-year-old, still in school clothes. And trailing at the rear, tripping over her worn-out, too-big cowboy boots, is Jenny's little sister, Lisa Ann.

That child always makes me feel guilty.

How can I dislike her? She's just a kindergartner. But it is always Lisa Ann who holds the empty pitcher of spilled juice, the ruined toy. Lisa Ann is the one who appears, ghostlike, in the house, uninvited, touching my things. When the children climb the forbidden young trees, it is Lisa Ann's branch that breaks, and it is Lisa Ann who clings to it, emitting a stringy cry, while the others run shrieking to hide in the rhododendrons.

Her eyes rarely meet mine. And, when they do, their look is an odd mixture of defiance and dread. Her features are really quite nice, but it's difficult to look at her slack hair and expressionless face.

Charity. If I can't like her, why can't I at least feel good, old-fashioned charity toward her?

I feed her along with the rest of the horde, and give her extra snacks when she appears in my kitchen and demands, in her nasal snuffle, ''Sgimme snomsing to eat.'' I've made sure Child Protective Services knows about her.

But that's pity or duty or pride, or something. For some reason I can't feel anything warm toward her. When she asks for food, I ask her pointedly, ''Why don't you go home for lunch, Lisa Ann?'' And get the usual answer, ''Mom won't give us snothing.''

Could she really be so neglected? I've seen her mother at the bus stop in the mornings, her arm around the oldest girl. She doesn't seem like a mean woman.

On this Halloween day the horde has ransacked the playroom upstairs; now they pour into my study.

''Look, Mommy. Look at me. Don't I look super?'' My little boy parades and pounces, a delighted lion in his new yellow pajamas and the ears and tail we'd made the day before.

''I'm going to be a black cat,'' says Jenny. ''I've got this tail and my leotard, but I don't have no ears yet.''

I look at her expectant, freckled face and return her smile. ''I think I can help,'' I tell her. An old headband, a few square inches of black felt. The half-costumed children crowd around while I paste together a set of feline ears.

''Oh, Jenny, you look beautiful!'' and she does. I'm touched at how little it takes to please her.

''Make me a Stombetty Shotcake costume.'' It is Lisa Ann, at my elbow.

Why couldn't she ask for something simple, like ears, or a crown? How about a fairy costume, or a witch, something I'd enjoy making? Instead, she wants to be a tasteless, commercial creation. Strawberry Shortcake obviously means something special to Lisa Ann.

''OK, Lisa Ann, sure. I'll think of something.'' There's the little Dutch-girl cap I wore as a child, not exactly a berry-covered bonnet, but I don't have any little girls to save it for. One of our aprons could double as a pinafore. Still, when it's all assembled, it isn't much of a costume.

''What you need is some makeup,'' I tell her. The kids help me dig out lipstick and eyebrow pencil from the box at the back of the closet. They crowd around again, while I make freckles across Lisa Ann's nose and paint her cheeks bright pink. When I finally stand back, she smiles into the mirror.

''Lisa Ann,'' I tell her, ''you look very nice.'' The children agree. For a minute, she is the center of the group.

''Lisa, let me see.''

''Wooo, Lisa Ann, you look really neat.''

They touch her and turn her, crowding around.

Moved by her sudden transformation, I reach for my camera and take a shot of that grinning, upturned face.

Within a week the lion's ears fall apart, the last of the sticky candy is devoured, the white Dutch girl cap loses itself in the wilds of the neighborhood.

But it isn't really lost; it reappears days later when the film comes back from the printer. The white Dutch cap is there, permanently perched on the head of a little girl, who - for that frozen moment in time - feels she is someone really neat.

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