Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pennies a Day - by Andrew J. Bergman

We never replied to our sponsored child, not even once. He was eleven or so when we were propositioned at the front door one evening around suppertime and, ashamed of our affluence, we committed to monthly bank withdrawals that would go ever-so-indirectly to our selected Sri Lankan orphan. Every year after that we got a letter, a photo, and a progress report, items that I’d glance at and then toss on a pile next to unread copies of Travel+Leisure. Each month, forty dollars was withdrawn from our chequing account, a figure that my wife Janet dutifully recorded on an Excel spreadsheet in a column marked “Miscellaneous Expenditures.”
            “We should write him a letter,” she suggested one evening, after sorting through the junk mail and rescuing the envelope. She had heard about people actually visiting their sponsored children. You know, flying all the way out there and presenting them with a Bible and a PlayStation 3. Of course, we weren’t convinced that was the right course of action for a young married couple such as ourselves. There were ethical implications, after all. You could sponsor a hell of a lot of children for a hell of a long time for the cost of that one flight. Plus, we always had trouble finding someone we could trust to care for our Tibetan Mastiff. He was just a puppy, after all. Sending a letter, however, raised it’s own questions.
            “After all this time?” I asked. “Out of nowhere? What, so we send him a snapshot of this parka-wearing childless Canadian couple grinning like fools in front of mounds of snow?”
            “Yeah, something like that. It would be best to do it winter. He probably doesn’t see much snow—might find it interesting.”
            It was true there was never any snow in the pictures they sent of him—mostly just dirt and tropical trees in the background. I looked at him standing there at eighteen, a real young man, at least compared to the magnetized childhood photo that had clung to our refrigerator for the past seven years. Our monthly donations seemed to have served him well. A nice clean shirt, well-groomed, pleasant smile, healthy—heck, he was even literate.
            I grabbed a bottle of barrel-aged stout from the fridge and poured two glasses for Janet and myself.
            “I really think we should write him a letter.” She paused. “Maybe he’s on Facebook.”
            The thought that our sponsored child, now adult, might be an active participant on the world’s largest online social network had never dawned on me before. I shook my head at Janet.
            “Why not?” she continued. “I mean, just because he’s receiving charity money doesn’t mean he’s not accessing the Internet. He might even be tweeting by now, who knows.”
            I didn’t want to find out. I couldn’t imagine he’d want to connect with us on the World Wide Web, but Janet insisted we at least check it out. She scrolled through a few profiles. We didn’t have much to go on: a first name, a last initial, and the name of a town that probably wasn’t even on the map. That combination of information led to dozens of results. After eliminating a surprising number of old men and teenage girls, we spotted one candidate who looked promising.
            “Is this him? This guy seems really into cricket. What do the letters say—is our child a sports fan?”
            “I never read them,” I confessed. Janet hadn’t either, and since the face of the young Internet man was covered with paint representing his local squad, there was no way of knowing for certain that this was our child.
            “Well, send him a message.”
            “Seriously? What would it say? Dear Deshan: We couldn’t help but notice your online profile and thought you looked familiar. I know this is a long shot, but your name and general physical appearance resemble that of the pretend-child we’ve been ignoring for the past half-decade. We’re wondering if that might be the case. Also, any chance we could live vicariously through you?”
            But Janet insisted. She said she’d even do it herself so it didn’t seem so creepy, a friend-request from an unknown male with a Movember ‘stasche. She said she’d send a pleasant little note—“just wondering if we know you”— and see what happened.
            Hours went by—a day. Janet figured that time zones might mean we’d have to wait a while for his response. “Plus,” she said. “He’s probably using a computer in the community centre or something. He might not have access all the time.”
            A few more days passed. We continued to consume copious amounts of ale brewed by Trappist monks and artisan cheese that I placed ever-so-carefully onto tiny wholegrain crackers. It was the holiday season; we deprived ourselves of nothing. Finally, after a full week, during which time we consumed an entire case of Westvleteren 12, there was a message.
            It wasn’t a message—not really. It was just a link, and I could tell from the little red exclamation mark that it wasn’t the sort of link our computer wanted us to visit. Perhaps this dangerous-looking website would provide us with convenient access to replacement tuk-tuk parts, or Sri Lankan dating, or sketchy Colombo travel guides—whatever it was, it was bound to give us a virus or, at the very least, attempt to sell us something we weren’t prepared to buy.
            “Well, I guess we haven’t found him.” By the way she guzzled a beer that was clearly meant for sipping, I could tell Janet was disappointed. You might even say she was devastated, at least as devastated as a woman in her late twenties can be after her meager attempts at online stalking had failed. “I guess we haven’t found him,” she repeated.
            “What makes you say that?” I asked. “It could be him. You know, I’d be pretty happy if he’d gone from subsistence farming to e-commerce. Looks like our sponsorship dollars have really paid off.”
            Janet shook her head. “No, it wasn’t him.”
            I encouraged her to send a message to some of the other candidates, but by this time she was so concerned about the risk of computer viruses and having her heart broken, that she vowed never to make contact with random Internet-users again.
I took the photo, the one we received that past Christmas, and placed it on the fridge next to the much younger picture. It was a dramatic contrast. The penmanship in his letters, too, had noticeably improved from the boxy crayoning of that first year. Sometime later I rummaged around and found the rest of the photos and letters and put them up there, too. It was a bit like a Facebook wall, or Instagram stream, or whatever all the young Sri Lankans are using these days, except our wall was more carefully curated—no links to Onion articles, and no bikini photos of ex-girlfriends. I think I told Janet we needed more magnets.
The display stayed there on the fridge for a few months. We even took a wintry selfie and contemplated sending it to the address, but for whatever reason it never made it to the post office. Eventually, though, it became like a billboard you drive past every day but never notice.
Once it was time for spring-cleaning, I took it down completely. I placed the photos and letters in a shoebox somewhere in my office, a box I labeled “our sponsored child,” in black felt marker. I think I even underlined it in red, as if that imbued it with importance, as if we’d be more likely, with the red line there on the box, to take it out and glance at the contents.
Not too long after this we got a note in the mail. This time I read it. It said our child was now an adult and this meant our sponsorship dollars were no longer needed to support him. Thanks to our generous donations over the past seven years, our child had achieved all his goals. They said he would soon be 19 and was entering a computer-engineering program in Moratuwa, the first in his village of farmers to go to college. They told us he was very happy and healthy and that in his free time he was a big supporter of Suraj Randiv who had an eight-wicket haul in a recent match against NCC. It said all this in the report.  This time, though, there was no photo.
Instead, they told us we could choose a new child, a younger one, maybe a girl this time. They sent along a few photos of our options. They told us it was just pennies a day and that these children were in dire need of our support. They told us that if we continued to support the program, they’d send regular progress reports, twice or maybe even three times a year. They implied that child sponsorship, as we already knew, was almost like parenting. They said it had all sorts of benefits for the child. We’d be providing shelter, clothing, education, opportunity and a host of other things. All we had to do was select a child. The cutest one? The one who looked most in need? It was a tough call.
To close the deal, they told us that we’d receive benefits, too. They implied that child sponsorship would improve our moral and spiritual status, and perhaps even our standing in the community. In other words, we would feel pretty damn good about ourselves. It was all pretty convincing. This time we chose a nine-year-old Tanzanian girl named Zalia. Janet thought she was a perfect combination of cute and needy-looking, and I wholeheartedly agreed.
So, some time has passed and now it’s her photo up there on the old refrigerator collecting dust and splatters of truffle oil. I think she might even be sending us the occasional letter. A while ago there was some discussion about composing a reply but I don’t know if we ever sent it. I get the impression Zalia’s doing well, though I’m not sure since I haven’t read her correspondence. Quite frankly, I have my doubts about many things. All I know for certain is that the payments are coming out on the first of every month.


Andrew J. Bergman is a novelist and ghostwriter from Winnipeg, Manitoba. His work has previously appeared in Geez, Ballast, and He blogs at and occasionally tweets @andrewjbergman 

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