The contractor was reviewing the results of the “blower-door test” when Miguel knocked. I had barely opened the door when he asked, “May I speak to you and Sue, together?” He paced back and forth in the carport while we finished reviewing the test results. The house is twenty-five percent tighter now and in a dozen years all that insulation, caulk and foam will have paid for itself, or so they said.
As we entered the carport Miguel flashed an anxious smile. His upper two front teeth were half teeth, each missing fifty percent of their mass. The chips of teeth that remained began at the midline of his upper gum and ran at a forty-five degree angle toward the lower lateral tooth edge. The dark hole left behind by the missing teeth had the appearance of a train tunnel that intermittently filled with the tip of his pink tongue. As he spoke I recalled my niece and her young friends in ballet class, most had braces and rubber bands wrapped around smiles so beautiful I questioned, “Where’s the defect? What is so wrong with these children’s smiles that they require thousands of dollars of dental work?” After that brief digression my focus returned to the carport where I could hear Miguel struggling to express himself in a foreign language, English. I listened and watched and thought, “He will never have enough money to repair those broken teeth”.
Sue met Miguel four months ago as she was cutting down three tons of feral Laurel trees with her handsaw. He stopped to ask if she needed someone to take the cut limbs to the dump. Miguel came across as friendly and honest and had what we lacked, a truck and knowledge of where the dump was located. A few days later he returned with his well-worn truck and a large tarp. He spread the frayed tarp on the ground then started tossing limbs into the center, once the tarp contained a pile of limbs about the size of Miguel he grabbed the ends like it was a large blue taco and hoisted it upon his back. He hobbled slowly toward his truck bent at the waist with his chest almost parallel to the ground. His bent posture combined with his stout Aztec-like physique and brown skin gave the activity an ancient feel.
It took Miguel two long days to collect and transport all three tons. He was eager for more work but admitted he had limited skills and introduced us to his friend, Carlos, a licensed contractor. We hired Miguel to mow the lawn and Carlos for the gutter, drainage and concrete work. I spoke to Miguel only twice and said little more than “Hi” when I did and now I’m standing in a cold carport a few days before Christmas waiting to hear Miguel’s urgent news.
Miguel began by telling us he would take any job we could offer him and then repeated the offer in slightly different ways a few more times. He danced around the real issue for a while but finally shared his secret, “Three weeks ago I had back surgery and I haven’t worked in over a month because of the pain.” He guaranteed us he was feeling fine now and that he could do anything we needed done then he said, “I need to pay my rent today, I have fifty dollars, I have to pay four hundred”. I felt like I had stepped into a Hispanic version of a Dickens classic. I also felt I had stepped into my own childhood where gifts were delivered by “Toys for Tots” and our Christmas dinner was bought with food stamps.
Time, his lack of skills and his damaged body were all working against Miguel, his wife and his three children. This time of year the media warns about scams and since I barely knew Miguel I could be skeptical about his claims but I wasn’t. Miguel’s story didn’t sound like a scam just a hard truth, “life isn’t fair, never was and never will be”. But another fact of life is we should help others if we can and not because we share a common god or spiritual beliefs but because we are all members of the same race, the human race.
Sue glanced at me with her brown eyes and without saying a word I knew what she was asking, “What do you want to do?” I placed my hand on Miguel’s shoulder then said, “Why don’t we contract for twenty hours of your labor now and we can figure out what we need done later. We are going to need the lawn mowed next year and Sue is going to need your help laying out her garden.” Immediately I felt Miguel’s tense shoulder muscles relax and watched his face transform from one of desperation and worry to one of relief and happiness. We shook hands and then Miguel broke into a broad smile that was just as warm, bright and beautiful as the smiles of those young ballet dancers with perfect teeth.