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The magnificent life-saving key chain

The opportunity for generosity



If it were up to me, I would have mixed the lemonade with vodka to ensure the product was super popular, but whaddo I know? It was my daughter's lemonade stand, and she has very definite ideas about her own merchandise.

"It has to be homemade, with real lemons," she insisted, knowing, even at 7, to make the distinction, because she knows I could easily figure out how to make homemade lemonade without using any actual lemons. Don't they sell lemon-flavored chemicals at the store? Put that in a pail, at home, aim the garden hose at it and – voila! – homemade lemonade.

But no, Mae meant the kind of lemons that grow on trees, and I guess she's the one to judge because she's the one who had to stand by her product, literally. She sat outside of Stone Soup Kitchen all morning and into the afternoon, tending to her little store, which consisted of a sidewalk table under her hand-crafted billboard touting "All-Natural Homemade Lemonade (Comes with Cookie)!"

I was on the other side of the window, at one of the inside tables where I had been relegated because, evidently, beaming with pride is bad for business. Also, all my attempts to flag traffic from the busy street corner in her direction were met with lukewarm response from the public, coupled with consternation from Mae, so I am glad I didn't bother borrowing Lary's gorilla suit to bring more attention to myself as I had originally planned.

Instead, I watched her from inside the window, marveling at her salesmanship. She didn't even charge people. She just had a jar there with a sign that read, "Suggested Donation: Big Smile." That was my idea, too, which, unlike my other brainstorm to offer a sugar-free option – which sat untouched like a pool of rat drool – actually paid off. I told Mae not to charge a specific price because people are often more generous if you give them the opportunity. It turned out I was right, and in the end, Mae, whose goal was to make enough money to buy herself the "Ruffle Witch" Halloween costume at the corner drugstore, made enough to buy two.

I remember when I used to sell stuff door-to-door as a kid, which is how my sisters and I spent our afternoons when we weren't playing air hockey at the bar where our father spent his days. The products we sold were the ones he'd abandoned over the years in his half-hearted attempts to garner an income. They would arrive to our home in boxes -- which was convenient since we would inevitably be moving again soon, anyway -- and that is where they would have stayed if we hadn't nosed around and found them one day.

What we'd found were boxes of greeting cards, wallets, key chains and chocolates (which, of course, we ate). We got a lot of rejection as we went door-to-door, but nothing sold as well as the key chains, thanks to Mr. Festerbeck, our 500-year-old neighbor. He never bought anything from us, but was always a hoot to harass. Plus he whistled through his dentures and had so much junk in his yard it was like picking your way through a rusty treasure trove just to make it to his porch. But the most important thing is he always took it upon himself to give us tips on our sales techniques.

"Stand by your product," he'd cackle. "You have to make me think I can't live without it. Like what's this? A key chain? What's so great about this key chain? Looky here, it clips to your belt and it's retractable! Well, my goodness," he'd exclaim, feigning wonderment, "think of the convenience! Think of the bags of groceries that can be saved from being dropped on the front stoop all because of this magnificent key chain! All the cartons of eggs saved from being crushed. This right here will save you time and money! In fact," he gasped, eyes agog, "think of all the pretty ladies who get attacked on their front steps just because they took too long to find their keys in the dark of night! That's how you have to sell it; it can save your life."

And off we'd go, laughing, selling our Magnificent Life-Saving Key Chains. We got more takers than we would have otherwise, thanks to our kindly old neighbor, who, it turns out, could have used a life-saving device himself. It wasn't long afterward that Mr. Festerbeck was found dead on his kitchen floor by the local exterminator. The exterminator had been hired by Mr. Festerbeck's neighbors as a kindly hint to rein in whatever it was that was causing such a terrible bug infestation on his property, and the exterminator found the problem, all right. But when I think of Mr. Festerbeck, I try not to remember that part. Instead I remember his cackle, spry eye, and all that time he spent helping me and my sisters improve our sales technique, which is how I know people can be astoundingly generous if you just give them the opportunity.

Hollis Gillespie is host of the Shocking Real-Life Writing Workshops (

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