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Lullabies for little cri.., p.1
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.1

           Heather O'Neill
 
Lullabies for Little Criminals


  Lullabies for Little Criminals

  A Novel

  Heather O’Neill

  Contents

  Life with Jules

  The Last Time We Were Children

  Napoleon Street

  Going to War

  The Devil in a Track Suit

  The Milky Way

  Playing Grown-Up

  Christmas

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  life with jules

  1

  RIGHT BEFORE MY TWELFTH BIRTHDAY, my dad, Jules, and I moved into a two-room apartment in a building that we called the Ostrich Hotel. It was the first time I could remember taking a taxicab anywhere. It let us off in the alley behind the building, where all the walls had pretty graffiti painted on them. There was a cartoon cow with a sad look on its face and a girl with an oxygen mask holding a tiny baby in her arms.

  Jules was wearing a fur hat and a long leather jacket. He was all in a hurry to get our stuff out of the taxi because it was so cold. “Stupid, lousy prick of a bastard, it’s cold!” Jules screamed. That’s the only type of thing anyone could say while outside in that weather. I think he was also in shock that the cabdriver had charged him ten bucks.

  Jules took a suitcase filled with his clothes in one hand and a record player that closed into a white suitcase in the other. I was sure that he was going to drop it because he was wearing a pair of leather boots with flat soles that he had fallen madly in love with at the Army surplus store. They didn’t have any treads on the bottom, so they gave his feet the funny illusion of moving in all directions at once. He slipped just outside the door of the hotel and had to land on his knees to break his fall.

  I had my own little vinyl suitcase with green flowers and my name, Baby, written on it with black permanent marker, bulging with my clothes and my homework. I also had a plastic bag filled with dolls that I was dragging on the ground behind me.

  There was a glass window over the front door on which were painted gold cursive letters that spelled out L’Hotel Austriche. This of course meant the Austrian Hotel, but Jules wasn’t a particularly good reader. There were old-fashioned radiators all along the hallways with designs of roses on them. Jules loved the radiators. He said they were the only things that could keep an apartment warm. You had to stand on a floral carpet and wipe your boots before going up the stairs. Jules had already picked up the keys, so we just ignored the woman sleeping at the desk.

  The apartment was small, with a living room and a tiny bedroom for me in the back. Like all the apartments in the hotels on that street, it came furnished. The wallpaper wasn’t bad, although it had peeled off in spots near the ceiling. It was blue with tiny black stars on it here and there. The carpet had been worn down so much that you couldn’t see what pattern it used to have and the light switch was practically black from so many hands turning it on and off.

  It had the same smell of wet clothes and pot that our last apartment had. It smelled as if a florist shop had caught on fire and all the flowers were burning. I didn’t mind any apartment so long as there weren’t any tiny amber-colored cockroaches that disappeared into holes. Our last apartment was bigger but wouldn’t stay warm. The heat from the electric baseboards just made Jules sweat and then get colder.

  We had decided to leave abruptly in the end. Jules was nervous about a friend of his named Kent murdering him in his sleep. Kent had gone to Oshawa to work in a ski pole factory for the winter season and had left his two electric guitars, an amp, and a bag of clothes at our apartment in exchange for two cartons of cigarettes. They were reservation cigarettes and they had three feathers on each box. Jules smoked the cigarettes one after the other, as if he had an infinite supply. Even though he said they were like smoking shredded-up tires and chicken bones and they were going to kill him before he turned forty, he chain-smoked them nonetheless.

  Jules had a little kid’s sense of time and after a month, when all the cigarettes were gone, he didn’t seem to believe that Kent was ever going to come back. He sold the equipment for fifty dollars. Two days later, Kent called and left a message saying that he would be coming back into town to pick up his stuff. Jules didn’t have any problem-solving skills and he panicked.

  “I can’t get his shit back! I threw his clothes in the trash.”

  “What’s he going to do?” I yelled, jumping up on the couch, as if I’d seen a mouse.

  “Fuck, he’ll run me over with his car. All I need is a couple of broken legs. I can barely walk down the street as it is. You know what they call someone who can’t walk? An invalid!”

  “Can’t you buy back his guitars?” I screamed, hopping from foot to foot on the couch cushions.

  “They’re worth like a thousand dollars. I only got fifty dollars for them. I’ll never be able to get them back. What did he expect me to do? Keep his instruments here for the rest of my life? I’ve already probably got arthritis from stubbing my toes against his shit.”

  That night I had a dream that a pair of running shoes were following me down the street and I woke up in a cold sweat. I had never met Kent, but Jules got me so worked up about him that I couldn’t eat my lunch at school the next day. And that evening, when the doorbell finally did ring, my belly button felt as if it had come unthreaded and had fallen down through the floorboards.

  Jules and I sat nervously next to each other on the couch, until we heard the footsteps walk away. Then he jumped up and peered out the peephole for five minutes before deciding the coast was clear and opening the door. He stepped out into the hallway and came back holding out a note for me to see. It read: “Where the hell are you??? I came by for my stuff.”

  “This doesn’t mean anything,” Jules said, holding up the note. “You have to send it registered mail.”

  He and my mother had both been fifteen when I was born. She had died a year later, so he’d been left to raise me all by himself. It didn’t make him any more mature than any other twenty-six-year-old, though. He practically fell on the floor and died when a song that he liked came on the radio. He was always telling people that he was color-blind because he thought it made him sound original. He also didn’t look too much like a parent. He was boyish and had blue eyes with dirty blond hair that stuck up all over the place. It sometimes had the shape of a hat he’d been wearing earlier. I thought of him as my best friend, as if we were almost the same age.

  If I’d had parents who were adults, I probably would never have been called Baby. The little stores on St. Catherine Street I made Jules walk me past always had gold necklaces with pendants that said “Baby.” My heart skipped a beat whenever I heard it in a song. I loved how people got confused when Jules and I had to explain how it wasn’t just a nickname. It was an ironic name. It didn’t mean you were innocent at all. It meant you were cool and gorgeous. I was only a kid, but I was looking forward to being a lady with that name. I had stringy blonde hair and was skinny as hell, but Jules’s friend Lester said I’d be a heartbreaker someday soon.

  But having a young parent meant you had to pack up your stuff in an hour and run away from a twenty-two-year-old from Oshawa who was going to be mad at you for having sold his guitars.

  THE BATHROOM IN OUR NEW APARTMENT was tiny, but it managed to have a little blue bathtub. This was a good thing because Jules claimed that it was necessary for his self-preservation to sit in a hot bath for at least an hour a day. A glass soap dish shaped like a shell had been left behind and a set of fake nails were lying in it, like petals that had fallen off a flower. It was strange that someone had lived here just hours before, and now it was all ours.

 
There was a restaurant right under us, and you could reach out the window and unscrew one of the lightbulbs from its sign, if you wanted to. Jules ran downstairs to pick us up some hot dogs and fries from there.

  “We’re localized here!” Jules yelled, kicking open the door with his foot. “We should have moved here a long time ago.”

  I could tell that Jules was finding it a real treat that the hotel was right on busy St. Laurent and St. Catherine. He didn’t like having to walk even a block to the convenience store. St. Laurent Street wasn’t an ideal place to raise a kid. It ran right through Montreal, dividing its east and west sections. It was also the red-light district and, to me, the most beautiful section of town. The theaters where famous people used to perform in the twenties and thirties had been converted into cheap hotels and strip joints. There were always prostitutes around. They made me feel bad when I was little because they always had beautiful high-heeled boots, while I had to wear ugly galoshes. I closed my eyes when I passed them. In general, everyone dressed like they hadn’t gone home from a wedding the night before. You could go to the Salvation Army, buy a pin-striped jacket and stick a plastic flower in the lapel, and call yourself an aristocrat—everyone was living a sort of fictional existence.

  The French newspapers of the district had strippers on the front pages with their wrists in handcuffs and their breasts falling all over the place. These were people who didn’t care about international news. If you never thought about Paris, you’d never think about how you were so far away from there. There were a lot of Hell’s Angels around, buzzing down the street like bees. It was a joy to see them all drive by, like a parade, on their way to blow up a restaurant.

  That first night in the new place, Jules dismantled the fire alarm so that he could smoke in peace. I loved when he smoked a cigarette with the lights off. The smoke in the dark looked like the dove that whispered the future to saints in paintings. He had on a T-shirt he always wore that had a little hand at the bottom, holding about twenty balloons. When he wore it, the song “99 Red Balloons” would play in my head. Across the street from us was an old theater with a million lightbulbs on the marquee. Only seven or eight of them worked, as if they were the first stars at night that you were supposed to wish on. Jules stretched out to sleep on the foldout couch and I climbed into our small bed with a brass headboard. He opened his little white record player and put on a record. He fell asleep before it was over and I listened to the needle going around and around. There is always the sound of children roller skating at the end of every record.

  Since I had to take a new route to school, Jules decided to walk me there the next morning. It was more for a sense of ceremony, though, because I knew my way around the area so well that I never got lost. I wished that I could get lost, just to know what it felt like. I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and not know where I was, but no such luck. We’d just moved too many times for that to happen. That neighborhood looked the worst in the morning. The street was empty and there was vomit on the sidewalk. All the colorful lights had been turned off and the sky was the color of television static.

  Outside my school, we gave each other seven kisses for good luck. Then Jules announced that he had to go to the bathroom and took off running home. The kids started laughing at me when I walked into class because they had seen Jules pecking at me like a hen from the window and my face was all red from the stubble of his beard. The teacher shushed everyone up as she handed back our book reports on The Cricket in Times Square. Jules had helped me with it the week before. He had told me that nothing was what it appeared to be in a book. He’d said that a cricket in a subway represented the Jewish People. According to him, the cricket was the same thing as the Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t know why I had taken his advice, seeing as how he hadn’t actually read the book. The teacher handed back my paper with a zero and said I had to redo it.

  As I was walking home, I spotted Jules on the street corner. He was craning his neck all over the place, looking around for someone. He started gesticulating in a way that made it seem as if he was having an imaginary argument in his head. He kept putting his hand, palm up, in front of him, as if he was asking the universe, “What? What? What?” His hat was down over his eyes, and when I called out his name he had to tilt his head way up to get a look at me. I knew it wasn’t me that he had been looking for, but when he saw me, he shouted out happily anyhow.

  His girlfriend had told me that the only thing Jules had going for him was a smile. At the time, I thought this was such a wonderful comment. It made me happy because I thought everyone saw that he had a nice smile. I didn’t like how people always gave him the right-of-way when he was walking down the sidewalk. He tripped on nothing as he walked toward me.

  “Hey, it’s my sweet little apple pie,” he cried out.

  “Hey, Jules,” I said.

  “Did you get your book report back?”

  “I got an A,” I lied.

  “Far out!” he yelled. “I told you I was a genius. An undervalued genius.”

  2

  A WEEK AFTER WE’D MOVED to the Ostrich Hotel was my twelfth birthday. Jules made me a cake and brought out a piñata that he’d made by gluing layer upon layer of newspaper on a balloon and painting it white with Liquid Paper. It looked like something you’d find at a construction site, or something you’d transport drugs across the border in. I hit at it with a wooden spoon, but eventually the handle broke. So then I smashed it with a chair leg and still nothing happened. I swung the leg again and hit Jules in the shin. While he was hopping around, I tried to rip it open at the top with my fingers without him noticing.

  “What are you doing? That’s not how you bust a piñata! I worked all night on it.”

  His best friend, a twenty-five-year-old blond guy named Lester who drove a green Trans Am, showed up. They washed dishes at the same restaurant and were almost always together. Lester had a temporary job once, handing out pamphlets for an electoral candidate, and still had stickers of the guy’s face on his leather jacket. He hugged me and I looked into what was left of the candidate’s smiling face. Lester always wore a chain with a golden Bambi pendant hanging off it, which was how I had learned the meaning of irony.

  Taking in our piñata situation, Lester said that he wished he’d brought his gun. He took a big bowie knife out of his packsack and started stabbing at it instead. I put my hands over my ears as Lester hacked into it. Afterward, we all sat on the couch and picked candies out of the thin slit Lester had made in the piñata. There weren’t that many sweets inside, so we ate slowly. Each candy was like taking a chick out of its egg too early.

  Jules also gave me a little white fur hat and I immediately put it on. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and thought that I was good-looking enough to be in a circus with men throwing knives at me. I was especially good-looking after I’d eaten spaghetti sauce and my lips were all stained orange. Whenever things were going well, I started to feel vain.

  I could tell that the hat was secondhand because the care instructions had worn right off the inside tag. Jules had a gift for finding wonderful garbage at the thrift store. Once he had found five dollars in a pair of pants that he had paid a dollar fifty for. Next he handed me a cardboard shoe box, and when I pulled off the cover there was an old-fashioned marionette wearing a blue dress with tiny red flowers inside it. She had a long nose and peach cheeks and was really human-looking. I named her Roxanne and I loved her instantly and passionately. I made her dance on the coffee table, recounting her life story, until Jules and Lester were ready to commit suicide from boredom.

  Afterward, we were all hanging out in front of the television watching Benny Hill. Jules and Lester were lounging on the couch, laughing their heads off. I was lying on my belly on the floor, and I’d start laughing whenever they did because their laughs were so contagious. We were having a good time.

  “Let’s go get some chocolate milk,” Lester said all of a sudden.

  “Oh, yeah!” Jul
es jerked upright. “It’s been on my mind too. I’d like just a little taste to strengthen me up.”

  “I know this guy who’s selling it dark brown.”

  “Jesus! Let’s find him. I’ve only got ten bucks, though.”

  “That’s okay. I’ve got about twelve. It’ll do.”

  On the television screen, a policeman opened his car door and three girls in their underwear scrambled out of it and ran down the street. Neither Jules nor Lester laughed; they had both totally lost interest in the show. They sprung up off the couch to go get their chocolate milk. Lester almost stepped on me while reaching for his coat, which was lying on the coffee table.

  “Watch out!” I screamed.

  “Sorry, Baby,” Jules said, even though he was on the other side of the room and hadn’t done anything. “We’re just going to the store. We’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Don’t move an inch. Watch the show and tell me everything I missed when I get back.”

  Jules and his friends had been calling heroin chocolate milk for years. They did it so they could at least pretend I didn’t know what was going on. I don’t know exactly how I knew, but I just did. Jules had a backgammon set with electrical tape around it that I wasn’t allowed to touch that he kept his drugs and works in. He had red marks like mosquito bites on his arms even in the winter. A boy had made hickeys on his arm in class and had shown me and it had reminded me of Jules’s arms.

  For a kid, I knew a lot of things about what it felt like to use heroin, just from looking and listening. Supposedly, it was like shaking hands with God. It was cool like a Black Panther. It was like putting your face on the fur collar of a great leather jacket. If you passed by a poster of a band of singers coming to town, you could hear them singing.

  I looked at the television screen and the credits were rolling. Jules went out the door hopping on one foot, trying to tie his shoes without slowing down. I heard him and Lester go down the stairs, jumping the last few steps. I usually waited in the apartment for them, but their excitement was too overwhelming. I wanted to be a part of it. I put on my new white hat and my ski jacket with yellow stripes like lightning bolts on the side. I grabbed Roxanne and ran down to the corner after them.

 
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