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Lullabies for little cri.., p.10
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.10

           Heather O'Neill
 

  She was very friendly with me. I sat with her and some other girls at lunch for the first week. Lauren and I ended up walking home together because she lived in the same direction as me. On Friday, we were walking past my building when Jules happened to step out the front doors. He seemed to be in a good mood when he came up and introduced himself. He asked Lauren if she wanted to come over for dinner. Lauren said yes and came upstairs with me and called her mother for permission.

  I showed Lauren my room. It was really bare. Jules had thrown out all my toys because he thought the dust they collected was going to kill him. I’d only been allowed to keep one special rag doll. It was a doll that my mother had bought for me when she was pregnant. The doll had black hair and buttons for eyes. It always made me a little sad. I thought that if my mother met me now, all grown up, she would be disappointed. The doll also made me feel sweet inside, too, because it made me feel that at some point, even before I existed, I had been loved. I showed the doll to Lauren. I could tell from her expression that she found it really ugly, so I stuck it back under my pillow.

  Jules called out to us from the kitchen that it was time for dinner. We opened the kitchen door and he had his arms spread out, as if to say, Surprise! I was happy to see that he was wearing a shirt and pants. He usually opted for one or the other at supper time. He’d heated up a couple cans of Chef Boyardee, but he had gone on to light a dozen candles and stick them in bottles around the kitchen, in order to make the whole affair seem fancy. Lauren smiled.

  “I love candlelit dinners,” she said.

  For about five minutes I was happy. Jules opened a bottle of wine, and since Lauren and I were both only twelve, he had to drink the whole bottle himself. Then he started talking. Lauren and I weren’t able to say one word to each other over dinner because he didn’t stop for a second. He just rattled on, and everything that came out of his mouth seemed inappropriate. At one point, he leaned over in Lauren’s face and told her that if she ever started using birth control pills, she’d end up with cancer. He told her that she should just tell the filthy boys to keep their hands off her.

  Then Jules started talking about how beautiful my mother had been. How she used to wear a fluffy brown coat and how even the other girls would turn around and look at her. Then he started crying, which was a horrible sight. His face got all messed up, like it was made out of pink Play-Doh and had just hit the floor.

  “Nothing means anything now that I’m not with her anymore. Not a thing. All garbage.”

  He stood up and took his wallet out of his pocket, and to illustrate his point he pulled out a five-dollar bill and tossed the wallet behind him onto the floor. He waved the bill over the table like a magician, and then he leaned over toward a candle and stuck the tip of it into the flame. I bolted upright, knocking over my chair, and screamed. We had been so broke lately, five dollars was a big deal. I’d begged him for some money to pay for school supplies and he hadn’t given me any.

  I grabbed his arm, trying to get the money away from the flame. He tried to shake me off, and we started knocking the plates all over the place while wrestling for the money. Finally I got it away from him. I stuck it in my jean pocket and then sat down at the table. I turned to smile at Lauren. I was hoping that if I acted as if nothing had happened, nothing would have happened. I shoved a spoonful of ravioli in my mouth.

  Jules sat down too. He was way past eating, though. He was hunched over a little and he was staring at me. I tried to imagine that he wasn’t staring at me. I hoped that Lauren didn’t notice the hateful look he was shooting. Although it was near impossible since the man wore his emotions on his sleeve. “Why don’t you wash these dishes!” he screamed at me.

  Lauren jumped and almost knocked over her bowl.

  “But we haven’t even finished eating,” I explained.

  “You’re a lazy bitch. You try and talk to me like that to impress your friends. You want to look down on me! That’s not how I was fucking raised. I respected my parents. You disgust me. You get it from your mother’s side. Get out of my face now. Get into your pajamas!”

  “But my friend’s here. I can’t go to bed!”

  “And could you remember to brush your hair and comb your teeth! Go brush your hair and comb your teeth! Always the same thing! You never do anything. One single thing without being told. It’s making me old before my time.”

  I stared at the kitchen window. I swear that I contemplated jumping right out of it. I think my dad noticed my sadness, because all of a sudden he seemed distraught too.

  “Fuck it all,” he said quietly. “I’m going to get the classifieds and find myself a tidy little one-bedroom apartment. I’ll save some money without you.”

  Jules weaved out of the kitchen and down the hall to his room. He ran his hand along the wall and knocked one of the pictures off of it. I heard him undressing with the door still open. He turned on the television full blast.

  I figured that since he was watching TV, he’d leave Lauren and me alone now. I took the cake that was for dessert out of the fridge. I cut two slices from it and put them on plates. Lauren got up, though, and went into my bedroom to get her stuff. She didn’t even say good-bye. She just ran out the door and down the stairs. I carried the two plates down the stairs in my stockinged feet. I stood there, shivering in my T-shirt. I realized it was stupid to run after her. I tried to imagine I was the last person on earth for a while, but then I was too cold, so I walked back upstairs as slowly as I could, taking a step only every thirty seconds or so.

  THE NEXT DAY EVERYBODY in school had heard about how I’d been in a fistfight with my dad over a five-dollar bill. All during the day kids kept coming up to me and asking, “What does that mean: Go comb your teeth?”

  Lauren had gossiped to everyone about me. I’d expected her to do as much. She stuck her finger in her mouth as if to show that she was going to gag as I walked by. She tossed a pea from her lunch at my head in the cafeteria.

  After that, the kids started saying that I was learning disabled. There was no good reason for it, seeing as the grades on my tests were fine. They said I was a drug addict too, and that my dad was unemployed, because he and not my mother walked me to school.

  When I sat down on the toilet, a bunch of girls peeked at me over the top of the stall door. The music teacher had a tattoo of a flower on his hand and I had tried to make eye contact with him to see if he liked me; the girls started saying that I was having sex with him. I tried to read the page in the reader out loud really quickly to show what a good reader I was and how I didn’t stumble on any of the words. Afterward I heard a girl say, “She’s so stupid, she doesn’t even know what a period is.”

  Kids would ask me questions that weren’t really meant to be questions, but were meant to be insults.

  “How come your pants are falling off your hips?”

  “How come one of your shoelaces is brown and the other one is blue?”

  “What exactly is that in your sandwich?”

  “How come you have a jacket that’s like an adult’s jacket?”

  “Why do you have a Stop Forest Fires bag instead of a regular schoolbag?”

  “How come your dad wears that big fur coat and it’s not even winter yet? It scares my dog.”

  “How come your mother named you such an unfashionable name?”

  A boy called me to find out what pages we had to do for homework. My dad thought he sounded twenty-eight years old. Jules told him he was going to call the police and have him arrested for statutory rape.

  “My mom says your dad is schizophrenic,” the boy told me the next day in class.

  “Well, your mother’s a prostitute.”

  “No, she isn’t. She works at the drugstore.”

  The kid behind me tapped me with his pencil. I leaned back very carefully to hear what he had to say without the teacher looking.

  “You smell,” he said.

  I didn’t feel like being friends with anyone at school. It was just too
hard. I went to eat by myself and read my Agatha Christie book that was translated into French. I got a hundred percent on my quiz about the book, which made me feel good. Not great, of course, but it made me feel calmer.

  3

  JULES USED TO LIKE to go to a leather goods store on St. Catherine Street where they sold belts and cowboy boots and stuff like that. He would try on six or seven pairs of cowboy boots every time but never buy any. I’d go with him and wait outside, seated on the curb.

  There was a community center upstairs from the store. I was standing outside the store waiting for Jules and collecting red leaves when I noticed a bunch of kids my age coming down from there. I imagined them putting on plays and singing songs upstairs. I’d asked Jules if I could go before, but he had scoffed at the idea. He said that program was only for welfare kids and fucked-up half-retarded juvenile delinquents. He said that the kids were sleazy.

  He did have a point. They all dressed like crack addicts. A boy wore a white leather belt as a tie. A lot of the kids had bandannas on, holes in their jeans, and words written in Magic Marker all over their dirty jackets. One girl wore her bangs in a ponytail at the front of her head. She had cut holes in the toes of her gym socks and was wearing them as wrist bands. Another girl wore a pair of scuffed-up high heels over a bulgy pair of wool socks. She tripped every few minutes. She had drawn big black cat eyes around her eyes with eyeliner.

  Any time anyone with a cigarette would pass by, they’d all scream, “Can you spare a cigarette?” at the same time. They were sitting around saying “Boombaclot” over and over. It was a Jamaican swear word and they were trying to say it with the right accent.

  Then a man came down with buckets of paint and brushes. He had long blond hair and was tall and athletic-looking. “James!” they cried out at the man in unison. He smiled and joyfully called them all over.

  The gang was painting a mural on the wall by the leather store’s parking lot. I really wanted to do something like that; it seemed so exciting. So the next day, I begged and begged Jules for permission to go. Finally he said okay. I ran as fast as I could to the community center. I was running so that I didn’t have to notice how fast my heart was beating.

  It was pounding noisily as I went up the narrow staircase, though. The community center itself was just a big open space with gray floors and a lot of small windows. There were some rooms off to the side that the social workers used as their offices. The organizer noticed me, but he didn’t look as if there was anything out of the ordinary about me showing up out of the blue. He introduced himself as James and told me to go sit in the circle, while the kids put on some improvised skits.

  I sat down next to a boy who was wearing a white glove with silver circle stickers on it. He had funny, wandering eyes. He was holding an extra-large cup of coffee, even though he couldn’t have been more than eleven.

  The boy in the center of the circle was drinking out of an empty bottle, pretending that he was getting drunker and drunker. He stumbled around until he lay on the ground, having some sort of seizure. Then a girl stormed in from one of the offices and walked into the circle. She was holding a doll in her arms, pretending that it was a baby. She was wearing an old blonde wig. She started screaming at the boy as if he were her husband.

  “I’m not taking this anymore. You get out of my house, mister. You hear me, mister? You backstabbing drunk. I’m going to raise this baby up by myself.”

  Everyone gave them a standing ovation when they were done. I was really impressed. I’d never seen a play like that before!

  James called out to me as I was leaving.

  “Wow!” he said. “Slow down. I like that jacket you have on. It looks like an authentic dirt bike jacket.”

  I looked behind me, like an idiot, just to make absolute certain he wasn’t talking to someone else. It was kind of shocking that he liked my ugly ski jacket.

  “You want to sign up with the group?” he asked.

  I nodded, not daring to say a word that could change his mind.

  I started going there all the time. James made all the kids feel welcome and safe. They would gather around close to him, always almost touching him. He made us believe that we were cool by virtue of hanging around with him. Most of the kids went to schools that I’d never heard of. One school was in a storefront that used to be a chicken restaurant. They all seemed to have failed a couple grades, floating somewhere indefinable between eighth and ninth.

  A lot of them were in foster homes and had parents who were homeless. One boy’s father played harmonica on the subway. They were the most nonjudgmental kids I’d ever met. They seemed to accept everyone, even me.

  ONE DAY JAMES ANNOUNCED that we’d been invited to join in a Caribbean-themed Halloween parade. I jumped for joy. The parade was being organized by the Jamaican Social Club. There was an artist who came in and showed us how to cut wings and crowns and other fantastic items out of sheets of cardboard and paint them with acrylic paint. The costumes were fantastic. This one kid looked like a giant robot and another one was just a giant skull. I had a costume of a dragonfly. I came up with the idea myself. I had a long tail made out of balls of nylon stocking. I had a black cap with antennae. My wings were made out of these long wires with shimmering cloth on them. It was beautiful. I was a little worried because my running shoes were so ugly, but I put that out of my mind.

  There was this professional hockey player that I liked. I imagined him watching at the parade and falling in love with me. It didn’t occur to me that he probably wasn’t interested in twelve-year-olds.

  Jules didn’t really object to me going to the center since he had started working as a dishwasher and liked me out of the house when he wasn’t there. He still insisted that I was being used and was too stupid to know it. He said the parade was just a front for selling pot. He told me a story about a Rastafarian who had been arrested for speeding or something like that. When they brought him down to the police station and took off his huge tam, they found that he had a Chihuahua living in there. He kept it under his hat because he liked the feeling of the dog scratching at his dreadlocks all day. Jules was being so dark and negative these days that I had gotten used to ignoring these types of fabrications.

  One day as we were all working prodigiously on our costumes, a boy named Theo came by the drop-in center. He was a scrawny kid with a skinny face, enormous eyes, and red hair with a natural streak of black in it. He had on an oversized and unbuttoned pea coat, under which he had a shirt with yellow and purple stripes and these ridiculously wide collars. He walked like he was riding a unicycle.

  I had met him at the indoor swimming pool about a year before. He had sat next to me on the side of the pool, wearing the top half to a girl’s bathing suit that he’d found in the lost and found. He scrunched up his lips and asked me, “Don’t you find me sooo loveliee?” We’d played together in the pool that whole day. He had walked me home because it had started raining and he had an umbrella, even though it was way out of his way. I didn’t know if he remembered me, but I remembered him.

  All the kids seemed to know him already. They gathered together and made a sort of wall against him, insisting that he leave immediately.

  “You can’t be here. James said you can’t come anymore.”

  “You’re not allowed. You lost your privileges to be here.”

  “We’ll call the police. This is private property.”

  I’d never seen them act this way. Finally James came out of his office and told Theo that he had to leave the building. I wondered what could be so wrong with this kid that he was making these losers react the way they were.

  Theo just stood there expressionlessly while everyone yelled at him. I thought that maybe he was going to cry, but instead he turned around and wiggled his butt at them. He ran down the stairs shouting obscenities.

  When the drop-in hours were over, we ambled downstairs. Theo was sitting on a cardboard box out front, screeching hysterically. He’d caught a pigeon in the
box. He stood up and danced around it. Every time the box moved, the kids screamed their heads off, as if it were a scene in a horror movie. They were worried that when they let the pigeon out, it might be so mad that it would pluck out someone’s eyes.

  We all gathered some bricks and put them on top of the box. After about half an hour of sitting around cross-legged and biting our nails, we decided what we were doing was cruel. We all stood back while a girl with bleached hair named Zoë kicked the box off. The pigeon lay there dead. We all started moaning and cursing and poking at the pigeon with the toes of our sneakers. James came out to see what the commotion was.

  “What the hell is this? You went and hurt a defenseless creature.” James picked up the pigeon with a piece of newspaper and put it in the garbage in the alley. “I’m closing the drop-in center next Saturday. I’m really disgusted with all of you.”

  He gave each of us a long look and then went back upstairs, shaking his head angrily. All the kids started giving Theo hell.

  “Get out of here, you death bringer!” a kid cried at Theo. “Shit disturber!”

  Another kid picked up a tiny pebble from the ground and flung it at Theo. Theo stuck his chest out and started butting it into the kid who had thrown the pebble at him.

  “You wanna piece of me? I’ll kick your goddamn ass. I’m going to burn your fucking dick, stinky motherfucker!”

  Theo pushed the kid to the ground and kicked him, then turned and bounded off, laughing and hollering.

  “Aaaaah! Haaah! Aaaah! Haaaah!” he yelped his way down the street.

  “He’s so mean,” Zoë told me afterward.

  “How come he’s banned from the center?” I asked.

  “Because he hit this really sweet kid, Ray, right in the face with a hockey stick. He knocked out Ray’s two front teeth. Ray’s never going to get a woman now.”

 
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