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Lullabies for little cri.., p.11
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.11

           Heather O'Neill

  THEO HADN’T SHOWN UP at the center for a while because he’d been in a soccer league that practiced on the weekends, but he’d been kicked off the team. I heard it was for beating up a player on his team who didn’t pass him the ball. Another kid told me that it had been for kicking the soccer balls into the traffic on purpose. Zoë told me he stole one of the balls and made a hole in the side so that he could stick his dick in it.

  Zoë also told me that she and Theo had gone to the same school for a while, one of these alternative schools with a ridiculous name like Open Minds. Zoë said one of the teachers used to always bring Theo a sandwich because he never had any lunch of his own. That much was probably true. I mean, who wants to make up something sad like that.

  Theo came the next day too. He was told to stay out again, so he hung around downstairs. I quickly figured out how mean he was. He found a dirty knit hat in the garbage and started screaming that it had lice, then he pinned down a boy and forced the hat onto his head. He yanked the boy’s shoe off and dropped it down the sewer. Everybody knew that boy got hit by his dad. The poor kid went home crying, knowing that he was going to get beaten for having lost a shoe.

  It got so every day Theo hung out downstairs, waiting for us to come down. He’d grab kids’ arms and bend them back, really hard, until they had to beg him to stop. Man, he was giving everybody nervous twitches. He could kill you, too. One day we came out of the community center and he started throwing glass bottles at us.

  Once he was walking down the street with his pants down around his ankles. He had on a pair of boxer shorts with polka dots on them. I guess he wanted attention. One day I saw him get hit by a car outside the community center. I could tell he wasn’t hurt bad. He just lay on the ground. The driver of the car came out of his car all traumatized. Theo lay there writhing in mock pain.

  “You hit me in the ass, man! How am I ever going to sit down on a toilet now? You hit my ass, you pervert! You touched my no-no zone.”

  I started laughing my head off. Everyone looked at me, irritated that I was encouraging him. Who knows why I found that funny, but I did.

  Maybe it was because I was raised to think that idiotic things were funny. My dad had a pile of Chinese firecrackers, and he would light one and toss it out the window whenever a middle-aged woman walked by. He would lie on the carpet afterward, convulsing in laughter. He used to make a loud duck noise while we were walking down the aisle of the supermarket. Once a woman was so startled by the sound that she knocked over a wall of cereal boxes. My dad laughed about that for days.

  The other kids stared in shock at Theo no matter what he did. They did retarded things themselves, but whatever Theo did still seemed appalling to them.

  One day Theo drew a mustache on his face, and every time I looked at him I just had to laugh. I had to sit down; I was laughing so hard. After that little incident, he came up to me as I was walking home.

  “Didn’t we used to be friends when we were little?” he asked.

  “Yes,” I answered.

  “I thought so,” he said.

  He started singing a Motown medley from a commercial that was on the television at the time. He couldn’t sing it properly, but I thought that he hit some of the high notes very nicely. That night I started singing the commercial in my room. My dad stuck his head in angrily.

  “Stick to one goddamn song!” he yelled.

  After school one day, I was looking for a place to mellow out and read my comic books. I saw a stiff bed of chrysanthemums in front of a building. I sat in the middle of them. It always seemed warmer, sitting among the flowers. It was going to be one of the last days that you could hang around outside.

  I saw Theo walking down the street toward me, his coat wide open as usual, and underneath it the same chocolate milk T-shirt he had been wearing all week. He was swinging his hips from side to side, snapping his fingers. He looked like a Diana Ross backup dancer. I got anxious as he approached. I thought that now, since we were alone, he was going to knock my teeth out. But he didn’t. He sat down on the grass next to me and looked at the comic I was reading.

  “I live here,” he said, pointing to the building behind us.

  “Oh,” I said.

  “I like that comic,” he said.

  We sat next to each other quietly reading it. The only time he put his hand on me was to stop me from turning one of the pages just yet.

  A woman’s voice called his name from one of the building’s windows. When I looked up, I could only make out some dyed red curls. She called down to ask Theo if Star Search was about to start. She spoke in that cartoon mouse voice that I noticed people who had had nervous breakdowns speak in.

  “No, not yet, Ma! I’ll come up and tell you when it’s on, okay?”

  “Okay, sugar cube. But don’t forget, okay?”

  “I won’t. Go back inside now. You’ll catch a cold.”

  When Theo talked to her, he also used a babyish, syrupy voice that I’d never heard him use before.

  “Is that your mother?” I asked.

  “Yeah. Star Search is her favorite show. She likes to watch it while having a nice glass of chamomile tea with a spoonful of honey in it.”

  “Theo?” she whined. “Are you sure Star Search isn’t on yet?”

  Theo didn’t answer, but she pulled her head back in. Theo suddenly looked as if he’d done something wrong and kept staring at the door of his building. He jumped up as soon as he saw his mother push open the door. He ran over to her, took her arm and guided her back into the building. He turned and waved good-bye to me abruptly and then disappeared.

  THE NEXT DAY AT THE CENTER, we were making some drums out of plastic laundry buckets we were to beat as we walked down the street. We practiced a beat on them and we sounded great. We all applauded ourselves.

  I kept peeping out the window that looked out onto the street to see if Theo was still sitting outside. Since he had nowhere to go, he’d just wait for us to get out, looking sad. He had stolen about fifty little milk containers from the café at the gas station and sat on the curb drinking them.

  When we came outside, he had slicked his hair to the side and was walking pigeon-toed. He walked around introducing himself as Simon. I knew that he was trying to be funny, but that day it just made me sad.


  ONE AFTERNOON, THEO JUMPED out from behind a car and stuck a cap gun to the back of my head.

  “Where you going, Baby?” he asked me.

  “To the center.”

  “Oh, no! That’s so stupid. Come to the pool with me instead.”


  “Please, Baby!” He got down on his knees. “Please, come with me. Don’t leave me alone, come on!”

  He toppled over onto his side. He grabbed on to my foot, wailing loudly. I knew that he was just playing around, but at the same time I knew that he meant it. I don’t know why I always felt so much for him, why I felt so bad when he was unhappy.

  “Okay, already. I’ll go to the pool with you,” I relented.

  We weren’t going to be working on our costumes anyway that day. I think the activity of the day was charades, which I hated. No matter how you looked at it, it wasn’t real theater.

  He waited for me outside my building while I ran up to get my bathing suit. He had boxing shorts that could pass. When we got to the pool, Theo refused to take his T-shirt off and just jumped in the water with it on. He did bombs off the side of the pool, trying to land on other people. He ripped this little kid’s goggles off his head and ran to the other side of the pool, laughing. He put them on while the kid cried and begged for them back. The little kid went and reported him to the lifeguard, who finally got down off his ladder and walked over to us. He told Theo he couldn’t go in the water with his T-shirt on, but Theo wouldn’t take it off, and instead opted for sitting all wet in the bleachers next to the pool.

  Theo leaned over and called obscenities out at the kid who had told on him. He had the filthiest mouth on the planet.
I could never even repeat some of the things he said. They were gratuitous nonsense descriptions of genitalia. They went something along the lines of: “You pussy wet you stupid fat white ass. I’m going to come with my microwaveable oven and fry your dick off.”

  The lifeguard told Theo enough was enough and he was banned from the swimming pool. Two other lifeguards came out of the office to help drag Theo out of there. I picked up my towel and went to dry my hair before leaving the pool to meet him. He was out on the sidewalk trying to dry his own hair with a wet towel. He was happy to see me. He started jumping up and down and throwing punches that kept narrowly missing the side of my head.

  “Knock it off!” I yelled. “Or I’m going back to the pool.”

  “All right. You’re so goddamn sensitive. Women! I swear to God!”

  As we were walking to the park, Theo threw cans at a guy who was driving a bike with a grocery cart.

  “All those guys are assholes. They take up too much of the sidewalk.”

  “It’s not his fault he has to drive that grocery cart.”

  “You’re going to remember my face, mister,” Theo called after the guy. “Trust me! You’re not going to forget me. I’m going to go down in your history books.”

  He grabbed my hand and insisted that we stop in front of the entrance of a karate studio for a while. He’d wait until a kid came out after his class and then start karate chopping him.

  “Come on! Show me what you learned in there, dipshit!”

  When we finally got to the park, I went to mess around on the monkey bars. Theo took over the water fountain and wouldn’t let the kids take a drink.

  “You are too ugly to drink this water. I don’t want your herpes. Go ask your mama to buy you some Coca-Cola! Go on! You never drank Coca-Cola in your life. What you want with this water? You ain’t gonna die of thirst. This ain’t the Siberian desert. It’s October. October! Get lost and come back in ten minutes and I’ll let you have some then.”

  Afterward, Theo and I decided to crawl inside the cement tunnel, and we got comfortable in there. When any kid came to look in, Theo would yell at them to fuck off, his voice echoey, like it was coming out of the hole in your sink. We were feeling very cozy and warm in there, and now that we had forced all the other kids out of it we felt that we had to stay there all day just out of spite. We lay there as it started to get darker outside. We were leaning against the curved wall next to each other. We started kicking each other’s sneakers for a little bit.

  “Yesterday was my birthday,” Theo said.

  “How old are you?”

  “Thirteen. You?”

  “I’m twelve.”

  “Oh, you sucker! I hated being twelve. I really feel sorry for you. It explains why you’re so stupid, though.”

  I shrugged, angrily.

  “No, I’m just kidding. Don’t be so sensitive.”

  “What’d you get for your birthday?”

  “I got a hundred dollars from my grandmother. And I hired myself four prostitutes and had sex with them all at the same time. At one point they started fighting over me and I just had to stop the whole thing and tell everybody to just cool out.”

  I liked when boys told me these kinds of lies. I could listen to them for hours. They were better than Nancy Drew mysteries. They were like looking at books of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! They were appalling but at the same time full of wonder.

  “I thought you were a virgin,” I said, encouraging him.

  “Me? No way. I’ve had sex with a bunch of girls.”

  “Who was the first one?”

  “This sixteen-year-old. She used to live in our building. She invited me over one time. We went into her bedroom and she took off all her clothes. Then she covered herself in vegetable oil. I kept trying to get on top of her but kept sliding right off. I slid off her at one point and hit the radiator and knocked myself out cold.”

  We were sitting close together as he told his story. Our pinkies were really close. I was imagining what it would feel like if my pinky touched his. I wondered if such a thing was actually possible.

  All of a sudden, I heard a woman’s voice calling Theo’s name. There was something about the sound of her voice that filled me with a sickening feeling. Theo and I both scrambled out of the tunnel. She was wandering through the playground wearing a big winter coat; her hair stuck up all over. She had a plate of spaghetti in her hands.

  “I’m over here, Ma!” Theo called.

  She turned toward him. Her face was wild.

  “Where the fuck have you been?” she screamed in her high-pitched voice, making dogs cringe all over the neighborhood. “I’ve been looking everywhere. I made supper and it’s on the table. What’s wrong with you? You stupid fuck. I hate you. I made supper for nothing.”

  She took the spaghetti and threw it at the monkey bars. She grabbed a hunk of his hair and started shaking it around. She was so strong and terrible. When she started punching him, he didn’t even fight back; he just let her. She hit hard, too. None of the kids in the park made fun of him. It just made us all feel terribly sad; even the sparrows looked the other way.

  Theo started hurrying home as she followed, screaming at the top of her lungs.

  “You lousy bastard. Wait till I get your ass home!” she was screaming over and over. “I am going to turn you into a motherfucking blueberry.”

  I told my dad about the whole thing and he told me that whatever I did, I shouldn’t bring up the thing and embarrass Theo.

  “I feel sorry as shit for these poor little creeps who are stuck with depressive cases for mothers. I hope you thank your lucky stars every day that you have me. I’m your ace in the hole. Remember that.” I shrugged, since I didn’t even know what that meant.

  I didn’t take Jules’s advice much anymore. Since he quit dope, he had had to rediscover the meaning of things. It was as if he had to rewrite the dictionary from scratch. His definition of a beetle would probably be a small hole that changes places. When you clean up your act, naturally there are certain aspects of your life that you have to change. For instance, you should probably stop stealing and staying out all night. But Jules had somehow knocked off loving me in a certain way that he had when he was a junky. I wished that they had told him at rehab that hanging out with me and dancing and eating sundaes and drinking Coke out of green-and-yellow teacups were all okay. I wish that they had told him that all that was not part of the junk addiction.

  I RAN INTO THEO outside the community center a couple days later. I couldn’t understand why he had one of his mother’s big purple lipstick kisses on his forehead. I didn’t feel like hanging out with him. The sight of him made me feel as if the world was a terrible and creepy place. He didn’t look like he wanted to spend time with me either, so I went upstairs without even saying hello. Upstairs we were practicing our moves for the parade. That got my mind off Theo.


  POOR JULES WAS UNDER a lot of stress. He wouldn’t have enough dishwashing work until the next summer season, and we were living off the little money he had stashed away in a bank account. He was constantly terrified of spending it all. He was hoping his friend Lester could hook him up with a job selling these quilts door-to-door. Selling quilts had apparently turned Lester’s life around and was helping him stay off junk. I tried to stay optimistic, hoping he’d get the job, but I couldn’t picture Jules as a salesman. I couldn’t imagine who would look through the peephole at Jules standing there and still open the door. Never mind his missing tooth and messy hair, his state of mind had affected his ability to wear decent clothes. He always tucked his pants into his socks. He wore a red leather jacket and a pair of boots that the neighbors had thrown out. He smelled pretty bad, and on top of all that he swore too much to be a door-to-door salesman. What would his sales pitch be: “So you want to buy this fucking blanket, man! It’s a fuckin’ good deal. It’ll bust up your fucking washing machine if you try sticking it in there, but what the fuck? That’s what those shithol
e Laundromats are for anyway, right?”

  He rarely said a noun without attaching a swear word to it as an adjective. He swore for absolutely no reason. “What fucking time is that show about that fucking immigrant who fucking talks funny? I hate that shitty show but there’s nothing the fuck else on.” I brought up the swearing with him, but he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. I didn’t know how he was supposed to fit into the regular world while talking like that. In the meantime we both had to keep our fingers crossed while we waited and waited for Lester to get my dad this job.

  We had been waiting for three weeks and the pressure was really getting to Jules. He started getting all crazy with me, accusing me of tinkering with his clocks. He yelled at me when he caught me looking up at the kitchen clock during dinner. Seeing it as proof of some sort of conspiracy, my dad got out a roll of masking tape and covered the glass surface.

  “That’ll stay there until you learn,” he said. He then proceeded to put masking tape on the other clocks in the house. I think there was one uncovered alarm clock that he kept hidden under his bed.

  One morning he yelled at me for at least an hour about having broken all his umbrellas. He said he knew for a fact that I snuck them out of the house and used them as walking sticks, thereby destroying them. He stared at his plastic jar filled with coins in the evenings and accused me every day of taking more and more. He said I gave them to my boyfriends. He swore that I was trying to break his television set. He took the knob off it so I couldn’t use it unsupervised. He lost the knob a couple days later and was forced to turn the television on and off with a pair of pliers. This was a procedure that could take him up to five minutes. I never heard the end of that.

  Another evening Jules sent me to a grocery store that had a special on concentrated orange juice. It was about an hour’s walk away. I had to cross the overpass and then walk along the interstate for forty minutes. He had given me a long, complicated grocery list. I wouldn’t have been able to carry all the bags home, so I had to take a grocery cart that Jules had stolen once and kept in the alley behind the apartment building.

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