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Lullabies for little cri.., p.12
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.12

           Heather O'Neill
 

  On the way home a gang of kids from the other side of the highway made fun of me for pushing a grocery cart. They started whipping garbage at me. I hurried back up onto the overpass. I knew that I should just ignore them and go on my way. You will get very far in life with such a policy, but when I saw some pebbles and bottle caps lying on the ground on the overpass, I couldn’t resist the urge to avenge myself. I picked up a handful of debris and rained it down on the kids below. I don’t think I actually hit any of them, but they jumped up and started up after me. I ran off as fast as I could, rattling the cart in front of me with all my juice cans bouncing.

  I ran and hid in an alleyway underneath a fire escape with my grocery cart. I sat under there for maybe twenty minutes until I was absolutely sure they were gone. I could probably have handled them on my own, but I had the groceries. Naturally, they’d take them and smash them against the ground. God could only imagine how my dad would react to something like that.

  Jules was still hysterical when I got home because I had been gone so long. He was positive that I had been sitting on a bench somewhere contemplating taking off with his grocery money. He demanded the change and bill immediately, saying he was going to make sure I hadn’t spent any of the money on drugs. After he had recounted it on the kitchen table for the sixth time, I snuck off to my room.

  As I walked in, I saw a horrible sight on my floor. While I’d been out, Jules had knocked over all my things. He had torn up the homework I had left lying on the bed. I would never be able to finish my project on time now. But then I saw something even worse. There, lying on the floor, was my rag doll, its arms and legs ripped off. I dropped to my knees and picked her pieces up. I’d never get another one. Jules never thought to buy me pretty things like that. That doll had been like a miracle to me. It had reminded me that I’d been loved by a mother. Now I was a nothing, a real nobody.

  “It’s like you’re good for one day,” Jules said. He was standing behind me in the doorway, but I didn’t turn to look at him. He was trying to keep his voice level, as if he had a very intelligent observation to make. “Then the next day you’re bad. Every second day you act up. I have to yell at you and you learn your lesson. You’re good for one day and then you go right back to acting up. I don’t know why you’re like that, but you are. You’re taking years off my life.”

  “Why’d you have to do this to my doll!” I screamed.

  Our eyes met, and I saw that he felt terrible for having hurt me like that.

  “I’ll sew it back together,” he promised quietly. “I’ll use some good thread. It’ll make it stronger than it was before.”

  I went back outside. It didn’t matter what he did with the doll to fix it now. How was I ever going to love that doll after I’d seen it lying mangled and dismembered on the floor? The teenagers who were sitting on the stoop across the street started twisting and contorting with laughter when I passed by. They’d heard Jules screaming at me from the open windows. My dad had just made their day.

  “Why’d you spend the grocery money on drugs, kid?” a teenage girl said as I walked by.

  I wandered down the street. As I passed Theo’s building, I noticed his mother standing in the doorway of the building in her big winter coat again. It was the first time I’d seen her since that evening in the park. I didn’t think she’d even know who I was since she seemed so out of it, but there she was, waving me over. I stopped and faced her from the opposite side of the street.

  She waved to me again. “Hi!” she kept saying. She motioned for me to come over to where she was. I was allowed to ignore adults, but it seemed like somehow I wasn’t allowed to ignore people’s parents. I went across the street to talk to her. I was feeling very low and self-destructive and wanted to see if she would try and hurt me the way she had hurt Theo. I’d take her punches just like Theo had.

  She took a huge drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke out of both nostrils as she smiled.

  “Hello, sweetie! You’re a friend of Theo’s, aren’t you? I saw you two playing in the alley the other day. I was watching you out the window. You two play so sweet together. I could just watch you for hours.”

  I knew what time she was talking about. Theo and I had been breaking these old glass picture frames and then scattering them all over the street, hoping to puncture some tires.

  “I hope you all get married. I do! I was in love for the first time when I was three years old. With my cousin. His name was Joey Delorio. I just loved the sound of his name.”

  She was one of the worst breed of parents going, the ones who are really mean but then don’t even give you the satisfaction of being able to hate them. They just break your heart. They were able to do whatever they pleased and then still have you love them.

  “Theo has a bit of emphysema,” she said, making her voice sound as sweet as she could. “He’s always breathed funny since he was a little baby. I don’t want to smoke in the house because it’s bad for Theo, but my legs get so sore when I come down the stairs. I feel like just going to the doctor and having them chopped off. Chopped right off! You could come and help Theo push me around in the wheelchair. I’ve wanted to be in a wheelchair. It looks like fun! Oh my! I’m crazy. That’s for blessed sure.”

  Then she got all quiet, fantasizing about being pushed around in a wheelchair. I took her silence as my cue to leave, but as I started to walk away, she called me back.

  “Come here, Baby,” she said. She threw her cigarette into the grass and spread her arms to me. “I want to give you a hug. You don’t get enough hugs. I can see that. I’ll give you one of my special teddy bear hugs.”

  I stepped closer to her to receive my hug and get it over with. She squeezed my cheeks and smelled my hair. She put my head between her two palms. Then she pulled my whole body to her and hugged me. I waited for her to let go of me, but she didn’t. At first I thought I was going to die of claustrophobia, but then I noticed that she smelled like cocoa butter. I liked her smell. It reminded me of postcards and pictures of brown palm trees. It made me think of Mary’s housecoat and how Felix and I would sometimes sit on her lap even though we were almost as tall as she was.

  Then I decided just to enjoy it. She had fat arms, the type of arms that held sailors and soldiers and thieves. The kind of arms that held someone who was going away to jail for ten years. They were the arms of a woman who had eaten a hundred delicious cakes and pastries to get them this comfortable. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed her tighter. I wanted to feel every part of my body touched by her. We stood like that, just hugging, for a long while.

  Afterward, at home, I felt guilty about having let her hug me. I felt violated and dirty, as if I’d raped myself. Falling in love with a mother like that was about as low as you could go in this world.

  I took a bath to clean her smell off me and scrubbed myself. Usually I filled the bathtub and jumped in, washed my hair maybe, and jumped right out. That day I made sure to scrub myself harshly with a rag and even get in between my legs. The bathwater didn’t make me feel clean at all. It was as if I were taking a bath in a bathtub filled with tears.

  6

  AT THE CENTER, JAMES TOLD US he was going to drive in a car behind us during the parade with his sound system cranked up. He told us to try and decide on what music he should play on his car radio. We got all hysterical trying to decide what was the coolest music on the planet, screaming and yelling about our favorite bands until James had to kick us all out.

  The next day after school, we all showed up with our different tapes. I had a Prince cassette. I wasn’t even particularly passionate about Prince, but I’d brought it because it was the only English tape that we had in the house. Lester had forgotten it once. When James said he thought my tape was a good choice, a girl pushed me on the ground. She rounded up five kids and they all started chanting at the top of their lungs and in unison: “Def Leppard, Def Leppard, Def Leppard.” They pumped their hands up in the air as they chanted. It was all very excitin
g!

  At that moment, the community center was definitely the center of the universe. I’m sure people could hear us screaming out in the street. Theo couldn’t help but want to come upstairs. Indeed, he snuck up, and I saw him sticking his head into the glass of the door, watching us. He also took out a red marker and drew a dog with a huge penis on the door. He made it say; “My name is James and I like girls with big tits! Come inside and suck my dick.” Upon inspection, we noticed that Theo had also scribbled, “The Jazz Man Was Here, Suckers!”

  James came over when he heard the commotion. Everyone was saying what a loser Theo was for referring to himself as the Jazz Man. James, naturally, was upset about the other stuff that Theo had written, but he kept his cool.

  James told Theo that he wasn’t allowed to hang out on the sidewalk around the community center anymore. He said he’d be forced to call the police on him the next time. Theo walked off, looking for once as if he might have gone too far. All the kids that he knew, even though they hated him, hung out at the community center.

  I turned to watch him. He looked sad and small walking in the middle of the street, deliberately slowing down the traffic. Sometimes I forgot how skinny he was. It was like a little kid had drawn him with a crayon. He looked like he was going to disappear into the horizon. I had this crazy idea that I would never see Theo again and I concluded that, really, it was for the best.

  But he caught up to me as I was walking home. I didn’t know where he’d popped out of. He must have been lying under a car or something.

  “I didn’t do it!” Theo said. “You believe that I didn’t do it, right?”

  “I don’t care if you did it or not,” I said truthfully.

  “So you think I did it?”

  “I don’t know. What does it matter?”

  “Because I want to know whose side you’re on.”

  “I’m not on anybody’s side.”

  “James did it himself and set me up. He came down and wrote down all that stuff himself. He just wants to have sex with you. You’re too stupid to know it.”

  “I hate when you talk like that.”

  “You’re a fucking snob, you know that?”

  I made to cross the street and get away. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it as hard as he could. I don’t know why boys are so much stronger than girls, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life.

  “Let me go,” I begged.

  “Why should I? You’re just going to run away. You’re just going to go right back to being a bitch.”

  He twisted my arm around as if he were hiding my hand from me. He continued twisting my arm until I lay on the ground. My face squished right into the cold wet grass and I prayed into it that he would let me go soon. It was then that I felt my shoulder pop. It was a terrible sound that I heard right inside me. My arm was in a new freakish position, as if I was reaching for something just behind me. How unattractive, I thought for a second. Then for a moment, just a moment, I felt pain. Theo helped me get to my feet and, immediately, I leaned over and threw up.

  The ground sank as I felt myself go into shock. I was see-through, I was static on a television screen. There were these small black moths fluttering around me. I decided that later I would have to figure out where they came from, but for now I would focus on getting home. I managed to stand up, but it was hard for me to get one foot in front of the other. I realized I couldn’t hear very well. That was good, because it made me feel as if I was hiding and that I was protected. My arm was at a horrible angle, but I wanted to hide from that too. I tried to be as quiet as possible as I walked away on tiptoe. “Shhhh…,” I said under my breath. I crept along, terrified that the pain would finally find me. Theo walked along next to me, not knowing what to do. He kept sticking his face right up close to mine and making goofy expressions to get my attention and to make me laugh. This situation, and the position of my arm, was very distressing to him, obviously. He was upset that I wasn’t consoling him.

  “You bitch! Why you got to treat me like that? White bitch,” he screamed finally, and stormed off.

  I turned for a second and watched him go. I could hardly make him out, though, through the huge flock of moths between us. I marveled at them, as there must have been about a million, covering everything. Then I fainted in front of the steps of my apartment building.

  I SPENT TWO NIGHTS in the hospital and came out with a sling around my arm. The doctor had given me a plastic container of painkillers to take whenever I needed one.

  I rode home on the bus next to Jules and he kept shaking his head in disbelief. He’d spent the whole two days pacing up and down the halls of the hospital. He didn’t even know how to react to what had happened, as I’d never been in the hospital before. A social worker had taken him into a little room to ask him questions about how my arm had been dislocated. He had settled on being indignant about that: indignation is a much easier emotion to sustain than sorrow.

  “You’re going to have us both thrown in jail before you’re satisfied.”

  The kids at the center were all very excited by my little container. One girl asked if they were making me hallucinate yet.

  “You’re so lucky. I’ve never hallucinated, but when I do, I know exactly what I’m going to hallucinate. Some little cute pink bunnies. I totally know it.”

  They kept asking me if I was addicted to the painkillers yet. When I took one in front of them, they were all impressed. They were very excited to be friends with a junkie.

  “Soon you’re going to prostitute yourself for more pills,” said Zoë, all starstruck.

  Over the next week, I was feeling melancholic. I started to like the feeling of melancholy: sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. The way that it felt good when you put a thumb on a bruise and pressed down. It made me feel like getting hurt more often, since afterward you were able to experience this soft, reflective state.

  When I got home after school one day, there was a folded piece of loose-leaf in the mailbox. I opened it and read: “I am going to rape you and cut your fucking head off. I am going to feed your feet to a dog.” Naturally, I knew it was from Theo. It didn’t even hurt my feelings, to tell you the truth. Instead I was sad that Theo was feeling this way. I knew that he was pretending to hate me because he figured our friendship was over and he didn’t want to lose face. I kind of missed him for some strange reason, but I wanted him to know that he couldn’t hurt me.

  I folded his note back up and put it in my pocket. I carried it around for the next few days and even felt sentimental about it, as if it was a postcard that someone had sent me from Paris, one that smelled of perfume and was written in cursive. It might have been the painkillers that were making me feel that way. Actually, they were probably behind my enjoyment of melancholy, too. I was glad when I went to the doctor and he said I could knock off the pills and take my arm out of the sling. He said it was necessary to feel pain now, so that I knew if I was being hurt.

  7

  EARLY SUNDAY MORNING, we had a dress rehearsal at the community center, as the parade was the next weekend. James had a bunch of long johns for us to wear under our costumes and we were hopping around looking like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. I carefully fit my bad arm into the wire loops that were attached to the wings. Everyone said my costume was the nicest, right after Paul’s, but that was understandable since he was dressed up as a skeleton.

  When I got home before noon, my hair was still slicked back with gel and sparkling. Jules looked me up and down a minute and said I was too young to use hair gel. Then he announced that I wasn’t allowed to hang out at the community center anymore. He reminded me that he hadn’t liked me being there to begin with. Now the delinquents over there were breaking my bones. Next they’d turn me into a drug addict or at least murder me. I didn’t bother explaining that they had tried smoking banana leaves and were very unsuccessful at being drug addicts. Nor did I explain that they were all still upset about the pigeon we’d killed, which indicated that they weren
t serial killers by nature.

  Instead, I only asked that I be allowed to participate in the parade. Actually, I fell down on my knees and begged. Jules simply opened his can of pop that seemed to be called Thirty Five Cents and shook his head. I knelt on the ground, my head spinning in disbelief. It was too unfair and cruel. What were the other kids supposed to do without me? I was the first one in the line. No one else had memorized any of the footwork. They just followed behind me and imitated my moves.

  I yelled that I was going to the parade no matter what he said. To this, Jules answered that if he saw me in the parade, he would stop the parade and slap me in front of everybody. I knew that he would do it, too. I just lay on the floor, sobbing hopelessly.

  It was impossible to reason with Jules. His brain had been a mess lately. A couple days before, he’d asked me if I had seen a pattern in the carpet moving.

  “I could have sworn it just flew through here,” he’d said. It wasn’t his fault that he was unfair. Rehabilitation had driven him batty.

  Jules shuffled into the living room, but I stayed on the floor by the door and engaged in some of that mad, frustrated crying: the kind where you talk with your teeth clenched together. Everything in the apartment, even the print of a geisha nailed on the wall, was making me angry. Finally, I put on my ski jacket and picked up my shoes and got up and left the apartment.

  I stumbled out into the street, hoping that I looked like a drunken sailor. Everything was all topsy-turvy because my eyes were filled with tears. I clutched my shoes to my chest as I went. I cried loudly, not even bothering to wipe the tears and snot off my face. I just let it all pour down, allowing everybody walking by to see what this world had done to me. If a kid my age walks down the street in her socks, crying her eyes out, then it makes it a bad neighborhood. I was glad I was making their world a shitty place to live.

 
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