Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.13Heather O'Neill
I sat on an empty bench at the bus stop on the corner. A few people walked up to wait for the bus, but they didn’t sit on the bench with me. They were afraid of me, of my sadness. I put the shoes down next to my feet. It was like there was an invisible man sitting next to me, naked, except for his shoes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone come and sit next to me. They were leaning over, obviously trying to get me to look at them. I turned a little and saw it was Theo. As soon as our eyes met, he put both his arms around me and hugged me.
“There, there,” he said gently. It was the way that his mother talked when she was being nice. “Don’t cry like that. Poor little sweetie. Too sweet to sit here and cry.”
I squealed, pretending to be disgusted, but I didn’t even try to push him away. I liked being squeezed tight like that. I even liked that it hurt my shoulder a little.
“Get off of me, you weirdo,” I said.
Theo shook his head and just squeezed me tighter. He let go and patted me on the head. He gave me a Kleenex to blow my nose on. I’d never been treated like that by another child. It was creating very pleasant sensations in me. He lowered his head, so that our faces were right in front of each other’s.
“You know you’re my best friend, right?” he said.
I shrugged. I guessed it was true. Now that I wasn’t going to be at the parade, they would all hate me. Everything had been carefully choreographed, and me not being there would throw them all off. I realized that kids like Theo and me weren’t even supposed to have real friends. We were supposed to be alone and confused. By being each other’s friend, we were defying our laws of gravity.
“Are you upset because of the letter?” he asked.
It took me a couple seconds to figure out what he was referring to. Then I remembered the nasty letter I was carrying around like a poem in my pocket.
“I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I dislocated your arm.”
“It’s okay. It’s practically cured now.”
“I never told you this, but I saw you hugging my mother.”
“Yeah. She’s nice.”
“You like my mother?”
“She smells good.”
“That’s true. She wears cocoa butter! She screams a lot. But it’s not her fault. She gets really nervous.”
“Yeah. My dad’s like that too.”
“Does he whack you sometimes?”
“He throws things at me,” I said.
I leaned my head over so that he could see the big cut on my head from where Jules’s slipper had caught me a couple days before.
“That’s pretty bad, but really it isn’t shit. You want to see something worse?” he asked.
He lifted his pea jacket and T-shirt at the same time over his head. Then he turned around so that I could get a good look at his back. There were little thin scars running all the way down to his waist. They reminded me of tall blades of grass. Looking at his scars gave me the feeling that I was seeing something intimate and dirty. It was more secret and I felt myself get excited. I ran my finger along one of the scars, then shivered.
“I got those when I was a little baby. My mom whipped me with a telephone cord and then poured salt in my cuts. She did that right before she had to go to the hospital. I had to go live in a group home for a while.”
“They’re not that bad,” I said.
“Yes, they are.”
We were very quiet. When he took off his shirt, it had changed the way we felt about each other. There wouldn’t be any reason for us to keep secrets from each other now. It occurred to me that Theo was the first person in the world that I trusted. We sat there next to each other and he put his arm around me. Strangely, it wasn’t a big deal at all. It just felt comfortable. Neither of us wanted to move even the slightest bit. I had this distant feeling after I had cried, like I was far away, someplace on holiday. It was easy to keep still next to Theo.
I snapped out of my reverie when I looked down the street and saw Lauren walking in our direction. She was with her cousin, a really mean girl in her own right. The two of them were trailing behind their parents. They had on beautiful black tailored coats. From the way the whole family was dressed, I guessed they were on their way to the church around the corner. Lauren and her cousin had their heads leaning together, the way that girls did when they were about to do something rotten. I hurried to put on my running shoes. I didn’t want them to say I was barefoot and pregnant, or something like that. I was yanking desperately at the shoelace, trying to get a knot untied. Theo looked at me confusedly, obviously not understanding why I was being all crazy about my shoes.
Lauren and her cousin slowed way down as they passed the bench.
“Hey, Baby?” Lauren’s cousin said. “How do you comb your teeth?”
“Yeah,” said Lauren. “You better get home. It’s twelve o’clock. You’d better get your pajamas on and go to bed.”
Theo stared at Lauren with his face squinched up, trying to figure out the meaning of what she’d just said. He was completely lost. If he had known what was going on, he’d have jumped up and slapped both of them in the face. I had no doubt about that. Lauren and her cousin walked off quickly, bending over with laughter.
“Was she being serious?” Theo asked. “Or was she trying to insult you?”
“I can’t stand her,” I said, finally managing to tie my shoelace. “She’s always bothering me at school.”
Theo’s face went all red. He jumped up and climbed on the bench and looked down the street to see if he could catch a glimpse of them, but they were gone.
“Oh, man! That bitch said that shit to you while I was sitting right next to you! No fucking way! Let’s wait for that bitch to come out of church and stab her to fucking death! Come on, we got to!”
He was getting all worked up and excited. He had been presented with a legitimate enemy for once. He was also very happy that we were both on the same side and were, therefore, no longer enemies. He made me swear not to move an inch and ran into his apartment. He came running back out a couple minutes later with a huge kitchen knife waving in his hand.
“Do you think this is a machete?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll never let her get away with saying that shit to you. Nobody talks like that to you ever. You hear me? You have to respect yourself.”
Theo tried to figure out how he could keep the knife on him and out of sight. He pulled his gym sock all the way up to his knee and stuck the knife into it. He walked a couple steps to try out his new system and screamed out in pain. The tip of the knife had cut the side of his leg. He pulled it out and, hopping on one foot, tried to stick it in the pocket of the pea coat he was wearing. The pocket was much too shallow for the knife; it toppled out and landed on the ground. I suggested he tuck it into the waistband of his pants. He informed me that if he slipped, the knife might cut off his canary patch. Finally, he just held the knife in his hand, for the whole world to see.
Theo and I went to sit on the church steps. Neither of us had any idea how long church was going to be. I picked up some leaves that were on the church’s lawn and started making them into a necklace to pass the time. Theo, however, was getting impatient, and started pacing back and forth. He ran the blade along the grass, trying to decapitate the heads of the few remaining flowers, but it was no use. We realized, after sitting there for ten minutes, that we weren’t going to be able to wait it out.
“I know where she lives, man!” Theo screamed. “I used to have a paper route there. Let’s go trash her place while her whole family’s in there praying.”
So we set off down the street toward Lauren’s house, Theo swirling the knife around his head as if it were a light saber. He couldn’t resist chasing a couple five-year-olds down an alley with it.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said to a boy who was sitting in a hockey net in his driveway. “I’ll come ove
I really hoped no one was going to be at Lauren’s. I had seen so many people murdered on television it seemed as if I was going to have to murder someone at some point, but the thought of Theo and me murdering a whole family was making me nervous. I had to run into a gas station and use the bathroom.
When I came out, Theo was standing on the corner singing “Señor Don Gato” at the top of his lungs. He sang it in a really deep, deep voice for fun. I had learned that song in elementary school and it had been my favorite for years. I started singing too. We sang it together as we walked down the street.
“Oh Señor Don Gato was a cat. On a high red roof Don Gato sat. He was there to read a letter, meow, meow, meow, where the reading light was better, meow, meow, meow. ’Twas a love note for Don Gato!”
All of a sudden, I was in a good mood and didn’t seem to have a problem in the world. All the stuff my dad had said to me was completely put away for the moment. That was one of the beautiful things about being a kid, how you could just feel such complete joy in the middle of everything.
I picked up a stick. Theo and I started sword fighting as we sang.
“Oh Don Gato jumped so happily. He fell off the roof and broke his knee. Broke his ribs and all his whiskers, meow, meow, meow, and his little solar plexus, meow, meow, meow. ’Twas the ending of Don Gato!”
The sun was shining that day and the fall colors were everywhere, as if an army of children had passed through here, smashing crayons under their heels as they went. I walked like a peg-legged pirate with one foot on the sidewalk and one on the street. I kicked an empty bottle of bleach for a couple blocks. It made the sound of a whale. The air was filled with tiny white fluffy bits, flying everywhere. They stuck all over Theo’s jacket. It was as if a check had been left in his pocket during the wash.
He tried to cut a clothesline in half just for fun, but his knife couldn’t get through the line at all.
THE BACK ALLEY BEHIND LAUREN’S HOUSE looked the way the world would look if a child had built it. Some underwear and a couple T-shirts that had fallen from clotheslines lay on the pavement. A single sneaker was stuck up on a fence post. There was a toy bucket with rocks in it and a sled that had been left behind from a day when there had been snow on the ground. A wooden door leaned against a wall, leading nowhere. There was a lamp and a bathroom sink in the same garbage heap. You’d think that these houses were being blown apart by the wind, the way that pieces of them were lying about. Not one of them would be a match for the Big Bad Wolf.
“Is this her window?” Theo whispered.
I looked up and he was right. Lauren’s bicycle was leaning next to the back door. The window wasn’t even closed. Theo jabbed open the screen with his knife and we climbed through. We didn’t even look up and down the alley to see if anyone was witnessing our crime. Now that I was becoming a criminal, I thought there should be a big audience applauding me.
We both tiptoed around the apartment, staying really close to each other until we were sure no one was there. I think we were both somehow fantasizing about living there together. I didn’t know that these houses were so different inside. I assumed, somehow, that the interiors looked just like those of poor apartments. If it was unfair that we had broken into her apartment, it seemed much more unfair that she got to live here. It was big and lovely. The ceilings were high and there were paintings on the walls. A vase filled with fresh flowers sat on the kitchen table.
Theo said we should put the things we wanted by the back door, so that we could be sure we took them when we left. He came into the kitchen dragging the comforter from Lauren’s parents’ bed. He seemed to think that it was really expensive. Apparently his mother had gone on about a goose-down comforter she had when she was little. We thought about taking the television just because we knew that it was something that people took when they broke into houses, but we couldn’t even carry the color TV set over to the door. That was very strange. I didn’t understand how it was that thieves stole people’s television sets. They must bring cars and put stuff in the trunks. We both already had television sets anyway, so we dropped the idea.
I went through a change jar in the kitchen and took out some quarters and stuck them in my pocket.
Lauren’s room smelled like perfumed erasers. There was a little barrette with a giraffe in a bureau drawer that I took and put in my pocket. That would go a long way toward making me beautiful. I looked over the shelves for something else that might catch my fancy. There was an adorable wooden turtle that I decided to take.
“There’s a box of jewelry here,” Theo called from the other room.
“I don’t like jewelry,” I said.
“Are you sure? There’s some nice stuff here.”
In our old apartment, my dad and I had this creepy neighbor who wore tank tops and leopard-skin balloon pants. He always wore lots of jewelry, five gold chains around his neck and these big chunky rings on his fingers. Now jewelry always reminded me of him, and even the thought of a simple band depressed me. I didn’t know anything about pawnshops then, so I yelled for Theo to leave all the jewelry where it was.
Theo came out of Lauren’s sister’s bedroom with a pair of her underwear on his head. He was carrying a stuffed tiger in one hand and his knife in the other. He jabbed at the tiger’s neck until the head came off. Theo had a ferocious expression on his face, as if he was engaged in a difficult fight. Then he put the head on top of the fridge, where it would be sure to be seen. At some point Lauren had once told me about that tiger. His name was Marshmallow, I think.
We looked at each other and a peculiar feeling of excitement came over us. We just started wrecking everything we could think of. There was a statue of a ballerina that I threw against the wall. All its limbs broke off at once, poor fragile thing. We knocked everything on the floor. Theo ripped the shower curtain off the hook. He took a marker and scribbled on the wall, “You are a bitch and you are going to hell. I am going to kill you all.” He took his machete and started stabbing the couch cushions. Theo handed it to me and I cut through some paintings on the wall. We knocked their stereo system over. We did a whole bunch of other things that I can’t really remember.
I dumped a potted plant in the sink. I rescued a little flower from one of its stems and stuck it behind my ear. At this point we’d lost all sense of reality. It was like being in a dream. What made everything feel so strange was how easy it had been to break into someone’s house and wreck their things.
Violence never gives you a specific feeling that it’s time to knock it off. That’s because it is impossible to satisfy. All your actions are like shoveling mud into a hole with no bottom. After we had wrecked a good portion of the apartment, Theo and I sat down in the kitchen and each had a big piece of chocolate cake that was in a box in the fridge. He poured us two glasses of milk, which we drank all out of breath.
When we were done, we threw the dishes on the floor and threw the rest of the cake down the hall. We couldn’t get the back door open, so we climbed back out the window. Theo got stuck for a couple seconds because he was hauling the ridiculous comforter out with him. Amazingly, it was the only thing he’d found to be of any value in the house.
I noticed Lauren’s bicycle near the back door again. I pushed it out of the backyard. When we got into the alley, I got up on the bike and cycled through all the garbage. The cats scurried out of the way. Jules had been borrowing my bike for his so-called work, so I hadn’t had a chance to ride one in a while. I had forgotten how good it felt to get up on one, sailing along. It made me feel at peace. A crowd of boys called out to me that my bike was ugly and I waved happily to them. As I rode faster, I imagined that I was a stunt man and that I was about to jump over a chasm with thousands of people watching.
Theo ran after me, quilt in his arms, as if he’d just rescued a dog from a burning building. He called, begging for a turn on the bicycle.
Theo tied the quilt around his neck as he
He double rode me down a steep hill down one of the streets that led to the river. There were always strange stores on this street because it was out of the way and the rent was cheaper. They were stores that you could pass a million times and never go into. One sold framed pictures of Jupiter and the moon. Another had busts of different composers and broken violins hanging from wires in the window. One was an extermination company with a stuffed rat on display. The world was sweet!
We rode past the end of the street to where the ground got all gravelly and led to a cliff over the river. We stood at the edge looking over. There were rusty wire fences at the bottom of cliffs back then. A huge filthy puddle the color of dead fish lay under us, full of seaweed that looked like hair clogging a drain.
I found a piece of concrete. I picked it up and brought it over to the edge, counted to three, and flung it down. It made a big splash and a clanging noise. I was staring over the cliff at my masterpiece when Theo came up from behind me and grabbed me around the waist.
He squeezed me really tight and leaned forward with me, making like he was going to fling me into the mucky water. I begged him not to throw me. He was squeezing me so tightly that I had to make sure not to exhale too much so it hurt my rib cage and my side.
“You’re my prisoner, you know. I’m going to hold you hostage. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said and relaxed.
And I closed my eyes. It felt like we were flying. It was necessary for him to hold me this tightly so that I wouldn’t fall. Together we were going to be very strong. The world was going to pay for what it had done to us. If I wasn’t going to get to be a dragonfly, other people would also feel the pain along with me.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes