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Lullabies for little cri.., p.14
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.14

           Heather O'Neill
 

  8

  I HEARD LAUREN TALKING about the break-in at school. She didn’t suspect it was me. She couldn’t even fathom that it had been me. Only Theo knew that I was capable of such things. I didn’t mind not going to the community center, because Theo and I met up every day after school for the next week. Jules had nothing to complain about: he had won his argument about me not hanging out at the center. He left me alone for a while.

  Shortly after our adventure, Theo’s mother had another breakdown and he was put into the foster care system. No one who goes into the system even writes a good-bye letter. The first thing they teach you is that you aren’t worth good-byes.

  It was sad because I had been picturing us as boyfriend and girlfriend. I ran into a girl from the community center and told her that I liked Theo. She promptly told me that I, by far, had the worst taste on the planet. She thought of me differently once I’d confessed my affection toward Theo. Maybe there was something wrong with me. I wondered if I was one of those people who were doomed to always love the losers and the ridiculous.

  Other girls in my school knew what pop stars and television heroes to care about. Unlike them, I was completely lost when it came to knowing who to find attractive. Or at least my tastes differed vastly from theirs. I had no innate sense of who I was supposed to like. Nonetheless, I wanted to love someone as much as anyone else. As I walked home from school one day, I stopped in front of a life-size poster of Arthur H that had been plastered to the wall of a building. He was a tall skinny Parisian singer who sang ludicrous love songs. There were posters of him all over town because his new album had just been released. Everyone in my school hated French music with a terrible passion. Other girls would rather kill themselves than like Arthur H. Most of his posters near our school had been entirely defaced by mustaches or the word “pervert” across his forehead, but this poster hadn’t been marked at all.

  It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. I stood on my tippy toes and kissed Arthur H on the lips. I was going to make my own decisions about love from now on. I hurried up the stairs to our apartment.

  the devil in a track suit

  1

  JULES WAS IN A BETTER MOOD when he was drifting. He’d get crazier and crazier in the apartment. When he was getting ready to go somewhere, he’d get his suit on and shave. Sometimes he just walked all day and I didn’t know where he was. He was always falling asleep at his friends’ apartments. They squeezed in together on the couch and watched late-night movies and fell asleep with their heads on each other’s shoulders. He came home in the morning as if a piano had fallen on him, as if he had been run over by a herd of antelopes.

  Then he started disappearing for longer stretches of time. He’d put twenty dollars for groceries under the bed and take off for a few days. He was always bringing things to the country to sell, going door-to-door selling the quilts he’d bought in Joliette. There was always a big pile of quilts in the corner of our living room. They were covered in autumn leaves and berries, which was a popular pattern back then. Mary’s housecoat had that same pattern, and every time I lay on one of those quilts, I thought happily of her.

  I was almost thirteen and he thought I was old enough to be left alone in the house. I didn’t think that I was because I was still afraid of the dark. Plus, if someone decided to kick the door in, I wasn’t going to be able to beat them up.

  Sometimes he’d leave for reasons that weren’t even business. One day he decided to go with a friend out to the country to meet Lester’s cousin, who had been some sort of boxer and had been on television. Jules thought it was a great opportunity to be able to meet this guy. I thought it was stupid.

  He put on a tweed suit, a giant scarf, and wallabies. He looked too young to be wearing a suit and look sophisticated in it. It was more the kind of suit you saw on the cover of a reggae album. He looked like a gypsy about to be married. But I didn’t say anything.

  Jules said that he might be gone overnight, so he had a plastic bag with his toothbrush and underwear. He also had a danish wrapped up in cellophane in case he got hungry. He sat on the couch waiting for his ride. He smelled like aftershave. When I passed the Ritz-Carlton once, I imagined that it smelled like Jules’s aftershave inside.

  The doorbell rang and Jules split. He ran down the stairs to meet his friend Lester, who was waiting downstairs in his car. I looked out the window at them leaving. Lester was driving a borrowed car. It was a beat-up black car that made me think of a crow. I just decided to go to bed early and get one day over with.

  That whole weekend I missed waking up to Jules screaming at the radio.

  “Play another song, motherfucker,” he would scream at the announcer. “Come on! I can’t stand all the commercials!”

  JULES AND I WERE LIVING in a new apartment again. It was in a skinny old building tucked in between a barbershop and a tango studio. There was wallpaper on the walls in the stairwell, something that I’d never seen before. It was like living in a dollhouse. I’d go sit on the stairs and try to read a book when being alone in the apartment freaked me out. Mostly I just ended up staring at the golden stickmen on the wallpaper who were sailing on gondolas across a red ocean.

  The landlady was Russian and looked like she was wearing a dozen sweaters and about three scarves on her head at the same time. It was hard to imagine what she actually looked like under all those layers, or what her face must have looked like when she was young. She was probably from another generation, a time when people were uglier. There were little black hairs on her nose and her glasses had tape holding them together in the middle. For some reason the lenses seemed murky, as if they’d been permanently steamed up. It was like I was looking at her under a microscope because there were so many faults.

  She liked to hug me when I passed her in the stairwell and say, “Poor little thing. Terrible, oh, so terrible. Your coat isn’t thick enough.” She gave me plastic bags filled with oranges or boxes of tea cookies. I liked her, but older people made time stand still when you spoke to them. Standing under the yellow light of the bulb in the hallway, I felt like a bug trapped in amber. Sometimes she gave me Cosmo magazines and I’d leaf through them looking for the perfume samples. When she gave me a pile of old TV Guides, Jules yelled at me that they weren’t any good. Didn’t we have enough of our own garbage that we didn’t have to go around taking in other people’s? I couldn’t say no to the landlady when she offered me something, though. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

  One time she gave me a cassette without a case. It had the words “Vladimir Vysotsky” written on it in scratchy old person’s handwriting. I didn’t know for sure if Vladimir Vysotsky was the singer’s name. It could have been, say, the name of the landlord’s cousin, who had maybe owned the tape at one time. I thought that I should probably throw it right out into the alley. I might listen to it and it might be horrible, like the bad rock and roll they played at the Jupiter café on the corner. It would depress me all day if I had to hear that.

  I showed it to Jules and he stuck it in the cassette player. It was a shock when we turned it on. It was a man singing and shouting in Russian. He screamed at the top of his lungs when he sang. I had never heard a man sing like that. He sounded like an irate drunk screaming at his wife through the bathroom door to hurry the hell up. Instead of sounding like birds singing or pretty ladies, or wind chimes, it sounded more like garbage bags being dropped out windows, or like people throwing cups and dishes up against a wall because they were outraged. These were all sounds that you wouldn’t think were music. It was exciting.

  Jules liked the tape as much as I did. It became the tape that we listened to all the time. We simply couldn’t get enough of it. I listened to it in the bath, or lying on the carpet doing my homework. Jules and I even listened to it while we watched TV.

  We tried to figure out what he was singing about because, of course, we didn’t know a word of Russian.

  “Maybe he’s singing about how he isn’t speaking to his
best friend?” I suggested.

  “He probably came home drunk and ran over the family dog. Now he knows his wife is going to kick him out for good. He’s feeling real sorrowful.”

  I thought that Jules became a poet when he interpreted these songs. These days he only seemed to speak to me when I’d done something like leave the bathtub a mess. Then he cursed me and the day I was born so hard that even the neighbors heard. But now, sometimes, when the music was playing, he would say something just regular and thoughtful, as if we were still friends.

  When Jules was away in the country for the weekend, I found myself waiting outside the landlady’s apartment, hoping she would come out and invite me inside. I kicked over a telephone book that was lying on a step so that she’d know I was there. Sure enough, she opened the door and invited me in. It smelled like almond cookies inside. She had masking tape all over the floor where a tile was missing. There were newspapers lining the floors in the hall, and there was a photograph of Jesus in the kitchen, or, rather, an actor dressed up as Jesus.

  I couldn’t figure out how well she spoke English because instead of speaking she mostly pointed at things and made funny little noises. She kept forgetting that I was there. When she walked back into the kitchen, she almost had a heart attack because she was expecting the room to be empty.

  She gave me these jelly candies to eat and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that I was eating sugar-coated slugs. I gagged right while I was sitting next to her, but luckily she didn’t seem to notice. She just patted me on the head and took out a plastic bag filled with stamps that we looked at, one by one, trying to organize them.

  Afterward, I helped her wash the stairs in the hallway. I couldn’t really enjoy it because I knew that Jules might come home any minute and catch me working for no pay, and that type of thing would upset him.

  It might have seemed ludicrous for a twelve-year-old to be hanging out with an old woman, but that was the way I was. I’d started looking for adults to hang around with. They had more quality time for me and said sweet encouraging things and gave me gifts.

  2

  I’D GET EXCITED WHEN GROWN-UPS paid attention to me. It always made me feel special. I didn’t have a mother and my dad wasn’t ever around anymore. I was even friends with the retarded people who stood rocking back and forth on the corner. I used to push this guy Emmet around in his wheelchair. He was a junkie and he had to get up a hill every day to his dealer’s house. Nobody else liked to push him up the hill on St. Laurent Street because he’d scream and insult whoever was helping him. He complained to me the whole way up.

  “You keep knocking me into things, fuckin’ shit. Not so fuckin’ swervy. It’s like I’m on a goddamn ship. I’m going to puke all over my fucking lap. Slow the fuck down, will you? I don’t know why you’re in such a rush. It’s Saturday. You have to hurry off to smoke pot with your friends?”

  Jules said he’d slap me right in public if he saw me pushing Emmet’s wheelchair. Jules always let me push Emmet’s wheelchair when I was younger, but now he said it wasn’t appropriate for me to be associating with him anymore. But I’d still sneak around behind my dad’s back and push him and that wheelchair up the hill. Emmet always told me the funny jokes he’d seen on Saturday Night Live since we didn’t have cable.

  I USED TO CALL OUT INSULTS to a guy named Peaches, a man who Jules had also suggested I not bother with anymore. He told me Peaches didn’t know what a kid was. Peaches was a skinny twenty-year-old kid who was always trying out new stupid styles in order to be original. Like he’d wear two different pairs of socks or two pairs of sunglasses at the same time. I used to insult his clothes every time I saw him and that would make him really happy.

  I saw him walk by wearing a gray woolen sweater and a big tie with a blue bird on it one day.

  “Peaches!” I shouted. “What’s with that tie? What is it with that ugilieee tie? I don’t want to insult you, but I just need to know for scientific reasons, why would you wear such an ugly tie? Are you color-blind? Are you experimenting with food coloring?”

  “Did your mother kick your butt out of the house ’cause she got sick of your face?” he answered. “Hmm. I bet you got a spanking lately. At least I don’t get spanked! I heard your mother yell at you the other day. She said, ‘Get in your room!’ It’s true! You’re blushing. I heard it all the way down the block!”

  I just laughed. No matter how many times I reminded him, he couldn’t remember that I didn’t have a mother, so I didn’t bother anymore.

  One day I was sitting in the lobby of my building doing a report on endangered animals. Mine was on the cheetah. I was tracing a picture of one out of the encyclopedia for the cover page when Peaches pushed open the front door to the lobby and sat next to me on the stairs. Instead of insulting me, he tried to make conversation.

  “So did you draw that?” he asked. “That’s nice. I have a cousin who’s really, really good at drawing. She could have gone to school in Paris, but you have to know five languages to study there.”

  “That’s not true. Come on, Peaches! They speak French in France and that’s it.”

  “You don’t have to call me Peaches. You can call me Benjamin.”

  “I like Peaches, though.”

  “Just go on and try Benjamin. You might see that you like saying it. Just say it once. I want to hear you say it.”

  “Benjamin,” I said, but then right away I wished I hadn’t.

  Calling him Benjamin at this point gave me a similar sensation to letting him lift up my skirt and kiss my thigh. I knew that he was coming on to me, although I couldn’t figure out why. There were plenty of good-looking teenage girls around. I was sitting there wearing a long-sleeve shirt with dragons on it and a pair of green Adidas shorts. On my feet were a pair of brown wallabies. I dressed like people in Haiti who’d been sent cast-off clothes. I’d grown up with men around the house and there’d never been anyone to help me match my clothes or fix my hair. I had scabs on both my knees, for crying out loud.

  Then again, everyone knew Peaches had terrible taste in women, because for a while he had dated a girl named Oana who wore huge glasses and worked at the Laundromat. She always told everyone they were stupid and didn’t know how to use the machines properly. She slapped my hands once when I was fiddling with the knob on a dryer. It didn’t mean that you were attractive if Peaches liked you. He had a cousin named Alphonse who was always surrounded by pretty women. If Alphonse liked you, it meant that you were one of the foxier girls in the neighborhood.

  After I knew that Peaches sort of liked me, it made me wish that Alphonse would notice me one day and just wink my way. But then again, the one adult I was afraid of and got all quiet around was Alphonse. I couldn’t even sit near him, so he was the one I most craved attention from.

  ALPHONSE WAS A BIG GUY, with dark red hair and big blue eyes. He had a tattoo of a rose right on the top of his spine that would peek out from the top of his shirt sometimes. He had a scraggly beard and his hair was in little dreadlocks that stuck up. It reminded me of the way cartoon cats looked after they’d been blown up. It was beautiful.

  Alphonse wore expensive outfits and a white angora baseball hat. He had a pair of gold pants and a shirt with goldfish that matched the pants exactly. Once I saw him out on the street corner on my way to school, wearing a burgundy overcoat over some green silk pajamas with blue leather slippers and drinking out of a plastic milk container. It was then that I realized that he could never look anything but spectacular.

  Although Alphonse was terribly interested in women, he never seemed to notice me. But that’s because I wasn’t really a woman. He didn’t have friends who were kids, and in fact he picked on us kids. Especially ones whose parents weren’t ever around.

  There was one kid on my block who knew how to sing really well. Alphonse would catch him and keep him in a headlock until he sang “Blackbird” by the Beatles for him. Once I saw some kids playing with an empty refrigerator box, pretending
it was a spaceship, and Alphonse started shaking the box like crazy. “Engine trouble, men!” he kept yelling. When he finally stopped, a kid rolled out of the box crying.

  My friend Zoë and I had this large piece of plastic that her father had been using to cover a window during the winter. He gave it to Zoë to drag out to the trash. Zoë and I laid the piece out on the sidewalk. We took off our shoes and started slip sliding in our socks, practicing crazy dance moves. Alphonse came by and chucked the remains of a bottle of water on us. I started to cry out of humiliation.

  “Come on!” Alphonse had said, laughing. “Don’t be a crybaby. Get your shit together. Jesus Christ, what a fucking sap.”

  I tried to forget that I had ever even liked him after that.

  ALPHONSE LIVED IN A BIG BUILDING that had “Jesus Saves” spray-painted on its bricks out front. He often sat outside it with a giant boom box. Even though it was starting to get damn cold out, friends of his would gather around him to listen to his music. The music put Alphonse in a good mood, and when he was in a good mood, he would start to insult people who were passing by. Once I heard him making fun of Jules. Jules was walking down the street carrying a lamp in his hand that he’d obviously just pulled out of some garbage heap.

  “Look at the garbage picker man!” Alphonse said. “That motherfucker is sad. He tried to sell me a comforter once! I said get the hell away from me. He’s out all night looking for rags and bones. What year we living in, man? Get a real job, motherfucker.”

  Jules couldn’t stand Alphonse either. He said Alphonse was a pimp. I didn’t know what a pimp did exactly. I was almost certain that it meant he had prostitutes working for him, but I wasn’t sure. I told a kid at school that I knew a pimp and he said, “Bullshit. It’s not fucking possible. You’re making it up.” So I guessed I’d made a mistake. Or maybe the word “pimp” had two different meanings.

 
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