Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.15Heather O'Neill
I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING to make older guys want to treat me like I was one of them, but I had some friends who did. My friend Zoë wore these running shoes with high heels. She slicked her ponytail back and wore blue eye shadow in enormous rings around her eyes. She tied her T-shirt under her breasts and carried a fake leather purse with straps so long it dangled down to her ankles. Guys would whistle at her from cars and she’d give them the finger all heroically.
I couldn’t dress like that or Jules would throw a fit. He didn’t even let me braid my hair. He thought that bobby pins were invented solely for attracting black men, that elastic bands with big plastic balls on them were for prostitutes. He didn’t let me put a Pink Panther temporary tattoo from a stick of gum on my arm because he said any woman with a tattoo was a tramp. He insisted on cutting my bangs really short, the way that five-year-olds did, and made me wear a ridiculous turtleneck with strawberries on it and a pair of bell-bottoms whose waist went right up to my nipples. He gave me a secondhand fur coat that was an ugly orangish color that was popular in the seventies. I looked like a kid from a rerun. Jules argued that the clothes were made of good material and if I didn’t want to wear them it meant I was trying to be a whore.
Then Zoë started smoking pot. She got it from her older sister. She said it made you feel like a woman. She told me that every guy would go nuts for a girl who smoked pot. I didn’t know about that, but I did like the idea of smoking up. Jules had a bottle of white wine in the fridge once for about three months. I liked to sneak a few sips while I was pretending to look for the jam. The wine would make my feet feel soft and buzzy like hummingbirds. I loved to take a little drink and then sit on the fire escape. It felt like there were toads in the wind that whispered, “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me.”
The first time Zoë handed me a joint, I remember thinking that it smelled like a skunk, just like Pepé Le Pew. I took a toke from the joint and held it in. My throat started burning and I coughed and retched really hard. Zoë acted as if this were perfectly natural. I stood looking around, disappointed but somehow relieved that nothing at all was happening. Then I noticed that I was feeling numb, as if pain was impossible. I wanted to go up to a dog and get him to bite down on my arm. I had funny impulses, too, like taking off all my clothes. The mere thought of getting naked on a park bench made me burst out laughing. My laughter was like warm water running through my body. It was funny to me and made me laugh some more.
“God, you are such a stoner,” Zoë said, smiling.
ZOË GAVE ME TWO MORE JOINTS to take home as a symbol of our friendship. I smoked them over the next week. It would only take one good drag to make me high. I’d smoke them a little at a time in alleys and other such dismal places.
One Friday Jules came into my bedroom to tell me that he was going to sell some comforters in a flea market in Trois-Rivières. He was getting a ride up there and he wasn’t going to be back until Monday morning. I didn’t look at him while he told me about his plan. I picked up my favorite stuffed animal, an orange dog that I’d been calling Butchie since I was about five years old. I knew if I looked at my dad I would start to cry. I cradled Butchie in my arms and stroked his head. I picked up a tennis ball and waved it in front of his nose, trying to interest him in it. Then I tossed the tennis ball across the bed. Jules and I sat there silently, as if we were waiting for the dog to jump up and fetch. Then my dad left and went to his room to get ready. I pulled the blankets over me even though I still had my running shoes on, and I fell asleep with Butchie in my arms.
The next morning I woke up, still wearing my clothes from the day before. The house was empty except for me. It was so quiet it was as if the bomb had dropped the night before. I remembered that I had hidden a little joint that Zoë had given me in a wooden box under my bed. I leaned over and pulled it out.
I took my lighter out of the pocket of my jeans and smoked the last of my joint just like that, lying in bed, the way that bank robbers and rock-and-roll stars did it. It was the best joint I’d ever smoked.
I got out of bed and wandered around the apartment. I felt like I had died and was a ghost and was just hanging out and observing things with no worries whatsoever since I was no longer one of the living. I took a bath and tried to float on top of the water, as if I were in the ocean off a tropical beach. The T-shirts were right: it was better in the Bahamas.
I wrapped myself in a towel and went to get dressed. I looked through the pile of clothes that Jules had brought back from the laundry the day before. My clothes were downright ugly and I was the first to admit it. I didn’t want the delicate good mood spoiled by wearing a T-shirt with a rooster advertising a chicken restaurant downtown.
I went into Jules’s room and looked in his closet. He was skinny, and I was almost as tall as him, so I could get away with wearing some of his stuff. Of course, he never let me, but he wasn’t here. I found a black suit that was strictly for weddings or for joining the Mafia, so he never had an opportunity to wear it. I put on a white dress shirt with a huge collar and the jacket over it. The pants were way too long, so I rolled up the cuffs. His shoes didn’t fit so I had to put on my running shoes, but I didn’t mind. I looked in the mirror and, in my altered state of consciousness, thought I was ready to host the Johnny Carson show. I threw on my fur coat but kept it wide open.
I went to sit on the front steps. I brought down the whole pitcher of orange juice and drank straight out of it in the manner. I believed to be that of a big shot. My friend Bobby came up and sat with me. He was fifteen years old and was very impressed with my new outfit. He said there were strippers who dressed up in suits like that, and that they took all their clothes off and had fancy underwear on underneath. He said that no man could resist that kind of a strip show because there was nothing so sexy in the world as a good-looking lady in men’s clothes. I just smiled and took another swig of my orange juice. A couple other kids came over to find out why I was dressed up so crazy.
“Because I died last night,” I said. “And they dressed me up in my fanciest suit and laid me down in a coffin. It’s such a nice day and you are all my good friends, so I decided to get my butt up out of the coffin, just like Jesus Christ, and come and chitchat with all my beautiful and soulful friends.”
That’s the way I talked when I smoked pot. It was a gift. Every time I smoked up, these pretty phrases and ideas just popped into my head. Usually I went around with so many ugly insecure things flying around in my head that when a pretty thought came to me, it usually died a lonely death, afraid to come out. But when I was high, I simply had to utter it. One time I’d been out by the river getting high with Zoë and her sister. On the bus ride home, I’d turned to a guy sitting next to me and said, “Somewhere there is a sparrow singing in B minor.” I swear to God, pot made me a genius.
Someone in an upstairs apartment turned on their radio too loud. The sound of some goofy song filled the air around me, and I stood right up and started dancing to it, rolling my hips around, spinning an invisible Hula-Hoop, just like a stripper. All the kids were laughing their heads off. Bobby stood up and started grooving with me. That’s when I noticed Alphonse standing across the street, checking out the interior of a car with some friends of his. Alphonse wasn’t interested in the car, however. He was looking right at me.
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, after my high had long since deflated, I was sitting on my steps with Zoë. The rest of my friends had split to go and eat lunch or visit their cousins, or whatever. Her family couldn’t stand her, so she was always a good person to waste the afternoon with. We were quietly rereading all my Archie comic books and minding our own business. Because of the cold, I’d closed up my fur coat and didn’t look like I was wearing anything fancy at all anymore. Peaches walked over to me in that long-legged stride of his. He handed me a little paper bag.
“These are from my cousin Alphonse. He just wants you to know that you are a hot tamale.”
Peaches had this way of stopping and lo
I took out the stockings and laid them out on my lap. I stroked them as if they were kittens. They were the first pretty things I’d ever owned. I put them on and stood tiptoe on the toilet seat, trying to see myself in the bathroom mirror. I wore them every day for the next few days, even though my thighs and butt were freezing. I rinsed them out at night and hung them from the shower curtain to dry. I couldn’t believe that he’d called me a hot tamale.
ON FRIDAY NIGHT, I came home at nine o’clock. That was my curfew and I felt guilty about staying out past nine even when Jules was out of town. It just made me feel strange and adrift when I disobeyed. My dad had told me that if you stayed out after nine and you were a girl it meant that you wanted to have sex with whoever was passing by. He told me that if I got raped after nine o’clock the courts would probably say I had deserved it. I didn’t believe it, but I liked having a curfew. Without a curfew the nights seemed shapeless, like floating through the Milky Way. The idea of an infinite universe unnerved me.
When I walked into the apartment, Jules was sitting in the kitchen. He was in a bad mood. He’d had an argument with a guy who was selling the comforters with him. The idiot had wanted a 50 percent cut even though my dad had paid for the comforters with his own money. After he finished his story, he looked me up and down strangely and his face went red. I realized suddenly that I was wearing my knee-high socks.
“Where’d you get those socks?” he asked in a voice you would use to command a dog with.
Zoë had told me that if I wore these socks every day of my life I would be popular until the day that I died. She told me to tell Jules that her sister worked in an undergarment factory and that she got samples for free that she gave to Zoë and all her friends. This seemed like a complicated and foolproof lie. Another friend of ours used it to explain her fancy underwear to her mother. But Jules didn’t even give me a chance to tell my lie. As I opened my mouth, he stretched out his arm and punched me in the eye. There was a bright light and a sort of popping sound.
I sat down on the floor and took my shoes off. I peeled off my socks and reached up and handed them to him. He yanked at them furiously until he had ripped them into pieces, and then he threw them in the garbage. He didn’t give me a chance to tell my story but just started yelling at me.
“No fucking twelve-year-old gave you those socks. You’re a goddamn liar and you’re a whore. If you start with guys now, you’ll be all used up and no guy will want you. You’re going to be a pervert! No guy likes a pervert! You’ll know all these moves and shit that he won’t know. You’ll only be fit for drug addicts. Why can’t you be a normal girl? I think I should just throw your ass out and move into a one and a half. I don’t need this. I gave you the best of everything and this is how you turn out! You don’t get it from me! I’d be embarrassed to walk down the street with you, everybody knowing that my kid’s a whore.”
It was that speech and not the punch that made me cry. I felt so bad. He stepped over me and went to his room. He slammed the door, and I heard him muttering curses under his breath. I crawled across the kitchen floor and pulled myself up by holding on to the handles of the drawers, sobbing as if I’d been beaten close to death. I opened the cutlery drawer and took out a bread knife and pushed it against my belly. The edge wouldn’t go through my skin so at last I flung it across the kitchen floor. I didn’t actually think it was going to work, but I just wanted it to be on the record with myself that I had tried. I felt so sorry for myself that I hugged myself like a baby.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, sweetie,” I whispered until I felt better.
THE NEXT MORNING, I just couldn’t stop looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It was my first black eye. I remembered how Linus Lucas had a black eye at the foster home and it had destroyed him. By contrast, mine intrigued me. It was perfectly round, just like the ones that people had in comic strips. In a way I was sorry that it was Saturday. The black eye would go over great at school, and I hoped it was still this dark on Monday.
I put on my fur coat over my bell-bottoms and an ugly T-shirt that was faded like a pillowcase. I thought Jules was still going to be mad at me when he woke up, so I decided to stay out of his way. I was too ashamed to look at him. I was determined to stay away from grown men from then on. I went outside with my schoolbag. It was nice out and I thought I’d go to the park and find a quiet bench and catch up on my homework.
As I walked down the street, I noticed that everybody turned to look at my black eye. I liked the feeling, although I couldn’t quite understand what I liked about it at the time.
I got to the park and sat down on the edge of the swimming pool, which had been emptied for the winter. I started reading my French book for class. I took out my notebook and opened it on the sidewalk beside me and started jotting down vocabulary words. I had a bag of lollipops in my schoolbag. I’d stolen those from the grocery store a week before and had completely forgotten about them. I took one out and started sucking on it contentedly.
“Say, what’s with you?” I heard a voice behind me say.
For a split second it felt as if a hole had opened up in the sidewalk and had swallowed me. My body recognized Alphonse’s voice before I even did. He had on a long camel hair coat over a dark blue terrycloth track suit and he looked good. His clothes always fit him beautifully. I looked all embarrassed at the tattered hems of my bell-bottoms. He was holding a lone flower in his hand, smiling. I didn’t know what kind of flower it was and I still don’t. Its blossom was white and tilted over like pouring milk.
“What are you reading? You’re a little thinker, huh? You look cute as a button when you sit there reading. I’ve seen you do it before. You’d look good with tiny glasses.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You are the prettiest girl on this street. I’ll tell you that much. I know because I was walking around over there and I got bored to death. Just a lot of people who are not my style. Where did you buy that crazy-looking lollipop?”
“I stole a whole bag of them from the supermarket.” I pulled out the bag and showed it to him.
“Oh, my holy shit! You’re like a thief. That’s cool. I love girls who are thieves. Sitting out here reading a book and eating stolen candy. Do you even realize how cool you are?”
We just stared at each other. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out anything to say. He squatted down so that we were face-to-face. He handed me the flower.
“Here, I got you a flower,” he said in a low and sweet voice. “I’m not going to tell you that I bought it because I know you prefer a stolen flower. I bet that tastes better to you because it is stolen. Smell this flower, though. Isn’t it good? I wish I could manufacture that smell.”
I leaned over and smelled it. It did have a lovely smell.
“Wear the flower in your hair!”
I did as I was told. Putting that flower behind my ear made me feel like a gypsy. I didn’t feel bad about myself anymore. This was turning out to be an interesting day.
“You don’t even look like you’re from here. You look like you just came over in a rusty truck from Mexico. Hey, you want a job over at that dance club? They’re hiring dancers. You dress up as a black cat or a pirate and dance on the stage. I know the owner. It’s not a strip club or nothing stupid like that.”
“I’m not allowed in there. I’m not eighteen yet.”
“How old are you?”
“That’s neat,” I said, really meaning it.
I liked to hear new things. I’d never heard about knickknacks on people’s gravestones. My mother was buried in a little cemetery in Val des Loups. Jules always said that we should go and put some flowers on her gravestone, but we never did. I’d never encouraged him to either because I hated the trip out to Val des Loups. Now I sort of felt like going to put a Hot Wheels car there or something. Jules usually came up with original ideas, but he’d never thought of that.
“You got any poetry written in that notebook of yours?” Alphonse asked. “You should write poems about stealing shit. You’d be good at it.”
“Yes,” I lied, and then put the notebook up to my chest so that he couldn’t see that I was working on lame homework. “I like to write poems at night sometimes.”
“You know what I did last night? I went to see Tito Puente! I love that guy. I have never seen anybody so alive in my life. He was vibrant. An electric shock. I wish you could have come with me last night.”
He reached into his coat pocket and took out a handbill with a picture of Tito Puente on it. I thought Alphonse might be pulling my leg. Tito Puente was a grinning middle-aged man wearing a black wig that appeared to be made out of wax. When I realized that Alphonse was serious, I came to the conclusion that he was the most unique person I’d ever met. As we spoke, I found myself imitating the movements his hands made and tilting my head at the same angle as his.
“I notice you got a little something around your eye,” Alphonse said, taking me off guard.
I’d gone into shock when he’d said hello and I’d completely forgotten about my black eye. I’d been planning on telling the kids in school that I’d been in a high-speed car chase and that the car had turned over and that the stick shift had hit me in the eye. I knew that Alphonse would never believe a story like that. Adults were harder to lie to than kids. He had probably figured out exactly where it had come from already. I was overwhelmed by humiliation and I looked at the ground.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes