Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.16Heather O'Neill
“That sort of makes me angry as shit, but I’m not going to bug you about it,” he said softly. He had this gentle way of talking. There was something about his voice that reminded me of smoke. “Because you already know what’s so fucked up about that whole thing. I think that you should trust me. I got a nice place and you’ve always got a place to come to if you need some time to just get away from things. I know you’re friends with Peaches and he’s my cousin, so you know I’m not a stranger.”
I looked into his eyes. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I should thank him or what. The idea of going to his house seemed terrifying. If Jules knew some guy had made a proposition like that, he’d throw me out the window. I realized that I’d already done something wrong by just sitting here and letting him talk to me. I’d fucked up again and now felt the guilt coming on.
“Anyway,” Alphonse continued. “I’ll just put that out there. I left home at fifteen, I never looked back. Fuck all that prisoner shit. You know what you want. Don’t let anyone fuck with your soul.”
A car started honking on the street at the edge of the park. My heart was skipping beats all over the place, as I was afraid Jules or one of his friends might be in it. I would be a dead man if he was. I squinted to see who was in it. They were all wearing fashionable brand-new coats, so I knew they had to be Alphonse’s friends. Jules’s bummy friends wore corduroy jackets and berets and ballpoint pens that didn’t work behind their ears. Alphonse waved to them. I couldn’t tell if they were all looking at me suspiciously or as if I was a complete idiot. I still couldn’t read a lot of adults’ facial expressions.
“I’m getting into that car now,” Alphonse said, standing up. “But we’re going to meet up again soon, right? I’ll play you a Tito Puente album. We’re going to do some dancing and all that.”
“All right. See you then,” I said, throwing up my hand to wave.
I just sat there, smiling, letting him look at me. The wind came up from behind me and my hair blew all over my face. I felt like a gypsy again.
“Precious!” he exclaimed, and then walked over to the car and climbed in.
I WAS A LITTLE BIT OBSESSED after that. No one had ever made me feel that wild, unusual way before. I started watching out for Alphonse, trying to bump into him. I spotted him sitting on a bench next to a girl a few days later in the middle of the afternoon. I wasn’t sure if they were together. I started walking really slowly so that he would notice me. He looked up and waved me over. I sat down on the bench and slid up next to him. He shifted a little toward me too. I didn’t know if he knew that our legs were touching. I liked being close to him. I liked the way he smelled.
I could tell from his eyes that he was stoned on grass, and I was hoping that he had some for me too. He just stared at me, serene, like a body that had just been drowned. The first thing he said was how he was going to take me to the hairdresser for fun one day and have my hair done in little braids and swirls, all fancy.
The girl next to us stood up and left. A couple other girls came and squished onto the bench to say hello to Alphonse. One of them had a ponytail on top of her head and pink high heels. The other one was wearing a gray leather jacket over a pair of silk pajama bottoms that weren’t staying on her very well, and a pair of untied running shoes.
He had intense gravitational force. He was like Saturn because Saturn has so many moons. If I kicked my shoes up in the air, they would go into orbit around him. Girls were always talking to him and he sat there and listened and listened. He never told them to get to the goddamn point. It would take them forever to get to the point because usually their stories were pretty lame anyhow.
I was always kind of smitten by women. Probably because I never had a mother. The women that I was most crazy about were the young drug addicts. They’d be sitting on the hoods of cars late at night wearing white leather jackets with wide flaps and jean shorts. When they were stoned, they’d always smile at me. They had smiles that were so sweet and tender, smiles that made them seem as if they might have been crying a couple minutes before. They were always laughing and talking hard and being funny. These were the type of girls that Alphonse had around him.
Alphonse pulled out a dragon-shaped pipe from his pocket and asked if I wanted to do a shotgun. I nodded and he lit up the pipe and sucked the smoke into his mouth. He leaned over and I puckered up my lips and he blew into them. There was something monstrous about his mouth, as if he could open it wide and I would fit all the way in. It was the first time our lips touched and I shivered all over.
I leaned back and waited for the dope to hit me. I knew it must be working because all of a sudden I could feel his heartbeat. It was like the sound of a drum. He started talking, but I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. There was a funny hum to his low voice that I was feeling for the first time. It was like the hum that old refrigerators and half-broken appliances had. I felt like he had been part of me since the day I was born.
“Hey, Al,” a voice a few feet away called.
Alphonse and I both turned to look. It was Leelee from rue Napoleon. It was impossible not to know Leelee if you lived in that neighborhood. She was skinny, with a big nose and tons of freckles. She was one of those blonde girls who looked as if they’d just been rained on. She always seemed to be in some sort of situation. Once I’d seen her with her arm stuck in a revolving door. Another time she had dropped a liter of milk and the cap had come off and it had spilled on the sidewalk. She went back into the store to try and get her money back or exchange it for a new one, and she carried on at the store for half an hour.
It was also impossible not to know that she was a prostitute. She would get lazy and try to turn tricks right outside of her building instead of going to the strip. The tenants were always calling nasty things out the window to her.
“At least I got a job!” she screamed up at the windows. She was the best screamer in the neighborhood, I think. “At least I can afford a dryer and don’t hang my shit on my balcony. At least I don’t do that.”
She was angry with every man who passed and didn’t want to pay for her services. She always had crazy insults for them.
“Peewee! Where’s your bicycle? You’re so cheap, I know you don’t ride no car.”
That day she came up to Alphonse looking like she was in some sort of mess. She was wearing a pink poncho over jogging pants and cowboy boots. The heels on her boots seemed too high for her; she walked like she was climbing up stairs. She looked nervous as hell, as if she was mustering up courage, madly adjusting her bracelets.
I knew that I was going to be incapable of speech for the next few minutes, so I just sat back and watched her talk to Alphonse. She didn’t even seem to notice I was there. But that was because she was one of these people who never seemed to be noticing things. Once I saw her washing her face in a water fountain at the park, and there was a whole line of people behind her waiting while she went about her business without a care.
“So this guy, he’s like my cousin, right?” Leelee started saying to Alphonse, without saying hello or anything. “And he wants to stay with me just for a week. I don’t want him there, even, okay? I really like my space. You know I have a little space and my space is all I got. So, you know, when it comes to that, fuck right off, right? So that’s exactly what I tell him, too. I tell him without beating around the bush because you know that’s how I am, right? I don’t suffer in silence. I think you for one know that about me. Ha ha ha. You’ve experienced that firsthand and good or bad, that’s the way I am. I can’t be no other way. Then my mother, that cunt, calls me up and she’s like, you got to do this, you have to let him come and stay with you for a month until he gets his stuff together. You have to do this because he is family.”
“What’s this guy like?” Alphonse asked calmly.
“He’s a bum through and through. He’s always going out with these high school girls. He tells them he’s going to marry them and they can move i
“What is he, a dancer?”
“No, I told you what he was, a bum. I don’t know where he comes up with these things. They don’t even make no sense. He just says them so that he can get them into bed. Because they think that once they sleep with him he’s going to take care of them for the rest of their lives, and then they don’t have to worry about how they do on their report cards, because they’re never going to work. You know, that’s what all teenage girls are dreaming about and he takes advantage of it. He totally takes advantage of it. The thing is that he slept with a bunch of girls and their parents all got together so he had to leave town. And the only place that he has to come and live is with me because I got myself a nice place and all that.”
“Well, if you want to put him up, that’s your business.”
“Are you sure you’re not pissed off? I don’t want no friction between you and me. You know that, right? I want everything to be smooth like a locomotive, right, baby, uh-huh!”
“This is fucking delectable!” Alphonse said.
Leelee just stood there staring at him as if she didn’t know what “delectable” meant. She certainly didn’t know what Alphonse meant by it. Neither did I, but I was stoned and couldn’t really care less what was going on between the two of them. Although when he looked her up and down in a nasty way, that surprised me, a little.
“Where did you get that sweater you’re wearing?” he asked her, finally. “You couldn’t have paid money for it. There are too many colors in that sweater. It’s like watching a TV set with bad reception.”
“Why would you say something like that?” Leelee said in a pleading and exasperated voice.
“I’m not saying anything, man. I’m just saying that I have an ulcer that I happen to have named Leelee. And it just so happens that this ulcer is a knife in me. Like constant food poisoning that won’t leave you alone, until you have to vomit.”
“You’re saying that I’m making you sick!” Leelee’s voice got really hard and shaky. She took a few steps away, made some semblance of trying to compose herself.
“I didn’t say that. I said I got an ulcer that’s making me sick. Listen to the motherfucking words.”
“I was listening! You named your goddamn ulcer Leelee! You’re mad at me!”
All of a sudden it dawned on me that I ought to give them some privacy. I stood up and looked around, trying to look casual. Instead of going around the bench, I decided that I’d save time and climb over it. My leg got caught going over and I tumbled to the ground. This momentarily distracted Alphonse and Leelee from their conversation. I felt them staring at me as I walked away in that haughty way that stoned twelve-year-old girls sometimes have.
I snuck into the hot dog restaurant that was behind us and sat on one of the stools. I used to be friends with a kid named Marcus whose father owned the restaurant. Marcus and I would come here after school and sit at the back table and play Monopoly. His dad would give us free french fries and pop. We’d beg to mop the floor. Sometimes I’d stop in the restaurant without Marcus and his dad would give me a Coke and let me do my homework at the counter. He never minded me just hanging out there.
The warmth was nice as I stepped in. I put my hair in a ponytail. It made me think of being next to a lion fountain in the park where the water sprayed off and touched you. I used to spend hours at that fountain, sticking my hands under the rush of water that came out of the lion’s mouth. I was lost for a few minutes thinking it, but then I realized that Marcus’s dad was giving me a dirty look from behind the counter.
“You don’t need to be in here,” he said.
“I just came to use the telephone,” I said.
It didn’t surprise me that Marcus’s dad addressed me like that. He had probably seen me sitting with Alphonse. When you are a little kid, people don’t judge you in the same way. Since I’d turned twelve, a lot of the adults that I knew had started to pretend that they didn’t know me. They gave me disapproving looks. This made me feel terrible. I had betrayed them by turning out to be the type of kid that I was turning out to be. I wished that I could stay a cute adorable kid, but I couldn’t.
Alphonse was the only one who was different. He’d always ignored me when I was a little kid. It was now that he was interested in me.
“Well, make your phone call and get out of here,” Marcus’s dad said, pointing to the back, where the phone was.
I slid off the stool and walked over to the phone ridiculously slowly. I picked up the receiver. I don’t even remember if I pretended to put in a quarter or not. I dialed a few numbers.
“Hello, is Martin there?” Martin being the classiest name I could think of. “Un-huh…un-huh…un-huh…yeah…no…uh-huh…un-huh…okay, bye….”
I walked out all proud of myself. But back on the street the sun hit me and I had to squint and get my bearings. I felt sweaty and dirty again.
I looked around for Alphonse and Leelee, but the bench was empty. I saw them leaning against the bus shelter. They were hugging each other and kissing. She was still sort of hysterical, but his kissing seemed to be calming her down. She was kissing him like crazy and touching his face. I’d never seen two people kiss like that.
“I want to have a baby. You want to have a baby with me, Alphonse? We would have such a good-looking baby, oh my God. What a player he would be!”
I tiptoed by them, heading home. When I was just a few steps away, I heard Alphonse say, “I want that girl.”
I looked back and Alphonse was staring right at me. I don’t even know if he meant me to hear or not. Leelee looked around for a second. She looked past me, to across the street. She couldn’t for the world figure out who Alphonse was talking about.
I KNEW THAT I SHOULD just walk down the street naturally, but my feet started doing a side step that we’d learned in the folk-dancing section of gym class. Then I started just boogying, but I was keeping it low-key so maybe no one could tell that I was flying. Everybody knew that if you were coming down the street dancing, it meant that you were stoned. There really weren’t many exceptions. But finally I just couldn’t resist anymore and I let myself go. A line of people at the movie theater turned around to look at me as I went, but I didn’t mind at this point. I was like a bird out of a cage.
When I turned onto my corner, I saw the landlady standing on the front steps of our building. I was happy to see her. I was hungry and in the mood for some of her cookies, for her conversations that were just composed of smiles. I danced right up to her, but she gave me a quick sour look. Then she turned right around and looked the other way. Her look sobered me up. As I walked up the stairs, everything took on its usual colors and I felt very down. She was the second person in less than an hour who had been disgusted with me.
THE NEXT DAY, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I was still feeling terrible. I put my Russian tape in the boom box and turned it on hard so that I could forget about everyone on the planet. I felt like never going outside again. Jules came in the room and started spinning around and dancing to the music, singing in mock Russian as he knocked things over. There was such a racket in the room, I couldn’t help but feel better. Jules sat on the armchair and I went and sat on his lap. He was drinking a bottle of tonic water. That was his favorite drink. For some reason, he thought it was good for his health. He shared it with me. When I’d take too long a sip, he’d hit the back of my head and I’d hand it back to him. I felt his body rock back and forth to the music. It felt as if we were in a different country: a country where no matter how badly you fucked up, you were still loved.
When I was about six, Jules and I used to ride the bus to the river and talk about everything. Once he found a Tintin comic under the seat of the bus and was really excited because he thought it was a classy comic book from France. He read the bubbles out loud with a Parisian accent. I hoped that he loved me as much as he had then.
The buzzer r
“What’s the matter with you!” Jules exclaimed, and he turned off the tape.
Lester and Jules sat at the kitchen table drinking and cooking up a scheme. They spoke in conspiratorial tones, as if it were a criminal plan that only street-smart people with a lot of guts could pull off, but the plan wasn’t illegal in any way at all. They wanted to get a bunch of chairs from an old school and sell them in St. Agathe. Lester had even legitimately rented out a table at the flea market.
“Chairs are expensive. You can charge practically anything you want for a chair and it will sell,” Lester said, just like he was a tough guy or something.
I started bugging my dad by asking him a lot of questions about his venture. It sounded like the kind of trip that would keep him away for days. I was trying to find holes in their plan and shake their confidence.
“How long are you going for?” I asked my dad.
“As long as it takes.”
“Are you going to leave me money?”
“Yes, I always do, don’t I?”
“Who the hell’s going to loan you a van to carry these chairs in?”
“I got a lot of good friends.”
“What if kids have written their names on the back of the chairs? Who’ll buy them then?”
Jules shot me an annoyed look. He made me a plate of spaghetti and told me to go and eat it outside.
I was the only kid who was punished by being sent to the bench outside on the street to eat my food. Jules knew that I found it embarrassing. People must have found me vulnerable and pathetic sitting there in my orange fur coat with a big glass of milk at my side.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes