Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.17Heather O'Neill
I found a bench close by and started scarfing down my spaghetti. Then I saw Leelee coming down the street in my direction. I put my plate of food in the grass beside me and kicked a plastic bag over it. Leelee was in a much better mood than before. She was moseying down the block, trying to get people to dance with her. Leelee acted so comfortable outside, just like she was right in her living room.
“Somebody give me a goddamn cigarette!” Leelee yelled to no one in particular, looking up and down the street.
Nobody gave her anything. Then she finally spotted me and sauntered over, like a cowboy. She sat down next to me.
“So how old are you anyway?” she asked.
“Shit, that’s really young. So, what, you don’t get along with your parents, do you?”
“No, my dad’s always splitting.”
“I could tell that your parents weren’t any good. My parents really sucked shit, too. That’s why now, when I meet someone who has lousy parents, I can tell right off the bat. It’s like a sixth sense. But this guy was telling me it’s more like psychic intelligence. What about your mom?”
“I don’t know where she is,” I lied, since I didn’t want to appear to be too much of a loser.
“You have to track her down! She probably just made a mistake leaving you and thinks that you won’t forgive her. So if you went up to her door without calling ahead, or anything like that, I’m sure she’d be happy to see you. I’m sure she’d like cry and all that stuff. Like totally weep over you. Women aren’t mean the way that men are. They’re full of life and they’re like God in that way. Like in the story of Adam and Eve, what nobody says is that the snake is really Adam’s dick. He was the one who got everybody in trouble. But he doesn’t want to admit responsibility for his dick.”
“Really? Is that what the story’s about?” I asked.
“Sure! Isn’t it goddamn obvious? If God hadn’t made a dick for Adam, we’d still be in paradise. God should have given everybody pussies, man!”
“I guess so. Guys are dogs, huh?” I said, trying to get into the spirit of things.
“I think that Al’s okay, though. I think that he really likes you. I can see in the way that he acts when you’re around. You make him happy. He won’t say it because he’s a man and men are totally taught to hide their feelings, but I can see that he’s in love with you. And I’m really glad because I can tell that you’re a good person. I’ve met a lot of his girlfriends. He used to go out with this girl Robin and they used to fight like cats and dogs. It was a battlefield around them, literally.”
Robin was a girl who always wore a ponytail and had little eyes. She wore black plastic boots with chunky heels that gave her that white-trash walk. Knowing that Alphonse had dated her made him seem less attractive to me.
“I thought you and Al were going out?” I asked.
“No, he’s more like my guru. He helps me through shit. I wouldn’t want to ever be his girlfriend because that would really fuck up what we have. So don’t ever think that I’m a threat, no way, I would not ever want to stand between Al and a good thing. He would kill me. I’d kill myself. I think I’m too wacko to date Al anyway. He needs someone sweet like you. I think you’d be really good for him, make him calm. You’re a quiet little mouse.”
I knew that somewhere, somehow, she was calling me a fool. I thought she was a nice person before, but all of a sudden I wasn’t so sure. Then I did something that should have shocked her. I jumped up and I stuck my tongue out at her. She just shrugged. She waved her hand in the air as if to say that she’d tried her best. I grabbed my plate and walked quickly down the street.
I didn’t like her evaluation of me. I wasn’t some docile kid. I wanted to be a wild child. I’d seen some photographs in a magazine of a girl with long curly black hair and a dandelion behind her ear. She’d been sitting on a motorcycle in jeans and a black leather bra. That’s who I wanted to be like. I went upstairs with my plate. When I walked into the apartment, Jules had his duffel bag in his hand.
“I’m going to the country with Lester tonight,” he said. “We can’t let any time slip away with this one. Those chairs’ll be gone before you know it.”
After Jules and his friend left, I sat on the couch for a while. Then I got up and went to the bathroom. There was a way that you could take the bathroom cabinet mirror off its hinges. I carried it with me into the bedroom. I set it up on a chair in front of the bed so that I could look at myself naked. I put my hands on my head and swayed back and forth. I decided that I was sick to death of being twelve.
THE NEXT DAY, I WALKED down the street eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d made for myself. I’d put on this puffy Chinese jacket with goldfish on it that Lester had given me as a present the year before. I hadn’t brushed my hair or anything. I had a plastic bag on my arm just in case I should spot some bottles along the way.
I decided to turn in a couple bottles at the corner store in exchange for a cigarette so that I could look like a big shot smoking it. The cigarette was too strong for me and made me feel as if I were breathing in gasoline fumes. Finally, I just held the cigarette between my fingers, letting it burn. I always thought that I would be a natural at smoking. I’d sat in front of a mirror while smoking a pencil crayon and thought I looked very good. One of the things that I wanted to do was to be able to blow smoke rings. I was really just a jackass. I’d never get away with looking sixteen at this rate.
As I walked down the street, I heard some loud music and cheering. I turned and saw the community center parade coming down the street. I had seen posters on some poles saying that they were going to put on something to celebrate something called World Friendship Day. I turned the corner and ran as far as I could from it. Even from afar, it seemed so beautiful to me. I wished that I hadn’t given up on that place and had kept going. I should have fought Jules on that, considering that I did on everything else now.
I lingered a little outside Alphonse’s building. Sure enough, after five minutes of acting as if I’d lost a key or something, he came out. He was wearing an orange leather hat with his hair tucked under it.
“Look who it is! My pretty little wife. I like what you did with your hair. It’s really fancy!”
“Thanks,” I said, sticking my finger through a tangle.
“Come on,” he said, just grabbing me by the hand and pulling me along with him. “Let’s go to the Etoile!”
“All right,” I said, happily. I was bored and in the mood for a movie and the Etoile was one of my favorite places.
The Etoile was a ninety-nine-cent movie theater, the only one we ever went to as I was growing up. It was called the junky theater because people went there just to have a quiet place to be on the nod. Dealers would come up behind you in the middle of the movie and whisper “Hashish?” in your ear.
Once when I was there, someone stood up and yelled at the zombie on the screen: “I’m not afraid of you, you fucking bony bastard. Come on down here and I’ll kick your fucking ass! I’ll rip your arm out of its socket.”
They didn’t put the names of the movie on the marquee out front. It just had the black plastic letters that spelled out “Cheap movies!!! All day EvEry dAy!!!” There were holes in the greasy carpet, and it was better to remember to go to the bathroom before you got there.
Kids from school went to the theaters downtown, not the Etoile. Most weren’t even allowed to go there because someone had gotten stabbed in one of the bathrooms. Jules didn’t know this.
I was happy that Alphonse wanted to go someplace that reminded me of my childhood. It made me feel safe. I followed along next to him, wondering if we were on a date. I’d never been on a date before. He didn’t kiss me or try to touch me, which was a good thing, because if he had I would have jumped a mile. It would have been like sticking a needle in an electrical socket.
“I know you,” Alphonse said to the woman behind the counter. She smiled back at Alphonse.
“One ninety-eight for you two.”
Alphonse handed her two dollars. He started singing a song that couldn’t have really been a song. “Bingity, bam, bam.” The woman behind the counter laughed.
He bought me a giant orange slushy from the concession stand. We went in and saw that the movie was halfway through. It was Repo Man. They’d been playing this movie for four or five years. There were always a lot of people in the audience, even though they’d all seen it a couple of times. Everyone thought it was really radical and punk rock. They would scream out certain lines with the characters. I’d already seen it three times and I never understood what the big deal was.
Alphonse sat staring at the screen for a while and got a disgusted look on his face. He leaned over to me and pointed out a guy on the screen. He was sitting on a box while eating a can of dog food.
“What do you think of that guy?” Alphonse asked me.
The character started talking about his philosophy about how the human race was started by people from the future that had found a time machine. His name was Bud Light. I shrugged. It was just nice that it was a movie without subtitles or too much cheesy sex.
“Do you find that actress pretty?” Alphonse asked, pointing to the screen. “I would not go near that woman. Is she supposed to be attractive? Why doesn’t she dye her hair or buy a dress?”
“She’s a veterinarian, though.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? What’s the plot of this movie?”
Alphonse tapped the guy on the shoulder who was sitting in front of us. He was a skinny guy with a knit jacket, laughing at a lot of the jokes that weren’t funny at all.
“Could you tell me what is the plot of this movie?” Alphonse asked the guy. “What is the overall meaning? Because I am at a loss and you look like a very intelligent individual.”
“It’s about how these people have no souls in a consumeristic world,” the guy said, matter-of-factly.
“Bullshit,” Alphonse said, leaning back. “He’s just reading that into it. The people who put this movie together wouldn’t even know what that meant. I should go ask for my ninety-nine cents back just for the principle. I don’t buy this whole scenario. Now who is that suspicious-looking guy supposed to be?”
“That’s Emilio Estevez!” I exclaimed.
“Emilglio what? That’s not a movie star name. If I was a movie star, I would have a very short name that would be easy to remember. People work all day long—they don’t have time to be remembering your long, ridiculous names. If I was an actor, I’d name myself Rap Chip or Tim Tut. Nice and simple.”
“Tim Tut sounds like a Chinese restaurant.”
He started laughing at that a really long time. He lit up a cigarette and everybody around us lit up too, but there was pot in his. He handed it to me and I took a deep drag that almost drowned me. I could hardly speak seconds after I exhaled.
Alphonse looked stoned too. He wasn’t paying attention to the movie anymore. He just gazed over; I could tell that he was getting all inspired.
“You know what I wish?” he asked me, softly.
“Sometimes I wish that I was the only man left on the whole planet. And then every day all these different women would come up to me and I’d have to give them a little love. Just a little peck on the cheek or a flower or something. Enough to get them through the day. That’s the way I was born and that’s the way I’ll die.”
“I wish I could sing,” I said.
“My mother used to be a pretty good singer. If anybody ever had a wedding, she used to go and sing for it. Then she started getting too crazy to be invited to these things. She’d show up at a wedding in a pair of jeans and snow boots in the summer, holding a bag filled with old cans. She’d want to get up on the stage like that and sing. She got like that after my dad died.”
“How did your dad die?”
“My dad used to be a bum. After he left one time, he sent my mother some counterfeit money for child support. He got killed falling off a city bus or some shit like that. I think that his ghost talks to me sometimes.”
“What does he say?”
“Nothing of any use, actually,” he said, sounding blasé about the whole thing. “He’s just bragging about himself. That’s all he ever did. He would come and sit at the kitchen table and talk about how wonderful he was. How fast he could run. How good he could drive a car. How fast he could calculate. One time he excused himself to go to the bathroom, but he just grabbed the television and went out the front door. He is the lousiest bastard who ever lived.”
“But do you still go and visit your mother?”
“You know what’s wrong with my mother?”
“I don’t go to see my mother anymore because she has this cat that she thinks is me now. She’s like, ‘Alphonse, what are you doing on the table? You must be on drugs. I don’t like that. Why don’t you just come over here and watch television with me?’ That’s the way she talks to the cat. I get confused as fuck when I’m over there. She liked the stupid name so much that it wasn’t enough to call me Alphonse, she’s got to start naming every animal Alphonse. We used to have a dog named Alphonse too. I was embarrassed to have any friends over.”
He reminded me of the way I bullshitted when I was stoned. The woman next to us overheard and started laughing. Alphonse smiled at her and continued his rant about his mother. A few other people around us started listening in. It wasn’t the type of theater where you paid attention to the film, and Alphonse was on a roll.
“Haven’t you ever heard of cheapness being a disease? Well, she’s got the worst inflamed case of it that ever existed. One time I broke my leg and she didn’t want me to take the crutch from the hospital because it cost money. You know you have to pay three dollars a day or something. She told me just to leave it there and that I could use a hockey stick when we got home. So I was hopping out of the hospital and the doctor was like, I’m sorry but this kid needs a crutch. ‘No, no. It’s okay,’ she was telling the doctor. ‘I have a crutch at home that’s exactly his size.’”
“How did you get home?”
“Who knows? I had to hop. I started dealing when I was nine years old. It was out of necessity. With the money that I made I bought myself a great pair of sneakers, a dress shirt, and a leather jacket. People didn’t even recognize me. They wanted to know me and kiss my feet. My mother said that since I was making money I should start paying rent. She raised my rent every week. She wanted me to pay two hundred seventy-five dollars, and I got hold of a receipt and saw that she was only paying two hundred twenty-two total rent! I would have given her the money if she were spending it, but she just hides it under her bed.”
I smiled. I thought he had put all his cards on the table for me. I thought that he trusted me with his life. I was twelve.
After the movie, we walked down St. Catherine Street together. My Chinese jacket wasn’t warm enough and I wished I’d worn my fur one. I had a feeling that Alphonse didn’t care what I had on. When we were alone, he stopped being funny. He turned and looked at me, all serious. He smiled to the side.
“You really are a special thing,” he said. “So where do you come from anyway?”
I’d always lived in Montreal, but I didn’t want to say that. The only other place I’d ever lived was outside Val des Loups in the country.
“I used to live in a foster home. There was this woman named Isabelle who was really nice. There was one kid there who shit in his pants, and he threw his underwear out the window and they got stuck in a tree branch. Isabelle had to go up there with a ladder and get them out.”
“I could tell that. I could tell that you were a country girl. You’re wild, you know. You have your own ideas.”
“Isabelle’s uncle one time took us kids for a ride in a pickup truck. One time we went out and we were looking at the moon, and it was just so big and orange. We looked at it for an hour.”
He just let
“Once we had a dog named Muttley. He would follow me all the way to school. But when my dad went to the hospital, we had to give him up.”
“What’s wrong with your dad?”
“He had me when he was really young. He was only fifteen. My mother died when I was little. He had to do everything by himself. He goes out of town a lot. He wanted to be a boxer when he was little, but he wasn’t strong enough. He used to have a friend who was a Hell’s Angel.”
Jules always told me not to tell people your business, not to tell them your past. He said to keep them guessing. He said that once a person knew all there was to know about you, they’d take advantage of you. Trust nobody, he’d told me over and over. In a way, I’d kept his advice up until just then. I was stoned and felt like sharing all my shit with the whole world. I wanted to be taken advantage of.
ALPHONSE TOLD ME TO WAIT on the street corner while he ran into a store to buy something. It was a crazy Korean store that sold booze and little knickknacks for tourists, even though tourists never came to this neighborhood. Alphonse came out with a big bottle of beer in a paper bag. He opened it with a bottle cap opener from his key chain and took a long swig. He handed me the bottle and it felt enormous in my hands. I felt like a little kid holding a cup. I’d never seen this beer before. There was a beautiful swan on the label. I took baby sips while leaning against the window of the store. I stopped being cold right away. The little figurines in baseball caps were screaming happy things at me. Alphonse took my hand and pulled me to get me to start walking again. The volume button kept going up and down on things. It seemed as if all the sounds were coming from inside my head. Not outside my head. It was the way that mermaids hear things.
The booze made me feel alive. I felt like I was being kissed by every person who looked at me. I reached for the bottle as we were walking and drank some more. I didn’t even know how much you were supposed to drink. I wanted to be a heroic drinker and guzzle down as much as I could. I wanted to be one of the girls who walked around the park barefoot with butterflies on their breasts. They were always drinking beer and riding on someone’s shoulder.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes