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Lullabies for little cri.., p.18
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.18

           Heather O'Neill

  Five blocks later, I was practically toppling over drunk. I can’t remember how I was acting exactly, but I do remember a lot of people giving us dirty looks as they passed by. I sat down on the curb and he had to pick me up. I never exactly knew what kind of drunk I would be. It is the best kind of drunk to be.

  “Girl! You can’t hold your liquor! You’re a wreck!”

  We passed a pay phone. He held open the door.

  “Do you need to call your dad? Did you need to give him some sort of excuse, tell him where you’ll be? Like say you’re at some girlfriend’s house?”

  “No. He’s in Trois-Rivières tonight.”

  He nodded and let the pay phone door swing shut. He asked if I wanted to smoke up with him. I didn’t want to go to his house, so we smoked in an alley. There were drawings in Magic Marker of naked women on the wall and skunks farting.

  Alphonse leaned in and kissed me. It was a huge kiss that covered my whole mouth. I didn’t know that kissing could make you feel so afraid. I closed my mouth very tight while he kissed me. It felt as if I was suffocating, as if he were holding my head down in the bathtub under water. I thought about that old wives’ tale about how cats get on top of you and then swallow your breath. They must creep up while you are sleeping and kiss you passionately.

  Although I had kissed a lot of other people, that kiss was really my first. For instance, I had a friend named Clare who begged me and begged me to kiss her toe. I’d done it, but that hadn’t been my first kiss. A boy named Daniel and I had blindfolded ourselves with sweaters and had tried to kiss. I’d accidentally kissed him on the nose, but that hadn’t been my first kiss. I had kissed a boy after losing a coin toss, and even though I had wanted that to be my first kiss, it hadn’t been really. The real first kiss is the one that tells you what it feels like to be an adult and doesn’t let you be a child anymore. The first kiss is the one that you suffer the consequences of. It was as if I had been playing Russian roulette and finally got the cylinder with the bullet in it.

  Afterward, as I headed down the street, everybody was just walking around as if nothing had happened. Some people even smiled at me as I walked by. They didn’t know. How could they know I was a messed-up, ragged, dirty, nasty thing?

  I SLOWLY WALKED UP THE STAIRS to the empty apartment. But then I heard the Russian tape playing from our place. My heart swelled up. When I heard that music, I could only think about good things. It made me think of when Jules and I used to walk down to the river. We used to sit there holding tin cans that had fishing line wrapped around them. We’d dig holes in the mud with spoons trying to find worms. And that feeling saved me. I liked feeling like a little kid. I didn’t know how long I was going to be able to feel that way. I had a feeling that the rest of me might be something crummy and dark.

  I opened the door. The table was covered with food. I was surprised to see him back so soon.

  “Baby! You won’t believe how much money we made at the flea market! We made a killing!”

  The woman next to him had been selling a table full of watches, and Jules had bought me a huge pink one with digital numbers you could see a mile away. He wrapped the plastic band around my wrist, then he ran and turned off the tape player. He came back and picked up my wrist. He squeezed the buttons on each side and all of a sudden the watch began to play a tune. Its metallic little beeps played the most beautiful version of “Love Me Tender” ever heard on the planet.

  “Happy birthday, Baby,” he said.

  It was true, the very next day was my birthday and I would be thirteen. He had little gifts for me spread out on the kitchen table. I used to jump up and down and hit the roof when Jules brought home gifts for me. Now the mess on the table looked as if he’d taken apart a robot looking for its heart. I started to cry. Now our love would always be injured in a way. There was a mark on the inside of me that felt as if it wasn’t going to go away.

  Jules looked at me all destroyed when he saw my tears. They disguised how high I was.

  “Things are going to be okay, Baby. Look, I’m going to start making decent money. I’m going to make sure that I go to all the flea markets. And I’m going to get my driver’s license back, so that Lester can take a break and we can make twice as many trips. If we make a hundred dollars every three days, we can make a thousand dollars a month. Or if I can sell door-to-door in the country, I could make at least eight hundred a month without even renting a table.”

  I stood there as Jules continued to make his calculations. It was as if he was Galileo, absolutely sure that if he just kept doing his math problems, soon he’d have proof that the earth went around the sun. But I didn’t buy it. I knew that he was in no position to be calculating the heavens, much less our futures.

  Suddenly I realized that I wanted everything to be as it was when I was younger. When you’re young enough, you don’t know that you live in a cheap lousy apartment. A cracked chair is nothing other than a chair. A dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk outside your front door is a garden. You could believe that a song your parent was singing in the evening was the most tragic opera in the world. It never occurs to you when you are very young to need something other that what your parents have to offer to you.

  the milky way


  ONCE I AUDITIONED FOR THE SCHOOL PLAY even though I was convinced I wasn’t going to be chosen for any part. I held the script in front of my face and whispered the words. And so, naturally, I wasn’t chosen.

  There were a lot of things that I had done that I felt funny about. I had let someone give me a homemade tattoo of a tiny moon on my knee with a bottle of India ink and a needle. I’d screamed my head off, but I’d let them do it. I had worn an undershirt in summer, thinking it was a regular T-shirt. I had lain down on a mattress that had been put in the trash and contemplated the clouds. I had drawn a face on an eraser and had named him Marc and had carried him around. I had fed the stray cat that everybody said had rabies. I’d been bitten by dogs twice. I had collected beer bottles in the park and had harassed the corner store owners to cash them in.

  These were the kinds of things that you did when you didn’t have a mother.

  Once my friend’s mother had taken us both to the swimming pool. She was wearing a bikini and let us roll the flab on her belly like it was bread dough. I’d never felt anything like that. I wanted desperately to have my own mother whose belly I could poke whenever I pleased.

  Jules tried to be a mother, but he’d always kind of fallen short of the mark. He gave me a mount for holding toothpaste that you screw on the wall as a present to bring to a birthday party. For lunch, he’d give me a sandwich that the cheese had fallen out of. He never remembered when it was picture day. If you look at any of my class photos, you will see that I am the messy kid. I also look like I stink in those pictures. A lot of kids get the privilege of looking at themselves through their mothers’ eyes. I could only see myself through my own eyes, and sometimes I could barely stand to look.

  Mothers pushed their kids to do things. Sometimes even really poor kids that I knew were taken to piano lessons. Nothing like that interested or even occurred to Jules. He figured that he might have to fill out a form, and he avoided anything that involved that. I had never even been able to complete a drawing.

  WHEN ALPHONSE CAME INTO MY LIFE, it strangely felt a little bit like he was a mother figure. Every good pimp is a mother. When Alphonse spoke to me, his voice always had the same tempo as a lullaby.

  Alphonse continued to get me gifts that I couldn’t help but like. He bought me a tube of silky moisturizing cream. I liked the smell of it so much that I put it all over my arms. I smelled my hands while I was watching Last Tango in Paris at the Etoile. He gave me a notebook and told me that I should write him a letter in it every day and then give it to him after a month or maybe after six months. He gave me a huge amber ring, with a crack in it that looked like a woman dancing.

  Alphonse and I went to the photo booth at the subway sta
tion to have my photograph taken. It hadn’t occurred to Jules to take my photograph in years. He didn’t seem to realize that one day I wouldn’t be a kid anymore. There would be nothing to remember me by. I climbed into the photo booth and posed with my lips puckered for my little black-and-white glamour shots.

  I hid the photographs at the back of my T-shirt drawer, but Jules found them anyway. Jules accused me of sleeping with a pimp. I’m not sure how he figured out that Alphonse had paid for the pictures or that he was a pimp. A lot of people had seen Alphonse and me hanging around together, and anyone could have told Jules. I got down on my hands and knees and swore to Jules that it wasn’t true. He kicked me out anyway.

  When Jules was mad, I used to sleep over at my friends’ houses until he cooled off. But this time he was really angry and called social services and told them that he’d kicked me out of the house. The cops picked me up in St. Louis Square. I was stoned and was letting some twenty-seven-year-old guy who claimed to be a wizard cast a spell on me with a stick. When I laughed, I could see my breath, and it looked like the fairies on heavy-metal T-shirts. I was still laughing hysterically when I got into the back of the cop car.


  AT THE WAITING ROOM of Family Services downtown, I felt as if I were in formaldehyde, one of the little fetuses in jars in the chemistry lab at our school. I’d been removed from my natural environment and brought here to be studied. If someone stuck a pin in my side, I doubt that I would have felt anything. Lots of times when children draw a person on a blank piece of paper, they don’t draw any background at all, just a person standing there without any context. That was me.

  I didn’t know what was in store for me now. They were going to hand me a tumor and were going to ask me to put it inside of me. It is important to hate the people who work in child welfare if you want to protect yourself from their prognosis. You have to think that they are idiots. Because when they say that you are troubled and a delinquent, you need to be able to laugh in their faces.

  But I didn’t hate them at that moment. The drugs had worn off and I felt awful and low. I would have believed anything they said. I must have had quite a look of desperation on my face when the social worker came out because she looked afraid to say anything to me. But she still managed to communicate that I would be going to the correctional facility. This decision was apparently based on who Jules said I was hanging out with and because I was stoned when they came to get me. I was going that night and I wasn’t even allowed to pack a bag. Apparently, it wasn’t necessary to bring anything from my sad life along with me.

  I rode in the back of a social worker’s car out to the country to the correctional facility. The hills around us were covered with bright autumn colors, as if hundreds of little kids’ sweaters had been unraveled. The curtain between acts in my life was always a dense forest. It was impossible for me to know what was going to happen when the trees parted. As we turned off the main highway, I looked at the little woman dancing in the amber ring that Alphonse had given me. I thought the little lady in the ring and I were now in some sort of terrible trouble.

  THE DETENTION CENTER WAS surrounded by a huge fence. I was shocked when I saw it because I realized for the first time that I was being sent to a sort of prison.

  The building was a really long hall with rooms off the hallway. There were bars in the windows and alarms on every door leading outside. The floor tiles had a pattern of little stones on them. I tried, for a moment, to pretend that I was walking on the bottom of a lake, but it didn’t work. The building was divided into two wings. One was a wing for violent children who had actually committed crimes. These were the children who rightfully hated the world around them and wanted to get even with it. The other wing, to which I was brought, was for children who had run away from home or were doing drugs, things like that. It was for those who turned their aggression inward and weren’t actually hurting anyone but themselves. You could easily be sent to the violent ward the minute you showed any sort of hostility toward any of the staff.

  I didn’t feel any anger, though. I missed Jules and I couldn’t believe that he had sent me away. At least I was put on the wing for nonviolent kids.

  It’s almost pointless to describe the whole month I was in detention. So many weird, unusual things happened in one day, and yet all the days were exactly the same. And apparently, when you have no future, there is really no such thing as time anyway. We only had class two hours a day, and the rest of the time we spent doing strange useless stuff. I found a beetle outside and put it in a prescription pill bottle and put it beside my bed for a pet. One boy ate pages out of his math book. Someone shit in the hallway in the back. We spent an afternoon collecting snails and taking them out of their shells. We invented a game where one person would run across the yard while everyone else whipped little stones at him. A boy plucked out all his eyebrows. One boy had a tattoo of a third eye on his forehead; a lot of girls had decided that they were in love with him. He was destined for failure, and so he was someone they really wanted to hook up with. He stuck a fork into a cavity in his tooth on purpose. We wanted to be convinced that feeling bad was a good thing. We were supposed to be streetwise, but we were like little children who only wanted to be.

  When it started to snow, one thing we did was to stand outside with no coats on. You had to think that you were a superhero and that the cold could not affect you. It could not even touch you. Or at least that’s what I had to do. Your superhuman power was to be able not to feel. Is it there inside of everybody, this self that comes out while you are in captivity? You become the closest approximation of yourself that can tolerate living there.

  I never felt so lonely in my life. Jules was in Montreal without me. If I sat and dredged up any good memories of myself and Jules, I would feel absolutely horrible afterward. It was like I was rotting inside. Nostalgia could kill you there. So I stopped myself from having those memories of Jules.

  I liked to go to the nurse’s office and describe the symptoms of Jules’s TB, trying to pass them off as my own. She would tap on my back and chest and put the stethoscope up to my breastbone. I heard my heartbeat through her mind, and it felt wonderful. It was lovely to be touched by a caring adult.

  I wasn’t the only one looking for this type of affection. There was a social worker who gave haircuts. A lot of the kids were practically bald because they liked the feeling of her cutting their hair and fussing with it so much.

  You couldn’t get much support from the rest of the staff, however. They had all lost faith in their profession after spending a couple years working in juvenile corrections. You could not make a child with bad memories into a kid with good memories. A really effective social worker would have to be a time traveler who could go back in time and undo the abuse most kids here had suffered. Anyhow, the worst social workers were sent out here to the middle of nowhere. The members of the staff were all sneaky-looking. Most of them seemed to sit behind their desks in a sort of coma. The only ones who were interested in the kids were the ones who were molesting them.

  There was a time between nine thirty and ten right before lights went out when the evening shift went home and the night shift had not yet arrived. The only person overseeing our wing was a social worker named Antoine. Now, this social worker was madly in love with a boy named Constance. They hung out in Antoine’s office together, until the night staff came. During this half hour the rest of us were left to our own devices. We used to gamble with dice for kisses and pour liquid soap all over the floor.

  One night, during our unsupervised half hour, I went out in the yard for a smoke. I didn’t like the taste, but I liked to watch the smoke roll out of my mouth, like unicorns. It had snowed for the first time that year and now it was winter. The world got all quiet after it snowed, as though everything and everyone had died. I used to sit out there and imagine that the bomb had fallen. Back then everyone used to speculate on what life would be like after the bomb.

  After the bomb, I figu
red that buttons would be used as currency. Once you traded your buttons for something to eat, you would have to hold your sweater together with your hands. There would be only one lightbulb in town, and you would have to pay dearly to sit underneath it. You would pack your suitcase full of the screws that you had managed to find here and there and move to another city in the middle of the night, hoping it hadn’t been hit as hard. At the flea market, you would buy a tape of someone screaming at their wife in the apartment next door because you would miss the sounds of ordinary life.

  It would be hard to laugh anymore. You would have to pay a prostitute to tickle you and to read to you from a paperback book of jokes. It would be time for the androids to take over, but they would not have been invented yet. Certain fanatics would volunteer to have their limbs replaced with prosthetic ones.

  Before the bomb, your mother embroidered a bird on your pea coat. Once the threads came undone, there were no more birds. Someone would swear they had seen a sparrow, but everyone would have become a liar.

  It was hard to imagine that the real world was out there somewhere in the night and that it hadn’t all been destroyed. I couldn’t possibly imagine what my life was going to be like in the future when I returned to it.

  EVEN THOUGH IT WAS FREEZING OUT, I noticed that a girl with wet hair had come out in her shorts to smoke a cigarette. She had just taken a shower and the steam was rising up off her hair like a halo. I noticed that she had a cesarean scar on her belly. She smiled at me.

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