Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.2Heather O'Neill
They kept walking ahead of me down the street, as if not to include me. I had to run to stay close behind them. They both had such long legs that they were hard to keep up with in the best of times. They could smoke and drink coffee and eat and reenact a bar fight while walking down the street without even slowing down.
They got to a skinny building that had tiny different-colored ceramic tiles all over the front and black tiles with gold stars on them on the lobby’s floor. It was a more modern building than the rest on the block, so it must have been built in a spot where an older one had burned down. A drug dealer named Paul lived there. I’d been to his apartment once about a year before. He’d just gotten a dog from the SPCA named Dostoyevsky. He couldn’t pronounce it, so he changed it to Donut. I was looking forward to playing with it.
“Baby!” Jules turned and yelled at me. “Quit following us. Go play with your doll! Get lost, okay?”
“I want to come with you,” I said. “I like Paul!”
“I like Paul,” he repeated sarcastically. “Go find some friends your own age, okay? Trust me, you don’t like Paul.”
“I’ll wait here then.”
When the buzzer sounded, Jules and Lester pulled open the door and stepped in. It was one of those metal doors that slams shut after you let go. Once it banged closed, there was no way I could get in. I pounded on the door. Jules leaned over and opened the mail slot that was made to put circulars through.
“Look, go run and play and you can eat dinner with chopsticks tomorrow, okay! I’ll give you some money to see a movie!”
As he shouted out all my favorite things, they seemed so cheap to me. They paled in comparison to my desire to be with him.
“Screw the chopsticks,” I whispered to myself as he and Lester ran up the stairs.
I SPOTTED A BIG ROCK on the ground. I picked it up and pretended it was an injured bird and held it in my hand and stroked it. I encouraged it to stay alive and whispered to it that it would fly again soon. Then I put it in my pocket with the other rocks I’d rescued. I sat down on a bench outside the building and waited a few minutes, but they didn’t come back down.
I was still clingy like a little kid with Jules and I hated when he dumped me like that. I was so lonely all of a sudden. When I felt lonely, I really felt lonely. I couldn’t believe that anyone else in the world could manage to feel as lonely as I did. When I was a baby, Jules had made up a story in which I was the main character. In the tale, I was on a ship sailing to Europe that sank in a storm. I survived by climbing onto a floating armchair that had been in the captain’s cabin. I floated all the way to Paris in that chair and there was a big parade for me in the streets when I arrived. I used to beg Jules to tell me this story over and over again. I had loved the part where I realized that everyone else on the ship had drowned and I was all alone on the giant ocean. It had given me such a chill. Now I regretted that he had ever told me that story because there were times, like now, when I found myself on that armchair. I could even sort of feel the sidewalk rocking under my feet, as if I were on some waves.
The moon was out already and looked like a melting bit of ice in a glass of water. A few big snowflakes started falling here and there, all slowly, like spiders on their invisible webs coming down.
I held Roxanne up in front of me and discovered that she didn’t impress me much anymore. I was annoyed with her because I was stuck with her instead of Jules. I got up and dragged her down the street. I decided to go to the indoor ice-skating rink a few blocks away. It was by the housing projects, so all the kids who lived there hung out at the rink all day.
Strings of Christmas lights lit the place up all year. People there would steal everything you had, so you had to skate with your shoes in a plastic bag at your side. But I wasn’t even able to skate. Jules had gotten me a pair of skates, but I had unscrewed the blades and banged them off with a hammer. I wanted to have a pair of fancy white boots like the kids in the illustrations in a book I had read called The Railroad Children. The skates were impossible to walk in, though, because the soles didn’t bend, so I had to throw them away, weeping.
I saw some kids I knew in the bleachers. They were eating a little jar of maraschino cherries that they had all probably pitched in to buy. Someone had come up with the idea that maraschino cherries were soaked in whiskey, and everywhere I went kids were eating them by the jarful. I’d asked Jules about it and he had said it was bullshit. I’d told some kids that, but they thought Jules didn’t know anything because he was so much younger than all the other parents. They’d informed me it was quite likely that Jules was a numbskull.
A boy named Todd spotted me first. He was wearing a tight blue T-shirt with motorcycles on it and burgundy corduroys. His mother wrote his name on the outside of his clothes with a magic marker so that nobody could steal them. That was a considerable waste of time because nobody would be caught dead in his clothes. He had to be extra aggressive to overcome the stigma of having his name written boldly on every single thing he owned.
“What have you got there, a doll?” he said increduously. “Oh, man! I can’t believe it. What the hell are you doing with a doll?”
“She’s been following me around,” I said. “I can’t get rid of her.”
“What?” they all demanded, now that I was messing with their sense of reality.
“She’s a pain in the butt, I swear to God,” I continued. I held the puppet up to my face. “How come you have those holes in your elbows, Roxanne? Is that like a bad polio vaccination?”
All the kids laughed when I insulted her. The boys made lewd comments. “Come on, Roxy, please, Roxy. How about giving me a little piece of ass.”
Roxanne just laughed. She was a survivor, Roxanne. I guessed that I’d give her that.
Someone called my name loudly from the other side of the skating rink. I saw it was Marika, my old neighbor. I used to be madly in love with her because she was missing a finger and she would never give a straight answer about where it had gone to. It was disgusting and beautiful at the same time. She also had greasy black bangs that she wore down to her nose, and I found them really debonair or something. She was four years older than me, but she didn’t ever seem to notice our age gap.
I walked over reluctantly, though, because, despite her great beauty, she was always making me do creepy things with her. Once she looked up a strip joint in the phone book and we called up to ask if they were hiring. When they said they were, we almost lost our minds, because before we had somehow assumed that strippers were fictional creatures, like mermaids. The last time I’d been over at her house, she had taken the lace curtain down from the kitchen window and bobby-pinned it to my hair. Then she had convinced me to marry her brother. She wouldn’t let me go home until I had kissed him, and now we were married.
She was wearing a black patent-leather jacket that was a size too big and made her seem like she was somehow dressed in a wet umbrella.
“Did you see Quincy?” she asked, nodding toward the rink, where her brother was skating.
He was skating with a cast on his arm. He had drawn a naked lady on it last week, but the principal had made him cover it in Liquid Paper. I cringed at the sight of him.
“Is it your birthday?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m twelve.”
“You have to lose your virginity when you turn twelve,” she told me.
She had a tiny jam jar filled with beer and she offered it to me. Jules sometimes drank beer that had a beautiful unicorn on the label. I used to beg for a sip just because I found the label so lovely. It tasted bitter and always made me feel as if I’d been crying. I shook my head at the jar.
“Suit yourself,” she said, taking the tiniest sip possible.
“I thought you were going to get me and Quincy divorced.”
“Do you know how long a divorce can take?”
“Did you even start?”
“I’m not going to dignify that question. My brother isn’t interested in you anymo
I shrugged, pretending not to be offended. She was troubling me already. A couple teenagers on the ice started yelling obscenities at each other and the echo of their voices made it sound as if we were all at the bottom of a well.
“You could make a lot of money in that little white hat of yours. You could have anything you want,” Marika said suddenly.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, not having any idea what she was talking about.
“Do you want to see something crazy?” she asked me.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of bills. I’d never seen one of my friends with that much money in her hands. We were broke in a way that only kids can be broke. Our toes were black with dye from wearing boots that weren’t waterproof. We had infected earlobes and green rings around our fingers from cheap jewelry. No one ever even had a chocolate bar. We’d steal containers of cottage cheese and eat them together in the park. It was a miracle to see so much money in the hands of someone so young. It seemed to be a magic trick and I stared at it, waiting for it to turn back into something else.
“I had sex with a man for fifty bucks,” she said. “Me and my cousin have been doing it on Ontario Street. It’s easy. She made two hundred dollars one night.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not she was joking, so I laughed loudly and briefly. My laugh sounded different than usual, as if I was laughing in a room with no furniture. I was still uncomfortable with the idea of sex. When I first heard of French kissing, I thought it was something that only mental patients and the kids who failed grade four would do when they grew up.
“Do you want to know the details?” she asked, leaning her face so close that it was almost touching mine.
When she spoke, her breath smelled like cigarettes and dead things. There was something inhuman about her, suddenly, as if when she opened her mouth and tipped it backward you would see mechanical inner workings, like a little dumb weight instead of a tonsil. If she coughed and you looked in her Kleenex, you would see nails and screws. That’s probably why she was missing a finger. She had probably just fallen and it had broken off. I felt so lonely all of a sudden, as if I were the only human left in the world.
I whispered that I had to go back home and I turned around and walked away from her.
People gave you a hard time about being a kid at twelve. They didn’t want to give you Halloween candy anymore. They said things like, “If this were the Middle Ages, you’d be married and you’d own a farm with about a million chickens on it.” They were trying to kick you out of childhood. Once you were gone, there was no going back, so you had to hold on as long as you could. Marika was beckoning from the other side.
I STEPPED OUTSIDE INTO THE COLD, and since I hadn’t taken off my jacket while inside the skating rink, it was twice as cold as before. It was dark outside now. My breath in the cold air was bleach that accidentally spilled on a black T-shirt.
I started walking in the wrong direction, heading toward our old apartment building, and then I remembered that we had moved. I turned in the right direction, and this time I started running. Jules had always told me that if I met someone dangerous to run back home. Home was something that you could fit into a suitcase and move in a taxi for ten dollars. Home was wherever Jules and I were together.
I hurried up the carpeted stairs of the Ostrich Hotel. The metal banisters curled up at the ends like the waves in Chinese ink drawings. I opened the front door of our apartment and felt the heat come out at me. Jules had already cranked it way up and had put masking tape all along the sides of the windows, so that nothing, not even the air, could get in.
I walked into the living room and saw a man I didn’t know sitting on the couch between Jules and Lester. They were sitting there like Wynken, Blynken, and Nod: three little boys who were tucked in together, about to sail off into the starry universe. They all had a similar expression when I walked in, with their eyebrows raised and their eyes closed, as if they were bored aristocrats. There were glasses and jars filled with water all over the coffee table in front of them. It looked like a dismantled chandelier.
Jules was holding a teacup daintily in his hand to tip his cigarette ashes in. He opened his mouth and I waited several seconds for him to get the words off the tip of his tongue.
“This is Kent,” Jules said, pointing in the opposite direction of the stranger on the couch, but obviously meaning him.
Kent half opened his eyes and smiled. He closed his eyes again, but his face kept its jolly expression. Once you smiled on heroin, your smile could last a whole hour. Kent had a Fat Albert key chain attached to the zipper of his ski jacket. He had black hair with gel on it that had frozen outside and turned white. He had purple running shoes with fat green shoelaces. Looking at Kent, I felt incredibly safe all of a sudden. If this was our worst enemy, Jules and I had nothing to worry about.
JULES CAME INTO MY ROOM later that night after Lester and Kent had left. He had his hands in front of him feeling around, although it wasn’t particularly dark. He did that even when the light was on when he was stoned. He squeezed in next to me. He was in the mood to talk, I could tell. We lay on the bed as if we were crammed in a confessional booth together. When he was stoned, he was honest. I loved when he told me his secrets.
“So Kent showed up freaking out and saying stuff he didn’t mean. It was out of control here. But Lester offered to give him that guitar he found backstage when he was working at the Medley.”
“You mean the guitar he stole from the Medley.”
“If Lester didn’t take it, someone else would have, so it isn’t exactly stealing.”
“What about his clothes?”
“His clothes were ugly. He can’t dress. I gave him that top hat I got at the Salvation Army.”
“You loved that hat!”
“And my green suit jacket with the sparkly thread.”
“No!” I cried. All his friends were after that jacket and so I was proud of it.
“None of that stuff matters, Baby,” he said sweetly. Although he might feel differently about his losses in the morning when he wasn’t high, I decided to enjoy our carefree reprieve.
“I’m sorry I told you to get lost earlier,” he continued. “I didn’t mean it. Did you have a nice birthday?”
“My dad’s birthday is also coming up in a couple days. That horrible, horrible bastard,” he said. As he spoke, he stared amorously into the eyes of my stuffed lion.
“How come you don’t like your dad?” I asked. I’d been given hundreds of explanations over the course of my life, but I wanted to start up a conversation.
“Jesus! He ripped a handful of hair off the back of my head. He dragged me down the hall and threw me out of the house. He broke my collarbone once.”
“Why was he so mean to you?”
“Everyone was mean in Val des Loups. It’s in the water. We had a dog that always drank from the river and he became clairvoyant. He could tell the future.”
“How did you know he could tell that?”
“Because his eyes were all bugging out of his head and he was always barking for no reason.”
Jules had grown up on the outskirts of a town called Val des Loups, about an hour outside of Montreal. To Jules it was the antithesis of all that was good and civilized in the world. According to Jules, in Val des Loups the dogs were all missing legs and the women were hideously ugly. I had a teacher from elementary school who told me that she was from Val des Loups. I almost lost my mind when she described it as a nice little town. I kind of figured out then that the Val des Loups Jules described wasn’t really a real place.
Once he’d told me that everyone boxed in Val des Loups. It was part of life. His dad made him go into a makeshift boxing ring once. When it was Jules’s turn to fight, he started coughing his brains out in the middle of the ring, finding it chilly standing there with just shorts on; he passed out cold the fi
I knew a lot of the little details about Jules’s past just from things he’d told me here and there. He claimed he didn’t take a bath for the first five years of his life. He said they used to eat hard-boiled eggs out on the lawn for breakfast, lunch, and supper. When Jules was eleven years old, he broke his arm riding a bicycle and then a car hit him six months later. Then, to top it all off, he set his bed on fire with a cigarette when he was fifteen. He had fallen asleep smoking and had started to dream about giant white gardenias floating above him and it hurt his eyes to look at them. He woke up realizing there were flames all around him. After that his father kicked him out of the house.
I also knew that when he was little, he had a red raincoat with yellow flowers on it that was for girls. He couldn’t read very well, but he liked to draw. Once he had drawn a dog and the teacher accused him of tracing it from a book. He’d been told when he was a little kid that he had severe learning disabilities. He was taken out of school when he was in third grade and went to a tutor instead, and that hadn’t helped.
This was so tragic. It made me feel almost as sad and creepy as the story about being stranded at sea. I loved to hear these terrible stories, as they were like Grimms’ fairy tales to me. The stories about Val des Loups helped me to feel better than other kids. Unlike them, I had come from a country of great mystery and pain.
Jules was still under the impression that he was a big shot for having moved to Montreal. It was his biggest accomplishment. Once he’d picked up a broken pair of glasses from the grocery cart at the Salvation Army and put them on. “These are so Val des Loups,” he’d claimed. “How so?” I had asked. “They’re just ugly and have no style.”
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes