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Lullabies for little cri.., p.22
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.22

           Heather O'Neill
 

  The snowflakes came down like little bits of newspaper. The night was a typewriter key that got stuck and kept punching all the letters on top of the others until all that was left was a black blob. No word, no letter, no message in the night for me.

  I had the habit of walking down the street crying. Crying is contagious and that guy had got me started. Sadness fit me like blue jeans. Sadness fit me like a hangman’s noose. It crawled on me like an electric blanket and it was hard to resist its warmth. I tried to straighten myself up when I saw Alphonse. I gave him all the money; I didn’t even wait for him to hand me back a couple dollars.

  He didn’t seem affected particularly by what happened to me. He kissed me sweetly and acted as if I was mad to be upset.

  We walked down the street together, and he suggested we go into the public greenhouse to get our minds off things. The greenhouse was a miniature glass cathedral filled with exotic flowers. There were birds made out of cloth with lights inside them hanging from the ceiling. Alphonse took a bottle of rum out of his jacket and gave me a sip. I felt myself warm up and start to be happy despite myself. The flowers were so pretty. I don’t think anyone had pointed out how pretty flowers were since I was little.

  We went into the little room at the back of the greenhouse whose walls and floors were covered with white tiles. There was a pool in the middle of the floor with huge goldfish swimming around. The ground of the pool was covered in pennies that represented hundreds of unfulfilled wishes.

  “It’s going to be all right,” Alphonse whispered.

  Because of the acoustics, his whisper filled up the room entirely, like a fur coat that was too big and hot.

  THAT NIGHT THE APARTMENT seemed to have shrunk. The ceiling was practically touching me. The house was a drawer in a dresser. When I woke up in the morning, it felt as if I had been beaten up. I was tired and there was a bullet in my stomach, I was so hungry. I was almost ashamed to look at myself in the mirror.

  There was a tin geometry set on the kitchen table. Jules had been carrying it around lately; I’d noticed it in the pocket of his jacket a few times. I thought it might be a gift that he was afraid to give me. Maybe when he gave it to me, everything would get better between us. I picked it up and opened the lid. My heart skipped a beat and I almost dropped the tin. His works were inside the geometry set: a hypodermic needle, a Q-tip, a cigarette filter, a spoon, and a lighter. I had found his works by accident before, so I wasn’t sure why I was so shocked. It was as if I had opened the tin and found something living and frightening in there, like a bunch of cockroaches.

  I didn’t know what to make of him doing drugs again. I wished I didn’t know at all. I was so confused by things that nothing quite seemed real at that moment. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the spoons in the utensil drawer started crying and needed to be rocked to sleep.

  ALPHONSE AND I SAT on either end of a row of benches on St. Catherine. If anyone stopped to look at me, he waved them over to talk to him. I found it cold and boring and hard to sit in one place. I took my knit hat off and leaned forward and gave my head a really good itch. That was one of the best feelings and made winter worthwhile. I blew my nose about a million times.

  I started thinking about what happened to you if you slipped through the ice this time of year. I had a friend at school who was always talking about what would happen to you if you did. I had never known anyone who had fallen through the ice in the winter. I imagined what my face would look like under a layer of ice with other children skating over it. I forgot all about why I was sitting there. Children are distracted so easily.

  I didn’t even feel like a prostitute. A prostitute stands there all night looking for people. A prostitute wears a sparkly silver jacket and high heels, not a tacky winter hat and snow boots.

  But I always had offers. I believed at first that no one could possibly even imagine why Alphonse and I were sitting on that bench, but they did. There was something about me that made it obvious what I was doing. I never even got used to the propositions, though. I had a minor heart attack every time a guy came up to me and suggested that we go off someplace alone. It was like a bump in a ride on a roller coaster.

  It happened once when my friend Jeremy and I were fooling around in a pile of snow. He tripped and fell flat on his stomach on a mattress that had been put out in the trash.

  “Bedbugs!” I screamed, laughing. “You got fleas in your pants now. The person who owned that bed had herpes!”

  Jeremy was grabbing my boots when I noticed a guy with blond hair and a bomber jacket waving at me from his car window.

  In the motel room, the blond guy wanted me to stand up against a wall while we did it. I had to stand on my tippy toes and hold myself up by pushing on his shoulders, like I was trying to see something passing by in a parade. I doubted that we would ever be able to fit together and have sex, but he managed it. I kept almost falling over and he had to stand me back up.

  I wish at least Leelee had told me about some of these details. I never knew what to do. I knew that I was probably a bad lover. I felt guilty that I was wasting their money. I thought that I would do a better job the next time, but I never did. It was always awkward. I refused to do different things on different nights. I always refused to give hand jobs. They seemed to take forever and I never knew how to do them properly. They were like, “Faster, slower, harder, faster, no, slow.”

  I never made any noises. I never said anything dirty, even when they begged me. I was terribly shy. I begged not to have to be on top. I didn’t know why anybody would have sex with me because my breasts were so small. I felt like the Wicked Witch of the East lying under Dorothy’s house with my legs jutting out.

  When I was done with the guy with blond hair, I felt as if I had to get out of the room immediately. It was as if there wasn’t any oxygen left in the room. I hurried to get all my clothes back on, but I couldn’t find my glove. I ran around the hotel room for ten minutes looking for it. Alphonse had bought me a pair of black gloves with red hearts knitted into them that I was crazy about.

  “Look, did you hide it?”

  “No, I swear. Maybe it’s under the bed?”

  “You’re hiding it. I better not find out that you’re hiding it.”

  I ran down the street crying and cursing. When I got home, I found that my glove had been in the sleeve of my jacket the whole time.

  I GAVE ALPHONSE ALL the money I made. Since I would have been scared to death to do it without him, I figured he deserved the money. He insisted on giving me back a little money each time, and five dollars was more than I needed anyhow. I liked being able to buy my own cigarettes, even though I still couldn’t figure out how to smoke them. Each time I lit a cigarette, I thought it was going to be great, but it left me feeling grimy and gave me a bellyache. I must have smoked in a past life when I had a bigger and tougher constitution, when I wasn’t such a little girl.

  I bought myself a paperback Agatha Christie book with the rest of my change. I walked down the street reading it. A wet snow started to fall from the sky. Whenever a raindrop fell onto the page, the paper changed its shape and moved toward the raindrop, like a face reacting to a kiss.

  On the way home I saw on the marquee that there was a Celine Dion impersonation contest going on at the Metropolis Club. The high-pitched voice of a man singing “Where Does My Heart Beat Now” floated out onto the street. I tried to get in, but the bouncer told me to go back to nursery school. It seemed ridiculous that I couldn’t go into a club after all the shit I was doing. What was even more absurd was that I had to go to school the next day.

  THE TRUTH WAS THAT even if Alphonse had encouraged me to, I couldn’t stay out late at night turning tricks. I wasn’t allowed to miss school without a bona fide reason. My social worker checked my weekly progress reports that kids in the remedial stream were handed on Fridays. She’d warned me that if I started missing school, I’d have to go to detention. I sure as hell wasn’t going there, and Alphonse didn
t want me going there either.

  I explained all this to Alphonse one night in the park. He wanted me to come over in the morning on a Wednesday and spend the day with him. I was embarrassed that I had to remind him I was still in high school. But then I told him a funny story about a boy in my class.

  This boy named Jamie had brought a bag of magic mushroom crumbs to school. He said a drug dealer had sold them to him for a great deal. He gave them to some kids, and they all said that the crumbs were bunk and totally not effective. But Jamie walked around all day thinking he was high. He sat next to me at lunch on the school steps, trying to figure out if he was hallucinating or not.

  “Do you see that guy with a cowboy hat across the street?”

  “Yes.”

  “Shit. Well, do you see that couch over there in the garbage?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I see that too.”

  Alphonse laughed his head off when I told him that story. He liked when I told him stories about how retarded the kids at my school were. It reassured him that I wasn’t interested in them. These stories were like declarations of love to Alphonse.

  “I don’t know how he lets you get away with it,” Leelee cried as she saw me walking home. “I work every night. It’s because he knows that you’re thirteen, I guess. You got so many years in you still. He doesn’t want to scare you away. I hate when he puts his hands on me. Your little period of grace isn’t going to last forever.”

  4

  ALPHONSE FELL ASLEEP ONE EVENING after we fooled around, even though it was only six o’clock. I walked into his kitchen and poured myself a big mug of chocolate milk and cut myself a piece of cake. Alphonse always had good food in the fridge. I sat at the kitchen table in my underwear and undershirt, with my bare feet on the cold floor. I took out my schoolbag from under the table and took out my notebook and a ballpoint pen. I had an essay for English class I was looking forward to writing. I was probably going to be the only one in class who handed it in on time. It wasn’t hard to have the best mark in that class. The girl next to me told me that she would never write in cursive because it reminded her of pubic hair.

  I’d always just been good at schoolwork. It was the simplest thing, like wanting something that was in a store window and having a pocket full of money.

  My schoolwork of late wasn’t particularly challenging. In moral ed. class, we had been working on our family tree for an entire month. The girl who sat next to me claimed that she was a distant relative to Jimi Hendrix.

  One Monday the teacher announced that we were moving on from our family trees to a new topic. We were going to be studying cults that week. The teacher rolled in a VCR to show us an interview with Charles Manson from prison. Everyone lost their minds with excitement. A few of the kids owned Charles Manson T-shirts. The whole class started chanting, “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” thumping their fists on their desks.

  Then a funny thing happened that wasn’t supposed to happen to a kid like me at all. I was called to the office on the intercom. At the office the guidance counselor held up my report card. I had received a ninety-six average. She told me that I was being put in the regular stream. I didn’t know what my friends were going to say, but I didn’t care. I had never been singled out at school or anywhere else for any sort of achievement. I was happy.

  I went to the science class on the second floor, which was to be my new homeroom. The teacher told me to go and sit next to a boy named Xavier, who would show me around the school. This was a bit silly since I’d already been going to the school for three months. The regular kids were on a different floor from the system kids, and we never intermingled, so a lot of the kids seemed to look at me as if they’d never seen me before. It really seemed as if I was getting a fresh start.

  Xavier was the only kid in the class who didn’t have a partner. Everyone started snickering when I sat down beside him. He was skinny and looked small for his age. He had messy black hair and a perpetually surprised look on his face.

  With his fancy black ink pen, he wrote down everything the teacher said. The teacher started telling a story about how his boat had almost capsized when he was on holiday, and Xavier wrote that down in his notebook. He highlighted certain sentences that he had written down, selecting from a pile of yellow, pink, and blue highlighters. I enjoyed watching him take notes. It was like being at a really busy office.

  He showed up in English class without his notebook. He told the teacher that he had become a Buddhist and Buddhists don’t take notes. He gave his English report on Animal Farm in an English accent.

  I saw him later that day in the cafeteria, listening to a Walkman and swaying to the music with a scarf wrapped around his neck. He was waving his arms around as if he were conducting an orchestra.

  “What time is it?” I asked, just to make conversation.

  “Midnight.”

  “What?”

  “It’s midnight in Tokyo.”

  “Well, here, on planet Earth, what time is it?”

  “Three o’clock.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Can I have your coordinates?”

  “What does that mean?”

  “Can I have your phone number and all that?”

  “Okay.”

  Xavier got caught drawing a portrait of me in math class. The teacher held it up for everyone to see, and they all laughed and laughed. He held his head up because he didn’t care at all. He was different from my friends. I liked that he was immature and that he seemed naïve, as if he was actually acting his age. He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder. We had caught each other’s attention. Who knows why? We were probably the most different kids on earth, but I felt like we were the same and so did he.

  IN SCIENCE, WE WERE GOING to be studying different kinds of rocks. We were supposed to collect a bunch and bring them into school the next day so that we could examine and discuss their properties. Xavier and I were partners. I figured that everybody was just going to pick up rocks on their way to school the next morning. Xavier, however, was all gung ho about going to the park by the river and collecting a variety of stones.

  I sat waiting for him on the picnic table outside the school. He came up to me and asked if he could see my hand. He took out a felt-tip pen and scribbled on one of my fingertips. Then he held my finger and pressed it down on a piece of paper. He explained that it was necessary for him to have my fingerprint on file. He didn’t say why. All I knew was that it had felt good when he was squeezing my fingers.

  We headed to the park. He had a bread bag filled with Oreo cookies that his mom had packed for him for lunch. We walked down the street eating them.

  “I live down that street,” he said, pointing. “Look! It’s my cat.”

  Sure enough a cat came sauntering toward us. It had gray matted hair and crooked eyes. It was the ugliest cat I’d ever seen.

  “That is the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen,” I said.

  “No, it isn’t. He’s a Persian. He’s a rare breed!”

  “It’s rare because nobody wants a cat that looks like that.”

  “But doesn’t it look like it has a lot of personality? We found him at Old Orchard Beach. Do you go there on holiday?”

  “No, that doesn’t really appeal to me.”

  “Why not! It’s so much fun. We go a lot. We build these bonfires on the beach that are really neat. We had the biggest one last summer.”

  “My dad and I built one by the river last year, and all these kids were helping out. They started putting garbage in. And the plastic was letting out all the toxic fumes.”

  “What does your dad do for a living?”

  “He’s a spy.”

  “Wow! That’s so neat. My dad’s an accountant. I think he should have been an architect, though. Do you ever do models? My dad and I put one of those pirate ships together. It took us five months. I’m surprised it didn’t drive us crazy.”

  It was unusual to hear someone talk about their parents like that. Most of the kids I hu
ng with only mentioned their parents when they were telling anecdotes about mean or crazy things that they had done. It made me feel very peaceful when he told nice stories like that about his parents.

  When we got to the park, Xavier reached into the pond to try and find some smooth stones. He wanted to show the effects that water had on stones over time. He rolled up his coat sleeve all the way, almost to his armpit. He stuck his arm in and shrieked from the cold. His sleeve had still managed to get wet.

  “I should be wearing my rubber gloves,” Xavier screamed. “It’s all spongy down here. It’s like walking on dog poo. In Old Orchard Beach I found a starfish, and we kept it in our cabin for a couple days. It was beautiful.”

  Xavier sat Indian style on the stone embankment of the pond next to me. He opened his palm with the stone in it and we both stared at it. It was pretty and smooth, but who knew what it was going to look like once it was dry.

  “We should cover it in transparent nail polish so that it always looks shiny like that,” I suggested.

  “This is a beautiful rock. Some people give their rocks names.”

  “He looks like a Frederic.”

  “That’s a nice name. Let’s put each one in a separate Kleenex box and label them not only with their scientific name but also with their common name that we choose for them.”

  “Okay.”

  “All right.”

  I noticed a snail with a yellow and black shell hibernating next to the embankment. We both got down on our hands and knees to look at it.

  “I love snails,” Xavier said.

  “Me too,” I said.

  And I realized that up until that moment I had totally forgotten how much I liked snails. How dark and nasty they were, like a black eye. We sat there waiting for the snail to come out of its shell. I looked at Xavier, and it felt as if we were sitting there naked. It felt very intimate.

 
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