Daydreams of Angels, p.25Heather O'Neill
My brothers and I are very lucky that we were all born together, because nobody else will have anything to do with us. All the kids think that we are weird. Like my brother Sparrow, who wears the participation medal that he won in day camp around his neck every day, will show anyone his penis if they ask him.
Robin got to take the hamster home for the weekend. The hamster escaped and it most likely got accosted and murdered by some rats in the alleyway. On account of that, none of the other kids would talk to him after that.
The science teacher is always picking on Robin. He gave him a zero on his assignment about his favourite animal, and he said that he wished that he could have given him less. My mother said that chicken pox affected him harder than it had the rest of us.
Jay threw a ruler out the window in math class and even he had no idea why in the world he did that. The teacher told him to go sit outside the class until he figured out why he did. He sat there for three hours and he still didn’t know.
The teachers in our school give my brothers a different diagnosis each month, it seems. For example, once Robin had ADHD and Jay had something called dysgraphia, and then the next month they swapped. Sometimes they all have the same diagnosis and sometimes they have different ones.
I guess I am the smart one. I base that in part on the fact that I like to read a lot. I don’t only like books though. I like to read things like the backs of cereal boxes and the warning labels on bottles of poison. I love reading the IKEA catalogue. I enjoy discovering new words too. But most of all, I like to smell books. You know, I can stick my face in the spine of a book and leave it there, breathing in and out, for hours. Despite my extra knowledge, my mom loves us all just the same though. That’s the way that she is.
My mother starts singing along to a song on the loudspeaker in line at the grocery store. But she sings it too slow. So she is still singing once the song is over.
On the way home, the garbageman whistles at all the women. But he doesn’t whistle at her. I ask my mother how in the world she got so fat.
Was it because she had eaten too many cupcakes? Was it because when she was little, her own mommy had only ever given her hamburgers and milkshakes from McDonald’s?
She says no. She says that the reason she is so fat is that she always held so many things in. She was so shy when she was little that she was afraid to express herself. She would never put her hand up in class, so she kept all these ideas inside of her. And each one popped like a kernel of popcorn, until she was like a big bag of microwave popcorn.
My mother says that there are all sorts of opportunities that I have that she did not have as a girl. She says that she always had to stuff her bra when she was little. She says that she had to laugh at all the boys’ jokes all the time, even if they weren’t funny at all. She says that she wishes she hadn’t, because she wouldn’t have as many wrinkles now and her teeth wouldn’t be so yellow.
When she won an award for her handwriting when she was in Grade Three, she thought that for sure after that happened she was going to make something out of her life. But she didn’t. She decided to have a boyfriend instead.
On account of the general conditions of the kitchen, we eat the ham in the living room while watching TV. My mother does not know how to clean up a kitchen. She has been trying to straighten up ours for like eight years, but the more she goes at it, the messier it gets. It is impossible now, ’cause there are too many dishes. The counters look like a landing pad for all sorts of dirty spaceships. We don’t know why there are more dishes in our sink than in any other place in the world. Sometimes we all pitch in to wash the dishes, but then we get bored and we go do something else.
After we eat and we’re all crammed together on the couch, we don’t pay attention to the TV that’s still on and we beg our mother to read to us from The Guinness Book of Records. I think that it must be so lonely to be the world’s tallest man, with your head way up in the clouds like that. We all feel so sorry for the tallest man that we all start to cry. We hope we never grow like that. It is much better to be ordinary.
My mother lies about what our first words were, when we ask her. But I can’t blame her. She does it to make us happy. She tells my brother that his very first words were, “Beam me up, Scotty.” His face gets red because he’s so proud of himself.
We beg our mother to count our toes. We don’t know why we like it so much, other than that it reminds us of having been born.
My mother didn’t throw out those little tiny jars of food that you buy when you have babies. They were too cute to get rid of. And if you don’t ever chuck them out, you would not even begin to believe how many little baby jars you will have. I am so glad that she kept them all because we keep everything tiny inside of them. Like one bottle is for buttons and one is for thumbtacks. We are like scientists, because it is in the nature of scientists to collect tiny things.
When we were tiny little babies, we were all inside her belly and it was like we were all inside of separate baby jars. I was mushed-up peaches. Jay was mushed-up peas. Sparrow was mushed-up pears. And Robin was beef stew melee.
My favourite time of the night is when after the news they let the balls fall out of the lotto machine. That means that it is time to go to bed. The boiler is making a gurgling noise, like your tummy makes in class before lunchtime. It doesn’t keep me up for long, though. We are so happy here, I have to make sure that we don’t leave.
* * *
I have to garden today. I have a little square at the community garden right behind the Children’s Library. My brothers did not understand why I wanted to sign up for that type of thing. But I always have to have a project. I cannot keep still. I audition for all the plays at school even though I never get a part.
“Goodbye!” I scream again at the front door, but nobody answers.
I find a Virgin Mary statue sitting on one of the window frames in the hallway. She just sits looking out of it like a sad little old lady. I decide to bring her to my little garden. She’s actually kind of heavy and she keeps being asked to be put down to walk. Most of the other gardens don’t have statuettes or things like that in them. The gardeners are too busy using all the room that is there to grow all sorts of vegetables and things to eat. I gather up some broken bricks and carry them over to place them around the rose.
I have a rosebush that has no flowers on it. It is nothing but an ugly little shrub with thorns on it, but I believe in it. I know that it will be beautiful someday. I sit on an upside-down laundry bucket and read The Little Prince to the rosebush.
I till the soil for an hour. My favourite thing is to look underneath the rocks and see everything that lives there. The soil is crawling with worms and earwigs and centipedes.
You would not ever believe how many different species of beetles there are. They have these entire complicated cities with their own miniature subway systems and roadways and underpasses. They have mossy little condominiums where they can have babies. It’s really like another Tokyo under my bare feet. They do so much work! They are busybodies. They are just like me: too busy to make trouble.
* * *
When I get back to the apartment, there are a bunch of naked people drawn in chalk all over the cement in the front of the building. Jay must have drawn them. He isn’t a very good artist or anything, like he can’t do animals or horses, but he is very gifted at drawing naked people. The drawings are doing really dirty things too, like oral sex. A man who lives across the hall from us shakes his head when he steps over them. I rub out the chalk people with the bottom of my running shoes as fast as I can.
As I walk into the building’s cement courtyard, I see another one of my brothers. Sparrow has a black nylon sock tied around his forehead. He is practising kung fu moves, which involve kicking his leg up as high as possible in the air and yelling, “Assassinate!” and then standing straight, putting his hands together in prayer and making a bow. An old lady walks by him nervously, afraid that he’ll karate-chop her, I guess
“Get down from there!” I call up.
“Assassinate, my ass!” he yells back. I have to run for cover, with some other people who live in the building, as an empty tin of beans comes out of the sky like an asteroid.
Robin only comes down when he runs out of garbage. Then I can finally get all my brothers together to tell them off at once. After I’m done yelling at them that they are scaring and seriously disturbing all the neighbours, the sun has already gone down and it’s chilly. The night sky is an air conditioner.
I say we should all put some turtlenecks on and pretend to be worms. We stand outside in the yard with the necks of our shirts pulled all the way up over our heads. We wander around yelling that we lost our heads, until someone calls from a window that if we don’t shut up he’ll call the police.
* * *
It’s early Saturday morning and we all get woken up by the landlord banging on the door. He is mad because we keep our shoes lined up in a neat row all the way down the hallway past everybody else’s doors. He throws a pair of shoes at my dad. My dad catches it and, before thinking too hard about it, throws it back at the landlord and pings him on the head.
“I’m taking you to court again. You’re a lazy, filthy welfare bum.”
We all eat breakfast really quiet. Nobody wants to think about going to court again. Nobody wants to think about how bad my dad’s feelings have been hurt. It always makes us really sad that our dad doesn’t have a job. We don’t like to bring it up to him. We like to pretend that we have never really noticed that he doesn’t go to work every day. If ever he gets into an argument at the grocery store or with one of the neighbours, they just tell him that he is a welfare case. Then his cheeks get all purple and you can see all the red squiggly veins in them, and he feels ashamed and, right away, he wants to go home, where he sits in his bedroom with the door shut.
My dad also makes us go to the food bank for him because he is too embarrassed to go himself. We pull the grocery cart down the street and present the welfare stub to the woman at the front table. We don’t mind.
Sometimes when he is awake, my dad puts on his fur hat and gets on his hands and knees and snarls like a wolf and chases us around the apartment. We always play the big bad wolf and the four little pigs. Even though there were only three in the original story. We are never sure whether we like this or not. When he catches us, we are always laughing and crying.
My brother fell over a chair while my dad was chasing him. He ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye. Child services came over and we had to reenact the whole game for him.
* * *
Later that day, to make things more cheerful, we beg our dad to see his bow ties. My dad says that when he was a young man, he used to work as a salesman, but he never liked to wear ties. They always made him feel like he had a noose around his neck and that he was strangling himself. So he would wear bow ties. I think that he has the most top-notch collection of bow ties in the world. He has them all laid out at the bottom of a drawer that he sometimes pulls out for us to see. There is a red one with white polka dots. There is a yellow gold–coloured one. I don’t know what bow ties look like anymore, but they can’t still be making them like this. They look like the world’s most gigantic wrapped candies.
He worked for a company that made fancy silverware. There were little roses carved into the handles of all the spoons and there were forks that had handles that were shaped like leaves. We love hearing stories about our father’s magnificent cutlery.
One other thing that you should definitely know is that he used to play the trombone. When he was at elementary school, he won a medal for being the top player out of all the students. He had wanted to be in the International Symphony Orchestra, but he wasn’t quite good enough. So instead he got a job in sales.
Finally he takes out his bow ties and he lays them on the bed like they are exotic butterflies. We spend half an hour trying to decide which one is our favourite.
My brothers beg and beg him to let them wear them. But my dad says that they each have to wait for their first office job and then he will give each one of them a bow tie.
I’m not sure what I am supposed to wear to my first day. My dad is really old fashioned. I don’t think he thinks that a girl is supposed to work.
Maybe I was the last of the four of us that was born. It was as though there wasn’t enough material left to make another boy and so I got made. I’m like the last funny cookie on the tray that there wasn’t enough dough for.
* * *
Now it is Saturday afternoon and time to go out. My dad always has sore feet because, like I said, he has Type 2 diabetes. The other day he found a wheelchair in the basement and now he wants us to push him around in it when he goes out. He says that he doesn’t have to stop at red lights because he is handicapped. He yells at us to push him right out into the middle of the street even though the cars are all honking at us.
We push our dad around to see all the different people who will listen to him when he talks. My dad has a friend from the bakery and he is able to get my dad really huge jars of maraschino cherries for cheap. We cover our ice cream in maraschino cherries. It’s like clowns were caught in an avalanche and all you can see of them is their noses. We have maraschino cherries in our orange juice in the morning. We often think that we are so lucky that our dad is likeable.
He knows the owner of the little pharmacy. We like stopping there okay. When we do, we read all the different Hallmark cards. We especially like when one of them happens to be a little bit dirty. And we like to read the backs of all the paperback murder mysteries.
But our very favourite place is the pawnshop! That is where we head today. There is a bookshelf and, instead of books, the shelves have tiny teacups with flowers painted on them. We kneel on the floor and look into the glass cabinet. I always like to look into glass cabinets because it is similar to looking into an aquarium of amazing things.
We have to get off our knees and move to the back of the store when a real customer comes in and wants to sell their crappy television set. One thing I learned from hanging out at a pawnshop is that people all think that their television sets are worth more money than they actually are. The reality is very hard for people to accept. Especially since they have spent so many happy hours with their television set. And a television set is really so much like one of the family.
Today the owner of the store, my dad’s good friend, says that a trombone came in just the other day. He goes to get it. My dad has always bragged about being able to play the trombone, but now I am worried that he has made the whole thing up. I don’t like finding out when people are lying to me. It makes me feel like I am spying on them or that I am reading their diary or that I am watching them undress through a tiny hole in the wall. It’s rude of me.
My dad picks up the trombone. And he tests it out to see if it slides up and down easily enough. He seems to be satisfied that it is oiled to his liking. My brothers and I stare at him, so afraid. But then he puts it to his mouth and he plays the Star Wars theme song. That is our favourite theme song! In fact it is one of mankind’s most remarkable inventions, I’d say. It’s like all the delivery trucks stuck in traffic are honking their horns, but in harmony.
Who you are is not what country you are from, or what religion you are, it is what your parents’ jobs are. You can be a plumber’s kid or a lawyer’s kid. But it sure doesn’t work to only be a welfare case’s kid. Today we are a musician’s kids. In the dark alcove at the back of the shop, my brothers and I keep looking at one another and smiling, just like when we were all together in my mom’s great belly.
* * *
Are you who you are when you are a teeny fetus? There are some people who will say that you aren’t properly you
You are you even long before that. You are you when your parents begin to get dressed in fancy clothes one Saturday night. You are you when your mother, who is barely twenty-one years old, puts on a pair of yellow lace underwear. When she plucks her eyebrows in the mirror and when she puts on a red dress that is cut really low and burgundy lipstick: that’s all about you, baby.
You are you when your father, who is also twenty-one years old, pops a pimple on his forehead. When he puts on his fancy shiny shirt that was made by children in a sweatshop in Indonesia. When he isn’t sure that he actually looks good—but he has been lucky twice before when wearing it.
They are both riding the subway in opposite directions to meet each other and you have already begun. That is your beginning. You have just as much right to be as anybody.
* * *
But my dad is in an even worse mood after we get all excited about him being able to play the trombone. It probably reminded him of being things that he doesn’t get to be anymore. He tells us to stop at the liquor store. We all beg him not to go in and Robin even gets on his knees in front of the wheelchair. But he shouts at us to push him inside. He gets a bottle of whiskey and they put it in a paper bag for him, even though our lives are now going to be hell!
We push him down the street as fast as we can and he keeps yelling at us to slow the fuck down. But he keeps taking deep gulps and we have to get him home before the liquor hits his heart. I hope that people don’t see us behind the wheelchair. Maybe they will think it is an electric wheelchair and that it is rolling by itself and we just happen to be walking behind it.
My dad points to a man who is passing by and he says, “Hey you, you fucking cowboy. I’m sick of your ugly face. I don’t even know you and I know that you won’t get married.”
We don’t even stop to see the poor man’s reaction, and we keep right on going. Unfortunately, we have to stop at a red light because it’s a busy street. There is a woman standing next to us, also waiting for the right time to cross.
Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes