Daydreams of Angels, p.26Heather O'Neill
“Hey, skinny,” he says to her. “Do you think that men are attracted to chickens? No? Then why in the world do you have those skinny chicken legs exposed? No man wants to see that. I can assure you.”
As soon as the light changes, we take off. We are pushing him so fast that we almost run into a middle-aged man who tells us to be careful.
“You inconsiderate bastard,” my dad yells. “Can’t you see that I’m a cripple? Can’t you see that I’m being pushed around by a little girl? You know what you are? I’ll tell you. You’re a fucking pimp. That’s it. You don’t like me to say the word to you because it rings a bell. Well, my brother. Pimp. Pimp. Pimp.”
We push him as fast as we can into the building and lock the front door.
* * *
My mom is fixing my hair on Sunday morning so that I can look so good like all the pretty black girls do. While she braids my blond hair, my mom explains to me that men get more hurt than girls. And they get more upset about being out of work than girls do. In that way, she says, it’s easier to be a girl. I don’t think this is true, because of my projects, because of my garden! I like working a lot.
Whenever we are in court, my mom always speaks with a teeny-weeny high-pitched voice. It’s as if she inhaled helium, for some weird reason, and it makes her sound like a baby. She wants the judge to feel sorry for her. This is her defence mechanism. It’s a little bit like when bugs play dead so that the birds won’t muck with them. But I don’t think that is the way I want to act just because I’m a girl.
My mom only does cornrows on one side of my head. Then she says that she has to stop because it’s giving her arthritis and that having to concentrate like that is giving her a migraine. I beg her and beg her to do the other side, but she can’t. She has to lie down and take a nap.
The cornrows on the side of my head are too beautiful to undo, so I go out later with only half my head braided. I get made fun of by all the kids that I pass. None of the black girls at the park will have anything to do with me. They look at me like I’m crazy, like they always do.
On the way home, this man drives up alongside me in this shitty gold car. The back window is made of cardboard and duct tape. And he asks me if I want to sit on his face. I don’t know what that means but it makes my heart bang so loud that it’s like a basketball smashing up against a wall. I decide not to tell anyone in my family.
* * *
Sometimes my brothers and I drink lemonade out of a tiny tea set. None of them mind playing games that are supposed to only be for girls. We all liked to take baths together for the longest time. But then my mom said one morning that I was too old to take baths with everybody else.
I have to take them all by myself now. I feel so alone when I am in the bathtub tonight. I feel like I am ten thousand miles from my family. All the toys are covered in soap grime. They are all inside of the soap dish and in the gargling glass. They look like they escaped from the sinking Titanic and are now dealing with shock.
I am so skinny that I think I will slip down the drain and I will go down through the pipes like I am going through a monster’s intestines. I do not at all like the way that the drain sounds like it is swallowing and swallowing my bathwater. Like it cannot get enough of it. Like it has an unquenchable thirst. Like it just had a huge meal and is trying to get rid of the hiccups. Something has got caught in its throat.
I look down the drain to make sure there is no long tongue that will come out of it and lick me.
The towels don’t match. But it is easier for us to be reminded of which one belongs to who: mine has purple flowers on it; Robin has one with tiny red berries; Sparrow owns the one with little brown pansies all over it; Jay’s is a really old one with a tree with pink blossoms on it. They make up a whole natural world. We don’t really get to see all those sorts of flowers outside, since we live downtown.
* * *
Human beings have destroyed the whole island of Montreal. In class we go on a field trip to the Natural History Museum. In the back there’s this diorama that has all the taxidermied animals that used to exist in Quebec. You would not believe it. There were like wolves walking down the street. Can you imagine what it would be like to look out your window and see wolves walking down the street? It would be terrifying, but then at the same time you would like feel so freakin’ alive.
And the birds! Did you know that at one time there were so many passenger pigeons that when they flew over in a flock, the whole sky would grow dark and there would be a shadow cast over the whole island? And you only had to reach your hand up in the air to grab one. You could hold up a pot and some birds would fly in and you would seal the lid on it.
There is a tree outside our building that tried to fight back. The roots of the tree reached out from beneath the sidewalk like a giant squid underneath a boat and broke through. When I get home, I wrap my arms around the tree and tell it that I understand. That it had been really, really angry. And it had all these big ambitions and the city had got in its way.
Its roots look like an elephant that is drowning in quicksand.
* * *
My brothers have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. Sparrow says that he wants to be an opera singer. I don’t think it’s because he likes to sing, but because he wants to get fat. Robin got a detention for writing an essay about how he wanted to be a pimp when he grew up. It made everyone in the class laugh though, so he didn’t care.
I want to be a scientist. But instead of telling anyone, I decide that I will have to prove it.
Walking home, I find an old bulletin board in the trash and I get an idea. I go out at night so that I can collect a jar full of moths. I stand under a lamp that is lighting up the back exit of the Chinese restaurant and I jump about capturing the flittering creatures.
How amazing. They think that they are somewhere way, way up in outer space. They think that they have flown all the way up to the moon, but really they haven’t gone anywhere at all.
Two policemen drive up next to me in their car and one of them tells me that I shouldn’t be outside. He says that it’s too dangerous for girls to go out at night.
I have enough moths anyways, so I take their advice and hurry home. All the rapists are two inches behind me. They are going to catch up with me any second and they will rape me and then I will have to go home and tell my parents that I have been raped.
I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be in the jar, trapped and banging on the glass, trying to be let out, like the moths. I remember when Tinker Bell was trapped in a jar in the movie. I had really felt for her. I really had! Nonetheless, I put the jar in the back of the freezer, behind the bag of pierogies that has been there for seven years.
And in the morning I pull out the jar and all the moths are dead and still beautiful. I stick the jar under my nightgown and run back to my room. I pin them all to the bulletin board one by one. One of the moths has round spots on its wing that look like cigarette burns. When I am finished I step back and look.
I wonder if I could take it to school and show the science teacher. I had a fantasy of the science teacher looking at my bulletin board and being amazed. “Aren’t you clever, Turtledove? Aren’t you my most brilliant student?”
I say it under my breath so I can hear what it sounds like to hear a compliment like that. I pretend that I am presenting my bulletin board at a conference for butterfly experts all over the world. I imagine myself travelling to Brazil to catch a rare butterfly and name it after myself.
I also think that my moths look so much like my dad’s bow ties in his drawer. I decide to wait no longer and unveil my project to my family. I can’t wait for them to be struck by wonder and amazement.
My mother screams when I show her the board. My whole family runs in to see what the commotion is and they start yelling about it too.
My dad says that if the landlord were to make an inspection of the living quarters and saw all those bugs, then we’d get evicted right on the spot
My brothers say that no man in their right mind would go out with me when they learned that I like to touch bugs.
My mother throws my whole lovely bulletin board in the garbage. I will never become world famous for my moth collection. For a second, I hate all of them. For a second, I do not want to be a part of this stupid family at all. I feel as though they are going to ruin my whole life. I don’t care if we get evicted. I so want to throw all my clothes into a pillowcase and get the hell out of here.
“At least I only had one girl,” my dad says, and they laugh and laugh and laugh.
I wonder whether every little girl feels as though she is the only little girl on the planet.
But then by dinner, I feel bad that I had wanted to leave everybody. Sometimes I think that it is my job to worry about the family. If I stop believing in them, they will cease to exist, like a bunch of fairies. I am always worried about their feelings, but I am not sure whether or not they are worried about mine.
* * *
Since it is Tuesday night we take our Tuesday night stroll. We all push our dad down to the riverbank in his wheelchair. You can see the amusement park on the other side of the river. I can see the coloured lights across the water. It is like there is a galaxy all the way over there. What are things like in that galaxy? I wonder. Are the laws of physics different? Is nighttime daytime and is daytime nighttime? Can you breathe underwater? Are paupers kings and are kings paupers? I want to go all the way over there.
There is no way that we can afford to go to the amusement park. But on the sides of Coca-Cola cans there are one-dollar-off coupons for the park. If I get enough of these together, we can go to the amusement park on the other side of the world. My brothers aren’t allowed to drink Coca-Cola because of their ADD. And both my parents have Type 2 diabetes on account of being so fat, so they aren’t supposed to have Coca-Cola. So I have to find the cans lying around the city.
I am happy to have a new project. I will always need a project in life, that is who I am. I go to all the festivals that month because that is where the most cans are at. There is a festival for wiener dogs. There is an Orchestra in the Park festival. I get into a fight with a junkie wearing nothing but jean shorts and beige sneakers when we both go after the same can under a bench. I go through every garbage can trying to see if there are cans inside of it.
I collect 170 cans. I shake the bag and the bag makes the sound of a marching band with skinny, handsome musicians playing my favourite instruments. All my family is amazed and my dad promises that we will go to the amusement park that weekend.
That night as I am trying to sleep, the boiler starts making more noise than usual.
* * *
But the next day, the celebrations are over because we get a letter in the mail saying that we have to go to court because the owner of the building wants to evict us.
We sit around the kitchen table, sick to our stomachs. Now it is for real and we can’t even eat our Cheerios. My mother says that this is going to make her hair fall out. We want her to hang on to the little hair that she has because we surely don’t want a bald mother on top of everything. Our dad says that he doesn’t know what we will do if we get kicked out. We can’t afford to live anywhere else. We will be homeless.
We will have to live inside of grocery carts forever and not just for a joyride down the grocery aisle.
My dad spends the day in bed because he is depressed. We don’t talk about the amusement park even though I have all those cans under my bed and they are trembling with excitement.
* * *
My dad says that we should all go to court again, so that we can elicit sympathy from the judge. He tells us to put on our fancy clothes.
He is wearing a tweed jacket and some grey pants. He wears a brown V-neck with little diamonds on it. He has a white shirt underneath. The collar coming out of it is kind of yellow. It is the colour that white things turn when they can’t handle being white anymore. He puts on one of the bow ties, but I don’t think that it helps him. He just doesn’t look employed. It’s one of the strange facts of life that you have to have a job to look like you have a job. Nobody knows why.
My mother is wearing a dress that makes her look all bulgy, like a melting candle. Her tiny heels look like they will break every time she steps. Her makeup is all half a centimetre higher than where it should go.
I am wearing a pair of burgundy tights that have really big holes in the toes, but you can’t see these when I wear my loafers. I wear a grey wool dress and it feels like there are two thousand ants going up and down my arms. My brothers have to wear what they ordinarily wear, because they have nothing fancy.
It costs us a fortune to ride the subway all at once.
* * *
In the tiny courtroom, the landlord makes a lot of accusations against us once again. My brother Sparrow tied a toddler to a telephone pole. Robin peed in a squirt gun and fired it at the janitor. Jay scratched his initials into the window of the front door of the lobby. My dad stole everyone’s shampoo samples from their mailboxes. I hung some dolls by their necks from the jungle gym in the courtyard. We all look at one another. What the hell is so wrong with hanging dolls?
The landlord says that we stole a wheelchair from the basement. We thought it had been abandoned. We hadn’t even really needed it. It was only for my dad’s convenience. If we had known it was stealing we wouldn’t have taken it.
Things do not look good for us after the trial. We know that they probably have us with the theft of a wheelchair. But there is nothing for us to do but wait for the results of the judge’s decision to come in the mail in two weeks.
That night I know I am going to have trouble sleeping because of what happened. But I really can’t sleep because the boiler is bubbling and burping all night long. Like it had a huge meal and now has indigestion.
* * *
My dad says that we should all go to the amusement park, to get our minds off things.
What a clamour all those cans make coming up the stairs of the subway! We’re like wasps coming out of a nest that has unfortunately been disturbed. The cans say that we have arrived.
The park is more amazing than I could have ever imagined. There are airbrushed waves on the sides of the little ships, and statues of mermaids on the back of them. There are dragons that you can climb into. There are swings that swing out from a giant post that has paintings of shepherdesses laughing on them. There is this strange imaginary hand that pushes your swing.
We ride all the rides and we make sure to scream louder than any other family in the park. I love the bumper cars the most. What would it be like to steer the bumper car out of the way so that no one could hit you, and then to drive it right out of the park? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride the bumper car right down the highway and forever?
We are too afraid of the haunted house. There are papier-mâché witches hanging out of the windows, and a giant snake coming out of the chimney that keeps exhaling smoke. And you can hear children screaming inside, all terrified, but they come out laughing with tears in their eyes. What is nice about the amusement park is that it makes it okay to be afraid all the time.
Robin and I sit in the Ferris wheel cage together. We rock back and forth. And then we start to slowly climb up and up. I can hear my other brothers screaming in their cage. Saying things like “Oh no, oh no, oh no!” I can hear my parents laughing in their cage.
All the bright lights from every ride at the amusement park are all around me: orange and red and yellow and green and blue, as if we are in a meteor shower. And as I look out onto the city, all the little streetlights are like strings of pearls. All the windows are lit up. We are right in the heart of the Milky Way.
We cry on the way home from the amusement park because it has been such a fun day and we are sad that it is over. We know that we might never get to go again. Not as kids anyways. And when we are old enough to finally afford tickets, the magic will be all gone.
Thank you most of all to Jennifer Lambert.
Thanks to the great team at HarperCollins Canada: Cory Beatty, Kelsey Marshall, Noelle Zitzer, Leo MacDonald, Iris Tupholme, Kaiti Vincent, Shannon Parsons, Suman Seewat, Stacey Cameron and everyone else.
Thanks to everyone at Quercus in the UK and, in particular, to the wonderful Rose Tomaszewska and Jon Riley.
Thanks to everyone at FSG in the United States: Mitzi Angel, Will Wolfslau and Sarah Scire.
Thanks to Courtney Hodell.
Thanks to my agents and everyone at WME: Claudia Ballard, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh and Cathryn Summerhayes.
Some of these stories have previously appeared on CBC radio and This American Life and in the National Post and Rookie magazine.
Research for this book included in part the following works: Julie Kavanagh’s Nureyev: The Life; Robert Gildea’s Marianne in Chains; Richard Vinen’s The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation; Susan Zuccotti’s The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews; Tom Douglas’s Canadian Spies: Tales of Espionage in Nazi-Occupied Europe During World War II; Mark Zuehlke’s Juno Beach: Canada’s D-Day Victory; and Angelo Jo Latham’s Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s.
Thanks to the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec for a writing grant for this book.
Always thank you to Paul Tough.
And a special shout-out to my favourite human being: Arizona O’Neill.
A NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather O’Neill is a contributor to This American Life, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. Her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, an international bestseller, won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Canada Reads competition in 2007, and was short-listed for seven prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction and Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award, and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her most recent novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, also a bestseller, was short-listed for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize and long-listed for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Encore Award, and was named one of the best books of the year by several publications. She lives in Montreal. You can sign up for email updates here.
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