Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.3Heather O'Neill
We had left Val des Loups right after my mother died. He would tell me everything about the place except anything that had to do with my mother. I’d given up asking about her, but I started pleading for more details about his own life in Val des Loups. He lit a cigarette, closed his eyes, and got a big smile on his face. Jules was able to smoke in slow motion when he was stoned. The smoke came out of his mouth like ribbons being pulled off a present. Then he started getting ridiculous.
“We had fried snowballs for dessert. I had one toy. It was a chair. My mother put a wig on it and told me to pretend it was a horse. I’d take my chair outside and ride it. I found a key chain with a rabbit’s foot on it and I kept it as a teddy bear. I named it Louis and it was my best friend. I brought it everywhere and talked to it. I had to keep him with me all the time. If my mother had found him, she would have used him to scrub the pots.”
I was waiting for him to continue but then realized that his head had slumped over to the side and he had passed out. I took the cigarette out of his hand and put it in a glass next to my bed. He was hot as hell, but I liked him there right next to me, stoned and not going anywhere. I felt protected and perfect. I could forget what Marika had said. Everything in the world was designed for a child and was safe. Even the little cockroaches in the wall were clockwork. They were made with the most beautiful tiny bolts from a factory in Malaysia, with little buttons underneath to switch them on and off.
the last time we were children
DESPITE THE CENTRAL HEATING of our new apartment, Jules started feeling lousy. He coughed all the time. He got the shakes at Burger King even though we were sitting as far away as possible from the door to avoid getting a draft. His fork, loaded with eggs, started trembling on its way to his mouth. He held it out for me to see and said, “Watch it go. Jesus, I am one pitiful bastard.”
He always said that he had terrible lungs that picked up any cold. Now he’d leave the oven blasting with the door open and sit on the couch in a ski jacket and long johns. He wore his overcoat outside even though nobody else was wearing theirs and it was spring and the air smelled like mud and wet dogs. It was embarrassing because I thought that only bag ladies did that.
When I got up one morning, Jules was sitting sunken down into the couch taking little baby sips from a bottle of cough syrup. He said he’d had a terrible bout of coughing, and now he had to sit still to recover. Later he shuffled off to the hospital up the hill from where we lived, one of those giant hospitals with soot-faced gargoyles out front. They said he had tuberculosis and couldn’t go home.
I just wanted to live in the hospital while he was staying there. Then I wanted to stay with Jules’s girlfriend, a rocker named Marie, but he said that she was too unstable. The smallest that a family can be is two members, and that was Jules and me.
WHEN I WAS A KID I had a tuxedoed clown that I used to hide around the house so that Jules would find him and get surprised. It was our big inside joke. He’d open his drawer to get some boxers and there he was. This was great fun until one day Jules came home in a bad mood and yanked the clown out of the mailbox so hard that his leg came off in his hand. Jules felt so bad that he stayed up that night and stitched the clown’s leg back on, but he sewed it on backward. After that, Jules and I called him Mr. Limp. With his foot pointing the wrong way, he became more precious to me. All of a sudden that doll had personality. Because I felt so sorry for him, I started taking him everywhere I went. One night I accidentally left him on the steps of our building, and when I came down the next morning there he still was, sitting against the wall in the exact same position I had left him in the night before, his back perfectly straight. I thought it was a miracle. “The maniacs of the night have spared Mr. Limp,” I’d told Jules.
I sat in the social worker’s car with my back as perfectly straight as Mr. Limp’s. I had just met her that morning at the hospital. She was taking me to a foster home in Val des Loups that I’d stayed in when I was a baby. I couldn’t remember the place at all. Jules said he’d had to leave me at the foster home sometimes when he needed to sleep for a couple days and couldn’t afford a babysitter.
I was always the kind of kid who was up for a road trip, but I didn’t like the feeling of traveling without my dad. He thought it would be good for me to be in Val des Loups since he grew up there. I found this hard to believe given the way he had always trashed the place.
As we drove, the social worker didn’t even bother trying to make conversation with me. I didn’t know if I could open up the windows all the way. I didn’t insist that we stop and look at the bulrushes. When I was with Jules, I used to pretend that they were lions’ tails and I would pet them as we drove slowly along, enjoying the feeling of their raspy softness. Instead of my little case, I had Jules’s suitcase that was covered with Chiquita banana stickers and Easter Seal stamps. Jules thought the stickers would make me look like a world traveler. All my stupid ugly things were in there: a couple T-shirts and jeans, a National Geographic magazine with an article about killer whales, my dolls, and a toothbrush.
THE FOSTER HOME WAS in a little town just outside of Val des Loups. Everyone there either worked in a factory or had just come out of prison. People meandered around looking out of place, like dogs without owners. There were a lot of trailers, and you could tell they hadn’t been moved in a long time because the grass had grown up around them. There were no tall buildings and the houses reminded me of milk cartons.
I wasn’t ready to go into the house all at once. The woman who ran the foster home told me her name was Isabelle, and she brought out an aluminum chair and let me sit in the front yard. Her husband brought me a cup of tea to drink. It was the beginning of spring, one of those days when you feel as if you should be wearing rubber boots even though it isn’t raining, and the sound of a seagull carries for miles and miles. The sky had the feeling of cold, wet underwear on a clothesline. The trees around there looked like garbage. They looked like a pile of old fences and car parts leaned up one against the other.
When I was starting to think they’d forgotten me outside, Isabelle came to the door and held it open until I stood up and walked inside.
THERE WERE FIVE BOYS LIVING in the foster home. As far as kids went, they were all losers. When I first came in, holding my suitcase, they were sitting watching an exercise show without doing the exercises. One boy was always pretending to have an epileptic fit. It was his gift, his big talent. Another boy would weigh himself before and after he went to the bathroom and record the results. He carried around a microscope that had been donated to the foster home.
“You don’t want to know what I am looking at,” he would say. No one else would touch the microscope.
I saw one boy pick up a discarded asthma inhaler on the ground and squirt it in his mouth.
“Not bad, not bad,” he said. “Kind of pepperminty.”
For the first week I was there, the other kids would get shy around me and look at the ceiling or down at the ground, as if they’d dropped something. Then, one morning, I told them about a game where you take a chair out to the middle of the road and just sit on it. When the cars honk at you, you have to act natural and pretend not to hear them. We sneaked a kitchen chair out and we all tried to sit on the chair at once. We were piled on the chair for fifteen minutes, screaming and pinching each other, and still no car came. Nonetheless, we decided that we’d had a lot of fun. We started taking the chair out in the middle of the road every day right after breakfast. When cars did come, they just got used to driving up on the grass and around us.
After that, I was part of all their sad little rituals. We threw all our tennis balls onto the top of the grocery store, and then there were no more tennis balls to play with.
Behind the house was a row of ten-speed bicycles that we were allowed to use. None of them seemed to be the right size for anybody and we were always having accidents on them. My bicycle was too tall for me and the only way to get o
“Why do you all fall off your bicycles so much?” Isabelle asked. “I swear to God, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not your fault, of course. It’s just the world has given you some bad luck. It’s good to remember if you try anything new. That you’re unlucky.”
EVERY NEW KID WHO SHOWED UP at the foster home had a few personal things that they were clinging on to. One boy used to have a little piece of felt that he would rub against his cheek. New kids always wanted to watch the TV shows they had watched at home. The only show Isabelle ever wanted to watch was Barney Miller. The change in TV shows made a lot of kids cry. When you are a kid, if you watch The Jeffersons with your family at seven o’clock, it seems like a natural phenomenon, like the sun setting. The universe is a strange, strange place when all of a sudden you can’t use your glass with the Bionic Woman on it anymore.
It was humiliating to have the same schedule as a bunch of strangers.
Also, nobody cared about you as an individual anymore. In class at my new school I wrote a story about a magician who accidentally pulled a tiger out of his hat instead of a rabbit. When he reached down into his top hat, the tiger bit off his arm. My dad would have said that all the other kids were writing fluff and that I was a genius, a real poet of the streets. He said that one time when I’d written a report called “Why the Dodo Is Extinct.” Walking home with my story that had a C+ on it, I missed Jules terribly all of a sudden.
Jules told me on the telephone that he also got very depressed and lonely in the hospital. He only got channel six on the television there. He said it was a terrible thing to have insomnia in a hospital. The only other people who were awake were the people who were brought in from accidents in the middle of the night. If they had just been sleeping, none of their tragedies would have happened. Jules said that he had met one man who had stepped out onto the fire escape for a smoke and then realized that it wasn’t the window that led to the fire escape at all.
I’d figured when I first showed up at Isabelle’s that after a short while everything was going to be better and Jules and I would be right back together. Then one night Jules called me and his voice was funny on the phone. He sounded like a little girl, or like he was imitating a cartoon character, and at first I wanted to laugh because I thought he was trying to make a joke. Then I realized that he was talking like that because he couldn’t help it. Jules told me that he was taking a turn for the worse and that he was going to be in the hospital longer than we’d thought, maybe even three months.
After I got that news, I started wearing a star sticker that I took off my math test and stuck on my forehead. I stole Isabelle’s eye shadow and mascara even though she’d told me not to. She said young girls looked prettier without makeup anyway. I started cursing more and throwing bottles against the train tracks. I did these things for no good reason. I didn’t know anyone whose father lived in a hospital.
AFTER I’D BEEN LIVING in Val des Loups for a month and a half, we were told that a new boy named Linus Lucas was being moved to our foster home from another home that had burned down.
Linus Lucas was fourteen years old, a number that made the spoons fall right out of our hands. Isabelle said that he could look out for us. She said it would be like we had a big brother. He could walk us to the pond and save us from drowning.
When Linus Lucas arrived, he wasn’t in shock the way kids who had just been separated from their families were. I’d shown up wincing like the spring breeze was giving me a black eye. In fact, Linus was in a good mood when he got out of the social worker’s car. He had his Walkman on and he was carrying a gold gym bag. I found out later that he’d been in foster homes since he was seven years old and that’s why he was so blasé when he showed up.
Linus wore a fedora and a skinny leather jacket with a fur collar. He was mulatto. He explained how his mother was white and his father was black. This was new to us. “His mother is white and his father is black,” we would say over and over when he wasn’t around. He had a long face and big freckles, only about five or six of them on either cheek. His lips were fat and in the shape of a heart. He was fourteen, but he was as tall as a man and he almost had a mustache.
His father had left the family to go live in Montreal. He rode the subway asking good-looking women what time it was. He’d given Linus a guitar pick with a silhouette of a naked woman on it a couple years ago, when he had seen him last. His mother had to go to Montreal on her own to find some work and then she was supposed to come back and get him, except that she never did.
He had spent his whole life in Val des Loups, and Montreal was like the Emerald City to him. The only person who really kept in touch with him was an uncle who was awaiting a court date in the city. His uncle would drive all the way out from Montreal to the foster home to come and chat with Linus. He’d always bring him cool things, like a pair of sunglasses with mirrors for lenses and music tapes.
Lucas would go into the bathroom to smoke. We could smell it all the way in our rooms. He also liked to pretend that he was a drug addict. He’d smoked pot a couple times in his life and he went on and on about how he needed to go into rehab now. He used to say that his orange juice was methadone. He walked around the house with a blanket wrapped around him.
“I’m going through withdrawal,” he said.
He wore his big mirror sunglasses to the breakfast table, drinking a big cup of coffee, his shiny lenses staring at nothing.
He said we always had to turn our cups upside down and shake them before we used them so that if there were any cockroaches in them, they would fall out. We didn’t ever see a cockroach there, but we started doing it just for fun. He made everything exciting, like this was the place to be, which is a strange feeling to have inside a foster home.
“If you want to buy heroin,” he said, “you call it brown or horse. You got some horse, my man? You have to learn the codes.” I’d personally never heard these terms used. “You have to hide your drugs in very original places. You can keep them in your houseplant or you could keep them in dolls.”
He was always taking the heads off my dolls to see if he could fit little baggies into their bodies.
He said that we should try and make Isabelle’s dog, Bone, deadly like a drug dealer’s dog. He thought it would be cool to have a ferocious dog that we could walk down the street on a leather strap, pulling like crazy and barking and yanking our arms out of their sockets.
He liked to talk about New York City all the time. New York City this and New York City that. In New York City nobody did anything stupid or they would get themselves shot.
“If this was the States, we’d all be shot by now.”
Everyone nodded their heads, solemnly acknowledging this fact.
WHEN LINUS LUCAS FOUND OUT that I was from Montreal—the big city—he named me his personal assistant. I told him a story about how a friend of my dad’s named Thumper had been pulled over by some police officers when he had LSD in the car and he’d swallowed all of it. Now sometimes Thumper would do strange things, like he would pick up our telephone and start talking even though it hadn’t rung. Thumper would refer to people as numbers for no reason. “Hello, XC-27-18,” he’d say. Linus thought it was the greatest story he’d ever heard. He gave me a backstage pass to his room that he made with a little piece of cardboard and a gold marker.
LINUS ALWAYS LISTENED to the same tape that his uncle had picked up for him in Montreal. He wouldn’t even play it in the boom box downstairs because he didn’t want anyone else listening. He would only play it on the Walkman that his uncle had given him. He said that we would not comprehend this type of music. I could only watch him as he grooved to the invisible beat and try to imagine what it could possibly sound like.
I walked into his room one night and flashed my little backstage pass. I saw the Walkman lying on his bed, so I asked him if I could listen to it. I expect
“All right,” he said to my surprise and handed it to me. “Get ready to have your mind blown, though. You might not enjoy the awakening. You’ll think all the kids are fools. Are you ready?”
“I think they’re all fools anyway.”
“Good answer. That’s ’cause your dad’s cool. I’m cool because my uncle’s cool. It’s something you just have to be born with.”
I sat on the bed and spread out my arms, waiting for the music to begin. When it started, it wasn’t what I had expected. I guess I’d expected a whole chorus of skinny girls screeching and moaning. Instead there was a man singing along to a piano. I think it was Stevie Wonder, although it could have been someone else. I closed my eyes and the roof was gone. I could see the stars while the piano tinkled. I could see Jupiter and it was blue, and Neptune was silver like a tennis ball sprayed silver. I could reach out and touch it, like cold water.
After that, when another kid in the foster home would ask me if I thought Linus was full of it, I would say, “No way! He’s the real thing!” I wouldn’t tell them what the music had sounded like, though, because that was a nice secret that I shared with Linus.
“IS MY UNCLE COMING TO VISIT me today?” Linus always asked Isabelle.
“How should I know?”
“Maybe he called and said he was coming by.”
“He calls and says he’s coming and then never shows up. And then he doesn’t call for a couple of days and shows up out of the blue. I’ve told you kids a million times, just because your family or nobody doesn’t come and visit you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not lovely people just the same.”
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes