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Lullabies for little cri.., p.31
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.31

           Heather O'Neill

  I had been making my own decisions for a few months and God knows I had gotten myself into enough trouble. I needed someone else to make the decisions, and it suddenly seemed as if Jules was the perfect person to do that. He was completely discombobulated, but he was my parent, after all.

  He sat back down next to me. He didn’t say anything at first, and I just looked at him closely. He had always been pale, but now his skin was a darker, more reddish color, and there were hard creases in his skin when he smiled. There were two big dark half-moons under his eyes. He would have to sleep for about a year straight to get rid of those bags. He had always looked young for his age, and waitresses had almost always carded him when he ordered beer. I doubted that would happen anymore.

  “I’m always going to be a misfit,” Jules said and sighed. “There’s always going to be something wrong with me. But not you. You’re really smart. You could go to school or to university. You have a good sense of humor. And look at your tiny little wrists and look at your fingernails. I’ve never been able to get over how cute you were since the day you were born.”

  His compliments were like little cupcakes all lined up in a window. Each one made me a little stronger. I loved listening to him convince me that I deserved better. Now that this was said, things would be good for us. Being apart from him hadn’t been the worst thing; the worst thing had been not knowing if he cared or not. I thought I could start over again and he would be proud of me. I was going to get to be whatever I wanted to be. Jules held my hand in his. His fingers were all stained yellow and brown from cigarettes, and mine looked white and small in comparison. It seemed true that one of us could be saved.

  “Do you want to see an authentic fossil?” I asked Jules.

  I reached into my jean pocket and pulled out a bone that I’d been carrying around. Xavier had gotten it from a museum he’d visited while on a vacation. When he’d shown it to me, I told him that it must be the fossil of some sort of primitive butterfly. Xavier said it was nothing but the fossil of a leaf and was probably only five years old.

  Jules pulled himself up when I took it out. He looked at me just like a little kid and he smiled. He held up the fossil for inspection.

  “This is some sort of fish with wings,” Jules said confidently. “It’s some sort of prehistoric fish that probably evolved into what we are now! See, these are its little stick legs that eventually became our tibia and our toes and our joints. This little thing could have descended into an astronaut or soul singer. This little great-grandpa is someone who wants to express himself. You can tell.”

  “Maybe it was a prehistoric butterfly?” I suggested.

  “I think that you’re absolutely right,” Jules exclaimed. “I think that’s what it was. And it must have had really beautiful colors. Perhaps colors that do not even exist anymore. Colors that just disappeared right off the spectrum.”

  Jules had dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He got all his information off of what people said on park benches. Sometimes he listened to the news on the radio, but mostly he turned the station to hear music. And yet he knew all types of beautiful things. He knew enough to teach me something. His parents hadn’t taught him anything about the world. We had conjectured upon the nature of the world and had reinvented it together.

  Jules and I were tiny people. We were delicate. We were almost destroyed. We were vulnerable. Like nerds in a school yard of bullies, we could have traded our stamps and cards of extinct animals. That’s the kind of people we would be if our situation were different.

  “Let me get my bags, Baby.”

  He left the cafeteria, and I saw him disappear up the stairs at the end of the hall. He was back down in less than three minutes. His bags consisted of a red school satched overstuffed with clothes.

  “Do you have to check out of here?” I asked.

  “I guess so!” he said.

  He stood up on a chair and called out to no one in particular, “My stay at this fine establishment is going to have to terminate sooner than I thought, I’m afraid. It’s been lovely, however. Business has called me elsewhere. Don’t worry. I didn’t steal any of the rats.”

  I had a strange feeling of freedom as I stepped outside the Mission. For the past couple of months, every time I stepped out of anywhere, I’d always had to check if the coast was clear. Like a rat, I couldn’t just go wherever I wanted. I’d been afraid of the cops, but mostly I’d been afraid of Alphonse, who was much more vigilant than any police officer could be. He caught me hanging out at the skating rink once, when I was supposed to be working, and he had yelled at me for hours. Walking down the street, I really felt as if I weighed a hundred pounds lighter now that he was gone. I was afraid that I would eventually feel guilty about the way he died and that I would feel even more guilty about not having felt guilty. I had just the inkling of that emotion and it was deeply unsettling. I tried to avoid that emotion the way that you try to avert the gaze of a creepy person who’s staring at you on the bus.

  The bus station was a fifteen-minute walk uphill. Once we were there, we had to wait at the ticket booth for a while because Jules was trying to convince the cashier that I was under eleven in order to get me half fare. I blinked my eyes and tried to look innocent, although that might have only succeeded in making me look older. Finally, the cashier gave in and offered me the reduced fare. Together the tickets came to eighteen dollars, which was perfect because all he had was a twenty. We sat on the bench near the door that the bus would eventually pull up to. Jules lit up a cigarette that he held in a cupped hand so that no one would notice.

  “Everything’s going to be okay,” he said.

  “Yes, sir,” I said and smiled.

  He put his hand on my head and messed up my hair. Ever since I was little, he had said that I looked best with my hair messed up.

  WE DIDN’T EVEN GET ONE good last look at the city as we were leaving it. I wasn’t interested. You could put a blindfold on me and I would be able to find my way around. Who needed to take a look? Everything was combat colors. Camouflage. The colors of a dirty aquarium that needed to have its glass cleaned.

  The bus wasn’t full at all. We sat together, even though both of us had such long legs that they were getting in each other’s way.

  “Moving away from civilization,” Jules said, and he winked at me. He took out a comb, and as I remember it, he combed his hair for the rest of the hour-long trip.

  It always surprised me how after driving for twenty minutes out of Montreal you were already in the sticks. The woods are right there, all around the city, like wolves at the edge of a campfire.

  All the trees looked like the tufts you pulled out of hairbrushes. They were like a child’s drawing of lightning or the veins on an old man’s arm. It was better not to think about those trees or you would get lost over how many of them there were. The forest ended, and the bus passed by some farms and barren fields. I saw a horse standing alone in a field, a little shack painted blue, and a tractor with no one in it. Things were scattered randomly in the landscape like a giant’s child hadn’t put his toys away. There was something pretty and peaceful about it all.

  What could you do for a living out here? And what would you do if your car broke down? My dad and I had never had a car, and all that I really knew about them was that they broke down. Maybe when your car broke down, you just gave up, walked into the woods, dug yourself a grave and jumped in.

  I realized as we got farther from the city that I was going to have to go through withdrawal. As soon as I thought of it, I started experiencing some of the symptoms. I started to feel all cooped up in my seat and couldn’t get comfortable.

  I started thinking about how a neighbor of ours once bought a wolf hybrid on the reservation. I’d see the wolf being walked down the street, and it had this strange lilt, like all the bones in its body had been broken. Even if it wasn’t biting throats, eating babies, running across fields, and worrying about his ass getting shot, you could tell the wolf was
thinking about those things. It was killing it to think about them all day. That’s sort of how I suddenly felt, as if I was moving farther and farther away from my element, from everything that made me feel good.

  My skin was itching as if I’d been in a pool all day and the chlorine was drying it out. I didn’t like the way that my ribs were fitting into me, as if there wasn’t room enough for them in my torso. I wanted the hell out of my body. Then I started feeling my own heartbeat, something which could just about drive me crazy. I was able to hear a woman breathing three seats behind us. I wanted to go back there and put my hand over her face.

  I tried not to sigh. I hated how people going through withdrawal always sighed over and over again. They were trying to get people to have sympathy for their condition. But it wasn’t a real sickness. There wasn’t actually anything wrong with you. Your body would fake any kind of symptom to get another fix. Once you give your body that kind of pleasure, it gets to have a mind of its own.

  I started to think about irritating things. I remembered one time when I had got my leg trapped between the rungs in the bedboard and couldn’t get it out. I thought about a pair of jeans I had that were too tight. I thought about the tin cans we would get from the food bank that had lost their labels, and so we had no idea what was inside them. I squeezed my eyes shut to try and not think about those cans. These were thoughts that wouldn’t normally bother you, but right then, they were making me insane.

  I remembered this one time that I had drunk too much at the park and made myself sick. They say that you can’t remember pain, but you can when you go through withdrawal. My stomach started reliving the exact pain I’d experienced that day, puking into the bushes.

  I tried to look out the window to distract myself from my imagination, but it didn’t help. I started thinking about how one night I was sitting on the bed in my underwear reading and Alphonse had come and lain next to me. He had pulled the strap of my underwear and then let it go, snapping it hard against my hip. I had tried to ignore him, but he kept doing it over and over, and each time, as my skin had become more tender, it had hurt a little more. Finally, I had to cry out and beg for him to stop. Now on the bus, I started to feel the burning on my hip again. But I closed my eyes because I knew that this time, if I had patience, the pain would go away eventually. Alphonse was dead and the pain wasn’t real anymore. The poison was coming out of me in the form of irritating and unbearable thoughts and memories. I would have to think about these things one by one. When I was done with them, I would be done with junk and with Alphonse.

  I started shifting closer to Jules in my chair, like a little kid watching a horror film. I stuck my hand into his pocket and started shaking the change inside it. I took out the lady mouse from my own pocket. I kept running its tail under my nose as if it were a mustache. I opened Jules’s hand and made the mouse dance on his palm.

  Jules didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with me acting that way. He had told me before that when I was a baby, there were times when he had thought that I was possessed. He said I was always trying to run out into the middle of the street and would lie down on the floor in a subway car. He didn’t seem to know that all babies did these things. Anyhow, I guess nothing could surprise him now.

  “I was driving the car when your mother died, you know,” Jules said suddenly.

  I sat up, startled, forgetting all about dope, and stared at Jules.

  “We were driving into town. You were in her arms and I was driving. I was looking at her because I was always staring at her; I couldn’t help it. Her head hit the dashboard really hard, but you were okay because you were curled up in her arms. They said it wasn’t my fault because the other driver was drinking and driving, which was worse than driving without a license, which was what I was doing.”

  This was the first time he had told me the truth about my mother. Before, she’d been a little make-believe thing. I’d pictured her as a pen-and-ink drawing of a little girl in a black dress like in an Edward Gorey cartoon I’d seen once. When I was growing up, Jules and I had been living in a bit of a fantasy world, which had been a lot of fun. But now it felt good to deal with consequences because it meant there was nothing to be afraid of. I suddenly seemed, for the first time since I’d started shooting up, like a real flesh-and-blood person.

  “Manon was so sweet,” Jules said. He had a little trouble looking at me. I had a feeling he was just going to tell me everything now and get it all off his chest. He was going to allow me to be angry with him or hate him or forgive him. “She was really the most beautiful girl I ever met. They say that you can’t truly be serious about someone when you’re only fifteen. But I haven’t ever loved any woman since. I think that your heart can be really old and wise at fifteen. Especially if you’ve been through some shit together.”

  “You loved her,” I said quietly, so that maybe he wouldn’t even hear it. It was the first time he had ever started talking about my mother without me begging him to. I knew her name was Manon Tremblay from my birth certificate, but Jules never referred to her by her name. I’d never heard her called simply Manon. I whispered it under my breath. Your mouth was left in the shape of a kiss when you finished saying that name.

  “We liked to go and drink beer together. She was always laughing when she drank. She used to make me swear over and over again that I would never leave her. She really liked music. We sang all the time. We thought that at least one of us was going to be famous.”

  “What song did she like to sing?”

  “You know that song ‘La Fille Partie’?”

  “How does that go?”

  “Quand elle était tellement petite et tellement jolie, on croyait en elle avec beaucoup d’espoir. On la chassait dans les parcs et près de l’école. Mais c’est fini et tout est completement perdu. La fille qui est partie avec mon argent, avec mon auto…. When she was so small and pretty, we only could think of her with hope. We chased her around the park and by the school. But when it was over, everything was lost. The girl who has left with my money and my car.”

  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine her singing the song. And for a moment I actually thought I heard her physical voice somewhere.

  “She was so pretty,” Jules continued, with his eyes closed. “Even though she had to wear boys’ clothes all the time. She was the only girl in a family of seven. She used to wear shirts with her brothers’ names on them. They didn’t know what to do with a girl.”

  “How did you meet her? God! You must have been in love with her at first sight!”

  “Her dad used to sell firewood door-to-door in his truck. He’d bring her along so that people would offer him a little extra.”

  “She was unlucky, just like me. I’m surprised she carried you to full term. She was always falling down. She had a habit of falling down stairs. I know what you’re going to say. Who has such a habit? But every time we were going down a flight of stairs together, all of a sudden she’d be bang bang bump falling down the stairs.”

  “How come you didn’t get along with the rest of her family?”

  “She was a Tremblay.” Jules sat up all animated and swung his hands around while describing them, as if to imply that they were nuts. “They were really backwoods people. I mean, we are out in the woods too, but not as far. The Tremblays are always marrying their cousins. They don’t know about the rest of the world. They have as much in common with the birds and the raccoons as they do with other people. If they murder each other, nobody will hear about it. There’s one birth certificate for every three people. They let nine-year-olds smoke and drive the trucks. Their accents are so lousy and low-class no one can understand them. Your mother, I could barely make out a word she was saying. If anyone from the French embassy came and heard what we’re doing to the French language out here, I don’t know what they’d say.”

  “But you two didn’t give a shit, right! You got together and fell madly in love.”

  “Yes, and I was so happy when she
got pregnant.”

  “And was she?”

  “She was messed up and paranoid about the whole thing at first. Her family didn’t want her around at all once she got pregnant. They stopped talking to her and everything. When she started to show a bit—she was skinny, just like you, and her stomach just started sticking straight out—well, then her dad kicked her out and she came to live with me. She was so unhappy to leave. I had to drag her kicking and screaming out of her house. She was holding on to the door frame and I was pulling and pulling on her like crazy. She was just supposed to go in to get a suitcase, but she wouldn’t come back out.”

  I stared at Jules, feeling sort of traumatized by this, but he smiled peacefully, as if it was all part of a good memory.

  “Why was she so sad to go? I mean, why wasn’t she happy to go live with you if you guys were so in love?”

  “Your mother was a big shot because there were so many people in her family, and they all lived in the woods together. You couldn’t start something with one of them without twelve or thirteen cousins and uncles coming running up. Everyone was afraid. All you have out here is family, and they had just a huge family. She was a good mother, though.”

  “Like how do you mean? She kissed me all the time and stuff like that?”

  “Sometimes she’d forget where she put you. She left you on the checkout counter one time. She put you in the basket of her bicycle, like you were a loaf of bread. She was a crazy Frenchman through and through,” Jules said, laughing. “Qu’est-ce que je peux dire?”

  “Did she love me?”

  “Yes, my God! She loved you. She treated you like a doll. But if she would have lived, she would have loved you properly. Elle etait seulement une bebe, comme toi, mon amour. But of course she loved you. How could anyone not?”

  I think it was the first time anyone had told me that my mother had loved me. I felt excited, like when you sneak up onto the roof of a building and you can feel the earth falling through space. There was one thing that I thought I actually might remember about her. Maybe Jules just told me the story and I stole it as a memory, but I didn’t think so. One night Jules made a drawing of a face on a yellow balloon for my mom and me. He kept pushing it up into the air toward the ceiling with his fingertips. I thought that the moon had come into our room from the window. My parents were batting it up in the air with the palms of their hands every time it almost landed on the ground. If we let the moon land on the ground, it would be destroyed. I had always thought that the moon was alive and smiling up in the sky and that any day it might sail in through your window and ask you to keep it from falling.

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