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Lullabies for little cri.., p.4
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.4

           Heather O'Neill
 

  Linus Lucas’s uncle was a black man with long legs that stretched across the room. He wore sunglasses all the time and his Afro was pulled up like a lit matchstick. He always talked like he was an important blues singer who had been touring for months and was now being interviewed during a much-needed reprieve from the road. The two of them were sitting together on the couch discussing things one afternoon. I was curled up in an armchair, minding my own business.

  “Baby, I know your dad. Is he still selling weed?” he called out to me, loudly, so that everyone heard.

  “No, he’s in the hospital.”

  “So anyway,” he said. “I was down in the East End. I went to see Sarah, who works at a strip club there. It hasn’t wrecked her yet. I asked for a date when I saw her dancing. Those legs are one in a million. When you’ve looked at legs as many times as I have, you begin to distinguish between them quite easily, my man. These were fine legs. So anyway, I got this bag of terrible strong weed, not like the usual stuff I have, and we smoked the whole thing. People are always like, why the fuck do you sell such lousy goddamn weed, and I say if I was carrying some great stuff I would just smoke it all myself. It would be too irresistible. This stuff I’m holding is really truly unquestionable, just a smash-up success story on its own. But smoking it with her was like heaven. Now that is one fine mixture: women and pot. Better than ice cream and pie. When she said sweet things in my ear, they would slide right down into my heart.”

  His uncle could just go on and on. He was like an encyclopedia of sleazy things and Linus Lucas drooled over every word.

  LINUS WAS COMING TO THE CONCLUSION that just because I was from Montreal and my dad was cool didn’t necessarily mean I was cool. Once he caught me with my face up against the neighbor’s chicken coop, saying, “Hey, girl, aren’t you a pretty thing, come here! I like your soft feathers. Sexy!” He told me that I had to get out of the country fast. Another time I was collecting a paper bag full of white stones from someone’s driveway, which I thought would impress him for some reason. The bottom of the bag ripped open and they all fell out all over the kitchen floor and Linus just shook his head.

  Isabelle gave me a box full of dolls and Linus came in the room and held up each one in the air, trying to decide whether or not he would sleep with her if she were a real person. He said that if you put Spanish fly in a lady’s drink, she’d do anything for you. He said that he would like me if I was older, but if he so much as looked at me for a minute straight, he’d end up in jail.

  I thought I’d be the perfect girlfriend for Linus, if he’d wait for me a couple years. I was only just twelve. I stood up on a telephone book on my tiptoes and pulled my belt really tight to see what I’d feel like when I was old enough to date Linus. But then Linus went and started dating a girl named Brandy who was the most ridiculous girl in town. She never said anything; instead she’d just stare at people. She wasn’t attractive at all, but she had big boobs. She wore a sweater with a picture of a woman walking a poodle on it and there were real bows attached to the sweater on the poodle’s ears. She had the tiniest shorts that I had ever seen. They were like a little heart-shaped purse for dolls. You couldn’t wear shorts like that in the city, or you would cause a car accident. She and Linus would sit in the living room and make out like crazy with their mouths wide, wide open.

  One time, he put her up on his shoulders and pretended that they were at a rock concert.

  “Did you ever see Twisted Sister in concert?” he asked me.

  “No.”

  “Did you ever see Judas Priest in concert?”

  “No.”

  “You don’t know what’s going on.”

  ISABELLE DROVE US INTO JOLIETTE one day so she could visit her sister. She made a big deal about us going to visit our “auntie.” We knew that her sister couldn’t stand the sight of us. She was always telling Isabelle that we were going to murder her in her sleep one night. After we said our awkward hellos, Isabelle left us all in this really big park that we liked while she and her sister went to do their hair. There were lottery tickets all over the ground in that park. That was because the drug dealers used to wrap up heroin in bits of old lottery cards folded into flaps. Before Jules had gone to the hospital, there had been a lot of lottery tickets under his bed. The seagulls in that park were so used to being fed that they attacked you if you took out a sandwich or even if you stuck your hand in your pocket. They came down out of the sky to check us out. They reminded me of a scene from a movie I’d seen, where a flurry of hands wearing white gloves were applauding at the opera.

  We lay on the grass outside the zoo, criticizing a mime who was wearing a tuxedo and standing perfectly still in front of us. We were insulting him under our breath and laughing really, really hard. He couldn’t walk away because he was pretending to be a statue, so it was really a good time.

  Right about then, I noticed a whole group of kids walking straight toward us. They had this angry look about them, as if they had been falling off swings all day. A pack of masochists, that’s what Jules would have called them. They looked right at Linus Lucas, who was sitting by himself, hitting the ground with two sticks as if he was playing the drums, while listening to his Walkman. One of the kids tripped right on top of him on purpose.

  It was obvious from his attitude that the boy was the leader of this gang. He stood back up, and instead of apologizing he just got a mean look in his eyes. Linus stood up and dusted himself off. The boy blew into an empty Chiclets box casual-like while staring at Linus. Chiclets had freckles all over every bit of his body and had bushy dark eyebrows. He wasn’t even dressed cool. He had a pink T-shirt and striped shorts and he was wearing old men’s sandals. The boy next to him was wearing girl sunglasses and one of his arms was shriveled up.

  “Why were you sitting in my way?” Chiclets demanded.

  “I didn’t see you coming,” Linus answered.

  “Well, I’m still going to have to sue you, my man!”

  “And why are you wearing that stupid bandanna so tight?” asked the boy with the shriveled-up arm. “It’s going to cut off all the circulation to your brain.”

  Linus just stared at them, not knowing what to say. His face was taking on that expression you get right before you cry: all wavy and sad. I knew that the trick to save yourself from this type of situation was to act totally crazy; to act fearless, like you would try to poke one of their eyes out with a library card if they came any closer. He should have called them all motherfuckers by now. All the kids in the gang moved in closer around Linus, encircling him. They started flailing their arms outward and accusing him of having assaulted their dear friend.

  “Give us your Walkman, man, and we’ll forget about the whole thing,” said Chiclets.

  “Yeah! Or give us a hundred dollars! Motherfucker! Motherfucker! Motherfucker!” the shrivel-armed boy chanted.

  “My uncle gave me this Walkman,” Linus said, making the sorry mistake of being polite.

  One of the boys started kicking his legs up karate style and the rest of them joined in, making those whiny martial arts noises. Then Chiclets punched Linus right in the face. The other boys started punching him too, and we all put our hands over our faces, not looking and hoping it would end soon. I peeked and I couldn’t see Linus. All the other boys had surrounded him and were throwing punches down at him. They looked like old women going through a bag of clothes at a community center.

  When Chiclets finally got Linus’s Walkman, the whole gang ran away right out of the park. We all sat down next to Linus, who was lying facedown on the ground and crying. We were very quiet because we didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t even look at us. His face was covered in blood and he couldn’t open one of his eyes. All the kids from the foster home stepped back because his nose was bleeding. The blood that was coming from his nose was mixed up with snot. I was afraid to get down on my knees and hug him.

  “Oh, my God, that’s so nasty,” they all whispered.

  THE NEXT DAY
THERE WAS a huge purple pouch under Linus’s eye. It made my own eyes water to look at him. The stitches on his lips were big and swollen. They reminded me of train tracks, but I didn’t tell him. He was allowed to stay home from school so that no one had to look at his face. When I came home from school, he was sitting on the sofa watching soap operas.

  That night things got even worse for Linus. His uncle showed up at the foster home with his hair all over the place and his clothes looking like he’d just pulled them out of the laundry hamper. I guessed right off the bat that he was the kind of guy who yelled at you when you hurt yourself.

  “I got that Walkman for you and you just let some kids take it away from you!” he screamed at Linus, not saying hello or anything. “Shit, you remind me of your father. He doesn’t have any shame whatsoever. When I see him on the street, he always wants to borrow five dollars. You’re going to start acting like that too now? You have to act like a man! Didn’t I ever tell you what to do if you get in a fight? Haven’t you ever watched a movie?”

  “I think you’re scaring the children, sir,” Isabelle said.

  “Scaring the children! Look at the goddamn reality of this situation. His face is what’s goddamn scaring them. You’re going to be ugly for the rest of your life. And it’s not like you were a pretty boy before. At least the kid who hit you went and earned himself that Walkman. You can’t appreciate it because it was handed to you on a silver platter. A spoiled motherfucker, that’s what you are. I want you to make some money and pay me for that Walkman. I bought that downtown.”

  “I could do that after I move in with you,” Linus said in a small voice.

  His uncle looked terrified for the briefest second before going back to being enraged.

  “You know how we were talking about you coming to live with me in the city after I tied this legal business up? Well, I don’t think that you can handle it. You’re just too spoiled to come and live with me.”

  That night I hung on to the door frame of Linus’s room and leaned in. He was lying there reading Stranger in a Strange Land. He looked a lot younger without his music, just sitting there and minding his own business.

  “Are you all right?” I asked.

  He sat up on the side of his bed with his legs dangling and looked at me sadly.

  “Yeah, but I hate my uncle and I always will.”

  I went into the room and sat next to Linus on the bed. I put my hand on his shoulder. I was always surprised at how soft other people were. I thought that I felt his heartbeat, although it could have just been my own.

  The other kids were disillusioned with Linus after they’d seen him sobbing in the park. Now he seemed ordinary and just a loser like anybody else. One of the boys ripped up his backstage pass to Linus’s room. The kids started saying that Linus was unlucky, and they’d make the sign of the cross after he passed and wasn’t looking.

  “I like men with black eyes,” I said. “They look like raccoons.”

  “Kind of like Alice Cooper?”

  “Yes, like that.”

  4

  DURING THE FIRST WARM DAYS OF MAY, Zachary showed up at the foster home. He was from Montreal and was twelve, like me. He was the saddest kid I had ever met, pale and really small for his age, with a big round beauty mark on his cheek. His curly blond hair was long for a boy. I thought he looked a little like Marilyn Monroe might have when she was twelve. He had a pack of Starburst that he divided up between us. He didn’t even keep one for himself because he was so confident that his mother was going to come and get him.

  Zachary’s mother went to a sewing school downtown and she’d made him a school bag out of different squares of material. He was carrying it with him on the subway when he fell asleep on one of the scratchy cushions on the seats. He woke up and his mother was gone. He stayed on the subway all the way until the last stop, until someone figured out that he was lost and called the police. Zachary was convinced that his mother was still out there looking for him.

  He always packed everything he owned in the morning, as if a horn would honk and he would only have a second to get his stuff together, because the meter would be running in the cab and his mom would be waiting for him in it. After he had been staying with us a week, Isabelle asked, “So what movie do you guys want to see on Saturday?” Zachary said that he wasn’t going to be here, so it wasn’t right for him to vote.

  Zachary cried at the end of any TV show, even Happy Days. He threw up after being on the merry-go-round. He always came out of the bathtub with shampoo still in his hair. He couldn’t tell the time, and if you teased him about it, he got all upset.

  We were fascinated by Zachary in the same way that we’d been taken with Linus and his hipster ways when he first showed up. Linus had permanently retired to his room, where he practiced cursive and read Stranger in a Strange Land, never seeming to get past page twenty. Zachary would ask if Linus wanted to play and we’d all shake our heads to indicate he was to be left alone. Linus Lucas told us that he was suffering from depression, an emotion that we were too immature to understand.

  I had my own room in the group home since I was the only girl and all the boys were perverted. One boy claimed to have had sex with seventy-eight women. Another boy would call out, “What’s behind door number three?” and pull down his zipper. Isabelle knew Zachary would never do anything like that, so he was given the empty bed next to mine.

  Zachary and I actually tried talking about Montreal, but we didn’t seem to know any of the same places. Every time I asked him where he had lived, he said a different street name. All he knew was that there was a butcher next to where he lived and his mother didn’t like the smell so she made him hold his nose when they passed.

  “My mother and I are vegetarians,” he said.

  “So you don’t eat hamburgers?”

  “No, we eat hamburgers.”

  “So how are you vegetarians?”

  “We just are.”

  He would fall asleep as soon as he touched anything soft. His hair was like baby chicks and it always reminded me of dandelions when it was sticking out of the top of his blanket.

  One night it was cold outside because there was a thunderstorm coming. Even though it was May, it felt as if I was lying on top of a pile of snow. I tried to hold myself rolled up into a little ball under the bedcover to keep warm, but it didn’t do any good. Finally, I got out of my bed and climbed under the covers with Zachary. That night I fell into the deepest sleep I had ever had. Sleeping next to Zachary was like sleeping in the middle of a cherry pie that had just come out of the oven. No wonder he was so mellow every night! I figured that he was warm like that because he still had his mother’s love in him.

  The next day it was raining outside so we all stayed in. We usually didn’t mind the rain and liked to sink our sneakers into the mud, but that day the raindrops were the size of nickels and dimes. We were all wearing matching sweaters that had come in a box. Zachary and I were in our room. He was only wearing his sweater and underwear; he liked to wander around half dressed. He pointed out his birthmark that covered half of his leg and told me that his mother said it was beautiful and reminded her of chocolate and made her want to bite it.

  From what I had gathered about the world, you couldn’t trust what mothers said. A mother would tell her kid that crossed eyes were beautiful and made you look like a scientist. If you saw someone walking around in their rubber boots even though it was sunny outside, you knew their mother thought those rubber boots were just about the cutest thing she’d ever seen.

  Linus was walking down the hall and took a look into our room. He was wearing the same sweater as us. Since the sleeves were too short on him, he wore them pushed up to his elbows.

  “What are you two doing?” he asked.

  We’d actually been trying to play an adventure board game. We were inventing the rules as we went along because we were too lazy to actually read the instructions. Since our version of the game made no sense, we were about to give up
on it.

  “Can you teach us how to play this board game?” Zachary asked.

  “Board games were invented to keep people from thinking so they won’t plan a revolution.”

  “Oh,” said Zachary, and he quickly kicked the game under the bed.

  Noticing the effect he was having, Linus strutted into the room and sat on a chair.

  “You want me to show you how to draw a panther?” Linus asked Zachary.

  “Sure!” Zachary said, rushing around the room in his underwear, looking for a pencil and paper.

  Linus drew a picture of what looked to me like a regular black cat, except with slanted eyes and crooked teeth. Zachary exclaimed that it was a thing of beauty. That morning, Zachary was in awe of Linus Lucas. The next day he let Linus draw a dragon on the back of his jacket. It was the ugliest dragon I’d ever seen. It looked more like a praying mantis. Linus had a can of gold spray paint that he had shoplifted from a hardware store a while ago and he’d spray-painted his running shoes. Zachary begged him to do the same to his ratty old sneakers. So off they went to the backyard to do the deed. They laid the sneakers down on the ground. Zachary stood back as if they might explode and screamed excitedly when Linus started spraying them. In an effort to do a complete job, Linus spray-painted all the grass around the sneakers too. I went out to check out the damage and Zachary was tiptoeing around in his new golden sneakers trying to do break dancing moves. The ground was silvery, as if some stars had fallen there. It was the first time I had seen Linus smile in a long time.

  A BAKERY USED TO BRING DAY-OLD SWEETS to the foster home. Sometimes they brought us fancy cakes that hadn’t been picked up. One day we got a cake that had “Happy Birthday Zachary” written across it in turquoise icing. There were tiny plastic birds and big blue roses all over it and it looked very expensive to us.

  “Look, Zachary, it’s a cake especially for you,” Isabelle said.

  Zachary was so delighted about that cake that he started acting as though he were some crazy duke, throwing a dinner party. He laughed and laughed as he ran around the table, helping Isabelle set up the glasses for milk. She let him cut the cake, naturally, and he was very fair about dividing it up evenly.

 
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