Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.5Heather O'Neill
“Blue is my favorite color! Isn’t this cake good! It’s ice cream flavor, I think!”
ZACHARY WASHED OFF THE PLASTIC BIRDS from the cake and kept them under his mattress. That night, all Zachary could talk about was things that his mother had done for his birthday. One time she had made him a cake that was shaped like a cat with licorice whiskers. He wanted to kiss everyone good night. We all stayed up late passing kisses back and forth until Isabelle said enough was enough.
As I lay in the dark, I knew everyone was thinking about their mothers. I wanted to think about my mother, too, but I couldn’t come up with much. Jules never liked talking about her. All I knew was that sometimes she went to the library when she wanted to cry. Also, she didn’t snore. If you put your ear right up to her mouth, you wouldn’t hear a single thing. I thought of her sleeping face and how it must have looked as peaceful as the moon. When Jules gets better and takes me home, I thought, I’m going to ask him to watch me sleep and see if I look like her.
WELL, BABY IS COMPLETELY OUT of her mind,” I overheard Isabelle saying to the social worker.
They were both sitting in the living room drinking coffee. I stood in the hallway quietly, listening.
“God bless her, but the child is wild. It’s not her fault. But she’ll never be normal. At least let her enjoy her childhood. You read the report, didn’t you? There was rotten food in the fridge, clothes all over the floor. She came here wearing one of her father’s T-shirts and his baseball cap. You just wanted to throw out all the things that she had in her suitcase and give her a chance to start all over again. And the child’s fingernails were long. Who ever heard of long fingernails on a twelve-year-old? And she smelled!”
“Is she worse than Rodney?”
“Rodney? No, God no. She doesn’t need psychiatric help. I’m just saying that she needs a couple extra things like a sweater or some new toys of her own.”
Later that afternoon, Isabelle came into my room with a box filled with girls’ toys. I pulled out a blue pony with long yellow hair and pink seashells on its butt.
“Who was Rodney?” I asked her.
“A little boy who lived here and used to wear swimming goggles all the time. Who’s been talking to you about Rodney?”
“You mentioned him to the social worker.”
“Lord! Don’t worry what I say to the social worker. I have to make you sound like a real sorrowful case to be able to get you more things. See, I got you a pretty pony, didn’t I?”
I guess it was worth having your self-esteem destroyed if there was a free toy involved. Isabelle told me that she was trying to get us a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine. I didn’t want to hear what she was going to say about me to get it. I sat next to her on the bed and leaned on her as I played with the pony’s hair. I loved the way that Isabelle could make you feel so lazy.
AND THEN, WHEN IT SEEMED LIKE an impossibility, Isabelle informed me that I was going to live with Jules again. His decision to come and get me took me by surprise. I’d become used to living at the foster home and had given up on looking forward to his return. The morning of his arrival, I packed my little suitcase and went down to the kitchen to wait for him. Isabelle hugged me about a million times, which made me feel weird, as if she expected something bad to happen. She also called me every pet name in her repertoire: “lollipop, little fool, kitty cat, bumblebee….”
I sat around the kitchen table with the other kids. We sat there and sighed and said, “Yep, yep, yep.” We had sat around the table muttering like this two times before when kids were transferred to other foster homes. We thought it was the thing to do. Isabelle gave me my going away present early. I opened up the envelope she handed me and took out the card. Each of the boys in the home had signed it. Someone had signed Hulk Hogan. “Yeah, right!” I said, and everyone laughed. Inside the card was a five-dollar bill with the words “I love you” written on it with a blue pen. I wondered how I could spend a bill that had the words “I love you” written on it. Somehow I knew that I would, on movies or comic books. Love is a big and wonderful idea, but life is made up of small things. As a kid, you have nothing to do with the way the world is run; you just have to hurry to catch up with it.
When Jules drove up in his friend Lester’s car, I was really excited but embarrassed at the same time. I didn’t want my two homes colliding. For some reason, I didn’t want Jules to see how I felt about this place. I wanted him to think I was above the kids here and had sat alone in my room reading for the four months he had been gone. I was worried that he was going to stand around drinking coffee and getting the scoop from Isabelle about everything that had gone on. What if he saw the name tags that Isabelle had put on the backs of all our chairs because of all the fistfights we had at supper time over who would get to sit next to her? Jules would think I was so lame.
When he finally drove up into the driveway, he didn’t even cut the engine. He waited for me to run outside and meet him. Isabelle walked me out, her arm squeezing me to her side. For a second, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted her to let me go. Isabelle was very good about making me not worry about things. For instance, she would write the phone number of the foster home on the inside of my coat in case I got lost. The nights at Isabelle’s house were very quiet. I could really fall into a deep sleep because I knew I would be able to sleep until the morning. Jules used to get me out of bed in the middle of the night to help throw towels all over the kitchen floor because the sink had flooded. Once he woke me up to look at a bill because he thought that he had been overcharged.
Jules shook hands with her without saying anything and then jumped back in the car. One of my rag dolls fell from my arms and onto the driveway. I had to step back out to get it.
“Come on, you little bitch,” I whispered.
I closed the car door and Jules pulled back onto the road. As we drove away, I started to wish I’d done something dramatic, like thrown my arms around the other kids and Isabelle and wept. I should have done something I could remember my whole life. Something that would signal the end of an era. I was driving off to a real home. I tried not to think about those I’d left behind.
I shoved my suitcase over the seats into the back. I couldn’t put my feet down because there was a box of records under the front seat. The records all seemed to be of bands I had never heard of.
“Where did you get these?” I asked.
“Someone gave them to me. They’re rare, I think. There might be a couple that are worth a lot of money.”
I rested my feet up on the dashboard. I had on a pair of bright green sneakers with yellow stripes down the sides and they caught Jules’s attention right away.
“Where did you get those?”
“My other pair got too small so the social worker brought me these.”
“The social worker! How dare she have the audacity! They look like Jamaican shoes. They’re pot dealer shoes.”
“They are not!”
“They are one hundred percent Saint Henry shoes.”
I started to try and sit Indian style to hide my feet.
“Hey, I’m just kidding,” Jules said. “You look great! You look like you’ve been eating really well. And, man, did your hair ever get long.”
“Thanks,” I answered.
He wrapped his finger around one of my ponytails and pulled it gently. He leaned over and opened the glove compartment.
“Look what I got from the hospital,” he said as he pulled out a stethoscope. “I lurked around a good half hour waiting for the right moment to strike. It’s impossible to acquire. If they sold them at the pharmacy, anyone could be a doctor.”
He handed it over and I held it out in front of me, admiring it.
“All the kids will wish they had something like that. I mean it’s cool, right?”
I nodded and put the stethoscope on my chest to listen to my heart. I had always wanted to be on the other end of a stethoscope. I envied th
“Do you still sing a lot?” Jules asked.
“No! I never sang a lot.”
“Yes, you did. When you were seven years old, you used to sing this song called ‘Dialogue des Amoureux’ that played on the radio sometimes.”
“I’ve never even heard of that song.”
“It goes, Quand je te détesterai pour que tu le crois bien, quand je te détesterai, je mettrai ma casquette. When I don’t love you anymore, so as to let you know, I’ll be wearing my hat.”
“I don’t know that song.”
“Well, I learned it from you. Quand tu ne m’aimeras plus, je me ferai des tresses. When you don’t love me anymore, I’ll be wearing my hair in braids!”
I started laughing. The idea that I used to sing that song seemed kind of wonderful to me. Jules was the only person who could remember nice things about me that I couldn’t remember myself. It felt really comfortable to be with him again.
“Who are we going to be staying with?” I asked.
“You got an apartment already?”
“I’ve been living there a couple months.”
This was news to me. The whole time I’d been in the foster home, I thought Jules was still in the hospital. I thought the day they’d release him, he’d hitchhike right over to the foster home and get me. I must have looked really hurt because he immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road. He stopped the car next to a bush covered in flowers with tiny round white petals. His voice always got screechy when he was being defensive. I remembered that much.
“I had to get all my shit together if they were going to let me get you. I had to get a place to stay. I have a job lined up in a couple months when my disability pay runs out.”
I nodded, trying not to cry, to make him feel better. I’d been looking forward to this reunion for a long time and I didn’t want to ruin it by making us both sad. I reached out the window to pull off one of the flowers. As soon as I touched the branch, all the petals fell to the ground, as if someone had emptied a hole puncher.
“I swear to God, Baby,” Jules said. “There wasn’t a second that I wasn’t thinking about you since we got separated.”
He leaned over and just squeezed me really hard. I was still small enough to enjoy a hug in a car, actually anywhere.
“I’m feeling really good,” Jules said. “You don’t have to worry about me going anyplace any time soon. I missed you so much that I’m really going to take care of myself so I don’t end up in the hospital again. No more smoking or doing drugs or stuff like that. I gotta be aware of what I’m missing out on. How does that sound to you?”
I settled back into my seat as we drove back into Montreal. It had been a lot easier to mellow out in Val des Loups than in the city. Zachary and I would take three-leaf clovers and crazy glue extra leafs on them to try and pass them off as lucky. In the city there didn’t seem to be time for that kind of hobby. Things were always hectic.
There was a way that you could sleep properly when a house had been straightened up, when all the Ranger Ricks were put up on the shelf and the toys were put in the plastic box and tomorrow’s clothes were laid out neatly on a chair. But then again, when everything was left out all over the floor and the dishes were still in the sink, there was a way that you could dream.
HE TOOK ME TO A SMALL APARTMENT on Napoleon Street. In this apartment, there was yellow wallpaper covered with pink roses and water stains. The cracked window in my new bedroom looked out directly onto the wall of the building across the alley. A twin-sized bed took up the whole room. It had been there when Jules moved in and it reminded me of a photograph I’d seen in a National Geographic magazine of a hospital in Romania. We were both afraid to even sit on it, but after a few days we forgot that it wasn’t always ours.
Jules and I taped some record covers on the wall. There was a singer wearing enormous sunglasses on the cover of one and a man in a blue suit holding a rose on another. These gave our apartment a real touch of class.
There’s something that moving around all the time is supposed to do to you morally, but I didn’t feel it. It felt good to be back in Montreal. There was a TV show that took place at the Apollo Theater and I assumed it must be somewhere downtown. You could walk to the river from where we lived. There was a concrete wall between the grass and the river that people sat on and fished from. It was so polluted that putting your feet in the water could kill you on the spot, apparently. I went down the street in my bathing suit and rubber boots and found a cardboard box to sunbathe on by the water.
I just tried to do the things that I used to love to do before I went away. There was a record store with glass tiles out in front of it that made this great noise when you danced on them with dress shoes. I bought mango juice from the store that everybody said was a front for selling cocaine. There was a tourist shop, and if you went in and begged enough they would let you inhale a little helium. Jules slapped me once for inhaling it at a birthday party years ago, as he believed that I could get addicted to the stuff.
If you walked up the hill from the bus station, ours was the first street you saw. It was the street of illusions for newcomers, filled with run-down cafés, bars, heroin dealers, and street vendors. You could live la vie en rose there. Our building was next to a hotel called Istanbul Tourist Rooms that had cardboard boxes on some of its windows for curtains.
I hoped that we would stay there forever and that we would never be separated again. For this to happen, I thought Jules would have to start acting more adultlike and responsible. You get very religious about the idea of parents in a foster home. They seem as fragile as a glass horse on a shelf. While Jules was in the hospital, I had learned that our relationship was a vulnerable thing, but it turned out that he hadn’t. Because I had come back from the foster home looking healthier and with good color, Jules got the unfortunate idea that I could handle myself without him. He acted as if no matter what he did, everything would still turn out all right.
He bought a gun from a friend of his for ten dollars, although he had no idea where on earth to get bullets for it. He put it in the elastic waistband of his jogging pants and the gun slipped out and landed on his toe. He hopped around the living room screaming. He took off his sneaker and his sock later and made me have a look. His little toe was completely blue and black. It really shocked me. If this could happen to him, anything could happen. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that happened to other people’s parents.
He did other worrisome things. Like he stole a pair of boots with steel toes from the Salvation Army and left his running shoes in their place. He lit a cigarette on the back of the bus and kept his hand dangling out the window, sticking his face out the window when he wanted to take a drag. He assured me that since the cigarette was outside, it was perfectly legal and he had nothing to worry about.
Because I’d been in foster care, the social worker came by to check up on us and make sure that he had a job. Jules lied and claimed he’d gone to a lot of interviews. Really he was looking into a career of selling stolen items out of garbage bags on the street corner, which was what his best friend Lester was into at the time.
He was still using heroin; he had even used it while he was at the hospital. I know because he told Lester and his friends about one time when he was desperate to get high. He had wheeled his IV to the front door of the hospital and had told the guard that he wanted to get a hot dog from a vendor on the corner. He had sworn up and down that he would be back in exactly two minutes. As soon as he was around the corner, he had started to run. He’d shown up in St. Louis Square, a lowlife park off St. Denis Street, to meet his dealer hooked up to an IV and dressed only in a hospital gown that kept blowing open and showing his underwear. This story al
AS A GIFT TO HIMSELF on his twenty-seventh birthday, Jules decided to give himself a tattoo. I walked along beside him as he headed to a tattoo parlor called Iris on Ontario Street. I had to hurry to keep up with him. I didn’t like the idea of a tattoo, as I associated them with creepy guys who wore headbands in the park. Tattoos weren’t as pretty as they are now. They were like the pen drawings that rocker kids drew in high school, doodles on pieces of loose-leaf paper. I was trying to talk Jules out of it the whole way there.
“God, what if it comes out ugly?” I whined. “You can’t erase it, you know. I hope you know that! You can’t just Liquid Paper it out. You’ll be too embarrassed to go to the swimming pool ever if it’s ugly. Don’t expect me to come to the swimming pool with you, either. No way I’m hanging out with a dad who has a goofy tattoo. No sir!”
“They know what they’re doing at this place,” Jules said calmly.
“Elaine’s cousin told me that getting tattoos is addictive. He said that you can’t just get one. You might end up being one of those freaks who has tattoos everywhere. Even on their face! That’s so ugly. Have you really thought this out?”
“I’ve spent twenty-seven years without a tattoo. That’s a long time. Now I’d like to spend some years with a tattoo. It sounds pretty rational to me.”
“Would you like me to knock out one of your teeth to go with your tattoo? So that you can have the full bum look?”
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes