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Daydreams of angels, p.5
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.5

           Heather O'Neill

  The newspapers and my family and old acquaintances are always going on and on and on about how much I changed. What they don’t mention is that it was a good change. Because I don’t care what anybody says—nobody wants to go through their whole life being nothing but a pipsqueak afraid to speak up and afraid of their own ideas. And I might still be that girl if it weren’t for Edward.

  We are brainwashed from when we are very little to have the thoughts that the government wants us to have. We think these are our own thoughts, but they are not. They are like frozen-dinner thoughts. We buy them already made and then heat them up in our brains a little and then think them. As if they are our own. As if thoughts didn’t take any effort.

  You have to create thoughts from scratch, Piglet. And as for the ingredients, you need love, wisdom, terror and acceptance. You have to put all these emotions together in order for them to be big and bold and gigantic ideas that you can be proud of and truly call your own. These are the kinds of thoughts that are free and original and can change the world.

  After you spent time with Edward, he would teach you how to have all these amazing ideas. You would realize how limited your thoughts had been before.

  Those were my favourite days. The days when it was only me and Edward and before we had anybody else with us. We ditched the car and were sleeping in the park in the city. Edward would talk about his ideas and his visions. We didn’t have any money or jobs, but we were so young that we didn’t even know how to worry about them yet. And so for the moment the two of us had achieved our goals in life. We were free. Once we got a can of beer and when we opened the tab it sounded like a flashbulb and like someone had taken an old-fashioned photograph of us.

  I was always running up to cars that were stopped at red lights, trying to clean their windshields. I would beg everybody for a little change. Sometimes I sang outside the door of the metro. You should have seen me then, Piglet. I was wild.

  Edward was really good at dumpster diving. He could really live like a bum and it didn’t bother him at all. Edward never worried about germs from other people. He would pick up a cup of coffee that was on a bench and was half filled and drink from it, or sit at a table at a food court and eat whatever was left. While he ate, he would be reading the newspaper with his legs crossed. There was something really dignified about him always. He was above material possessions. He really was. (And, whew, did I find him handsome!)

  He got us two half-eaten Monte Carlo potatoes out of the garbage of a fancy restaurant. He would say that I had nothing whatsoever in the world to worry about because we were living like kings. He said that he always wanted to live like a sparrow in the city. He said that he would eat garbage that was left behind for him and he would build a nest anywhere. But he knew that he had to find a place to stay because of me. Even though he couldn’t pay for it, he signed a lease for an old storefront that had been abandoned for ten years on a block that was filled with rundown tenements. It used to be an ice cream parlour. There was still a sign for ice cream painted in gold lettering on the window. Edward said that it was the perfect spot for him to start a church.

  We filled up the ice cream parlour with chairs that we found in the garbage. There were all these mismatched kitchen chairs for all the wild variety of people who came to sit in on Edward’s lectures.

  It’s a funny thing. When you are a little kid and people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, you don’t say, “I want to be a prophet,” or “I want to be a visionary,” or “I want to be an apostle.” But these are all things that you can be. A bright kid born into horrific circumstances is what marks the birth of a prophet.

  * * *

  Edward was put in a group home when he was six years old. He was beaten and mistreated by the staff for years. He had cigarette burns up and down his arms. There were marks on his back from straps.

  Edward often walked around without his shirt. He wasn’t ashamed or self-conscious of all the marks on him. He wasn’t proud of them either. He simply didn’t seem to think about them that much. But just because he went around acting as if they were nothing but some marks—no different than moles or acne scars—didn’t mean that they didn’t somehow get below the surface.

  Edward said that he didn’t mind having a bad childhood. Edward said that someone had to have that childhood. He said that somebody had to be born on that day, in that house, to that family, in that town, in this province, so it might as well be him. And one thing that made him happy was knowing that since he was having that shitty childhood, it meant that there was someone out there who wasn’t having it.

  Edward always had the loveliest way of thinking about things. Edward never felt sorry for himself. Edward always thought that who we are is so much bigger than our circumstances. Certain people, if they found themselves in Edward’s shoes, would be bitching about everything they had been through for their whole lives.

  He said that it was generally the state of childhood—to find yourself in a home that you didn’t like and to be subjected to the random laws of ignoramuses. Parents go through their children’s psyches looking for contraband ideas the way that guards toss apart prisoners’ cells looking for items that they might have smuggled in. All children were being raised in prisons of one sort or another, according to Edward.

  His defence attorney wanted to bring up details from Edward’s childhood during the trial in order to elicit sympathy or to come up with an excuse for what had happened. Edward didn’t see the relevance. He didn’t see how anyone could bother saying that they had so little power over themselves that they would let nonsense that had happened to them when they were children dominate them now.

  He, of course, wanted to take full responsibility for his actions.

  Anyway, he had started sermonizing when he was in the group home. He said that these ideas all started coming to him. Whether it was God, or maybe some sort of divine common sense, he couldn’t rightly say. He thought that we were all part of a big family. He did not believe that biological ties were the true basis of what constituted a family. You had to treat everyone you met as if they were your child and you were responsible for them.

  The kids who had their television privileges taken away and had nothing to do would listen to him philosophize. He had this captivating way of saying things too. Even if he didn’t have a powerful message, you may have just ended up listening to this guy shoot the breeze.

  * * *

  Jimmy came in one night to the ice cream parlour and never left. Jimmy was just about the clingiest person in the universe, he was impossible to shake. He was the same age as us. He had had a bit part in a made-for-television movie when he was fifteen years old and it had driven him insane. I never met anybody who was as proud of his looks as Jimmy was. He had been raised by a single mom who would leave him alone for weeks while she was off with her boyfriends.

  He used to spend all his time picking up girls in bars. In the morning he would tell them that he didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Of course, this would make them cry. It sort of made him feel powerful and successful.

  As soon as he met Edward he decided to change his path in life. He wanted to be Edward. He was crazy about how everybody would hang off Edward’s every word. Jimmy also wanted to be able to say things that might change the world and how people think. People were always quoting Edward, so Jimmy wanted people to repeat all the dumb stuff he said too. There wasn’t a chance in hell this was going to happen, though.

  He was always looking for approval. If he was going to throw a crumpled-up piece of paper into a wastepaper basket, he had to make sure that everybody was looking at him. He liked to talk about how popular he was in high school for like half an hour straight. And he was always mimicking the way Edward spoke. And he started wearing shabby old suits like Edward.

  I told Edward that I sometimes thought Jimmy was missing a personality. Edward said that if someone looked at Jimmy, he could see everything he needed to know about himself. Jimmy was
different things to different people. If you were a thief, you thought that he was stealing from you. If you were full of grace, then when you looked at Jimmy, you saw a saint.

  “I guess that means I’m a dick,” I said, and we both laughed.

  At the trial, Jimmy had all sorts of lawyers and experts coming up with a million different reasons to explain away why he did what he did. Jimmy didn’t have any shame whatsoever. He didn’t care what happened to the rest of us. He only wanted to get out of having to go to prison.

  Edward said that that was Jimmy’s prerogative. He said that it was in Jimmy’s nature to try every which way to get out of a trap and that we couldn’t do anything but stand back and let him act out his performance. He said that Jimmy was by nature an entertainer, so his trial was going to be more of a circus than anyone else’s. Although Edward did also say that Jimmy was a lot like an insect stuck in a spider’s web.

  Jimmy’s court-appointed lawyer tried to say that he had a personality disorder and that he had fallen under Edward’s spell. He said that he believed that Edward was Jesus Christ.

  This was sort of funny because once Jimmy said that the only thing that he remembered from Sunday school was Jesus giving everybody chores and giving everybody advice that they had never asked for. So even if it was true that Jimmy thought Edward was Jesus, this didn’t seem to mean very much, seeing as how Jimmy didn’t think very much about Jesus.

  * * *

  A girl named Nikki ended up living with us not long after Jimmy. Nikki went into the same group home as Edward when she was twelve, after her father had been molesting her for seven years. She was three months younger than Edward. She always liked the things that Edward used to lecture about in the common room. When she got out, she came looking for him.

  Sometimes that girl was too much for me. Once we were at a restaurant together and she was acting wild. She was wearing these busted-up shoes with butterflies made out of sequins at the toe. She kept crossing and uncrossing her legs neurotically.

  She took the flower that was in a little vase on the table and stuck it behind her ear. She said that when she was eleven years old, she used to rob gas stations all the time. When she started talking about how bad she was as a kid, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

  Finally, a perfectly ordinary waitress came up to serve us.

  “Will you bring me some ribs, please?” Nikki asked. “And don’t skimp out on the portion because I’m a girl and you think that I can’t finish it. Bring me a portion as if I was a big fat fucking dude with a giant moustache who likes to eat pussy.”

  The waitress blushed and walked away.

  “Now you’ve gone and made her think that we’re weird and creepy,” I said.

  Nikki held up the napkin dispenser and started applying her lipstick while looking at her reflection in it.

  “Oh, sweetie. There’s nothing wrong with being weird and creepy whatsoever. Don’t let anybody tell you any different. You were raised in a box, all coddled and shit. I always forget.”

  Nikki used to fight with Edward all the time. Once he wouldn’t loan her twenty dollars and she lost it. She went and pushed all the doorbells that were outside the building and screamed, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” into the speaker when people answered.

  Once she was jumping up and down on the sidewalk in her knee-high boots, calling Edward every name in the book. “You low-life, skinny-butted, self-destructive, drug-addicted asshole.” I can’t even remember why. The police came over to see what was wrong, because from the outside Nikki and Edward seemed like a prostitute and a pimp arguing.

  When I complained about Nikki, Edward said that she was another version of himself. He said that he could just as easily have turned out to be Nikki.

  Edward said that Nikki went around reminding people that their pasts were going to haunt them, reminding them that they couldn’t only look out for themselves. And that the whole city had to deal with the sound of her crying now because no one had bothered to come when she was in her crib.

  There was testimony about Nikki’s murderous tendencies for days and days. The prosecution wanted to prove that Nikki was not under the hypnotic influence of a charismatic leader. She was a ticking time bomb. She was a crazy bitch on the loose. One of these women who is bound to go from one abusive boyfriend to the next until she finally stabs one in the chest.

  * * *

  Why did we stay with Edward? the papers always asked. They always came up with these ugly reasons. They said that we were brainwashed and that we had been programmed by thought control. You will have heard about this theory, no doubt, because any book now that is written about cults has a chapter that mentions Edward. You will find Edward in all sorts of textbooks where he does not belong, sort of like a pressed flower in a car engine manual.

  * * *

  Edward became a real asset to the lower-class community that lived in the derelict tenements around the storefront. Everyone who lived there knew it. He would be walking through the park and he would meet somebody whose mind was all mixed-up. Someone whose mind had grown all wild like weeds in a garden and whose notions were all tangled up in knots and who could not get out of the labyrinth of their own mind as they ran around and around, always arriving at dead ends, always coming to the same signposts over and over again. Edward would talk to them and calm them right down.

  There was a little boy who was having trouble seeing out of his right eye. Edward went over to his house and asked to see the boy. And Edward took the bandage off the boy’s face and the boy was able to see perfectly. His mother said that it was a miracle.

  She brought over an enormous rhubarb pie. We couldn’t get over how delicious it was. We were all so low on cash and we were hungry. We kept declaring how good it was. The little boy’s mother sat on the other side of the table and wept. Sometimes she would go ahead and dab her eye with a napkin and then other times she would let out a violent sob. We were all so happy. Edward swore to the woman he had nothing to do with it, but she told everyone otherwise.

  Edward went and sat next to a child molester on a park bench. He did not think that there were evil people. He thought only that there was evil inside of people and they needed help to have it removed. He spoke to the man on the bench for nine hours.

  That was another thing that was incredibly comforting about Edward. He would never be the first to tell you that he had to go. He always stayed with a person until they didn’t need his company anymore. He would end up in these smelly old ladies’ apartments for hours and hours. He always said that time was the most precious thing that one person could give to another. You were giving them some of your life.

  This old woman got Edward to go and talk to a drug dealer who was going to kill her son because he had stolen a bag of weed, or had smoked it all, or something like that. And Edward made the situation okay.

  There is a solution to every problem and Edward seemed to know them. God wouldn’t have created a world full of problems if he hadn’t also created an answer book.

  Jimmy found an ad for a minister at the back of a magazine. I thought that Edward was going to think it was a stupid idea. But to my surprise, Edward filled it out and sent it in with a cheque.

  He said that a lot of the older people in the community would be comforted knowing that he was an actual minister. They didn’t feel easy knowing that a skinny eighteen-year-old in a ratty jacket could offer words of wisdom and had the power to heal people. They had never, ever heard of anything like that before. There had to be a name for someone like Edward. They were so thankful when he got himself a card with a little dove on it.

  We had picked up a couple of secondhand bibles that had pages that looked like they were made out of moth wings.

  Nikki said that we should call the church the Holy Dove Parade. I thought this was a ridiculous name, but Edward said fine.

  * * *

  There were more and more people coming to the ice cream parlour every evening to hear Edward’s serm
ons. There were always different characters showing up. I really liked them. They were the type of people that my dad always put down. There was this fat cat that was always hanging out there who always felt like he’d just come out of the dryer.

  We were always starving, though. All the money that we made was from passing out a collection plate around the church after Edward’s sermons and from selling pamphlets that Edward had written with his ideas on them. And let me tell you that this was not a lot!

  Still, we were young and carefree. It seemed like it wouldn’t be such a bad thing at all if we just continued the life we were living. During that period, we all got pretty much accustomed to eating very little and doing without. Except for Nikki. She would get all crazy when we were broke. She didn’t think life would be worth living if she couldn’t go to Nickels Deli sometimes. She would go and turn tricks and then spend her money on food and cigarettes and going to the movies. We disapproved, of course, but she would bring home big jugs of wine and chocolate and we would stay up late having a good time.

  There was a roll of photos taken of us all one day when we went to Oka beach. We ate some mussels and french fries and filled our pockets with pretty stones. Edward and I were messing around in the water, splashing about. He was wearing a straw cowboy hat and cut-off jean shorts. I had on a bikini and heart-shaped glasses.

  There is one photo where Edward has his arms around me and his chin on my shoulder. This photo was really popular and was in all the papers. The thing that confused people was that we looked so happy. And if we were so happy, then what on earth motivated us to do what we did? And why did we go and throw away our lives if they were happy ones?

  * * *

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