Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.6Heather O'Neill
“Don’t be a wiseass, Baby. Why don’t you use that smart ass of yours to try a little harder in school so that you can get some good grades?”
“But I do get good grades at school!”
“But you don’t act like someone who does.”
“Tyler’s older brother went to get a tattoo,” I continued. “But he couldn’t stand the pain, so now he only has half a tattoo.”
“I’m just going to be getting something small.”
“I don’t think it’s a very good idea at all. How do you know that they clean their needles? You could get AIDS!”
“Why are you even coming with me if you’re going to be such a drag?” Jules yelled, quickening his pace.
“Well, if you’re going to do it anyway, then I want to watch.”
When we got there, it turned out that kids under sixteen weren’t allowed in. I tried to physically prevent Jules from going in without me. God knew what crazy tattoo he’d pick on his own. I wrapped my arms around him. He always seemed so skinny that you might assume that he was the weakest person on the planet. I was weaker, though, because I couldn’t hold him, and he yanked my arms from around him. I pulled on his T-shirt and managed to stretch the neck all the way down past his nipple.
“Get lost, Baby. I hate when you completely lose your goddamn mind! Don’t I have enough problems in life without you being a wacko!”
Finally I let go. I leaned against the wall of the tattoo parlor, waiting for him. I was singing a song under my breath, trying to pretend that I wasn’t the one who was actually singing the song. I was trying to believe that there was someone next to me and that they were singing to me.
Time went by unbearably slowly. Jules walked out of the tattoo parlor forty minutes later. He looked very pleased with himself. He pulled down the piece of gauze that was taped to his chest and whistled at the same time because he had a swallow tattooed there. It was all 3-D and bright like tattoos are before they heal. For a moment, I was impressed. Who could not be taken in by a newborn tattoo, glowing as bright as a stigmata?
THAT LITTLE SWALLOW DID TURN OUT to be bad luck, though. Jules went outside a few days later with his jacket on and no shirt underneath so that people could get a look at his tattoo. The cops stopped him for looking ludicrous. Making people uncomfortable is a crime, I guess. They found a point of heroin in the pocket of his jeans. He didn’t warn one of the cops that he had a syringe in his pocket and it stuck the cop in the hand. That enraged the cops and they shoved my dad in the squad car.
I came downstairs and a friend of mine pointed out to me what was going on. I ran across the street to get to Jules and to try and save him. I didn’t even look; I flew across.
I will let you in on a little secret about being hit by a car. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt at all. It makes the same noise as when you jump on a suitcase to close it. Everywhere that should have hurt just ended up feeling heavier. I was so distracted by Jules being arrested that I didn’t feel anything. There wasn’t much that pain on the outside could do to me at that point.
A group of people immediately surrounded me and looked down. It was as if they had opened a sewer cover and there I was, lying down there. They were all angels trying to decide if they should bring me up to heaven or what. I ignored their emphatic advice to keep lying on the ground until an ambulance came. I got back up and hurried a few steps toward Jules. Another cop car came around the corner and a woman officer ran over to me. She asked me my name about a hundred times and wanted to know where my mother was. I didn’t even try to answer her; I just stared across the street in shock. Finally, she told me just to sit tight, that someone was on their way for me.
As the cop car pulled away, I waved to Jules in the backseat. He had been too distracted to even notice me being hit by a car. He gave me a desperate little thumbs-up as he drove away, I guess to reassure me. I wished that they had put handcuffs on me too and taken me off with my dad. I walked around the corner and sat down on the curb. I was feeling terrifically weak and couldn’t stand anymore. I pulled up my pant legs and saw that my knees were cut open and bleeding. I blew on them, but that made them feel worse. If I hadn’t looked, I wouldn’t have known I’d been hurt at all. I slowly pulled my pant legs back down and just waited for whatever it was that was going to happen next.
SINCE JULES HAD STARTED USING heroin again, it was inevitable that he would be arrested. He still had a disability pension because of his lungs, but that only covered the basics. It certainly didn’t cover the forty dollars a day he needed to get stoned. He was selling joints every afternoon in the park. He stole television sets even and he was always stealing bicycles. He stole dictionaries and sold them to students outside the university. He tested every car lock as he walked down the street. Once, at the supermarket, he picked a purse out of a grocery cart and stuck it down his pants. I tried to focus on the stuff that he had gotten away with in order to cheer myself up.
He wasn’t going to have to do any jail time, naturally. You never did in Montreal. The court wanted him to spend a month at Doorway, a rehabilitation center out near Saint Jerome. It was in a really mountainous area with tons of trees and country cabins, a place that was supposed to be the opposite of a heroin addict’s natural environment. Much to my astonishment, Jules agreed.
I was going to stay with a neighbor named Mary who used to babysit me sometimes. Mary was a nurse and owned a little bungalow at the end of the street. She was about forty years old. She had pretty, light blue eyes and she liked to wink. Strands of her long blonde hair floated up over her head, as if she had just rubbed a balloon against it. She seemed like the kind of person who would be a free spirit if she had the energy. She was overweight, but only about twenty pounds or so.
Mary talked to everybody in the neighborhood and she’d do anybody a favor. She gave the impression, even to me, a twelve-year-old, that she would go for just about anyone. I’d seen her being flirtatious with men that nobody spoke to. I thought she was maybe interested in Jules, although I knew nothing would ever happen between the two of them since Jules wasn’t interested in girls while he was on junk.
Jules gave her some money. It couldn’t have been very much. I think she was also getting money from the government to look after me, who knows. Jules claimed that he had known Mary for years and that she was like a sister to him. I didn’t buy that, though. He was always calling people his brother; I’d heard him say that about people he’d only known for two weeks. There was a landlord who’d lowered our rent fifty bucks and Jules said he was like a father to him.
He assured me that we’d be back together again in a month. I knew that Jules would be gone for more than a month; he was always gone longer than he said he would be. Even when he went out to the store for bread and said he would be back in five minutes, he would be gone for an hour. Linus had warned me at the foster home that when a parent splits on you once, they are guaranteed to do it again.
The social worker walked me across the street to Mary’s house. I hadn’t been able to bring very much. I had a plastic suitcase that looked like there might be a record player inside. But, believe me, there wasn’t.
I was missing Jules bad. I started thinking about mean things I’d done to Jules and regretting them. He had bought me a raccoon hat that he’d been so excited about, but I had never worn it. I had lost it on purpose in the park. Once I had to do a project on a great artist for school. He’d begged me to do Michelangelo because he’d seen a documentary on him and could help me out. I’d already taken out a book on Chagall, though, so I’d told him I didn’t need his help. I was getting sick with guilt and nostalgia. It was going to kill me before I even got to Mary’s house.
If you want to get a child to love you, then you should just go and hide in the closet for three or four hours. They get down on their knees and pray for you to return. That child will turn you into God. Lonely children probably wrote the Bible.
MARY SHOWED ME WHERE I was going to sleep,
I turned on the lamp and sat by myself, then opened up my suitcase and took out a big conch Jules and I had bought at a gift shop by the ocean. It was the one time we had ever taken a trip anywhere. Everyone said it was impossible for me to remember that trip since I had been only five at the time. But I remembered everything about it, perfectly.
I put the conch up to my ear, as I often did. Sometimes I didn’t hear the sound of the beach at all. Sometimes I was sure that I could hear the sound of my mother laughing.
MARY HAD TWO SONS. The older son, Johnny, was eighteen, so he didn’t have much to do with me. Felix was my age. The year before Felix and I had gone to the same school, same class. He had blond hair and green eyes and lips that were always pursed, which is usually a nice combination. He would have been cute except that he had these massive eyebrows that almost met in the middle, and his forehead seemed oddly big.
The teacher had hated Felix, and she’d made it clear to everyone that he gave her the creeps. He whacked his head and pulled his hair when he was trying to come up with the right answer during our spelling tests. He’d always have a cupcake in his desk that he’d try to eat in class without the teacher noticing. Because the teacher despised him, all the children felt a vague unease and disgust around him. There were ridiculous rumors about him. It was said that he had been caught masturbating in the science room by Mr. Malony.
Felix hung out with a blind kid at school. Felix would sing songs from the radio and the blind kid would have to guess the titles. Felix liked holding the blind kid’s hand and guiding him down the hall. Felix always had a bit of a desperate look about him when he was doing this. It was as if he was worried that someone else was going to take the job from him.
We were sort of friends. Once he’d come shuffling up to me as I was walking home from school. He was wearing a one-piece purple jogging suit. I noticed that he had a stitches scar above his top lip that would disappear when he smiled.
“I really liked your story,” he said.
We had all written a story for homework the night before. I wrote a story about a little boy who had climbed down a hole in the ground and had found himself in China and liked it very much. Since it was an adventure tale, I put exclamation points at the end of each one of my sentences. The teacher read my story out to the class, reading each sentence in an exclamatory fashion. The kids almost lost their minds laughing. She was making a point about how exclamation points were rare and were supposed to be used only in case of emergency.
“Shut up,” I said to Felix.
“No, I really mean it. It was very exciting. My heart was really beating fast.”
I felt comforted when I saw him at Mary’s, standing in the hallway with a sweatshirt down to his knees. He was the most unthreatening child, and any sort of fright at the moment might have killed me. Felix was happy to have a friend with him all the time; he wanted to spend every one of his waking minutes with me. I started to do the things that he liked to do.
Felix had a little box of flavored toothpicks. We sat and sucked on each one until it ran out of flavor and then threw it onto the street and started on the next one. After that we walked pigeon-toed down the street.
There were all these little things that Felix did. He wore a sling around his arm some days for no reason. There was a bicycle out front, locked to the gate; he had forgotten the combination, and he would try guessing it every morning. He liked to throw Kleenexes up in the air, spin around and then catch them. He showed me how to pour bubble bath in the tub and then mix it up with a manual blender.
The home is the most ritualized place in a society; each house is like a religious order with its own ceremonies. There was something decadent about playing with Felix. It made his family seem like the center of the universe instead of my own.
Every night Felix insisted that Mary check his hair for lice. This is something she had been doing for him since grade one and he was crazy about it. “Keep checking!” he’d cry whenever Mary showed signs of letting up. Afterward, Mary would check my hair for lice too. It did feel amazing. She gently told me the endings of TV shows that I’d had to miss the night before because it had been my bedtime.
Felix liked to take the eggs out of the fridge and draw faces on them. He wanted to put one of the eggs in an empty Kleenex box, directly under a lightbulb, so that a chick would hatch. I knew this was an impossibility, but I didn’t tell Felix. I drew a face on mine and stared at it for a while when I was done. It did seem to have some sort of personality. I kissed the egg, and I decided to try and save mine too. When my chick was born, I would name him Joel. I thought that I had heard of an angel named Joel in the Bible. Also I had never met anyone named Joel. “Good night, Joel,” I whispered in the darkness of my room to the egg tucked away in the Kleenex box next to my pillow. Who knew what the physical laws and limitations of this universe were? Perhaps in the morning there would be a wee chick in there.
WHEN I WENT BACK TO SCHOOL, nobody made fun of the fact that I was staying with Felix. Instead, they were blown away that I got to live with his older brother, Johnny. He’d graduated the year before but still managed to be the most popular boy in school. The girls in my class were always asking me what he looked like naked.
Johnny wore his dark hair hanging in his face. He had big blue eyes and puffy, puffy lips like a girl. He lifted weights while lying on a white carpet next to his bed every morning for half an hour so he had a nice body. He possessed style, too. He wore a yellow T-shirt with a decal of Rastafarian smoking a joint. He drove a black car that he made everyone call the Black Stallion. He would go around insinuating that he had a dead body in the trunk.
I didn’t consider myself so lucky to be living with him, though. There was a picture that Johnny had drawn on the kitchen fridge, held up by butterfly magnets. It was of a wolverine ripping apart a girl, limb from limb. Mary and Felix were both so generous at heart that my being there didn’t seem out of the ordinary for them. Johnny, however, looked shocked every time he saw me in his house.
Johnny was usually out, but a couple nights after my arrival, he came to the table to eat dinner with us. He sat on the opposite side of the kitchen table from me, staring and patiently waiting for our eyes to meet. I could feel him looking right at me, and I tried to concentrate and not look up at him. Inevitably, though, our eyes did meet, and he leaned over the table and shoved his fist in my face. “Get your eyes off me!” he screamed at me. “I told you, I’m not in love with you! You can’t have me. Can’t you understand that?”
Mary reached over and patted Johnny on the head, as if he were a ridiculous pet dog showing too much affection.
When we bumped into each other in the hall later that night, Johnny yelled at me to stop stalking him. He would tackle me on the couch, screaming, “Let go of me! Get your hands off me. Mom! She’s gone crazy. She’s raping me!”
Johnny started referring to Felix and me as nerd and nerdette. He would give us penalties for being morons. We had made these kites out of sticks and newspaper and were running around with them in the yard, jumping up and down, trying to make them fly. The kites just couldn’t get off the ground. We looked stupid, but we didn’t care. Johnny grabbed Felix and tried stuffing him in the laundry hamper upstairs, which he referred to as a penalty box.
Once Johnny stormed into the living room, where I was reading a book, turned the radio on and snatched me off the couch. He made me dance around with him by thrashing me all over the room. I was worried to death that my neck was going to snap and that I’d have to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. He yanked me toward him and his chin smacked into my face. I f
It was my last baby tooth and already had a chip in it. Jules had said it didn’t matter if my baby tooth was chipped since I was going to lose it anyway. Jules used to get down on his hands and knees and beg me for my teeth to put under his own pillow, telling me that he needed the money more than me. Mary had a little bottle filled with Johnny’s and Felix’s baby teeth and she put mine in with them. We both found this funny. I would think about that tooth in the little jar long after I left that house. It would be forgotten in there. In a few years, nobody would know it had been mine at all.
BEING ATTACKED BY JOHNNY wasn’t any worse than having to eat their favorite cereal or join Felix’s karate class. They were just the natural consequences of living in someone else’s house. Jules hadn’t packed me any fall clothes other than my white fur hat. When it got colder, I had to wear a pair of Felix’s silver rain boots that he himself refused to touch. Mary gave me an old sweater of Johnny’s that he constantly demanded back. In a way, it was kind of horrific living in someone else’s house. I preferred being in the foster home. There, we had all been lost and we all had to wear castoffs. I was the only one who was lost and dispossessed in this house. The contrast was unforgiving.
One day after I’d been there a couple weeks, Felix gave me his tape recorder and told me to go and listen to a song that he had recorded of himself singing. He wanted me to tell him whether he had any talent. He suggested that I go listen to the tape in the privacy of my own room.
I went in my closet and closed the door and turned on the tape. Felix was singing both parts of the duet “Say, Say, Say” by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. His singing was awkward and out of tune and there was no music at all behind it. It sounded like someone singing after the apocalypse. For some reason Felix’s rendition made me feel sad and very alone. Now I felt as if I were the last person alive on the planet.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes