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Daydreams of angels, p.7
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.7

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “There was quite a commotion, girls running around frantically, because once the sun went down and the tide came back in, the babies were loosened from the sand and were swept back out to sea. Then it was pretty much all over and you had to go home empty-handed.

  “Girls would take the train out there, with little baskets of boiled eggs and bottles of white wine, and I was right there with them. The clouds were like wedding veils that had been whipped off the heads of brides.

  “We were still so young that it was exciting just to be riding the train alone, to have the wind in our hair and no parents around. Once you had a baby of your own, no one would ever tell you what to do again. You forgot about working at the factory. You forgot about not being pretty, or not being able to type quickly enough, or how much you hated all the household chores. We thought this was what being an adult was like. It was going to be all wine and roses and making babies.

  “But in truth, the train ride was the last time we would ever be so carefree. Everyone had warned us before we went down that being a mother was really, really difficult, and some of the older mothers knew it from experience. But when you thought about it on the train, you could only imagine the baby with little rain boots, playing at the beach and saying it loved you.”

  * * *

  “Although you rode on the train alone, the proper thing to do was to have a fellow waiting back at home for you. Some girls chose wisely when it came to picking fathers, paying attention to what a man did for a living and what his character was like; but other girls were complete fools, choosing a man because he was good at pool, or looked good in a fedora, or because other people liked to be around him because he laughed and made jokes. That he was temporarily out of work and had a criminal record was of no immediate concern.

  “Sometimes a girl got so excited about meeting a bloke she particularly liked that she rushed off to the beach to get a baby before she was even married. There were a couple of these girls on the train when I went. They hadn’t packed any lunch or made any preparations for the journey. All they had were the hickeys on their necks and their heads full of dreams. They wandered the shore, kicking up water, with stars in their eyes.

  “There were a couple of girls riding up front in first class who’d married really well and wore fancy shoes and expensive tailored dresses. And they had nannies with them who were going to help with the babies the minute they got them out of the water. But still, in spite of all this, they were going to have to take off their shoes and tights and get their feet wet in the sand like all of us.

  “I remember one girl, just having found her baby, suddenly starting to cry because she realized that one day her little baby was going to die. Another girl started crying because her baby was going to be raised in a world where there was war. One girl was worried that her little boy would fall in love with someone who didn’t love him back.

  “There was a mother who didn’t even seem to really want a kid. Her mother-in-law had to come with her and kept nudging her to go on. She would look back and claim that the water was too cold, that there were no more babies in there. She would get distracted and start collecting seashells and disappear behind the rocks, claiming to see some baby bottoms over there. When her mother-in-law went to check on her, she found her sitting on a rock and reading a paperback novel.

  “In the end she found one in the moonlight. A baby with dark, dark, dark brown eyes. The baby looked at her suspiciously and she felt as if neither of them particularly wanted to belong to one another. She didn’t especially want to be a mother and he didn’t particularly want to be a child. He hadn’t asked to be born, yet there they were, all together, a new family boarding the last train of the night back home.”

  “Wait,” I said, interrupting her. “You could still find babies at night?”

  “Yes,” said Grandmother. “These were the night babies. You see, although some girls didn’t want babies, most of us did, and some of the unlucky ones who hadn’t found one yet grew desperate and refused to go home empty-handed. And that’s how they found them, by stepping out farther and farther into the water, looking and looking, knowing that there had to be a baby out there somewhere; but the only babies you could catch at that point were the babies swimming around in the ocean.

  “People often said that it was better sometimes to leave the children alone in the water after a certain point. Once they had had a taste of the sea, it was hard for them to ever really adapt to ordinary life.”

  “But what’s so different about night babies?” I asked.

  “Well, after a whole day of swimming in the night ocean, they had had too many extra hours of dreaming, perhaps. They had already got it into their heads that they weren’t going to be discovered, that they were going to be absolutely alone in the world, left to sleep with the fishes and be sealed up inside a clamshell forever—to never have to work or weep or be married or pay the rent, or look for children themselves.

  “The first people these children saw were the riffraff who haunted the beach at night: drunken men cursing on the boardwalk, teenagers writing dirty poems in the sand with black paint, indiscreet couples making love against the rocks, and forsaken lovers with stones in their pockets, wandering out to sea.

  “And in the sea, the little colourful fish flitted around these babies as if a piñata had been split open in front of their faces and there were candies falling from the sky. The fish whispered their secrets to these babies, telling them tales about drowning sailors and women who fell overboard in lovely dresses that opened like umbrellas—how the women sank to the bottom of the sea with their eyes closed and their mouths open, as if waiting for kisses.

  “As the babies floated through the water, the octopuses reached out and put their arms around them. That feeling of being wrapped up in eight arms could never be duplicated, and once they’d been rescued, when they were full grown, these babies could never be satisfied by only two arms. They always wanted more when they were hugged and so they were always lonely. When they went out dancing, they held their partners too tightly and wept.

  “They had a tendency to drink too much at weddings and birthdays as well. They liked that feeling of the room rocking back and forth and of losing control and tumbling over. Being under the sea was like always falling down the stairs except that you didn’t get hurt. They stayed out late, for there was no morning or night under the deep, deep sea. They were always trying to convey that which can’t be conveyed. They chose to do things like play the trumpet for eight hours at a stretch and name their dogs Baudelaire.

  “Looking back, I realize that I myself was too young to be going down looking for babies. I was married at nineteen, you know, and completely clueless about everything.” Then Grandmother sighed. “Maybe that’s why I ended up with a night baby.”

  My brother and I leaped off the couch.

  “You had a night baby?” we yelled. “Mother was a night baby?”

  My brother and I jumped around with a million questions.

  “Did you ever regret getting a baby later than the other girls?” I asked.

  “Never!” Grandmother said. “I liked having a little brown-eyed girl who was obviously a poet. And that’s why your mother weeps when she hears music she likes on the radio, and why she waters flowers in the middle of the night and is always doodling stars on the margins of her paper!”

  “Is it a bad thing?” my brother asked nervously.

  “Oh no. Whether your baby was found during the day or at night, you loved it just the same. You see, all mothers think they’ve magically found the perfect baby, and they are all convinced that their baby is more beautiful than all the others. And they give them their very favourite names. They name them after grandfathers and mothers and saints and movie actors and lovely flowers and military generals. All sorts of new names for all sorts of new people. Most of the fathers, like the mothers, fall in love with their babies at first sight. They weep and love them madly with a love that lasts the rest of their lives.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, how much love a single soul requires.”

  And then we were all quiet. It was so sad and sweet to imagine Grandmother as a young girl looking for a baby down at the beach, with her stockings all wet and the sun going down. And then Grandmother beckoned us to her side, telling us our mother would be back in good time, and both my brother and I hugged her with all of our might. We hugged her just like we were little night babies too, reaching out for human arms from under the waves.

  THE MAN WITHOUT A HEART

  Andrea and her son lived in a big building on a busy street. There were loads of small doorbells in the lobby. There were fluorescent blue tiles that had been put in a long time ago when the building was fancy. Some of the tiles had come off the floor and had been replaced by different-coloured ones, and the floor looked like a Rubik’s Cube that was never going to be solved. And now the building was filled with all sorts of lower-class people who couldn’t afford to live anyplace else.

  Michal was ten years old and was small for his age. He had a short afro and enormous brown eyes. There was supposed to be an e in his name. But Andrea didn’t know about it when she was filling out the birth certificate. She thought that happened to be the way that you wrote Michael.

  Michal didn’t have any friends. He was so shy that other kids forgot that he existed. He would sometimes sit quietly near a bunch of kids, hoping they would notice him and invite him to play. He was terrified of them, but he longed for their company.

  Andrea was a hard worker. She worked ten hours a day at the grocery store. She had big boobs and a pouty mouth and dark skin. She brushed her hair violently every morning and pulled it into a tiny little ponytail at the top of her head. But the elastic was always popping off and her hair would be sticking straight up by the time she got home. She was still pretty adorable.

  She had the face of a little girl. It sure as hell didn’t stop men from being mean to her. She went out with just about anybody who asked her. And for some reason, it was only the lowlifes who asked.

  She went out with a guy who made deliveries for the corner store on a bicycle with one of those huge baskets on the front of it. He wore a black leather vest without a shirt on underneath. He told her that he couldn’t ever be tied down to one woman. For a long time she put up with a guy who used to beat her. One guy only ever came over after ten o’clock at night.

  She was always loaning her boyfriends money. They were always coming over and eating her and Michal’s dinner. They would never, ever take her out to a restaurant in exchange. One of her boyfriends would scoff at the food she prepared. When she served Hamburger Helper, he said that when he was growing up, his mother would never, ever prepare him something like this. And he kicked over a chair and walked out.

  Michal always kept his distance from the men his mother dated. Most of them didn’t seem to mind. Some of them resented Michal. If she was going to have a kid, at least she could have had a really fun one. Michal just skulked around, looking at the floor. No siree, they thought. When they had their own sons, they were going to be much better than this kid. They would be tall and outgoing and good at sports.

  And these guys all ended up leaving Andrea at the drop of a hat.

  * * *

  Then Andrea met Lionel. He was buying a package of Twizzlers at the store where she worked. Lionel was tall and had sharp features and was good-looking. He looked like those statues that the Romans were always making of gods, except he was black. And Lord, was he smart. For a while, Andrea finally thought she had struck gold.

  She could talk to him about Michal too, and he was interested.

  “He’s so shy,” Andrea told him. They were lying in bed after making love. “He’s been like that since he was really little. I worry about him. I mean, how are you supposed to get anywhere in the world if you can’t even bring yourself to ask for simple instructions on the subway ride?”

  “Where’s his pops?”

  “Nowhere. He left me when I was pregnant. I was nineteen years old and I had nothing.”

  “You must have been foxy as all shit when you were nineteen and pregnant.”

  “You’re crazy.”

  “I would have gotten all romantic poet on you, if I had seen you pregnant. Seriously. I would have been resolute in my endearing affections.”

  Andrea laughed.

  * * *

  Michal was sitting in his small room at the end of the hall when Lionel walked right in. He was wearing a pair of silky shorts that Michal noticed looked way too small for him. They had a print of roses on them and were the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas that belonged to his mother.

  “Do you know how to play chess? I see you got a board.”

  Michal looked at his hands and nodded. Lionel set out the chessboard between them on the single bed.

  “The best way to play chess is in silence. You can’t say a word, brother. If you do, it’ll upset my equilibrium. I’m going to be playing seven moves ahead, okay?”

  When Michal took Lionel’s knight, the man yelled out.

  “What kind of move was that? Wow! Where’d you learn to play like that? Are you Russian?”

  Michal put his finger over his mouth to indicate that Lionel had broken the Rule of Silence.

  Lionel continued in a whisper. “Do you have like a little earphone on and that Vladimir Stanislavskovitch is whispering in your ear from St. Petersburg? Man!”

  Michal laughed. Much to Andrea’s amazement, Lionel and Michal bonded.

  Lionel would go into Michal’s room and she could hear the two of them chatting away incessantly. Michal would babble excitedly. She never heard him talk like that with anybody. They would walk together to the store to pick up some milk. She would see them out the window, waving their arms about in discussion.

  But it turned out that Lionel was probably the worst of all her boyfriends. He had been addicted to heroin and he started using again. He sold their television set for drugs. He stole money from her wallet, her jewellery and some of her dresses. He even stole her bus pass and then sold it to the neighbour for five dollars. Andrea worked hard for the little she had. So Andrea threw him out forever.

  * * *

  Lionel went into rehab and they didn’t hear from him for a couple of months. When Lionel called up, wanting to see Michal, Andrea was sure that it was some sort of lame-ass excuse to keep her in his life. But she wasn’t going to turn Lionel’s offer down. She was so exhausted and overwhelmed that she would take whatever babysitter she could get, even if he was an ex-junkie.

  But Lionel was only allowed as far as the lobby. Andrea wouldn’t let him in the apartment ever again. It wasn’t that she was doing it to be mean, she was only using common sense.

  Lionel agreed to pick Michal up from school and walk him home in the afternoons and refused to take money for it. They passed by the homeless who were out rooting through the garbage to find parts for time machines.

  “What are you wearing?” Michal asked.

  He was wearing rubber boots, a pair of denim shorts that were pinstriped, a blazer that had seen better days, and a light blue undershirt.

  “People look at me because I am a damn bona fide original, my little friend. I have an original style of dressing. I dress in the manner of a pimped-out Edwardian gentleman.”

  Despite being on welfare, despite not having a high school diploma, despite living in the crappiest boardinghouse in town, Lionel generally thought that he was superior to everybody. He could not be bothered under any circumstances to care what people thought of him.

  As he and Michal walked down the street together, Lionel nodded and greeted everybody.

  “You’ve got to be sociable. You can’t be afraid of people.”

  People would glance at Lionel strangely because of his getup. Some people looked nervous, others gazed straight ahead as if he was about to ask them for money and some went ahead and said hello back. Michal laughed every time Lionel greeted someone. He cringed, his shoulders up
, embarrassed. He put his hands over his face.

  “You do it. Just make eye contact and smile at any of these jokers.”

  Michal smiled and waved at a middle-aged woman. He couldn’t believe he was doing it.

  “Hello, sweetheart,” the woman said.

  “See! You like people. That’s why you’re shy. It’s because you care so much about what people think. You’ve got way more regard for these fools than I do. And it comes to you natural-like. I was bitter even as a little kid. I was like this character from Shakespeare named Iago.”

  “The parrot in Aladdin.”

  “No. I’m not talking about a bird. I’m talking about the immortal bard. The greatest writer who ever lived. And he had this character who messes stuff up for everybody. And they put these scholars on the case in order to figure out why Iago did all the stuff that he did.”

  “What’s a scholar?”

  “Scholars are like therapists, but for books. But none of them could figure out Iago’s motivations. Why he would fuck everything up.”

  Lionel paused a second as if reflecting on his own words. The cars were honking at one another behind him on the street.

  “Hey, whatcha got left over from your lunch?”

  Michal reached into his school bag and pulled out a Ziploc bag with half a peanut butter sandwich in it.

  “There is nothing like a peanut butter sandwich that was made by someone’s mama. I could make a sandwich like this, but it wouldn’t taste good at all. This is like manna.”

  “What’s manna?”

  “Food that the gods delivered.”

  * * *

  The next week they were doing Michal’s math homework together at a picnic table at the park. A crow opened its wings, like a man opening a trench coat to exhibit some stolen jewellery that he had for sale.

  “How can you not understand this?” Lionel asked. “This is simple basic shit.”

 
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