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Daydreams of angels, p.8
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.8

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “I’m an idiot. I can’t do anything right.”

  “No, no, no. You’ve just got a mental block. Let’s go over this all careful-like, okay. We can do this.”

  “Everybody thinks I’m stupid.”

  “Who’s everybody? Come on. You’re afraid of what’s going to happen if you let yourself be able to figure all this shit out. I was like that. I was scared of all the ideas that were in my head. I couldn’t accept the responsibility that comes with being smart. So I went and started doing all these drugs because they made me numb. And I destroyed myself just so that I couldn’t be great.”

  “Subtraction makes no sense. How can anything be less than zero?”

  “You’re right! You’re right. Everything stops at zero. Zero should be as low as you can go. The government invented negative numbers. Why? Just so that people can go into debt and then never get out of it. But we’re going to have to play their game. Then when you learn to play their game, you can challenge them. I tried to reject it all and look at the sorry-assed state I ended up in. Okay?”

  “Okay.”

  * * *

  The next weekend Lionel and Michal went to the amusement park together. Lionel was wearing a blazer and a long striped silk scarf and a pair of track pants. He had on a pair of shiny leather shoes.

  Lionel had a plastic bag filled with Coke cans. They had coupons on the sides of them. You could trade them in for a dollar off at the amusement park. He had been looking through the trash for them all week. So when Michal pulled out the twenty-dollar bill that his mother had given him to pay for both their admissions, Lionel told him to put his money away.

  They walked around the park, checking out the fanciful structures.

  “Once, when I was a little boy, I was trapped in a hall of mirrors. The configurations rattled me. I’ve never really been able to think properly since then.”

  Michal didn’t want to go on any of the scary rides. He held Lionel by the sleeve of his blazer, pulling him away from the roller coaster. He begged and whined, but Lionel insisted. On the ride Michal squeezed his eyes shut. He wrapped his arms so tightly around Lionel’s waist that the man started having a coughing fit.

  “We’re going to ride this thing until you are no longer afraid.”

  By the end of the day, Michal was able to put his arms up in the air. He was fearless. He was alive.

  Michal was too short to go on the pirate ship.

  “I hate being a midget,” Michal yelled.

  “Don’t worry about being so little. You’re a late bloomer. Anyways, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. You know how your mom puts marks on the inside of the doorframe, showing your height? Well, you’re going to get to a certain age where you don’t get any taller. But your insides never stop expanding. That is limitless.”

  * * *

  Lionel almost always had a paperback book somewhere on him. He loved to read. He took Michal to the Children’s Library every Saturday. It was a building made of red stone with squirrels and birds carved into the stone arches around the doors.

  He had a pair of reading glasses that he got from the pharmacy. He took them out of his breast pocket and put them on as he was going through different books that were on display.

  “Here’s a book about peeing on the potty. The great theme of man versus himself. It’s bound to win the Pulitzer.”

  “This book about the owl looks really good,” Michal called back, holding a book over his head.

  “Damn! Check this out! It is an abridged children’s version of Don Quixote. You’ve got to take this out. It’s all about madness and the inability for anybody to ever really be heroic. My man Cervantes was prophetic. He foresaw the modern age coming.”

  Lionel sat in a little armchair that made him look like a giant. Michal sat on the carpet on the floor, which had a cobblestone pattern and was meant to look like the yellow brick road.

  They always took out the maximum number of fifteen books. Michal walked down the street with the pile right up to his chin.

  “You have got to read, Michal. Every time that you read a book, it is like depositing money in the bank. You spend every weekend reading a pile of books this big, I swear to you that you are going to be a rich man.”

  “No, I won’t. How?”

  “Trust me on this one. This is the only thing that is going to make you into a rich man. No matter how hard your mother works at that grocery store, she is never going to be a rich woman. There is nothing that your mother can do to get out of that building in this lifetime. And that is the class divide, my friend.”

  “Will I always be poor?”

  “No, because we are going to have a revolution. The odds will be against us, because it’s going to be Michal against the whole fucking structure. The whole country.”

  “The whole country!”

  “Yes, but don’t worry. I got your back. We are going to outwit the motherfuckers.”

  * * *

  One of the neighbours was over drinking coffee with Andrea. The roses on the wallpaper behind her head looked like the tomatoes thrown at the opera singer that had missed her head.

  “I know he’s been spending some time with Michal lately, but I stand by my statement that he is a heartless fuckup. One thing that he has going for him is that he will never have a heart attack, because you need to have a heart in order to have a heart attack.”

  Andrea laughed really loudly at her own joke.

  “He needs somebody to listen to his prattle. And about the only person that’s buying what he’s selling is an eight-year-old. Michal needs some sort of male in his life. Notice I said male. Not man. I won’t go that far.”

  And once again she started giggling at her own humour.

  “He’s all flash and shine and razzmatazz. He stole my paycheque right after I cashed it. It was the holidays. I had to take Michal down to eat at the food bank. You gotta be heartless to do something like that. Stealing from a single mother. It’s disgusting.”

  “Heartless,” the neighbour said.

  “That’s what I said.”

  “You think it’s safe, Michal going out with him? I’m not saying this to be mean, but I wouldn’t let my kids around him.”

  “What choice do I have? It’s funny, but I know that fool is good for Michal. The Lord puts everybody in your life for a reason. There’s some reason that fool’s in my life.”

  The declawed kitten tiptoed on the table in just its stockings.

  * * *

  For Michal’s birthday, Lionel got him a big black journal to record his thoughts in.

  “Your ideas are important. Learn to articulate. The more you formulate your thoughts—the more you write them down or say them out loud—the more powerful they will be. Ideas change the world. Everything that you see around you originated with an idea. Bad ideas and grand ideas.”

  They were on the bench on the corner. There was an aging black cat that had dyed its fur with a cheap bottle of dye from the pharmacy, but it wasn’t fooling anybody. Michal took out an envelope that had been sealed with what looked like electrical tape.

  “I got this in the mail from my grandma. My mom said not to open it in front of her ’cause she’s mad at Grandma. She always sends a card. It’s got this tape all over it though. Can you help me?”

  Lionel took out a pocket knife and slit open the envelope while Michal flipped through the page of the big new book and held it up to his face to smell the new pages. Lionel took out the card that had a dog dressed up in a clown outfit and carrying balloons. He was about to comment on the decline of the fine arts in civilization when five twenty-dollar bills slid out and landed on his lap.

  It would have been nothing to put those twenty-dollar bills in his pocket. It would have been easy to get up and split with that money. He held out the bills.

  “You have hit the jackpot today,” Lionel said, his voice cracking a bit.

  Michal took the money and whooped. He stood in front of the bench and did a chicken d
ance of joy. There was a bald man sitting at the bus stop whose scalp and neck and hands were all covered with tattoos of birds.

  “You are just asking to get us mugged, my man.”

  He hadn’t taken the money. But it had crossed his mind. It was always with him, that wickedness. It was unpredictable like the weather, and he knew that.

  * * *

  Lionel was waiting outside the building for the little boy. He was wearing a box that he had cut a hole in the top of to poke his head out of and holes in the sides for his arms to go through. It was painted silver. He had a plastic funnel on his head. He was taking Michal trick-or-treating in a more upscale neighbourhood, where they would get better candy.

  Michal came out dressed in a brown lion suit. He had a mane around his head and some whiskers drawn on his cheeks with grease paint. When Michal saw Lionel, he laughed and laughed.

  “I used up a whole can of silver spray paint on this thing. I almost asphyxiated myself. My lungs probably glow in the dark.”

  “You look ridiculous!”

  “What do you think you look like?”

  “I won third place in the costume contest at school.”

  “Well, la-di-da.”

  After two hours, Michal’s pillowcase was full of candy and he couldn’t walk another step. They sat at a picnic table, eating tiny Mars bars. The pigeons all around them had heart murmurs.

  “Excellent. State-sanctioned panhandling. I love it.”

  Some kids that Michal knew from school walked by. Michal immediately got quiet.

  “Don’t be afraid of anybody. That’s the number one thing that keeps people down in this world. This idea that other people are better, scarier, more intimidating. Fuck that, Michal. There ain’t nothing a rich kid knows that you don’t know.”

  Lionel looked at Michal to make sure he was getting his point across.

  “What do they know that we don’t know?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Who are we intimidated by?”

  “Nobody.”

  “That’s right. No-fucking-body.”

  Then Michal started to laugh.

  “What’s so funny?”

  “You have a funnel on your head.”

  * * *

  Andrea was working late and couldn’t go to Michal’s open house at school. Lionel showed up with his hair combed back. He had on a gold dress shirt with diamonds on it and a pair of dress pants that were too long and were scuffing on the floor. He had a long black coat. He looked good. He sat in the seat and looked through all of Michal’s reports.

  “I think that the teacher secretly hates me,” Michal said.

  “I’ll ask her some discreet questions and I’ll find out for you.”

  Lionel went up and introduced himself to the teacher as a friend of the family.

  “Michal is the light of our lives.”

  “I’m sure he is,” the teacher said. “He was really shy at the beginning of the year. But he’s been really coming out of his shell. He signed up to be in the school play. I was so surprised.”

  Lionel turned to Michal and winked. Michal smiled.

  “What did you think of the Remembrance Day poem that he wrote?”

  “I put it on the wall.”

  “I know, right? Wasn’t it amazing! Like how does a little dude like that have so much compassion? I mean the sky is the limit for that guy. He could be a politician even.”

  “It’s so nice of you to take an interest in him.”

  “Oh, it’s a delight. What’s amazing is the work you do with all these little weirdos. Those handprints you have on the wall that the kids turned into turkeys are hilarious! Where did you come up with something like that?”

  The teacher was smiling. Michal’s mother once told the neighbour that in certain lights, in peculiar moods and on rare occasions, Lionel could be quite the ladies’ man. When she first met him, she found him so magnetic. If he wasn’t such a fuckup, he could seduce any woman he wanted.

  Lionel walked Michal home. The surface of the moon on a clear night looked all dented, like it had been out drinking and driving and had now lost its licence after a crash.

  “You know what, little guy? When you’re in doubt and you don’t know what a person thinks of you, I want you to go with ‘They’re crazy about me.’ Okay? Not ‘They hate me.’ Will you do that from now on?”

  “Okay.”

  “Okay. You’re really good about keeping promises. I notice that about you. You’re a stand-up guy. And why didn’t you tell me your teacher is hot?”

  “I didn’t know she was!”

  * * *

  Sometimes Michal would take out money that Andrea had given him to buy them both supper. Lionel would protest that he couldn’t take any of her money, but he usually relented. What were they supposed to do, starve? They would go and buy themselves hamburgers and soda pop at one of the fast-food joints. One night they got themselves a window seat and watched all the lights of the world turning on one by one. It was the witching hour.

  “Do you believe in reincarnation? I do. Because if you think about it, how else do you explain the fact that there are people out there who are sixteen times more intelligent than others? I think that I have lived dozens of lives. That’s why I feel so weary, you know what I mean? I only have to mend my ways. Act in a more moral way, and then I can be born something else, you know. I’m sick to death of being human. It’s a punishment.”

  Outside, a man who had been drinking wobbled around, as if gravity had suddenly lost its grip on him.

  Lionel always had a ballpoint pen behind his ear. When they were finished at the restaurant, his paper napkin was covered in stars. He had a habit of doodling stars. When he had been dating Andrea, everything in the house started to be covered in stars. The borders of the newspaper and the phone bills would be covered in stars. The little boy thought there was something magical about Lionel.

  As they walked home, every time the doors of a bar along the street opened up, the sound was like change spilling out from a slot machine.

  “All great philosophical tracts were written at night. I have to stay up late. You have a bedtime now. But when you grow up, you can choose to be the type of person that has a bedtime or the type of person who does not. Everybody’s got to figure out their own way to do good in this world.”

  There were cockroaches scurrying across the sidewalk. They shook hands and said good night.

  * * *

  Michal saw Lionel lying on the grass in the park. There was a dog sniffing next to him. Michal had to say hello to Lionel three or four times before he opened his eyes. Then it took Lionel a few seconds to figure out who the boy was. His eyes were all glazed over.

  Andrea sat across from Michal at the kitchen table. She told him that Lionel was sick and that he would never, never, never be able to stop doing drugs. He had been on them too long. She had known boys like that since she was a little girl. Lionel would never be able to stop.

  “I know that,” Michal said.

  “I don’t know why he bothered to go out of his way to be your friend, just to start using again and abandon you. He’s heartless.”

  “No, he’s not.”

  “You certainly can’t expect him to be here forever, baby, okay?”

  * * *

  Lionel got better again, and when he did, he took Michal to the park to teach him how to play basketball.

  “How come you never had your own kids?” Michal asked.

  “I’m an addict. I would never pass that gene on. Besides, I have you. That’s way, way better than any sucker that would come out of me.”

  Michal smiled. He had a good feeling inside of him that he knew nobody could take away from him.

  “Although some of my genes aren’t so bad. I do have kick-ass hair.”

  When Lionel started about how handsome he was, it usually meant that he was in a good mood.

  Lionel had been a so-so basketball player in high school. That day he was dribbling the ba
ll around feeling like a superstar. Lionel moved about all graceful and was able to get the ball in the basket sometimes. A bunch of other kids came to watch Lionel and to ask if they could play. It was always an event if a cool dad or an older brother took a little bit of time off their schedule to come and play.

  Michal looked at Lionel and he was proud of him.

  * * *

  Michal was so excited about going to the zoo that he was already standing behind the glass door to the lobby, waiting for Lionel to show up. Lionel had a bag of peanuts that he had gotten from the grocery store. He said the peanuts they had for sale at the zoo were an extortion racket.

  They squeezed in together on a plastic seat on the subway train. He was wearing a green button-up shirt with polka dots, pinstriped pants and a pair of black army boots, the black of which had long since worn off the toes. Lionel didn’t dress any differently on a weekday than he did on a weekend. He had long since ceased to be able to differentiate between the two. Michal was rocking back and forth because he was so excited.

  Lionel picked up a newspaper that had been left on the seat next to them. The row of old men on the bench across from them sat hunched over like a row of buzzards.

  “We have got to keep abreast of the news. Even if it makes us weep.”

  Michal tried to turn the pages of the newspaper while Lionel was reading it.

  “Ah, ah, ah. We’ll get to the comics in a little bit. I want to read the comics as much as you do, trust me. I’m itching to get to them too. But they are dessert, okay? We have to be worldly men. You don’t want your life to be confined to this little neck of the woods.”

  “I like it here.”

  “Travel the whole world. And if after seeing everything that there is to see out there, you want to come back here, then be my guest. But I’ll bet you five dollars that you will not.”

  “Five dollars!”

  “Yes.”

  “You won’t pay up.”

  They shook on it.

  A few days later, Michal’s mother found a map of the zoo. There were red Xs drawn with a ballpoint pen on the entranceways. The word EXPLOSIVES was written underneath the Xs. There were black arrows next to the words EXIT STRATEGY. It was clear what this was. Michal and Lionel had come up with a plan to liberate the animals from the zoo.

 
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