“A Song for Robin” by Heather O’Neill

New Fiction from Freeman's

October 17, 2017  By Heather O'Neill
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They’ve asked me to sing a song at Robin’s funeral. I’m going to do it, of course. Even though I haven’t seen him in a while. I know exactly what song I’m going to sing too. Let me tell you how I chose it.

My dad’s family business was robbing gas stations. That was what his family had taught him how to do. And he did it really well until I was born. His parole officer got him a job because he wouldn’t have known how to find one otherwise. His parole officer’s name was Martin. He said he thanked God every day that Martin had turned him from a bum into a man. He started working as a janitor at the train station when I was two and he’s done it ever since.

He said it was his job that made him happy. Like he would make jokes at the dinner table and we would laugh and laugh and laugh. We were always choking on our spoonfuls of Kraft Dinner. He stood up at the table once and did a Pavarotti impersonation with like made-up Italian words. “Oororosolomeoo. . .” We thought it was so funny.

He would tell us all the dumb things that happened at his work. All the stupid-assed things people said. He would put on a sign that said the floors were wet because he had just mopped them. But people didn’t care and they still walked across them really quickly and then they would slip and all the papers would fly out of their briefcases. I know that doesn’t sound funny. But when my dad would tell the story, we would like die laughing. He would imitate their facial expressions right at that moment when their body was in the air and their asses hadn’t broken yet.

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*

I don’t know if my sister and brother have any particular talents. But I liked songs.

Even when I was really little, when my mom used to turn on the radio in the kitchen, I’d always go really quiet, I wouldn’t make a peep. The music was like a magic spell on me. They all liked when I sang commercials. My mom said I sang the orange juice commercial better than the woman who was on the orange juice commercial. I loved that. I was so proud of myself.

When I got older, I would be able to remember all the words to whole songs and not just advertisements. I used to sing a Dolly Parton song. My dad would invite his friends over. He would get me to sing “9 to 5” for them. They loved that. I didn’t have any idea what it meant.

My family didn’t know what in the world I was supposed to do with the ability to sing orange juice songs. They didn’t know how in the world a person was supposed to get anywhere in the world. It wasn’t their fault. They were just ignorant. Their parents hadn’t passed on any knowledge when it came to getting by. And so they had nothing to pass on to me.

At school I was average, average, average. I wasn’t left behind any years or anything like that. But I didn’t get my tests back covered in stickers or praise the way some kids did either. And I never got any badges in gym class. I was surprised when the teachers remembered my name.

I didn’t mind going to school, only I found it boring. I probably would have gotten more out of it if I had applied myself. I just looked out the window and killed time. I spent the whole morning looking forward to lunch.

Then this one morning I saw the sign for the talent show auditions on the wall near math class. I really thought, I’m going to miss out on something if I don’t do this.

I didn’t tell anyone in my home what I was doing. Sometimes I think my family had an inferiority complex. When we were in the living room, we would feel like we were kings of the world. But outside they were all about keeping your head down and not drawing attention to yourself.

I’m not sure they knew what they were afraid of. But I think they were afraid of being judged. And there I was literally asking to be judged. In the auditorium there was the drama teacher and the music teacher. And three of those kids who get involved in everything, the ones trying to pass themselves off as teachers, would be there to judge me too.

I was wearing a pair of plastic red jelly shoes and a yellow terrycloth dress with bows on the shoulders. And my hair was way up in a blonde ponytail!

All the other kids who were performing musical numbers had full bands. They were doing rock and roll songs. There were kids that were all dressed in the same outfits doing hip-hop numbers. I knew looking at their elaborate productions that I was probably doomed.

When it was my turn, I stood there in the center of the stage. I didn’t get into character or anything. I said that I would sing the Life Savers commercial. My whole family said there was nothing better than when I sang that jingle, so I decided to believe them. I didn’t have a score for the piano guy because I wanted to sing it a cappella. The kids in the auditorium and backstage were laughing the whole way through the 30 seconds of my song. They thought I was as dumb as dumb can be. I didn’t disagree.

As I was leaving, a kid in my class I never spoke to named Robin came running up to me and tugged at my ponytail to get my attention. He said I had the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard.

I looked him up and down to see if he was making fun of me. He was skinny and had bangs in his eyes. He was wearing a jean vest that was covered in so many studs that I thought it made him look like a lizard.

“Seriously,” he said. “That was totally wicked.”

“Nobody said anything,” I answered.

“That’s because they were spellbound! They didn’t know what to make of your voice. It’s unique. It’s sweet. It’s like God gave you some cough drops when you were born. You’re better than most stuff on the radio.”

“Then how come they said sorry, you can’t be in the talent show?”

“Because they are afraid of greatness.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You got any more commercials you can sing me?”

I sang him the oatmeal ad that had been on heavy rotation on television. Then he said he wanted to be my manager. He was 17 years old. I had no idea what he meant by that. But I let him walk me home the next few weeks. At first he was always talking about how good I was at singing. Which I liked. Of course you’re going to listen to anybody complimenting you. It’s so addictive. Listening to just one compliment is like eating just one chip. Impossible but after a couple of days of talking about me, I got bored, and we started talking about other music.

And that was so interesting. Because I’d had all these complicated thoughts about rock and roll songs that I was totally in love with. I didn’t know there was anybody else who was thinking these thoughts. And if there were, it wasn’t someone my age and on my block.

We were both really into the Eurythmics. Annie Lennox’s voice is so deep. It’s like she’s speaking from far away, from another dimension. Like she’s just the low notes on the piano. And her words are so smooth. They are like cream. Like all those little plastic cups of cream you get at Wendy’s for your coffee.

And Tina Turner. She has this crackly voice like she’s singing over a loudspeaker. Like her words are written on paper but the paper is burning. All these women who get beat up by their husbands are so tough afterwards.

I had an aunt just like Tina Turner. After she left my uncle, she wouldn’t let anybody look at her the wrong way. And she wore a fur coat everywhere and she was like a queen! She was the Queen of Overdale Avenue.

Robin really liked Fleetwood Mac. There was something about Stevie Nicks that bothered me though. She was like one of those girls who are always about to have a nervous breakdown. Or stand outside on the street begging their boyfriends to take them back. Also, I always thought that if a guy had a chance of dating either me or Stevie Nicks, he would choose Stevie Nicks.

Michael Jackson! I could spend my whole life talking about him. He’s so talented. If I was going to be stranded on a desert island, and I could only take one album, it would be Michael Jackson’s Thriller. That album is like my autobiography. Michael Jackson is in every memory I have. Like at all the birthday parties that I went to at McDonald’s, he was playing at them.

We talked about “Time After Time.” I never even took Cyndi Lauper seriously because of the way she dressed. Like those middle-aged ladies who try and dress kooky to make up for the fact that they are so ugly. I hate those crazy white cat ladies. There were like one too many of them on Overdale. My dad says it’s what happens to a woman if she doesn’t get laid enough. But she was wonderful. It was like I’d been punched in the gut when I heard her singing that song. That’s how shocked I was. But in a good way.

*

After we’d walked home together for a couple of weeks, Robin asked if I wanted to come over to his apartment. His mother was a skinny crazy junkie. She was always putting him in foster care and ignoring him whenever she had a new boyfriend around. He didn’t tell me about this. It was just one of the stories that the whole neighborhood knew about. All the parents would shake their heads at how he was raised. One time, years ago, when Robin would have been about seven, my dad said he saw him sitting on the stoop outside his building all by himself at midnight.

When I walked in Robin said his mother hadn’t been home in a couple of weeks. You could tell because the place was a dump. There was an Indian carpet on the floor that had been stepped on so many times that you could hardly see the pattern anymore. There was light blue wallpaper with white flowers on it that had been ripped in a spot. There were teacups on the coffee table. Some were filled with different-colored tea, shades of red and burgundy and brown. Some had cigarette butts in them. One was filled with sales receipts.

He showed me his box of cassettes. We lay on the floor next to his boom box and listened to them. He stuck in one by a singer named Tracy Chapman.

I had never heard Tracy Chapman before. She was brand-new. What a surprise! It was as if I had gone to a bank to take ten dollars out of the ATM machine and my bank statement came back saying I had three million dollars in my chequing account. That’s what the song was like when it went to my heart like it was an ATM machine.

I was surprised that it didn’t kill me. You would think all that emotion would make my heart explode. Sort of like when you plugged in too many appliances, and the fuse couldn’t take it anymore, so it just blew.

Maybe that was what had happened to the dinosaurs, someone dragged out a boom box to the middle of a field during Jurassic time and stuck in a Tracy Chapman cassette. And their big-ass hearts couldn’t take it and exploded like water balloons.

*

Afterward, we went to the kitchen to see if there was something in the fridge to eat. Robin opened a beer and the suds poured down my hand and onto my toes and it was like I was standing on the beach at the edge of the waves. He said that it gave him a hard-on how beautiful my body was. Because although I probably didn’t mention it, I was quite developed for my age. And then we took off all our clothes and we fucked each other senseless. Although I wouldn’t have described it like that at the time.

My bra was lying on the floor like a clamshell.

After that first time we were together, I kept crying and crying. I didn’t know whether I was happy or sad or what. I think he wanted to cry too. I remember him standing at the side of the bed. He was all naked. Except he had a gold chain around his neck with a cross on it. I found out later he got it when he was a baby and he never took it off.

I felt a little bit different when I got home after sex. It was a little bit like I was pretending to be myself. I had to trick everybody into believing that I was Theresa.

And it broke my heart that they believed it. Their little girl had been killed, but they didn’t know it. They didn’t have any idea. And the person who was responsible for murdering her was right there sitting beside them! And she was wearing Theresa’s velour jumper and her favourite socks, the ones with the strawberries on them.

I was sitting on the chesterfield and I started to cry. And they were all like, What the hell are you crying about? We’re watching Newhart. Nothing sad can happen!

You lose your virginity, then you have to keep it a secret. I couldn’t do that! I mean I wasn’t going to tell them that I had busted my cherry, but I did want to tell them that I had a boyfriend.

So I invited Robin over for dinner. I thought it was the thing to do. It seemed polite after we had slept together. Before we had been kids together, but now we had had sex, and so we were adults. Right?

I got dressed up in my Sunday clothes when he was coming over. The whole family got dressed up because it was the first time that I was bringing a boy home.

My mother took out the fancy plates. When we weren’t having guests over we would use the dishes with roosters on them. The roosters were always strutting their stuff. Roosters on every plate and on the side of the soup bowl. Now they were just plain white.

We brought out all the plastic doilies. And set them on the white tablecloth. Setting a table like that makes everybody have to pitch in. We had to bring out every chair from the house and put it somewhere around the table.

I was worried that Robin wasn’t going to fit in. The vice principal of the school gave him a hard time about a lot of the outfits he came to school wearing. She would yell out to him that his sweater looked like Swiss cheese. He had these silver Michael Jackson gloves that he used to wear. He had black army boots held together with pink duct tape. Every time he got onto a public bus everybody turned to look at him. He liked that. He had these big sunglasses with white frames, sort of like the ones Jackie Onassis wore.

He rang the doorbell. When I opened the door, he was wearing a button-up shirt and corduroys. He had a bouquet of flowers that he handed to my mother. I don’t know where he got them. Maybe he broke into the botanical gardens, I never asked. He had a box of chocolates too. Honestly, when he showed up with all that stuff, I thought that we were married.

He was so polite to everybody. He had really nice manners. My mother asked him all sorts of really boring questions. But he looked at her like she was asking him important philosophical things. She kept asking him about his apartment like was it cold in the winter and did his mother put plastic up on the windows. Did he have any idea how much she paid for the heating bill? Did they ever have mice?

My mom had made her stuffed green peppers. That was her specialty. But I thought they were disgusting. They looked like ordinary green peppers, but when you lifted the lid off the pepper, there was tomato and hamburger beef mush inside. I hated the taste of it myself. But it was an engineering feat, so we got to be impressed. It was like those commercials about who put the caramel in the Caramilk bar. Except in this case I suppose the question was, Who put the meat loaf in the green pepper bell.

My dad started telling us a story about being in line at the grocery store. He was buying ten bags of Cheez Doodles because they were on sale. But the cashier said he could only buy three at a time. That killed us. I thought my appendix was going to burst from laughing so hard. It was the way he told the stories too. He was funnier than Richard Pryor. My mother begged him to stop before she used up all the oxygen in the room.

Then Robin started talking about the way I sang. My family didn’t really understand the purpose of music. I mean they certainly didn’t see it as an art form or anything like that. It was something that was played inside delis while people were picking out their favorite chewing gum. Or at the beginning of a television show so that you would know you were right at the beginning of it and hadn’t missed a thing. And to make commercial slogans stick in your head.

The only cultural thing we did was when we went to see E.T. That was like the biggest deal. We never went to see movies because there were so many of us that it cost too much money. But my dad said that it was historically important for us to go. He said people would be talking about that alien for years. So it was necessary for us to know what they were talking about.

Robin started saying that the universe was very careful when it handed out talents. It was exceedingly careful when it considered who it was going to give beautiful singing voices to.

“It gives voices to people who need to tell a tale,” Robin said. “Theresa was given her gift because she’s supposed to give a voice to the people on the street. When she sings, she isn’t only telling her own story, she’s singing about everybody’s dreams and sorrows whether I liked it or not.”

“Get out of here,” I said.

He said that with every gift there came responsibility. He said that people had no right to keep a gift to themselves. They were obliged to share it. You were stealing from others by not sharing it.

I liked the way my family was listening to him. They all quieted down to hear what he had to say. I always wonder how come there can’t be more of these nights. You know.

*

Robin still wanted to be my manager. He was going to get me a record deal. He was going to get a 6-track player from the pawnshop and record me singing. But he said we had to pay our dues on the road too.

He had a keyboard that he really didn’t know how to play. But he could program songs in and pretend to play them. So what was wrong with that? And he sang backup vocals for me. I always liked to hear him chime in, just when I thought I was all alone in a song.

He got us our first gig, playing at the Portuguese Community Center. There were these old-timers there wearing uniforms. It was some sort of veterans’ night. They had little paper plates to put hors d’oeuvres on. They would take their dentures off and put them in their pockets and eat the tiny cakes. One was wearing a wristwatch and it began to go off in the middle of my solo. He took out some pills from inside his jacket and then swallowed them.

Then we had a show at a retirement home on Thanksgiving. They all got up and started their strange dancing. They looked like how your dolls look when you get them to dance together. We played at a kid’s birthday party. We played at a convention. We played at a retirement party. We did a lot of weddings. Once we played the opening of a grocery store. It was like the 40th anniversary of this grocery store. They had us go play in the back by the frozen goods section for a couple of hours. When we were done, along with our paycheque, they gave us a complimentary chicken all wrapped in gold foil.

Robin would wear a suit. He was always able to put together some sort of odd amboyant outfit he picked up at the thrift shop.

I was going to need a trademark outfit. Because that was the outfit that I was going to be photographed in about a thousand times. And it would be on all my record albums. Like Édith Piaf with her little black dress. It would be the dress that people pictured me in when they were at home listening to my records with their eyes closed.

My mom said I could take her old wedding dress. She started going at it with a pair of scissors. She started pulling it in different directions with pins and needles. She had a measuring tape and she started holding it up to different parts of me. I had never been fitted for anything. It actually made me think of Cinderella. When it was done, it was really pretty. It had all these beige ribbons in the back.

You’re supposed to dry-clean wedding dresses, but there’s no way that I could have afforded something like that. I just washed it by hand in a bucket in the bathtub and then hung it from a clothes hanger from the showerhead. Or if it was a sunny day, I hung it out on the clothesline on the balcony.

I must have worn that dress 40 times that summer. Sometimes we even played two gigs in one day.

Oh and, of course, we’d pin as many flowers as we could to my hair. Robin was always excited about how flowers looked in my blonde hair.

*

We went outside the city to perform at weddings being held in the country. When Robin and I were onstage, we were so harmonious. Maybe because we always just got along really well and had a lot in common. I think that comes across when you perform. No matter where we were, someone always requested Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” And that is one of the most important love songs of all time. It’s all about being with someone and it being so comfortable and perfect and spiritual. And that’s what we were putting across onstage, two people in a Stevie Wonder paradise.

On the bus ride home, you’d see the city in the distance, looking like a Lite-Brite set. Robin had bigger dreams for us. He liked to talk about them on the ride home sitting with his cheap keyboard on his lap. He had a plan where we would play on a cruise ship. But after a little while I knew that our band would never get that far.

Partly because he was getting stoned all the time. I saved up my money and bought all kinds of things, like a black coat with round white buttons that my dad said reminded him of a domino piece. Robin spent all of his on drugs. When I tried to say something about it, he said it was because he was an artist. It makes sense to be stoned if you are in a rock and roll band and playing at places like CGBG’s. But if you’re like at a ten-year-old’s birthday, I don’t think that it makes sense. Once Robin was sitting on a pink plastic chair with his legs crossed holding a paper cup with iced tea in his hand with his eyes closed for 15 minutes. He had confetti in his hair the next day. He didn’t even bother to comb it out.

Also he didn’t make love to me anymore because of the drugs. And he stopped wanting to talk about music. He just wanted to borrow my share of the money we made all the time, which I didn’t like. Once I refused to give him five dollars and he called me a bitch right in front of everybody on the street.

“I made you who you are. I got you all these gigs. Why are you being such an ungrateful bitch now?”

“I don’t like the way you’re starting to talk to me,” I said. “You used to like to talk about music.”

I paid attention to all those after-school specials. They made an impression on me. The drug-addict life seemed about as appealing to me as getting cancer. I saw junkies out on the street corners all the time. I did not want to stand on a corner my whole life begging people for crumbs, you know. And having to move out of the way when they wanted me to move out of the way. And scurrying across the street all the time, almost always like two seconds away from getting run over by a car.

Robin was ambitious about what he expected from the world. But I didn’t really need anything like that. I just wanted to be happy. All I desired was a sweet little nest to come home to in the evenings—with all my people in it.

My dad was so proud of his job. He would do push-ups next to the bed in the morning. We always argued about whose turn it was to sit on his back while he did push-ups when we were little. That’s the good life. Get yourself a job that no one else wants, my dad used to say, and no one will try and steal it from you.

*

So I got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts. I got myself one of those little brown dresses with orange lapels. I got to put pink icing on the donuts every morning. I found that I really liked it. The best part was that I got to bring home donuts for everyone at the end of the day. That’s a perk. The only drawback is the pay stays basically the same until you are like 90 years old.

My parents always made a big sloppy deal out of one another. I think they thought that it was important to kiss in front of us kids. Once my dad said that for dessert he wanted a kiss from my mom’s big sweet lips. She went over and sat on his lap and kissed him. We always screamed and giggled when they did that. I wondered as a kid how come my mother didn’t crush him with her big ass. But I think she was weightless when she sat on him. She was like a beautiful deflating air balloon.

My mother used to say that we weren’t rich in money, but we were rich in all sorts of other things. Like love, I guess she meant. I broke up with Robin. I started dating Peter, who worked at the donut store with me.

*

I heard from Robin two years later. He called me from prison. He had one phone call to make. I didn’t know why he was calling me. I didn’t know what I could do for him. But I was yelling at everybody in the apartment to shush. When someone calls you from prison, it is holy and you have to treat it with respect.

He wanted me to sing a Whitney Houston song. He wanted “How Will I Know.” And everybody in my family got quiet and gathered in the hallway. They were all listening too. He liked that song because I think he never really believed that anyone really liked him. He was feeling lonely and wanted to know that even though you felt all alone and like everything was wrong, you might be all wrong about that feeling.

All those nights out playing in our rinky-dink band were really fun, but I never took it seriously. I don’t like those big, big ideas. They are kind of like drugs. I don’t have it in me to be somebody like Whitney Houston. She would fight with Bobby Brown all night long—I could never be in a relationship like that. I just wouldn’t care at all. She cared so much about Bobby Brown that she let him drive her crazy. She just was so afraid of nobody loving her that she would let a dude treat her any way he wanted.

*

It’s really not my business to figure out who killed Robin. The best thing I can do at the moment is just sing the Whitney Houston song at his funeral. I don’t know if that’ll do Robin any good. I think I need to sing it to me as much as to him. I think I’ll be singing a love song to some sort of dream that was too big for us to have.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.




Heather O'Neill
Heather O'Neill

Heather O’Neill is the author of three novels: Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction; The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; and The Lonely Hearts Hotel. She is also the author of a collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels; and a book of poems, two eyes are you sleeping. Born and raised in Montreal, O’Neill lives there today with her daughter.










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