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The lonely hearts hotel, p.11
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.11

           Heather O'Neill

  She went inside them as though they were bureaus and she was opening their drawers. She looked underneath the folded articles of clothing. She found their dirty postcards. She pulled them out and had a look at them. And what lovely things she did find there.

  She was on a trolley and she began to imagine what sexual fantasies were in the men’s heads. A man with an enormous mustache got down on his knees and lifted her skirt and began to lick her pussy. He wouldn’t wash his face for the rest of the day. He would go to sleep with the smell of pussy all around him like a cloud.

  There was one who would have her lick whipped cream off his penis. She almost laughed at this. The poor fellow—it was what he wanted more than anything in the world and yet he was afraid to ask for it.

  There was one who just wanted her to tell him that he was a filthy animal the whole time they were fucking.

  She stared at one man, reading his mind, while her own desire was like a balloon, growing and growing and growing inside her. She just needed him to take a pin and pop it, so that it would explode, so that she would cry out.

  Rose rang the bell on the trolley. She descended at her stop and walked off.

  She imagined making the man feel understood. As though he had just made love in exactly the strange manner that he had always wanted. He had just met the woman who had fulfilled all his desires, and he wouldn’t need anything ever in the world again. And there she was walking off down the street, not even looking back at him. As if he were clothes in a changing room that she had tried on for size and then discarded.

  • • •

  MCMAHON CAME HOME early one night. When people come in from the cold, you can feel it all around them like a shawl of some sort. And when people return from doing something wicked, it also surrounds them. You get a shiver in their presence. Rose felt it one day when McMahon walked in, and she knew that the girls weren’t wrong about him. He had done something nefarious very recently. He had a cigar between his teeth, and the smoke coming out of it looked like a skinny girl pulling her undershirt down to her knees.

  • • •

  MCMAHON WAS ALWAYS looking at her. He was wary of her. It was as if he had a premonition that she would destroy him. It was actually a kind of animal instinct. It was the way a cat felt when a dog walked by. Rose was a predator and he was prey. He was a man. He shouldn’t be afraid of a girl like that. She was so skinny. None of this seemed right. Shouldn’t he be the one to destroy her? It was a new feeling for him, and he needed to understand it. It was attractive.

  • • •

  SHE WAS MAKING shadow puppets of a bird on the wall. It was a black crow. And somehow the black crow managed to fly from the bedroom wall and down the hall and into his bedroom. It was waiting to pick on his corpse.

  • • •

  MCMAHON WAS ENORMOUS. She had fallen into his gravitational pull. He was the center of everyone’s universe in the home. That happened in any home. You either fell into someone’s orbit or you had to force everyone to be in yours.

  • • •

  THAT NIGHT IN HER BED, Rose imagined that she told McMahon to get down on his hands and knees and to kiss her gently, one hundred times, between her legs. She imagined fastening both his wrists to the bedposts with ties and then riding him wildly.

  If you can imagine something, then it is possible within the physical laws of this universe. So says some Greek philosopher.

  She lay on the tiny bed, spent and happy, knowing that certain things were possible to her that she had not thought possible before. The fantasy had proved revelatory. She fell asleep with the satisfaction of an explorer who had just spotted land through his binoculars. While seagulls circulated over her head crying loudly, “Land ho! Land ho!”

  • • •

  THE CHILDREN’S MATH TEACHER was quite interested in Rose. He tried to make conversation with her when he came by. He loaned her a book by Victor Hugo. When she opened the pages, she found a pressed flower between them. She held up the tiny flower, whose aging process had been stopped.

  They sat together in the backyard. There were white flowers wilting in the yard as if a child had had a tea party and left the pieces all over the carpet. He told her about his little house and how much money he made. “I would like to start a family. And I think that with you I would have very pretty and very happy children.”

  She found herself yawning during the conversation. She yawned and yawned and yawned and yawned. She found the idea of life with him so boring.

  All the other servants thought it was a good idea to marry him. He was so handsome and so polite, and he wouldn’t beat her. And although Rose was young, they thought it a good idea that she get married before she ended up ruined. She had no desire for him, though. Her desire was a strange calling that she couldn’t ignore.

  • • •

  MCMAHON LOOKED LIKE A BEAR. He was always lumbering around in the house late at night. He would turn the lights on and knock things over and rattle dishes, unconcerned about whom he might be disturbing. He ate leftover turkey by himself in the dark. She could hear his great snoring from all the way down the hall.

  She liked the idea of being ruined. She was curious to see what would happen to her if no man would marry her. It seemed like the most likely way to have an adventure. Even though she was able to make people laugh all day, she sometimes wanted to be tragic.

  And then one night Rose ran into McMahon on the way from getting Ernest back to sleep. Their eyes met. There was something new in the darkness of their eyes. They looked and looked, trying to find out what the new thing might be. What it was that they recognized in each other. Then they both realized it all at once. They’d had sexual fantasies about each other the night before. The insight was so shocking to Rose. It was as though there were a noose around her neck, and she heard the floor drop. It was wonderful.

  “Don’t touch me or I’ll scream.”

  “What are you talking about? Are you crazy? Why would I want to touch you? How dare you talk to me like that!”

  “I would never let you touch me just like that, just for nothing. I don’t have any desire for you, so you will have to pay me whatever I ask for, when I ask for it.”

  McMahon stared at her. “I don’t want you. How can you speak to me like this? Aren’t you worried that I’ll fire you? Aren’t you worried that I’ll throw you out onto the street?”


  “You’re not?”

  “You won’t throw me out.”

  “So you want to be a whore?”

  “If you are going to put it that way, then yes.”

  Of course, Rose was worried he was going to have her kicked out of the house. She was terrified that things wouldn’t work out; this was incredibly risky. She was well aware. It reminded her of a trick she used to perform when she was in the dormitory—she would pile eight or nine Bibles on her head. She would walk around like there were nothing at all unusual about what she was doing. This was so risky, because if the Bibles fell, they would make such a huge thud on the floor that the Sisters would arrive to punish Rose mercilessly.

  She put her index finger up to her lips and whispered a shhhh, then she hurried out of the room.

  This was a new act for her. And like all new acts, it made her really nervous.

  The acts that made her the most nervous were always her best. That’s what you always felt when genius was in the room: humbled that it had visited you, and terrified that you might blow it.

  She sat on the edge of her little single bed, trembling. But McMahon did not fire her. Instead he observed her every day.

  His wife was so beautiful. His wife looked like sunshine bursting through the window. There wasn’t a single person in the world who wouldn’t think his wife was incredibly beautiful. When McMahon first met her, they went out all the time. When she walked into casinos, everyone started winning.
When she walked into a room, everyone felt better about themselves. They found themselves to be funnier or wittier and more charming. So everybody always wanted her around.

  But she would never have set eyes on him or given him the time of day if he hadn’t become filthy rich. His money had indeed bought him love. Given what he had seen of the world, the exchange of love for money seemed to be one of the commodities that never wavered—it was as dependable an investment as electricity. But she always reminded him implicitly that he was a criminal.

  The girl had looked at him with such desire.

  • • •

  SHE TOLD HIM THAT for a dollar she would act like a kitten. He gave it to her. She put a little bowl of milk on the floor, and she got down on her hands and knees and lapped it up. Then she stood up and walked away. He didn’t know what to make of what he had just seen. He was frightened. It made him feel guilty, as though his life had been a crime and he was suddenly feeling remorse for it.

  • • •

  THERE WERE MEN WHO LIKED all sorts of odd and depraved perversions. He owned brothels, after all. The things they liked were so ridiculous, it made him think of them as children. He would never engage in that nonsense.

  • • •

  ROSE WALKED UP TO HIM and held up her wrists for McMahon to see. There was a black ribbon tying them together. “How in the world did this happen?” she asked.

  He had no idea how he was supposed to answer that.

  • • •

  ROSE STARTED SINGING “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” as she walked by with an imaginary birthday cake. Each time she blew out an imaginary candle, McMahon felt as though his heart were a flame she had blown out. He was dead. He died nineteen times. That was how many imaginary candles there were on the imaginary cake.

  • • •

  HE COULDN’T FIGURE OUT whether she had genuine designs on his destruction or whether she was just a pervert.

  • • •

  SHE WAS STANDING WITH A BANANA. She slowly lowered the banana so that she was holding it at her hips. As though it were a penis.

  • • •

  SHE PUT DOWN the laundry basket. She leaned up against the wall and began kissing it. She kissed it tenderly and a little bit hesitantly, as if she and the wall were touching each other for the first time. As if they were experimenting with kissing before getting into something deeper.

  • • •

  SHE WAS LEANING AGAINST the back door, outside the house. She had a jacket on. Her hair was all messed up from the wind. She had the mop standing upside down next to her.

  “Oh, I don’t know if he’s that handsome. I think there are better-looking men at the nightclub. You find every man good-looking.”

  The mop was leaning a little in toward her, her confidante.

  “Really? You would. Oh, I don’t know myself. I don’t know if I’d let him touch me.”

  For a second it seemed to him as though the mop were shaking, holding in its laughter too. Were they laughing at him because they thought that he was a fool or because they actually liked him? When any woman agreed to reciprocate your affections, weren’t they all thinking a mixture of both things?

  • • •

  HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT it would be like to make love to such a girl. He wondered about making love to her the same way he had wondered about lovemaking when he was a virgin. How could she be more experienced than he was? Maybe the priests had lined up to make love to her. He had heard that this was quite common. But how would that make her so brash?

  He wanted to make love in her peculiar way. He wanted her to whisper the rules to this strange new type of lovemaking into his ear. He would follow the rules. He would abide by every one of them. He would get down on his knees and worship her if it was one of the rules. He really hoped that it was.

  • • •

  MCMAHON’S LONGING TO BE with Rose made no sense to him. He wanted it to go away, as if it were the flu or some oddly unbearable pain. The only way to get rid of it would be to make love to her.

  She was standing in the hallway with an apple on her head like William Tell—desperate. Inviting anyone to have their way with her. He couldn’t resist her. He took the apple and stuck it in her mouth so that she wouldn’t be able to cry out when he entered her.

  • • •

  MCMAHON TOOK HER in the nursery. The pile of bricks toppled over. There was a giant dollhouse. All the little dolls seemed to be staring out the windows at Rose. They were gathered in the rooms, watching Rose the same way the orphans used to look out at the snow falling, the strange wonders of the outside world that did not belong to them. There was a row of tin soldiers on the windowsill. They weren’t on her side. Even though they were only three inches tall, they were men. There was a hobbyhorse standing in the corner. It was handmade out of orange yarn and had purple buttons for eyes.

  Rose was so slender compared to McMahon. It wasn’t just a matter of size. It had to do with years. The older you got, the thicker you became. She had only been alive for nineteen years.

  She liked that he was enormous. She felt as though she were scaling him like he was a mountain. He picked her up and carried her around the room as if she only weighed ten pounds. The Sisters would never pick her up and carry her just for fun. Just because they couldn’t resist. Just because they wanted to get her head up close to theirs. They never picked her up at all.

  When he went down on her, she couldn’t believe how amazing it felt. It was like she had been thrown into a lake. She wanted it desperately. And she cried out in a pretty cry of joy when she came. And she hated herself for having sex with someone other than Pierrot. But then again, hating herself was part of what made it feel so good. The self-loathing that arrived right before you came was at the very extremes of feeling.

  If this was how good sex felt with somebody you hated, what might it actually feel like with somebody you loved? she wondered. She’d always had an inkling that she was the type of girl who would love sex. But she had not realized she would enjoy it so much.

  • • •

  MCMAHON WAS THAT BOY in the story who had to keep his finger in a hole in the wall of a dam. And he suddenly couldn’t stand the responsibility anymore. He just wanted to pull his finger out of the hole and go on to other activities in life. He was a prisoner to the hole. So finally he yanked at the finger and the flood came on. And it destroyed everyone around him and all of civilization, and everyone perished in the swoosh of the great waters.

  And he was drowned for a moment and he experienced the euphoria that the drowned are supposed to feel just before life lets go of them, like a child letting go of the string of a balloon.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS STILL THROBBING as she hurried down the hallway. She loved the feeling of McMahon oozing out from between her legs.

  • • •

  AND WHEN MCMAHON got out of bed the next morning, he felt as though he were made out of ashes.

  • • •

  THE NEXT DAY the maid was in the nursery and she saw the apple sitting there. How funny to find an apple just sitting there without an owner, without a history. She picked it up and bit into it. It was the most wonderful apple she had ever tasted.



  Pierrot had a dream that he was sitting in a room that had a thousand lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling. The electric light was so great that it was as if it were shining from God. Irving believed it was a sign. He invested heavily in GE. Irving had begun to make investments based on Pierrot’s dreams. His returns were paying off wonderfully. He rarely listened to his adviser but to Pierrot instead. He told Pierrot he would leave him some money because he had rightfully earned it.

  Pierrot yelled, “Don’t talk about such things!”

  But Irving was frail, and the years were hard on his health. Pierrot helped Irving int
o the bathtub one night, as was his custom. Irving sat with a little tumbler of brandy in his hand as Pierrot shampooed his hair. He poured a bucket of soapy water over his head to rinse it and Irving noted that his brandy now had a soapy taste.

  Later Pierrot sat next to him in the large bed, underneath the purposeless enormous canopy, and spoon-fed him soup. He held a napkin close by, and he dabbed any spill from Irving’s chin.

  Irving stopped going outside because he didn’t want anyone to see him this aged and this incapacitated. He could only bear for Pierrot to see him this way. Pierrot didn’t judge people. Their walks were now confined to the mansion.

  Because it was wintertime, Irving was fretting that he would never live to see another summer and see his roses. Pierrot hired a landscape painter to come into the bedroom and paint roses all over the walls. Irving wept when he saw the beautiful mural, thinking that he had died and had found himself, to his surprise, in heaven.

  • • •

  ONE MORNING Pierrot had taken off his fancy suit, and it was hanging from a coat hanger. He was wearing a green undershirt and a pair of the old man’s pajama bottoms that tied at the waist with a string. He walked into the bedroom, carrying a tray with a plate covered in cheese and bread and some peaches that had been left by the grocer outside the front door. When he saw that the old man was frozen in time and looking at the ceiling, Pierrot dropped the tray and cried out.

  There was a chandelier above his head, made out of eight thousand glass beads, like pieces of ice from a hailstorm had all been frozen mid-fall.

  Pierrot called for the undertakers to come. He sat next to Irving’s body, holding his hand, occasionally whispering, “There, there.” The undertakers came and took the old man away on a stretcher, stepping over sweaters and plates in the hallway. The house was so quiet and empty once the large front door thudded to a close. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, but before he knew it, Irving’s son arrived.

  Pierrot put his clothes on hastily, intimidated by the severe, middle-aged man. He pushed his wild, unwashed hair from one side to another, attempting to look normal. He shuffled through the papers on the night table. He was looking for an item of great importance for his future. He found it underneath a cup of coffee that was resting on a top hat that was on a pile of records that was balanced on an empty cake box that was on top of a copy of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Pierrot had read the book three times to Irving. He showed Irving’s son the piece of paper, which was the amendment to Irving’s will.

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