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The lonely hearts hotel, p.12
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.12

           Heather O'Neill

  The son threw the will immediately into the stove. Pierrot was left with not a cent at nineteen years of age.

  • • •

  BUT EVEN WORSE, though he had been Irving’s closest companion over the past four years, Pierrot had to stand at the back of the crowd at the cemetery. The fat, middle-aged women were all dressed in black at the funeral, like a group of cello cases abandoned backstage during a performance. The fedoras on the men were like a cluster of snails. Irving’s children’s lives were to be enhanced by their father’s death because of their inheritance. Pierrot was the only one left out in the cold.

  Pierrot was also the only one who actually missed the old man.

  • • •

  HE WANTED TO CRAWL INTO Irving’s grave and shoot himself in the head. Then he could be buried with Irving. They would meet again in heaven, lying on an enormous bed in the sky.

  Pierrot was wandering and stumbling toward the grave so haphazardly that he bumped into a large statue standing between him and the grave. He stepped back to take a look at it. It was an enormous gray stone angel, whose hair was whipped up in a frenzy. He couldn’t say whether it was female or male. Just one of its stone toes could crush him.

  But the angel with its enormous sword was blocking his entrance into Paradise. The angel seemed to be clearly informing him that he needed to back away. So he turned around and went the other way.

  • • •

  PIERROT TOOK THE TROLLEY DOWNTOWN. It was a neighborhood where you could loiter properly. A horse clip-clopped by like a little girl wearing wooden clogs. Who could Pierrot turn to now? He thought of all the people at the orphanage he had left behind, but he would never be able to find them now. Too much time had passed. Time was not like physical distance. There was no road map you could acquire to travel over it.

  He spotted a piano in the window of a department store. He couldn’t resist. He needed to play it to calm down. He walked through the door, climbed into the window display and began to play. The instrument had a loud and bright sound. He had played a rambunctious piano like this as a child, when touring with Rose. The taut assertive notes had almost seemed to make her mad. She had stomped around to the music like a soldier dancing on the enemy’s grave. She had held out her finger under her nose as though it were a mustache. Remembering that made Pierrot smile.

  As he played a young woman with blue eyes and a cloche over red curls stopped on the sidewalk and stared at him. Then she disappeared. The next thing Pierrot knew, she was sitting next to him on the bench. Her eyes were preternaturally big, as if she were looking through magnifying glasses.

  “And who are you?” Pierrot asked.

  “I’m Poppy. What’s your name?”

  When the girl spoke, he could see that one of her front teeth was missing.

  “Well, Joseph, actually. But you can call me Pierrot.”

  “You have a terrific outfit.”

  “Thank you. My father had it tailor-made for me. He passed away today, and I don’t have a cent in the world.”

  “You play the piano very well.”

  “I was hoping to find work playing it.”

  “You’re outta luck. All the piano players used to play for silent movies, and now they’re all laid off. I know a movie theater that needs someone to mop up the sticky floors. Want the address?”

  “Yes, absolutely. That would be a dream come true for a newly made pauper like myself.”

  “All right—1340 Saint Catherine Street West. Tell them Poppy sent you. Actually, tell the manager the Redhead from Heaven sent you. That’s how he knows me.”

  “Thanks. You are an angel.”

  “That’s what they say. Hey, I was wondering if you wanted to accompany me to Chinatown. I don’t like to walk alone, and you look like you need some cheering up.”


  They walked together to Chinatown. There were buildings covered in red glazed bricks. The edges of the roofs were curled at the tips like slippers. They sold parts of chicken different from what Pierrot usually ate, like the feet. There was a grocery store that sold different types of delicacies, like pickled eggs. The mannequins in the window displays were wearing silk kimonos decorated with gold dragons and multicolored butterflies. There was a small house of worship with a gold plaque and Asian letters on it. There were chop suey restaurants on every corner.

  The girl hopped daintily over the puddles filled with chicken grease and other horrors. There was a room where you could get heroin at the back of the store, where they sold dragon’s beard candy. Everybody came home with a cloudy look on their faces and a pink cardboard box filled with white, stringy candy.

  They ducked into an alley and went into a door at the end of it. There was a young Chinese girl sitting on a stool behind a table. She was wearing a gray dress and silver stockings and blue leather high heels that were scuffed at the toes. Her black hair was tucked behind her ears, and she was reading an Agatha Christie novel. There was a bowl on the desk holding a black fancy goldfish that swirled around like a paintbrush dipped in black ink. When they entered the shop, she rang the bell on the desk without even looking up. An older Chinese man dressed in a traditional silk outfit came to lead them to the back.

  There were framed prints on the wall. There were couches and daybeds all over the room. For a moment Pierrot was shocked by all the people lying on the thin mattresses on the floor. They still had their coats on. They looked like they had been shot on their way to work. Their foreheads were sweaty. They had their arms around strangers. It wasn’t a sexual thing at all. They were still a little bit conscious. They were trying to peep out of one eye. They were like little kids in their beds, forcing themselves to stay awake so that they could hear more of a fairy tale their mother was reading.

  Poppy found a stack of three thin mattresses stacked one on top of the other like a layered sponge cake. She purchased a pipe, lit it up and inhaled from it. Then she handed it to Pierrot to do the same.

  • • •

  HE FELT AN ITCHING on his back right below his shoulder blades. The itch bothered him. He felt that he had to get to it. If he could just touch the tip of his finger to where the itch was, he would be able to stop it. He tried to reach back over his shoulder in order to scratch it, but his fingers couldn’t reach. And then he tried to get at the itch from underneath, but that also proved impossible.

  Then the itch started to burn and to be painful. There were two pressure points. They were pressing and pressing and pressing. It was as if there were something alive under his skin trying to burrow its way out. And then he felt the skin break. And two wings burst out. And as soon as they did, he felt a wondrous calm.

  He moved the wings around. Wasn’t it just so wonderful to have these extra limbs, ones that reached out into space in such amazing ways? For his whole life he had been confined in a box, and now he was finally allowed to extend himself in all directions.

  Pierrot felt as though he were flying. Everything around him had become immaterial. There was no such thing as matter, only energy. He floated up off the bed. He was up by the ceiling. There were flowers on the tin ceiling. The lightbulb singed his tie. There was no limit to how far up he could go.

  He closed his eyes and floated. Pierrot drifted away. He knew that he ought to take a peek at his whereabouts in the universe so that he could find his way back. His eyelids were great, heavy velvet curtains, very difficult to draw. Perhaps he had floated out a window, into the Milky Way.

  As the effects of the heroin wore off, the wings folded up and retracted into his shoulder blades. He was surprised the wings were able to fit back in once they had been outside of him. But they were gone.



  What were you talking to the governess about?” McMahon asked his wife later.

  “Oh, Marie. Or actually, Rose. That’s what s
he likes to be called, you know.”

  “Is that what the children call her?”

  “Of course. They’ll do anything she says.”

  “Then why doesn’t she get them to behave? Why does everyone else have ordinary children but we somehow brought wild animals into this world?”

  “Maybe she just doesn’t care. Or maybe she doesn’t know they’re misbehaving.”

  “You give her too much freedom. She can’t handle it. She’s like a little dog let out of a cage.”

  “She’s a romantic. Can you believe it? Her mother gave birth to her and then kicked her out the door, and she still believes in love.”

  “Who is she in love with? Did she tell you his name?”

  “She doesn’t use his real name when she talks about him. He has some stupid nickname. But his real name is Joseph. She says she’s going to find him. When she does, she doesn’t want to marry him, she just wants to be his lover. She says he can do handstands and twirl a ball on his feet. She has a dream that she’s going to find him and go on the road with him.”

  “Why do you listen to that?”

  “Because it’s like a fairy tale.”

  “Does she have any contact with him? Does she have any idea where he is?”

  “I’m going to the orphanage tomorrow. It’s so simple. I’ll ask where the little idiot was sent to live, and then we’ll go visit him. If he even remembers who Rose is, I’ll give her a dollar.”

  “I’d love to see this fabled creature too.”

  “I’ll tell you all about it. I’ll be taking the car, by the way.”

  • • •

  MCMAHON INTERCEPTED ROSE on her way home. She was carrying a basket of bread and fish that she’d purchased down at the market.

  “Don’t come close to me. Don’t touch me,” Rose said as soon as she saw him.

  “Don’t go in the house.”

  “Why not?”

  “My wife found out about us.”

  Rose fell down on her knees. She began tearing at the grass. She pulled huge clumps of it, as though it weren’t listening to her and she needed a reaction.

  “I’ve made a mess of everything! What in the world will I do now? What will come of me? I’ve ruined your family. I was finally getting along with your wife. Oh why, oh why, oh why am I such a pervert? It’s the ruin of me, of course. I have such demented thoughts in my head, you have no idea.”

  She rolled over onto her back and flopped both arms out to the side, martyring herself.

  “And the children,” Rose said. “They are crazy already. Please don’t tell me that they knew anything about this. They’ll go completely out of their minds. They’ll end up killing small animals. They’ll end up murderers. I’ll probably be like this my whole life. It’s my great character flaw. I’ll probably have hundreds of strange degenerates for lovers. Someone will write a terrible novel about me.”

  McMahon looked down at Rose in her supine position. She was so lovely, he thought. She was so absurd. How could he not adore that absurdity? Until then his feelings for Rose had consisted mostly of perverted desire and the subsequent reactions of fear and revulsion: the typical emotions that played themselves out when he had an affair with any woman. None of them had surprised him in the least. Those emotions couldn’t tame or threaten a man like him. But he was surprised by the emotion that he was having right then, looking at Rose. Actually, it would be safe to say that he was shocked by it. He was feeling that very rare thing: love.

  He could have dropped her off at the door of any of his brothels. There were so many girls with similar backgrounds to Rose’s. They all used bad judgment. We all make mistakes. And isn’t that what money is for, so you don’t have to pay for them?

  “Sister Eloïse was right about me.” Rose spoke to the sky. “I thought that it was nothing at all to go around waltzing and cavorting with a make-believe bear every night. But she knew what I should have known, which is that there is no such thing as make-believe. I probably was invoking the devil. It wasn’t a bear I was dancing with but the devil. I’m cursed.”

  But she was so lovely! She was plagued with remorse. And racked with guilt. She believed she was a sinner. He remembered the wonderful days when he was able to feel all those things. Rose would make him feel them again. He would be a brute for her. He would never let another man have her, especially not an orphan. He reached his hand out and gently took hers. She got up off the ground.

  She trudged along beside McMahon. The ribbon in her hair was beating around wildly in the wind, like a black stallion not wanting to be broken.



  After the heroin had lost its effect, Pierrot felt how close to the ground the thin mattress actually was. He opened his eyes and the world seemed more mundane and miserable than it ever had. He looked at Poppy, sleeping with her mouth wide open and her skirt up over her panties, and found her too sad to bear. He got up and quickly stepped between the mattresses, then out onto the street alone. As he walked his legs felt inadequate. They got him places so slowly. As though he were walking through water. How awkward this ordinary life was. Everything he took for granted was incrementally harder.

  He got himself a room at the very cheap Cupid Hotel, whose bricks were painted pink.

  Pierrot went to see the owner of the Savoy movie theater, as Poppy had suggested. The Savoy was one of the less popular theaters in town. There were always lightbulbs that had blown out on the marquee. It wasn’t even where a theater should be. Theaters usually existed in a row with others that were just like it. This one was squeezed between a dental clinic and a ceramic-tile store.

  The prices of movies and popcorn were written in white letters on a black frame on one side of the door. The other side had the poster of the movie being shown. The plot involved an incredibly handsome man who tries to rape a woman on a train for two hours, and to both her and the audience’s delight, finally succeeds.

  The inside wasn’t as garish as the other theaters downtown either. The lobby had white walls with molding at the ceiling but little else. In the theater, there was a black curtain with sparse gold tassels at the bottom that pulled open smoothly to the sides and always seemed to get stuck at exactly the same spot. But the seats were black and soft, and there was an orchestra pit that still had a lonely, beat-up piano in it.

  The owner was sitting in a tiny office at the back. He was a very short man with white hair who breathed through his mouth. The man laughed and laughed when Pierrot told him the Redhead from Heaven had sent him. He said he did need an extra usher and cleaner, since his last one had contracted tuberculosis. Pierrot could play the piano during intermission while the audience got snacks. He said his dearly departed wife used to play the piano during the silent-film era and that’s why he couldn’t bring himself to scrap it. But Pierrot wouldn’t be paid more than the other ushers.

  Pierrot changed into a red uniform and porkpie hat. He hurried up and down the aisles during the newsreels. A Betty Boop cartoon came on—the adorable buxom Betty was having herself a funeral. Pierrot stopped for a second to look up at it and laugh but quickly got back down on his hands and knees with his small broom to sweep up spilled pink popcorn. During intermission, Pierrot plopped down on the piano bench. He desperately needed to play a tune. He hadn’t since Irving’s death, and he had to find some way to articulate his grief.

  The moment Pierrot put his fingers down, notes leaped out. What a happy piano! It looked beaten up, but it had a young soul. It loved to be played. It laughed easily under Pierrot’s fingertips. It begged him for more. Like a girl who encourages you during sex with pretty gurgles and gasps. He forgot his predicament for that instant and lost himself in the tune. He played his tune for Rose, the one that had made her dance in the cafeteria. Perhaps she would be in the theater one day with her husband and children and the tune would remind her how she
had loved him once, and why.

  When he was done and it was time for the movie to come back on, surprisingly the audience clapped. The owner was leaning over the balcony railing with a cigar in his mouth and tears in his eyes. The ticket girl, wearing a golden sailor hat, had come out of the booth.

  As he began to play a tune during the next intermission, he felt the wings move. They wanted to break free of his skin once again. They were frustrated now. Especially since they had already felt unfettered freedom—so they were so anxious to be in that state once again. They were so aware, and indignant about their restrictions.

  Pierrot tried to ignore them but they would not leave him be. They kept trying to spread themselves out. They never stopped pushing. They were pushing against each other like two children in a school yard or in the backseat of a car, ever frustrated at the other for infringing on their space.

  • • •

  HE SPENT HIS ENTIRE PAY on heroin. His body immediately relaxed, as though he were naked and lying in a bathtub.

  • • •

  BECAUSE HE SPENT HIS PAY on heroin, he was always short on rent. The landlady was on his back for rent every night when he left. He would often try elaborate ruses to get into his hotel room without the landlady catching sight of him. They had changed the lock on the front door. He would crawl up the back fire escape and into his back window.

  He lost weight. All his clothes seemed a little bit baggy. If he didn’t put on suspenders, his pants would probably fall right down to his ankles. As if he were standing in a puddle.

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