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The lonely hearts hotel, p.13
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.13

           Heather O'Neill
 

  He once spent three minutes attempting to climb into his jacket, which kept trying to run away from him. The minute he put one arm in, the other one seemed to slip out. He seemed suddenly aware of the mathematics and geometry of mundane actions, and once aware, he could no longer take them for granted. But he found it wonderful. Putting on a jacket was as perplexing as folding an origami swan.

  Then one night he crawled up the back fire escape to find that they had also bolted the window.

  Pierrot was tormented by his addiction. The wings were wrapped around him like a straitjacket. He spent the money on heroin and kissed his room at the Cupid Hotel good-bye. Not a month after leaving Irving’s house, he lay down on a piece of cardboard in the park to sleep.

  The leaves fell down on top of him. He kept his eyes closed, but the ground grew up around him. The roots of the trees reached up like the great arms of wrestlers, and they rolled around his limbs like boa constrictors. The beetles and other insects crawled into his nose and ears. They devoured his brain. And then it was hollow, like an Easter egg that children had already blown the yolk out of.

  If anyone was to come along and tap him, his shell would shatter.

  • • •

  HE LEARNED HOW TO SHOOT UP, so he could get more for his money. The heroin would probably kill him within five years. Knowing that somehow took the pressure off everything. What did anything matter if you weren’t going to get old? He could live the rest of his life as a child. What a blessing.

  A child’s main job was to be happy. If Pierrot was happy, he was doing his job. He sat on the trolley with his eyes closed, as big a grin as was anatomically possible spread across his face.

  He walked down the aisle of the trolley. He was holding out a flower. He held it out for everybody to smell. They all backed away from it as if it were going to squirt water in their faces.

  • • •

  HE STOPPED AT A PLAYGROUND one day when he was high. He didn’t feel that he was in any way superior to the children playing there. They were his people! The children looked so hungry that their eyes stuck out like oversize stones on silver rings.

  Children were always amused by Pierrot. They could see right away that he was a lot of fun, that he always got in trouble, that he knew how to clown around, that he didn’t fit in with the other adults.

  He hated being stuck in a body so much bigger than theirs. He couldn’t fit his ass into the swings. The slide was much too narrow for him to whiz down it comfortably. Pierrot sat on one slide and discovered that his feet were already at the ground. What did that mean? If he were an intelligent type of scientist, like Newton or Galileo, he would be able to deduce some fantastic rule of physics from it.

  A father chased him out of the park. He thought it was inappropriate for Pierrot to be talking to children in the playground, for him to be there at all. He was now twenty years old, after all.

  When the evening came, a black bat flew by, like the charred remains of a burned will.

  22

  THE TEN PLAGUES

  McMahon got Rose a room in the Darling Hotel at Sherbrooke and Mountain Streets. It was a fancy neighborhood. The buildings were all stately. There were iron awnings at the front of the buildings, with lights underneath. The very rich inhabited their own universes, lived under their own skies. Limousines would drive up under the awnings. The drivers would hurry out and go around the side to allow extraordinary men and their wives to step out.

  There were doormen with gold-buttoned uniforms in the lobby. A woman strutted by with a great yellow stole wrapped around her fat shoulders, like caramel poured on top of ice cream.

  “Clean up my room, please,” she said, mistaking Rose for a maid.

  Rose had never lived in such a room. It had its own bathroom and a kitchenette. She supposed that she ought to get down on her knees and kiss McMahon’s feet. But she didn’t feel she owed him anything for this. She closed her eyes. She wondered why she had not been allowed to take her suitcase this time. Every young woman should travel around with her own suitcase. She imagined her body cut into pieces and piled into her suitcase with rocks and tossed into the Saint Lawrence River.

  All she had was the plan she’d made with Pierrot, which she kept in her pocket. Her toes sank into the beige carpet as if into sand at the edge of the beach.

  • • •

  SHE LAY IN BED so long that day, she felt like a strange illustration on a children’s quilt. A small pirate on a ship with a patch over her eye and anchors revolving like stars around her head. She didn’t see the point of doing anything at all.

  She felt guilty about everything. She even felt guilty about lying in bed all day long. McMahon had brought her a bottle of golden whiskey. There was a little round glass shaped like a planet on the bedside table next to her. She sat up, her legs dangling off the edge as if she were sitting on a doctor’s examination table. She poured the liquor into the glass. It lapped up on both sides of the glass, like waves crashing against a rocky shore.

  She drank it. Her body was set on fire. It was as though there were a little thermostat knob under her spine. It was cranked higher and higher. She was warm like a cast-iron radiator covered in a pattern of roses. All she wanted in the world was to be warm. If someone tried to grab her toes right then, they would get burned.

  She didn’t want to make love to McMahon at first. She spurned his affections. She was so regretful of having made love to him in the first place that she supposed she wanted to reject him entirely now.

  She had begged McMahon—if he was going to leave her in that hotel room to rot, the least he could do was to please get her some books. He asked her what kind she wanted and she said, “New stuff. Something adventurous.”

  When McMahon told the bookseller he was looking for “adventurous stuff,” he interpreted it as meaning “dirty books.” He handed McMahon a little pile of books, including ones by the Marquis de Sade and Colette.

  Poor Rose went wild as she read them. On every page there were loads of schoolgirls in enormous piles rubbing and rubbing against one another until they achieved orgasm. She was so wet that she trembled and banged her knees, trying to get through the story without tossing the book aside and touching herself. When McMahon walked in, Rose jumped into his arms. Her underwear was soggy up against him.

  Rose smelled of roses. If she touched you, you would also smell like roses for days. The furniture in her room smelled like roses. The mattress in her room smelled of roses. Maybe it was because she was twenty and had just bloomed into a woman. They made love every afternoon after that.

  • • •

  ONE MORNING ROSE WOKE UP to discover that she had been crying in her sleep. She touched her cheeks and was surprised to find that they were damp with tears. McMahon played her a record. When a woman began to sing, Rose wept some more. McMahon said she should knock it off because it wasn’t a particularly sad song.

  “I think there’s something odd happening to me. But it’s not like I’m sick or anything. I’ve just been feeling so odd. And I don’t think I can ignore it anymore.”

  McMahon insisted she go see a Dr. Bernstein he knew. Bernstein was known to administer all sorts of drugs to himself. He was ahead of his time. He was treating himself for all sorts of diseases of the mind. He knew that these were the same as physical ones. He did not believe that anything was spiritual. All ailments were physical. He wanted to find a cure for melancholia.

  He could only practice out of an apartment, and only covertly. It was not really clear how he had lost his license. He’d had a good practice. He had lived in a grand sort of house on the Golden Square Mile. Some people said that he had been on the front. He was shell-shocked, just like the patients he was supposed to be treating.

  He was writing his own book, called An Interpretation of Sadness. He thought sadness was contagious. If you sat next to someone on the bus and they were sad,
even though you didn’t speak to them, you would find yourself overcome by sadness later that night. It is a disease that parades as a mood.

  “He treats irrational illnesses. He believes in diseases that nobody else believes in. He hasn’t found them in laboratories. He found them inside books. This new invention of sadness for sadness’s sake is going to have more damaging effects on the human psyche than modern warfare will.”

  Rose put on her clothes to see this doctor. She was actually rather smelly. She was wearing the same underwear and undershirt as when she had run away from the McMahon house, and she certainly hadn’t made an effort to change them. She hadn’t had time to pack anything. She was stuck with only her maid’s outfit. When she put it on, it seemed as though it had shrunk. The maid’s outfit didn’t have very much strength left in it. The little stitches at the side snapped. The dress had just plain given up. It wasn’t as if she had gained any weight, because she really hadn’t eaten very much at all. Mostly her diet consisted of whiskey for breakfast, whiskey for lunch and whiskey for dinner. She put on her coat. The buttons seemed to have grown in her absence and didn’t want to squeeze into the holes.

  • • •

  SHE HAD THOUGHT that seeing other people would cheer her up, but the effects of the Great Depression were everywhere. Someone had jumped out a window the night before. The landlady was pouring a bucket of water over the dried bloodstain. The water turned red and rolled out onto the street. Rose leaped backward as the bloodied water spread out on the sidewalk and almost touched her shoes.

  As she walked farther down the street a little girl ran by her with a jar with frogs. She released them into the sewers. “We’re being evicted,” the little girl told Rose. “And we can’t keep any of the pets.”

  Rose wondered if the frogs would find a way to survive in the sewers. Perhaps they would multiply and be everywhere in the city in a year. You would go to your bathtub and find it filled with frogs that had climbed out of the drainpipe. Rose shuddered.

  A group of boys passed her. They were wearing dirty clothes, and shoes that looked too big. One boy was barefoot. Their heads were shaved, surely because of lice. They must have slept in the same filthy bed, and the mites were contagious. Who knew what other vermin were in the houses. There were the remains of a burned mattress in the trash. The bedbugs had gotten to be too much. It seemed like everyone in the city was itchy.

  A stray dog hurried by. It had once had a job protecting a family, no doubt. But now no one could feed it. It looked in the window of the butcher shop. They were selling all sorts of ghastly pieces of meat.

  She passed the line for the soup kitchen. There were so many men, all in clothes that had become too big, making them look like circus clowns. A man in the line removed his hat, as though in deference to a pretty lady. His face was covered with boils.

  A man came out of the soup kitchen, clanging a large pot with a big spoon. It made the sound of great thunder. He was announcing to the men that they could go inside now.

  Rose saw a boy holding a newspaper. On the front page it described a horror story about the prairies. There were grasshoppers everywhere. They were eating all the crops. They were insatiable. They came in huge swarms.

  She thought she would keep her eyes closed until she passed the street. As she cut through the park, she saw men sleeping under the trees and on the benches. She had wondered why there were so many men sleeping in the park. They wanted to nap through this part of history. If everyone just closed their eyes, did that make the world go dark?

  Montrealers had spent the entire 1920s out partying, making money off the Americans who came up looking for legal liquor, and maybe the Great Depression was a punishment for that. All the women with short skirts had really enraged God.

  Rose arrived at the doctor’s apartment building. The small lobby had red tiles. She rang his doorbell and then began the long climb up the spiraling stairs to the seventh floor. Rose knocked on the door. Dr. Bernstein answered. He was a middle-aged, sophisticated gentleman. He was wearing a suit, and his white pompadour looked like a wave about to crest. He gestured for Rose to enter. It was a small apartment, but it was quite amazing how much stuff was in there. Rose couldn’t help but gaze around the room as she stepped in.

  There were framed ferns and flowers on the walls, and tiny butterflies pinned to corkboards. In addition, the shelves of his room were covered with all sorts of strange things. There were geraniums on all the windowsills. He had a shelf full of seashells that he had collected when he was young and full of adventure. What beautiful days those were when he had piled these things into a tiny blue tin bucket. He had thought he would figure out the world.

  “You’ll notice I’m a bit of a naturalist.”

  He had a tiny aquarium with a cocoon in it, as he liked to raise butterflies. They would flit and fly around the room. He would get stoned and watch them. The butterflies from warm places were truly magnificent. They had such beautiful wings.

  “Ooooh my, you do have some exquisite bugs.”

  “Thank you. I discovered my interest in insects at school while I was studying biology. I wrote a paper on the sex life of slugs that was widely read by students in universities.”

  He sighed as he led Rose to his examination table.

  “But my father encouraged me to enter medicine. He told me it was much nobler to worry about humans than about bugs. But you know, he was wrong. Because people are wicked. They are cheaters and liars and degenerates and drunks, and the science of medicine just keeps them alive so they can murder and commit even more sins. But I have yet to find anything about the workings of insects that has disappointed me.”

  Rose sat down on the examination table. He pulled up a wooden chair that had once been painted pink and had once been painted blue and had once been painted white. The nature of its deterioration caused all the colors to show.

  He handed her a pretty teacup. It was filled with hot water and a few seeds from when he had squeezed the dregs of a lemon into it.

  “So I see you’ve been stricken by my old pal, Melancholia! Why is it that we never give sadness its due? Why do we insist on keeping so many things secret? Tell me about your relationship with sadness, please.”

  “Even when I was a little girl I wanted to make everybody happy.”

  When she spoke, phlegm cracked her voice. Since she hadn’t spoken in a while her words seemed to be covered in rust. She was glad to talk to the doctor. She always liked to have meaningful conversations. Sometimes you tried to talk to people and nothing worked. The words were all stiff and slow.

  “I always had this gift. Even though we were in this big orphanage where we weren’t supposed to experience anything like happiness or joy, I was still able to see beauty every day. As a child, I existed in a strange, prolonged state of glorious rapture.”

  “Nostalgia and Melancholia are thick as thieves. Old pals from grammar school, one could say.”

  “There was only one other child in the orphanage who was able to do this. He was known by everyone as Pierrot. He could feel it too. That wonder. He was also a collector of beautiful moments.

  “The times did not encourage such children to survive. The rest of them are all lying in tiny wooden boxes in the cemetery. Like packaged dolls to be opened on the final miraculous Christmas.

  “I decided it would be wonderful to invite a great bear as a visitor to the orphanage. And he had a great big heart. He had a heart the size of ten of the mothers. He had such a big heart that he couldn’t help but be a pervert. Could he? He couldn’t help but be a little inappropriate. But wasn’t it better to have someone who was always gushing annoyingly about love than someone who was reserved with it? They had never had someone pinching their cheeks and squeezing them so hard that they could barely breathe. The big dirty philandering bear was a dream come true.”

  “When we accept our perversion, we accept our
selves.”

  “I wouldn’t have been able to express any of that then, of course. But I was a very complicated little girl. I think I was so interested in navigating these strange emotional seas that I became a pervert. Or I lack moral fiber. Either/or. But I would like you to know that I am trying to combat this . . . well . . . complicated aspect of myself. And can you deduce, doctor, what is wrong with me?”

  “You’ll have to take off your underwear and lie on the couch with your legs back up in the air.”

  “Why in the world would that be necessary?”

  “So that I can check my prognosis.”

  “And what is said prognosis?”

  “There’s a certain sort of melancholy that is a symptom of pregnancy.”

  In the aquarium a butterfly began to emerge from the cocoon. It looked at first like an umbrella that someone was having trouble opening, and then each wing fluttered out. Dr. Bernstein held a little box of chocolates for her to choose from. Each one looked like the face of a crying baby. But they were actually shaped like roses.

  • • •

  ROSE WALKED AWAY from the building, frightened. She didn’t have any of the symptoms of pregnancy usually considered typical. She wasn’t sick in the morning. She hadn’t even missed a period. She did, however, know strange things. She was able to guess people’s middle names. She knew how old cats were. She always knew what numbers were going to come up on the die at the barbotte tables. She was surprised to be accumulating so much money. She was making a tidy profit just through betting on them.

  Things that were unhappy called out to her. She lifted up a rock to discover a beetle underneath it, squashed. She opened the back door of a restaurant and a bird that had accidentally been trapped inside flew out. Perhaps it was all coincidence.

  • • •

  SHE DID NOT TELL MCMAHON for fear it would make it more real.

 
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