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The lonely hearts hotel, p.14
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.14

           Heather O'Neill

  • • •

  SHE BEGAN throwing up in a bucket. What happened if an unwanted child gave birth to an unwanted child? It was as though she were in a hall of mirrors, except that instead of getting smaller in each one, she got younger and younger.

  • • •

  BUT IT DIDN’T HAPPEN that way. Instead she had a cramp one morning. She went to sit on the toilet. And when she was done, there was the world’s tiniest baby floating in the toilet. She put her hands up to her face. She pulled the chain and her firstborn was flushed.



  The bulk of McMahon’s money had always come from dealing drugs and running brothels. McMahon had made a small fortune in the heroin trade, using the old Prohibition routes to bring the drug into the United States. He had about twenty-five brothels operated by madams. He was more hands-off about those. The madams sometimes just paid him to have a building in their names, as they weren’t allowed to legally own anything themselves. And, of course, he gave his brothels a heads-up when the police were going to raid them.

  All that was underground, but he was openly the owner of the Roxy and several other clubs. If he hadn’t been a greedy man, he could have lived well just off his clubs, because they generally did very well. Montreal had never had Prohibition, so it had become a party town for Americans. There were cars full of people looking to drink at piano bars. Since it was also a port town, it was filled with sailors. They wore white hats at the backs of their heads, and they howled away at the moon. The sailors took Montreal clap all over the world.

  Because it was a sin city, there was money in entertainment, and McMahon could afford to make his clubs lavish places. He hired out-of-town acts. He even had burlesque stars. They had big asses, with ostrich feathers on them. And eyelashes so long there was nothing much they could do other than blink wistfully. They breathed fire. They spun hoops around their hips.

  Rose started going to see McMahon at work. She would read a book in the corner of his office because she didn’t want to spend the day alone. A girl named Poppy showed up once when Rose was over. She had curly red hair and a missing front tooth. She was a prostitute at one of the lower-end brothels that McMahon owned. She had no chest at all and was wearing a transparent shirt with no bra, as though having only two raised nipples were a selling point. She had a thin brown mustache above her lip that made it look like she’d just been drinking chocolate milk. Maybe God hadn’t quite decided what sex she was going to be. She was swinging her arms around and spinning the globe in the office. When McMahon asked what the hell she wanted, she said she needed a lawyer because she’d been arrested four times in the past six months.

  “It’s not fair. Madame makes me go to prison for everyone.”

  McMahon told her that the brothels were run entirely by their madams and not him. But he’d see what he could do, if she got lost right away. She nodded at him, did a quick about-face and hurried back out the door. McMahon didn’t mention Poppy again—he pretended no one had walked into his office. But she had made an impression on Rose. She went to find the curly-haired whore for advice on how to not get pregnant again.

  When Rose went out, she would button up her coat over her maid’s outfit. It was still the only dress she had. When McMahon told her that he would buy her a dress, she got on her knees and grabbed his collar and begged him not to. She still felt much too guilty. If he bought her a dress, she would be indebted to him; she would have to do something in return and would be trapped in that life forever. Although she couldn’t really put all that in words.

  • • •

  THE BIG CLUBS WERE ON Saint Laurent Boulevard, which had an alley running behind it, where gentlemen could leave quietly out the back door in search of a brothel. Rose went down to the side streets that shared the alley.

  All the dwellings looked more or less the same. They were two-storied squat duplexes made of red bricks. They had different-colored doors. Every now and then there would be a prettier house with a balcony or a tin molding with maple leaves along the roof. Some had concrete squares next to their door, the Virgin Mary leaning forward out of them with supplicating hands.

  A young mother wearing a red kerchief on her head and carrying a baby on one hip and a big cloth bag with groceries in it on the other passed Rose. There was a look of women who breast-fed while they themselves were hungry. Their skin was gray and their teeth were rotten and wiggly. A little girl trailing behind her wore a gray cotton dress with pink flowers. She wore only one sock as, presumably, there just hadn’t been time to put on her second one. The child was carrying a bag of onions like it was a war buddy she was going to have to leave behind eventually. The family smelled like urine, probably because of the baby’s diaper.

  The women in the brothel were the only ones without children. But Rose realized, looking at their slow mannerisms, that they all seemed to be addicted to heroin. Being a woman was a trap. Something would bring you down before you turned twenty-three. The only time the world shows you any favor, or cuts you any slack, is during that very brief period of courtship where the world is trying to fuck you for the first time.

  • • •

  THE DUPLEXES FOR THE WHORES were usually nicer. They could afford pretty curtains and a doormat. The whores in the windows were like chocolates in an Advent calendar. The madam let Rose in. She pointed the way to Poppy’s room. Rose walked down the hall and knocked on a door. It swung open and there was Poppy, wearing an undershirt and nothing else. She had a great big strawberry-blond bush and scabs on both of her knees. Rose wondered what odd sexual practice caused her to skin both her knees. Poppy looked at her visitor, trying to place her.

  “Oh yeah, you’re with Mac.”

  “My name’s Rose.”

  Poppy gestured for Rose to come in. She slammed the door and sat down on the lumpy double bed that seemed to be made of old oatmeal, in the center of the room. There were magazines lying all over the quilt.

  “You’re named after a flower too.”

  “It’s not my real name.”

  “Jesus, I’m not really Poppy either. Everyone goes by the name of a flower here, in case they get arrested. I’ve changed my name about seven times, but everyone always calls me Poppy. I guess it suits me. My real name is Sarah. I’m Jewish, if you can believe that. I make less money than all the other girls, so when the madam gets a tip that there’s going to be a raid, she always hides the better-looking girls in the ceiling and lets me get arrested. I think that it has more to do with my personality than my appearance. I mean, I have naturally curly hair. Not that anybody knows that it’s naturally curly because you can fake it. Maybe people aren’t as impressed by curly hair as they should be.”

  “I think you’re very pretty.”

  “Not that I really think that much about it at all, in the end.”

  “What are you reading?” Rose asked, pointing to the Better Homes and Gardens and The Chatelaine magazines on Poppy’s bed.

  She looked at Rose with enormous eyes, which made her look like a little kid.

  “Oh, I can’t read very well. I like them for the recipes. There’s one for jam that I’m interested to try. I make the city’s most amazing jam. Look at this.”

  She knelt on the bed and leaned over to pull open the door of the armoire at the foot of it. Sure enough, there was a shelf with ten jars on it.

  “My jam is so good, I’d be a millionaire if I were a man. You know, there are sometimes articles in the magazines about how it’s all right to be a woman. I don’t know if I believe it, though. My crotch is always itchy. I get sore every time I have sex.”

  “What do you do for it?”

  “Sit in a pot of water and pray to God.”

  They laughed together. They heard the girl in the next room moaning wildly.

  “Be careful, sweetie, don’t hurt me. I’m new to this. Ooooh, that feels so str

  “Listen to that!” Poppy said. “Isn’t she good? The men all love her. She’s so pretty. She’s done by four o’clock, then she goes to the penny arcade.”

  “Oh daddy,” said the voice through the wall. “Teach me how to do it so I can show your friends when they come over.”

  Poppy put her hands over her mouth and exclaimed, “How does she think of that?”

  “Do you get along with the other girls?” Rose asked.

  “Yes. I’m good to them. I go to prison for them, and I read all the girls’ fortunes. Give them advice and such. I can do yours!”

  Poppy rolled across the bed as though she were rolling down a hill, fell off the other side, then jumped up and went to get the pack of cards on the bureau. Rose found Poppy so fascinating to look at, even if men didn’t find her attractive. She loved how openhearted Poppy was.

  “Where did you learn how to read cards?” Rose asked.

  “There was an old French-Canadian woman who lived upstairs and had no legs. She showed me. She also taught me how to make jam and maple butter, and also how to swear in French. Those are, like, the only things that I know how to do well.”

  She shuffled the cards like a madwoman. Then she held out the deck for Rose to cut them. Rose took off the top half of the deck. Poppy flipped the card that was on top of the second half.

  “The death card! You’re going to wreak havoc in this world, miss.”

  “I didn’t need cards to tell me that.”

  “What do you need to know?”

  “Where to get condoms.”

  “Ha-ha-ha! That’s hysterical. Let’s go to the pharmacist. I only have five left, and I need them for myself.”

  Poppy threw on a light blue sweater and a red pleated skirt. There was a crashing sound from downstairs, undeniably the sound of a door being smashed in. Poppy looked out the window. Police officers were already hauling out two girls from the parlor downstairs.

  “It’s the police again! I’m not going to jail. Forget about it! Let one of the pretty girls go. Come on.”

  They ran out of the room and into the hallway. They ran into the bathroom. There were already two girls pulling up a ladder behind them into the crawl space.

  “Come on! Let us up!”

  “Cachez-vous ailleurs. There’s no more room up here,” one of the girls called down.

  “Damn you.”

  The cops were coming up the stairs now. Poppy hurried Rose into a bedroom and pulled her into the closet. Poppy shut the door behind them, and Rose looked around to discover that they were in a tiny closet with striped green wallpaper. There was a piece of plywood at the back that Poppy pushed aside, revealing a large hole, which they promptly squeezed through. Rose put the plywood back and then turned to find that they were in another closet. This one had blue wallpaper with tiny berries on it.

  They could hear the police open the door to the first closet and swish all the clothes along the clothes rail from one end to the other to make sure that nobody was in there. The coat hangers made the noise of knives being sharpened. When the police slammed shut the closet door, Rose and Poppy quietly opened the door of the closet they were in and stepped out into the room.

  They were in a bedroom that looked geometrically identical to the one they had just left. Its decor was the opposite, however. It was dingy and the wallpaper on one wall was different from that on the other. There was a frame with a painting of an old woman with a long neck and no chin, like an ostrich. The linoleum didn’t have any flowers on it.

  There was a child’s bed with a swan painted on the frame. They climbed out the window. They went down the fire escape and into the backyard.

  “Well, what do we do now?”

  “We go on about our business like nothing happened. Let’s get those condoms. One second, though.”

  Poppy opened the door to a shed made of corrugated iron at the end of the yard. There was a small wire chicken coop with a hen sitting in it.

  “I have my money hidden here. And I’ve also got my trusty getaway roller skates! There’s an extra pair for you. Try them on.”

  Poppy came out holding a pair of roller skates in either hand. They strapped the roller skates to their shoes. They were still so young, after all. They were only twenty years old. They laughed, even though it was the so-called Depression. Poppy was much more adept at roller skating than Rose was. She had to grab Poppy’s arm several times. They rolled out of the alley and careered onto the street.

  Poppy was swirling around the people. A lot of them were annoyed, as though Poppy were the world’s most irritating bee. Rose flung herself around a lamppost to catch herself from falling, but she was getting the knack of it quickly. In their roller skates they felt fearless. They felt like they were moving at the speed of light. By the time anybody could figure out the girls, they would already be gone.

  They passed a fat woman in a green velvet jacket sitting on a chair, playing accordion, a hat in front of her. She was playing “The Accordion Waltz.” She was just playing the last bars of the tune. They began to dance with each other. Poppy executed an elaborate move. She put her arms akimbo and kicked her legs up in the air, doing a cancan of sorts. Rose tried to imitate her and fell on her ass. They laughed and laughed.

  They tried to spin around while holding hands and they both fell forward, landing hard on their knees. Now Rose understood why Poppy had scratches and scabs on her legs. It wasn’t from making love but from horsing around on roller skates. Poppy breathed on Rose’s skinned knee. Her breath on the cut felt so cold. It was as though Poppy had suddenly blown all the clothes off her body.

  Her body was made out of sugar. If she stood in the rain, she would dissolve.

  Poppy told her to wait outside the tiny drugstore and ran in to get the condoms. She hopped up the step and glided right in. She had the paper bag tucked in her pocket as she exited the store.

  “Do you want to go to the movies? If you ever want to see a movie, you should go to the Savoy Theater,” Poppy said. “They have the best pianist in the city there. He’s really good-looking—he gives me the chills. Although maybe you don’t like the chills?”

  They took another route home for fun. They passed a long row of people in line for a soup kitchen. They passed in front of the brothel and the door was boarded up. Poppy didn’t want to go in. If the madam was still there, she would be infuriated with Poppy.

  “I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. I should have just got arrested. I’ve done that so many times before. I’d be released in a couple of hours. Who cares?”

  Poppy pulled her curls straight up with both hands out of frustration.

  “Why don’t you come with me?” Rose asked.

  “Are you crazy? Do you think that McMahon would let a girl like me come anywhere near his personal life? Then you don’t know the man you’re having sex with. Oh, never mind. It isn’t your problem.”

  “Well, where do you want to go?”

  “Why don’t you come down to Chinatown?” Poppy asked. “We can get high together. It’ll be my treat. It’s quite lovely. That always makes me forget about my problems.”

  “No, I don’t want to get mixed up in that.”

  “I’ve been doing heroin since I was fourteen. I never get hooked on it. You can do it once in a while if you want to.”

  Poppy lifted up her skirt to show Rose that she had track marks on her thighs.

  “Are most of the girls on drugs?”

  Poppy screwed up one eye, pretending she was giving it some considered thought.

  “Yes. Tulip overdosed last month. She was really pretty. She was only working at the brothel for three months. She started to get so stoned. She went out on the street corner naked and started blowing kisses! She woke up blue one day. It’s a better way to go than Magnolia. She cried all the time. She jumped off the roof. Yo
u think it’s easier than working at a laundry because you can go out on Sunday nights and read magazines, but it’s not. You never make any money. You can’t save up because you have to spend all your money on rent and their crummy food. It’s all a big swindle. Gets some of the girls too down.”

  This was how McMahon made all that money, Rose thought. This was what paid for his mansion and his big meals and his cars and his clubs. This was what his flashy universe looked like backstage.

  “Do you want to get out of there?” Rose asked.

  “They’re going to kick me out, and I don’t know what I’ll do. I met McMahon when I was fifteen. I was cuter then. Just because I make less money than the other girls doesn’t mean I’m worth nothing, you know?”

  They were both working for McMahon. That was why Rose had gone to her. Not only for birth control but to see who she actually was, who she would be when her currency on the dating market plummeted. Rose unbuckled her roller skates and handed them back to Poppy.

  “Will you come back and have your fortune read?” Poppy asked.

  “Yes, I promise.”

  Rose walked for a few steps, then spun around, came back and squeezed her mouth up against Poppy’s in a kiss. Then she ran off.

  “The condoms! The condoms! The condoms!” the curly-haired girl called out after Rose.



  Poppy had been kicked out of the brothel for that day with Rose. She had been robbed and raped a few days later while turning a trick on the street corner. She had two black eyes and a little bandage on the bridge of her nose when she ran into Pierrot again. He had been sleeping in the park and had a couple of twigs in his hair but seemed to be doing better than her. She was like an injured deer. She knew that violent men were watching her every move. She knew they only acted the way they did in secret, with only women and children witnessing their actions. She wanted to walk down the street and not be murdered. When she saw Pierrot, she remembered he owed her a favor.

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