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The lonely hearts hotel, p.15
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.15

           Heather O'Neill

  “I want you to pretend to be my pimp,” Poppy told Pierrot. “I always feel I’m in danger because I don’t have a husband or a boyfriend. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to exist.”

  “Thank you. I will try to live up to your expectations.”

  “Oh, I haven’t set them very high at all. You’ve got that fancy suit. People will think that you’re a pimp. They’ll leave you alone. They’ll assume you’re crazy and that you have a gun.”

  She found a small room in a cheap hotel. It had blue wallpaper. She had cut some photographs of movie stars out of the newspaper and stuck them on the wall above her bed frame. She said they didn’t have to touch each other. She said he could stay in the same bed as her because it was convenient. She had a black ribbon tied around her neck.

  “Your ribbon is pretty but odd. I keep thinking that if I untied it your head would roll right off.”

  After he said this, Pierrot looked rather terrified.

  The mattress was lumpy. She left on her undershirt and tights at his request. Her tights were white with brown stripes, like the wallpaper in a basement that had been flooded often. She couldn’t sleep all night because she was so excited. Pierrot fell asleep right away.

  In the alley below, a raccoon dragged his tail behind him like a kid pulling along its favorite blanket.

  • • •

  PIERROT ASKED HER ONCE how many men she had slept with. She stuck out her arms in front of her, her fists closed. She then opened and closed her hands in rapid succession, the fingers spread out wide, like a child’s drawing of a sun that has a bunch of lines for rays.

  He had trouble counting how many times she did this. He wasn’t sure whether it was five or six. And then she ended with three fingers stuck in front of her.

  He knew she was exact about the figure because she believed that if you kept track of how many people you slept with, then you weren’t a prostitute. You were some sort of Casanova. It was a philosophical stance. Or perhaps it was a scientific stance.

  • • •

  WHILE PIERROT SWEPT UP POPCORN and played the piano at the movie theater, Poppy would go out and pick up men on the street corner. She tried not to make conversation, because they might see her teeth and try to find another girl. She just smiled demurely. She would do a little swirl and hold up her coat at the back, as she had been told that her ass was her best feature. She had a little bottle of Lysol. She would mix it with water and then douche with it in the evening to kill what the men had left inside her. She still had her high heels on. They were boots that laced up to her knees. The heroin made her so lazy that she couldn’t take them off for days. She used more when she was with Pierrot. She was able to quit when she wanted to, or go for days without it, unlike Pierrot. He needed it every single day, which was very expensive.

  Poppy had a million other ways of making money too. She had become quite well known in the neighborhood for reading tarot cards. She made baked beans with black-market brown sugar over a hot plate in their room and sold them in the neighborhood. If you ate a bowl, all your problems in the world seemed so insignificant. You might have a bellyache the next morning, of course. Poppy was the type of girl who provided temporary solutions. Perhaps that was why the teeth had rotted out of her head. She was the personification of dessert, wasn’t she?

  She pushed a baby carriage all around the city. Every time she got back to the hotel and pulled it clinking up the stairs, the carriage would be filled with all sorts of amazing things. But never a baby, of course. She had some perfume bottles that she got from the dumpster of a beauty parlor that was going out of business. She filled them with gin she’d made in the bathtub. She gave people a one-cent discount when they brought back the old bottle for her to refill.

  She went door to door selling old clothes. She once got into a fistfight with another Jewish peddler who was also going door to door selling clothes in the same neighborhood. She was so mad at him that she stayed up all night cursing him, until Pierrot suggested she stop. She showed Pierrot some of the baby clothes she was trying to sell. There was even a tiny black suit for a little boy to wear to a funeral. This was the closest they had ever got to romance. They slept in the same bed but didn’t have sex.

  • • •

  THEY LOOKED LIKE A COUPLE. They both had the harried look of people who had come of age during the Depression. Their youth was the only thing that was keeping them from being total bums. Their youth was like the last dollar in their pockets. They were fairly attractive. Or, they would have been attractive if they had more to eat.

  • • •

  POPPY HAD some very appealing qualities. For instance, she could bend forward at the waist at a ninety-degree angle while saying silly pleasantries to you.

  “I’m not going out tonight,” she said one evening.

  She sat on the side of the bed. She had on a bustier to prop up her small breasts. She had on some garter belts. She had on a pair of old underwear. She spread her legs. She tilted her head. She was trying to pose in a suggestive way.

  She had washed all her underclothes by hand with soap so they would smell nice. And she had put some effort into her hair as well. A lot of people said she had an unusual color of hair. She washed it and fixed the curls around her face.

  She wasn’t going to be paid for this. What was she doing it for, then? She was taking the very dangerous and risky move: exchanging her time for love. She wanted Pierrot to love her.

  She and Pierrot had a good thing going on because they were surviving. She was worried that he would leave because the relationship wasn’t consummated. She thought he would owe her something if she let him sleep with her.

  Pierrot stared at Poppy’s provocative outfit, which didn’t excite him in the least. There were so many holes in her stockings that they looked like oil paint on water. And her blue bustier was missing buttons up the front. She winked at him saucily, like a doll with an eye that didn’t close properly. He sort of felt he should act more like a man. He asked her to bend down and show him her ass.

  He kept a little postcard tucked away behind the cupboard in the bathroom. It was of a pair of naked ladies and a man locked in a ménage à trois. It always gave him a hard-on. He looked at it and then wandered into the other room with his eyes shut, looking in the darkness for those two women.

  He closed his eyes tight and pushed his penis into Poppy. She yelled out in surprise and delight that it was finally happening.

  Pierrot was thinking of flying foxes. He was imagining peeking into peepholes at girls changing out of wet bathing suits. He imagined they were the Dionne quintuplets and he was making love to all of them. They would fight for their chance to go first. They would yell at Pierrot that he had already made love to that particular quint and that she was actually coming back for seconds.

  Poppy thought about all the gin in the bathtub. She had been thinking about what they would eat for dinner. She was thinking about who owed her money. She was thinking about a little gosling she had chased around the backyard in her rubber boots when she was little, for just a moment, and then she went back to thinking stressful thoughts. It’s sort of impossible to be absentminded and vacant and daydreamy during sex. You are either enjoying it intensely or you are in a state of high stress.

  Pierrot had a fantasy about making love to a housewife up against the meat counter. She held her little number in her hand. He was trying to come before the butcher got to that number and called it. Because she would be distracted and tell him to get the hell out of there. He wasn’t even sure what that fantasy meant. It had something to do with the Great Depression, though. For whatever reason, it made him burst inside Poppy before he could withdraw.

  When he was done and lying next to her, he did take a long look at her face. There was something so affable about it that he gave her a big kiss on the cheek.

  When he was making love to a gi
rl, in his mind he made love to about thirty-three girls on average. He felt guilty that he had to do this with Poppy. She didn’t cross his mind once while he was having sex with her. Although he hadn’t been with any woman since they had met, he felt as though he were cheating on her now. He felt terrible.

  But when he was done, he shot up and stopped caring. He closed his eyes and fell asleep in the chair with a cigarette in his hand. The ash of the cigarette grew and resembled the trunk of an elephant.

  • • •

  POPPY FOUND A RING in one of the coat pockets she was rummaging through. She was happy. She put it on her left hand. It had a blue glass stone the color of blue eyes that had been crying. She figured people would assume that she and Pierrot were married.

  At one point Poppy was bragging to the neighbors about how Pierrot was so possessive of her—he would never let her talk to any other man. He felt that Poppy was tricking him into becoming some horrible version of a man that he had no interest in being. He knew this was what she believed love was and that she was just trying to be normal, but he didn’t like it at all. It seemed sordid to him. He felt bad about himself all the time.

  He did like to make her laugh nonetheless. She would toss back her head and open her mouth and reveal the terrible brown mess in there. They had a jar of money. They kept saving up money so they could buy some new teeth for Poppy. But then every time the money got to the top of the jar, they would spend it on heroin. She would hold up a warm rag to her face the next morning and really regret her actions.

  What could be more darling in a woman than regret?

  • • •

  HE FELT THEY WERE never quite meant to be together. Pierrot’s old infatuation with Rose started popping up. He used his love for Rose as an excuse never to commit to anybody, and now he used it to find fault with Poppy. She was kind of crass, wasn’t she? When she was thinking up a solution, she would sometimes stick her hand down the front of her pants. She would burp while she was eating. She always stuck her tongue way out at the side of her mouth when she was doing a chore. She was obsessive. Poppy had all these piles of rags in the living room. She was going through them and sorting them. The bottoms of her feet were black. She was holding her breasts in two hands. “Tits for sale!” she yelled out.

  • • •

  ONE NIGHT he had to leave the room for a while and get away from Poppy. And on the same night, on the other side of town, Rose left her hotel, wanting to escape the room McMahon rented for her. Pierrot’s coat collar was pulled up so you could only see the top of his head. Rose had her fur hat down over her eyes so just the bottom half of her face was visible. Pierrot leaped back quickly as the trolley rang its bell at him and then surged by. Rose stopped at a streetlight as a car rumbled past the tips of her toes. Pierrot lit a cigarette. Rose inhaled from her cigarette. Pierrot exhaled smoke rings. Rose let white swirls escape from her nose. Pierrot tossed the cigarette onto the ground. Rose ground the cigarette with the sole of her shoe. Pierrot stopped to look at a mannequin wearing a pink dress in the window of a store on the west end of Saint Catherine Street. Rose stopped to look at a mannequin wearing a black suit in the window of a store at the east end of Saint Catherine Street.

  “Are you there?” Rose said aloud.

  “I’m here,” Pierrot said to himself. “Where are you?”

  “It’s funny how often I think about you,” Rose said. “I still miss having you in my life.”

  “Did you see the movie All the Pretty Girls Live in Paris? I thought it was so stupid. You would have laughed so much at it. I wish we could have laughed about it together.”

  “Remember those pink cupcakes with silver balls on them we ate at that mansion? Those were so delicious. I keep trying pink cupcakes to find ones that taste just like them. But I never can.”

  “Do you still read books? I wish you could tell me about all the things that depressed ladies in books are saying.”

  “Do you still play piano? I’ve never heard anyone play the way you do. There was a recording by a Hungarian pianist. There was something about the way she played that reminded me of you.”

  “I saw a kitten trying to catch the bottom of a curtain and it reminded me of you dancing.”

  “Did you fall in love with somebody?” Rose asked.

  “Does your sweetheart look like me?” Pierrot asked.

  “Do you like coffee? Or ice cream? Are you able to afford ice cream?”

  “Are you having a hard time these days, like everybody else?”

  “Do you remember when we used to pretend to be on a train next to each other?”

  “Do you remember how you told me that unicorns were absolutely real?” Rose asked. “And that you thought you saw one out by the chicken coop?”

  “Did you ever love me? You don’t have to say. It’s an embarrassing question. I’m just curious.”

  Rose sighed and turned around and walked back home. Pierrot sighed and decided to return to his room. Rose climbed up the stairs slowly. Pierrot stepped over someone sleeping in the hallway. Rose pulled her key out of her purse. Pierrot fumbled with the lock. Rose took off her hat. Pierrot shrugged off his jacket and left it behind him on the chair. Rose kicked off her shoes. Pierrot unlaced his boots and pulled them off. There were holes in the heels of Rose’s tights. One of Pierrot’s big toes was sticking out of its sock. Rose turned on the radio. Pierrot turned the dial to Late Night Music for Restless Moonlight Listeners. If she could, Rose never missed an episode of it. It was Pierrot’s favorite show by far.

  Rose clapped her hands when a song called “You’re Not My Sweetheart” came on. Pierrot forgot about his problems when he heard this song. Rose felt the singer’s voice sounded so familiar. Pierrot thought he himself could have written the words to the song. When the words came on, Rose began to sing along. Pierrot couldn’t help but join in:

  I don’t like the way you wear your hat.

  I can’t stand the way you hum to tunes.

  I don’t like the way you laugh.

  I never liked the way you sing.

  So how come I get all crazy when you come around?

  All over the city, in living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, and on factory floors, people burst out into the chorus:

  Boom, boom, boom goes my heart, boom, boom, boom.

  Boom, boom, boom goes my heart, boom, boom, boom.

  Boom, boom, boom goes my heart, boom, boom, boom.



  Poppy always paid for the heroin. By the time he was twenty-one, Pierrot couldn’t afford to get high every night with the pittance he was making being an usher and playing the piano on random nights. Poppy knew this too. The more he was dependent on heroin, the more he was dependent on her. Poppy’s pet projects and prostitution alone certainly couldn’t support Pierrot’s growing addiction. She sometimes had trouble making any money at all. Men preferred the brothels. There was something about Poppy that made them all feel a little bit sad. They couldn’t forget that they were paying for sex. She never seemed to have repeat customers. Whoever made love to her always seemed overcome by guilt that lasted, like a hangover, for three days.

  Pierrot decided he would be a thief. He didn’t have an elaborate inner debate over whether it was right or wrong. He had spent the last few years up in the mansions in Westmount, and he knew very well that they were loaded with fantastic items, most of which the owners didn’t have a need for. There was such an enormous discrepancy between the rich and the poor that he felt he was in some ways providing society with a much-needed redistribution of wealth. He ought to be thanked for his actions. Of course, it was only he and Poppy who benefited from this redistribution, but that seemed like a rather minor hole in his economic theory. He had never been to university, so nobody could expect him to be Friedrich Engels.

  Pierrot would leave his shoes outside the
windows of the houses before he crawled inside. He preferred to creep into the houses while the occupants were at home, as they were less likely to have locked up. He would stand in his stocking feet, looking at the paintings in the long hallways as though he were a connoisseur in a museum appraising a traveling exhibition.

  He was fond of taking paintings. They were quite light. All the French aristocrats with their big wigs looked like they had just stepped out of bubble baths. He chose what he believed to be the best painting and took it home. He would place the painting—and whatever trinkets had tickled his fancy—into his suitcase, put his shoes back on and saunter off down the street.

  In his remarkable tailored suit he never attracted attention to himself, despite it being worn out and mended by Poppy. No one could imagine that his home was anywhere but this elite neighborhood. He was also a familiar face to the police officers. They didn’t know his name, but they felt quite sure that they had seen him growing up around there.

  The pawn dealer was always impressed by Pierrot’s perspicuity when it came to selecting the paintings. He always plucked incredible works of art, the most valuable pieces in the collection. Yet he was unaware ahead of time of the priceless possessions in the houses he entered.

  He crawled up a trellis one evening and climbed gently and quietly into an open window on the second floor. Pierrot put his black-stockinged toes on the carpeted floor, stood up against the wall and took a moment to ascertain where in the world he had found himself.

  To his surprise, he was in a room whose walls were covered with a mural of mountains with sheep running across them. There were numerous astral bodies floating around his head. How peculiar to have Jupiter floating just inches away from him. He could reach out and touch it with his finger.

  He looked down at the green carpet at his feet. He was surrounded by a flock of miniature sheep and cows and horses. How was it that he had found himself a giant?

  Then he looked across the room and saw a very small bed in the middle. Ah, he was in a nursery. He was immediately calmed, then alarmed again when he noticed a small boy had sat up in the bed and was looking right at him. What could he do? His fate lay in the hands of an emotionally volatile and unpredictable child.

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