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The lonely hearts hotel, p.16
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.16

           Heather O'Neill

  He smiled at the child. The child smiled back. He stood on his hands and walked across the room. The child rolled out of the bed as nimbly as Pierrot could do any trick.

  Pierrot froze in one spot. Then he began to walk around the room with awkward, stilted steps. He looked like a mechanical doll. He moved as though each of his joints was stiff. There was no fluidity in his movements. But there was an awkward grace to it—as seen in giraffes that ambled about on the plains. The child laughed and laughed.

  The boy brought him a tiny top that had on it yellow horses with flowing manes. When the top was spun, the horses became a shooting star whizzing through space at an extraordinary trajectory.

  The child insisted that Pierrot take it. “It is for you, Peter Pan,” the child whispered. Pierrot took the boy’s hand and led him back to bed. And tucked him in. He juggled three colorful beanbags until the child squeezed his wee eyes together, his cheeks grew into round peaceful globes and he fell fast asleep.

  • • •

  IT TURNED OUT that the top was a treasure from the Byzantine Empire. The fence knew that although Pierrot had an extraordinary esthetic sense, he was clueless when it came to money or economic worth. And so for the Byzantine treasure, which had been twirled by the hand of empresses and would be cherished by any museum in the world, he gave Pierrot three dollars. Pierrot couldn’t believe that he had been given so much money for a simple top. When he went home, he and Poppy rejoiced. It was enough money to remain high for two weeks. At one point one of Poppy’s socks slipped off and they were unable to find it. That was the most eventful thing that happened during those weeks.

  Pierrot fell asleep in the chair, his limbs hanging every which way, like a marionette that had just been abandoned.



  On Christmas Day McMahon made an excuse to be away from the family for a couple of hours so that he could stop by and deliver a parcel to Rose. He said he had to go visit some charities, and nobody in the family questioned this.

  When he arrived, he found Rose sitting on the end of her bed, weeping. She said it was the only time of year during which she got nostalgic. She told him about how she had liked performing at different people’s houses with a young boy. They would dance across the carpets on tippytoe. Everyone around them would be so enchanted, they were overcome by rapture. The boy was a very talented pianist.

  He had narrowly managed to keep his wife from going to the orphanage and reuniting these two. The very mention of the boy gave him a start and made him angry. He had taken her away from the governess job to get her away from him. He worked very hard not to roll his eyes when she claimed the boy was talented. He could only imagine what sort of ridiculous tunes he would be able to pick out. He felt sure that if Rose were to see this boy again, she would be utterly disillusioned. He was keeping Rose in the lap of luxury, and there wasn’t another orphan in the world experiencing the same treatment. This delicate boy she spoke of was probably working at a factory. He had become hard. He was uneducated. Whatever bit of knowledge he had picked up in school with the nuns had no doubt been unlearned. Rose wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with him. McMahon was sure of that.

  “When we went to the rich people’s houses, they sometimes gave us warm clothes. Once the boy I traveled with was given a scarf that was much too long. It went around and around and around his neck. He looked as though his head were being engulfed by a huge boa constrictor.”

  Rose laughed. McMahon had an urge to slap her. He gave her his presents. He handed her red carnations. For some reason they looked to her like tissues that had been held up to a bloody nose. He presented her with a box of Turkish delight. The candies resembled slugs amassed on a dead thing. He gave her a black corset that looked like a cage. She thanked him and spread them out on the bed around her. She smiled. But her smile kept slipping down, like old stockings that wouldn’t stay up. “I honestly can’t tell you why I’m thinking about him all of a sudden. Silly, really.”

  • • •

  ROSE ACCEPTED her role as a mistress. What else could she do? She was twenty-one years old. There was a Depression going on. Rose felt like a possession now. There was something that was capitalistic about her sense of self-worth. Things about her had definite currency: her jokes, her laughing at his jokes, her smiles, her hair, her sitting next to him in a booth in a tiny restaurant, her eating a grilled-cheese sandwich next to him—these things had a price. She ought to be keeping a receipt book to itemize her expenses.

  McMahon sent her shopping at the giant department store. She went first to buy underwear in the lingerie department. She began her makeover right at the bottom. Like when you make a pencil sketch on the canvas before you put down the thick coat of oil paint.

  She took off her woolen tights. They had been mended so many times. Her underwear was shabby and kind of loose. She had an undershirt that had been taken advantage of by a moth. There was a little hole that her right nipple popped out of. She wasn’t used to seeing herself in a full-length mirror, but there she was.

  McMahon said seeing her in her old underwear was like taking the wrapper off a candy and finding a little stone underneath it instead of a sweet. She tried on some pink underwear the color of rose petals, made of silk. They were so cold they sent a chill through her. When you were wearing undergarments like that, it was important to hurl yourself into someone else’s arms to warm up. She got a pile in her size.

  She stopped to smell all the different perfumes. They were in round bottles. She wanted one that smelled just like her name. Everyone always said that she smelled just like roses. She thought that might be the power of suggestion. There was one bottle that smelled as if it had a hundred rotting roses crammed inside it. That was the one she chose.

  She bought seven dresses, one for each day of the week. She had a dark blue one with a white belt that sat just below her waist. She got a pair of long white gloves that went up to her elbows, to accompany the dress. That was her favorite of the outfits, and she asked to wear it home. Everyone nodded at her as she walked up the stairs as though she were a lady, which she supposed that now she somehow was.

  She fell asleep for a second while the saleswoman was slipping her feet into various shoes. She woke up as the saleswoman was crying out about how absolutely marvelous a pair of pink high heels were.

  Rose quite loved the idea of being warm, and perhaps not having to wear two dozen layers of clothes. She remembered once, when she was little, stuffing a sock in her pocket to puff up her jacket in an attempt to insulate herself against the cold. She asked to be taken to the very warmest clothes. They led her to an elevator, which was a golden prison cell. There was a woman with a light blue pillbox hat inside, pulling the up and down levers. She brought Rose right up to the eighth floor, where the fur coats were. Rose chose herself a white mink coat to go with her old white hat, which was the only thing she had that looked fancy enough to keep.

  She stopped at the bookstore on the way home. She bought herself a Russian novel. She stopped at the ice cream counter. She ordered herself a root beer float. She sipped at it as she read her Russian novel. She was content because she got to read. Maybe it wasn’t so bad.

  She stood in her underwear with all her different outfits lying on the bed. As though she were a paper doll.

  • • •

  MCMAHON CAME TO HER ROOM at the Darling Hotel. He held the two brandy glasses in his hand as if he were fondling breasts. She told him to take off all his clothes. Her favorite thing about him was just how fat he was. Whereas his wife would always say he was a pig and would beg him to lose weight, Rose loved how it felt to be squished underneath him. And she loved how it felt to be on top, riding him. Like he was a giant bear.

  They still had very wonderful sex. It was sex unlike McMahon had ever had anywhere else and, for this reason, he would never leave her. He would proba
bly have her shot if she tried to leave him.

  He gave her a necklace with a single round pearl as a pendant. The pearl looked like the moon through a peephole.

  • • •

  ROSE WASN’T WORRIED ABOUT the children. She knew they were doing fine without her. In fact, they were probably doing much better. With her, it was as though they were at a birthday party every day of their lives. But she missed them.

  Rose chose presents for McMahon to bring home to the children. The children believed they were seeing another secret and charming side of their father in these gifts. He knew them better than they thought. Perhaps he, not their mother, was the more loving parent. He brought the girl a globe of the moon, with all the names of its major craters written on it, which was phosphorescent and glowed in the dark. He brought the boy a golden toy poodle whose body was shaved, but it still had heaps of curls on its head so that it looked like a lion.

  • • •

  HE WOULD GO REGULARLY ON Thursday night for dinner at the Roxy. This was the event of the week, to which all the members of the underworld showed up with their mistresses.

  McMahon was worried about Rose’s performance at this dinner. They were not like events where you showed up with your wife. You had an excuse for your wife. You were contractually, legally bound to wives. They often changed their personality and physical appearance after having children. You never quite knew who you were marrying when you got married. Sometimes your wife turned out to be a dud, and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it. She might have looked from the outside like somebody attractive and easygoing but then became ugly.

  But a girlfriend was a different matter because she was someone you could update and change. She reflected the type of girl you could get on that day, at that hour. Everyone always knew that mistresses were only interested in your wealth and status, so they were your price tag, so to speak. They were like flashy cars, or incredibly expensive suits.

  Rose was in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for him, on Thursday night. She wore a purple beret with a pom-pom on it. She had a matching purple jacket. She had on a black skirt. She had a pair of peach high heels with three buckles that went right up her ankles. She had her arms spread, and she was waltzing around the room with an imaginary partner. When he called her name, she stopped. She released her invisible beau. She made a tiny bow as though to dismiss her partner.

  “Who were you dancing with?” he asked.

  “Who do you think? You know. My friend the bear.”

  He didn’t say anything but led her to the car. He warned her not to tell his friends about having been found under a tree. Most of the mistresses had completely invented their pasts. It was the polite thing to do. Nobody in the world wanted to know your sob story. What were they supposed to do once you told them? Go ahead and react to it? Nobody wanted to be reminded of poverty on a Thursday night. Thursday night was all about spending money.

  They arrived at the restaurant, and the men and their women were already there. The women were supposed to say superficial things that did not cause you to reflect on what they had just said. They were just supposed to defer to being attractive. His accountant Desmond’s new girl was a perfect mistress. She was some sort of showgirl, apparently from Louisiana. She had enormous breasts and laughed at everything that everyone said, and her hair was in perfect finger waves that ended just at her chin. She only asked questions that allowed people to warble on about themselves. She only talked about things that were easy to talk about.

  Rose and McMahon were a strange-looking couple to begin with, just on a physical level. They were such an odd couple that they were almost charming. It seemed impossible that he could make love to her without crushing her and yet here she was, alive and well. You couldn’t help but imagine mismatched couples having sex. Everybody at the table stopped talking to look at them.

  “Hello, everybody!” Rose said, determined to fit in. “Pleased to meet you all in this splendid environment. We just saw some showgirls walking in, and they were fabulous.”

  She was introduced to everyone at the table. She gave each person a fantastic and gracious hello and managed to say something that delighted each person she spoke to.

  “Oh, I love your nose! It’s wonderful.”

  “I hear you own horses. I can see that somehow. You look like a man who owns a hundred horses.”

  “Are you the one who’s trying to get into movies? I knew that right away just by looking at you.”

  “Oh no, don’t worry, I’m coming over to you. You don’t have to walk over to me. I heard that you gave a huge donation to the children’s hospital. How do you even walk around? Your heart must be so enormous. It must weigh about a hundred pounds.”

  “The funny one!”

  “I heard you like to read. You are like the intellectual of the group. You’ll have to recommend some books to me.”

  “On me dit que vous chantez merveilleusement. Everyone says I have to hear you sing.”

  “What a fantastic dress. You have natural style. You have to be born with that, you know. I personally am just lucky if I don’t put my clothes on inside out.”

  They weren’t sure at first whether Rose was really pretty at all. But as soon as she was done going around the table, they all were sure she was beautiful.

  • • •

  ROSE TOLD EVERYONE that she would like to be excused to go to the bathroom. She hurried to the back of the club and into the washroom. She gave the attendant a nickel and sat down on the toilet lid. She put her knees together, her feet out to the sides. She put her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands and started to weep. What a horrific job it was to be a mistress. You didn’t get to be yourself ever, and you had to perform unrelentingly. You had no security. You could be discarded like trash at any moment. She missed Pierrot violently. He had loved her for who she was. Hadn’t he? She remembered a time when they were in the field working on the garden. He passed by her. He had a daisy tucked behind his ear. He winked at her. She was sure he was telling her that he loved her. Perhaps she was being naive. She had to admit that everyone sings for their supper.

  • • •

  WHEN ROSE WAS COMING BACK from the bathroom, she stopped on the dance floor, watching as the band set up. The drummer, seeing her, began to warm up by beating a tune on his drum. Rose started hopping to the rhythm. She looked down at her feet as though they were acting of their own accord. As though they wanted her to dance.

  The drummer stopped playing and Rose stopped dancing. She smiled and started walking back to her seat. The drummer saw her and started back up. And in response, Rose’s feet started getting all wild again. They started doing an out-of-control quickstep, kicking up in the air and dancing her about the dance floor. She was waving her hands all over the place. Her feet were making no sense at all, and her body was twisting in all sorts of directions. She kicked her legs up to the side, so high they seemed to almost hit her ears. She was so flexible and lithe. She had a body capable of expressing joy.

  The band quickly caught on. They joined in. They all played wildly, whipping the girl into a frenzy, and then stopped abruptly, allowing her to walk to the edge of the dance floor before starting again.

  The whole of the club wanted to join in. Patrons rushed to the dance floor. They danced like they were possessed by the devil, and then froze like funny statues once the music stopped.

  • • •

  MCMAHON WATCHED HER CAREFULLY. He had been cautious about getting involved with a girl who had such a lowly background and a loathsome pedigree. But she had the whole room transfixed. He was proud of her for being so wild and lovely. None of the other mistresses could compete. He was going to take her everywhere and show her off. She was the type of treat a man like him could afford. And at that moment, McMahon let himself fall deeply in love with her. Rose saw McMahon looking at her and returned his gaze. She
felt a wave of affection for him. It was the serenity of being possessed.

  • • •

  WHEN SHE SAT DOWN, one of the mistresses asked if she’d ever been onstage.

  “I always wanted to be a clown when I grew up.”

  “Really? But why?”

  “Well, some of the children must want to be clowns. Otherwise, how would clowns exist?”

  “I guess I always thought people were just born clowns. Or maybe their parents were clowns and they had no other choice.”

  “So when they were very little, their mother put face paint on them? They went to school with their faces painted white, and with shoes that were too big for them?”

  “Oh! That’s so sad!”

  “Rose, don’t make everybody cry, please,” McMahon said, and everyone laughed.

  Later Rose asked the waiter to bring her six eggs.

  “Please, please, please. Don’t cook them or scramble them or anything! And I swear I’ll give them right back.”

  “It’s fine,” McMahon said to the waiter. “Tell them they’re for Mr. McMahon.”

  The waiter came back with a carton with six eggs in it. He placed the carton in front of her on the table as though he were sending the eggs off to a tragic death. Rose put her hand on the waiter’s to reassure him.

  She took three eggs and began to juggle, then took out a fourth and set it in motion, then a fifth and a sixth. She was as confident as Jupiter that those eggs would orbit around her. She did it so daintily that it was as if, each time she touched an egg, she was putting a magic spell on it. For a moment everyone around the table understood that magic absolutely existed. Every day the average person will witness six miracles. But it isn’t that we don’t believe in miracles—we just don’t believe that miracles are miracles. There are so many miracles all around us.

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