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The lonely hearts hotel, p.17
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.17

           Heather O'Neill

  • • •

  ROSE LOVED THE ROXY. She loved to see all the people crowding into the nightclub. She loved the dancing and the smoking. She became friends with all the band members. And they would let her ding the triangle or smash the cymbals. Performers were always fond of her, which was one of the things McMahon liked the most about her.

  There was something so generous about her personality. She spent her personality wildly. She spent her personality like a man on a winning streak in a casino. She tossed her personality out onto the table recklessly—like poker chips.

  She was loud as a child, and she liked to be loud as an adult. She liked to say things that made other people burst out laughing and shouting. Not only did she like to be loud, but she liked everybody else to be loud too. She liked to be in places where the music was turned up, because it gave her an excuse to shout.

  She liked to get up close to people when she was talking to them. Her breasts were often pressed up against the other person. She always acted as if they were squashed in a little elevator together. But after a night at the Roxy, Rose would always feel more and more alone.

  • • •

  ROSE PASSED A TREE in the park that was growing to the side so much that it was almost parallel to the ground. It was like a consumptive young lady reclining on a chair. The leaves were like poems that had fallen to the ground.

  Since there was always an audience in Montreal, the venues could bring in any sort of act and it would sell out. The better cabarets had all the singers from the United States and Europe. The marquees were always bragging about what out-of-town vedette was going to be in their club. Rose went to see a touring American jazz band in a club downtown. A slender black woman in a white dress, wearing burgundy lipstick, and with wild curls piled up on her head, came out to center stage and stood behind the microphone. She opened her mouth and wailed a joyful, sorrowful tune. She sang louder and deeper with each refrain. And when she went low, she went so low. It was like she had eaten three men for breakfast to get her voice to sound that masculine. Her voice seemed too big for her body. It seemed too big for anyone’s body. What she did with her voice seemed dangerous. Like when a surge of electricity passes through faulty wiring and burns the whole building to the ground. She wasn’t afraid to see all the things that singing could do. What guts! Rose thought. She was proof that a woman could take as much from life as a man.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS IMPRESSED by the way McMahon did business. He got to be engaged in intellectual endeavors all the time. He and Desmond would sit and pore over all his books together. His desk was cluttered with plans. It seemed magical to her. You were able to make these plans at your desk, and the plans came to pass in the world. Just as with God at the very beginning, when the universe was nothing but a great desk and a blotter.

  Everybody who gathered around McMahon’s desk was always serious. They were always worried. What they did mattered. Without them, crime would become chaotic. They had the difficult, important task of overseeing drugs, gambling and sex. Those were what made a city a city. They made it human. Rose was very much attracted to the power and importance of the underworld.

  When McMahon and Rose were at the hotel, she asked about the Roxy’s books, about the gambling halls, about the liquor licenses; she asked about booking acts; she wanted to know about the dancers’ true stories. She wanted to know about rents. She got to know the politicians and the police chiefs. And what made McMahon ever more frustrated: they seemed to be taking her seriously. They were forgetting that she was a girl!

  He brought her along to a meeting with his business associates. They had brought their wives too. Whenever she asked a question, it was always to the men at the table, and it was always business related. She was curious about who did what.

  “Do you move the gambling hall every time it’s raided, or do you pay the fine and set up shop again?”

  “How much is the lease for a theater? How much did you pay for the circus troupe you had from Moscow?”

  He hated that she was asking questions like that. She was interested in their clubs. Everything was a little crooked, so these questions weren’t supposed to be asked in the open. But it was more than that. She shouldn’t be involving herself in his affairs. There was no possible reason for her to know these types of things.

  • • •

  “YOU MAKE THE MEN UNCOMFORTABLE when you talk about business shit.”

  “I’ve always been able to make people laugh. I want to be an organizer. Can I book some of the shows that come in? I mean, not right away, but I would like to work my way up if that is at all possible. I think the most amazing thing would be to travel. You know, I could travel through Italy, going to all the different circuses there and finding the really interesting performers. Like a strongman in Romania.”

  “Where do you even get these ideas?”

  “I’ve read about them in books, of course.”

  “Of course you have. You shouldn’t read so many ridiculous books. It isn’t healthy.”

  “You were a poor kid and you went and built a fortune. You spent your whole life figuring out how to become something you were not.”

  McMahon squinted his eyes at her for a moment, then shrugged her off. It was beneath him to compare their life stories.

  • • •

  THE DEPRESSION WAS AFFECTING EVERYONE. Rose went to speak to Antoine, the booking agent of the club, one afternoon. He often went down to New York City to find the best acts. He was known for it. He was a middle-aged man with a jet-black toupee and enormous teeth that were always forcing him to grin, and he was known for having an agreeable disposition. Rose met him in the dining hall of the Crescent Dance Hall. It was empty because it was the middle of the day. All the golden chairs were upside down on the tables. He took two chairs off a small table in the center of the room and sat down with Rose. “What can I do for you, darling?”

  Rose thought they should try to save money by booking local, undiscovered acts. “I can help you find some. It would be my pleasure.”

  Antoine thought it was worth a laugh at least. They went down to Little Burgundy to see some acts in jazz clubs. Rose dressed in a white fur coat with dark swirls of brown, like a chocolate sundae.

  They went to a small club that had a balcony that was being rented out as a storage space, and which was stacked with used furniture. There was a scared, skinny singer wearing an ugly dress, who didn’t know what to do with her hair. She warbled so much when she sang that it sounded absurd. Her voice was shaky, like a fawn standing on brand-new legs. Rose thought they should give her a chance.

  “When she gets a little bit of confidence, she’ll be wonderful. When she stops singing as though she’s standing in the rain, it will be something.”

  Antoine didn’t see it, but he hired her and she turned out to be a favorite at the club. She even wrapped a silver turban around her crazy hair and it became her signature look. She joined a touring American jazz troupe and ended up making cameos in the biographies of several famous men.

  Rose told Antoine about a magician who performed at children’s parties. They met him while he was buying doves at the Atwater Market. His hands were all scarred from having been burned in an act gone wrong years before. He said he performed for young children because they couldn’t write reviews. He was down on his luck. He used to make a silver dollar float in the air. The other night he had used a copper penny, which just somehow wasn’t the same and depressed everyone in the room.

  At the Roxy the magician had a dove fly out of a wallet. He couldn’t afford an assistant, so he had Rose stand on a small chair as if she were a ferocious lion, and then she disappeared. Rose was really good at coaxing paranoid geniuses out of exile. She had her ear to the ground about new acts too.

  There was a teenage boy who was able to do all sorts of tricks on his couch. They sat on the coffee table
eating cucumber sandwiches with weak tea that his mother served them as they watched the boy. It was as though the couch were a trampoline—he bounded up off it and did a backflip on one of the armrests.

  “He’s been doing that since he was little. It’s annoyed me for years, but I haven’t been able to make him stop. Beating doesn’t work on children anymore. If he’s able to make some money from it, all those years of aggravation would be worth it.”

  He leaped off one armrest, did two flips and landed on the other armrest.

  Since she seemed to have remarkable intuition, Antoine had Rose oversee the audition for showgirls for a club that was opening in Montreal North. She saw at least two hundred girls that weekend.

  Antoine had trouble looking at the chorus line. All the showgirls looked the same. They were so perfectly in sync that, when they performed, it gave the impression that it was just one girl in a hall of mirrors. They came out onstage with their arms around one another like linked paper dolls. He couldn’t believe it. A chorus was giving him a sense of the sublime. And it was made up of working-class girls from Pointe-Saint-Charles!

  Antoine suffered a heart attack and died, not because of the chorus line but because of all the smoked meat he had eaten in his life. Rose decided to ask McMahon if she could replace him.

  • • •

  SHE KNOCKED at his office door, then said her name and opened it. She bowed her head and walked in. She stood there in her white fur hat, cheeks shiny from her excited march over. He stood up when he saw her, thinking she had a knack for appearing out of the blue when he wanted to see her the most. He could never get bored of her face.

  “Wait,” she said, putting her hand out in front of her to stop him in his tracks. “I wanted to ask you something important. Antoine passed away and you know I enjoyed his company a great deal, so it might seem a little inappropriate to bring this up so soon . . . but I was wondering if I could replace him.”

  McMahon didn’t answer. He seemed to not quite understand her request.

  “Take his place as the entertainment booker, I mean. I’ve been all over the city with him. A lot of the most popular acts were ones I discovered. I have a knack for it, and I know I can do it.”

  She looked at him sheepishly. She still didn’t get an answer. He frowned. He looked as though he were about to say something in anger.

  “Oh, and here—I have something for the children.”

  She reached into her bag and handed him a small light box she’d bought. It cast shadow puppets on the wall. McMahon took it from her, looking pleased that she remembered he was a family man. She had no actual place anywhere in his life. He put it on a shelf above the hook his coat was hanging from.

  “I’ll talk it over with everyone else and get back to you,” he said.

  She turned to leave the office, not quite sure who this “everyone else” was. Before she left, she felt his hand on her shoulder. He closed the door before she could leave. They made love against the door with their clothes on.

  • • •

  WHEN HE GOT BACK HOME to Westmount, the children loved the strange lantern. They lay happily in their living room, watching the horses run together joyfully all over the walls. They were bright orange and lit up, like warhorses on fire in battle. McMahon and his wife sat on the couch together, watching too. He was pleased with Rose because his children were pleased with him. His wife was happy too because she saw the gift as a reconciliation. He felt satiated. He had a family and a mistress, and everyone was perfectly happy.

  If you ever experience such a feeling, you should probably realize that God will take notice. Something will be taken away.

  Mrs. McMahon had a dream that she was sitting next to Rose on the couch. They were discussing love affairs. Mrs. McMahon was telling Rose about all the different suitors she had when she was young. Rose was so impressed in the dream. That was one of Rose’s special qualities, her ability to be genuinely impressed by just about anything.

  Mrs. McMahon buried her face in Rose’s hair and inhaled deeply. She opened her eyes to find herself lying in her bed. She noticed that she could still smell Rose, if only slightly. Then she sat up abruptly. She climbed out of the bed. She flung open the closet door. She started yanking down jackets and inhaling deeply. She pulled off the jacket he had been wearing that night. And at that point she was absolutely convinced of what she had been smelling. It was Rose. She was on all of his clothes.

  He was so surprised when she confronted him. His pupils always dilated for a split second when he was confronted with the truth. Once she saw his eyes turn black, he had already confessed to her.

  “You took her away from the children and me. I liked her, that’s why you went after her. She wasn’t even pretty. She listened to what I said. She made me feel inspired again. I want a divorce. I want everything too. And then I’ll burn it. You will never touch me again.”

  She called the police and told them about McMahon’s crooked operations. The police were in McMahon’s pockets. What could they do other than have her committed? She needed to have a rest. Most women became excitable.

  When the truck came for Mrs. McMahon, there was a pile of her husband’s clothes in the yard up in flames. The flames were fighting with each other. One flame grabbed another by the hair and shook it. The children were sitting around it like it was some sort of bonfire.

  Her madness was a fact soon widely accepted as true. Although Rose never believed it.

  • • •

  “HOW ARE THE CHILDREN?” Rose asked a couple of weeks later. It was always a taboo subject between them.

  “They are fine. They’re both in boarding school, so they didn’t have to witness the whole regrettable fiasco with their mother. I think you should move into a bigger apartment. We can’t bloody well go back there together, can we? And I can use some fucking comfort. I’ve had it up to here with crazy women. All you have to do is be fucking pleasant and spread your legs, and you are taken care of. You don’t know how easy you have it.”

  “So you would switch places with a woman, then?”

  “Come on.”

  “Dogs are happy with that life, not me.”

  “There we go. I can’t listen to this shit, really.”

  “Can I go see her?”

  “Oh, fuck off, Rose. You’re such a piece of shit. I feel bad enough about it. What do you care? You slept with her husband.”

  “I liked her. She was such a force. But she had been thwarted. She was meant to be on a horse riding into battle.”

  • • •

  BUT ALTHOUGH he was paying for her whole life, McMahon still wasn’t sure whether he truly possessed her. To make certain that he did, he tried to make Rose miserable. This was the only real proof that a woman belonged to you. Anybody could make a girl happy. It was only when a girl was in love with a man that he could ruin her self-esteem. He knew he would have to get around to that. He only had her for now.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS DRESSED to the nines that weekend. She was feeling optimistic waiting for McMahon’s response. They shuffled into the Roxy together, sitting down around the enormous round center table with McMahon’s associates and their girlfriends. In the middle of the dinner, McMahon got everyone’s attention.

  “Here’s a question for you all. Rose wants to replace Antoine. What do you think of my girlfriend coming in as a business partner with me?”

  Rodney Chesterwick, who owned the Toscadero Casino, looked up from his glass of whiskey, shook his head and stated, “Women ought to be at home. Otherwise, who prepares the food?”

  “Can we just change the subject?” asked Harry Manuedo, who owned the Ravishing Hotel. “What movie are we going to see?”

  They didn’t want to get involved in a domestic dispute. If they did, they would go home to their wives. They thought Rose was crazy. Didn’t she have any idea how goo
d she had it, considering it was the Depression? She had a big plate of turkey in front of her. She had a little mountain of cranberries in front of her. They would turn her lips red and warm up her belly.

  Rose realized that these men would never help her. She also knew that McMahon had made it clear to them that they were to treat her like an inferior. She was so humiliated, she couldn’t speak. She didn’t know how to talk back to a group of men like this. And she knew that if she tried to say even a single word, she would burst out crying, and that would somehow prove every point they had just made. So she sat there quietly through the evening. Everyone else went back to talking. All the molls went back to being delightful and screaming out loud in laughter.

  McMahon wasn’t satisfied that he had hurt Rose. Once he had gotten a sniff of her pain, he had to have more of it. He wanted to hurt her more. He was all of a sudden enraged that he had ever been under her spell; now that the tables had suddenly turned, he was on her the minute they got back to the hotel.

  “You think you’re good in bed, but you really aren’t. You’re ridiculous. Other women are more passionate. They smell better. They buy themselves perfumes and bathe in them.

  “Instead of asking people about what the seating capacity in their restaurants is, why don’t you ask the women some of the things you need to know? Like how they all smell so good? Do you want to know how to identify a proper lady? You lift up her arm, you stick your face in her armpit and inhale and it still smells good. You know, most girls make an effort to please a man.”

  Rose sat on the bed. There was no point in defending herself against these accusations. She wouldn’t dignify them. If you were stupid enough to listen to them, then you deserved them.

  “It’s bad enough that you flirt with other men, but it’s the type of men you flirt with. It makes me really question myself. Like, if you’re at all attracted to me, does that mean I’m a lowlife creep too? How stupid was I? I mean, it’s one thing to fuck the help, but you don’t go and set them up in their own apartment and parade them around town.”

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