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The lonely hearts hotel, p.19
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.19

           Heather O'Neill
 

  Underneath the table, Rose put the tips of her toes on Poppy’s toes. Rose had grown up in a room filled with sixty other girls. She was used to the intimacy of other female bodies. When a girl reached out a hand to her, Rose always instinctively grabbed it. Poppy was not used to touching other women. Poppy was that strange thing: an only child.

  What could Poppy do but turn over another card? Every time she flipped over a card, it revealed itself to be one that foretold love. Each one was a heart card. Poppy almost felt as though the cards were hot to the touch. When she turned over a card, it was though she were opening the door of a stove. The hearts seemed to tremble on the cards like little butterflies.

  Rose put her knees against Poppy’s knees. Rose reached under the table and put her hands on Poppy’s thighs. Poppy was burning with a strange desire.

  When Poppy turned over the joker, she put her hands up in the air. There was Pierrot in his fantastic multicolored suit, with material of such fantastic color that it would never fade.

  Rose sighed. “I’m making an ass of myself, I suppose.”

  Poppy said nothing, still aghast that Pierrot was in Rose’s future. Rose put on her gloves, handed Poppy a dime, kissed her on the forehead, got up and walked out the door.

  Poppy poured boiling water into her teacup. The tea leaves swirled around the bottom of the cup like a group of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

  29

  IN WHICH ICARUS LANDS ON SAINT DENIS STREET

  Poppy was in love with Pierrot and she would not let him go back to Rose. She always encouraged him to get high. If he cleaned up, he would be able to do all sorts of other things. He could be a great lawyer or a politician or a writer or an ambassador. He should rightfully be with educated and articulate people, but she loved him too much to let him become any of those things.

  The girl next door came over with a black eye. Poppy took her hands and asked her what had happened. She sat the girl down at the kitchen table and spoon-fed her a watery egg. She gathered from the girl’s hand movements and the few words she uttered through sobs that her beau had done this to her for dancing with another man at the dance hall.

  Poppy’s eyes filled with tears. She was jealous. Poppy wanted Pierrot to yell at her. She wanted him to be outraged. There is no love without fury. There is no beauty without ugliness. She needed a proof of love.

  • • •

  WHEN POPPY WAS YOUNG, she lived in a stinking, squalid apartment in Mile End with her parents and grandparents. Everybody in her family treated her with contempt. They criticized her every move. They were always disgusted with her because she was a growing girl.

  When Poppy was ten, she and her mother were on their way home, carrying groceries from the market. As they were crossing through the park, a group of traveling puppeteers arrived. They didn’t have a theater to host them, but they didn’t need one. They had a small caravan attached to a white horse with black spots. The words Puppet Master Puppetry Spectacular was painted on the side of the caravan in glittery golden letters the same color as shooting stars. The back of the caravan folded down and transformed into a stage.

  Poppy was surprised she was allowed to witness such a thing. Her mother never let her do anything pleasurable. She always had to do chores and chores and chores. But her mother used the opportunity to sit down on a bench and weep. The bag of potatoes next to her also bent forward in grief. Poppy left her mother and the potatoes’ side and moved to the front of the crowd. The whole neighborhood hurried out to see it. Even the dogs gathered. They couldn’t help it. It might as well have been the arrival of the Messiah. And who in the world could resist getting tickets to that?

  When the puppets crept onto the stage, Poppy put her hands up to her mouth to stop herself from crying out. These odd dolls had come to life and were looking at her. Magic was possible. It was the first time that Poppy had been exposed to art. It changed everything she knew about physics.

  It was a Punch and Judy show. The lady puppet was talking, talking, talking. She was nagging the male puppet. She was angry at him for drinking too much. She was very annoyed that he had gone out and had fun without her. There were so many words in her mouth. Words were free—that was why women used them all the time.

  Poppy clapped her wee hands together in excitement. She knew what was coming next. So did everyone in the audience. She was going to get beaten! She wasn’t allowed to say these things to a man. No woman was. And yet women did! They went ahead and complained to men, even though they didn’t have a right to. Why did they do it? And it always ended up the same way. Everyone in the audience knew it. She was going to get beaten. She was going to get beaten!

  When his bat came down on her head finally, they burst out laughing.

  Poppy wanted to live in that strange box. She wanted to climb into the back of the truck and escape her life. Once she got that in her head, there was no way to get it out. She had run away from home because of that performance. And now she found herself longing for some of the perversion she’d witnessed in the puppet show. She wanted the ugly rage and depravity that came with love.

  • • •

  THERE WAS A MAN who often passed Poppy in the street and he was always aggressive with her. She knew that he was trouble, that he was vicious. His nose was long and tapered. His face was an acquired taste. A person might be prone to thinking of him as either incredibly handsome or downright ugly.

  He had offered to be her pimp. He had told her he could take much better care of her than her faggot boyfriend could. They could make real money together, and she wouldn’t have to live in a hellhole and dress like a piece of Swiss cheese. She had holes in all her clothes because she and Pierrot would fall asleep while smoking their cigarettes.

  The pigeons were on the windowsill, making the noise of shuffling cards, as though they were playing poker. Poppy began to make a plan.

  • • •

  SHE SENT PIERROT OUT to deliver her jars of homemade maple butter. She looked out the window to watch him turn the corner. He walked down the street with three of the jars balanced on his head. All the children pointed and laughed. On the corner, a child let the air out of a balloon and it sounded like a Paganini tune.

  Poppy was usually sparse with her makeup. Not because she was modest in the least but because she had so little of it. Sitting cross-legged on the toilet lid, she opened up a little compact of caked blush. She took out the cotton pad and dabbed her nose with powder, even though there was no powder left. She had just a small stub of lipstick, but she applied several layers of it so that her lips were of the brightest red.

  She put on a white shirt that had a ruffle around the neck, and a black skirt. Poppy ran downstairs and down the street, heading to the building where she knew the pimp would be sitting on the stoop. She stood in front of him, took one of his hands in hers and invited the pimp over to the apartment.

  “Where’s your fellow?”

  “He abandoned me.”

  “Why would he do that? I thought you were keeping the two of you high.”

  “Well, it’s simple. He’s a thief. He happened across a very expensive item that none of the fences in Montreal could afford. So he went off to Paris to sell it. I don’t think he’s coming back. He’s always really wanted to be a European.”

  Poppy knew she had to tell a lie the pimp had never heard before. He wasn’t particularly bright, so he was used to accepting that things might be going over his head. As they walked back to the building, the pimp put his arm around her.

  “Will you please tie me up?” she asked once they were in the apartment.

  “Is that what you like?”

  “Well, I can’t really say. But sometimes I like to try something new.”

  “All right. I mean, I don’t care. I’m always up for anything.”

  She handed the pimp a box of old ties she had collected when she worked at the br
othels. Men often forgot them when they were drunkenly getting dressed. They were like a group of slithering eels. The pimp tied her arms to the chair and then fastened a gag around her mouth. She kept hoping Pierrot would walk in at the right moment to rescue her.

  They both heard Pierrot’s whistle as he came down the hallway. Everybody in the hotel paused what they were doing to hear the bar of music Pierrot was whistling. It was a refrain from the tune for Rose. He was always working on that tune, even subconsciously.

  When Pierrot opened the door, he saw Poppy tied to the chair at her wrists and ankles. She had a pair of yellow underwear stuck in her mouth. Poppy’s eyes were wide, wide open. She watched the scene unfolding in her own little hotel room as though it were the most riveting movie ever made.

  “Poppy!” Pierrot yelled. “What is happening?”

  He twirled around to look at the pimp.

  “You are a criminal, sir! How dare you! Get out of here!”

  “You get out of here! You don’t deserve your lady. You just make money off her. And you take off to Europe whenever you fucking please.”

  “I don’t even know where Europe is!” Pierrot exclaimed.

  “Anyway, I have more respect for her than you’ll ever have.”

  “You’ve got her tied to a chair!” Pierrot attempted to push past the pimp, to untie Poppy.

  The pimp reached into his back pocket and pulled out a knife. “I’m going to have to kill you now, buddy. I wasn’t going to touch you, but you touched me first.”

  Poppy started to squirm about wildly in her chair, hoping to escape, trying to save Pierrot. It had all gone wrong. Pierrot didn’t have a chance, and he was about to be cut into pieces. The underwear fell from her mouth.

  “Run, Pierrot!” Poppy yelled.

  There was nowhere exactly for Pierrot to run. The pimp was blocking the door, and the hotel room was too tiny for Pierrot to do anything other than run in circles. The pimp jutted his knife out and Pierrot had no choice but to go out the window.

  • • •

  HE CLIMBED UP the iron fire escape attached to the side of the building like a vine. Why he decided to go up instead of down might be regarded as either a metaphysical or theological question but is, in any case, unanswerable. Up he did go, with the pimp following close behind.

  The pimp had the knife in his hand. He held it out in a stabbing gesture toward Pierrot. A little girl leaned out her window and handed Pierrot a butter knife to defend himself with. She had just been using it to spread strawberry jam on her toast. The red jam on the end of the knife made it look like it had just committed a bloody deed.

  At the top of the fire escape, Pierrot twirled the butter knife around as if it were a baton. The children on the third-floor balcony began to applaud. Although this was rather esthetically impressive, it raised no fear in the heart of the pimp. The pimp seized the knife from Pierrot’s hand. He held both of the blades toward Pierrot—like they were the horns of a bull that was about to charge him.

  The sheets hung down from the laundry lines like they were the ceiling of a great, colorful, patchy circus tent.

  Pierrot arrived on the roof and sprinted across, the pimp scrabbling up close on his heels. When Pierrot reached the opposite end of the roof, he momentarily considered himself trapped. He spotted a ladder and laid it down so that it extended from one building to the other, over the abyss. A girl looked up, let her skipping rope go slack and yelled, “Regardez en haut!”

  Everyone came out of their houses to see. People crowded onto fire escapes as though the landings were theater boxes. They sat on the opposite roof with their legs hanging over the edge like they were in the very cheap seats in the balcony. Other people began shouting too. They yelled at Pierrot to not try to cross the ladder. They hollered that he would never make it.

  The sun shone down on his head like a spotlight, but it was so bright that he wondered if he hadn’t set his wings on fire.

  This was a spectacle indeed. Pierrot cut such a peculiar figure in his fantastic threadbare suit. Everyone gasped and became silent as they watched Pierrot begin to tiptoe across the ladder. He hummed his composition under his breath, so he could focus. He stepped quietly from one rung to the next. He had always been able to balance so well. A rung cracked under his foot. He heard the sound so clearly, as though it were a bone inside him breaking, and then he slipped between the bars.

  As he fell, he had a clear memory of himself and Rose when they were little. They had stopped at a park to play. They hung upside down on the jungle gym, facing one another. They had a conversation while they were upside down. Pierrot imagined that she was a mermaid, her hair floating so mysteriously and weightlessly below her head. Pierrot smiled in his memory.

  And then he hit the ground.

  A cat crawled up on him. It showed the claws on its paw like a switchblade.

  • • •

  POPPY FLUNG OPEN the glass front doors of the building. She had gotten free of the chair, and the ties were still dangling from her wrists. She ran down the front steps and over to Pierrot. He was lying on his back with his eyes closed. He looked so peaceful that it would be easy to assume he was dead. But his mouth kept opening and closing, as if he were a fish on the deck of a ship, breathing its last breath and thinking, I knew that worm was too good to be true. Poppy took his hand and lowered her face close to his.

  “Please tell Rose that I’m sorry, will you?” Pierrot said. “And that no matter how poorly I’ve acted, for me, she was the one.”

  Poppy was taken aback and sat up. If you knew a little about Poppy’s past, you might surmise that she could put up with just about anything. She had sucked men’s dicks at the bottom of staircases. When she was done, she’d stood up, plucked out the pebbles embedded in her knees—like small diamonds—and then headed off down the street as though nothing had happened.

  But this was where she drew the line. She had created this elaborate production just for him. And his last words were to Rose! Rose? She hadn’t done anything for Pierrot in years and years, but now she was the one he would devote his last words to?

  The pimp, who had run down from the roof, raised his gaze from the boy on the sidewalk and looked for Poppy. He put his hand out for her.

  “Sweetheart,” he whispered.

  She took his hand in hers. The silver key to the hotel room fell out of her pocket like a scale falling off the Little Mermaid the moment she was transformed into a human.

  30

  STUDY FOR BROKEN FINGERS

  When he came to, Pierrot had both his hands in casts, as if he were wearing white mittens. He had trouble sitting up because his ribs were broken. Pierrot looked at the tips of his fingers peeping out from the cast. Each one was black.

  The police officer at the side of the bed looked at Pierrot. He held up a piece of paper on which was drawn a sketch of his own likeness.

  “Oh, how lovely,” said Pierrot. “You’ve made a sketch of me.”

  “This is a drawing that a sketch artist made based on a description from a four-year-old boy. We believe this is the face of a thief who’s been robbing houses all through Westmount.”

  Pierrot had a distinct flashback of the little boy with a top, smiling at him all those nights ago.

  “On second thought, that face looks like nobody I’ve ever seen before.”

  “Mmmhmm. We tossed your place. And there’s nothing. But you sell everything for the cheapest price so you can get high. We are onto you, Pierrot. You little schmuck. You keep your crime to your own neighborhood. If you so much as step into Westmount, I will come after you.”

  Although he couldn’t tell the police officer, Pierrot had already determined he was done with that life. But what else could he do now that his hands were smashed? Could he still play the piano?

  He asked the doctor who came in to see him next.

  “I
know it might be silly to tell you that you’re lucky when you’re lying there with all your bones broken. But it’s really amazing that you are still alive. You might go down in the record books for this fall—if there were such record books.”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Pierrot said. “There are books about all sorts of things.”

  “It’s not the time to worry about playing the piano. Take it easy.”

  And Pierrot smiled as the drugs ran through his veins—they seemed to course with honey rather than blood. Poppy had left him. He felt rather relieved about this. Perhaps he didn’t have a right to feel this way. He chose to believe that perhaps Poppy had found someone else to live with and love. This new gentleman would surely do better for her. He did have a rather alarming appearance, but who was Pierrot to judge a book by its cover?

  By espousing this train of thought, Pierrot was willfully choosing to be ignorant. He found himself at a sort of psychic crossroads. He could choose the truthful path, with all its regrets and guilt and responsibilities. Or the other, which is what Pierrot did. Because deep down he knew that all the vicious-looking man could do was enable Poppy’s descent into stranger and stranger realms of prostitution.

  • • •

  WHEN THE CASTS CAME OFF, Pierrot went back to work at the movie theater, anxious to test out his fingers. He wanted to see if a miracle had occurred. The owner was angry at Pierrot for missing work but told him to give it a try at the break in the film. After the cowboys had been making threats for an hour, the screen lit up with the word Intermission. Pierrot made himself comfortable at the piano, flexing his shoulders, stretching his arms, rolling his head from side to side and wiggling his fingers in the air above the keys.

  He had become quite fond of this piano. It had a lot of character. The keys were so light, he felt he really didn’t even have to touch them. He would just put his fingers on the keys and imagine the tune and it would begin to play as if by itself. There was a love affair between the piano and Pierrot’s imagination.

 
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