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The lonely hearts hotel, p.2
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.2

           Heather O'Neill
 

  A girl had a hole in the knee of her stocking that she hadn’t darned.

  A girl drew a smiling face on a zero in one of her math equations.

  Seven children wiped their noses on their sleeves.

  A girl could not resist the temptation of snow and grabbed a handful of it and shoved it in her mouth.

  A boy managed to come to breakfast with every article of the clothing he was wearing inside out.

  A girl claimed that she woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man with goat feet tiptoeing around all the beds.

  Three children could not remember the name of the ocean between Canada and Europe.

  A girl spelled out words in the air with the tip of her finger.

  A little girl looked into the sun at an angle to make herself sneeze.

  A boy pretended to pull his thumb off his hand.

  A girl was treating a peeled potato as though it were a baby and hid it in her pocket to protect it from being boiled.

  For reasons unknown to him, a boy decided to deliver his Confession in the voice of a duck.

  • • •

  IT WAS SAD for all the children. They were so in need of love. The beatings affected their self-esteem. Because they were beaten every time they found themselves lost in thought, they began to find that their minds were afraid to wander. Their little brains were not allowed to amuse themselves or to dally happily in the magical Elysium of the mind that was childhood. But Pierrot’s and Rose’s personalities both survived this cruel regime.

  • • •

  THE MOTHER SUPERIOR always took particular notice of the boys and girls in the younger group, the two-to-six-year-olds, who were lodged on the second floor. The first thing Pierrot and Rose had in common was the black cat. The Mother Superior was always trying to get rid of the black cat, which seemed to haunt the orphanage. It had spiky hair and looked as though it had just climbed out of a vat of tar and was miserable about its fate. There were days it could never be found. It would seem to just disappear into the walls. But one time she found it in Pierrot’s bed. They were asleep, wrapped up in each other’s arms like lovers. She chased it right out the window. She was sure that was the last time she would ever lay eyes on it.

  And then she saw it again, talking to Rose. The little girl was crouched down and was speaking to the cat as though they were going over some very important business together. But Rose was so young she couldn’t even speak proper words yet. She was just uttering garbled, burbling noises. They sounded like water in a tiny pot bubbling over. The cat was listening carefully to what Rose said and then hastened out the door, as if to deliver the message to the insurgents.

  When Pierrot and Rose were both four years old, the Mother Superior saw the two of them pretending that the black cat was their child. They kept kissing the cat on the head and handing it back and forth.

  “You’ve been a naughty kit-kat. Silly bad thing. Dirty raggedy scamp. You’ll go straight to hell,” said Rose.

  “Yes. You’ve been bad and whiny. You don’t get milk. No milk at all. No milk one bit. No milk for you,” insisted Pierrot.

  “If you cry, I’m going to poke you in the nose.”

  “Owww! Owww! Owww! I don’t want to hear it.”

  “You smell bad. You have to scrub your paws. Bath time. Stinky creep.”

  “Naughty sinner, naughty, naughty, naughty. With mud for paws.”

  “Soooo shameful. Look at me. Mister Shameful.”

  They had never been taught words of affection. Although the two had only known harsh terms and words of discipline, they had managed to transform them into words of love. The Mother Superior immediately made a note to keep the two children apart. Boys and girls were kept in separate dormitories and classrooms, but they played in the common room, ate in the same large cafeteria and did their chores outside in the field together. It was necessary to thwart all love affairs in the orphanage. If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love. They were in their pathetic circumstances because of that most unreliable of feelings. These affairs sometimes began years and years before the children themselves were aware of their affections, and by the time they became evident, they were impossible to uproot. So the nuns were all instructed to keep Rose and Pierrot away from each other.

  Not these two delinquents, she thought. Not these two unlucky foundlings. They had already escaped death. And still they were expecting more.

  4

  THE EARLY YEARS OF A BRILLIANT IDIOT

  Pierrot was a late bloomer. When he was a baby, he didn’t do much of anything at all. He wouldn’t even sit up but just lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. And then when he finally learned to sit up, he couldn’t be bothered to talk for months and months and months. He let the other children do all the talking. He was too delighted listening to the others to say anything himself. He would burst out laughing at odd times when you weren’t sure what he could possibly have found funny.

  The Mother Superior was quite sure that before he was six years old, she would have to pack his stuff into a suitcase, draw him a little map with the directions to the insane asylum and send him on his way.

  The nuns almost separated him from the other boys, but he seemed to play well with them. The other boys didn’t cast him aside like they usually did with oddly maturing children. This seemed to imply that they thought he was somehow at their level. And children were the best at knowing such things. Once he did open his mouth, at age three, he seemed bright enough.

  But perhaps what really saved him from being in a straitjacket for the majority of his life was the unusual skill set he was developing. He was able to do handstands and cartwheels. He could do a backflip as if it were a natural thing for a child to do. He also had a flair for theatrics. Pierrot would pretend to sit on a chair, even though there wasn’t anything underneath him—a subtle act of absurdity that amused the other children to no end. Pierrot also often acted as though he had just been struck by lightning, sizzling in one spot and then dropping dead to the floor. He would sometimes be found in the backyard in the winter, picking imaginary flowers and sniffing them.

  Pierrot’s blond hair made him look serious and angelic when he wasn’t doing something absurd. He was so slender. He just got taller as he got older, but never broader. It was hard to imagine that he would ever hit puberty. Pierrot was capable of great wondrous thoughts by the time he was eleven. Everywhere he went, he seemed to leave a trail of them behind, like the tail of a kite flipping around in the breeze. Usually one formulates an idea or desire and then subsequently says it out loud. But with Pierrot, the thoughts were so on the tip of his tongue that he sometimes had the impression he was saying them first and thinking about them later. He seemed to be as much in love with the gymnastic feats of language as he was with its meaning. And therefore he was known to say things that were much wiser than he himself could understand.

  Pierrot was to be a paradox to all those who met him. On the one hand, he was utterly brilliant, and on the other hand, there was no way he could be interpreted as anything except a fool. But because he was so entertaining, Pierrot was always presented when the archbishop was visiting.

  Although it was not the type of question an archbishop usually bothered volatile orphans with, he asked Pierrot—purely out of curiosity as to what his answer might be—who he imagined that his parents were.

  “Oh,” said Pierrot, “I imagine some woeful skinny teenage thing who got seduced by a thug. These things happen, and there is nothing that anybody in the whole world can do to stop them. Let’s be honest—I was born in the most unfashionable of gutters.”

  The archbishop, along with others, realized that if you put a blazer on him, Pierrot could fit in anywhere. He could have passed for the prime minister’s son. You could imagine him giving a little speech on the radio when his father passed away—on how he felt about losing such a grandi
ose papa.

  • • •

  PIERROT’S MOST REMARKABLE SKILL, however, was that he was able to pick out certain tunes on the piano after only a few lessons. He was a natural. He couldn’t be bothered to learn to read music but just played by ear, composing his own tunes or improvising them. Reading a musical score was too much like classwork for Pierrot. And he was terrible at math and science and geography and history and spelling. Very soon Pierrot was able to play much better than the Mother Superior herself. He played so quickly. The notes were like mice scurrying across the floor.

  If he had been born anywhere else, he would have been a musical prodigy. But he was raised in an orphanage and so he played the piano in the cafeteria at dinnertime. He would play a religious tune that the Mother Superior requested, but every now and then he couldn’t help himself and would start inventing his own numbers. He would turn the little hymn into a jazz number. Everyone would start laughing and clapping their hands. They wagged their heads violently, looking like piggy banks being shaken.

  When he went off script like that, the Mother Superior would come up and close the piano lid and sometimes whack him on the palms with a ruler. She always let him play again, though. There was nothing else she could do. There was no way the children could listen to the instructors or other children playing when they knew Pierrot was in the room.

  It was Rose, of course, who crossed the line one evening and got up off her chair and began to dance to the tune Pierrot was playing. Rose did a sweet cartwheel, her legs straight in the air and her dress down over her head. When Pierrot saw, his mouth dropped open in amazement. Then he bent forward, as though he had just the tune to accompany her wild display. He tapped out another pretty bar of enthusiastic melody in order to encourage the girl. Rose danced, wagging her hands over her head as if she were waving to a soldier departing on a train. A nun, wasting no time, leaped to her feet, headed toward Rose and smacked her on the back of the head, causing her to tumble to the floor, while another took care of Pierrot. The Mother Superior didn’t like that these particular children were being punished at the same time, as it might breed in them a sense of solidarity. But what choice did she have?

  Even the often rigid and ornery Mother Superior was fond of Pierrot. He did a rather endearing impersonation of her that always made her laugh. Nonetheless, she smacked him like she did all the other children, until the arrival of Sister Eloïse.

  • • •

  SISTER ELOÏSE WAS YOUNG when she arrived at the orphanage—only twenty-two, in fact. She had a high forehead, yellow eyebrows, cheeks that were covered with freckles, a pretty nose and pink lips. She had a curvy, healthy figure that needed to be seen naked to be appreciated. Any man would have found her attractive. The first time Pierrot saw Eloïse, she reminded him of a glass of milk. She reminded him of clean sheets blowing in the wind at the exact moment when the water evaporated from them and they became dry and light and easy again.

  All the children believed that when a new young nun entered the orphanage, she would remain kind, she would remain tender, she would act just a little bit like a mother. Their hopes were always dashed, of course. The Sisters always became wicked, slapping and yelling at the children after a few months. The older children never even got their hopes up because they knew a transformation was in the works.

  But Pierrot had high hopes for Sister Eloïse because of the way she treated him. She came by his desk and looked over his shoulder in class. His handwriting was always so terrible. His hand was always trying to write some other word than the one he wanted it to. She did not smack him on the back of the neck the way the other Sisters invariably did when they looked at his disastrous handwriting. She took the chalk out of his hand and wrote love and cherish with perfect skill and ease on his blackboard. Like a bird that flies without any fear of falling.

  When he passed by Sister Eloïse, she smiled at him and he blushed and shuddered.

  Sister Eloïse, although young, was put in charge of the children on the third floor, who were between the ages of seven and eleven. She noticed things about the children before the children themselves did, a skill the Mother Superior saw in very few nuns. Eloïse was able to punish some children preemptively. Although some of the other nuns disputed the morality of this, they could not deny that it was effective.

  • • •

  PIERROT WAS LOST IN THOUGHT one day when Sister Eloïse took his arm and led him to a corner.

  “Look under my dress. I have a treat for you.”

  He peeked under her habit like a photographer peering under the black cloth of a camera, intent on capturing the elusive mysteries of the world. When he stuck his head out again, confused, she had a small cookie with raspberry jam in the palm of her hand. The children were never given any sweets. He felt ashamed afterward that none of the others were able to eat this cookie with him and that he couldn’t tell them about it. The cookie was delicious, but it tasted of death.

  When he was smacked for trying to scrub the floor by attaching the rags to his feet and skating on the surface, Sister Eloïse intervened. After that he found that he was not hit or beaten for anything. He would have been delighted by this phenomenon if it extended to the other children, but he discovered, to his consternation, that none of the other children were spared. He was the only one not being brutally punished. It made him feel singled out and guilty. And he noticed that Rose especially seemed to be hit more than ever. He saw Rose with a black eye feeding the chickens. It made him suddenly want to be beaten. He wanted to have the same fate as Rose. He didn’t know why.

  5

  NOTES ON A YOUNG PROVOCATRICE

  Rose was an ordinary-looking little girl. She was definitely not unattractive. But she wasn’t one of those children so absolutely lovely that you can’t take your eyes off them. She had black hair, with eyes to match. She looked a bit like the snooty expressionless doll that was popular in the high-end stores back then. Perhaps her only remarkable feature was how pink her cheeks would get when she was out in the cold. It was the only time people would remark that she was beautiful. When she was inside, it was as though that attractiveness just melted away.

  Like Pierrot, Rose also, from a very young age, had a fondness for dissimulation. Rose pretended to be a kitten at the foot of the bed. She mewed in the cutest way. She was able to make a steam-whistle noise. She was able to make her cheeks go really round, just like those of a trumpet player. Rose would plop herself down on a chair and make a farting noise. All the other children loved that.

  Perhaps it had to do with her first deep, deep nap in the snow, but Rose was a remarkably introspective child. She wondered about the difference between what was happening right in front of you and all the strange stuff that goes on in your head. She sometimes thought that there wasn’t a distance between the two. Sometimes she thought it was just plain silly that we were paying all this attention to the real world when there was this wonderful one in our minds that we could just as well be engaging in. So she would suddenly act as though the real world had no import.

  All the other girls laughed in delight when they realized that tonight was going to be one where Rose completely lost her mind. She bent forward and draped a coat over her body and head. She stretched her arm up in the air to look like an ostrich’s neck. She climbed onto the edge of her bed frame like it was the rigging of a ship. As if it were a ship cable, she walked delicately across it. She called out, “Land ho!” A crowd of children scrambled up onto the mattress. They wanted to get aboard this lifeboat. They wanted to arrive in this new land—and explore whatever it was that Rose was going to explore. To see everything Rose was going to see.

  She hopped from one bed to the other as though trying to escape a wicked pirate who had breached the deck and was out to kill her—out to stab her in the heart for refusing to love him. Such was the quality of her performance that the little girls could see the evil man pursuing her. They woul
d hold their small hands to their mouths to stifle their terrified cries.

  One of the girls got so worked up one night at the performance that she fainted. The other girls gathered around her, blowing in her face and waving pillows back and forth above her. They were trying to revive her. If the Sisters came in, they would put an end to all of these marvelous games forever.

  Their favorite of Rose’s performances by far were those when her imaginary friend, a bear, came to visit. And he would always be demanding Rose’s hand in marriage. All the girls scooted down one chair at the dining table because they wanted to leave a space for her imaginary friend to sit. In the dormitory at night, Rose would sit on the edge of her bed, looking straight ahead, spurning the affections of the beast.

  “You must be completely out of your mind. Why would I marry a bear?” She paused to listen to what the bear was saying. “Well, for one thing, how in the world could I trust you around any of my friends? I’m quite sure that I would turn my head for just a minute and when I turned it back I’d find that you had swallowed them whole.”

  The little girls exploded with mirth. Their laughter was like a pheasant that burst startled from a thicket.

  “And you are always eating all the honey. That just isn’t right! You know that I like to have a spoonful of it in my tea, and every time I go to pick up the jar, I see that it is completely empty.”

  They laughed again at this big bear that didn’t have the sense to know when enough was enough.

  “Also, you are a bum. You sleep for the whole winter. I know it’s cold out, but that doesn’t mean you can just sleep right through it. How will the bills get paid? Do you think I want to spend the whole winter listening to you snore?

  “No, I will not kiss you. No, no, no. Get your huge paws off me.”

  The little girls clapped their hands and screamed in delight. They forgot themselves, pulling their dresses up to their chins and shoving their fists in their mouths. One girl laughed so hard that she peed in her underpants a little.

 
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