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The lonely hearts hotel, p.20
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.20

           Heather O'Neill
 

  It kept him company. Some pianos had nothing to say. But this piano wanted to converse. This piano wanted to complain to Pierrot as much as Pierrot wanted to complain to the piano. The piano was his support group. It was his advocate. It was the only one that had tried to talk him out of being a drug addict over the past years.

  His fingers ached when he placed them on the keys. He pushed the keys tentatively, so that his fingers were like the legs of a girl playing hopscotch. His whole body was in pain, racked with guilt and sorrow and loneliness. And then he let himself begin to play quickly, wildly, expertly. He played for having lost Rose. He played the tune he thought of as hers, but in a more grievous and sorrowful way. The tune now wove the frivolity of youth with the gravitas of maturity.

  When he was finished, there was absolute quiet and Pierrot was confused. Where had everyone in the audience disappeared to, and shouldn’t they be done with the washroom by now? He looked toward the seats. The cinema was completely full. No one had left their seats during intermission. They were weeping silently.

  And so it was that Pierrot played better now that his fingers had been broken. It made the notes sadder. There were people who came to the theater to hear Pierrot rather than to see the movie. The owner gave him a two-penny raise. He stayed at a men’s hotel and slept in a room with twenty-five other men. He spent his pay on getting high enough to prevent his body from going through withdrawal in the evenings.

  31

  PORTRAIT OF LADY AS ALLEY CAT

  Rose had filled her pockets with the jewelry McMahon had bought for her. The necklace had a pearl that looked like a seed you were supposed to plant, which would grow into a real moon. The diamond earrings were like tiny stars far, far, far away in other galaxies. There was a ring with a giant red stone that was like Mars, all poisonous and angry in the black sky.

  She took the trolley from the Darling Hotel down Saint Catherine Street to the red-light district. The narrow streets perpendicular to Saint Catherine were lined with lazy buildings that had let themselves go. They needed new windows and new steps and new paint jobs. They were cantankerous and moody. They refused to open or shut their windows. They let the cold in through the cracks in the doors, and mice into those in the walls. They acted as though they had been awoken from deep sleep when you turned on the faucet or tried to use the stove.

  On the front arch of an old abandoned bank there was a gargoyle of an angel lying on its back, looking up at the clouds in the sky, having completely lost interest in the world.

  Rose was moving to the area where girls like Poppy plied their trades. But she didn’t mind. She was tired of pretending she was anything other than an unfortunate young woman without a penny to her name—who fucked for a living.

  One of the governesses had told her about a pawnshop in the neighborhood that would take your riches without asking questions. There it was, just like she had said. The pawnshop was dark inside and had a small cabinet filled with all the stolen jewels in the city. There was an expensive suit hanging from a coat hanger and a pair of fancy shoes. It was as if a man had sold his clothes and then walked out of the pawnshop naked.

  On top of her jewelry, Rose sold all her fancy dresses. The pawnbroker told her that he would give her an extra dollar for the exquisite fur hat she had on as well. But Rose shook her head. She wasn’t going to give up that hat. It seemed like the only old friend she had. It had come all the way from the orphanage with her. She knew that it made no sense for her to wear it. It was as though she were walking around with a crown on. But that was why she liked it. She wasn’t about to give up a magical talisman at this point. Not when she was a girl alone in a land where everybody was a cross between the Big Bad Wolf and Puss in Boots.

  Even though the pawnbroker had wildly underappreciated the worth of the objects she had pawned to him, she was still in possession of what was, to her, a small fortune. She intended to buy herself a holiday, time off from her life. She felt like spending some time in the city, the way a seven-year-old might.

  • • •

  SHE MOVED INTO A LITTLE ROOM at the Valentine Hotel on the corner of Saint Catherine and De Bullion. She told the woman that she could only afford the cheapest room they had. Her room was pretty, though. It was tidy. The tenant before her had lived in the room for twenty years and she had kept really good care of it. The wallpaper wasn’t torn off at all. The floor wasn’t scuffed. The washbasin looked like it had never toppled off due to some sort of drunken escapade. And the wallpaper was covered in yellow roses. There were white doorknobs with flowers painted on them.

  The widow’s cat peeked its head in the window, asking Rose whether it would be okay if it continued to reside in that room. Rose held its head in her palms and said, yes, of course, of course, of course. The cat had gray and white stripes, as if it had just escaped from prison.

  She ended up loving her little room, which she paid for all by herself. The floors were so thin you could hear somebody making love three floors up. A woman singing a lullaby to her baby could put a lonely junkie on the fifth floor to sleep. There wasn’t much secrecy in that building. If you saw one of your neighbors walking into the confessional, you already knew everything he was going to tell the priest. If you saw a man sleeping on the bench outside the building, you knew why his wife had kicked him out. His children kissed his cheeks on their way to school as they passed. The proximity of all these people made Rose feel less alone. She fell asleep listening to the voices of other people through the walls: it was what the world sounded like to an unborn child.

  The windows were covered in frost in the morning when she woke up. She pulled on three pairs of stockings and two sweaters, then her overcoat on top. And she walked through the snow. She ran around with her hands out, catching snowflakes with the children.

  She had time to see the neighborhood without worrying about getting home to the orphanage or McMahon. It was the first time in her life that she could do something like that. When she returned to the hotel, the concierge reached behind the wall and plucked off Rose’s key for her. All the keys hung in a row, like a very simple musical score for a child to play.

  32

  PORTRAIT OF LADY WITH WHIP AND DONKEY

  Despite residing in the world’s cheapest hotel room, after a time, Rose began to run out of money. Rose wasn’t sure how she would survive in the city on a day-to-day basis, however. McMahon had put out the word that she wasn’t to be hired at any of the city’s nightclubs. Since they were under his protection, the owners told Rose that they couldn’t let her in. It was as though all those years of learning the business and meeting people hadn’t even existed. They had all been a waste of time. She understood exactly how all those Americans had felt when they jumped out the windows of tall buildings in 1929. She was twenty-one years old. She amounted to nothing.

  There weren’t any other sorts of jobs either. She went to the factories. She went to all the restaurants and knocked on the back doors. She went to the five-and-dime. She went to a spruce-beer manufacturer. She knew that they didn’t have any signs in the windows asking for help, but she went in just in case.

  She was walking down Saint Alexandre Street, where there were prostitutes in cloches milling about on the sidewalk. You could only make out their pouty lips. They walked like hens with their chests stuck out. As Rose passed she saw a sign on the door of a narrow building. It said: Help Wanted: Seeking the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. There was a descending row of white doorbells, like the buttons on a dress. She went up the marble stairs to the third floor of the building, even though she knew it had to be a trap. She knew that telling a woman she was beautiful was almost always setting a trap.

  A man greeted her when she arrived at the door on the top floor. He brought her down a carpeted hallway. They passed a door through which she heard the sounds of people making love. There was a great bright light coming out from underneath it. Also, there were wires a
ll over the floor leading into the room, so she assumed some sort of pornography was going on. One of the mistresses at the Roxy had gossiped to her about such a place.

  Rose was directed into an office at the end of the hall. Another man was sitting behind a desk. He held a cigarette between his fingers and pointed it at her. “Will you pretend to look frightened, like the zookeeper accidentally left the cage door open and the lion got out?”

  Rose made a funny look of horror with her mouth open and her eyebrows arched way up and her hands in front with all her fingers spread. Then he asked her to act as though a man had come up to her, unzipped his pants and let his erect penis out of it. She made the exact same expression and they gave her the job.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS ASKED TO POSE for photos in the nude. The photographer was making postcards that would be circulated discreetly around the country. Maybe they would go to Europe. But Rose knew, no matter where they went, the photos were for men to look at and fantasize about. They were against the law. In her first photo, Rose was wearing a little black masquerade mask and riding a hobbyhorse, and holding a whip in her hand. There was another girl named Mimi who was dressed the same. Rose didn’t care. She got paid that evening.

  She ate steak for dinner with a tumbler of whiskey. She’d had a taste of the type of life crime could bring you. After she was reminded of it, there was no going back.

  • • •

  THEY TOOK HER PHOTOGRAPH sitting on a wooden moon that had a little seat on it and was attached by cables to the ceiling. Silver cardboard stars were glued onto a black backdrop behind her. In another photo, she was in a dress, sitting on a chair with her legs spread. You could see her underwear. She was reading a book. This was for a popular series of postcards. They all displayed the literate whore.

  She and Mimi dressed up as maids. They took turns feather dusting each other’s fanny.

  In another she was wearing lace underwear and a veil. There was a dog that wore a little tuxedo. She didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. Perhaps the dog was her master and not the other way around.

  • • •

  SHE STARRED IN some movies too. She was usually naked in them, running away from priests and schoolteachers or men in black masks. In one movie a police officer made her sleep with him to get out of prison.

  She pretended to be a girl working in an office. In the film she became so overheated that she could barely stand it. She tried to open the window but it was jammed shut. In frustration, she took off all her clothes. And the boss came out and started yelling at her as she happily typed away.

  There was a dirty movie called Florence Nightingale. In it a patient was brought in, suffering from hypothermia. She took off all her clothes and climbed under the blankets with him. And they rolled around together until he was revived. Then she tried to get away, but he rolled on top of her and started having sex with her. The movie ended up with them wiping the sweat off their foreheads. In another film where she played the same character, in order to revive a man who was having a heart attack, she gave him a blow job.

  • • •

  SHE DIDN’T THINK it was any different from the other make-believe games she had played. How different was it really from when she pretended that the great big bear was pawing her at the dinner table?

  She liked performing. When she was young, she hadn’t realized how much she liked it. She didn’t realize that the feeling she had while performing was unique to performing. She thought it was just a regular feeling one went about having. But looking back on her life, she realized that she had not had that feeling since. It was a feeling of completion. It made her feel safe. It made her feel intelligent. It made her feel like herself.

  She washed up in the bathroom at the end of the day and reapplied her makeup. She took the trolley home to the Valentine Hotel.

  • • •

  THE DIRECTORS WERE AMAZED by how quickly Rose would catch on to instructions. She made them laugh out loud. They were wrapped up in the tale and the personas that she embodied. They almost wanted it not to end with her having sex or doing something dirty. They wondered about her character later in the day. They wondered about what would happen to her afterward. They wondered if she ended up happy.

  They thought about the dear little perverted nurse and wondered if she would ever settle down. They wondered if she would be so enthusiastic about every patient. They hoped she would never become jaded. They hoped the hospital knew how lucky it was to have her. They wondered if they could meet their own little nurse someday and live happily ever after. And so they fell asleep without masturbating.

  Sometimes her performance was too good and it took away from the sex.

  • • •

  SHE HAD ON a black Napoleon hat. It was like the black part of a crescent moon. She was riding around on a hobbyhorse. There was a backdrop of the frozen Russian landscape stuck up behind her. How cold it was meant to be in this make-believe Russia! The white makeup on her face made her as pale as the snowflakes. She was wearing a long black coat, and she had on a pair of bloomers but no shirt. She made love to Mimi, who was also dressed up as a soldier.

  “Did you know that Napoleon was afraid of cats? But that he liked women’s pussies?” Mimi asked Rose. “Did you know that he used to dress in the clothes of a poor person so he could walk through the streets of Paris to find out what people really thought of him?”

  “How do you know all that about Napoleon?”

  “I have a book about him that you can borrow.”

  Mimi was the only person Rose had ever met who liked to read as much as she did. Rose kept the things she read stuffed messily in her head like a walk-in closet. Mimi kept them all organized in her head like a scientist. She filed them away like a stack of cue cards. The facts were always there when Mimi needed them. She was a genius. She should have been a lecturer at the university. She should have been touring around in a black suit and tie, talking about French history. She was here without her clothes on, though.

  • • •

  MIMI WAS GETTING DRESSED in a maid’s outfit. She turned her back to Rose so that her friend could do up the little buttons at the back.

  “What in the world do our clothes say about us when we put them on?” Rose said. “There’s no real dignity in any of these costumes. If I’m a maid, I do what the owner of the house tells me to do. If I’m a nurse, I do whatever the doctor tells me to do. What are we as women, other than barnacles that attach themselves to higher life forms in some pathetic attempt to clean up messes? Tidy up what men have left behind—make the world a lovelier, better place for men. I would like to play a part in which I don’t have a superior.”

  The director told Rose that she should save her philosophical speculations until after work because they were causing the male actors to lose their erections.

  Rose looked over at the male actor. He was wearing a long white wig and a black judge’s robe that went down to his feet. He was casually stroking his cock to get an erection so they could start the film again.

  A man walked by with a mask of a donkey head and a tail attached to a belt around his waist. Rose looked down at his penis to see if she could recognize who it was by the organ. It seemed to be a rather ordinary penis.

  “Have you watched any of the movies we’ve been making?” Rose asked. “In every one of them, the woman is hunted. She’s subdued, isn’t she?”

  “Oh, you’re not supposed to look into them so hard, you know. They’re just there to let some lonely people get their jollies,” said Mimi.

  “A girl’s desire is like a pretty butterfly. And a man’s desire is like a butterfly net. His desire captures and kills her. He turns her into an object to be pinned on a corkboard. I don’t think I’m interested in the tyranny of the couple. I’m more interested in what a person does when they’re forced to be by themselves.”

  “
You just want to sit on a chair naked and masturbate?”

  They both laughed.

  “Are you going to get into your costume soon?” Mimi asked.

  Rose had said all that while being stark naked, not a stitch on her other than a string of fake pearls, a pair of black high heels and a little tuft of pubic hair.

  33

  STILL LIFE OF MURDERS

  McMahon had thought about Rose compulsively during the past year. He had stopped sleeping around. It was too emotionally risky. Before Rose, he had always felt completely in command when sleeping with a woman. Now he felt vulnerable, like the woman could take something from him. He felt as if he were begging them for something they could never give him. The emptiness and longing he felt after sex made him sick inside. He blamed Rose for this.

  And he sometimes even felt strange when he masturbated. He always felt like weeping after he came and his fantasy dissipated. It wasn’t worth the orgasm. He sometimes wondered whether the sex had affected Rose similarly. After all, he had been her first. So he had to have registered in her consciousness in some fashion. He had to be emotionally important. If he knew she felt the same, he thought that perhaps he could go back to being a man.

  • • •

  MCMAHON KEPT EXPECTING ROSE TO return for money, but she never did. He thought maybe Rose had died. He had everyone in the police station paid off. The crime-scene photographer put together a portfolio of Jane Does in the city who had died suspicious deaths since Rose had run off on him.

  Every time he looked at one of the photographs, for a split second he was sure it was Rose.

  There was a woman with a tie around her mouth, put there no doubt so that she couldn’t voice her own disappointment at being murdered. There was a woman fastened to a kitchen chair. Her head hung forward, almost like she had fallen asleep that way. There was a girl with a pillowcase over her head. He thought for a moment that if he were just able to pull off the pillowcase, he would see Rose. But the body of the girl was quite plump. Too plump to be Rose. There was a girl lying on a bed with a bullet hole in her forehead. She seemed to be looking up at the hole. There was a girl in the park. Dark-colored autumn leaves had fallen on her. She had on boots and a hat but nothing else.

 
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