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The lonely hearts hotel, p.22
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.22

           Heather O'Neill

  She picked up the eggs and began to juggle them. They spun around like the lights on a Ferris wheel. She withdrew her hands and suddenly all the eggs fell to the table and broke.

  “Oh dear,” said Mimi. “You’ve completely lost your mind. But don’t worry. I’ll just scramble up all of these into a nice omelet.”

  • • •

  LATER, AFTER MIMI LEFT, Rose wrapped the baby up in a stained napkin with orange orchids on it that she had never liked. She put the wee parcel in the inside pocket of her coat. Feeling famished, she stopped at a restaurant to have something to eat. The waiter asked if she would like him to take her coat. She shook her head. She sat at a table in her coat by herself, sighing, with a bowl of soup.

  When she was in possession of the baby, she felt people would find out about it. They would judge her entirely unnatural. They would say she was some sort of witch, and they would burn her at the stake.

  When Rose got back home, she took the little girl wrapped in the colorful napkin and put the package in the garbage chute and then sat on the bed staring at its closed door. As though she were expecting to hear a knock from behind it.

  Outside on a branch, a crow cawed suddenly, as if it had something very hot in its throat.



  Later that night Rose yanked on her dresser’s top drawer, the one that got stuck, until it jerked open. She reached in and pulled out the tin cigar box she liked to keep her condoms and money in. There was a barrette with a tin rose on it that McMahon had given her, which was the only one of his gifts the pawnbroker had declared absolutely worthless. And there was the plan she had made with Pierrot.

  Every time she looked at the piece of paper, it distracted her because it was so whimsical and absurd. It amused her that she had come up with something so outlandish and impossible. She liked to think that who she was as a child was entirely different from who she was now. This is a common phenomenon. It’s because people don’t like themselves, but they believe they are inherently good and that it’s life that has made them wicked. So they look back at themselves as children in an idealized, unspoiled lovely state.

  The crazier she found the plan as an adult, the more special she felt she had been then. However, this time when she looked at the plan, it seemed to make absolute sense. Why couldn’t she put together this plan now? If it was created by a thirteen-year-old, it should feel easier to accomplish, not harder.

  • • •

  THERE WAS A CIRCUS PERFORMING “Leda and the Swan.” She watched a girl in the circus leap off the strong man’s shoulders, do two flips in the air and then land back on his shoulders. There was no way any scientist could explain such a feat taking place on earth. The atmosphere was different onstage. It was that of another planet altogether. The atmosphere was not composed of oxygen, but rather it was composed of sadness. Sadness was dense—as if it were liquid. You could leap higher up into the air when you were onstage, and sometimes you were suspended there.

  Most of us hide away when we are sad, Rose thought. But performers were sad in public. She liked how honest they all were. They opened up their hearts. They took out every emotion—no matter how small or pathetic or odd—and celebrated it. It was as though each trick they performed was an attempted suicide, proving that you could indeed survive the human experience.

  They were much more naked than Rose had ever been in the pornographic films. That was for sure. It was much harder to look at. Rose knew she could create an even more provocative show of her own, as sad things can also have other sides, miraculous ones. If you don’t feel sadness, there are types of happiness and compassion and torture and insight you will never know. Sadness has all sorts of truths that allow you to experience joy. She remembered reading with Pierrot the flyers of visiting circuses. They came from faraway places—like Poland and New Orleans and Moscow and London and Bombay and Hong Kong. They brought stories of different lifestyles.

  She wanted to create a group from Montreal. To make people wonder what it was like to live on the snowy island. Where there was nothing but crying pregnant girls. Where you could have sex with a girl wearing nothing but a fur hat and socks. Where there were churches and horses and too many babies and too much snow. Where everyone fell in love only once.

  • • •

  SHE WAS GOING TO FIND her partner. He must be performing somewhere because he couldn’t help it. He must be a sad clown in some smaller revue. Once she got that idea in her head, she couldn’t let go of it. She stepped out of the theater. It was hailing outside, as if a bottle of lozenges had fallen over on the shelf.



  In one week she saw seven different clowns. On Monday she went to a theater that had paintings of blue skies with white cumulus clouds floating on all the walls.

  There was a clown whose act revolved around the use of a spotlight. The spotlight would turn off, and when it came back on, he would be doing something completely different with other props. He changed his clothes in the darkness. He sat on top of a ladder. He lay under a blanket, sleeping. He sat on a chair, reading a novel. He wore a chef’s hat and stirred a pot of soup. Rose found his routine almost miraculous. It seemed as if he were part of the light, like he completely disappeared and reappeared when it went on and off.

  Rose watched the artists leave backstage but didn’t spot the clown. Rose knocked on the door to the artist’s dressing room backstage. The clown opened it. He looked tipsy and was wearing pants but no shirt. His face paint had mostly been wiped off, but a ghostly pallor remained.

  “I found your act truly transcendent.”

  “This was nothing. I used to have a wife who worked the lights. Because we’d been together for so many years, we were so amazingly coordinated. I really seemed like I was supernatural. I wish that you could have seen the act then.”

  He poured them each a tumbler of gin.

  “But then I cheated on her. At first I thought she was turning the spotlights on and off at the wrong times and in the wrong places on purpose. But then, you know, I realized it was because I’d broken our trust.”

  The gin inside Rose’s glass looked like a tiny calm lake. She held the glass to her lips and took a sip. She immediately began to feel relaxed and loquacious.

  “I think clowns feel the consequences of things more than other people do,” said Rose. “We clowns are larger than life. We hold a microscope up to things. I think if you want to be a better artist, you have to be a better person. How else would you be able to express innocence—which is what every clown is after?”

  The clown nodded. “Thank you for sharing that philosophy. It’s quite useful to me. I’d very much like to see your act.”

  “I’m looking for my partner. He’s an absurdist. He’s always doing something wonderfully peculiar, like balancing plates on his head.”

  “There’s an interesting act over at the Neptune. A clown who spends all his time in a bathtub.”

  “Thanks. I’ll go looking for him.”

  “Come back and see me sometimes.”

  He winked.

  Pierrot went by the pornography studio looking for Rose. He asked about the girl with the black hair who stared right into the camera. They said that her name was Marie but that she only answered to the name Rose. They said that she no longer worked for them. She had arrived at their door out of the blue one day, and then she had left with just as much resolution and as little explanation.

  As he turned to leave, Pierrot saw a man with a huge mustache in socks and his boxer shorts eating a sandwich, sitting on a stool. He often played a landlord who extorts his tenants.

  “Keep looking,” the man said to Pierrot. “She’s around.”



  On Tuesday Rose went down to a theater whose name, the Neptune, was painted in blue and white on the
light box out front. There were murals in the lobby with paintings of different calm seas with magnificent ships sailing on them. There was only one mural that showed a turbulent sea. On this particular sea, there was a huge ship with broken masts being pulled under the waves. And tiny terrified people in those waves, trying to cling to the flotsam and jetsam while sharks approached them from the rear.

  Rose sat in the audience, and when the stage lights came on, a clown was revealed, sitting in a bathtub. He wore a bathing suit and pirate hat and looked out of a periscope, as if his tub were actually a little boat. He was peering through it in what could only be a desperate search for land. It was unclear, metaphysically, whether the water was inside the bathtub or outside it.

  He took out a pair of large oars and stuck them into the imaginary ocean and began to row. He put the oars back into the infinite bottom of the tub. Then he pulled out a fishing rod. Casting an imaginary line, he caught himself an imaginary fish. He then took out a gigantic pot to cook the fish in. It surprised the audience that such huge things were coming out of the small tub. The bathtub actually didn’t have a bottom to it, and he would position it above a trapdoor on the stage.

  “I’m never sure whether people understand my act. I don’t know whether they think I’m just clowning around. What did you think I was trying to say?” the clown asked Rose later.

  “We all struggle with contradictions. Contradictions are marvelous. If you don’t believe that everything contains contradictions, then there is very little you can understand. We know ourselves by embracing what we are not. We become good by taking evil head-on.”

  “Exactly!” exclaimed the clown. “You can’t have land without water. You can’t have water without land.”

  “In my own clown work, I’m interested in the wonder in tragedy and the tragedy in wonder, that type of thing.”

  “It’s not so often you see women going into clowning these days.”

  “Why do you think that all the clowns who I’ve met are men?”

  “Because clowns are supposed to be funny. Clowns are supposed to be allowed to fart all the time. They are supposed to be honest. They get to expose their flaws. They get to confess to all sorts of funny emotions. Men are happy doing this but women are not. It wouldn’t be funny if women did this, just ugly.”

  “What you are describing is freedom. And, trust me, women want it too.”

  “There’s an effeminate clown at the Parisian. Perhaps he’s the clown you’re looking for.”

  Pierrot called the operator, looking for Rose, but her number wasn’t listed. So Pierrot went to the police station. There was a cop who knew absolutely who he was describing. He remembered Rose from when she was dating McMahon. There was, however, no way he would give up any information about that girl to this young bozo.

  “She always wanted more than she deserved out of life. McMahon did everything for her, all she had to do was spread her legs. But no, she went off. Left him destroyed. I have no interest in women who don’t know their place.”

  “So you can’t help me?”

  “It’s in the home.”

  “What is?”

  “A woman’s fucking place.”

  Anyway, McMahon had taken it very hard when Rose left. There was an unwritten agreement among all McMahon’s friends that they were not going to have anything to do with her. The cop had never really liked Rose because he was so attracted to her too.



  The Parisian Theater had ornate boxes on the side for rich people to sit in. The wood around the stage had depictions of flowers and teacups and unicorns and lilies carved into it. Onstage, a fat clown walked around in an imaginary garden, bending over and plucking different flowers, which he would inhale from deeply.

  It was as though the scent of the flower made him stoned. He danced about the stage. He had on a pair of ballet shoes under his spats. He danced on pointe, gracefully and wonderfully. He took off his jacket to reveal that he wasn’t fat at all, and that it was just the parameter of a stiff tutu creating his girth. He danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

  When he picked up one of the flowers, he made a terribly loud and rather shocking buzzing noise, as if there were a bee inside the flower. As his nose approached the flower the buzzing became louder and louder, until he yelped out loud, obviously bitten. He held up his hands to his face. When he put them down, he had on a big red clown nose.

  Backstage, sitting on the fire escape, the clown and Rose looked down at his toes. There were bandages on every one of them.

  “I bet your act was so beautiful,” the clown said to Rose. “You’re allowed to be affectionate and loving. You’re allowed to go around telling people and things that you love them. You don’t know how lucky you are sometimes, being a woman.”

  Rose smiled. “There are some strange advantages, it’s true.”

  “Was your partner handsome?” the clown asked. “I saw the most devilishly fetching clown at the Razzle Dazzle Circus. Go check him out, even if he isn’t the guy.”

  Pierrot stopped by the main library. It was made of orange bricks and had gargoyles of squirrels on the walls. He remembered that Rose always read anything she could get her hands on. He described Rose to the librarian and asked if a girl fitting that description ever came in.

  There was a tunnel on the side of the library that led to a magnificent greenhouse. Pierrot headed down the tunnel into the glass structure, which had white tiles on the floor and pots of flowers everywhere. He went to have a conversation with the roses. There was a load of huge roses. He was always surprised at how voluptuous they were. Rather like a white handkerchief tucked into the breasts of a woman at the opera. Where shall I find my lovely Rose? Have you seen her?

  The roses were desperate to have their portraits painted. They complained to one another that they hadn’t been born in the Netherlands, where all the great still-life artists had lived. It was a waste to be a rose in Canada. There were still some drops of water on their petals from having been watered. They were like tears.



  There was a theater in the East End called the Velvet that was surrounded by factories. Nobody noticed the theater during the day. Women with little kerchiefs on their heads would stand outside on their breaks to smoke a cigarette. But when the sun went down, and the factory workers had gone home, and all the trucks were in garages, the theater lights would come on and that glowing palace was all that seemed to exist on the block.

  Rose stepped into the theater. The carpets were a deep burgundy, and the seats were all made out of vermilion velvet. The curtains were such a heavy red that they looked as though they had soaked up the blood from a hundred murders. When the curtains rose, the stage was lit up and seemed like a tiny womb, with the performer tucked inside. The clown on exhibit had an enormous trunk that seemed as long as one that might belong to an immigrant family going across the ocean to the New World.

  The trunk held all manner of unusual and extraordinary objects to juggle with. There were bottles that the clown pulled out and spun around quickly. He had colorful balls and pins and a group of butcher knives. Rose wondered if he used these same knives in the kitchen to cut up salami.

  But those feats were nothing, as the clown was just warming up. He had some sticks with rags on the ends of them that he dipped into kerosene and proceeded to set on fire. He dipped his white skullcap into some water and then put it on his head. That way his head wouldn’t catch fire if one of the balls of flame chanced to land on it.

  He juggled so many at a time that Rose felt like she was hurtling through outer space, passing different constellations. If you were in the audience, you couldn’t help but reflect on all the winking stars immeasurable distances away, which blazed so we’d have something to wish on, and lit up the sky so that we could walk our dogs in the evening without bumping i
nto trees.

  His pièce de résistance, which he had worked on for several years before mastering it, was to keep one burning giant ball in the center, with colorful balls spinning around it, creating in essence a map of the universe.

  After his performance, the release of anxiety was so intense that he went outside behind the theater to throw up three or four times. Rose met him there. He led her back to his dressing room. He was still so exhausted by his performance that before he could talk he had to weep and weep and weep.

  “C’était magnifique. Je comprends que ça puisse vous vider. That was magnificent. I can see how it could drain you,” Rose said.

  “C’est ce que fait Dieu, chaque nuit. That’s what God has to do every night on an infinite scale. He invented the whole universe, and now he has to pay attention to it. Otherwise all the stars will go out one by one. We complain that he sometimes doesn’t get around to the things we want him to, but look up at the sky! Always more spectacular, the people say. Always more spectacular. Les gens en veulent toujours plus.”

  “Oui,” said Rose.

  She wanted to be a full participant in that extravaganza too.

  “Connaissez-vous un clown du nom de Pierrot? He’s so very light on his feet, it sometimes seems as though he is floating above the ground.”

  “Il y a quelqu’un qui correspond à cette description au Théâtre Magnifique. Go try there.”

  Pierrot looked up at the night sky. The North Star was twinkling so bright that it was surely a sign. He wished to find Rose. He never really put much stock in the stars. He rather fancied himself a lucky person. He didn’t feel as though he could impose on the universe and ask for any more favors. And should he find himself needing to make a demand or recommendation to the universe, he would have to be in dire straits before doing so. Although he could not call his situation distressful by any stretch of the imagination, he nonetheless looked up at the big night sky and he asked it for Rose.

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