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The lonely hearts hotel, p.23
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.23

           Heather O'Neill



  The clown performing at the Ocean Theater was wearing a wig with hair that twirled upward in roped braids as if he were submerged underwater. He had a deep-sea-diver outfit on. He looked incredibly clunky and ungraceful as he lumbered across the stage in his flippers.

  He climbed up the scaffolding to above the stage. He stood on the tiny ledge, and after attaching two ropes to the hooks that were on the back of his outfit, he dove! Right down he went, and then before he smacked the stage, the complicated system of pulleys attached to the ropes yanked him so that he was able to land on the ground with a certain delicacy. He leaped up again and he floated magically through the air with the slow-motion grace of somebody who is underwater. He flipped around. He did a breaststroke. It was beautiful and ludicrous.

  He and Rose sat across from each other at the theater’s café, off the lobby.

  “All life began underneath the ocean. So I’m giving people a taste of what existence might have been like before civilization.”

  “But we were amoebas and tiny shrimplike creatures. We didn’t start off in deep-sea-diving outfits.”

  “We all come into this world with an oxygen tube in our belly button.”


  She put her hands up to her own belly. There had so recently been a sea creature evolving in there, trying its best to get its act together. It had perished under the deep, deep, deep sea.

  McMahon had put the word out that he wanted Rose found. Someone tapped McMahon’s shoulder at a restaurant. It was a burlesque woman with a white fur coat and thick black liner surrounding her eyes. Her face was so overdone that he assumed it must be stage makeup.

  “What?” he asked.

  “I just saw Rose. I swear it’s her. She’s backstage across the street, talking to the clown.”

  McMahon stood up from the table, grabbed his coat, hurried out of the restaurant, knocking over a chair on his way, and stomped across the street. He went through the lobby into the main hall and up onto the stage, then tossed aside the curtains and walked backstage. He pushed open the door that had Snoop the Magnificent written on it.

  “Was a black-haired girl just in here?”

  “Yup. You should be able to catch her.”

  Her wet footprints hadn’t dried yet and they headed down the back hallway to the back exit that led to the street. McMahon ran, even though it made his lungs burn. He pushed open both doors. There was nothing in the alley but the wind. And a trembling fourteen-year-old girl with heart-shaped cookies she had made for a performer. She held one out for McMahon. He sneered like an enraged horse.

  • • •

  PIERROT WENT TO THE PUBLIC BATHS. There were dark brown and white square tiles, as if the floor of the pool were a chessboard. A tall, old, skinny man walked slowly, step by step, across the pool, as though he were a king piece. Pierrot took off his towel and walked to the edge of the pool, sat down on the ledge and lowered his feet in. The water was warm and melted his toes. He slipped into the water, closed his eyes and sank to the bottom, where he landed painlessly on his behind. He imagined Rose underneath the water with him. Why she would be there, he could not fathom. But it seemed as likely that she would be there as anywhere else.

  He lay on his back, floating in the large bath, his penis like a lily pad.



  There was a theater all the way on top of the hill in the park, known as the Beaver Theater. Inside the theater, paintings of forests with deer galloping through them hung from the walls. The curtain was striped green and brown.

  This clown was known for his animal acts. He would take off his top hat to reveal a duckling on his head. He had a legendary dog that had been with him for years. He was quite miserable, as it was hard to rent an apartment when he had such a ridiculous menagerie. He was kicked out of the Saint Martin’s Children’s Circus because one of his geese snapped at a child.

  Rose watched his hectic show. He was an enormous clown. He wore a white skullcap. He had on a white one-piece suit with three large red pom-poms as buttons and a red ruffle around his belly, like icing surrounding a cake. He had on white silky pants. He had on large red shoes that must have been about size twenty-six.

  He pulled a dove from out of his top hat, followed by a white rabbit and then a white kitten. A tiny goose maniacally drove a little mechanical car around the stage. A small white pony came out from behind the curtain, confused, as though it had just woken up, and the clown proceeded to climb on top of it. The small horse didn’t seem to mind, even though the clown was approximately three times its size.

  His famous dog looked like it had seen better days. It looked as if a cigar had exploded in its face. That was the trouble with white poodles: they always looked older than they were. The little dog had on a tuxedo. It was able to walk on its hind legs with fantastic ease. It seemed to be as at ease on its hind legs as it was on all fours, quite possibly because it had been doing this for so many years. It walked across a low tightrope the clown had set up.

  He was backstage with the dog in the dressing room. All the other animals were presumably in their cages. But he seemed to treat the dog like it was his equal and so it was allowed everywhere with him.

  “I’ve worked with all kinds of animals. I had a great little lamb for a few years. The kids went crazy for him. They wanted to run their fingers through his wool.

  “I usually can only afford to keep one exotic creature at a time. It stresses a person out. I’m never sure about them. I don’t know when one of them will turn on me. It was okay to put myself through that kind of excitement when I was a younger man. But now it’ll give me a heart attack.

  “I had a lion for a few years. He had a nasty temperament. I sold him to a zoo when I was drinking and needed to pay the rent. You name the animal, I’ve worked with it. I’m a lot like Noah, you know.”

  “Have you ever worked with a bear?”

  “Ha-ha-ha! You have me there! I never have. Are you in the entertainment trade yourself?”

  “When I was young, I had an act with an imaginary dancing bear. We would waltz around the room together.”

  “Hmmm. Well, it’s easier to rent a hotel room without a menagerie. Sometimes an imaginary animal can be just as effective as a real one.”

  “The Mother Superior said that I was dancing with the devil. But it was kindness and love and warmth and compassion that I was spinning about with. I was welcoming those things with big open arms into the orphanage. I wanted that kind of warmth.”

  “Of course. We clowns must tame some of the great metaphors of the world.”

  “I’m looking for a partner who I used to work with when I was very young.”

  “Describe him to me.”

  “He’s a daydreamer, always has his head in the clouds.”

  “There’s a clown at the Velvet who’s always half asleep.”

  Pierrot went to the zoo. He passed by the different glass exhibition cases. He never could spend too much time with reptiles. They seemed so lacking in compassion, hardly part of an animal kingdom characterized foremost by its penchant for feeling sorry for itself and fretting about what tomorrow would bring.

  He stood in front of the swans. Rose had always liked swans. This was the type of exhibit she would come and look at. He remembered the big angel wings that they wore when they were in the Christmas pageant that had changed his life. He threw a small chunk of stale bread into the water. The swans, unaccustomed to being fed in those bleak times, spread their wings and rose up toward him in one movement like a wave.



  The tiny theaters were hard to find, the ones that seated only a hundred spectators at a time. One such establishment was on top of a spaghetti restaurant. Patrons would sometimes smell the sauce cooked in huge vats and get hungry d
uring the show. The owner of the restaurant took the lids off the pots at opportune moments so he would be sure to get the post-theater crowd.

  • • •

  ROSE ARRIVED LAST MINUTE at this theater on a miserable day with freezing rain falling from the sky and hurried to her seat. The spotlight revealed a clown and a bed in the middle of the stage. The clown was dressed in polka-dotted pajamas and a nightcap. He kept opening his mouth and making incredible yawning noises that sounded like an elephant had suddenly been alarmed. Then he picked up a teddy bear and clung to it amorously and dropped into bed and underneath the covers. He put a night mask over his eyes.

  He then got out of the bed, not removing the mask, as if he were sleepwalking. He got on the bicycle with his night mask. He began riding his bicycle backward. He was riding it right alongside the edge of the stage, coming dangerously close to falling off. The audience gasped.

  He climbed up a ladder at the side of the stage. A child in the audience yelled at him to wake up. He proceeded to walk the tightrope with his night mask on. He ended up in the middle of the rope and began making his outrageous yawns once again. Then he lay down on the tightrope and fell right back to sleep, as unself-conscious of his height as a cloud.

  The audience should not have been alarmed. Nothing can really happen when you are dreaming.

  Rose went to see him in his dressing room. He was sitting on a long green couch that was against the wall of the room. He was too exhausted to wipe off his white face paint. He had a rag in one hand and a pot of cream in the other, but he kept them separated.

  “I get paid practically nothing these days. I guess I’ll have to reconcile myself with the fact that I’m a failure. Why is that always so hard? I wish I could just pack in being a clown.”

  “What else could you do now?”

  “Did God create us so we can spend our time speculating how much better He is at absolutely everything? He made us in His image, so naturally we want to create from nothing. It’s a maddening task, isn’t it? The reason He doesn’t do anything or take interviews these days is because He’s completely lost His marbles. We’ll go up to heaven and discover that He’s in a straitjacket, no doubt.”

  “So you are a religious man? Do you go to church?”

  “Obviously not.”

  He looked at Rose quizzically.

  “I’m not at all who you came here looking for, am I?”



  He stretched out on the couch and pulled his jacket over his head to take another nap.

  “Nothing really matters on a Sunday,” his muffled voice said from under the jacket. “Everybody gets to have a day off from who they actually are. Don’t you think? Your crimes don’t count, your achievements don’t matter. You just have to curl up in your bed and take a lovely siesta. You are both nothing and everything in your dreams.”

  What in the world was Rose doing when she interviewed these clowns other than trying to rediscover a certain innocence that she had once felt? Maybe if she could hear it explained back to her, she could have it once again. A hallucination is no longer a hallucination if somebody else sees it. Then it becomes an apparition.

  “Do you want to have sex with me, darling? If not, for the love of God, let me sleep.”

  Every time she knocked on a door, Rose was made aware of the fact that she was a girl. Everything she did along the way was something a girl wasn’t supposed to do. She was not allowed to have dignity.

  She went home and dreamed that she and Pierrot were underneath the sheet, doing things they had never got a chance to do together.

  It was miserable and wet and cold that day, and Pierrot didn’t know where to look anymore. He went to see a private investigator. The man had just come in from the rain himself, as he was still wearing his checkered rain hat. The water from it dripped off the brim and onto the papers and photographs on his desk. The drops of water caused the ink to bloom into small black irises. He smelled like cigarettes.

  The investigator said he could help, but he charged. He wrote his fee on a piece of paper and handed it to Pierrot. Pierrot was taken aback by the amount. He could not save up the money to pay him to find Rose. Why was a pauper like him looking for Rose? What would he have to offer her if they did meet? It wasn’t meant to be.

  • • •

  PIERROT LAY BACK DOWN on the mattress in his room. He had spent the little money he had on the one luxury he could afford. He rolled up a bit of tobacco and decided he would never find her. When he lit up the thin cigarette, it made a slight sizzling noise, like the sound of a writer’s manuscript being tossed into the fire.



  Rose heard Pierrot’s piano tune playing in her head every time she walked down the street. It haunted her. She worried it would play in her head until she found Pierrot. She began to frequent all the circuses. She had become an aficionado when it came to clowns. She would wait for them backstage. She brought a notebook along with her, jotting down names of clowns and clues she was able to gather. Rose had dinner one night with Mimi at a bistro. Mimi kept talking about a pianist she had heard playing at the Savoy.

  “It’s a laugh. Some of the girls and I like to go. They play old silent films, from when we were little. But the best thing is the piano player. He plays these wonderful tunes. They seem simple, but they put you in a good mood for three days. He’s gorgeous too. Some of the girls try to seduce him, but he’s got his head in the clouds.”

  “Oh, right, you’ve mentioned him before.”

  After dinner, they kissed each other on the cheek and headed their separate ways home. But Rose didn’t want to go home to her lonely room. It had started to snow, and the flakes were blowing in eddies, like jacks hurled in the air by a young girl. Instead she wandered farther west down Saint Catherine Street, toward the Savoy. Perhaps there was a slight chance the piano player was Pierrot. When she arrived at the cinema, only half the lightbulbs of its marquee were lit, and they were blinking on and off.

  Rose looked at the schedule. An old silent film was playing: a sailor falls in love with a party girl who is married to a brute. In the end, he puts her in a trunk and takes her off to the open sea, to freedom. Rose thought that sounded all right, and she paid for a ticket to the late showing. The only decor in the cinema seemed to be little golden stars painted all over the proscenium. To her surprise, the theater was full.

  When the lights went down, a girl’s face appeared on the screen. She was blowing kisses. Her face was so white and round, there wasn’t a person alive who wouldn’t compare it to the moon. Her husband didn’t respond to her kisses, but wagged his finger angrily at her. As she was heading to the grocery store with her shopping bag in hand, a friendly sailor on a bicycle began cycling figure eights around her. The sailor put her on the handlebars of his bicycle and they headed down the street, swerving in and out of traffic. How marvelous, Rose thought. She clapped her hands in delight.

  The piano player was as good as Mimi had said. She realized that most of the audience members were there to listen to him and not to see the film.

  It seemed that the strange black-and-white people on the screen were really dancing to his playing. And that if he played a different tune, they would act in an entirely different manner. If he didn’t play fast enough, they wouldn’t be able to escape their captors. His hands would fly up at the end, and she could see them up above the heads in the front row. She hadn’t heard anybody play the piano in a way that pleased her in a very long time.

  Toward the end of the film, the pianist began to play a slow, lighthearted tune when the heroine and the sailor finally fall in love. Rose knew that tune. She recognized it. How could she not? She wanted to get up and dance.

  It was the tune Pierrot used to play when they went to the rich people’s houses. All the old people used to dance to that song. Thei
r breasts would jiggle, their jewelry would make clinking noises and they would put the palms of their hands together and make silent claps—like two pieces of bread put together.

  Could she actually be in the same building as Pierrot? Were they occupying the same time and place once again? She stood up. She ran down the aisle of the theater. She hurried through the lobby and pushed her way out through the big glass doors framed with gold. She felt the rush of cold air outside. She could escape. What could there be other than disappointment? She had snubbed him years ago. He had made it clear he didn’t want anything to do with her. He had never written to her. But here he was, playing the piano in a small theater on Saint Catherine Street. Shouldn’t she at least find out if he still had a bit of affection for her? Rose was terrified. She had spent so much time looking for him. What if he didn’t care at all about her? Of course, he wouldn’t have thought about her through the years, the way she had thought of him.

  • • •

  WHEN PIERROT WALKED OUT of the cinema, there was a woman standing under the marquee, dressed in a simple black coat. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he recognized her immediately. He wanted to run up and throw his arms around her. He tried to light a cigarette, but his hands were trembling. He finally succeeded. He inhaled. He was freezing all of a sudden. Trembling violently. What if he blew this again? She might spurn him. Of course she would. Why had he been looking for her? She was too good for him. He closed his eyes and began to pray. He was afraid to approach. Pierrot waited for her to notice him.

  Rose looked at her reflection in the glass of the theater front, wondering how she would appear to him. She was thinking she would go and come back another night when she was more prepared. When she knew what to say. But she couldn’t move.

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