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The lonely hearts hotel, p.25
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.25

           Heather O'Neill

  • • •

  ONE AFTERNOON, Pierrot was taking a piss in an alley when a man came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

  “You owe me money,” the stranger said.

  Pierrot buttoned up his fly and turned around. There was a man with a peaked cap down over one eye and a missing front tooth.

  “Have I had the pleasure of making your acquaintance?”

  “That redhead you used to go around with ripped me off. And now you’re going to pay for what she took.”

  “Poppy? How is she? I think about her often.”

  “She took all my money. I woke up and it was gone.”

  “Well, I hesitate to say this, but Poppy was a generous person—so if she stole from you, there might have been a reason.”

  “You’re going to pay for what she owes. So hand over a hundred dollars.”

  “I don’t have a cent.”

  “She said that I should come see you. She said that you would do right by her.”

  “If I had money, I would give it to her. Or to you for her. But I have a new girlfriend. Doesn’t she still have that new fellow? He seemed to have his wits about him, an aggressive gent, a real go-getter.”

  “He threw her out. She robbed me. Now you’re going to pay me.”

  “I am no longer a thief. I can’t be, they have my fingerprints.”

  “Buy a pair of gloves and act like a man.”

  “I’ve never had any idea what that means.”

  The man took out a knife. Pierrot closed his eyes, accepting his doom or fate or whatever. He didn’t know how to fight back. All he knew was how to sacrifice himself. But nothing happened. There was a crashing sound and Pierrot opened his eyes.

  The man looked stunned. His jaw dropped as though he were about to say something. He fell to his knees. At first Pierrot wasn’t sure what had happened. The man seemed to have been struck down by God. He was in the presence of a miracle. But standing behind the man was Rose, holding a broken chair in her hands. They both looked at the body as it slumped to the ground. Rose quickly squatted—her coat tucked underneath her buttocks—and she checked the pulse of the man lying there.

  “Oh, he’s okay. Let’s move along, though. He won’t be in a good mood when he wakes up.”

  They headed off toward the street. The alley was filled with furniture that had been thrown out after evictions. There was a mattress covered in blue violets—the color of the blue lips of corpses. An overturned crib looked like the carcass of a dead buffalo.

  “I’m not ever going to let anybody hurt us again. I’m going to fight back.”

  “You are so brave!”

  “I’m not brave. I just can’t take it anymore. You have to smash people over the head with chairs and bottles in order to be taken seriously.”

  Her hat flew off and her hair blew up in the air. Pierrot had never seen her look so dazzling, but he also found her quite mad. He wondered why she was even dating him. He was not ferocious. He wasn’t good enough for her. Rose would realize this any second and leave him. Pierrot was concerned about Poppy. Had he abandoned her? Did he have to help her if she was in trouble? He didn’t want to think of himself as the type of man who treated women badly. But was there any way to have sex with a woman without being unkind to her? Wasn’t sex always a vicious act of cruelty? He couldn’t go back to Poppy. He wanted to be with Rose. It was the only thing he had ever wanted. Would he end up hurting Rose next? Was his relationship to her unholy and unkind as well? He wanted to be true to Rose. He couldn’t be true to any woman but Rose.

  She was walking down the street, ranting about how she wanted to bop everyone in the face. Pierrot had stopped in his tracks, and she was walking alone. She started walking toward him with both her palms up and out to the side, like an Egyptian who didn’t know which way to go. Asking, “What the hell?”

  “Will you marry me, Rose?”

  • • •

  ON THE DAY of their wedding, they took a bath together in little pots of warm water they had to waste hard-earned coal to heat. They asked Mimi to be their witness when they got married at City Hall. They were twenty-two years old.

  Rose had a tiny white veil pinned to her black hat. She wore a navy blue dress with discreet polka dots and a white collar. She held a bouquet of cloth flowers that Mimi had picked up from the costume room at the film studio. Pierrot was wearing his famous suit.

  The lace of her wedding veil made it look like they were peering at each other through a window covered in frost.

  “I don’t deserve you. If anyone wants to come up here and stop this, they most definitely should. I will do anything for you. I have never put anyone ahead of myself. And I have always wanted to. I want to devote my life to making you happy. After spending this past year with you, were you to leave me, I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

  “You are my Napoleon. You have stuck a stake in my heart. You are my Alexander the Great.”

  Pierrot shrugged, because he wasn’t anything like those guys.

  “I don’t care if you are making the worst decision of your life,” Pierrot said. “Because I want you to belong to me so badly.”

  It was very short. She liked that. They went into a door single and unmarried, and came out a couple. Just like a transformation that occurred in a magician’s box.

  They had a dollar that Mimi had given to them as a wedding present. They had to decide what to do with it. They decided on getting their photo taken. When they each saw how nice and cleaned up the other one looked in the photo, they were delighted they had chosen to have their photos taken that day. It was a black-and-white photograph. For reasons he could not even be sure of himself, the photographer decided to add a touch-up to the photograph. He took a little paintbrush and added a dab of pink paint to both of Rose’s cheeks.

  • • •

  “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, I am giving a toast to a girl I have known my whole life. We were left as babies at the same orphanage. We were put in cribs that were adjacent to one another. And the moment I turned my head and saw her on the other side of the bars, I said, I’m going to propose to that baby.”

  At one point in the evening Pierrot sat beside the pianist. They engaged in a four-hand tune that sounded like a hundred pianists playing all at once. As the girls in the bar began to feel tired their heads sank forward, as though they were lost in reading novels on the train.

  Pierrot had tied soup cans to the back of his bicycle. They made a rattling, clattering, wonderful sound, like a drunk party girl falling down the stairs with bottles in her hand. There was a nip in the air. Later that night they sat on the rooftop, wrapped together in a blanket, and looked up at the constellations in the sky. Rose knew what they were from looking through the telescope at McMahon’s house. But she decided to rename them all for Pierrot.

  “There’s the Unicorn. See its long magical horn?”

  “Oh yes!”

  “There’s the Pony with the Broken Leg.”

  “Don’t look at that constellation. It’ll make us too sad.”

  “Look at the Cartwheeling Girl.”

  “That one’s my favorite.”

  “I like the Girl Who’s Puking over the Toilet after the Orgy.”

  “She needs to slow down!”

  “The Boy Blowing Out His Birthday Candles.”

  “Oh! How old is he?”

  “Eleven,” they say at the same time.

  “All I want, Pierrot, is for you to be happy. I can’t make myself happy. Nobody can really make themselves happy. But they can make other people happy.”

  “Don’t say that! Don’t ever worry about me. If ever I’m standing in the way of your happiness, I swear I will throw myself right off a roof. All I want is for you to be happy. I’m broken, and you’re perfect. You come first.”


“Yes, I insist. Please. It will make me so happy if we just agree on that.”

  “Okay. I love you, Pierrot. You’re the only thing and person I’ve ever loved.”

  “What did I do to deserve someone as wonderful as you? If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind, because this is the perfect feeling. It doesn’t get any better than this in the entire universe.”

  Rose’s white undergarments were all over the floor—like eggshells on the ground. They felt silly because they both began to cry.



  On Saturday night, sometime after closing, there was a fire on Saint Catherine Street. The Savoy Theater went up in flames, like a page in a book. Its fuse box had exploded. It was as if the building had had a heart attack. Perhaps it was just the building’s time to go. The fire trucks came, but there was nothing anyone could do. Pierrot was now out of work, like most of the pianists and just about everybody else in the city, it seemed. On top of that, Rose was also unemployed.

  The landlady came right into their room on Sunday. She begged them for rent. She took Pierrot’s trousers and shook them upside down to see if any money came out. They wouldn’t get out of bed to stop her. They were too hungry and tired.

  People were being evicted everywhere. Pierrot and Rose stopped on the street to allow movers to pass in front of them. The possessions of an apartment were being loaded onto a cart pulled by a white horse. There were black spots on the thighs of the white horse that looked like the footprints of children in the snow.

  The movers were carrying a dusty red couch. There was a green piano among the possessions. The sound the piano made when jostled by the couch was curious and soft and lovely. Pierrot hadn’t played a piano in weeks, so there was no way he was going to pass by this one without playing it. He had resisted heroin, but there was no way he could resist this piano. He leaped onto the back of the truck and scrambled over the furniture before anyone could stop him. He sat on a kitchen table and began to play the green piano. It played so gentle and sweet.

  One of the movers hurried out to tell Pierrot to knock it off, but the playing stopped him in his tracks. He had an instant change of heart and wished that Pierrot would never stop playing, that he would play for the rest of their lives.

  Rose also felt like letting go of her problems. She began to dance to the piano tune, and her breath made puffs of clouds come out of her mouth. Some children peeped at her. The tone of the piano was so coquettish that it made Rose bat her eyelashes and hop lightheartedly from toe to toe. Then Rose pretended she was being blown violently by a gust of wind. She held on to the pole of the street lamp and lifted her body until she was hanging horizontally, as though she were trying to resist the pull of a hurricane. She had been working at that trick for a week. Some children ran across the street to see. It was truly wondrous.

  When Pierrot stopped and Rose took a bow, the small crowd began to applaud. A child threw a handful of bottle caps into the jacket that Pierrot had laid on the ground. A man tossed in a rolled cigarette.

  Rose and Pierrot stood in front of the window of the butcher shop. There were links of sausages, and the head of a pig was suspended from a hook like a mask. The meat was making Rose ravenous.

  “I’ve been all over the city. No one performs the way we do. We’re just as good as any of the acts coming in from European cities. I know we can be stars. Those people are starving to death, and yet they would’ve parted with their pennies if they had any.”

  “We got a cigarette out of it,” said Pierrot, lighting it up.

  “We need to get the rich people to pay for expensive tickets to see us,” Rose said. “They don’t like anything unless they have to pay huge amounts of money for it. They want what other people can’t afford. It reminds them that they are rich. We need to get their money. They want to see experience and pain up on display—we have heaps of that.”

  Rose reached over to take the cigarette Pierrot extended toward her. She exhaled a row of smoke rings that looked like a row of ballerinas in tutus spinning by.

  “We’ve got to get ourselves into a big theater,” she continued. “We have to advertise ourselves as a rarity. Expectations are all part of a performance. We have to get everyone worked up. Telling people who will like it is half the work of any show.”

  “I love when you talk about taking over the world. How are you going to put this together?”

  “I don’t know. I can see it now clear as anything. We’re going to have an army of tap dancers. If only we had some money to invest. What are our options? Rob a bank? Ransom a millionaire? Find a patron?”

  They both laughed.

  • • •

  PIERROT KNEW, like every young man in every bedroom in every apartment in every building on the block, that it would be an idiotic move to get your wife pregnant. They would never be able to afford anything that married couples in the past were able to afford—like a house or food for the baby.

  He always made certain to withdraw after they had sex. It felt so good. Each time, he was certain that he would mess up and that he would never be able to pull out on time. He pulled out his dick like it was a frying pan taken off a fire. It always put into stark relief just how ludicrous the actual act of sex was. If you weren’t having sex to have a baby, then it was a really ridiculous and absurd endeavor, wasn’t it?

  Rose logically had no desire to have a baby, but she wanted one just the same. Every time they made love, there was nothing on earth she wanted as much as to be impregnated. Everything in her body wanted it. She never said so, though.

  Pierrot was afraid to even think of the possibility. And because he was afraid to think of having a baby, he ended up thinking about having a baby. And it was with the thought of the baby looming in his mind that he came inside her that night. He couldn’t tell for the life of him whether he did it on purpose. And he was wondering whether she would think he had done it deliberately and be furious with him. To his surprise, she leaned over and planted dozens of kisses on his face.

  Their baby began to slowly exist, like a tiny little footnote kicking at the bottom of a great physics text. A cashew at the bottom of a glass dish.

  • • •

  ON A MONDAY MORNING, Pierrot went to wait in the unemployment line. This was an acceptable way to spend your day. There weren’t any jobs available. So, instead, life had evolved into these sad rituals. If you didn’t engage in these rituals, you were less of a man. It revealed what a sham dignity was.

  • • •

  THIS TIME, ROSE WAS PREGNANT longer than before. She had more time to think about it, wonder about it, reflect upon it. For a time, she hadn’t dared to think about the thing inside her as an actual baby that might one day leave her body and inhabit the world. But he began to grow in her imagination. She didn’t have any say in it. The little boy in her mind had a life of his own. She gave up fighting and joined the child in her imagination.

  She pictured them sailing together on a boat on the Saint Lawrence River. He was dressed in a little sailor’s suit and hat. They leaned out the side of the boat and they saw that the water was absolutely swarming with belugas. The belugas were like slabs of marble that had not yet been carved into angels.

  She imagined the two of them in safari hats in a jungle in Africa, with binoculars around their necks, waiting to spot wildlife. She imagined them at the Eiffel Tower, wearing berets and eating baguettes. She imagined them in London with pigeons on their heads, sipping tea.

  As Rose walked home she noticed a little girl putting a mirror up to her doll’s mouth to see if it was alive. She smiled.

  Pierrot began to imagine the baby also. He imagined a tiny little girl with black hair. She would always be asking him questions about the natural world and the universe. He quite liked that. Little Rose asked him whether it was possible to travel into outer space and shake hands with
aliens. Little Rose asked him whether it was possible to travel back in time to see dinosaurs. Little Rose asked him if it was possible to have a zebra as a pet. Little Rose asked him whether it was possible to find a genie in a bottle. Little Rose asked him whether it was possible to find a flying carpet in Chinatown.

  And to all these questions, he answered yes.

  There was a statue of an Iroquois warrior that he always passed on the way home. Today there was a crow on its right shoulder, its beak a piece of charcoal. He hoped it was a good omen.



  Rose couldn’t really be a performer now that she was pregnant. To be a performer, you had to be reckless. You risked your life and security and the safety of your body to make the audience laugh or feel sublime. Therein lay so much of the beauty. The sacrifice was beautiful. But now she didn’t feel that way. Now the baby came first. She didn’t care to do a cartwheel or anything like that. Even the idea was horrific to her.

  Rose was so sick in the morning it was difficult for her to get out of bed. She was exhausted all the time. She felt as though she would die if she weren’t able to take an emergency nap. And her lower back felt like someone had come up behind and stabbed her.

  She had trouble looking for work. She lined up at a factory but fainted on the street.

  • • •

  THERE WAS A KNOCK ON the door one afternoon during that time. When Rose opened it, she found a girl who looked no more than thirteen standing there and holding up a dead rabbit by its ear, as though it were Exhibit A.

  She informed Rose that the rabbit was for sale. The little girl had a rabbit-skin jacket that she had probably sewn all by herself out of the furs of rabbits she had eaten. Rose asked her for a live rabbit. The girl said she’d have to follow her back to her apartment.

  They only had to go around the corner, to the skinny triplex that the Rabbit Girl lived in, on the top floor. There was another bedroom at the very back of the apartment, where the big rabbit cage was. There were patterns of poppies in the molding along the top of the walls. And the wallpaper was a very pretty blue. She had made a cage out of an old armoire. She had replaced the glass on the doors with chicken wire. A rabbit lived on each shelf as if the cage were an apartment building. It was really rather ingenious.

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