The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.26Heather O'Neill
Rose wondered what would happen to this extraordinary child after the Great Depression. She hoped she wouldn’t just become someone’s wife.
“Would you like me to wring the rabbit’s neck? It’s messy to cut off its head. I hit it on the head with a mallet. It’s pretty quick. I cried about the first fifty times, but I don’t anymore.”
Rose was carrying a suitcase—she put the live rabbit inside. She walked down the street with the suitcase, with the live rabbit inside it. Perhaps she wanted to save the life of just one living thing. It thumped around in there as though it were someone’s heart she had stolen.
• • •
“WHAT IN THE WORLD have you done, Rose, my darling?” Pierrot asked when he got home.
Rose was sitting next to the rabbit on the couch.
“I thought we could use the rabbit in our show. But I need a bit of meat. I’m feeling dizzy all the time. It’s only a matter of time before I say something and all the teeth fall out of my head.”
“This just won’t do. Next you’ll be bringing me home peacocks from the zoo to put in the stew pot to eat.”
• • •
ROSE FELT BAD for the rabbit. But she needed to eat some meat, otherwise she would faint dead away. And the baby was inside her, demanding sustenance. Her appetite was ferocious. In her heart she felt like a wolf. As if she would do absolutely anything to get what her heart desired. There was nothing she could do for the creature sitting pert and attentive and eager to please on the couch next to her. It was an object of prey.
• • •
THAT NIGHT ROSE AND PIERROT ate the rabbit. The power had been turned off and so they ate by candlelight. It was like they were out in the wilderness, in the light of a campfire, eating their wild game. There was nothing but darkness all around them. They would return to civilization tomorrow. And they would have new wisdom and knowledge for the others.
• • •
TWO DAYS LATER, Rose stayed home, feeling sick to her stomach. She lay down all by herself on the bed and let out a groan as she delivered a tiny baby on the mattress. She put the baby in the little suitcase that had once held the rabbit. She was terrified of the actual body. It was something you shouldn’t be looking at. It was unholy. The dead baby was not her baby but the opposite of it. It was only after she had disposed of it that she could begin to grieve.
As she stepped outside the Valentine Hotel the sun was going down. The sky became darker and darker shades of blue, as if it were applying more shades of eye shadow, until it was finally sufficiently mysterious to go out on a date.
Rose walked to the edge of the water. She opened the lid of the suitcase. She piled some rocks inside it and then she closed it and tossed it into the river. She was too ashamed to tell anyone that she threw her babies away. But she couldn’t bring herself to ask what she should do with them. She felt terrible and bleak, as if under all her clothes she were naked, which essentially she was.
At dusk Pierrot found Rose sitting on a bench, facing the river. She was having morbid thoughts. She was descended from people who had come to this great land, killed off its inhabitants and settled in with their treacherous ways. Did you have a right to expect anything from God if you were white and North American?
“What’s the point to any of this?” Rose asked. “Do you think that our mothers went on to have amazing lives after giving us up? I hope it was worth it.”
“Don’t start asking yourself those types of questions, Rose, sweetheart. You are pursuing a dark train of thought.”
“I bet they did and repeated their mistakes. I bet they got pregnant again the week after they left. It was just their fate to keep raising up their dresses in alleys. They were going to get pregnant their whole lives. And they wouldn’t know what to do with all those babies.”
“What’s wrong?” Pierrot asked.
“I lost the baby. I threw it in the river.”
Pierrot hadn’t expected it to hurt so much. Rose had already been through this. Pierrot ran down to the river to look for it. Rose put her hands over her face so she wouldn’t have to watch him. Fireflies danced around her like embers after someone has thrown a log into the stove.
• • •
ROSE WOKE UP in the middle of the night and saw that Pierrot was putting on his coat and heading toward the door. “Where are you going?” she asked.
The drugs cried out to him like a siren’s song. He so wanted to walk down the corridor and jump off the plank. She jumped up out of bed and ran after him.
“I can’t do it, Rose.”
“You’re going to ruin everything if you get high. We tried so hard to find each other.”
He put his hand on the doorknob, which was shaped like a rose.
“If you get high, don’t come back. I don’t want to spend my whole life trying to stop you from doing drugs.”
All over the city, women were begging their partners not to go out and get drunk or high. Rose was used to seeing them. It was one of the most common sights during the Depression. They pleaded with their husbands as though the men were angry gods. Rose had always felt sorry for them. But she knew that any good relationship involved a constant willingness to go to war.
She leaped in front of the door. She spread her arms out to both sides as if she were being crucified, as if she were some sort of natural barrier, like she was a dead bolt. He took both her arms and pulled her out of the way. She grabbed him from behind, jumping onto his back like a banshee.
He bent forward and she toppled right over him and onto the floor. As he stepped over her to get to the door, she grabbed his leg, causing him to fall down and bang his head on the counter. All the dishes that were stacked on it to dry fell to the floor. He started struggling to get free from her. But she hung on to his leg with her whole body. He tried to shake her off.
They started wildly slapping each other. Their hands were like two birds fighting in the sky. He grabbed her by the waist and shoved her aside. She whipped sideways across the room and tripped over a chair. He was shocked by his own strength and ran to see whether she was okay. As he crouched beside her, she kneed him in the groin. He clutched his crotch and collapsed on his side as though he had been shot.
They lay there weeping in each other’s arms. They had fought the addiction together. On the floor, the broken plates looked like the surface of a frozen pond a child had fallen through.
A CHURCH BELL RINGING
The landlady banged on the door so loudly one morning that they both scurried underneath the table. The landlady warned them that if they didn’t have the money by the end of the day, they’d be thrown out.
Rose began to pace around the little hotel room, back and forth, like a frustrated lion inside a circus cage: despising being entrapped and dreading being released to perform humiliating acts.
She looked so skinny and pale that she wondered whether she could even get a role in a pornographic film now. She took off her clothes and looked at herself naked in the mirror. Her black pubic hair against her pale skin looked like a splotch of ink on a piece of paper. At twenty-three she had the look of a harried wife. Rose gathered together all her underwear to sell it. She wrapped it in a bundle. “I’ve found a couple of things to sell,” she told Pierrot.
Pierrot told her he would rather starve to death than not be able to see her in her pretty pink silk underwear. Pierrot knew that Rose had had a boyfriend who bought her anything she wanted. He couldn’t expect to sleep all day and keep a girl like that. All over the city, men out of work felt they no longer had a place in the world. They felt useless. Pierrot had to do extraordinary things. She would get bored with this tiny world. He had to keep her. He had to make some money.
It was truly amazing to him that he had not thought about the apple in all t
• • •
PIERROT TOOK HIS BICYCLE to Westmount, pushing it all the way up the hill to where the massive houses were. He went out of his way to avoid the giant mansion he had lived in with Mr. Irving, which had become the old man’s tomb. He couldn’t bear the sadness of thinking of his dearly departed friend. There was the tree. He prayed that God would make him invisible, then up he went. He hopped from one branch to another and then reached into the hiding place. He felt all sorts of odd soft objects, and beneath them, a hard, circular form.
• • •
HE HADN’T LOOKED AT IT in a great while, and Rose had never seen it at all. It was so sparkly and spectacular on their kitchen table. Pierrot had taken it when he was living in rather splendid circumstances, so it hadn’t seemed quite as amazing as it did now. It was so unlike anything else in their grubby little Depression-era world that it seemed surreal and ethereal. It was absolutely out of context.
“How have you kept this until now? We’ve been down on our luck for so long and you’ve had this strange priceless apple all along.”
“When I stole it, I was surrounded by splendor. It was nothing to me. So I forgot it!”
“How much do you think we’ll get for this apple?” Rose asked.
“Surely we’ll get enough money to get by until Sunday.”
“I’ll go with you, then,” Rose said. “I’m quite worried you’ll get ripped off.”
“Mr. McMahon always gives me particularly good deals, so long as I promise to sell only to him. But it would be nice to have you along.”
Rose was shocked when she heard Pierrot say the name. She felt a numbness, as though she were standing too close to ringing church bells. She had never realized that Pierrot and McMahon could exist in the same reality. She had managed to avoid him for so long that she believed she was done with him. Of course he would come back. Pierrot was going to see him right this second. This was dangerous, but she had to take a risk. She wouldn’t go—she knew full well that she would get her head blown off.
He attached the suitcase to the front of the bicycle with belts. Rose had changed her mind about coming along.
“Are you sure?”
“Isn’t he a violent gangster?”
“Well, yes. But I thought you had no problem with murderers and whatnot.”
“Just don’t mention that you have a wife.”
“And why not?”
“He might use it as leverage.”
“Hmmm. I have no idea what that means, but since you are smarter than me, I will defer to your judgment.”
McMahon was surprised to see Pierrot, having assumed that the idiot was long dead. There was something about Pierrot’s smell that took McMahon aback. McMahon had a strange impulse to seize Pierrot in his arms and inhale him.
The sparkling, jewel-encrusted apple was priceless. The art dealer said he wasn’t giving them nearly what it was worth, but they had to understand he would have to sell it on the black market, maybe to someone with European connections. McMahon gave Pierrot twenty thousand dollars for the apple. He kept the same amount for himself and watched Pierrot leave, confused.
Pierrot walked into the room at the Valentine Hotel with a suitcase now filled with cash, completely in shock. He plopped the suitcase on the bed. It rocked like a ship on a stormy sea. Rose came up to him as he unfastened its clasps and threw open the lid.
“What in the world will we do with this?” said Pierrot.
“Let’s start a business.”
“The Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza!”
• • •
THAT WAS WHAT THE DOVE first brought back in its mouth. It wasn’t a little bough with a pretty leaf on it. It was a dollar bill.
SELF-PORTRAIT ON TRAIN
Rose woke up one morning and Pierrot was still fast asleep. He would be for several more hours. She was restless and wanted to get out into the world. She had spent the past two weeks visiting different venues. Each had turned her down because they were afraid of repercussions from McMahon. He had ordered that she not be allowed to work in any club, and the indictment was still nonnegotiable. They would end up out of business or have their legs broken for booking Rose’s show.
She wanted to have something to read, it didn’t matter what. She walked toward the café. She picked up the newspaper at a stand next to it. She settled into a table, ordered herself a cup of coffee and unfolded the paper. On the cover was a story about the arrest of Montreal heroin dealers on their way to New York City. A group of gangsters had gone in a boat that had been stopped by customs officers at the border. Half of them had been gunned down, and the entire shipment had been seized. The border guards were on the lookout for the heroin dealers coming in from Montreal. They declared that it would be almost impossible to move anything across now. Those routes would be too carefully monitored. All the customs officers and the state patrolmen would be on the lookout for more men from Montreal.
Rose laughed. This was McMahon’s organization. How would he be able to get his drugs into New York City? McMahon would have to recalibrate his entire operation. This would piss off all sorts of gangsters in all sorts of places—he’d be stepping on their toes and territory.
She worried for a moment about his wild children, who would be by now fourteen and fifteen. She wondered if they would get fewer gifts. But, as always, she was a little impressed by McMahon too. There was something oddly amusing about the idea of hometown criminals making a splash in New York City.
Then Rose had an idea. McMahon didn’t run New York City, did he? There was a massive audience just a few hours across the border. She would make her mark in New York City. She would stage her grand revue there. Why not? It was there that all the world’s greatest acts got their beginnings. There were dreams that you could realize in New York City that were impossible in Montreal. She sat back as the possibilities grew exponentially in her head. She was aiming high. New York City! She felt almost dizzy by the new heights of her own ambition.
The ink from the newspaper had come off on her fingertips, as if she had just had her prints taken.
• • •
SHE HAD TO LOOK THE PART of a professional producer. The first investment she made with the money Pierrot had acquired was in clothes. She went to a seamstress and had an outfit made for herself out of a long roll of black velvet. The light shone off it and the velvet appeared to be a strange shade of blue—the way the fur of black cats sometimes did. The dress fell straight to the floor, with a black jacket to go over it. And a hat she wore at an angle.
After two days of phone calls made from the lobby of the Valentine Hotel, she was able to secure an interview with a theater manager in New York City. The rotary dial of the phone was like the barrel of a shotgun. She told him she would be in New York City, as was her custom, on Wednesday and agreed to a time to come by his theater and present him with an exquisite idea that would knock his socks off.
At first she considered taking Pierrot with her. He had the gift of the gab and could certainly impress the people in New York City. But he was unpredictable and might make them come off as lunatics. She knew how to deal with high-powered men.
The very next morning, Rose went to the train station and bought herself a ticket to New York City. Just like that! She showed the conductor the ticket and he ushered her into a compartment. She sat next to the window. There were two men beside her and three men across from her. She put her little valise, which held a change of underwear, a cucumber sandwich and the original plan she had written in pencil when she was just a child, in the shelf above her head.
The train pulled out of the Montreal station. The movement sounded like someone typing, beco
When she stepped off the train and into New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, she saw the ceiling arched up above her. It was as if she were in an air balloon.
There was no way you could capture New York City in a photograph. Each building was beautiful. There were iron staircases running up the sides. There was all sorts of fancy masonry in the shape of leaves and vines and waves. There were more gargoyles hanging out on the top of one building than there were in an entire Montreal neighborhood. She peeked into building lobbies with golden tiles and doormen with small hats. There were rows of people in business suits. There were department-store windows filled with gloves for women of every temperament. There were so many grand church spires, which stuck up straight into the heavens, daring lightning bolts to strike them.
She hit Broadway, and the different marquees distracted her from looking way, way up into the sky. There were neon lights and paintings of showgirls, and lightbulbs that spelled out words. And it was noisy. Nothing had prepared her for all that noise. It sounded like children. If all the children stood on their balconies and banged pots and pans at once. Or if all the babies in the world took their rattles out and shook them. It always sounded as if there were a parade just around the corner. There was something so joyous about all the noise in New York City.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes