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The lonely hearts hotel, p.27
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.27

           Heather O'Neill

  The ground shook because there was so much activity, and you could feel a pulsation. She realized that it was all the hearts beating. Everybody was so excited that their hearts beat louder and stronger than anywhere else. Her own heart was practically smashing against her rib cage. It was a good feeling. Surely the blood racing through your body made you braver.

  Because Rose was out of her context, she was able to think clearly. How marvelous this world was. She was amazed by it. Humans were always more capable of evil than you could imagine. And they were also capable of more wonderment than you could ever fathom. People had come up with this city. And what was different between them and her? They had hands and eyes. They had imaginations. They went to bed at night, and they had funny adventures in their heads. Anything was possible.

  But the effects of the Depression were everywhere here too. This was the heart of the Great Depression. So much of Montreal’s economy hinged on its exports to the United States—its economy mirrored theirs. If the Americans were unhappy and miserable, Montreal was too. She passed a breadline, and she had never seen anything quite like it. It went all the way around the block. She couldn’t see the beginning or the end.

  It was made up of men whose furtive eyes peeked out from the collars of the coats they huddled in. Their hostile eyes were vicious with shame, because anyone could look down on them. Trying not to make eye contact, Rose hurried by. Men were taught to have so much pride, to go out into the world and make something of themselves. This Depression was deeply humiliating. Since women were taught that they were worthless, they took poverty and hardship less personally.

  Rose passed a thirteen-year-old girl with grubby cheeks, wearing a light blue dress. She was leaning against a wall with her foot under her ass and her knee up, smoking a cigarette. She had scabs on her knees that looked like strawberries. Her beige hat looked like a cake that hadn’t risen. She exhaled smoke rings, unconcerned.

  • • •

  ROSE HAD AN APPOINTMENT at the New Amsterdam Theatre. It was stately on the outside, but breathtaking once you stepped across the threshold. She took a peek into the theater itself. The rounded ceiling was covered in star-shaped pockmarks, and inside each one was a tiny painting. There were small arches around the proscenium that made it look like the edges of a tea biscuit. The curtain was green velvet with enormous golden tassels at the bottom that looked like manes shaved off lions on the African plains.

  It was the type of theater that gave you the excuse to wear your most fancy clothes, and all your best jewelry too. You could even wear a tiara to a place like this. In fact, it would be impossible to be considered overdressed at such an establishment. At night the coat check would be filled with every type of fur coat, like a line of bears waiting to get into a soup kitchen.

  She went down a narrow white hall and up a flight of wooden stairs to get to the manager’s office. The manager was an enormous fat man, crammed into a wooden chair behind his desk. He didn’t bother to put his jacket on. He just leaned over, sticking his pudgy hand out for Rose to shake. He was wearing a white blouse with a purple silk vest that was very tight. It was as though his great belly were an Easter egg and his clothes had been painted on. Rose found his appearance delightful. It was comforting to see a fat man during the Depression. He leaned back in the chair behind his desk, listening to the pretty girl’s pitch.

  “Well, good-looking,” he said, “make it quick.”

  “I intend to bring to your city the greatest sad clowns that the world has ever seen.”

  “What do you call yourselves, did you say?”

  “The Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza.”

  “I generally only book world-renowned acts, my darling. And I’ve never heard of this.”

  “These performers have no shallow inclination to travel around exposing their talents so that they can receive accolades. Whether they are at Carnegie Hall or performing in front of four children at a park, they do not see the distinction. They are not interested in glory. They are not interested in immortality. They’ve a duty to create beauty. And it is my duty to allow the whole world to see it. They understand that every gesture is a work of art. A girl cracking an egg on the side of a bowl is exquisite to them. For a clown, there is no difference between a singer onstage at the Paris Opera and a woman singing in the bathtub.”

  “I like the way you put it. So I’m going to give you a chance. But only because I just had a cancelation from some Russian ballet dancers. Now there’s a country that never lets you down when they send performers on tour. They were supposed to use the theater in six weeks’ time. Does that work? It’s the only spot I can give you.”

  “Six weeks is perfect. Plenty of time.”

  “Although a bunch of Canadian clowns might not bring in the crowds on its own. You’ll have some chorus girls too, I hope?”

  “Only the best.”

  He put seven stars on his calendar: days that the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza would be staged at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City.

  • • •

  ROSE WENT TO SLEEP that night in a dingy hotel called the Truelove Hotel. She lay in the tiny room that was not much bigger than the bed. She was happy. It was the first time she had felt fulfilled in this way. It was silly, as she had only accomplished the very first part of her enterprise. She hadn’t engaged in anything strenuous yet. She hadn’t worked day and night assembling the strangest, most unusual clown show anyone had ever seen. She hadn’t yet found the people who would put Montreal on the vaudevillian map. But she had taken one step. The red lights on the marquee across the street were like the cigar tips of men smoking in the dark.

  As she walked down the street to the train station the next morning, she noticed that everyone was smiling at her. The reason was simple: she was smiling at them. They were all simply smiling back. She had an egg sandwich from the dinner cart on the train. There was a skinny vase on the table that looked just like an icicle, a single flower sticking out of it.



  Rose began planning her extravaganza the minute she got home. She ordered:

  40 tubes of white face paint

  20 spools of black ribbon

  40 sticks of brightest red lipstick

  25 skullcaps

  18 yards of white silk with red polka dots on it

  40 Elizabethan ruffs of all sizes

  20 Napoleon hats (two-cornered, black)

  14 pairs of XXXX-large black shoes

  1 pair of XXX-large black shoes (with the sole unstuck)

  25 sticks of black greasepaint

  7 attachable red wax noses

  10 bright orange buttons

  1 box of detachable polka dots made from fabric of various colors

  3 poodles, white

  3 packets of pink hair dye for poodles

  17 white rabbits

  3 geese

  27 doves

  40 pairs of white gloves

  35 cardboard clouds

  5 spools of yarn

  1 tiny violin

  1 tiny piano

  1 tiny trumpet

  8 gallons of shredded newspaper for papier-mâché

  Paste for papier-mâché

  Chicken wire

  She rented out a vacant hangar at the port in Old Montreal for her company to practice and rehearse in. She had to walk through Old Montreal to get there. Then she went in search of clowns. She put an advertisement for clowns in the newspaper. She went by all the theaters she used to frequent, rounding up her favorite clowns and talking them into joining her revue.

  Clowns from all over the city joined Rose’s troupe. She wanted a clown whose performance was as rich as a Tolstoy novel. She wanted a clown as sophisticated as a Chekhov character. They understood that the clowns were not going to be in the background. They would not be running a
round the perimeters of spectacular acts, like lion tamers and elephant trainers and ringleaders. They were not to be considered children’s entertainers. No! They were artists. They were the most intrepid performers in any circus. They delved into the dark heart, plucked out the secret flowers and offered them to members of the audience.

  Clowns of all shapes and sizes came to the hangar leading out to the river, which led out to the sea. They auditioned. It was a strange sight to see all the clowns sitting together and having lunch. People didn’t know whether what they were seeing was a marvel or whether it was unholy.

  Rose and Pierrot had a wonderful time looking for the clowns that Rose had been impressed by and luring them into their new company. Pierrot went to bail the clown she had seen at the Ocean Theater out of jail and get him a lawyer. Having accomplished this task, he was walking down the street, completely absorbed in his thoughts. He was humming the last bar of his musical composition when a large black car pulled up beside him. The car door opened and two arms reached out and snatched him up as easily as if he were a child.

  Pierrot found himself sitting in the backseat between two rather severe and ugly men. He thought these might be McMahon’s men, but there was no talking to either of them. The looks on their faces implied they would respond to any query by belting him in the mouth. Pierrot thought it was probably a defense for not knowing how to make conversation.

  He assumed there might be some sort of fee McMahon would charge him for doing any kind of theatrical enterprise in the city. He relaxed and thought this was simply a matter of course. McMahon just wanted to have a business tête-à-tête.

  Despite the absurdity of his profession, Pierrot now liked to think of himself as a working stiff.

  The car bounced as if someone was jumping up and down at the foot of a mattress.

  The men brought him up to McMahon’s office, where he had, of course, been many times before.

  “It turns out that your apple was a lot harder to move than anybody could imagine. No dealer would touch it. So what do you think about that? It belonged to a Russian princess, if you can believe it. It was stolen from the home of the Russian ambassador. It was going to be temporarily put on display at the museum here in Montreal. And what should happen but it got swiped five years ago and disappeared without a trace. There was never any ransom for it. It never turned up on the black market. The Russian government put the pressure on the police to get that apple. And guess what?”

  “Yes, I understand.”

  “Do you? You have the worst head for business that I’ve ever encountered. So allow me to deliver to you the long and short of it. You owe me twenty thousand dollars.”

  “Hmmm. That’s difficult. You see, I of course had no idea about this unfortunate circumstance involving the Russian princess, one of the unlucky Romanovs I’ve read about in the paper, no doubt. And I don’t have any of the money left.”

  “What the fuck did you do with it? What did you buy? A house? A car? I don’t believe it. You’re not that type. You’re too lazy to spend the money that fast.”

  “I invested it in a theatrical revue. The money mostly went to clowns. Some of them had previous commitments, so they needed further monetary incentives.”

  “You invested your money in clowns? Did you come up with this on your own? Or did someone encourage you to do this?”

  “My wife. She has a wonderful flair for organization. It’s going to make a lot of money. Let’s consider it an initial investment. We’ll give you our returns!”

  “Who’s your wife? Who would marry a fuckup like you?”

  “You wouldn’t know her. Though it’s possible. She has worked her marvels in different clubs around the city. Her name’s Rose.”


  “Yes. That’s what she likes to be called. Her real name is actually . . .”


  “Good guess!”

  A strange hunch came over McMahon—it couldn’t possibly be true. He had always assumed that Pierrot had come from an upper-class family. He was sure he had seen him in Westmount a couple of times when he was driving to work. He had thought Pierrot might be one of Irving’s children but assumed he had been disowned from his family for drug addiction. He also assumed that was why he had any sort of intelligence. Pierrot had once said he’d gone to Selwyn House, the same school as his own son. But it occurred to him in a sudden flash that Pierrot was the little boy from the orphanage, the little boy with a big scarf around his neck, the only boy Rose had ever thought enough about to mention.

  He remembered Rose saying that a person couldn’t possibly imagine just how delightful and absurd Pierrot was unless you actually met him. He remembered Rose telling him how sweet and refined and fair the boy was. What an air of sophistication the boy had, despite being an orphan.

  “Where did you grow up, anyway?”

  “I was Al Irving’s ward for many years. But before that, I spent my formative years in an orphanage.”

  “Where did you meet your wife?”

  “I’ve known her my whole life. We were raised in the same orphanage.”

  McMahon had to sit down. All his stories and narratives about Rose suddenly needed revising. The psychic energy devastated by this revision exhausted him. He had not taken her affection for the blond boy seriously. But clearly she had been thinking about him the entire time they were together. He was her first love. McMahon had only ever been her second choice.

  He immediately wanted to murder Pierrot.



  McMahon sat in the car at the port, watching Pierrot being strung upside down from a mast of a ship on the docks. When that task was completed, he got out of the car and headed toward the hangar. McMahon could hardly be prepared for the group of men he would encounter as he walked toward the end of the hangar, where Pierrot had said he would find Rose.

  He passed a clown standing with his skullcap on and his large pants unbuckled, smoking a broken cigar and juggling plates.

  There was a clown with his poodle. It was white and middle-aged. You could tell that it had worked long and hard for a living. The clown had a tiny rag that he dipped into warm water to remove the gunk around his dog’s eyes—as if he were removing its clown makeup.

  A clown was dressed as a black chimney sweep. He had covered his face with black soot and carried a little broom over his head. Tears made pathways down his dark cheeks.

  There was a clown spreading muscle relaxant all over his arms and legs while smoking a cigarette. There was a lot of chain-smoking. The rooms were filled with little clouds of cigarette smoke, as if it might suddenly start to rain.

  Another was balancing a stack of ten hats on his head. He had his jacket off, and he wore a fake belly under his suit to appear corpulent and well fed. He was actually very skinny—he could barely afford to feed himself.

  Another clown, dressed in a black suit he had bought for a deal from the undertaker, was playing a tiny trumpet. Another was playing the violin, trying to pick up the trumpet player’s tune. Another clown appeared to levitate an inch off the ground.

  One clown, who had his hair pulled into triangles on the top and sides of his head, began singing inscrutable words in a low and magnificent voice.

  They were all babbling in gibberish. There was no universal clown language. Every clown spoke his own particular tongue and had his own odd dialect. One sounded like he had a piece of electrical tape over his mouth. Another spoke as though he had something hot in his mouth. Their speech varied from sounding like a record played backward to a bicycle horn being honked. McMahon felt annoyed and frustrated. He wished to God they would all just speak English. He tried to ignore them as he walked past.

  The huge desk was covered in stacks of paper. And there she was in front of him, sitting on the chair behind it. She looked like a million bucks, wearing a black v
elvet dress, with a white silk scarf tied in a knot at her neck. It was as though their breakup had not affected her at all.

  “How did you finally find me?” she asked.

  She was so calm. It was strange how different she now looked. She was older. She had become much more beautiful. He was appalled that she would sit across from him acting as if she were his equal.

  “Your husband told me where you were.”

  “Where is he?” Rose asked, showing some alarm finally.

  “What a ridiculous fool you’ve aligned yourself with.” McMahon’s anger surprised even himself. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me that he had a wife named Rose, and I put two and two together. I mean, in what universe does a lowlife junkie and a man like me share a lover? It’s so fucking ridiculous. It’s a tragedy that makes me laugh. What would you call such a thing?”

  “A comedy.”

  “No, my darling. This is no comedy. If you actually think that you’re going to have a happy ending with that piece of shit, you are out of your mind.”

  “Where is he?”

  “You must have had a laugh when he sold me that apple. Your husband owes me. He fucking owes me!”

  She was afraid to move her hands or to pick up anything. She was worried that her hands would shake. Her heart was beating too quickly. He was in control now. He had Pierrot. She wasn’t allowed to say what she wanted. She might as well have a nylon stocking tied around her head, gagging her, and her hands fastened behind the chair.

  “Pierrot didn’t know about our relationship. He never set out to dupe you.”

  “What didn’t I give you? You ruined my life. You ruined my wife’s life. Weren’t you supposed to be friends? Don’t act like a victim. I swear to God, I’ll kill you if you do. I couldn’t walk down the hallway of my house without running into you half-dressed and acting like a dog in heat.”

  Rose just looked at him.

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