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The lonely hearts hotel, p.28
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.28

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “I’m embarrassed for you. I’m embarrassed for myself. It’s disgusting.”

  They stared at each other. Full of hatred but with a visceral awareness that they had been naked and carnal with each other.

  “Just tell me. Come on. Does he lick your pretty little cunt? Do you make all those same noises? Remember how you used to beg me to make sure you felt good? You were so tight that first time. Remember how I opened you up. You were ruined after me. I destroyed your cunt and that’s how you’ll always like it. I know you think about me sometimes. When he’s on top of you.”

  She hadn’t, though. She sometimes thought of the man with the donkey’s head right before she came. She wouldn’t dare give McMahon the satisfaction of seeing her change her expression.

  “I need to know what you’ve done with him or I won’t sit here another second.”

  “Relax. He’s alive and fucking well, hanging upside down at the dock. He’s happy there. But he’s not safe. You are going to do something for me and I’m not going to murder your husband. I need to move dope across the border, a magnificent trainload of the shit.”

  She paused, considering his offer, knowing she could not say no.

  “I need more money, of course.”

  He flopped a suitcase onto the desk.

  “Take it. It’s fucking nothing to me. I have more money than you can ever imagine, Rose. So here’s some money, because it’s what you love. It’s what you’ll never get enough of.”

  He stood up, buttoning his jacket. He leaned over the desk toward her. The white ostrich feather on the back of her hat made it appear as if her thoughts were on fire.

  “Admit it, you hate me more than you love him.”

  As soon as he drove away she was released from his power. She opened her mouth and let out a loud wail. She overturned her desk; it made a large booming sound. The suitcase thudded to the ground, the latch clicked open and stacks of bills rolled out.

  When she saw the money, it shocked her. She stopped worrying about Pierrot for a moment. She got down on her knees and began putting the money away. The money dazzled her, changed her mood. She loved the feeling of being in possession of it. She put it in the safe. For a moment she didn’t even think about where the money had come from. She didn’t care at all. She felt only excitement. She loved the money’s proximity to her and the possibilities it opened up for her.

  She didn’t believe a thing they said in church about material possessions being of no value. Money gave her confidence. It made her feel powerful. Oh, certainly the money hadn’t come to her in the most straightforward fashion. But it never does. And a person has to be willing to meet money on its own terms.

  Pierrot!

  • • •

  THE WHITE SHIPS docked in the port were like wedding cakes on display in a baker’s window. Pierrot was hanging upside down, tied by his ankle to a hook from the deck of a steamer. The clowns came running with a long ladder, which they had used for a traditional house-on-fire scene. Rose stuck her hands up in the air. Pierrot put his hands out to her.

  “How are you?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. You can get used to anything.”

  “I’ll find a way to get you down.”

  “I should hope so. What were you talking about that took so long? Were you engaging in small talk? Were you exchanging recipes?”

  Pierrot was actually laughing when they took him down from the hook. Pierrot’s pride wasn’t injured easily, the way McMahon’s was. He didn’t have any pride—and, surprisingly, that made him noble.

  “Is there something you’d like to tell me about your relationship with McMahon?”

  “Oh God, I told you about the married man.”

  “Yes! He informed me that the two of you were quite the pair back in the day.”

  “I thought you might not sell him the apple if you knew.”

  “With good reason.”

  “Sorry!”

  “I always had these intuitions, even when we were kids, that you liked tough guys.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. I abhor brutes.”

  Pierrot smiled kindly at Rose. He had suspected she had a penchant for ruthless, ambitious men, and while he did not in the least doubt her affection for him, he sometimes felt that even though he was the love of her life, he was not necessarily her type.

  “What are we going to do with all this money?” Pierrot asked her when she showed him the suitcase.

  “What is the thing that money always buys you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Girls, of course.”

  “Ha-ha-ha! I almost forgot about the dancing girls you promised.”

  51

  THE WORKING-GIRL REVOLUTION

  With McMahon’s investment, Rose was now able to afford her chorus line.

  “I have to do some serious recruiting today,” she told Pierrot. “I promised top-of-the-line chorus girls too.”

  “You’re crazy. Where will you find showgirls in Montreal as good as the ones in New York City?”

  “No, no, no, no, no. I have to find showgirls who are better than the ones in New York City.”

  “Where are you going to find these girls?”

  • • •

  THERE WAS A LINE OF GIRLS outside the fabric factory near the port, waiting to see the owner. Little white clouds came out of their mouths as they spoke. There had been an announcement in the paper that there would be a job opening that week. They had hats pulled down almost to their noses. They had long knitted scarves that wound around and around their necks. Their black tights had been mended and darned over and over again. They were tiptoeing up to the door as if the sidewalk were thin ice and they were about to break through and be swallowed up by the water. They had such a tenuous grasp on their own existence, they could disappear from this earth and there wouldn’t be a trace left. They stomped their feet up and down to stay alive. Everywhere Rose looked, there were strange chorus lines of girls.

  Rose almost didn’t want to change anything about them. She wanted them to line up on the stage in their hats and their wet boots, with a little bit of lipstick they had borrowed from their mothers, coughing and cold, the roses in their cheeks blooming, holding their letters of reference. How could art ever capture that?

  • • •

  THEY ALL WILLINGLY WENT ALONG with Rose. They liked the sound of the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza. They immediately believed they were taking part in something special. And also Rose had promised them soup.

  They were a little bit defiant. They knew somehow that all the men in their lives would be opposed to them joining Rose. Because she was independent, wasn’t she? But no matter what they did, they were probably going to end up beaten by their fathers when they got home. So what did it matter in the end?

  When they lined up in the hangar with their coats and woolen tights off, their bare skinny limbs were covered in welts. Their dads beat them for standing on the corner and laughing. Their dads beat them for being pretty. Their dads beat them for putting lipstick on. Their dads beat them for taking too long to come home from the school, for forgetting to take their baby brothers out of the bathtub, for having a snarky expression while putting jam on the table, for leaving kiss marks all over the bathroom mirror.

  A skinny girl in a black sweater, who looked as if she’d had a blocked nose her whole life, could sing really quickly, as if she were hyperventilating, as if she had been running and now she was trying to tell you a story. Everyone applauded.

  A few could dance, and they tapped to the right and to the left. They looked like they were running on a log knowing that if they stopped some sort of horrible fate awaited them.

  But she almost preferred chorus girls who didn’t have any talent. Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand t
hemselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.

  You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.

  • • •

  SHE HAD TO BUY THEM new clothes. They all looked so damn homely. None of them could afford proper stockings. They didn’t look like a troupe of exciting, spoiled chorus girls. And so they were all fitted for new, sparkly dresses. One girl, covered in beauty marks, stood in her underwear, as though she had just come out of an enchanted forest and was now covered in ticks.

  When the tailor was done, there was a pile of measuring tape on the ground as if a mummy had just performed a striptease.

  When they arrived, the dresses were the color of the rain. The girls had sashes around their waists, looking like presents that could be opened. There were also little see-through beads on the dresses that made them look like flowers covered in dew.

  The girls all leaned together in their gray dresses, eating their bowls of soup. They were squished up together like a storm cloud. And all their slurping sounded like rain rolling through gutters. Everybody in the company was kind of horny because they had been well fed. They chatted about eligible nineteen-year-old bachelors in the neighborhood. There is no sex without a sandwich.

  • • •

  WITH ONLY FOUR WEEKS LEFT to get the show together, there were still a hundred little things Rose had to attend to. She looked at the costumes pinned onto the mannequin torsos. She counted the order of twenty Napoleon hats, trying one on herself. She described the set to the carpenters. She raised her arms above her head, clenching and unclenching her hands, illustrating how she wanted scintillating stars hanging from the sky. Part of the show was to take place under a huge blizzard, so the whole troupe furiously cut snowflakes out of the newspapers that described scandals and mob killings and trouble in Europe.

  They had also collectively made a giant moon out of papier mâché. Every now and then the moon would get loose and roll across the hangar. There was a joke in the company that the moon was possessed. They said that it wanted to be up in the sky and resented being pulled down to earth. They were afraid it would roll down the boulevard, women and children and dogs jumping out of its way, until it plopped happily into the river. And then what would happen? It would lie under the water every night, glowing. The moon up in the sky would be the reflection, and not the other way around.

  Some of McMahon’s men came late at night and filled the moon with heroin. The drugs were in tiny little bottles, themselves inside a huge trunk. Rose helped the gangsters hide the trunk deep inside a crater she had kept open in the moon, then sealed the crack with buckets of plaster.

  • • •

  THE PRESSURE OF getting the show done on time was getting to Rose. She threw temper tantrums in front of the performers. Everyone knew these were just passing moods, but they were still alarming. Rose could listen to a children’s choir for ten seconds and then point out the future opera singer with her finger. But she wasn’t especially good at managing and encouraging the talent. She threatened to bury a clown and his dog alive if they showed up tardily for rehearsal again.

  Later that day, Rose passed a couple of girls sitting half-dressed and cross-legged in front of each other. She was shocked to see them doing nothing. She stopped for a second to overhear their conversation.

  “It’s violent in New York. I’m a little bit worried about walking around on the streets alone. Can we make sure that we don’t lose sight of one another when we’re there?”

  “Voyons! How can it be worse than here?”

  “Because Jimmy Bonaventura runs the streets down there, as a matter of fact. He’s a psychopath. If you look at him the wrong way, you might get shot in the back of the head.”

  “Oui, mais . . . I wouldn’t mind if he asked me out for filet mignon. Have you seen photographs of him?”

  “Yes, I saw his arrest photograph.”

  “He is so handsome. He has a reputation as a ladies’ man, you know.”

  “And then what would happen if you got on his nerves?”

  She pointed her index finger, as though it were a gun, at the other girl’s head. She pulled the trigger with her index finger. She said, “Pow.” The other girl toppled over to the ground.

  “Knock it off, will you?” Rose said. “Get back to work. Are you two out of your minds? Playing cops and robbers at a time like this? I’m paying you! Never mind Jimmy Bonaventura, I’ll murder the two of you myself!”

  • • •

  AFTER THAT EXPLOSION she went to find Pierrot. He was sitting in the middle of a circle of crushed top hats.

  “I’ve just finished with these hats,” Pierrot said.

  “How did you get them to look like that?”

  “Frankly, I jumped on them. It was a dirty business, but someone had to do it.”

  “Pierrot, you’re going to have to be in charge of all the performers. Or else they’ll drive me nuts.”

  “What if I lead them all astray?”

  “Everything I know about performance you know too. I trust you implicitly.”

  “Oh, thank you. And what are you up to today?”

  “Gangsters. Drug dealers. Thugs.”

  “The commonsensical ones!”

  She smiled, not disagreeing, and hurried off, leaving Pierrot to take care of the rehearsals. Pierrot was terrified for a second. He couldn’t believe he was in charge. It seemed like a funny dream—like realizing you are naked in a very public place. But Pierrot answered fifty questions over the course of that one afternoon.

  “Which of the noises sounds closest to a rooster: Cockalooalooaloo or Cowarooraoooaroo?”

  “The second.”

  “Do you think that when I make a farting noise, I should have a look of pleasure on my face, or should I just completely ignore it and not acknowledge it?”

  “Be surprised by it.”

  “What do you think of me reciting a famous poem at the moment I am about to blow my head off?”

  “I’m for it.”

  “Do you think that I need to look at the heavens—the ceiling—when I sing, or out at the audience?”

  “The audience.”

  “Spongy nose or painted one?”

  “Painted.”

  “What color of carnation goes with this suit?”

  “White.”

  “What do you think about this?”

  “No.”

  “Do you like this?”

  “Magnificent.”

  “Can I have your opinion on this?”

  “Oh no. That’s all wrong.”

  “Pierrot, look at this for a second.”

  “Hmmm.”

  • • •

  LATER, ONE OF the less-talented clowns, Fabio, walked past Rose while she was crunching numbers. Although he was fifty-seven, rather obese and had drooping gray cheeks, he performed an act wherein he pretended to be a toddler.

  “Oh, I’ve always loved numbers,” Fabio said. “They behave so prettily, don’t you find?”

  Rose immediately made him wipe off his face paint and work as her accountant.

  • • •

  THAT EVENING Rose hurriedly undressed and climbed into bed. She rarely had an hour to herself in the evenings, but this night she needed it. She switched on the lamp next to her bed. The lampshade was yellow with pink blossoms painted on it, and the lightbulb was the wattage of an early day in May. She pulled a book out from a paper bag and began reading it eagerly. It was a pulp novel with a character based on Jimmy Bonaventura and his exploits. Rose was curious and had bought herself a copy at the drugstore. It was horre
ndously written, but it was a page-turner.

  Jimmy Bonaventura had no idea who his father was. His mother was a maid who had been seduced. When she got pregnant, she thought that the baby was her ticket to the high life. Instead, Jimmy’s mother became a prostitute. Jimmy had grown up in a tiny brothel. He used to sleep in bed with her after the clients went home. He used to sometimes hide under the bed while she was making love. He was so used to seeing her sitting on the laps of different men that he didn’t think anything of it.

  When his mother jumped out the window of the brothel, Jimmy was sent to the boys’ home, where he met his right-hand man, Caspar. All the other boys were repelled by Caspar because his forehead was too big and jutted out. There was no haircut known to any barber that could hide that forehead. They thought he was mentally deficient. Jimmy thought this was a rather ridiculous assumption, because he could see right off the bat that Caspar was a genius. He could count cards. He could memorize phone books. He calculated odds for Jimmy.

  When Caspar and Jimmy were fifteen, they turned a little ice cream parlor into a bookies’ den. And that was their first official headquarters. They wiped off all the names of ice cream flavors in chalk on the blackboard above the cash register. In their place they wrote the names of the racehorses. Which actually could have been the names of ice cream flavors and specialty sundaes: Rocky Road, Chunky Monkey, Slippery Banana, Marshmallow Darling, Cotton-Candy Heart.

  They met a girl who was taking bets on skipping-rope tournaments. These were popular because boys liked to watch the girls’ skirts bop up into the air. She offered to turn tricks in the back room of the shop. The mafia came after them soon after that. Jimmy felt that if he could defend his ice cream shop, he could take over the entire city. He killed twenty-six men before the mafia backed off, and then it was all over.

  A young, overly imaginative journalist had coined the name the Ice Cream Mafia. The author of the book suggested the name was inappropriate, as it seemed childish and sweet, when this was a group of most violent thugs. Rose closed the paperback, put it on the night table and felt happy thoughts.

  She rather liked that she would be dealing with such a character. It occurred to her that she liked the mechanisms underground. Other than the fact that she had to communicate with McMahon again, she was pleased to be dipping her toes into those dark waters.

 
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