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The lonely hearts hotel, p.30
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.30

           Heather O'Neill

  • • •

  IN THE HANGAR NEXT TO THEIRS, they were manufacturing bathtubs. They were carried out on the back of a truck that day, like a school of beluga whales.

  • • •

  THE CLOWNS ROLLED the papier-mâché moon down the street, from the hangar to the train tracks, which wasn’t that far, only a few hundred feet. They were laughing. They were amazed at how strong the gravitational pull of the moon was. It was heavier than usual, and given its propensity toward escapism, they were afraid the moon would for sure make a break for it this time. The moon took up half a baggage car by itself. The sides had been scuffed when it was squeezed into two large doors.

  Rose looked at all the trunks piled high in the baggage car. They had everything they needed to build a brand-new universe. One trunk contained small planets and shooting stars. Another had clouds and lightning bolts and snowflakes. There was a fake ocean and a pirate ship in one. Several contained costumes for aristocrats, generals and paupers. One was filled with flaming hoops and tiny tuxedos for dogs. Each was as full of wonders as Pandora’s box.

  Rose was the last to board the train. She wore a red velvet jacket and matching trousers. Once she had slid the door closed behind her, everyone in the troupe popped their heads back in from the windows, because the action was now inside. When the train began to move, everyone let out a huge whoop. They were impressed by the sheer realness of all of it. This was the train she and Pierrot had been sitting on when they were very little, though then it was an imaginary train, heading to an imaginary place. Now it weighed thousands of pounds and could run over anything in its path.

  • • •

  THEY ARRIVED AT THE BORDER in under an hour. The longer part of the trip would happen after they crossed. But getting past customs was the real challenge.

  The customs officers took a peek into each baggage car. They all looked the same as the baggage cars of American troupes and circuses that came up north across the border. The custom officers laughed at the moon. It was scratched and dented from rolling down the sidewalk. But this seemed to make it look more like the real moon: nothing more than a dented hand mirror up in the sky. One of the officers shook hands with a Chihuahua. The officers smiled to themselves. In their minds, the boxes contained only the components of a wonderful show. They wished the troupe luck.

  When Rose showed their papers and the train was then waved across the border, she knew the whole world was hers.

  • • •

  SHE WALKED DOWN the shaky corridor of the train. The landscape was flashing by through the square windows. There was so much land, open and empty. All the trees stood there, naked without leaves, their arms supplicating the sky. They were so chaotic and full of longing.

  They went through a series of old, crotchety mountains. They were so old they didn’t look dangerous anymore. Occasionally a big boulder rolled off them into the middle of a road or landed on top of a deer, but on the whole they had found their place in the world. The rain had worn their peaks down, one argument at a time.

  Rose understood why hobos would ride the train. It made you feel like you had escaped from time. That you had gotten ahead of it. It was as though you were the hare and time was the tortoise. And now you could just dally until the future caught up with you. Rose plopped down in one of the seats among a group of girls and decided to enjoy the journey with them.

  They had packed sandwiches for their daylong train ride south, so nobody was hungry. There was a peacefulness that settled over everyone in the train now that their bellies were full. It allowed them to luxuriate in the moment as if it were a warm bath.

  The girls were having thoughts they hadn’t been allowed to have before. Rose liked listening to conversations. Every conversation was like a scientific experiment that sought to find a cure for the human condition.

  “I’d like to have a stage name. Something with a little razzmatazz.”

  “Once you start with the razzmatazz, you’ll never be able to knock it off.”

  “I read Frankenstein. Do you know that a woman wrote it? She ran away with this poet named Percy Shelley. They had an orgy in a castle and she made up the story to amuse their friends.”

  “Where did you find out all this?”

  “At the library. If you keep reading past Winnie-the-Pooh, most books are actually really dirty.”

  “I hated school so much. I was so happy to leave it.”

  “I couldn’t make out the blackboard. I have bad eyesight. When my grandfather died, I took his glasses. All the other girls laughed at me but I was able to read the blackboard.”

  “There’s going to be another war, and there will be all sorts of jobs opening up. You can do what you want.”

  “Penses-tu qu’ils ont les même tablettes de chocolat aux États-Unis?”

  “My mom wanted to get a job to make more money, but my father said he would die of shame if she did that. I like having money in my pocket.”

  “Nothing feels as good as having money in your pocket. Rien du tout.”

  “I never minded giving my parents my whole paycheck, because they pay the rent and buy the food and they have all my brothers. But I have to beg and beg and beg just to keep enough money to go to the movies on Saturdays.”

  “I love the movies.”

  “Did you see King Kong? It was the first movie I ever saw, and I couldn’t stop screaming. I couldn’t sleep at night. I kept looking out the window. I was sure that a big gorilla’s hand was going to reach in the window and snatch me out of my bed.”

  “I know what you mean. After I saw Frankenstein, I was cycling down the street. I was sure the monster was just behind me. I started hurrying to get home.”

  “Joannie read that book.”

  Rose adored the brilliant repartee of the girls. It was like the train itself, traversing all domains—trivial and profound subjects, both at once.

  • • •

  IN THE DINING CAR, Rose sat across from a ventriloquist clown. He had a rat in a jar. He opened the lid of the jar and once he took the lid off, the rat began to sing in a melodic, high-pitched voice. He had been working with the clown since he was a pup. He liked to be rocked to sleep in the clown’s pocket.

  The rat was nervous. The rat had come from Montreal. It had heard of the New York rats. They could intimidate dogs. And if cats saw them coming, they would cross to the other side of the street.

  The clown told him not to worry, they wouldn’t be meeting any New York rats. This was a very reputable theater, and there wouldn’t be any rats in the audience.

  But the rat knew that all he needed was for some New York rat to say he was a loser and he would never, ever recover. They would say that no respectable rat would be traveling with a clown. He sat behind the glass, wringing his hands, worrying about being judged. He had never felt so small in his whole entire life.

  • • •

  SHE STOPPED IN A COMPARTMENT to talk to Fabio, who had a huge accounts book spread open. The two of them looked at the book as though they were children searching for a foreign city in an atlas. Fabio had turned out to be unexpectedly good with numbers, and Rose was the first person in his life who had found use for that skill. She had been consulting more and more with Fabio about numbers and business affairs. Fabio was the only person in the company other than Pierrot who knew about the drugs. There was no point telling the others. They believed they were on this trip because of their artistic abilities. They looked so innocent, they would never be suspected. They were just enjoying the ride. They were all crowded up against the window, gaping at the Adirondacks. Even the sad clowns were laughing. The sad clowns weren’t worried about their arthritis, or their ex-wives, or their failures. They were all smiling.

  • • •

  ROSE WALKED INTO the small cabin where Pierrot sat, a compartment they had reserved for themselves. The seats had been reup
holstered with brown and green and gold material. There was a pastoral mural painted on the walls. There was a small bed that folded out from the wall. Rose closed the door behind her. She began to unbutton his jacket and he swayed back and forth. Pierrot pulled down the bed, and the pillows hopped up in surprise.



  It was unseasonably cold in New York City that morning. The quality of the air was different from that of Montreal. But it was so subtle. It was crisper. It smelled like someone who was about to kiss you. It smelled a little bit like Coca-Cola.

  They could suddenly see better. Many people who needed glasses found their eyesight rectified for just that moment.

  The minute the first member of the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza stepped off the train, tiny snowflakes began to fall from the sky. They were so minuscule that at first nobody was able to see them.

  As soon as the sun went down, the snow began to fall in huge flakes. They were like girls in Communion dresses doing cartwheels. People in mourning discovered that they were actually quite lucky. They could see momentary proof of the snowflakes on their black clothes before they melted and disappeared.

  • • •

  JIMMY SAT IN HIS OFFICE in the Romeo Hotel with Caspar. There was a fishbowl by the window with two fancy goldfish that swam in circles, like tassels on a burlesque dancer’s nipples. The mobsters were staying in for the night because of the snowstorm. They were both aware that Rose and her troupe had arrived in the city. The radio was on; a singer who sounded like she had a clothes-peg on her nose whined about not getting what she wanted for Christmas.

  “Did I ever tell you just how much I hate Montreal?” Jimmy asked. “And every asshole I meet from that place?”

  “Yes, many times,” Caspar answered.

  “Is this dope worth it? Can’t we buy from anyone else?”

  “It’s been tested. It’s incredible, supposedly. Like nothing those morons have ever had before.”

  “Tell me again why the fuck we have to wait until the show is over to pick up the dope?”

  “Because the dope is inside a moon.”

  “Because the dope is inside a fucking moon! That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Why did I agree to this shit? What are we doing tonight?”

  “Playing cards.”

  “Never mind that. Let’s go. I need to see this. Come on. You like the theater.”

  “I don’t know. We have to blow the girl’s head off. It’s inappropriate.”

  “Come on. Let’s not start worrying about what’s appropriate and what isn’t at this point in our lives.”

  “It’s starting in less than an hour.”

  “Then we have no time to lose.”

  “What if all the tickets are sold out?”


  Jimmy grabbed his coat and flung open the door to his office and leaned out into the corridor. “Girls, come on!”

  Jimmy came down the stairs with his arms around two girls. When the other gangsters saw Jimmy heading toward the front door, they immediately wanted to join him. They grabbed their coats and hats, took their girlfriends’ hands and left their meals behind and followed. There was no point hanging around the hotel on a Friday night if Jimmy wasn’t going to be there.

  The girls found the sidewalks icy and slippery, especially as they hurried along in their pretty high heels. When they arrived at the theater, there was no lineup outside. A sandwich board said that last-minute tickets would be sold for half price.

  Five minutes before the curtain rose, they were able to pay half price for excellent seats. Jimmy wasn’t happy because he had hoped to sit at the back of the theater. He wondered whether tomorrow’s show would be canceled and if he would have to kill the girl in the morning.

  • • •

  WHEN ALL THE PEOPLE had been seated and had settled down and when the curtains rose in small, soft jerks, snow began to fall heavily outside. It came down over the whole of the city. It filled the palms of all the statues of angels. It covered all the roofs of the buildings with a giant down quilt. The audience inside the theater completely forgot that the outside world existed. Because, really, it wasn’t there at all.




  The chorus girls came out. They were dressed like little girls in short white dresses, with ribbons in their hair. Because of the identical make of their dresses and their woebegone faces, the audience was able to ascertain that they were orphans. They carried mops, and they swept in perfect unison. Except for one girl, who wore a black wig. She stood completely still in the middle of the stage, while all the chorus girls did wild movements with their mops around her.


  A clown dressed as an aristocrat in a checkered suit with a top hat came out on his bicycle. The lid of his top hat hung off the side, like an opened tin can. It was as though his head were a pot and his ideas had overcooked and blown the lid right off the top of his head, to let off steam, so to speak. He had his chin so far up in the air that he couldn’t see where he was going. He drank from a delicate porcelain teacup as he cycled around. He leaned the bicycle all the way to the ground so that he was almost doing a handstand—and then when his nose was almost at the ground, he plucked an imaginary flower and inhaled it.


  A group of clowns came out. They wore shorts and striped T-shirts and beanie caps. They leaped about and kicked their legs. They were acting like children. It was so ridiculous and absurd to see grown adults acting in such unself-conscious ways. The audience was holding their sides because they were laughing so hard. Women pulled out their handkerchiefs and dabbed the tears of laughter from their eyes before it ruined their makeup.


  There was a clown sitting inside a bathtub, all alone on the stage. He started to weep. He squeezed a rag under his eyes and water just poured out. He wept and wept, until it became apparent that the bathtub was filling with water. He stopped crying. He noticed the audience and looked immediately shocked and ashamed. He clearly wanted to get out of the tub, but looking around, he could not find clothes or a towel. Finally, he decided to climb out nonetheless, to escape. He was naked, but he wore a huge prosthetic erect penis wrapped around his waist. The audience laughed hysterically at his member as he hurried off.


  Then came the act that had required the Napoleon hats. The clowns came out riding on hobbyhorses, which encircled their bodies. They brandished swords and fought one another. Then, all of a sudden, a bell rang gently. They put their horses on the ground and gathered around for a picnic together. The orchestra went from playing loud, thunderous music to playing soft, tinkly music. There was an abrupt change of mood. How fickle and superficial are our attempts at grandeur.


  A group of alcoholic clowns came out. They wobbled about with their eyes half-closed. It was as if the drug had taken away all their physical substance. They moved around, gravity seeming to have no pull on them.

  They practically floated like feathers and tufts of milkweed on a breeze. Three of them climbed the ladder up to the tightrope. They tiptoed across wires, despite weighing hundreds of pounds. They walked across with the same assurance they would have walking down a chalk line on the sidewalk.

  The last clown suddenly turned at a ninety-degree angle and strode off into the air. Everyone gasped, thinking he would plummet to his death. But he had wires attached and so he just appeared to walk on the air. The reprobate clown walked on the air the way Jesus walked on water. Right out over the audience’s heads.

  And didn’t the whole audience find it in their hearts to forgive him for wasting his afternoons getting intoxicated, and throwing his whole life away.


  In the next act, a girl was getting ready for an important
date. She had gas, however, and she kept farting every time she sat down. She bit into a cake and had icing all over her mouth. She lit up a cigar. She exhaled a series of smoke rings, which floated above her head. The audience all said, “Ooooh.” They had never seen a lady do such things.

  She was looking at a large magazine so she could see the latest fashions. She was having so much trouble behind the partition getting her clothes on. At one point she knocked the whole thing over, revealing that she had her dress on backward.

  A group of girls ran onstage and rearranged all the furniture so that the girl was no longer in her bedroom but at a table in a restaurant. A clown sat at the opposite side of the table. He wore a tuxedo and a giant red bow tie. He was wearing spats over his bare feet and had an enormous prosthetic belly.

  She was decidedly the most unladylike of ladies, but that made her wonderful and sweet and honest and trustworthy. She climbed across the table, knocking off everything that was in her way, and onto the lap of the man she was dining with.

  She had trouble getting her arms around his enormous belly. But when she did, she gave him an enormous messy kiss. They fell underneath the table. When they crawled back out from under it, they both had large red grimaces on their faces, like clowns. It was rather delightful. Everyone in the audience was on her side.


  After the pair exited to the right, the chorus girls came out on roller skates. They were dressed in the shabbiest and oddest ways. They had tried to doll themselves up, they had tried to look pretty for the audience, but they had done so out of rags. Their bright little young sweet faces smiled from underneath crushed mushroom hats with crooked flowers, and black handkerchiefs tied in bows at their foreheads.

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