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The lonely hearts hotel, p.31
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.31

           Heather O'Neill
 
They began to take off the scruffy layers. They unbuttoned their threadbare coats and stuffed them into garbage cans that sat in the middle of the stage. They roller-skated with giant smiles on their faces. They were freer with every layer they took off. Some of the girls had become so talented and free with eight small wheels underneath them.

  One girl skated backward, her hands up in the air, with such assurance. There was one girl who could barely stand up on her skates, and she kept toppling over. Everyone laughed at her struggle, but not at her.

  They took off their gloves that had holes in the fingertips, their moth-eaten scarves, their patched-up sweaters, their faded dresses. They took off their roller skates and their stockings. They stood in their skimpy peach-colored chorus girl costumes, which covered them like undergarments. They pranced to the front of the stage in bare feet, until they were underneath the footlights. They each found a pair of sparkly silver high heels, which they put on.

  They were all so naked and they were all so perfect. They all exited the stage, leaving just one girl all alone. She was wearing a ridiculous red wig. The audience thought she was supposed to Little Orphan Annie, but Pierrot and Rose knew that she was supposed to be Poppy. She kept kicking her legs up in the air, not noticing that all the other girls had left and that the music had stopped. She was just too busy experiencing abandon to bother. She opened her eyes, noticed her predicament and stopped in her tracks. She looked out at the audience and laughed and laughed and laughed.

  FINAL ACT

  There was a clown who was dressed as a shooting star, who rode his toy gangster car across the stage. He spotted a lasso on the ground. He got off his bicycle and picked it up. He kept throwing the lasso up into the air, up toward the ceiling, over and over again. The lasso kept falling right back down. And then, finally, it got stuck up in the air. It was affixed to something above in the rafters that could not be seen. He pulled on it as hard as he could, but no matter how hard he tried, whatever it had caught would not budge.

  He began to climb the rope and found himself upside down and tangled in it. Another clown came in with his dog. That clown took the rope in his hands and both men began to pull together. The dog took the rope in his mouth and he began to pull too. Then the other clowns came out. They all began to pull the rope. Three of the chorus girls climbed up on the rope in order to pull harder. Finally, with everyone pulling, it slowly began to budge.

  And from above the curtains, the most enormous and lovely papier-mâché moon began to slowly descend as the clowns fulfilled what they promised to do in the advertisements for the performance: to bring the audience the moon.

  Rose’s greatest theatrical gift was her stage presence. It was evident when she tiptoed out onto the stage in sparkly slippers. She had on her head a triangular hat with a little pom-pom glued on top. She had on a silk jacket with big polka dots. She had on a skirt that jutted outward, little white pom-poms attached to the edge of it like snowballs that were attached to a dog’s chin. She had wires attached to a great big bear puppet that was behind her.

  A piano and a bench were suddenly rolled onto the stage with none other than Pierrot seated at it. He was wearing a loose white clown outfit. He had a ruffled white collar, large black pom-poms for buttons, and pants that drooped down at his feet like melting candles. His face was completely covered in white face paint, except for a tiny little black tear on his cheek.

  Rose’s face was similarly covered in white face paint, except for a red dot on either cheek—just like the ones on her face when she was found in the snow as a baby.

  Pierrot began to play the tune he always played. Rose began to dance her funny dance. When she danced elegantly, so did the bear. Every time she leaned forward, it seemed as though the bear was certainly going to swallow her. But then Pierrot played higher on the scale of the piano and the bear changed his mind and began to dance elegantly behind her.

  Pierrot had been working on this peculiar score for years now. It was his magnum opus. He had been working on it since he was a little boy—perhaps he had been playing the same tune since he first put his long fingers on the piano keys. And that night onstage, he finished it.

  For the last bar, Pierrot paused for a moment and tapped the keys delicately, as if he were trying to wake someone from a deep sleep. Paper snowflakes came down one by one from the ceiling. It was quite lovely.

  When the stage was covered in paper snowflakes, and Pierrot stopped playing the piano, Rose and her bear took a bow. The heavy, heavy curtains tumbled down like lava on the side of a volcano. And the show was over.

  • • •

  THE AUDIENCE WAS QUIET. There was a hush. They were not sure what they had just seen. They did not want to breathe. They did not want to clap, because their applause would mean the show was over and they did not want it to end. Then it came. A wonderful sound. They applauded joyfully.

  The audience was filled with a hundred nine-year-olds dressed in furs and fancy pearls.

  57

  JIMMY’S ONE-POINT PERSPECTIVE

  Jimmy wasn’t sure what to think about the clowns. He felt a little bit weirded out by men who had chosen clowning as a profession. He only regarded being a murderer or a politician as sufficiently masculine. He was so cautious of betraying any emotion or sign of weakness that he felt alarmed by these men who just paraded about in front of an audience, weeping and farting and dropping things.

  He did, however, like the chorus girls. There was something so odd about them. Some of them weren’t even pretty. A few of them had no chest at all. They weren’t the sorts of girls who he would have working at the Romeo Hotel. He liked the show, though. It started reminding him of his past, when he was a little boy in the whorehouse.

  He looked at the faces of different chorus girls to see which one he was supposed to kill. But none of the girls seemed to have the face of someone who had managed to get such a large sum on her head.

  He looked at Caspar and raised his hands as if to say he didn’t know who their mark was.

  “You’ll know her when you see her,” Caspar said.

  They believed in all sorts of omens—anyone who had been around a lot of deaths always did. You came to think of superstition as common sense. They both believed that you could spot right away when someone had a price on their heads. They had a weird aura, like saints in medieval paintings.

  Jimmy leaned back into his seat and the last act commenced, wherein right before his eyes, a moon began to be lowered down on cables. This was going too far. He turned to Caspar, whose mouth was open and who seemed stunned by the enormity and reality of this moon. McMahon was out of his mind. Montreal had gone too far this time, Jimmy thought. It must be the cold. Everyone who traveled there said they couldn’t put into words how cold it got and how miserable they had been trudging through the snow. They would often hold up their feet for him to get a look at how their shoes and boots had been destroyed. They seemed a little bit mad when they returned from Montreal. But it was as if they had caught just a touch of madness—like the flu—that passed after three or four days. He could only imagine what living through an entire winter would do to you.

  And then someone tiptoed out onto the stage. There was a smattering of little moans in the audience, with people oohing and aahing. It sounded as though they were making love. When the woman stepped out onto the stage, everyone in the audience stiffened their spines and stared. Jimmy felt a small surge of desperation when he looked at her. There she was. That was her. She was the one.

  She was different from the other girls. She moved wonderfully. She landed so lightly on her toes. She landed as quietly as a snowflake on a mitten. Her face seemed so interesting. He wanted to look at her forever.

  Of course this was the girl he was supposed to kill. Indisputably she was the type of girl who could drive a man so crazy that his only option would be to stick a bullet in her head. He hadn’t even met her yet and she had
already driven him quite mad.

  • • •

  JIMMY WOKE UP in the morning feeling hungover: melancholic and lazy and afraid of death. But it was the show, and not drinking, that had caused him to feel this way. He was distracted all day. That evening he kept staring at the outfits in his closet, trying to decide what he should wear. He put on the black suit he only wore on special occasions. Although he had been told a hundred times in his life that he was good-looking, he found himself standing in front of the bathroom mirror wondering.

  He hurried out of the building, not wanting to tell Caspar that he was going to see the show again. He had always looked down on guys who fell in love with chorus girls. Those women only got into that racket to get married. But she wasn’t a chorus girl anyhow. He didn’t know what she was.

  There was a larger crowd than on opening night. He rented out the box to the right of the stage and sat there by himself. He felt lonely. He felt completely lost. But then she came onstage. She reminded Jimmy of something that was buried deep in his childhood.

  Jimmy went to see her every night. At each performance more and more of the seats were filled up.

  58

  THE HONEYMOON HOTEL

  Pierrot and Rose stayed at the Honeymoon Hotel on Forty-Fourth Street, only a few blocks from the theater. There was a framed ink drawing of a bluebird on the wall in their room. Their room’s windows were arched like those in a church. The tiles were a lovely shade of light blue, blue like the type of cloak the Virgin Mary liked to wear. Rose looked out at all the different lightbulbs on the theater signs across the way and felt like anything was possible. She felt that the world was gigantic. She was suddenly taken by just how beautiful the world was, and how lucky it was that she had been born, especially since her parents hadn’t wanted her.

  Pierrot was lying on the bed, his arms spread out on either side of him. Rose had a bare foot on either side of his hips. She slowly descended. She seemed to be descending for five years. It was so lovely. He put his hands on her knees. He put his mouth on her cunt and gave it a kiss. Rose could put on some very pretty little private shows.

  • • •

  THE CLOWN SHOW was a huge success. They all crammed around a table in a diner to listen as Pierrot read the papers out loud to them.

  “The clowns seemed to imply that we are really nothing more than our foibles and that, were we to eradicate our flaws, there would be nothing left of us at all.”

  They laughed and held up their big glasses of beer and clanked them against one another. And they all felt really good. And they drank until their foreheads were sweaty and flushed, as though they’d just made love. And the words in their sentences crashed into one another like clown cars, because they really had nothing important that they needed to say.

  • • •

  AN HOUR BEFORE SHOWTIME, there were always people lining up outside the theater to get in the door. They blocked the sidewalk. And when it was over, they all rushed out the door like carbonated bubbles heading to the top of a bottle, to go off and tell their friends. What in the world did Pierrot and Rose’s absurd and sad story have to do with them? How had it become entertainment? Pierrot knew that he shouldn’t be surprised. When he and Rose were little and performed before rich people, they always enchanted their audiences. But it was still quite something to see it on a larger scale like this. It was that sweet and happy feeling he had when he was with Rose. They had somehow managed to convey that feeling of innocence and play in the face of oppression and calamity, and this had proven an addictive elixir. There were more and more dates booked, and the show’s run was extended for a month. Much to Jimmy’s consternation.

  • • •

  PIERROT WAS IN A GOOD MOOD as he strolled down the street. He reflected on how he adored New York. The buildings were so tall and skinny, they seemed like ladders up to the heavens. Because he was new to the city, he noticed all the details that someone who had grown up there wouldn’t. It was as though he were on a first date with the city. Every building made him curious. In Montreal, every building reminded him of something really shitty that had gone on in it. With Montreal, it was as if he were spending time with a spouse who just criticized him all the time. And who kept bringing up mistakes that he had made years and years before. And almost seemed to be mounting an argument at the breakfast table about why he was, in fact, an abominable person.

  He felt he had escaped his past. His past was back in Montreal. It was checking out all the clubs where he used to hang out. It was knocking on the door of friends he used to know, asking if they’d spotted him, or if he’d mentioned anything about where he might be headed. It would not find him.

  Rose had been offered touring dates from a big-time producer. When their run was finished in New York City, they would be going on the road. He would never have to set foot in Montreal again, and he was surprised at just how good that made him feel.

  • • •

  THIS WAS A TIME for them to enjoy their lives. They weren’t going to have any worries at all for the next while. But Rose was wary the whole time. She knew that McMahon was going to have her killed. She expected the gun to be stuck behind her head at any moment. Everywhere she went. Just because the show was extended didn’t mean that the gangsters were going to honor this arrangement. She kept a handgun under the counter in her dressing room.

  After the show, she called Colombe into her dressing room. She needed to send a message over to the Romeo Hotel, where Jimmy Bonaventura and his men lived. The girl was out of her mind, but she had worked for McMahon and didn’t get giddy about gangsters.

  “I want you to go see Jimmy Bonaventura. Let him know that the show has been extended and I need to speak to him. I’ll give you his address. It’s not far.”

  “I know where to find him,” Colombe said matter-of-factly, and turned and walked off.

  Minutes later there was a knock at the door. Rose flung open her dressing-room door, expecting to see Colombe. But there stood none other than Jimmy Bonaventura. They looked at each other, unable to speak.

  “How did—”

  “I was sitting in the box. A sort of moody-looking girl said you wanted to see me backstage.”

  She was wearing her black coat as a robe. He could see her bare legs underneath it. So he assumed that, other than the coat, she was naked. She let him in. There was a photograph of Pierrot from a newspaper that she had Scotch-taped to the wall. There were vases on the table that were filled with roses. Because there was nowhere else to put it, a vase with roses was on the floor. They seemed lackluster somehow, compared to her.

  “You want the moon,” Rose said. “But I can’t give it to you tomorrow because the show has been extended. By popular demand. They’ve sold out another month.”

  “I know, I got the message from McMahon.”

  “Perhaps there is some information that gets lost this way. It might be efficient if we communicated one-on-one in the future.”

  “Yes.”

  “Yes?”

  “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”

  “Can I come to your office tomorrow to review the situation with you?”

  “Yeah, we’ll discuss it properly . . . when you’re dressed.”

  He stepped back and she closed the door. She was so nervous that she leaned her forehead against the door, the tip of her nose touching it. On the other side, Jimmy, overcome by the urge to be closer to Rose, stepped up against the door and pressed his face against it. Only a few inches of wood prevented them from kissing.

  59

  THE HERO OF ANOTHER NOVEL

  The next morning Rose neurotically did her hair and sat at the end of the bed, cleaning the toes of her button-up boots with a brush. She had on a white veil—as though a spiderweb had formed below her hat. She had arranged to meet with Jimmy that afternoon. Pierrot was dressed in his checkered suit, which was just back from t
he cleaners.

  “We have to look professional,” Rose stated as Pierrot put out their breakfast.

  “But why?”

  “You know why. This isn’t Montreal.”

  The New York City mobsters were murderers. They carried around machine guns, and they would actually kill each other. That’s why they were each so famous. She had been reading about the New York City mobsters in the newspapers since she had arrived. They assassinated each other on a regular basis. They were merciless. You couldn’t be an actual mobster unless you killed somebody.

  In Montreal, the mobsters would come up behind you with a stale loaf of bread and bang you on the head. They would kidnap your dog if you weren’t careful. They would pick on women. They were cowards. They weren’t real mobsters. This meeting with Jimmy was just as much of a performance as the clown act they had put on the previous night.

  “Don’t be so erudite today,” Rose pleaded. “Don’t say anything at all. Can you do that? Don’t say anything about your ideas about life and the universe. Don’t say anything about just how happy we’ve been during the last few days.”

  “I get it. We have to look like maniacs. Damn you, croissant. Oh, I thought you were a smile, but all along you were nothing but a frown!”

  And with that Pierrot launched his croissant across the room. Rose put her hands up to her mouth and started to laugh. She knew that Pierrot could play any role except that of a tough guy. But she wasn’t entirely certain that Jimmy wasn’t going to shoot her the minute she walked in, before listening to her proposition. And if she was to die, she wanted to go out the way she had come into this business—holding Pierrot’s hand.

  She tapped the shell of her egg with a spoon. A little earthquake spread across its surface.

  • • •

  THEY PASSED ONE of their chorus girls in the lobby. She was squashed in a love seat with an extravagantly dressed bald man. She was teaching him how to speak French, and judging by his flushed face, he was finding it adorable. She pointed coyly to each of her body parts as she recited its French nom.

 
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