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The lonely hearts hotel, p.32
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.32

           Heather O'Neill

  “Voici mes petits doigts. Et voici mes genoux. Et ah, ça, c’est mon oreille! Qu’est-ce que j’ai sous ma chemise! Je ne connais pas le bon mot!”

  Rose and Pierrot laughed.

  • • •

  THEY SAW THE NEON SIGN as soon as they turned onto the street where Jimmy Bonaventura and his men had their headquarters:

  It was a gray stone building that looked very much like the other buildings on the block. All the buildings were so old and stately compared to the ramshackle houses and skinny churches in Montreal.

  There was a guard standing at the door. He looked the couple over as they walked up the steps of the establishment. They had not expected it to be so beautiful inside. They were used to the Montreal whorehouses, which were just duplexes converted into brothels. This was a regular hotel, and a rather splendid one too. The large lobby featured a pianist playing a grand piano. Wooden staircases rose on either side of the lobby, polished and shiny. Everything was so clean. Well-dressed men sat around tables, playing cards. A mural of baby angels cavorting hung on a wall. The chandelier was magnificent, with hundreds of little pieces of crystal hanging down from it and tinkling.

  Pierrot and Rose sank a little bit into the carpet, which was covered in a pattern of pink and blue flowers. They stood there looking at their feet, wondering if the ground would continue to swallow them up. It did not.

  The whores were all magnificent. Rose had, of course, heard tell that Jimmy had the most beautiful whores in the city. But she had had no idea what that meant. She had had no idea how one type of woman could be considered more beautiful than another. She saw that they were all buxom. Their asses were huge and lovely, and when they sat down it was like giant parachutes descending. She saw that they weren’t only better looking but also so well groomed. They smelled so good when they walked past her that she wanted to inhale deeply. One girl, wearing white stockings over her muscular legs, looked like she had the limbs of a unicorn.

  A man appeared with a bullet hole in each cheek: one scar from where the bullet went in, and one scar from where the bullet went out. He led Rose and Pierrot upstairs and down the hallway to meet Jimmy.

  • • •

  MCMAHON AND JIMMY were each the head of a crime syndicate. Professionally, they were equally powerful men. But they presented themselves very differently to the world. McMahon kept a small, makeshift office in downtown Montreal so he didn’t draw attention to himself and his criminal activities. He was very safe. He isolated his home life from his criminal life. He wanted to eventually wrap up the criminal world and become an upright citizen.

  Jimmy didn’t have a double life away from the Romeo Hotel. He loved an ostentatious display. He loved to rub his ill-gotten wealth in everybody’s nose. Even in the police officers’ noses. Even if it ended up getting him arrested. Even if it was his downfall. He didn’t really think that life was worth living unless people were watching him live it and were impressed with how he was living it. His life itself was an ornate Broadway production.

  Jimmy had made a fortune when booze was illegal. A crime that wasn’t really a crime—only temporarily a crime. Now that Prohibition was over, he continued to engage in all sorts of other crimes, amassing more and more wealth.

  But he didn’t have a pretty wife at home who he cheated on and whose self-esteem he ruined. He had never had a serious girlfriend. He slept with different prostitutes. Sometimes he slept with one girl for a few weeks, but never for much longer, and he never deluded her that he was sticking around. All in all, it has been suggested by some that, murders aside, Jimmy was a more moral man than McMahon.

  He wasn’t pretending to be anything other than who he was and who he was raised to be.

  He was elevating crime. He was making the underworld a part of everyday life. He was making sure that the criminals ran the city. He wanted everyone to look up to criminals and wish that they could grow up to be one.

  Jimmy had thick, dark brown hair that always flopped messily about. His nose was too big. Even when he was a little baby, people worried that his nose was going to end up being too big. He had heavy, arching eyebrows that made him look skeptical, and fantastic blue eyes. When he smiled, all his perfect and big teeth lined up, and his eyes grew wide and their blueness took away from the overall darkness of his face.

  His face matched his unpredictable moods. You couldn’t be bothered to think of killing him or overthrowing him. He doused his words in alcohol and set them on fire. They were inflammatory. The reason he was so successful wasn’t that he was a calculating workhorse, the way McMahon was. The reason he was so successful was that he took wild risks, his moves were inscrutable, his intuitions almost uncanny.

  And here was Rose sitting on the chair across from his desk with her partner. McMahon had told Jimmy that after she had delivered the heroin and the show’s run was up, he was welcome to shoot Rose between the eyes and put her out of her misery. He was also supposed to kill the love of her life, Pierrot, who was certain to show up with her.

  McMahon warned him not to be fooled, that the girl was far, far more violent than the man. He said that even if Pierrot was dressed the part of a gangster, he was incapable of violence. He moved in slow-motion. If he tried to punch you, his fist would probably feel like a pillow.

  Pierrot reached for a flower from the vase on the table. He shook the water from its stem and tucked it behind his ear. A black cat jumped from the window to the desk and onto Pierrot’s lap.

  “Drown that thing in the bathtub,” said a gangster. “Jesus.”

  Pierrot ignored him and stroked the cat’s head. The cat was all black, except for the lower half of its face, which was white, as if it were covered in shaving cream. “Hello, my darling. Well, we’re here no doubt to discuss pleasure in the most unpleasurable of manners. You’d best do something wicked in this life so that you don’t get reincarnated as a man. There’s nothing to walking on two legs. Highly overrated.”

  The gangsters looked at Pierrot, who they were sure would have been murdered if he’d been a New Yorker. Why had this good-looking moll chosen this effeminate buffoon, they all wanted to know. But Jimmy understood why immediately. Because he allowed her to be free.

  Rose and Jimmy just sat there looking into each other’s eyes. Then it clicked why McMahon hated her. And he suddenly knew something about McMahon that he hadn’t known before. He knew that McMahon was a certain type of man. McMahon was the type of man who had hated Jimmy’s mother. McMahon was the type of man who had looked down on Jimmy’s mother. He was the type of man whose lousy opinions had pushed Jimmy’s mother out the window.

  Jimmy’s mother was all these amazing things. She was able to make him stop crying. She had drawn a tiny black cat on a piece of paper and she held it up to her face and made a meowing noise and it was just as if the drawing had come to life. She had put both of his socks on her hands and they told him about how much they enjoyed going for walks.

  “Once a whore, always a whore,” she had said to Jimmy the day before she leaped out a window.

  Jimmy surprised everybody in the room by saying: “When that clown walked off the tightrope, what was that supposed to mean? Like, that he might be a bum but he had highfalutin thoughts?”

  “Exactly,” Rose answered. “He thinks that he’s confined by a social order, but he’s not confined.”

  “How come you guys have so many clowns in your show?”

  Rose turned to Pierrot, offering him the opportunity to answer. He was just sitting there, looking rather uncomfortable and upset by the men around him, as though he were still on the side of the cat. He found it difficult to even look at Jimmy Bonaventura. He couldn’t get the image of all the things that the mob boss had done out of his head. He knew that a lot of people saw Jimmy Bonaventura as a romantic figure. Look at all he had. He had started off with nothing at all, and now he ran the greatest city on earth. Was this th
e American dream, then? At what expense did it come? Could a person only become wealthy if they had no regard for anyone but themselves?

  “Je vais t’attendre dehors,” he said to Rose in French, because he wanted to speak to her and no one else in the room.

  “Why do we have so many clowns? You weren’t careful in the 1920s,” Rose went on, letting Pierrot leave. “You never thought that everything would get terrible again, and so you had no need to invest in sad clowns. In Montreal we understand that everything in life is seasonal. Winter is always going to come, and then summer is always going to come. You have to prepare yourself for the eventuality of every emotion. We’ve always had clowns.”

  “They make a living off that?”

  “Have you seen the reviews? This troupe is successful. We’ll be able to go back and forth across the border any number of times in the next year. It’s the perfect cover. The police are on to McMahon. It isn’t just this. They are always looking to catch him. They’ll never look at me. They’ll never think that a woman would be in charge. I’m a woman, so I’m invisible. I’ll never be a suspect.”

  “Are you saying that you’ll never get caught?”

  “No, we’ll all get caught eventually. And it’s only by accepting this that we can make any sort of bold decisions. Do you believe that?”

  “I do. I never thought about it like that, though. You put things in a very intelligent way.”

  “Once he’s dead, they’ll leave this all alone. Everything exists only within a temporal framework. Every clown knows that.”

  Jimmy paused for a second, staring at the girl, needing a moment to take in what she had just proposed to him. Then he said, “Are there other people who speak like you in Montreal? In Montreal are you considered unique?”

  “For a woman, yes.”

  She gently leaned across his desk and took a piece of paper off a stack and a pencil from the jar. She felt confident. There was something magical about a piece of paper and a pencil. It was with them that all the new things of the world happened. She began to map out on the paper a diagram of downtown Montreal and its crime organization and holdings. She began to draw all the different nightclubs; all the little theaters; all the narrow backstreets; all the boulangeries, with their tiny pastries in the window; and the hospital, with all the newborns in the cribs. She made everything into a little grid, as seen from up above. The whole city was like a seamstress’s box, with everything divided up into its proper compartments.

  It was as though she were laying out her entire city and childhood for Jimmy. When she drew the hotels, he could see her standing in her stockings over a little blue sink, brushing her teeth. When she drew the café, he saw her eating chocolate pudding and reading an Honoré de Balzac novel in it. When she drew the church, he heard all the different confessions she had whispered into the ears of priests over the years. She was not at all afraid of this Montreal that she could fold up and fit into her pocket.

  And then, with several swipes of the pencil and various arrows and lines, she explained how he could easily take over the heroin trade that was coming into New York through Montreal. The tip of the pencil moved across the page like a bullet in slow-motion. She drew Xs along the docks where the heroin came in.

  “You know which of his guys will turn, no problem?”

  Rose nodded. She had watched their expressions at the Roxy for years and knew without a doubt which ones despised McMahon. She also knew they were all upset about the last major bust. She put a circle around the hotels that she wanted: the ones that he had purchased for McMahon in exchange for the heroin.

  Jimmy liked the idea of any sort of power grab or a coup d’état. And he especially liked the sound of this one. He had never had a woman make a plan for him. He had always worked with men. They had designs that sometimes worked and that sometimes didn’t work at all. The strategies he chose were the ones he was curious about. And the ones he was curious about were the ones that had a spark of newness about them. These were always the most powerful plans. Nobody knew quite what to do when faced with the very electric power of new things.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS IN A GOOD MOOD when she rejoined Pierrot, who was smoking a cigarette on the street outside the Romeo Hotel.

  “And so?” Pierrot said. “You worked out your business?”

  “Yes!” Rose exclaimed.

  Although Rose was light-footed and smiling, Pierrot felt concerned as he walked back to the hotel. At the beginning of the venture, he and Rose had collaborated on all aspects of the show. Then, as things became more hectic, they had divided up tasks, but now they seemed to have completely separated their jobs, to the point that they were no longer working together at all. She wanted to focus entirely on the drug trade. He could tell that she didn’t really care about the reviews as much as the other performers did. She had immediately set her sights higher than the show and was interested in negotiating with gangsters, not tour managers.

  He had never been jealous about Rose having been with other men. He thought what they had together was so much better than what she had had with other men that he wouldn’t even deign to compare the unions. But she had been in the room planning a future with another man. He had known since even before he had met him that Jimmy Bonaventura was a threat.

  On the window ledge was a robin that looked like a fat man who had been shot in the chest by his business partner.



  Jimmy had to take Rose to meet the rest of the commission. On a Saturday afternoon they drove together to a restaurant that was built under the tracks in Brighton Beach. The elevated train roared over them and suddenly they were all characters in a silent film, mouthing their words. Although the ground under their feet shook, nobody walking by seemed to mind. They weren’t worried about everything crumbling down around them.

  The restaurant was a small, unassuming place. You wouldn’t imagine that it was the type of place where a contingency of gangsters would meet. It was built out of red bricks and had red-and-white-striped curtains over its windows. The name Luigi was painted on the glass with sparkly gold paint, and there was a blackboard on the sidewalk out front with the names of all the types of pasta written in cursive.

  A man came and took their coats. And while doing this, he very quickly and subtly patted them down for weapons. Rose found herself rather liking the way the strange man’s hands felt on her body. They made her feel dangerous.

  The walls inside were covered in white tiles. There were large, circular wooden tables. The waiter threw the red tablecloth up into the air as if he were a matador gracefully challenging a bull. Jimmy and Rose sat at the big table by themselves.

  The other heads shuffled in shortly afterward. One man was enormous. He ate beautifully. He twirled the spaghetti around his fork perfectly. He puckered up his mouth as though he were about to give a kiss and then dabbed it with a napkin. There was a squat man. His face was round and his features all seemed to be squashed up together within a very small area. Another man kept making jokes that weren’t funny. Another had a receding hairline that made him look intelligent and like some sort of scholar, but when he spoke, he had a thick Bronx accent and used the word fuck at least twice in every sentence.

  A man in a pin-striped suit arrived, apologizing that he was late because he had just come from a funeral. The way he said it, Rose wondered whether that meant he had been at a funeral parlor seeing off a beloved aunt, or out on the side of the highway burying someone in a shallow grave.

  They were all rather frightening and intimidating. But Rose liked that this was the sort of company she was now keeping. She knew that she could not even for an instant reveal any form of self-doubt, or any hesitation, or be in any way threatened by the men who were sitting around the table. In other words, she was not to show any signs that she was a girl. They made small talk among themselves, and Rose join
ed in as if it were perfectly normal for her to be there. The gangsters didn’t really understand Canadians—everything they did seemed to be ass-backward. Perhaps the women ran the show up there. There was no way the gangsters were going to turn down Rose’s plan. They nodded that McMahon would go. It had to be soon too because he was pestering Jimmy about bumping off Rose.

  The noodles on her plate looked like a ball of yarn thoroughly messed up by a cat. She couldn’t eat a bite because she was so nervous. She smiled.

  • • •

  AFTER EVERYONE LEFT, Jimmy and Rose walked down the street to the boardwalk. The ocean was right there in front of her. She’d never seen the ocean before. It was so vast compared to the rivers she’d seen. The sand resembled brown sugar. The seagulls leaped up and down as if they were at the ends of yo-yos. The waves made the sound of someone biting into an apple. When they crashed, they were a hundred thousand chorus girls raising up their dresses at once. And then the water receded again like the train of a jilted bride walking off into the distance.

  Jimmy couldn’t stop glancing at her. Her hair immediately seemed to curl. Her cheeks, which always seemed to turn bright pink when she was out in the cold for too long, were suddenly all rosy. While he was looking, his eyes turned a brighter blue. It was something the ocean did to blue eyes. It turned them on as though they were lightbulbs.

  They were both dressed more formally than everybody else on the beach. Their careful outfits looked absurd. The sand kept trying to get into her shoes. And the wind kept trying to knock her hat off.

  A woman walked by in a long green wool coat, a striped headband tied around her forehead with a big bow at the back. She looked as though she were off to fight a dragon, Rose thought. She resembled a warrior. Her four children followed her at an increasing distance. She turned and called back to them by their absurd nicknames: Cricket and Frog and Booboo and Bird. They all laughed and hopped and skipped, but didn’t really hurry up at all. When we were free and easy, that was when we felt like ourselves. That’s what children with mothers feel like, Rose thought: free and easy.

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