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The lonely hearts hotel, p.33
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.33

           Heather O'Neill
 

  • • •

  JIMMY AND ROSE SAT AT the counter of a hot dog shack on the boardwalk and ordered pints of beer. After taking a sip of her beer, Rose had a white mustache on her lip. She felt a hundred pounds lighter. She wondered how that could be, and then she realized that it was because she had very temporarily lifted her business concerns and efforts off her shoulders. The beer was making them happy, like children at a birthday party. The beer made their words come out of their mouths like carbonated bubbles.

  Jimmy kept looking to Rose for some sort of encouragement. She hadn’t come out here with him to discuss love. He knew that. He had just been trying to convince himself that the situation was otherwise. Jimmy handed Rose the petite briefcase. It wasn’t the ordinary kind of briefcase that a man might be in possession of. It was a dainty, thin black briefcase with a black handle in the shape of a swan biting its tail. Two clasps on either side of it made the swan’s golden wings.

  It was a briefcase that only a girl would feel comfortable toting down the street. Jimmy had bought it especially as a gift for Rose. As a subtle indication to Rose that he wanted their relationship to be more than a business one.

  Rose opened the briefcase. She looked at the deeds to the hotels. She read the names on the papers. She imagined what she was going to do with each one. How she would make it wonderful.

  She closed her eyes and imagined the Valentine Hotel. Chandeliers sprouted down from the ceiling. The floors grew fantastic carpets. Magnolias and tulips and violets sprouted on the wall. Statues of nude girls climbed onto the empty plinths in the lobby. She opened her eyes again and smiled. She was in a good mood.

  Jimmy had always been incapable of making a connection between sex and love. Sex was something that you purchased, like an Italian ice. He noticed how Rose stuck her thumb in her mouth to suck off a drop of beer. He noticed the way she shooed away a pigeon that was walking toward the shack, using just the tip of her toe. He noticed she smiled at a fat baby passing in a stroller. He was surprised at just how much her smiling at a baby got to him. She twitched her nose when she drank the beer. She crossed her ankles under the stool.

  He just had to look at women and tilt his head at a certain angle and they would always blush—and it would make them have a dirty thought in their heads. And after that, getting them into bed was downhill. Many other gangsters had tried to figure out the exact degree of this angle, but they never could.

  He tilted his head at Rose just to see what would happen. The sun reflected off her wedding ring and stabbed him in the eye, and for the moment he had to turn away from looking at her.

  • • •

  THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL with black hair standing out at the edge of the water. The ocean kept casting a wave like a net at her feet to try to pull her in—but failed each time. She wore a white coat and a scarf with red polka dots. She was waving at someone. It seemed to Rose that she was waving at her, though she knew that this couldn’t possibly be the case.

  The driver of Jimmy’s limousine was reading a newspaper that described the Night of Broken Glass. He had spent the entire time that they were at the beach reading about how in Germany a few nights before, Jewish shops and synagogues had been raided, and tens of thousands of Jews had been rounded up. Jimmy ran the shipyards—the advent of the war was going to make him even richer than he was before. The war was frankly about to make a lot of people very rich. But nobody knew that right then, except perhaps the limo driver.

  • • •

  JIMMY LOOKED FOR AN EXCUSE to meet her backstage the next night. He came with a bottle of wine that he had been given as a gift by a politician. He said there were some details about their plan he needed to clarify. They drank the wine together. She said that she couldn’t concentrate on the numbers now that she was tipsy. Her thoughts were like corks that couldn’t stay below the surface of the water. He said he couldn’t remember the name of the street he lived on. She smiled and her teeth were purple. He was keenly aware of the fact that he was making another man’s wife laugh.

  Caspar looked at Jimmy when he walked into the Romeo Hotel. “What the hell are you doing?” Caspar asked.

  “I have no fucking idea,” Jimmy answered.

  He went to his room to be alone. He couldn’t stop thinking of things that he wanted to do to her. He wanted to take her to the ice cream parlor that had twenty types of strawberry ice cream. He wanted to take her to visit his mother’s grave. He wanted to ride on a roller coaster with her. He wanted to go for pie with her after a movie. He imagined them listening to a record in a booth at a record store.

  He imagined her in a nightgown sitting across the kitchen table, sipping coffee. Having that picture in his head made him feel almost delirious. He imagined her reaching over the table and picking up his piece of toast and eating it. He could almost hear the way it would sound.

  He closed his eyes. He unbuttoned his shirt. He imagined it was Rose’s fingers undoing the buttons. He imagined it was her hand slipping down his pants. And he whispered, “I don’t have time for that now, sweetheart. I have to go to work. Cut that out!”

  61

  THE CHILDREN’S WAR

  Pierrot woke up with a start, feeling sad for their tiny baby, somewhere in a suitcase in the Saint Lawrence River. Perhaps it had floated off to sea. Would things have been any different if their child had survived? He couldn’t imagine it now. They would be in Montreal, performing for an audience of one in a high chair. A baby makes the ordinary miraculous.

  Rose was asleep beside him. She was so pale and serene when she slept, as though she were frozen in ice.

  When he began thinking about the baby, it was an indication that his mood was about to go to hell. It was like feeling a sore throat and knowing that it meant that the flu was coming on. He didn’t want to stew in those thoughts all day long.

  Whenever he was depressed, it made him want to get high. He was surprised by this craving. He always assumed that the craving had disappeared—that its hold on him had weakened. And when it came back, he was surprised to feel it so strongly.

  Imagine, if you will, the taxidermied corpse of a wolf. Dead for years, its insides gutted, its organs removed, its hide stuffed with wood chips, and sewed back up. With glass eyes, it’s been mounted in a position and put on display at the museum. Imagine then that, despite all that, there was the wolf strutting around, acting as if nothing had even happened, drooling and famished, its joints all elastic, pacing at the foot of your bed, as absolutely real as anything real could ever be. Imagine the shock you would feel.

  Pierrot jumped up out of bed—as though the desire were in the bed, as though he could get away from it. He put on his clothes and quietly headed out for a walk.

  • • •

  AS PIERROT WAS PASSING THROUGH the lobby, the concierge called out his name and said he had a letter for him. Pierrot walked over to the desk and took the letter from the man’s hand. It wasn’t exactly for him personally per se. The words on the envelope were written in a studied print that had curlicues at the end of the strokes of each letter, making them look like the tendrils of flowers. On the envelope was written: To the members of the fine circus with many clowns in it, to be read by someone in charge.

  Pierrot ripped open the envelope, pulled out the letter and perused its contents:

  Would you find the time to send one of your clowns to visit the children at the Downtown City Hospital for Sick and Unfortunate Children? We cannot afford to pay for your services. But if you found it within your charity, the unfortunate children would see it undoubtedly as a great blessing.

  He was surprised and touched by the letter. He liked the very honest manner in which it was composed. He also quite liked that something good was being expected of him. And, frankly, he was in the mood to see some children.

  • • •

  ON HIS WAY TO THE HOSPITAL, Pierrot stopped by at the theater
and went into the prop room backstage to find himself a clown costume. He stuck a round, red nose on his face. He took out a top hat that was crushed at the top and had a red cloth carnation affixed to the side. He picked up an old battered suitcase. He looked at himself in the mirror. He found it almost alarming just how quickly he had transformed into a clown.

  • • •

  WHEN HE ARRIVED, Pierrot was escorted to the common room on the second floor of the hospital. A nurse lifted up a hand bell over her head and rang it, and children immediately began to be assembled.

  A little girl had an intravenous drip that she was walking along like a pet ostrich she was taking for a walk. There was a girl covered in stitches where she had been mauled by a dog. She looked like a doll that had been mended with black thread. There was a boy with a cast on his arm. It was covered in ink drawings—no doubt he would one day be a sailor covered in tattoos. There was a boy in leg braces who seemed to nonetheless have a joyous sort of walk. There was a little boy with a bandage around his head. There was a little boy whose skin had been burned. There were some children who were pushed into the room in wheelchairs.

  They were like tiny battlefield veterans, injured by the trials of being young, in the Great Children’s War. Perhaps he himself had never escaped his childhood wounds. The only difference was that these children wore their injuries on the outside.

  There was a piano on a small raised stage in the room. He sat at it and began to play for the children. It was a cheap piano. It had a tinny sound. There was something childish about its sound, akin to striking a xylophone with a metal stick. It reminded him of the piano that he had learned to play on at the orphanage.

  It was a little bit stubborn. It didn’t want to play. It just wanted to be left to its own devices in the corner of the room. Pierrot made it feel as though it too was capable of great things. It was as if he were getting a shy girl to dance. And then Pierrot and the piano understood each other and a delightful cascade of notes poured out of it.

  The children couldn’t believe their luck. They began to jiggle their bodies around in their seats, which made them look like sauce pots rattling on the stove. Some got up and danced in place.

  It had been so long since he had performed for children. He had forgotten how wonderful they were to entertain. Who forgot about their problems the way children did?

  You couldn’t really achieve happiness as an adult. It was something that belonged to children. It was a fool’s errand to try to experience it as a grown-up. Once you were old, all you could do was make others happy, and that gave you a deep sense of fulfillment. He had always liked delighting others, and it had been his job since he was a boy. It was how he and Rose had first started out doing their tricks.

  He felt as though he had remembered his purpose in life. Ever since the meeting they had had with Jimmy Bonaventura, he had been feeling sort of empty.

  • • •

  PIERROT FINISHED HIS TUNE and stood up to take a deep bow. The children applauded. As he straightened back up, he put his palm out as if he had felt a raindrop and was looking to confirm his conjecture.

  “Did you feel that?” he asked a boy with an eye patch sitting in the front row.

  “We’re inside,” the boy answered. “The rain can’t get us here.”

  Pierrot went to the back of the stage and retrieved his suitcase. He put it on the ground, unlatched it and raised the lid. He reached into the suitcase with both arms, burying his head and neck inside it. A girl with an oxygen mask over her face inhaled great lungfuls of air, anticipating what Pierrot would find. He then withdrew from the suitcase, holding in his hands, for all to see, an umbrella. It was an umbrella that Rose, in her infinite wisdom, had had constructed. She had come up with the design for it in her notebook when they were first together and broke in the Valentine Hotel. They hadn’t ended up using it in the production, not because of any faults exhibited by the umbrella—it was splendid—but because of the cost. Rose had said the umbrellas cost too much to fabricate. But Pierrot had wondered if it wasn’t because the black umbrella had made her too nostalgic and sad. As it did himself.

  Pierrot opened the umbrella and it immediately turned inside out as if it had been caught by the wind. He whipped to one side as though a strong gust had seized it. It spun him around on his toes, almost as though he were performing a ballet. The umbrella kept twirling him around the room like a mad top. He was fighting against the wind beautifully. And then the wind let up, Pierrot settled down and the umbrella popped back to its true shape. He put out his hand to feel whether it was still raining. And then he closed the umbrella.

  A little girl applauded by clapping her prosthetic hands together.

  The nurse told Pierrot he had to leave, as it was time for the younger children to take their naps. The children begged him not to stop. Not to leave them. They started to come after him in the hall. And as he was leaving he noticed that the corridor behind was filled with children. It was as though they were coming for him.

  “Don’t go. Don’t go!” the children yelled.

  They would murder him by loving him so much. A nurse opened a door to the fire exit, and Pierrot zipped down it and stumbled out onto the street.

  • • •

  PIERROT REMEMBERED all the children in the orphanage. The ones he had left behind. He had been so in love with Rose that he had rarely thought about the other children they had grown up with. He had thought about them so little in the intervening years that he still pictured them as being little, as if they were in a state of limbo, unable to grow up. They would be tucked into the same beds in their early-century pajamas until the end of time. They were still waiting for him to perform his tiny feats for them. It broke his heart.

  He and Rose had used their gifts to rescue themselves and no one else.

  • • •

  AS HE HEADED BACK to the Honeymoon Hotel, Pierrot began to feel conflicted once again. How had this happened? He had been so caught up in the frenzy of the planning during the past few months that he hadn’t had time to really reflect on what they were actually creating. This was not a clown show—it was no Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza—it was a criminal operation from start to finish. And he had been the most complicit of them all in it. If he hadn’t stolen the apple, none of this would have been possible.

  The only people who had any actual grasp on morality were the under-eight demographic. They hadn’t created all sorts of loopholes in their understanding of it. Children are born with eyes as large as those of adults. Children keep theirs wide open. And children know, without a doubt, that there is a difference between right and wrong.

  He had been a thief. He had been unkind and irresponsible to Poppy, tossing her aside. He was now a large-scale drug importer. He wanted to be good. He made a resolution as he walked. They would stay in the United States as performers with no criminal ties. It had been the original plan. He hurried back to the hotel to tell Rose his decision.

  It had been so long since he had made an important one without her.

  62

  NAPOLEON, MON AMOUR

  When Pierrot got to the Honeymoon Hotel, he didn’t find Rose in their room. He looked in the dining room, but she wasn’t seated at any of the tables. He searched in the lobby, as there were always members from the Extravaganza there. He saw Fabio taking up a gold love seat. He was looking at his untied shoelace, clearly making plans with himself to tie it sometime that afternoon.

  “Do you know where Rose is?” Pierrot asked Fabio.

  “I do. She’s gambling across the alley.”

  Pierrot knew the place Fabio was talking about. He went around to the back of the hotel. Across the alley was another doorway that led to the back of an old community center that had been turned into a gambling den. There was a man guarding the door who let Pierrot in without asking any questions. As soon as the doors opened he heard the sound of boiste
rous men talking over one another. They were congregated around a ring made out of wooden boards painted red and blue and hinged together in a circle. And there squeezed among them was Rose. It was easy to pick her out in the crowd because she was the only woman. Rose had started gambling again since they arrived in New York City. She worked so hard that she liked to throw herself into the randomness of the universe. She wore a hat with a veil on it and a new black coat. Her cheeks were flushed. He found her more beautiful than any other woman. He had been looking at that face his whole life. It had gone through so many different stages of beauty.

  Pierrot pushed his way to the side of the ring, opposite to where Rose was standing. There were two dogs, one on either side of the enclosure. One was a boxer, which looked as if it were squeezing its face out of a turtleneck sweater. The other was, to Pierrot’s surprise, a poodle. The poodle had a mass of gray curls in its face, like a girl who had just been woken from her sleep.

  He waved at Rose. She opened her mouth happily when she saw him. “Pierrot!”

  She disappeared into the jungle of men. And then reappeared at his side. He was about to kiss her, but she turned to hand a pile of bills to the bookie.

  “What sort of matchup is this?”

  “I’ve put all my money on the poodle. The odds are entirely against her. You have no idea how much of a pot I’ll get if she wins. It’s about having faith, I think.”

  “What does she go by?”

  “Treacherous Storm Cloud.”

  “You’re making that up.”

  “No, it’s true.”

 
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