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The lonely hearts hotel, p.34
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.34

           Heather O'Neill

  They both laughed. The poodle stood up on its hind legs and began swatting its paws in the air as though it were looking for a fight. It looked absurd.

  “The poor thing looks as though she doesn’t even know what’s about to happen,” Pierrot protested.

  “Don’t you believe it!” Rose said. “She knows what’s going to happen. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m going to give the sweetheart her own act! She ought to be onstage! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

  The toy poodle ran around barking, almost as if it were laughing.

  “Oh, Rose. Look at that lunatic! Your poodle doesn’t stand a chance.”

  “Darling! You can do it!”

  “Even if she survives it, she’ll be completely mad from this experience.”

  “Pierrot! Why don’t we pray! We never pray anymore. And we spent so many years living with nuns. Let’s ask for a miracle! We’ll pack her up and bring her with us next week to Montreal.”

  Pierrot stopped laughing and looked pale when he heard the word Montreal.

  “What is it?” Rose asked.

  “Well, it’s just that, see, I went to the children’s hospital. You should have come, Rose. It wasn’t sad, it was full of so much hope and life. It reminded me of the orphanage in a funny way. We could perform at some for free when we’re on tour. I thought about it, and I do not think that we should return to Montreal. Nothing but a life of debauchery and violence and iniquity awaits us there.”

  “We can’t go back on tour,” Rose said. “We’re returning to Montreal at the end of the run.”

  “I’m not trying to be cruel. I just need to know what is going through your head. Why would you want to go back to a place where we were treated horribly our whole lives?”

  “I’m homesick.”

  “Do you miss the cold? You’re forgetting the way it is there, the way it feels like your clothes are made out of paper. Do you miss waking up and seeing your breath in little clouds above your head?”

  She put her arms around herself and hugged tightly. She was feeling the cold as he was describing it. She pulled Pierrot away from the ring so that she could speak to him.

  “Do you miss the horny sailors harassing you as you go about your business?” Pierrot continued. “Do you miss all the cockroaches and the mice? They have those here too. Do you miss all the dirty looks from priests as you walk down the streets?”

  A bell suddenly rang. The dogs were let loose. All the men began to scream and yell at once, encouraging the dogs to rip each other apart. Rose and Pierrot hardly noticed. They had to finish this conversation.

  “Things will be so different,” Rose said. “I’m going to fix up the buildings that I got the deeds for. Do you remember the Ingenue Hotel? That place is falling apart and is so decrepit. But every time I walk by it, I always think it could be turned into something wonderful. There’s the empty ballroom near Saint Dominique that could be turned into a cabaret. The checkered floors in there, under all the trash, are so great. I would hire a band too, a wonderful quirky band, a new sound. You could play with them! I was thinking that we could name the club after you, and you could headline there whenever you like. There’s going to be a lot of money to be made in the city in the next decade. We’ll never get this sort of opportunity again.”

  “You can make anything sound splendid, Rose. But we have an opportunity also to go on tour. That could also be successful.”

  “It won’t be, not if you look at the details of the contract, which I did with Fabio. We’ll be living an existence that is just short of starvation. We’ll be getting such a small percentage of the door. We’ll never be able to put anything away. We’ll be staying in fleabag hotels. It’s a trap if we sign it. We’ll be exploited by the producers. We won’t run our own show.”

  “But the tour is an opportunity that we earned legitimately. We got it because of our own talent and not because of wheeling and dealing. I don’t think we should be involved in anything corrupt.”

  “Pierrot! Don’t be a fool. Don’t be naive!”

  “Stop talking to me like I’m an idiot, Rose. I can’t stand it. Whatever happened to us making decisions together?”

  “I’m bringing it up to you now.”

  “But McMahon will never let you run those clubs. He’ll fight back. So I don’t even know how you’re considering it. I mean, just tell me, what do you intend to do about McMahon?”

  Rose didn’t say anything. He looked at Rose’s face. The black lace veil over her eyes gave him the impression that he was speaking to her through a screen in a confessional. The answer to that question wasn’t the sort of thing one could speak out loud. It was something that was insinuated. Something that just became known.

  A sickening feeling came over Pierrot. It was that strange feeling you get when you realize you’ve missed out on something that’s been under your nose all along. He almost felt high; the realization sent a flood of adrenaline through his body. She meant to have McMahon executed.

  Rose was terrified as she watched Pierrot figure this out. Her heart beat desperately in her chest, a frog newly trapped in a jar. She didn’t know how he would take it. She was afraid he would leave her. She knew that she had risked their marriage for this enterprise.

  “Of course,” Pierrot said. “It’s the only way that your plan will work. It’s so obvious. But I didn’t realize it because I couldn’t imagine that such a thing was possible. It’s monstrous. Diabolical.”

  The dogs began viciously barking at each other. Rose was angered by Pierrot’s accusations. She raised her voice to talk over the ferocious barking and snarling.

  “I was an orphan, Pierrot. My body never belonged to me. You must have felt that too. If someone wanted to beat me, they could beat me. If someone wanted to lock me in the closet, they could. They didn’t even have to have a reason. Childhood is such a perverse injustice, I don’t know how anyone survives it without going crazy. But I have a chance to turn the tables. I have a chance to run the streets and be a very wealthy woman. No one is ever, ever, ever going to treat me with disrespect again.”

  Rose’s eyes had grown large and dark as she spoke. Pierrot looked at all the men around him. They were yelling and waving their hats up in the air over their heads. She was right. Maybe there was a certain amount of aggression that a person needed in order to get by. He had felt much more at ease in the children’s hospital with all the broken children.

  “I can’t go with you, Rose.”

  “I can’t go back without you, Pierrot.”

  At that moment he was seized by such a terrible sense of loss that he thought he might begin to weep. He was alone and bereft. Because he knew what Rose said wasn’t true. Whether or not she was aware of it, she had begun to imagine her future, and he was not in it. She had already left him behind.

  And if he did manage to make her stay, it would only be out of guilt and an old promise they had made when they were younger. He was standing in her way. She was meant for great things; he was not. Perhaps he was just a fool who couldn’t grow up and understand the world.

  Pierrot straightened up and held Rose’s chilly cheeks in his hands.

  “My darling cynic. You were always the one for me. You were the only one I ever loved. You’ve been breaking my heart since I was fifteen years old,” Pierrot said. “I only wish that I had known.”

  “Known what?”

  “That you hate McMahon more than you love me.”

  Just then the sound of a dog weeping and whining, as though fatally injured, emerged from the ring. Pierrot began to retreat, backing away from Rose. Men who had been standing behind Rose now rushed toward the ring to see the dogs. The fight was reaching its final throes: its apotheosis, its climax, its denouement. They got in between Rose and Pierrot. She reached her hands out between their bodies to get Pierrot’s attention. There was a wall of men separating the tw
o of them.

  “Oh, where are you going? Pierrot! Pierrot! Pierrot! Come back! Come back.”

  When Rose finally got through the men, Pierrot was nowhere to be seen.

  The sounds in the ring abruptly abated. There was a terrible crunch, almost certainly that of a neck being snapped. And it was followed by a terrible silence. The dogs stopped making noises. A quiet came over the hall. The crowd quieted down too, as if they were ashamed of their own violent natures. They couldn’t believe that moments before they had been desperate for something terminal and tragic: for a dog to die. In fact, now they were struck by the brevity and sweetness of life, which only death can make sense of.

  Rose turned to the ring. She was terrified to approach. She couldn’t bring herself to view what she knew everybody else was looking at: the tiny gray poodle, its beautiful limbs still, its neck snapped and its head backward, its big dreams having got the creature nowhere. She began her walk over to see it for herself.



  Pierrot ran far away from the hotel and Rose. When he was out of breath, he slowed down and wandered for an hour, ending up on Forty-Second Street, with all its brothels and whorehouses. The street was filled with girls leaning against poles. They were tying their shoes in strategically provocative ways. They were opening and closing their coats. One girl opened up her cheap brown fur coat as he was passing by, revealing pale breasts, like two cognac glasses filled with milk. One woman wore lipstick that had been mostly kissed off, and eye shadow that had been smudged, making her resemble a watercolor. When she spotted Pierrot, she blew him a hazy kiss.

  He had rather surprised himself by showing up here. He didn’t think he wanted to be with anybody but Rose, but here he was. He wanted to hear some compliments. Even though he knew they weren’t real. They were just a sample of what the women were selling, hors d’oeuvres before the meal.

  “Hello, handsome. What a face!”

  “Look at you. Nobody as good-looking as you should have to be lonely.”

  “You want to call me names? Come upstairs and call me names.”

  “I’m dying for your cock. I’m desperate.”

  “I painted my toenails pink this morning. Want to come back to my apartment and take a look?”

  It was probably a mistake to walk down the street in his very handsome suit. Because it was like holding out a rose to a bunch of starving bees.

  “Poppy, Poppy, Poppy,” he thought, letting it sink in what she had done for a living while they were together.

  “Oh, fine. Who cares, anyway? You’re just a skinny broke-ass loser. You can’t afford to pay for me. Go find yourself some form of employment, and then you can come back and afford to make love to me.”

  • • •

  PIERROT WANDERED INTO A PARK. There was a rock next to a pond, and Pierrot climbed on it and sat on its rounded edge, looking into the water. He had the sudden urge to walk into the pond with his shoes on. It was an impulse he hadn’t had since he was a little boy. A swan approached him from the middle of the pond. When it got to the pile of rocks, it walked out of the pond, looking like a bride holding up her dress as she stepped out of a car. He wondered for a second if it would approach him and declare its love.

  “How you doing, huh?”

  He was startled for a moment, thinking the swan had spoken to him. But then he spun his head around to see a woman standing next to him wearing a white dress under a navy overcoat. There was a row of buttons along the sleeve of her jacket like an octopus’s tentacle. She had light brown skin and short black hair that she seemed to have brushed all the kink out of. Her eyebrows had been drawn on her face expertly with makeup. She sat down next to him. There was something so relaxed about her face; she gave the illusion of having just been made love to. The swan turned and returned to the water.

  “I’m all right, I suppose,” Pierrot answered.

  “So what brings you to the edge of the pond?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. I’ve wandered farther than you would think. I’m from Montreal.”

  “I’ve heard of Montreal. I heard that the girls all have diseases and stuff like that. I’ve heard that it’s cold. Like, colder than here in the winter—and I can, like, barely stand that season here. My daddy went up there once. He told me allllll about it.”

  She looked straight at him. She had this wonderful way of looking at people, Pierrot thought. So unafraid.

  “What did your father do?”

  “My daddy played the trumpet. He was always walking out on us. But then he would come back. And it was the most wonderful thing. Just when we thought that we would never ever see him again, the door would kick open and there he would be, in all his glory. He would have these presents from faraway places. Like, once he got me this hairbrush from Kansas. I was so in love with that brush. I took it with me everywhere that I went. I sang into it for hours.”

  “How marvelous.”

  “It was! It didn’t matter that we had to live in this tiny apartment with bugs creeping around under the wallpaper, or that we were hungry all the time, or that my mother made us scrub floors. That’s all you get in life—a childhood. And you get a mommy, and if you’re real lucky, you get to have a daddy. And that time is filled with all these feelings of love, even if you get the worst parents in the world. And then as an adult you always have to go around trying to find fake ways to get that feeling. You have to do the dirtiest, most lowlife things to find that feeling. That feeling is always in the strangest of places.”

  Who was this philosopher? Pierrot wondered.

  “You hungry? Want to come back to my apartment? I’m going to make stew.”


  “Yeah, it’s a recipe my grandma taught me.”

  “All right. I’m actually hungry.”

  “My name’s Coco, by the way. You can trust me.”

  • • •

  THEY STOPPED AT A STORE so that Coco could get the ingredients for stew. She came out with a paper bag with some onions and a turnip it in.

  “Is that all you need?” Pierrot asked.

  Pierrot had never had anyone make him their grandma’s special homemade stew, but he knew it had to have more ingredients than what Coco had haphazardly stuffed into the bag.

  “I don’t know. The owner gets on my nerves. He’s so in love with me. Everyone’s in love with me around here. But you can trust me. Right?”

  “Right?” Pierrot answered hesitantly.

  Pierrot felt very wary of anyone who insisted that they were trustworthy. People who really were trustworthy believed the attribute to be implicit and the assumed, normal way to be. Why was she feeling guilty?

  “Would you like to maybe go to a movie with me?”

  “Not right now. Let’s get up to my place and start on this stew. It’s really the most important thing.”

  Yes, thought Pierrot. She possesses all the traits of a lovely spy sent by McMahon. But so what if she had been sent to ruin his life? So be it, he thought. He wanted his life to be ruined.

  They stopped at the window in the lobby. An old lady with blue hair and dressed in a man’s coat handed Coco a key with a pink ribbon on it. There were a lot of stairs up to Coco’s room in the skinny Desire Hotel. It surprised Pierrot. The building hadn’t seemed so tall to him from the outside. Every time they got to a landing, he was sure they must have reached the top floor, but then there was yet another level.

  An artist must live in one of the apartments, he concluded, because the walls of the stairwell were covered in oil paintings. They were all of different sunsets and were quite arresting. There was one that was just of a group of cumulus clouds. The others were of the sky being shocked by pink and yellow and orange streaks.

  “There are a lot of stairs in this building,” Pierrot commented.

  “If you’re an old person
, you just stop going out. You just stay up on the higher floor for eternity.”

  • • •

  THEY FINALLY ARRIVED at the top floor. Coco opened the door to her room and Pierrot followed her in. There was nothing on the walls and, in the center of the room, a large bed whose mattress caved in the middle. Coco put the paper bag down on the counter in the small kitchenette, then rolled over the bed as a shortcut to the window. She swung open the blinds.

  • • •

  THE DETECTIVE SAT in an apartment in the building across the alley. He pulled a yellow armchair with a pattern of pink roses up to the window. He took his camera out of a medical bag with a broken clasp that had belonged to his father. He put a book, a copy of David Copperfield, on the radiator, placed the camera on it and parted the green curtains.

  • • •

  PIERROT WAS STANDING at the end of the bed, and Coco came up to him. They were practically nose to nose. She turned around and leaned her forehead over in a slight bow, as an indication that she wanted him to help remove her clothes. As Pierrot unzipped Coco’s dress at the back, the zipper got stuck on her lace undershirt. This took a lot of time to untangle, and Coco kept yelling at him to watch out because he was going to tear the best dress she had.

  “Man oh man, would you watch it, buster,” she yelled.

  However, in the photo the private investigator took, she appeared to be moaning in ecstasy.

  • • •

  COCO GOT ON ALL FOURS on the mattress and immediately let out a yelp. The mattress was so cheap and thin that her weight caused one of the springs to clang up against the bones in her knee. She had stretch marks on her breasts and her thighs, having gone from being a girl to a woman too quickly at some point. She was wearing plain white underwear, but they had slipped into the crack of her ass and her butt cheeks were sticking out. They were enormous and round and wonderful. And when he stuck his face into them, he was filled with desire that he couldn’t contain. On all the big screens, in all the tiny cinemas, there were gangsters pulling their machine guns out of their holsters. They were holding their handguns stretched in the darkness in front of them. They were crossing fields with shotguns straight out, heading toward their victims. Everyone had to face the fact that fate was coming. It was going to outsmart you. It was unforgiving. Pierrot stood up. He unbuckled his belt. He pulled down his pants.

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