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The lonely hearts hotel, p.37
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.37

           Heather O'Neill

  He sat in a diner, trying to eat a plate of eggs. He didn’t understand quite how he had come to find himself sitting at this table with a plate of eggs in front of him. He didn’t know how anyone could eat. He really didn’t have the ambition to eat anything else at all.

  He had lost weight. He had always been slim, but he had never been quite this skinny. His tailor-made suit that had always made him look like a dandy, no matter what sort of financial situation he was in, now seemed loose and baggy on him. It had lost its magic charm. Or anyway, perhaps that was what he wanted to tell himself to justify trading in his suit at the pawnshop on Eighth Avenue.

  The owner, a white-haired, older woman with a pair of glasses on a fake pearl chain, gave him enough money to get high for a couple of days. She also gave him an outfit to change into. It was a black suit. Because of its slim fit, it had been hard to sell. But Pierrot wore it well. Although when he looked in his oval mirror, he couldn’t help but notice that he looked as though he were preparing ahead of time for his funeral.

  • • •

  HE WOKE UP in the morning three days later. But was the suit really his last possession? What else could he say belonged to him and nobody else? What else did he have the right to sell?

  He wandered across the street to the library. There was a girl sleeping in one of the phone booths, Snow White waiting to be kissed. He pulled open the door of the phone booth next to her and sat down on the wooden bench. He asked the operator for the number to any recording studio. The phone swallowed the coin quickly, like a dog that doesn’t chew its treat. He could hear the nickel being digested by the telephone. The man on the other end of the line knew of the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza. He had remembered the tune at the end of the show. He said that he was indeed interested in recording it.

  “It was really the best thing about the show. I mean, it’s the part of the show that’s going to last. How come you never recorded it before?”

  “I used to be worried about recording my music. Because I thought that other people would hear my melodies and steal them and get credit for them. I figured that they would be able to study my playing and get how to perform like me. And I wouldn’t be unique anymore. But that’s just fear giving me crazy reasons. I have no right to keep a good tune for myself. I have to let it go out into the world, man. It wants to have its own life in other people’s hearts.”

  Pierrot was quiet for a moment.

  “I also have to get high.”

  “I’ll pay you up front so you don’t have to wait around for royalties or nothing like that.”

  He said he’d love to make it into a record. He asked Pierrot to bring a photo of himself.

  All that Pierrot had was the portrait of him and Rose, which hung from a nail on the wall. He did feel rather sad about unhooking it. But at the same time, he felt full of pride that morning, for the first time in months. Because he had been reminded of two things. That he had once been married to a very beautiful woman, and that he had written this tune that everybody in the world seemed to like.

  • • •

  THE STUDIO WAS IN A narrow building. It was squeezed in between a church and a department store, like some skinny man on a bus at rush hour. The man who had spoken to Pierrot on the phone met him in the lobby and they took the elevator to the ninth floor. In the studio there was a great big microphone hanging down on a pole over the top of the piano. The floors were wooden. He looked at technicians on the other side of the glass. There were so many levers and knobs, like a city seen from up above.

  He began to play the tune. It had been a while since he’d played it. To his surprise, the tune was slightly different from before. While he had sunk into oblivion, the tune had continued to work on itself. It had to get up in the morning and get itself dressed and take care of business. And so Pierrot listened to the tune that he was playing, instead of performing it. A work of art when it is good and completed exists independently of its creator. It is indignant, even—it doesn’t want to have an author.

  All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the inalienable right to be free.

  The tune was a thing of great wonder.

  • • •

  ONCE PIERROT HAD FINISHED RECORDING, he knew that he had captured it. He had finished the elusive tune. The simple little number was his life’s work. He didn’t have it in him to spend the next twelve years of his life working on another fifteen minutes. There were great musicians who were capable of producing great and fantastic bodies of work, but he didn’t have that sort of tenacity or intelligence. Unlike him, those musicians had been raised to have the constitution to do great things. Artists from poor backgrounds couldn’t bear their own genius for very long.

  He signed the first contract they put before him, not bothering to negotiate. He knew that he had to do it quickly and impulsively or he wouldn’t be able to do it at all.

  A squirrel holding an acorn as though it were a tiny bongo drum stood up on a branch outside the recording studio and worriedly looked around.

  When he stepped out into the shining street, he was a completely different person. He was walking around, but he knew that his story was over. His life story was written, and he was living in the extra blank pages at the back of a book. There was a beginning, middle, end to his life.

  On the corner of the street, Pierrot spotted a curious-looking boy. The child had folded a newspaper into a Napoleon hat and was wearing it on his head. He looked up at Pierrot with a deep frown. Pierrot knew what the newspaper said. It was becoming more and more likely that the world was going to war. The world didn’t need Pierrot’s type of sadness now. No, the world was a violent place, and it was gripped by a madness that Pierrot had no way of expressing. He didn’t want to read the newspaper or listen to the radio anymore. He didn’t want to be a grown-up. There are some people who are just no good at it.



  And the score that Pierrot had sold in New York City went on to be recorded, and it became a huge hit. It was made into a record entitled The Ballad for the Moon and was played by children all over North America. They often asked for the tune for their birthdays and would receive the record wrapped in green or pink or blue paper. They would unwrap it and find the photo of young newlyweds on the record cover. The children were so surprised that they had gotten the present they wanted. They were used to not getting any treats at all. They didn’t know why the hard times were over. But they did notice that, little by little, things began to change in their lives. When they put on their socks, their toes did not peek out of holes at the ends of them. When they went to bed at night, they noticed their bellies weren’t rumbling. They opened their lunch bags and noticed a cookie inside. They noticed that they couldn’t feel the ribs of their cat when they lifted it up. When they woke up in the morning, little puffs of smoke didn’t appear out of their mouths.

  Their mothers had roses in their cheeks. They sewed themselves smarter dresses. They came home with groceries and cooked decent meals and sang while they fried up the tomatoes. The coffee was creamier. There was dessert several nights a week. Tiny cupcakes and slices of pie on small dishes appeared like fairy tales on the kitchen tables.

  The Great Depression was over. The children associated Pierrot’s tune with the end of hardship.

  For all they knew, the tune itself was the cause of the new, more fortunate times. They had begun to hear the tune on the radio and then all sorts of interesting things began to happen. The more Pierrot’s tune was played on the radio, the better things became.

  • • •

  PIERROT HIMSELF paid very little attention to the success of his tune. He had no way to track
it, as he wasn’t receiving royalties. One day he had only two dollars left to his name. He owed five dollars to his regular dealer, so he couldn’t go see him. He went to the back of a building that another junkie had told him about. He rang the doorbell, and a man came out into the alley to meet him.

  “You’re in luck. I just got some new shit in from Montreal. It is the best I’ve ever tasted. You’ll never want to touch anything else, trust me.”

  “Montreal,” Pierrot said in a sad way, as though it were only a mythical place for him now.

  He took a room at the Lonely Hearts Hotel. The floorboards in his room had been painted green. There were swans on the wallpaper. He thought that was a good sign. He shot up some of the Montreal heroin. He felt that feeling that you get when it’s quiet right before the snow comes. It reminds you of being under the covers as a child, and learning that school is going to be canceled because it is snowing so heavily. The streets are empty, but you can hear laughter somewhere in the distance. You can hear the church bells ringing with a clarity that is so pure and sweet and perfect.

  He injected the rest of the heroin into his arm all at once. He stared at the swans on the wallpaper, waiting for them to start moving, but they did not. This was it. This was his last hotel room. How strange. He would never get old.

  When they say that your life flashes before your eyes, what they mean is that you can choose to go to any moment from your past—and almost everybody wants to go back to when they were little. Pierrot selected a memory of Rose. There was Rose with a blindfold on her eyes while they were all playing hide-and-seek. Pierrot hadn’t hidden. Instead he had made his footsteps and breathing deliberately heavy, and tried to get in her way, just so that she would reach out and touch him. In the memory her hands came closer and closer to him.

  Rose didn’t reach him. A great loneliness came over him. He thought that he had lived a most wonderful life.

  • • •

  BY THE TIME HE PASSED AWAY, Pierrot was world famous. When the maid who found his body realized who he was, she let out a yelp. The maids, in their black uniforms, their hats like white daisies, crammed into the room and stood around his body.



  Rose looked at the little boy who was standing at the door of her hotel room with his lower lip jutting out. It was early in the morning and she was in her dressing gown, the birds embroidered on the silk unfurling their wings as she moved. She had no idea why there was a newspaper boy standing with his pile of papers at her door. Rose was often known to be quite generous to single mothers when they asked her for help—perhaps he was here to beg.

  “What do you want?”

  “You’re the last building on my route, but I decided to come to you right away.”

  “And why is that?”

  “There’s news that is of interest to you, ma’am.”

  Rose reached into her pocket and took out a coin. The boy stuck his hand out. Rose dropped the coin into the boy’s palm. He looked at the coin; pocketed it; handed her a newspaper; said, “I’m very sorry, ma’am”; turned; and ran with his stack of papers out of the building.

  Rose’s cry woke up the whole of the building.

  A child on Saint Dominique Street, in a building in the alley opposite, sat up in his bed, certain that she had heard someone yell in terrible pain. But when she went in to see her parents and wiggled her sleeping mother’s toe, they told her to go back to sleep.

  • • •

  PIERROT’S BODY WAS RETURNED to Montreal to be buried in the cemetery on top of the mountain that was in the middle of the city. The funeral was held in the tiny church where Pierrot and Rose used to go to get free soup during the Depression and where they were married. The clouds seemed heavy that day, like a pregnant lady rolling in a pool. Pierrot didn’t have any family at the funeral. He was obviously related to people all over the city. He had cousins and aunts and grandparents. He had not just dropped from the sky. But there was no way anybody could find his family. The Hôpital de la Miséricorde had made sure of that twenty-five years before. All anyone knew was that there had once upon a time been a girl named Ignorance who didn’t follow rules and was so many millions of miles away from being a saint, and who had played a foolish game with her cousin.

  So the church was instead filled with the clowns to whom Pierrot was closest. And, of course, Rose, who sat in the front pew with a veil over her face, unable to say a word. She had wept for three days.

  Hundreds of red roses lay across Pierrot’s coffin as it was carried down the steps by six strapping clowns. Rose followed the coffin and walked down the narrow stone steps of the church. To the people outside staring at the door of the church, waiting for the funeral party to exit, Rose looked like she had aged ten years. She always said later that her hair started to turn white that day—afterward, people found it difficult to tell exactly how old she was because her skin and eyes had an impish, youthful glow but her hair was white.

  Fabio was at her side. You would never know that he had been a clown, however. He looked like a fat, serious businessman. You would never know that he had been any sort of artist, as he betrayed no emotions. He was the type of person you would have trouble imagining as a child, even. Occasionally, in a very stressful circumstance, he might take off his hat and wipe his bald head with a handkerchief and then put his hat back on. That was just what he did on this occasion after stepping out of the church and witnessing what was going on outside.

  The streets were filled with all sorts of people who had come to show their respect. The sounds of car horns could be heard in the distance. People were crowding the streets for blocks, preventing traffic from moving. People stood on stoops to get a glimpse of the casket. People perched on the roofs of buildings—it looked as if all the gargoyles had come to life.

  There were adults from all walks of life. Some had come from the wealthy neighborhoods in their fur coats, and some had come from the poorest neighborhoods in their threadbare ones. People from all backgrounds had been touched by Pierrot.

  There were loads of little children, who had gotten permission from their parents to put on their Sunday clothes and go to the funeral. There were some that had single flowers they had plucked from their yards or had begged the florist to spare. They followed the clowns. Many of them wept openly at the death of their hero.

  And scattered everywhere in the crowd were young men in military uniforms. Canada had declared war on Germany that week. Before going overseas, they wanted to pay respect to Pierrot. It was as though they were kissing their wonderful and broke-ass and big-hearted and unpredictable Montreal childhoods good-bye. They were burying them with Pierrot. Many of them, like him, would never grow old enough to understand that you only go from one hardship to another. And that the best we can hope from life is that it is a wonderful depression.

  The coffin was loaded into the hearse. The clowns climbed into the limousines parked behind it. None of the men were in costume. They were dressed in black suits. But there seemed to be a little detail on each one of them that betrayed that they were clowns. One had a cloth carnation in his lapel that would squirt water in your face. Another had a small trembling Chihuahua in his inside pocket. One had black shoes that, although recently shined, were at least six sizes too big for him and turned up at the toes.

  A black, squat bulldog waddled after a clown and jumped into the limousine. But before hopping in, the dog turned to look at the crowd. There was a round white circle around his right eye, like an eight ball.

  • • •

  THE FUNERAL PROCESSION moved slowly down the street. The clowns didn’t care that they were blocking traffic. When the limousines began to move hesitantly through the crowd and down Saint Catherine Street, a woman sitting on the sidewalk pulled on her accordion and started to play Pierrot’s tune, and it made everyone feel wonderful. It brought out their feelings and made
them more intense, the way spices do to the flavors of meat. And Pierrot, who had been terrified of the feelings that accordions gave him, seemed to no longer mind. And the people in the crowd felt terrible and full of woe that Pierrot had died, but they also felt grateful that he had been in their lives. He was from Montreal, and he had proved that they all had beauty and art inside them as much as any other person anywhere in the world. They felt happy about exactly where they were in the universe.

  All the children in the city put candles in their windows that night. The Milky Way became for one night a tiny island in the Saint Lawrence River.



  It was late in the afternoon and Rose was walking down the street. She wore a long, straight navy blue dress. It had different layers, different rows of lace that had been sewn together—it looked like a multistoried apartment building. She had a giant white pouf attached to the side of her head.

  • • •

  SHE WAS ON HER WAY from the audition of a new brother-and-sister act for the Rose Theater. The eighteen-year-old boy played the ukulele with such an odd solemnity. The sister sang a letter to a sweetheart who was overseas. She had a squeaky voice, slightly off-key, but confident for no reason. Only an act as awkward as this could dare to convey the tragic events that had occurred overseas, so Rose booked them on the spot.

  The pair threw themselves into each other’s arms and wept when Rose offered them a job. In the three years since Rose had returned to Montreal, she had turned her clubs and hotels into vibrant, lucrative businesses. Her most magnificent accomplishment was the cabaret on the corner, the Rose Theater, which she had constructed out of an abandoned ballroom. The building itself was beautiful, but it was the acts that were extraordinary, universally regarded as the best in town. No one ever quite understood where she was able to find them. There were always lineups around the block to get in.

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