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The lonely hearts hotel, p.38
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.38

           Heather O'Neill

  There was also something romantic about the atmosphere. It was the place to go on a first date. People often found themselves proposing to their partners there.

  Rose stopped to chat to four young girls sitting on a bench. They weren’t any better looking than other girls. The prettiest thing about them was that they were nineteen. But there’s always something eternally lovely about being a girl. They had fixed their hair in various waves on top of their head with bobby pins. Two of the girls were looking at a magazine together. Another girl, dressed in a beige coat with beige socks, was eating french fries out of a paper bag, looking straight ahead. You might not think that the girls were prostitutes if it wasn’t for the fact that the girl at the end, who was wearing a light blue cotton dress with puffy sleeves, couldn’t seem to keep her eyes open and her head kept jerking up and down.

  The city’s nightlife exploded in the 1940s, with all the sailors and army ships docking in Montreal before heading out to Europe. Montreal became world famous for having pretty girls you could fuck for cheap. But Rose refused to ever make a cent off an unfortunate girl. She never operated any brothels or allowed any in her buildings. She never had a back exit at her clubs that led to a brothel across the alley. She never allowed pimps to prey on young girls at her clubs.

  Of course, it all happened regardless of whatever Rose did, but she wouldn’t be a part of it. There wasn’t anything she could do about the heroin either. People used heroin when reality was starkly different from their dreams. Thus there would always be heroin addicts, like the lovely girl on the nod at the end of the bench. And the drug connection between New York and Montreal was growing stronger and bigger every day. Rose paid the gangsters the tax they demanded of all the businesses in the red-light district, because she wanted to make herself psychologically free of them. Or pay some sort of penance. In any case, she had as little to do with that lot as she could.

  Rose offered the girl eating french fries her business card and told her that if she needed help, she ought to come by the Valentine Hotel. Because although she couldn’t stop the economics of poverty, she did encourage women who were in predicaments or who were down on their luck to come by her office and ask for her advice or mentorship. She often got them jobs in her clubs or hotels, or spoke to other proprietors on their behalf. She paid their doctor bills without asking questions, and paid their tuition when they took courses. She thought all girls should be independent and should have money in their purses. She wasn’t afraid to speak up to an abusive husband or a pimp.

  She was that rare person who gave without expecting anything in return. Many girls rented rooms in her Sweetheart Hotel, which was exclusively for single women. The laughter that came out of the windows during the summer was one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. It was like the percussion section of a children’s orchestra, in which a musician was hitting the triangle with a steel rod in the most charming way.

  • • •

  AFTER SPEAKING TO THE GIRLS, Rose walked into the lobby of the Valentine Hotel. Completely renovated and transformed, it was now a place where artistic and bohemian types converged. Poets sat at the tables, trying to put into words things that they themselves didn’t understand. The walls were covered from top to bottom with wonderful abstract paintings that artists brought in. Over the fireplace was a large oil painting composed of white and black chunky squares. It reminded Rose of the huge yard in front of the orphanage, and the ocean of snow that had separated it from the city.

  Everyone knew to find her at the Valentine Hotel. She had a schedule that she kept to. She had her own office on the second floor. She had a desk. It was piled with account books and receipts. She was often booking out-of-town acts, as well as local ones. She was known to enjoy talking on the telephone.

  • • •

  BUT ALTHOUGH SHE INTERACTED with so many people during the day, no one could actually say that they were close to her. There is an aloofness to the permanently heartbroken, a secrecy. There was something impenetrable about her. There was a door that she had closed, which no one could get in.

  There were rumors that Rose had been the one who had had McMahon killed. Instead of making her unlikable, it made her seem deeply romantic, wonderfully other and untouchable. It gave her an aura of respect. She was a woman who had done what she needed to get free. Men discovered that they had no trouble relating to her as an equal. The men who had ridiculed her when she was dating McMahon found that they had changed their minds about her.

  People also talked about how she had been a performer herself once. The clowns from the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza would talk about the fabulous show she had directed and starred in, which had won over the American crowds. But nobody in Montreal ever got to see a Rose production. Despite the success of her first, Rose never staged another of her own shows. And she never graced the stage again, in any capacity. In fact, she never even went out dancing. She never balanced an egg on the tip of her nose. She was too old and dignified to do a cartwheel. If there was a puppet lying on a chair, she never picked it up to bring it to life.

  • • •

  SHE WENT BACK TO HER OFFICE. It was the end of the business day. She spent a few moments completely lost in thought. That was her favorite time, right at the end of the day, when she would reflect on the control she now had over her time. Framed behind her was a creased and stained piece of paper that had the original blueprint of her whole life, drawn in the handwriting of a child. Her most prized possession. It was the beginning of her enterprise.

  She lit up a cigarette and listened to the conversation between Fabio and Tiny outside her door. Tiny had never gone back to New York City. He had taken a fancy to the Valentine Hotel and the Montreal winters. She needed him for when sailors got out of hand, or a pimp showed up looking for a girl. He had become more and more bohemian. He had recently fallen in love with a chorus girl, who was giving him a hard time.

  “Last Tuesday she told me that she had been waiting for a man just like me since she was five years old,” Tiny was saying. “She said that it would be a tragedy if we didn’t end up together. And then I went to see her Wednesday and she says, ‘Go away, even looking at your face suffocates me.’”

  “Would you ever consider dating a girl who was less erratic?” Fabio asked.


  The two men were interrupted by the sound of a very soft voice asking for Rose. It was followed by the sound of a small sneeze, one a child might emit.

  “Come in,” she called out abruptly. She had no idea why she did that. Except that she had the irrational feeling that she recognized that strange sneeze. It seemed to have come from a long, long time ago. She felt as if she were hearing the voice of someone she had known a long, long time before, when she was a child.

  When the door cracked open, she was surprised to see not a child but Sister Eloïse. Rose hadn’t seen her face since Rose was fifteen years old. Pierrot had sometimes imagined that he’d seen her and would jump, but he had always been mistaken. Sister Eloïse had come to seem, in Rose’s mind, like some villain who belonged strictly to childhood, like the Big Bad Wolf. Something incorporeal, like a monster in a closet, but which in adulthood turned out not to exist. But here she was in the flesh, looking exactly the way Rose remembered her. She seemed to have gotten even younger. When Rose was a little girl, a woman of twenty-seven seemed to be ancient. But now that Rose was that age herself, a woman of thirty-eight somehow didn’t seem old at all.

  Rose was shocked that Eloïse would even come near her. It was like a mouse striking up a conversation with a cat. Didn’t Sister Eloïse realize the extraordinary reversal of fortune that had befallen Rose? She could not be ignorant of just how dangerous and powerful her old foe had become.

  “Hello, Rose. Do you remember me?”

  Rose didn’t answer. She would not allow Eloïse to know the enormous influence she had had on her and Pierrot’s
sad youths.

  “I had a child brought into the orphanage,” Eloïse continued. “His mother was a prostitute. She had every manner of disease that you can imagine. She died, you see. From what, it doesn’t matter. The child himself came to us with tuberculosis, though he’s got over the worst of it. We thought it had affected his mind. It’s hard to say because he has a very peculiar disposition, which we don’t know what to make of. But perhaps he’ll turn out all right. I mean, we did always think that his father was a complete idiot, but he turned out to be a clever, affectionate fellow, didn’t he?”

  Rose looked at her. She was confused. She realized that she had missed a very important part of this story. “I’m sorry, but who in the world is his father?”

  “Joseph. Or as we all used to call him, Pierrot.”

  Rose looked at her, now completely shocked. She felt her cheeks burning. She crushed her cigarette in the ashtray on her desk. The smoke furling out of it seemed to be revealing too much.

  “His mother was a strange redheaded girl, rather likable. She told the priest she had had an affair with Pierrot years before. She didn’t want to tell Pierrot because she knew he was so happy with you. But I just thought that you would want to know that this little guy was out there in the world without a soul to look after him. I don’t even rightly know whose responsibility this child is, seeing that his mother was Jewish and his father was Catholic. We didn’t immediately know which orphanage we’d send the boy to, and then I thought of you.”

  She handed Rose a small photo of the child. Rose stood up from her chair. She didn’t doubt the veracity of the story, as the child looked so much like Pierrot had at the same age. She moved around the desk toward the nun. Here was a child that fortune would spare from Sister Eloïse and her kind.

  “I know I was harder on you than I should have been,” Eloïse said. “Maybe it was because of a certain amount of envy, as I could tell that you had an extraordinary future ahead of you. We all could.”

  Rose touched the woman’s hand. Then there was another tiny and wonderful sneeze from the hallway.

  “Is he here with you?”


  “Let me see him. Bring him in to me.”

  Sister Eloïse hurried into the hallway. She reached out and grabbed a hand and brought the little boy into the room. And there he was, standing in front of Rose only feet away. The tip of his nose was bright red—he probably had a cold—and his blond hair stuck up on top of his head. Rose smiled. She got down on her knees in front of the little boy. She turned her head upward and looked into Sister Eloïse’s eyes.

  “You have done me a great kindness,” Rose said.

  Eloïse looked down at Rose with a look of surprise and relief. She had the urge to let out a cry of laughter.

  “It would give me such peace if I knew that you forgave me,” Eloïse said hoarsely.

  “Yes. None of that matters now. Thank you. You can leave him with me. Is that all right?”

  “Yes, of course!” Eloïse said.

  Sister Eloïse didn’t lose time getting out of the room, proud of herself for taking such a risk and having it pay off. She had been waking up every night for the past few years, terrified of Rose, certain that she was next to the bed, still a tiny girl but with a look of judgment on her face. She imagined the grown-up Rose coming to the orphanage and denouncing her. Everyone would believe Rose now, she was so powerful, she had pull. Eloïse didn’t want to stay a second longer and risk her fortunes changing. Rose didn’t even seem to notice her leaving. She was transfixed by the miraculous six-year-old boy with bright blue eyes who was staring right back at her.

  “What is your name, darling?” Rose asked the child.

  The boy looked at her with a guileless self-assurance she recognized, and offered her a beautiful smile by way of introduction.

  “Isaac,” he said. “Am I to live with you?”

  “If you would like. I would love nothing but. You’re a generous little soul, aren’t you? Shall we get to know each other a little?”

  “Perhaps we can go to the zoo?”

  “There’s a lovely polar bear there, darling. It wants to meet you.”

  “It will eat me!”

  “I would never let anything touch a hair on your sweet head. The polar bear is behind a cage, and I swear he’ll act like a gentleman or we’ll walk off and have chocolat chaud without him.”

  “Chocolat chaud!”

  Rose began to laugh. It had been so long since she had allowed herself to feel joy, as it made her feel unfaithful to her dead husband. There were tears in her eyes, as though her eyes were ice cubes that were melting. She looked at Isaac. The thought of pleasing the boy made her mind fill with all sorts of ideas. For this little boy she would create a new puppet theater. For this little boy she would have clowns from Europe arriving by sea in no time. For this little boy she would create a wondrous animal show, with geese that sang traveling songs, and an elephant that played the trumpet. It all came so clearly to her mind. She would have the world’s greatest juggler to teach him the rules of science and of the natural universe, and the world’s most amazing escape artist would teach him to tie his shoes, and a white cat that walked on a tightrope would be his best friend. Their life was to be a marvelous circus, on and off the stage.

  She went to get her coat. She swung open the door to tell Fabio and Tiny that she was going out for the afternoon. The small framed drawing of a snowflake that hung from a nail on the door swung back and forth as she spoke into Tiny’s ear. She went and took Isaac’s hand in hers, determined never to be apart from him again, not even for a moment.

  As Eloïse turned down the street and headed along Saint Catherine, a man fell in behind her. He pulled out a gun and put a small bullet in the back of her brain. Her body was cleaned up quickly, so that Isaac would not see it or be disturbed by it.

  Rose and Isaac would have a wonderful childhood together.


  This book would not be what it is without the wonderful imaginations of my editors: Jennifer Lambert, Sarah McGrath and Rose Tomaszewska.

  Also, thank you to my agent, Claudia Ballard.

  Additional help and feedback came from my trusted associate Arizona O’Neill.

  And thanks for financial support from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.


  HEATHER O’NEILL is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning author of two novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, as well as a short-story collection, Daydreams of Angels. Born and raised in Montreal, O’Neill lives there today with her daughter.

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  Heather O'Neill, The Lonely Hearts Hotel



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