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The lonely hearts hotel, p.6
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.6

           Heather O'Neill
 

  Sister Eloïse was waiting and waiting for Rose to make some sort of mistake, to perpetrate an infraction. It usually didn’t take very long. You only had to observe a child for several minutes before they made some sort of ridiculous mistake. What on earth was as flawed and imperfect as a child? She needed Rose to make a mistake not only to justify to the other children the punishment she was going to rain down upon Rose, but to justify it to herself.

  Rose found the sunlight intoxicating. It made her sleepy. It made her dreamy. It blinded her to the physical world around her. The mop in the bucket made the sound of a pig rooting for truffles. She flopped it onto the floor. Rose began thinking of the words Pierrot had said to her. She couldn’t help it. She then, for a short moment, took the mop in her hands and began to dance with it while washing the floor. She began to fantasize about dancing with Pierrot, his arms around her waist and his fingers secretly reaching down to her behind.

  Sister Eloïse saw it instantly. She quickly grabbed Rose by the scruff of the neck, her arm like a cane yanking a performer offstage. Sister Eloïse felt like Samson. Her beautiful hair had been cropped off, but she was filled with supernatural strength. She could have lifted anybody up over her head. She could put her hands on either column at the entrance of the building, push hard in either direction and watch the whole building come crashing down.

  Instead she directed all her fury and strength at Rose. She pushed her down so she fell to the ground. She thrashed her over and over and over again. She hit her on the back with the broom handle. She hit her until it broke. Eloïse had forgotten how much she liked hitting another human being. She just wanted to hit her again, but harder. She felt that she could just stand there whipping the girl again and again until she was dead. Every time she hit her she hated her even more. It took over her entire body. Every inch of her was furious.

  Rose lay on her side, curled up like a dog. All the bruises blooming like violets. All the bruises like storm clouds. The little beads of sweat like raindrops on her nose. All her bruises spreading out like the tip of a pen touching a wet cloth.

  Still Sister Eloïse continued to hit the girl, until Rose was unconscious and the Mother Superior cried out, “That’s enough!”

  • • •

  THE MOTHER SUPERIOR KNEW THAT Eloïse would end up murdering Rose. And an uproar would no doubt ensue. She had been looking for a reason to stop Rose and Pierrot from going around town. True, she had made a pretty penny off them. A new solarium in the nuns’ sleeping quarters had been built, and the indoor plumbing had been upgraded. But there had been more patrons requesting visits, which would entail repairs beyond the income that Rose and Pierrot were bringing in. And in any case, isolation was necessary for an orphanage to keep running. You couldn’t discipline the children if there were interminable people checking in and participating in the children’s lives. And an orphanage could not be a happy place.

  The Mother Superior was of the opinion that happiness always led to tragedy. She had no idea why people valued the emotion and pursued it. It was nothing more than a temporary state of inebriation that led a person to make the worst decisions. There wasn’t a person who had experienced life on this planet who wouldn’t admit that sin and happiness were bedmates, were inextricably linked. Were there ever any two states of being that were so attracted to each other, were always seeking out each other’s company? They were a match made not in heaven but in hell.

  The Mother Superior looked at Rose’s body lying on the raised bed in the infirmary. She was half-conscious, covered in terrible bruises and attached to an intravenous drip. The Mother Superior thought this was what came of allowing children to think of themselves as unique. Or particularly, this was what happened when you allowed an orphan to think of herself as unique.

  • • •

  SISTER ELOÏSE WAS ASHAMED to tell anyone why Rose was in the infirmary with a curtain drawn around her. So no one knew at first. They assumed she was in trouble and locked in the cupboard. Pierrot was sure that Rose was angry with him. Once his erection had gone down, he began to feel the little bit of shame that always came. He felt that he had gone too far. My God, how insensitive he had been! The more he thought about it, the more he was shocked and appalled by his behavior.

  Just the day before, Rose had been telling him about her amazing plan that was surely going to make her world famous, and would probably include him. And how had he responded? By telling her that he wanted to introduce her to his penis!

  Pierrot whispered at the door of the cupboard, but she didn’t answer back.

  Every time he thought about it, he thudded the heel of his hand on his forehead. He kept knocking his head against the wall as though it were a boiled egg whose shell he wanted to crack open. He just couldn’t even think about it! He was a perverted lowlife. To revive his spirits, he imagined the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza that he and Rose would collaborate on once she forgave him.

  The first day of spring came and Rose was still in the infirmary. A small crucifix with a blue ceramic Jesus nailed to it hung above her head. A butterfly passed by the window. It had made its wings out of the pressed petals of flowers.

  9

  IN WHICH PIERROT IS MISTAKEN FOR A GENIUS

  Legend had it that Albert Irving—a very elderly citizen of Montreal—adopted Pierrot after hearing through a window of an orphanage the sound of a child playing the piano. He was a thin man who walked with a slight stoop and he was, that day, wearing a black suit and a top hat and an imported white silk scarf. Unlike his neighbors, he knew nothing of the talented pair who resided in the orphanage. He would occasionally contribute money to the orphanage, among other public institutions, in order that he might be called a philanthropist, but he rarely ventured inside it. It made him far too depressed to think of the terrible little unfortunate children who lived there. He quite liked to honk his horn and have a Sister come out; he’d hand over a sizable check and be on his way. The driver of his great black car had already opened the back passenger’s door for him to climb in when the tune began to play slowly, each note like a bird alighting on the window ledge.

  The playing so charmed him that he went right up all the stairs, despite his arthritis, and banged on the door. He was escorted to the Mother Superior’s office. The Mother Superior was seated at her large desk, piles of books and papers on it. Behind her was a shelf covered in statuettes of different saints, who all looked up toward the ceiling. The lovely playing filled the corridors, bewitching the old man. He felt things that he hadn’t in years. He almost felt like dropping his cane and skipping down the hallway. It was a great medicine. He was so wealthy that he was able to acquire whatever he wanted. He immediately set his sights on having the pianist for himself.

  He asked to be introduced to whoever had been playing the piano, and a pale and slender blond-haired boy was brought to him. Pierrot stood in the doorway and smiled brightly.

  “Were you playing the piano, my boy?”

  “You could say that, or perhaps you could say that the piano was playing me. Or at least that we were having a conversation.”

  “Do you mean to tell me that the piano keys were making conversation with you? What a delightful idea, my boy. Now, I don’t suppose you could give me an example of something the piano has said to you?”

  “The piano was just now telling me how it feels so odd when it rains. The rain can cause you to suddenly feel guilty for all the tiny crimes you have committed, like not telling your friend that you love her.”

  “I do know that feeling. I’ve felt it quite a few times. And up until this moment, I really thought I was the only person who did. Well done and bravo, my boy. Because you have made me feel less alone in the world and less like a madman.”

  “You’re exceedingly welcome, oh distinguished guest. And thank you for letting me know that I have been able to bring delight to someone as obviously esteemed as yourself.”

>   The Mother Superior rolled her eyes, but Mr. Irving could not stop smiling.

  • • •

  THE MOTHER SUPERIOR SHRUGGED when Mr. Irving returned to inquire about Pierrot a week later. She leaned back in her green leather chair and put both hands up as though she didn’t have anything to hide from the old man. “It’s always been a debate among us Sisters whether that boy is bright or completely idiotic,” she said.

  “Do you know that is quite often a feature of an artistic mind?” asked Mr. Irving, who was seated on a smaller chair in front of the desk, leaning forward.

  “If you want to see it in a positive light. But I’m going to tell you something that is true about all these orphans. They are wicked. They are thieves. They aren’t quite human. A child needs a mother and a father in his life for him to have any sense of morality. Pierrot is the laziest boy I ever saw. He’s distracted as easy as you please. If a bird flies by, he drops what he is doing and just stares straight up at it.”

  “Perhaps he is so affected by beauty that he will risk a beating just to gaze upon it.”

  “Do you really want a boy this old? They can be quite set in some terrible ways.”

  “Yes, I think he is the right age for me. I am much, much too old to look after a young child. And my other children never spoke to me when they were that age. I find young men very interesting. They are right at the beginning of their ideas. Their personalities can be so ferocious or so weak. I think that boy has an extraordinary character. And to think that he was able to develop it while living in an orphanage. Do you know anything about his mother?”

  The Mother Superior shrugged again. She was just overwhelmed with disgust at all the stupid girls who had been such fools to get themselves pregnant. She vaguely remembered some story about a particularly naughty girl who went by the name of Ignorance at the Hôpital de la Miséricorde. But it hardly seemed worth scouring her memory for such a girl.

  “They all seem to be the same girl to me.”

  The Mother Superior seemed rather concerned that Pierrot wasn’t going to be forced to work all day long. Mr. Irving promised that he intended to use Pierrot as a servant—as his personal valet. Actually, he changed his mind about what he was going to use Pierrot for right in midsentence. But it was some sort of job.

  “I will make a sizable donation to the orphanage.”

  • • •

  PIERROT WAS GIVEN a cardboard suitcase to put his things in. It had belonged to a mother who had died in childbirth. The lining was printed with dark purple plums. Pierrot sat on the edge of his bed and put the suitcase on his lap, using it as a desk. He had a piece of paper and a pencil he’d borrowed from another boy. He quickly wrote Rose a letter.

  Dear Sweetheart,

  I don’t know what in the world came over me. I’m a clown! You know that. I am going to stay with a peculiar gentleman so that I can play him piano to soothe a certain pain that seems to be plaguing him. Please write to me at this address to say that you have forgiven me. And I will write you piles of love letters. And, of course, we will be reunited soon.

  “I’d hurry up if I were you. Before the man changes his mind,” the Mother Superior said.

  As he was leaving with his coat, his enormous scarf and his empty suitcase, Pierrot passed in front of Sister Eloïse. She thought he was going to tell her how painful it was to part from her. Instead he walked right by. She took his hand, and he pulled it from her with a small shudder, indiscernible to anyone but Sister Eloïse. Knowing that he was leaving made him feel bold. He stopped in front of the Mother Superior, who was standing at the door a few feet away from Eloïse, and handed her the letter, not caring that she was witnessing the interaction.

  “Will you tell Rose that I love her and that I will be coming back for her?” Pierrot asked the Mother Superior. “And that I will most definitely marry her once I have found my fortune.”

  Soon after Pierrot left the building, Sister Eloïse stole the letter off the Mother’s Superior’s desk and ripped it up into a hundred pieces and threw it in the trash. It lay at the bottom of the basket like butterflies that had died during a sudden frost.

  • • •

  AS HE EXITED THE GREAT DOOR of the orphanage, Pierrot felt guilty about leaving, especially since he hadn’t seen Rose for weeks. He knew that it was all his own fault. He could have done something to make the old man hate him. He could have explained to the man that he was a degenerate, and then he surely would have left Pierrot behind! But the truth was he wanted to go. Living with Sister Eloïse had become intolerable for him. Here was a chance to exist without her breathing into his ear ever again. Yet he was betraying Rose, wasn’t he? If he stayed, he would eventually convince her that he wasn’t a lout. Even if she continued to despise him, wasn’t it his duty as a lover to remain and accept that acrimony? But the truth was he saw an opportunity and he was taking it and he was leaving her behind. As he walked down the street next to the chauffeur, who was collecting him, he noticed that the black cat was following him. The cat was making him feel so awful.

  “Don’t leave me in this terrible building. Who will put out a little bit of milk if you don’t? I’ll starve! I’ll starve!

  “Who will snap my fleas? I will itch to death. They will eat me alive. One morning I will wake up and I’ll be nothing but a bone.

  “Who will say one nice word to me? Everyone will be accusing me of bringing them bad luck. It will just be so untrue. They will throw rocks at me. They’ll pour boiling water on me. They’ll swing me by my tail. My life isn’t worth living without you. You owe me something. You owe me something!”

  Maybe that was what the ones you loved did to you: they made you feel lousy. Pierrot tossed his suitcase in the trunk and hurried into the back of the car. It wasn’t only Rose he was abandoning, was it? It was all the children. He used to entertain them and make them laugh. They depended on him for this. But he was going anyway!

  10

  IN WHICH ROSE IS INSTRUCTED OF HER NEW FATE

  Two weeks later, Rose was better and ready to go back to the dormitory. She took off her hospital gown and pulled her black tights up under her dress. She walked down the corridor, whose walls were painted blue. There were stone flowers carved above the arched windows. She walked through the wide-open doors of the common room. It was raining outside and all the children, chatting and playing with dolls, turned to look at Rose. They looked apprehensive: Rose wasn’t aware that Pierrot had left.

  Sister Eloïse marched over quickly to tell her that Pierrot was gone and there would be no more touring for her. She wasn’t really much of an act on her own, was she? This struck Rose like a small bolt of lightning. She might as well have been Rip Van Winkle. She had been in the infirmary bed for a hundred years, only to find that everything about the world that was familiar and dear to her had irretrievably disappeared. But Rose stared at Eloïse, refusing to let her know that this upset her. She nodded and walked off, hoping her legs weren’t making her body shake.

  Rose didn’t understand why Pierrot would have left without saying good-bye. It didn’t even seem possible. Especially since he was so effusive with his emotions. Over the next couple of weeks, she waited for some message from him. Why were there no letters, at least? There was a boy in the orphanage who had received letters from an older brother who had stayed in Europe after the war. They were the most wonderful missives. The boy read them out loud over and over again. The children crammed around him when he read them, as though he were a famous person and they wanted an autograph.

  The children wanted to know what in the world had happened to Pierrot, and what adventures he was having. They fully expected reports to arrive that Rose would certainly share with them, the way she shared everything else. But letters never came. It made her feel insecure. It showed her that a person’s personality could change radically, that you could never really know someone. In fact, you could proba
bly never know yourself. You could think of yourself as the most fun-loving, generous person but actually be cutthroat and indecent.

  The Mother Superior came in one afternoon in the fall to tell Rose that she was being sent off to work as a governess. The Mother Superior was eager to get Rose away from Eloïse. But there were other reasons to send her off as well. Of late, the nuns were feeling pressure to send out all the older children to work. They had to make room for all the new children who were being dropped off.

  The Great Depression had come to Montreal.

  • • •

  THE NEW ARRIVALS CAME in the backs of cars with priests. The doorbell seemed to ring every day that month. That morning, the Mother Superior had opened the door to see a priest holding the hands of two children, a girl in a white sweater and blue leather boots, and a boy with a crooked bow tie and no shoes at all.

  Earlier that week a handsome boy had arrived with a large duffel bag containing his Sunday clothes and a teddy bear with a missing eye. He was followed shortly by a girl with blond ringlets whose parents had both died of consumption. She had a small oval tin with blue roses on it, filled with pastilles. That was her inheritance.

  There was another boy who was pigeon-chested and went around shaking the other children’s hands saying, “How do you do?” He turned out to be very frank. He said his father had shot himself after losing money in the stock market. And his mother’s new husband thought he was too ugly to keep.

  There was a solemn-looking boy whose lips were so full that it looked as if he were kissing the window of a train.

  Once the doorbell rang and there was a girl in a small black coat and lace-up boots holding a baby in her arms. “Bonjour,” she said. “This is my brother. My mother said I should bring him. She didn’t give him a name. But if you please, I would like him to be named Emmanuel. I am not to leave the blanket.”

 
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