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The lonely hearts hotel, p.7
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.7

           Heather O'Neill

  Women gave birth at hospitals. And the second the doctor cut the umbilical cord, they were pulling their moth-eaten stretched sweaters over their heads and running to the front door to get away from feeding an extra mouth.

  One boy was brought to the orphanage by his mother. She was wearing a navy blue coat, torn at the shoulder, and men’s shoes tied with pink ribbons. She got down on her knees in front of the boy. “I will come back for you, my darling. I will think about you every single second of the day. As soon as I get work and a new apartment, I’ll come back for you.”

  The nuns had little patience for these women. They would leave a bizarre list of instructions. About how their child liked to be sung to before going to bed and how they liked their milk to be warmed. And how there was a poem that they liked to have recited to them while each of their toes was wiggled.

  The more effusive a mother’s instructions were, the more likely the child was never to lay eyes on her again. Or so the Mother Superior believed. It wasn’t love that was making those proclamations. Love was a paltry, meek thing; it was guilt that spoke in such operatic statements. Their instructions went into the fire, along with the letters Pierrot kept sending to Rose.

  There was a small boy who spoke a language nobody could understand. He seemed to be saying that he was missing his pet goose, though they weren’t sure. He came with a suitcase filled with bone china that looked a hundred years old. The nuns took all the dishes out of the boy’s suitcase. They gave the suitcase to Rose to pack her things in.

  The suitcase was blue and had green and yellow stripes on the inside. It had a funny smell to it. Rose stuck her head in the suitcase and inhaled. It smelled of another country. It smelled of a large family.

  Rose liked the idea of traveling, though she knew that she wasn’t going very far. Still, she wanted to leave the orphanage. She felt humiliated because Pierrot had abandoned her without a word. She thought all the other children in the orphanage were looking down on her. And that she couldn’t tolerate. She didn’t care what sort of environment she was in, so long as she wasn’t seen as someone who had been jilted by her lover.

  She put on her coat and packed her fur hat and gloves. The other children gathered around her to say good-bye. She kissed them on their cheeks and hands. She did a final little backflip before leaving. The children applauded sadly, knowing that the circus had folded up its tents and left the orphanage.

  Rose climbed into the car waiting for her outside. The car bounced like a raft going over rapids. She was driven around and around a circular road to the top of a hill. The houses became more and more magnificent as she got closer to the peak. They were high enough above the ground that they didn’t know anything about the rising tide of poverty. They were by and large unaffected by the Great Depression. The driver got out of the car to open a gate in front of a house, then drove through. It was a large redbrick house that took up a whole block. It was very pretty. It had a small blue flag waving from the top of one of the turrets, its own little kingdom.

  The driver honked the horn and a maid in a uniform came out through the front door to meet them. A small pug was standing at her feet, looking up at Rose.

  “Hello, my dear,” said the maid. “Let me show you to your room and you can get settled in.”

  The maid shooed the pug through the door and closed it behind the dog. She and Rose then went into the house through the back entrance. They walked up a narrow, white staircase that led up from the kitchen. Her room was on the top floor of the house, where the children’s rooms were.

  “You will be looking after the children for most of the time. I hear you’re quite good with the younger children.”

  “Yes, I guess. I mean, I like to make people laugh. Children laugh very easily. But I also quite like the idea of making adults laugh.”

  The maid looked her over. Rose looked at the maid with a blank expression that she knew made her impossible to read.

  “They also told me that you were a rather peculiar girl.”

  The maid opened the door onto the bedroom that was to be Rose’s own. It was sort of amazing to her, as she had always slept in a row of children. The girls woke up in the morning and climbed out of their identical beds, wearing their identical nightgowns. They resembled paper dolls that had all been cut out at the same time. And it was a question of mathematics as to whether they were one person or one hundred and thirty-five identical people.

  The room was tiny and the walls were white, as if to remind the girl that she was to remain chaste. There was a little bed and a little white desk in the corner. There was really only enough space in the room to kneel down at the side of the bed, to pray at night. The only ornament was a mirror with a charming steel frame soldered into the shape of flowers. She leaned in to look at it but immediately felt vain, as though she were checking in on her own appearance.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS GIVEN a light blue dress with a bib that she was to wear every day while she worked in the house. She was also given a white starched hat that made her look like a nurse. After she dressed, she went down to the kitchen to meet the maid, who had promised to give her a tour of the house.

  She followed closely behind the maid, who looked to be about thirty. The house was so big that if she got lost, she would never find her way back to her room, not without a map. She was introduced to each room as if it were itself a charismatic resident of the house, with its own particular needs.

  There was the smoking room, where great cigars were smoked by important people. The walls were a khaki green, but were you to remove the paintings, you would see squares of emerald green, the color the room was initially painted.

  There was a library filled with valuable information and statistics about the world in leather-bound volumes.

  “Will I be allowed to borrow some of these books?”

  “Oh, don’t be an idiot. These are just for show. No one actually reads them.”

  There was a room that was especially for drinking tea after one o’clock. There were blue flowers on the walls, and there was a grandfather clock. Its loud ticking sounded like a suicidal man cocking his rifle over and over again.

  There was an art room with an easel in the middle. There was a little table with a vase of dried flowers on it. There were all sorts of containers with every shape of paintbrush, to re-create virtually any object in the world.

  Furthermore, there was a business room, a billiard room and a greenhouse. There was a room with a little swimming pool in it. There was a lone pair of boy’s trunks floating on the water like some sort of sea turtle. There was one room that was filled with artifacts from someone’s travels. There was a shrunken head in a glass case. Rose asked if she might have a peek through the telescope that pointed out a window, as the sun had just gone down.

  “Oh, very well,” said the maid. “But please don’t make a habit of it.”

  When Rose peeked through the telescope, her eye was the first to gaze into it in the past five years. The household had given up entirely on looking at the heavens. Rose jolted back and stumbled a couple of steps. She had not expected to see the moon so close up. It was terrifying. It no longer looked like the surface of a scuffed, white figure skate. It was gray and busted up and angry. It looked like it was made of gunpowder. It was as though she had just opened the door to find someone standing there naked. It was difficult to look at the moon. She thought that she had seen a face in it.

  • • •

  THE MAID INFORMED ROSE that Mr. McMahon was often away on business or slept in his apartment downtown. When he did come home, it was always late at night after they’d all gone to bed. On the other hand, his wife barely left the house.

  They stopped at the master bedroom to say hello to Mrs. McMahon. She was lying in bed on top of the covers, fully dressed. She had on a beautiful blue velvet dress with buttons on the front, and a pair of black boots.
She also had a wet rag lying on her forehead. McMahon’s wife had a fantastic and voluptuous figure. She herself knew that it was her body that had won Mr. McMahon over when he was young. He would do anything to see her gigantic breasts. Even with the rag over half of Mrs. McMahon’s face, Rose could tell that she was a great beauty.

  “Well, go and meet the children. Hazel and Ernest. They are truly possessed. And I’m not just saying that because I’m their mother.”

  There was little evidence of any children living in the house, outside of the nursery, which she hadn’t seen yet. Still, she did see their tiny SOS signals as she went from room to room. In the art room, there was a pencil drawing of a boy whose head had fallen off. There was blood spurting out of his neck and head. On the glass of the window in the room with the pool someone had written HELP with the tip of their finger.

  They turned down the corridor toward the nursery. A little blond boy who looked to be about six years old, wearing a zebra mask and holding a whip in his hand, was standing at the end of the hall. The maid practically jumped out of her skin when she turned and saw him there.

  “I’ve been putting up with bullshit from lions for too long,” he said.

  A girl came out of the room with a hobbyhorse in her hand, which she planted firmly on the ground as though it were a spear. She had dirty-blond hair and brown eyes, and looked to be about seven. She was naked except for her underwear and socks.

  Rose had the feeling that the children were wild. That when she stepped into the bedroom, it would be an overgrown jungle with lush tropical vegetation and wild boars and butterflies with wings as large as tennis rackets.

  • • •

  THE MAID CLAPPED HER HANDS loudly in the direction of the children. They both jumped like small animals and hurried, shouting, into the nursery. She led Rose into the nursery and left her with the children to get acquainted. The nursery was a large room, painted light blue, and had small cumulus clouds painted along the top edges of the walls. There were splendid toys on all the shelves and an exquisite dollhouse modeled on a Victorian manor. Hazel and Ernest just stared at Rose.

  “Did you see the wolf come in through the back door?”

  “What—what—what—what the hell are you talking about?” they demanded.

  “I met him in the backyard just before I put the washing on the line. He was trying to steal some of your father’s clothes.”

  They both ran to the window to look out to the backyard to see whether they could spot the wolf.

  “He’s not there anymore. I confronted him about taking your father’s clothes and he said he’d ask your mother if he could have some of them.”

  “Are you crazy?” screamed Hazel. “You can’t send a wolf up to see Mama! He might eat her.”

  “Well, I’ll see what’s going on up there.”

  “Mama doesn’t like to be disturbed,” Ernest said.

  “Well, if she’s being eaten by a wolf, I’m sure she won’t mind me interrupting.”

  “Hurry, please!” cried Hazel.

  Rose went down the stairs. The children looked at each other, at once terrified for their mother and impressed by Rose’s bravery. When Rose walked back up to the nursery, she was wearing one of McMahon’s suits and a top hat she’d discovered in a hall closet.

  “I hear there were some children looking for me. I am Mr. Wolf.”

  Hazel stood up from her chair so abruptly that it toppled over behind her. She began applauding, so happy that she was getting a story without asking for one.

  “Look at me. I’m not a monster. I just want some clothes so that I can get a regular job. Oh, perhaps I’ll eat a child once in a while. That’s my nature. But only the very naughty ones. Only the ones who skip school and who I catch going down the street in the middle of the day. Or I wait outside the candy store to see which child has been a glutton and then I gobble them up. Or I toss little pebbles up at windows—and see which children are up late at night. If they are up late at night, of course, it is because they want to be eaten by me.”

  They didn’t know quite how to take her story. The rush that it gave them was unlike anything else. It was better than drinking chocolat chaud all in one gulp. It was better than hanging upside down from the jungle gym at the park. And then, to their utter amazement, Rose took the top hat off, handed it to the little girl, did a backflip and deliberately landed awkwardly on her behind.

  The children applauded, not quite believing their luck. The pug, looking like a little old man wearing a bathrobe, stood by unimpressed.



  Despite the Mother Superior’s adamant advice, Pierrot never did a day’s work. Unless you counted keeping Irving company. Pierrot was given a huge bedroom in the mansion. All the rooms seemed too big. Pierrot felt he should carry around a megaphone so that he could talk to Irving when they were at opposite sides of a room.

  You could ride a bicycle quite comfortably through the house. Pierrot knew this because he had tried it. He would hear the little bell in his room ringing, indicating that Irving wanted his company. To save time, he would get on his bicycle, propped up against the wall in the hallway, and he would head down the corridor to Irving’s room as though it were a luxurious country road. He would call out “Hello” to the servants he met along the way.

  He cycled over a half dozen carpets en route to Irving’s bedroom. Each of the carpets illustrated a distinct natural environment. He crossed a field of red poppies. He crossed through a field with sheep and dragons. He crossed through a dense green jungle.

  There were incredible chandeliers all throughout the house. They looked like trees after an ice storm. At one point in his life, Irving had been an aficionado of chandeliers, collecting them in all the great cities of Europe. He had since relinquished this passion, but it wasn’t like chandeliers would just go away. They still hung in every room. It was as if Pierrot were passing underneath various galaxies before arriving in the dining room.

  What would Rose think, Pierrot wondered, when she saw how he was living? Would she think that he had come up in the world, that he was classy now? Would she forgive him for suggesting all those improper things?

  He arrived at the dining room just as the meal was being served. He sat across the table from Irving every night. He was served the same magnificent plates as Irving. He exclaimed loudly for the first three months when the dish was set in front of him. And for six months he would stop the conversation to remark on how marvelous the food was. After that he became used to the extravagant dinners and became more attuned to the philosophical nature of the conversation, as opposed to the food on the table.

  He was Irving’s constant companion and they discussed all sorts of things. Irving would ask Pierrot his thoughts on the paintings he had collected through the years, which hung on the walls. There was a still life of bloated carnations. There was one of clouds lit up from lightning. One was of a peregrine falcon wearing its typical striped pants. Hawks all dressed in an Elizabethan manner, never changing their style. There was a little girl with a blindfold around her head, wandering all alone with her arms stuck out. It was as though all the other children had been called inside but she hadn’t heard. He told Irving how he had played this game with Rose and the other orphans. Pierrot explained that this painting was the most magnificent, as it illustrated the universal and terrifying condition called childhood.

  “Well put,” said Irving. “It is indeed one of the most valuable in my collection. Your experience has made you a connoisseur of fine art. Come see my portraits of dogs.”

  Pierrot never brought up Sister Eloïse. He never told Irving that for the first time in his life he could go to sleep feeling safe. For the first few weeks, he had dreams where Sister Eloïse would be sucking him off. He would have called them nightmares were it not for the fact that he ejaculated in his sleep. The shame he felt af
terward sometimes made him cry out in the darkness. But soon he learned to sleep the deepest sleep he had ever slept. He went into the Land of Nod without scattering any bread crumbs to find his way back. The freedom that he had was exquisite and was so joyful that it almost drove him a little mad.

  Pierrot thanked Irving every day for the great gift he had given him. Everyone else in Irving’s life had turned against him. It was in part because he had so much money. And when you have that amount of money, then as now, everybody near and dear to you believes that the money should be theirs. His children thought he was greedy for not giving them greater trust funds. His money had made all his children dull and dependent. They lay in bed with their spouses, cursing him. All his children’s spouses hated him passionately. They were convinced that the money was theirs even more, as they had married his children for his money.

  Pierrot truly loved Mr. Irving. But then again, Pierrot truly loved just about everyone he came into contact with. When Irving’s children found out about his relationship with Pierrot, they hated that Irving was happy. Their greatest hope was that Irving would grow old alone, miserable and regretful of his stingy actions. But they went over to see Pierrot in a pair of roller skates, pushing Irving in his wheelchair in circles in the middle of the street.

  • • •

  THE DOCTOR CAME BY to check on Pierrot at the daughter-in-law’s suggestion. She said the boy was stark raving mad and might kill her father in his sleep, having mistaken him for a dragon.

  She came to visit once and Pierrot had been on the roof. The gray clouds lined up behind him like the aristocrats from Versailles filing up for the guillotine. He had a great big gardenia behind one of his ears. He was brandishing a poker from the fireplace in his hand. He screamed out, “Come hither, all dragons. I do not fear you. I will slay you all in one afternoon. Because I am a knight.”

  The neighbors all quite agreed with her diagnosis of insanity. He was spotted doing handstands in the yard every morning. He cycled down the street, his long scarf trailing behind him. He called out “Good day” to everyone. When Pierrot turned sixteen, Irving fired the chauffeur and gave him the keys to the car. Pierrot drove the car recklessly, right up onto the lawn. He honked his horn instead of ringing the doorbell.

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