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The lonely hearts hotel, p.8
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.8

           Heather O'Neill

  But Irving did not choose to scold Pierrot or chastise him. The child had a madness to him, but it was indeed such an incredibly lovely madness. These were the marks of a genius. The boy was eccentric. He reminded Irving of all his own absurd antics. If he were a young man, he too would be brandishing a poker on the rooftop, demanding that the dragons show their ugly faces.

  And what was more, Irving adored Pierrot’s piano playing.

  When he heard the tunes, he would remember how it felt to be absolutely guilt-free. What it felt like to be a good person. He felt young again. There was no such thing as time when Pierrot played the piano. Irving would close his eyes and he was nine years old, in a striped bathing suit with just the tips of his toes in the freezing water. He had his eyes closed to make a wish on a birthday cake. He was about to wish that he would become prime minister.

  No, he would not listen to any doctor condemning his dear friend. He didn’t like that Pierrot wasn’t treated with the respect the doctor would accord to Irving’s other children. So they went to the tailor to get Pierrot new clothes.

  “I can’t stand to look at second-rate clothes,” Irving declared from the passenger seat. “I’m purchasing it for me and not for you.”

  On the way to the tailor downtown, Pierrot managed to almost run over a line of schoolgirls, a couple of distinguished young ladies and seven cats. At the shop, Pierrot insisted on a roll of checkered multicolored material. The tailor was assigned to making a suit of the highest fashion out of the ridiculous material. He wore a yarmulke on his head and had pins sticking out of his mouth as he scurried about, furtively measuring Pierrot’s skinny dimensions with a piece of chalk. And a week later the suit was delivered to their door.

  Irving was sitting in the garden drinking tea. Pierrot came out in his new suit with his arms spread. A swallow passed overhead, its tail feathers as thin as a seamstress’s scissors.

  “It makes me very happy to see you walking around in that dapper suit. Who were your parents? I wonder. Surely it was some pretty girl from a very wealthy family, tempted at the Valentine’s Ball. You are obviously an aristocrat. You are my own young prince. You and I are in the same predicament. Nobody knows us for who we truly are. But we won’t be lonely anymore because we have each other. We will enjoy life together. Free from the preposterous names that people have attached to us. What does the past have to do with us? What does the past have to do with any of us?”

  • • •

  WHENEVER ANYONE ASKED QUESTIONS about the orphanage, Pierrot would tell them about the wonderful Rose. He told them nothing about the cold and Sister Eloïse and all the lonely children he had left behind in her care. That just filled him with a guilt impossible for the hardiest heart to withstand. Pierrot continued to send letters to Rose. He sent them every few days, but she never returned them. She must be furious with him for leaving. Perhaps it might be best to let her go. But thinking and obsessing about her allowed him to block out any other memory of the orphanage. It was as though she were the only thing that had ever happened in his childhood. The thought of her climbed and twisted around each of his thoughts like a rosebush.



  Despite her entertainment value, Rose wasn’t an especially good governess. She didn’t care that the children were wild, and she seemed to have no intention of disciplining them or training them to be civilized. She was more of a kindred spirit to them than anything. She just played with them and took care of their general needs.

  They set fireworks off the back balcony. They were supposed to wait until Christmas, but they couldn’t. They regularly ate dessert three meals a day. Once they ran into the kitchen with their faces covered in green face paint. Hazel stopped for a second and looked at the cook.

  “Greetings, Earthling,” she said.

  Rose never cleaned up after the children either, only pulling out her small lemon-patterned rag when the lady of the house passed by. One of the maids started screaming when she discovered the bathtub was filled with frogs. Hazel came in and informed her that she and Rose had kissed them but were waiting to give them the opportunity to turn into princes. Maybe it wasn’t something they could do at the drop of a hat.

  “Maybe there are naked princes wandering the earth, looking for the damn girls who kissed them and then just took off.”

  One night she was up late eating a bowl of whipped cream with the children. The whipped cream suddenly reared into a white stallion on its hind legs. Ernest was so hyperactive when he was finished eating all that cream that he ran down the street in his underwear and threw a baseball through a friend’s window.

  On another afternoon, a snowman appeared outside the house with a knife in its chest and red food dye spreading down from its wound. And a large flat stone for a mouth that made him look as though he were screaming at the top of his lungs.

  Although Hazel and Ernest were becoming even wilder under Rose’s tutelage, there was no way anyone would fire Rose because the children had clearly decided that she was going to stay. There would be a terrifying uproar if she left, the likes of which the house had never seen.

  There were days when Rose decided to be absolutely quiet, as if life itself were a silent film. She would gesture her needs and desires. She rubbed her belly to ask the children whether they were hungry. She scolded them by making an extremely dour expression, stomping her feet and wagging her finger viciously. It was the only time the maid witnessed Rose chastising the young savages. And it was in jest.

  She was teaching the children how to do cartwheels and backflips in the nursery one afternoon. Their knees were all bloody from doing front flips and falling. They were bleeding happily at the kitchen table, eating chocolate cake for lunch. The maid thought she might need to have a word with Mrs. McMahon about Rose to save her own neck.

  “She keeps them out of my hair, so what do I care if they’re off murdering small animals?”

  “I don’t mind myself, Mrs. McMahon. We all quite like the girl. I’m just telling you so that if you see your children running around the backyard buck naked, you don’t get alarmed and blame me.”

  “Fine. Fine. I grant you immunity.”

  Despite the telescope being off-limits, Rose often found herself looking through it.

  She placed her little rag down beside her so that she could pick it up and begin dusting the telescope at a moment’s notice, if need be. She focused the telescope so that she could look at the moon up close. It always startled her, as though she had turned around and there was the moon, following her down the street. Or she opened her bedroom door and there was the moon, lying in her bed, under the sheet.

  She tried to see whether there was an alternate reality up on the moon. She looked at it closely, expecting to see herself and Pierrot standing up to their ankles in silver sand with their arms stretched out toward the earth.

  When she looked through the telescope, she always asked herself the big questions. Who made us? And why did that being put us in the middle of all this great emptiness? What did anything matter? Why did they put all those stars so far away? Why did they put strange creatures at the bottom of the ocean? Why did they give us the minds to find them, if they didn’t want us to find them? She wondered whether if she went to university and studied astronomy and mathematics she would be able to answer these questions.

  One day Hazel came to peep through the telescope too. Rose put a chair beneath it so that she would be at eye level. They took turns looking deep, deep into the universe: Saturn like a knee that had been dipped in iodine, Neptune like a peach covered in mold, Jupiter like a half-sucked jawbreaker, Mercury like a large shooter marble, galaxies like crushed candy, galaxies like the suds from a bubble bath blown off the palm of your hand.

  “You are so lucky,” she said to Hazel. “You get to be educated! How wonderful is that? I would love to go to school and learn to read giant boo
ks of mathematical problems like they were novels. Don’t you always find that math problems are quite beautiful to look at? I do. They remind me of funny little insects pinned to a corkboard. And you wonder so much about their origins.”

  “I never pay attention when the tutor comes over.”

  “Well, I think you should. Try to be good when he comes over.”

  “I find that I can’t help being bad. I promise and promise and promise myself that I won’t be a bad person. But then I just do something bad.”

  “That’s because we’re girls. We’re supposed to only have emotions. We aren’t even allowed to have thoughts. And it’s fine to feel sad and happy and mad and in love—but those are just moods. Emotions can’t get anything done. An emotion is just a reaction. You don’t only want to be having reactions in this lifetime. You need to be having actions too, thoughtful actions.”

  • • •

  THE OTHER SERVANTS became quite fond of Rose. She was in the kitchen juggling eggs. The maids and the cook were screaming with laughter, yelling that she was for sure going to break all of them.

  She walked across the banister in her stocking feet. She was carrying in all the plates from the dining room and pretended to trip. Everybody shrieked. They all thought she was quite mad. They loved when she tried to get through an open door but was pushed back in an imaginary wind tunnel. It was quite extraordinary.

  They had never met a girl who made jokes about farting. When she bent over to pick something up, she would make a loud farting noise. It always made them guffaw noisily. She had such a good sense of humor.

  They had never seen the children so happy. Rose was able to control them just by virtue of being crazier than them. They were all three of them sitting in the backyard wearing Napoleon hats made out of newspaper. The servants were very surprised that she had grown up in an orphanage and that she hadn’t been lobotomized.

  • • •

  ONE NIGHT Rose was sitting by herself in her room. It had been raining all evening. The soft sound of the rain on the rooftop sounded like young girls sneaking off in stockings to elope. She felt lonesome for Pierrot.

  Rose pulled her suitcase from beneath her bed. She kept her most precious belonging in there. She took out the plan she had drawn on a piece of paper on the trolley when she and Pierrot were little kids. It seemed like the most absurd plan in the world. It had come to her in a fit of inspiration. Who really knew where these fits came from? Perhaps it had been an angel whispering in her ear. There were doodles on the margins of the paper, a vine creeping up a white wall.

  It seemed so fantastical and silly. It was a make-believe story that she would tell the children. She had a future as a domestic house cleaner. She wasn’t qualified for anything else. But she kept the piece of paper near to her. It was the closest thing she had to a photograph from her childhood. It made her nostalgic for all the good times at the orphanage, without remembering the bad.

  But she also had to learn her place.



  Although Pierrot was elegant by nature, Irving decided that he could further enhance the young man’s sophistication. He made Pierrot walk around while balancing an encyclopedia on his head. Pierrot became quite good at balancing things in this manner. One afternoon Irving, hearing a commotion in the kitchen, entered to discover all the servants crowded around Pierrot as he balanced a small stool with three books and an apple on top of his head.

  “Never let anybody tell you that you can’t pass as an aristocrat. Remember, it’s all superficial. It has to do with mannerisms. You can learn how to be an aristocrat by following a few rules in a very short book. There is nothing to it.”

  He gave the boy a small copy of a book called Manners for the Perfect Gentry.

  He taught Pierrot to hold his chin up higher and to cry out that he didn’t know why on earth he wasn’t in Italy. The absurdity of it all did not faze Irving in the least. He was at an age where even being alive was absurd and so he had retired from the realm of common sense.

  • • •

  IRVING ENROLLED PIERROT in a private school. He thought Pierrot would be good at school, given his artistic temperament, but he was wrong. The boy was brilliant on the debate team. No one on the opposite team understood what he was saying, and so they had great difficulty responding to or challenging his points. However, he failed in every other subject. Pierrot couldn’t handle any kind of structure, or hard work, or discipline. He refused to learn even basic algebraic equations. And he refused to learn the birth date of a single war. He wasn’t even accomplished in music class, as he couldn’t learn to read music. Pierrot ended up missing most days at school and staying home with Irving.

  • • •

  IRVING DRANK EVERY NIGHT. One day, when Pierrot was seventeen, a bottle of very expensive wine was sent over by the mayor as a gift for Irving’s endowment to Montreal’s art museum. Irving was loath to drink it alone and so he told the servant to fill the boy’s tumbler to the brim with wine as well.

  “Have a drink, my boy. I need to make a toast and I need someone to raise their glass and drink to it. A toast must be seconded.” He held up his wineglass and Pierrot held up his tumbler. “Let us toast that we were born intelligent men. There are more and more stupid people born in the world every day. We are lighthouses for brilliant ideas lost in the dark, searching for an audience.”

  They clinked their glasses together. Pierrot knocked back his wine. He loved the warm feeling at the back of his throat and its strange burgundy sweetness. He put the glass back on the table when he was done. The alcohol entered his heart and was sent out in a gush through all the veins in his skinny body.

  For a moment Pierrot felt as though a trapdoor had opened beneath him and he was plunging downward. He felt as though he had slipped off a diving board and was now doing somersaults under the water. He felt numb. He picked up a fork and pressed it against his skin. He was surprised to find that he hardly felt anything, no matter how hard he pressed.

  A similar thing was happening to his mind. When he thought about things that had previously caused him pain, they only tickled him. He was always afraid to think of the other children he had left behind at the orphanage because it would break his heart. But now he thought about them and their memories had no power over him. Not only did the thought of them no longer cause him any pain, they no longer caused him to have any reaction at all.

  After the seventh toast, Pierrot had finished four tumblers of wine. His lips were dark red, as if he had kissed a Parisian whore. His teeth were purple, as if he had bitten into an animal. He was feeling hot. So he unbuttoned his shirt and flung it onto the floor. He sat there like a mad Roman emperor.

  He started laughing. He picked up his chair and he carried it to the other side of the table and he sat next to Irving. He put his arm around Irving and announced that he was swell. He jumped up when the maid came in and gave her a big kiss on the lips.

  “Sit down! Let this be a lesson to you. No matter how wild you get, the one rule you have to follow is don’t impregnate the servants. A pretty servant girl is like a cupcake—you can have some pleasure in it, but only in a momentary way. You don’t want to commit to her. There has to be a division between high and low. Looking down on people is an important motivator.

  “I became the man that I am in order to look down on people. That’s why a doctor found a vaccine for smallpox, you know, not because he was interested in helping out all those sick people, but because he wanted to make all his doctor friends jealous.”

  Pierrot stood up on the table and stuck his arms in the air. “Look at me way up here!”

  “Well, you don’t have to be so literal, my boy. Think in terms of the big picture, will you?”

  “Let me get my notebook!” Pierrot exclaimed. “I have to record these instructions for my edification. I have so much
to catch up on.”

  Sometimes when Irving was particularly loquacious, Pierrot would take out a notebook and write down things he was saying. Pierrot had a way of looking so intently: his eyes would open up so wide. He would wear the most compassionate expression and his dazzling blue eyes certainly never hurt. It inspired Irving to share his most improbable pensées.

  “Appearance is the most important thing. People are rarely curious about anything else. They don’t go the extra mile. Just get yourself a well-tailored suit and never mind personality, et cetera . . . Did you get that?”

  “Yes, marvelous. The words are dancing about the page, but continue.”

  “Love. Such an absurd idea. It’s worse than God.”

  The truth was that the very last thing in the world Pierrot needed was to spend time with a half-mad, old millionaire. He was the only orphan being raised like a member of the very wealthy elite. Naturally this was problematic, given that he didn’t have a penny to his name. He really needed the constitution to work in a factory, or perhaps as a salesman.

  Pierrot needed some order. He needed some sort of discipline. He needed to find a way to toughen up. This was ruining him. He would never be able to hold any sort of job after this. The Mother Superior had been right. Now, thanks to Irving, he had a life philosophy that he could not afford to have. This was a common denominator of most addicts, which Pierrot would become.

  As it grew late into the night, the flowers dropped forward on their stems, like girls who had fallen asleep on a church pew.

  • • •

  PIERROT LEARNED to mimic Irving’s ways. After living in a rich household for two years, he was able to act in a hoity-toity manner. As he walked down the street in Westmount, if you did not know who he was, you would think he was a rich boy for sure. You would assume he had grown up on that street. That he had a mother who had adored him and tied absurd white bonnets onto his head. You would have assumed that he had had a governess, who would have counted his little fingers for him. She would have shown him a globe and traced her finger from Montreal all the way across the ocean, as if “across” were a place that a person could go.

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