Third E by Katherine Jamieson
The mattress showed up a few days before Aunt Helene was due to arrive. I’d just gotten home from school, and was eating my peanut butter and celery sticks when the doorbell rang. Mom guided the deliverymen up the stairs to the guest bedroom, where they removed the old stained, floral-patterned mattress my sister had slept on until she went to college, and replaced it with a golden cream-colored one with a fuzzy top that looked like something you might sleep on in heaven. I reached toward it with my peanut-buttery fingers, but mom swatted them away, and asked the men not to remove the plastic cover just yet.
“Ok, ma’am we’ll get the rest of the boxes,” the lead delivery guy said. He had a tattoo of a curvy woman on his neck and I watched it move up and down as he talked.
“There’s more?” she asked, but he only shrugged, as if to say,I just deliver. Five gigantic cardboard boxes came up the stairs, all with the “Organic Outfitters” giant green fern leaf logo on them, until you could barely walk through the guest room. When mom left I climbed on top of two that were stacked on top of each other and jumped onto the new mattress. It bounced me up so high I almost hit my head on the ceiling.
“Should we open them up?” my mother asked into the phone as she twirled the cord around her hand. I heard the faraway, munchkin voice of Aunt Helene on the other end. “Yes, of course, I just want you to be comfortable,” my mother said. “No trouble at all. We’re going to have a good time.”
Aunt Helene was my mother’s sister, and she hadn’t been to see us since I was seven, four years ago. I only knew her face from the photos she sent every Christmas from different places she visited in the world. She and her husband Rudy looked funny together: she skinny, pale, and red-headed, and he with a big belly, dark, slicked back hair and sunglasses, always. They were usually on a beach with a sunset behind them, but sometimes they were in front of a crumbling church or on a cruise. Uncle Rudy traveled a lot, and Aunt Helene didn’t work so she could always go with him. “Lucky,” mom said flipping through the photos. “Idle,” said dad.
Mom had me wash my hands, and set my brother Michael, who had gotten back from soccer practice by now, and me to opening the boxes. Inside were stacks of big fat towels that looked very different from the thin, faded ones in our bathrooms. There were bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and soap that all smelled like nothing, and a machine that when you plugged it in made a static sound. A violet bathrobe, slippers, blankets, a big comforter that sat on the bed like the froth on top of a milkshake. One whole box was full of strange food: rose-flavored lemonade, ginger candies, sweet potato chips, powdered green drink.
When we’d pulled everything out of the boxes and laid it on the floor, mom came in and sighed. “We’ll have to clean out Georgia’s closet to fit all this,” she said, and set to work putting my sister’s old cheerleading costumes and school binders into the green fern leaf boxes. That night we made the bed with the new silk sheets, and put everything in its place, from the seaweed toothpaste to the bamboo bathmat. After we finished the room seemed like it didn’t really belong in our house anymore.
When dad walked in he said, “She didn’t want us to paint it for her too? All this for an elective surgery?” Mom just shook her head as she set up the alarm clock with a light on top that created its own dawn.
“I know, I know, it’s a bit much,” she said. “But she’s my one sister and I never get to see her. Plus she’s going to leave all this behind when she goes,” she said, gesturing to the room.
“Wonderful,” dad said. “We can start our own one-room New Age bed and breakfast.”
Aunt Helene pulled up in a long white car a few days later. Mom ran out to greet her and they giggled and rocked back and forth a few times hugging. She was even paler than in the pictures, and there was a crease between her eyes that was so deep I thought it was a cut. Her wiry arms around me were stronger than I expected, and she smelled like powdery honeysuckle. “Louise, doesn’t she look just like Aunt Julia?” she said to my mother as she cupped my cheek. Starbursts spread from the corners of her eyes when she smiled, and I could see the line between where her lips ended and her lipstick began.
The driver brought up her plastic silver roller bags, like Jetson’s luggage, and she handed him a twenty. She thanked us for putting the room together, and said she’d need to lie down for a bit after the long flight from LA. “I have to rest up before my surgery,” she told me, and turned on the static machine.
That night during dinner Aunt Helene told us about the safari trip that she and Rudy had taken, and how they’d fallen in love with this kind of dog called a basenji. “Rudy detests barking, so I always thought we couldn’t get a dog. But basenjis only growl and yelp, and make this amazing yodeling sound called a “barroo,” so it was really a dream come true to discover them. And in the Congo of all places!” They’d put in a special order with a breeder in Brazzaville, and then had one flown over as a puppy. Its name was Katy Perry.
“Katy Perry, like the singer?” Michael asked, looking at the photo of a little brown dog in a pink polka-dotted jacket on her phone.
“The little girl who lives next door came over and started playing with her, and she said, ‘She looks like Katy Perry.’ We just thought that was so funny and the name stuck,” Aunt Helene told us. But the problem with Katy Perry, or all basenjis actually, was that the Africans use them to hunt lions. “They’re so small you really can’t imagine it, but apparently they go out in packs and they’re quite vicious. No one told us this in Tanzania, of course.” Katy Perry had been tearing around their lawn after every rabbit and squirrel, and a few times she’s disappeared for hours at the park. “So now we’ve had to hire a trainer— a wonderful woman from Gabon who specializes in basenjis— to come three times a week. Katy Perry is much better behaved, but of course it’s costing us a mint,” she said.
“And how’s Rudy’s business doing?” dad asked.
“Oh, fantastic, it’s growing all the time. That’s why we were in Africa actually: he’s expanding into diamonds now,” she said.
“We’re sorry to miss him on this trip,”dad said, though I’d heard him tell mom that if he had to spend more than twenty-four hours with that blowhard husband of Helene’s he couldn’t be responsible for what might happen.
“He’s disappointed also,” Aunt Helene said. “But we’re thinking that now that the room’s set up for my chemical sensitivities we might be able to visit more often. And maybe we can bring Katy Perry next time.” She smiled at mom who smiled back at her, but I could see that worried look behind her eyes like when my sister called from college to say she needed more money.
“The problem is that third ‘e’,” dad said that night while he was on the ground doing his back exercises. I had come in to their room so mom could help me with my math homework.
“Paul, don’t talk so loud,” mom said.
“She’s got her supersonic silence machine on, she can’t hear a thing,” he replied.
“What’s the third ‘e’?,” I asked. Mom explained that when she and Aunt Helene were growing up in Cincinnati her name had been Helen. When she moved to LA to start working as an actress she’d added an ‘e’ to the end.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, lots of people change their names when they start acting,” mom said. “It’s called a stage name.”
“Tell her the truth: she wanted her name to sound more like Paris and less like Cincinnati. The problem is even after she’d worked as a waitress for ten years, and it was clear she wasn’t going to make it to Hollywood, she still kept the trumped up name. Does Rudy even know that she used to be a Helen?”
“I’m sure he knows, of course he knows,” said mom. “Honey, give her a break, I don’t think it’s easy being married to that man.”
“Of course it’s not easy. But it’s her choice, right? The multi-million dollar McMansion in Beverly Hills that’s always springing a new leak and has to be remodeled, the trips to exploit the dirty diamond industry of Central Africa, the yodeling dog? These things don’t just happen to people, Louise. They’re too bizarre to just happen to people.”
I could tell mom was getting angry now. “I just don’t think it’s our place to judge,” she said, getting up to pull the shades down. “Honey, can you handle the rest of the problems by yourself?” My room was right across the hall, and I could tell they were arguing until their lights went out. Then all I could hear was Aunt Helene’s machine pushing its extra quiet into the night.
Aunt Helene had a few days before her surgery, and she spent them taking mom out during her lunch break at the office, Skyping with Rudy and Katy Perry, and shopping for jewelry and clothes in town. One night she was late for dinner, and she walked in laughing with a man who had paint on his clothes.
“Everyone I want you to meet Juan,” she said, putting her arm around the man who was a few inches shorter than her and squeezing him. “He absolutely saved me today and I am forever in his debt. Louise, could we pull up another chair?”
“Ah, sure,” said mom, and went to find an extra in the dining room. Once they were seated, Aunt Helene told us about her adventure. Apparently, she’d decided to rent a car that day so she could drive out to a special boutique the next town over.
“But I thought you wouldn’t be able to drive after the surgery?” dad asked.
“Oh, it’s true, I won’t, but I thought you and Louise could drive it if I need to go to an appointment. The Lexus shocks are stupendous, and I might be in pain, you know, so I don’t want anything to jar me. Anyway, it was all going brilliantly until I realized that this model Lexus is a little different from Rudy’s.” After she had the car delivered to her at the spa where she’d gotten a pre-surgery massage, she’d been driving home and done something which started the window wipers going. She pulled over in a neighborhood a few miles from ours, and tried to figure out what was going on. In the process, she hit a button that made the alarm system go off.
“And it started blaring out, and I was going around the car trying to figure out what was happening, just trying to make it stop, when Juan showed up.” Juan was nodding now, and gold glittered on his teeth when he smiled. “He was painting one of the houses nearby, and he came running to this damsel in distress, and in two seconds he’d stopped the alarm and the wipers. I was so relieved I almost started crying.” Juan nodded harder.
“I saw a lady throwing her hands up and screaming, so I said, “Lady, lady, it’s ok,” he told us.
“We started talking and since he’s going to be free after his painting job ends, he’ll be able to help me get around after the surgery. Isn’t that an amazing stroke of luck?” she asked.
“Miraculous,” said my father.
“That’s great, Helene. Juan would you like some spaghetti?” mom asked.
“Yes, please madam,” he said.
“Here you go,” said mom, ladling out a big helping. “And please call me Louise.”
Aunt Helene came back from her surgery looking like she’d been beat up. She had black eyes and bandages on her face and legs, and lay on her bed drinking rose-flavored lemonade and watching old episodes of “Desperate Housewives of Atlanta.” Juan showed up in his truck every afternoon with magazines and bright green and red drinks from the juice bar in town, and mom always tried to get him to stay for dinner. He told us that he lived with his wife and kids in a town about 45 minutes away, so he had to go home. But he let her give him a tupperware of whatever we were having for dinner so he wouldn’t get hungry on the long drive.
A few weeks after the surgery I had a half-day at school. Usually mom would arrange for one of the neighbor girls to stay with me until she finished work, but since Aunt Helene was still recuperating she said I could just hang out with her for a few hours. I heard the shower running when I got home, so I went upstairs to see if she needed anything. But when I walked by Aunt Helene’s room I saw she was lying on her bed in a lacy robe. She sat up when she saw me.
“Oh, honey, you’re home early?” she asked in a high voice, even though she could see that I was.
“Didn’t mom tell you I had a half-day?” I asked.
“No…she must have forgotten. But that’s ok, it’s ok, we’ll have a good afternoon together. And Juan too, you remember Juan?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Of course you do. You remember he’s a painter, and it’s such a messy job. He had to take a shower after work, so I said no problem he could take a shower here. So that’s him in the shower right now,” she said.
“Ok,” I said. “I don’t think mom will mind.”
“Yes, I don’t think she’ll mind either. But, you know maybe we shouldn’t mention it to her anyway? She might insist on washing his towels, and I don’t want her to go to any extra trouble, I’ll just use his towels again, no problem. So let’s not mention it to her, ok?” she said.
“Ok,” I said. “Do you want anything?”
“No, sweetie, I don’t need anything. Just go and do your homework downstairs for a bit until Juan finishes up, and then we can watch a movie. And do you want to order some pizza and sodas too?”
Mom never let us order pizza. After Juan left with his hair still dripping we ordered a big pepperoni and sausage pie and watched a movie called “Dirty Dancing,” which Aunt Helene said was one of her favorites. She started crying when the man said, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” When mom came in she found us lying together on the bed. “Looks like you had a good afternoon,” she said when she saw the pizza box and empty soda cans.
A few days later, mom was cleaning up Aunt Helene’s room and she found an undershirt with paint on it that Juan had left behind by accident. I guess she did mind that he took a shower at our house. “He’s married, with six kids, Helene. What are you thinking?” Aunt Helene started crying, and then mom closed the door and lowered her voice so I couldn’t hear them anymore.
A few days later, Aunt Helene announced that Rudy and she were going to take a spontaneous trip to Thailand, so she had to get home to pack and see Katy Perry. “I thought I was going to need a few more weeks to recover, but you all have taken such good care of me, I’m all healed up,” she said at dinner. She’d already changed her flight and would be leaving the next morning.
“Does Juan still think he’s going to be working for you? I thought he didn’t have another job right now,” dad said. He was staring hard at her, and Aunt Helene looked down at her plate.
“Oh, Juan, he’ll be fine. I’ve paid him for all the time he was supposed to work, and some extra,” she said. “Oh, I’m going to miss you all so much!” she said, looking at Michael and me.
“We’ll miss you too, Helene,” said mom, handing her a cup of tea. Dad didn’t say anything.
That night, Aunt Helene called me into her room and gave me a locket that she said had belonged to my grandmother. “I wanted you to have this, honey. I know she would have loved you,” she said. “Maybe you’ll come out to LA to visit with Rudy and me and Katy Perry some time?” she asked. Rudy seemed pretty creepy and I wasn’t sure about hanging out with a dog that chased lions, but I said I would love to anyway.
The next morning I woke up when I heard the driver bringing Aunt Helene’s silver suitcases down the stairs. Out the window, I could see mom in her sweatpants, and Aunt Helene who still had faded black eyes, but was wearing a fancy suit and her new jewelry which sort of covered things up. They hugged like the first time they’d seen each other, and then Aunt Helene slipped into the big white car. Before they pulled off, she reached her thin white arm out with lots of glittery bracelets on it, and put it on mom’s cheek to wipe away the tears. Mom stood there as the car disappeared into foggy morning, and when she came back in she was quieter than the quiet machine had ever been.
© Katherine Jamieson, 2014
Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writer's Program, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her essays and articles have been published in The New York Times, Narrative, Meridian, Alimentum, Brevity and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2011 and 2013. Based in the woods of Western Massachusetts, Katherine leads a dual life as a reclusive writer and road manager of an internationally touring musician (her husband). You can read more of her writing at: katherinejamieson.com
Third E was read by Virginia Bosch on 4th June 2014