Aunt Helena wasn’t exactly murdered but she didn’t die an entirely ‘natural’ death either if by natural you mean that someone goes to sleep at night and doesn’t wake up because they’re old or sick or its just their bad luck. She was old and sick but she was also accidentally locked outside on a cold, dark night and by the time someone heard her over the wind she was cold enough to get a good case of pneumonia and die of it within the following 18 hours. Her assistant, who I only knew as Christine, tended her until the very end, when she was in the ICU at Cedars Sinai. Christine was the one who closed her eyes at four o’clock in the morning and who made the first phone calls. But first she came out to see us, me and my husband Kenneth, in the waiting room. I had fallen asleep on the plastic couch but Kenny was zoned into some old CSI re-runs on his phone. He nudged me awake.
“Christine’s coming,” he said.
She looked awful. Her expensive looking haircut was completely flattened on one side, she had dark circles under her eyes, her cashmere cardigan was askew. I don’t think she’d slept over the last day or so. She was completely devoted to my Aunt and had been with her for years. No one knew, exactly, what her job was or what her training for that job had been. Early on she had been an executive assistant to my Uncle Brent, before he passed a decade earlier but she’d never been in his office, just at the house. She made golf dates for him and ordered in for both of them and told the maid and driver what to do. She was like a one-woman entourage for rich people who have no ostensible talents except wealth.
I never knew what her own ambitions had been in life. At some point many years before she had had a boyfriend, Phillip, but I’m not sure he was actually corporeal or visible to anyone except my Aunt and her. Ken thought that Phillip was gay and that Christine’s devotion to her employers and her well dressed asexuality made her a perfect beard. I actually thought that Philip was imaginary which, in some ways, is the best kind of boyfriend. They are never late.
In the hours and days after Helena died, however, Christine, who had never mentioned her own family, suddenly began to sprout relatives. The first to come aboard was her Cousin Elaine, a stern looking 40-something woman whose expression may have been the result of many years spent in either the military or in prison, on either side of the bars. Christine moved her into the guest room that had been mine when I visited as a younger, single woman. She said that she needed Elaine to help her sort through and pack Helena’s things.
But that was my job, I protested. That was why Kenneth and I were there, to ‘lighten the load’ and also to begin to do triage so that family and old friends could have a keepsake if they wanted it. Helena’s real jewels were in a lock box at the bank. Over the years, Helena had often gifted Christine with some very beautiful, very expensive pieces and she probably left her some pieces in her will as well. But we couldn’t read the will yet, not until my cousin Peter and a few other people could make it into town. We all agreed that there would be a funeral in a week and a memorial the week after where everyone could hear the Will read out together.
“No worries,” Christine assured me. “We’re just going to organize things.”
I did worry. Kenneth thought I was being mean and classist. After all, none of us had wanted the burden of taking care of Helena once she got old and very demanding. She was critical and snobby and Christine had been the only one she tolerated most days. Christine translated us for Helena, which I almost always found objectionable, but then again, I didn’t want to be the one to do it.
In the two weeks before the formal memorial, Christine’s brother Nathan, a man a good twenty years younger than she was and bearing absolutely no family resemblance also moved in. He took the rather luxurious two bedroom apartment originally built for their old chauffeur, Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin had retired a few years before and gone to live with family back East and Helena either called a cab or was driven wherever she needed to go by Christine, or occasionally by me or other family members. We hadn’t done anything with the place but all it needed was a good airing out and Christine had part of the cleaning crew she hired do so. Nathan was a very good looking guy, very smooth. Apparently he was knew a lot about cars and he immediately brought in an appraiser to look at whatever machines were around, Uncle Brent’s pristine Reo and his untouched motorcycle. I knew my son Eric would be interested in at least one of those, but Brent felt like he could get a good price for it and for some reason, everyone thought he should.
Kenneth actually tried to befriend Nathan. Because he was Christine’s brother, he ate with the family (us) and Kenneth made small talk with him over drinks. Christine said little to Nathan but did pronounce his name if his language started to get rough or foul.
One night at dinner Nathan asked how Aunt Helena had actually died. Actually he said “Helen” but I seemed to be the only one who caught that. Christine, tears in her eyes, hankie clutched, made her way through the story:
It had been, as stated, a dark and stormy night. Of course. Christine had been waiting for Helena in the downstairs tv room where they often shared much watered down scotch and waters and watched old movies. Christine went to attend to popping corn in the kitchen. When she returned rain was battering the windows and a pole over the awning in front had come loose, but Christine didn’t know that. She thought Helena had merely gone to the bathroom, which could take more than a few minutes sometimes. When Helena hadn’t returned by the first commercial break Christine went upstairs and called for her. She was convinced that Helena had murmured something from the upstairs bathroom but later said that it might have been a branch hitting the wall of the house.
By the second commercial break she got a flashlight and started to wave it through all the windows. A few minutes in, she saw Helena holding on to the moving awning pole as if for dear life. Helena was soaked to the skin, she was tiny by then, thin and frail and resembled nothing so much as a drowned cat.
Of course Christine rushed outside with a blanket and let Helena in. She dried her off as best she could, put her clothes in the dryer, changed Helena into a warm nightgown and tucked her into bed. She went and made her a hot toddy, brought it up, and put on a movie on the upstairs television and Helena said she was fine.
About an hour later, Christine finished watching the movie and went upstairs to her own room when she heard Helena coughing, first lightly and then in great bouts. She called Dr. Mackenzie’s exchange but it seemed like hours until someone, a young doctor with an unpronounceable name, got back to her. He told her to take Helena’s temperature and call him back if it was over 102. It was 104 but both Dr. Consonants and Christine felt that it would be better to let her rest in her own bed until daylight at least.
That was probably a mistake. Helena was terribly ill in the morning. She was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, diagnosed with pneumonia and put directly into intensive care. That was when Christine called Kenneth and me and of course we came immediately. By the time we got there, though, Aunt Helena was incomprehensible and exhausted and we went to wait out in the lounge.
I do miss my Aunt Helena. She was the last vestige of my childhood and I have very fond memories of her from those early years.
I don’t reproach Christine with anything, really. She did manage to disappear some things and Brother Nathan never actually came up with receipts for the cars. Anna vanished one night shortly after the memorial and we never heard of her again. I don’t know what she took with her, nothing too big I suppose, or someone would have missed it.
Christine got a very nice settlement. Neither Kenneth nor I wanted to sell the house right away so we had to pay her off in cash against the property but that was fine.
So….grifters? Or cherished companions? And does it really matter, now, anyway?