My mother once told a friend how frustrating it was to communicate with her new housekeeper, Helen. Her friend said, “But, Lorraine, you speak Spanish, don’t you?”
My mother said, “Yes, but Helen is Polish.”
Helen has worked for my mother for so long, the only way we’ll ever know her age is by counting the rings around her waist.
I didn’t see Helen often, but when I did, she was always very pleasant.
After Richard and I got married, moved to an apartment, had two children and a cat, we couldn’t keep things as clean as Richard liked.
Richard worked two jobs, and, when not being the loving, devoted mother, wife, and crazy animal lady I have always been, as a freelance journalist, I was frantically meeting deadlines for several magazines.
The cat shed, and so did our children. They were half “Chase,” after all, and we come from hairy stock.
When Richard found hairballs in his shoes, we asked Helen to come every three weeks.
As winter descended, Helen wore a beautiful Camel Hair coat. By February, I suspected Helen had taken a lover because she began to wear perfume.
But, it was not love I smelled in the air. It wasn’t a whisper, or a hint of a fragrance. It stunk up the air with the greatest of ease.
I only had to endure the stench every three weeks, but having always had a rather sensitive proboscis, I began to get headaches and feel nauseated every three weeks, too. I had to say something. But, what?
I didn’t know any Polish. Which words would convey that it was the smell of her perfume – – not her – – that I didn’t like? I didn’t want my words to translate to, “Helen, you smell like a rotting appendix.”
One afternoon I walked into the the living room ready to talk to her about her perfume, just as she finished and left to clean the kitchen.
I took a big sigh of relief, but in doing so, I realized the stench remained the same. How could that be?
I deduced that the smell couldn’t be wafting directly from her person. Like a Bloodhound, I was on a mission. Slowly I crept, step by step, sniff by sniff, until I found the source of the offending odor.
The Eau du Helen was coming from the coat she always put on top of the radiator. The closer I got, the worse it smelled. The heat must have been intensifying the noxious chemicals.
Once I knew from whence the smell came, I was able to try to ask her to please hang her coat on the banister in the hallway, just outside our apartment.
She did. Our encounter went very well. Maybe, a little too well. As a precaution, I didn’t lose sight of my cup of coffee in case she felt compelled to give me a sneezer latte.
One wintery Saturday, when she opened the door to leave, her coat was missing. It suddenly dawned on me that we’d left a bag of Richard’s dirty* shirts in a bag on the banister. The dry cleaner guy must have seen (and smelled) Helen’s coat, and taken it to be cleaned.
I called the dry cleaner and found that my assumption had been correct.
Helen took two busses and a train to get to and from our apartment. If she left later than her normal departure time, she might miss a bus or the train, and possibly not arrive home until the next day, conceivably in a different time zone altogether.
I’ve always disliked story problems, so I was relieved when Richard solved everything by calculating that he could drive the two blocks to the dry cleaner, pick up the coat, and then take Helen to her first point of departure.
Needless to say, we later had to have the car detailed.
After moving into our new house, we parted ways with Helen. She’d have had to take twice as many busses and trains to get there, only leaving her one hour to clean before having to catch the additional busses and trains.
Years later, I stopped by Mom’s one Wednesday afternoon. As soon as my finger reached for the doorbell, I knew Helen was there because The Smell was coming from inside the house.
Helen gave me a big hug, launching my nausea ad nauseam.
She looked me up and down, and said, in the few English words she pronounced so well, I’d swear she’d had lessons from Miss Manners, herself, “You look so good! So fat!”
I smiled, said a quick, “hello” to my mother, and got the hell out of there.
After taking a shower and boiling my clothes, my mother called to try to explain that in Helen’s culture, calling someone “fat” was not meant to be offensive. It was actually a compliment that meant “you must be doing well.”
I didn’t care what Helen meant. My ego had been deflated. I’d worked really hard to only be that fat.
No matter how my mother tried to spin it, the fat was out of the bag. I think Helen seized the opportunity to get me back for the smelly coat extravaganza.
How long had Helen planned her back fat…I mean pay back? How long had she practiced those exact words in English so she could say them to my fat face?
I am usually not one to hold grudges, but I haven’t stomped foot in my mother’s house on a Wednesday between 9:00 AM – 3:30 PM since.
Fat chance I ever will again.
*Richard’s shirts have never been dirty. He sent them out because, even after lessons from my friend Juliet, I was unable to iron them to his specifications.
There’s still time to submit words for The Mad Libs Project! Please read the blog post from February 8, 2015, and e mail your words to firstname.lastname@example.org.