Illustration by Louise Chen
by Surita Parmar
Aunt Euphrasia had two loves: her pink marble mantelpiece, and Patty Hearst.
She was Mother’s older sister and lived down the street from my family in an ugly, spilt-level stucco house with white shutters. It looked like any other house when she bought it. Over time she added cupolas and stained glass windows (which Mother referred to as "junk") so that the house ended up looking like a big wedding cake. Aunt Asia looked like a cake, too. She wore pastel sweater sets trimmed with satin ribbons. At night she put curlers in her hair and wore it in long ringlets during the day. On her collarbone was a small birthmark the exact shape and colour of a cinnamon heart candy. I thought it was pretty. When I was in grade school I’d steal Mother’s lip-liner to draw one on my own chest. I quit when my older brother started teasing me about it. He said it looked gross, like a hickey.
Issue #33 soundtrack: The Georgian Company "If You Love A Ghost"
The mantelpiece — purchased from a House and Home catalogue — was mounted in her parlour, over the fireplace. Mother said that normal people called “parlours” living rooms, and that the mantelpiece was obviously a painted fake. But one afternoon when we were over for tea I licked a finger and scrubbed at it. The rosy veins didn’t smear. They threaded through the slab, strong and clear.
The mantel held a few porcelain knickknacks and a black and white picture of Patty. Aunt Asia had watched Citizen Kane a thousand times after someone from church told her it was about Randolph Hearst, Patty’s grandfather. I knew he was some big shot newspaper guy but I didn’t understand Aunt Asia’s fascination with the Hearst family. Not long after the fifty-seventh viewing Aunt came across Patty’s picture in Life magazine. It was a famous photo that was taken when she was kidnapped. She was clutching a rifle and wearing a beret tilted on her hair. I laughed at the picture and said her hat looked stupid. But deep down Patty scared me. Her eyes looked empty and crazy. Years later I learned about World War One in history class. When I saw pictures of shell-shocked soldiers in my school textbooks I remembered the photo of Patty.
Aunt Asia had the picture of Patty framed. When I asked why, she lowered her voice and said the elder Hearst was her grandfather, and that she and Patty were twins separated at birth. Her mother (her real mother, not Grams) had secretly arranged it. At least one of her birth family should live a normal life. Nobody had told Aunt Asia but she always knew. The knowing was part of being a Hearst.
Mother looked troubled when I relayed the story. Afterwards she mentioned to Grams that Aunt Asia seemed out of sorts. It wouldn’t hurt for her to spend a few weeks at the hospital or local sanitarium. I felt bad for ratting and said I lied about the whole thing. The matter was dropped after Mother bawled me out for "trouble making."
Aunt Asia died quietly in her sleep when I was sixteen. She had seemed ancient but Mother said fifty-four was too young to die, even if Aunt Asia was kind of crazy. Mother and I spent an afternoon at Grams’ debating an open or closed casket and whether to serve asparagus rolls or canapés at the wake. Late in the day a young lawyer with an expressionless face appeared at Grams’ door. I was reminded of my brother’s G.I. Joe action figures that we played with when we were kids. As Grams ushered him inside, I excused myself and went outside to take a look at his car. It was a bright red beamer worth a quarter million – at the very least. I couldn’t wait to tell my brother about it.
When I went back inside, the lawyer was arguing with Mother and Grams. He said we weren’t to worry about Aunt Asia’s viewing or burial. All arrangements had been taken care of by an anonymous benefactor. Of course Mother and Grams wanted to know who paid for everything. He refused to say. In his briefcase was Aunt Asia’s will. She had left her entire estate to the Salvation Army. Except the marble mantelpiece, which was for me. Before we knew what to think he had quietly vanished, leaving behind a pile of engraved invitations on heavy, cream-coloured paper.
The service was an hour away out of town, in a chapel that nobody had heard of before. I gaped as we entered the room. The scent from a mass of orchid wreaths trickled through the chapel. It made me gag. As confused relatives stammered through eulogies I hunted for a card and found one tucked in a spray of vines, with a short message offering condolences and prayers to Euphrasia’s loved ones. No signature. In the upper left corner I noticed a faint watermark pressed into the paper. I grabbed a stubby pencil from the nearby guestbook and scribbled over the card marking until a looping, scrawled letter appeared. An "H."
I showed it to Mother, who waved me away and said the marking was just a flaw in the card. A paper clip indentation or something. After the service she told the minister to do what he liked with the flowers. I snuck the card and a stray orchid home.
I thought about pressing the flower in an encyclopedia or dictionary, but I wanted to keep it someplace special. Maybe inside a souvenir from Aunt Asia’s house. Mother and Grams were in the process of sorting and boxing Aunt Asia’s belongings for the Salvation Army. I remembered the framed clipping of Patty on her – my – mantelpiece and hoped they hadn’t gotten rid of it yet.
The morning after the service I went with Mother and Grams to Aunt Asia’s house to finish packing up her things. Lucky for me the picture was still there, sitting on the mantel in the parlour as it always had. Mother and Grams were tackling the kitchen that day. It was easy to slip the picture into my carry-on bag without provoking any questions form Mother and Grams. At home, I pressed the stray orchid and card between the glass frame and photo. I was about to put it somewhere safe when I noticed a faint speck on Patty’s right collarbone. Dirt? A bruise?
No way, I thought. Not a chance.
I knew I should hide the picture in my bookcase and forget I saw anything. But I needed a closer look. We didn’t have a magnifying glass, so I ran to Mother’s room and grabbed her reading glasses from the night table – the kind you get at the drugstore for twenty dollars – and held it over the picture. Enlarged, the blotch on Patty’s collarbone appeared heart shaped.
The mantelpiece was sold to a local antique dealer. It fetched an okay price, the bulk of which was dumped into my savings account for college. It was just as well. The sight of it made my family uneasy, and the pink shade of the marble was really tacky.
Mom wanted me to throw the picture away. I didn’t – I kept it on my desk and took it with me when I left home for college. I decided to stay quiet about the matching birthmarks. Partly because I knew my family wouldn’t believe me. Even DNA evidence that linked Aunt Asia to Patty wouldn’t have been able to convince them that she was a Hearst. They didn’t want to believe it. I can’t say I blamed them, and I liked the idea of my own secret.
Surita Parmar graduated from Ryerson University with a degree in Architectural Sciences. In 2008, Surita abandoned her career in construction management and corporate design to explore creative writing and film; she has not looked back since. Her short and feature-length screenplays have received accolades at the Yorkton, Slamdance, and Austin Film Festivals. Additional credits include penning the BravoFACT! TV short Minus Lara, and writing and directing the short films LIFE DEBT and NEVER MIND THE BOLSHEVIKS. In 2011 she completed a writing mentorship with author Susan Swan, and was accepted to the Canadian Film Centre Writers’ Lab program.
Louise Chen is based in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in galleries across the United States, including Giant Robot Galleries in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Her artwork is inspired by botanical and scientific drawings, vintage floral patterns, antiques, the universe, animals, and the people and artists that move around her. View her online portfolio at louisechen.com.
The Georgian Company is an Austin, Texas-based modern folk-rock outfit, made up of singer/songwriter George Irwin on acoustic guitar and banjo; Chris Nine on keys and back-up vocals; her husband Phil McJunkins on pedal steel; Topher Hyink on bass and Travis Hyink on electric guitar; Adam Shallenberg on drums; and back-up vocalists Jenny Kroening and Dixie Riddle Irwin. Their 2010 album "Side B" was released as a follow-up to 2009's "Side A.". Visit the band online at thegeorgiancompany.com.