Now That Vera Was Here
Now that Vera was here, everything would be fine. She was younger than the other two, and kinder, with a sweet and patient expression on her face, and a cool hand, which she set on Mama’s hot, burning forehead.
“Thank God you’re here, Vera.”
“Who’s Vera?” That was Peggy, her elder child, who weighed about two hundred fifty pounds and gave off an odor that was both salty and sweet, like Kettle Corn gone rancid. Peggy stood at the foot of the bed and stared at her with those cold, calculating eyes that were just waiting for her to die. Well, she would take her time about it, now that Vera was here.
The bedroom was small—the whole house was small—and it was hot in there, airless, and Mama kicked off the covers, or tried to, but Peggy once again tucked her in.
“You gotta keep warm, Mama.” “I’m burning up.”
“What? I can’t hear you. John? Get your butt in here, will ya?”
John was her son, younger than Peggy by two years, which made him sixty-two. He walked into the room slowly—he had bad knees—and sat on the chair beside the bed. He looked at her like she smelled bad. Well, maybe she did. It had been a while since she’d taken a shower, days, maybe even weeks, and the Hospice nurse that came in once a day only gave her a little sponge bath, and half the time not even that.
Lazy. People were lazy. But not Vera. She stood in the corner now, as if she were shy of John and Peggy, but even then, she was arranging the knick-knacks on the bureau, looking at them, dusting them off with her fingers, and putting them back again, always smiling.
“It’s so good to see you again, Vera. I didn’t know I would ever see you.” “Who the hell is Vera?” said John.
“That’s what I’m asking you,” Peggy said. “Mama keeps talking Vera this, Vera that. You ever known anyone named Vera?”
John shook his head. “It’s an old-fashioned name. Whoever she is, she must be pretty old by now. Maybe a friend from Mama’s childhood.”
“Oh, I hope she doesn’t go all dementia on us.” “When’s that nurse supposed to be here, anyway?”
“In an hour. Then we can leave for a while. I need a break.” Peggy let out a long sigh, as if she’d spent the morning actually doing something instead of just staring at Mama with those beady eyes, waiting for her to expire, in between trips to the kitchen for Little Debbies.
– 19 –
“Well, I’m gonna leave you to it. I gotta get into the office. Call me if anything changes.”
By “anything changes,” Mama knew he meant, if she died. Well, he could wait all day and then some for that.
“What about the … removal?” Peggy asked.
“I told you, I’m trying to get a stay, so we don’t have to move her somewhere when she’s like this. Damn government. Thinks it can just take away a person’s home, give ‘em a few grand, and be done with it.”
“Forty-five grand ain’t peanuts. This house is falling apart.”
They were talking about her like she was already dead. John and Peggy would split the money fifty-fifty, and while John did okay as a real estate agent—or had, anyway, until the bust—Peggy barely got by on her social security. Half of forty-five thousand—whatever that was, Mama couldn’t really think square right now—would be a fortune to poor Peggy. No wonder she wanted her dead.
But not Vera. Vera looked sad at this talk. She seemed to be thinking that the house wasn’t so bad, not really. It had seen some good times. Some bad times, too. Yes, some pret- ty bad times. But some good ones. Surely that counted for something?
“You can go now. I want to be alone with Vera.” “What, Mama?”
“Well, you don’t need to get all angry about it. It’s not like I ain’t got better things to do. My grandkids need me too, you know. Come on, John, let’s leave her.”
“Bye, Mama,” said John, and he hurried out on his bad knees like there was a fire in the room.
Now she was alone with Vera, who came toward her, sat next to her waist on the bed, and held her hand. Vera’s hand was cool and soft, like she’d never done a day’s work in her life. Her golden hair flowed in ringlets. It was amazing to think she’d ever given birth to such a beautiful child. She thought back to that day… but everything was fuzzy, like a half- remembered dream. Tears came to her eyes. “I think I done you wrong, Vera, but I can’t… I can’t remember.”
Vera shook her head and smiled, as if her mama were crazy for thinking she’d ever done her wrong.
She remembered… Peggy was ten, and John was eight. They were finally in school. Mama was working at the plastics factory. She had been given a promotion, assistant supervisor. They finally had money for extras, a nice TV, a car she was able to make monthly payments on, one that was safe in the Wisconsin snow. She’d take the kids out to dinner once a week, when Earl played cards with the boys. Earl was cranky when he was sober and down- right mean when he was drunk, but there was a place in between, a soft spot, when he’d had just enough beers but not too many yet, when he told her she was pretty and stroked her hair.
– 20 –
And it was during one of those times that she’d become pregnant again, and the first thing she’d thought was, I can’t have this baby. I will die.
She couldn’t go back to those sleepless baby days in poverty. She was finally working, finally earning money, finally away from those needy kids for eight whole hours a day, and when she thought of going back to square one, she decided she would rather kill herself. But how could she possibly leave the kids with Earl?
Abortions weren’t yet legal, but a woman at the plant knew someone who knew some- one…
She came to the house and did it right on the kitchen table, so that she could be close to the sink. It had been a long wire, but not a coat hanger, like everyone said. Then she’d had to take a small amount of cyanide every day for a week, and the cyanide had made her ears ring and had made her feel sick, but she hadn’t told Earl, she had never told anyone, and had gone into work the next day just like nothing had happened, though she’d had to go puke in the bath- room twice before lunch.
That couldn’t have been… That wasn’t… Vera?
Her eyes filled with tears, and because she was lying flat, they ran from the outer lids onto her temples and into her thin hair. But still, Vera gave her that understanding smile, and rubbed her tears away with her soft palms.
Then Mama had a terrible thought, that this wasn’t just her home, it was Vera’s home, and if they took this house away from her, if they bulldozed it to the ground, then what would happen to Vera? Where would she go?
“Where…?” But she was tired and couldn’t get out the rest of the words.
Vera shook her head, as if she knew what Mama was going to ask, and somehow Mama had it all wrong, but that was okay because Vera knew what was going on.
“My baby,” Mama whispered. “My beautiful little baby.”
And then something surprising happened. Vera took Mama’s hand and stood, and Ma- ma stood, too, and it was much easier than she would have ever thought it would be—standing, walking—her limbs felt so light! It was as if Vera was carrying her somehow, even though she was just guiding her by the elbow, as if she was lifting Mama off the ground. They glided out of the room and into a sort of tunnel, toward a light that was warm and bright. And as they moved closer to the light, everything else grew farther away—the house and the kitchen table and Earl’s drinking and the kids’ squabbling and every broken-down car and crushed dream she’d ever had—until all of that disappeared. And all that was left was Vera. And the light. And this feeling inside of Mama, as if something inside her was finally, at long last, being born….