Afterlife
“If given the option, Vera Petry would decline her fifteen minutes of fame. But there’s her name on the front page of The Gazette. In small print, but there all the same, in a column running alongside Wally’s picture and the headline, “Area man wants others to learn from his experience.”

 

Seems Wally does want his fifteen minutes. Not that it should matter to her what kind of fool he makes of himself. But he’s gone and dragged her into his pathetic narrative.

Vera, Vera, who bothers to read this free weekly anyway? Mary Beth Reece, Charlie Cox, Frannie Albright – they’re the only ones left in the neighborhood.

Sold to a black family, her and Wally’s house, only seven blocks from here. Wally convinced they had to move out to the suburbs before “them blacks take over every f-ing thing.” Even though it was cramped with five kids, the house had a warmth, a coziness that enveloped Vera and helped her cope. He didn’t give a fig about her wishes.

Of course, who could have predicted that young white professionals would come to see the benefits of urban living? The neighborhood changed back to white, only this time, family incomes have six figures, seven even. The last she heard, that nondescript little bungalow she and Wally owned went for three-quarters of a million dollars.

Vera gets up from the kitchen table and puts her cereal bowl in the dishwasher. She pauses in front of the narrow window over the sink. Two stories below, pedestrians walk into the March wind, heads bent, hands clutching coat collars. Up and down the street specialty shops accommodate families wanting chef-prepared dishes to carry home at the end of the day. Coffee shops charge three dollars for a cup of coffee and boutiques sell purses for four hundred dollars.

She watches two svelte young women in sweatpants and sweatshirts jog along the edge of the sidewalk. Will they get coffee afterward?

Wally always interfered with her friendships. He’d criticize women she liked, saying they were stupid or ugly or bad mothers or bad – the possibilities of bad were endless. And what, he demanded to know, made her think she had time for socializing when the house was a mess? When the kids needed more supervision. When he needed her. She never understood what he needed her for. Except dinner on the table. And sex. On demand.

During their years of marriage, church was her refuge. She’d drop the children off early at Kids Worship, then meet Annie in the church kitchen down in the basement. Unless a Sunday luncheon was on the calendar, the two visited in quiet, sometimes skipping the worship service altogether. It was Annie who gave Vera the courage to file for divorce. Shortly before it was finalized, Annie was killed in an automobile accident. 

Now Vera has two new friends, Barbara and Henrietta. The three don’t much discuss their pasts. All Barbara and Henrietta know is that Vera’s husband is in prison. Was in prison, until three days ago.

Both have recently retired from careers that gave them an identity, Barbara as a school librarian, Henrietta as a social worker. Vera’s identity? She still struggles to consider herself anything other than wife, mother, cook, vacuumer, toilet-bowl scrubber. No. You’re a different woman now. A strong woman.

 
 

She pours herself another cup of coffee, inhales the mildly pungent aroma, carries the newspaper back into the living room. She counts the steps from the kitchen into the beige carpeted living room. One, two, three…up to twelve. Until Wally’s release she’s felt secure in her condo on the third floor, two locked doors between her and the outside.

Her space. After the divorce settlement she moved back to the neighborhood, into the old high school converted to luxury condos. She has two bedrooms, the master suite with a spa bathtub and a closet probably bigger than Wally’s prison cell was. Her unit has the warm tones she prefers: ecru walls, sofa and recliner upholstered in rust-toned velour. Her living room window offers a view of the park, where on warm days she sometimes sits on a bench near the statue of Ulysses S. Grant.

Lifting Puffy from the velour recliner Vera sits, staring at Wally’s picture in the newspaper. Puffy curls next to her, purring as she rubs his luxuriant white fur. Puffy, her final line of defense against Wally.

The spectacle Wally has made of their life. First the kidnapping, followed by the publicity of the trial. Now a newspaper interview. Acting contrite when she knows he isn’t. He’s always had that way about him. Not charm. No one would describe Wally as charming. It’s his ability to convince. His fake sincerity.

“His wife’s determination to get a divorce drove him to such drastic measures, Petry states. He insists that he still does not understand why she wanted to end their marriage.”

Of course he doesn’t understand. That’s why she wanted the divorce, because he didn’t understand how a man should treat his wife.

Five babies born one right after the other. Ten recipes for canned tuna, as many for Spam. It was Vera who took Lizzy to the emergency room, physically carried the ten-year-old fifteen blocks. Vera who made the burial arrangements. You were always a strong woman. You just didn’t know it.

The life Vera reads about holds little resemblance to the one she recalls. The article says Wally worked hard to provide for the family. To his credit, he did. He started his own construction company, putting in fifteen-hour days to make it grow. He claimed to be doing it for the family, but after a while it was obvious he wanted money for money’s sake. Then more money. Until he was driving a big Cadillac, wearing gold chains around his neck and sporting a diamond ring on his pinkie.

“What do you think I’m made of?” he bellowed when she came home with a dress she’d bought for thirty-five dollars on a clearance rack. “An eff-ing gold mine?” He made her return it.

Wally promised she could help design their new house in the suburbs. She wanted a cozy home with a fireplace and an eat-in kitchen. He built a monster with the gosh-awfullest pillars on a portico and fancy wrought-iron trim everywhere. He put in a circular drive with an ornate Italian fountain in the middle, and a four-car garage.

Ten years. Ten years since she found the courage to demand a divorce. All the while struggling to drown out Wally’s mocking tone, his condescension.

 
 

You’re a different woman now. A strong woman.

 
 

She reminds herself that she gets affirmation from reading at the nearby elementary school, embracing her grandmotherly role, holding sweet, runny-nosed five-year-olds on her lap, taking on the voices of growling wolves and squeaking mice. She takes piano lessons and sings in a community chorus.

Now Wally’s been released.

Vera tosses the newspaper on the floor. It’s almost time for Oprah. A needed distraction. Vera anticipates a guest author or a woman telling how she found healing. Last week it was by scaling El Capitan. She clicks the remote. Takes a sip of coffee from the mug Robbie gave her, “World’s Best Mom” in big red letters.

Shit!

There’s Wally on the local news, standing in front of the camera, acting like he’s on the verge of tears. His third day out of prison, already playing the victim. What a faker, making that little blonde gal who covers the emotional stories feel sorry for him.

He’s nine years older than the last time she saw him. He always took pride in his thick black hair. Now it’s white. His shoulders slump a little, and a paunch hangs over his belt. But he has the same diffident smile and the crow’s feet next to his eyes. He’s using his public voice, the velvety one she had no access to.

“What do you wish you could tell young husbands?” the woman asks.

“To make time for the family, not to get so fired up about providin’ for their family.”

Bullshit. It took nine years in prison to learn that? Bringing the remote control down as if it’s a gavel, Vera clicks the television into silence and darkness.

She gets up, giving the chair back to Puffy, who yawns and stretches his paws. Counting the twelve steps back to the kitchen, she drops the newspaper on the recycling pile under the breakfast bar. She glances around her kitchen with satisfaction. The Sub-zero refrigerator and maple cupboards. An expensive condo financed by the settlement. The paper mentions that too, how Wally thinks it’s an unfair amount.

Not one cent more than I deserve, given all I put up with over the years.

At noon Vera walks to the post office to return a sweater she ordered through a catalog. The cut’s unflattering, makes her look big in the hips. When she comes out there’s Wally leaning against the blue mailbox, fingertips of one hand tapping the white eagle, the other hand poking at his gums with a toothpick. He wears a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap and a pair of faded jeans.

“Hi there, Vera,” he says, falling into step as if they’re still married. Vera says nothing. Instead of stopping by the drug store to pick up a prescription, as she planned, she heads directly home.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” he asks as she places her key in the front door of the building.

“No.” She opens the door and shuts it in his face.

She should have done that back in ’70. Shut the door in his face and never spoken to him again. That damned way of his, those words of flattery after she spilled a small pitcher of cream on his clean Army uniform. Her boss, acting all patriotic, gave him his breakfast free, then took it out of her wages. If there’d been plastic creamers, the sealed kind they have now, things would have turned out differently. Wally would have paid her no mind and gone to another restaurant the next time he was hungry. Instead he returned the following three mornings and stayed until the end of her shift, kept telling her what a pretty girl she was.

  “Aren’t you going to invite me in?” Wally asked Vera three days later when he walked her home from work. A month after that, a week after her eighteenth birthday and the day before he was shipped overseas, they got married.

 
 

You’re a different woman now. A strong woman.

 
 

“You’re looking good, Vera.” Wally stands in the middle of the sidewalk, right outside Jentzen’s Drug Store.

She says nothing, doesn’t tell him she knows she looks good because she’s lost about twenty pounds, and Lanie colored her hair auburn and cut it differently. A breeze from the south, relief from the cold spell they’ve been having, brushes her face. She was thinking about strolling over to Memorial Park, sit awhile in the sun by Ulysses S. Grant. But she suspects Wally will come along. She wants nothing to do with him. Not even to be seen with him.

Too late. She hasn’t encountered Mary Beth Reece in months, but here she is, walking down the sidewalk in their direction. Mary Beth with social antennae like the Eiffel Tower and a big mouth, who stops to say hello, flashes that super-friendly smile of hers, and asks, “Where you living now, Wally?” Like she’s hoping to pass along word that Wally and Vera are cohabitating. Even though she’s one of the few still living in this neighborhood from the old days, she’s the kind who keeps her connections.

Sure enough, on Sunday Althena Melrose approaches Vera in the church vestibule. Althena says in that syrupy sweet voice of hers that she heard Vera and Wally are back together, that people have seen them walking down the street. “We’re all cheering for you,” Althena tells Vera, patting her on the arm, leaving Vera to wonder what she means.

Up on the pulpit Pastor Bill occupies the high-back chair upholstered in worn red velvet. Good God. There’s Wally, eight rows in front of her. He used to say he wouldn’t go anywhere he couldn’t wear jeans and a hard hat. He seems to have changed his mind.

This morning Pastor Bill preaches on the sanctity of the family while his wife, Marsha, sits in the second row of pews.

“How easy it is to dissolve the bonds of marriage,” Pastor Bill says.

Is Marsha happy? Vera wonders. She remembers the exact day she realized she wasn’t happy. The three older children had all moved out – Brian to live with a girlfriend, Robbie to rent an apartment with two friends, Lila to New York, where she wanted to establish an acting career. Only Kelly remained at home. Wally, in a fit of anger – something so minor Vera doesn’t remember the reason – threw a glass against the refrigerator and stomped out of the room. Vera fetched a broom and dustpan. Instead of sweeping up the glass, though, she stopped, sat on the floor. Legs crossed, she picked up a shard, studied the way it reflected the kitchen light, the way it came to a point. She pressed the point against her wrist. A drop of blood formed a small puddle. She pressed harder. She watched the crimson liquid trickle from her arm, onto her white blouse.

“People need to work on their relationship,” Pastor Bill reminds the congregation. “What God hath joined together…” Wally turns around and winks at Vera.

Since leaving Wally she welcomes morning, not having to hear him rant that his eggs are too runny or that his shirt isn’t ironed the way he wants. Or hear him tell the children how incompetent she is, that she’s a terrible mother. She’s free to sip a morning cup of coffee in peace. Then go to the mall or to the museum. Or go read to preschoolers. She’s free to take piano lessons and practice when she wants to.

 
 

You’re a different woman now. A strong woman.

 
 

Home from church she changes into jeans and slippers, microwaves Weight Watchers lasagna. In her recliner she eats while a TV preacher says everyone is part of the family of God. Maybe next Sunday she’ll get her religion from TV.

The telephone. It’s Kelly, who calls several times a week, her words always interrupted by periods of crying. She frets about her studies and about whether her lit teacher likes her and about what her roommate thinks of her and about the pimple on her forehead. Kelly, the child who’s probably paid the highest price. Yet there’s Brian’s drinking.

Wally recognized Kelly’s value. Knew Vera would do anything to protect their youngest. It wasn’t out of revenge. He just never thought it through to its logical conclusion. That when Kelly didn’t come home from school, didn’t call to tell her mother she’d be late, hadn’t come home by ten that evening – it seemed not to have occurred to Wally that Vera would call the police. For five days Vera waited frantically by the phone, until the police found Wally and Kelly.

Some days she blames Wally for their dysfunctional family. Other days she blames herself. She should have been stronger, not the pathetic enabler. That’s the word Lucy has used in therapy sessions: enabler.

 
 

You’re a different woman now. A strong woman.

 
 

Her shopping basket contains a quart of milk, a small plastic container of Tide, two rolls of toilet paper, a small bag of coconut cookies. Plus seven frozen Weight Watcher dinners. Rounding the corner at the end of the aisle, her mind focused on which line will be quickest, she nearly runs into Wally, carrying two six-packs.

Her nose in the air and her head turned away are meant to signal her intention to ignore his presence. He steps in front of her. “Hello, Vera,” he says, not in the loving tone of someone who wants his wife back but in a menacing voice, as if she’d better say hello too. But she doesn’t. Instead she puts the grocery basket in front of her and bulldozes past her ex-husband, who is nearly twice her weight. A lane has just opened. Vera places the groceries onto the black belt.

Moments later she pushes her two-wheeled shopping cart along the sidewalk, taking rapid steps while Wally’s long strides persist beside her.

“Want me to help you take those upstairs?” he asks when they come to her building.

“No.”

She unlocks the main door, opens it only enough to place the bag of groceries inside, folds her cart, and squeezes her body through a narrow space. She shuts the door behind her.

Inside, she leans against the locked door and whistles a sigh of relief. He could have forced his way in, would have in his younger years.

That’s why she’s got Puffy.

Maybe she should welcome Wally into her space. She imagines him breathing, inhaling Puffy’s dander, gasping for air. She’ll call the paramedics right away. She doesn’t want him dying on her beige carpeting.

 
 

Two weeks have passed since the newspaper article. Fourteen days of running into Wally every time she ventures from the condo. At the music store, at the library. She considers calling the police and accusing him of stalking her. He’s not likely to give up, that she knows from experience.

People she hasn’t seen for years, former neighbors from the suburbs, have been calling to talk about Wally. “He’s hurtin’ real bad,” Eleanor Watkins tells her. “The man’s paid for his crime,” Lillian Gerber insists. All of them expressing hope that she and Wally will reconcile.

On a rainy Friday afternoon Pastor Bill pays a visit. Vera offers him some coffee and cookies from the bag she bought at the convenience store. “The Lord has laid something on his heart,” he says. Wally isn’t doing very well without her, and Pastor Bill prays she’ll reconsider.

Reconsider what? she wants to know.

You know, getting back together.

Because he isn’t doing very well without her?

It’s hard for a man who relied on a wife for so long to suddenly get by on his own.

Hard on a man, huh? He got along fine without me in prison.

Remember what our Lord told Peter: to forgive seventy times seven. It’s time you forgive Wally. Besides, these are the golden years, a time when a man and a woman are meant to be companions for each other.

She offers Pastor Bill another cookie. When they’re gone he leaves, telling Vera to think it over – prayerfully. She will, she promises, and walks him to the elevator.

Once he’s gone she goes into her bedroom and pulls the draperies closed. Slowly, deliberately, she peels off her clothes, starting with the navy blue sweater and gray slacks, ending with her panties and bra.

Standing in front of the wide dresser mirror, she runs her fingers up and down her arms, folds them across her breasts. She brings her fingertips to her shoulders, where they trace the grooves dug by years of wearing bras. She puts her hands down to her side and rubs her thighs, once muscular, now fleshy and marbled.

She wishes for scars on her body. If she had visible scars people wouldn’t be so quick to think she ought to take Wally back. But the scars are inside, so nobody sympathizes. Not even the kidnapping convinced them, the terror she lived with while police searched, her hurt over Kelly’s confusion when her daddy drove at breakneck speed across the Midwest, his refusal to let her call Vera.

Without putting her clothes back on, Vera walks back into the living room and sits down in her recliner. “Here, kitty,” she softly calls as Puffy peers around the corner. Puffy stares for a moment, then turns and walks away.

Oh, cat, what an inspiration you are

 

 

Author's Comment

“Afterlife” was inspired by an article I read several years ago in the small weekly newspaper of a Chicago suburb. The article, oozing in empathy, featured an older man who had just been released from prison for kidnapping his daughter. He urged other husbands and fathers not to prioritize financial success over family, as he had done. I wondered what his ex-wife thought as she read the piece. I imagined her as Vera, who in the intervening years discovered her strength – a heroic feat. I included Vera’s conversation with Pastor Bill because I’ve met women, some severely physically abused, whose pastors urged them to 1) pray more, or 2) try harder not to anger their husbands. Anything to preserve the marriage. 

Bio

While Nancy Werking Poling has long had qualities associated with creative types (daydreaming and not following directions, for example), not until retirement as an educator did she have time to write. Her most recent novel, While Earth Still Speaks, evolved from her asking, “As an older woman how do I make the rest of my life count?” Her other books include Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987), non-fiction; and Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman, Bible-related stories.

6 thoughts on “Afterlife

  1. Such a strong piece from a strong writer. I held my breath at times, cheered at other times, and then was rewarded with a laugh at the last sentence.

  2. I’m inspired by the author, obviously a strong woman, asking the question that I ask myself, almost every day. “How do I make the rest of my life count” – and I would add the words “to me” Her writing shows that she’s doing just that.

  3. Men like Wally have other women they can turn to for support and who listen with compassion to their complaints about their terrible wives. But the men won’t divorce. They like power and control more than real relationships.

  4. Men like Wally have other women they can turn to for support and who listen with compassion to their complaints about their terrible wives. But the men won’t divorce her. They like power and control more than real relationships.

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