Aubrey Streit Krug
Vera Blum didn’t have family here. She had married in, but after the funerals of her son and husband we went back to calling her Vera Blum. Like her wedding ring, we figured she kept her family name, just didn’t wear it except for special occasions.
There are a few of those here. We’ve all got married, and we’ll all get buried, we like to tell each other. We’ve all been under the same blue sky and shady trees, and someday we’ll go under deeper before we pop over the hills like the sun.
We prefer to stick to what we already know how to do well, like smorgasbords. The years have taught us to bring the thing we’re best at. Lou’s got her angel food cake, and I’ve got my broccoli salad with bacon. We only fuss about what to make the day before, and what it tasted like the day after, so there’s something to talk up and down over coffee. Coffee’s the time for talking, for looking back and forward and paying attention to people so you can spot them clearly in the order of things.
Vera Blum didn’t drink coffee, so far as we could see, or talk much, as close as we could hear. For this, she occupied an even more particular spot in town. Well, outside of it, in the country just before the county line. Driving on the highway we saw her mow her lawn, the riding machine smoothing over the dips, shearing the yard into shape. We watched her nod and squint a smile when she carried a warm tray of tomatoes to her niece’s. She had a green thumb and tomatoes that bulged red, a single layer in the cardboard lid of a canning jar box. She would lean on her niece’s white porch railing (not to pull herself up, but like it held her back from coming any closer) and pass over the tomatoes, which the niece would blend into a mild salsa.
The niece taught grade school here until she got married and moved, but even while she was here she was a world apart from Vera Blum. Not a cold distance, but just such that you wouldn’t mix them up. She was a social butterfly with cheeks like honey wheat rolls. She always noticed when our husbands gave us a new anniversary necklace, and she squeezed a little when she gave and got hugs. She came to church, but late, and sat in the back, never with Vera Blum. It didn’t seem likely that she saw her aunt more than once a month, and maybe not even that much in the winter.
The cold always seemed hard on Vera Blum. It didn’t age her—really, she had a lovely complexion. She inspired us to wear hats on our mowers, and inquire about what cold cream she might be buying. But while our winter stews and roasts, potato chip casseroles and grilled cheeses thickened us up like leftover chili, Vera Blum never plumped. The wind stooped her, stiffened her a little, but she seemed to have found a way to keep off her winter reserves, or store them elsewhere. Or maybe she didn’t have a sweet tooth.
She may have eaten dessert only to be polite. But she did the work we all did: washing, weeding, cleaning, sewing. We all hung our laundry on the line, a little bit of our lives flapping on display. We all moved our houseplants to the porch in the spring; deadheaded the marigolds bordering the vegetables; covered the beds with frayed bath towels when the weatherman predicted frost. Of course nobody did it all right. Of course we each had our own way, and in each thing one person did better or did more.
But when we watched Vera Blum—the back of her in the front of church—we all wanted to be the one who did better and did more for her. When it was already too much, and she had lost them years ago. To lose the son, and then lose the husband at the graveside…all we could do over the decades was reassure ourselves that this tragedy already happened once and so it wouldn’t happen again, not to us.
When the losses first happened, though, as we gathered in the cool interior of the church and then around the hot pot of coffee, we had needed to do more to protect ourselves; we had needed to bestow help.
Cakes wouldn’t cut it, and canned goods spoke too loudly of bounty, hoarded provisions for big meals, working men. Cats were too moody, likely to either go wild or sit high on the laundry line post, planning to pounce. A puppy would have been too frisky, too much a reminder of her boy. Bouquets die. Plants, though, we imagined could stay green. And with most houseplants there was no need to weed: just wait for the dirt to go dry before you water.
We had been taking care of the same plants since we were brides. Peace lilies, surprisingly finicky. Cuttings from neighbors, probably from the town’s same fertile philodendron. Straggly spider plants we never paid proper attention to. Geraniums we plucked the petals from to rub between our fingers like a stain. Our own spiky mother-in-law’s tongue, which she gave us as a joke. Polka-dot plant, to have pink year round in the kitchen, plus holiday poinsettias sleeping in closets. The Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or Christmas cactus, the name just depending on the weather. The asparagus fern that drops its leaves when you buy thicker curtains that block more light, so suddenly you see all the little thorns. Still, it’s closer related to asparagus than roses. If you don’t kill it, the fern will go on and grow so big the roots will pop the pot when you’re not looking.
We all had our favorites, and we all gave them to Vera Blum. We imagined her growing up the plants, since that seemed to be her nature, and we imagined she fought to keep them all in their pots, all in place, as they reached out to her. Maybe she ignored them, or maybe she coddled them in secret like grandchildren. With Vera Blum, we thought we’d never know.
Her death last Sunday did bring some quiet to us, though, since it was the third, and since it seemed to tie her back with what she’d lost, if only in the ceremonies of our memory. Her wedding ring was on her finger. The priest said the prayers meant to take her to a peaceful rest, the way we wished for ourselves, someday, not too soon or faraway, maybe when the town was ready to go, too.
Vera Blum had a habit of looking past you when you waved hi—or maybe not past, but around or above you—and that’s the way we watched the July sky while we prayed, looking out through the gaps in the open windows at church. It had been windy when the bells were ringing, but during the service the wind hushed, and the air sucked our dresses against us like the slurp of a straw. Afterwards, the funeral director took the visiting niece and her husband up by the altar, to read them the little cards that came staked in the soil of the potted plants, and clipped to the stems of the flower arrangements. “With great sympathy.” “In honor of a virtuous woman.” “You and your family are in our prayers.”
We knew the cards; we’d dictated them to the florist over the phone. We didn’t know what the niece would do with the house in the country, though, and we wanted to visit. Pay our respects, tend the tomatoes, maybe take down any flowered dresses she’d left on the line and hang them safely in the closet inside. Putting Vera Blum’s belongings in place might bring us peace. Our husbands went to watch the clouds. Something’s brewing, they said. This won’t take but ten minutes, we replied.
We drove out in two cars, let ourselves into the garage and found cardboard flats to fill in the garden. The spicy smell of ripe tomatoes seeped into our hands. The clouds swirled lower, like a flock of lost birds descending to read the rock roads like a map, and then we heard the siren in town. Nobody startled or shrieked or dropped a tomato, but it was strange to pass the plants on the porch—glossy, blooming, not a spot of yellow—and open the door to Vera Blum’s house.
Lou’s great uncle had laid the foundation when she was a girl, so Lou found the cellar door off the kitchen. We scurried down, the wind rumbling and our knees popping. We stood by the shelves and looked at each others’ individual faces clenched against the arriving roar. And then we looked at the pots. The canned vegetables and fruits stayed on the shelves, but the empty clay flowerpots floated up a few inches and rotated. We watched them rise. Then we heard them fall: the sound was like saucers clattering in place, or the spin of a coin on a wooden table.
They came to rest. I knew we were safe because of Vera Blum. I could see on our faces that we were all thinking of her, how she died in her front pew like a flower, back curved in a wilt, grey curls on her bent head still petal tight.
And in the cellar, like in church, our silent prayers were so silent they shut up children and swallowed sneezes. Vera Blum slid into that silence like it was silk. When a ceiling tile fell during the homily, crashed across the altar railing, and the shocked organist spurted out a chord, she didn’t startle a bit.
In the cellar, like in church, we knew Vera Blum was gone when the world was too calm to be true.
We climbed the stairs and left Vera Blum’s house, holding on to each other as we stepped over the broken glass of a few windows. Outside, the garden was swept clean by rain, the dewy grass in the yard neatly clipped. We craned our necks toward the shelterbelt. “Is that something up in the tree?” we asked.
It looked bright white, like a tea towel bleached long on the line. But it was too high, and we needed to go home, each to our own house. We returned to tell our waiting husbands that we had been given a fright, but if we could only sit down a while, and sigh, we’d come up and out of it just fine.
Aubrey Streit Krug is a graduate student in Literature and Great Plains studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Her poetry has been published by The Land Institute in The Land Report, and her prose has appeared in Identity Theory and Visual Communication Quarterly.