Excerpt of Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
(Page 3 of 7)
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"My dear lady," he said. "My
condolences for your loss."
"Come in." She had an ample figure,
heavy in the bosom and hip. The type Bernardian old bachelor, a
window-shopper whod looked but had never boughthad always liked.
She led them through a tidy parlorpolished
pine floor, a braided rug at the center. A delicious aroma came from the
kitchen. Not the usual Slavish smell, the sour stink of cooked cabbage.
"This way," said the widow. "Hes
in the cellar."
They descended a narrow staircasethe widow
first, then Jerry and Bernardi. The dank basement smelled of soap, onions and
coal. The widow switched on the light, a single bare bulb in the ceiling. A man
lay on the cement floorfair-haired, with a handlebar mustache. A silver medal
on a chain around his neck: Saint Anne, protectress of miners. His hair was wet,
his eyes already closed.
"He just come home from the mines,"
said the widow, her voice breaking. "He was washing up. I wonder how come
he take so long."
Bernardi knelt on the cold floor. The man was
tall and broad-shouldered. His shirt was damp; the color had already left his
face. Bernardi touched his throat, feeling for a pulse.
"Its no point," said the woman.
"The priest already come."
Bernardi grasped the mans legs, leaving Jerry
the heavier top half. Together they hefted the body up the stairs. Bernardi was
sixty-four that spring, but his work had kept him strong. He guessed the man
weighed two hundred pounds, heavy even for a Slavish.
They carried the body out the front door and laid
it in the rear of the car. The boy watched from the porch. A moment later the
widow appeared, still holding the baby. She had put on shoes. She handed
Bernardi a dark suit on a hanger.
"He wore it when we got married," she
said. "I hope it still fits." Bernardi took the suit. "Well
bring him back tonight. How about you get a couple neighbors to help us? Hell
be heavier with the casket."
The widow nodded. In her arms the baby stirred.
Bernardi smiled stiffly. He found infants tedious; he preferred them silent and
unconscious, like this one. "A little angel," he said. "Whats
"Lucy." The widow stared over his
shoulder at the car. "Dio mio. I cant believe it."
"Iddio la benedica."
They stood there a moment, their heads bowed.
Gently Bernardi patted her shoulder. He was an old man; by his own count hed
buried more than a thousand bodies; he had glimpsed the darkest truths, the
final secrets. Still, life held surprises. Here was a thing he had never
witnessed, an Italian wife on Polish Hill.
THAT MORNING, the feast of Saint Anthony, Rose
Novak had gone to church. For years the daily mass had been poorly attended, but
now the churches were crowded with women. The choir, heavy on sopranos, had
doubled in size. Wives stood in line to light a candle; mothers knelt at the
communion rail in silent prayer. Since her son Georgie was drafted Rose had
scarcely missed a mass. Each morning her eldest daughter, Dorothy, cooked the
family breakfast, minded the baby, and woke Sandy and Joyce for school.
Rose glanced at her watch; again the old priest
had overslept. She reached into her pocket for her rosary. Good morning,
Georgie, she thought, crossing herself. Buongiorno, bello. In the
past year, the form of her prayers had changed: instead of asking God for His
protection, she now prayed directly to her son. This did not strike her as
blasphemous. If God could hear her prayers, it was just as easy to imagine that
Georgie heard them, too. He seemed as far away as God; her husband had shown her
the islands on the globe. She imagined Georgies submarine smaller than a
pinprick, an aquatic worm in the fathomless blue.
Stanley had wanted him to enlist. "We owe it
to America," he said, as if throwing Georgies life away would make them
all more American. Stanley had fought in the last war and returned with all his
limbs. Hed forgotten the othershis cousins, Roses older brotherwho
hadnt been so lucky.
The foregoing is excerpted from Baker Towers
by Jennifer Haigh. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or
reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East
53rd Street , New York , NY 10022