Excerpt from Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Baker Towers

by Jennifer Haigh

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2005, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2005, 368 pages

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"These Slavish," he said, as if only a Pole would drop dead in the middle of winter and expect to be buried in a snowstorm.

The train passed, whistle blowing. The Packard crossed the tracks and climbed a steep road lined with company houses, a part of town known as Polish Hill. The road was loose and rocky; the coarse stones, called red dog, came from bony piles on the outskirts of town. Black smoke rose from the chimneys; in the backyards were outhouses, coal heaps, clotheslines stretched between posts. Here and there, miners’ overalls hung out to dry, frozen stiff in the January wind.

"These Slavish," Bernardi said again. "They live like animali." At one time, his own brothers had lived in company houses, but the family had improved itself. His nephews owned property, houses filled with modern comforts: telephones and flush toilets, gas stoves and carpeted floors.

"Papa," said Jerry, glancing at the boy; but the child seemed not to hear. He stared out the window wide-eyed, having never ridden in a car before. His name was Sandy Novak; he’d come knocking at Bernardi’s back door an hour before—breathless, his nose dripping. His mother had sent him running all the way from Polish Hill, to tell Bernardi to come and get his father.

The car climbed the slope, engine racing. Briefly the tires slid on the ice. At the top of the hill Jerry braked.

"Well?" said the old man to the boy. "Where do you live?"

"Back there," said Sandy Novak. "We passed it."

Bernardi exhaled loudly. "Cristo. Now we got to turn around."

Jerry turned the car in the middle of the road.

"Pay attention this time," Bernardi told the boy. "We don’t got all day." In fact he’d buried nobody that week, but he believed in staying available. Past opportunities—fires, rockfalls, the number five collapse—had arisen without warning. Somewhere in Bakerton a miner was dying. Only Bernardi could deliver him to God.

The Bernardis handled funerals at the five Catholic churches in town. A man named Hiram Stoner had a similar arrangement with the Protestants. When Bernardi’s black Packard was spotted, the town knew a Catholic had died; Stoner’s Ford meant a dead Episcopalian, Lutheran or Methodist. For years Bernardi had transported his customers in a wagon pulled by two horses. During the flu of ’18 he’d moved three bodies at a time. Recently, conceding to modernity, he’d bought the Packard; now, when a Catholic died, a Bernardi nephew would be called upon to drive. Jerry was the last remaining; the others had been sent to England and northern Africa. The old man worried that Jerry, too, would be drafted. Then he’d have no one left to drive the hearse.

"There it is," the boy said, pointing. "That’s my house."

Jerry slowed. The house was mean and narrow like the others, but a front porch had been added, painted green and white. One window, draped with lace curtains, held a porcelain statue of the Madonna. In the other window hung a single blue star.

"Who’s the soldier?" said Jerry.

"My brother Georgie," said Sandy, then added what his father always said. "He’s in the South Pacific."

They climbed the porch stairs, stamping snow from their shoes. A woman opened the door. Her dark hair was loose, her mouth full. A baby slept against her shoulder. She was beautiful, but not young—at least forty, if Bernardi had to guess. He was like a timberman who could guess the age of a tree before counting the rings inside. He had rarely been wrong.

She let them inside. Her eyelids were puffy, her eyes rimmed with red. She inhaled sharply, a moist, slurry sound.

Bernardi offered his hand. He’d expected the usual Slavish type: pale and round-faced, a long braid wrapped around her head so that she resembled a fancy pastry. This one was dark-eyed, olive-skinned. He glanced down at her bare feet. Italian, he realized with a shock. His mother and sisters had never worn shoes in the house.

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

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