"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 her name?"
"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
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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