She filled a heavy iron pot with water and placed it on the stove. A basket of laundry sat in the corner, but the dirty linens would have to wait; she always washed Stanleys miners first. Over the years shed developed a system. First she took the coveralls outdoors and shook out the loose dirt; then she rinsed them in cold water in the basement sink. When the water ran clean, she scrubbed the coveralls on a washboard with Octagon soap, working in the lather with a stiff brush. Then she carried the clothes upstairs and boiled them on the stove. The process took half an hour, including soak time, and she hadnt yet started. She was keeping the stove free for Stanleys breakfast.
"Finish your cereal," she told Sandy. "I go see about your father."
She found him lying on the floor, his face half shaven. The cuffs of his trousers were wet. This confused her a moment; then she saw that the sink had overflowed. He had dropped the soap and razor. The drain was blocked with a sliver of soap.
SHE WATCHED THE HEARSE disappear down the hill. A neighbors beagle barked. For three days each November it was taken buck hunting. The rest of the year it spent chained in the backyard, waiting.
She had prepared for the wrong death. A month ago, before Christmas, a car had parked in front of the Poblockis house to deliver a telegram. Their oldest son was missing, his bodytall, gangly, an overgrown boyslost forever in the waters of the Pacific. Since then Rose had waited, listened for the dreadful sound of a car climbing Polish Hill. Now, finally, the car had come.
In her arms the baby shifted. From the kitchen came a shattering noise.
"Sandy?" she called.
He appeared in the doorway, hands in his pockets.
He seemed to reflect a moment. "I dropped a glass."
The baby squirmed. Rose shifted her to the other shoulder.
"Where are they taking Daddy?"
"Uptown. They going to get him ready." She hesitated, unsure how to explain what she didnt understand herself and could hardly bear to think of: Stanleys body stripped and scrubbed, injected with alcoholwith God only knew whatto keep him intact another day or two.
"They clean him up," she said. "Change his clothes. Mr. Bernardi bring him back tonight."
The boy stared. "Why?" he asked softly.
"People, they want to see him." Shed been to other wakes on Polish Hill, miserable affairs where the men drank for hours alongside the body, telling stories, keeping the widow awake all night. In the morning the house reeked of tobacco smoke. The men looked unshaven and unsteady, still half drunk as they carried the casket into church.
Sandy frowned. "What people?"
"The neighbors. People from the church."
The baby hiccuped. A moment later she let out a scream.
"I go change your sister," said Rose. "Dont touch that glass. I be back in a minute."
Sandy went into the kitchen and stood looking at the jagged glass on the floor. Hed been filling it at the sink when it nearly slipped from his wet hand. A thought had occurred to him. If I broke it, it wouldnt matter. He turned and threw the glass at the table leg. It smashed loudly on the floor. He had knelt to examine it. It was dull green, one hed drunk from his whole life. Now, laying in pieces, it had become beautiful, the color deeper along the jagged edges, brilliant and jewellike. When he reached to touch it, blood had appeared along his finger. Then his mother had called, and hed jammed his hands in his pockets.
Now he looked down at his trousers. A dark spot in his lap, blood from his finger. He looked at the clock. School had already started; hed heard the bell ringing as he ran across town for the priest. Tell him to come right away, his mother had said, tears streaming down her face. Hed seen her cry just once before, when Georgie left for the war. Tell him your father is dead.
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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