Excerpt from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ninth Hour

A Novel

by Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott X
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 256 pages
    Sep 2018, 256 pages


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Once, when she was a younger nun, she'd been sent to a squalid apartment filled with wretched children where a skeletal woman, made old, discolored, barely human, by pain, was in the last throes of her disease. "There's nothing to be done," Sister Miriam had advised before they opened the door. And then as they entered—there was the tremendous animal odor of decay, the woman's hoarse moans, the famished children's fraught silence—she added, "Do what you can."

"Your man fell asleep," Sister St. Saviour whispered now. "The flame went out. It was a wet and unfortunate day." She paused to make sure the girl had heard. "He belongs in Calvary," she said. "You paid for the plot, didn't you?" The girl nodded slowly. "Well, that's where he'll go."

In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general. Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it.

She could get this woman's husband buried in Calvary. If it was all done quickly enough, she could manage it.

"How long were you and Jim married?" the nun asked her. She understood that there was some small resurrection in just speaking the man's name.

"Two years," the girl said to the ceiling. And then she brushed her fingertips over her belly. "I've got a baby coming in summer."

Sister nodded. All right. God had His head out of His hands now, at least. He knew the future. "All right," she said out loud. There would be a baby to care for in the summer. For once, she would not foist the diapering and the spitting up onto one of the younger nuns. She nearly smiled. Out of the depths—the phrase came to her like a fresh scent on the air—the promise of a baby this summer. A green scent coaxed out of dried reeds.

The girl raised one hand from her stomach and clutched the crown of her hair. "He lost his job," she said. "They let him go. The BRT. He was at odd ends."

Gently, Sister moved Annie's hand from out of her hair—it was a mad, dramatic gesture that would lead to mad, dramatic speech—and placed her fingertips once again on her middle, where her thoughts should be. "It might be best," Sister said, "if you don't move tonight. I'll speak to the lady of the house. We'll get something arranged."

In the parlor, they all turned to Sister St. Saviour as if she had indeed been summoned to direct the proceedings. It was agreed that the lady of the house, Gertler was her name, would spend the night with her sister-in-law across the street. Since the gas had been turned off and would not be turned on again until tomorrow, most of the building's occupants were clearing out for the evening. In the vestibule, neighbors were coming down the dark staircase with bedding and small satchels in their arms. Sister sent word with one of them to the owner of a boardinghouse nearby: the man in the carpet slippers would go there. The rude young man in the hat had already left, so she asked Officer O'Neil to knock on the door of one Dr. Hannigan. "Mention my name," she said. "He'll roll his eyes, but he'll come."

It wasn't until they'd all cleared out, and well before Dr. Hannigan arrived, that Sister allowed herself to use the toilet. She was sixty-four that year, but the stiffness in her back and her knees and the arthritis in her hands on these damp days, not to mention the more recent, arbitrary swelling of her ankles and her feet, had begun to limit her usefulness. More and more she was sent out with her basket to beg rather than to nurse. She kept her dissatisfaction with the arrangement to herself, which meant she complained only to God, who knew how she felt. Who had sent her here.

Excerpted from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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