Excerpt

The Ninth Hour

Alice McDermott

September 21, 2017 
The following is from Alice McDermott’s novel, The Ninth Hour. The story spans the twentieth century life of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn. lice McDermott is the author of seven previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

Mr. Costello was a quiet, balding man with a ready grin. Polite and hush-voiced when he spoke to the Sisters, but loud and full of good humor when he called to people on the street. He was

always offering the nuns extra pints of cream or discounts that he seemed to make up on the spot. Always admiring the “miraculous” cleanliness of the empty milk bottles they returned to him. At the invitation of the Sisters, he attended mass in the convent chapel every first Friday, sitting in the last row with his cap in his hands and his head bowed low.

When he was thirty-six, Mr. Costello had married a pretty, blue-eyed girl. Rheumatic fever as a child had left her with a weak heart. The case of Saint Vitus’ Dance that followed left her isolated and strange. Not a year into their marriage, Mrs. Costello was bitten by a stray dog that was foraging in the tangled backyard of one of the tenements. Infection set in. She lost her leg. There followed a nervous collapse, a touched brain, an invalid’s cosseted routine. The Sisters called it a sad case.

Because they had been so often inside his home, the nuns knew there was no pretense in Mr. Costello. They knew he kept his place in manly order—few knickknacks, just a pair of Mrs. Costello’s porcelain-faced dolls on the dresser in the bedroom, a statue of St. Joseph on the mantel—and that he did as much dusting as a man could be expected to do: the top of a bureau, but not the legs; the base of a lamp, but not the shade. They knew the apartment’s one closet was arranged with military precision and the kitchen cupboards were neatly spare—one bottle of bootlegged whiskey, used only for toothaches or colds (the visiting Sisters checked it daily). He kept house, all the Sisters agreed, like a fastidious bachelor. No hint of anything unseemly to indicate otherwise. Or to tell them he was something less than the good, unfortunate man he appeared to be.

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The intimacies of bathing and feminine hygiene Mr. Costello left to the nuns, but he cooked his wife a dinner every night and there was never a dish left in the sink or a crumb left on the tablecloth when the Sisters arrived every morning to wake her and give her breakfast. Caring for Mrs. Costello, who was childish, sometimes churlish, thin as a rail, light as a feather, was an easy enough bit of duty, easily dispensed. Because Mr. Costello was up and gone well before dawn, the Sisters could arrive as early as the day required, spend an hour, and then leave the poor woman, refreshed and well-fed, in her chair by the front window, a small sandwich and a glass of milk and a chamber pot all within easy reach. A Sister might stop in at lunchtime or, if Mr. Costello was going to be delayed—if he’d told the nuns that morning, sometimes via only a note left among their milk bottles, that he was driving up to the dairy that afternoon or attending a union meeting in the city—they might bring an early dinner as well, and then get her ready for bed, knowing that the clean linens and the soothed wife that would greet Mr. Costello at the end of his long working day was the Sisters’ own way of telling him that he had their admiration.

*

Annie first spoke to him in the convent kitchen early on a deeply gray morning with a rain so cold and steady it had kept him behind in his deliveries. He had paused in too many doorways, looking for a break in the low clouds. He had lingered in conversation with a complaining old woman he usually hoped to avoid. Against his preferred routine, he had smoked a morning cigarette in his cart, watching the steam rise from the flanks of the patient horse, reluctant to turn up his collar once more, to head out once more with his milk crate into the storm.

Annie, for her part, had come to the convent earlier than usual, just as the Sisters were going in to morning prayer. The rain had woken her before dawn—no walk with Mrs. Tierney today, and the lack of it made her wonder if she had the wherewithal to get herself out of bed. Sally was three years old, fast asleep beside her. Annie listened to the rain against the windows until the room had gathered enough light to see by, and then she got up carefully—the child was easily woken—and made her way into the kitchen. She meant to put the kettle on, to warm both herself and the room, but when she pressed her nose to the window to see if there would be any relief in the weather, the old smoky odor of the catastrophe arose again. She smelled it on the wet glass and the damp sill, on the twice-repainted kitchen walls, as if the odor of fire and sorrow was contained in the soaked brick of the building itself.

She glanced down into the backyard. Still too dark to see anything but her own reflection. She imagined opening the window to lean out into the rain. Imagined that if she did so, she would feel the sure pressure of Jim’s hand on her waist, easing her away, whispering into her ear in the wordless way of ghosts. And what would he say? Would it be an apology? A pledge? A stumbling excuse, or the smiling, wheedling endearments he had spoken to her so often in the past, from this kitchen table, from their warm bed: “Oh, let me stay where I am a while longer.”

On the day she buried him, they rode out to the cemetery in Mr. Sheen’s hearse. Annie and the undertaker and Sister St. Saviour, wrapped in her black cloak. The nun was as monolithic, as sunken-eyed, as a defeated general.

Defeat was all about them as they passed through the dark streets. Early morning it was, rain and snow. Jim, the empty shell of him, riding behind them in the long car.

What had God been to her until that bitter morning? Father, guardian, comforter, king. All Annie seemed capable of remembering as they drove was a lifetime of negotiations, of pleas—so many of them, until that morning, about Jim. That he would smile at her, that he would come to call. Please God: that he would cross to New York in safety. Please God: that he’d be there to meet her when she followed him.

That he would get up out of bed.

It seemed the single prayer of her married life: that he would get out of bed, go to work, come home—come home with something brighter on his face than that hooded scowl, please God. Please God, let him put an end to those long breaths through distended nostrils, to the sinking into himself, fists closing, for conversations she couldn’t hear. Let him recount for her something that had happened throughout his day that was not an insult, an affront. Let him lose his contempt. Let him keep his job. Let him get up out of bed and be on time for a change.

That cold morning, the cemetery trees were like black lines etched in window frost, the ground brittle with icy spears of grass. The casket was pulled from the hearse. When a plot was available, they would put him in it. She didn’t ask where his body would stay until then. With Sister’s help, she had money enough only for this. She was going to save the deed to Calvary for herself alone.

She touched the coffin, coated now with the fat drops of melted snow. Sister St. Saviour waved a vial of holy water and said a prayer. The three blessed themselves—Annie and Mr. Sheen and the nun—and then climbed back into the car with their clothes damp.

She didn’t hold it against the Church: the miserable morning, the cold, unconsecrated ground, the refused funeral mass, not even the money she’d lost on the double grave at Calvary. She well understood that there would be no rules at all if there were no punishment for the failure to follow them. Like any good mother, the Church had to cuff its children when they misbehaved. Make the punishment fit the crime.

He’d murdered himself and murdered something in her as well.

Who could argue for leniency? Who could expect absolution? Sister St. Saviour did, of course. But the woman, childless, stubborn, coming to the close of her life, had a mad heart. Mad for mercy, perhaps, mad for her own authority in all things—a trait Annie had come to love and admire—but mad nonetheless.

Riding home from the cemetery, Sister St. Saviour had said, “It would be a different Church if I were running it.”

And so lifted the burden of that terrible morning with some laughter.

But Annie never blamed the Church.

It was instead the recollection of her own unanswered prayers, simple as they had been, that made her grow cautious in her faith, wary of her own belief.

Let him get up, she had prayed—how often?—boiling an egg and making his tea and hurrying back into the silent bedroom to call him again. Hating her own desperation. Her own helplessness. Hating the way his gray moods and scarlet furies put himself between her and the simple happiness life was offering, a kind of paradise after the poor lives they’d left behind: this busy city, his good job, this tidy place of their own, a child coming in summer.

Let him get up and get going, she had prayed—avoiding his hand as he reached out from under the blankets he’d pulled over his head. Or, sometimes, giving in—she had done this, too— giving in to the luxury of what he wanted to believe: that their time belonged to themselves alone, that they could do as they pleased with it.

Now, at the kitchen window, looking into the black yard, tangled and wet, the tangle seeming to writhe in the sheen of falling rain, she stamped her foot and felt the old impatience that was as well her most vivid memory of her married life. Jimmy, get up.

Only her own pale face looked back at her in the gray glass. Even his ghost was impossible to stir.

It was a cold hope at best to imagine otherwise.

The cold hope, nevertheless, that kept her in this apartment where he had died, where he had lived, when a smaller, cheaper place would do.

She woke Sally, and they both dressed and pulled on their rain boots. Annie carried the girl the five blocks to the convent, the big umbrella doing little good in the blowing rain, and arrived breathless and laughing, just as the nuns—their plain faces made plainer still by the lingering traces of sleep—filed silently into the chapel. In the bright convent kitchen, she shook the rain from her hair. Mrs. Odette had yet to arrive. Annie was rubbing a tea towel over Sally’s wet head, the two of them singing softly together, “It’s raining, it’s pouring . . .” while the sound of the morning psalm floated from the chapel. She saw a black and bent figure through the glass of the back door, heard the rattle of the milk bottles. Impulsively, she pulled open the door. Mr. Costello looked up, startled. Rain dripped from the peak of his glistening cap and from his nose. “Poor man,” she said. “Why don’t you come in?”

He stepped inside with no other thought than that he wanted to. He stood, the two fresh bottles of milk in his hands, the two gleaming empties under his arm, his coat dripping on the mat at the threshold. The kitchen itself was not unfamiliar to him, but never before had he seen it like this, so well-ordered and warmly lit, with a pretty child seated on the high step stool the nuns kept at the counter, a child big-eyed and curious, and the woman who helped out in the laundry, a tea towel in her hand, smiling to welcome him. No beauty, perhaps, but with lovely dark hair that was wet and plastered in black ribbons here and there on her pale forehead and white throat. Despite the noise of the rain outside, he could hear the sweet voices of the nuns in the chapel.

They were singing “O Salutaris Hostia,” a hymn he had known since his boyhood.

Annie stepped forward to take the two bottles of milk from his hands. He saw that one strand of hair ran in a jagged line across her flushed cheek, nearly reaching her mouth, which was crooked and prettily bowed.

It was only the long habit of caring for a sick wife that made him, still dripping, reach out to brush the wet strand away.

He heard the closing notes of the hymn, remembered the Latin from school, the words that touched his exile’s heart. O grant us endless length of days, in our true native land with thee.

He was inspired to ask her, “Where are you from?”

*

That same afternoon, Mr. Costello met her on the corner when she ran out to catch her breath. And then she saw him again on a brighter day as she left the butcher shop. He was, on occasion, paused in the doorways she passed. He greeted her, kept pace casually. He was as tall as she was, which was not tall for a man, and yet their shoulders never met. He did not offer to carry her bag. They walked to the park one bright day, and then as far as the promenade, where they sat, a good distance apart, on the bench. Even so, she could smell the stable on his clothes.

Their talk skimmed over everything. It was what made their hour together so delightful to her. He had a story to tell from the morning, or from only a few minutes before they met. He had a story to tell that was told to him just last Sunday after mass. She offered in exchange something Liz Tierney had said—a tale from the hotel, from her children. Since the first afternoon he had met her on the corner—out of the convent for an hour, thanks to Sister Jeanne, out to catch her breath—they seemed to agree that nothing was worth saying, here in the middle of her busy working day and at the weary end of his own, if it did not make them both laugh.

No mournful tales, then, of her widowhood, of his frail wife. No indignant recounting of Sister Illuminata’s demands during the endless hours in the laundry. No complaints from him about the cold weather or the milk trains or the vague and endless demands of customers and bosses. They sat apart as strangers might on a bench in the park, and their talk skimmed over all that preceded the time they were together and all that awaited them the rest of the day.

A year of this, and then she pressed the key to the downstairs door into his hand. “Come up” was all she said, and walked ahead of him in the street. At the corner, she glanced over her shoulder to see that he had already crossed to the other side. It pleased her that he knew enough to place some time between them.

She left the door ajar: she wouldn’t have him knocking for all the neighbors to hear. She left the door ajar and sat in the living room, in the single chair, so she could hear his step or see his shadow as he approached.

She wondered how long he would keep her waiting. How much discretion she would have to endure.

She folded her hands, one over the other on her lap. They were not smooth. He would not, she was certain, expect them to be.

She thought of his own pale hands, big farmer’s hands that belonged to a stouter man. His thick shoes, a piece of straw sometimes caught in a cuff or entangled in the frayed laces.

The door was ajar. The glass transom above it was closed. It was a cold bright afternoon in midwinter. The room was poor. The slipcover she’d made to hide the scorched couch was ill-fitting, the fabric dull, as if faded. The picture she’d hung above it was too small for the wide wall. It was a heavily framed oil of the Sacred Heart, the image darkened by time. It had arrived in the donation basket—the frame was chipped and there was a tear in the canvas. “Coals to Newcastle,” Sister Illuminata had said when she saw it, but little Sally was enamored, and Annie herself had felt some piety when she hung it up—stood on the couch in her bare feet, drove the nail, Sally watching her from the floor. It seemed a pretension now. In her time at the convent, her eyes had grown accustomed to authentic elegance—the beautiful house itself, built for a wealthy man: the gleaming woods, the simple chandeliers, the plaster ceiling roses and graceful corbels. There was no denying that this bare room was a poor woman’s room, an immigrant’s small space. No denying that its spare cleanliness betrayed an immigrant’s reserve. Twice since Jim died, she’d hung it with new paper—and now as she waited, she could see in the far corner that the latest attempt had already begun to curl. Twice she had repainted the kitchen walls, the bedroom walls.

He would find the place clean and well-ordered when he appeared.

She had a moment’s doubt that he would indeed appear, a moment’s fear that he had misunderstood her meaning, or disapproved of it, when she pressed the key into his hand. She dismissed both notions.

The Sisters said his own place was also neat as a pin. It was, she suspected, another kind of pretension, this immigrant reserve. A clean and well-ordered veneer over the trouble of a bedridden wife, a dead husband, over loneliness and worry.

The door was ajar. Through it, she heard what she knew was the sound of his footstep—although it might be the footstep of anyone—and then his shadow, hesitating. She stood. He was there. She opened the door just enough to admit him. Smell of the stable on his clothes, but also, now, the smell of alcohol and of pine soap, as if he had stopped before he came up. Stopped to take a drink. To wash his hands.

He took off his cap and smoothed back his hair, what there was of it. The bareness of his poor scalp moved her with pity, a sympathetic affection. It was an infant’s delicate skull; it was a reminder that he was not young.

In this light his eyes were merely brown, although in the sun she sometimes saw green and black and gold.

He put his hand to her chin and she touched his cheek, knowing her fingertips were rough. A sound arose from the cluttered backyard and rattled the kitchen window. It was the familiar tapping of city grit, or wind-lifted leaves, or maybe a pigeon’s wing against the glass. A sound that might once have filled her with fanciful notions: Jim’s breath in her ear, his hand on her hip, something restored to her.

As they both turned toward the noise, she saw his eyes catch the painting on her wall, the familiar image of Christ, sorrowful, compassionate, barely visible in the darkening oils but for the pale hand that gestured toward a heart threaded with thorns.

And then they both turned their eyes away from it. “Are we alone?” he whispered.

She said, “We are.”

__________________________________

From The Ninth Hour. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott.




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