Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Heat and Light

Hard to imagine but true: This is a novel about fracking. And if you think about the emotions raised by this recently used way to extract riches from the ground—Is it a way out of poverty for smallholders? Is it environmentally destructive? Is it a person’s last chance to recapture the long-since-faded economy of this piece of small-town Pennsylvania? Is it a deal with the Devil?—you can see how the subject holds nuanced truths perhaps best handled by a writer of fiction. In this case, the writer, Jennifer Haigh, is revisiting Bakerton, Pennsylvania, setting for her iconic novel, Baker Towers. Heat and Light was published in May by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. You can buy it at a local bookseller or find it here or here.

IN THE BEGINNING Shelby’s mother worked at the Moose. In Bakerton a Heat3webmoose is not an animal but a tavern, smoke-filled, where men shoot pool or play cards in the back room or stare at the television above the bar.

For most of Shelby’s childhood they lived in the upstairs apartment, Roxanne’s answer to baby-sitting: Shelby and Crystal could, in theory, come find her in case of emergency.  Of course, they never did. Because what, for Roxanne, would constitute an emergency? About nightmares and scraped knees, she was unfailingly casual. In case of fire or a masked intruder, Shelby would have called the police.

Roxanne was not a motherly name. Even as a child Shelby knew this, in the same way she knew that bartending was not a normal job for a woman.

Jennifer Haigh credit Rob Arnold

Author Jennifer Haigh. / Photo by Rob Arnold.

The hidden life of the bar, its daily rhythms. In the morning trucks idled out front, painted with familiar logos: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Iron City, Stroh’s. With the front door propped open, the Moose exhaled its sour beer breath, sharpened by the pine-scented cleaner Roxanne used to mop the floor.

In the afternoon the jukebox played sad men, George Jones and Merle Haggard clearly audible in the upstairs apartment, the slow thump of the bass like a heartbeat in the floor.  The bar’s TV tuned, always, to some sports match. In a faraway stadium a crowd cheered. An announcer explained the action in a scolding tone, insisting that you care.

When dark fell the music changed, guitars screeching and wailing. Between songs Shelby heard snatches of conversation, pool balls colliding with a dry crack. A comforting noise as she lay waiting for sleep next to her sister, on the fold-out couch in the living room.

Their mother came home long after midnight, tiptoeing around furniture. She was so quiet that Shelby might have stayed asleep, if not for the smell—cigarette smoke, the deep fryer—Roxanne wore like perfume. It was a more concentrated version of the odor already lingering in the apartment, a smell that rose up through the floorboards.

The smell clung to Shelby and her sister, their hair and clothes. She learned this one day while riding the school bus next to Patti Wojick who, to Shelby’s horror, leaned over to sniff her and said, “You smell like French fries.”

Now Rich comes home smelling the exact same way.

Shelby understands that he isn’t really a bartender, that he is only helping his father. Still, she doesn’t particularly want to watch.

They were clever girls, resourceful, independent. On summer afternoons they haunted the town swimming pool.  Later—sunburned, chlorine-smelling—they roamed the neighborhoods, and made fast friendships. The new friends had curfews and allowances, grassy yards, bicycles. They had kind mothers who sometimes cooked extra, delicious casseroles and meatloaves served at a table, on matching plates.

Sturdy girls, practical, resilient. Uncomplaining, because complaining got them nowhere. Roxanne was immovable, a slab of granite. Small sicknesses did not impress her. To colds and bellyaches her response was predictable: Go to school, you’ll feel better. The girls went to school with mumps, with strep throat, with pinkeye. Shelby infected her entire second-grade class with chicken pox.

And so it’s hard to say when Crystal’s illness actually started. She was a docile child, sweet-tempered; a fair-haired girl whose sunburns turned to rashes, whose fingertips went blue in the cold. When, at eleven or twelve, she became suddenly and permanently tired, achy and listless, she went to school but did not feel better. Shelby was awakened in the night by Crystal’s fevers, the heat rising off her in waves.

After Crystal died, it was Shelby who studied the class pictures, taken each year by a visiting photographer in the first week of school. In her fifth-grade picture Crystal looked healthy and suntanned. A year later the red stain was visible across her cheeks. The butterfly rash was the signature symptom of lupus. A responsible mother would have noticed. But by the time Roxanne took her to a doctor, Crystal’s feet were swollen, her kidneys failing. Overnight, everything changed. Three times a week, Buzz Wenturine drove her to the county hospital twenty miles away, which had a dialysis machine.

Buzz Wenturine was Roxanne’s boyfriend, a big bald-headed man with a handlebar mustache. Like most men, he had been a miner. More recently he drove a yellow bus, which Shelby and Crystal had ridden to middle school. Back then Roxanne had a different boyfriend, and so the girls paid little attention to the nameless bus driver, a gruff man who never changed his clothes.

When Roxanne brought him home, three or four years later, he was wearing the exact same green plaid shirt.

—Jennifer Haigh

From Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh. Copyright 2016 by Jennifer Haigh. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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