It’s what you do in a poor town, he learned. Have hope; everything else is darkness.
The Baker Hills section of Ironton was developed by one of the city’s rich bankers more than a century ago as a swanky neighborhood for the business owners and top managers of the city’s iron industry. The soft, greenlined roads featured fancy homes with turrets and wrap-around porches, landscaped, fenced yards, some with small gazebos, and a few with wrought-iron gates across their stone driveways. The neighborhood was on the west side of the city, set on rising hills planted with fragrant flowering trees and an entangled wall of tall Norway maples that had grown to block the view across the river of the black, belching mills and the workers ghetto where soot rained down like Hell’s mist.
Nagler as a kid had wondered as he delivered newspapers to the homes protected by those tall maples why the rich folks didn’t want to see how they made their money.
Nothing bad ever happened in the Baker Hills.
That’s what Nagler was led to believe. As proof, he had always looked at the names of the streets there: Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, the Ivy leagues, as if living on streets with such names raised the aspirations of their children.
In truth, he had grown up believing, rather, having to believe, that nothing bad ever happened in Ironton, his hometown, at least nothing that could not be overcome. It’s what you do in a poor town, he learned. Have hope; everything else is darkness. The floods, the factory closings, the homeless living under the bridge, the permanent bend of his father’s back after work, then the thousand-yard stare when the mills closed.
Somehow Ironton survived, got up from the knock-down and trudged on, the limp a little more pronounced, the tear stains a little deeper on the dirty faces of hungry kids. He grew up believing that things would always be better. Martha Shannon, his true love since the third grade, was proof enough of that: She hadn’t lived in the workers’ ghetto; she had led him out of it.
He had grown up on Fourth Street, a block over from Third, and two blocks from Sixth. They weren’t street names, just lines on a map — Street One, Street Two, Street Three; nothing poetic or inspirational, mere designations created because some city engineer had needed a way to make sense of the tangled mass of winding alleys, trails, and odd-sized lots that covered the east side of Ironton’s hills; nothing more.
What lived beyond the engineer’s solution were the informal names of alleys that reflected the immigrants, the Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles — the whatevers — who, despite hard lives, filled the tiny homes with generations, spilled over the hillsides brawling and battling with life, dancing, joyously laughing and singing, trying to stand, then to be knocked down again, wishing the rays of sunlight were not so gray, and that the air didn’t taste like ash.
Nagler slipped the Impala off the state highway into Baker Hills and left the bright clutter of commerce behind; like a gate, silence descended and deepened as he drove beneath the smothering tunnel of shaded streets where the morning sunlight had yet to fully penetrate; a sterile silence, sound absorbed by sentinel homes, by the dense leafy overhang, more a setting, a stage, than a place.
Nagler maneuvered the clanking car cautiously over the scattered speed humps, as if unneeded speed would disturb the unnerving peace.
There is quiet, he thought as he searched for the turn to West Harvard and the Feldman home. There is quiet with movement and light. Then there is too quiet; this.
The Frank Nagler Mysteries are:
THE SWAMPS OF JERSEY (2014); A GAME CALLED DEAD (2016); and THE WEIGHT OF LIVING (2017)
An audiobook version of “The Swamps of Jersey” is available at:
and itunes, and Amazon.