To 13-year-old Deuce Laffingstock, mud is money. Sloppy streets mean the San Francisco brahmans will need help getting in and out of their carriages. It will also be easier to sell newspapers to the fine ladies and gents of the city to use not to read but to clean the muck off their boots.
A wet early winter is a bonanza to Deuce, so long as he makes it to school at St. Patrick's often enough to keep the priest out of his mother's parlor. As he darts between wobbly wagon wheels and wobblier horses, Deuce keeps an eye out for his Uncle Joe, whose steamer from Seattle is overdue.
As he crosses Market Street and heads down Second toward the family flat on Rincon Hill, Deuce hears a familiar howl emanating from a saloon. Peering through the bar's cloudy window Deuce can make out only swinging arms and bobbing shoulders. He sidles closer to the double doors. Amid the clattering roar pouring out of the saloon is an occasional grunted shriek Deuce recognizes as belonging to his Uncle Joe McCready.
His uncle spends half the year clearing trees in the Northwest and the other half wasting his wages on whatever tickles his imagination. Most of what tickles Uncle Joe's imagination is situated in and around San Francisco. The city's crooks, cops, and priests know Joe well. But few people know Joe McCready better than his nephew Deuce. They are occasional roommates whenever Uncle Joe is in town.
Uncle Joe once told Deuce, "The fastest way to break up a bar fight is to open the taps." Deuce decides to give Uncle Joe's theory a try. He slips between the gawkers standing at the saloon door and makes a beeline for the bar, where he sees two unattended beer taps. Deuce yanks the taps. A minute later the fight participants start to lose their footing and splash-land on the sawdust floor. Out of the maelstrom of flailing limbs emerges Uncle Joe, making long strides toward the door, grabbing his duffel bag stashed under a table. Not far behind Joe out the saloon door stumbles his nephew, a mud-caked canvas bag of unsold newspapers still draped over his shoulder.
The lumberjack and paperboy don't stop running until they cross Folsom. They look back the way they came, laughing and panting. "What was that about?" asks Deuce.
Uncle Joe shakes his head and smiles. "Swedes! No sense of humor. Their beer's not so bad, though."
"Think your mother has any of that stew cooking?" Joe asks as the two continue up Rincon Hill. When their flat comes into view, they freeze. On the bottom step of the three-story building stands one of San Francisco's finest, bobbing from toes to heels as if rocking on a ship deck.
"You do the talking," Uncle Joe says to Deuce. "You've got an honest face." Deuce reaches into his bag, set to offer the cop a muddy paper.
"Right on time," the officer says, ignoring the paper Deuce offers him. "Joseph McCready, you're as regular as Sunday mass, and as useless."
"Might there be a reason you've chosen our stoop for your perch, Officer Coles?" Joe plops his duffel a few inches from the cop's left boot.
"There's a bill due, Joe. You know that." The cop shuffles his feet to face Joe. "You left quite a mess before you sailed out last spring."
Joe takes a cinched leather bag from his shirt pocket. Officer Coles grabs the pouch, reaches in, and pulls out a fist full of gold coins.
"Save me some for the collection plate," Joe says. The cop smiles and tosses the half-emptied bag on the ground. Joe snatches it up quickly.
"Behave yourself," the cop says as he walks down the hill. Joe and Deuce watch him.
Joe says to Deuce, "All cops are crooks, remember that."
Seventy years later, Uncle Joe's words echo in Grandpa's ears as he watches his son Chuck adjust the detective's badge clipped to his belt.
On his way to the station, Chuck Sr. glances down at the table strewn with oversized checkers. Grandpa and Lonny-Donny look at him sideways.
"Not what the doctor had in mind, Dad." Chuck Sr. picks up one of the checkers and spins it like a top. Grandpa stops it with his good hand. As he puts the big checker back on its square, Grandpa makes a short squeak-bark. Lonny Donny translates: "Grow-seal." Grandpa winks at him with his good eye.
Chuck regards his son, who's smiling at his Grandpa across the table. "Grosse Ile?", he asks Lonny Donny. "Never heard of it." He walks away.
Two strokes and he's still busting my chops, thinks Chuck as he heads out the door. Grosse Ile. Dang. Almost almost thirty years ago. He smiles.
Copyright 2014-2017 - Dennis Richard O'Reilly - all rights reserved