On the last Saturday evening of every month, the grounds of St. Patrick's Church light up for a Young Persons' Social. The only place a Catholic girl like Mary Bartoli could spend time with a roustabout like Joseph McCready was the church social. About the only time you'd find Joe McCready in a church was when there was a chance he would get a few minutes alone with Mary Bartoli.
This is Uncle Joe's lucky Saturday, thinks Deuce. A spiked punch bowl distracts the nuns and lets Mary and Joe sneak into the choir loft. As curious as he is about what his uncle is up to, Deuce regrets intruding on the young couple the moment he spots their silhouettes sitting on the choir's raised platforms. Quietly he creeps back down the spiral stairs leading from the choir loft to the church vestibule. Halfway down Deuce hears steps coming up.
Back up he goes to warn his uncle, only to find the loft deserted. His concern shifts to the consequences of being discovered off limits. Deuce finds himself a hiding place under the raised wooden platform. His attention is soon drawn to muffled sounds just feet away.
Deuce pops out of his hiding place as quickly as he popped in. "Fr. Laurent sent me to look for his cat," he blurts without thinking.
The first thing wrong with Deuce's statement is that Fr. Laurent has no cat. The second thing wrong is that he is addressing Fr. Laurent, who reacts to Deuce's bald-faced lie not with confusion or surprise or even disappointment; he looks pleased. Slowly Fr. Laurent makes his way across the loft. "Might there be others joining you in the search for my stray, Alphonsus?"
Deuce hates the name. His father named him after a man he himself despised: his own father. Nobody calls Deuce "Alphonsus" except Fr. Laurent.
Alphonsus is Andrew Laffingstock's third son but his first to survive past the age of three. Maybe the ugly moniker was Andrew's attempt to improve the child's chances for survival.
Why Alice McCready married such a cold-hearted man is a mystery. Alice never attempted to overrule the names Andrew gave their children. She simply referred to her children by the names she chose, and Alice's third son was Deuce.
To Fr. Laurent, "Deuce" was no Christian name. The priest hopes for the eternal soul of Alphonsus Januarius Laffingstock, who stands before him in the choir loft on this spring evening.
To Fr. Laurent, Mary Bartoli is a young woman in need of protection from Joe McCready, but also from her own youthful exuberance. Deuce's surprising statement about the priest's cat is all the distraction Joe needs to sneak Mary back down the loft's spiral stairway. Deuce is on his own.
Mary Bartoli breathes in the nighttime spices of lower Mission Street as she and Joe walk to the bayshore. Don't let this night end, she thinks and smiles. She hears the rigging of the ships clatter in the breeze. Her shawl is too light for this spring night. She cuddles closer to Joe with each step. When they reach the pier Joe avoids getting too close to the ships berthed there. He'll be boarding one of those leaky buckets soon enough.
The lovers stroll aimlessly along the streets of Rincon Hill. Hours before dawn they find themselves standing outside her house. Mary takes Joe's hand and leads him through the front door and up the stairs to her room.
Night rolls toward morning. "Go," Mary says. Joe holds her tighter. "Go," she whispers as he nuzzles her neck. More, she thinks as the space between them disappears.
A faint stirring somewhere in the house tells Mary and Joe their night is ending. A shared dream recedes. "Now," Mary says and points at her bedroom window. Joe knows his chances of escaping undetected are diminishing as dawn lights up the eastern sky. One long, last kiss and he's at the window, clothes in hand, scouting a soft landing spot. He blows Mary a kiss and drops out of sight.
Mary runs to the window. Ten feet below Joe struggles to dress as he makes his way out the Bartoli's backyard. He gives Mary a smiling wave and disappears. When will I see him again? Mary holds the blanket she's wrapped in close against the morning chill. Maybe never. She smiles anyway.
Fr. Laurent is rarely surprised, but he comes pretty close when he sees Joe McCready in the anteroom of his rectory office. "Would you like to make an offering before you leave, Joseph?" Fr. Laurent motions Joe into his office. "An act of contrition, perhaps?"
Joe places five gold coins on Fr. Laurent's desk. "My nephew got himself into a bind on my account. Kindly consider this gift as penance."
"You should worry less about Alphonsus and more about your own eternal soul, Joseph." Fr. Laurent slides the coins into his top desk drawer.
"I'll be back in the fall, Father, and my first stop will be mass at St. Pat's. Save me a pew." Joe bows stiffly and turns toward the door.
"It's a shame you'll miss Mary Bartoli's wedding," Fr. Laurent says as he leans back in his chair. "Her father will announce it next week."
"My lad, we're counting on you." Joe McCready's steamship to the Puget Sound departs in an hour. Deuce is stunned by his uncle's request. Mary's getting married? Uncle Joe wants me to take care of her? Spy on Fr. Laurent? Become a St. Pat's altar boy?
"And not a word to your mother," Joe adds as he heads down the hill toward the docks. Suddenly Joe stops and runs back up the hill to Deuce. "I almost forgot. If your father comes back, give him this." Joe slides a letter into Deuce's coat pocket. "Then stand clear," Joe laughs.
Deuce thinks about all the fun he was going to have this summer. Frog hunting. Swimming at South Beach. A ride up Mt. Tam. Gone in a puff. Spy, altar boy. That won't leave much time for selling newspapers. And last time Deuce checked, altar boy didn't pay so good.
Deuce avoids the schoolyard on his way to Market Street, but he decides to detour past Mary Bartoli's house. No sign of Mary, or anyone else. Mr. Bartoli was always pleasant to Deuce and his brothers and sisters, but Deuce had never seen the man being kind to his own children.
Deuce wonders why anyone gets married. Every married person he knows is miserable. Having children must must take something out of you, he thinks.
"Where's my newspaper, Alphonsus?" Deuce hadn't noticed Mary walking her two younger sisters home from school. He shows her the empty bag.
"I'll bring one to your uncle's market," Deuce tells her. Mary smiles and pats his shoulder as she passes by. Her sisters make faces at him.
Three hours later Deuce has worked up an appetite hawking papers up and down Market Street, but he has one more stop before his mother's stew. The deep, earthy smells of the Bartoli's shop make Deuce even hungrier. Through the door to the back room he spies Mary at a table, sewing. Mrs. Bartoli is attending to a customer. Deuce sees no sign of Mr. Bartoli. He slips quietly into the back room. Mary looks up and smiles. Turning her attention back to her sewing, she says "If you wait ten minutes you can walk me home, young man."
Deuce plops onto a low stool. He takes his last newspaper out of the bag slung over his shoulder and reads stories to Mary. She comments with tsks, sighs, and giggles.
Evening turns to night as Mary and Deuce walk up Rincon Hill. They talk about nothing with an air of importance until Mary's house appears. "You better get home now, Deuce. Your mother will tan both our hides." Mary and Deuce both know Alice Laffingstock would do no such thing.
As hungry as he is, Deuce is in no hurry to get home. Despite Mary's cheeriness, he knows trouble is brewing. A crooked-smile moon rises over the bay. "Don't let your Uncle Joe get you in trouble too," Mary says looking up. Too late, Deuce thinks.
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