Deuce follows Fr. Laurent around the altar, choking on the fumes emanating from the censer he carries at arm's length. They near the casket. Mumbling a stream of incomprehensible Latin, the priest turns, takes the censer from Deuce's hand, and waves it over the unadorned pine box. The incense masks the church's usual dank smell. Through the haze Deuce sees rows of empty pews. Maybe seven breathing souls in the place.
The magic words incanted, the scented haze thinning, Deuce leads the procession down the aisle, out St. Pat's front door, onto Mission St. Four ragged men slide the casket into an open wagon. The teamster coaxes the horses west down Mission. Deuce thinks, so that's a funeral.
"Study your Latin, Alphonsus," Fr. Laurent says as he leads Deuce back into the church. "And you're wasting the Bishop's incense, young man." Abruptly, Fr. Laurent turns and faces Deuce. "Next Friday you will be required for a wedding. I believe you are acquainted with the bride."
Deuce spends the afternoon looking for Mary Bartoli. She isn't at her uncle's shop. No sign of her on the Hill nor along the Embarcadero. Two doors down from the Bartoli's, Deuce thinks he's hiding as he watches for any comings or goings. He's startled by a voice behind him.
"Mary says go away." Deuce turns around and sees Mary's little sister Nica, who repeats, "Mary says go away," and shoos him with two hands.
Deuce's voice almost cracks as he asks, "Who's she getting married to?" Nica shrugs and looks away. Deuce counters: "I'll give you a dime."
The moment the dime is in her hand, Nica says "Anthony."
"Anthony who?" asks Deuce.
"Bartoli," says Nica exasperated.
Deuce can't figure it. "He's your cousin," Deuce says. Nica shrugs and admires her dime. "He's fifteen." Deuce looks for a place to sit, finds none, sits anyway.
"Papa says he's big enough." Nica sways to a tune in her head. "Papa says they're going to Ontario, to Uncle Paolo's 'cause somebody died."
Deuce thinks, next week Mary will marry her kid cousin while Uncle Joe is halfway up a tree a thousand miles from anywhere. And I'll help.
"Mary says good-bye," says Nica as she skips back home. Deuce picks himself up and sees his mother across the street, wrapped in a shawl.
"Come, laddie." She walks toward their flat two blocks away. When Deuce catches up with his mother, she says flatly, "Your father's home." They walk in silence until they reach the steps of their flat. She stops and straightens Deuce's hair. "I told him about your church work."
She's smiling as she says it, but Deuce knows his mother's wondering what's going on. He knows his father won't be satisfied just wondering.
"Here's our young seminarian," says Andrew Laffingstock when he hears his son and wife enter the flat. "Come boy, let's have a look at you." For the past six months Andrew had been overseeing the construction of a railroad bridge in southwestern Utah. He wasn't due home for weeks. Deuce wants to think his father's early return home has nothing to do with his Uncle Joe and Mary Bartoli, but his gut tells him otherwise.
If his father leads him into the kitchen, Deuce knows he's okay. If he's directed into the parlor, he knows he'll be going to bed hungry. No hunger pangs tonight. Andrew leads his son down a short hall and sits at the kitchen table. He motions Deuce to the table's other chair.
As soon as Deuce sits down his mother places in front of him a spoon and steaming bowl. Deuce fills a cup with water, gulps it, pours again.
"Fr. Laurent," Andrew begins and pauses. "You made an impression, young man, according to your mother." He's almost smiling, thinks Deuce. "I pegged you for a trade, maybe a salesman or dockworker." Andrew shakes his head. "Never figured you a priest." Deuce chokes on his stew.
Deuce's mother stands behind his chair. "I met Fr. Laurent by chance at the fishmonger. He mentioned how well you're doing at the church."
"Doing well with the Latin, so he says, says your mother," Andrew adds, cupping his son on the shoulder. "I barely manage a Pater Noster."
Deuce's mother refills the pitcher. "There's worse places to live than a rectory, son," she says. "Never in my life seen a starving priest." Deuce thinks, I'm a priest the day there's a man on the moon, but this isn't the time to break the news. Not so often I make my folks smile.
Uncle Joe's letter feels like a brick in Deuce's coat pocket. Hand it to him and stand clear, his uncle told him before he headed up north. The close quarters of the Laffingstock kitchen provide no escape routes. No hurry, thinks Deuce, as his father says, "Any word from Joseph?"
Deuce doesn't bother acting surprised. He puts down his spoon, reaches into his pocket, and puts Joe's letter on the table near his father. Andrew doesn't budge. Alice walks to the table. She looks accusingly at the envelope but leaves it there. "I know," says Andrew to no one.
Andrew Laffingstock stands up, takes the unopened letter to the wood stove where Alice's stew simmers, and tosses it onto the glowing coals.
A minute later Deuce is alone in the kitchen. His brothers and sisters have been put to bed. He wonders when it was he stopped being a kid. Deuce's masquerade as a pious altar boy has exceeded expectation. But why did the priest praise his Latin, which they both know is terrible? Then the thought strikes him: Fr. Laurent is on to them. The old cassock-wearing, rosary-bead-fingering poker player is calling their bluff.
Deuce's arms ache. For 10 minutes he has been holding up an oversized Bible while Fr. Laurent moans what Deuce imagines are wedding prayers. Deuce sneaks a look over his shoulder. Behind him, at the foot of the altar, stands Mary Bartoli. She's staring a hole through the priest.
Mary's blue-gray dress is too large. Her plumed hat has survived more than a few rainstorms. She's the prettiest thing Deuce has ever seen. Standing beside Mary is her young cousin Anthony. The black woolen suit he's wearing is far too small. He sways steadily from foot to foot. Anthony acts like he hears someone in the distance calling his name. The handful of souls in the pews behind him are as silent as boulders.
Deuce thinks, the funeral was a Saturday social compared to this. Mr. Bartoli grips the pew in front of him. His wife seems frozen in place. Deuce doesn't notice the first two times Fr. Laurent taps the Bible to get his attention. The priest's third tap nearly knocks Deuce over.
Fr. Laurent motions Deuce to return the Bible to the altar. The priest now stands in front of the bride and groom, both of whom look ill. Fr. Laurent administers the marriage rite like a judge passing sentence. The bride and groom never speak, never even look at each other.
The priest has just switched back to Latin when Anthony collapses backward. Fr. Laurent quietly signals Deuce to attend to the fallen groom. Mr. Bartoli joins Deuce in righting Anthony. The priest drones on. Very slowly, on rubbery legs, Anthony revives. Mary hasn't moved an inch.
Deuce doesn't realize the ceremony has ended until he glimpses the Bartolis exiting their pew. The bride and groom are led away separately. Deuce is alone at the altar. For a moment, the thought of rescuing Mary and sneaking her onto a northbound steamer doesn't seem ridiculous.
The priest confers with the Bartolis half-way down the church's center aisle. One guest remains: a familiar-looking woman in the last pew.
Alice Laffingstock knows she needn't budge. Eventually her son will come to her and answer the questions in her eyes. Deuce knows it too. There won't be any heroic deeds at St. Patrick's today. To avoid Fr. Laurent, Deuce walks to the back of the church down the side aisle.
"What a little priest you make," his mother says as Deuce sits next to her in the pew. He had forgotten about the surplice he was wearing. "Would you care to explain..." Alice Laffingstock gestures broadly with her hand. "...what this is about?" Deuce tries the truth.
"Uncle Joe and Mary are in love but Mr. Bartoli won't let them get married and I'm to take care of Mary and spy on Fr. Laurent," he gasps.
The gasp goes on: "But I couldn't stop her wedding and I don't want to be a priest."
His mother hugs him and says, "I'll murder the bum."
Deuce avoids Bartoli's store as he makes his way to and from Market St. He's happy to be back selling papers and out of the church business. It's been three months since Mary and her cousin/husband Anthony boarded an eastbound train. Deuce thinks, it's as if they were never here.
As soon as he enters the flat Deuce notices the quiet. This time of evening the Laffingstock din can usually be heard from the front steps. His mother is standing at the kitchen stove, just as Deuce expects. He doesn't anticipate finding his Uncle Joe eating at the kitchen table.
"You're early," is all Deuce can think to say as his uncle stands and gives him a bear hug.
"Cut down the last tree up there," Joe replies. "Not a one left standing, and my ax not even dull." Joe smiles, but not the smile Deuce is used to seeing, not the one with his eyes lit up.
"I couldn't stop it," Deuce says to his mother as much as to his Uncle Joe.
"Oh, you did fine," Joe replies, "I'll take care of everything."
"You'll do no such thing," Alice warns her brother. "This family won't survive much more of your kind of care." Joseph returns to his stew.
An hour later Joe and Deuce are still at the kitchen table talking about everything except Mary and why Joe returned to the city so early. "Oh, the thirst," Joe announces. The chair creaks as he leans back. "I wonder if they still sell beer in this town," he winks at his nephew.
Joe grabs his heavy coat off the rack and flies out the flat's front door before Deuce can tell him about the new brewery down the street.
Three hours later Deuce is awake in bed talking himself into sneaking out to find his uncle. A minute later he's quietly opening the window. Twenty minutes later Deuce is standing in an alley across the street from one of his uncle's favorite saloons. Not a sign of life anywhere.
Deuce is debating whether to check the Spaniard's place on Howard or the loghouse at South Beach when he senses someone standing behind him. The heavy hand on his shoulder tells Deuce he isn't going anywhere. "Mighty early, even for a newspaper boy." Officer Coles spits tobacco.
"You head on home now, young McCready," the policeman says as he unhands Deuce. "We'll keep watch for that tree-butchering uncle of yours."
Go here. Do this. Don't do that. Go back there. Priests, parents, cops, uncles. Deuce walks home wondering who was next to pull his strings. Home is the last place Deuce wants to be, but he knows no place else would let him in. He walks past his house and heads for the waterfront.
On hay bales piled pierside Deuce watches the wharf come to life. The sun is due to arrive anytime. Nearby someone's fish stew is simmering. If he wasn't so hungry, cold, and tired Deuce would have stayed on that hay bale until it blew away. He walks back up the hill toward home.
Halfway up Rincon Hill, Deuce notices activity ahead. Ten steps later he places the commotion near his family's flat. He slows, then he runs up the hill. Two blue-coated officers stand at the foot of the flat's front steps. Another is stationed outside the front door. Neighbors begin to hover.
Deuce considers re-entering through the window he slipped out of but ends up standing in the middle of the road. The three cops look bored. He can't go in, he can't walk away, he can't stay in the road. Deuce is unstuck when his mother walks out the front door. She looks angry.
"Stay inside until I get back," his mother says when she spots Deuce in the street. "Tell the children I've gone to church to pray for Joe."
Two policemen follow Alice down the steps. Deuce meets her at the curb. She hugs him quickly and climbs into the back of the police wagon. From the end of the wagon's bench Alice tells her son, "Your uncle needs your prayers, so get to work." She manages a quick, weak smile.
The wagon bounces downhill. The small crowd files away. Deuce climbs the steps. He never thought of his Uncle Joe needing much of anything.
"Come, chillren, gather now!" Madame Bouchet blasts into the Laffingstock flat like a cannonball. Deuce feels a weight fly off his chest. Only a few hours have passed since his mother left with the police, but Deuce feels like his foot is in a trap. Madame just set him free.
"Put on your coat and hat," Madame instructs the Laffingstock children, who comply in a flurry -- except Deuce, who just stands staring. Madame Bouchet waves Deuce over and whispers, "We go to Creve Coeur, you go to Mary Help." She leans in. "If he's alive, get him on boat."
Creve Coeur is part church, part social club for former Louisianans. Mary's Help is part clinic, part jail for Irish incorrigibles like Joe. Madame herds the little Laffingstocks out the door and heads them toward Creve Coeur. "En vitesse!" she says to Deuce as she exits the flat.
Deuce is halfway to Mary's Help before he realizes his newspaper bag is slung over his shoulder. He decides to pick up the latest edition. A half hour later Deuce is hawking papers outside the fortified clinic and working up the nerve to stroll casually through the front door.
A tall man in a short coat comes out of the building and motions for a paper. Deuce dodges a horse-drawn streetcar as he crosses the street. After the sale Deuce follows the man back inside Mary's Help, offering a paper to anyone he passes. The cops don't give him a second glance. No sign of Uncle Joe on the first floor, so Deuce ducks down a stairway to the basement. The door at the bottom of the stairs is locked.
For about a minute Deuce stands in front of the door, willing it to open. As he reaches to give the knob another try, the door swings wide. The cop is as surprised to see Deuce as Deuce is surprised the door opened. "Conduct your business outside, boy." He gives Deuce a shove.
"I was sent for," Deuce lies. "The tall man in the short coat said bring a paper downstairs. It's paid for." Deuce holds out a wilted paper.
"Give it to the officer at the desk. And no lollygagging." The cop heads up the stairs.
Deuce enters a dark room with two long rows of beds. About half of the beds are occupied. A few of the occupants are shackled. One of these is Deuce's Uncle Joe. He's snoring through bandages. At the far end of the room a cop sits at a desk. He's eating from a tin bowl. He watches Deuce approach. Deuce holds out the drooping paper.
The cop motions Deuce to set the paper on the desk. He puts down his spoon, pulls a dime from his pocket, and slides it across the desktop. "It's paid for," Deuce repeats. The cop returns to his bowl.
"Not for the paper. Get me a bucket of beer. And get a short one for yourself." Deuce takes the dime and goes back the way he came. He slows at the bed his uncle is chained to. Uncle Joe winks at him and fakes a snore.
When Deuce returns to Mary's Help with a beer bucket in tow the officers in the lobby ignore him. He hurries to the basement without a plan. The door to the ward is now unlocked, but Deuce hesitates before entering. Get the guard's keys to Uncle Joe, follow him out the door. Easy.
The moment Deuce reenters the ward he realizes the snoring is now coming from the cop at the desk. Uncle Joe is working on the chain lock. His uncle pantomimes "Get the keys off the guard's belt." Deuce sets the bucket down and creeps toward the desk. Joe motions him to hurry.
Prying the big keyring off the sleeping guard's belt takes three tugs, each sharper than the one prior. The cop snorts as the ring detaches. Deuce tries to keep the keys from jingling as he carries them to his Uncle Joe, who's shushing the few conscious among his fellow detainees.
After only a few tries Joe finds the key that unlocks the shackles around his ankle. At that moment the cop shouts and falls off his chair. "Run!" Joe yells as he shoves Deuce ahead of him toward the door. The guard is still struggling to right himself as they head up the stairs.
Deuce climbs the steps two at a time, his uncle right behind him, discarding bandages. At the top of the stairs Joe says "Follow me, Deucy."
Now Deuce is on his uncle's heels as he heads down a hallway toward the rear of the jail/infirmary, through a kitchen, and out a back door. They tumble down a rickety wooden stairway leading into a dusty, narrow alley. Uncle Joe spots the cops a half-second before they spot him.
Deuce watches his uncle barrel headlong into the smaller of the two policemen. They somersault into the street. Joe bounces up and keeps on. The cop Joe didn't bowl over chases him across Howard. The bowlee mounts a horse and joins the pursuit. No one pays Deuce any mind at all.
Lacking any better ideas, Deuce decides to stand there and gape. He catches the eye of the tall man in a short coat, who approaches rapidly. Deuce takes off. Ten steps later he feels a tug. The man has a hold of Deuce's newspaper bag. Three steps later Deuce drops to the ground. The tall, short-coated man soars through the air, still grasping the canvas bag. Deuce wrests it back as the man lands hard on his hindside.
Deuce heads across Howard looking for an alley to duck into. He sees a beer wagon approaching and decides to hitch a ride on the sideboard. Hearing the beer slosh in the barrels makes Deuce think all he has to do is sit on this wagon and sooner or later Uncle Joe would find him.
If he hasn't been escorted back to Mary's Help, that is. Or tossed in the lockup. Deuce doesn't think he's got another escape plan in him. Even if he got away from the cops, what could Uncle Joe do about Mary and her 15-year-old husband/cousin? Ontario might as well be Timbuktu.
The beer wagon pulls into an alley to make a delivery. Deuce realizes he's a short walk from the Bartoli residence. He thinks, where else?
"Your uncle says meet him behind my uncle's shop." Once again Mary's little sister Nica startles Deuce as he spies on the Bartoli house. Nica's message doesn't register with Deuce until she's skipping back to her house. Over her shoulder, Nica adds, "And bring beer, he says."
As he walks to the Bartoli's market on First Street, Deuce thinks, I never in my short life bought so much beer and drank so little of it. Just before he steps into the alley behind the Bartoli market, something makes Deuce stop. Quiet. Middle of the day and not a soul in sight.
The place is usually a tangle of wagons, drunks, livestock, and sundry wares. It hasn't been this empty since the plague sailed into town.
"You have a knack for finding trouble, Alphonsus." The priest's soft voice is more menacing than a raised axe. Fr. Laurent steps forward. "Your Uncle Joseph has been afforded passage out of town." The priest takes another step toward Deuce. "You understand the need for haste."
Fr. Laurent continues toward Deuce. "Mary Bartoli is situated. Your uncle is being situated." The priest puts his hand on Deuce's shoulder. "Now we turn our attention to you, Alphonsus." Deuce squirms. The priest's grip tightens. "You must turn your attention to your studies."
Deuce throws a roundhouse left that lands square on Fr. Laurent's right temple. The priest falls over sideways. Deuce heads for the wharf. A block from the waterfront, Deuce spots Mr. Bartoli standing on the pier with two other men, all three wearing dark suits and bowler hats.
Deuce is confident Mr. Bartoli and his cohorts haven't spotted him. As he considers a feint, everything goes dark. Then he's upside-down. He's over someone's shoulder, in a scratchy burlap bag, being carried downhill. Deuce decides to take this opportunity to rethink things.
Madame Bouchet said get his uncle on a boat. The priest said Uncle Joe had already sailed, which to Deuce proved Joe was still on dry land. Deuce realizes they are now walking on the wooden pier. He's preparing to be dropped onto the ground. The splash catches him by surprise.
Flailing doesn't strike Deuce as a good idea. He's in a burlap bag heading straight to the bottom of the bay. Then he pops up like a bobbin. Only to start sinking again before he can think to take a breath. Deuce decides to give flailing a try. He wonders why he's gulping water.
Deuce wakes up to the sound of men laughing. Someone is pounding on his back. He's sprawled on the wharf, soaked, shivering, half choked. "Still breathing," one man says to another. "You owe me a drink." They both head shoreward. One of the two men remaining gives Deuce a kick.
Deuce hears the men speaking in Italian. One says "Get up," accompanied by a half-hearted kick to Deuce's derriere. The boy finds his legs. The two Italians bracket Deuce as they escort him down the pier toward Rincon Hill. Mr. Bartoli stands at the end of the pier, looking down.
Even when the three figures are right in front of him, Mary's father keeps gazing at the toes of his boots. "Your uncle," he says finally. Another half-minute of staring at the ground. "Your uncle," Mr. Bartoli repeats. "Him I handle." He looks at Deuce. "You. Make me trouble."
Deuce thinks, Who makes who trouble? He's trying not to shiver too much. Mr. Bartoli nods his head. "So now you come work for me," he says. Mr. Bartoli straightens his bowler hat and walks away. The two men follow him. One says to Deuce over his shoulder, "You start tomorrow."
Deuce shouts after them, "Where's my Uncle Joe?" The men keep walking.
A voice behind Deuce says, "Gone." The woman wraps him in a blanket. Deuce barely recognizes Madame Bouchet. "Gone for a long time," she says. "Maybe always."
I'll see him again, Deuce thinks. And Mary, too.
His grandfather as a young boy shivering on a San Francisco pier in the summer of 1890 comes to Lonny-Donny's mind as he shivers on a broad boulevard in the winter of 1967. The snow is three-day-old gray. A path is worn through it in the middle of the sidewalk and by two tire ruts in the road. Small, random piles of dirty ice. A shadowy Sunday.
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