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(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.)


SHE was slightly ashamed of her glee when Sonia Martinez, the mother of Tiffany, one of the smartest girls in the seventh grade, came in to complain about Gerard. Sonia Martinez said that the children were learning nothing; that she wanted Tiffany to do well on her exams and get a scholarship to one of the good high schools, Sacred Heart or Marymount; and that Tiffany was going to be behind if she stayed in Gerard's class. She mentioned her tuition payments. You've got to be kidding, Joan wanted to say. Parents paid Saint Timothy's a tenth of what was charged at private schools -- less if they were parishioners, which Tiffany's parents were. She didn't like Sonia Martinez, who was finishing a business degree at Hunter College and worked for the telephone company, whose children were immaculately turned out, who was obviously overworked and naturally impatient. But she admired her tenacity, and she knew that Mrs. Martinez was right. Sonia Martinez threatened a petition by the class parents.

"Just wait on that," Joan said. "Give me a little time."

Sonia Martinez trusted her; she said all right, but the semester was ticking on, and the placement exams came early in the fall of the eighth-grade year.

AS Joan walked over to the rectory, she felt the liveliness in her bones. A salty, exciting taste was in her mouth, as if she'd eaten olives or a salad of arugula. She thought that if she tried to run now, she could run easily, and very, very fast. She felt no concern for Gerard; she told herself that his job was no good for him, either, the way things were, and anyway he was sixty-four; the time had come for him to retire. If Catholic schools were going to have credibility, they would have to have standards as high as those of other private schools. They had to get over the habit of thinking of themselves as refuges for people who couldn't make it elsewhere. Anyway, she told herself, I'm doing it for the students. They're my responsibility. My vocation is to serve them.

This is what she said to Steve, who, of course, said she was overreacting, that Sonia Martinez was overly ambitious, that they had, in charity, to think of their responsibility to Gerard, who had been with the parish all his life.

"So we have to forget our responsibility to the children we are pledged to serve?" she said.

"It's one year of their lives," Steve said. "This school is his whole life. It's all he has."

WHEN she talked it over with her friends, Rocky -- who because she dealt with schizophrenics was in an excellent position, she said, to deal with the clergy -- suggested that she tell Steve that Gerard probably wasn't happy: dealing with chaotic, aggressive adolescents couldn't be pleasant. Joan should think of something else for him to do.

"What, what can he do?" asked Joan, who was wishing more than ever that their apartment wasn't a smoke-free zone. "He's a complete loser."

"He must be good at something."

"He can't even read the Gospel properly," Joan said. "Didn't you hear him last week -- 'When Jesus rode on his donkey into Brittany'? You were the one who had to dive under the seat and pretend you were looking for a Kleenex."

"Everybody's good at something. What's he interested in?"

"Smoking."

"Didn't you say he did computers?"

Smoking She understood at that moment why people believed so literally in the Holy Ghost, in the purges of fire. A heat came over her head; her own wisdom was visible to her. She would put him in charge of the computer lab. That they had no computer lab was a minor problem. She had been reading about how obsolete computers sat around in offices. She would get Steve to schmooze up his executive friends for donations: Steve would get free lunches, the gift would probably be a tax deduction for them, and they'd think they were buying a few years out of purgatory.

Steve, as she told her friends afterward, fell for the scheme like a ton of bricks. Within a month they had six computers, none of them new but all of them workable. Gerard was more adept at the technology than any other teacher in the school, but so were most of the students. After he'd given the teachers some minor instruction, he had little to do but sit in the corner, watch the teachers and the students work, make sure the switches were turned off at the end of the day, and occasionally dust the keyboards. Everyone was happy -- especially Sonia Martinez, who was doing a paper on computer literacy and minority advancement. One of Joan's friends, who taught education at the college run by their order in Brooklyn, was able to pump up one of her students for a stint teaching seventh grade. Joan knew this wouldn't last: the good young teachers left because they could earn more elsewhere, or they got married and then pregnant. But for now things were much better. She hardly saw Gerard except when their cigarette breaks coincided. When she did, she congratulated him on his new job. He said, "We are all in the hands of the Lord."

She wanted to smack him.

STEVE told her that the parish was going to celebrate Gerard's twenty-fifth anniversary as a deacon.

"What the hell does he do as a deacon anyway?" she said. "Besides mangle the Gospel?"

"He brings communion to the sick, though sometimes he gets lost and wanders around midtown with the Blessed Sacrament. To tell the truth, he doesn't do much. But it means a lot to him. His mother was heartbroken when he was sent down from the seminary. I think the old pastor really pushed for his deaconate. It's a good thing. Or, as my grandmother would have said, 'It does no harm.' And sometimes that's the best you can hope for."

She wanted to say to Steve, It's the best you can hope for, but she held her tongue.

"We're going to have a little party. We'll have mass, and then wine and beer and pretzels and chips in the basement. Can you organize the children?"

"To do what?"

"Have them sing something?"

"What do you think this is, The Sound of Music?"

"Come on, Joanie, give me a break. I'm stuck with this."

"So I provide the entertainment?"

"Entertainment -- you? Do you think I'm crazy? Just the organization. That's more in your line."

Joan was surprised at how much what Steve said hurt her. But she determined to forget it. She asked him who was going to be in charge of the food and the decorations. "Marek," he said. Marek was from Poland; he had been an accountant there, but now he wanted to be an artist. He was living in one of the spare rooms at the rectory. He was supposed to be the sexton, and to do odd repairs, but he was as bad at that as Gerard was at reading the Gospel. She wasn't hopeful about the food and the decorations, but one of the things she had learned was that if she tried to do everything, nothing would get done well. It's not my problem, she said to herself; she would forget about the food, the decorations, what Steve had said to her, and concentrate on the children and their song.

She chose the littlest children, who still loved any excuse to perform. She herself had no musical talent; she had hired Josie Myerson, a niece of one of the sisters, who was getting a Ph.D. in music, to come to the school once a week to do music with the children. The girl was energetic and talented, and what she did, if inadequate in its extent, was at least first-rate in its quality. Josie, who was plain and misunderstood by her mother, looked at Joan with a hopefulness that made Joan uneasy. Soon, she expected, Josie would talk about wanting to enter the convent. Joan would discourage her; Josie was too neurotic, and the last thing the order needed was someone who joined because she couldn't make it in the larger world. But Joan knew how to use her power over Josie when she needed to, and she needed to now. Josie taught six of the girls and six of the boys the song "Memories," from Cats, which she thought would be appropriate for a twenty-fifth anniversary. Then they would break into a Latin medley, including dancing, which would make them all happy and lighten the tone.

STEVE announced at the beginning of the mass that it was to be said in thanksgiving for Gerard's ministry. Most people, he said, didn't understand the role of the deacon. He could do all the things a priest did except consecrate the Host. His ministry was in the community, and he was of the community; Gerard certainly was, having lived here, on the same block, all his life. Joan was sure that almost none of the parishioners had any idea who Gerard was, other than that he was funny-looking and often made mistakes in the reading. Nevertheless, they applauded him when Steve called for applause, and because it was a Sunday, enough people were there to make the applause sound genuine and ample.

Just after communion Joan went downstairs to determine where the children should stand; she didn't know where Marek would have put the tables, and how she would accommodate the arrangement. When she turned on the light, her heart sank. Marek had done nothing to make the place festive. On one long table were two boxes of Ritz crackers; a slab of cheddar cheese on a plate; some unseparated slices of Swiss, the paper still between the slices; a plate of dill-pickle spears; a bowl of green olives; two bags of potato chips; and a bag of Chee·tos. There were two half-gallon jugs of red wine, a bottle of club soda, and a bottle of ginger ale. Two dozen paper cups, still in their plastic. A packet of napkins, also wrapped. On the four pillars that supported the ceiling were taped white paper plates with the number 25 written on them in blue ballpoint.

Desperate, Joan ran upstairs to the rectory kitchen for bowls to put the crackers and the chips in. Frantically she unwrapped the paper cups and unwrapped and spread out the napkins. She ran upstairs again for some ice and looked for an ice bucket; unable to find one, she emptied the ice trays into a large yellow bowl. When the children came downstairs, she told them to stand in front of the food table; somehow, she thought, they made the whole thing less dispiriting.

She'd been worried that there wasn't enough food, but only three adults came downstairs from the church: Father Adrian; Lucinda, the Peruvian housekeeper; and Mrs. Frantzen, who had taught in the school until her retirement, fifteen years earlier. Then Steve came downstairs -- he was always surrounded after mass, and had a hard time getting away -- but said he could stay only a minute. He had a baptism in Westchester -- one of the assistant coaches of the Knicks had had a baby, and no one but Steve could baptize her. He told Gerard he'd take him to Gallagher's for dinner -- that he'd be back at five. "You, too, Joan," he said, running out the doorway. "You'll join us too." He didn't wait for a reply.

She told the children they could eat what they wanted, and they dived for the potato chips. Their activity was a welcome spot of color, because no one had anything to say. They kept congratulating Gerard, and saying what a wonderful thing the deaconate was, and how wonderful it was that he had served the parish all these years, in all these ways. No one said what the ways were exactly. Mrs. Frantzen said how proud his dear mother would be. Father Adrian offered a prayer for the repose of Gerard's mother's soul. The children sang their song but skipped the Latin medley. Father Adrian and Lucinda drifted upstairs. Mrs. Frantzen said she'd have to be going.

Gerard lingered while Joan collected the food to take upstairs. She supposed that eventually Marek would get around to it, but she much preferred being busy over trying to think of something to say to Gerard.

"Well, Gerard, it's quite a day for you," she said, with a false brightness that turned her stomach.

"I count my blessings," he said. She could think of nothing else to say. He helped her carry the leftovers up the stairs. She thought of the upcoming dinner at Gallagher's. She thought that Steve had selected the restaurant because the management knew them, and because they could smoke there. She rarely thought about drinking, but she planned that as soon as she sat down, she'd order a Scotch and soda.

Continued...

The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.


Mary Gordon is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of many books, including The Company of Women (1981), Temporary Shelter (1987), and The Shadow Man (1996), a memoir. A collection of her essays, Seeing Through Places, will be published next year.

Illustrations by Gérard DuBois

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; The Deacon; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 94 - 106.

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