First in a seven-part holiday fiction

Whhuuuuuuttttt.

The alert sounded and flashed on Nora Gallagher's creaky old Dell desktop; an e-mail had arrived.
Nora peeked at her inbox.

From the Keltner Foundation.

"Oh God, this is it," Nora said out loud, not aware she had.

"This is what?" her cubicle mate Dan Slotnick asked, swiveling and leaning towards her in that way of his. The ceiling lights in the office of More Than a Roof Inc. gleamed off his bald crown.

"The email from the Keltner Foundation. On the big one. On whether we got the grant or not. On whether Louisa's going to love me or kill me. I can't look."

"Of course you got it, kiddo. You aced that proposal."

Nora gingerly maneuvered her cursor over the message.

"Oh, please, please, please ..." she murmured and clicked.

 

The email from This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it bloomed on Nora's screen. It was addressed to Louisa Cross, Nora's boss, the founder of the city's most innovative, most honored nonprofit in the housing sector:

"Dear Ms. Cross,

We were very impressed with More Than A Roof's grant request and your nonprofit's record of service to its community. While your proposal was well-framed, this year we had a large number of impressive applications from distinguished providers. Some very hard choices had to be made, and unfortunately I'm writing to inform you ...."

And so on. The knife was already in Nora's gut; the words just twisted the blade under the guise of kindness.

"I'm sorry, Nor."

Nora stood up slowly. She mechanically ran her hands down her thighs, smoothing her jeans. She grabbed her mass of curly, sandy-blonde hair, pulled it taut, and wrapped a band around it to create a rough ponytail.

"Well, I'd better go deliver the bad news face to face to Louisa."

"You do that. Meanwhile, I'll check Craigslist to see what odd jobs it has for unemployed grant writers." Dan's Adam's apple bobbed above his bowtie, below his wry smile.

"Thanks, dude. I knew you'd be there for me."

Nora managed a bug-eyed look of comical angst, eliciting a bark of laughter from Dan: "Now, to the gallows."

A difficult saint

More Than a Roof's offices were an open, egalitarian space that took up half of a floor in a renovated warehouse in Philadelphia's Loft District, also known as the "Eraserhood" for its old role as the setting for David Lynch's dystopian film, Eraserhead.

Louisa Cross had no office, instead a cubicle like everyone else's – well, a bit bigger, to accommodate her penchant for messy sprawl.

She looked up at Nora from an unkempt array of documents, her deep-set green eyes sparkling, her wild, tangled mane of red hair mildly disciplined by a headband.

"Nora!"

"Hi .. uhhh ... I wanted to let you know we heard from Keltner."

"Oh!" Louisa jumped out of her chair, fists planted on her desk, leaning forward. "How much did we get? Did they go in for the full boat?"

"Uh, well not exactly. ... Zero, actually."

"Zero what?" The speed with which storm clouds formed on Louisa's face was dizzying.

"Uh, zero dollars, Louisa. They turned us down. 'Great proposal, tough competition, blah, blah, blah, but bottom line, try again some other time.'"

"That can't be! It can't. That proposal was innovative. We have the best metrics of anybody in our peer group. I got great feedback from three separate members of their board."

"I dunno, boss. It said what it said. Here's a copy of the email."

Louisa snatched the paper from Nora, zipped through the five paragraphs in a few seconds.

"This is bizarre. We must have had some technical flaw in the application. What did you do, Nora? Did you forget some attachment, forget to dot some 'i'? Unless you screwed something up, this is inexplicable."

The words burrowed, barbed and painful. Louisa was her mentor, her hero. Her displeasure sent an acrid chill through Nora.

Decades ago Louisa Cross had had an innovative vision for how to turn around the lives of the urban homeless, in their myriad forms. Amid indifference and gibes, she'd pursued her ideas about comprehensive services mixed with demanding love. Over time, her approach proved its worth in the only metric that really mattered – changed lives, saved lives.

Louisa was, Nora believed, a modern saint, in the painfully thin flesh-and-blood. Saints may be holy, but they are not perfect. Louisa could be unreasonable, mercurial, and deeply paranoid that someone, somewhere, somehow was not fully appreciating how much more support and attention she needed if she was to complete her mission to salvage every last broken life in her city, her region, her world.

And right now, Louisa Cross was angry at Nora.

"Did you call them and find out their reasons?" she asked. Seeing the look of misery on Nora's face, she said, "Of course not, you didn't. How many times, Nora, must I teach you this: The race goes to the bold. The timid fade away. Never mind, I'll call Ellen, the CEO, see if this can be fixed."

Nora, though shaky, knew her craft:

"That might hurt us, Louisa. Keltner's a very by-the-book place. The program officers resent end runs. The next grant round is in only six months. Let's just lick our wound and reload in six months."

"Reload?" Louisa glared at Nora over her pince-nez.

Then her face softened. She sighed: "OK, Nora, I don't know, maybe you have a point about Keltner. That Ellen never did have a lick of sense. Let me think it over and we'll talk tomorrow."

Getting those ducks in a row

Nora trooped miserably back through the warren of cubicles. Dan looked up.

"Turn around," he commanded.

Nora complied, quizzical: "What?"

"That's good, no visible stab wounds. Louisa was kind this time. You can heal quietly, with no one the wiser ... So, how bad was it, kiddo?"

"About a 4.5 on the Louisa Scale. Not as bad as I feared."

"Well, 'tis the season to be jolly. Look on the bright side. You're employed. And, at work, you get to sit next to one of America's sexiest, smartest men. And you've still got that guy, good old whatisname, the Twitter god, whom you apparently adore even though he makes Hamlet look like Mr. Decisive."

Nora knew what was coming. Part of her groaned "not now," but part of her smiled at her cubicle mate's sardonic devotion to her happiness.

"So what's it been now, 10 years, you've been dating this guy? What's he waiting for to make an honest woman of you? The Mayan apocalypse? Energy independence for America? The Eagles to win a Super Bowl?

"As I've told you, Daniel, Greg says he needs to get his ducks in a row. He just needs a little more time for the Web site to take off and his future to be secure. And, remember, he just came off of covering the election."

"Ah yes, Greg Bullman, the Maureen Dowd of New Jersey. You know what, Nor, there's always an election to cover somewhere. It wasn't like he was covering Lincoln vs. Douglas. It was Menendez vs. whatever poor schlub it was he slaughtered. The Greek guy."

Nora's iPhone pinged. A text. Speak of the New Jersey devil, there he was in digital form. She read the message from Greg:

Hey, NG, big news. Phil scored 2 tix for the Pack vs. Bears Sunday b4 xmas. Sooo amped. Prob just sta with fam for 12/25 then.

Dan read Nora's face: "What, he just told you he's going to Gaza for the holidays?"

"Nearly as bad. Milwaukee. He's got freaking Packers tickets for the Sunday before, so he's going to stay with his parents for Christmas."

"So much for my 12th day of Christmas theory .... Hard to get on bended knee and give you a ring from Wisconsin."

"Ya think?" Nora blew a stream of air out in exasperation; it ruffled the bangs on her forehead.

She put her head down on her desk. "Aaaarrrgh. He was supposed to come to my Mom's and Raj's for their big Christmas Eve bash."

She slammed a flat palm on her desk. "Can this day get any worse?"

"You don't have results from an MRI or a blood test due to come back, do you? Then probably not."

Nora picked up her smartphone, pounded savagely at the keypad with her thumbs:

Very happy for you, Greg. I know how you love the Green and Gold. I guess I should tell my mom you won't be there for Christmas Eve?

Nora never used abbreviations, acronyms or emoticons when texting. Jane Austen could have found no fault with her texts or tweets. She was an English major from Wellesley; someone had to uphold standards.

Born to run

Since Nora had been a little girl, listening to her father's rages downstairs, she'd had a powerful flight reflex. It overtook her almost like a seizure, a sudden desperation of every molecule in her body to leave the place she was. Sometimes she'd literally be out the door, in the fresh air, before her conscious mind registered that she'd taken the first step.

The codes embedded deep in her DNA were howling now.

"Dan, I gotta go. Just gotta get out of here. Cover for me if Louisa comes over; I'm out meeting with someone from Delaware Valley Grantmakers, OK?"

"Sure thing, kiddo. Any work things I can take care of for you?"

"I can't even ... I dunno, Dan. I'm just going, OK?"

Outside, Nora unwound the chain lock on her bike, tossed her bag into the big white basket that jutted dowdily from the handlebars, slipped on her helmet and began to ride.

Where to, she had no plan.

As she pedaled, a chorus of voices brayed in her head, replaying the cloying comments she'd endured at all the wedding receptions she and Greg had attended that year. What was it, six, seven, eight?

"I thought surely by now you'd be hitched; are you difficult to live with or something?"

"Elbow your way to that bouquet, Nora. Put some pressure on Greg here."

"Have you ever thought about giving him an ultimatum? I did that with Bob and look at us now."

"Don't wait much longer, dear. Soon the wrinkles start."

As friend after friend notched the milestone, she and Greg stood out more and more. They'd been together longer that most of the newlyweds, but seemed no closer to the altar than they'd been when they'd met on that senior year spring break at South Padre Island.

"Tell him you're running for office, Nor. Then he'll spend more time with you."

Greg's reaction to all this was usually a wry smile. Nora used to say she was in no hurry to get married. And, once, she'd meant it. A lot of young marrieds they knew didn't seem all that happy. And her own parents, whew, they'd been no advertisement ...

But now ... now, she was about to hit 30. A fear sloshed inside her as she rode: Had she spent a decade of her life, years she'd never get back, with the wrong guy?  Greg was brilliant, no doubt, and very funny. Whenever Nora was with him, he made her laugh and he made her think.   He could be goofily sweet and tender, when the mood was right.  But had he somehow turned into a workaholic who cared more about fact-checking political ads than he did making her happy?

"Tell him you're running for office, Nor. Then he'll spend more time with you."

Nora needed to escape the voices. A notion of refuge dawned on her. In moments, she was there.


 

Tomorrow: Keats and snapper soup, a memorable encounter

Listen to the radio play version of Certain Poor Shepherds, on WHYY-FM, at 10 p.m. Dec. 23, 1 p.m. Christmas Eve, 6 p.m. Christmas Day, or with the audio player above.  Starring Marty Moss-Coane, Dave Heller and other members of the WHYY team.


Illustrations by Tony Auth