Part six of a seven-part holiday fiction

The story so far: Nora Gallagher, against the advice of her friends, is bound and determined to take her eccentric new friend, Tony Razzolini, out to the Main Line for her mother's posh Christmas Eve party.  Meanwhile, she's feuding with her boyfriend, Greg, who has deserted her at Christmastime to go to a football game.

Nora Gallagher's iPhone played a very familiar ring.

"Hi, Mom."

"Hi, dear. Just taking a quick break in the tree decorating. We were missing you, so I thought I'd give a call. It's too bad you couldn't make it."

"I'm sure you'll do a beautiful job, Mom. I always hung the tinsel too low."

"Nonsense, dear. Oh, also, did you get the things I asked from diBruno's?"

"Yep. Nailed the whole list."

"Good. Thanks. So what time do you think you and Greg will be getting here Monday."

"Mom, I told you. He's not going to be there; he's with his folks in Wisconsin."

"Ah, yes. So you did. So no ... announcements this year?"

"No, Mom. No. Oh, I should tell you, I'm bringing someone else, a friend."

"Really. Julia? She is so funny, that girl."

"No, Mom, a guy. Now, don't start in. Not that kind of guy. Just a friend I met, in town, who's got nowhere to go Christmas Eve. He's a super smart guy. I think Raj will like him a lot. They share a love of Mozart."

"Raj does love his Mozart. OK, darling, whatever you think best. Try to be here by 6 to help me set up, if you can."

"Sure, Mom, sure. Sorry, gotta go now."

A tete-a-tete via text

FROM GREG: On ground in Cheeseland. Sorry to book while u were zzzz. Only flight 2day. Call u 2moro?

FROM NORA: You didn't lock the door when you left. Don't do that. Hug your mom for me.

A long ride

"C'mon, Tony Razz. Come meet the folks."

Nora Gallagher held open the passenger door of her CarShare Prius. A cutting wind whistled up the driveway of her mother's Gladwyne home, as she peered in at the skinny, beak-nosed man in the front seat.

Tony Razzolini stared straight into the December night, muttering to himself. Fugue state.

Nora's friends had kept warning her this was a bad idea, inviting her odd new friend to an elegant Christmas Eve bash on the Main Line.

Work buddy Dan Slotkin: "I know you were in your high school production of My Fair Lady, Nora, but this is not that. You are not Henry Higgins, and Tony Razz is definitely not Eliza Doolittle. You are not going to dance all night."

Roommate Julia Fideli: "On the roster of all-time dumb notions, this ranks up there with the Iraq invasion and trading Moses Malone."

Standing there in the freezing wind, Nora was beginning to see their point.

"Tony!" she said, a little louder.

Ever since Nora had tried to pick Tony up at this place around 5 o'clock, it was clear that something was off.

First off, his "girlfriend" Dorothy had been at his cluttered apartment, glaring as she greeted Nora in a saccharin singsong: "Hello, Miss Gallagher, you look stouter than the last time I saw you."

Tony had futzed and fussed, but made no progress to the door. Finally, when Nora had made a worried comment about traffic on the Schuylkill, Tony had waved his cane angrily, "Schuylkill, roadkill! Don't take me down your nightmare highway of dreams! Leave! Go, go, go!"

Nora had finally coaxed Tony out the door with the prospect of talking Mozart with her stepfather, another Amadeus aficionado. But Tony had pouted for most of the ride.

Old wounds, still fresh

As Nora had steered the Prius through the winding ravines of Gladwyne, she'd given Tony a rundown on the evening: "My Mom's name is Charlotte and Raj is her second husband. She divorced my dad 12 years ago, and not a moment too soon if you ask me. Raj is a great guy, a surgeon at CHOP, who ..."

Tony had suddenly stirred: "See those lights, there on that house across the ravine? Ravishing, ravishing by the ravine. Lights, lights! Sir Ferdinand Klein!"

Then, after a short silence: "Divorce. It is hard. It is hard on a little girl. Hard for her to forgive. But you must try harder, Nora, you must try harder."

Nora's face had flushed: "OK, Tony, I will."

Now, in Gladwyne, as looked down at him slumped in the passenger street, she said:

"Tony, I need you to try harder!"

Tony's head turned, as it recognizing for the first time that Nora was there: "Is this it?"

"Yep, Chateau Gupta. Let's go check it out."

They shuffled up a stone walk between rows of bushes bedecked with white lights. A candle shone in every window of the two-story stone mansion.

The front door was open, allowing a view into an entrance foyer decked with garlands, leading to a huge, glittering Christmas tree at the far end. Inside, all was warmth and bustle inside. Nora opened the door and half pushed Tony in.

Nora's mom, Charlotte, glided up with a greeting smile. If Nora had hoped to spawn distaste or confusion in her mother by bringing a gnome in a fedora to the party, she failed. Charlotte extended a gracious hand: "Hello, you must be Nora's friend. I'm Charlotte. Welcome."

Tony hung one cane on his left arm, used the right to sweep the fedora off his head and executed a sort of bow: "Anthony Razzolini, ma'am, at your service."

"Well, Anthony, hello, and may I take your hat and ... uh, any of your coats?"

With some fumbling, Tony conveyed the fedora to Charlotte, while waving off any bid to remove any of his scruffy layers.

Raj walked up, a warm smile beneath his trim moustache: "Ahhh, this must be my fellow connoisseur of the Kochel catalogue. Welcome. Come over with me, Tony, I have a little something for you."

Tony looked to Nora; she gestured with her eyes: Follow.

The little something, sitting on a side table in the foyer, was a boxed set of vinyl recordings of Mozart's late symphonies, by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Raj held the box up in front of Tony. Tony's eyes devoured the cover with frank yearning.

"Ahhhhh, the Cleveland. They grasp the Jupiter like no other," he said. "The fugato ... ahhh, magnifico. Indeed, indeed. Some day, perhaps, I can listen to it with you."

"Ahh, Tony, perhaps I was not clear. It is for you. It is yours to keep. A token from us. Here take it."

"Acchh, I could not , I must not. I have brought you nothing. Nora, why did you not tell me, remind me, I brought nothing! "

Raj proffered the box. Tony, agitated, a cane in each hand, looked this way and that, as if to flee.

"Here, Raj, I'll hold it for Tony," Nora said. "That was no nice of you, Raj. Come, Tony, let's get you something to eat."

Nora's big mistake

She took Tony back to a grand, glass-enclosed room in the back of the house, settled him into a chair, and snagged a selection of hors d'oeuvres from the waitstaff who were circling the room with platters.

"Here," she said. "Sit. Relax. Nibble on these, and I'll be back in a minute. I have to say hi to some folks."

In the way of such parties, Hi became How have you been? which became extended life updates with any number of her mother's friends.

Somehow, fifteen, 20, 25 minutes went by. Nora would frequently berate herself for that in days to come.

"No, still at the nonprofit in town," Nora had just said for the sixth time when in the next room there arose quite a clatter.

"Fol-de-rol!!!" a familiar, gravelly voice shouted. "Fiscal flippery!!! Fat cat falsehoods and phantasms, I tell you!!"

Nora moved at double-time towards the shouting. Somehow, she felt the crash in her bones before her ears registered the shattering of glass into a thousand shards.

The room, when Nora arrived, was like one of these scenes of suspended animation in a bad sci-fi movie. Glasses poised in mid-air, inches short of lips. Heads turned, frozen still.

In the middle of the tableau stood Tony Razz – looking sheepish and soaked. Next to him, a flustered waitress in crisp black shirt and pants.  Tony had just overturned her full tray of white wine glasses with an angry sweep of his cane.

Tony had risen in great dudgeon to debate a guest, one of Raj's fellow surgeons, who'd just opined that he still saw a lot to like in Mitt Romney's tax plan.

Besides being a music buff, a poetry lover and a weatherman, Tony Razz, it turned out, was also a most excitable Democrat. And one who could not hold his liquor well, particularly when it kept arriving at his seat fast and free during the whole time Nora had abandoned him.

"Oh, Tony .... oh Tony," Nora said, guilty and miserable.

But Charlotte swept into the scene smoothly: "Not to worry, everyone. These things happen. Don't fret, Tony." To the mortified waitress: "Dear, run back into the mud room by the kitchen and pull the broom and dustpan out of the cupboard. Nora, dear, please take Tony to the back bathroom and help him freshen up."

Strategic retreat

Tony's penchant for dressing in layers served the moment well, actually. Nora had to peel off only one musty, damp tweed jacket to handle the dilemma.

Tony sat on the toilet seat, muttering disconsolately: "Fool, fool, fool, broken down, drunken old, foolish old, clumsy old, good for nothing weatherman."

"It's OK, Tony, it's just rented glasses and a little white wine."

"Home. Take me home. I can't go back out there." The voice was barely a whisper.

"OK, Ton. I've got you. I'll take you home."

Tony stayed in the back bathroom while Nora briefed her mother. "Yes, it's probably a good idea, dear, but do try to get back in time for the carols, won't you?"

"Yep, Mom, I'll do my best."

Perhaps, Nora thought, as she steered an unsteady Tony out the back door and toward the Prius, she should cut her mother more of a break sometimes.
Tomorrow: Their bench, the stars and a hard truth


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