Part four of a seven-part holiday fiction

The story so far:  Nora Gallagher, a young Philadelphia nonprofit employee, has befriended an old fellow from Old City who is proving to be a more complicated acquaintance than she bargained for.

"Gestapo! Fascista! Stasi! Cossacks!" Tony Razzolini hunched over a cup of coffee at Silk City Diner, spitting the words like curses at his spoon.

Tony Razz had been slowly sobering up, but wallowing in a foul mood since Nora and Julia rescued him an hour before from the police station, where he'd been detained for drunkenness and smacking an officer with his cane.

"Got any other heroes from history you'd like to throw out there, Antonio?" Julia said. "By the way, whenever you're ready to thank us for dragging our tails out into the cold night and bailing you out of lockup, we're all ears."

Tony went on muttering: "Throw Razzolini in the dungeon. At least no dragons. Don't tell the cardinal. Oh, that's Richelieu. The man in the mask. d'Artagnan, no. But Cher, yes. With no Sonny. Told you not to ski."

A risky invitation

Tony cackled. Then, suddenly, he looked up and seemed to register for the first time since they'd arrived at the diner that he was sitting in a booth across from Nora.

"Ahhh, fair maid of the fountain. When did you get here? And who is this?"

"Julia, Tony. Julia Fideli. A fellow paisan. We met about an hour ago."

The canyon creases in Tony's forehead grew even deeper: "Don't think so."

"Have a little more of your coffee, Tony," Nora said gently. He did, slurping loudly.

"The gendarmes. The jackbooted thugs of Filthydelphia. I was trapped by them. You rescued me?"

"Yes, we did. Tony, you've got to watch it with the drinking. Do you remember everything that happened? You don't, do you? You hit a police officer with your cane."

"Ahhhh, a cane mutiny ..." Another cackle.

"This wasn't funny, Tony. You could have spent serious time in jail."

"And have. And have, fair maid. One survives. Cervantes. Caravaggio. Gandhi. King."

"... And Tony Razz," Julia said. "Exactly the grouping I was just thinking of."

"Want more coffee there, Tony?" Tony waved a hand: No. " If not, let's get you home. We're working girls, Julia and me. We've got to get up in the morning."

"Working girls?" Tony Razz scanned the two of them with a lascivious, gap-toothed grin.

"No, not like that, you old lecher," Julia said. "Nora here lifts up the dispossessed of Philadelphia. Me, I help give TastyKake's butterscotch krimpet the brand prominence it deserves."

"Just so," Tony Razz.

With a good deal of clatter, he pulled himself up, stood next to the diner table, leaning on his canes. "Homeward bound. But to thank my guardian angels, I invite you to a festive holiday lunch on ... two days hence. At my place. My nook, my aerie, my abode, my bower, my hideaway. Chez moi. C'est moi, I am forced to admit. Festive, I tell you, festive it will be. Noonish, shall we say?"

"Thanks, Ton, but I think I got to get my cuticles trimmed that day." Julia shot a warning look at Nora as if to say: Girl, you are NOT doing this.

"I'd love to, Tony," Nora said, hooking her arm through his. "OK, let's get you out to the car and take you home. That way I'll know the way chez toi, when I come for the festive lunch."

Skee ball wizard

"Two balls left. How many points do I need?"

"Forty. We need 40 to beat 'em. Go get 'em, Gallagher."

Nora Gallagher bumped fists with Dan Slotnick, put down her Shock Top and got ready to roll.

It was the holiday party for More Than a Roof, and the action in the skee ball corner of Buffalo Billiards was getting heated.

The teams were Outreach vs. Office, for the right to play Louisa Cross and the two board members she'd coaxed out of their Mount Airy homes for a boisterous night in Old City.

Nora picked up the dirty-brown ball and went through her pre-shot ritual: Roll the ball between her two hands to "warm" it up; then lift up to her lips for an air kiss, then scrunch her face into a parody of intense concentration.

Clunk. The ball skittered up the ramp, popped into the air, hung for a tantalizing moment on the rim of the 50-point hole, then teetered back into the 30-point circle.

"OOOOOOOoooooh! So close, yet so very, very far," she said.

"C'mon, Nor, 20 points. Gotta have it. Gotta get it. Go get it."

Same ritual as before. As Nora got ready to roll her last ball, she recognized a tingle in her stomach.

"Good Lord, I'm actually nervous," she thought, and the ridiculousness of that fact seemed to free her wrist. She flicked the ball toward the concentric circles facing her. The ball made a targeted leap right from the smallest circle. 50 points.

Booo-yahhhhh! Victory.

"Oh, yeah! Oh yeah!" Nora thrust her arms into the air, palms up, in the "raise the roof" gesture. Dan reached if to hug Nora, then thought better, aborted the mission, and morphed his move into an awkward fist bump.

The outreach team slinked away.

Louisa Cross' voice boomed behind Nora: "Nice shot, Nora. So clutch, my grant writer. But prepare to meet your fate, you three. The last time I lost at skee ball, Michael Nutter had hair."

The championship tilt was tight, Nora, Dan and Michelle from finance against their boss Louisa, and the two board members, who turned out to be awfully competitive for do-gooders from Mount Airy.

It got down to Nora and the final ball again. Or so she thought. Her side trailed Louisa's by 30 points. But when she reached down to pick her last ball, another one plopped down the chute. An extra ball.

"Huh, how'd that happen? Did we miss a turn earlier?"

"Must have," Louisa said. "Go ahead and take both, Nora."

Nora did, rolling two smooth 30's to give her team the win - and hugs all around.

Louisa strolled to the bar to buy pitchers all around, the loser's duty. Nora plunked down next to her pal Julia Fideli. After years as Nora's sidekick, Julia had honorary staff status for all More Than a Roof events.

"Nice rolling, dude," Julia said with a smirk. "Sort of."

"Sort of what?"

"Didn't you get what happened there, Gallagher? When your team was in its last big strategic huddle there, Louisa reached over to the next machine and borrowed a ball and plopped it into your tray."

"No way! Why would she do that?"

"Oh, I dunno, to make sure that her pet grant writer, whom she reamed out the other day, had a good moment and felt like a winner."

Louisa returned to their table holding two frothy pitchers. She set them down, gave Nora a wink and settled in next to her.

"Nice skee-balling."

"Thanks, boss."

"So Julia tells me you've been doing a little freelance homeless outreach without a license." Nora's eyes shot stilettos at her best friend, who gave a "who-me?" gesture.

"I kill you later, Fideli. Julia, he's not homeless. He's got an apartment in a senior complex off Vine. And he's quite a fascinating, erudite guy. He's obviously got some issues, but he's sweet."

"So, Louisa," Julia said, "please inform Ms. Skee Ball Wizard here that she's not superwoman, she can't fix everybody and it's not safe to fly solo when dealing with the drug-addled and possibly psychotic, no matter how cuddly they seem at first glance."

"Seriously, Louisa, shouldn't Nora just try to get the guy in for an intake interview?" Dan added.

Louisa looked for a long, quiet moment at Nora.

"Actually, guys, Nora's just fine," Louisa said. "Sure, there's science. There's research. There's good procedure. But at the bottom of all that, there has to be faith. There has to be caring. There has to a belief that we can all make a difference, one life at a time, heart to heart, soul to soul.

"I'd dare say Nora's trying to live out everything I've tried to teach her these last four, five years. Tony Razzolini was the name, right? As far as I recall, we've never come in touch with him before. So whatever his story is, let's give Nora a chance to tease it out."

Nora lifted her glass to Dan and Julia in triumph, then took a long swig.

"Thanks, Louisa. Tomorrow I lunch chez Razz. I'll expect you all by my desk at 3 for my report; you by conference call, Fideli."

"I, for one, can hardly wait," Julia said. "Of course, until then, I'll monitor my police scanner. Just in case. "

 Tomorrow: A festive lunch, chez Razzolini


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