Certain Poor Shepherds, Scene 7: The stars, a hard truth, and a sweet surprise
The final part of a seven-part holiday fiction
The story so far: Nora Gallagher's experiment in bringing her eccentric friend Tony Razzolini to her mother's Christmas Eve party has ended in soggy disaster. Meanwhile, Nora's boyfriend Greg is thousands of miles away on this difficult night.
The ride back from Gladwyne was quiet. Tony Razzolini dozed, snoring softly. But he awoke when Nora pulled the Prius off the Vine onto Eighth, and turned left onto Race.
"Fair maid of the fountain ..."
"Stop here for a moment?"
Nora pulled the car to a stop next to Franklin Square. They got out of the car and walked, Nora's arm linked through his, to their bench.
Tony sat, looked up at the clear night sky.
"Betelguese," he said. "Red supergiant, 640 light years away. Alpha Centauri. Binary star. The star next door. Only four light years."
"Why doesn't it surprise me you know all this?"
"Indeed, indeed. Something else Tony Razz knows, something his nose knows it knows, and it's one big nose for knowing. Know what that is?"
"What's that, Tony?"
"He's a screwup. Always was, still is, always will be. Can't be fixed. Don't need a fixer, too late for fixes. Just am. Just am trying to be until being is over. Don't want a savior, there's no person who can save what's gone of what was. Can only be what what's left of what was.
"Leave saving to the Birthday Boy; tomorrow's his big bash, let him worry about it. Don't want a savior, Nora. Too much work being saved. Too hard. Too many spills. Too much breaking glass. Don't want to be saved. Just want a friend. Just a friend."
This was no fugue ramble. Tony looked intently at Nora .
"Get it, fair Nora?"
"I do, Tony Razz. I think I do."
Tony waved a cane, with a swashbuckling flourish.
"Back to the chateau with you, then. Go gladly to Gladwyne. Tony Razz will just sit by your fountain for a while and wish the Birthday Boy his birthday wishes."
"You warm enough, Tony? I can stay a while longer if you want"
"Pahhh, begone with you, gallivant to Gladwyne. I am fine. Very fine. And shall remain. Pending finis."
The man from Wisconsin
Back on the Main Line, as Nora walked back up the bedecked stone path to the house, she heard the sounds of caroling from inside:
"The First Noel, the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds
In fields where they lay."
Charlotte noticed her daughter's entrance and gave her a smile of relief and love.
Just as Nora made a move to join the carolers around the piano, where Raj held court at the keyboard, her cell phone buzzed. Greg, calling from Wisconsin.
She slipped into the library, and closed the door.
"Hi, Merry Christmas, you."
"Merry Christmas, you, too. What're you doing?"
"Well, if you must know, I'm sitting in the basement of my parents' house in Milwaukee, on that old plaid couch."
"Really, why? Who's with you?"
"No one, except for my old pal Jack Daniels."
"Uh-oh, he's a dangerous friend. What's going on?"
"Here's what going on: I've been sitting there in my parents' living room, listening to them have the same conversations with their old friends that they've had on Christmas Even since I was a kid in PJ's. And suddenly, I realized something. It hit me like a hurricane."
"I'm an idiot."
Nora laughed. "Yep. First class."
"So I'm sitting there in a room full of people and I'm feeling as intensely lonely as I've ever felt in my life. Except, for a long while, I didn't recognize the feeling for what it was. Had to come down the basement with ol' Jack, and then it all became clear ..."
"That I was lonely. That I hadn't really gone home for the holidays. I'd just gone to the city where I grew up. That I have a new home now. And my home's name is Nora. Wherever she is, that's where home is. That's where I need to be. Except I'm not home for Christmas. Because .. because ..."
"You're an idiot?"
"Yep. And because I'm an idiot who actually thought a football game was more important than being by your side on the biggest holiday of the year."
"Oh, who won, by the way? I sort of forgot to check."
"Oh, the Pack. It was fun, don't get me wrong. But I should have been on the first plane out of Milwaukee Sunday night. And I don't know why I wasn't."
"Because you're an idiot?"
"Nora, please. Look I know you're mad at me. You should be. You get to make me do the laundry, or ... or scrub the tub a thousand times when I get back. But I need you not to be so mad at me for second, OK?"
"I need to ask you something, OK?"
"This: Will ... you ... marry .. me?"
Nora's mind veered in a dozen directions at once. She bought time:
"How much Jack have you had, Greg?"
"Nora, please. Just one. I'll ask it again, to start making up for all the times I should have asked it in the past and was too much of a self-absorbed idiot to do it: Nora Maureen Gallagher, will you marry me?"
"Yes. ... Yes, Gregory Jeffrey Bullman, I think I would rather like that. Yes, I would! Indeed, indeed."
And Greg Bullman, tweeter extraordinaire, let out a cry of joy that 140 characters would never be enough to capture.
The fiances talked for a few minutes more, words that only the two of them should ever hear.
"Well, Bull-man, my love, I think I'd better go for now. They're waiting for me out there. Should I tell them?
"Yes, definitely. Yes. But promise to call me back at midnight?"
Nora put her hand on the doorknob. She took a deep breath, opened the door.
The carols were still in full swing:
"Decks the halls with boughs of holly ...."
Raj was still banging away at the upright; Charlotte stood close by, looking at her second husband with pure pleasure.
Nora excused and sidled her way through the cluster of carolers, until she was by her mother's elbow.
The group sang its final "fa-la-las."
Nora leaned in to her mother's ear:
"Mom, I love you. ... And I have some news."
Listen to the radio play version of Certain Poor Shepherds, on WHYY-FM, at 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.