Second of a seven-part holiday fiction

The story so far: Nora Gallagher, a nonprofit grant writer, has been having a very bad day.   She got rejected for a grant, her boss yelled at her and her long-time boyfriend informed he would not be spending Christmas with her.  She's fled the office on her bicycle.

Hard by the foot of Ben Franklin Bridge glistened a holiday oasis. Around Franklin Square hung hundreds of shimmering Christmas lights, tossing beams down on the fountain, the little shops and the carousel.

Nora Gallagher loved Franklin Square, a place scaled for ordinary people, reclaimed from the urban dark by public will and private dollars. The square pulsed with activity from dawn, when the old Asian women did their tai-chi, to the lunchtime squeals of kids on the playground, to now at dusk, as dog walkers and holiday shoppers took a moment to rest on a bench, letting the hum of traffic from the Vine Expressway wash over them.

She picked out a bench facing the fountain. She bent over, head between her knees, and pushed a motorboat sputter through her lips as she shook her curls.

She turned her face to the cloudy sky, and closed her eyes.

She heard a shuffling, a tapping and a clatter nearby, but willed her eyes to stay closed. "Leave ... me ... alone," she silently commanded.

Suddenly, a raspy voice sounded to her left:

"Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering."

Keats, Nora recognized. She hadn't been magna cum laude in English for nothing.

Like nothing she'd seen before

She opened her eyes to a startling sight.

An old man gazed at her from a spot right next to her on the bench.

His limbs were nearly as thin as the battered canes he held in each hand. He had a crooked beak of a nose, canyons creasing his face, satellite dishes for ears, and more gaps than holdouts among his teeth. Like a Russian nesting doll, he was encased in layer upon layer of threadbare jackets, vests and sweaters - corduroy upon herringbone upon wool.

On his head, an aviator hat, with furry ear flaps from which dangled long strings. On his feet, sneakers of radically different sizes and colors.

"Hello," Nora said, tentative.

"Ah, fair maiden of the fountain, what brings you to this dusky square? Why such woe?"

The old fellow settled a cane against the bench, touched the free hand to his cap then opened it toward Nora in a courtly gesture: "Tony Razzolini, at your service. Tony Razz, as I'm called by friend, if any there be, and by foe."

He flashed his checkerboard grin and emitted a low cackle like the sound of tires veering onto a rumble strip.

Nora's work brought her daily in touch with the vagrant, the desperate, the subway sleepers with their stench of urine. Like any soldier in Louisa Cross's army, she had neither fear nor contempt for society's discards.

Businesslike, she held out a hand: "Nora. Pleased to meet you, Tony Razz."

"Some training I've had in the dark psychological arts," he said, taking her hand, staring intently. She could see the lights strung about the square reflected in his moist eyes. "I've read my Freud, in my day, yes, indeed. Yes indeed, indeed ...."

He trailed off, stared into the deep distance, where a self-storage business' red sign blinked above the Vine.

"I'm fine. Just an annoying day at work, that's all."

"Work. Yes, yes, I've had my tragical days in the workplace, yes, I have. Many of them. Just so. The storms I charted were not just in the skies, not hardly."

A talkative riddle

Night had fallen, and with it the temperature. Giving this odd bird an assessing look, Nora went into professional mode.

She spent most days in the office writing grants, but to write them well, with the correct mix of fact and passion, she'd spent many a night out with More Than a Roof's outreach workers, studying how they cajoled into services the characters they met on sidewalks and subway tunnels.

"Do you live near here, Tony?"

"Indeed, indeed. I am domiciled quite nearby indeed."

"Uh .. indoors, or not?"

Something that looked a bit like rage passed across his eyes, but evaporated in another gravelly chuckle:

"Aaaaah, Mademoiselle Nora, you mistake me. Not a vagrant, I. No, no, no. By night I haunt neither sidewalk nor subway. I bed down in my own little palace, not far from here in the city we call Old, though in Europe it would be a toddler still. I am a scholar of the skies and their whims, long serving your Uncle Sam, Army strong, be all I can be, and so on and so forth, saecula, saeculorum."

It had long pleased Nora to think of people as books, to speculate which author had written them. This Tony Razz fellow gave you glimpses of an epic tale, written in stream-of-consciousness riddles.

Joyce, Nora said to herself, he's straight out of James Joyce. And in college she had adored "Ulysses."

"Tony, would you like to join me for something to eat?"

He beamed: "Do you know DiNardo's, just a few strides from here? The snapper soup ... nectar of the gods, fallen from Poseidon's table. (A cackle). Wash it down with some Trident gum perhaps? Get the point? ..."

Soup, with a side of puns

At DiNardo's, a suspicious waitress tucked them into a booth in a far corner. Tony slurped his soup eagerly, if not efficiently. One bowl, two and then a third. In between slurps, he talked – in dizzying arabesques of words, pun after pun and pun, with sudden jump cuts to entirely new topics, which trailed off into muttering.

Nora was getting the hang of speaking "Tony," but it took concentration. What kept her at it were two things: the flashes of keen intellect amid the shorting of mental fuses, and the moments, few but distinct, when Tony Razz would pause his curlicue punning, focus on Nora, and ask questions about her with tender, almost parental concern.

They spent two hours in the booth. They rose up from it as friends.

Nora paid the bill, as Tony pretended to fuss over reading a flyer on the counter.

Then, Nora, despite hearing the voice of her mother in her head whispering, No, no, no, don't, offered Tony her More Than a Roof business card, knowing that it included her cell number.

On the sidewalk outside, Tony Razz rejected, almost brusquely, her offer to walk him to his place. He clattered off on his canes, unsteadily.

Had he been lying about having a place of his own? Nora thought.

No sooner had she formed a plan to follow him at a distance, he suddenly turned back, tucked one can under his armpit, and offered again his from-the-brow flourish of a salute:

"Thank you, fair maid of the fountain, for a most diverting evening. I shall call you anon to return the dining favor."

He turned left at Fourth and Race, and disappeared.

Nora unlocked her bicycle, and set off for home, feeling oddly elated.

Tomorrow: Nora goes Skee-ing


 

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