Part three of a seven-part holiday fiction

The story so far: Nora Gallagher, a grant-writer for a Philadelphia nonprofit who is struggling in her workplace and her love life, has just met an odd but intelligent old fellow who fascinates her.

"Stop, stop, stop!"

Julia Fideli waved her arms, and one by one the players in Green Country Town trailed off.

"OK, jabronis, I'm confused," Julia said. "What's the chord going into that third verse?"

"It's this," band mate Judd Marcum said, reeling it off on his Stratocaster.

"Got it," Julia said. "All right, let's do it one more time from the top and that should lock it."

Nora Gallagher smiled down at her keyboard, enjoying the blithe bossiness of Julia, her band mate, roommate and best friend. Nora took a swig from a big bottle of water, set it down on the window ledge behind her and awaited her next entrance.

Green Country Town had been a band for three years. They practiced two nights a week in a tight, grungy space on the second floor of a Delaware Avenue warehouse that looked like the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Every once in a while, they got a decent gig, like Kungfu Necktie or Milkboy. When they did, the crowds seemed to like them. One time a reviewer in an alt-weekly had praised them by saying, "When was the last time you heard music so honest?"

Dan Slotnick, Nora's cubicle mate and best bud at work, never tired of teasing her about that one: "When was the last time anyone wrote a grant application so honest?"

The band finished another run through of the song they called "Spiderweb."

"Ewww, that got a little muddy," Judd said.

"Sorry," Nora said, "I kinda wonked it up bit on the bridge."

A grungy refuge

They'd been doing this a while, this band of five. By some miracle they still liked one another; could trade critiques with a minimum of attitude dancing.

As lead singer, Julia – a stout life force with black hair and nail polish – was full of gesture. Nora, on keyboard and backup vocals, was a study in minimalism, looking down as she played.

Inside, though, she reveled at how the band could weave its tapestries of sound, picking up on each other's subtle cues. Practice nights in this untidy cloister - with its detritus from a hundred hurried meals on the gray carpet, its stained, sagging ceiling panels, its instrument cases flung at odd angles against the far wall _ were like a holy refuge for her.

In this space, she could retreat from the pressures of work and the strains of dealing with her distant boyfriend, Greg.

They called it a night about 8:30.

"Think we're ready for Friday?" Nora asked Julia as they packed up their instruments.

"I've heard worse sessions," Julia said.

They walked side by side down the spookily unlit stairwell, then out into the frigid night on Delaware Avenue. The gaudy neon of a casino lit up the sky in the near distance. They got into Julia's ancient Buick LeSabre.

"So tell me again about this old guy you met, what was it, Tony Spaz?" Julia said as she coaxed the Buick's engine to life.

"Razz, Tony Razzolini. He's quite the character. Really, really smart, well-educated, but definitely a taco short of a combo plate. One second, he'll be sounding like an Ivy League prof, then a pun will pop into his head and he'll go off on these verbal riffs. For minutes, like you're not there. Then, bang, he's back in focus and talking to you about ... I don't know, Faulkner. It's like his consciousness is a balloon. Sometimes it gets loose and just floats around his brain, bumping up against his skull. Then he reached up and grabs it and brings it back down into the moment."

"You're sure he's harmless, this guy?"

"What kind of suburban mom question is that, Fideli?"

"Gallagher, just because you work with the sainted Louisa Cross doesn't mean you've got lifetime immunity from all the bad stuff this city has to offer. From what you've said, this guys sounds a little unstable. There's always a reason a guy that smart ends up broke and alone with a medicine chest full of Risperdal. And the story usually ain't pretty. I just don't want you to get hurt."

Greg gets a substitute

Thirty minutes later, Nora and Julia were sitting side by side on the huge couch that dominated the living room of the apartment they shared in Fishtown.

Nora and the couch had a fabled history together; it had originally sat in her dad's office in Center City, then she'd commandeered for her first off-campus apartment in Wellesley. The couch, unduly long, awkwardly lumpy, and covered in some nominally beige fabric, had followed her into five apartments since, much to the exasperation of friends who helped her move. She and Couch had seen a lot together.

Each woman was in pajama pants, a hoodie and fuzzy slippers; each had a laptop open on her lap. Julia was reading a blog about her beloved 76ers. Nora was on a favorite Web site, Zappos.com. At the nonprofit where she worked, More Than a Roof, every day was dress-down day, which suited Nora's consignment shop ethic just fine.

But footwear .... footwear was Nora's one fashion vice.

"I live for shoes," Nora announced.

"Yep, you're a regular Carrie Bradshaw," Julia said absently, chewing her lip over the troublesome puzzle of Andrew Bynum's knee.

"No, really, boots give life meaning."

"Well, maybe, if you've got cute, tiny feet like you, Gallagher. Not when you've got the clown flippers I've got."

Nora looked up from a slideshow of Frye boots:

"Hey, I just had a great idea."

"Uh-oh, here we go."

"No, really, Fideli. This is a super idea. Soooooo .... you know how I told you Greg won't be around at Christmas?"

"Yes, yes, the Packers tickets. Santa Maria! That boy deserves to be hung by this thumbs, you know that, right?"

"Uh-hunh. So, no Greg, but I still gotta go to my mom's Christmas Eve bash in Gladwyne. I need a wingman, so it occurred to me ..."

"Nora, sweetie, I love you but, no ... you know I have the Seven Fishes in South Philly."

"No, not you, silly. We don't allow Italians on the Main Line anyhow. I was thinking ... oh!"

Nora's phone had buzzed. A text from Greg:

Not still mad re: Pack Attack r u? B back for NY Eve, the real party! Nite. Got to get my zzzzzz. Got 8 am gig, panel at Rutgers.

Nora held up her phone to Julia: "Some guy named Bullman wants to know if I'm mad he's chosen a football game on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field over mistletoe with me. What should I tell him?"

"I leave that up to you, except for this: The final words should be 'and the horse you rode in on.'"

"So subtle, Fideli. How about this ...? " Nora spoke as she typed: "Sweet dreams, scribe. I'll review my offers and let you know whether I'm available New Year's Eve."

"Oooo, good one, girl. Put some fear of the competition in him."

"If only ...."

"So you were saying, before the boy wonder of Secaucus interrupted...?"

"Oh, yeah. Anyway, since Bullman's seeking out his Cheesehead roots, I'm thinking why not take ... Tony Razz? I'll get him cleaned up and respectable. Me bringing him will baffle and annoy my mom, which is always good. And Tony'll have a great time talking novels and classical music with Raj."

Julia's eyes got wide: "Wait, I'll go get some Tylenol. You must be feverish, because ya sure are delusional. That's your big plan to get back at Greg – taking some smelly, drunken old coot out to Mill Creek Road? And your poor mother – the loveliest woman, yet you torment her."

"A) Nothing pleases my mother like me disappointing her. And B) How do you know he's a drunk?"

"Nora, Nora – again, when a guy as smart as this Tony Razz ends up as down and out as he is, the grape is involved. Trust me."

"You don't know that, Julia. You're making a lot of assumptions."

The long reach of the grape

At that moment, because the universe has a sense of humor, Nora's cell buzzed.

She didn't recognize the number, but it was a 215, not an 888, so she hit Answer.

"Hello, is this Nora Gallagher?"

"Yes. Who's this?"

"Sgt. Pilcher down at the Sixth District station. I have a gentleman here who says he knows you. Says you're his guardian ... guardian angel actually."

"Tony?"

"Ahh, so you do know him, Tony Razzolini? I had my doubts."

"What's he done, officer?"

"His usual. Got drunk at a local bar, started getting loud and abusing the customers. Bartender called us, and Tony tried to smack the responding officer with one of his canes. He's here on public drunkenness and assaulting an officer. We're holding him so he can calm down and dry out. Tony Razz. ... What a pain in the butt this guy is. Miss, what're you doing tangled up with him?"

"He's ... we're friends, that's all."

"Well, if you want to come down here and pick him up, we'll release him to you. We got better things to do that to carry through on these penny-ante charges. He's all yours if you want him, but my advice would be to let him stew a bit longer."

"I'll be there in 30 minutes, officer .... What was your name again, I'm sorry."

"Sergeant. Sgt. Pilcher, ma'am. Well, suit yourself. We'll be here when you get here."

 Tomorrow: Tony Razz takes a long walk to gratitude.


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