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The Night Visitor - Part 2

Second in a five-part fictional holiday tale.

The story so far: It's been a busy Christmas Eve so far at R&B Automotive repair shop, owned by Tony Renzi and Bart Brewer. But now, at long last, it's time for the shop's Christmas party.

By the time Scootch the Snap-on Tool Guy made it to the holiday bash of the Yule Be Sorry Club, most of the regulars were polishing off their first Yuenglings or plastic cups of vino.

"Sorry, guys," he bellowed as blundered in, with much tugging at scarf and gloves. "Old man Davis up at Ramparts Repair was gabby today."

He produced a bottle of Scotch with a multicolored bow perched on the cap, presenting it with an air of ceremony to Tony Renzi, whose amused eyes peered out from his thick black glasses.

"Thanks, Scootch, that's great of you," Tony said, as the others sitting on folding chairs amid the lifts, pumps and toolboxes of R&B Automotive stifled snickers.

"Mind if I christen it for you, Tone?" Scootch asked.

"Wouldn't have it any other way, Scootch," Tony said, as his partner, Bart Brewer, brought a hand to his mouth to cover his grin. Scootch knew damn well neither proprietor of R&B favored single malt, Tony being a Chianti man, Bart being partial to a cold longneck. But every year Scootch presented them, his oldest customers, with a bottle of employer-bought booze as if it were the Ark of the Covenant, fresh from Egypt. He then proceeded to drink a goodly part of it himself, before Bart gave him a lift home for safety's sake. Scootch would pick up his car the day after Christmas.

That was the way it always worked on Christmas Eve with the Yule Be Sorry Club.

The point of the club was pretty much that, to do what this group of old friends had done forever - or, at least, two decades - to get the holidays humming after a hard year of work, six days a week for most of them.

New stories, new jokes were always appreciated around the circle of chairs, but it was the old ones that were treasured.

So it was when The Kid tried to lift the lid on the beer cooler, Johnny T., who'd run the hardware store across the Pike from R&B for 31 years, slammed the lid shut with a surprisinglyagile move of his beefy leg and massive boot.

"Dunno, Kid, you don't look of age to me. Show me some ID!"

"C'mon, Johnny, move that ham of yours. Lemme get a beer," Kid said in a mock whine.

The Kid was legal, 22 years old, which everyone knew quite well. Tony and Bart had mentored him up from the vo-tech, grooming him to take over when they hung it up. The massive royal-blue toolbox, big as an upright piano, and now serving as the base forthe Chianti bottles,belonged to The Kid. Or would some day, when he'd finished paying back the four grand Tony and Bart had fronted him to buy that core piece of equipment for the professional mechanic. The Kid knew, without it ever being said, that on the day he paid the last of the principal back (there was no interest), Bart, Tony, and Johnny T.would begin calling by his given name, Ryan. 'Til then, he was The Kid, and good with it.

"I'll vouch for him, Johnny," Tony said.

"You? You forget, Tony Renzi, that I was around to witness your crazed youth on the Hill," Johnny said. "How do I know you're not corrupting this sprout?" The joke complete, Johnnyshrugged as if to concede, grabbed a Yards from the ice, and flipped it to The Kid.

'Hey, Old Milt," Bart said, addressing the bright-eyed 80-year-old in the Phillies cap and sleeveless parka who was at that moment blissfully chewing on some of Tony's Italian pork. "Remember what you said the first time you saw an electronic ignition, the one from, which was it, Chrysler?"

"Sure do," Old Milt said, wiping his mouth almost daintily with a paper napkin. He mimicked a man holding something up to inspect it. "I looked at that thing that come out that little box and I said to youse, 'Boys, if this damn thing here runs that car over there, I'm done for. Time for me to give 'er up.' "

Everyone laughed, beaming at the old man. It was the 24th time they'd heard that story; Old Milt had told it every year since he'd sold the shop. He'd sold his life's work, the place he'd started after getting back from the Big One, to the two young Turks he'd brought up in the craft, Tony and Bart. Every once in a while, when he got bored with Sudoku, he'd stop by to do a simple oil and lube job. Just to stay tuned.

"Speaking of giving it up . . . " Johnny T.'s voice, so modulated and elegant for so huge a man, began. "Got a little announcement for you, boys. Come Dec. 31, that's it for Tomasso Hardware. I'm shutting down. The Home Depot was hard enough to fight, but when Lowe's opened, too . . . " He shrugged. "Ending 31 years on the 31st. Kind of full circle."

Cries of "Oh, no!," "Damn!" and "Jeez, Johnny, I'm sorry" ran around the ring of chairs like The Wave circling Citizens Bank Park. Johnny held up a hand: "Hey, weep not for Johnny and the missus. We've socked a little away. In fact, did I ever tell you my Charlotte has an eye for the stocks? She bought Intel way back in the day, Google at the IPO. In fact, Jan. 2, we leave for an Alaskan cruise, 17 days. I'll send postcards."

A hubbub of surprise and mock anger rose from the group. Hands clapped Johnny on the shoulder, just as a greasy rag hit him on his gray beard. Old Milt still had excellent aim. "Forty years we know each other and you couldn't of clued me in on this here Google thing?" Old Milt grumbled.

"Milt, you never bought a share of stock in your life, you old miser. You still got the money from your first oil change in your mattress."

"True, that." "Amen, brother." "Milt, ya gotta admit . . . " bubbled up from the circle as Old Milt waved a hand in mock disgust.

Tony's eyes spied some internal horizon as he sipped his Chianti: "I suppose we'll be next, Bart, if we're not careful. The business is changing; change is the constant. All these new makes and models, we spend more time in class now than we ever did at the high, right, Bart? The customer has no idea what repairs really cost, with all the electronics now. And the dealers, with their free inspections and oil changes, they lure them in, then hammer 'em. The pirates! And these people who lease, Lord, they act like, 'I'm leasin', why should I have to change the oil or put on tires.' You gotta have a lot of grit to survive today, a will to persevere."

"Uh-oh, there Tony goes again, going all sobby with histwilight of the giants riff," someone said. "Cut off his Chianti."

A cell phone rang. The room froze. With a flourish, The Kid pulled hisphoneout, looked on the screen and said, in a singsong, "Ton-eee, it's your wiiii-ife!"

"Damn," Tony said. "Buyin' again next year."

Club rule: Once the party starts, every man gives his cell phone to another. First guy whose wife calls telling him to come home now, or he'll be sorry, has to buy the beer next year.

As the others high-fived, Tony hit the green button on his cell. It was Colleen: "Tone, hon, I know it's early but I just wanted to remind you about the Christmas pageant tonight. Bridget has her solo first thing. We've got to get there early to get seats."

"Yeah, hon, I know. I know. Don't worry. I'll be there."

Seconds later Bart's cell rang in Scootch's pocket (Scootch never had to worry about buying beer; his wife didn't want him home). Nicolena just wanted to remind Bart that the feast of the seven fishes was starting at 7 at her mother's house, and they had to swing by to pick up Aunt Elvie first.

"God, Nicolena, you couldn't have called a minute sooner?" Tony pleaded to the ceiling.

Still, some time remained for seconds on the pork and the slaw, a new round of drinks, a new round of old stories that aged better than a good red. Friends drifted in, drifted out as the regulars held court on the ring of chairs.

A little before 4, Tony put hands on thighs and pulled himself up. "Well, I'd better be off - "

" - or you'll be sorry," a chorus replied.

Tony walked to the door that connected the shop to the office just as a banging clatter rose at the front door.

"Sorry, we're closed," the rest of the boys heard him say. Then, after a pause, "My God! Come in, come in, what happened to you?"

A moment later, Tony slid slowly sideways through the door, arms extended. Soon, the others saw that he was guiding, propping up really, another man, a stranger. He was short, with a pot belly but thin legs. An old fedora sat askew his bald head, above a face that was ghastly white. His glasses were thoroughly fogged, and crystals of glistening ice clung to his trim white moustache. He had on several layers of jackets and vests, working down to a frayed white shirt and thin black tie, but he had clearly been in the Arctic cold too long and was near freezing. His head shook, as he tried to reckon where he was, but failed.

Then his knees crumpled and his body folded; only Tony's strong arms, quickly encircling his waist, kept from pitching onto the concrete shop floor.

"By water," he croaked a scratchy whisper from inside Tony's embrace. "Flowers."