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.

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

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.

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

'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.' "

"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.

"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.

"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."