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The Night Visitor - Part I

First in a five-part fictional holiday tale.

The annual Christmas bash of the Yule Be Sorry Club was itching to get started.

But the world wouldn't cooperate.

Tony Renzi's Italian pork was heating. The slaw and potato salad were in the battered fridge at the back ofR&B Automotive repair shop. The Yards and Yuengling were on ice in the plastic cooler. (Club rule: Only Pennsylvania brews to toast the Lord's birthday.)

The bottles of Chianti sat atop a tool chest. Clumps of green plastic garland (retired refugees from Bart Brewer's home holiday displays) were strewn comically about the shop, a strand across an air pump there, a clump adorning a tire there.

Johnny T. had called to say he was closing up and would be across the street soon. Old Milt would arrive at 2 sharp. Scootch the Snap-On Tool Guy would stop by after he finished delivering bottles of cheer to his customers. The Kid was in the back service bay, trying hard to finish the Travers job. Bart likewise was scurrying to solve Zach Porter's "check engine light" problem. Looked like the O2 sensor.

The others would slide by later, staying long enough to quaff a drink, share a joke.

But the party couldn't begin until work was done. As Tony Renzi looked across the big counter in the front of R&B Automotive, he counted the customers still milling about: No way we close by 2. Party's startin' late this year.

What was it with people? Was the date of Christmas kept secret until the last minute? These people from the Hill were college grads, most of them. So why did they wait until Christmas Eve to remember they were driving to Aunt Marge's that week, and needed an oil change before?

But, hey, they were customers, God love 'em, so Tony met their needs using the same genial patter- "Stan, it looked pretty good, but ya did have to get a new set of wiper blades from Santa. Yeah, yeah, Santa takes Mastercard" - that he'd been tossing over that tall counter for 24 years.

He was the front-of-the-shop man, the face of the place. His partner, Bart, spent more of his time in back, bent under the hood, beloved tools in hand.

Behind and above Tony's head, two signs hung on the wall: "TOURISTS TREATED SAME AS HOME FOLKS" and "ALL BILLS MUST BE PAID IN FULL BEFORE THE CAR LEAVES. NO EXCEPTIONS." The first sign was true: R&B's stout refusal to gouge the unlucky passerby had won the place a "Best in Philly" award one time, when Tony and Bart helped a magazine writer whose car had had the good sense to break down right in front of their shop. The other sign, with its tough talk, wasn't remotely true. Nope, no exceptions allowed - except for the 100 or so people Tony trusted to bring in the check some time in the next month.

Tony worked his way through the row of bills with keys attached, easing customers out the door: "Uh-oh, here comes the man with all the money. Ya know, if I had your money, Bill, I'd just throw all my money away. Wouldn't need it. Why I charge you only 30 bucks for an oil change, I'll never know."

As his master talked, Ziti the chocolate Labrador slept behind the counter. Ziti had a neurotic fear of the vacuum cleaner, so he'd been banished from home for the day so Colleen could clean in peace.

The phone rang. Tony snatched it on the second ring: "R&B, Tony talking. Yeah, hey, Tshaka, Merry Christmas. How's that little girl of yours? . . . So what you driving these days? Lord, Tshaka, you change cars like I change underwear! . . . Sure, bring it in day after the holiday, we'll take a look."

A thin, bald fellow in a camel coat fidgeted, waiting for Tony to catch his eye.

"Sir," Tony said, tilting his chin upward, trying his best to look clairvoyant. "I'm going to show you how smart I am. I know what you want to ask and here's your answer: No, this isn't 545 West on the Pike. It's 545 East. Where you want, the medical office building, that's five lights that way on the Pike. You're welcome, sir, Merry Christmas, and I hope your test goes OK."

As Camel Coat left, a striking redhead dressed all in black stepped forward, clutching a laptop. She began nervously: "Hi, don't know if we've met. My husband and I just moved in to the house across the street. And, well, this is so embarrassing, but I've locked my keys in the car with the engine running, and I've got no clue where the spare keys are and I called the cops but they won't come unless I go to the station and sign some waiver . . . "

Tony held up his hand, tugged on the ballcap that barely contained his unruly salt-and-pepper hair, and said, deadpan: "You're in luck, miss. Before I was an auto mechanic, I was an auto thief."

The woman blinked, bewildered. Tony took pity. "Not to worry, Miss . . . ?"

"Weeb. My name's Weeb. Louise, actually, but everyone calls me Weeb."

"Weeb, nice to have you for a neighbor and I guess that's your Xterra there idling to beat the band?" Tony reached behind him and grabbed a thin, steel implement, curved like a shepherd's crook at one end, with a small, sharp bend at the other. "Don't worry, this little baby'll get your door open, no problem. . . . Bart! Can you come take the front for a bit while I solve a predicament for our new neighbor here?"

Bart Brewer - angular as Tony was round, blond hair slicked back, eyes brilliant blue - poked his head through the door that linked the office to the shop floor: "Miriam show yet?"

"Not yet, but she'll be here soon. Count on it. Bart, this here's Weeb, our new neighbor with her keys locked in her car. Gonna help her out. Be back in a minute."

Truth told, it took Tony longer than 60 seconds to end Weeb's Christmas Eve nightmare. But he persevered.

By the time he returned, sure enough, Miriam was there, sitting primly on the ancient, sagging loveseat in the front office, an old carpetbag on her lap.

"Tony!" she said as he stomped through the front door, the Arctic cold outside turning his breath to vapor. Reaching into her bag, Miriam proudly pulled out a set of knitted, pink baby booties: "Here's something for that little girl of yours."

"Gosh, Miriam, they're gorgeous."

For 15 years, Miriam had been taking three buses from somewhere in South Jersey to cross the Delaware and spend Christmas on the Hill with her daughter. The final bus let out right in front of R&B. Miriam always stopped in to warm her bones and share the news of the season with Tony and Bart. After the first time, she had set out on foot for her daughter's elegant home, a half-mile away.

Tony had wondered what kind of daughter couldn't be bothered to drive over to Jersey to pick up the woman who brought her into the world - and worse, couldn't be bothered even to pick her up from a half-mile away.

The next year, Tony had insisted on driving Miriam the rest of the way in the shop's courtesy van, the one with "R&B AUTOMOTIVE: WE DRIVE YOUR REPAIR BLUES AWAY" painted in bright colors on the side.

The first drive over, he'd told Miriam about the birth of his daughter, Bridget. The next year, Miriam had brought the first knit booties for her. She still brought them; Bridge was now 12.

The last customer left. Tony chatted some with Miriam, then glancing at a clock getting close to 2:30, said, "Ready for the last leg, dear?" (Yule Be Sorry Club rule: Party can't start until Miriam is delivered to Witchy Woman's house.)

By the time Tony got back, most of the club had assembled on folding chairs in the grimy service bay nearest the front. They sat beneath posters advertising every auto product maker from Bosch to Champion to Valvoline; this passed for a decorator's touch in a masculine space.

"Miriam settled in with the Witch?" Johnny T. asked, his bulk perched precariously as he tilted back in his chair.

Tony poured himself some Chianti in a plastic cup, raised it high: "Yes, she is, bless her heart. Let the annual meeting of the Yule Be Sorry Club begin."

Club rule: First guy whose wife calls to tell him, "If you don't come home right now, you'll be sorry" - well, that poor sucker has to buy the beer next Christmas Eve.