THE LAST CHRISTMAS GIFT
A Serialized Novella
by
Hart Monroe

December 1 - December 24, 1998

dewey2.gif (47038 bytes)

CHAPTER I

BUH DUH BUH DUH DUH

 

He came out of nowhere. Was he a junkie, an ordinary thief, or just homeless and crazy? Julia hadn't spotted him on the 48th Street platform in the rush hour crowd waiting for the Downtown Express, or among the hundred or so others who had entered the car with her. She hadn't smelled him out there either; out there it was just the odor of heat, of dirt, and of congealed grease wafting up from the tracks below.

She could sure smell him now.

She knew you weren't supposed to make eye contact with them, even if they were going off right in front of you, attempting to suck you in to help populate whatever world they inhabited. By accidentally staring right into his very very blue eyes (bluer than her own, bluer even than her dad's, which until that instant had been the standard) however, Julia was caught off-guard.

Now the man was backing her against the door that led to the next car. The hot and sweaty herd around them, clinging damp-handedly to the metal straps above and the poles bolted to the seats and floor, was further bulldozing him into her. She reached in the pocket of the jacket of her white linen suit and offered him the five dollar bill she knew was there. He shook his head. Money didn't seem to be what he was after.

He was dressed in remnants of fabric she barely recognized as clothing. He wasn't carrying a pack, or a plastic bag, or the raggedy gym bag that often seemed to be an accessory of the uniform. He had no inventory at all: Time and Space and regret all forgotten. All gone. Another person now; another person from the whomever-he-ever-was. Reborn kind of, Julia guessed, in the dead of night maybe, from a pile of discarded, oily rags in some wet and filthy alley. She could see that he had once been handsome--behind the grime and the scars and the scabs and the sunburn to the bone, that is.

She flinched when he suddenly reached out and grabbed a handful of her close-cropped blonde hair. She recoiled and twisted away from him. When the man yanked her forward, she saw the glint of a knife. No one else could see. No one was coming to help. This was New York at its worst, New York with its blinders on.

The knife had a rounded serrated tip; a grapefruit knife. She wondered about the annual statistics on that--how many people bought it or were otherwise seriously injured with grapefruit knives? She almost laughed out loud.

The train lurched. Julia felt the tip of the serrated blade against her cheek. She felt him turn it and the felt the tip of it nick her flesh. An instant later, she felt the warm blood on her cheek. She opened her mouth to scream. To thwart this he moved the knife and pressed it into the side of her neck. This was to be it, then. All her plans, all her hard work, the life she'd rigorously planned since she was about thirteen years old, would now come to nothing more than a couple of grainy and unflattering photos in the Post with the expected few lines of over-wrought copy. Damn!

She brought her foot down hard on the man's instep and howled. The homeless man didn't react at all, didn't seem to feel the pain he should be feeling, and no one seemed to hear her above the clank and pneumatic whine of the train.

Suddenly, a blue denim sleeve snaked into the frame. The fist at the end of the sleeve punched out and solidly connected with the homeless man's chin. The homeless man dropped the knife, collapsed like a pricked party balloon, then slid down Julia's body to the floor. The man in the blue denim shirt grabbed the knife and pocketed it, took Julia's hand, pulled her out from behind the homeless man, then pounded on the glass of the door to get the attention of the Transit Authority cop in the adjoining car. The cop, heavyset, Hispanic and female, moved quickly to the door. From the floor, the homeless man groaned and tried to sit up. The door between the cars whooshed open and the cop-- speaking to headquarters on her radio--came through. The cop bent over, cuffed the groggy but now docile homeless man, and hauled him to his >feet. "What happened?" she said turning to look at Julia and her savior.>

"He attacked me," Julia said. "I don't know why." Her voice sounded so normal for a moment she thought someone else must've answered the cop's question.

"With this," said Julia's rescuer handing the grapefruit knife to the cop.

The cop took the knife and looked at it. "You'll have to fill out a report," she said, "so the both of yous'll have to wait on the platform at the next station until the car's empty and I can bring this character out."

The man who had rescued Julia, pulled her by the hand through the crowd toward the center of the car. Just as she was congratulating herself about how brave she was being, about how she wasn't in the throes of an hysterical fit, about how she might be turning into a genuine New Yorker, her knees suddenly buckled. The man who rescued her before, rescued her again by getting an arm around her waist and pulling her close. "Buh duh, buh duh duh, buh duh buh duh buh duh duh," he sang to Julia and winked. His singing was seriously off-key with zero upper range.

"The Jets theme from West Side Story," Julia said recognizing the refrain.

"This your first knife fight?" he said

"Hope it's my last," Julia breathed.

He leaned in closer and whispered. "I think you could've taken him. Between the time I spotted you and the time I got there, looked to me you were about to get the upperhand." The accent was strictly Brooklyn; wonderfully exotic to her Midwestern ears. "I'm Paco Berelli," he said then.

(Italian, obviously. But what else? Something interesting. Something fascinating.) She'd heard the name before, but she couldn't place it. As she tried, he smiled at her. The smile, which involved every area of his face, was unlike any other she'd seen before. The light and joy contained within it so illuminated his already handsome and open features, and his merry, merry brown eyes, that he appeared positively incandescent. That smile, or more accurately the idea that it if she didn't immediately find the cards to play and play them right, it would not become the beacon at the center of her life, scared her more than the prospect of a platoon of grapefruit knife-wielding lunatics. Completely demolished, she also realized she'd never seen a stronger, straighter, whiter set of teeth.

It felt fantastic to have his arm around her. She felt even better as she took it in that his workshirt and jeans were neatly pressed, had somehow stayed that way the day through, though the temperature on the street above was over one hundred, and down here in the subway, even with the air conditioning pumping away, it was at least ninety-five. His tie was Armani; silk. The cowboy boots were worn Tony Lamas (obviously, trusted old friends), and his hair was longish, cut one length, the ends just grazing his shoulders. Thick and heavy, blue-black and stick straight, the hair had a life of its own. She'd always been attracted to his type, but she'd never gone out with anyone like him, because all the men she attracted had short hair and wore suits.

The car slowed as it approached the Canal Street Station. Julia glanced at her watch. It was a shock to discover that only about ten minutes had elapsed since she'd boarded the car for the downtown trip. The car came to a halt. With Paco's hand guiding Julia's elbow, the two of them got out.

The dense throng of commuters moved around them (another Westside Story moment; Maria and Tony, "Dance at the Gym") while they waited on the platform as the transit cop instructed. Paco looked straight into Julia's eyes. He touched the bead of blood from the pinprick knife wound on her cheek with what seemed to her the same easy familiarity and concern he might've felt if they'd known each other for twenty years. "This'll be a terrific story to tell our grandkids," he said.

She felt a deep flush spread from her clavicles to the roots of her hair, because for the past few minutes that had been her conviction exactly.

The transit cop emerged from the car, pushing the homeless man in front of her. "Over here," she said to Paco and Julia, nodding toward an office to the left of the token booth the other side of the turnstile about fifty yards ahead.

They followed. Paco guided Julia by the elbow. Julia watched and admired the swing of Paco's blue-black hair and felt as though she was actually participating in his physical grace because he was able to move them along the crowed platform as though they were one.

Julia didn't trust intuition. The flashes she received of it were rare, composed of hopes and wishes rather than actuality, she suspected, and certainly not the stuff a person with any sense paid much attention to. Yet, when the subway car doors had opened and she and Paco emerged together, Julia experienced a divination so powerful that reason didn't stand a chance: The door to a new life had opened. Somewhere in the background, she heard the door slam on the old one. In a brightly-colored blur as they continued to move through the station, she saw the series of posters in their glass cases affixed to the station's white tile walls; advertisements--a play at the Shubert, Tony Bennett at Carnegie Hall, Yoyo Ma coming to Lincoln Center. The concrete floor was dirty. The cop and the homeless man were only a few feet ahead. Everyone was looking at their little parade. Maybe she was in shock. She might need orange juice. Maybe they'd offer her some at the station. Nothing seemed real.

Julia began combing through the portion of the day as it had unfolded before she boarded the train, looking for something that might've augured all this. It had to be there if she looked hard enough. But it started like any other. She'd gotten up early, showered, dressed, played with her two cats, then fed them. She'd had breakfast with her family--that was unusual; in from Michigan they were, for a few days, her guests. Although she wasn't really expected at the office, no one was surprised that she came in anyway. She was there all the time--evening, weekends--when she wasn't required to be; surely she hadn't changed her fate by simply going in to work.

"Ted," she'd said at about one-thirty through her headset in her office at the PR firm of Jackson & Plover in Midtown Manhattan , "listen to me." She was talking to a co-worker as he whimpered through a phone line at O'Hare airport in Chicago. He had in his charge ten freelance travel writers. They'd flown in to Chicago from all over the country and they'd been stranded all day by severe thunder storms, while en route to the grand opening of a new and very posh health spa on the shores of Lake Michigan, near Green Bay in northeastern Wisconsin. Ted was a junior account rep, a rookie, and this was his first time out without Julia or one of the other senior account reps. He was panicking because the cartons containing the spa's press kits, T-shirts, and ball caps--to be distributed to the writers when they arrived at the spa--hadn't been transferred from the tarmac to the commuter plane they were scheduled to fly on to Green Bay when the storm hit. The materials were now a sodden mess.

"Worse yet," Ted said," the writers are tired and cranky; probably on the verge of revolt. I don't think I can control them."

The television in its towering pine armoire across the room from Julia's desk was turned to the weather channel. Julia saw the solid spread of cloud-mass covering the Midwest. The storm wasn't expected to abate until sometime that evening. She was relieved that her family, her college friends and all the others she'd invited for the big event, had made it in from Michigan before the storm hit.

"Ted, you've got to keep them happy, so that if we eventually do manage to get them to the spa, when they get home they'll write nice things about it."

"How do I do that? At the moment I don't know where half of them are."

"I'm sure we can salvage this," Julia promised.

"How?"

"I'll call a friend of mine at the airline and have her see what she can do about getting your ducklings settled in the VIP lounge. Food and drink will make everyone feel better. Next, you get on the phone and make reservations for tonight at one of the airport hotels. Who's out there that we have a relationship with?"

"I went to school with Wendy Conti. She's PR person at a firm in Oak Park. I think, at least locally, they rep Sheraton," Ted said.

"That'll do," Julia said.

"You're so good at this," he said.

She was good at it. She solved problems from the small-potato to the large Idaho Beauty variety every day, so whatever omen she was at the moment casting around for, it definitely wasn't there.

"I'll have my assistant overnight more press kits directly to the spa, and she can handle making the new airline reservations to Green Bay for tomorrow morning," Julia said. "It'll be like today never happened."

But today did happen.

Without advance warning, without a discernible sign of any sort, Julia decided as Paco continued to hold her arm while they followed the cop and the cuffed homeless man through the station exit gate, she had entered the New York subway system on 48th Street as one person and emerged at Canal Street as someone else all together. She felt devastated and at the same time enthralled. Was Paco Berelli married, otherwise involved, was he even straight? Then, as she suddenly remembered the end bit of her second telephone conversation with her co-worker, Ted Wills--he'd her called back to report that the situation at O'Hare was under control--a third Julia emerged, one caught smack in the middle of all this devastation and enthrallment: That one felt ill.

"Sorry I won't be there for your big day," Ted had said at the conclusion of conversation number two. "Where you going after?"

"Bali."

Ted had finished with, "Well, Jules, that's a terrific place, exactly the place I'd pick to go for a honeymoon. I'm sure you and David'll have a blast."

 

Fifteen minutes later, Julia and Paco were sitting in rickety chairs across a metal desk from Sergeant Glink in the Transit Authority office at the Canal Street Station. The homeless man was cuffed to a chair in the corner. He was silent and seemed years beyond another transit cop questioning him. The area was crowded with Transit Authority personnel. It buzzed with conversation and the phones never stopped ringing. The only thing Julia could distinctly hear was Paco's mellow voice as he gave his account of what happened to a sergeant who was typing up everything Paco said. Although the others in the room were clad in a variety of styles of clothing in all different colors, the only hues that seemed to have any resonance for Julia were the blue of Paco's denim shirt and the tiny red figures in his tie. As for the light, Julia was convinced it was all coming from the sheen of Paco's blue-black hair.

"I think that'll do it," said the sergeant. He looked up at Julia and Paco, then pushed their statements toward them for signatures. "We'll call you if we need anything more."

"Who is he?" Julia asked.

"Says his name is John Doe," the sergeant said. Julia and Paco exchanged glances. "Beyond that," the sergeant continued, "he ain't talking."

"What was it about me?" Julia said.

"Maybe you reminded him of someone or something; some situation. Doubt we'll ever know for sure." He shook his head. "The booze. The malnutrition. The neglect. It eventually addles'em all."

The homeless man suddenly stood up. Because of the way he was cuffed to it, he almost pulled the chair over. "Can you see me?" he yelled out. Paco and Julia looked at him. So did everyone else. The cop who was questioning him got up from his desk, crossed the distance between them in three giant steps, then pushed the man back down into the chair. "Can you see me?" the man repeated looking up at the cop.

"Nope, I don't see nothing," the cop said returning to his desk. The homeless man looked alarmed. He struck his own thigh with his free fist. "I can smell you, though" said the cop.

"I can see you," Paco said, then nodded toward Julia. "She can see you, too. Can't you," he said to Julia.

She nodded.

"How'd you get invisible?" Paco said.

"Chilly Willy put a curse on me," said the homeless man. "Offered me half of some cheese he found, but I took it all. He got mad and turned me invisible…He's from Cuba. He can do it to you like that." He tried to snap his fingers for emphasis, but there wasn't any sound. "See!" he cried out and tried it a half dozen more times without success. "If I was visible I'd be able to do this."

"Lick your finger," Paco said. "That's what I do."

The homeless man did as Paco suggested. When he tried snapping his fingers again, this time there was a satisfying pop. He was clearly relieved. He nodded at Paco. "This is good," he said, "but it would be even better if people could see me all the time." "I can fix that," Paco said. Julia watched as Paco got up and approached the homeless man. He unknotted and pulled off his tie as he went. Reaching the homeless man, he draped it around his neck.

"Why this?" said the man, picking up the tie's fat end and examining it.

"It's my magic tie," said Paco.

"What makes it magic?"

"I was wearing it today, and today, I met her," Paco said turning around to smile at Julia. Julia felt weak in the knees. "If you wear it for a while--you don't have to wear it always for this to work, say you lose it, or someone takes it?" Paco continued, "that won't matter--no one'll ever be able to make you invisible again."

"You from Cuba, too," the homeless man said.

Paco shook his head. "Nope. But where some of my people come from, I understand they've got some pretty powerful mojo. They don't call it that, though."

The homeless man slowly nodded. Julia saw something close to humor in his eyes as he regarded Paco, who was grinning back at him. He might not be entirely buying what Paco was saying, but he seemed to appreciate Paco's effort. Everyone in the office watched with as the homeless man quickly brought one side of the tie over the other, brought the other side up and around then threaded it through the loop and pulled the neat little knot snugly around his Adams apple, "How does it look?" he asked Paco.

"You look good," Paco said and sat back down in the chair next to Julia. He took Julia's hand and smiled at her. While Paco was talking with the homeless man, removing the "curse," Julia was entirely absorbed by even the most minor nuance of Paco's every expression, gesture and movement. The way his hair fell forward when he bent his head, the merriment in his eyes, the grace of his fingers, and the kindliness in them, as he'd put the tie around the homeless man's neck, simply bowled her over.

As Julia and Paco were leaving the station, climbing the stairs to the street arm in arm, two of Transit Authority cops pushed past them with the cuffed homeless man between them. Still cognizant of the world, he turned back to gaze at them in silent appeal.

Outside on the hot street, amid the smell of exhaust and rotting garbage, but also the salt tang of rising wind from the East River, they watched as the cops turned the homeless man over to a couple of attendants from Bellevue and they settled him into the back of their car. Even as the car pulled away and headed for the corner, the man watched Paco and Julia through the rear window. His very blue eyes were very bewildered. Without thinking about it, Paco and Julia reached for each other's hands.

The wind from the river rose higher. Julia could feel it brushing back the wet-mop heat wave that had been rolling over the city for a week. The car disappeared around the corner and they couldn't see the man anymore. "Think we just glimpsed, maybe for the last time anyone ever will, the whoever-he-ever-once-was?" Julia said.

Paco shook his head. He didn't know.

"How does it happen?" she said. "The guy was somebody at some point; somebody with people who cared about him, people he cared about."

She didn't really expect Paco to answer but he said, "Life knocked him over. No one could figure out or offer the kind of help he needed so he could get back on the path again."

Julia nodded and shivered.

"You really all right?" he said.

"I think so," she said. "Maybe. I don't know."

"Should I let you go?"

In response to his question, she held his hand tighter.

"Good," he said, because I don't seem to be able to."

He bent slightly and kissed her. She felt both the cool and the warmth of his lips, she felt the river wind blowing their hair, entwining it. When they pulled away for air but remained in each other's arms. Her hand stayed where it was on his chest. He gazed down at the two-carat diamond solitaire on her finger and said, "I sure hope that's a family heirloom, something your sainted granny left you in her will."

 

FROM THE JOURNAL OF SALVATORE BERELLI

September 2, 1960

Traveled south all night through Colorado. Just west of Pueblo, the truck began making an odd noise, something between a violin's plink plink and a cello's sigh, with an alarming shudder in the wheel if I attempted anything faster than 35mph. I'm dreadful with machines and I had no idea what the problem could be. I was cursing Uncle Nick because my investing in this heap was his idea. So not only is it a piece of junk, but I fear it's a stolen piece of junk. All the way out of Brooklyn, and until I crossed the New York state line, I held my breath every time I passed a cop. I stopped at a filling station in Durango. A Navaho man with a broad and beautiful smile, only slightly marred by his jack-o-lantern teeth, explained that the truck's front end was out of alignment (Must've been that bumpy shortcut I took across that rocky field when I realized after stopping for lunch in Ogallala, Nebraska I'd gotten turned around and got going the wrong way on Rt. 76). He put things right. Or so I hope.

 

(to be continued)

jc0613.gif (6199 bytes)

Click on the paw print to return Home

 pawprint-sm.gif (2028 bytes)

hollybar.gif (3128 bytes)