The story so far: The annual holiday party of the Yule Be Sorry Club at R&B Automotive has been interrupted by the arrival of a stranger in distress.
An army of fumbling hands helped Tony Renzi to steer the frozen fellow who'd just stumbled into the shop to an empty folding chair in the service bay. The chair was next to the ice cooler that had chilled the beer for the party, now winding down.
Too many hands, in fact, plucked at the old man's clothes, too many voices offered a jumble of suggestions. Someone plucked his fogged classes off his nose; his unfocused eyes darted fearfully.
"Step back, guys, step back," Tony said. "Give the poor guy some room to breathe."
The man looked to be in his 70s, bald beneath his ancient brown fedora. Drops of water glistened on his trim, white moustache, as the ice on it began to melt. His face was slack and pale, but his skin had the weathered texture of a man who'd worked his life in the sun. He wore no overcoat, despite the 15 degrees outside, just layers of sport jacket, cardigan, pullover and frayed white shirt with a thin black tie.
Tony's partner, Bart Brewer, produced a glass of water.
Upon stumbling into the place, the fellow had gasped a couple of words. One of them was water. That one, Bart figured he knew what to do with. The other - flowers - was a puzzlet. Not too many flowers to be found out in the Arctic cold that gripped Philadelphia.
Bart offered the water; the man tried to clasp the cup, but his hands, knobby and bent, couldn't quite steady it. Bart helped lift the cup to his lips; he took a sip, closed his eyes, shook his head.
"Here, try this, guy needs something to warm his blood, not cool it." - this from Johnny T., who thrust forward a plastic cup of Chianti. This time, the man responded greedily to the offered cup, one sip, two, then a healthy gulp through chapped lips.
"Sir," Tony boomed, "what happened to you? What in heck happened?"
The man's eyes opened, seemed to notice Tony for the first time.
"Lost," he rasped, his lips and Adam's apple working hard to push the one word out. "Looking by water. Flowers. Niece."
"He's looking to buy water and flowers? What the . . . ?" barked Old Milt, who probably had this fellow by a few years but was feeling a lot more chipper.
The man shook his head, eyes flashing irritation. He licked his lips and worked them into a faint No! Every word a struggle, he pushed out more information,
"Lost. Looking for niece. Christmas. Lives by water. . . . More wine. Please."
"Coming right up." Johnny T. offered the old man a refill. He drank eagerly.
"OK, OK, now we're getting a picture," Tony said. "You're looking for your niece's house. You're due for Christmas. They live near water? What kind of water? River? Lake? Ocean?"
The man opened his mouth; behind his eyes, his brain busily rummaged through its compartments, seeking the needed word. Nothing. A grimace, a fist pounding his thigh in frustration.
"OK, don't worry," Tony pressed on. "Easier question. What's your name, sir?"
The same drill. The lips parted, the eyes darted, another pound of the fist.
"OK, OK, don't worry. You're at R&B, sir, where we always diagnose the problem. Scootch, make yourself useful. Go out and check the glovebox of his car; see if he's got his owner's card."
Scootch was back in a moment: "It's a white Mazda pickup. By the looks of it, the first one Mazda ever made. Owner's card made out to a Gino Bontempo."
The old man nodded: "Me."
"We are cooking now, Mr. Bontempo," Tony pried the cup away. "Let's get you more wine. Every sip, we get a new fact."
And so it went for the next 10 minutes, the Chianti slowly restoring some color to Gino Bontempo's face and function to his mind. Gino's story, as they pieced it together through a real-life game of 20 Questions, was this:
He lived in Canadensis, in the Poconos, but every Christmas he came to Philly to spend it with his favorite niece, Jen, daughter of his beloved sister Grace, God rest her soul. He'd set out yesterday from the Poconos in his pickup; all had been fine until an accident closed the Northeast Extensioncq, with police shunting traffic off at the Lansdalecq interchange. From that point, he'd been stone cold lost. He didn't own a cell phone; didn't know his niece's phone number. Couldn't even remember her married name. All he knew was that her husband owned a flower shop, and it was near their house, which was near water, a creek, in a nice area with many trees.
He'd driven aimlessly for hours yesterday looking for the house. He'd slept overnight in his truck in a Wawa parking lot, and resumed his feckless search today. The pickup's heater conked out at some point, and he was just about frozen through and bone-dry on gas when something about the light inside R&B, shining into the gathering dusk, had made him stop.
"A nice house near water and trees," Johnny T. said. "Well, that narrows it down to most of Montgomery County and Northwest Philly. Great."
"Shhh, Johnny!" Tony put his hands gently on Gino's shoulders, looking him in the eyes. "Mr. Bontempo, we are going to find your niece and get you to her, in time for the first fish. I promise. That's what we do at R&B. We fix things."
'That's great, Tony, but I can't help you anymore," said The Kid. "If I'm late to Rachel's mom's tonight for dinner, Rachel will kill me." Several other club members began to make similar mumbled excuses, grabbing for coats and car keys.
Tony's cell buzzed. Colleen. "Tone, don't tell me you're still there! It's past 4. We're supposed to be at the church by 5; you know Bridget's solo is at 5:30. . . . What do you mean something's come up? . . . Well, I feel sorry for the old guy, but why is he your problem? Drop him at the police station and get yourself home."
"Coll," Tony began, knowing what he was about to say wouldn't wash, "I can't do that, you know that. I can't just dump the guy. I gotta see this through. Tell ya what: You go on to church and I'll meet you there. I'll be there in time for Bridge's song."
As Tony rung off with his dissatisfied spouse, he looked over at Bart. His cell was pressed to his ear for a similar dialogue with Nicolena.
The service bay was a chaos of empty plastic cups, beer bottles, folding chairs at odd angles, crusted paper plates with red plastic cutlery, and strewn garlands. But no people remained except Bart, Tony and a suddenly slump-shouldered and snoring Gino. The rest of the club members had melted into the frosty night.
Bart closed his flip-phone, looked at Tony and grinned. "Well, pardner, looks like it's just you and me to the rescue."
Tony grinned back. "As usual. Well, Bart, ol' buddy, let's do what we do."
Part 4 of this year's Christmas tale will appear on Sunday, and Part 5 on Christmas Eve. To comment, e-mail email@example.com or call 215-854-5943.