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The Next Right Thing A new work of fiction Rafael Alvarez

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wigmann came to a few hours before dawn on Christmas Eve, face down on the sofa of a rowhouse saloon in the Holy Land. The old beer garden had been in his family since the turn of the century and passed down to him with the recent death of his father.

Wigmann's mouth was dry and his head ached, a pounding teased by twinkling holiday lights: slow death by angel hair and tinsel as a toy train made droning ovals around the room.

Scratching his brow against the cushions, Wigmann let out a long, thin breath from an empty place in his chest that wasn't there when he'd stretched out to rest his eyes.

Searching for the clock, Wigmann settled on a picture of his father behind the bar. Sitting up, he sought the help of the quiet, sober German who'd struggled for years against the passionate tide of his Italian in-laws - "What am I going to do, Pop?" - but the portrait only stared back at him. Ginger snaps sat in a bowl on the bar, soaking in sweet vinegar; the woman who'd promised to transform the cookies into sour rabbit and dumplings - the one he was going to introduce to the family at dinner that night, the one who'd grown weary of apology - should have arrived hours ago.

The train blew a shrill whistle and bubble lights percolated against the sheen of the barroom's tin ceiling, reflecting in mirrors advertising "The Land of Pleasant Living," the out-of-reach destination Wigmann had sought while waiting on his sweetheart.

She'd had many miles to cover to get to Baltimore, and Wigmann had bided his time with one more beer, just one more.

Standing, he hit a switch that stopped the train and walked to the front door, a draft frosting his toes as he turned the locks, the door bumping against something heavy.

Slipping outside, his feet freezing against tiles that spelled out "645 Newkirk," Wigmann beheld a heart-breaking bounty.

A pile of presents, their ribbons fluttering in the wind, were arranged around a roasting pan. Bending to lift the lid, Wigmann set his fingertips against the cold skin of a cooked goose and began mourning the loss of his private Christmas: a German chapel crumbling inside an Italian cathedral.

Wigmann rifled through the gifts, but his beloved - who'd banged on the door with the heel of her shoe and let the phone ring a hundred times - had not left a note.

*

Tradition, Little Basilio's grandfather often said, is nothing more than hard work and planning.

The calendar is not a line, but a loop and you could not trust something as important as tradition - Christmas Eve being the richest of all the family's rituals - to chance.

As Wigmann punched his pillow in vain for sleep, Little Basilio's grandfather stood at his workbench alongside the stone tub where eel would soon soak in milk.

The Spaniard was hammering together a gift for his namesake grandson: an easel made from grape crates for a prodigy.

[The wine had turned out especially good this year, fruity and crude, the white better than the red and the words "Boullosa & Sons" written across gallon jugs with flair before gifts of it were made to friends and relatives who lived along the alley that separated Macon Street from Newkirk; an extra bottle delivered to Wigmann's Beer Garden to help ease their loss. As sad as it was, the dead man's son was supposed to bring a new face to the table this year. In this way, girdered by hard work and new blood, tradition rolled with the calendar.]

Driving the last screw and oiling the hinges, Little Basilio's grandfather brought the easel to the front of the basement, into the long kitchen where the feast would be celebrated, where his Italian wife sat at the sink, separating anchovies to be deep fried in dough.

"It's finished, Mom," he said, standing it in front of her.

His wife wiped her hands on her apron and reached out for a better look, using her fingertips to make out the easel's form beneath a ring of fluorescent light on the ceiling.

"It's good," she said.

"I think so," said Grandpop, putting his tools away.

Two floors above, Little Basilio slept with dreams coursing through his brain in the shape of his age: a pair of perfect circles, one set atop the other.

Inside the endless eight, the boy ran through the games he would play with his brother and his cousins when they joined him; felt the weight of the long night ahead and sensed why he was born.

He was born to paint the pictures in his head, to sketch the kitchen in the basement and capture the clouds as the wind drove them past the bottle cap factory down by the railroad tracks; to make pictures out of the air. The night before, Basilio had gone to bed knowing that he liked to draw. Today, he'd wake up with the knowledge that he was an artist the way his father was a tugboat man and his grandfather was a machinist down the shipyard.

A skylight above Basilio's head - hexagon panes embedded with diamonds of twisted wire - brought the breaking day into his room on a rolling bank of low, nickel-gray clouds, the kind that tease kids with the promise of snow.

Basilio's father - at home with the rest of his family on a cul de sac where no one baked eel for Christmas - had slept below the same skylight thirty years before. The boy was told over and again of the sacrifices made to give him a better life among the lawns outside the city. Yet every weekend, summer vacation and Christmas Eve, his parents dropped him off on Macon Street to live the life they'd traded.

To measure the universe by the length and width of a narrow rowhouse in the Holy Land.

Walk to the corner for wheels of fresh bread.

And wake up to the scent of smelts frying in olive oil.

The boy opened his eyes.

Inside the skylight, he saw himself as a grown man living with his aged grandfather in this same house, painting the slow, day-by-day story of their lives.

The image vanished when Basilio heard his grandfather coming up the stairs to wake him.

It was time to go to the fish market.

Today was the day.

*

Unable to lay down any longer, Wigmann took the gifts that had been left on his doorstep and packed them in his father's car. Walking back and forth between his house and the car, piling the packages on the back seat and setting the roasting pan on the floor, Wigmann remembered the Christmas Eves of his childhood.

There was no room for goose at his family's feast, a strict Catholic fast day at which meat was not permitted. The tables pushed together in the basement of his Aunt Francesca's house would be crowded with thirteen kinds of seafood symbolizing the Savior of the World and the twelve who had believed.

Those thoughts led to thoughts of his father, who, every year, led all of the children from the dinner table and down the alley to the beer garden to watch trains run through a sawdust village of 19th century Germany.

With the big meal a dozen hours away - his father dead and his sweetheart gone - Wigmann wasn't sure if he could stomach it.

The singing. The hugs. The love.

A basement filled with his mother's family: the bombastic Bombaccis.

Seeing a light on in his Aunt Lola's house across the alley, Wigmann plucked a present from the pile - he didn't know what any of the gifts were, didn't want to unwrap them alone - let himself into her small backyard and knocked on the kitchen door.

Lola and Wigmann's mother were the oldest and youngest of five first-generation sisters who lived along the alley. Tonight's fete would take place in the middle of the block, at the home of Francesca Boullosa, the middle Bombacci sister and grandmother of an 8-year-old boy who'd just woken up with the knowledge that he was born to paint everything he saw.

Tapping against the glass until Lola pulled back the curtains, Wigmann held the gift up to the window as his aunt squinted, looking tired and disoriented. Seeing his grandmother in Lola's face, Wigmann did the math on how long his mother's mother had been absent from the table and realized that he hadn't been a boy for a very long time.

A combination of his father's mind and his mother's heart - his mother's dark eyes and his father's straight jaw - Wigmann often wanted to cry, but seldom did.

"Merry Christmas, Aunt Lol. It's me."

"You're up early," said Lola. "Want some coffee?"

"No thanks. I just wanted to give you a little something in case I didn't see you tonight."

"Not see me?" said Lola, taking the gift. "Tonight?"

"Open it," said Wigmann, hoping he hadn't given her a package of boxer shorts.

"I'll put it under the tree."

"But Aunt Lol," said Wigmann, looking around. "You don't have a tree."

"Here, hon," said Lola, pushing a hot cup of coffee on him with a pizzelle, a thin waffle cookie flavored with anis. "Take it with you. It's cold outside."

*

Little Basilio gathered nickels and dimes from the top of the bedroom dresser, slipped them into his pockets with a few colored pencils and ran downstairs.

Next to the boy's place at the table - years later, the artist would stand in the basement and recite his family's seating arrangement for visitors - stood an easel Basilio would use long after the sidewalks had cracked on Macon Street.

"Sit," said his grandmother, touching the boy's head, buttered toast and hot Cream of Wheat on the table.

"When can I try it?" he said, hoping someone would give him brushes.

"Eat," said Grandpop. "Then wash up and we'll go."

In the car, as Little Basilio drew on the inside of the windows with his fingertips, Grandpop told his namesake why this day was so special: "So you won't forget. The empanada, my mother made it with chopped nuts. Your grandmother uses raisins. Who knows what your mama will use. One day, if you marry the right girl, she will make it and I'll be gone."

"No you won't."

They walked together through the aisles of Broadway Market, and, as Little Basilio stared through an open door at pictures of his heroes hanging in a record store across the street, Grandpop pulled him toward the crushed ice of the fish stalls - do this in memory of me spiced with five pounds of shrimp - and told him again why this day was important.

But Basilio was thinking the thoughts of an 8-year-old who wakes up one day and knows why he was born: of listening to Beatles records with his cousin Donna and which new albums they might get as presents; of how long would it be before she walked through the front door of their grandparents' house with her red plastic record player and what would happen, just what he wondered, if he tried to kiss her during one of the slow songs?

"Today, we eat like kings," said Grandpop, preaching to a kid who had no idea what kings ate.

[Anyone who was blessed to eat their fill wore a crown. Enough potatoes. Plenty of fruit. And a sea of fish across three tables pushed together and covered with white cloth and red napkins.]

The black eel - his wife's tradition (Bombacci and Boullosa mixed together in the restless boy like pigments on a palette) was a once-a-year treat; it's sweet, firm length divided by the inch, breaded, baked and piled on pastel china.

"You nail the head to a piece of wood and pull the skin back with pliers because she is too slippery to hold," said Grandpop as the fish man coiled three feet of eel into the bottom of a sack.

Basilio reached out to touch the creature just before it disappeared into the bag.

"Grandpop," he said. "Can we stop somewhere on the way home?"

*

Wigmann sped out of the Holy Land with Aunt Lola's coffee at his lips and a roasted goose rocking gently on the floor behind him.

Seeking absolution - the God of Second Chances was here, right here on Newkirk Street while you were passed out - Wigmann drove across town to his old school.

Each year, the good brothers of Transfiguration High opened their doors to the cold, the tired and the hungry of Baltimore and used the opportunity to teach their students that the first quality of greatness is service.

Carrying the bird inside, Wigmann followed a clatter of cutlery down the tiled hallway, past marble statues. At the double-doors to the cafeteria, where the smell of dirty overcoats mixed with the scent of mashed potatoes and onions, Wigmann met the man who had taught him what little German he remembered and all the Latin he'd forgotten.

"Brother Ryken," said Wigmann, shifting the roasting pan to shake the man's hand.

"Young Wigmann," said Ryken, accepting the goose. "I read in the alumni newsletter that your father passed away."

"Our first Christmas without him," said Wigmann, falling into a ramble of his woes as Ryken walked him through the cafeteria. "I hope you can use the bird."

"How long since you graduated?"

"Ten years."

"That long already," said Ryken, handing the goose to a nun who took it upstairs.

"Brother," said Wigmann. "Aren't you going to ..."

"It will go to to good use, don't you worry," the brother laughed, rubbing his stomach. "Now what's wrong son? You sound like a little boy."

"I wish I was a little boy," said Wigmann. "I've been messing up lately, worse than a kid. I was expecting my girlfriend last night and instead I got drunk and missed her."

"And now you'd rather spend your big day here than with your family?"

"She was going to help me do my shopping and then we'd have an old-fashioned German Christmas, real candles on the tree, just the two of us."

"Be careful you don't set the tree on fire. Every year somebody burns their house down trying to have an old-fashioned Christmas."

"It's not going to happen," said Wigmann. "Everybody talks about the Italians and the Greeks and the Jews - so flamboyant - but more people poured into Baltimore from Germany than anywhere."

"That's true," said Ryken. "What have you made of yourself, son?"

"I run a beer garden."

"Before that?" asked Ryken.

"I helped run a beer garden. Look brother ..." said Wigmann, ready to escape.

"No," Ryken said calmly. "You look. Look around, Wigmann. The harvest is rich but the workers are few."

Pointing across the dining hall to a mumbling wreck sitting by herself, the brother said: "See that poor soul over in the corner talking to herself? Go sit with her while she eats. See how long you can stand it. She doesn't need anything out of your pockets or the back of your car. That's the best I can do for you today."

No rosary. No novenas.

"Her?" said Wigmann.

"Spend a little time in the temple of the next right thing," said Ryken. "And by the way, my friend, thanks again for the goose."

Edging his way through the tables, Wigmann passed a mural of Francis Xavier converting the wretched in Goa - a saint on the beach among the lowest of the low, bestowing a gift that would not change a thing about their plight in this world - and he reckoned, as he took a seat across from the derelict woman, that he could be halfway to Barbara's house by now.

Wigmann asked the woman how she was doing and she pointed at the mural with her fork.

"Some day, this whole town is going to look like that," she said. "Yes indeedy, mark my words. I won't live to see it, but you will. There's gonna be Calcutta on Charles Street."

Wigmann watched the woman scoop gravy into her mouth with the edge of her knife and wished he'd brought in one of the presents from the car so he could push it across the table and disappear.

A student walked by with a cart of food and Wigmann helped himself to a bowl of stuffing. Chewing in silence, he asked himself what good it did to try and help people; what was accomplished, he wondered, in throwing back the fish you find flailing in the sand only to see it back on the beach with the next wave?

Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, the woman asked Wigmann something about being hungry, a garbled accusation about not knowing the first thing about the blessings of the poor in spirit.

"No ma'am," he confessed. "I don't."

*

For every strand of wonder and expectation and desire being braided around the evening to come by Little Basilio - his very pulse directed to the moment when the guests began streaming into his grandparents' house - that is how determined Wigmann was to avoid it.

Wigmann had been Basilio once. He'd walked into his Aunt Francesca's sanctuary with his parents and a warm dish and stuffed himself with exotic treats while waiting for the clock to move. Once.

There was a light dusting of snow on the ground as Basilio and his grandfather carried a hundred dollars worth of seafood out of the Broadway Market: scallops and oysters and snapper and the eel. Clams. A fat rockfish and crabmeat to stuff it. Out-of-season melons to be halved and filled with shrimp. Squid and mussels and whiting and cod.

It was cold enough to let the fish sit in the back of the car while Grandpop indulged his namesake in a visit to Kramer's, the Eastern Avenue candy store where corn popped in the front window and an exhaust fan over the door lured customers inside by pushing the scent of hot caramel onto the sidewalk.

Basilio would do all of his Christmas shopping here, going home with a dozen white paper bags of candy across which he would letter the names of the people he loved and draw pictures of birds and guitars and mansions shaped like hearts.

Across the street, Wigmann stood in a phone booth, nearly crippled by the debate raging inside of him. Above his head - goading him that time was wasting for a man intent on reversing his fortunes - hung the Great Bolewicki Depression Clock.

It's crystal hands filled with bubbling water, the clock tolled: "It's not too late to launch a new tradition."

Chewing on a candy cane, Wigmann gave away three of the gifts that had been left on his stoop to the first three people who passed: a blind beggar drumming his fingers against a metal pan rattling with change; a crying youngster being dragged down the street by his mother; and an old buzzard playing Santa in front of Epstein's department store.

After watching Little Basilio and his grandfather stand before the plate glass of Kramers to see the corn pop - the magic, he thought, the uncomplicated comfort of holding your grandfather's hand - Wigmann dropped a few coins into the phone and dialed his mother. It would be easier to make his excuses over the phone and speed north before the roads got bad.

"Hey Ma."

"Where are you? How early did you leave this morning? Lola said it was still dark out. I didn't even hear you go out. I'm going to give her that artificial tree your father used to put up in the bar. You know, the silver one that changes colors when you shine a light on it. You mind? She don't look so good to me."

"Did I get any calls?"

"Yes."

(Yes!)

"Who?"

"One of your old teachers from school. He called to say the brothers would be saying a Mass for your father, but I really think he was worried about you. What's the matter, hon? Is Barbara with you? I didn't hear her come in last night."

Wigmann tried to sidestep the hook in his mother's voice but she outfoxed him.

"I need a favor."

"What Ma?"

"It's really for your Aunt Francesca."

"What is it?"

(For Pete's sake, Ma, WHAT?)

"I don't know how my sister does it every year. All those people for a sit-down dinner. You're going to be there on time, right? I don't have to tell you. She wants to know, can you go down Pratt Street and pick up a Spanish guy off a ship?"

"Is the ship in?"

"I don't know."

(Oh brother, thought Wigmann, it never ends.)

"What's wrong, hon? I know you miss your father, we all do. But we've got to do the right thing, and you can't go wrong helping family."

"What's the name of the ship?"

"Hold on, I got it right here."

Wigmann's mother put down the phone and he could hear her rummaging through the kitchen of the apartment upstairs from the saloon, picturing her in her house coat and slippers. By the time she returned to the phone, Wigmann had finished his candy cane and was munching on a bag of Kramer's caramel corn.

"What are you eating?"

"Nothing ma."

"Junk? You're going to ruin your dinner."

[It's ruined, Wigmann whispered.]

"The Galicia," said his mother. "It's coming in I think from China."

"A slow boat?"

"What?"

"What pier, Mom?"

"Don't be funny, mister. Pier Five, Pratt Street."

"What's his name?"

"Mr. Steve. You don't remember Mr. Steve? He always brings goodies you can't get anywhere. Mr. Steve."

"I remember."

Wigmann hung up the phone and leaned back in the booth until Grandpop and Basilio pulled away from Kramer's and drove off; trying to decide, in a swirl of flurries on Eastern Avenue, if he should make his way downtown to baby-sit Pier Five or let Mr. Steve find his own way to Macon Street.

*

Three kitchen tables - two topped with Formica and one made of wood - were pushed together downstairs, the Christmas linens folded and waiting on the side as Grandpop and Little Basilio returned from their trip.

A letter from Spain was wedged between the storm door and the front door and Grandpop shoved it into his back pocket as he carried the food in from the car.

Basilio ran upstairs to arrange his bags of candy on the bureau beneath the skylight and draw a name on each one, but before he could smear the script with glue and dust them with sparkles, he was called downstairs for errands.

On the way down, he noticed that the easel had been moved alongside the Christmas tree in the front window.

His father and his uncle had arrived while he was out. Oil bubbled in a deep fryer, knives were sharpened against whetstones, the better to scale the fish and slice their bellies. The dough for the empanada - scraps twisted into the year "1964" to be laid across the flat pie before it was baked - had been rolled out. It was time to work.

Little Basilio was assigned the tricky task of helping and staying out of the way.

Don't get too close to the hot oil, they said, dropping anchovies wrapped in dough into the vat. Stop picking at the sweets.

Up and down the steps they marched him for the right spoon, a certain bowl and the aluminum foil. A thousand times, up and down, a hundred passes by the idle easel that called his name.

Walk, they said, don't run.

Amuse yourself.

Be a good boy.

The preparations took all afternoon. By the time Grandmom was piling fruit in the center of the table - the snapper baking upstairs and the rockfish baking downstairs as Basilio's father kissed him on the top of his head before going home to clean up - the boy was ready to lay down for a nap that might or might not come.

*

Like the screw of a great ship churning through the current, Wigmann saw himself propelled against his will toward his family's feast; found himself not on the road to reconciliation but on the parking lot of a green, ramshackle seafood house on Pratt Street called Connolly's to sit and wait and do what he was told.

The snow had stopped, leaving the air colder. Wigmann brought a few presents in with him from the car, reducing the pile to a single package as he walked through a stiff wind to the restaurant, sitting down in an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor chair at a wobbly table. Tortoise shells hung from the pale green walls, surrounding an array of seaman's knots.

Wigmann set the gifts on the table and looked around for a waitress. Aside from a few folks getting carry-out and a man shouldering a half-bushel of oysters outside, the place was empty. A bus boy mopping the floor had already begun setting chairs atop the tables.

"Let me start with a bottle of beer," Wigmann told the waitress. As she fetched his drink, Wigmann unwrapped one of the presents to find a small, paperback copy of "The Diary of a Young Girl."

The oddity of the gift - a school kid's book about a Jewish girl for Christmas - made Wigmann wonder what else Barbara had left for him that he'd given away.

She'd inscribed it: "Anne just wasn't some kid who happened to keep a diary. She was a natural."

Flipping through the book like a calendar, Wigmann turned the pages until he found entries for late December and, surprised to see the word "Christmas," began reading.

"The Secret Annex has heard the joyful news that each person will receive an extra quarter of a pound of butter for Christmas. It says half a pound in the newspapers ... but not for Jews who have gone into hiding."

The waitress brought Wigmann's beer and he took a long drink before turning to the menu, the day's specials written in pencil on white paper, his headache beginning to fade.

"The oysters are fine," she said. "And the pan fried rock. We got right good potato salad and homemade cole slaw."

But Wigmann was dreaming of dumplings.

"Let me have the pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy," he said. "A side order of baked beans, cole slaw, and apple pie."

The waitress left with the order - "Oh yeah, and another beer" - and Wigmann paged forward to Anne's second Christmas in hiding as three red tugboats with white dots on their stacks pulled a freighter marked "GALICIA" into a slip just one rotting pier away.

"I couldn't help feeling a great longing to ... laugh until my tummy ached," read Wigmann of Anne's entry exactly 21 years earlier. "Especially at this time of the year with all the holidays ... and we are stuck here like outcasts ... when someone comes in from outside, with the wind in their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking: 'When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?'"

Outside of Connolly's, as the tugboats bumped the Galicia into her berth, the evening turned colder with the setting sun; a gray December cold that moved through the restaurant's bare concrete floor and into the soles of Wigmann's shoes as his dinner arrived.

Wigmann shoveled the food into him, ordered another beer and stuffed himself until he was nearly sick, aware, as he read the waitress' name on the back of the check, that a blessing over the meal on Macon Street would be said before the hawser lines were made fast between the Galicia and Pier Five.

How many sins could you commit in one day and still tell yourself you were a good man?

Wigmann scribbled the waitress' name across the other present he'd brought to the table, left his money on top of it, shoved Anne's diary in his back pocket and ambled outside to smell the fresh air of Pratt Street, watch the Galicia tie up and wait for Mr. Steve to come down the gangway.

On the way over, the pork chops heavy in his gut, Wigmann passed a phone and dumped enough quarters into it to travel the distance he had not found the resolve to bridge in his car.

"Thank you for the presents," he said.

"I'm glad you liked them."

"How about I come up? I'll leave right now and get there before midnight. We'll go to Mass."

"No," said Barbara. "Don't."

*

In twos and threes they arrived. One at a time and in bunches; gloved hands knocking against the vestibule, the door sparkling with panes of beveled glass as it opened and closed, opened and closed; the coats piled on a roll-away bed in the middle room and the presents set beneath the small tree in the window of the front parlor.

Look, but don't touch.

Basilio, scrubbed and dressed and waiting - the front room dark except for twinkling lights and shadows from the street - sat on the sofa and watched the parade troop through the front door, to the back of the house and down the basement; accepting kisses and pinches and good wishes and a few dollars.

The boy liked looking at the faces - ears and noses, where chins ended and necks began - and sat, hands folded in his lap and his legs not long enough to reach the linoleum; the easel before him with a blank sheet of newsprint.

His parents arrived with his little brother, Jose Pepper.

His cousin Donna showed up next, wearing a green velvet jumper and carrying a cardboard case filled with 45 rpm records; her parents behind her, scooting her forward.

His grandmother's best friend, a woman he knew as Miss Leini, came through the door with coloring books, Hershey bars wrapped in red foil and a secret treasure for her girlfriend, hand-picked from her lover's Salvage House.

In the blink of an eye, the small house went from empty to full; from quiet to noisy, the heat of the bodies somehow intensifying the smell of the foods. As guests came in the front door, Aunt Lola and three of her sisters came in the back from the alley with food.

"Merry Christmas!"

When all of the grown-ups were downstairs, Basilio and Donna scoured the growing pile of presents for squares of flat cardboard that could only be one thing - long-playing record albums - but did not find any.

They weren't allowed to play rock and roll until after dinner but because it was Christmas and everyone was happy, the children could act up a little bit. As long as you were quieter than the adults, you were good.

"Kids!" came the call from the basement. "Come down and take your seats."

As Grandpop covered his face with his hands to pray over the meal, one of the Bombacci sisters took a frond of palm, dipped it in a mayonnaise jar of holy water she carried in her purse, and walked around the table sprinkling a blessing on everyone present - nearly two dozen people - the children getting two or three shakes for good measure.

Basilio dabbed at the water that landed on his ear and put his finger in his mouth. It tasted like water.

From the front of the basement to the back, the tables were crowded with bowls of food, platters of food, trays of food: homemade pasta with red sauce and tuna; a second bowl of pasta with white sauce and clams; celery sticks dipped in shallow dishes of olive oil and black pepper; roasted chestnuts; a light stew of cod with potatoes and peas; the empanada with "1964" baked on the crust; the rockfish baked with crab and bread crumbs; salty beans that looked like yellow limas - "lupinis" - that you popped out of their transparent shells; red snapper covered with lemon and onion; steamed shrimp; stuffed clams; the fantastic eel; artichoke hearts baked with bread crumbs and butter; desserts on a side table - Italian nougat called torrone, stacks of pungent pizzelle waffle cookies, raisin squares, custard rimmed with caramel, crusty bread made soft with red wine and sweet with sugar.

After taking his hands from his face - as plates and bowls circled the table, everyone helping themselves to their fill - Grandpop pulled the letter from Spain out of his pocket, unfolded the pages and read aloud in English.

The rings of fluorescent light caught Grandpop's smile as he announced: "We have in our family new blood. A baby girl named Nieves."

Everyone raised a glass to the baby; the children given juice glasses filled a third with wine and the rest with fizzy Lemo-Nizer soda pop.

"Salud!"

As Grandpop continued to read, the envelope was passed around the table so everyone could look at the carpet of red and gold stamps glued to it. When the envelope made its way to Basilio, his eyes glazed at the colors and he ran his fingers over the Old World handwriting.

"He'll be here," Wigmann's mother kept saying. "Don't you worry."

*

Wigmann stood at the foot of the gangway making small talk with the man on watch duty while waiting for Mr. Steve to come down. It was dark and the watchman had his face turned to the sky as he talked about a family he hadn't seen in nearly half-a-year, at peace with the knowledge that he would see Christmas arrive from a cold metal folding chair on a windy pier thousands of miles from home.

Wigmann took Anne's diary from his back pocket and handed it to the watchman, face up, the moon and a cross made of white lights on the ship's stack glowing in the dark circles under the author's eyes.

The watchman thanked Wigmann for the gift - any company is good company on a ship - as Mr. Steve appeared at the top of the gangway with a large duffel bag on his shoulder.

Wigmann and Mr. Steve drove east on Lombard Street, past smokehounds passing a jug around a fire in a barrel at the Fallsway; east toward the orange brick rowhouses of Highlandtown where Little Basilio was being told he must try a little bit - just a taste - of every dish on the table.

"How many children?" asked Mr. Steve.

"Where?"

"Tonight. How many children are waiting?"

"Three that I know of," said Wigmann. "But there could be a house full of them."

"That's good," laughed Mr. Steve, his pockets jingling with silver dollars. "Fill the house."

By the time Wigmann passed the tugboats on Thames Street and made it around the harbor rim to the canning factories in Canton, the dishes from the first course had been cleared and the three waiting children - Basilio, Donna and Jose Pepper - had been excused from the table and were joined at the record player by a visiting neighborhood girl named Trudy.

Jose Pepper sat next to the record player, more interested in how the machine worked than the music coming out of it, the curtains in the front window pulled open and the tree shining out into the night.

Arriving on Macon Street, Wigmann took Mr. Steve's bag and waited for the older man to walk in ahead of him. Kneeling down outside of the basement window, Wigmann paused to take in the celebration on the other side of the frosted glass; the meal beginning anew with each fresh face that came down the steps.

Wigmann imagined his father and Barbara at the table, saw himself seated between them, explaining the different foods to her as the plates passed by, making her blush by telling his old man everything about her that was wonderful.

The revelers could not see Wigmann peeking at a ritual he'd participated in every year for nearly 30 years, surrendering to it out on the sidewalk. Wigmann's seat was empty, his plate unsoiled; his father's spot occupied by a heavy-set man from the Canary Islands peeling chestnuts with a penknife, his mother sitting close to her sisters and turning toward the basement steps every other moment to see where her boy was.

Wigmann belched, stood up with Mr. Steve's bag under one arm and his last present in the other, and went inside.

The house was warm with familiar smells, memories overwhelming a soul who had gorged himself on distractions; the invigorating cold of the night not strong enough to renew Wigmann's appetite.

"Here," he said, handing his last package to Donna.

Donna ripped the paper and cried: "The Beatles!"

["Why them?" Wigmann wondered, now unburdened of everything that had been left on his doorstep, but yet to have given away something that was truly his. The Fab Four owned the world, but their exuberance had not played a part in his courtship any more than Anne's suffering.]

"Put it on!" said Basilio, hoping Santa would be as good to him before the night was out.

As the record spun - "Beatles '65" - Trudy jumped up and down with Jose Pepper and Wigmann took Donna by the hand to glide her around the room on the top of his shoes.

"I'm so glad, that she's my little girl ... she's so glad, she's telling all the world ..."

Feeling left out - emboldened to use his easel before it was time to open gifts - Basilio sketched the scene furiously without understanding that what vexed him was jealousy.

Downstairs, Mr. Steve took a string of dried figs from the inside pocket of his suit and spread them in front of him. A 3-year-old circled the table, chased by a 5-year-old. Glasses were refilled, dishes washed and dried and used again.

Catching the Mersey beat as it pulsed through the floorboards, Mr. Steve lit a long cigar and called for the children and his bag to be brought to him.

The kids raced down the steps - strange guests to the house were always giving children something - and Wigmann lumbered after them with Mr. Steve's heavy bag.

"There you are!" cried his mother. "Come sit down. Eat."

Wigmann grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator, kissed his mother on the cheek, and stood near the children gathered around Mr. Steve as his mother spooned food onto a plate he wouldn't touch.

After giving the youngest children silver coins from his pockets, the seaman dug deep into his bag and brought forth a box of cigars, a bottle of Fundador cognac, a handful of unwrapped ornaments and baubles, and then, one after another to squeals of delight, dolls of four young men with mop-top haircuts.

Made in Japan, no store or kid in all of America had the prizes being handed out on Macon Street.

"One for you," chuckled Mr. Steve, handing the Paul doll to Donna, "and you," he said, giving Ringo to Jose Pepper, "and for you," as Trudy embraced George, "and," he said, extending a plastic likeness of John Lennon to Basilio, "for you."

"Dolls for a boy," scoffed Grandpop.

"They're kids," said his wife.

"You should take them to the bar to see the trains," said Wigmann's mother.

Taking the doll from his son, Little Basilio's father ran his hands over John's fluffy head and said "Sissy stuff" before the boy grabbed it back.

Wigmann caught the hurt on Basilio's face as he studied the dolls. Lifelike down to the dimples, there was something odd about them. Instead of arms holding guitars, the svelte toys had elongated wings of fragile webbing - thin, holographic wings of translucent plastic shaped like maple seedlings.

"They fly," said Mr. Steve, taking Ringo to show the kids how they worked.

"They fly!" cried Jose Pepper, clapping.

"Like angels," said Mr. Steve.

Inside the boxes that the dolls came in were launching pistols with zip cords. The feet fit into the pistols and when you pulled the cord, the doll twirled into the air. The harder you pulled, the higher they flew.

"A flying Beatle," marveled a guest as Ringo helicoptered from one end of the table to the other. "It's blessed."

In a moment, nearly all of the adults were taking turns zipping the dolls around the basement.

"Not only did some engineer figure out how to make them fly, but someone decided that they had to fly beautifully," said Trudy's father, a mechanic from Crown, Cork & Seal. "That's about as close to intangible as you can get."

Beautifully they flew until a sugar bowl fell to the floor and shattered, a glass of wine tipped over, a baby who wanted a turn started to wail and Grandpop, unamused, slapped his palm against the table.

"What are we?" he demanded. "Americans?"

"OK, kids," said Basilio's mother, getting up to percolate a pot of coffee. "Take them upstairs."

Wigmann grabbed another beer from the refrigerator, told his mother that he wasn't hungry for the last time, and followed the children up the steps.

"Outside," said Donna, opening the kitchen door to the backyard.

"You think we should?" asked Basilio.

"Yes," said Trudy and the kids trooped into the cold night, Wigmann on their heels with his beer.

For all of their enthusiasm, Trudy and Donna and Jose Pepper were tentative pulling their strings; Paul, George and Ringo barely rising higher than the wire fence before falling near the childrens' feet.

"Your turn," they said to Basilio.

And for some reason - a queasy feeling akin to the one he felt watching Donna dance with Wigmann, something close to the shame that burned in his cheeks when his father called the dolls sissy stuff - Basilio yanked the cord with all of his might and John shot through the night sky as if fired from a gun.

Their heads tilted back, the children watched as the doll cleared the trees, and then the rooftops, soared beyond the chimneys and into the clouds and - as though the stars had reached down to receive him - John Lennon was assumed into the heavens over Highlandtown.

"Wow!" said Donna.

"Geezy," said Jose Pepper.

Wigmann whistled and Basilio began to cry.

"It's lost," he said.

"It's OK," said Wigmann, grateful for the most beautiful thing he'd seen all day. "We'll find it."

"I'm cold," said Trudy, picking up her doll and going back inside.

"Me too," said Jose Pepper.

"Basilio," said Donna, rushing in and out of the house. "Take your coat."

Basilio wiped his nose, put on his coat and followed Wigmann into the alley.

"Don't worry," said Wigmann. "I knew a girl once who had as much talent as you, but her family was in such bad shape at Christmas that Santa brought them just enough butter for a few biscuits."

"I don't want butter," said Basilio.

[We are Americans, thought Wigmann.]

"I know you don't," he said, scouring the backyards and trees for the doll. "I'm just telling you how it is sometimes for other people."

At the end of the alley, near the beer garden, Wigmann sat Basilio down on a set of cold marble steps across the street, told him to stay put - "Keep your eyes open" - and slipped into the saloon. Inside, he ran to the top floor, opened a small hatch in the ceiling and squeezed his way onto the roof.

Inconsolable - his teeth chattering as he wondered why he had to be the one to lose his prize - Basilio glimpsed a silhouette against the passing clouds as Wigmann walked across the rooftops.

And he stopped crying.

"There's a picture," he said as Wigmann checked inside the chimneys and rain gutters, slowly zig-zagging his way from one end of Newkirk Street to the other. Basilio filed the image of a grown-up bending over backward to make him happy alongside one of a beautiful dark-haired girl content to get a pat of butter for Christmas.

"It's gone," said Wigmann, appearing before the shivering boy, saying he was sorry before taking Basilio by the hand and walking him into the beer garden.

Inside, he hit the lights, punched up a German carol on the jukebox, poured the boy a soda and put the soggy ginger snaps away.

Pulling down an 8-foot by 8-foot wooden garden from the wall - five trains circling three platforms through secret passageways; farm houses; a town square with a water fountain and miniature Ferris wheel - Wigmann turned the bar into a carnival.

"Maybe the Beatles are just for girls," said Basilio, knowing his brother cared more about the fact that the dolls flew than who they represented, that Donna and Trudy were probably playing with their dolls right now, listening to records.

"Something tells me the grown-ups are wrong on this one," said Wigmann. "Just like some people will tell you that nobody eats sauerkraut at Christmas, but I do."

"You're a grown-up," said Basilio.

"Only because I'm older than you," said Wigmann. "Sit here a minute, I'll prove it to you."

Leaving the boy alone with the trains, Wigmann walked behind the bar and ducked into his bedroom. A moment later, he approached Basilio with open palms: a lock of dark hair in one hand and a swatch of bedsheet in the other.

"Merry Christmas," he said.

"What is it?" asked Basilio.

"Stuff that's going to be worth a million dollars because of a million kids just like you."

"Hair?"

"John's."

Basilio's heart jumped.

"No."

"Yes."

"Where, where, where'd you get it?"

"When they were here around Easter," said Wigmann. "I know somebody."

Basilio wondered: Who could you know who's that important?

The boy pointed to Wigmann's other hand: "What's that?"

"A piece of the sheets they slept on at the Holiday Inn, the one with the revolving restaurant on top, right there on Lombard Street. Suite 1013. Open your hands."

Wigmann carefully set the hair and the linen in Basilio's palms and gently closed the boy's fingers around the treasures.

"They're yours."

Two streets over, the bells of Holy Redeemer Chapel began ringing for midnight Mass.

"All mine?"

"To keep forever."

"Can I tell anybody?"

"You decide," said Wigmann. "They might not believe you. Hey, listen ... you hear something? I think they're calling for you."

Walking Basilio out the back door and down to the alley, Wigmann handed him over to a parade of women and children making their way to church.

"Just showing him the trains," he said as Basilio skipped into line with Donna and Jose Pepper, hands tight around the frankincense and myrrh in his pocket.

Wigmann's mother invited him to join them - or to go back and sit with the men drinking around the table if he felt like it - but he declined.

"Say a few prayers for me, Ma," he said, giving her a warm kiss before going inside to drink one last beer and watch the trains run, the twinkling lights from the bar glinting off a pair of scissors laying open on his bed.

Reprints of this story can be purchased for $7.95 plus tax by calling SunSource at 410-332-6800.

About the author

Once upon a time, every journalist with a bourbon bottle in his drawer had an unfinished manuscript nestled next to it. Then Watergate came, and the profession saw fewer poets in its ranks, more would-be prosecutors.

But Rafael Alvarez is a throwback, minus the bourbon bottle. When I met him in 1989, it was clear he was a reporter who needed the freedom to explore his own vision, to contemplate a place he calls the Holy Land. You might know it as East Baltimore. But in Alvarez's hands, it is a magical realm, bathed in the glow of the Great Bolewicki Depression Clock.

Born in 1958, Alvarez is the oldest son of Manuel and Gloria Alvarez. He grew up in Lansdowne and Linthicum, and his fiction is full of details that only a Baltimore boy of a certain generation could know - Miss Bonnie's Elvis Bar, the gee-whiz glamour of the Holiday Inn with the revolving rooftop restaurant, Pier Five when it was a pier, not a playground.

In 1977, while an English major at Loyola College, Alvarez joined The Sun's circulation department, on the third-floor at 501 N. Calvert St. Two stories above, The Sun's fifth-floor newsroom was another kind of Holy Land, the domain of "middle-aged men in cigars and overcoats." It seemed unlikely he could ever make his way up those next two flights of stairs. To make a very long story short, Alvarez rode a wave of serendipity and hard work into The Sun's sports department, where he started as an editorial assistant, then went on to become a reporter on the city staff.

In 1989, he began "The Fountain of Highlandtown," which captured one of Artscape's literary prizes in 1994. The story also provided the title for his first collection of stories, now in its second printing from Woodholme House.

Alvarez's second collection, "Orlo and Leini," will be published next year, and will include this story. Without giving away too much, I can tell you this: You will believe a Beatle can fly.

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