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Interruptions On A Christmas Eve

Interruptions On A Christmas Eve

Courtesy Jon Bilous / Dreamstime

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Man, this is the Christmas plum on the pudding. You know who you got in here? Her face is all over our computer screens. She's the wife of a big money guy, freakin' trifecta...
The small restaurant and occasional music bistro was closed for Christmas Eve. Its owner Ernie DiVitale had darkened the room. There was light enough, from the Christmas tree in the corner and spilling in from a lamp over the prep area in the kitchen, to relax with his wife Veronica at a back table over cappuccini and frutti di bosco tortas, ricotta cheese cake with fresh fruit toppings, a special treat in winter.

For Ernie and Veronica it was good to be closed, nice not to be working, the crew sent home. A family dinner would be the next day. Most of it was already prepped, ready for an early start Christmas morning. Tony Bennett's 1968 Columbia Christmas album Snowfall played low over the house audio. Strings, horns, swinging big band arrangements, Bennett's voice big and joyful on classic songs for winter; the album notes credited a conductor from up north too, a Canadian, Robert Farnon, who had even worked in England, the land of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol itself.

"Ah, Anthony Dominick Benedetto," Veronica sighed. "Such a lovely name: Dom-i-nick," she repeated, drawing it out. "And a beautiful man." Ernie couldn't be jealous of her love for Anthony Dominick Benedetto; he loved the man and his music, too. He had picked the disc and given it to her as an early gift; nothing wrong about getting in the mood and the spirit, but after twelve days and more of holiday music playing endlessly, he was ready to shut all of it down for the night. Basta: enough! Time to go home, maybe share some of the love there....

No reason to stay open for business that wasn't coming in. For those who didn't share this holiday, or were hungry and wanted to go out, there were Chinese restaurants, now for some a new Christmas Eve American tradition. A few people had stopped by in the early evening, for a drink, something light, before heading home or off elsewhere.

Ernie walked over to turn off the lights on the tree, no need for a fire hazard burning into the weekend, and set the delay on the alarms before leaving, when there was a knock on the door. A woman was there in a red coat with three school age children. He motioned that he was closing, was already closed. She knocked again, and tried the door. It opened, and she and the children stepped inside.

Open and Closed

"Excuse me...," she began, out of breath. Ernie cut her off. "Excuse me, ma'am," he repeated back to her. "We're closed. Not open tonight. Sorry. We're just about to leave."

"Sir, I'm sorry to bother you, I've been walking, walking, walking, with the kids. My husband and I had, well, a thing, and I had to leave in a hurry: no cash, no purse, no cell phone, no credit cards. Yours was the first light I saw, only place open for blocks. I'm wondering if you could..."

"What?," Ernie interrupted again, impatiently. "If we could, what?" Veronica gave him a look to be more polite, and addressed the woman. "Yeah, honey, what can we do for you? We were just about to leave. What's your name?"

"Lucia. Lucia Shelton. And my boys Jackie, Tommy, and my daughter Lucia Two. She's named after me." "I'm six," the girl corrected. "Yes, dear," her mother agreed, "you're Lucia Two, and you're six."

"And you got nothin'? You got relatives you can call?," Ernie asked. "No," she replied. "Not close to here." Ernie shook his head, unbelieving.

"Well, come on and sit down," Veronica invited. "Let me at least put on some hot water, make some tea or coffee and hot cocoa. Kids, you like hot cocoa?" "Is that like hot chocolate milk?," the younger of the boys asked. "Better than," Veronica smiled. Veronica motioned for the children to take seats at a table near the Christmas tree, and went into the kitchen. She gestured for the mother to come with her, filled a kettle at a sink, took down cups and saucers from a rack of tableware, turned on the gas range and placed the kettle over the flames.

A Trumpet Case

Soon there was another knock at the door, quickly opened by a man in a dark overcoat holding a trumpet case. It was Benny Barsotti, a musician friend. "Hey, Ernie, Veronica," he called out. "I was just driving by, I had a cocktail gig downtown, and saw you still had your lights on. I thought you were closed tonight."

"Yeah, we were," Ernie said, "and are. Something came up. We had some unexpected guests drop in." He motioned toward the partial family. "Woman and her kids here. Out on the street for Christmas. Veronica is making something to warm them up." Barsotti shrugged at the details and wandered toward the kitchen. "Ooh, cappuccino and cheesecake!," he exclaimed. "Better than milk and cookies for Santa!"

"Barsotti, we're tryin' to get outa here." "C'mon, Ernie, it's Christmas. How 'bout sharing some joy?" Ernie surrendered, and offered a seat. "Hey, thanks. Here let me play something for you." He unpacked and assembled his horn. "Look just please don't play any Christmas music," Ernie asked. "I've had too much of it these last couple of weeks."

Barsotti softly breathed a C through his horn, then rose a whole octave to another C, then skipped down notes B, A, G, F, settling into E, then a return back to C. The accompanying words would have gone from "oe'r an open fire" to "Jack Frost nipping."

"No, please, no 'Chestnuts Roasting,'" Ernie moaned. Barsotti laughed. He blew four more rising notes, a G, B, D, F, then skipped down again E, C, B, A, G, resolving the phrase on A. "No, no. You go 'Have Yourself a Merry...' Please, no Mel Torme... besides he's Jewish! ... what is he so caught up with Christmas for?"

Most Wonderfully Obscure

Benny laughed. "He must have loved the holiday, what can I say? And Jewish? Yeah, and so were Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne for 'Let It Snow.' Irving Berlin, 'White Christmas,' for cryin' out loud. Eddie Cantor, for 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town;' Jay Livingstone, 'Silver Bells.' Felix Bernand, who remembers him?, for 'Winter Wonderland?' Stop me if I'm being pedantic. Even the baby Jesus too: Jewish! How about George Wyle and Edward Pola?"

"George Wyle and Edward Pola?"

"Yeah, who remembers them? They're the most wonderfully obscure guys for the season: they wrote 'It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year'! All the best songs were written by these guys looking in from the outside, not their culture, trying to figure it out, Mel and all those guys, making it up for everybody else, for every department store, church recreation hall, glee club, and holiday revue." He raised a finger to emphasize his point: "They created the music we inhabit; gave us the music to celebrate with. You want to go back to the 1800s and just have "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls?"

"Ugghk, I've overdosed on those songs!," Ernie grimaced. "Even when you get a good Italian like Vince Guaraldi, he's backing up Snoopy and Charlie Brown." The children perked up at the mention of Snoopy and Charlie Brown; at last, something they comprehended. "Don't forget Anthony Dominick Benedetto," Veronica reminded.

"Adeste freakin' Fideles, home boy," Barsotti cackled. "Without Jewish composers in Christmas music, see how much you're left with." "Yeah, we wish you a Merry Christmas...," Ernie sang rhythmically, ..." and a plate of chow mein."

"Ya gotta have some Mel " Barsotti walked back to the dining room and sang over Veronica and the children. "'Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light," he crooned. "From now on our troubles will be out of sight.'

"Yeah, you're gonna get through this," he said to them, not knowing any of their specific problem, and returned to the song: "Make the Yule-tide gay," he sang expansively, arms spread. "From now on, your troubles will be miles away...." "If only," Lucia murmured.

"Okay, just no elvis, no 'Blue Christmas,'" Ernie insisted. "Freakin' Christmas music," he grumbled, forgetting how much he had enjoyed Anthony Dominick Benedetto.

Friends to Call?

In the kitchen, Veronica pulled Lucia aside. "So, hon...," she began. "What's going on? You don't have friends you can call? You can use our phones. There must be somebody." Lucia shook her head. No.

"The truth is: my husband was, is, involved in some stuff. More than involved. Not directly, but, ah, very... related, to some, well..., "alleged," illegalities. Money stuff; big money stuff, lots of it. The police came with a warrant, kicked open the door and served their warrant on him. I grabbed the kids and took off by a back staircase." Veronica exhaled, and considered the children. "What about friends to call?"

"No. It's a tight world. I don't know how all this might be unfolding or falling apart elsewhere, who else might be getting caught, caught up, who I can even trust."

"My husband is not going to like this. You on the run... 'allegations,' 'illegalities.' We can't get involved with that. I'm sorry about whatever's happening to your husband and you. But there doesn't appear to be anyone chasing you down, the streets are empty outside, maybe we can get you a hotel for the night. I'll have to run it by him, we were just about to go home ourselves, but on Christmas Eve, he can't say no. 'Room at the inn' and all that.

"Here, let me heat up some of this pastry. It's Italian cheesecake with a berry topping, we call it frutti di bosco. Bosco means berries. Fancy name, we can charge more for it. Money stuff of our own, too," Veronica said with a smile, to put the woman at ease. "Go sit over by your kids. I'll bring out everything out to you."

Ernie came into the kitchen. "So?"

"You're gonna love this. Police raided her house tonight for some financial stuff the husband's involved in, I didn't ask what exactly, and she grabbed the kids and split without time to grab up any of the usual stuff, like cash, credit cards, cellphone. Nice, huh? Kids don't seem to know exactly what's going on. Maybe we can find a hotel for them for a night?"

"Aah, Veronica, this we do not need. It's Christmas Eve. Places are either full or mostly closed. And now we gotta deal with this? Who is this woman anyhow? What's she got going on with the husband's deal? We don't know her. Running from the police: a fugitive! Us harboring a fugitive?"

"We don't know that she's a fugitive exactly, and she's not staying here all night, I agree, but we have to help her, for the kids if nothing else. It is Christmas Eve."

"What if hubby's a murderer?" "Calm down; not likely. She's says it's money stuff. What: bad securities, stocks, funny real estate deals, a laundry? Maybe it's drugs. Who knows? It's not like we ask our customers where their money comes from, what they do for a living. We do have to get her out of here anyhow; we are closed. Be the angel on top of the tree. Make some calls." He shrugged and walked off. Argument would be pointless.

The front door opened again, and another musician walked in, sax case in hand, another friend, Lucky Smith. "Hey, wassup? You open tonight?"

"No. No," Ernie called back to him. "We're closed." "Yeah, but I see the kitchen's open. I was just about to go to the Bo Ling for some fried rice and Mongolian beef," he laughed. He walked into the kitchen and opened one of the refrigerators. "Ooh, braciole, involtini," sliced beef rolled up with cheese and ham. What do you make it with? With fontina and prosciutto? Some swiss chard or escarole in there too? Can you heat up some of that for me?"

"Lucky, that's tomorrow's dinner, for us," Veronica chided him. "Yeah, babe, but it's me, Lucky," he said, giving her a friendly embrace. "And it's Christmas Eve. How about a little bocconcino, a morsel? Here, let me play for some grub."

He put together his horn and played the opening notes of "Blue Monk." "Oh yeah, that's a song for Christmas cheer, always sounded to me like a drinking song. Even sounds a little like 'How Dry I Am.'"

"Yeah, and so does Bob Marley's 'Rivers of Babylon,'" Benny Barsotti offered.

"Now, man, that is jazz and reggae heresy, twice over," Lucky shot back. "It is a drinking song, a bar room nightclub song. But what everybody does with that song! Starts as a slow drag, you ever dig Abbey Lincoln singing it? But then it becomes a regular bebop 'Here We Go A-Wassailing,' everybody just goes off on it." He laughed at his own incongruous references.

A Nose So Bright

The front door opened yet again, prodded open by a guitar case, trailed by the man holding it. "Oh, no," Ernie moaned yet again. "I'm never gonna get outa here." He knew the man with the guitar case, who in the best of times was friendly, talkative, always with a story and a song, but sometimes unable to turn off that abundance of cheer. Freddie Fuller, called "Fuller Bull," sometimes, by those on whom his stories and enthusiasm grated, but his unrestrained guitar skills were unquestioned. Ernie didn't want to give him a chance to even get started, not this late, not tonight, wishing the door shut just as Fuller stepped through.

"Freddie, no. We're closed." "But I see your lights are on. And, hey, Lucky and Barsotti are here. Veronica in the kitchen. Yo, babe, Merry Christmas! And you got some customers here?" glancing over toward Lucia and the children. "Friends stopping by?"

"Not customers," Ernie shrugged. "Not friends either. They're just kind of here." Fuller glanced past Lucia, winking so as to charm, toward Lucia Two. "Hey, little girl, you know where Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is tonight?" It was the first time that night any of the adults in the room had addressed her.

"Uh, no. Leading Santa's sleigh?"

"Yeah, well, maybe," he agreed, but took a spoon from the place setting in front of her and placed a dollop of the berry torta on the tip of her nose. "No, you Rudolph tonight. You leading the sleigh." It was the first time that the little girl had laughed that night. Her mother scraped the morsel off the girl's nose and playfully placed it onto the girl's tongue past her giggling mouth.

Fuller slipped his guitar out of its case and began to strum the old classic about that foggy Christmas night and the special reindeer. "That's by Johnny Marks," Barsotti laughed. "Another Jewish songwriter! Somebody better stop Fuller or he'll go through all the rest of Marks' book: 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' and 'A Holly Jolly Christmas.'"

"It's a short book," Lucky came back. "Add 'Run Rudolph Run.' He wrote that for Chuck Berry, though it does sound a whole lot like Chuck's own 'Little Queenie.'"

"Yeah, and 'Johnny B. Goode' and 'Roll Over Beethoven,' too. Like rock 'n roll's jazz 'rhythm changes,' forever working off of George Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm!"

"As if!. Nah, those Chuck Berry songs are all the same songs. Good songs, but the same songs. Rock 'n roll ain't jazz." The musicians laughed to themselves and waved off further debate.

As a kind of party assembled itself inside the restaurant, a dark sedan pulled up in front, and another man got out, also wearing an overcoat, but not carrying a music case. He looked inside the restaurant, before trying the door, and opening it. "Hey, everything okay in here?" He was police, known to them, a plainclothes detective, Jay Sullivan, someone the DiVitales had come of age with. "I was driving by and saw the lights on. I thought my days on patrol checking doorknobs was behind me. You Italians are supposed to be closed tonight."

"Tell me about it," Ernie shrugged. "We had some night visitors." Sullivan quickly glanced around the room toward the kitchen, waved over to the musicians, and gave Veronica a holiday hug in greeting. He didn't immediately pay attention to the children, and their mother, but then he saw them. He pulled Ernie aside.

"Man, this is the Christmas plum on the pudding. You know who you got in here? Her face is all over our computer screens. She's the wife of a big money guy, freakin' trifecta: real estate, money laundering, papered enough funny securities deals to wrap all the gifts in the world tonight. He got raided, she split down a back staircase that wasn't covered and took off, dragging the kids with her. She got the survival instincts," he acknowledged, "and she can move! Man, you can pick 'em. How did she stumble in here?"

"Just that," Veronica said. "Came in out of nowhere, told us part of that story, said she had no cash, credit cards, cell phone, nothin.'" She looked over at Lucia, compassionately.

"Yeah, well, her guy must've run out of juice too somehow. Time was up." "So what are you gonna do?," Ernie asked. "What do you think I'm gonna do. I'm going to take her in, for questioning." "She charged with anything?"

"Doesn't really matter. She's connected to the case. She's not arrested, but I'll ask her to come with me, voluntarily, or other people like the DA or some supervisors can gin something up to be more persuasive."

"On Christmas Eve?" "Justice never sleeps. Protect and serve." Lucky's tenor intoned the beginning of "Someone To Watch Over Me."

"Nah, nah, nah, don't start that," Sullivan said. "Don't give me no subliminal messages." He was educated: a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, minor in psychology, and even knew his music. "I'm watchin' over her. I gotta take her in. I let her go, where's she gonna go? She got no money on her, that's how she came in here. Put her in a hotel, she goes on the lam, it goes bad. Maybe her people looking to help her, maybe bad people looking for her already too. Lemme call her guy's lawyer, I know who it is, he's probably already up and working the case. I'll let him know we have her, I'll bring her in after midnight, it's already late. There's nobody working downtown anyhow, a shutdown crew, by the time they process her, her people can figure out what to do, call somebody about the kids. It'll be morning, a new day."

Even Ernie turned sympathetic to their plight. "It'll be Christmas morning, Jay... Bright and shiny, but I don't see anything under the tree. A helluva gift. Like things are gonna be better in daylight, ya think? Nice."

"Well, yeah, but it won't be the night before Christmas. Maybe some shepherds will figure it out. Maybe the wise men will show up. Who knows? I just gotta take her in."

Veronica moved over to the refrigerator. "Well, if it's going to be a long night, who wants some braciole? , Lucky? It's already cooked, let me heat it in the oven." "My Christmas dinner?," Ernie whined. Veronica patted his arm. "You're having it early, with friends."

Sullivan stood near the door, locked it behind him. Everyone else helped from the kitchen, pulling down plates, silverware, setting places at tables. Wine was opened, more cocoa made, coffee for Sullivan. Barsotti and Lucky even did a duet on "Wassailing." The boys clapped their hands, the girl did a little dance. Veronica put an arm around Lucia: everyone, she knew, had their own troubles of different kinds.

Saying Goodbyes

Afterward, everybody fed, and tired as the night grew long, Sullivan moved the family toward the door. "Do you have to do this?," Veronica asked as a last resort. "Yes."

Lucia and the children got in Sullivan's car. Lucia sat softly weeping. Her boys were quiet, her daughter snuggled against her mother, giving and receiving comfort. Sullivan drove the car a block from the restaurant, stopped, and turned to Lucia. "Look, as far as I know, you're not charged with anything. Yet. There was some interest in looking for you to tie up your husband's operation and the raid, and I just happened to come across you. Different kinds of luck for both of us, huh? But there was no bulletin put out to pick you up." She sat silently.

"Even if I bring you in, you're gonna get sprung one way or another by your husband's lawyer and his people. Whatever he's done, you're all gonna have to deal with it. It's not going to be over with tonight. Him especially. You and he are in this for the long haul, however things work out. You can't be completely ignorant about who your husband is or what he does. It's not like he leaves every morning to work in an insurance office, right? There are going to be consequences.

"But if I show up with you, everybody gets mixed up about exactly what for, waste a lot of time trying to figure it out, some junior prosecutor on duty over Christmas and his boss stuck on a holiday watch want to make their bones by filing something, and it's just a matter of when you'll be out anyhow. Things get messed up for the kids. If you're charged with something later, and that definitely could all happen, that can all get handled then.

"So I'm going to put you in a hotel and keep you there until his lawyers can get it together. Like I said at the restaurant, there could be bad people looking for you for no good reasons, like you might start singing some holiday cantata they don't want anybody hearing. My family's upstate with my in-laws, I'll see them tomorrow, I'm off the rest of tonight so I can babysit the bunch of you.

"As far as anybody knows, you successfully walked, or ran, from the bust, got away, just exercised your constitutional rights to walk down the street, freedom to travel. No crime there. There's no need to wake up the people downtown and give them more work on Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, or get that young DA and his boss thinking too hard. Nobody at the restaurant really knows exactly who you are, unless and until the newspapers or television make some noise, so as to them you just disappear. They only tolerate me anyhow; always have. As far as they know, I took you in and the system worked it's strange magic and you're gone. I keep my reputation intact as a tough-enough cop, a Grinch at Christmas, but a guy who can make things happen, or not. "

Lucia did not immediately grasp what she was being handed. She exhaled. "You mean..."

"Like I said, protect and serve." He turned to the children, who also did not quite understand what now was transpiring, and turned back toward her. "Just don't believe there isn't a Santa Claus."

At the restaurant, the people there were unaware of the gift in process. "Somewhere in here is that old lesson about how it's better to give than receive," Veronica reminded. "We gave, and we had a nice evening, maybe a last good one for a while for her and the kids." "Giving up tomorrow's dinner," Ernie replied. "Served tonight," Veronica shrugged.

"Some gonna give, some gonna receive, and some just gonna get," Lucky said dolefully. "She gets a trip downtown, the kids in limbo. Some Christmas. And we thought we were doing good." "Not your fault, not your problem, Luck," Barsotti consoled him. "Ernie and Veronica let them in, who knew? Anyhow, it was quite a little party, for a minute."

"Yeah, and I liked those people. Kids were cute, well-behaved." He added with a chuckle, "for crook's kids." He picked up his sax. Like Dexter Gordon, like Lester Young, he murmured before he began to play. "It's not the pale moon, that excites me, that thrills and delights me, Oh no. It's just the nearness of you..."

He put the horn down. "Man, everybody together like that, it was all so near, and now so far away." He shook his head. "Yeah, it was kind of like 'Oh, come, all ye faithful,' f'real for a minute,'" he mused. It seemed a somber ending to the people in the restaurant, as they cleared the tables and left dishes in the kitchen to be washed when the restaurant reopened, and took their time bundling up, leaving at last.

Sullivan called ahead and crossed the city toward a hotel he knew. That refuge would be just a midpoint for whatever would follow. She wasn't, yet, formally, a suspect, not a person of interest, nor co-conspirator. His story was covered: he just offered safekeeping, and a moment's stability, calmness. For all the lapses in a life, he considered that it was a quest for order amid chaos and wrongdoing everywhere, a redemptive promise soaked into him as a boy, which had brought him to police work. He imagined it was the same in all the learning and practice discipline of the musicians, for Ernie and Veronica with the restaurant, even Lucia's husband trying to get ahead in his way. He saw a clarity to it all, even among things that seemed confused or conflicted. Amid darkened streets, occasional holiday lights shone.

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