Tony Juliana loved Christmas, loved the whole holiday season. He loved the spirit, the lights, the decorations, the Christmas trees, the gift-giving, the parties, the endless variations of Christmas music, and most especially the children’s laughter ... Tony even loved shopping, the more people the better. In fact, except for a few brief but seemingly endless moments every Christmas eve, it was his favorite time of the year.
Those moments were the ones he spent with his family.
Tony Juliana had little use for his family, primarily because they had no use for him except as the source of monthly transfusions of cash. He had tried, time and again over the years, to mend fences with his wife, son and daughter, but in the end all of his attempts came to nothing. He admitted that the pain of those failures made him bitter where his family was concerned. Indeed it left the relationship between them so estranged that he could, and gleefully did, violate the wishes of the Don, Victor Philouma, and live apart from them. Victor wanted all the Family men to be family men ... but there was just no way either side of the Juliana family was going to allow that to happen.
Except at the traditional Christian holy days of Easter and Christmas, Tony and his family had nothing to do with each other. Midnight Mass Christmas Eve and morning Mass Easter Sunday Tony and his family would be seen at St. Mary Cathedral, pretending with all their might that they were a real family ... as Tony not-so-jokingly said, “trying to fool God by sitting real close to each other and acting like we enjoy it”.
His wife and children had long before made it clear that efforts at personalized gift-giving were unwelcome; however, in the spirit of the seasons, they would gladly accept cash. The little envelopes with Tony’s words of warm sentiment gracefully inscribed on them would appear like clockwork from his pocket the minute they left the cathedral Christmas Eve and would arrive in the mail the Monday before Easter. He doubted they even read the inscriptions, he knew they didn’t believe them if they did.
There were no gifts for Tony, not even the courtesy of notes of thanks. Overall he was at peace with that ... he understood the dynamics of his love/hate relationship with his family, and also understood they felt the same ... without the ‘love’. He might on rare occasions become a little maudlin about it, trying to tally up his misdeeds where they were concerned and balance them somehow, as if entries in a ledger, against the amount of sheer enmity his family had for him.
To his way of figuring, the totals didn’t balance. They had never balanced and were never going to balance ... and there was nothing he could do that he had not already done.
And so normally he saw his family during those brief moments and the rest of the year he deposited money in his wife’s and children’s accounts and lived as though he had no family. He found satisfaction of his need for that type of closeness with Big Vic Philouma’s family, delighting especially in the time he would spend with his godson, Niccolo. He had to travel a bit to see him, as officially Nick was estranged from his father, but every second of the travel was made worth it by the joy of visiting with him ... to visit with the young man he wished his own son had become. Oh, there was the obvious question of Nick’s sexual preference, but a good man is a good man, no matter who he likes to have sex with, or how. And Nick had grown to be a very good man.
But the upcoming holidays were complicated this year ... complicated by a most welcome and lovely addition to his life.
He’d walked into the club, The Elysian Fields, looking to learn a little about bondage and domination, sadism and masochism and he’d walked out with a pet.
Not exactly the ending to the evening he’d envisioned, but once he’d seen her down on her knees, licking a man’s boot while the man sneered at her and her efforts, he’d found himself unable to focus his attention anywhere else. He felt that somewhat amazing considering the other sights and sounds of the club, but nevertheless such was the case. Something about the sight of her in her skimpy little black robe, flesh-colored thong barely hiding her sex, slightly plump ass cheeks bearing the marks of an earlier punishment, reddened strips across the tanned, brown skin ... it intrigued him. So for awhile he’d sat quietly at his table, surrounded by his boys, and studied the man she was serving.
When you played cards with the upper echelons of the Philouma family, you either learned to read people, people who were very used to revealing nothing by face or body language, or you lost a lot of money. Tony Juliana did quite well at poker ... even against Big Vic.
The man whose boot she was licking ... his pomposity and arrogance could’ve been sensed by someone both deaf and blind. It rolled off of him in waves so heavy Tony almost imagined he could hear them breaking against the tables and chairs. Yet behind it all was fear, the almost constant stream of looks and glances to gauge his effect upon others, the occasional almost imperceptible start as someone new entered with their retinue, the hurried but covert examination to determine if he and his were still drawing the most attention.
It wasn’t that he needed to worry, Tony decided, the women he had with him, all collared and chained, were as lovely a group as any Tony had ever seen in any of his travels. Black, white, Hispanic, oriental, all beautiful ... and all occasionally revealing their disdain, Tony assumed, for the man they served and his treatment of the woman on the floor.
He summoned a waitress with a wave.
“My dear, could you have the manager come to speak with me?”
“Y-yes sir ... is everything alright?”
Tony realized the poor girl was afraid she’d displeased him in some way. “Sweetie, everything is wonderful, although I will need a fresh glass of wine sometime in the next ten or fifteen minutes.” He pulled a twenty out of the inner breast pocket of his jacket and handed it to her. “Please know, it’s not to discuss you ... except when I will mention to your manager what an exemplary hostess you’ve been.” He scanned his memory for her name.
“But now, Lynette, if you could get the manager for me, and another glass of wine, I would very much appreciate it.”
She rushed off to fulfill his requests and Tony smiled again. “Lovely girl, but her attitude tells me her superior is not the easiest or kindest of people to work under.”
Grunts from his boys were all the answer he’d expected, and all the answer he received.
Twenty minutes and two hundred dollars later the obsequious manager, Mr. Papadopolous, had given Tony all the information on Dick Laney that Tony could want. Tony and his boys made their move. As the boys faded into the crowd, quietly surrounding Laney and his little court of admirers, Tony walked up to his table with a mocking smile on his face. He had this Laney punk down cold and he knew it. It was all over but the shouting.
“Yes, and you are... ?”
“No one important, Mr. Laney.” Tony slapped down a wrapped stack of fifty one-hundred-dollar bills. “Five thousand in cash against the woman licking your boot that I can make you shit yourself by saying two little one-syllable words.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Laney replied, snorting in amusement. “Easiest money I’ve ever made. You’re on. What are your ‘two words’?”
Looking directly in Laney’s eyes, Tony curved his lips in a slight grin, savoring the moment before saying the two little words, “Kill him.”
Even over the noise of the club - the throbbing of Depeche Mode’s ‘Master and Servant’, the chatter of excited onlookers, the ever-present susurration of a hundred club-goers’ conversations outside the circle that surrounded Laney and his women - the clicking of hammers being drawn back could be heard by all concerned as four large-caliber handguns of various types appeared, all of them pointed at Laney’s head and all of them very close to their target.
No one, not even Laney himself, could hear him voiding his bowels and releasing his control of his bladder, but the smell and spreading wet spot on his pants made hearing it unnecessary.
Tony picked up his money and extended his hand to the dark-haired beauty kneeling at Laney’s feet. “Come, little one. You’re mine now.” He looked back at her previous owner with the same mocking smile. “Dick, the name is Tony Juliana ... in case you ever want to try ... regaining your manhood. Give one of my boys your address. Someone will be by tomorrow at noon to pick up this beautiful young lady’s things. Have them ready.”
Once he had her outside the club she stood silently beside him as they waited for the car, her eyes downcast.
“You’re quite lovely, my dear. I’m very interested in hearing all about you, but for the moment, please remain silent.”
“Yes sir,” she replied, her voice a lovely soprano.
Tony had avoided most of the follies of old men so far in his life. Oh, he’d had mistresses in the past, but it had been over ten years since his last such affair had ended. He and his bodyguards lived by themselves in a suite of apartments in the Arco building and while he’d availed himself of the services of call girls to relieve his loneliness from time to time, he’d never wanted to move a woman in with him. That had always been the final betrayal of his wedding vows that he just couldn’t bring himself to commit. Likewise, his wife had never even had one of her lovers inside the house that she and Tony had bought when they moved to Texas from New Jersey, much less moved one in.
And here was this young woman who fully expected to move in with him, keep his house, warm his bed and do pretty much whatever he told her to. He’d adopted a ‘pet’ ... almost in the literal sense of the word.
When he thought of the condition of his health, and combined that with his age, Tony Juliana realized, with a wry mental chuckle, that last gasps of propriety be damned ... he didn’t want to face the end of his life alone. If he was going to walk into the darkness, he wanted someone to hold his hand for as long as they were able. He’d had an idea what saving her was going to result in, a good idea courtesy of the manager’s information, and he’d done it anyway.
“No way to change the bet once the dice have been thrown, eh little one?”
“No sir,” she replied as she timidly slipped her fingers into his hand.
He bowed, took her hand gently, kissing it and slowly bent down to face her. “Then for both of us, Sugar, may Luck be a Lady.”
The changes she brought to his life kept coming.
When he and young Carol Riley had gotten home that evening, they’d talked about their differing views of the relationship. She was ready to crawl into bed with him, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, he wouldn’t need Viagra, she guaranteed him. If he did require Viagra ... well, her response proved that by just describing what she would do, she could prove he wouldn’t need it in the first place. The girl gave him an erection the likes of which he hadn’t felt in longer than he’d cared to remember.
Tony wasn’t quite ready for that ... and told her so in no uncertain terms. She’d smiled at him and said, “Then where shall I sleep, sir?”
He’d moved her into one of the other bedrooms in his suite and that had been the end of it ... or so he’d thought at the time.
Two nights later, he’d awoken from a nightmare, flailing about his bed, grasping for his medicine, only to feel her take his hands in hers as she asked in a calm, but sleepy voice, “What do you need, sir? What can I do for you?”
Her touch and voice drove away the ghosts that had tried to follow him from his dreams and he replied “R-red pills ... bedside t-table ... two of them...”
In the faint glow of city lights that came through his window she’d found the pills, placed them in his mouth and helped him wash them down with the glass of water he kept by his bedside.
When he felt better, calmer, he’d asked her how she’d heard him. “I was asleep on the floor outside your door,” she replied.
“How else am I to know if you need me, sir?” she’d answered, as if it was self-evident to anyone with half a brain. “Now, if you’re feeling better, scoot over sir.”
He had, and she’d started to slip off the extra-large t-shirt she was wearing.
“Now, now ... none of that,” he’d whispered.
“Yes sir.” And she’d let it fall back into place, slipped into his bed and held him close to her.
He’d expected to do something more, he wasn’t sure at the time quite what, but she just held him until he drifted back to sleep.
After that night there was no more talk of her sleeping anywhere but in the room with him. His bed was not all that large, and he was somewhat sensitive to the movements of someone in bed with him, an unfortunate effect of his age, so he’d had a daybed moved into the room for her. She slept there most of the time and in his bed with him a rare few nights. And much to his surprise, she’d made no further attempts to be sexual with him.
Over the years, Tony had forgotten what it was like to have someone with a curious mind around him. Carol had a mind as endlessly interested in the world as his own. There seemed to be few experiences or opportunities she was not willing to take advantage of and as he was using what he figured to be the final few years of his life to see and do all the things he’d never had time for before, she was the perfect companion. Some of their adventures weren’t successes ... as an example; they found themselves equally and completely unimpressed by fugu ... Parisian Frenchmen frayed both their tempers to the breaking point, and while Carol had no problem with Rio during Carnival it was far too frenetic for Tony. Neither of them was up to even trying haggis. Although she had expressed some enthusiasm for trying anything he was willing to, Tony wasn’t interested in any extreme thrills.
He told her, “Once you’ve been in a gun battle or two, been shot several times, the idea of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or any such nonsense seems rather tame ... and unnecessary.”
It had been quite awhile since he’d been with someone whose devotion and loyalty to him wasn’t because of his previous position in the Mob. His boys were protective of him to a fault; the Don would have their heads in bowling ball bags if anything ever happened to him, and even a complete sociopath would show Tony some respect based on his service to la Cosa Nostra.
And muscle for the Philouma Family wasn’t chosen on the basis of high intelligence and sparkling conversational skills. His boys weren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination, but very few of them were within forty IQ points of Tony. Every so often he played a little poker with them, making sure to lose much more than he won, but for the most part, he and they didn’t socialize much.
Life with Carol was a lot of ‘socializing’, and a loyalty and devotion that simply was, with no questions, no explanation. He didn’t understand that, she’d certainly shown no outward signs of such loyalty towards Laney, not the slightest hint of reticence or regret over leaving him. But she’d let him know clearly that she would be by his side until he removed her ... or until he himself left.
And then there was music, the overwhelming passion of Tony’s life. When at home, it was a constant, with something playing every waking hour, whether it be the church-like reverence of listening, and doing nothing but listening, to one of his thousands of vinyl LPs, or the ‘anytime’ background sound of the radio, most often tuned to the classical or big band station. Concerts and live shows, no matter how large or small the venue, were a regular thing, sometimes seven nights a week. With a light meal before and a late dinner afterwards, going to hear someone perform would take up most of an evening. And, if as often happened they were catching two shows, the evening became a long one ... something Tony found physically taxing.
In Carol he’d found someone who understood completely. While his family might consider his vinyl collection and stereo obsession a waste of time and money ... money they hoped to inherit ... Carol encouraged it and was an enthusiastic participant. Her love of music, her willingness to let it transport her on its wings, was the equal of his ... even though she didn’t share his fanaticism about sound reproduction and LP collecting.
And although he had a difficult time convincing her of it, she had a lovely voice and a considerable range. With his urging she began to sing to him, tentatively at first and then for longer and longer stretches.
On the nights when his past caught up with him in his dreams, something that occurred with greater and greater frequency as he got older, the little Irish woman would hold the old Sicilian in her arms and sing him back to sleep.
Most of all, Tony had forgotten what it was like to have a woman living with him. And he’d forgotten how much he enjoyed it. The sights, the smells, the moments of shared intimacy in everyday life ... the companionship.
And one night, after a late supper following an evening at the ballet, Tony had taken her in his arms and kissed her, really kissed her.
She had been correct; he didn’t need Viagra where she was concerned.
So that year, his Christmas plans had an added complication ... he wanted to spend Christmas Eve with someone he loved. Someone he had grown to cherish and, as he came to accept the way she was, respect ... respect as someone who was exactly who she wanted and needed to be. He didn’t understand her, but he’d learned over the years that understanding wasn’t always necessary. And who was he to expect to understand everything anyway?
So one evening in early December, sitting at their table at Hudson’s on the Bend with their after-dinner drinks, he’d broached the subject with her. He talked with her about his family for the first time, explaining just how artificial and hypocritical their interactions were. He told her about his desire to spend Christmas Eve with her, instead of giving his family even the brief span of Midnight Mass.
Her response surprised him. “Sir, you owe it to yourself to go to Mass with your family. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. All of the enmity between you and them aside, they’re not coming to Mass with you twice a year to an attempt to fool anyone. Everyone knows what the situation is between you and them. They’re going to Mass with you for the same reason you’re going ... it’s the last vestige of a relationship that none of you are happy with, but that all of you realize is important, even if you can’t explain why.”
“How did you become so wise, little one?” he asked, covering her young and supple hand with his old and gnarled one.
“If I have any wisdom, sir, it’s from listening to the wise. You talked and I listened. Certainly there’s a lot of bad blood between you and your family, but if everything is as you’ve described, there are other things there as well.
“Besides,” she added, smiling at him seductively, “I’ll be waiting in the car with Andy. I’ll kiss you before you get out of the car and I’ll be right there, welcoming you back with open arms when you return.”
“Knowing you I suspect you might be tempted to be awaiting me with other limbs open as well, Sugar. Don’t yield to the temptation. Christmas Eve will be a very busy night, for both of us.”
“Yes sir ... what else are we doing that evening, if I might inquire?”
“Now, now, Baby Girl, don’t you know better than to ask too many questions around Christmas?”
Carol managed to control herself, helped by their flurry of activity in the weeks leading up to Christmas. With Tony’s love of music and the seasonal activities, their afternoons and evenings were jam-packed ... to the point of Tony requiring the rest of the hours of the day to recover his strength.
While he was napping one morning, Andy, their driver, came into the kitchen for a thermos of coffee.
“You’ve certainly been busy lately,” she observed, sipping a glass of juice at the table. “If you can tell me, what’s Tony had all of you doing?”
“Oh, it ain’t no great secret,” Andy replied. “This is the time o’ year for when he renews his charitable contributions. We check up on all the local organizations, programs and such that he supports three or four times a year, but this time o’ year’s the busiest. I swear, I gotta hear one more group o’ winos practicin’ ‘Silent Night’, I’m gonna go bugfuck. Prolly quit my job, become homeless myself an’ be right there with ‘em next year, croakin’ out ‘Away In A Manger’.”
“He has you check them out instead of him doing it?”
“Oh yeah ... I mean, I like ‘im a lot, but Tony’s got a real soft heart. He has a real hard time bein’ objective an’ all. Us, we’re all hardcases. If they get a good report outta us, well, he knows they’re really doin’ it right.” The coffee had finished percolating and he began to fill the thermos. “Oh, an’ thank you for comin’ along ... you’ll get the duty this year instead o’ one o’ us.”
“What duty?” she asked, confusion clouding her features.
“Oh, you’ll see,” Andy replied, a grin crossing his hard-edged face. “But don’t worry too much, you’ll prolly enjoy it.”
After an evening of laughter catching a performance of ‘A Tuna Christmas’ at a local restored old movie palace, Tony had decided they needed to be driven around downtown for awhile in a horse-drawn carriage ... several of which had been waiting outside the theater in hopes of picking up fares when the show was over.
“So little one,” he said as they cuddled close to each other, “tell Santa Tony what you’d like for Christmas.”
“Well Santa Tony,” she answered, giggling and burrowing into his side, surrounded by his arm and his cashmere coat, “I want snow.”
“Honey, you know Santa Tony hates to tell good little girls he can’t give them what they want, but this is Texas ... our chances of snow in this part of the state are two, and Slim’s on the train to Chicago. Wouldn’t you like some jewelry or clothes ... not that I can keep you in them all that often ... or perfume ... I know, how about a car? Would you like a new car for Christmas?”
“Santa Tony, I will enjoy whatever you put under the tree for me, but I already have more jewelry and clothes than I need, and with Andy always ready to drive me anywhere I want to go, a car would be wasted on me. The only thing I need is to be by your side. You asked what I wanted. Well, I’ve been dreaming of snow. I haven’t had a white Christmas since I moved down here from Kansas to go to school.” She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. “Look around us ... wouldn’t this city be beautiful with snow falling on it? I know it isn’t going to happen, but wouldn’t it be lovely if it did?”
“Alright, you have a point there ... it would be lovely. But it still doesn’t answer the question in a practical sense. What does my little Baby Girl want for Christmas?”
“Oh fine ... a new extra-large t-shirt to sleep in with “I’m Tony Juliana’s dirty little secret” silk-screened on it.”
“I’m going to spank you, I swear to God! Besides, you aren’t that ‘secret’ anymore. And nothing about you is dirty.”
“A spanking! Oh Santa Tony, you know what those do to me!”
The dapper and dashing eighty-nine year old sighed heavily, stroking his white mustache. “Well then, I’m sorry there’ll be no spanking tonight, little one. Santa Tony’s not up to it.”
“Driver, take us back to the theater,” Carol said, then turned to Tony. “Alright sir, let’s get you home then, and your little one will make us hot chocolate and sing you a few Christmas carols before you go to sleep.”
“More than a few, if you would, Sugar. It may a bit before I’m able to go to sleep tonight.” Pain gave his face a slight twitch. “And it may take a bit more than hot chocolate.”
“However long and whatever it takes,” she replied, hugging him gently.
“Come on, Donnie, you know I won’t tell anyone you told me, but I’ve just got to know. What did Andy mean when he said I had the duty this year?”
Donnie laughed as he and Carol strolled through the little specialty shops in search of presents. “I’d much rather face a bullet for the boss ... or you ... than spoil the surprise.”
“You’re about to be facing a nut-clutch, Donnie. C’mon, please?”
The bodyguard looked down at her imploring face and smiled. “Oh, alright ... but if you tell anyone else I told you ... if you don’t act real surprised Christmas Eve ... I dunno what I’ll do, but it’ll piss ya off.” He shifted the load of shopping bags to his other arm. “In addition to all the money he wastes on ‘em for the year, Tony dumps a whole lotta dough on gifts o’ clothing and such for the homeless ... lots o’ back-packs, the kind you get kids for school so they ain’t too big with a few necessary items in ‘em, stuff like a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, a pair o’ socks, gloves, a brush and comb, a used paperback, some candy, a bag with an apple and an orange, a roll o’ lifesavers with five dollar bill wrapped around it, held on with a rubber band. He wastes a lot o’ fuckin’ time writin’ the notes he puts in each one. And then for kids in the shelters, or on the streets, there’s some that got toys in ‘em, don’t worry, they’re marked real clear so you don’t get confused ... for older kids and adults they got cheap radios with earplugs.
“You’ll be makin’ the deliveries to the shelters, dressed up like a Christmas elf. We’ll still handle the majority o’ the street deliveries, cause sometimes those get a little ... weird. But none o’ us gonna be dressed up like some goddamned ridiculous-lookin’ elf this year, goin’ into the shelters ... and for that lemme assure you we’ll be eternally grateful to ya. God, I hate them places ... they’re damn depressin’.”
“Come on Donnie, we’re going back home now,” Carol said, sniffling back her tears. “I gotta talk to Tony.”
“Shit ... I knew I shouldn’t have told ya.”
“Tony Juliana, I found out what I’ll be doing Christmas Eve!” she said as she barreled into the room and climbed up on his bed where he’d been resting.
“Are you upset at having to make the deliveries, little one?” he asked as she glared at him.
“No, you silly old bastard,” she said through her tears. “I’m pissed off because you didn’t let me know earlier so I could help with the whole thing.” She curled up next to him. “Also ... I know some places you probably don’t ... places where we’ll find people like me ... you might want to add condoms to those backpacks ... if you’re willing to help them too.”
The old man put his arms around his companion, happy that he hadn’t misjudged her heart. “Of course I’m willing ... I’m sorry ... I guess I was scared you wouldn’t want to help.”
“Then you’re not as wise as I thought you were, Tony. You need help putting the gifts together, or writing notes or anything, I’m your girl!”
“Yes you are,” Tony said, hugging her close. “Don’t worry about stuffing the backpacks ... I have a lady who puts them all together for me. But the note writing, that I’ll take your help with ... I’m way behind because of my foolishness in hiding it from you. I wish I could do it all myself, including the handing out part ... but that would destroy the anonymity of it all ... I don’t want to them to know it’s me.” He turned his face from her in embarrassment. “I already get too much gratitude and recognition for my financial support. I don’t want anymore.”
“Have I told you lately that I love you?”
“Yeah ... yeah you have.”
“Good ... but you need to hear it again. I love you, sir.”
Although in the intervening days her hand often cramped, Carol Riley couldn’t have been happier. All thoughts of snow were pushed out of her head in the realization of what that kind of weather would be like for the people they would be visiting Christmas Eve Day and on through the night.
And then it was the morning of the 24th. After breakfast Carol got into her costume, peaked hat with a bell on top and long-sleeved tunic, skirt and tights, the effect completed by the shoes, toes curled up towards the sky, all of it in bright red and green.
“Tony, this outfit ... I love it, but it’s not very sexy ... and I want ‘sexy’ ‘cause you know Carol Elf is going to want to thank Santa Tony in very special ways when this is all over.”
“I think it’s plenty sexy, but if you’d like, you can carry off the effect with just the pointy shoes and the hat, darling,” Tony replied, smiling. “But I’d recommend you leave it ‘as is’ until after your deliveries are made.”
“Yeah,” she laughed, “I’m thinking that none of the shelters would appreciate me coming in effectively naked ... and I don’t want to know what the shelters run by religious folk would think.”
“They’d think you are an angel ... and the boys would have to do unfortunate things to them to keep them from attacking you.”
Throughout the day, Tony’s men delivered the gifts to the homeless on the streets, while Carol handled the duties in the shelters. The panel vans Tony had rented to carry the backpacks followed along behind them as they made their rounds through the city. Carol managed to keep her composure throughout her ‘official duties’, but almost always returned to the car and sobbed.
After one stop she gave voice to her sorrow. “There are so many of them, Tony,” she cried as he held her in his arms. “I thought you were crazy, putting together a thousand backpacks ... we’re not going to have enough.”
“No, little one, we won’t. We’ll do what we can but in the end there are over four thousand homeless in this city alone...” He reached over and turned the radio on to the classical station. “Just calm down and relax. We’re going to go have Andy get some supper for all of us ... I think, with that costume, we should eat in the car.”
She giggled through her tears. “Yeah ... yeah I think that’d be best.”
As they sat and feasted on Chinese takeout Carol asked him, “Tony, why? Why do you do this? Is it to make up for the life you led ... why?”
“Maybe a little ... mostly it’s because we failed these people. The Mob ... in the old days, we protected our people from those who hated them ... people who wanted to take advantage of them. My father, one of the true, old-time ‘Mustache Pete’s ... he taught me that it was okay to make a little money from your people, that was the cost of protecting them against legitimate outside threats. And you made a little more off of them by running the numbers, the girls, alcohol during prohibition, a little loan-sharking ... but you didn’t bleed them dry. You didn’t take more than they could afford. You were reasonable, you were rational. Hell, you used your political connections to bring in jobs and social programs. God had blessed you with drive and determination ... and the opportunity ... to become a shepherd. A shepherd may shear his flock, from time to time may kill one for mutton. But he doesn’t kill them all, he keeps them healthy, he takes care of them and defends them from the wolves. You were in a necessary symbiotic relationship with your community. You did for them what they couldn’t do for themselves and what the politicians promised to do but never delivered on. You provided them goods and services that they should be able to have as free men and women. You did some ugly things, from time to time, and you weren’t saints, by any definition of the word. But you took care of your people.
“But we got greedy ... we got stupid ... now everybody, including us, preys on our flock. We sell poison to them, we think that because there’s so many of them, we can take what we want and there’ll always be another sheep ready for shearing. We force our prostitutes to become addicts so we can control them. Where’s the wisdom in that? I’d much rather have a quick blow-job from a woman who’s a whore because it’s the best way for her to make money or better yet, because she wants to be, than a thousand nights with a whore who’s there because she’s a goddamn junkie. Our loan rates are outrageous; we’ve gotten so hung up on our ‘honor’ that we end up killing those who can’t pay. Where’s the honor in that? He disrespected us by not paying? Now he can’t pay. That’s not good business. If someday he pays, then he isn’t disrespecting us. And we can loan him money again. We take too big a slice of too many pies. Our younger associates, they look at even the vestiges of the old ways and damn near call us old-timers fools to our faces. We’ve grown too fat and lazy so the wolves don’t even bother to pretend to be scared of us. If it’s a strongly held pasture, like this one, they do us the courtesy of telling us when they take sheep, but that’s all. Big Vic knows that as well ... but he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to change. It would be too expensive.
“I tell you this ... when ... if Nick ever becomes Don, from my lips to God’s ear, he’ll change some things.”
“But Tony ... these people, they aren’t Sicilian.”
“No ... but if I’m going to shear a sheep, he’s my sheep. They’re our people. We might have started with purebred Sicilian flocks ... but now they’re all our sheep and we ought to protect them.”
The old man looked out the tinted window at a pair of men who looked as old as him but were probably only two-thirds his age. They were digging in the trash bin behind the Chinese restaurant.
“Little one...” he murmured, a tear rolling down his cheek, “what kind of shepherds have we become? We’re no better than the wolves.”
As they headed for their last shelter stop of the evening, Carol asked, “Tony, how much does this cost you each year?”
“You mean the Christmas gifts? Well, I buy in bulk, so it comes out to about twenty-some-odd thousand ... this year I think it was about twenty-seven dollars per person ... somewhere around there. Not much at all really. And you’ve seen their faces, little one. For less than thirty bucks a person I get smiles worth a thousand times that. That’s why all this is above and beyond the financial support I provide during the year. It’s Christmas, Baby Girl ... people, all people, deserve a present for Christmas.”
“Fuck snow, Tony ... thank you for the best Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten.” She hugged the misty-eyed old man so tightly he was afraid she might break him. “I love you so much.”
Exhausted, Carol had finished giving out her last backpacks at her last delivery when a man came up to her, touched her arm lightly. She turned to him, recognizing him from earlier in the visit. His bright orange backpack was on his back already, and in his hands he held the little radio with earplugs.
“Yes sir, can I help you with something?” she asked.
He smiled at her ... it was obvious the toothbrush and toothpaste had already been of use as his teeth looked better than she remembered and he slipped the radio into his jacket pocket. His hands began to slowly move in patterns Carol recognized as sign language.
“I’m sorry ... I’m sorry sir,” she said, facing him, enunciating clearly. “I don’t speak sign.”
He pulled out the radio, pointed to his ear with the other hand and shook his head sadly. Then he pointed to where a young girl was playing with the stuffed teddy bear that had been in her backpack. He held the radio against his chest and hugged it, petted it, put it on his shoulder and cocked his head down to rest on it, closing his eyes and pretending to sleep.
Then he looked at her, hope bright in his eyes.
“You’d like to trade your radio for a stuffed teddy bear, someone to keep you company?”
He nodded, smiling and mouthed the word ‘friend’ very clearly.
There was no stopping Carol’s tears any longer. “Let me see what I can do. You wait here.”
Targeting the kids on the edge of being too old for a stuffed toy, perhaps old enough to want a radio, she eventually found a young boy who had found a stuffed penguin in his backpack and was willing to trade. Bringing him over to the man, she facilitated the trade and as the boy wandered back to his family, the man began signing to her again. She looked on in confusion until one of the shelter workers saw her situation and came over.
“This is Herbert and my name is Terry,” the young man said. “He’s a regular here.” Turning to face Herbert he signed to him. “I’m asking him to start again, since I didn’t catch all of it.”
Herbert responded and soon Terry turned back to Carol and said, “He says thank you, very, very much, for the penguin. He’d like to know your name.”
“Carol ... my name is Carol.” As Terry signed it to Herbert, Carol was amazed to find she had tears left. Herbert signed back to Terry. “Herbert says this penguin is his friend, her name is Carol.”
Carol threw her arms around Herbert and hugged him hard. Then she thanked Terry for his help and made her way out to applause and cries of “Merry Christmas, Carol Elf!”
She crawled into the car, straight into Tony’s lap. “After you get through with Midnight Mass, sir, please take me home and hold me. I need to be held.”
“Whatever you desire, little one.”
She fell asleep during Tony’s absence and he didn’t wake her until they were home. After getting her out of her costume and into her Christmas present, an extra-large t-shirt with “I’m Tony Juliana’s angelic little secret” silk-screened on it, he led her back into the living room and they sat together at the window. He had his cook make them hot toddies that they drank while looking out over the city.
“So, are you sure that’s all you want for Christmas, Sugar?” he asked.
“This and being held by you tonight,” Carol replied, following with a yawn. “I am so tired.”
“Well, you worked hard ... and I appreciate it more than I can say. So do a lot of people whose holiday is a lot brighter because Carol Elf visited them today. Even when I order the boys to be jolly and full of Christmas spirit ... well, they’re still not comfortable with it, and they’re still more than a little scary ... even dressed in elf costumes.”
“Oh yes, the Christmas elves are a tradition in the homeless shelters. They wore the costumes ... and I generally didn’t hear the end of the bitching until sometime in March.
“So I figure they owe you some big favors for taking it off their hands this year...” He looked down to see his young companion asleep, snoring lightly.
“Worked like a charm. Come on Mrs. Hood, let’s get her ready.”
The housekeeper and Andy came out to help him carry Carol into the bedroom.
Carol remembered waking up, just a little, at some point in the night, her ears hurt but she wasn’t awake enough to even open her eyes, and once her ears popped they were fine. The traffic sounds were very loud and roar-y from outside the apartment, but she was safe and warm and Tony’s arms were around her and she was too tired to even think so she fell back to a deeper sleep.
“SNOW! YOU MADE IT SNOW?”
“No Baby Girl ... wake up some more and look around. We’re not home. The mountain wouldn’t come to Mohammed, but with the help of bit of a Mickey in your hot toddie, Mohammed was able to take you to the mountain.”
“Where are we, you dear, wonderful man?”
“Aspen ... it’s snowing in Aspen, so to Aspen we flew. Passed a fat man in a red suit being towed by some reindeer on the way. He told me to tell you ‘thank you’ for helping him out yesterday.”
“We are so going out to play in the snow ... but that’s for later. Right now, Mr. Sneaky Santa Sir, I’m in the mood for a candy cane ... and I think I know exactly where to find one ... or something that will very soon resemble one.”
“Oh ... my ... Merry Christmas, Baby Girl.”
“Mewwy Cwi’mas siw.”
Happy Holidays to you all, and my thanks for your support of my writing. I hope this story can in some small way show my appreciation.
The concepts of ‘gift bags’ and backpacks for the homeless are courtesy of Kevin Barbieux, a homeless man currently in Nashville, Tennessee who’s blog can be found at www.thehomelessguy.blogspot.com. Specific information on ‘gift bags’ can be found at http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.com/2005/12/gift-bags.html and his thoughts on backpacks at http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.com/2006/10/gift-bags-for-homeless.html. I expanded on his list of recommended items. The $5 bill wrapped around a roll of Lifesavers is an old family tradition of ours. The rolls would be hung on the Christmas tree for the kids to find Christmas morning.
The number of homeless Tony quotes is accurate for the area I live in. Austin, Texas, population a little over 650,000 people, has over 4,000 homeless men, women and children. Over 7% of persons living in the United States have been homeless (defined as sleeping in shelters, the street, abandoned buildings, cars, or bus and train stations) at some point in their lives. Homelessness rates have increased over each of the past 2 decades. An estimated 2.5 to 3.5 million people now experience homelessness each year.
If you have the ability and desire to help, I recommend Mr. Barbieux’s ideas on the subject.
“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, if you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you.”