The Next Right Thing A new work of fiction Rafael Alvarez

December 24, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

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.

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