After making its way through heavy traffic, a blue Alfa Romeo glided into a no-parking zone right in the center of Milan, between the cathedral and the Galleria, one of Italy's largest malls. An army of Christmas shoppers, mostly women, were out in full force, taking advantage of a day in December when it wasn't snowing or blowing.
The press of the crowd was so great that for a few moments Father Risolino could hardly open the car door. Finally, he got himself out and called to the driver, "Grazie, Roberto! I appreciate the lift."
Pulling away from the curb, the driver shouted, "You wouldn't have gotten here in that old rust bucket of yours. I'll pick you back up at four, Reverendo."
The priest had barely stepped onto the sidewalk when a fourteen-year-old girl, her Catholic school beret slipping off her red hair, burst out of the crowd, calling, "Zio nonno, zio nonno!" Several passersby turned their heads after hearing such an odd expression as "Uncle Grandpa," but Father Risolino, her mother's uncle, was the only family member she knew in a grandfather's generation.
After she had given her "uncle grandpa" half a dozen kisses, she asked, "Do you want to say a prayer in the cathedral before lunch?"
Father Risolino shook his head. "No, in the interests of time, we're going to straight to the Galleria, eat something, and practice one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy. It will be our Christmas gift to the world!"
"Oh, I know the works of mercy," said Eleonora, bubbling with enthusiasm. As they were carried by the crowd toward the mall, she rattled off, "Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, visit the sick. . ." and then she stopped. "Is that a cat?" she asked, bending down.
Father Risolino was about to say, "Not in this mob," when the crowd parted briefly and he too saw a streak of bright orange fur flash right past the security guard who was standing inside the entrance. But as soon as they had squeezed through the doors, almost knocking a pine cone off one of the decorative wreaths, the priest, who could never stay away from a cat, told Eleonora, "You look down this side of the mall, and I'll search that one."
Before they could set out, however, Eleonora's young eyes spotted a skinny middle-aged man in a dark suit kneeling on one knee and holding out a large bag, like a woman's tote bag. The next instant, she saw an orange-colored mackerel tabby jump into it and disappear. "I found him," she cried. "He's over there -- the man in black is holding him."
As the man noticed Eleonora and the priest coming toward him, he shrank back against the window of a clothing store, put his finger to his lips, then pointed to the security guard. He was reminding them that no animals were allowed in the Galleria.
Understanding his predicament, Father Risolino positioned himself so that his broad shoulders blocked the guard's view. At the same moment, he took in the threadbare nature of the man's suit and the absence of an overcoat. "My son," he said, "we are very interested in getting acquainted with the little family member you have in your bag. Would you like to join us at the café over there for some lunch and an introduction?"
"Si, si, grazie," the man said. He gave Father Risolino a smile that brightened his worn face. "It will be our pleasure, Reverendo, signorina." He pressed the top of the tote bag lightly against his chest so that no orange ears could stick out and attract attention. There was a curious little mew from inside the bag, but that subsided quickly. The bag's inhabitant was used to making himself not only invisible but inaudible.
When they had seated themselves at one of the outside tables, the one farthest removed from the foot traffic, Eleonora said, "I'm Eleonora, and this is Father Risolino, my zio nonno, Mama's uncle."
Keeping his bag carefully wedged between himself and the table, the man shook hands. He looked at them out of dark, deep set eyes, where sadness mingled with pride. "I am Dappertutto," he told them.
Eleonora looked puzzled. "Dappertutto" is the Italian word that means "everywhere."
Seeing her confusion, Dappertutto threw out his arms and proclaimed ringingly, "That's because I belong to the whole world! I come and go as I wish and nothing stops me."
The priest interpreted what he heard realistically and grimly -- the man was living on the street. But Eleonora's natural buoyancy and willingness to chime in with other people's beliefs inspired her to say, "You're like God! He's everywhere too."
"Did you hear that, Frankie?" asked the man, looking down into the bag. "Did you hear what the signorina said?" Sitting back in his chair, he let the top of the bag open slightly, and an inquisitive head popped out.
Seeing friendliness on the little tabby face, Father Risolino reached over, lifted Frankie up and out of the bag, and swiftly put him on his own lap below the level of the table, where he could not be noticed by passersby. With his thumb, he tickled the furry chin until a warm sound of purring rose.
Catching a glimpse inside the bag, Eleonora saw a pile of soft wool cloths in the center, making Frankie's home warm and comfortable and cozy. "You're a good daddy to your little boy," she told Dappertutto.
She would have said more, but suddenly, a waiter appeared. He had a stiff demeanor that made him look slightly negative, like the kind of person who would be anti-feline, anti-canine, anti-anything that wasn't protocol. But appearances were apparently deceiving. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the priest's face, he asked, "What can I get for you and your party, Reverendo?"
After he wrote down Father Risolino's order of beef stew for three, he continued, without a flicker of a smile, "Would you like a contorno" -- a side order -- "of tuna to accompany your stew?"
"Si, si, grazie," exclaimed Dappertutto. In an instant, his back, slightly bent, had straightened itself up. A thrill of joy was running through his whole body at the prospect of his son Frankie getting such a treat.
As they were waiting for their orders to appear, Eleonora asked, rubbing the cat's velvety ears, "Where did Frankie get his name?"
Dappertutto grinned. He waved his hand in the air and said, "Listen to the music." The song -- "Have yourself a merry little Christmas" -- was in English, so Eleonora couldn't understand the words, but she recognized the voice of Frank Sinatra. "He's loved everywhere, just like my little boy!"
"Well," said Father Risolino, as one soft paw after another climbed up his chest and a pink tongue began to lick his neck, "you may not have your namesake's blue eyes, but you certainly have his charm." Before he could express any more compliments, he heard the waiter say to someone sitting behind his back, "Your café and tiramisu, dottoressa."
At the word dottoressa, which means "doctor," Father Risolino and Eleonora turned around. They saw a very small woman who was sitting at the next table, looking like the spirit of Christmas. The coat flung over her chair was bright red. She wore a green sweater, a red-and-white stocking cap on her head, and earrings shaped like tiny candy canes. After taking a sip of her coffee, she stood up and said to the priest, "May I hold your little darling, Reverendo?"
Hesitating only long enough to look around for Authority, which was nowhere in sight, Father Risolino said, "He belongs to this gentleman. But I don't think either of them will mind."
As Frankie transferred himself into the arms of the little lady and curled up against her chest, Dappertutto rose and said courteously, "Our pleasure, Signora." But before he could sit back down, his face contorted in pain. His hand went to his pocket, then fell to his side, and he slumped into his chair.
Father Risolino leaped over to him and took the man's head in his hands. He said, "My son, we are here. Stay with us." Gently but insistently, he repeated, "Stay with us."
There was no response.
Handing Frankie quickly to Eleonora, and taking her cell phone off the table, the little lady said, "I'm dialing 118," which was the Italian number for medical emergencies, "but I'll look after him until the paramedics come. I'm a cardiologist."
After she had told the dispatcher where the patient was and what had happened, she rummaged through Dappertutto's pockets, pulling out a tube of aspirin. "I'll bet a doctor told him he has angina and that he should chew one of these when he feels an attack coming on. But today the attack was too fast." Looking down at the man's careworn face and clothes, she added sympathetically, "It could be a lot of other things as well, of course."
She asked Father Risolino, "Do you know his name?"
Under the cloths in the bag that was Frankie's home were papers that looked like official documents. Emptying them out on the table, the priest sorted through them. "He's called Giovanni Preli," he told the doctor.
Out of curiosity, Eleonora set Frankie down on the table so she could could pick up one of the papers and read it for herself. Just at that moment, two shoppers who had witnessed the man's collapse came rushing over to offer advice. One woman ordered, "Sit him up so he can breathe," while the other said, "Don't be ridiculous. Stretch him out on the floor so he can rest."
The dueling voices were irritable and demanding. Spooked by them, Frankie leaped off the table and dashed across the corridor. Seeing him head toward a men's clothing store, Eleonora took off after him.
She was barely inside when she saw a ball of orange fur quivering in a corner behind a counter. "Scusi," she said to a man who was scrutinizing several ties the salesman had set out for his perusal. "Scusi," she repeated more intently, since the customer, who was blocking the space between the counters showed no inclination to move. Taking direct action, Eleonora wedged herself past him, then stooped down to grab Frankie.
But the little tabby had other ideas. Jumping over her shoes, he aimed for the door, which unfortunately opened just as he got there. In only a second, Frankie was once again loose in the uncharted spaces of the mall.
Once Eleonora got outside, she begged an elderly couple going past, "Did you see a little cat? Which way did he go?"
The husband pointed with his cane toward a luggage shop.
"There he is," cried Father Risolino, who had come to join the chase, and the two of them set off in pursuit.
Right outside the shop, a heavy-set man was standing next to a tall leather trunk on wheels. Tucking a receipt into his wallet, he paid no attention to an orange tail that was twitching in agitation behind the trunk.
Creeping up on the tail like an experienced trapper, Father Risolino waited until he had his hands on Frankie before he called to Eleonora, "I've got him." Underestimating the tabby's willpower, however, he allowed his grasp to be too gentle.
With one determined flex of his muscles, Frankie exploded out of his grip and shot off down the corridor.
The heavy-set man laughed. He called after Father Risolino, "Don't say 'cat,' until it's in the bag." He was using the Italian expression that means, "Don't count your chickens until they're hatched."
Although Eleonora and the priest put on their best speed, they lacked the smallness and flexibility of Frankie, who could zigzag swiftly over the ground. Their progress was continually blocked by excited children chasing each other through the mall or by women carrying shopping bags the size of small ponies.
Despairing of being able to find Frankie by looking over and around people, Eleonora hurried toward the window of a bookstore. She dropped down close to the floor and peered through a moving army of ankles. Much to her relief, she spotted Frankie heading back toward the café where Dappertutto was resting with his head on the shoulder of the little doctor.
"This way," she called to Father Risolino. She was praying that the paramedics would not arrive at the same moment as the little cat. He could be alarmed by the bustle and once again head out on his own.
Fortunately, all was quiet. The two interfering shoppers had lost interest and disappeared, and the other diners had left the doctor and her patient a clear space of calm. Frankie, however, in cautious cat fashion, had put on the brakes outside the area of the tables. He sat and he stared, but he went no closer. Consequently, Father Risolino and Eleonora also froze a few yards away from Frankie.
There was no telling how long this stand-off might have continued. But the little doctor found the perfect solution. Reaching over to a small plate, she picked up some tuna with her fingers, and, without disturbing her patient, she held out her hand toward Frankie. The extended fingers were the invitation every cat recognizes. It says, "Draw closer, sniff, and lick."
Immediately, Frankie trotted over to the table. At the same time, two other developments occurred. Dappertutto opened his eyes and sat up, and the paramedics arrived. A bearded man who led the team called over his shoulder to the others, "Hey, we can go home now. The world-famous cardiologist is here!"
"Oh, no, you don't," the little doctor joked back. "I'm just here for the tiramisu." She stepped out of the way, after saying, "His name is Giovanni Preli."
As soon as the patient's vital signs had been checked, the bearded man said, "Don't worry, Signor Preli. I can see you're feeling stronger, but we're taking you to the hospital to get you stabilized and give you a more thorough examination."
At the word "hospital," a worried look came over the face of Frankie's father. Understanding perfectly, Father Risolino said, "Frankie can stay with me until the hospital discharges you. Then you too can come and honor me with a long visit. I live in the village of St. Agatha's, which is in the mountains a few hours from here, where the fresh air will do you good."
"I live right here in Milan," piped up Eleonora, "so I can visit you every day after school."
"Are you taking him to the Policlinico?" the little doctor asked the bearded man. When he nodded, she told Dappertutto, "I have patients there myself, so I can check on you and arrange for you to get up to Frankie when the time comes."
As the paramedics prepared to take their patient away, the priest leaned over and pressed his hand. "Don't worry," he said. "All will be well." But the last lingering look the man gave, as the team rolled him off on a gurney, was at Frankie, nestled against Father Risolino's chest.
Taking Eleonora's arm, the little doctor motioned her to sit down and said, "Now it's time for you both to have some lunch, Reverendo, or I'll have two more patients collapsing."
Shifting Frankie in his arms so he could see his watch, Father Risolino said, "Fine! I have two hours before my ride arrives."
Dropping happily into her seat, Eleonora called to the waiter, "Could we have some more stew, please? And another contorno of tuna?" Thinking of the trip the little cat had ahead of him, she stroked his face and asked, "Maybe you'd rather have a regular-sized plate, Frankie?"
"Would you like that better, Signor Sinatra?" joked the priest, who was enjoying the pleasures of cuddling a warm bundle of tabby.
Signor Sinatra purred his loudest purr, which meant, "Si, si, grazie!"
by Lynn Schiffhorst
Huge thanks to Jem Vanston for trawling the Internet for illustrations - thanks Jem!