One Hundred Santas
3rd Place Prizewinner
Liz Skillman lives in New York City, where she writes and teaches high school. Her short story “Rachel’s List” won first place in the 2007 Paul Gillette Writing Contest and in the same year was published in an anthology put out by the Aspiring Authors contest. She is currently working on her first novel and is a former singer-songwriter.
Gilbert Marvel’s first Christmas screenplay was called Behold! In it a teenaged plain Jane works as a seasonal elf at the local department store. The star quarterback of her high school comes into the store one night after consuming a half-liter of vodka with the team’s wide receiver. The receiver says he will give the quarterback twenty bucks if he gets his picture taken on Santa’s lap. As he waits in line the quarterback fills out a Christmas list questionnaire. In a flash of sobriety he writes, on the list, that what he wants for Christmas is for his folks to reunite.
The next day in study hall Jane passes Quarterback a note suggesting that, in order to see his wish come true, he give each of his parents a lavish gift on Christmas Day and say it is from the other. You never know, she writes at the end of the note.
Luckily young Joe Heisman has a charge card that Dad pays the bills on without question. When Mom and Dad open their ruby bracelet and Alpaca-lined briefcase, respectively, there is a brief pause before Christmas magic takes hold. Love and holiday cheer fill their hearts. They reunite. In his gratitude Quarterback asks Jane to the holiday formal. She gets a makeover from the tarty cosmetics cashier with the heart of gold and, under the light of the gym’s electric blue mistletoe, Jane and Quarterback’s lips meet in a holiday kiss to end all holiday kisses.
Gilbert wrote it ten years ago.
Gilbert Marvel did not celebrate Christmas as a child. His mother was Jewish. His father was raised Catholic, however a college-era allegiance with the Communist party caused him to sever all ties with organized religion before Gilbert was born.
Growing up in the East Village of Manhattan, Gilbert and his younger brother Samuel spent Christmas Eve opening Hanukkah presents. On Christmas Day the family would go to lunch in Chinatown.
Gilbert never craved a Christmas tree, gingerbread house, or stockings hung by the chimney with care. He never desired to sing carols or receive more than his one, token Hanukkah gift.
The one thing Gilbert did want and in fact could not get enough of was Christmas stories. His first taste of them was the televised, stop motion animation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Gilbert sat glued to the television for the entire half hour. Gilbert, a normally well-behaved child, cried when his mother told him it would be another year before they aired Rudolph again.
The next week he discovered Frosty the Snowman. When Gilbert was told that it too would not be shown for another year again there was a wail. By the time he saw The Grinch That Stole Christmas his mother lied and said it would re-air in a month. She assumed that in a month’s time Gilbert would forget about it and indeed about his strange obsession with Christmas stories in general. But a month later Gilbert parked himself in front of the television and proceeded to throw a temper tantrum when his mother said that, in fact, the Grinch would not be on until the following Christmas season.
The next year Gilbert came across A Miracle on 34th Street. He watched it the weekend after Thanksgiving and then called the local TV station over and over again until they would tell him when it would be on again. By the time Christmas came around that year he had seen it six times.
The next year he discovered A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, and A Christmas Story. Then, for Hanukkah in his freshman year of high school his mother gave Gilbert a gift that he would, for years to come, describe as the best he had ever received: his own VHS copy of It’s A Wonderful Life.
“You turd, Gilbert,” Samuel said once when he discovered Gilbert watching White Christmas for the second time in a random week in July, “We don’t even celebrate Christmas.”
Gilbert never bothered to explain himself in moments such as these. He knew his family both did not and would not understand. Had he been forced to, though, he would have said it was because of the magic of Christmas.
Unlike other kinds of stories, where characters have to overcome various obstacles, fight battles between good and evil, or go on journeys forcing them to face their deepest fears before making their way back home, in Christmas stories a larger force is at work. Yes characters have to jump through hoops to get from point A to point B, but in the end any great Christmas story comes down to the universe’s mystical ability to resolve all problems in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The maxim had proven true in Gilbert’s real life as well. Ever since that first viewing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, any angst he might have been feeling had, magically, dissipated in the Christmas season. In this time of year Gilbert could watch Christ-mas movies at will without threat of recrimination by family members. But really, Gilbert believed, it was because of the magic of Christmas.
So it came to pass that as Gilbert Marvel made his way through high school and college and then out into the working world he fostered one life goal: to write the next great American Christmas movie.
He wrote Behold! when he was twenty-two. It was the year after he graduated from City College. He was still living with his parents and working at the newsstand.
But great art does not always meet with great support. Gilbert had trouble finding a producer to buy his script. There was one main problem, which was that he didn’t actually know any Hollywood producers. Nor any people working in the film industry, for that matter. He signed up for a seminar at the Learning Annex called “How to Make Your Screenplay A Blockbuster.”
When he pitched Behold! to the freelance TV producer running the seminar, however, the producer was less than excited.
“It’s a little commercial, don’t you think?” she said.
“What do you mean?” Gilbert asked.
“The message. The parents get back together because of the expensive gifts?”
“No they get back together because of the magic of Christmas.”
“As translated through expensive gifts.”
Gilbert said nothing.
“I’d work on that angle if I were you.”
Gilbert left early.
A month later Gilbert’s parents told him it was high time he get a real job and his own apartment.
“Stop with this meshugenah screenwriting, Gilbert,” his mother said, “Go to law school.”
“As a matter of fact I have a job lined up, mother,” he said, “In the film industry.”
She eyed him skeptically.
“What kind of job, Gilbert?”
A week later Gilbert began working behind the counter at Kim’s Video in the West Village. He manned the Miscellaneous counter where, along with Christmas movies, one could find cartoon features, nature specials, and international soft-core porn, the latter of which was kept in unmarked boxes and had to be asked for by name.
His co-worker Ritchie, a punk rocker who specialized in foreign film, enjoyed ribbing Gilbert about his lack of diversity in cinematic expertise.
“You need to branch out, G. Learn about flicks other than Christmas,” he said.
Gilbert waved him off, shook his head, and went back to dusting off the covers of the Christmas movie boxes. In the eleven-month off-season they were not exactly in high demand.
Gilbert moved out of his parents’ apartment and into a small studio on the lower east side. He furnished it with a mattress, milk crates, and a forty-inch TV.
A few months after moving into this apartment and several more fruitless attempts to find a buyer for Behold! later, Gilbert came up with the idea for his second Christmas screenplay.
As much as he had found her to be a self-important ignoramus, Gilbert had the words of the woman from the Learning Annex seminar in mind when he got down to work: Message.
Noel was about a single mother of two who works as a waitress and has an addiction to online gambling. When the movie opens, her addiction has gotten so bad that she starts missing mortgage payments. When a wealthy patron begins to frequent the diner where she works, she decides to get him to fall for her using the oldest trick in the book: jealousy. A male friend of hers comes into the diner and pretends to be her boyfriend. Her plan succeeds on Christmas Eve Day, when, after she engineers a fight with her faux boyfriend, the wealthy patron tells her he is in love with her. He pays off her mortgage and they get married in Vegas.
Ritchie said nothing after he read the script.
Gilbert sat and waited proudly. He could almost hear Ritchie saying the words he knew would one day come his way, “The best Christmas story ever told.”
“Hmm,” is what Ritchie said.
“Hmmm?” Gilbert repeated.
“Well,” Ritchie began, “I mean, dude, I totally dig that you finished a screenplay. That’s rad.”
“Two, actually. I’ve written two,” Gilbert said.
“Yeah. That’s awesome.”
“Can I be honest?”
“Yes,” Gilbert said.
Ritchie paused for a moment.
“Your main character is a sleaze. She’s got two kids and spends all her time in online gambling rooms. Then she spots this dude and, like, entraps him so he’ll bail her out. She’s a ho, man.”
“She’s a modern protagonist,” Gilbert said.
“Maybe, but, I dunno, I wasn’t feeling the love.”
“Perhaps what you’re not feeling is the Christmas spirit.”
Gilbert sent copies of Noel to all the production companies he could find in Kim’s back catalogues. Two weeks later his manager marched Gilbert into the back office and informed him that these companies were in fact only responsible for the production of video and had nothing to do with screenplays for original features. Furthermore, the manager added, it was inappropriate for Gilbert to be sending his “drek” to them.
Ritchie guided Gilbert to the local Barnes and Noble, where they spent an hour poring over books on selling screenplays. In the next week Gilbert sent copies of Behold! and Noel to thirty of the agents he and Ritchie found in the books.
Over the course of the next year, as he waited to hear back from them, Gilbert came up with another idea for a Christmas screenplay. Faith was about the year Santa decided to become a Scientologist but, at the last minute, renounced his newfound faith due to Mrs. Claus’ long-time struggle with manic depression and Santa’s realization that Prozac has, in fact, saved his marriage.
Ritchie never got back to him with his feedback on Faith.
Joy came the next year. In it, a rich but lonely man meets a hooker with a heart of gold a week before Christmas. She will not, however, give him her phone number. He bribes her pimp with Christmas presents for the pimp’s entire family. The pimp gives the rich man the number. The rich man finds her on Christmas Eve, they fall in love, and live happily ever after.
For Christmas that year Ritchie gave Gilbert a book on the art of creating drama.
By the time he was thirty-four Gilbert had been out of college for twelve years. He had been working at Kim’s for ten of them and had completed seven and a half Christmas screenplays.
Ritchie’s band had been signed and dropped from two labels. Two years prior Ritchie had knocked up his girlfriend Katya. Gilbert was the witness when they married at City Hall.
One year prior Gilbert’s father had taken ill with prostate cancer. In order to care for him Gilbert’s mother sold the newsstand to a family of Pakistani immigrants. Samuel had graduated from Hunter, gotten a degree in education, and become a high school Biology teacher in Brooklyn.
It was in the year that Gilbert’s father’s treatments stopped working, Samuel got tenure, Ritchie’s daughter took her first step, and Gilbert’s eighth Christmas screenplay was mailed back to him, unopened, by fifteen agents, that Gilbert fell in love.
Jillie Sloane was an actress. She moved to New York from Iowa City, Iowa, where her father was a professor of Sociology at the university and her mother taught kindergarten. Jillie was the biggest star of the stage her high school had ever seen. She snagged the lead in all but one of the productions she auditioned for at the University of Iowa.
Jillie moved into the studio apartment below Gilbert’s a month before his thirty-fifth birthday. As a New York City resident Gilbert saw beautiful women all the time but Jillie’s proximity made her different. She was of medium height and perfect build: not an ounce overweight but not too skinny either. She had thick, blond hair that just reached her shoulder blades. Her eyes were large and blue. It took Gilbert a month to realize that one was larger than the other. They spoke for the first time in the laundry room of the apartment building three days after Gilbert first spotted her.
Within weeks of Jillie’s moving in, Gilbert took to huddling by the window of his apartment on the days Jillie went grocery shopping. Then, when he saw her coming, he would bop down the stairs of the walk-up and help her carry her bags to her apartment. After a few months of him helping her Jillie began inviting Gilbert inside for dinner afterwards. The meals would usually consist of a can of Chef Boyardee, sliced tomatoes, a couple of beers and maybe some ice cream, but Gilbert would tell Ritchie the day after that Jillie was the best cook he had ever known.
“Ask her out, man,” Ritchie said after the first time Gilbert told him about one of the dinners, “Take the girl on a real date.”
Gilbert shook his head no.
“I couldn’t pollute our relationship with such antiquated rituals,” he said.
Jillie quickly discovered that being a star in Iowa City did not hold much water in the shark-infested sea of New York City. In her first year she got three callbacks for commercials and one for a play. One of the commercials called her back a second time. In the waiting room outside the casting director’s office she spied a blond of medium height who could have been her twin sister. Six months later, while channel surfing, Jillie saw the blonde in the commercial for which they had both auditioned.
An agent Jillie got a meeting with told Jillie the problem was that she, Jillie, was too All-American looking.
“These days directors want exotic, multi-ethnic. I get a call a day for Eurasians. But Marcia Brady? Not so much.”
That night over dinner Jillie downed a fifth of Scotch. Gilbert carried her to her bed and cleaned up the kitchen. He then went back down to his apartment and changed the physical description of every woman in his current Christmas screenplay to blond and blue-eyed. This way, Gilbert thought, Jillie and I will get our big breaks at the exact same time.
Over the course of the next year Gilbert completed his ninth Christmas screenplay and Jillie continued to chase her dream of being an actress. Week after week she trudged off to auditions. Week after week she swallowed rejection. Gilbert came to recognize how her day had gone by the pace with which she approached the apartment building after work.
Quickly meant she had an audition the next day or had just read about a casting call where the directors were looking for All-American blondes. Slowly meant she had not gotten the call she had been hoping to get that day or had gotten it and the answer had been no. Gilbert noticed, after Jillie had been in the city for about a year and a half, that it was the latter more than the former he observed as she made her way home.
He also noticed an increase in her drinking on the nights they got together for dinner. What had once been a beer or two became large glasses of Scotch, followed at times by a half six pack as Gilbert and Jillie sat and watched old movies and she lamented the heyday of actresses who look like Doris Day and Donna Reed.
From time to time Jillie brought men home. Most of the time, from what Gilbert could overhear in the conversations they had while walking up to the building, they were men she had waited on at the restaurant, or fellow actors who had picked her up at auditions. Gilbert didn’t sleep a wink the nights these fellows slept over. He would pour his own glass of Scotch and then drown out the noise from below with Christmas movies played at high volumes.
Ritchie happened to be over on one of these nights. He observed Gilbert spy Jillie from the window, eavesdrop on her conversation, pop in It’s a Wonderful Life, and turn the volume up to nine.
“This is wack, G.”
“Shut up, Ritchie.”
“I’m serious, dude. You need to make a move on this chick. Tell her how you feel.”
Gilbert looked at Ritchie but said nothing.
Things never went anywhere with any of the men Jillie brought home. They might make one or two more appearances but never more than that. Gilbert knew this was because, secretly, Jillie was every bit as in love with him as he was with her. She might be using these other men for quick, carnal satisfaction but, ultimately, Gilbert was her soul mate, her one and only love.
A few weeks after the night Ritchie watched him listen in on her and another man, Jillie got particularly drunk over the pizza she shared with Gilbert. That day no less than three casting directors had told her she was not right for their projects.
As Gilbert carried her to her bed, Jillie put her hand on his arm.
“Gilbert,” she said.
Her hand lingered there. Gilbert felt a tickle run up his spine. It moved down to his kneecaps, which, all of a sudden, felt numb.
Then she passed out.
Gilbert found himself in his apartment about ten minutes later. He could not remember how he had gotten there.
Gilbert turned thirty-six a week shy of Thanksgiving. A week later came Black Friday, the official start of the Christmas season and, traditionally, Gilbert’s favorite day of the year. In honor of it he wrote the last scene of his tenth Christmas screenplay. He then spent three weeks refining it. It was called Mitzvahs for Christmas and was about a streak of good luck that befalls a rabbi during the Christmas season.
“But G,” Ritchie said, “Rabbis don’t believe in Christmas.”
“Perhaps not,” Gilbert said, “But they can still benefit from the magic of it.”
The next day Gilbert did not see Jillie head off to work at her normal hour. He went down to her apartment a little while later and knocked on the door. After ten minutes he was turning to go upstairs when the door opened a crack. On the other side of it Gilbert could see Jillie in sweatpants and a T-shirt. Her hair hung from her head in stringy heaps.
“Not going to work today?” Gilbert said.
Jillie shook her head.
“I’m tired, Gilbert,” she said, “I couldn’t fall asleep last night.”
The word “Okay” was only halfway out of Gilbert’s mouth when Jillie shut the door.
That day Gilbert came home from work with a chicken breast, carrots, and bouillon cubes. He got down to the business of making chicken stew as soon as he walked in the door. It was one of the few things his mother made with frequency when he was a child. He knew the recipe by heart.
He brought a pot down to Jillie’s at dinnertime. But after knocking on the door for five minutes and then waiting another five there was still no answer. Finally Gilbert left the pot by the door along with a note in the crack that read “Jillie, open the door for dinner.”
The next morning when Gilbert rolled over he saw that the large hand of his clock was on the seven. His alarm was not set to go off before eight.
That was when he heard sirens outside. They had been what woke him a minute ago. They’re close, he thought. He went to the window, looked out, and saw an ambulance.
His first thought was of Mrs. Myers. She was an octogenarian widow who lived on the top floor of his building. She still got around but Gilbert nonetheless helped her with packages and groceries whenever he could.
The paramedics were carrying a stretcher out the front door of the building. Gilbert strained. He pushed his curtain back. And then he saw it: a spill of blond hair over one side of the stretcher.
In under a minute he was out the front door of the building. The paramedics were closing the back door of the ambulance when he reached it.
“What happened?” Gilbert said.
“We have to go,” the driver said. He walked to the front of the ambulance.
“What happened to Jillie!?” Gilbert said.
The driver started to close the door but something in Gilbert’s voice made him, without breaking his movement, turn and look Gilbert in the eye.
“Sleeping pills and Scotch. She’ll be at St. Vincent’s.”
Jillie had called 911 before passing out but hadn’t remained conscious long enough to speak.
“When that happens, it’s often an OD,” the nurse told Gilbert.
In a corner of the waiting room there was a tree. It was adorned with white lights. Next to it there was a large, plastic menorah.
After getting her stomach pumped, Jillie rested in the ICU. The nurses did not want to rouse her so Gilbert went back to the apartment building to seek out her parents’ number in Iowa.
Gilbert did not know to lie and say he was a family member. However as Jillie had no other visitors, the doctor allowed him in when she woke up a little while later.
Jillie had her hands folded over her stomach. She looked at Gilbert but said nothing. He sat in the chair next to her bed.
“Thank you for the chicken soup, Gilbert,” she said, finally.
Gilbert nodded. He reached over and put his hand on the foot of the bed close to where the outline of Jillie’s legs could be seen through the blanket.
“It’s almost Christmas, Jillie,” he said.
Then Jillie spoke three words that would change Gilbert’s life forever.
“I know, Gilbert.”
At one in the morning Gilbert was asleep in a chair in the waiting room when he woke to a nurse touching his shoulder. Behind her there was a doctor. Over their shoulders Gilbert could see the Christmas tree and menorah. The doctor had a strange look on his face.
Ritchie offered to drive to Iowa City with him but Gilbert refused.
“You should be with Katya for Christmas,” Gilbert said.
The date was December the 22nd.
When they got word of her overdose, Jillie’s parents had purchased tickets for New York immediately. That day, however, a blizzard hit Iowa City that lingered for two days. All flights were grounded.
Jillie went into cardiac arrest and died an hour after Gilbert spoke with her. Her parents had her body sent to Iowa City on the first flight that could get out. Between the blizzard and the holidays, they decided to wait a week before going to New York to pack up Jillie’s apartment. The wake for Jillie would be held in Iowa City two days before Christmas. She would be buried on Christmas Eve day.
Before he set out on his drive, Gilbert got the superintendent, Mr. Hernandez, to let him into Jillie’s apartment. Once inside he went to the nightstand, opened it, and took out a medium-sized notebook with a blue sky and clouds on the cover.
Gilbert arrived in Iowa City at midday on the 23rd. The wake was just beginning.
The crowd at the wake consisted of Jillie’s family and about ten friends from high school and college. Gilbert was the only friend from New York.
Jillie’s mother grasped Gilbert’s hand in hers when he expressed his condolences.
“It was so kind of you to come here all the way from New York,” she said.
Gilbert nodded. There were things, many of them, on the tip of his tongue. But nothing came out.
For the rest of the wake he sat quietly in a corner and listened to Jillie’s theater friends from college tell stories about plays they had done with Jillie. People started to depart the Sloane household at dinnertime. It was then that Gilbert realized he had forgotten to book a hotel in Iowa City.
Jillie’s mother noticed him lingering near the door of the house after most of the guests had left. He was waiting for an opportune moment to ask for the name of a hotel nearby.
“Do you have somewhere to stay tonight, Gilbert?” she asked.
“Actually,” Gilbert said, “I forgot to book a hotel. I was going to ask you for a recommendation.”
“Stay here tonight,” she said.
“I couldn’t impose on you,” Gilbert said, “I’m sure I can find a room somewhere.”
“No, really, Gilbert,” Jillie’s mom said, “You came all the way from New York. It would be no trouble.”
That night, Gilbert sat in bed and stared at the ceiling. Despite the travel and late hour, he was not tired. He thought of the conversation he had with Ritchie over breakfast before he left for Iowa City.
“How could she have done it at Christmastime?” Gilbert had asked.
Ritchie shook his head.
“Are you serious, Gilbert?”
“Dude, people get down this time of year. There are more suicides between Thanksgiving and Christmas than any other month.”
“Well that’s what the media claims,” Gilbert said, “But it doesn’t exactly make sense.”
“Doesn’t make sense!? It’s a time of year when you’re forced to spend money and time with your family. If you’re having issues with either one, and who the hell isn’t, you feel like a loser.”
“But the movies—” Gilbert began.
“The movies!? They make it worse. Everything ends up perfectly in every single one of those movies. That’s not the way real life goes.”
Ritchie shook his head and motioned towards the bag at Gilbert’s side. It was packed so Gilbert could head west to Jillie’s funeral.
“This is, man,” Ritchie said.
Gilbert got out of bed and went over to his suitcase. He fished out the blue notebook with the clouds.
Downstairs, Jillie’s father was seated at the kitchen table.
“Couldn’t sleep either?” he said as Gilbert sat down with him.
Gilbert shook his head.
“Milk?” Jillie’s father asked.
Gilbert nodded. As Jillie’s father got up and poured two glasses Gilbert took the notebook out and placed it on the table in front of him.
“What’s that?” her father said as he sat back down.
“It was Jillie’s.”
Jillie’s mother entered the kitchen.
“I guess no one’s getting much rest tonight,” she said.
She sat down and took a sip out of Jillie’s father’s milk glass.
“Gilbert was just telling us about this notebook,” Jillie’s father said.
Gilbert took the notebook in his hands.
“About a year after she moved to the city Jillie and I had dinner one night. She started to cry halfway through. She was upset about the latest audition that hadn’t worked out. The next day I got this notebook for her.”
Gilbert opened the first page of the notebook. In the top right-hand corner there was a cutout picture of Santa Claus pasted in. Next to it was a few lines of Jillie’s handwriting.
Gilbert flipped through the book. Every page had a different Santa pasted into one corner along with Jillie’s handwriting.
“I put these Santas in before I gave it to her,” Gilbert continued, “I told her to pretend that every day was Christmas. Because, really, why couldn’t it be? Putting everything else aside, it is just another day on the calendar, right? I told Jillie that when she was feeling down she should open the journal and write something she wanted for Christmas.”
“She thanked me but she said she didn’t think writing that she wanted to be Julia Roberts would make it happen. I told her you never know.”
Gilbert paused to take a sip of milk.
“A couple of months later I was at her place having dinner and she took the notebook out. I’d been wondering, ever since I gave it to her, if she was writing in it. She told me that the first few times she’d written that she wanted whatever role it was she was auditioning for that week. Then, when she hadn’t gotten them, she’d thrown the notebook into the drawer and not looked at it again for a bit.
“But recently she’d started writing down other kinds of wishes. Small ones, like that the coffee shop on the corner would have chocolate croissants the day she went in. That she’d get a seat on the train to work. That the customer with the purple fedora who gives huge tips would sit in her section for lunch the next day. And some of those wishes came true.
“After that night I’d ask her about the journal from time to time. Sometimes she would wave me off but other times she would say yeah, she was writing in it.”
Gilbert pushed the notebook across the table.
“I thought maybe you’d like to see it.”
Jillie’s mother put a hand on her husband’s knee and then opened the journal with her other hand.
“I wish there are no more than ten other blondes at the audition tomorrow,” she read. She smiled and turned to the next page.
“I wish the Chinese delivery man doesn’t make me walk down all five flights of steps when he comes in ten minutes.”
The forecast had not called for snow. But a couple of hours later, as the first light of Christmas Eve Day filtered into the room, a light shower began outside. Jillie’s parents and Gilbert were still sitting at the table.
Jillie’s mom was on one of the last pages of the book.
“I wish—” she began, and then she stopped. She looked at Gilbert.
“This one’s about you.”
“Go ahead,” Gilbert said.
“I wish Gilbert—” she hesitated and looked at him again.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“I wish Gilbert would stop writing Christmas screenplays. I wish he’d stop creating characters that are never as good as he is. Gilbert’s my hero. I wish he knew that.”
The last entry in Jillie’s journal was written a week before she died. In it she wished that the Christmas season would go by as quickly as possible.
The gravediggers were able to clear the snow with one scoop of the shovel before creating a space for Jillie’s casket. As it turned out the shower had only lasted an hour.
The graveyard was a half hour east of Jillie’s parents’ house. Gilbert decided to begin his drive home as soon as the burial was over.
Jillie’s parents walked him to his car.
“You’re sure you don’t want to stay another night, Gilbert?” Jillie’s mom asked.
“I really should be going,” Gilbert said.
The three of them stood at the door to his car.
“I’m sorry,” Gilbert said.
For the first time since everything had happened, Gilbert began to cry.
Gilbert didn’t finish.
Jillie’s mom reached over and hugged him.
“You did, Gilbert,” she said.
By the time Gilbert reached Pittsburgh exhaustion from the drive and his lack of sleep the night before caught up to him. On the outskirts of town he pulled into the driveway of a one-story building.
Inside a middle-aged black woman sat at a desk. She was going through a file of papers.
“Excuse me,” Gilbert said, “Would you happen to know where the closest hotel is?”
“Five miles down the road on the right,” she said, “but if you help us with dinner, you can stay here for the night.”
“What is the place?”
“It’s a homeless shelter, sweetie.”
“It’d be a room in the volunteer ward. I know you’re not homeless.”
“You really want to be alone on Christmas?”
Dinner was baked ham, spinach casserole, rolls, and macaroni salad courtesy of a local restaurant. For dessert there was a large upside down cake.
Gilbert saw homeless people all the time in New York City but there was something different about this group on this night. He was curious about them. He wanted them to feel safe, tonight.
He filled a plate up with food when he was done serving. On one side of the dining room there was a table of volunteers but rather than sit with them Gilbert sat amongst the homeless. He waited for them to start talking to him. But once they did he engaged.
Later on he helped the other volunteers with the dishes. The head volunteer, a man named Charlie, approached him.
“You had a nice touch with the folks,” he said.
“Thank you,” Gilbert said. He dried a large bowl.
“We have an opening for a fulltime staff member,” Charlie said, “I know you’re from out of town and all, but I thought I’d put it out there, seeing how well you did tonight.”
On Christmas morning Gilbert walked out to the rental car. He turned and took a long look at the shelter. It was much colder in Pittsburgh than in New York. There would be colder days ahead in the long Pittsburgh winter.
Yet later that day Gilbert would call the rental car company and tell them he would be returning the car in Pittsburgh rather than in New York. In a week’s time he would book a flight back to New York and, with Ritchie’s help, pack up his apartment. He would have dinner with Jillie’s parents after helping them go through her things. He would spend a day with his mother and Samuel. Then he would go into his life savings, buy a second-hand car, and drive it back to Pittsburgh. Once there he would get a private room at the shelter. He would spend his mornings helping in the kitchen and his afternoons serving meals.
In a little under a year’s time, when the shelter director moved on to work at a local home for battered women Gilbert would take over his position. A month after that he would meet a woman named Carolyn while, of all things, buying a Christmas tree for the shelter. Carolyn, a grade school teacher, half-Jewish, and obsessed with Humphrey Bogart movies, would later move in with Gilbert in the apartment he had begun to rent a few miles from the shelter. Gilbert would begin to write short stories based on the lives of people he met at the shelter. One would be published in a literary magazine put out by Carnegie Mellon. Carolyn would frame the first page of it and put it over their living room mantel.
On that Christmas Day the year Jillie died, though, Gilbert did not know what lay ahead. All he knew was that it was Christmas and he had no desire to see a Christmas movie. He wanted to see Jillie. But in the cold, early morning light, she was the only thing he could not see.