Winter Street


by Elin Hilderbrand

DECEMBER 23

KELLEY

He thinks nothing of walking into room 10 without knocking. The door is unlocked, and George hasn’t checked in yet, anyway. George is due on the eleven-thirty ferry with his 1931 Model A fire engine, a bespoke Santa Claus vehicle, but he was delayed because of snow in the western part of the state. George has gamely brought the fire engine over and donned the red suit every December for the past twelve years. George weighs in at 305 pounds, give or take the five, and is the jolly owner of a full head of white hair and a white goatee (new since his divorce; before, it was a full beard). Kelley wants George to arrive so that Mitzi will relax. According to Mitzi, no one can possibly replace George, and nothing ruins Christmas like an absent Santa.

When Kelley swings open the door to room 10, he realizes he’s intruding. There are two people in the room, kissing. Kelley’s first instinct—the instinct of everyone he knows when walking in on something private—is to blurt out “Sorry!” and slam the door shut. (He has a quick, unfortunate vision of his aunt Cissy on the toilet during his grandfather’s wake.) But what he just caught the shortest glimpse of, the length of one frame of film, was nothing like his aunt Cissy on the john. It was two people in full, passionate lip lock—“necking,” they used to call it in high school. The click of the door instantly reveals the identity of those people.

It’s George, their Santa Claus, and Mitzi, Kelley’s wife.

Kelley flings the door back open, fast enough that George and Mitzi have yet to fully disengage. George still has his hands on Mitzi’s hips, and Mitzi’s hands are buried in George’s white hair.

“What…?” Kelley says. He’s not sure what to think. He has been in crisis for weeks. First of all, it’s December, a month he used to own on Nantucket. He had a full inn through Thanksgiving and Christmas Stroll, but he hasn’t had a paying guest since the tenth of December. Normally, he has a waiting list during the week of Christmas (just like the original Christmas: no room at the inn). The Drellwiches and the Kasperzacks used to come to see their grandchildren, the Elmers came to escape their grandchildren, and the other four rooms were taken by young couples who found Nantucket a charming place to spend the holiday—and then, of course, there was always George. But this year, nobody. This year, the neon sign in Kelley’s mind flashes: VACANCY, VACANCY! It’s his least favorite word in the English language, especially since his finances are in such precarious shape. Kelley has kept the inn up and running for nineteen years by supplementing the inn’s budget with the treasure trove of savings he had when he left his “real” job, trading petroleum futures in New York. That treasure trove has now dwindled to an amount in the high four figures. Lately, Kelley has fantasized about selling the inn off as a private home—it would fetch between four and five million, he guesses—and moving to Hawaii. His ex-wife, Margaret, is flying to Maui on Christmas Eve, as soon as she finishes anchoring the CBS Evening News. When she told Kelley this a few weeks ago, he felt a category 5 pang of jealousy. He thought, Please take me with you.

But the deeper reason Kelley has been addled is because his youngest son, Bart—who had been stationed in Vilseck, Germany, for two months, where it was all “pretzels and blondes”—was deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan, on December 19. He sent Kelley and Mitzi a text that said, Made it in country. Love you. And that was the last they heard. The texts that Kelley and Mitzi tried to send back were “undeliverable.” Kelley’s e-mails go through, but they remain unanswered. Kelley imagines his words whipping across sandy, inhospitable terrain.

Bart is the only child Kelley fathered with Mitzi, and he has been raised as a bit of a golden boy—favored, pampered, spoiled—or so the other three Quinn children would claim. Kelley thought the Marines would be the best choice for Bart, but now that he’s gone, Kelley is racked with anxiety. And his anxiety is nothing compared with Mitzi’s. Mitzi has been a basket case.

Although she doesn’t appear to be worrying about Bart at the moment.

“Kelley,” she says, while tucking in her shirt. “Please.”

“Please?” he says. He’s genuinely confused.

“Give us a minute,” Mitzi says.

“Oh,” Kelley says. “Okay.” He closes the door, as if this were a reasonable request.

He hears their voices, but they are too faint for Kelley to make out a single word. The doors at the Winter Street Inn are all solid oak; when they were renovating, Kelley insisted on extra insulation in the walls. He never wanted to hear anything going on in any of the rooms. He would, however, like to hear the conversation between George and his wife right now.

At that moment, Isabelle comes bustling down the hall with a stack of fluffy white towels for room 10. They are Turkish cotton, replaced every year, one of the many reasons why Kelley is going broke.

Isabelle stops when she sees Kelley standing outside the door. She has worked at the inn for the past six months, and, although she has proven astute at reading Kelley’s moods and attitudes, apparently something about his posture now perplexes her.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” she asks.

One of the reasons Kelley and Mitzi hired Isabelle was because they both decided they wanted to try to learn French, but half a year later, this is the only phrase Kelley understands. What is it? Or, literally, What is it that it is?

There is no way to explain it in English, or French, or any other language. Kelley thinks, I saw Mitzi kissing Santa Claus, and he starts to laugh in a manic, unhinged way. Isabelle smiles uncertainly.

Kelley says, “George won’t be needing those towels.”

“Ah?” Isabelle says. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he says. “I’m sure.”

AVA

The dismissal bell rings, and chaos ensues—as bad as the last day of school, if not worse. Today, the kids are hopped up on sugar—hot chocolate, cookies, candy canes—and there is the allure of Santa Claus and presents, presents, presents! Also, there are coats to zip, and hats, scarves, and mittens to keep track of. Ava picks up two stray mittens between the auditorium and the school entrance. She drops them on the table outside the main office. Lost and found, to be dealt with “next year.”

Ava is hoarse, and her fingers ache. If she never plays “Jingle Bells” again, it will be too soon. It is, hands down, the least interesting carol ever written. Why does everyone love it so? She feels like Sisyphus with his boulder; she will have to play it at least one more time, at the annual Christmas Eve party at the inn. There will be no escaping that.

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