Robert Trujillo hunched against the bitter wind that churned through the streets and tossed the falling snow in confetti madness. He shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his worn denim jacket and wished he’d brought his muffler. He’d only walked six blocks, and his ears were frozen.
It was two days before Christmas, and he was on his way to the day labor office, hoping to pick up a job for the afternoon. Since the plant had closed six months ago, he’d floated from job to job, along with four hundred other laid-off employees. Too many workers, not enough jobs. His wife, Bonita, worked three nights a week at the local discount big box store, but her wages were barely enough to keep food on the table and pay rent.
They’d moved twice, each time to cheaper houses. Now their one-bedroom home was scarcely more than a shack. He hated that their son and daughter had to live like beggars. Leon was only four, but he was old enough to remember when he’d had his own room and new shoes when he needed them and something besides beans and rice and tortillas on the table. Luz, barely able to toddle, might forget this bad patch, if he could only find another job, a full-time job. A job he could go to and hold his head up as he did a good day’s work for a day’s pay.
But right now, he’d take any job, any pay, to bring a bit of Christmas cheer to his family.
At the labor office, he stood in line for almost an hour before the sign went up: “No more jobs.” Robert turned away, along with two dozen others who had not been lucky enough to find work. He pulled his collar higher around his ears and ducked out into the storm.
If the wind hadn’t forced his head down, he wouldn’t have seen the wallet. It lay, almost covered with snow, underneath the front bumper of a newer model car. He stooped to retrieve it and was just ready to stand up when a tiny mew caught his ear. A charcoal-colored kitten crept from under the car and looked up at him with amber eyes.
“Hola! Who are you?” he said, pocketing the wallet and reaching out for the tiny creature. “You’re supposed to be inside, not out here in all this wet.” The kitten seemed to agree with him as he lifted her and tucked her inside his jacket. Her little face peered at him, and he could feel her claws clinging to his blue sweatshirt.
A blast of snow blinded him for a moment. He bent over to protect the kitten as he jogged toward a nearby McDonald’s. The heat almost overcame him as he pushed through the door. “Shh,” he warned the kitten as he tucked her more firmly into his coat. “See the sign? No animals allowed.” He fumbled in his jeans pocket for change and ordered a small coffee. He took the drink, which had reduced his disposable income to somewhere around three dollars, to a booth in the corner and sat down.
He laid the wallet in his lap and looked at it. Leather, monogrammed. No cheap Chinese junk. He looked around, then eased it open when no one appeared to be paying attention to him. Green peeked out at him. He fingered the bills; all hundreds, all crisp, enough to pay their rent for the next year!
The kitten nosed out of his jacket. “Dios! Look at all the money,” he whispered, stroking her head with a finger. A purr answered him. He flipped through and found a driver’s license. The man’s name and face were unfamiliar to him, but the address was over in the ritzy part of town. “I keep this, our troubles are over,” he muttered. A claw dug into his chest. “Hey! I’m the one who saved you, remember? Man, there’s thousands in there.”
His chest stung as the kitten stabbed its nails into him.
“Quit! He’ll never miss it.”
Ten claws penetrated his skin.
Robert thumped the kitten’s head with his finger. “I told you to quit.” He ran his fingers over the bills, feeling the richness of the paper. “Maybe he doesn’t know how much he has here. If I kept just a couple—ouch!”
Robert jumped. The solemn face that huddled in his jacket watched him, eyes slitted.
He sighed and stroked the tiny head. “I know, I know. It ain’t mine. I ain’t gonna keep it, but can I at least look at it for a while?”
The cat purred and snuggled down against him.
Robert finished his coffee and tucked the wallet securely in his jacket. “Okay, griego. Let’s go to Snob Hill.”
The house loomed through the storm, gray and imposing, three stories of stone and stucco. The kind of house Robert could come to only if he had a landscaping business name painted on the side of his truck. If he had a truck. For a moment, he hesitated. Surely the owner of such a home could spare a few hundred dollars.
A sharp jab from needle claws spurred him forward. He rang the bell; it echoed inside the house, seemingly forever. He shivered as he waited. At last the door opened and a stern-faced woman in a navy blue dress said, “Yes?”
“ ‘Scuse me, ma’am. I got to see Mr. Hinkleman.”
“I’m afraid he’s busy right now. Come back later.” She started to close the door, but Robert put out a hand to stay her.
“I got something belongs to him.”
She held out a hand. “I’ll see that he gets it.”
“I give it only to Mr. Hinkleman,” Robert insisted, moving back a step.
The woman stared at him for a moment. “All right.” She stood aside and let him in, closing the door against the swirling snow. “Don’t move from the mat.” She tapped away on sensible heels as Robert reveled in the warmth of the great entryway. In a few minutes, he heard a man’s steps, and the wallet’s owner appeared.
“You have something for me?” Mr. Hinkleman looked doubtful.
Robert held out the wallet. Mr. Hinkleman paled as his hand went to his back pocket. “Oh, my God!” he yelped. “Where did you find it?”
“Under a car on Spruce Street.”
Mr. Hinkleman grabbed the wallet and thumbed through it, counting the money. He was too well-bred to sigh with relief but Robert saw it flood over him. “Thank you, Mr.—uh ….”
“Trujillo. Robert Trujillo.”
Mr. Hinkleman dug in his pants pocket and came up with a folded sheaf of bills. He peeled off the top one and handed it to Robert. “Thank you for returning my property, Mr. Trujillo. Have a nice Christmas.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Hinkleman opened the door, and Robert knew he was dismissed. He nodded to the man and walked out into the storm. The door closed behind him. In the fading light, he examined the bill. “Man, I hope he don’t lose no sleep over his generosity,” he mumbled as he stuffed the twenty into his jeans pocket.
Half an hour later he was nearing home. The superette on the corner was still open, and he went in. He couldn’t very well toss the kitten back into the storm, but their household didn’t have the necessaries: cat litter, cat food. He took a cart and wended his way through the aisles, choosing the cheapest bag of dry cat food and a small bag of kitty litter. Those two things took almost half of the twenty.
“Oh, what the hell! It’s Christmas.” He reached into the cooler case and took out a six-pack of Miller High Life, the cheapest beer they had. He added a gallon of milk and two packs of Twinkies for the kids to the cart. He stuffed the two dollars the clerk handed him into his jeans pocket and hefted the bags. “You’re gonna have to hold on by yourself,” he said. The kitten hooked all four feet into his sweatshirt and settled in for the ride.
Leon and Luz scrambled to meet him as he entered the house. “Papa! Papa!” Leon shouted. “What did you bring us?”
Robert laughed. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
Leon hurried to obey. Luz copied him. Robert laid the kitten in his son’s hands. “Careful now. Don’t squeeze it. It’s your Christmas present.”
Leon’s face lit up as he gazed at the scrawny cat. Luz waddled to Leon and held out her pudgy hands. “C’is’us!” she cried, mangling “Christmas” all to hell.
And so the little gray cat became Kisses.
Bonita was predictably put out. As she and Robert retired to the kitchen, leaving the kids in the living room with the cat, she hissed, “What were you thinking? We can’t even feed ourselves, and you drag home another mouth! Why didn’t you get the kids something besides junk food?”
Robert popped the pull tab on a beer and raised it toward her. “How many beans can niños eat? They need something for the joy as well as for the stomach. Did you see their faces when they saw el gato? Their hearts are fed, too.”
Bonita’s scowl softened. “And beer. What good is beer?”
He caressed the nape of her neck, loving the feel of her silky hair on his arm. “Is good for us viejos to have a little joy, too.”
She swatted at his hand, but her smile told him he was forgiven. “I’ll get the glasses.”
Robert grinned and took another beer from the pack. She brought the glasses and poured the beer. They sat down at the table. Robert raised his glass. “To a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year!”
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” Bonita said, clinking her glass against his.
As they sipped, he told her the story of the wallet. “You should have kept the money,” she said, after hearing of his reward. “A rich man like that? He’d never miss it.”
Robert looked deeply into her eyes. She dropped hers first.
“Your mama would not like you to marry a thief. We can sleep tonight, but will Mr. Hinkleman?”
Bonita covered his hand with hers. “Merry Christmas, mi amor.”
The next day the blizzard abated, leaving two feet of snow on the flat and drifts as high as a man’s head. Robert shoveled their walk and started knocking on doors, hoping to pick up pocket money. By the end of a back-breaking day of scooping snow, he’d garnered almost a hundred dollars.
The light was fading as he slogged up the steps of the stoop. He stamped his feet clean of snow and went inside. Luz and Leon snuggled on the couch, petting and laughing at a purring Kisses as Bonita slipped her company tunic over her head.
Robert kissed her and handed her his earnings. “Here, honey. Get the kids some toys tonight.”
She looked at the wad of bills and gasped. “Christmas after all! I’ll get a chicken and tortillas, and some lovely fresh vegetables. We’ll have a real dinner tomorrow!”
“Don’t forget the toys.”
Bonita chewed her lip. “We could stock the cupboards—”
“Toys!” Robert touched her cheek. “Children need fun, too.”
She leaned into his touch. “Whatever I can carry on the bus. Meet me at the stop? I’m off at eleven.”
“Papa, will Santa find us?” Leon asked, his little face serious.
Robert tousled his hair. “Santa always knows where to find good children. He will find you. This I believe.” He was glad that there would be some presents, some candy, perhaps stockings for the little ones. With the big discounts the store always gave on Christmas Eve, Bonita should be able to bring his son and daughter at least some of the things they had asked Santa for when he’d taken them to the mall a few weeks ago. Too bad about the tree, but no way could they afford one, or the decorations to put on it. Even a short, scrawny spruce cost over thirty dollars.
“Now you must go to bed, or Santa will not come,” he said as he lifted Luz into the air.
“Kisses!” she cried, reaching for the gray kitten who batted at a string Leon was dragging across the floor.
“Yes, Kisses will sleep with you,” Robert assured her. “Now, off to bed!”
“Sing us a song, Papa,” Leon begged.
“Okay. But only one.”
“The ribbon song!” Leon’s eyes sparkled.
“ ’Ibbon,” Luz mimicked.
Robert tucked the children into the bed they shared and sat on the edge. His true tenor touched the words of a song he’d learned long ago, a song of magic and love and a father’s quest to fulfill his daughter’s prayer. Of a midnight search through empty streets, a futile search for scarlet ribbons. Of the miracle of finding the ribbons in the dawn, laid out on his sleeping child’s bed. By the time he’d reached the last line, his children’s eyes had closed, and he whispered the last line. “If I live to be a hundred, I will never know from where came those ribbons, lovely ribbons, scarlet ribbons for her hair.”
He stroked Kisses, who lay between the sleeping children. “Buenos noches, griego. Too bad there’s no more magic in the world.”
At eleven-fifteen, he peered into the children’s room. They were nestled together; Kisses snuggled between them on the pillow. Amber eyes stared at him. “Watch them, griego. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Robert put on his jacket and slipped out the front door into the frosty night. He locked the door and trotted off to meet Bonita’s bus, the last one of the evening. Stars hung low over the street, brilliant in the midnight-dipped sky. He breathed deeply. A bell tolled from the Catholic church a few blocks away. He wished he could detour and kneel in the incense-filled candlelight and pray for his family, himself, and all around him. But the children couldn’t be left alone too long. And Bonita was waiting.
They walked through the night, breathing mist out as they talked. Robert carried two bags filled with food. Bonita carried one, from which the head of a teddy bear peeked. “Leon needed new pants. I hope he’s not too disappointed that Santa brought him clothes,” she said with a sigh.
“He’ll love the motorcycle set,” Robert said. “He has never had three motorcycles at once. And Luz practically demanded a purple bear when she saw Santa at the mall.”
“At least they’ll have something,” Bonita replied.
As they turned up the sidewalk to their front door, Bonita stopped short. “What on earth?” Packages, bags, and bundles lay on the stoop.
Robert dropped the sacks he was carrying and vaulted over the pile. He fumbled the key into the door and burst inside. “Leon! Luz!” he shouted as he raced to the bedroom. Two heads stirred under the blankets. Kisses watched him with sleepy amber eyes. He slumped against the door jamb. “Gracias a dios,” he whispered as he turned back to the front door.
Bonita had managed to pick her way inside. She dropped her sacks on the couch and murmured, “Robert. Help me get these things into the house.”
“It’s a mistake,” he muttered as he began hauling bundles and boxes inside.
“No mistake,” Bonita said, emptying a bag and examining the tags on the wrapped presents it held. “Look. ‘Leon.’ ‘Luz.’ These are meant for us.”
They brought the rest inside and closed the door against the biting cold. As they went through the bounty, they discovered presents for themselves, too. One box held Christmas lights and ornaments. “What good are these without a tree?” Bonita wondered.
Robert opened the door and peered around. In the shadows off to the side of the stoop, he spied a fir tree, cut and nailed to a wooden stand. He dragged the tree into the house. The smell of Christmas filled the room.
“I don’t understand,” Bonita said.
“I think I do.” Robert’s lips twisted in a smile. “Mr. Hinkleman. He must have had a change of heart. Decided twenty dollars wasn’t enough reward for returning his wallet. He sent all this.”
“But how did he know where we live? And our children’s names?”
Robert scratched his head. “A rich man has ways of finding out anything. And tomorrow I will go and thank him.”
Leon’s screams woke Robert. “Papa! Santa came!” Robert rolled off the Hide-a-Bed that he and Bonita shared in the living room and grinned at his son’s awestruck expression.
“Of course, he came. Did you think he wouldn’t?”
Leon turned a serious face toward him. “I—I wasn’t sure, Papa.”
Bonita sat up and pushed the hair from her face. “Wake your sister. Then find the presents with your name on them.”
Leon scampered back to the bedroom and in a moment hustled a groggy Luz into the living room. Kisses strolled behind them. And joy reigned.
As the sun swung westward toward a hazy horizon, Robert walked briskly up the walk to Mr. Hinkleman’s house. He rang the bell and waited. He was ready to turn away when the door swung open and the woman, dressed in jeans and a sweater instead of a dress, eyed him sternly. “Yes?”
“I would like to speak to Mr. Hinkleman.”
“Impossible.” She started to close the door.
“Please! I have to thank him!”
The door swung open again. “For what?” she said.
“For the presents, the tree. For my children’s Christmas.”
The housekeeper looked at him as though she were contemplating calling the police or the asylum. “You’re mistaken.”
“No. He sent us toys, food, even a tree. My wife and I found them when she got off work last night, piled on the porch.”
The woman looked puzzled. “I can assure you that Mr. Hinkleman was not responsible for any of that.”
Robert raised his brows. “How do you know he didn’t?”
She looked him in the eye. “I carry out all of his instructions, and he did not give me any regarding you or your children. Mr. Hinkleman is not a charitable man.”
“But we have the gifts.”
“Someone else is responsible.”
Robert stiffened. The woman didn’t know everything, even though she acted like she did. “You’re wrong,” he blurted.
Her look was cold. “I will tolerate your rudeness only because you don’t know any better. Mr. Hinkleman is not your benefactor. He left for Grand Cayman Island two hours after you returned his wallet.”
Robert made his way toward home, oblivious to his surroundings until he was walking up the steps to his front door. He shut the door behind him and looked at his children, playing with their toys. Delicious smells drifted from the kitchen.
As he sat on the couch, something crackled. He rolled onto one buttock and felt around. He pulled out an envelope. An envelope with his name on it. No address. He ran a fingernail under the flap and took out the paper inside.
We are happy to say that the Pierson Tool and Die Company is reorganizing and hiring for all shifts. Please report to the main office on Tuesday, December 28th, for an interview.
“Bonita!” he cried, springing to his feet. “The factory is open again! I have to go on Tuesday for an interview.”
His wife came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “What did you say?”
“I’m going back to work!” He grabbed her and swung her off her feet, laughing like a lunático. He showed her the letter.
Tears fell as she read it. She handed it back. “I must finish cooking dinner. We have much to celebrate, mi esposo.
The events of the last couple of days overwhelmed him; he sank onto the couch. Kisses padded across the floor and leapt into his lap. The cat blinked its yellow eyes as its tiny paws kneaded his belly. He stroked the little creature and whispered. “Perhaps you brought us luck. Or perhaps….” Robert looked heavenward. “Perhaps God still hands out miracles, eh, griego?”
A contented purr was his only answer.