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A Reel Christmas in Romance by J.J. DiBenedetto (1)

Marianne Carter was fifteen feet up in the air, and she was not at all happy about it. Changing out the marquee was the thing she liked least about running the Esmerelda Theater. It even ranked below cleaning the bathrooms, especially on a frigid, windy day like today.

It didn’t help that she couldn’t wear gloves – it was too hard to hold the plastic letters with them on. She’d tried, and dropped an H and two N’s before she admitted defeat and resorted to finishing the task barehanded.

At least it was almost done; just the final “cut” in Connecticut and she could close up, climb down and get warm.

“What are you doing up there? Don’t you have employees to do that for you?” Marianne looked down to see a mass of blonde hair flapping around in the wind. It belonged to Brooke Grundy, who owned a blown-glass studio in town. One of her creations, a gorgeous green and white Christmas tree, currently adorned the box office.

“I do,” Marianne called down. “But Jake’s afraid of heights, Carly can’t spell to save her life and Jessie’s mother threatened to sue me for unsafe working conditions if I sent her up here.” Such were the perils of employing high schoolers. To be fair, they were pretty hard and – usually – conscientious workers. “Anyway, I’m nearly finished.” It only took a moment to finish the last word and add the showtimes. Now there was only one thing left – turning on the lights. She looked away – she’d forgotten to do that last week, and the bright marquee lights had just about blinded her. It was only dumb luck that she hadn’t fallen off the ladder. She felt around for the switch and flipped it.

Brooke clapped. “Very nice!” Marianne closed up the marquee and climbed down to admire her handiwork. She had to agree with Brooke. It was very nice. “But aren’t you ever going to play Elf or even A Christmas Story?”

Not at the Esmerelda Theater. “Can’t. It’s official policy, handed down from my grandfather. We don’t play any movies made after 1955.”

“Why 1955?”

Marianne gave the same answer Grandpa Mike always had; she could hear his gravelly voice in her head. “Because that’s the year Rebel Without a Cause came out. My grandfather always said, ‘when Janes Dean showed up, the whole world went to hell.’ So when he was running the place, he wouldn’t show anything made after that, and my uncle didn’t when he took over, and I’m just carrying on the tradition. Besides, there are so many great old Christmas movies.”

This week’s selection, for example, was The Shop Around the Corner every night at four and eight PM, and Christmas in Connecticut at six and ten. Marianne had even gone so far as to imitate the look of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, including a faux-fur coat just like the one Stanwyck had worn in the film. Last year, she’d copied Maureen O’Hara from Miracle on 34th Street, which had been a nightmare. Dyeing her hair red was an experience Marianne swore she’d never repeat.

“I guess that makes sense,” Brooke said, although she didn’t seem very sure about it.

The rule wasn’t completely inflexible; Marianne broke it every time a new Star Wars movie came out, and there were other, rare exceptions. But never for the Christmas schedule. “Come for yourself and you’ll see I’m right. I’m sure you’re busy at your studio, but you must have one night free. And you can bring your husband, too. I’ll leave tickets for you at the box office. Which reminds me…” She held up a finger to Brooke before disappearing momentarily into the theater.

Marianne returned with a stack of fliers. “Maybe you could put a couple of these up in your shop? It never hurts to remind folks, right?”

Brooke grinned and took the fliers. “Sure thing. You’re advertising for me, it’s only fair.” It was true; Marianne had put up a little sign describing Brooke’s artwork in the box office, along with a hand-drawn map from the theater to her studio.

“Thanks! And remember, you’ve got an open invitation. Come any night.” She said her goodbyes to Brooke and headed back into the warmth of the theater, then up the stairs and to her tiny office behind the balcony.

There was barely any room to move; Marianne had to contort herself nearly into a pretzel to fit herself in her desk chair. Someday she’d figure out where to store all the junk that was cluttering up the office so she could have a little space to breathe, but she wasn’t sure when that day would come. Whenever she thought she might have more than an hour of free time, something seemed to crop up. On the other hand, though, being too busy was probably better than the alternative.

She went through her email. There was a message from Lucas Chase, owner of Romance Heating and Plumbing, asking when she wanted to schedule the check-up for the theater’s HVAC system that she’d already cancelled and re-scheduled three times. She decided to leave that for later; no point in proposing yet another date that she’d end up having to cancel because someone wanted to book the theater for a private party she didn’t have the heart to say no to.

There was the daily report from her dog-walker, Stacie Rosenthal. Asta – what else could she have named a terrier? – had eaten, drank and pooped normally, and he’d also nearly caught a squirrel. Marianne didn’t have much to say to that, besides thanking Stacie for doing such a good job.

And then there was the email she’d been hoping for, a message from someone she only knew by their email address: “ducksforever.” Clearly a graduate – or, possibly, still a student, although she thought that unlikely – of the University of Oregon.

She’d “met” her correspondent on Romantic Notions, the town’s email list. Among the messages about lost pets, household items for sale or trade, upcoming town events and so forth, his – Marianne was certain it was a he – messages had stood out. After a few weeks, she’d emailed him off-list, and now they exchanged messages almost daily. His always began by greeting her as Esme; Marianne had adopted the theater’s name for her own email address – “MoviesWithEsme.”

Dear Esme,

I have to ask, since you’ve lived in Romance a lot longer than I have: has the town always been like this? Has everyone always gone completely insane every Christmas?

Don’t get me wrong; I like Christmas as much as the next person. Unless that next person happens to be a citizen of Romance, because this town takes the holiday to a whole new level.

There are more Christmas lights per square foot than I’ve ever seen anywhere else; on a cloudless night you can probably see them from orbit. I haven’t heard a single song that’s not holiday-related in three weeks. And your own theater has joined in; it’s all Christmas movies from now through the New Year.

I shudder to think what happens here for Valentine’s Day. Which is a holiday that, again, I like as much as the next person. What’s more, I like it even though I haven’t had anyone to share the holiday with for the last couple of years.

Please tell me that, even if you do join into the madness of Valentine’s Day, you do it with some measure of restraint and decorum. And by that I mean, please tell me that you will not be showing An Affair to Remember, (any version!), because it is the most overly-sentimental and absurd story ever told. If you do, I may have to organize a boycott of your theater.

Just kidding. But I will be disappointed in your lack of taste.

Anyway, that’s it. I’m just looking for any sign of sanity, and I hope you can provide it.

Yours truly,

The Duck-man

Marianne could not honestly provide her correspondent with the sign he desired; the Valentine’s Day schedule was already put together, and while it did not include An Affair to Remember. it was filled with nothing but romance day and night for two weeks straight.

She wrote back, and signed it, as she always did, “Esme.” She couldn’t say why she didn’t sign her real name. It was silly, really. There wasn’t any good reason not to, except that, as long as he wasn’t signing his own name, it felt wrong somehow to sign hers. She supposed it kept them on an equal footing. She had no idea who he really was, or what he did. And, being new to the town, he might well not know that she wasn’t just an employee of the theater, but the owner.

Marianne wondered what story she and her mysterious email friend were playing out right now. Unsurprisingly, she tended to view the relationships and events in her life in terms of movies, assigning appropriate roles to all the people around her. Most of her friends and family laughed it off, but she’d lost more than one boyfriend as a result.

Her situation now was nothing like The Shop Around the Corner, which was the only movie that came to mind at the moment. Yes, it was true, there was a pen-pal relationship in that movie, and neither of the participants knew the other’s name for most of the story, but any resemblance to her real life ended there. The Duck-Man was obviously not one of her employees, nor could he work for one of her competitors, because she didn’t have any.

No, it was nothing like that movie. It was just a fun little distraction, nothing more. And it was one that she needed to set aside. She had actual work to do. The theater’s checkbook wasn’t going to balance itself, after all.

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