Home > Skipping Christmas(2)

Skipping Christmas(2)
Author: John Grisham

A stock boy was working hard on a display of Christmas chocolates. A sign by the butcher demanded that all good customers order their Christmas turkeys immediately. New Christmas wines were in! And Christmas hams!

What a waste, Luther thought to himself. Why do we eat so much and drink so much in the celebration of the birth of Christ? He found the pistachios near the bread. Odd how that made sense at Chip's. The white chocolate was nowhere near the baking section, so Luther cursed under his breath and trudged along the aisles, looking at everything. He got bumped by a shopping cart. No apology, no one noticed. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was coming from above, as if Luther was supposed to be comforted. Might as well be "Frosty the Snowman."

Two aisles over, next to a selection of rice from around the world, there was a shelf of baking chocolates. As he stepped closer, he recognized a one-pound bar of Logan's. Another step closer and it suddenly disappeared, snatched from his grasp by a harsh-looking woman who never saw him. The little space reserved for Logan's was empty, and in the next desperate moment Luther saw not another speck of white chocolate. Lots of dark and medium chips and such, but nothing white.

The express line was, of course, slower than the other two. Chip's outrageous prices forced its customers to buy in small quantities, but this had no effect whatsoever on the speed with which they came and went. Each item was lifted, inspected, and manually entered into the register by an unpleasant cashier. Sacking was hit or miss, though around Christmas the sackers came to life with smiles and enthusiasm and astounding recall of customers' names. It was the tipping season, yet another unseemly aspect of Christmas that Luther loathed.

Six bucks and change for a pound of pistachios. He shoved the eager young sacker away, and for a second thought he might have to strike him to keep his precious pistachios out of another bag. He stuffed them into the pocket of his overcoat and quickly left the store.

A crowd had stopped to watch the old Mexican decorate his cigar store window. He was plugging in little robots who trudged through the fake snow, and this delighted the crowd no end, Luther was forced to move off the curb, and in doing so he stepped just left instead of just right. His left foot sank into five inches of cold slush. He froze for a split second, sucking in lungfuls of cold air, cursing the old Mexican and his robots and his fans and the damned pistachios. He yanked his foot upward and slung dirty water on his pants leg, and standing at the curb, with two frozen feet and the bell clanging away and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" blaring from the loudspeaker and the sidewalk blocked by revelers, Luther began to hate Christmas.

The water had seeped into his toes by the time he reached his car. "No white chocolate," he hissed at Nora as he crawled behind the wheel.

She was wiping her eyes.

"What is it now?" he demanded.

"I just talked to Blair."

"What? How? Is she all right?"

"She called from the airplane. She's fine." Nora was biting her lip, trying to recover.

Exactly how much does it cost to phone home from thirty thousand feet? Luther wondered. He'd seen phones on planes. Any credit card'll do. Blair had one he'd given her, the type where the bills are sent to Mom and Dad. From a cell phone up there to a cell phone down here, probably at least ten bucks.

And for what? I'm fine, Mom. Haven't seen you in almost an hour. We all love each other. We'll all miss each other. Gotta go, Mom.

The engine was running though Luther didn't remember starting it.

"You forgot the white chocolate?" Nora asked, fully recovered.

"No. I didn't forget it. They didn't have any."

"Did you ask Rex?"

"Who's Rex?"

"The butcher."

"No, Nora, for some reason I didn't think to ask the butcher if he had any white chocolate hidden among his chops and livers."

She yanked the door handle with all the frustration she could muster. "I have to have it. Thanks for nothing." And she was gone.

I hope you step in frozen water, Luther grumbled to himself. He fumed and muttered other unpleasantries. He switched the heater vents to the floorboard to thaw his feet, then watched the large people come and go at the burger place. Traffic was stalled on the streets beyond.

How nice it would be to avoid Christmas, he began to think. A snap of the fingers and it's January 2. No tree, no shopping, no meaningless gifts, no tipping, no clutter and wrappings, no traffic and crowds, no fruitcakes, no liquor and hams that no one needed, no "Rudolph" and "Frosty," no office party, no wasted money. His list grew long. He huddled over the wheel, smiling now, waiting for heat down below, dreaming pleasantly of escape.

She was back, with a small brown sack which she tossed beside him just carefully enough not to crack the chocolate while letting him know that she'd found it and he hadn't. "Everybody knows you have to ask," she said sharply as she yanked at her shoulder harness.

"Odd way of marketing," Luther mused, in reverse now. "Hide it by the butcher, make it scarce, folks'll clamor for it. I'm sure they charge more if it's hidden."

"Oh hush, Luther"

"Are your feet wet?"

"No. Yours?"

"No."

"Then why'd you ask?"

"Just worried."

"Do you think she'll be all right?"

"She's on an airplane. You just talked to her."

"I mean down there, in the jungle."

"Stop worrying, okay? The Peace Corps wouldn't send her into a dangerous place."

"It won't be the same."

"What?"

"Christmas."

It certainly will not, Luther almost said. Oddly, he was smiling as he worked his way through traffic.

Chapter Two

With his feet toasty and besocked with heavy wool, Luther fell fast asleep and woke up even faster. Nora was roaming. She was in the bathroom flushing and flipping lights, then she left for the kitchen, where she fixed an herbal tea, then he heard her down the hall in Blair's room, no doubt staring at the walls and sniffling over where the years had gone. Then she was back in bed, rolling and jerking covers and trying her best to wake him. She wanted dialogue, a sounding board. She wanted Luther to assure her Blair was safe from the horrors of the Peruvian jungle.

But Luther was frozen, not flinching at any joint, breathing as heavily as possible because if the dialogue began again it would run for hours. He pretended to snore and that settled her down.

It was after eleven when she grew still. Luther was wild-eyed, and his feet were smoldering. When he was absolutely certain she was asleep, he eased from the bed, ripped off the heavy socks and tossed them into a corner, and tiptoed down the hall to the kitchen for a glass of water. Then a pot of decaf.

An hour later he was in his basement office, at his desk with files open, the computer humming, spreadsheets in the printer, an investigator searching for evidence. Luther was a tax accountant by trade, so his records were meticulous. The evidence piled up and he forgot about sleep.

A year earlier, the Luther Krank family had spent $6,100 on Christmas-$6,100!-$6,100 on decorations, lights, flowers, a new Frosty, and a Canadian spruce; $6,100 on hams, turkeys, pecans, cheese balls, and cookies no one ate; $6,100 on wines and liquors and cigars around the office; $6,100 on fruitcakes from the firemen and the rescue squad, and calendars from the police association; $6,100 on Luther for a cashmere sweater he secretly loathed and a sports jacket he'd worn twice and an ostrich skin wallet that was quite expensive and quite ugly and frankly he didn't like the feel of. On Nora for a dress she wore to the company's Christmas dinner and her own cashmere sweater, which had not been seen since she unwrapped it, and a designer scarf she loved, $6,100. On Blair $6,100 for an overcoat, gloves and boots, and a Walkman for her jogging, and, of course, the latest, slimmest cell phone on the market-$6,100 on lesser gifts for a select handful of distant relatives, most on Nora's side-$6,100 on Christmas cards from a stationer three doors down from Chip's, in the District, where all prices were double; $6,100 for the party, an annual Christmas Eve bash at the Krank home,

 

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