Chapter Eight

Luther's morning routine hadn't changed in the eighteen years he'd lived on Hemlock. Up at six, slippers and bathrobe, brew the coffee, out the garage door, down the driveway where Milton the paperboy had left the Gazette an hour earlier. Luther could count the steps from the coffeepot to the newspaper, knowing they wouldn't vary by two or three. Back inside, a cup with just a trace of cream, the Sports section, then Metro, Business, and always last, the national and international news. Halfway through the obituaries, he would take a cup of coffee, the same lavender cup every day, with two sugars, to his dear wife.

On the morning after the caroling party on his front lawn, Luther shuffled half-asleep down his drive and was about to pick up the Gazette when he saw a bright collection of colors out of the corner of his left eye. There was a sign in the center of his lawn. FREE FROSTY the damned thing proclaimed, in bold black letters. It was on white poster board, reds and greens around the borders, with a sketch of Frosty chained and shackled somewhere in a basement, no doubt the Kranks' basement. It was either a bad design by an adult with too much time to spare, or a rather good design by a kid with a mom looking over his shoulder.

Luther suddenly felt eyes watching him, lots of eyes, so he casually stuck the Gazette under his arm and strolled back into the house as if he'd seen nothing. He grumbled as he poured his coffee, cursed mildly as he took his chair. He couldn't enjoy Sports or Metro-even the obituaries couldn't hold his attention. Then he realized that Nora should not see the poster. She'd worry about it much more than he did.

With each new assault on his right to do as he pleased, Luther was more determined to ignore Christmas. He was concerned about Nora, though. He would never break, but he feared she would. If she believed the neighborhood children were now protesting, she just might collapse.

He struck quickly-slinking through the garage, cutting around the corner, high-stepping across the lawn because the grass was wet and practically frozen, yanking the poster from the ground, and tossing it into the utility room, where he'd deal with it later.

He took Nora her coffee, then settled once again at the kitchen table, where he tried in vain to concentrate on the Gazette. He was angry, though, and his feet were frozen. Luther drove to work.

He had once advocated closing the office from the middle of December until after January 1. No one works anyway, he'd argued rather brilliantly at a firm meeting. The secretaries needed to shop so they left for lunch early, returned late, then left an hour later to run errands. Simply make everyone take their vacations in December, he had said forcefully. Sort of a two-week layoff, with pay of course. Billings were down anyway, he had explained with charts and graphs to back him up. Their clients certainly weren't in their offices, so no item of business could ever be finalized until the first week of January. Wiley Beck could save a few bucks by avoiding the Christmas dinner and the office party. He had even passed out an article From The Wall Street Journal about a big firm in Seattle that had adopted such a policy, with outstanding results, or so said the Journal.

It had been a splendid presentation by Luther. The firm voted eleven to two against him, and he'd stewed for a month. Only Yank Slader'd hung in there with him.

Luther went through the motions of another morning, his mind on last night's concert by his junipers and the protest sign in his front yard. He enjoyed life on Hemlock, got on well with his neighbors, even managing to be cordial to Walt Scheel, and was uncomfortable now being the target of their displeasure.

Biff, the travel agent, changed his mood when she waltzed into his office with barely a knock-Dox, his secretary, was lost in catalogs-and presented their flight and cruise tickets, along with a handsome itinerary and an updated brochure on the Island Princess. She was gone in seconds, much too brief a stay to suit Luther, who, when he admired her figure and tan, couldn't help but dream of the countless string bikinis he would soon encounter. He locked his door and was soon lost in the warm blue waters of the Caribbean.

For the third time that week Luther sneaked away just before lunch and raced to the mall. He parked as far away as possible because he needed the hike, down eight pounds now and feeling very fit, and entered through Sears with a mob of other noontime shoppers. Except Luther was there for a nap.

Behind thick sunshades, he ducked into Tans Forever on the upper concourse. Daisy with the copper skin had been relieved by Daniella, a pale redhead whose constant tanning had only made her freckles expand and spread. She punched his card, assigned him to Salon 2, and, with all the wisdom of a highly skilled dermatologist, said, "I think twenty-two minutes should do it today, Luther." She was at least thirty years his junior, but had no problem addressing him simply as Luther. A kid working a temporary job for minimum wage, it never crossed her mind that perhaps she should call him Mr. Krank.

Why not twenty-one minutes? he wanted to snap. Or twenty-three?

He grumbled over his shoulder and went to Salon 2.

The FX -  2000 BronzeMat was cool to the touch, a very good sign because Luther couldn't stand the thought of crawling into the thing after someone else had just left. He quickly sprayed it with Windex, wiped it furiously, then rechecked the locked door, undressed as if someone might see him, and very delicately crawled into the tanning bed.

He stretched and adjusted until things were as comfortable as they would get, then pulled the top down, hit the On switch, and began to bake. Nora'd been twice and wasn't sure she'd tan again because halfway through her last session someone rattled the doorknob and gave her a start. She blurted something, couldn't remember exactly what due to the terror of the moment, and as she instinctively jerked upward she cracked her head on the top of the BronzeMat.

Luther'd been blamed for that too. Laughing about it hadn't helped him.

Before long he was drifting away, drifting to the Island Princess with its four pools and dark, fit bodies lounging around, drifting to the white sandy beaches of Jamaica and Grand Cayman, drifting through the warm still waters of the Caribbean.

A buzzer startled him. His twenty-two minutes were up. Three sessions now and Luther could finally see some improvement in the rickety mirror on the wall. Just a matter of time before someone around the office commented on his tan. They were all so envious.

As he hurried back to work, his skin still warm, his stomach even flatter after another skipped meal, it began to sleet.

Luther caught himself dreading the drive home. Things were fine until he turned onto Hemlock. Next door, Becker was adding more lights to his shrubs, and, for spite, he was emphasizing the end of his lawn next to Luther's garage. Trogdon had so many lights you couldn't tell if he was adding more, but Luther suspected he was. Across the street, next door to Trogdon, Walt Scheel was decorating more each day. This from a guy who'd hardly hung the first strand a year ago.

And now, next door-on the east side of the Kranks'-Swade Kerr had suddenly been seized with the spirit of Christmas and was wrapping his scrawny little boxwoods with brand-new red and green blinking lights. The Kerrs homeschooled their brood of children and generally kept them locked in the basement. They refused to vote, did yoga, ate only vegetables, wore sandals with thick socks in the wintertime, avoided employment, and claimed to be atheists. Very crunchy, but not bad neighbors. Swade's wife, Shirley, with a hyphenated last name, had trust funds.

"They've got me surrounded," Luther muttered to himself as he parked in his garage, then sprinted into the house and locked the door behind him.

"Look at these," Nora said with a frown, and after a peck on the cheek, the obligatory "How was your day?"

Two pastel-colored envelopes, the obvious. "What is it?" he snapped. The last thing Luther wanted to see was Christmas cards with their phony little messages. Luther wanted food, which tonight would be baked fish with steamed veggies.

He pulled out both cards, each with a Frosty on the front. Nothing was signed. No return address on the envelope.

Anonymous Christmas cards. "Very funny," he said, flinging them onto the table.

"I thought you'd like them. They were postmarked in the city."

"It's Frohmeyer," Luther said, yanking off his tie. "He loves a practical joke."

Halfway through dinner, the doorbell rang. A couple of large bites and Luther could've cleaned his plate, but Nora was preaching the virtues of eating slowly. He was still hungry when he got to his feet and. mumbled something about who could it be now?

The fireman's name was Kistler and the medic was Kendall, both young and lean, in great shape from countless hours pumping iron down at the station, no doubt at taxpayer expense, Luther thought to himself as he invited them inside, just barely through the front door. It was another annual ritual, another perfect example of what was wrong with Christmas.

Kistler's uniform was navy and Kendall's was olive. Neither matched the red-and-white Santa's hats both were wearing, but then who really cared? The hats were cute and whimsical, but Luther wasn't smiling. The medic held the paper bag down by his leg.

"Selling fruitcakes again this year, Mr. Krank, Kistler was saying. "Do it every year."

"Money goes for the toy drive, Kendall said with perfect timing.

"Our goal is nine thousand bucks."

"Last year we raised just over eight."

"Hitting it harder this year"

"Christmas Eve, we'll deliver toys to six hundred kids."

"It's an awesome project."

Back and forth, back and forth. A well-drilled tag team.

"You ought to see their faces."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world, "Anyway, gotta raise the money, and fast."

"Got the old faithful, Mabel's Fruitcakes." Kendall sort of waved the bag at Luther as if he might want to grab it and take a peek inside.

"World -  famous."

"They make 'em in Hermansburg, Indiana, home of Mabel's Bakery."

"Half the town works there. Make nothing but fruitcakes."

Those poor folks, Luther thought.

"They have a secret recipe, use only the freshest ingredients."

"And make the best fruitcake in the world."

Luther hated fruitcakes. The dates, figs, prunes, nuts, little bits of dried, colored fruit.

"Been making 'em for eighty years now."

"Best -  selling cake in the country. Six tons last year."

Luther was standing perfectly still, holding his ground, his eyes darting back and forth, back and forth.

"No chemicals, no additives."

"I don't know how they keep them so fresh."

With chemicals and additives, Luther wanted to say.

A sharp bolt of hunger hit Luther hard. His knees almost buckled, his poker face almost grimaced. For two weeks now his sense of smell had been much keener, no doubt a side effect of a strict diet. Maybe he got a whiff of Mabel's finest, he wasn't sure, but a craving came over him. Suddenly, he had to have something to eat. Suddenly, he wanted to snatch the bag from Kendall, rip open a package, and start gnawing on a fruitcake.

And then it passed. With his jaws clenched, Luther hung on until it was gone, then he relaxed. Kistler and Kendall were so busy with their routine that they hadn't noticed.

"We get only so many."

"They're so popular they have to be rationed."

"We're lucky to get nine hundred."

"Ten bucks a pop, and we're at nine thousand for the toys."

"You bought five last year, Mr. Krank."

"Can you do it again?"

Yes, I bought five last year, Luther was now remembering. Took three to the office and secretly placed them on the desks of three colleagues. By the end of the week, they'd been passed around so much the packages were worn. Dox tossed them in the wastebasket when they shut down for Christmas.

Nora gave the other two to her hairdresser, a three-hundred-pound lady who collected them by the dozen and had fruitcake until July.

"No," Luther finally said. "I'll pass this year."

The tag team went silent. Kistler looked at Kendall and Kendall looked at Kistler.

"Say what?"

"I don't want any fruitcakes this year."

"Is five too many?" Kistler asked.

"One is too many," Luther replied, then slowly folded his arms across his chest.

"None?" Kendall asked, in disbelief.

"Zero," Luther said.

They looked as pitiful as possible.

"You guys still put on that Fourth of July fishing rodeo for handicapped kids?" Luther asked.

"Every year, " said Kistler.

"Great. Come back in the summer and I'll donate a hundred bucks for the fishing rodeo."

Kistler managed to mumble a very weak "Thanks."

It took a few awkward movements to get them out the door. Luther returned to the kitchen table, where everything was gone-Nora, his plate with the last two bites of steamed fish, his glass of water, his napkin. Everything. Furious, he stormed the pantry, where he found a jar of peanut butter and some stale saltines.