Chapter Four

Nora and two friends had just captured a table at their favorite deli, a converted service station that still sold gas but had also added designer sandwiches and latte at three bucks a cup. As always, it was packed at noon, and the long lines attracted even more folks.

It was a working lunch. Candi and Merry were the other two members of a committee to oversee an auction for the art museum. Around most of the other tables, similar fund-raisers were being plotted with great effort.

Nora's cell phone rang. She apologized because she had forgotten to turn it off, but Merry insisted she take the call anyway. Cell phones were buzzing all over the deli.

It was Aubie again, and at first she was puzzled as to how he had obtained her number. But then, she routinely gave it away.

"It's Aubie from The Pumpkin Seed, she explained to Candi and Merry, thereby linking them to the conversation. They nodded with disinterest. Presumably, everybody knew Aubie from The Pumpkin Seed. He had the highest prices in the world so if you shopped there you could one-up anyone when it came to stationery.

"We forgot to discuss your party invitations," Aubie said, and Nora's heart Froze. She, too, had forgotten the invitations, and she certainly didn't want to discuss them in front of Merry and Candi.

"Oh yes," she said. Merry had struck up a conversation with a volunteer at the next table. Candi was scanning the deli to see who wasn't there.

"We won't be needing them, either," Nora said.

"No party?" Aubie asked, his words laden with curiosity.

"Yes, no party this year."

"Well, I -  "

"Thanks for calling, Aubie," she said softly and quickly and snapped the phone shut.

"Won't be needing what?" Merry asked, suddenly breaking off her other conversation and honing in on Nora.

"No party this year?" Candi asked, her eyes locking on to Nora's like radar. "What's up?"

Grit your teeth, Nora urged herself. Think of beaches, warm salt water, ten days in paradise. "Oh that," she said. "We're taking a cruise this year instead of doing Christmas. Blair's gone, you know, we need a break."

The deli was suddenly quiet, or at least it seemed so to Nora. Candi and Merry frowned as they replayed this news. Nora, with Luther's words ringing in her ears, pushed the offensive. "Ten days on the Island Princess, a luxury liner. Bahamas, Jamaica, Grand Cayman. I've already lost two pounds," she said with a cheerful smugness.

"You're not doing Christmas?" Merry said in disbelief.

"That's what I said," Nora responded. Merry was quick with a judgment, and years ago Nora had learned to bite back. She stiffened, ready for a sharp word.

"How do you simply not do Christmas?" Merry asked.

"You skip it," Nora replied, as if that would explain everything.

"Sounds wonderful," Candi said.

"Then what do we do Christmas Eve?" Merry asked.

"You'll think of something," Nora replied. "There are other parties."

"But none like yours."

"You're sweet."

"When do you leave?" Candi asked, dreaming now of beaches and no in-laws piled in for a week.

"Christmas Day. Around noon." It was an odd time to leave, she had thought after Luther had booked the cruise. If we're not celebrating Christmas, dear, she'd said, why not leave a few days earlier? Avoid Christmas Eve while we're at it. Eliminate the whole crazy mess. "What if Blair calls Christmas Eve?" he'd replied. And besides, Biff got $399 knocked off the package because few people travel on the twenty-fifth. Anyway, it was booked and paid for and nothing was going to change.

"Then why not have the party on Christmas Eve anyway?" Merry asked, getting pushy, fearful that she might feel obligated to host a replacement.

"Because we don't want to, Merry. We're taking a break, okay. A year off. No Christmas whatsoever. Nothing. No tree, no turkey, no gifts. We're taking the money and splurging on a cruise. Get it?"

"I get it, Candi said. "I wish Norman would do something like that. He wouldn't dream of it, though, afraid he'd miss twenty or so bowl games. I'm so envious, Nora."

And with that Merry took a bite of her avocado sandwich. She chewed and began glancing around the deli. Nora knew exactly what she was thinking. Who can I tell first? The Kranks are slapping Christmas! No party! No tree! Nothing but money in their pockets so they can blow it on a cruise.

Nora ate too, knowing that as soon as she stepped through the door over there the gossip would roar through the deli and before dinner everyone in her world would know the news. So what? she told herself. It was inevitable, and why was it such a big deal? Half would be in Candi's camp, burning with envy and dreaming along with Nora. Half would be with Merry, seemingly appalled at the notion of simply eliminating Christmas, but even within this group of critics Nora suspected many would secretly covet their cruise.

And in three months who'd care anyway?

After a few bites they shoved their sandwiches aside and brought out the paperwork. Not another word was mentioned about Christmas, not in Nora's presence anyway. Driving away, she phoned Luther with the news of their latest victory.

Luther was up and down. His secretary, a fifty-year-old triple divorcee named Dox, had quipped that she'd have to buy her own cheap perfume, she supposed, since Santa wasn't coining this year. He'd been called Scrooge twice, and each time the name had been followed by a fit of laughter. How original, Luther thought.

Late in the morning, Yank Slader darted into Luther's office as if angry clients were chasing him. Peeking out first, he closed the door, then assumed a seat. "You're a genius, old boy," he said almost in a whisper. Yank was an amortization specialist, afraid of his shadow, loved eighteen-hour days because his wife was a brawler.

"Of course I am," said Luther.

"Went home last night, late, got the wife to bed then did the same thing you did. Crunched the numbers, went through the bank statements, the works, came up with almost seven grand. What was your damage?"

"Just over six thousand."

"Unbelievable, and not a rotten thing to show for it. Makes me sick."

"Take a cruise," Luther said, knowing full well that Yank's wife would never agree to such foolishness. For her, the holidays began in late October and steadily gathered momentum until the big bang, a ten-hour marathon on Christmas Day with four meals and a packed house.

"Take a cruise, Yank mumbled. "Can't think of anything worse. Socked away on a boat with Abigail for ten days. I'd pitch her overboard."

And no one would blame you, Luther thought.

"Seven thousand bucks," Yank repeated to himself.

"Ridiculous, isn't it?" Luther said, and for a moment both accountants silently lamented the waste of hard-earned money.

"Your first cruise?" Yank asked.

"Yes."

"Never done one myself. Wonder if they have single folks on board?"

"I'm sure they do. There's no requirement you have to take a partner. Thinking of going solo, Yank?"

"Not thinking, Luther, dreaming." He drifted off, his hollow eyes showing a hint of hope, of fun, of something Luther had never seen "before in Yank. He left the room there for a moment, his thoughts running wildly across the Caribbean, so wonderfully alone without Abigail.

Luther was quiet while his colleague dreamed, but the dreams soon became slightly embarrassing. Fortunately, the phone rang and Yank was jolted back to a harsh world of amortization tables and a quarrelsome wife. He got to his feet and seemed to be leaving without a word. At the door, though," he said, "You're my hero, Luther."

Vic Frohmeyer had heard the rumor from Mr. Scan-Ion, the scoutmaster, and from his wife's niece, who roomed with a girl who worked part time for Aubie at The Pumpkin Seed, and from a colleague at the university, whose brother got his taxes done by someone at Wiley Beck. Three different sources, and the rumor had to be true. Krank could do whatever he damned well pleased, but Vic and the rest of Hemlock wouldn't take it lying down.

Frohmeyer was the unelected ward boss of Hemlock. His cushy job at the university gave him time to meddle, and his boundless energy kept him on the street organizing all sorts of activities. With six kids, his house was the undisputed hangout. The doors were always open, a game always in progress. As a result, his lawn bad a worn look to it, though he worked hard in his flower beds.

It was Frohmeyer who brought the candidates to Hemlock for barbecues in his backyard, and for their campaign pledges. It was Frohmeyer who circulated the petitions, knocking door to door, gathering momentum against annexation or in favor of school bonds or against a new four-lane miles away or in favor of a new sewer system. It was Frohmeyer who called Sanitation when a neighbor's garbage was not picked up, and because it was Frohmeyer the matter got quickly resolved. A stray dog, one from another street, a call from Vic Frohmeyer, and Animal Control was on the spot. A stray kid, one with hair and tattoos and the leery look of a delinquent, and Frohmeyer would have the police poking him in the chest and asking questions.

A hospital stay on Hemlock, and the Frohmeyers arranged visitation and food and even lawn care. A death on Hemlock, and they organized flowers for the funeral and visits to the cemetery. A neighbor in need could call the Frohmeyers for anything.

The Frostys had been Vic's idea, though he'd seen it in a suburb of Evanston and thus couldn't take full credit. The same Frosty on every Hemlock roof, an eight-foot

Frosty with a goofy smile around a corncob pipe and a black top hat and thick rolls around the middle, all made to glow a brilliant white by a two-hundred-watt bulb screwed into a cavity somewhere near Frosty's colon. The Hemlock Frostys had made their debut six years earlier and were a smashing success-twenty-one houses on one side, twenty-one on the other, the street lined with two perfect rows of Frostys, forty feet up. A color photo with a cute story ran on the front page. Two television news crews had done Live! reports.

The next year, Stanton Street to the south and Ackerman Street to the north had jumped in with Rudolphs and silver bells, respectively, and a committee from Parks and Rec, at Frohmeyer's quiet urging, began giving neighborhood awards for Christmas decorations.

Two years earlier disaster struck when a windstorm sent most of the Frostys airborne into the next precinct. Frohmeyer rallied the neighbors though, and last year a new, slightly shorter version of Frosty decorated Hemlock. Only two houses had not participated.

Each year, Frohmeyer decided the date on which to resurrect the Frostys, and after hearing the rumors about Krank and his cruise he decided to do it immediately. After dinner, he typed a short memo to his neighbors, something he did at least twice a month, ran forty-one copies, and dispatched his six children to hand-deliver them to every house on Hemlock. It read: "Neighbor-Weather tomorrow should be clear, an excellent time to bring Frosty back to life-Call Marty or Judd or myself if you need assistance-Vic Frohmeyer."

Luther took the memo from a smiling kid.

"Who is it?" Nora called from the kitchen.

"Frohmeyer."

"What's it about"

"Frosty."

She walked slowly into the living room, where Luther was holding the half-sheet of paper as if it were a summons to jury duty. They gave each other a fearful look, and very slowly Luther began shaking his head

"You have to do it," she said.

"No, I do not," he said, very firmly, his temper rising with each word. "I certainly do not. I will not be told by Vic Frohmeyer that I have to decorate my house for Christmas, "

"It's just Frosty."

"No, it is much more"

"What?"

"It's the principle of it, Nora. Don't you understand? We can forget about Christmas if we damned well choose, and-"

"Don't swear, Luther."

'"And no one, not even Vic Frohmeyer, can stop us." Louder. "I will not be forced into doing this!" He was pointing to the ceiling with one hand and waving the memo with the other. Nora retreated to the kitchen.

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