Chapter Six

Nora's late-morning round-table at the shelter for battered women ended badly when Claudia, a casual friend at best, blurted out randomly, "So, Nora, no Christmas Eve bash this year?"

Of the eight women present, including Nora, exactly five had been invited to her Christmas parties in the past. Three had not, and at the moment those three looked for a hole to crawl into, as did Nora.

You crude little snot, thought Nora, but she managed to say quickly, "Afraid not. We're taking a year off." To which she wanted to add, "And if we ever have another party, Claudia dear, don't hold your breath waiting for an invitation."

"I heard you're taking a cruise," said Jayne, one of the three excluded, trying to reroute the conversation.

"We are, leaving Christmas Day in fact."

"So you're just eliminating Christmas altogether?" asked Beth, another casual acquaintance who got invited each year only because her husband's firm did business with Wiley Beck.

"Everything," Nora said aggressively as her stomach tightened.

"That's a good way to save money," said Lila, the biggest bitch of the bunch. Her emphasis on the word "money" implied that perhaps things were a bit tight around the Krank household. Nora's cheeks began to burn. Lila's husband was a pediatrician. Luther knew for a fact that they were heavily in debt-big house, big cars, country clubs. Earned a lot, spent even more.

Thinking of Luther, where was he in these awful moments? Why was she taking the brunt of his harebrained scheme? Why was she on the front lines while he sat smugly in his quiet office dealing with people who either worked for him or were afraid of him? It was a good-old-boy club, Wiley Beck, a bunch of stuffy tight-fisted accountants who were probably toasting Luther for his bravery in avoiding Christmas and saving a few bucks. If his defiance could become a trend anywhere, it was certainly in the accounting profession.

Here she was getting scorched again while Luther was safely at work, probably playing the hero.

Women handled Christmas, not men. They shopped and decorated and cooked, planned parties and sent cards and fretted over things the men never thought about. Why, exactly, was Luther so keen on dodging Christmas when he put so little effort into it?

Nora fumed but held her fire. No sense starting an all-girl rumble at the center for battered women.

Someone mentioned adjournment and Nora was the first out of the room. She fumed even more as she drove home-unpleasant thoughts about Lila and her comment about money. Even uglier thoughts about her husband and his selfishness. She was sorely tempted to cave right then, go on a spree and have the house decorated by the time he got home. She could have a tree up in two hours. It wasn't too late to plan her party. Frohmeyer would be happy to take care of their Frosty. Cut back on the gifts and a few other things, and they would still save enough to pay for the cruise.

She turned onto Hemlock and of course the first thing she noticed was the fact that only one house had no snow-man on the roof. Leave it to Luther. Their pretty two-story brick home standing alone, as if the Kranks were Hindus or Buddhists, some strain that didn't believe in Christmas.

She stood in her living room and looked out the front window, directly through the spot where their beautiful tree always stood, and for the first time Nora was struck with how cold and undecorated her house was. She bit her lip and went for the phone, but Luther had stepped out for a sandwich. In the stack of mail she'd retrieved from the box, between two envelopes containing holiday cards, she saw something that stopped her cold. Airmail, from Peru. Spanish words stamped on the front.

Nora sat down and tore it open. It was two pages of Blair's lovely handwriting, and the words were precious.

She was having a great time in the wilds of Peru. Couldn't be better, living with an Indian tribe that had been around for several thousand years. They were very poor, according to our standards, but healthy and happy. The children were at first very distant, but they had come around, wanting to learn. Blair rambled on a bit about the children.

She was living in a grass hut with Stacy, her new friend from Utah. Two other Peace Corps volunteers lived nearby. The corps had started the small school four years earlier. Anyway, she was healthy and well fed, no dreaded diseases or deadly animals had been spotted, and the work was challenging.

The last paragraph was the jolt of fortitude that Nora so desperately needed. It read:

I know it will be difficult not having me there for Christmas, but please don't be sad. My children know nothing of Christmas. They have so little, and want so little, it makes me feel guilty for the mindless materialism of our culture, There are no calendars here, and no clocks, so I doubt if I'll even know when it comes and goes.

(Besides, we can catch up next year, can't we?)

Such a smart girl. Nora read it again and was suddenly filled with pride, not only for raising such a wise and mature daughter but also for her own decision to forgo, at least for a year, the mindless materialism of our culture.

She called Luther again and read him the letter.

Monday night at the mall! Not Luther's favorite place, but he sensed Nora needed a night out. They had dinner in a fake pub on one end, then fought through the masses to get to the other, where a star-filled romantic comedy was opening at the multiplex. Eight bucks a ticket, for what Luther knew would be another dull two hours of overpaid clowns giggling their way through a subliterate plot. But anyway, Nora loved the movies and he tagged along to keep peace. Despite the crowds, the cinema was deserted, and this thrilled Luther when he realized that everybody else was out there shopping. He settled low in his seat with his popcorn, and went to sleep.

He awoke with an elbow in his ribs.

"You're snoring," Nora hissed at him.

"Who cares? The place is empty."

"Hush up, Luther."

He watched the movie, but after five minutes had had enough, "I'll be back," he whispered, and left. He'd rather fight through the mob and get stepped on than watch such foolishness. He rode the escalator to the upper level, where he leaned on the rail and watched the chaos below. A Santa was holding court on his throne and the line was moving very slowly. Over at the ice rink the music blared from scratchy speakers while kids in elf costumes skated around some stuffed creature that appeared to be a reindeer. Every parent watched through the lens of a videocamera. Weary shoppers trudged along, lugging shopping bags, bumping into others, fighting with their children.

Luther had never felt prouder.

Across the way, he saw a new sporting goods store. He strolled over, noticing through the window that there was a crowd inside and certainly not enough cashiers. He was just browsing, though. He found the snorkel gear in the back, a rather slim selection, but it was December. The swimsuits were of the Speedo variety, breathtakingly narrow all the way around and designed solely for Olympic swimmers under the age of twenty. More of a pouch than a garment. He was afraid to touch them. He'd get himself a catalog and shop from the safety of his home.

As he left the store an argument was raging at a checkout, something about a layaway that got lost. What fools.

He bought himself a fat-free yogurt and killed time strolling along the upper concourse, smiling smugly at the harried souls burning their way through their paychecks. He stopped and gawked at a life-sized poster of a gorgeous young thing in a string bikini, her skin perfectly tanned. She was inviting him to step inside a small salon called Tans Forever. Luther glanced around as if it were an adult bookstore, then ducked inside where Daisy was waiting behind a magazine. Her brown face forced a smile and seemed to crack along the forehead and around the eyes. Her teeth had been whitened, her hair lightened, her skin darkened, and for a second Luther wondered what she looked like before the project.

Not surprisingly, Daisy said it was the best time of the year to purchase a package. Their Christmas special was twelve sessions for $60. Only one session every other day, fifteen minutes at first, but working up to a max of twenty-five. When the package was over, Luther would be superbly tanned and certainly prepared for anything the Caribbean sun could throw at him.

He followed her a few steps to a row of booths-flimsy little rooms with a tanning bed each and not much else. They were now featuring state-of-the-art FX-2000 BronzeMats, straight from Sweden, as if the Swedes knew everything about sunbathing. At first glance, the BronzeMat horrified Luther. Daisy explained that you simply undressed, yes, everything, she purred, slid into the unit, and pulled the top down in a manner that reminded Luther of a waffle iron. Cook for fifteen or twenty minutes, a timer goes off, get up, get dressed. Nothing to it.

"How much do you sweat?" Luther asked, struggling with the image of himself lying completely exposed while eighty lamps baked all parts of his body.

She explained that things got warm. Once done, you simply wiped off your BronzeMat with a spray and paper towels, and things were suitable for the next guy.

Skin cancer? he inquired. She offered a phony laugh. No way. Perhaps with the older units before they perfected the technology to virtually eliminate ultraviolet rays and such. The new BronzeMats were actually safer than the sun itself. She'd been tanning for eleven years.

And your skin looks like burnt cowhide, Luther mused to himself.

He signed up for two packages for $120. He left the salon with the determination to get himself tanned, however uncomfortable it would be. And he chuckled at the thought of Nora stripping down behind paper-thin walls and inserting herself into the BronzeMat.