Chapter Ten

Luther suggested dinner at Angelo's, their favorite Italian place. It was on the ground floor of an old building downtown, far away from the hordes at the malls and shopping centers, five blocks from the parade route. It was a good night to be away from Hemlock.

They ordered salad with light dressing and pasta with tomato sauce, no meat, no wine, no bread. Nora had tanned for the seventh time, Luther for the tenth, and as they sipped their sparkling water they admired their weathered looks and chuckled at all the pale faces around them. One of Luther's grandmothers had been half-Italian, and his Mediterranean genes were proving quite conducive to tanning. He was several shades darker than Nora, and his friends were noticing. He couldn't have cared less. By now, everybody knew they were headed for the islands.

"It's starting now," Nora said, looking at her watch.

Luther looked at his. Seven P.M.

The Christmas parade was launched every year from Veteran's Park, in midtown. With floats and fire trucks and marching bands, it never changed. Santa always brought up the rear in a sleigh built by the Rotarians and escorted by eight fat Shriners on mini-bikes. The parade looped through the west side and came close to Hemlock. Every year for the past eighteen, the Kranks and their neighbors had camped along the parade route and made an event out of it. It was a festive evening, one Luther and Nora wished to avoid this year.

Hemlock would be wild with kids and carolers and who knew what else. Probably bicycle gangs chanting "Free Frosty" and little terrorists planting signs on their front lawn.

"How was the firm's Christmas dinner?" Nora asked.

"Sounded like the usual. Same room, same waiters, same tenderloin, same souffle. Slader said Stanley got drunk as a skunk during cocktails."

"I've never seen him sober during cocktails."

"He made the same speech-great effort, billings up, we'll knock 'em dead next year, Wiley Beck is Family, thanks to all. That sort of stuff. I'm glad we missed it."

"Anybody else skip it?"

"Slader said Maupin from auditing was a no-show."

"I wonder what Jayne wore?"

"I'll ask Slader. I'm sure he took notes."

Their salads arrived and they gawked at the baby spinach like famine refugees. But they slowly and properly applied the dressing, a little salt and pepper, then began eating as if they were completely disinterested in food.

The Island Princess served nonstop food. Luther planned to eat until he popped.

At a table not far away, a pretty young lady with dark hair was eating with her date. Nora saw her and laid down her fork.

"Do you think she's okay, Luther?" Luther glanced around the room and said, "Who?"

"Blair."

He finished chewing and pondered the question that she now asked only three times a day. "She's fine, Nora. She's having a great time."

"Is she safe?" Another standard question, posed as if Luther should know for certain whether their daughter was safe or not at that precise moment.

"The Peace Corps hasn't lost a volunteer in thirty years. Yes, trust me, they're very careful, Nora. Now eat."

She pushed her greens around, took a bite, lost interest. Luther wiped his plate clean and honed in on hers. "You gonna eat that?" he asked.

She swapped plates, and in a flash Luther had cleaned the second one. The pasta arrived and she guarded her bowl. After a few measured bites, she stopped suddenly, her fork halfway to her face. Then she laid it down again and said, "I forgot."

Luther was chewing with a vengeance. "What is it?" Her face was stricken with terror.

"What is it, Nora?" he repeated, swallowing hard.

"Don't those judges come around after the parade?"

Then it hit Luther too. He retired his fork for a moment, sipped water, gazed painfully at nothing in the distance. Yes, indeed, it was true.

After the parade, a committee from Parks and Rec toured the neighborhoods on a float pulled by a John Deere tractor and examined the level of Christmas spirit. They gave individual awards in various categories-Original Design, Festive Lighting, etc. And they handed out an award to the street with the best decorations. Hemlock had won the blue ribbon twice.

The year before, Hemlock had placed second, primarily because, according to the gossip on the street, two of the forty-two homes had not put up a Frosty. Boxwood Lane three blocks north had come from nowhere with a dazzling row of candy canes-Candy Cane Lane it described itself-and took away Hemlock's award. Frohmeyer circulated memos for a month.

Dinner, now ruined, came to a standstill as they picked through their pasta and killed as much time as possible. Two long cups of decaf. When Angelo's was empty, Luther paid the bill and they drove home, slowly.

Sure enough, Hemlock lost again. Luther fetched the Gazette in the semidarkness, and was horrified with the front page of Metro. The award winners were listed-Cherry Avenue first, Boxwood Lane second, Stanton third. Trogdon across the street with more than fourteen thousand lights finished fourth in Festive Lighting.

In the center of the page was a large color photo of the Krank home, taken at some distance. Luther studied it intently and tried to determine the angle. The photographer had shot down and at a wide angle, sort of an aerial view.

Next door, the Becker house positively glowed with a blinding display of lights. On the other side, the Kerrs' house and lawn were perfectly lined with alternating reds and greens, thousands of them by now.

The Krank home was dark.

To the east, the Frohmeyers', Nugents', and Galdys' could be seen, all glowing warmly, all with their Frostys sitting snugly on the roofs. To the west, the Dents', Sloanes', and Bellingtons' all radiated Christmas splendor.

The Krank home was very dark.

"Scheel," Luther grumbled to himself. The photo was taken from directly across the street. Walt Scheel had allowed the photographer to climb onto the roof of his two-story house and shoot down with a wide lens. Probably had the whole street egging him on.

Under the photo was a brief story. Headlined "SKIPPING CHRISTMAS, it read:

The home of Mr. and Mrs. Luther Krank is rather dark this Christmas. While the rest of their neighbors on Hemlock Street are decorating and busily preparing for Santa, the Kranks are skipping Christmas and preparing for a cruise, according to unnamed sources. No tree, no lights, and no Frosty up on the roof, the only house on Hemlock to keep Frosty hidden in the basement. (Hemlock, a frequent winner in the Gazette's street decoration contest, finished a disappointing sixth this year.) "I hope they're satisfied now," complained one unidentified neighbor. "A rotten display of selfishness," said another.

If Luther'd had a machine gun, he would've bolted outside and commenced spraying houses.

Instead he sat for a long time with a knot in his stomach and tried to convince himself that this too would pass. Just four days until they left, and when they came back all those damned Frostys would be stored away, the lights and trees would be gone. The bills would start flooding in, and perhaps then all his wonderful neighbors would be more sympathetic.

He flipped through the newspaper but his concentration was shot. Finally, Luther found his resolve, gritted his teeth, and took the bad news to his wife.

"What a horrible way to wake up," Nora said as she tried to focus on the photo in the newspaper. She rubbed her eyes and squinted.

"That jerk Scheel allowed the photographer to get on his roof," Luther said.

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. Look at the picture."

She was trying. Then she found her focus and read the story. She gasped at "... rotten display of selfishness."

"Who said that?" she demanded.

"Either Scheel or Frohmeyer. Who knows. I'm in the shower."

"How dare they!" Nora said, still gawking at the photo.

Atta girl, thought Luther. Get mad. Stiffen your back. Just four days to go-we're not collapsing now.

That night, after dinner and an effort at television, Luther decided to take a walk. He bundled up and wrapped a wool scarf around his neck; it was below freezing outside with a chance of snow. He and Nora had bought one of the first homes on Hemlock; damned if he'd be forced to hide inside. This was his street, his neighborhood, his friends. One day soon this little episode would be forgotten.

Luther ambled along, hands stuck deep in his pockets, cold air invigorating his lungs.

He made it to the far end, to the intersection of Moss Point, before Spike Frohmeyer picked up his trail and caught him on a skateboard. "Hi, Mr. Krank," he said as he rolled to a stop.

"Well hello, Spike."

"What brings you out?"

"Just taking a little walk."

"Enjoying the Christmas decorations?"

"Of course. What brings you out?"

"Just watching the street," Spike said, then looked around as if an invasion were imminent.

"What's Santa gonna bring you?"

Spike smiled and pondered for a second. "Not sure, but probably a Gameboy and a hockey stick and a set of drums."

"Quite a haul."

"Course I don't really believe anymore, you know. But Mike's just five so we still pretend."

"Sure."

"Gotta go. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you, Spike," Luther said, uttering the forbidden greeting for what he hoped was the first and last time of the season. Spike disappeared down Hemlock, no doubt racing home to report to his father that Mr. Krank was out of his house and loose on the sidewalk.

Luther stopped in front of the Trogdons' spectacle-more than fourteen thousand lights draped over trees and shrubs and windows and porch columns. Up on the roof with Frosty was Santa and his reindeer-Rudolph of course with a bright, flashing nose-all perfectly outlined with white lights. The roof itself was lined with two rows of red and green, blinking alternatively. The chimney was flashing too-hundreds of blue lights pulsating at once and casting an eerie glow over old Frosty. Along the holly bushes next to the house a squad of tin soldiers stood guard, each as tall as a human and wrapped with multicolored lights. In the center of the lawn was a handsome Nativity scene, complete with real hay bales and a goat whose tail went up and down.

Quite a show.

Luther heard something, a ladder falling in the garage next to the Trogdons'. The garage door was up and through the shadows he saw Walt Scheel wrestling with yet another strand of lights. He walked over and caught Walt off guard. "Evening, Walt," he said pleasantly.

"Well, if it isn't ole Scrooge himself," Walt said with a forced smile. They shook hands and each tried to think of something cutting and witty. Luther took a step back, looked up, and said, "How'd that photographer get up there?"

"Which photographer?"

"The one from the Gazette."

"Oh, that one."

"Yes, that one."

"He climbed up."

"No kidding. Why'd you let him?"

"I don't know. Said he wanted to get the whole street."

Luther snorted and waved it off. "I'm a little surprised at you, Walt," he said, though he wasn't surprised at all. For eleven years they'd been cordial an the surface, neither wanting an outright feud. But Luther didn't like Walt for his snobbery and one-upmanship. And Walt didn't care for Luther because he'd suspected for years that their salaries were almost equal.

"And I'm a little surprised at you," Walt said, but neither neighbor was surprised at all.

"I think you have a light out over there," Luther said, pointing to a shrub wrapped with a hundred lights.

"I'll get right on it."

"See you," Luther said, walking away.

"Merry Christmas," Walt called after him.

"Yeah, yeah."

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