Chapter Three

Though it was Luther's scheme, Nora was the first to be tested. The call came on Tuesday morning, from a pricklish man she didn't much care for. His name was Aubie, and he owned The Pumpkin Seed, a pompous little stationery store with a silly name and absurd prices.

After the obligatory greeting, Aubie came right to the point. "Just a bit worried about your Christmas cards, Mrs. Krank," he said, trying to seem deeply concerned.

"Why are you worried?" Nora asked. She did not like being hounded by a crabby shopkeeper who would barely speak to her the rest of the year.

"Oh well, you always select the most beautiful cards, Mrs. Krank, and we need to order them now." He was bad at flattery. Every customer got the same line.

According to Luther's audit, The Pumpkin Seed had collected $318 from the Kranks last Christmas for cards, and at the moment it did seem somewhat extravagant. Not a major expense, but what did they get from it? Luther flatly refused to help with the addressing and stamping, and he flew hot every time she asked if so-and-so should be added to or deleted from their list. He also refused to offer so much as a glance at any of the cards they received, and Nora had to admit to herself that there was a diminishing joy in getting them.

So she stood straight and said, "We're not ordering cards this year." She could almost hear Luther applauding.

"Do what?"

"You heard me."

"May I ask why not?"

"You certainly may not."

To which Aubie had no response. He stuttered something then hung up, and for a moment Nora was filled with pride. She wavered, though, as she thought of the questions that would be raised. Her sister, their minister's wife, friends on the literacy board, her aunt in a retirement village-all would ask, at some point, what happened to their Christmas cards.

Lost in the mail? Ran out of time?

No. She would tell them the truth. No Christmas for us this year; Blair's gone and we're taking a cruise. And if you missed the cards that much, then I'll send you two next year.

Rallying, with a fresh cup of coffee, Nora asked herself how many of those on her list would even notice. She received a few dozen each year, a dwindling number, she admitted, and she kept no log of who bothered and who didn't. In the turmoil of Christmas, who really had time to fret over a card that didn't come?

Which brought up another of Luther's favorite holiday gripes-the emergency stash. Nora kept an extra supply so she could respond immediately to an unexpected card. Every year they received two or three from total strangers and a few from folks who hadn't sent them before, and within twenty-four hours she'd dash off the Kranks' holiday greetings in response, always with her standard handwritten note of good cheer and peace be with you.

Of course it was foolish.

She decided that she wouldn't miss the entire ritual of Christmas cards. She wouldn't miss the tedium of writing all those little messages, and hand-addressing a hundred or so envelopes, and stamping them, and mailing them, and worrying about who she forgot. She wouldn't miss the bulk they added to the daily mail, and the hastily opened envelopes, and the standard greetings from people as hurried as herself.

Freed of Christmas cards, Nora called Luther for a little propping. He was at his desk. She replayed the encounter with Aubie. "That little worm," Luther mumbled. "Congratulations," he said when she finished.

"It wasn't hard at all," she gushed.

"Just think of all those beaches, dear, just waiting down there."

"What have you eaten?" she asked.

"Nothing. I'm still at three hundred calories."

"Me too."

When she hung up, Luther returned to the task at hand. He wasn't crunching numbers or grappling with IRS regs, as usual, but instead he was drafting a letter to his colleagues. His first Christmas letter. In it, he was carefully and artfully explaining to the office why he would not be participating in the holiday rituals, and, in turn, he would appreciate it if everyone else just left him alone. He would buy no gifts and would accept none. Thank you anyway. He would not attend the firm's black-tie Christmas dinner, nor would he be there for the drunken mess they called the office party. He didn't want the cognac and the ham that certain clients gave to all the big shots each year. He wasn't angry and he would not yell "Humbug!" at anyone who offered him a "Merry Christmas."

He was simply skipping Christmas. And taking a cruise instead.

He spent most of the quiet morning on his letter, and typed it himself. He would place a copy on every desk at Wiley Beck.

The gravity of their scheme hit hard the next day, just after dinner. It was entirely possible to enjoy Christmas without cards, without parties and dinners, without needless gifts, without a lot of things that for some reason had been piled onto the birth of Christ. But how could anyone get through the holidays without a tree?

Skip the tree, and Luther knew they just might pull it off.

They were clearing the table, though there was precious little to clear. Baked chicken and cottage cheese made for an easy cleanup, and Luther was still hungry when the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," he said. Through the front window of the living room he saw the trailer out in the street, and he knew instantly that the next fifteen minutes would not be pleasant. He opened the door and was met with three smiling faces-two youngsters dressed smartly in full Boy Scout regalia, and behind them Mr. Scanlon, the neighborhood's permanent scoutmaster. He too was in uniform.

"Good evening," Luther said to the kids.

"Hello, Mr. Krank. I'm Randy Bogan," said the taller of the two. "We're selling Christmas trees again this year."

"Got yours out on the trailer," said the shorter one.

'You had a Canadian blue spruce last year, Mr. Scan-Ion said.

Luther glanced beyond them, to the long flatbed trailer covered with two neat rows of trees. A small army of Scouts was busy unloading and hauling them away to Luther's neighbors.

"How much?" Luther asked.

"Ninety dollars, answered Randy. "We had to go up a little 'cause our supplier went up too."

Eighty last year, Luther almost said but held his tongue.

Nora materialized from nowhere and suddenly had her chin on his shoulder. "They're so cute," she whispered.

The boys or the trees? Luther almost asked. Why couldn't she stay in the kitchen and let him slug his way through this one?

With a big fake smile, Luther said, "Sorry, but we're not buying one this year"

Blank faces. Puzzled faces. Sad faces. A groan from just over his shoulder as the pain hit Nora. Looking at the boys, with his wife literally breathing down his neck, Luther Krank knew that this was the pivotal moment. Snap here, and the floodgates would open. Buy a tree, then decorate it, then realize that no tree looks complete without a pile of presents stuffed under it.

Hang tough, old boy, Luther urged himself, just as his wife whispered, "Oh dear."

"Hush," he hissed from the corner of his mouth.

The boys stared up at Mr. Krank, as if he'd just taken the last coins from their pockets.

"Sorry we had to go up on the price," Randy said sadly.

"We're making less per tree than last year, Mr. Scanlon added helpfully.

"It's not the price, boys," Luther said with another bogus grin. "We're not doing Christmas this year. Gonna be out of town. No need for a tree. Thanks anyway."

The boys began looking at their feet, as wounded children will do, and Mr. Scanlon appeared to be heartbroken. Nora offered another pitiful groan, and Luther, near panic, had a brilliant thought. "Don't you boys go out West each year, for a big camporee of some sort? New Mexico, in August, I seem to recall from a flyer."

They were caught off guard but all three nodded slowly.

"Good, here's the deal. I'll pass on the tree, but you guys come back in the summer and I'll give you a hundred bucks for your trip."

Randy Bogan managed to say "Thanks, but only because he felt obligated. They suddenly wanted to leave.

Luther slowly closed the door on them, then waited. They stood there on the front steps for a moment or two, then retreated down the drive, glancing over their shoulders.

When they reached the truck another adult, in uniform, was told the bizarre news. Others heard it, and before long activity around the trailer came to a halt as the

Scouts and their leaders grouped at the end of the Kranks' driveway and stared at the Krank house as if aliens were on the roof.

Luther crouched low and peeked around the open curtains of the living room. "What are they doing?" Nora whispered behind him, crouching too.

"Just staring, I guess."

"Maybe we should've bought one."


"Don't have to put it up, you know."


"Just keep it in the backyard."

"Stop it, Nora. Why are you whispering? This is our house."

"Same reason you're hiding behind the curtains."

He stood straight and closed the curtains. The Scouts moved on, their trailer inching down the street as the trees on Hemlock Street were delivered.

Luther built a fire and settled into his recliner for some reading, tax stuff. He was alone because Nora was pouting, a short spell that would be over by morning.

If he'd faced down the Boy Scouts, then who should he fear? More encounters were coming, no doubt, and that was one of the very reasons Luther disliked Christmas. Everybody selling something, raising money, looking for a tip, a bonus, something, something, something. He grew indignant again and felt fine.

He eased from the house an hour later. On the sidewalk that bordered Hemlock, he shuffled along, going nowhere. The air was cool and light. After a few steps he stopped by the Beckers' mailbox and looked into the front window of the living room, not far away. They were decorating their tree, and he could almost hear the bickering. Ned Becker was balancing himself on the top rung of a small ladder and stringing lights, while Jude Becker stood back a step and carped directions. Jude's mother, an ageless wonder even more terrifying than Jude herself, was also in on the fray. She was pointing directions to poor Ned, and her directions were in sharp conflict to those of Jude. String them here, string them there. That branch, no that other branch. Can't you see that gap there? What on earth are you looking at? Meanwhile, Rocky Becker, their twenty-year-old dropout, was sitting on the sofa with a can of something, laughing at them and offering advice that was apparently being ignored. He was the only one laughing, though.

The scene made Luther smile. It reinforced his wisdom, made him proud of his decision to simply avoid the whole mess.

He shuffled along, filling his haughty lungs with the cool air, happy that for the first time in his life he was eliminating the dreaded ritual of the tree trimming. Two doors down he stopped and watched the Frohmeyer clan assault an eight-foot spruce. Mr. Frohmeyer had brought two kids to the marriage. Mrs. Frohmeyer had arrived with three of her own, after which they produced another, making six, the eldest of which was no more than twelve. The entire brood was hanging ornaments and tinsel. At some point during every December Luther overheard one of the neighborhood women comment on just how awful the Frohmeyer tree looked. As if he cared.

Awful or not, they were certainly having a wonderful time draping it with tacky decorations. Frohmeyer did research at the university, $110,000 a year was the rumor, but with six kids there wasn't much to show for it. Their tree would be the last to come down after New Year's.

Luther turned around and headed home. At the Beckers', Ned was on the sofa with an icepack on his shoulder, Jude hovering over him, lecturing with her finger. The ladder was on its side, being inspected by the mother-in-law. Whatever the cause of the fall, there was no doubt that all blame would be placed on poor Ned.

Great, thought Luther. Now I'll have to listen to details of another ailment for the next four months. Come to think of it, Ned Becker had fallen off that ladder before, five maybe six years earlier. Crashed into the tree and knocked the whole thing oven Broke Jude's keepsake ornaments. She'd pouted for a year.

What madness, thought Luther.

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