Skipping Christmas

Chapter Nineteen

Blair was just a little miffed that her parents were not waiting at the arrival gate. Sure it was short notice, and the airport was crowded, and they were undoubtedly busy with the party, but she was, after all, bringing home her one and only. She said nothing though, as she and Enrique walked quickly down the concourse, arm in arm, stride for stride, somehow weaving gracefully through the mob while remaining attached at the hip and staring only at each other.

There was no one to greet them at the baggage claim either. But as they were hauling their luggage toward the exit, Blair saw two policemen holding a hand-scrawled sign that read "Blair and Enriqe."

They had misspelled Enrique, but at the moment who cared? She called to them, and they snapped into action, scooping up the luggage and leading them through the mass of people. Officer Salino explained as they walked outside that the Chief had dispatched a police escort for Blair and Enrique. Welcome home!

"The party is waiting," he said as they stuffed their things into the trunk of a police car, which was parked illegally at the curb in front of the taxis. A second police car was parked in front of the first.

As a South American, Enrique was more than a little hesitant to voluntarily get into the back of a police car. He looked around nervously, at the crush of foot traffic, taxis, and buses bumper to bumper, people yelling, guards whistling. The idea of bolting crossed his mind, then his eyes returned to the beautiful face of the girl he loved.

"Let's go," she said, and they jumped in. He would've followed her anywhere. With lights flashing, the two cars flew away, darting through traffic, forcing others onto the edges of the streets.

"This happens all the time?" Enrique whispered.

"Never," Blair answered. What a nice touch, she thought.

Officer Treen was driving furiously. Officer Salino was smiling at the thought of Luther Krank hanging by his feet while the entire neighborhood looked on. But he wouldn't say a word. Blair would never know the truth, according to orders from Vic Frohmeyer, who'd finally gotten through to the Mayor and also had the Chief's ear.

As they worked their way into the suburbs, the traffic thinned and a light snow began. "Calling for four inches," Salino said over his shoulder. "Does it snow down in Peru?"

"In the mountains," Enrique said. "But I live in Lima, the capital."

"Had a cousin went to Mexico one time," Salino said, but let it go because there was nothing else to add. The cousin had almost died, etc., but Salino wisely decided not to venture into third-world horror stories.

Blair was determined to be hyperprotective of her fiance and his homeland, so she quickly rushed in with a "Has it snowed since Thanksgiving?"

The subject of weather was the most common ground of all. "Had two inches a week ago, wasn't it?" Salino said, glancing at Treen, who was driving with white knuckles in a successful attempt to keep his car no more than five feet behind the police car in front of them.

"Four inches," Treen said with authority.

"No, it was two, wasn't it?" Salino argued.

"Four," Treen said, shaking his head, and this irritated Salino.

They finally settled on three inches of snow as Blair and Enrique huddled in the back and looked at the rows of neatly decorated houses.

"Almost there," she said softly. "That's Stanton, Hemlock is next."

Spike was the lookout. He flashed green twice on his Boy Scout signal lantern, and the stage was set.

Luther limped pitifully into their bathroom, where Nora was putting the finishing touches on her face. For twenty minutes she'd been desperately experimenting with everything she could find-foundations, powders, highlights. Her wonderfully tanned skin was hidden from the neck down, and she was determined to lighten her face.

It wasn't working, though.

"You look emaciated," Luther said, truthfully. Powder was flying around her head.

Luther was in too much pain to worry about his tan. At Nora's suggestion, he was wearing black-black cardigan over a black turtleneck with dark gray slacks. The darker his attire the paler his skin, in her opinion. The cardigan he'd worn only once, and luckily it was one Blair had given him for a birthday. The turtleneck had never been worn, and neither he nor Nora could remember where it came from.

He felt like a Mafia lieutenant.

"Just give it up," he said as she flung bottles and seemed ready to throw one at him.

"I will not," she snapped. "Blair will not know about the cruise, do you understand, Luther?"

"Then don't tell her about the cruise. Tell her your doctor recommended tanning for, uh, which vitamin is it?"

"D, from the sunshine, not a tanning bed. Another stupid idea, Luther."

"Tell her we've had some unseasonably warm weather, been outside a lot, working in the flower beds."

"That's your lie, and it's not going to work. She's not blind. She'll look at your flower beds and see that they haven't been touched in months."

"Ouch."

"Any more bright ideas?"

"We're getting a head start on spring break? Bought a tanning package."

"Very funny."

She brushed by him in a huff, powder trailing behind her Luther was limping down the hall, with his new plastic cane, toward the crowd in his living room, when he heard someone yell, "Here they come."

Due to a malfunctioning canvas strap, Ralph Brixley was actually holding his own Frosty in place, in front of Luther Krank's chimney, on Luther's roof, in the snow and the cold, when he saw the green flashing light from the end of the street. "Here they come," he yelled down to Krank's patio, where his assistant, Judd Bellington, was waiting by the ladder and trying to repair the strap.

From Ralph's point of view, he watched with some measure of pride (and some measure of frustration because it was cold up there and getting colder) as his neighborhood circled the wagons to help one of its own, even if it was Luther Krank.

A large choir, under the shaky direction of Mrs. Ellen Mulholland, was assembled next to the driveway and began singing "Jingle Bells." Linda Galdy owned a set of handbells, and her hurriedly recruited band began ringing them along with the choir. The front lawn was covered with neighborhood children, all waiting eagerly for Blair and her mysterious new fiance.

When the police cars slowed in front of the Kranks', a cheer went up, a loud hello from the kids on Hemlock.

"My goodness," Blair said. "What a crowd."

There was a fire truck parked in front of the Beckers' and a large lime-green ambulance in front of the Trogdons', and on cue all their lights began flashing to welcome Blair. When the police cars rolled to a stop in the driveway, Vic Frohmeyer himself yanked open the front door. "Merry Christmas, Blair!" he boomed.

She and Enrique were soon on the front lawn, surrounded by dozens of neighbors while the choir howled away. Blair introduced Enrique, who seemed just a bit bewildered by the reception. They made their way onto the front steps and into the living room, where another cheer went up. At Nora's request, four firemen, and three cops stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the tree, trying to block as much of it as possible from Blair's view.

Luther and Nora waited nervously in their bedroom for a private reunion with their daughter, and for a quiet introduction to Enrique.

"What if we don't like him?" Luther mumbled, sitting on the edge of the bed, rubbing his ankles. The party was growing rowdy down the hall.

"Hush, Luther. We raised a smart girl." Nora was applying a last-minute layer of powder to her cheeks.

"But they just met."

"Love at first sight."

"That's impossible.

"Maybe you're right. It took me three years to see your potential."

The door opened and Blair rushed in. Nora and Luther both glanced at her first, then quickly looked beyond to see how dark Enrique was.

He wasn't dark at all! At least two shades lighter than Luther himself!

They hugged and squeezed their daughter as if she'd been gone for years, then, with great relief, met their future son-in-law.

"You guys look great," Blair said, sizing them up. Nora was wearing a bulky Christmas sweater, the first time in memory that she wanted to look heavier. Luther was the aging gigolo.

"Been watching our weight," he said, still pumping Enrique's hand.

"You've been in the sun," Blair said to Luther.

"Well, yes, we've had some unseasonably warm weather, actually. Got a bit burned in the flower beds last weekend."

"Let's get to the party," Nora said.

"Can't keep folks waiting," Luther added, leading the way.

"Isn't he handsome?" Blair whispered to her mother. Enrique was just a step ahead.

"Very handsome," Nora said proudly.

"Why is Daddy limping?"

"Hurt his foot. He's fine."

The living room was packed with people, a different sort of crowd, Blair noticed, not that it mattered. Most of the regulars were not there. Most of the neighbors were. And she couldn't figure out why the police and firemen had been invited.

There were some gifts for Enrique, which he opened in the center of the room. Ned Becker passed along a red golf shirt from a local country club. John Galdy had just been given a picture book of local country inns. His wife rewrapped it, and they unloaded it on Enrique, who was moved almost to tears. The firemen gave him two fruitcakes, though he confessed they didn't have such delights down in Peru. The Police Benevolent Association gave him a calendar.

"His English is perfect," Nora whispered to Blair.

"Better than mine," she whispered back.

"I thought you said he'd never been to the U.S."

"He was educated in London."

"Oh." And Enrique went up another notch. Handsome, educated abroad, a doctor. "Where did you meet him?"

"In Lima, during orientation."

A cheer went up as Enrique opened a tall box and removed a lava lamp, one passed along by the Bellingtons.

When the gifts were done, Luther announced, "Dinner," and the crowd moved to the kitchen, where the table was covered with the Hemlock donations, though the food had been arranged and rearranged until it looked original and festive. Even Nora's smoked trout had been dressed up by Jessica Brixley, perhaps the best chef on the street.

The carolers were frozen and tired of the snow, though it wasn't heavy. They heard the news about dinner, and moved inside, along with Mrs. Linda Galdy's handbell ensemble.

The man with the orange-and-gray beard Nora'd met by the peanut butter at Kroger appeared from nowhere and seemed to know everyone, though no one seemed to know him. Nora welcomed him and watched him carefully, and finally heard him introduce himself as Marty somebody. Marty loved a gathering and quickly warmed to the occasion. He cornered Enrique over cake and ice cream, and the two immediately launched into an extended conversation, in Spanish no less.

"Who is that?" Luther whispered as he limped by.

"Marty," Nora whispered back, as if she'd known him for years.

When everyone had eaten, they drifted back to the living room, where a fire was roaring. The children sang two carols, then Marty stepped forward with a guitar. Enrique stepped forward too and explained that he and his new friend would like to sing a couple of traditional Peruvian Christmas songs.

Marty attacked the guitar with a vengeance, and the duet began in a nice harmony. The words were unknown to the audience, but the message was clear. Christmas was a time of joy and peace around the world.

"He sings too," Nora whispered to Blair, who just radiated.

Between songs, Marty explained that he'd once worked in Peru, and that singing the songs made him miss the place. Enrique took the guitar, strummed a few chords, then softly began another carol.

Luther leaned on the mantel, alternating one foot at a time, smiling gamely, though he wanted to lie down and sleep forever. He looked at the faces of his neighbors, all of whom were entranced with the music. They were all there, except for the Trogdons.

And except for Walt and Bev Scheel.

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