The gate was packed with weary travelers, most of them standing and
huddled along the walls because the meager allotment of plastic
chairs had long since been taken. Every plane that came and went
held at least eighty passengers, yet the gate had seats for only a
There seemed to be a thousand waiting for the 7 p.m. flight to
Miami. They were bundled up and heavily laden, and after fighting
the traffic and the check-in and the mobs along the concourse they
were subdued, as a whole. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one
of the busiest days of the year for air travel, and as they jostled
and got pushed farther into the gate many asked themselves, not for
the first time, why, exactly, they had chosen this day to
The reasons were varied and irrelevant at the moment. Some tried to
smile. Some tried to read, but the crush and the noise made it
difficult. Others just stared at the floor and waited. Nearby a
skinny black Santa Claus clanged an irksome bell and droned out
A small family approached, and when they saw the gate number and
the mob they stopped along the edge of the concourse and began
their wait. The daughter was young and pretty. Her name was Blair,
and she was obviously leaving. Her parents were not. The three
gazed at the crowd, and they, too, at that moment, silently asked
themselves why they had picked this day to travel.
The tears were over, at least most of them. Blair was twenty-three,
fresh from graduate school with a handsome resume but not ready for
a career. A friend from college was in Africa with the Peace Corps,
and this had inspired Blair to dedicate the next two years to
helping others. Her assignment was eastern Peru, where she would
teach primitive little children how to read. She would live in a
lean-to with no plumbing, no electricity, no phone, and she was
anxious to begin her journey.
The flight would take her to Miami, then to Lima, then by bus for
three days into the mountains, into another century. For the first
time in her young and sheltered life, Blair would spend Christmas
away from home. Her mother clutched her hand and tried to be
The good-byes had all been said. "Are you sure this is what you
want?" had been asked for the hundredth time.
Luther, her father, studied the mob with a scowl on his face. What
madness, he said to himself. He had dropped them at the curb, then
driven miles to park in a satellite lot. A packed shuttle bus had
delivered him back to Departures, and from there he had elbowed his
way with his wife and daughter down to this gate. He was sad that
Blair was leaving, and he detested the swarming horde of people. He
was in a foul mood. Things would get worse for Luther.
The harried gate agents came to life and the passengers inched
forward. The first announcement was made, the one asking those who
needed extra time and those in first class to come forward. The
pushing and shoving rose to the next level.
"I guess we'd better go," Luther said to his daughter, his only
They hugged again and fought back the tears. Blair smiled and said,
"The year will fly by. I'll be home next Christmas."
Nora, her mother, bit her lip and nodded and kissed her once more.
"Please be careful," she said because she couldn't stop saying
"I'll be fine."
They released her and watched helplessly as she joined a long line
and inched away, away from them, away from home and security and
everything she'd ever known. As she handed over her boarding pass,
Blair turned and smiled at them one last time.
"Oh well," Luther said. "Enough of this. She's going to be
Nora could think of nothing to say as she watched her daughter
disappear. They turned and fell in with the foot traffic, one long
crowded march down the concourse, past the Santa Claus with the
irksome bell, past the tiny shops packed with people.
It was raining when they left the terminal and found the line for
the shuttle back to the satellite, and it was pouring when the
shuttle sloshed its way through the lot and dropped them off, two
hundred yards from their car. It cost Luther $7.00 to free himself
and his car from the greed of the airport authority.
When they were moving toward the city, Nora finally spoke. "Will
she be okay?" she asked. He had heard that question so often that
his response was an automatic grunt.
"Do you really think so?"
"Sure." Whether he did or he didn't, what did it matter at this
point? She was gone; they couldn't stop her.
He gripped the wheel with both hands and silently cursed the
traffic slowing in front of him. He couldn't tell if his wife was
crying or not. Luther wanted only to get home and dry off, sit by
the fire, and read a magazine.
He was within two miles of home when she announced, "I need a few
things from the grocery."
"It's raining," he said.
"I still need them."
"Can't it wait?"
"You can stay in the car. Just take a minute. Go to Chip's. It's
So he headed for Chip's, a place he despised not only for its
outrageous prices and snooty staff but also for its impossible
location. It was still raining of course--she couldn't pick a
Kroger where you could park and make a dash. No, she wanted Chip's,
where you parked and hiked.
Only sometimes you couldn't park at all. The lot was full. The fire
lanes were packed. He searched in vain for ten minutes before Nora
said, "Just drop me at the curb." She was frustrated at his
inability to find a suitable spot.
He wheeled into a space near a burger joint and demanded, "Give me
"I'll go," she said, but only in feigned protest. Luther would hike
through the rain and they both knew it.
"Gimme a list."
"Just white chocolate and a pound of pistachios," she said,
"Yes, and make sure it's Logan's chocolate, one-pound bar, and
Lance Brothers pistachios."
"And this couldn't wait?"
"No, Luther, it cannot wait. I'm doing dessert for lunch tomorrow.
If you don't want to go, then hush up and I'll go."
He slammed the door. His third step was into a shallow pothole.
Cold water soaked his right ankle and oozed down quickly into his
shoe. He froze for a second and caught his breath, then stepped
away on his toes, trying desperately to spot other puddles while
Chip's believed in high prices and modest rent. It was on a side
alley, not visible from anywhere really. Next to it was a wine shop
run by a European of some strain who claimed to be French but was
rumored to be Hungarian. His English was awful but he'd learned the
language of price gouging. Probably learned it from Chip's next
door. In fact all the shops in the District, as it was known,
strove to be discriminating.
And every shop was full. Another Santa clanged away with the same
bell outside the cheese shop. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
rattled from a hidden speaker above the sidewalk in front of Mother
Earth, where the crunchy people were no doubt still wearing their
sandals. Luther hated the store--refused to set foot inside. Nora
bought organic herbs there, for what reason he'd never been
certain. The old Mexican who owned the cigar store was happily
stringing lights in his window, pipe stuck in the corner of his
mouth, smoke drifting behind him, fake snow already sprayed on a
There was a chance of real snow later in the night. The shoppers
wasted no time as they hustled in and out of the stores. The sock
on Luther's right foot was now frozen to his ankle.
There were no shopping baskets near the checkout at Chip's, and of
course this was a bad sign. Luther didn't need one, but it meant
the place was packed. The aisles were narrow and the inventory was
laid out in such a way that nothing made sense. Regardless of what
was on your list, you had to crisscross the place half a dozen
times to finish up.
A stock boy was working hard on a display of Christmas chocolates.
A sign by the butcher demanded that all good customers order their
Christmas turkeys immediately. New Christmas wines were in! And
What a waste, Luther thought to himself. Why do we eat so much and
drink so much in the celebration of the birth of Christ? He found
the pistachios near the bread. Odd how that made sense at Chip's.
The white chocolate was nowhere near the baking section, so Luther
cursed under his breath and trudged along the aisles, looking at
everything. He got bumped by a shopping cart. No apology, no one
noticed. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was coming from above, as if
Luther was supposed to be comforted. Might as well be "Frosty the
Two aisles over, next to a selection of rice from around the world,
there was a shelf of baking chocolates. As he stepped closer, he
recognized a one-pound bar of Logan's. Another step closer and it
suddenly disappeared, snatched from his grasp by a harsh-looking
woman who never saw him. The little space reserved for Logan's was
empty, and in the next desperate moment Luther saw not another
speck of white chocolate. Lots of dark and medium chips and such,
but nothing white.
The express line was, of course, slower than the other two. Chip's'
outrageous prices forced its customers to buy in small quantities,
but this had no effect whatsoever on the speed with which they came
and went. Each item was lifted, inspected, and manually entered
into the register by an unpleasant cashier. Sacking was hit or
miss, though around Christmas the sackers came to life with smiles
and enthusiasm and astounding recall of customers' names. It was
the tipping season, yet another unseemly aspect of Christmas that
Six bucks and change for a pound of pistachios. He shoved the eager
young sacker away, and for a second thought he might have to strike
him to keep his precious pistachios out of another bag. He stuffed
them into the pocket of his overcoat and quickly left the
A crowd had stopped to watch the old Mexican decorate his cigar
store window. He was plugging in little robots who trudged through
the fake snow, and this delighted the crowd no end. Luther was
forced to move off the curb, and in doing so he stepped just left
instead of just right. His left foot sank into five inches of cold
slush. He froze for a split second, sucking in lungfuls of cold
air, cursing the old Mexican and his robots and his fans and the
damned pistachios. He yanked his foot upward and slung dirty water
on his pants leg, and standing at the curb with two frozen feet and
the bell clanging away and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" blaring
from the loudspeaker and the sidewalk blocked by revelers, Luther
began to hate Christmas.
The water had seeped into his toes by the time he reached his car.
"No white chocolate," he hissed at Nora as he crawled behind the
She was wiping her eyes.
"What is it now?" he demanded.
"I just talked to Blair."
"What? How? Is she all right?"
"She called from the airplane. She's fine." Nora was biting her
lip, trying to recover.
Exactly how much does it cost to phone home from thirty thousand
feet? Luther wondered. He'd seen phones on planes. Any credit
card'll do. Blair had one he'd given her, the type where the bills
are sent to Mom and Dad. From a cell phone up there to a cell phone
down here, probably at least ten bucks.
And for what? I'm fine, Mom. Haven't seen you in almost an hour. We
all love each other. We'll all miss each other. Gotta go,
The engine was running though Luther didn't remember starting
"You forgot the white chocolate?" Nora asked, fully
"No. I didn't forget it. They didn't have any."
"Did you ask Rex?"
"No, Nora, for some reason I didn't think to ask the butcher if he
had any white chocolate hidden among his chops and livers."
She yanked the door handle with all the frustration she could
muster. "I have to have it. Thanks for nothing." And she was
I hope you step in frozen water, Luther grumbled to himself. He
fumed and muttered other unpleasantries. He switched the heater
vents to the floorboard to thaw his feet, then watched the large
people come and go at the burger place. Traffic was stalled on the
How nice it would be to avoid Christmas, he began to think. A snap
of the fingers and it's January 2. No tree, no shopping, no
meaningless gifts, no tipping, no clutter and wrappings, no traffic
and crowds, no fruitcakes, no liquor and hams that no one needed,
no "Rudolph" and "Frosty, " no office party, no wasted money. His
list grew long. He huddled over the wheel, smiling now, waiting for
heat down below, dreaming pleasantly of escape.
She was back, with a small brown sack which she tossed beside him
just carefully enough not to crack the chocolate while letting him
know that she'd found it and he hadn't. "Everybody knows you have
to ask," she said sharply as she yanked at her shoulder
"Odd way of marketing," Luther mused, in reverse now. "Hide it by
the butcher, make it scarce, folks'll clamor for it. I'm sure they
charge more if it's hidden."
"Oh hush, Luther."
"Are your feet wet?"
"Then why'd you ask?"
"Do you think she'll be all right?"
"She's on an airplane. You just talked to her."
"I mean down there, in the jungle."
"Stop worrying, okay? The Peace Corps wouldn't send her into a
"It won't be the same."
It certainly will not, Luther almost said. Oddly, he was smiling as
he worked his way through traffic.
Excerpted from SKIPPING CHRISTMAS by John Grisham Copyright
2001 by Belfry Holdings, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a
division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in
writing from the publisher.