I felt the time had come to do a little Christmas shopping. The previous year I had put it off until the very last minute and it had been a disaster of epic proportions, rivaling the Jamestown flood, the stock market crash of 1929, and the closing down of the last Choc-o-dillo candy bar factory when I was a boy of ten.
I come from a long line of Callington men who were not good Christmas shoppers. It must be a particular gene we are missing, for there has been a continuous line of ill-conceived and tone-deaf gift ideas dating back to when the very first Mr. Callington presented to the very first Mrs. Callington a whale-boned corset, which the salesman at the store had assured him were all the rage in Paris that year, but to which Mrs. Callington took extreme umbrage to on Christmas morning. As there were no return policies at that time, the corset was given to the dogs as a chew toy and Mrs. Callington was instead given, as a palliative, a summer home in the Hamptons. Things have not improved much in the 150 years since.
Therefore, when I climbed into the back of the limo without my customary joie d’ vivre in tow, James seemed a bit surprised. He seemed even more surprised when I asked him to please take me to the mall. Callington men, as a rule, are not the sort to go to malls. My ancestors were no doubt turning over in their graves in dismay (or at least raising their eyebrows) at the mere suggestion that an heir to the Callington name and fortune was even considering such a thing. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. As the famous chappie once said (and I paraphrase), “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the mall up with our American bread.”
After confirming that I had indeed said mall, James drove me thither.
That is how I found myself standing in the middle of the Heather Meadows Mall looking down the long promenade towards Mackadoo’s upscale department store at the far end of the mall. Throngs of Christmas shoppers surged here and there like human eddies in a slow-motion river of humanity. Tennyson no doubt had shopping malls in mind when he wrote:
And down the river’s dim expanse,
Like some bold seër in a trance
Seeing all his own mischance–
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
But if I am to make it to Camelot (or, as we call it locally, Mackadoo’s), I must pass hundreds of little stores, all of which were after the money I had allotted to spend on Christmas, plus more that I had not allotted to spend. If previous years were any indication, these ruthless merchants who peddle joy and cheer mercilessly would want about 50% more than I was planning on spending.
I stood and racked my brain trying to think of what to get for Alexis. Perhaps a nice plush robe or elegant nightgown? Or maybe a pre-made basket of soaps and lotions and loofahs and other assorted bath items that women never seemed to actually use but instead just gush at upon opening and then set them in the bathroom like a $29.95 air freshener. But one thing is certain; I mustn’t forget the jewelry! I remembered with a shudder the Christmas three years before when I had forgotten the jewelry. No amount of pre-basketted bath items could make up for such an oversight. There were no robes so plush or so soft that they would compensate for a total lack of jewelry. And of course, the personal foot spa had just been salt on the wound at that point. It was the final present to be unwrapped and it was obviously too big to be a ring or a pendant and so it had been opened with skepticism. Then came the stunned, pained expression of someone who had just received a foot spa instead of a tennis bracelet. It became known among our circle of family and friends as The Christmas of the Foot Spa Chutzpah.
Well, I wouldn’t be making that mistake again. I might make some other mistake, but I wouldn’t make that particular one. I thought briefly back to the year I had gotten her the gaily decorated basket of what was billed as holiday sausages and cheeses. The potential debacle of holiday sausages had only been avoided by the subsequent appearance of a ruby necklace. Even the fact that they were lab-created rubies had been enough to obtain absolution for the sin of holiday sausages and a sprinkling of some non-dairy cheese-like products and sesame sticks. Besides, in all likelihood, the holiday sausages had been lab created as well.
The children were easier to shop for. At least, they used to be. I reflected fondly over previous Christmases and birthdays. I loved going into toy stores to pick up Evangeline a book or a doll or a bead-stringing set. Edrington was always ecstatic to receive a car or truck or train or, more recently, electronic games in which he could pit dinosaurs against each other. I would get down on the floor with them on Christmas morning and together we would play for hours with Evangeline’s dolls, each of which came with their thousand microscopic accessories (each painstakingly taped, tie-wrapped, or sewn-in to the box) or with Edrington’s trucks or train set. It would be a grand time! Their faces would be beaming and angelic and they would often hug me, albeit distractedly, with their eyes never leaving the toy they were playing with, but at least it had been some acknowledgement that I was quite adequate as a masculine accessory to the house.
Okay. Enough reminiscing. It was time to get shopping. As a wise shopper once said, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”. These were obviously the words of a seasoned Christmas shopper.
I stepped out of the calmness of the sort of shopping tidal pool I had been soaking in and found myself swept away in a fast current of grim shoppers with set brows and comic-book-hero grimaces. One would think they were saving the metropolis from some masked, tights-wearing menace rather than trying to get the last of the year’s latest smart phones or celebrity scents. I allowed myself to be carried along towards Mackadoo’s, bobbing along like a piece of flotsam (or perhaps jetsam) in the teeth-gritting rip-tide of people. I noted with dismay the passing of several stores I had meant to go into, but couldn’t seem to tear myself from the current in which I now found myself, swirling relentlessly and helplessly towards Mackadoo’s, where I was deposited unceremoniously in front of, and almost on top of, a table piled high with wind-up weather-channel radios, solar powered card-shufflers, and furry slippers with reindeer antlers on them.
A well-meaning girl wearing a sparkling red knit dress that emphasized her elf-like stature, suddenly encased me in a cloud of Musque du Homme, perhaps to ward off any aphids or green fly that happened to be infesting the area. Coughing, I reached down to pick up the few wind-up radios and reindeer novelty slippers I had accidentally knocked to the floor when I’d been ejected from the surging crowd.
“Would you care to try some Musque du Homme?” asked the wraith-like girl in the tight knit dress trimmed in white faux fur, a Scylla dressed to attract passing ships.
“I think I just did,” I said, coughing, while I re-stocked the wind-up radio table with inventory from the floor.
“If you’ll present this card at the men’s scent counter,” said Miss Scylla, handing me a 4 x 6 card made of heavy, expensive stock and apparently steeped in a vat of Musque du Homme for a week, “You can get the one-quart size spritzer of Musque du Homme for the special holiday price of only $34.99.”
“Ummm, thank you,” I said, taking the card. Though I prided myself in never being rude to anyone, I felt as if I should be handling the card with tongs in order to prevent the permanent scentification of my fingertips.
“Are you crying?” asked Miss Scylla, suddenly very solicitous (even more so than her job description required her to fake).
“No,” I said, pressing my eye into my shirt sleeve. “It is allergies.”
“Yes,” nodded Miss Scylla sympathetically. “It has been very dry this year. There is a lot of pollen and mold in the air.”
“And musk,” I said, pressing my other eye into my other sleeve.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Miss Scylla brightly, “But the cedar count is way up. My dad is having an awful time of it right now. So that’s probably what you have since you’re about his age and all.”
I smiled a wounded smile. A sort of et tu, Brute? smile that was lost on Miss Scylla, who viewed all men over the age of 28 as contemporaries of her father and several interred presidents, many of which graced modern currency.
“Yes, no doubt it is the cedar,” I said, blinking my eyes and taking several deep breaths to try and rid myself of the olfactory delusion that I had been taking a tour of a petroleum refining plant or taking part in a Limburger cheese tasting contest.
“Well, you have a happy holiday,” said Miss Scylla, slipping back into the chirpy, smiling harlequin mask for which she’d been hired.
“You, too,” I said, mustering a smile and then creaking away from the wind-up radio stand, suddenly feeling 90 years old due to the off-hand remark of a 19-year-old musk-spraying nymph.
I stopped at a nearby counter and set down the accursed musk-reeking card while I fumbled in my coat pocket for a handkerchief to try and wipe away the funk on my fingers. I halfway expected my fingertips to be changing color, as if I’d gripped an iodine-laced murder weapon that the DA would be shining ultra-violet light onto during a cross-examination.
“I see you would like to take advantage of our special on Musque du Homme,” said a young man’s voice. I stopped my out-out-damn-spot! ministrations to my fingers and looked up to see a perfectly tanned young man with perfect teeth, perfect eyes, well-tailored clothes, and a beaming bonhomie disposition. I figured that, having just managed to escape Miss Scylla, this must be her colleague, the young Mr. Charybdis.
“Well, actually …” I began.
“This is an excellent fragrance,” said Mr. Charybdis, beaming charismatically at me. “I got some for my dad last Father’s Day and he loved it. Wears it all the time. And this is an excellent price.”
“The thing is …” I began, attempting one more time to get the train back on the rails.
“This stuff has been flying off the shelves. In fact,” he said, reaching under the glass counter containing an array of brightly-colored boxes, blinding halogen lights, and price displays made of faux brass letters, “This is our last one.” He hoisted it proudly out and set it on the counter as if he’d just pulled a rabbit out of a hat and was waiting for applause.
“I’m not actually …”
“Would you like it gift-wrapped?” asked the boy Charybdis, and I was almost certain I’d seen a gleam of light reflect off of his perfect teeth.
“No, I …”
“We also have an unadvertised special today. With every quart of Musque du Homme you buy, you can get a six-ounce bottle of either Saddlehorn or Pommelhorse, both very masculine scents, for a mere 19.95.” He indicated with a game-show-model wave of his hand two pyramids of brightly-colored boxes with the names he’d just mentioned. Both boxes were festooned with masculine iconography on them as if to say “Serving Suggestion.”
“I’m not really …”
“Oh, and I forgot. You get this little bobble-head elf wearing chaps. Isn’t that cute? Great stocking stuffer.” He flicked the elf’s head with his finger to make it bobble.
“I just came in for a nightgown …”
The boy Charybdis’s expression suddenly changed as if he’d realized with dismay that he’d been using the wrong sales technique.
“Oh, I see,” he said.
“Or maybe a bathrobe,” I said, feebly realizing my mistake but helpless to correct it.
“Well, the lady’s department is on the next floor up,” said Charybdis with the aloofness of a sales person who realizes all hopes of a sale have vanished. He hefted up the jug of Musque du Homme and returned it to its place in the showcase.
“It . . . it’s . . . for my wife Alexis, you see,” I stammered.
“Yes, sir,” smiled Chaybdis politely.
I decided that the time had come for a strategic retreat and so I turned and walked away from the counter. What else could I do? Some verbal pits could not be dug out of. Better to just cut one’s losses. Years from now after Miss Scylla and the young Charybdis were married and had two beautiful, perfect children, they would no doubt look back on this amusing episode of their youth and laugh.
Copyright ©2017 by Biff Sock Pow