When the affair began, some weeks ago, there was only vast uncharted innocence. I had no reason to anticipate the events that followed.
At the outset there was a need to take action on a special shopping list--gifts to people to acknowledge their extraordinary helpfulness during the year.
I showed the gift list to my wife and asked her if she could include it with her own holiday shopping.
My wife declined, and immediately I knew the reason: She is deeply sentimental about gifts, to which she takes a personal approach. But the names on my list were only faceless persons to her; they had been helpful to me but in fact they were hardly known to her.
I understood, because ordinarily I take a sentimental, personal approach to such matters. It had been different this year: The busiest shopping season had arrived too swiftly.
During a free midday hour I went to a department store. As I approached, it became apparent from the parking overflow that there were probably crowds inside. I couldn't see a parking space. Perhaps I didn't look hard enough because I was somewhat intimidated. I tried another department store and then a third. Same scene each time.
Retreating but still undefeated, I remembered a hefty sales catalogue atop a stack of papers at home. The catalogue was published by a department store chain. Later that day I reviewed its numerous pages and eventually tracked down the items on my special gift list.
Actually, I was surprised to find precisely what I'd been looking for and especially pleased to find a simple, efficient solution to the chaos of holiday shopping. Not least, I was delighted at the prospect of saving so much valuable time.
My telephone call to the department store chain was blocked by a busy signal. Every few minutes, for what seemed like an eternity, I dialed and the busy signal reacted.
Eventually I made contact with a live operator at the store, and she informed me that there was a separate phone number for the sales catalogue office. She could not connect me; I would have to dial again.
The busy signal at the sales catalogue office was no less busy. After another eternity of calls, I reached a sales catalogue person who took the order. She assured me that the merchandise would be delivered in "a few days."
To be fair about this, a package did arrive in a few days, but it contained only the first two items on my shopping list. A printed slip of paper inside the package carried the notice: "The remainder of your order is being shipped separately."
When, two weeks later, the separate shipment had not arrived, I telephoned the sales catalogue office again. The busy signal showed no sign of weakening. After another eternity, there was a breakthrough to a live sales person.
She listened to my query and then informed me: "We take only new orders at this (telephone) number. There's a separate number for undelivered merchandise."
Whereupon we were disconnected.
I dialed again and--after repeated busy signals--reached the same person. This time she gave me the number for the office specializing in undelivered merchandise.
When I dialed there was, of course, the usual interception by a busy signal. After a dozen or more attempts, a sales person answered.
She listened to my story and she slowly repeated some of it, spelling an occasional word as if she were putting the information into a computer.
Presently she said: "Are you sure you haven't received the remainder of the order?"
"I don't understand it," she said. "Our computer shows your entire order. There's no sign of anything missing."
"That's why I'm calling--part of the order is missing."
"But the computer doesn't say that."
"Do you mean," I was beginning to feel dizzy, "there is no reality until the computer confirms it?"
"I don't know about that," she said, "but the computer never makes mistakes."
'But, sir, I take your word for what you say. Do you mind waiting three more days to see if that second package arrives, and then calling me again to let me know?"
"Madam, I do mind. I'm never going to call again."
"I'm sorry, sir."
'So am I."
The second package arrived the next day.
Later my wife congratulated me on my success at shopping for gifts. I tried to mask the experience with a feeble smile. But if she imagines that I'm going to try gift-shopping soon again, she is mistaken. Personally, I think she uses that sales catalogue only as a paperweight.