Sweetie's choices in gifts tend toward the avant-garde (which is French for tasteless and bizarre).
"What's that?" I ask.
"It's Mom's gift," Sweetie says, throwing a box with a picture of a cow on the front into our basket.
"'Genuine Cowpie,'" I say, reading the label.
"It's a chocolate pie shaped like ..."
"I don't think so," I say, handing it back.
"But it's 'udderly delicious,'" Sweetie says.
Last year, Sweetie gave his mother a commode plunger with a Pez dispenser built into the handle.
Then there was the year he dashed into a coin shop five minutes before closing. Nothing says "I love you" like a couple of Susan B. Anthony coins wrapped in a brown paper bag.
If "Ripley's Believe It or Not" ever opens an outlet store, Sweetie will be first in line.
As soon as Mom unwraps her Gift of the Weird, every eye in the house always rolls my way. I ask you, am I my Sweetie's keeper?
But this year, I am not going to suffer through another humiliating gift opening. I've taken charge of Sweetie's mother's gift, and after 11 months of extensive research, I know exactly what she wants.
There, glittering in the storefront window, like a star in the East, is the perfect gift a delicate, cutglass-crystal nativity scene on a beveled oval mirror.
"She's going to love it," I say, bending over the glass case.
"Austrian leaded crystal," the salesman says, carefully lifting a Wise Man from the case and holding its twinkling facets to the light.
"I'll take it," I say, whipping out the plastic.
"An heirloom," the salesman says, sticking one of those minitelescopes in his eye to study the clarity. "Signed by the artist ..."
"Yeah, yeah," I say. "Wrap her up."
"Perhaps Madam would be interested in the ... detailing," he says, flipping over the price tag.
After I've returned from my near-death experience, I regroup.
"I don't suppose you have the same thing in, like ... jelly jar glass?" I say.
Two cities, three malls and 29 stores later ...
"What's it made of?" I sigh, staring at the dusty display.
Snapping her gum, the sales girl picks up a Wise Man and bangs him on the countertop.
"Could be glass," she says, listening to the dull clunk.
It is, of course, the last one, and the box is long gone. With the help of a little spit, I scrub off the MADE IN TAIWAN stickers and drop the little figurines into my basket. Making my way to the checkout, the figurines roll and clink against each other like Coke bottles.
I finally get to the register, and as the checkout girl is dropping Joseph head-first into a Certs box, I suddenly panic.
"Wait ...," I say, picking up the tiny manger, "where's Jesus???!!!"
"Why, he's all around us, dear," the lady behind me says.
"Don't anybody move!" I shout.
Five people throw their arms in the air and someone tosses me their wallet.
Dropping onto all fours, I buff the linoleum as I retrace my path through the store in search of baby Jesus. I might as well be looking for three wise men and a virgin.
"You'll see," Sweetie says, slapping a used bow on top of the box, "Mom's gonna love it."
Oh yeah, exactly what she's always wanted: The Gift of the Cowpie. (Copyright 1999 P.S. Wall. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.)