Probably somewhere when the father scorecard is tallied, the ability to Christmas shop for your family must be graded.
I get an F.
With three daughters, ages 12, 11, and 5 who wear only the latest styles, and a wife who has been known to stalk a sale rack like a starving leopard at a watering hole, I should have it figured out by now.
But no. I just cannot do it right.
Cheapitis, terminal case.
In this computer age, so many fathers like me, who can't be entrusted with buying more than milk and bread without a written list, can buy online. I, though, am hopeless at that, too. I have to get my kids to turn on the computer for me, then find for me whatever it is I am looking for. Kind of ruins the surprise of a Christmas gift when the kid has to do all the work.
So go I must.
Thursday with my wife at work making the money to pay the mortgage, I took the three daughters from home in Fort Mill to the mall in Pineville, N.C.
We are inside 30 seconds and they've hustled me for these milkshake-type things at Starbucks -- $13.10 with tax. I get a coffee out of the deal, served by a lady of at least 18 years of age who laughs at me because I say "grand" when it is "grande."
If you can't speak Starbucks, that might be the first clue you will fail with the rest of the shopping.
Because I am a firm believer in gifts being reflective of affection, we decide that the gifts for my wife must show warmth. We will get my wife a new leather wallet to go inside the huge cases that she calls her purses, where she hides all the money from me because I would blow it.
And to further prove that gifts should be enjoyed by all, and forever, we shall buy her a martini shaker.
My oldest knows all the stores and styles better than miners know gold. The 11-year-old is just as savvy. Their T-shirts cost as much as the light bill. We make a beeline for a leather store. We pass the new age fathers, dressed in stylish-cut jeans and name-brand sweaters. They carry shopping bags and smile and walk with purpose.
I wear jeans a stevedore would throw away. My coat has an oil spot on it. My shirt has spilled coffee on it like a birthmark.
I skip down the corridor with the 5-year-old and get death threats from the other two.
"Stop embarrassing us," they say under their breaths.
I am then dragged around the leather store. The first wallet, soft, sleek, the color of burnished mahogany, has a price tag that would make the Sultan of Brunei gasp.
"No way!" I roar. "She will have a wallet but no money to put in it. The credit cards will be confiscated. Collectors will beat down the door!"
"Daddy, be quiet!" says the oldest. "What do you want to get her, a cheap wallet? Whole world will know you are a cheapskate."
"They already know," I say.
But these veteran shoppers at ages 12 and 11 don't like the selection, so we head for a department store. I will not tell you the name, but pants in there costs as much as rent.
We pass by the housewares, past the frying pans called something much fancier so that the cost can be $163.50, and find the martini shakers.
We decide on the one that shows not just the measurements, but has a twistable cover with recipes on it. Stainless steel. It shines under the lights. I dream of a thousand past nights barside when I was younger. Older now, I look at the price tag and think, "York County gas bill disconnection notice."
"Stop worrying Dad, it's Christmas," they say at the same time.
I carry the martini shaker. It weighs exactly a half-ton.
They sashay to the wallets. I drag myself like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
They find two wallets that meet their refined tastes. One is that raw umber color from the Crayola 64 box everybody had as a kid. It is likely from the hide of some animal so rare that the shock of the price to me probably is as close to the shock of the animal that gave its carcass up for the wallet. The other is wine-red, maybe blood-red, and costs far less: Only about the GNP of Panama.
I am complaining and the girls decide that the blood-red, almost black one is the choice.
We approach the cashier ladies.
The register rings up silently, and I reach for the credit card. The numbers glare at me. I glare back in disbelief. My hand shakes. I need a martini.
But the sale goes through. I sign and begin to weep.
"Oh daddy," says the oldest. "She wants gospel CDs, too. I think four or five of them."
Now, I am thinking that gospel music should be cheap because God wants you to hear the music for just a few cents. But I find out that CDs are at least $15 a pop for new releases, and I am having a cheapskate attack of an even higher, biblical nature.
By Saturday, we had to go again to finish up. All five of us, one big happy family, right? I am the driver and told to be quiet and steer.
Two department stores, then that same mall again. Bags of every size. I am a zombie.
Gifts cards at a place where one shirt costs $60 and the clerk has a ring through his tongue.
"$60 shirts," I croak, and the money gets handed over.
And then on Tuesday morning, I will rip open whatever these women bought for me, and it will be beautiful and lovely, and I will gush, "You shouldn't have."
They shouldn't have, but they always do.
And none of them, these wonderful women, will say I deserve nothing. Yet I, and you, will know.