A TRADITION THAT DEFIES EXPLANATION

Iam walking with an alien. He is here from outer space. We are going Christmas shopping. He has lots of questions.

“What is this place?” he asks.

“A shopping mall,” I say.

“Why are we driving away from it?” he asks.

“Because there is no place to park,” I say.

“What is this place?”

“A muffler shop across the street.”

“Why are we going here?”

“We’re not. I’m going to leave the car and pretend like it’s being serviced. Otherwise we’ll spend all day circling around.”

We trudge across the major boulevard. Snow blows into our faces. My face. He doesn’t have a face.

“This is a department store,” I say, pushing open a door to reveal mobbed aisles, the scent of a million perfumes and the blaring music of “Silver Bells.”

“What does it mean? Department store?”

“It means, if they don’t like what you buy them, they know where to return it.”

The perfect gift

We work through a list. Five cousins, four nephews, eight nieces, three sisters-in-law. We collect nine sweaters, two pairs of Nikes, three sports jerseys and eight hoop earrings.

“What is this?” the alien says, holding up a large purple shirt.

“A Shaquille O’Neal jersey,” I say.

A woman snatches it from his hands. She runs to the counter.

“The last Shaquille O’Neal jersey,” I add.

We find the toy store. The line is out the door. We push through screaming children and whining teenagers and exhausted adults and confused grandparents.

“Why are they here?” the alien asks.

“To spread joy,” I say.

Just then, two adults begin shoving and screaming “I was here first!” One throws a punch. The other makes a tackle. Another person sneaks in front while they are scuffling.

The alien picks up a video game. He jiggles the joysticks.

“What is this?” he asks.

“A Nintendo.” I answer.

A woman snatches it from his hands. She runs to the counter.

“The last Nintendo,” I add.

The endless waits

We enter a food store. A fruitcake sits on a table. The alien tries a piece.

“This is terrible,” he says.

“I know,” I say.

“Then why are all those people buying them?” he asks.

“Revenge,” I say.

We stand in line for wrapping. Two hours. We stand in line for a cup of coffee. One hour. We wait for a salesman at the electronic appliance store
(three hours) only to be told the item is out of stock but there is a cheaper, no-name brand if you let them check (two hours) after which they say they don’t have that one either, sorry, and I throw a fit (one hour).

Christmas cards. We’re short on Christmas cards. We run to the gift shop, which looks like a bomb imploded. The shelves are bare. The floor is full of empty cartons. Finally, there, under a broken elf, we see a box of cards.

“Is this it?” the alien asks.

A woman snatches the box from his hands. She runs to the counter.

“It was,” I say.

We finish. It is dark outside. We trudge across the street. The snow blows in our faces. We shove boxes, bags and packages inside the trunk. I am exhausted. The alien has a question.

“What is the purpose of this exercise, Christmas shopping?”

“To show kindness to others,” I say.

“Does it work?”

I am about to explain when a man knocks on my window. He has white hair. He has a white beard. He smiles. I roll down the window.

“I fixed your muffler while you were gone,” he says. “You owe me $129.50.”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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