The Gift

I’ve always hated shopping malls; those vast wastelands of relentless consumerism. I’ve disliked the suburbs since I began to understand the true nature of its origins. Here’s a segment of society that exists solely because of what I am. Their veiled bigotry is why they all decided to live outside the city, tooling from shopping mall to shopping mall in luxury off-road wagons.

At Christmas-time, I have to suffer both horrors. Suburban shopping malls filled with useless goods and mindless, self-important shoppers. Happy Holidays.

So, as usual, I procrastinated. As usual, I got lost on the way. I don’t know why I decided to go to Virginia; there are plenty of stores in Washington DC. I nearly did a full circuit of the beltway while trying to decide what to give my sister for Christmas.

The Gift

Almost unconsciously, I ended up at a particularly tacky outdoor mall in where-the-fuck-ever with the idea of giving her a photography book.

A chain bookstore at a senseless strip mall in the middle of a soulless town. I braced myself as I walked thru the door.

The place was packed, but the bustle appeared almost artificial. People were rushing about with an intensity that seemed almost out of character for a bookstore. Maybe I’d forgotten that this commotion was part of the Christmas tradition.

I decide that the sooner I finished the better. I spotted two elderly women at the gift wrap table and picked my way thru the crowd to ask for directions.

Politely, I began to ask for directions, but trailed off when it became clear that they were paying no attention. It was strange, but I figured they were just engrossed in conversation and managed to miss me completely in the crush of shoppers. I tried again. Nothing. They just continued to talk to each other as if I wasn’t there.

Deciding to go it alone, I found the photography section and spent the next half hour deciding which book to buy. I picked an African photo book after spending a moment marveling at its rich cover.

— — —

At the checkout counter, I asked for gift wrapping paper and was told they’d run out. Great. Another stop to make. I was already cursing my procrastination when the cashier told me that the two ladies at the gift wrap table still had plenty.

“Those two?” I scowled. “They just ignored me when I asked for directions earlier.”

“Bah, humbug,” said the cashier merrily. “Maybe they just didn’t hear you.”

“Well, I’m not exactly hard to miss, am I?” I asked, presenting myself.

“Sure you are,” she replied. “Especially if they’re blind.”

I looked over to the gift wrap table. I could now see that a sign had fallen onto the floor and was now being trampled by oblivious holiday shoppers. I thanked the cashier, took my book and walked over. I plucked the sign from the floor and set it on the table. It read Lighthouse for the Blind – Complimentary Gift Wrapping.

“Can we help you?” the closer of the two women asked. She was tall, thin, and dressed in greys. Her cardigan was loose and unremarkable. The other woman was wearing a red sweater encrusted with green and yellow gift boxes. They both stared ahead thru thick spectacles. It occurred to me then that if they had not been wearing glasses, I probably would have figured out that they were blind.

“Could you please wrap this book for me?” I asked handing over the photobook.

The shorter woman groped around briefly before finding the book and taking it from me. “Wow, that’s heavy”, she remarked. “What kind of book is it?”

I told her the name and type of book. “That’s a lovely gift,” the taller woman chimed in. “My son does travel photography for those books. He might have even worked on that one, you know?”

“Really?” I asked. “What’s his name? He might be in the index.”

The tall woman told me the name as her colleague handed the book back to me. I looked in the index and found that he had photographed the book’s cover.

On hearing this, the tall woman asked me to describe the photo for her. It was a candid portrait of a young Masai warrior. He was quite typical for his tribe. Dark, very tall, and preternaturally slim, he wore great, colourful beads across his forehead, around his neck, and thru his stretched earlobes. His slight smile was friendly, but had an almost predatory undercurrent. Behind him, a pair of similarly-adorned warriors, dressed in red, orange, and cream, was captured in mid-leap. In the background, the seemingly infinite glory of the East African Savannah.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” said the tall woman. Her colleague nodded in agreement. By now, I didn’t know what to say. The sadness of the situation had begun to settle over me. This woman’s son was obviously a very artistic photographer. Most likely she had cultivated his talent from childhood. It was, however, a gift that he could never share with her.

I handed the book back to the shorter woman, chose a gift wrap, and resisted the urge to assist them in wrapping. The job they did was about what one would expect from a pair of blind people. Several times I found myself helping as they searched for a misplaced roll of tape or lost pair of scissors. As they worked I imagined my sister’s comments when I told her the story. She’d undoubtedly say I’d been sent there—a mini mall in the middle of nowhere—to describe a son’s amazing photograph for his mother. I figured that the odds of such a thing happening, while probably not astronomical, were pretty close to that.

The two ladies handed me my newly-wrapped present. At the same time, it was the best and worst gift wrapping job I’d ever seen; the tape had missed the seams entirely in some places, the creases were sloppy and the book was plainly hanging out of one end. As I received the package I felt that while the book itself was a gift for a loved one, the experience was a gift for me. I took a Lighthouse pamphlet, left my donation, wished a Merry Christmas to the two ladies, and walked thru the door.

As I reached the outside, a well-dressed man was going in. He spotted the wrapped book in my arms and let out a chuckle. “Who wrapped that?” He asked, laughing. “Are they blind or something?”

I didn’t answer. I just kept walking.