"Which mall will it be?" the cabby asked as I settled into the back seat.

I told him which one, then sat right up again. "Okay, wise guy," I said. "How did you know I was going to a mall?"

"Easy, governor," he said. "It's Christmas Eve, you're not carrying a briefcase, and you're looking worried. That has to mean you haven't bought the Missus a gift yet, which means you either want a downtown store, in which case you would have walked so you could window shop, or else a mall. How'm I doing?"

"Driving me nuts as usual," I said. "I suppose you finished your shopping six weeks ago and you're cruising around seeing how many last-minute desperates you can find to poke fun at."

"Poke fun?" the cabby said with wounded innocence. "Oh country air, Mr. Columnist. I'm here to help you. Of course my first piece of advice will have to wait till next year, which is don't wait till the last minute to start looking."

I assured him that it wasn't that I'd waited until the last minute at all, just that untold numbers of earlier minutes of looking and consulting and begging for hints had netted me nothing. It was desperation time, I said.

"Okay," the cabby said, "let's take this a step at a time. I've seen your lady once or twice, and seems to me she's a pretty sharp dresser. Why don't you try to think of a store where she shops and find something like the stuff she already has?"

"Because she'll tell me she already has one and how this proves I never pay attention to her and how if I hadn't waited until the last minute yadda yadda yadda," I explained.

"She wears nice jewelry, too, if I may recollect without you thinking I was paying more attention to her than I should have," the cabby said. "So why don't I take you to a nice jewelry shop . . . "

"Because if it's a big shop, she's sure to see somebody else wearing whatever I get, and if it's a small specialty shop, they won't want to take it back except for credit if she doesn't like it. We've still got store credits from small specialty shops that go back to when the children were little and I had hair. Two of them are out of business."

"I see," said the cabby, suddenly serious. "Tell me, are there things you've bought her that she hasn't taken back?"

"Well, there was a new car once, but that's out of the question this year . . . "

"Did she go shopping with you for the car?"

"No. She hates car shopping. Doesn't care about brand names or any of that stuff. She just wants something reliable."

"But she does like shopping for clothes and jewelry and so forth?"

"Like it? She loves it with a passion!"

"Well, I may not have the solution," the cabby said, "but at least I'm starting to understand the problem."

"Enlighten me, oh wise one," I said.

"You know your friend Charlie--the one you're always talking about how he loves to fish?"

"Sure."

"Well, imagine it was his birthday. You suppose he'd get all giddy if you gave him a mess of crappie?"

"Of course not," I said. "I mean he likes fish, but no more than anybody else. What he really loves is fishing."

"Now you've got it," the cabby said. "Your wife likes nice things, but she loves shopping for them. It's not that your taste is so ridiculously bad, it's that whatever you pick for her--even if it's something she might have picked for herself--won't be fully satisfying. She won't have had the chance to think about what it would go with that she already has. She won't have the fun of seeing whether she could find it for less somewhere else. She won't have the thrill of waiting for the price to go down to where she hopes it will before somebody else buys it from under her. For shoppers, shopping is a sport, like fishing. You run around trying to guess what kind of fish will turn her on when it's the fishing itself that excites her."

"I hate to admit it," I said, "but you made more sense in the last five minutes than you've ever made in the rest of your life combined. So what am I supposed to get her--a gift certificate?"

"Would you give your friend Charlie a bucket of nightcrawlers?"

"Stop trying to sound like some inscrutable Tibetan guru and tell me what to buy my wife!" I shouted.

"Hey, buddy," the cabby said, "I'm a genius, not a miracle-worker. Merry Christmas, anyway. You want your change?"