The other day, a man with Christmas on his mind walked into a sporting goods store to buy a baseball mitt for his son.
"I'd like to buy a baseball mitt for my son," he told the clerk.
"Oh, yeah?" the clerk answered, giving his customer a narrow-eyed gaze. "How do we know it's for your son?"
"How do we know it's for your son?" the clerk repeated. "We've had some suspicious-looking types in here lately looking at our baseball mitts. You can't be too careful these days."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," the customer said, perusing a wall laden with baseball merchandise. "But this little number looks like it will do just fine." He pulled a youth-sized glove down from a hook and patted his fist into the pocket a couple of times. "Yes, I think this will work. Where do we do business?"
"Over there," the clerk said, pointing to a counter and a cash register. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What do you intend to do with this mitt?"
"I told you. It's for my kid. It's Christmas."
"Hmmm," the clerk said, looking the customer up and down. "We'll see." A sly grin crossed his features. "Cash or charge?" he asked.
"Charge. Here's my credit card."
With obvious relish, the clerk snatched the plastic rectangle from the customer's outstretched hand and swiped it through his computer.
"Ah ha!" the clerk said. "You are Elston T. Gladnutt, of 1235 Bratwurst Avenue?"
"Yes. That's right."
"And you are currently employed as assistant chief bookkeeper for the Mammoth Deconstruction Company?"
"Well, sure. But I don't understand what that has to do..."
"Very interesting," the clerk said, staring at his computer screen. "I see that you've made some other credit purchases today. Tell me -- who's the case of motor oil for, Mr. Gladnutt?"
"Well, actually, it's for my mother. She's a big NASCAR fan. But what do you think you're doing? I just want to buy a baseball mitt and get out of here."
"Not so fast, Gladnutt. I see that you purchased a baby hyena this morning at Vic's House of Varmints. Who gets that?"
"My little daughter Gwenda. She loves animals."
"Well, if you don't mind my saying so, Mr. Gladnutt, that's a rather peculiar choice of Christmas gifts, given that you got a D in zoology at college."
"I beg your pardon. What the hell's going on here, anyway?"
"I'll tell you what's going on, Mr. Gladnutt. Before we decide to sell you or any other troublemaker one of our baseball mitts, we clear it through the new U.S. Information Awareness Office. You know, the government's secret data-mining project. All kinds of shady characters with suspicious international connections are looking at sporting goods, and we don't intend to make any mistakes. By the way, why do you order the veal piccata every time you eat at Il Buffone?"
"Are you nuts? I happen to like veal piccata. But, hey! I don't much like you or your so-called information gathering. What are you going to tell me next? My shoe size and the day I invited Harriet Grubner to the prom?"
"Sure. You wear an 8 1/2 D, Mr. Gladnutt. And I'm advising you right now to watch what you say from here on out. Our reports show that Harriet Grubner didn't want anything to do with you. As a matter of fact, she went to the prom with Russ Milton, the co-captain of the football team -- a fact that you may or may not remember. In any event, you're getting onto thin ice here, baseball-mitt-wise. While we're at it, maybe you can explain this business about trying to jump over a tank full of live sharks on a motorcycle back in the 1970s."
"What? Are you completely out of your mind? That was Evel Knievel."
"Oh, out of my mind, am I? It says right here in our data bank that in the winter of 1976, cycle daredevil Elston T. Gladnutt tried to leap across a huge tank of thrashing sharks before a big crowd in the Chicago Amphitheater and was seriously injured in the process. Are you denying it?"
"For God's sake, yes, I'm denying it. In the winter of '76 I was probably studying for my economics and calculus finals, and the worst thing that happened to me health-wise was a flu epidemic in the Fiji house. You people sure have got your signals crossed."
"As a matter of fact, you didn't get the flu in 1976. It says right here that you and the other frat boys got sick in 1975. Not only that, you've never had whooping cough or shingles, just in case you were thinking about claiming them. But we know very well that your wife, Val, got the mumps in February, 1961, at the age of six. So now, Mr. Gladnutt. We've clearly got the goods on you. You may as well tell me right now about those 714 major-league home runs you hit."
"You're a raving lunatic," Gladnutt replied. "714 home runs? Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. The furthest I ever got in the game was two summers of American Legion ball back in my home town."
"Yes. Your home town of Bison Pie, Nebraska. Where you batted a paltry .238 over those two seasons and committed an egregious 27 errors while playing left field. Your manager, Buzzy Clark, had no other place to hide you."
"Well, that sounds about right. But the other thing is crazy. I mean, I'm five-seven and weigh 139 pounds. I've only seen four big-league games in my entire life."
The store clerk's devilish grin returned. "Oh, sure, Mr. Gladnutt. We've heard that kind of thing before. Let me assure you of this: The Total Information Awareness project simply does not make mistakes. We know damn well that your baseball career blossomed after that rather inauspicious start back in Bison Pie, and that only the great Henry Aaron has hit more home runs than your 714. The Sultan of Sweat. That's what they called you. It says so right here. In fact, that fact -- and that fact alone -- compels us to approve your purchase of a youth baseball mitt here at Big Brother Sports. Anybody who hit that many dingers probably has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. Here. Let me have that glove."
Gladnutt handed his purchase to the clerk, who carefully looked it over.
"Hey. Wait a minute," the clerk said. "What's this? What player's autograph is written on this thing?"
More baffled than ever, Gladnutt glanced at the mitt. "It says Al Leiter. You know. Al Leiter. Pretty good left-hander. Pitches for the New York Mets."
"That's right, Mr. Gladnutt. And if I may be so bold as to inquire, what would the customary and common pronunciation of the name 'Al Leiter' sound like in the Borough of Queens, where the left-leaning Leiter practices his trade?"
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"I don't get it. But since a lot of working-class people in New York City tend to drop their R's, I suppose it would be something like 'Al Light-ah.'"
"Precisely!" the clerk said. "And that rhymes with what? Tell me now. That rhymes with what?"
"I have no idea."
That rhymes with al Qaeda!" the clerk bellowed. "And on that note, sir, you will kindly remain standing right here while I call store security. You, Mr. Gladnutt, obviously have a lot of explaining to do to the FBI."