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In search of the perfect gift

A 12-hour trek to Lenox, Phipps, Perimeter and the Mall of Georgia to find something money can't buy

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The Vietnamese guy looks nothing like Santa Claus. Not that he's trying. Yet there he lounges: on Santa's perch, at the mouth of Macy's, snuggled into St. Nick's cushiony throne, his girlfriend at his side, in the predawn shadows of Lenox Square.

The retail altar of Atlanta has been stirring all night. It is Black Friday, 4:45 a.m.

Christmas, by God, is coming, and this decked-out hall of, of ... stuff is living and breathing and warm. A Christmas morning in its own right.

Presents are just beginning to make their magical migration from Santa's lap.

Just not this Santa's.

The Vietnamese guy is 21. His name's Charles. He's taking it easy in a pillowed, primo spot: Santa's.

"If he comes," he says, "we'll move."

He thinks I've come to shoo him. I haven't.

"Those are free," he says, motioning to a bin full of miniature, plastic, toboggan-cap-wearing penguins at his side. "Santa gives them out. Grab one for your kid."

Charles has been here since 3 a.m.

"A lot of deals," he says. "My cousin Jimmy just got a jacket at Guess for $65. It's an investment, yo. A leather bomber jacket for 65 dollars."

Sounds perfect, I tell him.

"It has two pockets on the inside," he says. "Sometimes there's only one pocket in there."

I mention that I'm here not to buy anything, but to browse the Christmas spirit and find the perfect gift. Or some semblance of some product sans pareil, some thing one might deem choicest, beyond compare and, all in all, saa-weeet. Or, say, something deserving of the syrupy Southern salute to unabashed adorableness that sounds more like sweight.

"Time," Santa Charles says. "Your time is precious."

And so, too, it turns out, is something I happen to spot next to him beneath a giant present prop. Charles and his girl have already spied it, opened it.

"It's really awesome," he says.

I don't know it now, but his gift to me — rather, the one he reveals before I depart Santa's sofa in search of something at once material and matchless — will, in the end, prove most perfect. The purest of all.

No, not a plastic penguin.

But it is something I can hold — and look at, ponder and, later, try and get in touch with the mall Santa himself about. It's a long shot, but I figure he might know something of the jewel I'd discovered in his roped-off, larger-than-life living room.

This gift is free and playful and generous and heartfelt and sad and, maybe, a little jarring when you get to the bottom of it.

Still, it is something I can put down and leave behind. Though I could pick it up and disappear with it, and no one would care. Or would they? If there is a Santa Claus they would. It's one of those precious things that makes me think there just might be.

But it's early and, who knows, maybe I can top this mystery gift.

One floor up, the Apple store has just opened. To cheers, ahhhs. I head the other way.

"Give Joyfully," a sign at Pottery Barn beckons.

"Give with Style," suggests Gap.

"Love the Present," Banana Republic declares.

"Merry Kicksmas," Foot Locker flaps (really), "and a Happy Shoe Year."

"Let it Dough. Let it Dough. Let it Dough," Auntie Anne's pretzels tries.

At half past 5, I see a sign at Ann Taylor — "Perfect Presents" — and head inside. When I say I'm looking for the perfect gift, a saleswoman hands me a card: "Today only! 40% Off." Another saleswoman directs me to a $168 cashmere scarf.

At a place called Lush — "Fresh Handmade Cosmetics" — there is pulsing, strip-clubby music and a clerk awash in it, telling me how the $199 "Wonderful Christmas Time" variety pack, a mother lode of moisturizers that includes the "Winter Bath Bomb" and the "Christmas Eve Bubble Bar," is, um, "perfect."

It is way better than their $20-cheaper "Merry Christmas Darling" collection with a "Sex Bomb Bath Bomb," a "Sex in the Shower Emotibomb," an "Mmm Melting Marshmallow Moment Bath Melt," some "Silky Underwear Dusting Powder" and a "Mrs. Whippy Bath Bomb."

"Receiving," the package says, "is definitely better than giving when the gift is this good."

I hit the Hickory Farms stand outside Tourneau.

"I'm trying to find the perfect gift."

"You've come to the right place," the Hickory Farms guy says.

"Show me the perfect gift."

"Who's it for?"

"I'm just looking for the perfect gift."

"This," he says, "is the perfect gift. It has a little bit of everything in it."

The Deluxe Smokehouse Collection.

"What makes it perfect?"

"It has everything that Hickory Farms has to offer. Different types of sausages and all the cheeses. ... It's 60 bucks."

"It's got ham summer sausage, turkey summer sausage," I say, reading the box. "But it's not summer."

"It is funny," he says.

It's after 6 a.m. when I pop into J. Crew and tell them I want the perfect gift. One clerk leads me to a $325 gray coat before handing me off to a guy in back.

"The perfect gift?" he says. "O-kayyy."

"You know," I say, "perfect. If you had to pick something out to give to baby Jesus."

"I would, hmmmm. It's kind of a loaded question," he says, then: "Definitely one of the weekender bags. ... Also, too, Red Wing boots, a suit, a pea coat and a hoodie."

Me: "A $68 hoodie?"

"It's really, really comfortable."

Me: "The weekender bag, though, it's the one?"

"That's the baby-Jesus gift," he says.

The Charlie Brown Christmas tune, piped out over the mall speakers, makes it feel like I'm walking through my own holiday-TV special.

The corridors of Lenox are a cosmos of smells: $5 coffee, new car, newer car, old wallet, left-open Chanel, cigar box and Coach store. It's free to look, but, this time of year anyway, they could probably charge admission.

I overhear someone streaming out of Macy's say, "I doubt they are giving anything away."

At the Gap, where on this day all merchandise is 50 percent off until 10 a.m., a young woman, almost hyperventilating at the prospect of potential savings, says to herself, "OK. I'm a little freaked out right now."

As for my pursuit of perfection, I check out the magnetic-toy BuckyBalls at Mori Luggage & Gift. And the $460 Montblanc pen. At Williams-Sonoma, a sales staffer guides me to the "perfect" herb-cutting kit. At Coach, I'm shown to the $1,400 gathered-leather Madison shoulder bag.

At Brookstone, the gadget-geek paradise where cardboard peppermints are hanging, a salesman whose name tag bears the title "1st Assistant Manager" points out his shop's dream toy. It's something called the AR.Drone, a quadruple-propellered gizmo that goes for $300.

"It's the most happening thing out right now," I'm told. "Steve Nash has one."

"Who's that?" I say. Even though I know who Nash is, I'm wondering why an NBA point guard's endorsement of hovering plastic is a selling point.

"The basketball player for the Lakers," the sales guy replies, which may come as an early Christmas present to Lakers fans, considering the two-time MVP plays for Phoenix.

"These have four blades," the salesman continues, "and live-streaming video to your iPhone, iPod or iPad. It's augmented reality, which actually has video-game kind of technology. Let's say you're flying one and you have another one come in the vicinity. It switches it to a battle mode where you can actually fire at the other one, simulated on the iPad."

The drone's box pronounces, "As Seen on YouTube."

"They spared no expense on advertising," I say.

"Actually," the guy says, "there's all kinds of people loading up videos about it now."

"So Steve Nash has one?" I ask.

"Steve Nash," he says.

Then I'm shown some much cheaper remote-control helicopters. Think hummingbirds from hell.

I joke that I'm sure they're guaranteed to last through New Year's.

"Nothing's guaranteed with the copters," the 1st Assistant Manager says. "But we do offer crash plans."

I drift down to Bath & Body Works, where the sign out front reads "Perfect Gifts Start Here!"

Saleswoman: "How we doing?"

Me: "I'm here to find the perfect gift."

"I'm right here," a sales guy, who is standing near a rack of what I think is some form of soap, says.

"What," I ask, "would you say is the perfect thing here? The thing you'd get for baby Jesus."

"We had these blankets that were like the most soft thing in the world," the guy says. "That would have been the perfect gift, but someone bought them all."

"Huh?"

"I know, it's crazy," he says. "I love the candles, too. I think they are the perfect gift. That's what I'm getting for my own mother. I'm gonna do a set of candles for her because she is awesome like that. They are two for $20 right now. ... I don't know what baby Jesus is gonna want. Maybe a bag?"

I swing by Phipps.

Tiffany & Co.

Surely I can waltz into Tiffany's and go diamond gazing. (Not that I have ever gone diamond gazing, mind you.) But when there are sentries by the doors of a place where the décor approaches contemporary bank vault, putting my hands on anything makes "just looking" the proper approach, even if it rings a tad too Wal-Marty.

I give my spiel.

"You're in the perfect place," says a salesman who passes me off to a saleslady who hands me off to another.

"It will have to be something with diamonds," the first saleslady says as we pass showcases full of stuff I'm sure doesn't have the words "Mrs. Whippy" or "Underwear Dusting" etched anywhere on it.

I'm shown what resembles a diamond pineapple, just smaller and sparklier. I ask what it costs. No answer. I'm handed off to the next saleswoman. She reaches into a tray of platinum-and-diamond necklaces.

"No matter what case you go to in this store," she says, "I don't think you're gonna go wrong."

She's right and she is wrong. I catch a glimpse of the microscopic-print on the tiny treasure's price tag: $2,300.

Up at Perimeter Mall, I'm introduced to "Cranberry Joy"-scented heatable feet hugs at the Body Shop. Then the "Deep Sleep Dreamy Pillow and Body Mist."

"A lot of people have trouble sleeping so they spray down their whole entire, like, their pillows," the saleswoman says.

"So it's like Febreze?"

"No, because Febreze, like, kills bacterial odors," she says.

At Yankee Candle Co., the lady behind the register says the balsam and cedar candles are perfect. I take a whiff. They remind me of wintergreen Life Savers.

Outside the Limited, I overhear a fellow in a purple Clemson T-shirt gushing about how he intends to buy the woman in his life "an arsenal of shoes and boots."

In the cosmetics palace in Bloomingdale's, they trot out a pink bottle of Versace Bright Crystal.

I have to admit, for a woman, it is damn-near perfect: citrus meets fresh sheets meets snowflakes.

"It's very balanced, you know?" a salesman says with what I think is a heavy eastern-European lilt. "It's called Versace Bright Crystal." Except he says it creee-stull. "It's not overwhelming. It's really delicate. It's very nice. And I have a great special because I have a nice gift set. Only one gift set left. That's why it's the perfect gift, see? The bottle is beautiful, the fragrance is awesome. Ladies love pink, you know, absolutely. And here you get a beautiful kiss-metic bag."

He digs through the bag, pulling out packing paper and a bottle of body lotion.

"And if you buy it today, I'll give you this fabulous Versace duffel bag for free."

It's golden, luminous. Like something Goldmember from the Austin Powers flicks might tote his schwing creams in.

"Fancy," I say.

"I know."

"Can you throw in anything else?"

"For you, I will doooo it. I mean, I will put some extra samples for you."

I pass.

At the Mall of Georgia, a Six Flags of shopping where suburbia can get its Dick's, Old Navy and P.F. Chang's on, I see an old woman in Pottery Barn with a barking miniature dachshund in her arms. Another woman browsing the wares sings along with the in-store soundtrack, "Sleigh Ride," humming, "Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup, let's go."

I ask a Pottery Barn associate to show me the perfect gift.

"No one's ever asked me that," she says. "I would like an entire set of Dasher-Dancer dishes."

I swing by the mall's Santa setup. St. Nick is on break, but three of his helpers, women in black pants, red shirts and ornament-print neckties, are there.

"I'm trying to find the perfect gift."

"Who is the perfect gift for? ... What's the age range? ... Male or female?"

"Y'all know Santa," I say, "you're supposed to already know."

As for me, I already do.

I left it back by the Santa throne at Lenox.

"To Santa," it reads in school-girl scrawl, "From Caroline."

Little Caroline, whoever she is, has written it on notebook paper, in pen, a four-page letter folded into a flat square, grade-school gift wrap at its finest.

In the end, her gift is presented to you, her unintended readers. But first and foremost her offering is to Father Christmas himself.

On one page, she has sketched a piano, some drums, a guitar: "Do you like music? I hope you do."

She has drawn a box adorned with a bow: "I hope you like presents."

But her first five sentences say the most.

Forty-six words.

They capture the innocence, the unknown, of childhood. Of growing up. Of sometimes-harsh reality.

They are a message in a bottle that washed up on Santa's stoop.

They are something to consider, to swish into your bath balm, to lend pause to the holiday din. A perfect gift when the prospects aren't so great that one will be forthcoming in return.

Nothing more than an anonymous girl's hope.

"Dear Santa," Caroline begins, "You will get what I want right? Well I hope you do because you are so nice. Santa are you real? Because some people in my class do not think your real. But of course I think your real because my mom is broke."

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