My wife was on the phone. She had the posture of a floor lamp, which indicated both concentration and irritation.

"NO," she said. She paused. "NO."

"Are you on the phone to the dog? What did he do?"

Then she rattled off a sequence of numbers, and I understood. She'd called the catalog company. Again.

Let us back up to the merry days of the previous holiday. A catalog arrived in the mail. If you gave Minnesota Public Radio $5 in 1996, you get the catalog. It has lots of interesting stuff that makes you feel smart and cultured. Why, yes, I am the sort of person who wants a Monet scarf, a jigsaw puzzle of the DNA of famous women in history, a joshing T-shirt that defensively addresses my wine consumption and a 12-DVD set of "Sister Murple's Mysteries," a BBC show from the '90s set in a small village where nine people are murdered annually, and only a crafty nun can solve them.

My wife did about 85% of her gift shopping from this catalog, and ordered ahead of time so the items would be under the tree by Christmas.

The items were not under the tree.

Well, duh, you say, you have to take them in from the porch and wrap them. Good point. But they were not on the porch, either. When she called to inquire what had happened, or rather what had not, she was told they were still at the warehouse.

I should note, with loving affection and admiration, that my wife is not a "tracking number" type of person. Some of us plug the number into the shipper's website so we can see the package's journey home:

12:53 p.m.: Package picked up from Murfreesboro, Tenn., warehouse. You imagine it's all excited, maybe leaning out the window with its tongue hanging out: We're going on an adventure!

4:59 p.m.: Package arrived at Nashville distribution facility. It's still excited but nervous. You imagine the package in the dark at night, feeling homesick for the warehouse.

And so on, every step of the voyage. At some point the package arrives at the local USPS facility, where it apparently makes really good friends who beg it to stick around and have a drink. That's probably the reason it sits there for two days.

Anyway. Wife calls the company before Christmas, to ask if they'd deliver in time. The customer service rep said that the item still was in the warehouse. Why? Was it holed up in a corner with a weapon, and no one could figure out how to subdue it? Have they tried throwing a net over it and dragging it out?

That's when I knew what my wife got me for Christmas: Thor's Hammer. According to mythology — well, the Marvel movies — only a person of great virtue and courage can lift it. Obviously, the warehouse was hiring people of shoddy character.

I expected the customer service rep to say, "There's nothing we can do until the Dalai Lama shows up." Because you'd like to think the Dalai Lama can pick up the hammer, but then you get an e-mail saying the Dalai Lama had declined to pick it up because it was a remnant of old Norse pagan mythology. And you think, "Oh, great, the Dalai Lama goes to Murfreesboro the one time in his life and he can't get my present on the truck."

After a few days, my wife called again and was told that it still had not left the warehouse, but when it did, they would give it expedited delivery. What does that mean? The plane taking it here uses the special Mach-2 lever? The driver blows through all yellow lights?

At this point, I decided I would look at the tracking number, and saw a curious line on the website: The information has been sent to the shipper. Wife asked what that meant, and I said, "It's like when I say I mailed that letter you asked me to drop off, but it's actually still in the car under the sun visor. Technically it wasn't a lie because it is in the process of being mailed. Does that help?"

Pause. "You haven't mailed the letters?"

"No! I did! And that's not something that ever happened, but for some reason it came to mind."

Three days later, nothing. She called again, and that's when I heard her say "NO" to the automated system. She was put on hold for 30 minutes.

Here's the challenge we all face. When you are sick and tired of hanging on hold for something that isn't your fault, you build up a head of steam. But you have to remember that the person who picks up isn't responsible, and is sitting in some grim room with dying ferns, fluorescent light and a supervisor roaming the aisles with a bullwhip, cracking it in the air at anyone who isn't clearing seven calls every six minutes. You have to be nice.

As it turned out, my wife had yoga class, so I took over the call. After 30 more minutes someone answered. Took the info. Put me on hold. For 20 minutes. At this point, the only words you want to hear are: "We are sending you everything in the catalog for free, and the CEO will hand-deliver them tomorrow, crawling up your steps on his knees, strewing broken glass in his path out of penance."

I didn't get that. I did get a supervisor who could not explain why the order was trapped in the warehouse by a powerful gravitational force, but she would make a new order that duplicated the items and send it out. Expedited, of course. The items should arrive by Thursday, she said.

You know what did arrive on Thursday? An e-mail saying one of the items was now out of stock.

Bottom line: That's the last time we do business with these guys. Until next year's catalog arrives, anyway. Love those Sister Murple mysteries. • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks •