An elderly gentleman approached me in the bathroom faucet aisle of a home improvement store and asked me if I’d seen The King and I. I replied that I had. “No, you haven’t,” he said. “I’ll prove it.” And then he lifted his voice a little, the way people do when they quote something, and said, “Is a puzzlement!”
While what he said applied well to the decision-making crisis I was experiencing, I did not recognize the quote. “Yes,” I said. “The King and I.”
“You haven’t seen The King and I.”
I concentrated with difficulty on the bathroom faucets. Two handles, or one? Where was the drain-pull on that one? And, damn it, I had seen several versions of The King and I—the Yule Brenner movie, a community theatre stage fiasco, and a more recent film incarnation with Jodie Foster—but I wanted a faucet, not an argument. For God’s sake, I had just come from my husband’s family reunion and the aftershocks from that event were just beginning. Three minutes prior, right there in the faucet aisle, I had told my husband—loudly—that, yes, I needed a bathroom faucet with a drain plug pull because I am the one who had to soak my panties in cold water when my menstrual cycle arrived unannounced, and, no, I did not know how wide our sink basin was, nor did I know how many holes the basin had—all of which rendered the purchase of a bathroom faucet impossible. Why was I still there, diverting my eyes from my husband, avoiding getting back in the car? Not admitting that, although his extended family are all pleasant people with the wisdom to make their big reunions “open bar,” he hadn’t yet acknowledged how brave I was to attend? Apparently that chivalrous ritual disappears when a marriage advances to the bathroom faucet purchasing stage. And he was standing back, doing nothing, just watching this elderly gentlemen needle me. I began to feel murderous.
“Huh!” the elderly gentleman said. “Nothing’s funny today.” I didn’t know if he meant today, as in this particular day, or today, as in these days filled with crazy kids who haven’t seen The King and I and won’t own up to it.
“Nothing’s funny today,” I mumbled to my husband, who replied, “Huh?” loudly.
I was alone in the faucet aisle. Nothing’s funny today, this day, I agreed. An unresolved font of grief worked my guts like a thumbscrew. This is what it is to be alone in a marriage. I wanted a “thank you” or a “well done” for attending his family reunion. For laughing at jokes that weren’t funny. For pretending Aunt Hattie wasn’t slurring her words while dripping margarita on my blouse. For hugging strangers who smelled of cigarettes, mothballs, tequila, and cheap hairspray. For selecting a bathroom faucet I’d have to live with well into my menopausal phase without weeping.
Without any tidings of departure, the elderly gentleman simply shuffled away, down the aisle sideways, and I swear that shuffle was a tap routine—a little soft shoe toward the kitchen sink appliances.
And when we were home, and things were funny again, and the faucets were installed and the water running and the drain pull operational, I asked my husband about the man. Was he wearing a floral print shirt, or a Havanera Guayabera? Did he have a wife with him? We couldn’t agree on anything about the man except what he said: “Is a puzzlement!” And even with that we couldn’t agree on his exact phrasing.
Maybe his face was wrinkled and his eyes were cloudy white with blindness. Maybe he was wearing a boater hat and carrying a cane. Maybe he was Loki, the god of mischief, placing a grain of straw on my back to see if it would break, quoting golden age musicals and then shuffle-hop-stepping to the next couple in crisis over a kitchen faucet set with or without a soap dispenser, with or without a side sprayer, with or without a nickel brush finish—a puzzlement straining their relationship to its breaking point.
Amy Minton’s fiction appears in Indiana Review, On Earth As It Is, decomP magazinE, elimae, Emprise Review, Dogzplot, Hobart, Dewclaw, and Pindeldyboz. Her short story, “Overhanded,” was selected for inclusion in Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), edited by Steve Almond. Her non-fiction appears in Hobart and The Collagist. She sips fine tea and refuses to embrace sushi.