[Read “In the Heating Aisle,” James Wagner’s first dispatch from the hardware store.]

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CENTRAL NEW YORK — I received a phone call at the store last night from a woman determined to get a professional on the phone.

“Now I have a question,” she said, “but I would like to speak to an experienced person there. A plumber or some experienced person.”

I told her I was not a plumber nor very experienced, but that I would try to help her with whatever question she had.

She interrupted, “Oh, well, I would really like to speak to a plumber or someone older, not someone young like yourself.”

I said, “Well, I’m not sure if I’m young — I’m 33.”

She said, “Oh, you’re right, you’re not young. Well, I’m interested in getting some information about sewage vents.”

I asked, “Do you mean sewer vent caps?”

She said, “Yes. The ones outside by the road.”

I said, “Okay, what’s your question?”

She asked if we had any there, and I told her we did. I said that we had two kinds — one with an empty space beneath the mushroom-cap dome to allow for proper venting, and another that just covered the top of the sewer pipe. I explained that a similar process secured both types of vents.

She said, “Well, but I don’t want it to come off. What you’re describing makes it seem like it’ll come off. You know, sometimes kids or snowplows knock them off. Are these patented caps?”

I thought about her uneasiness about using the other two vent types due to kids or snowplows knocking them off. This was a pretty remote possibility, as kids, at least as far as I can tell, don’t arrange games around removing sewer vent caps for points, nor do snowplows often go over the curb a few feet to knock off the caps. While I was thinking, she had asked another question, but now I wasn’t sure what it was, so I asked her what she had asked.

She repeated, “Are these caps patented, the ones you have?”

I said, "Well, I’m not sure, I could do a little — "

“Because,” she interrupted, “I was looking at my neighbor’s cap, and I really liked what he has. His kind of screws in to the top, and so there’s nothing that can come loose.”

I said, “Are you sure you’re talking about the sewer pipe vent cap, that sounds like the cap to the water shut-off?”

She said, “No, it’s the sewer pipe. I asked my neighbor about it. I asked him, and he said it was patented. And it came from Detroit. Do yours come from Detroit? And are they patented, because I want one that’s patented?”

I said, “I really don’t know where the caps come from, ma’am. Neither the manufacturers nor their addresses are listed on the caps. I’d have to look that up on the computer, and that may not tell me where they’re actually from. I would probably just get the name of the shipping company, and maybe their address. I don’t think I’d be able to trace them to Detroit or elsewhere, without doing quite a bit of research.”

“Oh, I see,” she said. She was clearly disappointed. “Well, he says it comes from Detroit, and it’s patented. And you don’t know if what you have is patented, right?”

I said, “Yeah, I don’t know. These are the two caps we have, and these are the kind everyone buys. We sell a lot of the mushroom-cap kind, especially.”

She said, “Okay, well, I’m going to do some calling around then. Because I would like it to be patented. My neighbor’s is patented…. So, okay, well, thank you, and have a good night.”

I said, “Okay, good night.”

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I was standing in the plumbing aisle, shelving epoxy putty and tinning flux brushes, when a foursome appeared on my left. Two males, two females. I had briefly helped the males earlier. Now they were back, and coming through the aisle slowly. The men were looking for different copper fittings, while the women were doing the harder chore of pushing a heavy metal cart full of lumber.

One of the men had long, brownish hair with blond streaks and wore a Jägermeister shirt. He seemed to be in his early thirties. The other male was nondescript: slight paunch, mildly balding, average height, wearing jeans. They asked me a couple of questions, while the women sort of giggled in the background. I wasn’t sure if they were giggling about some prior conversation, about me, or were just drunk and giggling about nothing in particular. They all seemed like partiers, so I was leaning in the latter direction.

As I resumed shelving, I began thinking of them having a soldering party while hooking up their hot and cold water lines. I could envision them in the basement, laughing at cobwebs, dropping the torch a number of times, perhaps pawing each other near a dehumidifier.

As I daydreamed, the Jägermeister guy told the women not to hit me with the cart.

The women were proceeding up the aisle past me. One of the women said, “We’re fine. He’s all right. We have plenty of room.” She was still giggling.

Then she said, “It would probably make his day if two women ran him over with a cart.” She turned her head halfway to me, but couldn’t quite see me as she had passed already. She left it at that, and both women giggled all the way up the aisle toward the cashiers.

As I continued stocking, I was left to contemplate her final remark — about how being run over by two women would make my day.

All I was able to think of was, “How?”