By the time the sun came up the next morning, the line of young men beginning at the Bartoff’s front door stretched for two blocks. There were young men of different races, different religious backgrounds, different heights and weights, each one waiting for his chance to make his case as to why he should be Millie’s husband.
Mr. Bartoff, in his beige bathrobe and matching slippers, stood on the roof of his house with a pair of binoculars and looked to the back of the line, watching the later arrivals roughhousing and joking with each other. He didn’t like the look of those young men.
The interviews began shortly after Mr. Bartoff’s breakfast concluded. Mr. Bartoff, who had been considering switching from a moustache to a full beard for two decades, again opted to shave everything except the moustache. He wore a pale blue dress shirt and tie to indicate his level of respect for the interview process. Millie, slender and blonde in the best way, put on a fun yellow dress and tasteful makeup in case her father called on her to help him with the interviews. But he did not call on her. Millie stayed sequestered in her room, listening to her father’s pointed questions and the suitors’ answers through the door, trying to determine if the boys were handsome or not by the sounds of their voices.
“How’d you get that scar?”
“Could you work three jobs without complaining?”
“Would self-pitying letters to the editor count?”
“Do you have any experience working with kids?”
“Are you asking if I’ve violated child-labor laws?”
“Do not answer the following question with a question.”
“What is your favorite question?”
Word spread quickly and the line grew all through the day. Young men came from nearby towns. Some young men quit their jobs to stand in line. The nightly news did a story on the line. One of the young men they interviewed live on the air said he was standing in line because he was tired of the bar scene. Another said he was standing in line because he was tired of feeling lonely and bitter every time he saw a happy couple out together on a date at the movie theater where he cleaned light fixtures. A third young man said he was standing in line because he’d had a dream wherein Millie had begged him to marry her. “It was really weird,” said the young man. “I don’t know why, but we were in this, like, room, and I don’t know why, but, like, it was sort of dark, and I don’t know why, but out of nowhere, there was this sort of big sound and Millie, well, she didn’t really look like Millie, but I knew it was her, I don’t know how I knew, but she looked at me and she was like…”
The reporter cut him off there.
When the story ran on that night’s broadcast, the line grew longer still. It grew all through the night. By morning, the line was six blocks long. Mr. Bartoff stood on the roof of his house with his binoculars and said, “I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
He woke Millie with a softly whistled tune and presented her with a bowl of corn based cereal, puffed and brightly colored. “You’re a very, very popular girl, Miss Millie,” said Mr. Bartoff.
“Can I see some of the boys today?” asked Millie.
“We’ll see,” said Mr. Bartoff. “Maybe if I meet one who’s worth seeing.”
After Mr. Bartoff had checked the baseball boxscores, he recommenced the interviews. Those who had already been interviewed had spread the word about the nature of the questions, so the second day’s young men stepped into the Bartoff household with more clearly defined strategies. Some of them had written down notes on cards that they consulted between questions. Some of them attempted bribes of various sorts, several of which tempted Mr. Bartoff very much. Some of the young men sought to display their talents for such things as working on cars, picking stocks, concocting home remedies for illnesses, and making mundane household chores fun. Mr. Bartoff took copious notes, writing down the name of every young man who he judged to be a worthy candidate along with a list of his positive and negative attributes. It was a time-consuming and laborious task, but Mr. Bartoff attacked it with relish. After all, his daughter’s happiness was at stake.
Millie again listened through the door. She couldn’t help but worry that perhaps she and her father had different tastes. It was entirely possible. Likely, even. For example, he disapproved of all of her swimming suits.
About an hour after lunch, one of the young men, who must have been operating with insider knowledge purchased from a friend of the Bartoffs, broke from the line and ran around the back of the house to Millie’s bedroom window, banging on it and shouting, “Millie, choose me! Choose me!”
Millie screamed in surprise, then laughed. She went over to the window and waved to the young man as he jumped up and down and kissed the window, still shouting, “Millie! Choose me!”
Millie thought the young man was cute and funny. She liked his spiky haircut and his crooked smile.
“What’s your name?” she asked. She was a little afraid to open the window, so she had to shout her question. Before the young man could answer, Mr. Bartoff burst into the room and rushed to the window, shouldering Millie out of the way and shouting, “You blew it, punk! No interview for you! Get off my property!”
“Choose me, Millie,” the young man shouted one last time. Then he scampered away.
Mr. Bartoff nailed a big piece of particle board over Millie’s window from the outside before the interviews began again and continued on until supper time.
Meanwhile, while waiting near the very end of the line, three of the young men had formed a rock band called Mud Hut. One young man played drums, one young man played lead guitar, and one young man played rhythm guitar and sang. There was no bass player because even though a young man near them in line knew how to play the bass, he hadn’t brought it with him and he wasn’t willing to lose his place in line to run home and get it. By the time the interviews in the Bartoffs’ house had ceased for the night, Mud Hut had already established quite a following. Even some people who weren’t standing in line had gathered around on the sidewalk to enjoy Mud Hut’s timeless and energetic sound. Mud Hut, like most bands, decided they didn’t like labels, but their stripped-down style would have sounded like New Wave if they’d had a synthesizer and would have sounded like Delta Blues if they’d tuned their instruments differently.
“Come back tomorrow around noon,” said Mud Hut’s frontman to the fans who weren’t standing in line. “And we’ll give you a show you won’t forget.”
On the morning of the third day, Mr. Bartoff stood on the roof of his house, looked down the line, and saw something that made him uneasy. Just under six blocks down, there was a bulge in the line. A small crowd of young people of both sexes had formed, milling about in the street and on the lawns of people who almost certainly hadn’t given them permission to be there.
Mr. Bartoff gulped down his breakfast and started in with the interviews as soon as possible, driven by a newfound sense of urgency. The young men sensed his agitation. It made some of them nervous and caused them to commit fatal blunders they would have otherwise surely avoided. Others of the young men saw Mr. Bartoff’s condition as a sign of weakness and they sought to bully him with veiled threats and excessively casual postures, tipping back in their chairs, sticking their legs out and crossing their feet at the ankles, folding their arms across their narrow chests.
Shortly after noon two policemen came to the Bartoff’s home and told Mr. Bartoff that the line was being broken up. A disturbance near the back had caused a flood of angry complaints to the authorities concerning noise, trampled herbs, and pants worn significantly below the waist despite the apparent presence of functional belts.
“Please,” said Mr. Bartoff. “My daughter’s happiness is at stake.”
“We don’t care,” said the cops. “You think we care about that? We’re cops, pal. We don’t care about the happiness of anyone younger than thirty-five.”
Mr. Bartoff watched for a few moments from his front porch as the cops dispersed the line, using their nightsticks to bonk as many of the young men on the head as possible. Then he closed the front door and shouted, “Millie! Come out here and draw your husband’s name out of a hat!”
There was no answer from Millie’s room.
Mr. Bartoff knocked on her door. “Millie?” He opened the door. Millie was gone. Her window was open. The particle board had been kicked into the yard from the inside. “I should have used screws,” said Mr. Bartoff.
There was a note on Millie’s bed, written hastily in white crayon on black paper. It said, “Dad, I went to a concert. I’ll be back for supper.”
Mr. Bartoff was surprised. He hadn’t even known Millie liked concerts.
The Mud Hut concert had been going great until two cops showed up and started spraying tear gas everywhere, knocking heads with nightsticks, and cramming people into a stinking paddywagon with under-inflated tires.
Millie sat in a holding cell with a bunch of other young people, her stinging eyes clenched shut and a goose egg throbbing on her forehead.
“Hey, Millie,” said a young man nearby. “How are you feeling?” Millie thought the young man sounded attractive and she found his concern for her endearing.
“I’m OK,” said Millie. “My eyes really sting bad, though. I can’t open ‘em.”
“They’ll get better,” said the young man. “I get sprayed with tear gas all the time.”
“Thanks for comforting me,” said Millie. “You’re very sweet.”
“Hey,” said the young man. “Once you can open your eyes and we get out of here, you wanna elope with me?”
Millie gasped. “Yes!” she said. “The answer is yes!”
“Cool,” said the young man. “We’ll hotwire my neighbor’s motorcycle and drive a few counties over.”
Millie leaned back on the bench, or whatever she was sitting on, and hoped the young man would be as good a husband as she thought he would based on what little she’d gathered about him through the sound of his voice over the course of the last minute. And even if he wasn’t, at least it would be her mistake.
Millie’s eyes stung less and less.
She felt that at any moment she’d be able to open her eyes and see exactly how good of a husband-chooser she really was.