A field of bathtubs – and dreams

When someone in this small town needs an old bathtub, there's only one person to see – the 'tub man.'

There must be hundreds of claw-foot tubs in this field. They're lined up in long, straight rows that, from a distance, might look like cotton waiting to be harvested. The owner of this offbeat crop, Mr. Faircloth, is known in my small town as the "tub man." Around here, any overheard reference to cast iron will inevitably inspire an eavesdropper to ask, "Have you ever been to see the tub man?" He has everything – including the kitchen sink.

I've long pined for one of his heavy-duty vintage pieces, but today my wanting will end. I finally own a home, and, for the first time in my life, I'm in the market for a bathtub.

Shopping for a tub at Mr. Faircloth's is like shopping for a used car in a small secondhand lot: Some of the tubs may be rusting on the exterior, some may be missing a few original details, but most are in salvageable condition.

These tubs certainly have more character than the acrylic tub inserts available at the hardware store. I'm here to find a soaped-up vehicle that inspires me to say, "Calgon, take me away."

Today, the tub man is sitting on his porch, and he waves hello as I walk up. "Look around," he says. "I've got hundreds of tubs and a cat for every one."

Sure enough, as I begin to wander the rows, I see cats curled up in several of the enameled sinks and tubs that have been slightly warmed by the midday sun. It seems that each cat has found a vessel that fits him or her just so. The cats look peaceful and cozy; I can't wait to find the tub that suits me as well.

I begin to feel like Goldilocks as I survey the tubs – too small, too big, too rusty, too something. None of the tubs is a good fit. After I look at every tub in sight, I wander back over to Mr. Faircloth, who is at work refurbishing an antique cider press. When he sees the defeated look on my face, he puts the press down and says, "You didn't find the right one?"

I shake my head no, and he motions for me to follow him to a shed behind his farmhouse. There he gives me a lesson on what to look for in a tub. Many of his are from the 1920s and '30s, a few are from the late 1800s.

Mr. Faircloth knows tubs, and he is a connoisseur of tub legs. He pulls half a dozen claw-footlegs out of a cardboard box and tells me, "It's nearly impossible to get four of the same because they're all so different, you see." And I do. Some of the feet are larger than the others, and some are fiercer. It occurs to me that this is part of the reason I am so enamored by these tubs. They're all unique. They were cast in different molds and have different personalities.

After the tub man has given me a minilesson in what to look for during my quest, I thank him for his time and make my way back to my car.

As I walk past his pickup truck, I notice a tub I hadn't before. It has clean Art Deco lines, and it sits on simple grooved stumps. It is not what I've imagined. It's different from the tub of my dreams. But at the moment, it looks so spacious and inviting, I can't help myself. With my bulky jacket pulled tightly around me, I step into the bathtub and proceed to make myself at home.

The eccentricity of sitting in a bathtub in the middle of a field of fixtures doesn't escape me, but I'm taking it for a test-drive. I stretch out against the sloped back. I know now, with certainty, that after a little refinishing, this tub will be a cradle of warmth fit for a bungalow – my bungalow.

I'm already daydreaming when Mr. Faircloth comes up to me with an amused look on his face. In approval, he says, "You know, they're still making claw feet, but they're not making any more like this."

I buy the tub on the spot, promising to bring a truck and able-bodied friends to pick it up later in the afternoon.

When Mr. Faircloth leans down to affix a piece of masking tape to the interior of the tub, marking it as "sold," he says, "I know you were hoping for a claw foot.If you get this in your bathroom and you don't like it, bring it on back and we'll switch it out."

His offer is a generous one, and if I were buying something that required less than eight hands to move, I might consider it. But my time with the tub man reminds me that there's a certain joy in being open to the unexpected.

When I look at my new 350-pound lap of luxury, I know I don't have to worry about the return policy. I feel confident that even Goldilocks would agree – this tub is just right.

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