IF MEMORY serves, the whole thing started when I scooped up a handful of dinner mints as we left the restaurant.
I say a "handful." Maybe it was three or four. Possibly even five. Six at the most. Who counts how many dinner mints you grab out of the little dish? It's not that big of a deal.
At least for most people.
"You took too many mints back there," my wife said in the car.
Oh, it was going to be a dandy fight. Off in the distance, you could almost hear the bell for Round 1. Instinctively, I began flicking warm-up jabs at the steering wheel.
What made this bout so exciting was the topic. Here I thought we had fought about every subject under the sun.
In 13 years of marriage, we have fought over money. We have fought over the kids. We have fought over her mother. We have fought over my mother. Hell, we have probably even fought over your mother.
But this would be our first fight over dinner mints. The adrenalin was surging through me now. I felt like Ali climbing into the ring with Joe Frazier.
As we drove on, I circled warily and flicked a cautious jab. ("I did not take too many mints.")
She came back with a straight right hand that wobbled me. ("Yes, you did. The maitre d' even gave you a look.")
This time I came in hard to the body. ("What are you, the local arbiter on dinner mint etiquette?")
She countered with a crisp left that caught me flush on the chin. ("I know bad manners when I see them.")
Reeling, I backpedaled furiously. ("Are you calling me a pig?")
Which was when she lifted me off my feet with a monstrous uppercut ("If the shoe fits . . .") that left me twitching on the canvas.
Now that I've had time to reflect on the bout, let me say this: It was a good fight.
I thought I trained hard, but my opponent was in terrific shape and really deserves a lot of credit.
Nevertheless, I'm hoping for a rematch, being even more convinced of the essential righteousness of my position vis-a-vis dinner mints.
To my knowledge, there's no hard and fast rule about how many mints you should take upon leaving a restaurant.
Certainly I have yet to see a sign that says: "Management kindly requests that you limit mint consumption to two."
Instead, restaurants have all these signs plastered around the premises that say:
"Management not responsible for lost or stolen items."
"Management not responsible for car theft."
"Management not responsible if patrons keel over and die from the artichoke salad."
Given this kind of willingness to shoulder blame, you think management wants to get involved in a potentially ugly squabble over mints? Forget it.
I'll tell you who would get to the bottom of this whole mint controversy pronto: Ann Landers.
Ann Landers knows everything. And if she doesn't know the answer off the top of her head, she calls on one of her thousands of experts.
Still, I can't quite see her ringing up some ethics professor at the University of Chicago and barking: "Dinner mints, kiddo! How many can ya snatch from a restaurant? My readers wanna know!"
Anyway, here's my take on this whole thing. If each patron took only one or two mints, the restaurant would have too many mints left over, mints that would grow stale and useless for any purpose except maybe killing rats.
Which is not to say I'm totally insensitive to the plight of the restaurant owner. I know we're in a recession here. The price of dinner mints has probably gone through the roof.
So what I propose is this: OK, allow each customer four or five mints. But make the customers -- you talk about brilliant -- mix it up! Don't let anyone walk off with four yellow mints or four green mints or what have you.
Require that each customer take, oh, two greens and two yellows. Or, even better, one green, one yellow, one pink and one white, assuming that's the color scheme available.
Here's the key to enforcing this rule: Make the customers show you their hands as they walk out. That way you can tell if anyone's cheating and causing a dangerous color imbalance in the mint dish.
This is no time for the honor system, if you catch my drift.