A Vigorous, Mostly Happy Couple
by Bob Johnson
By the time the raccoons appeared, Mickey had run out of excuses. The apple tree had fallen in a summer storm and he’d left it sprawled across the yard for days, until the masked creatures appeared and began feasting in the rot. They stared toward the house in the daytime and climbed the deck at night to peer in the sliding kitchen door, scaring the bejesus out of Mickey’s wife Kate and the chocolate lab Bosco.
Kate had pestered him time and again to clean up the mess, and why had he insisted on buying the new Husqvarna only to leave it sitting spotless in the garage when there was finally an actual reason to use it, and would he at least show her how to start the damn thing so she could do the job herself?
She’d do it herself. Checkmate.
Mickey and Kate were a vigorous, mostly happy couple. He coached high school football and taught freshman algebra. She sold ad space for a local radio station. He played golf every weekday over summer vacation. She batted cleanup in a women’s softball league. On Saturdays, they mowed the yard and weeded the garden, then sat on the deck to toast the rising moon.
All was well between them, but for the speed with which Mickey acted on Kate’s wishes: taking out the trash or calling the gas company about a confusing bill or, these days, cutting a fallen apple tree to pieces and hauling it away.
Mickey was sitting in his basement den, watching a ball game on television, when Kate came down the stairs to remind him again.
“I’ll get to it”—his eyes didn’t leave the screen, but he lifted a meaty paw to trace a clockface in the air—“when the big hand reaches twelve.”
She answered that the tree was “on her list,” and she couldn’t relax until it was off her list, and his stubbornness was something she’d excused while they were dating—who would make dinner reservations, who would buy a card for his mother’s birthday—and now wished she hadn’t.
Like Mickey Mantle, the Yankee slugger he’d been named for, Mickey was an affable, careless man. If there was anything he liked better than a perfectly-struck four iron or his after-dinner scotch, it was jousting with someone—his students, opposing coaches, referees. Giving as good as he got.
Now he stood and put his hands on his wife’s shoulders, gently shaking her. “You’re acting kind of nuts, aren’t you?”
He was clearly being funny, but Kate squirmed free and punched his chest—she a big woman, the blow not without heat.
In truth, her impatience confused him. Why would a woman whose batting skills led her softball team to championships, who climbed the roof on her own to hose out the gutters, whose job at the radio station earned twice what he made in the classroom—why would such a woman fuss over such petty things?
A confusing bill? Do like Mickey’s father did and wait a month. If the man wants his money, he’ll make himself clearer next time. Birthday cards? If fake words written by failed poets are your ticket to happiness, then God help you.
When Kate answered that Mickey’s mother adored receiving cards, he reminded her that the old lady was so fretful she vacuumed the living room every day and, when Mickey was a boy, had insisted he take a square of Saran Wrap to the movies to put between the seat and his head, for fear of ringworm.
He put gas in the car when the needle hit Empty. He saw a dirty sock and dropped it in the hamper. When the semester ended he calculated student scores and entered them in his book. No lists required. The gas gauge told him when to fill the tank. The calendar announced when grades were due.
The apple tree had fallen only days before. Stumbling among wet branches with a chainsaw seemed like a tragic adventure. He’d get to it.
“Show me how, then,” Kate repeated, noting that the last twenty-four hours had been sunny and dry, while the raccoons had only gotten bolder, staggering drunkenly among the fermented apples, lurking so close to the house that Bosco had begun pooping on the kitchen floor. “I’ll do it myself.”
They both knew that wouldn’t happen: the man going to the garage, gassing up the shiny new saw, perhaps yanking the cord if she lacked the strength to start it cold, then returning to his ballgame while the woman tackled the difficult chore.
Instead, Mickey went to the backyard and hadn’t been working more than a minute or two when the tip of the saw pinched fast in the hardwood and kicked upward, cleaving his face from scalp to chin.
He stumbled and sat against the privet hedge separating his and Kate’s yard from the neighbors’. His head spun with dull surprise. Blood thrummed down his front, soaking his T-shirt and pooling between his legs.
I’m in trouble, he thought.
Other thoughts followed, these mostly wordless and centered on forgotten, tender places: Something important has happened. Everyone will be horrified and gather around. He’d had the same feelings when he tore a ligament in his knee during pickup basketball and lay writhing on the asphalt, or the time he’d wrecked the family car and had to call his father, himself a coach and teacher, out of practice with the news. Despite his pain and fear he’d felt an odd lushness in his chest, a twitching thrill. People will be reminded how much they love me. They’ll be sorry for the times they mocked me—my stammer, my soft body.
The saw burbled where he’d dropped it, and when he leaned to turn it off his bulk carried him into the grass. “Kate!” he shouted, though the word came out like a drunken man’s. His nose was clogged with blood, his teeth moved independently from his jaw. “Katie!” The back door opened and in the next instant Bosco was licking his face and whining frantically.
Time compressed and expanded at once. He heard Kate scream, then felt neighbors Emily and Chase Butler in the yard. People turned him over and covered him in a blanket. Someone applied pressure to a place on his neck, he was aware of the sun moving across the sky, twice he raised a hand to brush a fly from his cheek. Soon he heard sirens, though the hospital was a half hour distant, and in the next instant men were struggling to lift him. One called him “Mick,” and the other said “oh, Jesus” as they laid him on a stretcher and into the darkness of an ambulance. A needle stabbed his arm and they were speeding away, light and shadow flitting across the ceiling.
Mickey’s head ached, though he knew worse pain was coming. He heard the EMT say “oh, Jesus” again and felt a familiar urge to deflate the moment. “Who are you to make such a fuss?” his old man would say when Mickey dared to cry. When he’d hurt his knee, the pain so bad he’d wanted to throw up, he’d whispered to his buddies, “You should see the other guy.” He said it now, the words mangled, the men too busy to respond. Another needle, and he drifted off to a warbling siren.
“You’re a lucky man,” an elderly doctor said a week later in the hospital. “You could have severed an artery and died on the spot. You could have blinded yourself.”
Mickey sat fully-dressed on his bed. The accident had broken most of his front teeth, split his face from top to bottom, breached a sinus cavity. The wound had required one hundred and thirty stitches to close, though pink drainage soaked one gauze pad after another he held to his nostrils. He would be released in half an hour and had yet to look at himself in a mirror.
He glanced at Kate across the room. “Hear that?” he said, the words whistling through a lacerated septum. “I’m lucky.”
She looked back, her brave smile telling him his appearance was ghastly.
As a boy Mickey had been pudgy, shy, a late-bloomer, though by thirty he’d grown into himself. His body hardened, the whiskers on his jaw went from silky to coarse almost overnight. In the classroom he learned to speak in his father’s voice—the fun teacher, the long-suffering coach—and his stammer disappeared. Girl students openly flirted with him. Kate dragged him from parties, him shouting jokes over his shoulder. “You’re like a kid in a candy store,” she’d say, and she was right.
For the first time in his life, people found him attractive.
“You are lucky,” the doctor insisted. “You must remind yourself every day.” In one short year, following surgery and laser treatments, Mickey’s scars wouldn’t prompt a second glance on the street. “Before then,” the man continued, “I suggest you begin the psychological healing straightaway. I recommend that you and your wife stand together, this moment, and assess yourself in the bathroom mirror.”
“Look at your face. Without fear or hesitation.”
In the days since the accident, Mickey’s humor had taken a caustic turn. He’d asked his nurses if the racket they made when he was sleeping was deliberate or mere sloppiness. He’d asked the old doctor if the tufts of yellow hair in his ears obstructed his hearing. Now he caught Kate’s eye, lifted the gauze from his nose, and squeezed it so pink droplets ran down his wrist. When she gasped, he snorted and walked alone into the bathroom.
When Mickey was a child there’d been a boy next door with a cleft palate, a “harelip,” people called it then, and as he gazed at himself in the mirror that boy emerged from the glass like a hobgoblin. The blunt, purple nose; the flesh above his lips bunched into a wad, as though the surgeon had pulled the torn ends together and stitched them hastily before they sprang free in his hand.
He ran a finger along his sutures. Chin to scalp they made a zipper, his secret self hidden inside. He was a child at Halloween, safe behind a terrible mask.
Kate’s face pressed against his shoulder. “I did this,” she said.
He stared at her reflection. “What? How?”
“If I hadn’t badgered you. If I’d let you do the tree when you wanted…”
He made to pull her close but instead touched his face again. His eyes were black, his cheeks lopsided. He felt the same twitchy lushness in his chest. The harelip boy came to him once more. Wheezy, belligerent, daring you not to pick him for your team. He stuck out his tongue and licked the tip of his nose.
The tree was still down when Kate tucked Mickey into a chaise lounge on the deck, though returning to the task anytime soon was out of the question.
“Rest for a bit,” the doctor had said, winking at Kate. “Let your better half pamper you.”
“School starts in a month,” Mickey had answered.
“So you have a goal. Rest until classes begin, then restart your life with gusto.”
In the days that followed Mickey sat in a narcotic haze while his wife was at work, and when she came home he watched her bustle about. And though the old Kate might have fetched him a beer if she was already up, now she bought him milkshakes after his dental procedures, rubbed his feet, dabbed vitamin E on his stitches.
He submitted to her care as he had from nurses in the hospital. Being fussed over was new and delicious. He wasn’t about to refuse it.
Alone he studied his face and recalled again being a boy in a Halloween mask. He remembered other children, even his bullies, peeking shyly at him, not knowing his name, his intentions, where he was looking through dark, latex eyes. With his teeth wired shut, his big voice was silenced, and in that silence he discovered a world untethered to politics or creed. His mind blossomed. His senses grew keen. At night he felt himself romping a thousand, ten thousand feet above the earth. In the silvery morning he decided that rain in the trees sounded like a roar of applause. He drank the pineapple milkshakes his wife brought home and took in not just the taste, but the heft and color of the fruit. He watched Kate rush this way and decided her guilt was like a cloud of moths that followed her about, settling on her shoulders the moment she stood pat.
His first visitors were neighbors Emily and Chase Butler, she bearing a pot roast, he a dozen golf balls.
Emily threw her arms around his neck. “I will never forget,” she said, “seeing people wrestle that dog from your face.”
Chase Butler was a volunteer fireman, and he recalled scenes he’d witnessed: car crashes, accidents in woodshops, attacks by pit bulls. “You wouldn’t believe,” he said, “how quick those folks were back on their feet.”
Mickey had taken to wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and he gazed at his visitors through the fleecy tunnel, his mouth in a tight-lipped smile. “Thank you for your kindness,” he wheezed. “I’m sure you have your reasons for bringing a roast to someone who can’t consume anything but liquids.”
Chase laughed, while Emily—she’d never “gotten” Mickey’s humor—said the food was for Kate more than him, she now breadwinner and caretaker both.
At twilight the couples went to the deck, where the others drank wine and Mickey sucked scotch through a straw. The summer evening arrested his newborn senses—the sky an indigo dome, the moon a twice-bitten cookie—though the others chattered and laughed, ignorant to anything beyond their noses. Mickey sat in his hooded cave and listened to their familiar laments—the Butler boy’s aversion to his cornet lessons, Kate’s difficult clients, Chase’s putting woes—and decided that his wife and friends were foolish people, skimming like ducklings over life’s surface, blind to the dark and awful truths lurking beneath.
Emily, with her blonde highlights, flip-flop earrings, store-bought tan, had built a shrine to her own fading summer. Chase had reached the crest of a modest hill—he owned an insurance business and had recently been named chief at the firehouse—and was beginning his slow, inevitable tumble down the other side.
Kate, for all her pluck on the softball field and in business, was as fretful and foolish as Mickey’s mother had ever been.
“Goodness, look at that,” Emily said, pointing to the yard. A family of raccoons had emerged from the hedge and was perched on the fallen apple tree. Their masked faces peered toward the deck. Their paws gripped the branches like human hands.
“They’re here every night,” Kate said. “That’s why I pushed Mickey out there in the first place.” She shuddered. “I’m scared of them.”
“Oh, honey,” Emily said, “you’re not scared of anything.”
“I am, though. They carry rabies. I’m scared they’ll bite Bosco.”
Mickey snorted. “Bosco won’t go near those creatures,” he said. “He’s as stupid and domesticated as”—he glanced at his wife—“the rest of us.” He dabbed at his nose. “I’ll get to the tree when I’m better.”
“Over my dead body,” Kate said.
“I could give it a go,” Chase said. “I know my way around a chainsaw.”
Mickey expelled air through his nostrils with a sound like a toy train’s whistle. “Did I stutter just now? I still speak English, don’t I?”
The Butlers left soon after, and Kate asked Mickey why he’d become so hateful.
“I was being funny. No one has a sense of humor these days,” he replied.
She was loading the dishwasher, and she stayed bent to the task for so long he thought the discussion had ended. “I know this is a hard time,” she said finally. “But your sense of humor is killing me, and now it’s driving away our friends.” She straightened. “Where did my happy husband go?”
Mickey flipped the hood from his head and bared his ruined teeth. “He didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “This is side B.”
She turned to leave, pausing to say she’d hired a tree service to clean up the apple tree. “They’ll be here tomorrow,” she said.
“Like hell they will. I said I’d get to it.”
For the first time since the accident Kate laughed. “Like hell they won’t,” she said, and though her hands were on her hips Mickey had a sudden image of her squaring herself at the softball plate, daring the pitcher to throw a fat one.
The tree crew was a father and son, the older man wielding a chainsaw twice the size of Mickey’s, the younger dragging branches to a wood chipper parked on the street. His path took him near the deck, where Mickey sat gazing down at him, deciding he resembled boys at the high school: sullen, shallow, soft.
Before he got hurt, Mickey would have chatted up the pair, followed them around, gotten in the way. Now he watched the tree trimmer’s son come and go and enjoyed knowing his face made the young man uncomfortable. He looked forward to the semester beginning, to restarting his life, in the doctor’s words, with gusto. The old Mickey had hungered for love and approval. The new one would be fearless and true. He would call a spade a spade.
The accident was the best thing to ever happen to him.
When the tree was gone the men fetched rakes and scoured the grass clean of apples. Later Mickey heard the father and Kate in the kitchen, settling accounts. Afterward she said the man had discovered a hollow in the tree trunk, the raccoons’ lair.
“He said they were watching through the hedge,” she said. “Like they were waiting to come back.”
“Nonsense,” Mickey said. “There’s nothing to come back to.”
Weeks passed. School neared. Mickey’s stitches came out. With a crusty seam now dividing it, his face was like two halves of an apple carelessly joined with glue. His eyes were still dark, his mouth gleamed with silver. He spent his days in his basement den, assembling his lesson plans.
Kate found him there one evening. “They’re back,” she said. Bosco trailed in her wake—panting, pressed against her legs, eyes wheeling around.
“What are you talking about?” Mickey said.
“The raccoons. One of them, anyway.” She gestured vaguely toward the backyard. “It’s out there now.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“Can’t you scare it away?” She stared mournfully at him. “Mickey, I can do everything else. Literally every other thing this house asks of me, but I can’t—”
“I’m sure it’ll be gone soon.”
“No. You don’t understand. It’s been there for hours. Bosco and I have been watching all afternoon, and now that it’s almost dark. It goes back and forth from the hedge to the center of the yard and squats there watching the house.” She hugged herself. “It stumbles around like it’s sick. It gets closer every time.”
Mickey glanced at his papers. Though he started each planning session with enthusiasm, the words before him inevitably swirled into nonsense. He wondered if he was losing his mind. He nodded at the cowering dog. “How is it,” he said, “that a descendent of wolves has evolved into something so timid and afraid?” A truth came to him, and he spoke it. “You’ve raised that dog in your image, haven’t you?” He turned away. “I’ll be done in an hour. If the animal’s still there I’ll deal with it.”
“No.” She began to weep. “I’m sorry as can be for what happened to you. I’m sorry for my part in it. I’m sorry you’ve gone from the silly oaf I loved to this creature you’ve become. I’m sorry to ask anything of you, but I want you to stand up right now and get a rake or something and chase that devil away. If you do I won’t ask anything else. I’ll wait on you hand and foot for the rest of your goddamn life. I’ll—” She put her hands to her face and sobbed, and Bosco whined with her.
Mickey looked back and forth between them, then stood so his papers scattered to the floor. He climbed the stairs and went outside, pausing on the deck to fetch a shovel Kate used for Bosco’s poop.
The backyard was golden in the evening light, shadows long and fingery. He walked to its center, realizing he hadn’t been this far from the house since the accident. The ground was squelchy beneath his feet, and there was a cidery taste to the air—apple waste, he decided, though he’d watched the men carry the fruit away weeks before. He heard a sound and turned, expecting to see a masked face staring from the gloom, but instead saw that Kate had followed him. She clutched an aluminum softball bat and was clearly terrified, her face pale even in shadow, her eyes rolling this way and that like Bosco’s.
“I said I’d deal with—” he began, but she gasped and pointed. He whirled to see a flash of gray disappear behind the hedge. He gripped the shovel and ran after it.
The sun hadn’t fully set, but the hedge blocked its glow, and Mickey was immediately plunged into darkness. He stood to let his eyes adjust, his senses alive and quivering. He took in the cider taste again, and now he smelled the raccoon as well—a feral sourness that spoke of rage and musk and apple rot. He heard a low, rumbling moan like an angry cat.
Another man might have been afraid, but there was no creature stirring tonight more fearsome than Mickey. He laughed and pounded the shovel on the ground. The flash came again, as the raccoon burst back through the hedge where his wife waited.
“It’s coming your way! It’s coming your way!” he shouted. He stooped to squirm through the gap the animal had taken, and there Kate met him full between the eyes with the softball bat.
She was a big woman. She gave it everything she had.
Bob Johnson lives and writes in South Bend, Indiana. His stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Philadelphia Stories, Midwest Review and elsewhere. His story “The Continental Divide” was named Short Story of the Year in The Hudson Review in 2019. Bob holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Photo: Dan Cherkasov/Unsplash