We had…an incident at our farm last Saturday. It ensnared all of us, including two undocumented aliens. They were vacationing geese. You know, real wetbacks.
I am a staid intellectual who enjoys the finer pursuits in life but who isn’t afraid of getting his toes wet when it comes down to it. I take care of our farm and try to make my wife and daughter’s lives more comfortable by offering them what wisdom I have.
I’m a steady guy. I keep an eye on things. I read the Sunday papers on Sunday mornings, and when it’s warm enough, I sit on the porch swing. If I feel frisky, I’ll smoke a $7 Churchill with a name like Pablo Escobar or Chiquita Banana 100.
The porch faces our pond, a cleanly-painted white fence and several willows, all of which weep. When I look toward the pond, I see down the valley, down the spine of Devil’s Backbone. I give the water a once over from time to time, checking for snapping turtles or muskrat or…who the hell knows what. Pirate ships! Mermaids! White caps.
Melissa, my wife, speaks loudly and carries a big stick. She is a highly vocal woman with a distinct ear – the only person I have ever met who is both a loud talker and a loud listener. She grew up in a large North Carolina family where the meek inherited Oreos with the cream filling gnawed out. She’s never left a decibel standing alone out in the cold. She speaks an uptown version of low-down North Carolina, and if she’s not declaring that she’s just died about nothing in particular at least twice a day, I know somethin’ ain’t right.
On our first date when she asked where I’d gone to college and I said, “Yale,” she repeated the question at a higher volume. All of this masks the fact that she graduated first in her graduate school class and has a JD to boot.
My daughter is four and properly. I say properly because she has just the right fixings for a delightful young girl – pigtails swathed in crisp pink ribbon, charmingly round and rosy cheeks, a keen curiosity for life. She has blue eyes and blonde hair that will undoubtedly darken with age. I’ve darkened with age.
Last Wednesday, I was sitting on the porch swing, dangling my legs and thinking about how much I hated repairing fence, which is what I’d been doing all day. I tried to cheer myself by remembering the writings of O. Henry. I was chuckling when I heard the pitter patter of Molly’s tiny, yet delightfully well-formed feet.
“Hullo, Daddy.” She said, as she lifted her arms.
“Good afternoon, darling.” I said, as I brought her aboard.
“You smell bad, Daddy,” she sniffed.
“Boys sweat; girls get dewy…is what Mom says.”
“And who gets Huey and Louie?”
“You’re getting too verbal for my own good.”
“Wharr you reading?”
“Use your words. Enunciate and no one will ever misunderstand you.”
“Wharr you READING?” she said. (I decided to shit-can enunciation.)
“Oh, Henry!” blasted Melissa from inside the house.
“How did Mama know that?” Molly asked.
Before I could answer, my wife rounded the corner on two wheels. Melissa has always had the build and grace of an athlete. She did a sprint triathlon last year and won the title of “fastest local female.” She is also a certified nut case when it comes to her pets, Soapy and Lulu, two yellow labs with their idles set way high. They too came crashing and leaping and drooling and shedding into view.
S&L landed in a heap, on their backs. They then fought each other to see who could get whose four legs under whom first. This ended with a lot of snippy huffing and chuffing and two big, boxy yellow heads in Molly’s lap, which was on my lap. They eyed each other to see whose head would be patted first, whose ear would be scratched best. Their dust continued to rise, generating the occasional cyclone that spooked the cats and sent Dorothy packing for Oz.
“Down, flotsam, down jetsam!” Melissa cried, shattering maple limbs three trees away. She waved a hairbrush in the direction of the labs who took that as a starter’s flag, giving them the go to start racing in figure eights.
“If we cut off their heads, they might calm down,” I suggested.
“They’re just frisky with puppyhood,” Melissa said, looking away from the 110-pound mastodons who last were puppies when Lewinsky was a household name.
“Darling, why do you have a hairbrush?”
“I was having a whack at braiding Molly’s hair but she wandered off.”
“Mama, why didn’t you tell me you had special powers and you could read Daddy’s mind?” Molly asked.
At the sound of her voice, the whelps rushed towards her with the speed and intensity of two professional linebackers, and it was all I could do to fend them off with one arm as I held Molly protectively to me with the other. Somewhere in the process Melissa got involved and I quickly found myself being dragged away by the collar until I was lying on the floor, cowering under my arms as she brandished the hairbrush in the air.
“Oh, it’s you.” She said.
“What are you doing down there?”
“I was protecting Molly.” I said, looking over Melissa’s shoulder at our child, who was standing on the backs of the dogs, moving rapidly into the distance, looking much like King Neptune on his dolphins.
“Oh, Henry.” Melissa extended a delicate hand and assisted me to my feet. “Something’s got to be done.”
“You’re right about that. May I suggest volunteering them for space? If that’s too good, how about the pound?”
“The pound? What are you talking about?”
“The dogs. We were discussing where to dispose of them.” By this time, Molly was making her way back to the porch. She and the dogs vaulted up the steps and came promptly to a halt next to the swing. She dismounted, gave a curtsy to the sound of her mother’s wild applause and bade the mongrels sit, whereupon they sat.
“Mama, it’s O. Henry,” Molly chirped.
“What?” Melissa said.
“No, Molly—“ I said.
“Not no, O., Papa!”
“—Ands or buts!” sang Molly.
“What?” Melissa said.
“O. Henry!” Molly said.
“Would anyone like to admire the fence?” I asked.
Later that afternoon I was making myself useful around the house, changing light bulbs and licking stamps, doing the things a man does to help his wife preserve the quality of his home. I was just sitting down again with a tall glass of iced tea when Melissa entered the kitchen. I noticed she was still carrying the hairbrush but lacking the labs. Pleased to find her alone, I patted my lap in indication that I desired her to sit there. She placed the hairbrush on my legs and descended into a chair next to me.
“Goose.” She said.
“Melissa!” I exclaimed. “A lady of your upbringing ought not to call her husband names!”
“No. We have one.”
“Surely Molly hasn’t merited such insulting language. She’s just a child,” I said.
“No, an actual goose.”
“An actual goose?”
“On the pond. Geese. Two.”
“Two geese? On the pond?”
“Yes. It appears they’ve taken up residence. They’re just swimming around, taunting me. Not budging from their stations, just there. Like, like sitting ducks.”
“But,” I wondered, “who, who…. who invited them?”
“Stop speaking like an owl and think of what to do.” Melissa cast a look in my direction. Somewhere behind me, glass shattered.
“Listen here,” I said indignantly. “I was enjoying my afternoon glass of tea when you entered into things with all your… ornithology! Besides, what’s wrong with having geese? Isn’t that what the pond is for?”
“Not our pond. Our pond is for pets, not animals.”
I decided not to question this logic, but instead said, “Darling, they have such a lovely call.”
“I hate that quacking. Noisy things.”
“You don’t think their call is lovely?”
“What of the larger implications, dear, to have our humble home serve as an intersection between civilization and nature.” I said, warming to the idea.
There is something you must understand about my loving wife. When she gets something in her mind, much like a barnacle on a boat, she sticks to it. I knew all my talk of greater implications would get me nowhere. Yet I couldn’t quite resign myself to getting rid of the poor things. Nor did I know how.
I spent the next few days trying to learn as much as I could from the ducks. Not in a psychoanalytical way, of course. It would be utter madness to try to get a goose to lie on a couch. No, I was learning about their feeding habits and swimming habits and trying to decide whether it was accurate to assume the one with a deeper honk was male.
Molly split the days between standing next to me, hoping to make a communication breakthrough by chattering like a demented descendant of Donald Duck, and stomping after her mother who was thrashing around the house, muttering darkly and gesturing wildly (which, I might add, was putting our many delicate antiques at risk of further repair, having been clamped and glued a hundred times already from the mace-like tails of S&L). Occasionally I heard the words “foie gras” echoing from the upper reaches of the house, but I couldn’t be sure. All the honking had hardened my hearing.
Saturday dawned bright and cheery. I was awakened by the bright and cheery calls of the geese, who were paddling around brightly and cheerily in the pond. I turned to Melissa and said, “Good morning, darling!” Years of marriage and her bloodshot eyes signaled to me that I ought not to go on. Instead, I wrapped my arms around her waist and lay gazing up at her, smiling adoringly. I heard a low growl.
“Dear, you must be hungry!” I said and patted her stomach. I got up and opened my closet door to locate my dressing gown. When I did so, my grandfather’s old shotgun fell from its pegs above the door onto a pile of laundry.
“Good gracious!” I said. “ I’d forgotten we kept that old thing in here.” I swung the door open wider so my wife could see the ancient weapon. I watched her mouth fall open and then close again in a very tight smile.
“Melissa?” I said feebly. “Darling?”
I was discussing thistle-whacking with Molly over cereal when we heard the first shot. I bleakly hoped that a neighbor’s car had backfired, but I knew better. There were calls of “Honk this!” followed by gunshots, all coming from the yard. We ran onto the porch, only to be wing-flapped in the face and threatened with the pecking of our lives. Well, I was the one beaten about the face. Molly was a good three feet lower, so she just jumped up and down clapping. (One might mistake the emotion on her face for joy and the giggling in her voice for pleasure, but I know she was just caught up in the excitement of the moment.) It was some moment, that’s for sure.
“Duck, Henry!” Melissa yelled from the yard.
“Goose, Mama!” Molly hallooed over to her.
“Gugh!” I said and wildly tried to extricate my head and upper region from the fowl who were zooming crazily around our gingerbread lattice like Tony Hawk on some extreme sport course. Before I new it, Molly and I were scampering down the porch steps as Melissa reloaded, keeping a weather eye on the geese, who were now dazedly flying towards the pond.
“Melissa! What in the world has come over you?” I panted.
“Mama, are you using your special powers to get rid of the geese?”
“No, I’m using your great-grandfather’s shotgun!” She replied, and to punctuate the phrase, sent another powerful burst into the air after the geese.
I could stand it no longer. It was time for me to stop being kind – as the man of the house, I had to put my foot down. So I did. After much howling, I apologized to Soapy on whose paw I had just put my foot down. Lulu thought stepping on Soapy’s foot was a new game and bounced around, wanting more of the same.
After a strong reprimand from Melissa, I apologized to the trodden dog and said,
“Stop shooting! I command you as your husband to put the gun down.”
Melissa snorted a bit and pushed a jumping Lulu down with the flat of her hand.
“I won’t have you tormenting two geese just because they stopped at our pond to rest on their long trip South.”
Melissa raised her eyebrow.
“It’s me or the geese, dear. Put the gun down and let’s have a sit on the porch.”
“Molly,” Melissa said slowly, “Put this on the kitchen table. Don’t touch anything but the handle.” Molly took the empty gun and did as she was bidden, and I guided my wife to our swing, where I began to educate her in the finer points of tractor maintenance to soothe her nerves.
Her heart rate was at a plodding 185 – the lowest Melissa’s gets — when the dogs began to bark. Well, it was more of a gurgle really, but we got the point. Melissa, ever-ready to defend her pets, jumped to her feet and emitted a shrill squeak that might have meant something to a dolphin. I too stood and was stunned by the sight of the geese attacking the surface of the pond. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it and the whole thing seemed entirely incomprehensible until I saw the golden heads of two dogs in the pond. The dogs were swimming and being pecked by the geese!
“Swim, girls, swim!” Melissa shouted at them.
“Duck!” I called. “Submerge!”
“Go, darlings!” Melissa yelped.
“Go, goose!” rooted Molly.
“Go under!” I suggested.
“Go to hell!” Melissa said to me and with wings on her feet, was beside the pond with a large stone in her hand. She threw it with great strength and accuracy, but the dexterous geese dodged the missile and it fell instead on Lulu’s rump. She turned on Soapy who claimed innocence. Nothing doing. Lulu knew a nip when she felt one. So she nipped back. Then Soapy nipped Lulu, tit for tat. And on it went, nip and duck, so to speak, with the Canadians egging them on. I haven’t seen a rumble like that since Johnny Testa and Joey Mustardmelli got it on in the seventh grade, behind Yopp’s Five and Ten.
I watched in awe as my wife continued hurling items at the geese and nearly drowning the paddling pups.
“DO something, Henry! This is your fault.”
(It’s always a good idea to assign spousal blame early in any crisis.)
“I’m a pacifist. Nature sorts itself out.”
“They’ll hurt the dogs!”
I was about to point out that a very large nuclear explosion could not hurt either dog, much to my dismay, when Soapy lunging for Lulu’s tail came up with some dangling part of goose instead. That led to a kerfuffle of which roaming minstrels would sing, were there any minstrels still a-roaming. We were saved by a suggestion from my keen four-year-old.
“TREAT!” Molly yelled.
Moving at roughly mach 15, the labs churned out of the fracas and onto the porch. Where they shook themselves and looked expectantly at us. Melissa went into the kitchen, leaving puddles in her wake. She emerged with two biscuits.
“Good dogs,” she said, flipping one to Soapy while Lulu tried to catch hers and Soapy’s at the same time.
The geese pulled themselves onto the dock where they preened and spread and
honked, “Ya wanna another piece of me, dog breath?” Fortunately, S&L were more interested in a second round of biscuits, which Melissa dutifully fetched, saying, “Well, they used a lot of energy out there.”
That evening, I was sitting on the porch again, reviewing the events of the day when I heard the geese honk out of the pond, heading north. Molly came to sit beside me and we watched them vanish into the sunset, never to be seen again.
She turned to me and said sweetly, “You smell bad, Daddy.”