by Leah Browning
His wife sent him outside, one morning, to mow the lawn. It had been weeks, some of the neighbors were complaining, they’d gotten a letter from the HOA.
It was a Saturday, a sunny day. There were beers inside in the fridge. He was almost done when one of the blades broke. A piece of metal flew out and caught him in the leg.
On the way to the hospital, he lay in the back seat with towels wrapped around his shin. He was teasing his wife, as she drove. If she had just let him relax, none of this would have happened. No one got hurt while sitting on the couch. Ha ha.
She was tense, as she drove, and didn’t turn around. She’d left the children with the next-door neighbor.
The wound was deep, but they cleaned it and stitched him up. The bone wasn’t broken. A nurse bandaged his leg and sent him home, no harm done.
A week later, they got another letter from the HOA, this time threatening them with a fine. He was still resting his leg, but it seemed to be getting worse. His wife bought a new mower and paid one of the teenagers down the street to finish the lawn and trim back the hedges.
He got a fever. When he went to the doctor, it emerged that the leg was infected. He ended up in the hospital.
They pumped him full of antibiotics and sent him home after two days, and then when things didn’t improve, told him to come back. He lay in the hospital bed and stared at the ceiling.
When his wife brought the children to visit, he tried to joke with them. They were bored, though, and just wanted to watch the little TV hanging on the wall. They crowded onto his bed and fought over the remote control.
The infection didn’t subside, and finally a surgeon made the call. They were going to have to amputate part of his leg. Good news, though: he would be able to keep his knee.
His wife came to visit, alone this time. Neither one of them knew what to say. She was somber. He wanted things to go back to the way they had been before, when he could jostle her out of a bad mood. Maybe this will save us on socks, he said, but she just put her head in her hands.
When it was all over, he got a prosthetic leg with a metal tube where his shin had been. To make the children laugh, he sometimes took it off and let it sit on its own chair at the dinner table with them. He called it Howard.
They moved to a single-story house. Going up and down the stairs day after day was too difficult for him. The new house was still near the kids’ school, but it had a yard full of rocks and native plants, and no homeowners’ association breathing down his neck.
The following spring, they drove to Sedona for a vacation. One of the kids wanted to go hiking. They chose an easy trail, and his wife packed up an economy-sized bottle of sunscreen and a box of energy bars.
It was all right at first, but finally he had to stop. He waved the others along. They were all wearing red T-shirts and shorts, and he watched them disappear from view.
The uneven ground was difficult to navigate, and for the first time in a long time, he wished he had crutches again. His stump ached. He sat on a flat rock and removed Howard. Without the children, it didn’t seem funny. Just a chunk of plastic and metal.
One hiking boot was laced onto the prosthetic foot. His wife had tightened the laces through the eyelets and around the little hooks. Inside the other boot, on his real human foot, he could feel a blister forming.
He wasn’t wearing a watch, and he had to keep getting out his cell phone to check the time. His family had been gone more than an hour. Other tourists walked past holding their cameras. He was sweating, even sitting still.
In the distance, against the backdrop of the red rocks, he saw his wife and kids, in their matching red shirts, round a corner. They weren’t alone, though—at his wife’s side was a tall, muscular man in a tight shirt and very short shorts. Other hikers overtook and passed them, so they were walking slowly, he could tell.
The children arrived first, bounding up to him like puppies, and the adults followed. His wife’s face was flushed. She was carrying the pack, which she removed and set on the ground. “Stand in the shade with Dad,” she said, “and I’ll get you some water.”
To her husband, she said, “Look who I found!”
The man in the tight shorts was someone she’d known in high school, a German exchange student. “He lives here now,” she said delightedly, and the former exchange student reached down and affectionately rumpled the hair of the youngest child.
It took a minute to reattach his leg, and everyone had to wait. Tiredness made him clumsy. As they all walked toward the trailhead, his wife chatted animatedly, once even putting her hand on the German man’s arm, steadying herself, she was laughing so hard. It had been a long time since he’d seen her like that.
Two of the children were starting to bicker; someone wanted to trade seats when they got back in the minivan. The sun was hot.
As they finished loading up the kids, his wife gave her friend a hug, and the German got into a shiny little sports car and drove away.
“We should get some food,” she said. She seemed deflated. Without asking, she walked around to the driver’s side so that he could take off his leg. She could always tell when he was in pain.
“Old boyfriend?” he asked, once they were back on the road.
“Oh.” She glanced at him quickly. “No.”
He watched the mountain scenery slide past the window. “Too bad,” he said lightly, “because he is gorgeous.”
And then there it was again, her laugh. They both relaxed a little.
He turned up the air conditioning and put on a DVD for the kids. There was no way to know what would happen, was there? A year ago, he had been a different person, and if he was honest with himself, so had she. Everything had changed. Everything would continue changing. All they could do was try to keep up.