Monday, February 2, 2009

Children or Pets, but not Both (story) / Lloyd


A great story from Robert Fulghum in his collection Maybe (Maybe Not), 1993. The guys in the hospital loved it.


A man and woman I know fell into BIG LOVE somewhat later in life than usual. She was forty. He was fifty. Neither had been married before. But they knew about marriage. They had seen the realities of that sacred state up close among their friends. They determined to overcome as many potential difficulties as possible by working things out in advance.


Prenuptial agreements over money and property were prepared by lawyers. Preemptive counseling over perceived tensions was provided by a psychologist, who helped them commit all practical promises to paper, with full reciprocal tolerance for irrational idiosyncrasies.


“Get married once, do it right, and live at least agreeably, if not happily, ever after.” So they hoped.


One item in their agreement concerned pets and kids.  Item Number 7:  “We agree to have either children or pets, but not both.”


The man was not enthusiastic about dependent relationships. Kids, dog, cats, hamsters, goldfish, snakes, or any other living thing that had to be fed or watered had never had a place in his life. Not even houseplants. And especially not dogs. She, on the other hand, liked taking care of living things. Especially children and dogs.


OK. But she had to choose. She chose children. He obliged. Two daughters in three years. Marriage and family life went along quite well for all. Their friends were impressed. So far, so good.


The children reached school age. The mother leapt eagerly into the bottomless pool of educational volunteerism. The school needed funds for art and music. The mother organized a major-league auction to raise much money. Every family agreed to provide an item of substantial value for the event.


The mother knew a lot about dogs. She had raised dogs all her life—the pedigreed champion kind. She planned to use her expertise to shop the various local puppy pounds to find an unnoticed bargain pooch and shape it up for the auction as her contribution. With a small investment, she would make a tenfold profit for the school. And a couple of days, at least, there would be dog in the house.


After a month of looking, she found the wonder dog—the dog of great promise. Female, four months old, dark gray, blue eyes, tall, strong, confident, and very, very, very friendly.


To her practiced eye, our mother could see that classy genes had been accidentally mixed here. Two purebred dogs of the highest caliber had combined to produce this exceptional animal. Most likely a black Labrador and a weimaraner, she thought. Perfect. Just perfect.


To those of us of untutored eye, this mutt looked more like the results of a bad blind date between a Mexican burro and a miniature musk-ox.


The fairy dogmother went to work. Dog is inspected and given shots by a vet. Fitted with an elegant leather collar and leash. Equipped with a handsome bowl, a ball, and a rawhide bone. Expenses: $50 to the pound, $50 to the vet, $50 to the beauty parlor, $60 for tack and equipment, and $50 for food. A total of $260 on a dog that is going to stay forty-eight hours before auction time.


The father took one look and paled. He smelled smoke. He wouldn’t give ten bucks to keep it an hour. “DOG,” as the father named it, has a long, thick rubber club of a tail, legs and feet the remind him of hairy toilet plungers, and is already big enough at four months to bowl over the girls and their mother with its unrestrained enthusiasm.


The father knows this is going to be ONE BIG DOG. Something a zoo might display. Omnivorous, it has eaten all its food in one day and has left permanent teeth marks on a chair leg, a leather ottoman, and the father’s favorite golf shoes.


The father is patient about all this. After all, it is only a temporary arrangement, and for a good cause.


He remembers item No. 7 in the prenuptial agreement. He is safe.


On Thursday night, the school affair gets off to a winning start. Big crowd of parents, and many guests who look flush with money. Arty decorations, fine potluck food, a cornucopia of auction items. The mother basks in her triumph.


“DOG” comes on the auction block much earlier than planned. Because the father went out to the car to check on “DOG” and found it methodically eating the leather off the car’s steering wheel, after having crunched holes in the padded dash board.


After a little wrestling match getting “DOG” into the mother’s arms and up onto the stage, the mother sits in a folding chair, cradling “DOG” with the solemn tenderness reserved for a corpse at a wake, while the auctioneer describes the pedigree of the animal and all the fine effort and neat equipment thrown in with the deal.


“What am I bid for this wonderful animal?”


“A hundred dollars over here; two hundred dollars on the right; two hundred and fifty dollars in the middle.”


There is a sniffle from the mother.


Tears are running down her face.


“DOG” is licking the tears off her cheeks.


In a whisper not really meant for the public notice, the mother calls to her husband: “Jack, Jack, I can’t sell this dog—I want this dog—this is my dog—she loves me—I love her—oh, Jack.”


Every eye in the room is on this soapy drama.


The father feels ill, realizing that the great bowling ball of fate is headed down his alley.


“Please, Jack, please, please.” She whispers.


At that moment, everybody in the room knows who is going to buy the pooch. “DOG” is going home with Jack.


Having no fear now of being stuck themselves, several relieved men set the bidding on fire. “DOG” is going to set an auction record. The repeated hundred-dollar rise in price is matched by the soft “Please, Jack”from the stage and Jack’s almost inaudible raise in the bidding, five dollars at a time.


There is a long pause at “Fifteen hundred dollars—going once, going twice. . .“


A sob from the stage.


And for $1,505 Jack has bought himself a dog. Add in the up-front costs, and he’s $1,765 into “DOG.”


The noble father is applauded as his wife rushes from the stage to throw her arms around his neck, while “DOG” wraps the leash around both their legs and down they go into the first row of chairs. A memorable night for the PTA.


I see Jack out being waked by the dog late at night. He’s the only one strong enough to control it, and he hates to have the neighbors see him being dragged along by this, the most expensive damned dog for a hundred miles.


“DOG” has become “Marilyn.” She is big enough to plow with now. “Marilyn” may be the world’s dumbest dog, having been to obedience school twice with no apparent effect.


Jack is still stunned. He can believe this has happened to him.
He had it down on paper. No. 7. Kids or pets, not both.


But the complicating clauses in the fine print of the marriage contract are always unreadable. And always open to revision by forces stronger than a man’s ego. The loveboat always leaks. And marriage is never a done deal.

I say he go off light. It could have been ponies  or llamas or potbellied pigs. It would have been something. It always is.

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