Puppy Makes Three
were young. We were in love. We were rollicking in those sublime early days of
marriage when life seems about as good as life can get. We could not leave well
on a January evening in 1991, my wife of fifteen months and I ate a quick
dinner together and headed off to answer a classified ad in the Palm Beach Post.
were doing this, I wasn’t quite sure. A few weeks earlier I had awoken just
after dawn to find the bed beside me empty. I got up and found Jenny sitting in
her bathrobe at the glass table on the screened porch of our little bungalow,
bent over the newspaper with a pen in her hand.
was nothing unusual about the scene. Not only was the
Palm Beach Post
our local paper, it was
also the source of half of our household income. We were a
two-newspaper-career couple. Jenny worked as a feature writer in the
Post’s "Accent" section; I
was a news reporter at the competing paper in the area, the South Florida
based an hour south in Fort
Lauderdale. We began every morning poring
over the newspapers, seeing how our stories were played and how they stacked up
We circled, underlined, and clipped with abandon.
this morning, Jenny’s nose was not in the news pages but in the classified section.
When I stepped closer, I saw she was feverishly circling beneath the heading
I said in that new-husband, still-treading-gently voice. "Is there something I
did not answer.
the plant," she finally said, her voice carrying a slight edge of desperation.
plant?" I asked.
dumb plant," she said. "The one we killed."
one we killed?
I wasn’t about to press the point, but for the record it was the plant that
I bought and
she killed. I had
surprised her with it one night, a lovely large dieffenbachia with emerald-and-cream
variegated leaves. "What’s the occasion?" she’d asked. But there was none. I’d
given it to her for no reason other than to say, "Damn, isn’t married life
had adored both the gesture and the plant and thanked me by throwing her arms
around my neck and kissing me on the lips. Then she promptly went on to kill my
gift to her with an assassin’s coldhearted efficiency. Not that she was trying
to; if anything, she nurtured the poor thing to death. Jenny didn’t exactly
have a green thumb. Working on the assumption that all living things require
water, but apparently forgetting that they also
need air, she began flooding the dieffenbachia on a daily basis.
careful not to overwater it," I had warned.
she had replied, and then dumped on another gallon.
sicker the plant got, the more she doused it, until finally it just kind of
melted into an oozing heap. I looked at its limp skeleton in the pot by the
window and thought, Man, someone who believes
in omens could have a field day with this one.
here she was, somehow making the cosmic leap of logic from dead flora in a pot
to living fauna in the pet classifieds. Kill
a plant, buy a puppy.
Well, of course it made perfect sense.
looked more closely at the newspaper in front of her and saw that one ad in
particular seemed to have caught her fancy. She had drawn three fat red stars
beside it. It read: "Lab puppies, yellow. AKC purebred. All shots. Parents on
I said, "can you run this plant-pet thing by me one more time?"
know," she said, looking up. "I tried so hard and look what happened. I can’t
even keep a stupid houseplant alive. I mean, how hard is
that? All you need to do
is water the damn thing."
she got to the real issue: "If I can’t even keep a plant alive, how am I ever
going to keep a baby alive?" She looked like she might start crying.
Baby Thing, as I called it, had become a constant in Jenny’s life and was
getting bigger by the day. When we had first met, at a small newspaper in
western Michigan, she was just a few months out of college, and serious adulthood still
seemed a far distant concept. For both of us, it was our first professional job
out of school. We ate a lot of pizza, drank a lot of beer, and gave exactly zero
thought to the possibility of someday being anything other than young, single,
unfettered consumers of pizza and beer.
years passed. We had barely begun dating when various job opportunities—and a
one-year postgraduate program for me—pulled us in different directions across
the eastern United States
. At first we were one hour’s drive apart. Then we were three
hours apart. Then eight, then twenty-four. By the time we both landed together
in South Florida and tied the knot, she was nearly thirty. Her friends were having
babies. Her body was sending her strange messages. That once seemingly eternal
window of procreative opportunity was slowly lowering.
leaned over her from behind, wrapped my arms around her shoulders, and kissed
the top of her head. "It’s okay," I said. But I had to admit, she raised a good
question. Neither of us had ever really nurtured a thing in our lives. Sure,
we’d had pets growing up, but they didn’t really count. We always knew our
parents would keep them alive and well. We both knew we wanted to one day have
children, but was either of us really up for the job? Children were so . . . so
. . . scary. They were helpless and fragile and looked like they would break
easily if dropped.
little smile broke out on Jenny’s face. "I thought maybe a dog would be good
practice," she said.
drove through the darkness, heading northwest out of town where the suburbs of
West Palm Beach fade
into sprawling country properties, I thought through our decision to bring home
a dog. It was a huge responsibility, especially for two people with full-time
jobs. Yet we knew what we were in for. We’d both grown up with dogs and loved
them immensely. I’d had Saint Shaun and Jenny had had Saint Winnie, her
family’s beloved English
setter. Our happiest childhood memories almost all included those dogs. Hiking
with them, swimming with them, playing with them, getting in trouble with them.
If Jenny really only wanted a dog to hone her parenting skills, I would have
tried to talk her in off the ledge and maybe placate her with a goldfish. But
just as we knew we wanted children someday, we knew with equal certainty that
our family home would not be complete without a dog sprawled at our feet. When
we were dating, long before children ever came on our radar, we spent hours
discussing our childhood pets, how much we missed them and how e longed
someday—once we had a house to call our own and some
stability in our lives—to own a dog again.
had both. We were together in a place we did not plan to leave anytime soon.
And we had a house to call our very own.
a perfect little house on a perfect little quarter-acre fenced lot just right
for a dog. And the location was just right, too, a funky city neighborhood one
and a half blocks off the Intracoastal Waterway
separating West Palm
Beach from the rarified mansions of
Palm Beach. At the foot
of our street, Churchill Road
, a linear green park and paved trail stretched for miles
along the waterfront. It was ideal for jogging and bicycling and Rollerblading.
And, more than anything, for walking a dog.
house was built in the 1950s and had an Old Florida charm—a fireplace, rough
plaster walls, big airy windows, and French doors leading to our favorite space
of all, the screened back porch. The yard was a little tropical haven, filled
with palms and bromeliads and avocado trees and brightly colored coleus plants.
Dominating the property was a towering mango tree; each summer it dropped its
heavy fruit with loud thuds that sounded, somewhat grotesquely, like bodies
being thrown off the roof. We would
lie awake in bed and listen: Thud! Thud!
bought the two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow a few months after we returned from
our honeymoon and immediately set about refurbishing it. The prior owners, a
retired postal clerk and his wife, loved the color green. The exterior stucco
was green. The interior walls were green. The curtains were green. The shutters
were green. The front door was green. The carpet, which they had just purchased
to help sell the house, was green. Not a cheery kelly green or a cool emerald
green or even a daring lime green but a puke-your-guts-out-after-split-pea-soup
green accented with khaki trim. The place had the feel of an army field barracks.
first night in the house, we ripped up every square inch of the new green
carpeting and dragged it to the curb. Where the carpet had been, we discovered
a pristine oak plank floor
that, as best we could tell, had never suffered the scuff of a single shoe. We
painstakingly sanded and varnished it to a high sheen. Then we went out and
blew the better part of two weeks’ pay for a handwoven Persian rug, which we
unfurled in the living room in front of the fireplace. Over the months, we
repainted every green surface and replaced every green accessory. The postal
clerk’s house was slowly becoming our own.
we got the joint just right, of course, it only made sense that we bring home a
large, four-legged roommate with sharp toenails, large teeth, and exceedingly
limited English-language skills to start tearing it apart again.
down, dingo, or you’re going to miss it," Jenny scolded. "It should be coming
up any second."We were driving through inky blackness across what had once been
swampland, drained after World War II for farming and later colonized by
suburbanites seeking a country lifestyle.
Jenny predicted, our headlights soon illuminated a mailbox marked with the
address we were looking for. I turned up a gravel drive that led into a large
wooded property with a pond in front of the house and a small barn out back. At
the door, a middle-aged woman named Lori greeted us, a big, placid yellow Labrador
retriever by her side.
is Lily, the proud mama," Lori said after we introduced ourselves. We could see
that five weeks after birth Lily’s stomach was still swollen and her teats
pronounced. We both got on our knees, and she happily accepted our affection.
She was just what we pictured a Lab would be—sweet-natured, affectionate, calm,
and breathtakingly beautiful.
the father?" I asked.
woman said, hesitating for just a fraction of a second. "Sammy Boy? He’s around
here somewhere." She quickly added, "I imagine you’re dying to see the
led us through the kitchen out to a utility room that had been drafted into
service as a nursery. Newspapers covered the floor, and in one corner was a low
box lined with old beach towels. But we hardly noticed any of that. How could
we with nine tiny yellow puppies stumbling all over one another as they
clamored to check out the latest strangers to drop by? Jenny gasped. "Oh my,"
she said. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so cute in my life."
on the floor and let the puppies climb all over us as Lily happily bounced
around, tail wagging and nose poking each of her offspring to make sure all was
well. The deal I had struck with Jenny when I agreed to come here was that we
would check the pups out, ask some questions, and keep an open mind as to whether
we were ready to bring home a dog. "This is the first ad we’re answering," I
had said. "Let’s not make any snap decisions." But thirty seconds into it, I
could see I had already lost the battle. There was no question that before the
night was through one of these puppies would be ours.
was what is known as a backyard breeder. When it came to buying a purebred dog,
we were pure novices, but we had read enough to know to steer clear of the
so-called puppy mills, those commercial breeding operations that churn out
purebreds like Ford churns out Tauruses. Unlike mass-produced cars, however, mass-produced
pedigree puppies can come with serious hereditary problems, running the gamut
from hip dysplasia to early blindness, brought on by multigenerational
on the other hand, was a hobbyist, motivated more by love of the breed than by
profit. She owned just one female and one male. They had come from distinct bloodlines,
and she had the paper trail to prove it. This would be Lily’s second and final
litter before she retired to the good life of a countrified family pet. With
both parents on the premises, the buyer could see firsthand the
lineage—although in our case, the father apparently was outside and out of
litter consisted of five females, all but one of which already had deposits on
them, and four males. Lori was asking $400 for the remaining female and $375
for the males. One of the males seemed particularly smitten with us. He was the
goofiest of the group and charged into us, somersaulting into our laps and clawing
his way up our shirts to lick our faces. He gnawed on our fingers with
surprisingly sharp baby teeth and stomped clumsy circles around us on giant
tawny paws that were way out of proportion to the rest of his body. "That one
there you can have for three-fifty," the owner said.
is a rabid bargain hunter who has been known to drag home all sorts of things
we neither want nor need simply because they were priced too attractively to
pass up. "I know you don’t golf," she said to me one day as she pulled a set of
used clubs out of the car. "But you wouldn’t believe the deal I got on these." Now
I saw her eyes brighten. "Aw, honey," she cooed. "The little guy’s on
to admit he was pretty darn adorable. Frisky, too. Before I realized what he
was up to, the rascal had half my watchband chewed off.
have to do the scare test," I said. Many times before I had recounted for Jenny
the story of picking out Saint Shaun when I was a boy, and my father teaching
me to make a sudden move or loud noise to separate the timid from the
self-assured. Sitting in this heap of pups, she gave me that roll of the eyes
that she reserved for odd Grogan-family behavior. "Seriously," I said. "It works."
stood up, turned away from the puppies, then swung quickly back around, taking
a sudden, exaggerated step toward them. I stomped my foot and barked out,
"Hey!" None seemed too concerned by this stranger’s contortions. But only one
plunged forward to meet the assault head-on. It was Clearance Dog. He plowed
full steam into me, throwing a cross-body block across my ankles and pouncing
at my shoelaces as though convinced they were dangerous enemies that needed to
think it’s fate," Jenny said.
think?" I said, scooping him up and holding him in one hand in front of my
face, studying his mug. He looked at me with heart-melting brown eyes and then
nibbled my nose. I plopped him into Jenny’s arms, where he did the same to her.
"He certainly seems to like us," I said.
it came to be. We wrote Lori a check for $350, and she told us we could return
to take Clearance Dog home with us in three weeks when he was eight weeks old
and weaned. We thanked her, gave Lily one last pat, and said good-bye.
to the car, I threw my arm around Jenny’s shoulder and pulled her tight to me. "Can
you believe it?" I said. "We actually got our dog!"
can’t wait to bring him home," she said.
as we were reaching the car, we heard a commotion coming from the woods.
Something was crashing through the brush—and breathing very heavily. It sounded
like what you might hear in a slasher film. And it was coming our way. We
froze, staring into the darkness. The sound grew louder and closer. Then in a
flash the thing burst into the clearing and came charging in our direction, a
yellow blur. A very big
yellow blur. As it galloped past, not stopping, not even
seeming to notice us, we could see it was a large
Labrador retriever. But
it was nothing like the sweet Lily we had just cuddled with inside. This one
was soaking wet and covered up to its belly in mud and burrs. Its tongue hung
out wildly to one side, and froth flew off its jowls as it barreled past. In
the split-second glimpse I got, I detected an odd, slightly crazed, yet somehow
joyous gaze in its eyes. It was as though this animal had just seen a ghost—and
couldn’t possibly be more tickled about it.
with the roar of a stampeding herd of buffalo, it was gone, around the back of
the house and out of sight. Jenny let out a little gasp.
think," I said, a slight queasiness rising in my gut, "we just met Dad."
here to order now.
The foregoing is excerpted from Marley & Me by
John Grogan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or
reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East
53rd Street, New York, NY 10022