Author Brian McGrory's life changed drastically after the death of his beloved dog, Harry, when the greiving pet owner fell in love with Pam, Harry's veterinarian. Pam came with accessories that could not have been more exotic to the city-loving bachelor—a home in suburbia, two young daughters, two dogs, two cats, two rabbits and a portly, snow white, red-crowned-and-wattled “step-rooster” named Buddy. In Buddy: How A Rooster Made Me a Family Man (Crown 2012), McGrory tells the story—as a pet memoir—of the attitude-fueled fowl and how it brought a bachelor and single mother together into a family, and taught them not only how to live with animals but also how to live.
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I’ll never forget the only thought that rattled through my shocked brain the first time I walked down the rough-hewn path that snaked between a couple of weathered cottages and through the sand dunes, then stood on the white sands of Goose Rocks Beach looking out at the calm, crystal blue waters of the Maine coast.
I’d never seen anything like it. There were no stones, no trash, no crowds, no blaring boom boxes, no Skee-Ball machines, no amusement park, no hot dog carts, no nothing except for powdery sand that squeaked underfoot, acre upon acre of firm, khaki-colored ocean floor revealed by the retreating tide, and a long sandbar that took people out to the wooded environs of Timber Island.
Experience would soon teach me that the only sounds in the early morning were the distant hum of lobster boats traversing the bay to pull up more traps, that the late-afternoon breeze always required a fleece, that you could walk a hundred yards into the absurdly clear—and cold—water at high tide and still be no deeper than your waist. I was, instantly and eternally, in love.
I couldn’t wait to introduce Harry, my extraordinary golden retriever, to Kennebunkport back in the day. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to love Goose Rocks any more than I did, but he somehow topped me. He would dig in the sand, plow through the small waves, wade in the crystal waters, and sometimes just pad along the shore next to me with a ridiculous smile on his unfailingly handsome face. His presence led me to stay, year in, year out, for every summer of his ten-year life, in some of the most dated rental cottages along the beach, the only ones that would take a dog, but it didn’t matter, because it was me and him in Maine and that’s what counted most. We would be on the beach early in the morning. We would be back on the beach in the early evening. The women with us may have changed, when there were women with us at all, but we stayed the same. Always damp, he would ride shotgun in my car, nose out the window, breeze in his ears, lying in the doorways of stores in Dock Square as I ran through whatever errands invariably poked into my days.
That last summer, August 2004, was at once the best and worst. I never knew joy and sorrow could be so intricately entwined. Harry was sick and getting sicker. I rented a beautiful new house about a mile or so from the beach for the whole month, a contemporary farm with a sprawling back deck overlooking forest and fields. We slowly walked Goose Rocks every morning, Harry merrily trudging beside me, a smile on his face, eyes squinting in the early sun. I don’t imagine dogs can recall the past, but maybe so, and if they could, he was thinking of all those times from years gone by when he would be ripping across the sand, leaping to catch a long toss on the first bounce, swerving into the surf, paddling through the river, digging holes so deep that the only thing you could see was his tail and the constant whoosh of sand. He was such a different dog now, gray around his whole muzzle, mature beyond his years, drinking in the scenery, smelling the salt that filled the air.
Then we would sit in the soft sand by the dunes, Harry and I, in the warming sun. He would gaze toward the water, eye the younger dogs that were loping through the surf, make a feint at digging a hole but then quickly stop and look at me, somewhat amused, as if he were saying “Remember when?” If he could have said “Thank you,” he would have. I could, so I did, hugging him close, his damp fur against the grain of my weathered polo, nuzzling his ear. “You’re the best friend I’ll ever have,” I’d tell him again and again and again.
By the second week or so in Maine, I basically stopped doing anything else— no golf, no midday trips to the beach when he wasn’t allowed, no long dinners out, no nights at the Wharf. I knew then what I know now: there would be a time, too soon in this life, when I would give anything I had to reach back and spend another hour with this incredible dog. I wanted to savor what I had left, and I wanted to be there for him after all the being there he’d given me.
We lived out our month in solitude, the beach in the morning, the back deck every afternoon, Harry sprawled on the wood, me tapping at my laptop, and at night, we’d drive into town for a plate of fried clams, then head back home to read, the Red Sox playing on the car radio amid their remarkable August surge on the way to the World Series. That last evening on an empty beach, we both lingered until all the light had drained from the sky. We sat in the soft sand down by the far river. I did a few sit-ups to try to create the veneer of normalcy. Harry licked my nose, as he always did. I looked at his gaunt face and said, “Harry, I don’t want you hanging around for me. I know you’re in pain. When you want to go, just let me know and I’ll make sure everything is just right.” He looked at me as I spoke, and then he looked away.
An old Bill Clinton quote kept coming to mind: “It doesn’t take long to live a life.” And a dog’s life comes and goes far too fast.
Walking off the beach that night, I knew Harry would never see it again. He had watched me packing a couple of hours before, so I suspect he knew it as well. Still he came, reliably, readily, bravely. What mattered wasn’t so much where we were or what we were doing but the fact that we were together. Harry was calm until the end.
When Harry died about a month later, back in Boston, I thought, maybe even worried, that my love of Kennebunkport would die with him. But it didn’t. The next year, I bought the smallhouse where we had spent his last August. I placed a photograph of him sitting on the beach, soaking wet, tennis ball in mouth, prominently on the living room wall. Morning walkers on Goose Rocks still asked about Harry. I can still see him in the water, smell the beach on his fur, picture the breeze blowing his damp ears. Those memories, the many things we shared, make Maine even more vital and ever more tranquil a retreat for me—my favorite place in this world.
On another August afternoon, a few years later, a rooster named Buddy made his virgin trip to the house, and the Maine I knew would never be the same.
* * *
From the moment Pam lifted him from the soft blankets that covered the passenger seat of her Toyota SUV and placed him gently on the terra firma of the state of Maine for the very first time, young Buddy was a bird in distress. It didn’t take a member of the Audubon Society or a third-generation poultry farmer to see why. His beady little eyes darted around the perimeter of my yard with a mix of fear and scorn. What he saw was a vast forest, sprawling fields, and quiet meadows dotted with wildflowers. What he didn’t see was a fence or nice neighbors who would bring him corn and imported cheese. He didn’t see one lawn flowing into another. He didn’t see simple ornamental bushes that provided safe and vital shade. No, he didn’t see any of that.
If you’re a human, which I am, the fields and forest provide a respite from the crowded concrete of the city, an opportunity to commune with nature, a tranquil massage for the mind. It is quiet but for the cackle of the occasional hawk and the nighttime howl of the distant coyote. It is remote, and it is peaceful.
For an overly domesticated bird, specifically a chicken, and especially this particularly pampered chicken, every inch and every moment of this unfamiliar setting represented a monumental threat to his increasingly self-important life. The woods where I saw nature, he saw predators. The fields where I looked for clarity as I typed on my computer keyboard, he saw as spawning grounds for beasts that would eat him alive. The clear blue skies overhead, with their regular display of nighttime stars, were the perfect habitat for flying monsters who could swoop down and carry him off in one jaw-clenching bite.
So what Buddy did, once he quickly calculated the score, was draw a deep breath into his puffed-out chest, hold it there for a moment, and then let out a crow so deep, so long, and so loud that it all but shook the needles from the ancient scrub pines that made up so much of the surrounding woods. And then he did it again and again and again, until his pointy little head seemed ready to explode off his fat neck— and so did mine. He did it until Pam finally leaned down and cheerfully said, “Poor Boo-Disk, you’re not used to it up here, are you?” Buddy clucked a soft acknowledgment to her that, no, he wasn’t used to it up here, didn’t particularly like it, and preferred to let people and creatures know about his feelings. And then he went back to warning the rest of the natural world not to mess with him.
* * *
One night, after the girls were asleep, Pam told me, pointblank, “I’m putting Buddy to bed in the basement.”
I explicitly remember her seeing the look of horror and annoyance on my face. She said that everything down there was washable and she would clean it herself. I just didn’t appreciate the immediate, real-world implications of the maneuver.
At dawn’s first light, I came to realize that Buddy had somehow positioned himself directly under my first- floor bedroom— to be more specific, the clever little guy got directly under my bed. When he awoke, he was undoubtedly filled with questions, such as What the hell am I doing here,and where is everyone else? So he let out a thunderbolt of a cock- a- doodle- doo that slammed through the bedroom floor like a jackhammer, blazed through the mattress, and sent me just about hurtling skyward toward the ceiling fan in an Exorcist-like stunt. I could actually feel myself hit the bed again, which only seemed to cause him to screech anew. Was his beak in my goddamn pillow, pecking at the insides of my brain?
Slapped awake, I found myself inexplicably breathless, as if I had just gone on a long bike ride in extreme heat. The room was mostly dark, though through the windows I could see the very first drops of light in the morning sky. I looked over at Pam, but there was just the vacant expanse of white comforter. She was gone or, more likely, had never been there. The last I had seen of her was when she said she was going upstairs to see the kids off to sleep. She’d likely fallen asleep beside them or between them, exhausted at the close of another long day.
The bird’s screeches made me wonder about the quality of my flooring. There didn’t seem to be anything between me and the monster’s voice box. I needed him to stop, desperately so, but I sure as hell wasn’t going down there, not after the porch scene the afternoon before, when he’d seemed as though he wanted to take me down, and not when he was this agitated. I lay in bed amid the avian screams, hoping, praying that Pam would again take charge. I mean, she had to hear him upstairs. Hell, my friends in Boston could probably hear him.
Finally I heard merciful footsteps on the staircase, the opening of the cellar door, and someone descending the steps. Then I heard Pam’s voice, muffled by the floor and choked by sleep. “Boo-Boo, you poor guy, all unsettled. It’s okay. You’re safe down here.”
He gave her a long, explanatory caw, the two of them continuing this interspecies dialogue. Next thing I knew, Pam was falling into bed beside me, still wearing the same shorts and T- shirt she’d had on the day before, her hair a tangle of wisps and knots.
“He’s just getting used to things,” she said.
I was about to respond, but she was already snoring softly. She hadn’t moved an inch when I got up an hour or so later to take two excited dogs to the beach for their morning romp in the sand and waves. Afterward, standing inside a delightful store called Cape Porpoise Kitchen, where I always got my morning coffee, the nice young woman approached and as I said, “The usual,” she pulled out a small bag for my muffin. My cell phone rang. “Excuse me one second,” I said, stepping away to take the call.
It was one of Pam’s kids on the other end of the line. “Brian, where are you?”
“At the store, cutie. Where are you?”
“Um, I’m at home. Hey, can you get us a cinnamon muffin and a toasted bagel, and a blueberry muffin.”
“Of course— ”
“And Mom wants an everything bagel.”
“I’m on the way,” I said. “How’s Buddy?”
I told the young woman what I needed, which was much more than I usually got: half a dozen muffins, a couple of bagels, another cup of coffee for Pam.
She smiled. “Full house?” she asked.
I nodded. “Kids, dogs, woman,” adding under my breath “rooster.”
“Excuse me?” She looked legitimately surprised.
“Toaster,” I said, quickly. “Would you mind throwing the bagels in the toaster?”
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory and published by Crown, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man. Check out the book on Facebook and YouTube.
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