Rants & Essays

For Better, For Worse

By Robert Fulghum

A man and woman I know fell in BIG LOVE somewhat later in life than usual. She was 39. He was 47. Neither had been married before. But they had seen the realities of that sacred state up close among their friends. They were determined to overcome as many possible by working things out in advance.

A prenuptial agreement over money and property was prepared by lawyers. Pre-emptive counseling over perceived tensions was provided by a psychologist, who helped them commit all practical promises to paper.

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

Two issues they discussed thoroughly were pets and kids. He agreed, reluctantly, to children if they should come, but said no to pets—and certainly not both.

The man was not enthusiastic about dependent relationships. She, on the other hand, liked taking care of living things. Especially children and dogs.

Okay. They had two daughters in three years. Marriage and family life went along quite well.

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

Remember, the mother was fond of dogs. She had raised dogs all her life. She planned to use her expertise to shop the 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 for a couple of days, at least, there would be a dog in the house.

After a month of looking, she found the wonder dog—the dog of great promise. Male, four months old, black with brown eyes, tall, strong, confident and very friendly.

To her practiced eye, our mother could see that classy genes had 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.

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

The fairy dogmother goes to work. The dog is inspected and given shots by a vet. Fitted with an elegant collar and leash. Equipped with a handsome bowl, a ball and a rawhide bone. Expenses: $50 to the pound, $50 to the vet, $60 for equipment and $50 for food. A total of $210 on a dog that is going to stay 48 hours before auction time.

The father takes one look and pales. He wouldn’t give ten bucks to keep it an hour. “Dog,” as the father names it, has a long, thick, rubber club of a tail, legs and feet that 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 left permanent teeth marks on a chair leg, a beeper and the father’s favorite shoes. The father is patient about all of this. After all, it is only a temporary arrangement, and for a good cause.

On a weekend 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 is placed in the car before going on the auction block so the family can get something to eat. When the father checks on Dog a little later, he finds it methodically chewing the car’s seat belts.

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 child, while the auctioneer describes the animal and all the fine effort and equipment thrown in with the deal.

“What am I bid for this wonderful animal?”

“A hundred dollars over here; $200 on the right; $250 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 public notice, the mother calls to her husband: “Tom, Tom, I can’t sell this dog—I want this dog—he loves me—I love him—oh, Tom.”

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, Tom, please,” she whispers.

At that moment, everybody in the room knows who is going to buy the pooch. Dog is going home with Tom.

Having no fear now of being stuck themselves, several men set the bidding on fire. Dog is going to set an auction record. The repeated $100 rise in price is matched by soft, “Please, Tom,” from the stage and Tom’s almost inaudible raise in the bidding, five dollars at a time.

There is a long pause somewhere past a thousand dollars—‘going once, going twice…”

A sob from the stage.

And so Tom buys himself a dog.

The noble father is applauded as his wife rushes from the stage to throw her arms around his neck. A memorable night for the PTA.

Now I see Tom out being walked by Dog late at night. He’s the only one strong enough to control him, and he hates to have the neighbors see him dragged along by the most expensive dog for 100 miles.

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

Tom is still stunned. He can’t believe this has happened to him.

He had a deal. 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.

I say he got off light. It could have been ponies or llamas or pot-bellied pigs. The love boat always leaks. And marriage is never a done deal. It would have been something. It always is.