McGrory / BUDDY
Try as you might, you never forget that first time a rooster announces the dawn of a new day from your very own yard.
In my case, I jerked awake to find myself in a place I had never been, on a bed that wasn’t mine, in a room I didn’t know. There were windows where there had never been windows, and outside those windows, the first hint of morning light revealed the outline of tall trees I had never seen before.
I pressed and poked at the unfamiliar alarm clock until I realized it wasn’t the source of the sound. No, the noise in question was somewhere else, somewhere out of reach, somewhere outside of this room.
It seemed to be getting closer, louder, clearer.
“Dammit.” I whirled toward the origin of the profanity, a figure that had suddenly stirred beside me in bed, a woman with a raspy voice still choked by sleep. She tossed off the thick comforter and lunged toward her side of the room.
In the darkness, I caught a glimpse of the yellow sweatshirt and blue surgical scrubs worn by this mysterious, fleeting figure. Hey, wait a minute. This wasn’t any unknown blonde. It was my fiancée, Pam. What was she doing here? I watched as she paused in the murky expanse, apparently gathering her bearings, and then vanished through an open door.
I looked at the alarm clock on the bedside table: 4:55 a.m. Clarity was making a comeback. Memories were returning, gaps filling in. I had moved the day before. Yes, right, moved. It wasn’t a small move. I’d left the city I love, Boston, where I had lived for most of the last twenty-two years, for a distant and leafy place known as Suburbia. I’d left a classic 150-year-old brick town house loaded with character and charm for a rambling new suburban home surrounded by this thing I was told was a lawn. I’d left a life of total freedom and independence—the only thing resembling a familial obligation was my golden retriever, who never felt obligatory at all—to live with Pam, her two daughters, their two rabbits, and their dog, Walter, in a new house that, as of the previous day, I think I even co-owned.
Oh, and how could I forget their rooster? Otherwise known as my wake-up call. That was Buddy screaming outside, Buddy waking me up, Buddy announcing, with singular style, that my life would never again be the same. Just as I had spent my first night in a new house, so had he, in his case a grossly expensive shed that Pam had custom-built in the side yard, with tall double cedar doors, insulated walls, a shingled roof, a shelf that served as his high perch, and windows that had yet to be installed, which explained the penetrating predawn alert. Buddy had awakened to the sounds of potential predators outside his house, which meant that the rest of the street awoke to Buddy’s war cry. Good morning, new neighbors!
I heard footsteps downstairs, then the happy yelps and little barks of the relieved chicken undoubtedly being carried in Pam’s arms. I had this rush of fear that she was bringing him up to bed until I heard the cellar door open, steps, silence. Moments later, the darkness giving way to more light, Pam fell into bed next to me.
“Poor guy is scared and confused,” she said sleepily.
“I’ll be okay,” I said.
“No. I mean Buddy.”
As Pam drifted back to sleep, I lay in bed trying to get my head around how all this was going to work. I’m not talking about this new, grand, crowded life filled with spasms of drama lurking around the most seemingly complacent corners, or the constant cacophony of girls, dogs, and chicken, or the long commute to work, or the neighbor inevitably leaning over my back fence to tell me when to flip my burgers, or the fact that my new walk to the coffee shop led me along a highway and to a strip mall. No, I just mean getting up, getting ready, getting out. In my old life, as in yesterday, I’d accompany my golden retriever on a quiet walk through a tranquil park known as the Esplanade set along the banks of the Charles River in Boston. The river flowed on one side, surprisingly clean. The high-rises of Back Bay towered on the other. We’d loop through the Public Garden, where swan boats awaited the day’s riders and the colorful palette of fat tulips signaled the start of better things. We’d mosey up Newbury Street, past the stores and boutiques that had yet to come to life for the day, the dog happily slurping water from any shopkeepers who happened to be hosing down their sidewalks. We’d stop at a coffee shop where the nice counter clerk knew what I wanted and always seemed happy that I was there, and wind up on my front stoop, where I’d read the paper and the tired dog would laze in the sun.
Now I had the finite space of a yard. Now I had a car to get to Dunkin’ Donuts. And now I had an eight-year-old in the house named Caroline who had learned from her older cousin the prior summer how to pick a lock with a bobby pin. She was excellent at it, a talent that would result in uncharacteristically short and uncommonly tense showers for me.
“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
The kids, two girls, raced into the room at that very minute, dived through the air, and landed on the bed between Pam and myself, the older of the daughters, Abigail, rolling into me, giggling loudly as she gave me the once-over from her vantage point on the pillow, and declaring “Your hair is sticking straight up.”
Good to know. Pam rolled over, and the three of them hugged and talked about their first night in their new bedrooms. The two dogs had stirred and began wrestling on the bedroom floor. Buddy began crowing again from two floors below.
“He’s in the basement,” Pam told the kids, who were looking quizzical, and it was as if she had lit the fuse of a rocket. They roared out of the room as fast as they had arrived, followed more slowly by their mother, who was followed by the two dogs, leaving me alone with my hopes and fears—my hopes being that this whole big venture would work out as it was supposed to, my fears being about every possible way that my twisted little mind could devise to screw things up.
I took the quickest shower of my life. Downstairs, every living creature in the house had gathered in the kitchen. The dogs were lying in wait, though out of their element and unclear on the agenda. “I get it, guys,” I told them. The rabbit cage had somehow shown up next to the kitchen table with two creatures named Dolly and Lily inside, though I wouldn’t pass a test on which was which. Pam was dicing fruit and cooking pancakes on a stovetop griddle that had appeared out of nowhere and that I hadn’t known we owned. How had she even found it in this sea of boxes? Ten years in my old condo and I don’t think I opened the oven door, let alone cooked breakfast.
And Buddy. Big, white, proud, and round, with a rubbery red comb and a matching red wattle, he was clucking around the floor, high-stepping between the dogs, cooing at the kids who were on their knees doing their very best to make him feel at home. “You are the best rooster in town,” Abigail told him. Caroline swooped him into her thin arms so he could watch her mother make the pancakes. “Oh, poor Boo-Boo, don’t be scared,” she whispered in his ear. “We all love you.”
What followed were twenty or so minutes of orchestrated pandemonium during which I was every inch, at every moment, the uninvited guest. To intrude would have been like tossing a butter knife into the blades of a whirring fan. Food was furiously eaten. Dishes were swept away in a clack of noise, yet still found their way to the dishwasher. Kids raced upstairs to get dressed for school. Countdown clocks were yelled. Kids argued about what they were going to wear. Lunches were made and recess snacks prepared in separate bags. Soon enough, I found myself standing on the front porch watching the three women of Sawmill Lane heading toward Pam’s car, the two girls lugging backpacks as their little ponytails bounced with every step. Did they really do this every morning?
“Hey, Brian,” Caroline said in her squeaky little voice as she rolled down the back window on their way out of the driveway. Acknowledgment! “Don’t eat all the cupcakes that Mom bought.” And they were off.
Alone, I stepped out into the yard, which was more weeds than grass, but I’d take care of that. I looked back at the barn red house, and I had to admit, it was pretty handsome, everything brand-new, never lived in before, meaning that every day spent here, every memory made here, would be all and only ours, and if this morning was any indication, the memories would be plentiful. Pam and I would be married soon in this house. The kids would grow from girls to teenagers to young women in this house. They’d return from college, surrounded by their pasts, to contemplate where in this world they wanted to go. Everything was set for a wonderful narrative filled with unique characters that would unfold over the many years ahead, hopefully more comedy than drama.
That first day in a new house, there are no bad places, no unpleasant recollections of arguments or phone calls or knocks on the door that could send your world spinning out of control in a whispered moment. There were only possibilities. The floors shone. The windows glistened. The counters sparkled. It was all new—as new as my new life had ever been—and it was ours, mine and Pam’s, together.
As I emerged from my reverie, I walked back onto the porch admiring the craftsmanship and the details that had gone into the house. And that’s when I heard him, his long, raspy groan, as if his emotions—specifically, anger—were billowing up inside his barrel chest. I looked down to see Buddy emerge from behind a pillar, almost comically corpulent from the copious amounts of food that the kids constantly fed him. The Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote that a chicken approaching from the left is always good luck. I have no idea whether or not that’s true, but I do know that Buddy was decidedly approaching from my right, if only to make the point completely moot, perhaps meaningfully so.
All of this would have been nothing more than wallpaper to this incredibly pretty and memorable day but for one key point: Buddy didn’t like me. Well, actually, that’s not the whole truth. No, the whole truth is, Buddy hated my guts. He didn’t understand the actual point of me. If he was there to watch over his kingdom of pretty, blond hens, why was this frivolous little man around as well? Add to that the fact that he was probably just smart enough to know that I would have roasted him as fast as he would fit into an oversized pan. The result was a relationship far less than idyllic.
Though he could chirp and play with the kids and bat his beady little eyes at Pam as she talked to him in her high chicken voice (“You’re the most handsome Boo-Boo in the whole big world!”), he thought nothing, absolutely nothing, of extending and flapping his wings at me while charging with a mix of disdain and fury on his otherwise vacuous chicken face. His goal: to jam his sharp beak into the fleshiest parts of my legs. When I batted him away, he would leap into the air, as if trying to castrate me. I swear he spent quiet nights on his perch plotting my demise.
So there I was, first day at this new house, having my moment on the porch, and I froze. I remembered Pam’s warning that sudden movements would put him into full attack mode. Likewise, I recalled her advice that standing my ground too firmly could be seen as a challenge and provoke an attack anyway. And then there was the helpful advice that if I backed away, even subtly, he would sense weakness and really go for it. So I stood there, trying to look strong but not threatening, tense as a tuning fork though trying to hide it, willing myself to the door without actually moving, when my dog, Baker, came walking right between us, dropped the ball at my feet, and stared up at my face.
“Good boy,” I said, in my deep dog voice. “Very good boy.” I picked up the ball and walked to the door, Baker following me with his eyes, the net effect being that Buddy was boxed out in a way that would have made my old high school basketball coach proud.
I tossed the ball. Baker bounded after it, leaving me and Buddy and an expanse of about a dozen feet of beautiful, unblemished deck between us. He could probably cover that distance in a matter of a moment, but I now had the confidence of someone with an escape clause—my hand, firmly on the door. I began turning the knob ever so slowly.
He assessed the situation, his face twitching, his comb flopping on his head, little clucks coming from his throat, when finally, mercifully, he turned away and hopped down the two steps onto the brick walkway and into the front yard. Before he did that, though, he paused just long enough to drop a massive ring of white and black chicken turd that landed on the wood of my brand-new front porch with an almost sickening thwack.
He scratched at my grass, such as it was, let out a loud crow, as if saying he had plenty of time to deal with me, and waddled around the side of the house.