What a difference a deer makes . . .


On their first date, Doherty took her to a bar that was loud and smoky and filled with the sort of people who make you wish for a can of Mace.

Oh, yes, he was a smooth operator even back then. They sat there feeling each other out, Doherty thinking how pretty she was, the woman trying to determine exactly how big a jerk she was out with this time.

Suddenly, the door swung open and three men in hunting gear came in dragging a freshly-killed deer by its antlers.

"We don't serve deer in here," the bartender said. But the men just laughed and punched each other in the shoulders and ordered drinks for everyone, including the deer.

"Nice place," the woman said quietly.

"First-class," Doherty said. "We could leave."

"No," she said, "why spoil the mood?"

So they talked and drank beer for several hours, somehow managing to ignore the fact that there was a dead forest animal sprawled under the bowling machine.

They saw each other a lot after that. It had always been Doherty's opinion that if you find a woman who can gracefully handle any situation -- three drunk hillbillies with access to firearms, for instance -- you hold onto her.

So a few years later, as they walked under the stars on a warm spring evening, he heard himself say: "Maybe we should get married."

"Maybe we should," she said.

The wedding was to take place in a big stone church on Long Island. Two hours before the ceremony, she called, frantic. There was a problem with the marriage license. It was signed by the wrong judge. The right judge had to be located immediately unless they wanted to be married by some wild-eyed New Age shaman in a wheat field.

What happened next was right out of a cartoon: The two of them racing at 80 mph in his Camaro to the judge's house, Doherty taking the corners on two wheels like Kojak.

A stand-up guy, Doherty decided to blame her for the mix-up.

"This is not a good sign," he muttered.

"The six-point buck in the bar was not a good sign," she screamed.

Doherty said: "If I hit this woman with the baby carriage, it's your fault!"

Long story short: They found the right judge, the wedding went off smoothly, and at the reception, his new sister-in-law tapped him on the shoulder and said: "Waiter, we need more shrimp . . ."

Doherty knew he was in love.

At first they lived in a succession of small apartments outside New York. Then he was offered a job at a newspaper in Baltimore. Baltimore might as well have been Katmandu, it seemed so far away.

"If you don't wanna go, I won't take it," he said.

She reached for a box and started packing dishes.

"I shudder to think of you on your own," she said. In truth, the thought made Doherty shudder, too.

Their first child, a boy, arrived two years later, and then came a baby girl.

Doherty missed the second birth. He was in St. Louis covering the World Series when the phone rang at 5:30 in the morning. She was calling from Baltimore.

"I think you should jump on a plane," she said. She had just gone into labor, three weeks early. He marveled at the calmness in her voice.

Fighting off his own panic, he groped for a joke: "I'm sorry, but there's no way I'm missing Game 6. You have the baby, lemme know how everything turns out."

"Please," she said, "don't make me kill you."

He grabbed the first flight out, but the baby was born while he was 27,000 feet over Pittsburgh, trying to wrestle a pack of honey-roasted peanuts from the former Turkish prison guard serving as his flight attendant.

The family has grown since then. Now there are three children, a dog and two fish. There are days when the house resembles nothing so much as a locked ward, when doors slam and people square off Ali-Frazier-style at the drop of a hat. But mostly it is a happy place to be.

As for Doherty and the woman, apparently things are working out. The two just celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary. The other day they were sitting in their back yard, sipping coffee and watching the leaves fall from the trees on a perfect autumn afternoon.

To Doherty, who is nothing if not expressive, it seemed to call for some kind of commentary.

"Fifteen years," he said. "Are you having a good time?"

"Not bad at all," she said.

And, lately, for no reason at all, Doherty finds himself wondering how anyone could shoot a deer.

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