Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture

The Dog Stays in the Picture
How My Rescued Greyhound Helped Me Cope with My Empty Nest
Susan Morse

For David.

And Lilly.

Author's Note

This is not a book about a dog.

I really do prefer my husband—honest.

But it's hard to tell the story of our journey into the empty nest,

and leave out one particular animal.

Which kind of illustrates the problem.


What If

ife after children was going to be magic.

Curtain up: A swank hotel
suite in
Dubai. Shades are drawn, lights dimmed. Faint soundtrack of mellow jazz.

David (mid-fifties, handsome and well-built but with heart-melting character) is shirtless, reclining on the plush, king-size bed, glancing over a scene for work
tomorrow morning at six a.m.
next week sometime. He has lit a candle.

Susan (early fifties, but with the body of a
reasonably well-preserved middle-aged woman) emerges from the bathroom
wearing a negligee. She stalks to the bed jungle-she-cat-style, slithers under the sheets, and glowers pointedly at David.

keeps reading for like an hour
drops his script immediately, flips Susan on her back, and has at it.

(Up for air)
Okay. Now: say that thing you always said in that movie in North Carolina

DAVID. What thing? Which movie?

SUSAN. You know. You were the big redneck with the long straggly hair and the muscles straining through the dirty wife-beater and you pushed Robin Wright up against the wall and after you got brain damage you were always saying—

Yes ma'am?

SUSAN. That's it! Say it!

(Breathing in her ear)
Yes ma'am, yes, oh yes ma'am.

SUSAN. Okay now you can stop saying it.

They writhe. Curtain down.

I really thought we'd earned Dubai. We're a show-business anomaly—married almost thirty years, although technically we've been together only half that time, if you factor in all the long stretches apart while David was on location and I was at home keeping things normal for our three little ones. Now the first of those little ones, Eliza, our eldest, is already at college, and the last two (twin sons Ben and Sam) are high school seniors in the process of applying. Soon there will be nothing to keep David and me apart—except for my fixation on a certain new animal. Someone should have stopped me.

David didn't try to intervene when I chose this dog. He's still kind of in trouble for something he did back when the children were small. Many years ago, my husband went away for a while and fell violently in love:

—She's perfect, Susan.

—Excuse me?

—She is extremely intelligent and sweet. I want her to live with us.

—David, I am pretty sure I—

—You'll be fine. She's perfect. The kids will be thrilled.

—David, I wish I had time to explain to you how difficult this would be for me, but—oh no, hold the phone a second—BEN! NO! These are NOT CANDY, Ben, we DON'T EAT them. They're lightbulbs, YUCKY. Sorry David, what were you—OH my GOSH I think I smell SMOKE—

—She won't be any trouble, Susan, I promise. And when I do the play, I can take her to New York. I get so lonely without you.

My husband has always been the trustworthy sort. He's worked with the big boys from time to time, and there are usually babes around the big boys, eager for their chance. According to David, when things don't go their way, these babes inevitably seek comfort by offering themselves rather boldly to the second male lead. This has to be tempting if your family is thousands of miles away, but so far David has always come home.

I've tried not to let the situation stress me. There's nothing I can do about it, and anyway the kids have always kept me too busy to think past the next minute. I wasn't really buying David's promise to keep his intelligent new friend out of my hair—how was he going to take care of a
while working sixteen-hour days in some strange city? Eliza was ten and Ben and Sam were starting first grade, which meant for the first time in a decade I'd have weekdays all to myself, and I had plans for those weekdays that did not include helping a new animal adjust to our household, no matter how sweet she might be. So I laid down the law and when David came home alone the following week I believed the subject was closed. Then, while he was unpacking, Sam and Ben came down to the kitchen brandishing one of those little quickie Fotomat albums.

—She's so cute, Mama! These people can't keep her anymore and she's about to be homeless! We have to have her. They told Papa her name means “clown” in French!

Her name was Perro, which immediately got my French Lit major knickers bunched.

“Perro” is a Spanish word, meaning “dog,” not “clown
If whoever named this dog intended to call her “clown” in French, they forgot to check their French-English dictionary.

—The French word for clown is actually “pierrot,”
I informed David, stressing the guttural “rr” in the back of my throat.
And besides, if she's female, that name is completely inaccurate. It should be Pierr-
. Pierr-
, even when pronounced properly, is a MALE clown.

—We can call her Pierrette, Susan. Anything you like. You're going to LOVE her.

David's uncharacteristic, absolute insistence puzzled me.
Midlife crisis?
I wondered. I decided it was best to cooperate, even if I knew this wannabe French intruder was not likely to work out as David's traveling companion and I'd get stuck at home with her. Perhaps my sacrifice could serve as a sort of guilt-propelled inoculation against any lurking babes. So Perro was delivered, and she became Arrow, because Arrow sort of rhymed.

We are dog-and-cat people. We've always had at least one of each. Arrow overlapped for a few years with our first dog, Aya, elderly by then, an Australian shepherd mutt, who eventually taught Arrow most of the ropes. It took me some time to get a handle on Arrow's appalling leash manners and her various transgressions (gnawing through the furniture in the TV room—the kids, those wretches, sprawled beside her, oblivious), but her sweet eagerness to please wore me down, and finally I had to admit David knew how to spot a good dog. Arrow turned out to be perfect for us—a lovely, unforgettable animal, part shepherd like Aya, but mostly a hunter—and her best friend was Joey, our cat. Joey was Robin to Arrow's Batman. Both black-and-white, and thick as thieves; they had chipmunk flushing down to a science.

Joey and Arrow

Until, as these things go, Arrow was wrenched from us last spring at age twelve. Too soon. One minute she was racing up and down the fence line, advising passersby of their rights, and the next she had no appetite—an inoperable, football-sized tumor in her abdomen. We grieved long and hard (even I did), sprinkled her ashes on a favorite, secret island off the coast of Maine, and then, in the fall, with the boys starting college applications, with Dubai just around the corner, it was my turn to pick the dog.

What we have here is a cautionary tale.

Maybe I sabotaged us because I was too anxious about the upcoming childless chapter in our marriage to risk changing the status quo. I was the youngest and last child to leave my parents' nest, and they did not settle into a new, happier life. When I was finally at boarding school, my father sent his family antiques to auction in order to pay off mounting debts, moved out to drink in peace in a pay-by-the-week hotel, and had a non-fatal heart attack. My mother yelled on the phone a lot, had a long and colorful nervous breakdown in the old, empty, six-bedroom house of my childhood, and took in boarders.

David's father left the nest even before any kids did, so there is legitimate cause for concern about our own situation. I worry how David will cope, having to spend his golden years with a brain-frizzled zombie who has not done much lately but drive children back and forth to school and struggle around the block with the dog. After the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, when we moved the family east and faced the fact that I should quit acting to focus on our children, I began wondering what exactly my life would amount to. Friends are quick to remind me that stay-at-home mothers
have real, vital jobs, and are perfectly intelligent, interesting, productive, and valuable people. Still, I'd toss at night, contemplating my lame obituary:

Susan Wheeler Duff von Moschzisker Morse went to blah college and acted in a few movies, plays, and television series. She taught horseback riding to underprivileged children. Then she edited some books. She was mostly kind to pets, and tried to keep the plants watered.

She is survived by her mother (who will never die); her three children, Eliza, Benjamin, and Samuel Morse; and her husband, actor David Morse, who is the truly interesting person in the family, so why don't we stop bothering to dredge up things to say about Susan and skip to the good stuff?

David Morse has played more men in uniform than you can shake a stick at, and will be fondly remembered as the death row prison guard who got a face-f of chewed-up Moon Pie spat at him by Sam Rockwell, who was having (come to think of it) his own breakthrough performance as a rebellious inmate, in
The Green Mile,
starring mainly Tom Hanks.

Actually, let's drop the Morses and Sam Rockwell altogether and focus on what's newsworthy: the long and venerable Oscar-winning career of Mr. Hanks. Tom is married to actress Rita Wilson. Now THERE'S a feisty woman with REAL backbone! Rita Wilson's husband travels a lot too, and Rita has children AND a career. She acts! She produces movies! Rita probably lets Tom have JILLIONS of dogs!

Betty Friedan's
The Feminine Mystique
offered novel food for thought to stay-at-home mothers in the early '60s: If you embrace this homemaker lifestyle, wrote Friedan, don't think of it as a dead end. Get ready, because once the children grow up, you
go out into the world and
something. You really can! And I know this is possible. My parents patched things up eventually, and redefined themselves in surprising ways well into old age. When they retired together to Florida, my ex-lawyer father hosted a cable talk show and dabbled in acting. He peaked as the priest conducting a funeral in
Dead Poets Society
—Daddy had no lines and they cut most of his scene, but he died fulfilled. After he was gone, my eighty-five-year-old mother raised the bar further by transforming herself into Mother Brigid, an Orthodox Christian nun. My parents have been something other than dull.

But married life after children is a crapshoot no matter what, and I get a little anxious when I hear of couple after couple splitting up when their kids are gone. For a long time, I've been batting away horror fantasies, the flip side of Dubai:

Curtain up: A creaky front hallway of an old haunted-type house. Tumbleweeds tumble forlornly past a dog, Arrow (lying flat and motionless in a cobweb-covered travel crate next to a pile of moldering suitcases).

Susan (garish, troweled-on Norma Desmond makeup; indeterminate Miss Havisham–age category) drifts in, dialing a cordless phone. A faded-blue, no-longer-slinky ball gown she wore decades ago in her TV debut on ABC's
The Fall Guy
hangs pathetically from her hunched crone shoulders, its long, tattered train dragging an eerie serpentine channel in the dust-caked floor. Susan looks down at Arrow.

SUSAN. Arrow, did you hear the doorbell?

taxidermied as a perpetual reminder to David, cannot respond.)

SUSAN. Hello, is this
Celebrity Wives' Car Service
? This is Susan Morse and my car is awfully late. I've been waiting almost
(checks watch)
thirty years for you to take the dog and me to the airport so we can join my husband, David, on location in
um, I think it's somewhere in Kansas, which is better than nothing … What? You just dropped us all off at our apartment in New York?
apartment in New York? That's not
who's with him—who the heck is it? Wait, what kind of dog do they have? Never mind, I don't want to know. Just go back and tell him I'm still here, the
wife, with the
dog. We are waiting, and the dog is
taking this well.

Curtain down.

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