Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (4 page)

Seven years after the earthquake, we finally summoned the nerve to buy a house here in Philadelphia. We held out until we could afford something East Coast old—sturdy, with plenty of space—and somehow the Little Playmate by Igloo earthquake cooler made it across the country to our unfinished cellar. Flashlights and homemade pancake mix are no longer an issue, but David sometimes uses it to transport ice packs to work when he has to run all day or punch some people. Mostly, the Little Playmate sits unnoticed at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to be needed, a talisman. You can still make out my handwriting in faded black Sharpie on the wrinkled sticker:




wish I could bring the kids on board.

—Why can't we get another mutt, Mama? Greyhounds are snotty-looking.

—That is so not true, Ben. This is not about buying a fancy purebred. This is still rescue, but on a much larger scale than we're used to. I've been reading up. They say these dogs have lived entirely in crates, with numbers tattooed inside their ears, and track people kill them when they can't race. They toss them on the trash heap! They're like canine refugees.

—They need too much exercise. You'll have to run it all the time or it will drive everyone crazy.

—Also not true. The O'Briens' greyhounds have a walk once a day, and the rest of the time they just lie there.

—Well. It's not my type of dog. But go ahead if you want to.

The subtext being:
I'm leaving soon anyway.

My passion started decades ago at the Philadelphia Kennel Club show in Center City, where I saw my first Afghan hounds: glam, limber, wide-eyed, toothy
Charlie's Angels
–era Farrah Fawcett­ stunners­, shag hairstyles fluttering, loping merrily with their handlers­ across the ring. I really wanted a horse. In truth, I wanted to
a horse, but Afghan hounds hit my preteen G-spot. Those runway-model-type show dogs seem absurd to me now—cartoonish, a crush left behind. These days, it's greyhounds.

People have been walking them around our neighborhood for years. They're like the ballet students I used to see near Lincoln Center on the way from my apartment in Hell's Kitchen to my starving-actor/waitress gig on Columbus Avenue—long-legged Balanchine hopefuls in flocks of three or four. Hair in sleek little buns; elegant posture, slim as reeds; almost identical but not quite. Blue-jeaned Degas swans idling serenely, languidly, past lead-footed duck mortals.

Consulting with Eliza about dog options felt like punching an unhealed bruise—a sad reminder that she's only home for a minute, going back to college in Virginia after Christmas, having just finished a junior fall abroad in Tuscany. Ben and Sam are in their last year of high school, though, and it seems only right to have them weigh in before committing.

I don't enjoy the idea of my children feeling like houseguests with no say in what goes on. Just like three years ago, when Eliza was finishing high school, everything is so charged and bittersweet with the boys this fall—their last homecoming weekend, last Halloween­. We're drowning in college applications. Because they're twins, the whole process has been complicated. Eliza's summer­ of touring colleges back in 2006 made for good practice­—it was a high priority for her that college be only a short day's drive from home, so visiting was fairly civilized. These boys are looking all over the place. Sam and I executed a massive assault of the West Coast last summer—he says he thinks the warmer climate­ will be good for his sinuses. (Subtext:
You are too obsessed with my well-being. I need to get as far away from you as possible.

Ben is applying to schools in Michigan and Texas that he hasn't even had a chance to look at yet. At least the boys actually do overlap on New England schools. David was able to help with New England, even though travel is a challenge for him. He has tons of allergies to all kinds of things—chiefly foods, air fresheners, and the artificial smoke they use on movie sets. Organizing a trip that won't make David sick can be a very big operation. Given that he has to travel so much for work, I'd tried to limit his participation in the great college tour.

Everyone always asks if the twins will go away to school together. Apparently not. I get the impression they're determined to forge their own paths, and the prospect of losing my grip on everyone is disturbing. There will be no rest for me when the flock is scattered.

When they were all little and kidnappable, Sam used to have a way of disappearing at the mall or an amusement park. I was fanatically strict about keeping the children close, which they each processed in personal ways. Eliza would cling to my side like an octopus, positive that at any second someone would leap at us and tear her away from me. This made it hard to walk in a straight line. Ben (who had been the first twin to pop out of the womb) wanted, appropriately, to go everywhere first. But he understood he mustn't wander too far ahead, so he'd walk
in front of me, almost touching. I would have to keep asking Ben to step up the pace so Eliza and I wouldn't trip on his heels.

Sam didn't really seem to want to be associated with us, but he knew if he strayed too far I'd haul him back and make a mortifying public spectacle, forcing him to hold my hand. So he would usually loiter a little behind our clump and to one side, which was a blind spot in my peripheral vision. The kids still imitate me spinning around in urgent terror:
Where's SAM?
This would happen every ten minutes or so whenever we went out in crowds.

I should count my blessings. At least my children are not going to war. I have a couple of friends who have dealt with this, and it blows my mind. Pamela, who's a little older than I am, managed a relatively steady acting career while raising her son, Trevor, solo in L.A. Pamela is tough as nails. She had to be. After his senior year in high school, Trevor decided the best way to achieve higher education, given their financial situation, would be to join the Army. This was in 1990. The Gulf War started right after Trevor enlisted, and off he went to Desert Storm. I don't know how Pamela survived, let alone Trevor. I'd have been falling asleep in front of the news every night, waking alone in the wee hours with a lurch:

Full disclosure: I feel nothing but awe, gratitude, and respect for the military. My father served proudly in World War II. But I have read John Irving's
A Prayer for Owen Meany
more times than I can keep track of. Meaning, it's a good thing my boys were only nine years old on 9/11, because if Ben or Sam had expressed any inclination to sign up that year, I would have seriously considered sneaking into their bedrooms with my garden shears at night to lop off the tips of their trigger fingers.

My older sister, Colette, tries to help me keep things in perspective; she's this odd schizoid hybrid of Pollyanna and Chicken Little.
(Look, Sizzle, the sky is falling! Isn't it GORGEOUS?!)
Colette has lived across the pond for years with her husband, Badger, deep in the British countryside, and she's an avid news hound, always alert to what horrific disasters might befall the Morse family at any given moment, and always generous enough to take the trouble to tell me. She got me a little worked up last summer, just before Eliza left for Tuscany:

Colette, it's Tuscany. What could possibly happen in Tuscany?

Um. You've heard about the earthquake, right?


I'm sure she'll be fine because she's had so much experience, but remind her there was a 6.3 magnitude quake in central Italy last spring. The whole country is on a fault line.

Christ. That girl CANNOT go through a second earthquake.

I wouldn't worry, Sizzle. It just happened, so there probably won't be another one for years. I'm so excited for Eliza!
And you do know there have been four deaths from swine flu in Italy so far, right? I'm sure you'll send her with emergency medicine just in case. And of course you'll tell her to watch out for the men.

—I know, I know, European men assume that American girls are loose. That's what they warned me about when I went to France in high school. Aren't we more global now?

—Not in Italy. They're very chauvinistic, but they're clever enough to hide it until they've got you in their power. The men will be all over Eliza, and if she sleeps with one of them he'll think she's easy and turn on her. But if she doesn't sleep with them, they will try to marry her and get her pregnant, and then they won't let her work. It happens all the time. They don't believe in women working, and they are EXTREMELY seductive.


—Does she know about Foxy Knoxy?

—What's Foxy Knoxy?

—Oh my, haven't you heard about Amanda Knox yet, Sizzle? It's all over the news here; maybe you'll be more aware of it in the States when the trial heats up. A lovely British girl named Meredith Kercher was murdered in an especially spooky weird way. Meredith's roommate was Amanda Knox, an American college student, just like Eliza. She was in Perugia on her semester abroad—isn't Perugia right near where Eliza is going?

—I don't know. Wait, let me look it up. …

—So Amanda Knox's lovely British roommate was horribly murdered. It was possibly satanic, and the
think Amanda and her Italian boyfriend did it. They are in jail, on trial for murder. This could happen, Sizzle. You have to prepare Eliza.

—Oh my gosh! Perugia's only thirty miles from where Eliza will be!

—Sizzle, don't worry. But tell her to avoid the non-Italian men too. There's been a lot of international sex-slave trafficking.

—Stop it. You're scaring me. Can I send her over to you on Easy Jet if anything bad starts to happen?

—Of course! We'd love it, but make sure she knows that Easy Jet cancels flights all the time. We are simply dying to have her, Sizzle; this is going to be so much fun!!!

—So much fun. My only daughter is going off for an idyllic semester in the Italian countryside, where she will either contract deadly swine flu, be murdered by Satanists, or become a barefoot pregnant married sex slave in jail. If she tries to escape, she will be swindled at the airport by some dodgy British puddle-jumper outfit. And then, while she's wandering penniless over the unforgiving Tuscan wasteland, an obscure, previously dormant fault line in the earth will open under her feet and swallow her up. Can't wait.

Colette calls me Sizzle. She and Badger are semiretired, partly due to health, and they have no children, partly due to same. Instead, they have another kind of dog I'm drawn to: a lurcher. There are all different kinds of lurchers, each the direct product of a cross between a sight hound (meaning a greyhound, borzoi, Irish wolfhound, and the like—a hunting dog designed for speed and exceptional sight) and any other breed. Lurchers have the physique I covet, even though they're still basically mutts. Centuries ago, the English Forest Laws banned commoners from hunting with greyhounds, and I gather poachers used to sneak their ordinary Heinz 57–type female hunting dogs into the nobles' kennels under cover of darkness to breed with the nobles' fancy greyhounds. Lurchers are still used for all sorts of illegal sporting activities today, and the injured ones are often “retired” by the side of the road. England has an extensive lurcher rescue network.

Colette's lurcher, Spider, is the perfect combination of lord and scalawag—he has the characteristic narrow head and long, graceful limbs I'm so taken with, all covered with the most adorable topcoat of wiry gray tendrils. By rights, this dog should be mine. On visits to England I spend most of my time prowling after Spider with my camera, like a lovesick paparazzo.


I've heard of people spending large sums of money importing lurchers to the States, but I can't justify doing that with so many local dogs needing homes. The solution for us is obvious: a greyhound.

—Lovely idea, Sizzle. I'm sure you'll be consulting all your local experts

—Experts? It's not like we've never had a dog, Coco.

—You're right. It's so rewarding to teach yourself as you go. That's what I did at first, and I learned so much, especially after our first lurcher almost died when he spotted a deer on a walk, slipped his leash, and completely shredded all the skin up and down his legs dashing across a recently mown cornfield. Till then, I couldn't possibly have put together that sight hounds will never come reliably when called and have unusually fragile skin and all sorts of other unexpected vulnerabilities. You're so smart, Sizzle, of course you'll figure out how to manage an adult, undomesticated rescue dog that's had years to develop a grab bag of unpredictable emotional issues that might be impossible to fix.

I absolutely adore my sister. Sometimes she's a little bit of a buzzkill.

We went to meet a couple of these otherworldly creatures at our neighbors', and, to my relief, even David was sold. The O'Brien dogs, Dylan and King, are not all waggly and knock-around like a Lab or a shepherd. They're incredibly sweet, and they like to have fun, just in their own particular fashion. Greyhounds are different in all kinds of unexpected ways. One thing I didn't realize is that they do not actually sit much—it's something about the way their frames are built. Linda O'Brien says they can sort of sit, but because their butts don't actually hit the floor, it's not really comfortable. This information has caused me some embarrassment. Our garden is riddled with proof of my ignorant yearning: sculptures of falsely posed greyhounds seated erect, like sentinels.

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