Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (6 page)

5.

Nothing Is Broken

NEW YEAR'S EVE 2009

W
hat is it about the twins' impending departure that feels so particularly stressful? Is it because they seem to have such devastating confidence about leaving home, or is it because they're our last? The final two dazed rabbits pulled out of a magician's hat at the end of a show, shooed offstage to face Lord knows what kind of rabbitish perils?

It definitely helps having Lilly for company. She's still deeply reserved, which fascinates me—clearly she wants to see where I am at all times, but actual interaction is not really a priority—an odd combination of need and detachment. I think her clinging has to do with being afraid this new, quiet, comfortable life with carpets and beds is all about me, and if I disappear she might have to go back to the concrete work camp. She sort of handles me the same strategic way I do the boys these days, come to think of it; determined to keep tabs without interfering too much. Every day there's some new obstacle for her to decipher. Snow has been a major challenge, which makes perfect sense on reflection—Lilly has never lived anywhere but Florida and Texas. We're having an extreme winter this year, and it's been tedious figuring out how to convince her to even step in snow when she's not forced by a leash, let alone relieve herself, given she has to be bundled up Charlie Brown–style, to protect her thin skin.
(You know she is waiting for you to do it, but where? The ground is gone!)
A work in progress.

David is doing his best to woo her. He reports that as long as he pays lots of attention to Lilly when I'm out, her panic eventually shifts and she sort of accepts him as a poor substitute, following him around the house the way she does me. But as soon as I'm home, she goes back to being utterly indifferent to him, if not actually hostile. We are trying to help Lilly associate David with pleasure, so whenever possible, he prepares her meals. She'll accept food from him with some reservations, but petting is not permitted, which is very sad for David. He's determined to win her over, though, and through trial and error, he's figured out one special trick. Lilly will leave the room if David approaches her from the front, no matter how unthreateningly. But if he turns around and backs up to her very, very slowly, one tiny step at a time, she doesn't retreat. And once he's backed up enough to be standing beside her, she'll actually let him touch her, which, she is learning, can be quite pleasant. David gives great backrubs.

One step in the right direction: Lilly doesn't need the muzzle anymore around Joey. During the prescribed three-week muzzled introductory period, Joey pretty much spent all his indoor time either locked in my office with his food dish and litter box, or tangled in those bedsprings up on the third floor. We'd occasionally drag him out, sit them down next to each other, and tell them both what great friends they were going to be. Neither seemed to buy it.

The muzzle business was weird for us, even though Lilly appeared to take it in stride. It helped to know that greyhounds always wear them when they race—they're pretty much an athletic­ accessory, like shin guards or a jock strap—but we did look forward to the night we could finally take that muzzle off. It was dinnertime. Joey, who has been a little peckish lately, was dining­ in my office as usual. Everyone else was gathered around the kitchen table, Lilly napping unmuzzled on her bed by my chair. At the end of the meal we decided it was now or never, and Ben was dispatched to release Joey from the office. We all held our breath, waiting to see what would happen.

Joey seemed to know something was up as soon as he reached the kitchen. In fact, it was as if he'd spent the whole muzzle period plotting exactly how to make the most of this first teachable moment. What he did was creepy, but in hindsight quite brilliant.

First, Joey paused briefly at the threshold to assess the situation (silent audience of humans at the table, unmuzzled killer dog asleep on the floor). He then pivoted smoothly off to the right, walking most of the kitchen's perimeter so as to approach his target from behind.

I've been around plenty of heated first encounters between dogs and cats. I thought I knew what to expect, but I've never seen a cat do anything like what Joey did to Lilly that night. He'd clearly figured out he was dealing with more than your average housedog. He was practically rehearsed, and utterly confident. Joey didn't growl, spit, or puff up his tail; no blood was drawn—he never had to unsheathe a single claw. Instead, he marched right up to Lilly from behind, and—
Squish!
Joey rammed his little nose directly into Lilly's butthole as far as possible.

Greyhounds' tails are very skinny. There's hardly any fur back there, so their buttholes are easy to locate. This was not your average animal-handshake-type thing; there was nothing even remotely sociable going on. Joey performed with surgical precision, as if he really
meant
it, in a creepy S&M prison-rape sort of way, causing Lilly to bolt awake with a yelp and shoot out of the room.
(There is something
wrong
with that rabbit!)

That was that. Joey sat down and started cleaning himself:
You are now my bitch, dog
.

Voice mail from Mother Brigid:

Ech-ehhmmm. It's Ma. Susie? I can't hear you. What's wrong with this thing? Ech-ech-ehhmmm. Are you there, Susie? I think my phone may be broken. Put this by the bed, Doris, or Florence. Oh. Florida. Sorry. Thank you, Florida. I'm calling my daughter back now.

(Scuffling noises followed by
BOOP BERP BEEP BOP BOOP
: the jarring, distinctly recognizable melody of my touchtone number—she has forgotten to disconnect before redialing.)

(Silence.)

Susie? Oh dear. …

Now, Dor … erm … Florida, could you please bring me the honey from the little cupboard over the sink. The one that says “Local Honey”—tea with local honey is better for allergies because local bees pollinate local flowers, and that's what I'm allergic to. Ehhmm. I can't stop clearing my throat; it's dreadful.

Susie, are you there or not? Well. If this is me leaving you a message, then I have to tell you thank you very much for inviting me for New Year's Eve but I promised Babbie I'd meet her at a party here this afternoon and I don't know how long it will go, so I think I'll be tired tonight.

(Extended silence.)

Thank you, Florence, this tea is perfect.

(Slurping noise.)

Ech-ehhmmm.

(More scuffling.)

Oh, and Susie, did you get an e-mail Father Nectarius sent for you to give me that has all the homilies by Saint Theophan the Recluse, and if you did, can you please bring it as soon as possible? It's urgent. And it's Ma. How is Lilly? God bless and call me back.

(Click.)

My mother has always taken up a huge chunk of my attention, partly because she won't have it any other way, and partly because I am a little fixated. She's extremely interesting, which is an understatement. My father used to say he hoped to die before Ma because his life would be too boring without her. I often wonder what he'd make of the new identity she's assumed since he left us fifteen years back.

Ma's kind of picky about her religions. After trying six or seven she settled, quite late in life, on Orthodox Christianity. I was skeptical about her level of commitment, but it seems this latest religion has stuck—as demonstrated a couple of years ago when an Orthodox bishop came along and made her a nun at age eighty-five on the eve of cancer surgery, and she almost took up permanent residence in a skilled nursing facility located inconveniently two hours from here in the farmlands of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, because it was close to her church.

But then, a luxury retirement community nearer to me offered a clergy scholarship of sorts. Confronted with a choice between frequent communion with the priests upstate, and the chance to spiritually enrich the life of her infidel youngest daughter (me) during her twilight years, Ma picked the latter. The priests in Carlisle gave their blessing on the condition that Mother Brigid (that's her nun name) stay in close touch, meaning visits on the high holy days, health permitting.

The distance has been a challenge. There are other clergy at the new place, but Ma's the only Orthodox. She follows the discipline as well as can be expected, given her infirm condition and particular upper-crusty sensibilities. Her financial-assistance package is fair but does not cover all the helpers we believe are required to keep Ma mellow—kind companions like Florida making tea—that's up to my siblings and me. It's truly lucky we can afford to help, because my mother is not the sort to suffer hardship easily, despite her monastic inclination.

As a nun, Mother Brigid wears no jewelry save a cross. All her clothes are black.
(Silk, linen, or cashmere. Nothing synthetic, if you please.)
There's nobody nearby to consult about things like what to do with the hair. Orthodox nuns and priests are not supposed to ever, ever cut their hair, and it's a challenge figuring out how to safely stow Ma's long white mane now that it's grown past her waist. I'm a bit worried the mane will come loose someday and get caught in the motor of the electric scooter she uses to jet around campus on her various social assignations.

Mother Brigid says her prayers daily; the priests check in whenever they can. The issue of e-mails keeps cropping up. The nearest Orthodox Christian clergy in our state are all in Carlisle. The rest are scattered throughout the United States and Canada, and they constantly send each other vital communications by e-mail—e-mails­ Mother Brigid misses out on because she doesn't have a computer. If I print and hand-deliver all the stuff they send me for her I'll wipe out half the forests on the planet, for Lord's sake.

A computer is out of the question. Ma has been techno-impaired for as long as I can remember; it's not an age thing—she can barely operate her cordless phone. I tried giving her a castoff iMac and an e-mail address some years ago, just as an experiment, back in the pre–Mother Brigid era when logging into e-mail was a long and complicated process better left to younger generations. Ma was extremely motivated to learn, but all our emergency problem-solving phone sessions were totally unproductive, like an endless bumper-car ride to nowhere:

—
This computer is definitely broken.

—
Nothing is broken, Ma. You turned it on, right?

—
Oh. How do I do that?

—
See the button on the bottom of the screen?

—
Wait a minute. I'm in the bedroom.

(Clump clump clump.)

—
All right, what am I looking for?

—
There's a round button down on the right. Push it.

(A loud blaring noise erupts in the background.)

—
Susie, what on earth is that racket?

—
I don't know. Did the screen turn on? What do you see?

—
What? It's too noisy in here.

—
MA. WHAT DO YOU SEE ON THE SCREEN?

—
I see Fox. Oh, I can't bear it.

—
You see a fox? What's wrong with it? Never mind. Are there any words on the screen?

—
There's a new pope. He's waving from the balcony of the Vatican.

—
Ma.

—
Honestly, the Catholics. Look at them all adoring him and rejoicing.

—
MA. That's Fox News on the television.

—
What?

—
TURN THE TELEVISION OFF, MA. GO OVER TO YOUR DESK AND TURN ON THE THING THAT SAYS IMAC.

I can't rush over to Ma's with these e-mailed Recluse homilies. I don't even have time to read my own e-mails right now. We're in the final stretch of the boys' college application process, and it's hell on so many levels.

Someone suggested to me once that the reason parents and teenagers clash has something to do with biological programming. Tempers are designed to flare because adolescents are supposed to go out into the world eventually, be fruitful, and multiply. If home is a totally happy, welcoming place for them, what's to leave?

It's not that bad; I do love our boys. Eliza's college application process three years ago was equally fraught, and after all that intensity her departure was a real shock to me—like being dumped by a first love. At Eliza's new campus they really knew how to milk the fall drop-off for parents of freshmen. We had two full days of family orientation events, climaxing with a huge rally in the sports arena. Parents sat in bleachers with their kids and listened to administrators crowing about all the exciting opportunities for this year's brilliant crop of scholars. Just when they had us convinced we were the luckiest families in the United States, they called the freshmen down to meet their perky orientation advisors, who would keep them busy for the rest of the evening, later herding them off to their first night in the dorms.

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