A loyal German shepherd aids a Hollywood Hills teenager through her battle with addiction. An orphaned and obese spaniel-retriever finds a less furry but just as loving mother. And a mischievous, worms-ridden street dog becomes an unlikely cover model.
The Extreme Case of Plumpy Love
If veterinarians had a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, our family’s beautiful black and white springer spaniel, Jane Meldog Lewis, might have been classified as “Batshit Crazy.” She would obsessively chase balls until felled by heat stroke. She would compulsively suck on the legs and tails of my kids’ stuffed animals. She’d stalk my wife Patti everywhere she went, and would often appear one leash-snapping, shoulder-dislocating lunge away from ripping out the throat of someone she thought might harm her family.
So we mated our beloved lunatic with a friendly neighbor’s young, sweet and eager-to-please golden retriever. My family and I thought we’d get gorgeous yellow and white pups that were gentle — and not crazy. Instead, we were awarded ten all-black puppies, though none showed early signs of psychosis.
Born Christmas Eve in my closet, nine of them spent the night blindly squealing and nuzzling, playing a canine version of musical chairs around Janie’s eight teats. And then there was Gloria, all alone in the corner. Patti had to scoop her up, remove one of the squealers, and find a place for her under her mother’s foreleg.
Eight weeks later, all of her oh-so-cute siblings placed in good homes, Gloria remained, un-chosen, still guzzling under that foreleg. Our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, took pity on the lonely pup and insisted we keep her.
Already big and slow afoot — and from all I could discern, sweet and dimwitted — she had no interest in chasing balls or sticks. No interest in ponds. No interest in Patti or me. No interest in the growing tribe of kids and grandkids roaming our big backyard. The only things that Gloria loved were her mommy — Janie — and food.
Janie chased sticks and balls, paddled through ponds around our Shawangunk Mountain home in Upstate New York, and guarded the yard from incursions by bears, coyotes and snakes. She growled menacingly at the UPS man, leaping off the porch and chasing him back into his truck. She snapped at hands that moved to pet her too quickly. And as soon as I got up each morning, Janie leaped onto my side of the bed to snuggle with Patti.
In contrast, Gloria just followed behind her, big tail wagging. Never growling. Never baring her teeth. Never snapping. Never jumping up on the bed.
Gloria was a very good eater, though. A great eater. So consummately skilled at sniffing out and lapping up anything chewable, she grew nearly twice the size of her mother. I began calling her Plumpy. She didn’t seem to mind.
Sometimes I’d see — or at least imagine seeing — Janie sighing as that bulky shadow followed her, nose-to-tail, everywhere she went. Occasionally, Janie wore a look of worried consternation, like those weary moms you see in the supermarket with their overweight adult children lagging behind.
But Plumpy seemed content, and she always licked her bowl clean — and cleaned Janie’s bowl as well.
Then Janie died.
Of course, we were very, very sad, but Plumpy was bereft. A lost orphan, she lay in a corner, snout on paws, not moving, eyes cloudy. For three days she didn’t eat; we feared that a few months down the road, her vast fat stores depleted, our poor lost overgrown puppy would wither away and die from melancholy.
On the morning of the fourth day, however, Plumpy met us down in the kitchen in front of her empty bowl, thick tail a-wagging. She gobbled up a bear-sized portion of kibble, then turned to Patti and, as if channeling Little Peggy March, howled, “I love you, I love you, I love you, and where you go I’ll follow, I’ll follow….”
Although the canine psychological community would probably refer to Gloria’s sudden devotion to Patti as a form of transference, I’m sure that in some remote part of her tiny brain she was channeling Janie.
Six years later, Plumpy is Patti’s constant and devoted shadow in the kitchen, in the car, on a walk in the woods, on the beach, on the other side of the shower curtain, at her knee on the toilet, and, each night, right there on the floor next to her side of the bed.
Some nights, when Patti and I are in bed reading, I occasionally glance over to find Gloria looking up at her Mother Superior in full devotional adoration. But if Gloria catches me staring back at her, that moist black nose begins twitching and I see a glint of old Crazy Jane swirling behind those sweet dark eyes, the same psychotic look I’d see right before Janie would wait for me to wake up each morning and, as soon as my bare feet hit the floor, leap into bed with Patti.
Those nights I sleep with one eye open, silently begging forgiveness for calling her dimwitted, for calling her Plumpy, but mostly for taking what she knows is her rightful place in the bed next to her mom.
Steve Lewis is a former Mentor at Empire State College, current member of the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty, and longtime freelancer. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, Ploughshares, Narratively, Spirituality & Health, and Talking Writing. His new novel, Take This, was published by Codhill Press in June 2015. Follow him on Twitter @LewisWrite4hire or on Facebook: Steve Lewis, Author.
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Over the Fence
This is how I relapse. That’s all I could think as I wandered around my parents’ property in the Hollywood Hills looking for our dog, Bronte. It was a familiar scene. The despair that filled my chest as I called out her name was the same I’d felt the last time she’d gone missing eight months earlier, while I was groping my way through the darkness of my alcoholism.
Those autumn days were spent in hopeless delirium, hungover at my retail job or clinging to a bottle of vodka while hiding in the bathroom of my parents’ house. Though my issues with addiction were no secret to my family (whose efforts to help me were met with screams of denial) the extent of my drinking was something I shielded from the world — except for Bronte, our two-year-old German Shepard mix. She stood witness to my rock bottom, lying on the ground beside me so I wouldn’t be alone.
Bronte was young, but wise, with deep brown eyes that, when fixed on you, made you feel important. She was independent, but knew when to stay close, when to love you with all 80 pounds of her warm, fluffy body. She knew I needed company and spent hours with me in my room. She saw me cry into the mirror and melt into my bed and she stayed with me as, late at night, I poured shot after shot in my bathroom, trying to reach oblivion as the world kept spinning.
Then, one night, she was gone.
On many mornings Bronte and my sister Kelly’s dog, Lily, a scrappy pit/lab mix, would explore the grounds of my parents’ two and a half wooded acres high above the Sunset Strip, and whatever lay beyond the perimeter. How they got past the tall green fence that separated our property from those surrounding it, we’ll never know.
When it started to get dark that November evening my mom went outside.
No rustling leaves, no panting pups bounding up the lawn as usual.
Hours later they still were not home. Unsettled, Kelly and I wandered out into the yard. My sister called out, “Lily! Lily!” Our stomachs rose as we heard a sound, but it was only Lily who appeared from the shadows — alone.
As I watched Kelly hold her dog, my sadness was met with a seething anger. I resented my sister for having her dog. I resented Lily for coming back alone. And I resented my parents for resigning themselves to the assurance that Bronte would be home by morning. So as everyone went to bed, I went to drink.
Though I didn’t need a reason — I always found something to drink over, something to propel me toward the inevitable blackout — that night I would drink to the misery of my missing dog.
The search for Bronte waxed and waned over the next two days, and my anger persisted. Kelly and I hung up flyers and passersby offered their condolences. I hated each one of them. My father worked in his office and I hated his diligence. When my aunt and uncle stopped by the house I hated them for sunbathing by the pool. Watching my mom entertain her brother and his wife was the worst kind of betrayal. I hated everyone for not being paralyzed by the pain. I hated as a means of deflecting how sad I was and I drank to try to numb myself to it all.
By the third day it seemed to everyone else that Bronte was really gone. Though I too was losing hope, I pulled myself out of bed and decided to take a walk. After days of screaming her name into the void, Bronte finally, miraculously, answered my call. I could hear her distant cries from the adjacent property.
I gripped the welded wire and I cried. I ran to get my parents and they joined me with Kelly and Lily. We considered the situation: the land was owned by people we had never met, people who didn’t live there, but whose gardeners had assured us they’d look for Bronte. More liars, I thought.
As my dad tried to contact them, my mom said “Fuck this” and got the wire cutters. This was neither the first nor the last time my mother would be my hero. She cut through the fence and we raced toward the plaintive howls.
Bronte had gotten trapped on the roof of a garden shed. Dehydrated and too scared to jump, she shook violently as my dad lifted her down. She bounded up toward me and I felt that my own salvation was in our reunion.
Then it was over. The happiness I’d felt as I reunited with my dog was quickly gone and it seemed nothing would save me. I climbed through the hole in the fence and found my way back to the bottle. As I drank to new miseries, I knew deep inside that the alcohol, which had worked for years to anesthetize my anxiety and depression, no longer worked. The person I hated most was me. I had people who loved me, but after years of pushing them away, I didn’t know how to let them in.
One month later, with Bronte watching over us, my parents found a way. I collapsed and they pulled me off the floor and when my mom said, “We’re going to the hospital,” I screamed and I cried, but eventually I went. And Bronte would be there when I was released four days later, arriving back home sober and scared, but ready. My constant companion at rock bottom, she, like the rest of them, was always just waiting for me to get up.
Jessica Griffiths received her MFA from The New School. Her writing has appeared on The Hairpin. She is currently working on a YA novel about addiction and an animated series about happier things.
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This is an excerpt from an email I actually sent to a fellow adult:
We’re pretty open to your ideas, but Marcel does tend to look great against “hunting lodge”-type colors and, not surprisingly, is a fan of bones and antlers. It might also be fun to do a Parisian cafe theme, given his name. And since he took the road trip across the U.S. when we moved here, Route 66 paraphernalia could make for fun, fitting props…
My dog, Marcel, had just been crowned the cover boy of my town’s monthly pet magazine for April 2014. Pawprints is a free coffee-shop fixture that primarily exists to catalogue Wilmington, North Carolina’s adoptable rescue pets. Whenever an issue drops, images of its featured dog or cat paper veterinarian waiting rooms and cafe tables all across this university town.
Each year, Pawprints holds a contest wherein readers can nominate their pet to become the face of the magazine. To enter Marcel, I had to submit an essay detailing why he was a “model rescue” and how his adoption had changed my life “for the better,” along with a portrait. What Pawprints’s staff didn’t know was that Marcel is as bad as they come — an overprotective alpha with abandonment issues, a chronic humper, a dinner party saboteur, and a pilferer of hats straight off toddlers’ heads.
In our application photo, my sixty-seven-pound, then-one-year-old is sitting as he does in all pictures — like he’d rather be pouncing something. His ears are akimbo as always, the left popped skyward, à la an on-guard German shepherd, while the other triangle flanking his huge head flops forward, exhibiting pit bull lineage. At a cocktail party, I once embarrassed my co-dog parent, Wes, by proclaiming Marcel “the Daniel Day-Lewis of canines.” With his silky short hair, jacked physique, and bottomless eyes that appear kohl-lined, Marcel is strikingly handsome — your classic leading man. Yet he’s also odd enough looking to fetch character actor roles: his jack-o’-lantern smile conjures the Joker from “Batman,” his ever-erect ear appears like a dorsal fin, and whenever he’s surprised — say by a squirrel, a visitor, or a new bra to steal — five surplus chins unfurl beneath his squishy face. While surrounding party guests cast nervous smiles between sips, Wes abruptly changed the subject to Marcel’s recent enrollment in puppy school.
Our fetching dog’s rescue tale, however, is nothing extraordinary. One day I came across the collar-less, worms-ridden puppy wandering a seedy Los Angeles parking lot, and gave an unsuspecting Wes very little notice before bringing the gremlin-looking mutt home. Ever since, we have been mounted, robbed and/or beaten up on a daily basis.
Marcel’s compulsion toward stealing those items his humans value most — think wallets, eyeglasses and Word documents still hot on the printer — is seemingly present strictly to instigate high-speed chase sessions. In his “model rescue” essay, I described this habit using phrases like “inspirational drive” and “unwavering will.” I also wrote about how my dog, a barking monster by anyone’s measure, is the world’s “most reliable alarm system.” Marcel’s tendency to hump the air when excited, even since being neutered, I chalked up to a “zest for life.” His passion for Greco-Roman warrior-style wrestling? Why, he was just a “scrappy little rescue champion.” And that nightly habit of boxing North Carolina’s colossal cockroaches to death was nothing more than a “fun game” he’d invented all by himself.
That weeklong trip I mentioned in the email was a 2,588-mile ordeal on the eve of my graduate school induction that spanned the Mojave Desert and the entire Bible Belt. Though Wes was with us, the trip was framed as a bonding time during which Marcel and I scaled Sedona’s red mountains as well as Hot Springs’ green hills. I did include in the entry essay that Marcel behaved like a rock star in seven different motel rooms — i.e., trashing them — but I tactfully omitted that he got us kicked out of a bar in Memphis for marking his territory on a corner booth.
After I showed Wes the first draft of the essay, however, he said it read like a twelve-step confessional letter.
“You’ve illustrated that he’s an overprotective thief who loves to murder,” my paramour pointed out. “Who’s gonna want some misbehaved punk dog in their photo studio?”
It’s true that I tend to find inordinate charm in Marcel’s misdeeds. When he sneaks into neighbors’ kiddie pools, I snap pictures before removing him. When he interrupts yoga sessions to wrestle me into a headlock, I’m more likely to pause mid-Vinyasa and cuddle him on that mat than I am to command Down, dog! I may be the only human more likely to frequent the dog park in its post-rainstorm puddle state — Marcel is happiest when rolling in mud, and I’m just a sucker for his massive, unsettling grin.
I guess I’m not just a dog person; I’m a bad dog person.
Perhaps luckily, Pawprints’s judges did not rely solely on essay analysis. They also posted Marcel’s mug to Facebook, where people were welcome to support any among his thirty or so canine cover competitors via the neo-Neanderthal vote of a “like.”
Like the stage mom Pawprints helped me realize I am, I rallied friends across the country to cast their digital endorsement, and before long Marcel took the lead in the contest.
The next day, I received the most validating phone call of my life.
Ever since I realized that some acquaintances initially assume I have a husband named Marcel, I’ve tried to keep my obsession with my dog in check. So when Kelley, Pawprints’ editor, deemed him the most adorable and interesting dog in Wilmington (not actually her words), and instructed us to show up at a studio owned by a photographer named Dick Parrot for a cover shoot the following Tuesday, I felt vindicated — my investment in my boy not all that outsized.
Kelley then asked me to come up with some photo themes that might suit Marcel’s “playful” personality, so I investigated Pawprints’s archives. While Mr. Dick Parrot had a talent for capturing creatures’ expressions, cover models’ props mainly consisted of seasonal stereotypes: Picture golden-doodles propped besides beach pails, bassets drooping into cornucopias, and Chihuahuas wearing Super Bowl jerseys.
Seeing as Marcel is half Jewish — care of Wes — I sought to avoid any April default that could involve him climbing out of an Easter egg, hence, the afore-listed suggestions I dashed off in an email that, by Pawprints’ standards, contained some pretty sophisticated ideas.
The cafe one apparently struck a chord, for Kelley soon called again to suggest the April issue’s theme: “Springtime in Paris.”
Recounting the many dinnertimes during which Marcel had filched baguettes, I agreed, vehemently, blabbering on about how Marcel Marceau, France’s most famous mime, was my dog’s namesake — alongside fellow Monsieurs Proust and Duchamp and, to a lesser extent, Ross Geller’s monkey from Friends.
Kelly, chuckling politely, promised to find him an outfit “fit for a mime.”
On photo shoot Tuesday, she held up a printout of a morose-looking pug — one decked out in a striped tunic, red scarf and beret. At this point, Marcel was pilfering fake flowers from Dick Parrot’s props chest. When Dick lunged, nearly seizing my dog by his periscopic ear, Marcel sprinted off with his haul.
I wished Kelley the best of luck trapping him into the getup.
Through expert employment of treats, however, she had Marcel looking like a model nineteenth-century harlequin in no time. The tip of his tail poked out beneath the tunic, and his grin was made jauntier, less maniacal, against the red kerchief.
He may not exhibit model behavior, but Marcel, as it turns out, is a natural model. He cocked his head wherever Kelley waved treats, vogueing like “Zoolander,” and, somehow, even heeding Dick’s “Smile with your eyes, boy!” command. I had never seen him behave so well during any sustained period that did not involve Benadryl.
Dick’s finished product looks truly fantastique. Behind Marcel, an Eiffel Tower backdrop transports viewers. In the event that France’s PR mavens deem “ennui chic” so last century, my jubilantly smiling mutt could shepherd in a campy new tourist campaign.
Legitimately famous or not, Marcel has since been publicly recognized a couple times. And, no matter anyone’s definition of “model,” the experience did confirm one long-held suspicion: My dog is kind of a big deal.
Despite living with a certain mutt who enjoys slamming her laptop shut when she’s not looking, Katie O’Reilly works as a freelance writer, journalist, and editor. She’s based in Wilmington, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @KatieOWrites, or, if you want to see lots of Marcel, on Instagram @k1027.
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Elliot Kruszynski is a London based illustrator and print maker. Trying his best. Follow him on Twitter @ekruszynski and visit his website elliotkruszynski.co.uk.