22 min read

EXCERPT from the new revised edition of REX AND THE CITY (Diversion Books: 2014)

This excerpt is actually the "set-up" for one of my favorite chapters in this book-a chapter about, as the final sentence of the excerpt implies-my becoming what I call a "scary stage mother." One of the many unknown things I discovered about myself from adopting a dog was that I took great pleasure in dressing my poor dignified dog up in elaborate costumes. Fortunately for him, this indignity took place only once per year, at Halloween, but in his opinion (and in the opinion of my former husband Ed) once a year was more than enough. Both my husband and my dog seemed to find me rather frivolous, it seems-as evidenced in this excerpt. But because Wallace loved me, he allowed himself to suffer the indignity of being dressed up in elaborate Halloween costumes and paraded around the streets of New York. One year, for example, I had a Broadway dressmaker create a miniature J-Lo evening gown and dressed Wallace up as "Dogatella Versace." But I digress.

Another thing to note about this short excerpt is that, while it seems to belabor the point that I loved to poke and prod and admire my dog, there is a very good reason why I am belaboring that point. This excerpt is a prelude to Chapter 13, which is about mid-way through the book. Prior to this point in the story, Wallace had still been a very timid dog. We suspected he had been abused before we adopted him, because he was very hand shy and even fear-aggressive. In our first months together, he would often try to bite the people (especially males) who reached out to pet him. Ed and I had to work very hard and very committedly to convince Wallace that there were good people in the world who only wanted to love and admire him. So that fact that I could now, here in Chapter 12, lie on the floor next to Wallace and stroke his fur and tickle his chin; well, if you've ever had a troubled dog who was formerly fear aggressive, you'll recognize this as a major coup. So this is why I gush.

Enjoy this short excerpt from Rex and the City!

Rex and the City: A Memoir of a Woman, a Manand the Rescue Dog Who Rescued Their Relationship

Excerpt: Chapter 13

Is there a dog person on this planet who does not think that his/her dog is the smartest, cutest, funniest, and best-looking dog in the world? Well, sorry to disappoint, but in the looks department, my dog Wallace was hands-down the handsomest canine on the planet. Until he rolled in human shit, that is. But that is a story for another day.

And how did I love Wallace's physical appearance? Let me count the ways. His face could have launched a thousand ships. It was half white and half brown, with one ear in each color, and a sort of yin/yang marking on top of his head. The brown half was the color of chocolate mousse. His nose, too, was that velvety brown, but the tip of his snout was white and pink. And who can resist a pink nose?

The thinnest of white lines went straight up the center of his snout (like the fine, fluid pencil marking of a pencil artist) and then curved out over his right eyebrow, following the line of his cheek. Yes, this was a face worthy of a John Singer Sergeant portrait.

We took him home because of this face, and because this dog looked positively regal, like one of those high-bred sporting dogs you see in English paintings, or on the lawns of great hunt-country estates. We had no idea at that point that this dog was crazy. But you live and learn.

And have you ever stroked a setter? What soft, fine fur! Wallace's coat was mostly white-as most of you know by now-and it was that sort of blinding, sparkling white that seems so unnatural in nature unless we're talking clouds or new fallen snow. And Samoyeds and Westies and American Eskimo Dogs and White German Shepherds, and the unfortunate garments of Paris Hilton. The only problem is a white dog never stays white for long in New York City. But we'll get to that. For now I want to describe my dog when he was clean.

Behold! Wallace had fringing on his legs and a long, feathered tail. He had little brown speckles on his legs that looked like chocolate chips, and two prominent brown markings on his backside. One was a giant spot on his rump that we called his "scratch patch" and the other was a darker brown spot at the base of his tail. His brown fur, for some reason, had a different consistency than his white fur. It was finer and silkier. I suppose "tuftier" might be a good way to describe it, because whereas his white fur lay flat, and might be considered "slightly wavy" at Vidal Sassoon, his brown fur puffed straight up in little tufts.

When we first got Wallace (and once he decided it was safe for me to touch him), I tried to comb the brown fur down. Sometimes I would even trim it, so that it wouldn't stand up. But eventually, I decided that that unruly patch of fur rather suited him. It made him look slightly mad and disheveled, like a canine-Einstein. A Caninestein, they are called, in that circle of dog owners who believe their dogs are the smartest. Anyway, Wallace's mad-scientist patch gave him a rather comical look. And Wallace took himself far too seriously. So in my mind this mad tuft balanced things out.

He was the kind of dog whose looks made people melt. Whose looks made people go, "Aw, look at that dog. He's gorgeous! What kind of dog is that? That's the kind of dog I want."

I still could not come up with a proper response when someone told me my dog was beautiful. "Just say ‘Thank you,'" Ed said, as he thanked another person who complimented Wallace. But for some reason, that didn't seem right to me. I did not create his beauty. Wallace's beauty was not mine-it belonged to him, and to the long line of Spaniel and Setter ancestors who lingered in his blood. And yet, and yet, I loved the compliments. I warmed to the praise.

Everyone commented on Wallace's beauty. And because this was New York City, we must have gotten a hundred compliments a day. So much so that I trusted that soon Wallace and I would appear in the Styles section of the New York Times: he with his handsome braided leather leash and collar, I with my matching brown leather shoes.

"Look at that doggie!" little girls would say. "Mommy, can we get one just like him?"

"Oh, can we please get a dog?" girlfriends would say to their boyfriends. "Let's go to the shelter this weekend. Let's just go look."

Four weeks earlier, I would have been walking around with a megaphone and a red flag, shouting to all these girlfriends: "Don't do it! Don't get a dog!" But now I was giving these strangers the name of our shelter. "You'll love it. It's where JFK Junior got his dog!"

"He's so cute!" they'd say.

"Isn't he though?" I'd say. "Doesn't he have the cutest face?" Every time someone complimented my gorgeous dog, I began to feel a surge of pride move through me, to the surface of my face, bringing a certain glow to my skin. Beauty has a way of radiating outward, and if you happen to be standing next to a beautiful creature, well, that means you're gorgeous too.

I spent hours staring at this gorgeous specimen of a canine. I was besotted with him. I loved the little yin-yang marking on his forehead. I loved the complicated folds of skin under his chin. I loved his tiny white whiskers, his brown nose, his mismatched ears. I loved the fact that his brown fur was inexplicably softer than his white fur, as if it came from a separate source. And I loved his floppy lips. These lips were pink and speckled with little spots of brown. Mr. Leeps, I began to call him-a convoluted nickname that has a long story behind it, dating back to Ed's college days, when he and his best friend had their own special way of pronouncing the letter I's like E's. But anyway. "Who has pink leeps?" I'd say to Wallace in my special dog voice. "Who has pink spotted leeps?"

"Leave him alone," Ed would say. "He doesn't like it when you poke at his face like that."

"At least I'm not dying him pink," I said. (That was the latest trend in dog accessorizing on the Upper East Side-tiny Maltese terriers dyed to match your purse.)

My dog did not need to be dyed to look gorgeous and trendy, thank you very much. He was already perfect as is. I loved to stroke the complicated folds of skin and fur under his muzzle. I loved to touch his toenails-some white, some brown. I loved, especially, to wrap his shaggy ears up around his head, like a pillbox hat, and call him Aunt Mabel. Or Jackie O. "Who's so chic?" I'd say, kissing his snoutie. "Who's so Jackie O in his little pillbox hat?"

"Stop it!" Ed shouted. "He looks miserable. He wants you to leave him alone."

"He loves the attention. He's fine. If he didn't like it he'd leave."

Poor Wallace had to restrain himself from snapping at me, as he would have in the good old days. Sometimes he'd groan in protest; sometimes he'd try to swat me away with his paws, but mostly he just lay there, sighing with resignation and looking miserable. I had become something he had to endure.

"Would you stop?" Ed said. "He hates it."

"Do you hate it?" I'd say to the dog. "Are you being tortured? It's so terrible to get so much attention, isn't it? So terrible to be the most handsome dog in the world."

There was no end to the ways I wanted to poke him and prod him and play with his ears. I must have kissed him fifty times a day. It seemed criminal not to-he was just so cute lying there with his head between his paws on the floor. Sometimes splayed like a frog. Sometimes alert and upright like a Sphinx. Sometimes with his paws crossed like the knees of a lady at lunch. Sometimes with one hip tucked underneath, his legs spread out to the side. "Who's a slew foot?" Ed would say. "Who's a sphinx?"

Who can resist such a dog? He had brown eyelashes and fair white whiskers on his snout. There was a tiny whorl at the center of Wallace's chest, a vortex of fur at which all of the hair of his body seemed to have begun. It is this part of Wallace I loved best. In Chinese traditions, there is a center of creation in each person that is called the da-tien, and I liked to think of this little whorl as Wallace's da-tien. At night, I would tickle him there, to stimulate his life force, to ensure a long and healthy life.

"Would you stop?" Ed would cry from the bedroom. "It's time to go to bed."

"Just a minute," I'd say. Then I'd poke the dog's toenails again.

"For the love of God," Ed shouted. "It's midnight! You've been poking at him for two hours! Can you leave him alone? I'm calling the humane society and turning you in."

"All right, all right. I'll come poke at you for a while."

Into the bedroom went I to pay attention to my boyfriend. But not before kissing the dog about eighty more times.

Yes, we had tamed the lion. I could rub my dry nose against Wallace's wet one. I could now stick my fingers in his mouth. I could get him to show me his bottom teeth, which I called "teefs" because they were so baby-like and non-threatening and cute. "Let me see those little teefs" became the Wallace phrase of the week, followed by Ed's refrain: "Could you stop sticking your hands in his mouth?"

No, I could not.

I taught Wallace the command "Show us your teefs." Then I taught him to roll over and "show us the belly." This was a posture of submission, you may recall, he had not been willing to assume unless it was by force. We taught him next to shake hands with other people, which he did grudgingly, like a businessman being forced to make a deal. So in other words, Wallace was becoming a circus act. But so what? Poking at my dog was my favorite thing in the world to do.

Until, that is, I discovered the wonders of dressing one's dog in costume at Halloween. Then I became one of those scary stage mothers.

Copyright © 2014 by Lee Harrington