MUGSLEY AT 15
Boyfriends don’t come my way too often (Yentl: “People are blind.”), but I’ve had my dog Mugsley for eight years now, and I think sometimes that I’ve learned as much about love from him as I would having had a hunky (or even semi-hunky) man in my bed night after night. Mugs has been my main guy for most of those nights, although lately he’s let it be known that he prefers his own bed. Like all old men, he’s coziest in his own digs, not to mention that he’s grown weary, I’m pretty sure, of my constant tossing and turning and fussing. A dreadfully poor fall-asleeper, I get up and down, up and down so many times before finally conking out that at some point in the proceedings I usually thank goodness that there’s not a man around for whom I’d feel the need to fake bedtime normalcy. Of course, the insistent thought right after that one is that the times there was a man next to me for a sustained number of nights were also the nights I slept longest and best; made still at last.
I got Mugsley, who is a white-with-brown spots Jack Russell Terrier, when he was seven years old and at first he wouldn’t stay in the same room with me, much less sleep in my bed. He’d sit by the front door, waiting, like some be-sad-on-cue movie dog, for his owner to come and get him. Mugsley had been raised, and brilliantly trained, by people who knew somebody who knew my friend Libby, who briefly took him in when his owners decided, reluctantly, that they had to give him away. It seemed they had a new grandbaby in the house that Mugsley was snapping at, leading to an ultimatum by the child’s mother that the dog must go or the baby stop visiting. I never met the man who raised Mugsley but I imagine him as a fellow who is freshly surprised from time to time at how very much he misses his dog and who looks then at his grandkid and wonders if the trade-off was worth it, and then chides himself for even having the thought.
I always carefully observe Mugsley around babies and young children and can report that he does indeed snap at them. I think it’s because their movements scare him. In children three or four and under there is little predictability of mind and that makes him nervous — he can’t process their wavy, grabby hands and so he lashes out before they can. Something like that. When we’re out walking and come upon little children, one will almost always ask, “Does it bite?” which I think must be one of the first sentences children learn to speak. I always answer “Yes”, and the kids, quite sensibly, made a wide berth around Mr. Mugs, usually walking backwards, never taking their eyes off him. Don’t try to pick him up either, I could add. A couple of years ago I took him to a party and at one point, with my back turned, I heard my friend Joe ask, “Does he like to be picked up?” and before I could turn and call out a warning, Joe had tried to lift him — always a mistake —and Mugsley bit him on the hand. That’s the one and only time he’s drawn blood, but still…be wary. There’s reason there, too. Mugsley, nearly 15 now, has loose leg joints and arthritis and is always aching, so you have to know where his sore spots are, which isn’t too much different, if you think about it, from having a boyfriend.
In those first months with me, Mugsley slowly made his way down the long hall to the room where we’ve spent most of these eight years, propped up together on my bed, me against pillows and he on my robe at the foot of the bed, which he arranges and plumps up himself with a nudging nose and swiping paw, a process so specific and labored that it never ceases to fascinate and amuse me. Mugsley can’t jump up on the bed anymore, but he can jump off it, although I try now to lift him myself since his hind legs are pretty wobbly. If he jumps off now, he’s liable to limp badly the rest of the day and my heart can’t take that pathetic sight. But it used to be that I had to position the bed in such a way that there was room for him to jump off and make his wild landing — with a legs-splayed slide and a thump against the wall. Apparently, proper bed positioning is an essential component of a dog’s feng shui, a lesson I learned the hard way, years ago, after spending a Saturday afternoon rearranging the bedroom — bed, TV, phone and cable lines — only to discover that it all had to go back because in its new spot there wasn’t room for Mugsley to jump up and down off the bed, and that just wouldn’t do at all. It’s his house, after all; he just lets me room here.
His name, by the way, was originally Pugsley, or so it says on his papers, after the boy in The Addams Family. Somehow, before my time, it became “Mugsley”, a change I’m grateful for because he can also be “Mugs” or “Muggers”, or when it’s just the two of us, alone and private, “The Mugger Man.”
Here is what The Mugger Man knows about love: On a hot August night a few years back, I broke up with David, a man I’d come to love, which was a fact I acknowledged to myself, and subsequently, to him, far too late to do any good (“I wish you’d told me this two months ago”). By the night that I made my grand proclamation, and invited David to move in with me, he’d already agreed (he finally informed me) to move in with someone else, a very nice, very rich fellow I’d actually met a time or two and who I knew full well that David was seeing in addition to me. (It was all very modern.) This man, who seemed perfectly decent and who I know adored my guy, had made David — who was on the verge of bankruptcy and whose career was going nowhere and who was forty and terrified — an offer he couldn’t refuse, one that has led, in these intervening years, to world travel, and, presumably, an upgraded credit rating (so who am I to say David was wrong to accept?). Near the end of that long final night David and I were lying atop my bed, sort of wrapped up together — I was sad then, not mad (not yet) and I couldn’t quite let him leave. I started crying, then sobbing, wrenchingly, and then David started crying (he cried all the next day too and isn’t that interesting?), and between us I guess we made quite a racket. While I’d just as soon forget the heart-knotting pain of that night and the time-wasting, regret-filled nights/months/years that followed, the one thing I’ll remember forever is Mugsley, down on the floor, unable to find a spot to jump up onto the bed, going crazy, whining and yelping, craning his head up, trying to get a look, trying to get to me — worried, frantic, mad with loving concern. Mugsley has a painfully loose joint in his left hind leg and at dinner that night I’d been telling David that the vet said Mugs needed $2000 surgery and I couldn’t decide whether to try and raise that. David said that was too much money to spend on a dog, even a great dog (he called Mugsley “Moonpie”). Later, in the midst of all those tears and Mugsley freaking out at the foot of the bed, I turned to David and said, “That’s why you think about spending $2000 on a dog. Because when you’re crying, he comes running.”
What I’ve learned from Muglsey is that love is a never-ending conversation. He and I are always communicating, talking back and forth, keeping an eye on each other, making each other grin. We read the signs, seeing the changes in each other and making the necessary accommodations; trying this, trying that. He keeps me alert and attentive and I think he’s helped keep me alive. Because there was a period, not so very long ago, when I spent a good deal of my day and brain-time devising my exit from this world — I was so sad and so tired of being inside this mind — and I thought I’d come up with a pretty efficient, low-mess way to do it but I couldn’t figure what to do about Mugsley. I could leave instructions for a friend to take him but I knew that Mugsley wouldn’t survive long under a new roof — it’s the well-worn rhythms of our days that keep him going — and I was afraid too that he’d go nuts when the police came (he hates uniforms) and end up in the pound or worse, and while you hear stories about people taking their pets out, along with themselves, I knew I could never do such a thing, and so I stayed, alongside Mugsley — who kept making me smile, when smiling seemed least likely — while I gave more thought to our exit and how best to work it and after a while I noticed that I’d stopped thinking about it. And so here we still are, me and this dog.
“I want to live!”, as Susan Hayward exclaimed, which isn’t to say that I’ve been reborn or am bursting out with happiness. Just last night, I was lonely, bitter and scared, familiar feelings that will very likely return after I walk away from this desk. (Here, such feelings serve me.) Yet, Mugsley still needs me; as do many equally swell humans (I’m lucky in love after all). And sometimes lately, more often than in years really, I get this little flutter in the exact middle of my chest that feels like excitement or anticipation and which isn’t based on anything that can be named or anything that’s just happened or is about to happen. I’m remarkably poor right now, always on the edge of ruin, and I’m still single (relentlessly) and I have absolutely no idea what to do with the rest of my life, not even the next 30 days, and yet…and yet, the little flutter comes anyway. From time to time. My old therapist told me once that I was an optimist but didn’t want to admit it, and wondered what I wanted my life to feel like. I drew a blank at the time, but I think that the feelings that give rise to flutter are the answer to his question. They come when I’m aligned with my universe, when I’m fully present (the hardest trick of all); not watching myself waiting to live, but actually living.
Dogs have a way of keeping you present, because they can’t and won’t fend for themselves for very long. Cats understand that the universe is fickle and that desertion can come at any minute, and so they make a bowl of food last, while dogs gobble it right down, confident that the two-legged giant will soon return to fill it up again. Since I left my full-time job I’m home all the time, and I’ve noticed that on days when I do have work that keeps me out of the house all day, Mugsley won’t eat when I get back, and I realize that he’s rattled and mad at me, as if I’d put a scare into him. I have to woo him back. After eight good years together, the Mugger Man still has abandonment issues.
It’s 3:21 in the morning right now, and I’m writing, and Mugsley’s behind me, curled up on my bed, right in my sleeping spot, which means it’ll be hot when I finally climb in and I hate that, which I think he must somehow know. He knows so many things. I’ll probably wake him up before I crash, which’ll make him growl at me. I’ll carry him into the bathroom, where I keep an extra leash hanging on the towel hook, and I’ll put it on him and set him out the bathroom window, which is at ground level. I’ll lean out and twist my head up to see if there are stars, and he’ll walk to the full extension of the leash, shake himself — which will make his collar jingle — and then he’ll pee, his head slowly turning, trying to spy the neighbor’s cat. The bonus pee I call it and since we’re heading toward dawn, I may give him a bite to eat, too, to tide him over, both things meant to keep him from waking up too early. His human needs sleep. Mugsley and me, we’re getting this livin’ thing down. (Chuck Wilson)