Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dustin



©2007 by LeeZard

Dustin had been passed around quite a bit before we hooked up. He was about two years old—a magnificent, classic Collie.

I wanted him the minute I laid eyes on him. Dustin obviously felt the same way. As I walked over, his upraised, feathered tail began to wag the entire rear third of his body and he broke into a huge canine grin (my fellow dog-lovers will understand). A squat, heavy-set man instantly appeared out of nowhere and asked if I wanted to buy the dog.

I should have known; virtually everything is for sale at Englishtown, New Jersey’s famed open air flea market. It is more than 100 acres of junk, used auto parts, a smattering of genuine and faux antiques, clothes old and new, livestock, produce and just about anything else related to human consumption.

I’d been ambling down one of the wide dirt pathways, enjoying the cacophony of commerce, when I spotted Dustin. He was tied to the cab of a beaten flatbed truck parked between a collection of your grandma’s old furniture and a shack constructed entirely with hubcaps. His big, soft, alert brown eyes locked on mine. I was hooked—he knew it, I knew it.

“Hi guy,” I said as I walked over and offered my hand for an exploratory sniff. Once accepted, I reached behind his left ear and started scratching. “Wanna buy the dog?” The question was repeated from behind me as I continued bonding. “Hell, I don’t know,” I answered without missing a scratch, “I wasn’t really looking for a dog.”

“Seventy-five bucks—he’s pedigreed ya know.” Somehow I didn’t trust this guy. He squinted at me from under a dirty wrinkled black fedora that hid a pair of rheumy, bloodshot eyes. It didn’t matter; I had to have this dog. “Hell, I couldn’t afford seventy-five bucks for Lassie himself (note the gender accuracy of the narrator).” The scoundrel was eager and knew he had me.

“Well, I could let him go for $65; shit, I’ve been feeding this mutt for three months.” I could tell he was a real dog fancier. “Fifty-five and I’ll take him.”

“Sold,” he screamed before I could change my mind. So, there I was, doing Englishtown with my new dog tugging on a makeshift rope leash, the two of us grinning, both obviously excited about my spontaneous purchase. Dogs read people pretty well. It didn’t take Dustin long to figure out he was with someone who really cared for him. It didn’t take me long to figure out I had a smart, affectionate Collie.

Someone had obviously worked with Dustin. On one of our first beach walks, he spotted a potential canine playmate and took off, oblivious to everything but his target. “Dustin,” I yelled, “no, come.” To my amazement, he stopped dead in his tracks, wheeled and trotted back tail wagging, big grin in place. He was the dog I always wanted.

Of course, I needed a veterinarian. A friend recommended the Holly Hills Animal Clinic—no more than a reception area with three linoleum tiled exam rooms and the ever-present eau de flea spray and antiseptic.

Dr. Benjamin Garrett was something else again. At first glance he seemed totally ordinary—average height, slim with neatly trimmed light
brown hair. A closer look, though, revealed empty eyes and a blank stare.

I like to look someone straight on when I meet them and shake their hand. Dr. Garrett would have none of that. His eyes looked right through me, around me, never at me. It gave me the willies but, what the heck, I wasn’t looking for a friend, I needed someone to care for Dustin.

After the examination and shots, Dr. Garrett very nearly focused as he went into his consultation. “The animal is in fine shape. But,” and he let the comma hang in the air for a few seconds. “Even though he is about two, I would recommend you have him neutered if you have no plans to breed him. As you know, we have a serious animal population control problem in the city. Besides, he’ll be a lot happier if you fix him and much less likely to wander off in search of female companionship. The procedure won’t change his personality, nor will he become fat or lazy. You’ll have him home within 24 hours.” Reluctantly, I agreed.

The next day I took Dustin back to the clinic for his surgery but, not before he made it clear he knew something untoward was going on. Usually, when I approached Dustin, he’d react with doggish excitement. This time, he took one look at the leash, started barking and ran from the room. How did he know?

He continued barking all the way to the clinic. When we arrived and started walking up the stairs, Dustin stopped and literally dug his heels into the pavement. After much persuasion we finally made it to the waiting room. As I handed my end of the leash to the vet’s assistant, Dustin wouldn’t even look at me. I patted him on the head, scratched behind his ear and gently told him, “see ya tomorrow, pal.” I quickly left with my back to Dustin’s mournful bark.

Surgery was 10am. At noon I called the clinic. “Oh, uh, is this Dustin’s owner?” Long pause. “Uh, hold one minute; Dr. would like to talk with you.”

“Sir,” I heard Garrett’s lifeless voice, “uh, we’ve run into some problems.” Long pause. “We, uh, apparently used a little more anesthetic than your dog could handle. He’s, uh, had a bad reaction and, well, we’re just waiting to see what happens.”

I fired off a string of questions, “how bad is it? Is he going to be okay? Should I come over?”

“Well, it’s too soon to tell. We’ll have to wait a few hours to see if he comes out of it. I wouldn’t come over right now.”

I slammed the phone down, ran out of my office without an explanation to anyone and made the 20 minute drive to Holly Hills in ten. My head was pounding. I bounded up the stairs and ran past the receptionist. I could hear activity in a back room and headed in that direction. As I passed through a smaller room I saw Dustin. He was lying on his side, his four legs dangling over the edge of the small stainless steel surgical table, intravenous tubes leading from both front paws. He looked smaller. His breathing was irregular, his mouth open and his tongue hanging above a pool of saliva on the table. A single, high-powered light cast a stark glow. I felt as if I’d entered a new dimension, completely detached from reality.

Garrett floated into the room, a look of surprise flickering across his inanimate eyes. He started to say something but I didn’t give him a chance. “Is my dog dying?”

“It’s too soon to tell,” he said dispassionately. He walked over to the table and looked into Dustin’s eyes and mouth. The dog’s body began a series of sharp twitches before slowly easing. I knew the answer without hearing it. “Look, there’s not much you can do here. Why don’t you wait outside and I’ll keep you posted.”

“Forget it,” I snapped. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The vet shrugged his shoulders, turned on his heel and walked away without another word. Thankfully, I never saw him again. I grabbed a nearby plastic chair and sat next to the steel table. “Dustin, can you hear me pal? Hey, Dustin, you gotta pull out of this.”

His tail weakly wagged once to acknowledge my presence. Then, his head moved slightly and hope flashed in my heart. I pried his mouth open. His gums were cold and white. His eyes were open, flickering, but the spark was gone. I knew Dustin was dying and I sped from realization to blinding anger and, finally, to unimaginable sadness. With tears freely falling I gently lifted his head and wrapped my arms around him. “Come on Dustin, you can beat this—WE can beat this. Listen to me; YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DIE!”

For an instant I almost believed I could beat back the inevitable. I sat there holding him for who knows how long, gently rocking back and forth, chanting in his ear, “C’mon Dustin, you can make it; you’re not going to die.” Even as he began to slip over the edge of life, as his labored breathing slowed and then stopped with one deep final sigh, I continued my plea. Finally, as his stillness enveloped me, I got up and walked out of the room numbed by the sudden emptiness and oblivious to anyone or anything around me.

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That was more than 30 years ago. I’ve had many dogs since but none like Dustin. To this day I keep a color photograph of him on my office wall. He is standing, in classic collie pose, wind-blown at our favorite beach, goofy doggie grin firmly in place. I look at the picture now wistfully but not with sadness. How could I be sad? His joi de vivre would not tolerate it.