LINCOLN – Their first night together, the pug lay flat on the old man’s carpet, fighting sleep. Wasn’t time for bed yet, but the day had been long and the journey longer.
Just hours earlier, the old man had embarked with his new companion on a four-mile walk. About halfway home, the dog sat in the grass and refused to continue.
"I wore him out," said Loren Gerischer, 91.
Four months had passed since Mike’s death, since he’d begun a quest that tested his patience without exhausting his spirit, since he’d interrupted his daily walks to scour newspaper classifieds and call phone numbers and try out dogs that never felt as comfortable as Mike did. He wasn’t sure another dog could. Then Loren got a call from the Nebraska Humane Society in November.
They’d read about his love and loss. They’d vowed to help. Four months of regret and sorrow, diligence and hope. On the floor, in the quiet of a small living room, lay the old man’s reward.
Finally, Marty closed his eyes…
E-mails came from Colorado and Connecticut and dozens of places in between. Some wanted to help. Some wanted to know the story’s end. Some wrote separate letters to animal shelters asking them to keep an eye out for pugs.
From Sarah: "I understand how hard it can be to lose a dog, but I can’t imagine how hard it would be when he was pretty much your only companion."
From Pam: "I own two pugs and totally understand why he fell in love with Mike."
After the World-Herald article ran in October, Loren had become a celebrity in pug circles. When he attended Pug-O-Ween, a Halloween celebration at Chalco Hills, strangers whispered and pointed. Wasn’t he the man who walked his dog across Lincoln each day for two, three, four miles at a time, stopping only to quench Mike’s thirst or split a Runza hamburger?
On July 3, a night a like any other, the man and his dog left their white duplex and started west. Mike spotted a dog across 33rd Street and broke free from Loren’s grasp. By the time Loren reached the corner, Mike lay in the street. He never made a sound.
Since that night, the old man had blamed himself. Why didn’t he go east out of the driveway instead of west?
He had gone to bed each night with a cell phone – a picture of Mike featured on the screen. He tucked it against his legs, where Mike used to sleep. He vowed someday to be buried with it.
Thousands of people had learned of Loren’s story, but sympathy didn’t solve his problem. Each time Loren inquired about a dog, a problem arose. Sometimes the dog was too young or too active – Loren didn’t need a boisterous puppy wrapping a leash around his fragile legs during walks. Sometimes the glitch came at his end – he didn’t have a fenced backyard, a requirement for some animal adoption agencies.
Then, in early November, a 10-year-old with a golden coat named Marty came to the Nebraska Humane Society. His owner had surrendered him. He needed a home.
NHS leaders immediately thought of the 91-year-old whom strangers had been calling about.
Marty was 10, much older than Mike, but he obeyed orders. And most importantly, he could be a good walker. The Humane Society housed the dog in an office for a few days while they worked out the details with Loren.
On Monday morning, Nov. 12, Loren came to Omaha. In a quiet room, just the two of them, Marty sniffed and snorted. Loren said hello and scratched Marty’s head. Then he took Mary for a test walk.
Loren’s a man of caution and skepticism. He doesn’t get too high or too low. But minutes later, he returned: "I think he’s the one."
Five weeks later, Loren sits in his living room as the snow disappears outside. He and Marty haven’t been out much. Too cold. Too icy. And Marty’s kind of got a bad hip. The previous owner, Loren says, must not have walked him enough.
Once the days get warmer, Loren will try to build up Marty’s stamina.
"It’s going to take a while where I can get him to go like Mike did," Loren says.
Loren makes room on the couch and Marty hops off the floor. The dog yawns and lies on his stomach. Go to sleep, Loren tells him.
"I know you’re an old man ‘cause you got gray whiskers," Loren tells him.
Marty’s not interested in sleep, and soon Loren is wrestling with him, vigorously massaging his gold coat with both hands.
"I pick on him," Loren says. "They like it. That’s what I did to Mike."
Marty hops off the couch, seeking refuge on the floor. Soon they’re off to the backdoor and the fenced backyard, where Marty scouts the perimeter looking for rabbits and squirrels and anything that moves.
Loren is still trying to teach him to sit, to come, to lie down, to play ball. In time, he says.
"You know they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks," Loren says. "You can. You’ve just got to work with ‘em."
On the floor by the living room window, there’s an artificial Christmas tree, about waist high. Mary Kay from down the street pulled it out of the garage a few weeks ago, much to Loren’s chagrin.
He’s not much into frills. Next year, he jokes, he’s going to put that tree in a place she can’t find it. But for now he allows the lights and ornaments to gleam in the afternoon sunlight. He allows the featured decoration: a stuffed animal.
It’s a little, gold pug and it sits at the treetop, taking the place of an angel.