Thursday, October 16, 2014

For the love of a pug

LINCOLN – He plants his cane against the concrete and he’s off, leaving behind a small, cluttered duplex and the sign by the door: 

"HOME is where the DOG is."

He reaches the end of the driveway and turns east down the hill – the way Mike wanted to go that July night. 

Black Velcro shoes are strapped tight to his feet. Faded, striped hat is pulled firm over his gray hair. Tan pants are pulled so high that his belt covers the bottom of his green shirt pocket. 

His eyes never leave the ground. His chin never leaves his chest. His each step covers 18 inches. He’s got a bad left knee that doesn’t bend so well. He’s got a bone spur on his right foot. Twice he’s broken his hip. 
Three, four, five, six miles each day will do all that to a 90-year-old body.

But if everybody was as healthy as Loren Gerischer, the doctor told him, they wouldn’t need Medicare D. Want to know the secret? Honey and green tea. 

"Cleans ya out," Loren says. 

And every day, he walks and walks and walks. 

At least he did. 

Today’s walk ends at three blocks. He reaches the bus stop, leans against the sign and waits. He’s getting very good at waiting since Mike’s been gone. 

Seven minutes after its scheduled 11:42 arrival time, the No. 8 comes to a halt on L Street. The old man climbs in. 

Eight minutes later, he gets off at the downtown library, just as he does six days a week – the library isn’t open Sundays. He tells the driver thanks and steps onto a crowded sidewalk. 

Into the building. Straight to the elevator. Down to the basement. He grabs two newspapers: the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star. He finds his table.

He removes his glasses and sifts through the neat stack of sections. He starts with the World-Herald. He stops to read Blondie. He giggles and the unshaven whiskers on his chin do a dance.

Then to the classifieds, to the pets, to the dogs. His bottom lip protrudes as he drags his wrinkled right index finger down one column, then the next, past the German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers and Jack Russell Terriers. 

No pugs.

He grabs the Journal Star. Same routine.

No pugs.

He folds the papers neatly together again and stops to read a front-page story: Global warming may cause stronger storms.

"Hmmm. That could happen."


When the old man left the house that summer evening, he and Mike had been together about two years. Loren had recently bought a new cell phone that takes pictures. A friend snapped a shot of Mike and posted it on the main screen. The old man liked that very much.

Each night, Mike lay on the couch next to Loren as he read, sometimes past midnight. When the old man got up to go to bed, Mike followed. 

He nestled his brown fur and black, wrinkly face against the old man’s leg. He closed his googly eyes. When morning came, Loren grabbed his slippers and let Mike out the door, no leash. Across the street. Into a neighbor’s yard. He did his thing and turned back, waiting for passing cars. 

"Mike would never leave me."

The old man grew up southeast of Des Moines. Four aunts raised him. After working on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, he ended up in Lincoln. He doesn’t remember how or when or why. 

He worked two and three jobs at a time. He cleaned at the roads department. He washed dishes at the airport restaurant. He picked cans from highway ditches and rest stops until the state shut down his operation – they locked the lids. He has a sister in California, but no wife or kids or nieces or nephews.

Just Mike.

They were known around the neighborhood for their walks. Sometimes they traveled to the south side of town, two or three miles away. They’d be gone a few hours. Once the old man tried carrying an odometer to see how far they traveled.

"It gave out. Batteries didn’t hold up."

He always packed two water bottles, but never took a sip -- they were for Mike. As pugs tire, their breathing resembles a growl. They don’t have the airspace in their mouths, the old man says. So they moved at Mike’s pace. They went where Mike wanted to go. 

Mike preferred every walk go past Runza, where he and the old man shared a hamburger. 
Sometimes they got caught in a thunderstorm, sometimes in 100-degree heat, prompting a police officer to ask in vain if they wanted a ride home. Mike was a smooth walker, but sometimes he pulled too hard on the ice and the old man fell down. Sometimes, Mike saw another dog and broke free. 

One time Mike came walking down the street alone, a few blocks from home. He reached a street corner panting and looked in every direction. A neighbor spotted him and walked him back to the old man, who was looking, too, a few blocks away.

Somehow Mike always found his way home.

On July 3, the old man planted his cane against the concrete and they were off. Mike wanted to go east down the hill. For some reason, Loren didn’t listen. They went west toward the park, toward busy 33rd Street. 

Halfway there, Mike spotted a dog across 33rd. He lunged. 


The old man couldn’t clench tight enough. He let go. He tried to lift his chin from his chest and when he did, he saw Mike sprinting toward to the corner.


Right at the end of the sidewalk, before a line of cars flying by at 30, 35, 40 mph, Mike stopped. 


The old man moved quicker. His strides lengthened. Along the bushes. Past the twin trees. To the corner. Mike? 


The car just kept going and going, down the hill and out of sight, leaving the dog in the street. 
And the old man alone.

That was the night his routine changed. 
He still ate his daily helpings of vegetable beef soup and buttered popcorn. He still folded bulletins at church on Friday and constructed 1,500-piece jigsawpuzzles. 
He still studied the World Books he bought for $15 at a garage sale -- "You know how many eggs a queen bee lays in her lifetime? Between 50,000 and 60,000."

But no more walks. 
He planned one for his 91st birthday – Sept. 24. Instead, he went to Applebee’s for supper. He redirected his energy to finding another Mike. 

The problem: He needs a dog old enough to walk steadily. So no puppies. And he wants a male. 

Mary Kay Kreikemeier lives down the street and looks out for the old man. She tells him he should get an old dog. She likes to tell the story about theFebruary afternoon a few years ago when the old man was walking his old Husky – you didn’t know who would die first, she said. 

The dog stopped to nap in the grass and Loren decided to join her. Well, someone saw an old man on the ground and called 911. Loren arose to find paramedics on the scene.

Why not another Husky, Mary Kay asks. They’re gentle. They walk well. 

No. Loren wants a pug. He could have one right now, he knows, if he would’ve gone east down the hill.

"If I’d done right, I’d still have Mike. I told him it was my fault. It was me. It wasn’t him."

He’s prayed about it again and again, pleading with the Lord for another dog.Ask and you shall receive. No answer. 

He’s left with the cell phone. Each night since he buried Mike in a field of wildflowers, he has slept with the photo against his legs. 

The other day a friend grabbed the phone and scrolled through recent calls to look for a number. The old man ordered him back to the main screen: "Get Mike back up there."
"When I’m buried over here in the cemetery, the phone goes with me."


A bright, breezy morning – exactly three months after Mike left him. 

The old man is off to Pierce, Neb., some 2 ½ hours north. He found a pug in the classifieds and made a call. One-year-old. Willie’s his name. So Mary Kay from down the street packs a few kolaches. She picks him up. 
You excited, Loren?

"No. Why be excited? If you told me I was going to get a million dollars, I’d probably be just like this."

He’s a man of simple needs. TV? Doesn’t own one. A cook for his meals? Doesn’t need one. A Christmas tree? Doesn’t want one. Mary Kay makes him put it up anyway. 

"I’m gonna find where she put it and bury it somewhere."

They reach Pierce by 11 and find the house on the north edge of town. He walks through a chain-link gate and spots Willie, with the purple collar, among a family of pugs. Willie jumps against his cage toward Loren’s hand. 

"Hi Willie," says the old man -- he struggles to pronounce the "L", so it sounds more like "Wiwwie." 

What do you think, Loren?

"Don’t know yet. I can’t tell until we go walking."

Willie’s owner sets him free and hands him to the old man. Willie licks Loren’s face. Loren rubs Willie’s head.

"Yeah, he’s a pretty good boy…He’d probably be a pretty good walker."

The old man takes the leash and they’re off for the gravel street. It’s clearWillie is a wild one. He chases his tail. 

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie pees on the flowers.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie runs behind Loren, wrapping the leash around the old man’s legs. He lays on his stomach, rolls on the ground, trying like a shackled magician to remove the unfamiliar harness.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie lags behind. Then he sprints ahead. Loren grunts, clenching his left hand into a fist. He nearly falls. Left foot and cane move in concert, springing the right foot forward. His eyes never leave the ground.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie squeals a little. He wraps the leash around the old man’s legs again. Loren has to let go or fall down. He lets go. He tries again, grabbing tight. Willie tugs. The old man grunts. 

"Alwight Wiwwie."

Want me to take him, Mary Kay asks. 

The old man, halfway around the block, keeps going. He shortens the leash – he didn’t have to do that with Mike. Now Willie can’t run behind him. Willie doesn’t like it.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie sits in the grass, refusing to move. The old man pulls. Harder. The harness slips off Willie’s head. 

"You take it," he says, handing off the leash.

Willie charges ahead, leaving the old man behind. Loren reaches the driveway and leans against the van, searching for air, searching for answers. 

"Hmmmm. What do you think?"

Willie would be a pill in the city, Mary Kay tells him. What if he lay in the grass and wouldn’t move? What if he wrapped the leash around you and got loose? What if?

"Wiwwie, wish you would walk a little bit better."

The wind whips through town. The old man sticks out his bottom lip.

"I sure wish I’d done what Mike wanted to do."
He grabs a treat from his pocket, bends over and reaches out his hand. The panting dog sniffs…he doesn’t bite. Loren puts the treat away. Ask and you shall receive. Not today.

"Yeah, Wiwwie, might have to give up on you, wait for another one… 

"I’ll keep looking. There’s no problem to that. Maybe I don’t get one this year. Maybe I don’t get one next year. One’s going to come my way. Yeah…

"I got time."

He plants his cane against the ground, turns away from the dog and starts back toward the van.

He’s a long way from home.

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