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A Search for the Perfect Dog (Gary Shiebler)


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young gary with rusty
  When I was a boy, I was convinced that a ghost lived in my bedroom closet. My parents had renovated the attic of our brown-shingled Dutch Colonial and turned it into two bedrooms--one for me and one for my younger brother. My brother's room was on the sunny south side of the house. It was a simple, boxy room with a couple windows and a small closet. My bedroom, on the north side, had spooky nooks, landings, and crawl spaces, sharp-angled ceilings that dipped to darkened corners, two tiny windows, and this massive closet. Almost every night before I went to sleep, the closet door would have to be closed.

On some brave nights, I would decide to leave the door open a crack. I would brazenly turn off the light, pull the covers up, and close my eyes.

I'd call to my brother in the next room, "Glenn?"

No answer. He always fell asleep before I did.

Then a rogue creak or mysterious thump would spring my eyes open and set my pulse racing. I would peek over the covers and watch the door like a hawk. The hall light would begin to play tricks with my wide eyes and tender imagination. The small crack of pitch black would begin to grow. The gold doorknob would slowly begin to turn and the tips of ghoulish fingers would appear, curling around the door frame.

"Daaadd! Come close the closet door!" I'd yell.

My dad would bound up the stairs, three steps at a time, and close the door for me. He would assure me that the ghost was not strong enough to open the door by himself. I don't think he ever tried to convince me the ghost wasn't there. He'd just always come to the rescue.

One Tuesday morning when I was three years old, a very thin, baked-potato-brown dog appeared outside our front door.

"I opened the door and he was just standing there," my mother remembers. "He was an absolute mess. I called your father at work and he immediately came home and took him up to Dr. Barry's. It turned out that he had one of the worst cases of mange he had ever seen. Dr. Barry didn't think he was going to make it. 'I'll try my best to save him,' he told me. 'But it's very serious.' In those days, the only way they treated such severe cases of mange was with arsenic."

"It was a miracle that he recovered," she recalled. "Slowly he regained his strength. And all those bare patches of skin and brown mats of fur were soon replaced with as glorious an orange coat as I had ever seen."

We named him Rusty.

He would become the dog against which I would measure all others.

To this day, my mom says there will never be another dog like him. And though my memories of him are fuzzy and gilded by a simpler and more innocent time, an imprint on my heart says it is so.

With the passing of years, I have forgotten many of the details about Rusty. Most have dissolved into myth or are bound by stories shared at dinner tables and in holiday living rooms.

I look at old photographs.

I see a dog sitting beside me on a braided rug in front of a small Christmas tree.

I want to remember the touch of his fur.

I see a young boy sitting proudly on a blue bicycle with a dog standing beside him.

I want to remember the sound of his bark.

I see two brothers hugging a dog on a front lawn.

I want to remember.

But I can't.

It is too long ago.

A shepherd-collie mix, Rusty was as stately, handsome, and heroic as any dog I have ever known. His rich coat was indeed golden orange, except for the fantastic white blaze that ran down his broad and sturdy chest and the splash of white at the tip of his magnificent tail. He was my protector, my friend, my confidant, my hero. He was fiercely loyal and used to do battle with any dog that crossed the line of our property. He was serious and very task-oriented but never turned down an offer for a good wrestle on our front lawn.

He never got sick. Occasionally he would come home a bit banged up after a fight with his neighborhood rival, a street-tough little mutt named Frankie. But he always recovered quickly, and after a few days' rest he would be back outside making sure our yard was a safe place for my brother and me to have a catch.

Mom swears he never had a flea in his life.

He didn't appreciate being asked to do dog tricks. Every now and then he would begrudgingly shake your hand if you pestered him long enough.

Kisses?

Never.

My dad did dress him up once as the disguised wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. He valiantly obliged for one snapshot. I never told him it made the local paper.

He loved to chase cars. After one particular close call, I screamed and yelled and begged him to stop. I told him I didn't want to see him die. I was eight years old. He never did it again.

He would regularly disappear, sometimes for as long as three days. Mom would worry and fret. Dad would say he was just visiting his girlfriend. Then out of the blue he would show up at the bus stop, greet us with a smile and a wag or two, then escort us home. We never did find out where he went.

Once, he broke up a fight between me and the neighborhood bully. He was the big brother I never had, the childhood angel who watched over me at all times. He was truly a gift from God.

So on those nights when Dad would come up and close the closet door, I would always ask him to do one more thing--to call Rusty upstairs to stay with me. He would yell, "Rusty! Come here boy!" Soon, I would hear his generous paws loping up the stairs. He would greet us with a smile and a wag or two and then dutifully jump up on the end of my bed, heave a hefty sigh, and fall asleep. And if the ceilings started playing tricks on me, or if doorknobs started to turn or curtains became ghostly, all I had to do was reach out with my toes and feel the warmth of Rusty's back, and I would know an angel was nearby.

A few weeks after Rusty died, my brother dreamed that Rusty flew in his bedroom window and sat on the end of his bed. My brother sat up and, to his amazement, Rusty started talking to him. They talked for a long time, about all the good times he had with our family. Then he said it was time for him to go. He flew out the window into the night.

Just like angels do.
 
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Excerpted from A Search for the Perfect Dog (forthcoming) by Gary Shiebler. Copyright © 1997 by Gary Shiebler. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.