Gus: Requiem for a Dog

The hardest lesson for my dog Gus to learn was about my going to school.  It never entered his mind that he wouldn’t be going to school.  After all this was a big step for both of us and he had no idea that I could cope without him.  The first day of school off we went.

We went inside and sat down.  About four little kids got scared and started screaming, whining, and causing a general disruption of class.  Even my desk mate Joann Watson, who never owned an animal until she was in the 6th grade when she got a duck, screamed her head off.  Miss Locke told me to take Gus outside.  I did.

Gus and Jenny. 1948

In those days the schools were not air conditioned.  The huge long windows were wide open.  In Gus jumped and plopped down beside my desk.  Joann Watson let out a fresh howl.  After we had this routine down pat amid all the bawlings and howlings of the rest of the first graders, Miss Locke called mama to come for Gus.

I don’t know what  mama said to Gus, but he understood quickly that only one of us would be going to school.   We lived about two blocks from Robert E. Lee grade school and the sharp clear ringing of the bell notified Gus of the routine.  He stationed himself on the corner and patiently waited until he could see me coming before he bounded up eager to hear my latest news.  Everyday for the four years that I was in school and he was alive he never deterred from posting himself once the lunch and dismissal bells were rung.

Gus was never one to let a fence create a barrier during an argument.  From time to time when I quarreled with some playmate next door, our little bodies would be separated by the fence.  If the snappings and spiteful slurs got too rough, Gus would leave my side to carry on the argument from the vantage point of the enemy’s yard.  He helped me win lots of arguments just with his presence alone. No one wanted to cross me once he moved into their territory.  He never bit them but he argued convincingly in low growls with bared teeth.

When I was really small, Durant had no supermarkets where one could buy everything.  We bought meat from a tiny shop near the Market Square and canned goods and staples in a small, dark, narrow store on Second Street.  The owners were a man and his wife who had lived in Durant all their lives and were running the store his dad had started.  Most fresh vegetables were available according to the season and the local farmers often had tomatos, watermelons, radishes, cucumbers, onions displayed on the backs of horse-drawn wagons.  They didn’t go so much from house to house as they went from block to block.  A few neighborhood dogs and children heralded their approach so that by the time the slow plodding of a big footed work horse and wagon neared, a small line of housewives would have gathered near the road.

To this day I can still smell the soft dusty musk of the egg man’s shed that later became the garage to the house daddy bought his mother.  Just as quickly as Gus learned about school; Tony, the egg man, learned about Gus.  Mama walked in first; Gus and I trailed closely behind.  Tony, in an impulsive burst of teasing, sprang at me from behind a stack of crates and growled, “I’m gonna git ya.”   Gus instinctively lunged at Tony, knocking him and a stack of crates to the ground.  Gus grabbed his sleeve, trying his best to tear a path to his throat.  Mama yelled, “Stop, Gus, stop.  It’s all right!  Stop it!”

Gus stopped.  Just as quickly as he had executed his attack, he retreated.  Tony dragged himself up and searched for damages.  Even though he had a few small bloody spots, nothing required stitches.  Mama warned, “Don’t you ever do that again.”

“Don’t you worry.”  For years Tony from that time forward regarded me with a vague and distant attitude and never let his eyes rest on either Gus’ or in my direction.  Gus never let a sign of remorse or embarrassment color any of our other visits to the egg man.

Someone has said that all things pass with time and so maybe they do century to century.  Gus died from poisoned hamburger meat.  Since veterinary medicine was very primitive in those days, he died a slow agonizing death.  Nothing the vet tried could save him.  We never knew who caused him such a cruel death.  I thought the extreme pain of losing him would never pass.

I had never considered that one day my life would go on and his wouldn’t.  Now I only wish we could have made the end a quick and less painful one.  So the shattering hurt has passed but the loss, no, it hasn’t passed.  I’ve had several faithful dogs since Gus, but as with all loved ones, no one else ever takes that place.

Still I count myself lucky that he was such a strong part of my early life.  He taught me a lesson that became an intrinsic element of my character that I see now in your character, Taylor: a respect for life.  Even a tiny horned toad scurrying across a vacant lot has as much right to his space on this earth as the most influential man.  If the creatures of the earth can feel pain and loss, then they can feel love and concern.

So dear Taylor, the sight of a child and a dog walking down a dusty road grips my heart.  I can still feel his coarse thick neck hair crushed in my palm and around my fingers and I can still feel the protective but light pressure of his weight between me and the rest of the world.  Even the sound of soap opera dialogue flashes me back to the radio versions always accompanied by the whining surges of organ music.  He and I listened to those same sounds as they drifted from Mrs. Dyer’s open windows as we sat on the bare tree roots near the road’s edge.  I think of him still and always will.

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