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September 02


Christine Wieser
'I wonıt let anything happen to you'.

Kingıs powerful body lay broken on the cold metal table. Liquid dripped from cloudy bags, twisted through yellowed tubes, disappeared into a needle that pierced his skin. I reached out to touch his fur, surprised by its prickled coarseness, a matted rug left in the rain. His body expanded, contracted with each labored breath. I held my other hand to my chest. Expand. Contract. Keep breathing, I told myself. Behind me, a door creaked open. "Mr. Jameson."
"Get out," I told the doctor, not moving my hands.
"Please, sir."
I turned toward her. Shoulder-length greasy brown hair, plain features that cried for makeup, some crunchy hippie looking to save the world one furry creature at a time. Expand. Contract. "Look, honey," I seethed through bared teeth. "Iım going to stay with him until heıs better. Thatıs why Iım here. Your job is to make him better. Get it?"
"Mr. Jameson," she said. I recoiled from her patronizing tone. "I know youıre upset. King is a part of your family. But heıs lived a long life, and now heıs in pain. His tumor has spread into his liver, his lungs and his esophagus. He is having trouble breathing. I am very sorry. There just isnıt much we can do for him."
"But you can do something."
She hesitated. "We could operate again to remove the large tumors, but it is expensive and, to be honest, I donıt think King is strong enough to survive it. I also donıt know how much longer heıll live even if does survive the surgery."
"Do it." I stared at her, unblinking. She tried to match me, then finally looked away.
"I donıt recommend this," she said calmly. She turned and closed the door behind her, sealing me in this tomb, smothering the muffled sounds of inferior dogs. I turned back toward King. His deep brown eyes stared sleepily, empty. His once strong mouth was split slightly, dried saliva crusted the corners, his tongue moldy gray. I ran my hand over his face, then pressed my mouth to his ear. "Donıt worry. No one can take you away from me." I closed my eyes and inhaled him. Beneath the shock of metallic hospital was King, the beautiful German Shepherd that had shared my life for fifteen years. He still had the quiet smell of outdoors, of running, swimming, chasing. The scent of youth. "Donıt worry," I repeated in his ear. "I wonıt let anything happen to you."

When I thought back to my first days with King, my heart constricted with guilt. My parents got him for me when I was twelve, and I resented it. I told them I didnıt need this boyhood cliché. They were all I needed. They gave me everything I wanted because I was a special child, a gift to them late in life. They had already raised two older brothers when I came into their lives. Not by accident, they insisted, but to fill the hole in their lives. They bought me the best they could afford: schools, clothes, toys. Their complete attention made me stronger. I didnıt want something interrupting this world. They said Iıd grow to love him. Never, I insisted. King was six weeks old, a black and brown furball that bounced around the house, demanding attention. I let his water bowl dry up; I didnıt refill his food; I took him off his leash as soon as I was away from the house. Go find some other stupid kid, I told him. But he never ran; he just stood there, looking up at me, wagging his tail. I walked away; he followed me. I ran away; he chased me. I hid; he found me. No matter what I did to turn him away, he rewarded me with unconditional loyalty. He passed the test. These were the only relationships I could tolerate in my life. We began to swallow the world together. High School. Graduation. College. Graduation. Career. Wife. King never left my side. He was the calming force in an unfair world. When they spray painted "Faggot" on my high school locker, King soothed me. When I didnıt make track, King comforted me. When Amy was in a car accident, King slept by my side. When my business hung by a thread despite a mountain of bills, when I thought I couldnıt keep it up and I just wanted it all to be over, King quieted my fears. His innocence brought a peaceful diversion to the real world. I felt a hand touch my shoulder.

"Mr. Jameson." A manıs voice behind me, deep, commanding. I shook off my dreams. Where was I? King lay before me, eyes closed, expanding, contracting. "Mr. Jameson."
I turned to see the hippie doctor with a large man, also in white. "What?" I demanded.
"Iım afraid visiting hours are over," the man said. "You can come back first thing in the morning."
"I canıt leave."
"Sir, you have to. Itıs hospital policy. Let King rest. Heıs going to have a long day tomorrow."
I looked at King, silent. Expand, contract.
"I want his collar." The man wrinkled his face, looked at the woman. She answered. "Yes, of course. We have it up front. Just follow me." I stood up; my knees buckled, slightly. I followed her out of the tomb, down a long, dark corridor, through the mouth of a door that opened to a deserted waiting room littered with cat clocks and angelic puppy paintings. She went behind the front desk and pulled out a plastic bag. Kingıs life. She retrieved his red, worn collar, and handed it to me, metal tag dangling. Holding it in my hands, it felt wrong. This piece of King shouldnıt suffocate in a plastic grave. I looked at the doctor staring at me, hesitant. Unbuckling the strap, I slipped it around my neck, fumbled the tongue into the buckle, and pulled it tight. Expand, contract. The doctor looked at me, mouth agape.
"What time will they operate?"
"I believe heıs scheduled for 7am."
"Iıll be here." As I walked toward the door, the tickle of the bouncing metal tag soothed me. I lived near the hospital, a five-minute drive into the lush green suburb my parents could never afford. I worked my ass off for this life, starting a furniture import business after college, clawing my way past unscrupulous competition. Now everything was in place. Amy was pregnant with our first child. My parents lived in our renovated garage. I drove a Mercedes. I had successfully maintained my childhood world when my parents no longer could. I could not let anything break this circle. As I pulled into the driveway, a blue glow disappeared from the livingroom window. Stupid. Watching television again. Television is for news. Period. I turned the car off, engaged the alarm because you donıt know what kind of lunatics are around even in this neighborhood, headed in. Amy stood in the kitchen, my drink in hand. Even five months pregnant, she was still as beautiful as the day we first met in college, a slight blond with a pixie haircut. Her delicate frame seemed like it might snap at any moment. "How is he?" she asked softly. I took the martini from her hand.
"What were you watching?"
Her face went red. "I, uh, I justŠ"
"You canıt even speak. Your mind is mush from that thing."
"It was just an old movie. I read to the baby all day and I exercised and I made your parents dinner and I, I was just so tired." Her eyes began to water. "Iım sorry. I was just tired."
"Then go to bed. No television."
"Okay." She wiped a tear with her hand.
"Iım sorry." I pulled out the other chair and sat down. The refrigerator hummed as I sipped my drink. When I looked up, Amy was staring at my collar. "What?" I snapped. She quickly looked back down, cupping her hand over her round belly. "So, how is he?" Slowly, her eyes moved back to meet mine. They were still moist, a speckled pool of blue shadowed in mascara. So innocent. I had done my best to protect Amy from the ugliness of everyday life.
"Heıs fine." I reached out to touch her warm stomach. I had to protect my family.
"Are you hungry?" she asked, "I have some meatloaf left over."
"That would be nice. Thank you."

She pushed herself up and slowly started preparing the meatloaf. I thought back to my first date with Amy. She was mousy, cute, unconcerned about popularity. I knew that night when I brought her home to meet my parents that I would marry her. I told my mother to make her best dinner: veal chops, mashed potatoes, green beans dotted with slivered almonds. She loved to cook for me. She went to the market that day to pick out the freshest meat and vegetables; my father came home early to start a fire in the livingroom; the house buzzed with the expectation of a new face. "So whatıs this girl like?" my mother asked, her thick fingers seasoning the chops. Her voice was painted lightly with jealously. "Sheıs sweet; youıll like her."
"Hmm." She continued to salt and pepper and massage the raw meat. "How about her family?" "Her parents live in New Jersey. Her fatherıs a dentist."
I walked behind her and wrapped my arms around her middle, plopping my chin on her shoulder. "Youıll like her. Donıt worry."
I felt her cheek smile against mine before she wrestled out of my arms. "Go get ready. Youıre not even dressed." We often played this game: she pretended to discipline me, I pretended to obey.

I picked up Amy at her dorm. She looked tasteful in a peach sweater and black skirt. For the ride to my house, we stared ahead silently. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in front of my parentsı small house. As soon as we walked through the door, King greeted me with his usual enthusiasm: jumping up, licking my face. I muffled his hair and teased him; he growled and barked playfully. I felt Amy back away, tight. A low growl rumbled deep in Kingıs throat; I rested my hand on his shoulder. "Easy." I said softly. He leaned against me and wagged his tail. "Good boy." I turned to Amy. "Donıt you like dogs?"
"Iım sorry," she said to her feet. "I got bitten when I was a kid. I guess Iım just a little skittish." "Well, you have nothing to fear from King. Heıs a pussycat." But the tone had been set: Amy versus King. After we were married, the two quietly fought for my attention. King usually won. He was just easier than anyone else in my life. After dinner that night, Amy followed me to the car. I opened the door for her, then walked around to my side and climbed in. I turned the motor on, popped in my favorite Al Green tape, and turned toward her. "I can take care of you."
"I know." I put my hand on her face, leaned in and kissed her, hoping she wouldnıt notice my lack of experience. She didnıt quite kiss back. I could hear her breath in my ear, inhale, exhale. Passion? Anxiety? I wasnıt ever sure. The drive home was silent, except for Reverend Al soulfully telling us everything would be all right.

The next morning I woke up at 6:00 and drove to the hospital. I ignored the many questions left on my service from the office, bought a large cup of coffee, and walked into the waiting room. The usual perky girl was behind the desk.
"Mr. Jameson, good morning," she chirped, her smile faltering briefly as she caught my collar, then regained itself.
"How is he?"
"Theyıre prepping him for the operation. Iıll let Dr. Brown know youıre here."
"Thanks." I sat on one of the hard chairs, then touched the metal tag. "Youıll be all right," I whispered. After a few minutes, the hippie doctor emerged. She smiled, then sat in the chair next to me, a school teacher with a child. "Good morning, Mr. Jameson."
"How is he?" "He seems a little better this morning, but heıs still pretty weak."
She looked over at the receptionist, who pretended not to listen. The doctor lowered her voice. "Iım still very concerned about this operation. I just donıt think King is strong enough. I wanted to give you one last chance to reconsider."
"Will he survive without it?"
"Probably not."
"Then isnıt it obvious that we need to try it?" She looked up at me, cold. "Thatıs your choice." "Then do it" She quickly sucked air in and out of her nose. "Okay." She got up. "It will probably take about two hours. You can come back later if youıd like."
"Iıll stay."
"Fine. Weıll keep you informed."
"Thank you." As she began to walk away, I called to her. "Doctor?" She turned back toward me. "I do appreciate your concerns, but have faith in King. Heıs stronger than you know."
"I hope so, Mr. Jameson." Then she disappeared into the dark corridor.

I leaned my head back against the cold wall and closed my eyes. Memories flooded through me: King running along the beach during our daytrips to the shore, chasing a frisbee with the grace of a dancer, sand flung behind strong paws. The brown eyes that melted my heart. The guilt of turning away from those eyes in the early days. I drifted off to this world until I could smell the crisp ocean air, feel the foamy waves wash over my feet. "Mr. Jameson."
I snapped my head up from the wall. Puppy paintings; cat clocks; strangers with hairy creatures tied to their hands. The hippie doctor appeared, her face tight. "Mr. Jameson, Iım sorry. King didnıt make it." My head started spinning.
"King didnıt make it. Iım very sorry." I pushed past the doctor and ran down the corridor. People in white popped out of holes in the wall, but I ran past them. This couldnıt be happening. And then I saw him. Hunched over King was the large man who threw me out the night before. His chin rolled under his fat lips as he reached out to touch King. "Get out!" He jerked his hand away from King and looked up, his pasty face slack with stupidity. "Get out!" I dove to the floor and grabbed his calf with my teeth, the salty taste of blood melted in my mouth. "Jesus, what are you doing?" the man screamed, trying to pull his leg from me, but I held on. "Get off me you fucking psycho!" he shouted.

Finally, he tore free and ran out the door. I lunged toward it and locked it just as it met with pounding fists, shouting voices, barking dogs, yesterday. King lay on the table, sleeping quietly, a white sheet gently covering his lower body. Still beautiful. I pressed my lips to his ear. "I wonıt let you go. Donıt worry." Pounding. Pounding. The world pressed against me. I touched the metal tag that held King to this world, then looked toward a window that opened out onto a parking lot. I had to get out. Struggling to open the window, I pull myself up and twist my body through it. Smack. Feet against the macadam pavement and I am off running, the wind through my hair, the dense smell of autumn leaves filling my nose. The incredible noise of birds echo in my ears, pitches Iıve never before heard. Running. Past boring people sleepwalking through mundane lives. Past businesses that mutilate each other for a buck. Past sons and daughters and wives and lovers blinded by the real world. Running until my house looms before me, stopping, breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Life. Through the door, through the kitchen and into the warmth of the livingroom where a small flannel bed waits for me in the corner, safe. Exhausted, I crawl inside and fall asleep.

© Christine Weiser October 2002
Christine is a Philidelphia Writer
email: Kingıs

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