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Heart Work

Jim Sutter sipped the memory of the last client he saw that day off the top of his Scotch and water. Euthanasia was never an easy deed for Jim to perform especially when two old friends had to part ways.

Willie Hopkins was one of Jim’s oldest clients. He was an over the trucker who stood over six foot and built like a profession wrestler. Jim remembered the day Willie blasted through the veterinary door and announced loudly that he had found a box of newborn puppies by the roadside.

“What God damn asshole would leave a box of puppies by the roadside?” He bellowed like he was entering a boxing ring. “I’ll tell you doc, if I ever find the son of a bitch that did this I’d nail his balls to floor and push him over backwards. You gotta see these little guys NOW!” He shoved the box into Jim’s chest.

Two puppies had already succumbed to hypothermia, one was gasping its last and one little female was crawling around in distress. Jim had told the burly trucker that the remaining puppies would surly die. Willie looked into the box and assessed the situation. His face looked so ferocious that Jim held his breath.

“Well, this one ain’t gonna die.” Willie swallowed female puppy in his huge hand and stuffed her into his shirt next to his skin. “I’ll warm her up and feed her. You have any suggestions how in hell I can do that?” He glared at Jim for an answer and Jim, for next fifteen minutes, detailed a plan for survival.

“Thank you,” Willie growled, as he took a hundred dollars from his chained wallet and smacked it on the steel table “Her name is Belle. I’ll see you later.” He punched a finger into Jim chest which left Jim wondering if that was a threat or a sign of friendship.

Now eighteen years later, Willie, who quickly became one of Jim’s closest friends, and little Belle, who had witnessed ten thousand miles from the dashboard of Willie’s tractor trailer had said their final goodbye at Jim’s hand. Belle, who had been impossibly revived by Willie’s love and commitment, had witnessed various bar brawls, two marriages and god know what on the open road had circled three times and lay down in the softness Willie’s heart to sleep forever.

Jim drained the scotch from his glass. Willie and Belle were the best of his clients, honest, respectful and true.

“Hey doc.” Jim was pulled back to present moment by a friendly smack on the back from Roy Evans who slid onto the bar stool next to him.

“So how goes it, my illustrious Veterinarian friend?” Roy asked as he signaled the bartender for a drink and one more for Jim.

“Jim laughed his sadness aside replied, “More animals, less people.”

“I hear you,” Roy said taking a big gulp of his beer. If I had to choose between my Boxer, Rex, and my wife, Maggie, well, let’s just say, I’d miss her lots.” Both men laughed.” Yep, it would be a happy lonesome, for sure.” Roy chuckled and crossed his arms looking at Jim.

“I heard you‘re fixing to retire soon. Is that true?”

“Kinda true,” Jim said sheepishly, “I haven’t really decided yet. I should wait a few more years but I’m tired as all hell. There was a time I took pride in helping pets survive their owner’s plunders and ill-advised intentions. Now, people’s stupidity is getting to me, and I find I’m drinking more these days. Can that be a good thing?”

Roy chuckled, “That depends but probably not.” Roy swiveled on his stool and faced Jim “Times are changing, Jimbo. Medicine has become a catch -22. Not sure about the veterinary scene but many people believe that doctors are leading them down the rosy path with medications that have side effects far worse than what’s ailing them. The AMA and Big Pharma rule the world. Sickness is big business which leads to big lawsuits and everyone is crazy with greed. One can’t make money on the healthy.”

Jim nodded. What Roy was saying was true. How simple life had been when he first started his practice. He thought of Willie and Belle’s devoted years together. Outside of rabies vaccinations and health checks between states, Belle had very little vet care. She was never sick a day in her life, unlike his clients now with their diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, Lyme disease and reactions to medications that he always down played. It was true that veterinary medicine had seen the same financial transition as the medical field and every professional was afraid of being sued. The operation expenses were extreme. People were nervous and combative and the vets defensive and overconfident. But this was his work and his work, worked him.

Roy studied Jim for a minute then wrote a name and address on a bar napkin. “I’ve known you for years Jim. You need a change of heart, my friend.” He smiled and pushed the name towards Jim. “That’s my sister, Cassandra. She’s amazing. She’s brilliant. She runs an animal center that just might tweak your interest. Maybe you could help each other.” Roy paid the tab, stood up and stretched. “Be well my friend.”

“See ya, Roy, and thanks.” Jim looked at the name on the napkin and snorted. A woman in the bloom of hope wanting to save animals in some kind of zealous animal rights rescue situation was the last thing he needed. He thought of just leaving the name on the bar but stashed it in his shirt pocket instead.

His wife was less than enthused to see Jim when he arrived home. He knew she was angry so he tried to sound upbeat. “Hi honey. I’m sorry I’m late. I missed dinner again. I should’ve called, I know.”

“Why start now? “ His wife muttered. She stood up and turned to face Jim, who could swear she grew a foot taller since he saw her that morning.” Jim, I’m leaving you. I’ve had it with all of this; the nights when you come home reeking of Scotch, I’m sick and tired of your clothes smelling of dog and cat. I’m tired of the years of never going anywhere, of your long wasted hours of seeing you hover over some animal you brought home with you from work only to have it die anyway. You’ve lost your self somewhere over the years and you lost me as well.” She paused and drew herself up even taller. “I’ve met someone, Jim. Maybe we should have seen this coming and tried to address it sooner but it’s too late for me to want to try. I don’t want to be here anymore. It’s just that simple. I want to be happy and I have someone who wants that for me too.”

Jim leaned against the stair railing and closed his eyes to process what his wife had just told him. He was suddenly very tired, possibly from the Scotch, Willie’s loss, the effort of defending himself once again against his wife’s lonely despair, but mostly he was exhausted with his life.

“I’m going out to my office, Helen. You do what you need to do. I don’t have any fight left in me.”

When Jim approached the little building in the back of his house, anticipated excitement bustled inside. He smiled at the welcoming committee of four dogs, three cats, a baby raccoon and a stoic Red Tailed hawk. He began to draw medications for his personal patients while he pondered Helens announcement. He drew Insulin into two syringes for the dogs he had rescued from a client who could not afford the ongoing treatments. He fed the two stray cats. He gave joint and pain meds to an old Golden Retriever that had been tied to the hospitals doorknob last year; abandoned for whatever reason. He pushed meds into an IV connected to a cat who barely noticed his presence. She had been hit by a car and brought to him by some passer-by. Jim lingered, stroking her head and wondered how much longer she had to live. He examined the hawk’s bandaged wing. It was healing properly and he took some pride in that fact. Jim picked up the baby raccoon and a warmed bottle of formula and sat out on the little porch to watch the dogs roam the fenced in yard. This is what made his life worth living and he found strangely relieved that Helen was leaving him. Perhaps if they had had children, their life would have had a shared purpose. Perhaps if he was a little more supportive of her interests, whatever they were. He noted grimly that he really had no clue as to what her interests were, outside of card parties and shopping with the other bored country club wives. They hadn’t slept together in years. It was true they didn’t socialize at all. His life was all about work, but it was work he couldn’t just put on hold for a cocktail party. He was needed, and yes, loved even, by the animals in his life.

The baby raccoon gripped the bottle with both of his little black hands and closed his eyes in the bliss of swallowed warm milk. When he was done, Jim closed the office door and took the Golden, and his own dogs Molly, a black Labrador retriever and Duke, a little pug upstairs to his bedroom for the night. The napkin that Roy gave him fluttered down and nested on the carpet by his bed like a small white dove. He studied the name Cassandra Evans. He’d look her up. What could it hurt?

For the next three weeks, life played out with one foot in front of the other. His wife made short order in her departure and had left the week before. All that was left was the doing. They had shared little to no conversation outside of what was hers and what she would leave for him. He had promised a non-contested divorce and she counted that she wouldn’t take him to cleaners. She just wanted her due, which he surmised would be just about everything he owned and saved for throughout his life.

Oddly enough, he stopped going to the Rusty Nail after work hours for his two Scotches. Instead Jim enjoyed coming home to his peacefully quiet house and caring for his animals. Sometimes Willie, who had changed from long distance trucking to a home every night line, would stop by with a six pack and clink cans with him over a Pizza. Roy would call too on occasion and always ended the conversations with “Have you called my sister yet?”

Cassandra Evans was a woman in her forties straight out of the Woodstock era. The first time Jim saw her he had to stammer an apology for staring. He was mesmerized by the storm of red hair that filled the frame around her head and shoulders. Her face was round with cheeks that looked like pink summer roses and eyes of bright emerald fire. Her smile was wide and contagious and Jim felt himself helplessly enveloped by her. He found her outside a small house adjusting a sign that read, “Do no harm” on her picket fence that embraced a small yard. The porch was completely glass paned with rows of shelves each one supporting various pots and containers of every herb imaginable. She tightly shook his hand him after he introduced himself “Oh how wonderful to finally meet you! Roy told me all about you. I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity”

“Well hardly…” Jim felt himself blushing in spite of the fact he was trying to play the sophisticated veterinary.

“Come in! See what I hold hands with in life. I’m excited to see you. I need a good sparing companion.” Cassandra twinkled at him as she led him inside through the porch.

“This is my heart work, my life,” she told him circling around her shop with her arms open wide. I deal in all the things that challenge all that you believe in.”

“I see” Jim said raising his eyebrows. “So, you are into alternative healing? I’m not opposed to some alternating healing. I’m sure it has its place as a helpmate to conventional practice.”

“Well, I’m into Natural healing and I feel it’s far superior to today’s conventional veterinary medicine.”

The room behind the porch was and bright with sunlight. Its walls were lined an assortment of bottles large and small and canisters of dried things. In an old glass front counter were animal products for sale. Tightly woven dog coats called Thunder Shirts, easy, no-pull walking leads in all sizes, dog dishes with large bumps on the bottom and rows of little bottles called Bach Flower remedies. She caught Jim looking at them and said “Thunder shirts hug the body of the dog in a tight snug embrace to help him cope with fearful situations. I have found that it helps also in post-operative healing, but that’s just been my experience. The dishes are for dogs that bolt their food and choke. These dishes force them to eat slower because they have to work at finding the kibble. And of course I hold Professor Bach in the highest esteem for the healing work he has done with power of flower essences.”

“I’ve heard of flower essences”. Jim said “I suppose they won’t hurt but as to actually healing. It’s right up there with stones, crystals, and magic potions and such.” Jim laughed but Cassandra was dead serious and her eyes flashed in a way that made Jim wished he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I have made my bed with conventional veterinary medicine all my life. I’m afraid I’m a bit more than the casual skeptic.”

Cassandra leaned on the counter with her hand on her hip “Dr. Edward Bach dedicated his whole life to researching the healing properties of flowers and herbs in the spiritual and emotional aspects of the whole human and animal experience. His work is very popular. It would do you well to read up on such thing Dr. Jim. Would you not agree that animals have physical, spiritual and emotional bodies that should be treated as a whole by a practitioner that holds them all in unison for their highest good?”

Jim hesitated in surprised conflict. “Well yes, of course I do. I’m simply saying that medicine has made great strides in healing diseases through years of research and those principals should stay the course.”

Cassandra pressed on “Great healing is simple healing that has been proven again and again since the beginning of time. For instance, Dandelion, Milk Thistle and Burdock are essential for treating liver disease.”

Jim nodded, “I have no objection to Milk Thistle. I do know that is beneficial in liver support…Dandelion and Burdock? Not so much.”

Cassandra flashed a quick grin “Burdock is a powerful blood purifier as is Dandelion so used in conjunction with Milk Thistle creates a true healing of the liver that is gentle and effective.”

“That may be, Cassandra, but people want faster results and we can give that to them through modern science.”

“Then I say you have a choice. Either give people faster results with medications that are frightfully expensive, have harmful side effects, and are impossible to get unless through you or focus totally on the animals in question and gently and completely heal them with natural medicines made from herbs, glandular supplements, homeopathic salts and good nutrition. I teach people to treat their pets with things easily available to them and systems that work.”

“And here I thought you ran some sort of an animal rights rescue mission.” He said dryly.

Cassandra smiled, “I do. Just not the type you think of. I rescue people and pets from vets.”

It wasn’t long before Jim could see that Cassandra had of attitude belligerent self-righteousness that annoyed the hell out of him. There was also a sense of sparing, as she called it, that he secretly enjoyed. Sometime he would win out the discussion, but mostly she would be the one defiantly placing him in check mate. For some reason, he returned again and again to her little house and traitorous business of animal health care. He sat in on a few of her classes and learned more than he would admit to anyone, especially to her. He met Reiki Masters and other energy balancing practitioners. He took notes on making tinctures, homemade salves and powders. He was starting to really enjoy this new education.

Of course, on the subject of Cassandra, he was null and void. She had a way of getting under his skin with her constant taunts and arguments. She accused him of coddling his clients, and not offering them alternative treatments. She had a condescending attitude that hurt his feelings and that made him mad. It further annoyed him that she smelled like lilacs after a rain and looked like Mother Nature herself with her low cut peasant blouses and long flowing prairie skirts. Cassandra Evans drove him crazy. Her ideas were far reaching but her education in natural healing was more than impressive. She was, as Roy said, brilliant. Jim would be the first to admit that it was she that gave him something different to think about. Willie even noticed he was happier, more talkative and interested in something other than himself.

“I want to meet this little witch,” Willie said over the backyard grill as he flipped burgers. “Is she married?”

“Hell no, she’s not married! Who would have the breath to argue with her for the rest of their natural lifetime? She’s annoying.” Jim said, then raising his beer to Roy who sat in smiling silence in the lawn chair “Sorry Roy, I know she’s your sister and all but she is one aggravating individual. She fights with everything I say. She hates me.”

“She doesn’t hate you Jim. She just wants to reach some common ground between your worlds. Perhaps if you’d bend a little on your moral oath to uphold pharmaceuticals and pay more attention to the animals instead of their owners, you might see the light.”

“Yeah, well screw you and the horse you came in on, Roy,” Jim said good-naturedly

“Well, I can understand how you feel about me, but what’s my horse have to do with it? Anyway,” Roy continued, “I’m inviting you guys over to the house next week for dinner and Cassie’s going to be there. Try and play nice together if you can.”

Jim laughed. “I’ll be there with a peace sign on my forehead.”

Roy grinned and looked at Willie.” You know Willie. I think Cassandra would be the kind of gal you’d like. God forbid I’d want the likes of you an in law but we’re all not getting any younger. She’s a spunky hippie like chick. You’d make a good couple.” He winked at Jim “Don’t you agree, Jim?”

Jim rolled his eyes. “That would be a match made in hell, but anything to get her off my back would be welcome.”

The next morning, Jim arrived to a waiting room full of returning clients. The day was beyond stressful. His receptionist was late. There was a mix-up of meds on a client’s chart and one of his techs had to leave early. There was an unruly Rottweiler that needed to be euthanized because he had bitten a delivery man and that had made Jim angry because the owner never bothered to train this magnificent animal correctly. Around noon, Jim had tried unsuccessful to talk a man into neutering his two pit bull puppies, a male and female, because he wanted the kids to witness the miracle of birth. He removed a fish hook from the mouth of a Springer Spaniel, He had a dozen follow up examines most without significant improvement because of owners lack of interest in sticking to routine procedures. When Mrs. Norris waddled into his examination room with her beagle Missy who was grossly overweight, he already had enough.

“Mrs. Norris,” Jim started patiently. “You have to feed Missy the prescribed food I gave to you and get this weight off of her. She needs exercise. She is diabetic with heart problems. She cannot endure much longer.”

“Well, doctor, she just won’t eat it,” Mrs. Norris giggled. “I’ve tried but she just turns away. I have to finally hand feed her some treats because she will go days without eating! I’m a diabetic myself so I know one has to eat with insulin. She doesn’t like to go outside anymore so I hate to push her. My husband says she’s always been a husky little dog and he’s concerned that she’ll get too thin. He says she’s his big girl and he loves her just the same. He feeds her the old kibble sometimes behind my back. We both want to ask if there is something you can do to stop her continual panting…”

Jim gripped the exam table and shouted slow and pronounced sentences into Mrs. Norris surprised face.

“Mrs. Norris. Your dog is going to die. Do you hear me? Do you comprehend what I am saying? She can hardly walk. She can’t breathe. She is enormous. She is going to die from either shock or seizure or heart failure because you and your husband don’t give a fat rat’s ass. The only exercise she gets is lifting her head up to take another treat from your hand. You’re a diabetic yourself! What in God’s name, don’t you understand?”

Jim pulse pounded in his ears. He was aware of how his face burned and of how Betsy, his receptionist had opened the door and she and the staff had gathered there.

Mrs. Norris left in copious tears dragging poor Missy as fast as she could move out of the waiting room door.

“Dr. Sutter, are you alright?” Betsy looked worried and Jim’s two vet techs looked over her shoulder at him with open mouths.

“No Betsy, I’m not ok.” Jim pushed past his staff into the waiting room. He looked at three remaining clients sitting in shocked silence and addressed each one

“Tony, do you know why your dog has this raging dermatitis that you come to me with every month? It’s because he has an allergy to wheat. We tested. I told you how to cure this. Read your labels. Why in hell are you here again?

“Mr. Dodge. Your dog has re-occurring Lyme disease and flea dermatitis because you are too damn cheap to buy reliable flea and tick protection. Your house is infested. You have a huge problem. Handle it!”

Jim then turned to a young woman who held a wiggling Jack Russell Terrier and said harshly. “Lucy, for the last freakin’time, clip your dog’s nails back monthly and you won’t have a God damned blood bath every time she catches a dew claw jumping off the sofa. I don’t give a flying fig if she likes it or not. There’s a thing called a muzzle. Buy one. I didn’t spend years becoming a vet so I can cut your dog’s nails or bandage her paws when you neglect to do it.” Jim’s voice was fever pitched. He could feel the sweat trickling down the back of his neck into the collar of his lab coat. The silence was deafening. Then he took a deep breath and showed them the palms of his hands saying softly, “I’m sorry, but I’m done here.”

He turned and disappeared into his office leaving his staff to clean up the brittle pieces of himself that he left in the waiting room. After he informed the staff that he was taking a few weeks off, and that his colleague, Dr. Adams would take over, he headed to his car. To his surprise, Cassandra was there leaning against it with her arms folded beneath the V neck of her sweater. He couldn’t help but notice her ample cleavage.

“Well that was quite a speech doc.” She had obviously heard everything and Jims face flushed with annoyed embarrassment. He didn’t have time, or the intention of dealing with Cassandra now. She flashed him a wide smile and produced a small bottle from her pocket.

“Rescue Remedy It’s a Bach flower remedy. It will settle you down. It’s extremely useful in Energetic Trauma. Jim grabbed the bottle, popped the top off and downed the entire vial.

“There” he croaked. “Now my piss will smell like primroses.” He pushed her aside and put the box in the back seat. “Cassandra, you’re a sweet girl but please, go away” He never looked at her. He didn’t care one iota about Cassandra and her little new age potions. He did hear her call after him.

“Well then, promise me you’ll take that Kava Kava I gave you to relax. And take that stick out of your ass and your sleep better.”

The next day, Jim was almost giddy with freedom, He felt purged, lighter, happy even. He didn’t feel one ping of regret. He hoped Helen would call and demand every damn thing he owned so he could board the next plane and disappear with his dogs to a remote beach somewhere in Costa Rico. He’d take Willie with him for company and open a little free animal clinic there far away from his practice, his soon to be ex-wife and especially Cassandra Evens and her brassy interference in his life.

Roy’s house was a lovely rancher that stretched out on the edge of the ninth hole of the country club. It was a beautiful summer evening so cocktails on the veranda was a perfect idea. Roy’s Big Boxer, Rex loped all around the lush yard in excitement. He jumped up on Jim and left a big smear of slobber across his pant legs.

Roy’s wife called angrily to Roy who was busy making drinks.” Roy! Put Rex in the garage. He’s a pain in the ass!”

Roy took Rex’s collar to drag him off and caught Jims eye and snickered, “See what I mean about a happy lonesome? I love her but…” Roy chucked.

Jim laughed. “I get that.”

Willie arrived all spruced up and everyone commented how well he cleaned up. Three other couples arrived and Jim wondered where Cassie was, not that he missed her. He hadn’t seen her since that day at his office and he felt badly that he may have hurt her feelings. He made a point to apologize to her that tonight. He wondered if he was being too pompous and self-absorbed. Maybe he did have a “stick up his butt” rendering him inflexible to see the other side of things.

Cassandra arrived and she brought a rainbow of color with her. Her beauty was startling and she painted the circle of friends with the peach sunshine of her smile.

“My God, You didn’t tell me she was gorgeous. I’m gonna get me a piece of that,” Willie said to Jim.

“Willie, you’re such a romantic, and so good with words” Jim said sarcastically, but something about the joke fell flat, It bothered him that Willie was interested in Cassie. She was amazingly beautiful and was the most intelligent woman Jim had ever met. The thought of her with Willie turned his stomach into jelly.

All night long Willie played the wolf with Cassie who good naturedly put up with his advances. Jim managed a few small conversations with her that were always interrupted by the rough trucker. Jim apologized for his behavior earlier that week. He thanked her for the stack of holistic magazines that she left on his porch. Later he sidled up to her and told her about releasing the hawk, and how awesome it was watching him soar into the clear sky. “I think that strengthening herbal mixture you whipped up for him really worked,” Jim said with an acknowledging smile.

“Thank you, Jim.” Cassie answered with surprise to his compliment.” But really his freedom was mostly due to that magnificent surgery you performed on his wing. It was a work of art. You’re a very talented surgeon. You see? Our two roads could merge into one someday.” Her smile took Jim’s breath away.

Willie brought her another drink and slipped his arm around her. “I think we need to go out Saturday, Cassie. I know a great place. What do you say, sweet baby?”

Oh hell, no way. Jim thought to himself and sliced in-between Cassie and Willie. He was so close to Cassie he felt an urge to put his arms around her and kiss her hard on the mouth, but instead the words escaped from him in a thoughtless rush. “Sorry Willie, but Cassie and I have a date to hear a lecture about the effects of vaccines on the immune system and newly discovered information on titer testing.” Jim smiled at Cassie who in turn gaped at him with a happy shocked expression. She slipped her arm around Jim’s waist and said softly “Thanks anyway Willie, but it does seem that I’ll be pretty busy from now on.”

Jim walked Cassie to her car. They both laughed heartily when Jim picked up a stick and threw it over his shoulder. Then he sauntered back to Roy’s house where his two friends waited on the front steps.

“What are you doing Jim, teaching her to fetch?” both friends roared with laughter.

“Just an inside joke, you jerks.” Jim said with a smirk.

“What in hell is up with you two anyway?” Jim questioned as they nodded to each other over a shared secret.”

“Welcome to your new life, good buddy. You can thank us later.”

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