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A Christmas Carole

Article

Dr. Eb Rouge sat at his desk sorting his mail and bills. His habit was to have an ongoing conversation with himself.

Dr. Eb Rouge sat at his desk sorting his mail and bills. His habit was to have an ongoing conversation with himself.

"Here is one from a bleeding children's home in Memphis pleading for charity."

With a satisfying measure of glee, he ripped the letter in half and threw it into the wastebasket.

"Don't they have uncles and aunts? Good grief — I have drug bills to pay and staff to support."

David M. Lane , DVM, MS

Carole Blessing peeked into the office. She could see Dr. Rouge sitting at his desk throwing away pieces of mail. His prematurely white hair was long and curly in the back but the surface of his pate was sparsely populated with fine hair. No one said so to his face, but his staff thought he looked a bit like the wacky scientist from the movie "Back to the Future."

She could see he was riveted on his current activity.

She knocked softly but could not get his attention. She crept in and tapped his shoulder gently.

At this, Dr. Rouge reflexively jumped and mail spilled in various directions.

Carole was quickly distraught to the point of tears but blurted out her concern:

"I am so sorry, Dr. Rouge. I don't mean to disturb you, but it is after closing time and I need to ask you a question."

Both Carole and Dr. Rouge put in a long day, and she stayed to clean the office. He was unaware she was still there.

"Dr. Rouge, it will be Christmas tomorrow, and I have stayed and taken care of all the boarders for the last two years. I would like to have tomorrow morning off so I can prepare a big Christmas dinner for Uncle Jerome and Aunt Betty from California. I haven't seen them in 10 years. I would still be able to work in the afternoon. My son Jimmy could walk the dogs in the morning."

Just then, the clinic was filled with a high yipping sound. Eb stood up and traipsed to the center of the kennel and frowned.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Rouge," Carole said. "I brought Tiny T. in a few minutes ago from my car because he was lonely. I'll take him out again."

"Don't bother. Haven't you spent enough time with that little mutt? Our practice has spent a small fortune in the last six months trying to fix the unfixable."

Carole knew all too well. Tiny T. was a stray little black puppy that had been hit by a car. A splint had been placed on the leg until an owner could be found. The leg healed, but soon it was discovered that the radial nerve must have been hopelessly destroyed. Carole adopted Tiny T.

The dog stopped barking at the sight of Carole. His tail beat the cage joyously.

Dr. Eb turned and looked at Carole.

"Now Miss Carole," he drawled slowly, "my partner, along with my currently estranged wife and I, built this practice from nothing 20 years ago. We scratched, bled and worked it like dogs, including the caring of boarders over Christmas and Thanksgiving. We missed holiday dinners trying to keep this place afloat. Now, I understand your concern, but you are the only one currently trained both in the kennel and as an assistant. Your son Jimmy is just not up to giving the animals their medications. And he might let one of them loose outside. Our two other staff are part-time, and they frankly have disappointed me. Things are slow this time of year, and I might have to lay them off anyway. Carole, as you know this profession of ours is a 24/7 affair. It is just the way it is.

Carole was stunned, yet stoic.

"Ok, Dr. Rouge. Is it OK if my son helps me in the morning? There's so much work when we have so many animals."

"Absolutely — but only as a volunteer."

Carole nodded and prepared to leave.

On his way home, Eb stopped at a discount store for a few items. In front were two gentlemen he knew from the short time he had spent in the Lions Club. They flagged him over and unwittingly seemed to block his path. Eb, to his regret, had no feasible route of retreat.

"Hey Eb — What a great day!" exclaimed Harold Johnson, pastor of the local Antioch Church on Bradley Avenue.

Next to Harold was Rob Stewart, a city council member and relative newcomer to the city. Rob smiled and shook Eb's hand.

Harold pulled a flier from his pocket and pointed to a picture of a concrete foundation and said, "That is our new distribution center for eyeglasses for the poor in this part of the state. We also are sending eyeglasses overseas. We have it about half paid for and need donations to complete it."

Eb looked over his glasses.

"Veterinarians unfortunately are among the poverty stricken — have you a new pair for me?"

As Eb pushed past them, Harold slowly shook his head.

He turned to Rob and spoke quietly.

"Rob, I know you are new to the area and didn't know his partner, Dr. June Marley. Junebug, as she was affectionately known, was a dynamic leader and served on numerous committees. She was very generous — quite unlike our sullen Dr. Rouge."

"Well, what happened to her?"

"She was a private pilot and a good one. She was killed when her plane's engine failed at night while she was returning from a veterinary meeting up north. It was a real shame."

The men watched as Eb drove away.

That night Dr. Rouge prepared for bed as usual. The Mrs. — one Juliet Rouge — had given up on Eb a few years ago, feeling that he was really married to the practice, not to her. As was her custom, she called from across town promptly at 9 p.m. with a report on their children. The call was cold and impersonal. That suited Eb just fine.

Eb crawled into bed just before 10 p.m., rolled over and fell asleep, but awoke later to the sound of an approaching thunderstorm.

"Funny," he thought, "there was no call for rain this evening." He looked over at the clock; it was midnight.

The storm intensified, and over the sound he could hear the drone of a small-airplane engine. As both sounds grew louder, Eb was confused and rushed to the window. Outside, the wind howled and the storm moved directly toward the house. The sound of the airplane was intense, as if it were inside Eb's head. But then it stopped suddenly — for no reason. He could see the plane. It was somehow familiar. He was horrified as the plane stalled and crashed directly in front of him on the front lawn.

Eb rushed to the lawn and could hear an eerie scraping of aluminum from inside. He was stunned as an image emerged from the plane — an image of his lost partner, Junebug Marley.

Eb began to cry and wail at the sight.

"Ebenezer, quiet yourself," the apparition intoned.

"But Junebug — is that you?"

"Yes, of course, and you must come with me."

"But where? And at this time of night?"

"Yes, Eb, come with me."

A scene appeared before them. Two young lovers sitting on a sofa at what appeared to be a beer party.

"Do you recognize this, Ebenezer?"

"Why, that is Juliet and me. We are at a house party while I was at Andover Veterinary School."

"Are you happy?"

Eb pulled on his glasses. "Well, yes, I am very happy. Juliet was so happy, too. It seems so long ago."

"You and Juliet had nothing, Eb. Absolutely nothing, except your love for each other. Now you have inherited money from your family and inherited a wonderful veterinary facility from me and you are terribly unhappy. You have concerned yourself with money and have become self-centered. It has made you bitter."

"Oh, Junebug, let us leave this place."

The two partners walked on and a mist encircled them. As they walked through it, a small trailer appeared at the edge of a small field. Eb could see a light inside and shadows moving.

"Junebug, where are we?"

"Eb, don't you know the house of your very own employee?"

"That is not a house, it's a trailer."

"Not just any trailer. This is Carole Blessing's trailer."

"I had no idea she lived like this. I do recognize the small car that she loves so much."

"We must go in," Dr. Marley remarked.

"Not on your life."

But Dr. Marley pulled Eb through the door. Inside, Carole was discussing her day with her husband, Tom. Their son Jimmy was studying by a dim light in the corner. Suddenly a small yip pierced the air from another room. Tiny T. emerged dragging a front foot but wagging his tail at the sight of both Carole and Tom.

"That boss of yours is no good. You should simply quit and work somewhere else," Tom said.

"That's easy for you to say. Dr. Rouge is not all that bad. He's a bit quirky but he works hard. Besides, I love working with animals and it is what I have wanted to do all my life."

"Can they hear us?" Eb whispered.

"No!" Junebug's response didn't need further explanation.

Tom went on, "Well, I think he is just taking advantage of that. If had been up to him, he would have put Tiny T. to sleep long ago without a speck of remorse. I think he must really hate animals the way he talks about the cost of their care."

"Junebug, tell them it isn't true. I love animals. I just get frustrated at times."

Junebug pulled Eb through the door once again, in silence.

They resumed walking down the path.

"Where are we going now?"

Junebug said nothing.

Just then, the Rouge and Marley Veterinary Clinic appeared.

Both Junebug and Eb could see several people entering and leaving, carting out equipment and boxes of drugs and books.

"What is this, Junebug?"

"This is the future, Eb."

Behind the clinic, a bonfire glowed. Some of the people are bringing books, papers and furniture to the fire. Eb could see someone with his beloved Beatles' CD collection. It was Tom Blessing. He was throwing them in the fire.

"Tell them to stop. They can't take my stuff away and burn it." Eb cried in indignation.

"But you are dead, Eb."

"Where is Juliet? She can't let this happen," Eb blurted out incredulously.

"Oh, she is happily married to a schoolteacher, Eb. They don't have a lot of money but they are extremely happy."

"Who is that woman, watching everyone?"

"That is the groomer who is moving in. She didn't have to buy the business, because before you died you unfortunately found that you couldn't sell the practice. She is leasing the building for a song from your son, who lives in Cincinnati. The building, as you can see, is in terrible shape.

"Ebenezer, the fact is you ran this practice into the ground trying to pinch pennies and trying to get by without hiring proper staff. Eb, we had such a great practice. It seems that you are a miserable failure as a person and as a veterinarian."

"But Junebug, you know I am a great veterinarian."

"That is what they all say. Pretty is as pretty does."

"Is it too late?"

"If you change and put love in your heart, anything can happen."

Eb's head was swimming and his bedroom appeared again. It was morning. He was sweating profusely.

He threw off the covers and was filled with fanatical energy.

He ran to the window, grabbed his cell phone and dialed furiously.

"Carole, Carole, is that you, dear girl?"

"Why yes, Dr. Rouge."

"Please call me Dr. Eb."

"You and Jimmy stay home and prepare your dinner with Tom — all except a turkey. Leave everything to me."

Before Carole could say anything, Dr. Eb hung up. He dialed another number furiously.

"Juliet, please go to the store and buy some roses for yourself and another large bunch for the Blessings across town. Then I want you to meet me at the clinic. Wear some old boots. And bring the children."

Eb quickly showered and laid out some church clothes for later, something he had not done for a long while.

He climbed into his car and headed for the supermarket about a mile away. Inside he could see Christmas trimming and greenery everywhere, something he had ignored hours earlier.

He spied Sandy Allen in charge of the delicatessen.

"Sandy Allen. Sandy, are you still cooking turkeys for the Salvation Army this year in the back of the store?

"I want to buy them all, but save one for me to take with me later."

"But they have all been donated already," she exclaimed.

Eb already was writing a check. "I would like to donate them all over again."

"Yes, sir, Dr. Rouge. It would be a pleasure."

Dr. Rouge rushed to the practice and met his wife and children. He brought them doughnuts and orange juice and asked for their forgiveness.

They joyfully cared for the animals and wept aloud.

Several hours later, the Rouge family arrived at the small trailer at the edge of a field.

The Rouges carried in a covered dish, some roses, a card table and chairs and a fully cooked turkey. Carole could not believe her eyes. Tom was dumbstruck.

Inside the trailer nine people were seated for Christmas dinner. Eb and Juliet Rouge and their son and daughter were crammed into the Lilliputian kitchen. In the small living room were Carole, Tom, Jimmy and Uncle Jerome and Aunt Betty.

Beneath the table Tiny T.'s tail beat a steady drumbeat against Eb's ankles.

Love had won the day.

It would be a very Merry Christmas.

Dr. Lane is a graduate of the University of Illinois. He owns and manages two practices in southern Illinois. Dr. Lane completed a master's degree in agricultural economics in 1996. He is a speaker and author of numerous practice management articles. Dr. Lane also offers a broad range of consulting services and can be reached at david.lane@mchsi.com

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