Causing Trouble as We Smiled: A Dusty Story
Playwright Timothy Braun remembers the canine companion who changed his life
"I cried on the way home today," I told my wife. A dog ran through the middle of the road on Cesar Chavez by the Town Lake YMCA after my morning "waddle." If I hadn't hit the brakes, the dog would have died. Among the many sights I care most about in this world, beyond bluebonnets in the spring on the St. Edward's campus or a sign that reads "We Have Tacodeli," is a dog running without a leash, but not then, not in that moment. I pulled into a small parking lot across from Seaholm, turned off my motor, put my hands over my eyes, and cried. It had been six weeks since Dusty died.
I did not adopt Dusty when he was a puppy. He was 3 by all estimations, sitting alone in a cage at the Town Lake Animal Center. He was abandoned twice during the housing crash of 2008 when people would get up and leave their homes, the homes they could no longer afford, the televisions they could no longer keep, the dogs they could no longer care for. Dusty had been adopted by one woman for three days, but she returned him to the shelter like a kid returning a tuxedo after prom. She had no use for him once she learned that Dusty wouldn't leave her alone during her shows. He would follow her around the house, smile, and methodically lick her leg when she told him not to. He was a troublemaker.
Dusty was half Australian shepherd and half Siberian husky. He had one blue and one brown eye, and would smile for days. I am a low-rent playwriting professor, hopping from town to town, gig to gig, and had no intention of getting a dog when I met Dusty. I was used to being on the road, by myself, being able to leave anyplace without reservations or commitment, but it was a hot summer day and I had been running around Lady Bird Lake. I needed a place to cool off and rest my aging knees. It was random, but many things were with Dusty. That made me smile about him. I brought him home, and he did nothing I said. "Sit," and he would wander off. "Fetch," and he would stare at me, smiling. On the third night, I threatened to take him back to the pound after he used my library as a bathroom, and on that night he crawled into bed with me for the first time, placing his nose against my knee. "I'll never let you go," I promised, even though he had little training.
Dusty became my teacher. Until I had met him, I was living for a mythical future, one where professors get tenure, and married, and buy cute little houses if they work hard enough, but Dusty made me be in the moment. I had to take him out, see the world, and do things, or he would soil my library. I would jet home for lunch every day, take him out for a walk, and share a sandwich or taco or something with him. Dusty became known at Spider House, where I would try to write bad plays, and Home Slice Pizza, where I would try to write better ones. He was the mayor of the dog run on the corner of Riverside and I-35. He became an unofficial mascot of Salvage Vanguard Theater, was at the Fusebox hub every night of the festival, was thrown out of Zach Theatre on account of being a dog but welcomed by the staff of the Long Center as he charmed the volunteers with his smile. They snuck us in through the Rollins Theatre, helped us on the elevator, and escorted us to the terrace that overlooks Downtown and the YMCA so we could do yoga with our friend Adriene. Dusty became the understudy dog for Rubber Repertory's Biography of a Physical Sensation, and we got wedding invitations in the mail addressed "Dusty +1." We even became taco ambassadors for the Texas Taco Council and their book The Tacos of Texas. You can find me under "B" in the bibliography. Dusty, of course, is under "D."
Seven years ago, we were in residency at the Osage Arts Community in Belle, Missouri, where I was writing a Three Sisters adaptation for Breaking String Theatre, and Dusty became my writing partner. "What if the stars fall from the sky across the entire play until everything was pitch black?" I would ask him. With every idea I had, regardless of how impossible it would be to stage, he smiled and gave me a lick. One day, during a lunch break, I sat down to write an essay about Dusty. I wrote it in one hour. It's called "Four-Legged Reason to Keep It Together." It was picked up by The New York Times' Modern Love column. It's about Dusty grounding me in a world I had been floating through, how Dusty taught me about commitment. It was voted the second-saddest Modern Love story ever by The New Republic, and that is when Dusty started to get fan mail. We bought a condo with a dog run – a condo on the ground floor so when he got old, we wouldn't have to negotiate stairs.
We started a project, Away, With Dusty, where Dusty and I would travel the country in the summer when I wasn't teaching and interview people across America. We traveled to 28 states, were thrown out of the GM building in Detroit on account of one of us being a dog, interviewed Katrina survivors in New Orleans, marched in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, and in 2016, Dusty did the most important thing he would ever do. He was running for president against Clinton and Trump, and on the night we entered Florida, my phone lit up with a push notification. There was a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. We abandoned the campaign trail and went straight to the Pulse nightclub. The police had fenced off the murder scene as people were praying and crying. "May I pet your dog?" people would ask, and they did as they cried, and Dusty licked away their tears. One woman laughed and smiled as Dusty licked her. She gave me a hug, and whispered, "Thank you for bringing him." The police handed out chalk for people to write messages on the black barrier they had just erected. I took a piece of yellow chalk and wrote, "Tim and Dusty were here, and we love you."
When we returned to Austin, I tried something new, something called "dating." I used a black-and-white picture of Dusty as my Tinder profile pic, and on my first swipe to the right I met my wife, Ilse. She is charming and cute, she doesn't have two different colored eyes, but she does have a smile that reeks of trouble. Ilse, like Dusty, doesn't do anything I say, and it makes me smile. On Aug. 17, 2017, nine years to the day I adopted him, Mayor Steve Adler declared that to be Dusty Danger Dog Day in the city of Austin. We had a huge party at our condo catered by Home Slice, and the Rude Mechs named him their Canine-in-Residence. Since that day, Dusty's legs got worse and worse. Our adventures were over. He could no longer walk, and I waddled more than ran.
This summer, we didn't travel. I stayed at home with Dusty, sat on the floor with him as he could hardly move, and shared pizza and tacos as I wrote new lesson plans for my playwriting students at St. Edward's University. At lunch this June, I would turn on the TV and we would watch Rosie Newberry on Studio 512. "There's Rosie," I would say to Dusty, his eyes now washed with gray, and I would describe all the places she would introduce, places Dusty was too old to visit. On June 19, 10 days before my wedding, a veterinarian came to our door and gave Dusty one last "treat." It was time for me to let him go. He passed away in my arms, and I put my hands over my eyes and cried. The funeral parlor gave us bluebonnet seeds to plant in Dusty's name, seeds we planted five hours before our wedding, seeds we planted by Lady Bird Lake.
"Did he look like Dusty?" Ilse asked. "The dog you almost hit."
"Every dog looks like Dusty."
The dog had pointed ears and was causing trouble as he smiled and ran through the street. I was going home because it was almost lunchtime, almost time for Dusty's afternoon walk. Even though it had been weeks since his death, Dusty's schedule was still a part of me. He trained me. He changed my life. Dusty was still so close and yet light-years away. I hope to see him again someday, to scratch his ears, let him lick my toes, and have lunch again. I hope he remembers me the way I remember him. I wish I could write one last story about him. If I could, I would call it, "Causing Trouble as We Smiled, or A Dusty Story for The Austin Chronicle."