A month ago my brother Marty quit chemo — said screw it, no more billing. Which is fine, that was his call.
But then Marty cashed out and hit the road from Attleboro, Massachusetts, with an 80-pound coonhound — to find someone in the family willing to take Jackson.
That was different.
Jackson is the dog Marty, our sister Carole and I grew up with in Sparta. He’s more or less the same dog our mother grew up with in Missouri. Before that, her Uncle Eli had custody for 40-some years in Indiana.
It used to be considered an honor.
The story is that Eli’s great-grandfather Will, an artillery sergeant, found the dog in a burning cornfield in north Georgia and enlisted him as the mascot of an Ohio mountain-howitzer battery, where Jack attained the honorary rank of corporal.
(Union bivouacs presumably are where the dog acquired his zeal for salted pork belly.)
There’s a faded old wet-plate image that used to hang in our living room – Sergeant Will and Jack in his blue kepi next to a 12-pounder on Lookout Mountain.
Two years later Will brought Jackson home, victorious and deaf. The dog’s been somewhere in our clan ever since.
He’s lost a step or two, doesn’t chase tires the way he did in the ’60s, and he hasn’t been hunting since our Uncle Al died and Marty took him east. The older folks say his speckled coat is grayer than it used to be.
Understand me: I’ve got nothing against Jackson per se. He’s really just a good ol’ farm dog — always the happy wag, the warm nuzzle and those eager black collodion eyes following you around. If all you want to do in life is raise corn, hunt Rebs and sit on your porch counting fireflies, you couldn’t ask for a better pal.
But in all this time Jackson’s never gotten over that hearing loss — the dog won’t let you out of his sight, not for a minute. He’s terrified he’ll be forgotten.
Leave him alone in the house and you’ve got a shattered window. Leave him tied out in the yard and you’ll see Jack in your rear view mirror dragging a clothesline of towels and sheets up the street. Generations of teasing kids have played hide and seek only to learn there’s no escape – once he’s got the scent of your family blood in his nose he’ll find you up a tree or seven miles away at a pizza place.
No fence can hold him. A dog sitter won’t do. Neighbors: No way. Kennels won’t take him — he tunnels, climbs, snaps choke chains, howls a weird decalcifying Helen Keller scream that sets off the other dogs into a tabernacle delirium.
No. Jackson comes with. Or somebody draws the short straw and stays home.
Marty always had more patience on the leash. When he got married he and Jeanine took the dog on their honeymoon — a driving trip along the northern California coast “in search of Francis Drake.”
And there’s no doubt Jack was present at the creation of their daughter Kim: She was the heir apparent. Like her father she used to snuggle up with Jack to read Shelby Foote and do her geography homework, the two of them snacking on bacon bits and manifest destiny.
Ages ago Sergeant Will taught Jackson the “deaf and dumb” vocabulary and Marty expanded it to include signs for car-car ride and TV dinner — but Kimmie claimed to have taught the dog how to read lips too.
And she introduced Jack to the modern wonders of strawberry ice cream – not cones, ladled out of a cup. Everywhere they went Kim carried their little red plastic spoon, just in case.
One day a seminary student was staring in his rear view mirror at a cold sore on his lip, rolled through a red light and plowed into Marty’s car, the passenger side.
Kim died two hours later, internal bleeding. She was 16.
It’s ironic. Our kin are scattered all over, probably like yours. Back in the analog days when we were kids, weddings and funerals used to be occasions when people traveled hundreds of miles to sit around eating fried chicken, swapping legends and rubbing Jackson’s huge deaf ears.
But at Kimmie’s service the dog limped around reading lips and being avoided. Marty in his neck brace recited a long choking eulogy – from which I’ve excerpted some of the strawberry details above.
Duffy, our Aunt Millie’s son, leaned over and whispered, “it sounds like a sales pitch.”
Nobody stepped forward with a new spoon.
The next month Carole’s son Mark took off for Florida to clean swimming pools and hasn’t been seen since. My daughter Rose got a job teaching American history in Nashville: two grandbabies later we’re lucky to get pictures at Christmas. Within a year of each other our parents died in Nevada and Maine respectively. Millie matriculated in St. Louis.
The funerals got harder and harder for everybody to get to. Duffy’s son Mason joined the navy and started his own dog. Marty’s wife left him — said it was either her or Jackson.
My brother spent the last few years holed up with the war hero, writing “children’s books” under a pen name he wouldn’t reveal and working ancestry-dot-com to death.
I didn’t know Marty was on the lam weaving across our nation’s highways with end-stage pancreatic cancer till Carole called — right in the middle of a Packer game.
She lives in Baltimore. We hadn’t talked in years. She was hiding upstairs in her bedroom, peeking out the window, pretending not to be home. Marty was outside with Jackson, ringing her doorbell, looking in the windows.
Carole’s voice was panicky: Buddy what am I going to do, Buddy this is insane, Buddy he looks like Night of the Living Dead staggering around out there, Buddy this is not fair, Marty has no right showing up here trying to make me feel this way.
I told her to call 9-1-1.
I can’t do that.
Sure you can. Do it. They’ll take Marty to the nearest ICU, which is where he belongs, and they’ll put Jack in the pound.
Buddy we can’t do that!
Let that dog find a new family to take over.
Carole started to say something to the effect of “you’ve got all that land” and I cut her off cold, no. No.
Then she squealed Buddy wait a minute … he just got back into his car, he’s leaving, no, they’re sitting there … no … oh Buddy he just waved up here, oh God he saw me, he’s waving goodbye.
Marty backed out and drove off. Jack stuck his head out the shotgun-side window and stared up at Carole. She commenced to sobbing, wailing, 50 years worth of it, why me, oh God why me, which has always been her favorite line.
What can you do? I listened to this for a good hour. Finally her husband came home. Carole straightened right up. He has no idea what this is about. Nobody does.
That was the start of it.
Over the next couple of weeks I got calls from Raleigh and Cincinnati, Gravois Mills, Missouri, and Anna, Illinois, anywhere Marty could find a leaf on the tree, including a couple of second-cousins I’d never heard of.
Buddy do something, Buddy he’ll listen to you, Buddy he scared the kids, Buddy he’s going to kill somebody driving around in that condition, Buddy, Buddy, Buddy.
He got everybody talking, I’ll give him that. Even my succinct son Ryan called from Walmart, Arkansas. I won’t bore you with his remarks.
It was obvious Marty was working his way west and northerly.
All of which brings us to four nights ago, Bella’s All-Day Breakfast, a truck stop on 41, roughly an hour from Waupaca, which is where I’ve been living in relative peace. Marty knew better than to show up here unannounced. He called from Bella’s, begging to meet. I said all right, but you stay there.
I found my brother in a booth by the window, hunched over a cup of cold coffee and a plate of bacon for Jackson, later. He was wearing a Red Sox cap: Crazy-looking tufts of purplish hair were fighting to get out from under it. He looked bad. Sunken eyes, red chemo blotches all over his face and neck, green-gray skin. He stood up to shake hands and almost keeled over.
You should be in a hospital, I said.
He waved me off bravely, vintage Marty: it’s just a bad cold.
Apparently he considered this comment a joke because he tried to laugh, which started him on a coughing jag. He grabbed a wad of napkins and coughed a stream of loud chunky sounds into it.
The waitress was headed our way but she veered off. People at other tables stared.
While this was going on I looked out the window into the parking lot, where I saw Jackson’s staring face in the windshield of Marty’s old Land Rover. He’d parked in the front row, facing our booth, so Jack could take in the proceedings.
Marty finally pulled himself together, cleared his throat and popped a couple of pain killers. I leaned across and in the nicest possible way said if you start that again I’m calling an ambulance – you got me? This is bullshit, what you’re doing.
Out of the blue Marty said: Remember when we were astronauts, Buddy?
I sat back. Is that what you’ve been sitting here thinking about?
Marty was referring to a brief period one summer when we converted a deer blind into a space ship: his idea. This old hunting shack was up on stilts, like a prison guard tower, on the edge of a wood overlooking a hay field, with window-slats to shoot out of.
We hauled two folding chairs up the ladder and set them side by side, Apollo 11 style. Marty designed a cardboard control panel that we mounted in front us. From this lofty venue we “explored the planets” with mail-order NASA binoculars, observing all manner of new life forms such as the Europa sea deer and the Saturn ring-tailed fox, breathlessly reporting these findings into a tape recorder for posterity.
But the only extraterrestrial we ever came home with was Jackson. And the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like an astronaut was right then, that moment, four nights ago — sitting across from Marty in the window at Bella’s, with Jackson outside in Marty’s space pod, staring through the windshield at us, reading our lips, like that homicidal computer spying on the astronauts in 2001, judging them.
I remember, I said.
Marty smiled. He reached his hand across the table. I let him take my hand.
Marty said, I wonder if it’s still there.
(It isn’t.) I said that was a long time ago, kid.
He nodded. His eyes got glassy. He stared at me with those wet-plate Jackson eyes. Buddy what happened to us?
I did not reply.
Marty reached into his coat and pulled out a brown envelope. It was marked “Jackson.” He moved it across the table toward me. He said this is all I’ve got Buddy.
I looked inside. It was cash, thick bundles of cash. Marty said think of it as boarding fee. You never know, Bud, maybe someday Ryan or Rose will come home.
I shoved the envelope back at him. I wanted to slap him. This is exactly what’s wrong, Marty. You make it too goddamn hard for people. Don’t you see that? You make it too hard.
Marty looked at me. He never did get it.
* * * * *
Last night I got a call from the chief of the park police at Point Reyes National Seashore (north of San Francisco) asking do you have a brother, Martin.
Now hear this.
There’s a famous old lighthouse on a cliff at Point Reyes, you’ve probably seen pictures. I looked it up online: It’s a tourist site now, a museum. Apparently that’s where Marty and Jackson ran out of road. Somehow they broke in there, spent the night in the lighthouse.
Yesterday morning the “resident ranger” found an empty box of strawberry ice cream and Jackson wandering around by himself in the so-called mirror room, doing his Helen Keller howl.
The chief said we’ve had teams searching the area all day — volunteers, divers, not a trace. The tides are extremely powerful here.
I was the only family member he’d been able to reach. He said I’m sorry.
He was very professional. I was impressed.
Any idea why your brother would come here?
(Between us, my suspicion is Marty and Jeanine stopped there once upon a romantic time — with Jackson of course. ) I said no, but Marty was ill, very ill, he wasn’t making a lot of sense.
Sir, there’s something else. In the glove compartment of his vehicle we found an envelope containing $41,276.
Forty-one thousand dollars?
That’s right. Everything has been inventoried and impounded. There was no note, nothing to indicate foul play, only his address book and some maps. It looks as though he’s been on the road for quite a while, sleeping in the vehicle. Any idea why he would be driving around with that kind of money?
It’s a long story.
There was a long silence on the phone. I said nothing.
Finally the chief brought up Jackson. He said the resident ranger lives year-round in the park with his family. They have three children. The dog was “pretty shook up” but the kids were able to calm him down. He’s very affectionate. The kids are crazy about him — won’t let him out of their sight. For the time being we decided to keep him here on the premises.
You know how kids and dogs are, the chief said. They think it’s some kind of miracle, finding him this way.
That’s fine, I said, keep him. Marty would want that. Yes, I do know how kids and dogs are.
There’s no collar, the chief said. Do you know his name? Is there anything about the dog we should know?