Jet

memoir

by Eugene Marckx

 

Among the dogs in my life one stands out, a Black Labrador mix that came into our family when we weren’t looking for him.  We were looking for a small black Cockapoo that had run away from us, a dog one of my sons had gotten off his paper route.  That Cockapoo did not want to live with us, or any humans, I suppose.  Whenever the front door opened he ran for it.  One day he got away and never looked back.  We put up notices, and people sighted the little black runner here or there, a dog they could never catch.  In the course of a couple of weeks we traced him to the woods, where he disappeared.

In our search we visited a woman who lived near Schmitz Park, not far from our neighborhood in West Seattle.  She had picked up a Black Lab puppy while walking the trails of the park with her own dog, a tall French Poodle.  She said to my son, “If you don’t find your dog, come back.”

And so we did.  We named him Jet, not for his speed but for his color, pure black.  Jet had a lot of natural intelligence, but I gave him very little training.  He knew well enough to be polite around people, especially children.  I could have done better by him, but I treated him in much the same respect as my three boys and two girls.  Jet could fetch a ball or a stick, but then he would wrestle you for it.  So he was a natural in our “good Catholic” family.

And he soon became omnivorous.  He could eat just about anything, fruit mixed in with gravy and vegetables, even lettuce if it had enough mayonnaise on it.  He was eager to please and didn’t demand much.  When we took car trips to the coast, our car was packed to the gills with seven people and our belongings.  Jet lay on the floor in the back under the children’s feet.

I remember one stormy Friday night we were going through Clatskanie, Oregon, and a patrolman pulled me over for speeding, just over the limit.  He checked my driver’s license and insurance and then looked into the back.  He must have seen the dog, that pair of eyes reflecting between the children’s legs.  He let me off with a warning.

One winter when our girls were four and six there was a snowstorm of about five inches.  Our boys had fun on the hill a block away.  But we got the idea that we could hitch a sled to Jet, with his big Labrador chest, and he could pull around our two little girls.  It worked beautifully.  As I ran alongside to guide him with the leash, he pulled and pulled with tremendous passion.

On that day Jet discovered what he was meant for, and I remembered he was from a breed that pulled fishing nets to shore on the east coast of Canada.  Jet could have gone on pulling and pulling, long after our two girls got cold and wanted to go in.

Two years later it snowed again, but only a couple of inches.  We decided to hitch the sled to Jet, but our girls were six and eight, not so little anymore, and gravel showed through the snow.  Jet pulled them anyway.  And pulled!  And pulled!  He did not stop.  Then I knew that he was about to tear his paws into bloody shreds.  He would die before he stopped pulling.  I untied him and got him inside.

Some years later, after I was divorced, I told this story to a friend, and he said, “Gene, that was you!  You wouldn’t let go, and you’d still be pulling if she hadn’t untied you.”

It was true that this dog and I were deeply bonded, especially after the divorce.  I would pick up my girls from grade school and keep them at my place until their mother got home.  Before going to my night job, I would often take Jet to Schmitz Park, where the kids, the dog and I had gone for many years.  But now just the two of us, a dark man and a black dog, would find our own company in the silence among those ancient firs and cedars.  In his last years, Jet got pretty stoic.  The boys had left home, and so I became the one to take the dog out, into his own element, which was my element too.

Stoic, I say, but there were sly eruptions.  I heard that something unbelievable happened in that household on Christmas.  The girls and their mother made a Gingerbread House, and they set it on top of the upright piano in the living room.  But after Midnight Mass that Gingerbread House was mysteriously demolished.  Who could have done such a thing?  Not a fat old dog that could barely climb the stairs?  And had nothing better to contemplate in an empty house?  But Jet would always go to the greatest lengths—even to teetering on his hind legs up from the piano bench—in pursuit of temptation, sweet temptation.

Those last late winter days of his life I took Jet to the vet a couple of times to drain fluid from his body.  Nothing could be done for him.  We were hoping our son, who had long ago wanted a dog, would return from Europe before Jet died.  But it did not end that way.  I would have gladly wished that Jet might have faltered on one of our walks through Schmitz Park, and breathed his last.  But no.  He died in his own backyard with my ex-wife fretting over him.  I did not even get to see his old body.  It was disposed of in the way nearly all dead dogs are in the city, day-in and day-out, by the ones who work in that sack-of-bones business.

All these years later, I console myself that Jet came into my life because someone else had lost him, and he left that way too, without a trace.  Long after he was gone I finally understood.  He wasn’t mine.  I was his.

But the best memory I have of Jet was when he was in his prime, and we were still a happy family, as happy as we ever were.  It was a summer Sunday afternoon.  We were picnicking with another family in a small cove where Lincoln Park extends north along Puget Sound, a quiet place of sand and tidewater, away from the crowds.  We ate and played, got sandy and wet.  And then I had to drive off to work.  Everyone else would go home later in the other car.  So I picked up a few things, and reached in my pocket for my car keys—and then into my other pockets, one by one.

“I lost my keys!”

Everyone looked up, slightly irritated, and then around at our clothes and toys scattered over the sand.  They picked up blankets and towels and baskets and coolers, murmuring, “He lost his keys.”  We were at it only about ten minutes, but I was getting anxious that I’d be late for work.  The sand looked vast and inscrutable.

Then I saw Jet digging right in the middle of where we’d been.  He dug and dug, and there were my keys.

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