“Good Boy” by Benjamin Busch from Issue 98
We’ve always had black Labs: Gus beside me, his belly flat to the floor, inching along as I learned to crawl; Taxi in my teens, named so that my Brooklyn-born father could call him in the rural dirt-road hills and make my mother laugh; Jake and Junior when I was gone for a Marine—all of them burned and spread around us in the countryside of Upstate New York. So much dear dog in the soil. There was one more.
My mother chose him from a litter just months after my father died. She named him “Jack” after a character in my father’s novels, Girls and North. North begins with Jack shooting his old suffering Labrador and burying him in a sand mound by the sea. I considered that when the veterinarian read the X-rays.
His spine is irreparable, she says, bone spurs on his vertebrae broken free and spiking his nerves. I ask questions. Jack watches me. All we can do is make his tenth year comfortable, give him opiates and call when they stop working. Jack is a leaper. His joy is expressed in springs and an act where he circles us at a dead run, tongue flapping, eyes wide, so fast he almost tumbles. The painkillers make his eyes go blank, two black holes punched in fur. He can’t raise himself and he can’t sleep. He stops huffing the woofs of his guard-dog dreams. I make the call and they schedule his death.
I take him, wrapped in a blanket in the back of our van, his drugged eyes doped small, his stare far away. I thank him for his love. I tell him he’s a good boy. At the vet, I pick him up and place him in the grass so he can perform his ritual of smelling the urine left by every nervous animal before him. It’s his last stand, and he comes alive, reminded suddenly of his task, his life’s work. He remembers through the drugs that he’s a dog and has only been here for pain, or shots, or abandonment. His body is wrong, his haunches weak and head low, but as I call to him his face changes, a warning rising, and he gathers his last dash and hurries toward the van. He stops, his plan only to get that far, his escape still dependent on me. I walk toward him slowly, making the sounds of comfort, the blanket between my hands like a cape, and I sound wrong too. I can hear it in my own voice. I want him to run.
His feelings were always pure, and in that moment I knew he felt a trap had been laid for him, and as I spoke and approached, he realized I was part of it. He only had one need, to get back home, to our house, where we all lived. The one he trusted most was keeping him from it. He stood still, his back arched in pain, tail down, his black face open only at the lids, where he gave a heavy whale’s-eye look of comprehension, the harpoon already in flight.
She tells me softly that he’s already gone as his mouth opens for three successive gasps, an involuntary response after the anesthetic overdose stops his heart. I remember my mother’s sudden rasping breaths from her last sleep, not dead yet, tears wet on the corners of her eyes from coma dreams or my voice in her head. “More morphine,” I said, beating her cancer with death, her puppy’s head in my hands as I kill him too. “Good boy,” I say to his soft ears, to his body, to the room. I can’t look at the woman who tells me it’s hard, she’s sorry. I wrap him in the green blanket and carry him out, heavy, past the desk, the receptionist trying to say something, outside, along his escape route to the truck, both of us trying to hurry home where he was in our family and safe. I breathe in jerks, eyes wet as my mother’s, still talking to him, trying to apologize, trying to justify myself. I drive too fast.
On the earth berm beside our house where he waited for the school bus charged with our little girls, I dig a hole like a bowl, the size of a dog, and place him carefully in the center, his face looking west down the road where we always come from, sunset passing over him.
It rains all night, lightly, the morning thick with birdsong and mud, chickens bobbing in last year’s grass, rafts of snow still on the yard. But I remember my dog, limp, the day filling with tragedies. Branches are stacked on his small grave, gnawed-bare, the last sticks we’d thrown for him to chase. I keep saying, “Who’s my good boy?” He would know, if he were here, that I mean him.
I can’t know what he thought of the world, seeing most of it through excitement, hunger, or suspicion. But he recognized me as an old friend does, rushed to my voice from as far as he could hear it. He adored my wife and was thrilled by my children. He was dear to us, took our family name as his own and died in my arms trusting I meant him no harm. I think of my mother clutching his tiny wriggling body to her, his vitality a salve from the grief of my father’s disappearance, her love pouring onto him for the first year of his life, which was the last year of her own. As I held his head, I felt all of it. He was our guardian and he knew that, knew that it was the most important duty there was.
I’m out behind the house, behind the barn, behind the field, and the Canada geese have returned. Jack does not run ahead of me, his nose speared into tufts of grass and scat. Our property was little more than scent to him. He knew which smells were ours and which belonged to enemies. It’s spring and without him we are vulnerable to the animal kingdom. The movement of predators is invisible to us, the dark filled with spectacular invasions. But Jack knew, patrolled every day to keep them at bay, marked the lines we lived within, barked into the night.
The land is empty of dog as I walk, no glee in swamp swims, no tail waving. I can feel his absence, far worse than a sentimental end of some kind. I look for him out of habit. Then remember. It’s a terrible forgetfulness. For days I feel like I’m burying him again, his death recurring. When I cover him wrapped in our blanket, my mother never says it’s all right. No one forgives me. And they shouldn’t.