My first home was built in 1865; it was about 100 years old when I was born and aged gracefully while I grew up. The deed became mine when I was in my mid-twenties. I always told people the place had been pre-owned—a lot.
We bought it in the fall of the year; the only heat source was burning wood. Two cast iron Vermont Castings stoves belted out a creaking, crackling song as hardwood became smoke, ember, and ash.
The wind whistled through the loose panes of the old windows as the sparsely insulated walls gave those stoves all the oxygen they needed for a good burn. Strategic sitting was required to avoid a draft on your neck or your ankles, usually at the same time.
I was young, broke, dumb, and happy.
My lady-friend, later to be called Mrs. Cotton, was a scavenger of formerly well-loved furniture. She found a decent used couch and chair; both were uncomfortable.
She was finishing her degree and stopped by from time to time to replenish the bare cupboards or throw up an antique mirror— or three— that she found at yard sales. She loved to reflect on a bargain. Some of those mirrors were later found to be valuable. She had a good eye for everything but men. God bless her.
I didn’t care; having all the lovely mirrors with minimal furniture to block the reflections allowed me an unimpeded view of the off-white lace curtains dancing smartly in other rooms as the wind blew right through the ancient plaster and lath walls.
Winter nights, like tonight, were blistering cold in the old place, and I had a regimen of adding wood to one of the two stoves approximately every two and a half hours. This method gave each stove about a five-hour burn time. I had one in the living room and one in the dining room. The stoves were no more than twenty-five feet apart. I slept on a mattress on the floor in the corner of the dining room. I call it a dining room, but there was no dining table in the room for a considerable amount of time. This—in turn—must have made it a bedroom.
I had shut off the upstairs for the winter because, well, there was no reason to add the stress of running up and down the stairs to attend to the endless stoking of the stoves.
My companion on those nights was a black and white Redbone hound-Labrador mix named Jackson. I picked him up at the mall, back when people would sometimes bring a pen full of puppies to the center court to sell. These were not puppy-mill puppies; they were inadvertently bred farm mutts. I use the word “mutt” with full respect to Jack’s parents.
I paid five dollars for the boy. Abe Lincoln never made a better deal.
Yes, his name was Jackson Lab— in a homage to the famous Bar Harbor genetic research facility where fine white mice are raised and studied. The name made me laugh, and it stuck. He was a stubborn, loyal, and a fierce watchdog. His eighty-pound to ninety-pound body was a welcome bed warmer for those nights when I would stretch the stoking times to three hours.
For a long time, there was no operational lock on the kitchen door. I never worried—even once— about the possibility of a burglary. For one thing, I owned nothing but a mattress, a few mirrors, and lovely lace curtains.
Secondly, that kind and loving animal turned into the Tasmanian devil when folks tried to enter his turf. Any burglar who was worthy of the moniker would have been easy to catch on the way out. They would have been easily followed in a light tracking snow due to guaranteed loss of body fluids of one type or another after an encounter with Jack.
Jack kept me safe and warm as the curtains moved like tethered ghosts in the darkness while cast-iron wood stoves groaned under constant expansion and contraction. He snored, and I think I did too; neither of us complained.
I would listen to the wind on those nights, wondering when I would have the money for replacement windows or when I might afford to add a furnace to the antique cape. Those needs were eventually met, and Jack was rewarded for his hardships with a place in the center of a new king-size mattress and the eventual arrival of Mrs. Cotton, who he loved dearly.
When I was away for three-months at the police academy, my significant one was followed home—late one night— by an unfamiliar pick-up truck. It was a time long before the advent of cellular telephones and quick communication; nurses predominantly wore white. While she walked Jack in the backyard for his nightly respite, the truck pulled into our driveway and sat— running— with the headlights blinding her vision and her clear pathway to the back door of the old cape. She was terrified and frozen in fear regarding why the truck was there at one a.m. in the morning. She told me later that she never felt so vulnerable standing in a white dress while bathed in the bright lights of jacked-up truck with a leaking exhaust.
Jack did not DO vulnerable.
While the dog was never formally trained in the dark arts, or how to properly protect his subjects, he must have had a chip on his shoulder from being dragged to a mall and sold to a couple of kids with no visible means of support, not to mention no functioning furnace. Jack turned into the Tasmanian devil that he was inadvertently bred to be.
He was a scary dog, and almost uncontrollable when his hackles were raised. She shared that he approached the truck—full speed— with the most guttural barking and growling that she had ever heard. The unseen driver of the truck determined not to stay and backed out of the yard rather quickly. The truck disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke. She did not get a plate number, but she did get back to the house. He could have just been looking for directions, but we don’t believe that to be the case.
When not causing terror to those who might hold ill intent, and other than being a food-driven beast, Jack was generally a lazy and loving hound until his passing at the age of fourteen.
We still laugh when we talk about his incessant howling whenever emergency vehicles —utilizing sirens— passed our home. He would hear them long before we did and he would vocalize it in a most hound-like way. Annoying at the time, yet endearing now. Many years have installed the foggy dividers of multiple seasons between us.
The boy’s ashes were spread around the grounds of the camp in the woods. None were placed in the lake, Jack was grouchy when you tried to get him to take a swim. His hound-side prevailed.
He’s been gone about twenty-one years this winter.
You always want more when you have less. While it’s a worthy pursuit to aim toward lofty goals or to strive to have better things, you’d never have appreciated even one of them if it weren’t for the leaner times, or for those who shared them with you.
Tonight, the same wind blows cold snow over the top of a warmer home with far fewer cracks and much better windows. Here I am just wondering how Jack is.
(Copyright Tim Cotton)
*This piece was written on a cold winter’s night a few years ago. I have revised it a couple of times. When you scour over something a few times, more memories bubble to the surface; I just add them to the stew.
I share it today, as this past week (maybe three) has been a tough time for me to write new things for a variety of reasons.
Writing wheelbarrows full of words for several venues, and trying to keep it fresh and delightful, can be tough. Those who tell you that it’s not are either lying or they are not writing.
Book number two— “Got Warrants?”— is coming to bookstores near you this October. I am excited for this release, and I would love it if you found the gumption to preorder the book. It’s a big deal, and it helps beget favor from a publisher when you determine that you’d like to write another.
I guarantee this is a book you want to keep on the occasional table in the living room, and grab an extra to be left in the bathroom. Your guests will swoon. That’s an overstatement.
I am now writing daily—in earnest—for book number three That’s a fib, but I am rehashing ideas and scribbling notes. I am also trying to read a few good books to rejuvenate my own love of writing.
I apologize for the times when I rehash and repost older content, and while this piece—about my boy, Jack— is nothing amazing, it is one of my favorites from years past. I don’t like to miss a week posting on the website that you all have supported so generously.
So, for those of you who have purchased coffee, or coffees, through the support app— BuyMeACoffee—I want to say thank you again. For those who come to just read, I want to thank you as well. This site will be always be “duty free” because I want to keep it open and accessible, but I am so appreciative for those who decided to pitch in. It’s really so cool to have this community of readers. Thank you for swinging by.