The Pet Club

When I was in third grade, I was late for school almost every single day. Each morning my mother would shoo me out the door in my tiny red backpack, and most evenings she would get a phone call from my teacher notifying her that I had once again arrived to class late.

My mother would assure her that I’d be on time the next day, and then the cycle would repeat. The thing is, I had a perfectly good reason for being late, but my teacher seemed to disagree. When she demanded an answer for my tardiness, I showed her my notebook and explained that my walk to school took so long because I had to stop and record every dog and cat I saw on the way. I’d filled dozens of pages with little animal drawings and accompanying notes, which I desperately tried to present as convincing evidence, to no avail.

My research was dismissed as insignificant fluff, but I knew the truth. I was a pint-sized Dian Fossey. My gorillas were chubby dogs and cats and the suburban streets of Montana were my Rwandan jungle. Sure, I wasn’t murdered under mysterious circumstances, but besides that the similarities were uncanny.

Of all the animals I regularly saw, my favorite was an old, shambling golden retriever who I named Basil. Most mornings when I passed by the side of his house I’d see him lazing around in the sun, and he’d shuffle up to the chain link fence that separated us and plop down in the grass. I’d pet him through a hole in the fence and ask him about his day, recording his imaginary answers in my notebook. Sometimes I’d spend the whole morning laying on the grass next to the fence, telling Basil all about my problems at school while I doodled little Sailor Moons in my notebook.

As the days went on, school became less and less of a priority, and it eventually became a problem that even I couldn’t ignore. One morning I lost track of time talking to Basil and didn’t arrive at school until after my entire class had left on a field trip to a local bread factory. I was completely devastated. Skipping math and history lessons was one thing, but missing out on free scone samples was outrageous (subsequently I’ve been compulsively shoving bread down my gullet for the past 20 years in a bid to fill the hole created by missing what was arguably the greatest field trip in history, but I digress).

Seeing as there was no sense in lingering in an empty classroom, I went home and spent the rest of the day watching TV in my living room. When my teacher called that night and sanctimoniously declared that I had missed a full day of school, my mom decided a reorg was in order. She rang the neighbor and arranged for me to walk to school with their daughter Olivia from then on. Why she assumed having another 8-year-old as a chaperone would have any bearing on my crucial anthropological studies, I’ll never know. She clearly underestimated my dedication to the cause.

This new arrangement accomplished absolutely nothing, except now there were two kids roaming the streets and hunting for animals instead of one. Rather than helping me get to school on time, Olivia’s presence had the reverse effect: I was now causing her to be late along with me. In fact, I was arriving later than ever, because I had to micromanage Olivia’s notebook entries so our research matched up. I decided that we would henceforth formally be called The Pet Club, and it remains the most important thing I’ve ever undertaken in my entire life.

At first, I refrained from introducing Olivia to Basil until I knew she could be trusted with such a precious and unique specimen. It was a privilege Olivia had to earn. When I finally decided they could meet, Olivia fell in love with Basil just as I had. We began scaling the chain link fence to be closer to him, which I now realize is a class C misdemeanor, but sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind if you want to accomplish great work.

For the better part of a week, The Pet Club was a monumental success. Olivia and I gathered copious amounts of data and carried out complicated experiments, like “Does the terrier on Alderson Street like Cool Ranch Doritos” (he did), and “Will that one decrepit chihuahua with no teeth wear American Girl doll shoes” (she would, but she couldn’t walk very well in them). Every day we discovered something new and exciting about the animals in our neighborhood, and Basil was always there at the end of our walk to congratulate us on a job well done. Because I had Olivia’s help, my research was hurtling along at a breakneck pace, and I was certain I’d be able to present my thesis at the local university by the end of the month.

Unfortunately, as with all great scientific institutions ahead of their time, The Pet Club was not meant to last. One Friday around dinnertime, Olivia’s mother phoned our house and asked why her daughter had been late every day that week. I tried to clarify that she and I were on the verge of a scientific breakthrough, but apparently Olivia’s mother believed school took precedent over teaching the Pomeranian at Cooper Park to play Mall Madness. So far the dog had only succeeding in eating all of the fake cardboard credit cards, but we were hopeful the project would eventually yield favorable results.

Olivia’s mother clearly wasn’t an advocate of experimental science and expressed her desire for me to no longer distract her daughter from school. Just like that, The Pet Club was defunct. It remained the greatest scientific travesty in American history until Congress defunded NASA’s earth-science program 20 years later, and even then it’s a tossup.

To make matters worse, my own mother had lost patience with me as well. She warned me that if I didn’t start showing up to school on time, she’d stop buying me Tostino Pizza Rolls, so I gave up my zoological pursuits and dedicated myself to the rigors of third grade. My journal entries halted, save for small updates on Basil, who I still made time to visit because I wasn’t a complete monster. I normally only had time to stop for a few moments and jot down a single line or two before hurrying off to school (“Basil licked my hand, breath smelled disgusting”). Occasionally after school I’d make longer stops so Basil could help me with my homework.

When winter crept in, it became too cold for Basil to hang out in his yard anymore. During my morning walk I’d peer through the fence hoping to spot him laying inside the house by the sliding glass doors. If he was there, I’d wave to him, he’d wag his tail in reply, and I’d continue on to school.

At the end of November I was cast in the school’s Christmas play, which meant long rehearsals after school. Since the sun rose late and set early, my mom started driving me to and from school. Whenever we’d pass Basil’s house, I’d say a mental hello and try to catch a glimpse of him, but it was always too dark to see. My notebook stayed tucked away for those colder months, but I never forgot about Basil.

When spring came and the snow melted, I started walking to school again. I fished my little blue notebook out of the dresser drawer where it had been in all winter and hurried out the door, eager to reconnect with the dog that was probably my best friend, which is sort of sad to realize in retrospect. Basil wasn’t in his yard, but there was still a chill in the air so I assumed he was still being kept indoors for the time being. When he wasn’t there the next two days, I started to get worried.

On Thursday, a woman was in the yard doing some work, and she noticed me lingering at the fence. She came over and asked me if I needed anything.

“Where’s Basil?” I asked, and when she looked puzzled, I said, “Where’s your dog?”

“Oh, you mean Buster? Sorry, honey, he passed away a little after Christmas. He was pretty old, and he had cancer.”

All I could say was, “Oh, ok.” The woman went back to her yard work, and I stood around in the grass, confused. How could Basil just be gone? Why wasn’t I notified via telegram of his premature passing? Worse, how could anyone in their right mind name a dog Buster? I lingered for a bit, but there was nothing else to do, so I went to school.

I just didn’t get it. If there’s one thing Full House had taught me, it’s that dogs don’t just die — they’re recast every season with a dog that looks identical to the last one, and everyone just pretends it’s normal. Prior to Basil, I’d never really dealt with the mortality of a pet before. My cat Meeps had died a couple years before, but it happened on the same day I got a Gameboy, so I was a little too distracted to grieve.

Basil’s death hit hard, though. It felt weird to see his yard empty, so I started taking a different way to school so I didn’t have to think about it. Besides Meeps, my only experience with grieving animals came from my VHS copy of All Dogs Go to Heaven, the gravity of which was undercut by the fact that Charlie the German Shepherd comes back to life in the sequel and makes out with an Irish Setter. I had to come to terms with the fact that Basil wouldn’t get a sequel — not even a crappy straight-to-video Christmas special.

It’s been two decades since Basil died, but I still think about him a lot. He made me love animals and want to always be surrounded by them, and he made me understand how precious it is to have that opportunity. I have two cats of my own now, and whenever I think of Basil I make sure to give them lots of hugs, even though they hate it and probably wish I’d leave them alone forever.

I don’t know what I’d do if my cats ever died. Luckily they’ll live forever, so I won’t have to worry about it.

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