Pets can fill many roles in our lives. For Leonard, one role was a ticket to a party.
Leonard Bessom and the Pet Parade was published in Fiction on the Web (fictionontheweb.com) on August 23, 2016.
Leonard Bessom and the Pet Parade
A lifetime ago Leonard Bessom and I were in the fifth grade. Back then school days usually started with pushing our bikes into the racks, pulling our lunch bags from our bike baskets, and heading to our classroom.
One particular day we met Sally Davis going to class and we all walked together. Sally turned toward Len and me, her blond finger curls bobbing, and asked, ”Are you guys going to be in the pet parade?”
“Pet parade? What pet parade?” Len asked, brushing his tousled red hair away from his eyes.
“It’s the weekend after next. There are prizes and a big party in the park at the end. There’ll be cake and a clown, too. Everyone’s bringing their pets. I’m taking my cat Snowball.”
“I don’t have a pet,” Len said.
“I don’t, either,” I said.
“Well, maybe you should get one.”
At lunch we were eating with Chuckie Seagars. His kinky blond hair was cut short on the sides and long on the top so his narrow face looked real long. Chuckie looked in his lunch bag then looked up and declared, “Mom forgot my Fritos.” He looked at Len and me. “Wanna share some of your Fritos? I’ll trade you some animal cookies.”
Those cookies were the kind with frosting and colored sprinkles, my favorite. I traded all my Fritos, but Len traded only some of his.
Len asked Chuckie, “Are going to the be in the pet parade?”
“Naw. Joey’s taking Godfrey, but I’m going to the party.” Joey was Chuckie’s little brother. He was in second grade.
Len’s blue eyes got big. “You can go to the party without a pet?”
“No, but we share Godfrey.”
“Why does Joey want to take Godfrey, anyway?” I asked. “I thought Godfrey was too strong for Joey to walk on a leash.”
“He is, but Joey thought it would be cool to wear his Davy Crocket coonskin cap while he walked Godfrey, so my folks said it was okay if they walked along with him.”
Len grinned. “Wearing a coonskin cap while walking a raccoon is kinda cool.”
I smiled at the thought. Then I asked Chuckie, “Why did you name your raccoon ‘Godfrey,’ anyway?”
Chuckie reached for another Frito. “I like telling people, ‘My raccoon is God.'” Len rolled his eyes.
Just then Wayne O’Hara joined us. Wayne was a little shorter than most kids and always had jeans that were way too long so the legs were folded up into large cuffs. He sat down and opened his lunch sack when Chuckie asked, “Hey Fiftysix, do you have any Fritos?”
“Sorry,” he said. “Just potato chips.” Chuckie shrugged.
Last year we had to learn our times tables. When we thought we knew them, we would go the front of the class and recite them to our teacher, Mrs. Lindh. When Wayne went up to recite his sevens, he remembered all of them except seven times eight. And when he did his eights, he remembered all of them except eight times seven. He went up several times and knew everything from the twos through the nines, except he was always blank at seven times eight and eight times seven. Finally Mrs. Lindh told the class that we all had to help Wayne remember that the answer was fifty-six. So we all began calling him Fiftysix. He finally learned his times tables, but we still called him Fiftysix.
Len asked, “Hey, Fiftysix, are you going to be in the pet parade?” ”Yeah,” he softly drawled. I think he’s from Texas. “I’m takin’ our dog.”
“Does he do any tricks?” I asked.
“He loves to fetch sticks and he comes when we call him, mostly.”
“What kinda dog is he?” asked Len.
“I dunno. My dad says he’s some kinda sheep dog mix. He’s big and white.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“My dad named him ‘Moby Richard,’ but we just call him Moby.” He reached into his bag.
Len took another bite of his sandwich as he watched a lone black ant struggle to pick up one of the sprinkles from an animal cookie. Just when the ant lifted it, Chuckie flicked it off the table.
Chuckie looked up at Len and me and asked, “Are you guys going to be in the parade?”
I looked over at Len. “Yeah, of course,” he replied. “We just need to get a pet.”
After school Len and I pulled our bikes from the rack. I asked him, “What kind of pet do you think we should get?”
“I dunno. I don’t want anything like a dog or a cat ’cause they need too much taking care of.”
“How about a lizard? You and me have had lizards before so we know how to take care of them.”
“Hmm. Good idea.” He paused as he looked toward the sky, but he wasn’t looking at anything. Then he looked at me and said, “But they’ve built houses on that lot where we caught ’em before. We’ll have to find someplace else to catch ’em.”
“Oh. Yeah.” We got on our bikes and headed home.
Before we got to the first corner, I could see Len tilt his head. He slowed his pedaling. He turned to me squinting his eyes like when he’s thinking. “Do you still have that aquarium?”
“Yeah. It’s in the hall closet.”
“It’s a little bigger than mine, isn’t it?”
His eyes brightened. “Then that’s what we’ll do.”
“I’ll put my aquarium inside yours and we’ll fill the space in between with dirt, even the floor part. And then we’ll put ants in there.” He grinned.
“Ants? Our pets are gonna be ants?”
“Why not? They’re easy to take care of and we’ll have the biggest, best ant farm ever. It’ll have ants on four sides and the bottom, too. It’ll be so cool. We’ll just put it on your wagon and pull it in the parade. Whaddya think?”
“We won’t get any prize, but we don’t need a prize. It’ll be way cool. And we can go to the party. C’mon.”
I thought about a giant ant farm with ants on four walls and the floor. And I thought some of the girls would think it was too creepy. I smiled. “Yeah! Let’s do it!” And we rode home as fast as we could.
That afternoon we put our aquariums together and filled the space in between with fine, dark dirt we collected from Len’s mother’s flower garden. All we needed was ants. I looked at Len. “Where are we gonna get ants?”
“I dunno. We can check the lunch area and ask everybody at school tomorrow. I bet someone has ants in his yard.”
Before class started, we checked the lunch area, but there wasn’t a single ant in sight. During the day we asked everyone we bumped into, “You got ants?” The answer was always “No” or “I don’t think so.” By the end of the day I was beginning to worry.
After school as we pulled our bikes from the rack, I looked over at Len and asked, “What are we gonna do now? We can’t go to the party without being in the parade, and we can’t be in the parade without a pet, and we aren’t gonna have any pets unless we get some ants. And nobody has any ants. Maybe we should go lookin’ through some vacant lots for ants.”
Len screwed up his face as though he were thinking or trying to decide. Then from across the bike rack I heard Sally’s voice, “You want ants? Why didn’t you ask? I got ants in my back yard.”
Len and I looked at each other then looked at Sally and in unison said, “Yeah!” I guess we had asked everyone except Sally.
We rode home to get some wide-mouth glass jars to collect ants and met back at Sally’s house. She showed us a little mound of dirt with a hole in the top in her back yard. It was busy there. Ants walked in and out like people at the gates to the county fair. The ants were deep red and so large that we could pick them up one at a time and not mash them in our fingers. Len and I looked at each other and smiled.
We dug two holes not too far away from the anthill and buried our jars up to their rims. Then we sprinkled some sugar on the dirt around each jar and waited. It wasn’t long before some scouts found the treasure, carried a sample back to the colony, and told everyone where to find more. A trickle of ants flowed toward our sugar and a trickle of ants flowed back to the anthill, each carrying a precious granule. We watched and waited. When the trickle became a stream, we sprinkled a lot more sugar right at the rim of each jar. Soon the stream became a flood. The ants elbowed and climbed over each other to get to it. That’s when we sprang the trap.
While the ants were piling up at the rim of each jar, we just brushed them in. They fell to the bottom, and the glass sides were too slick for them to climb back out. Now that the entire colony knew about the treasure, new ants kept coming and we kept brushing them in. The ants were piling up inside the jars pretty fast.
Len was kneeling over one jar and I was kneeling over the other. Sally was kneeling in between, watching both of us. She giggled and clapped her hands at how easy and fast we were collecting those tiny sugar mongers. She looked down into Len’s jar and then scooted over and looked into mine to watch them fill. Suddenly she jumped up. “Yeow! Ack!” She brushed her arms and legs. She stamped her feet and backed away from the anthill. She slapped her butt. She lifted her skirt and brushed her legs.
When we saw flashes of pale blue panties, Len and I grinned and chimed in with, “I see Paris. I see France. I see Sally’s underpants.”
Sally ran into her house, slapping her butt, stomping her feet, and calling, “Mom! Mom!” The screen door slammed behind her.
Our jars were now so full that the ants near the top were climbing out. We brushed in some last captives and put on the lids. We walked to our bikes brushing the ants from our arms.
Just as got to our bikes, we both realized that we had ants all over us. “Aaah! Aaah!” We stomped our feet, brushed our legs, brushed our shirts, and did it all over again. But it wasn’t enough. They were inside our clothes, too. “Aaah! Aaah!” We pulled off our t-shirts, shook them, and brushed our bodies. We pulled off our jeans, shook them. And brushed our legs. Ants were inside our underwear, too. “Aaah! Aaah!” We reached inside and brushed them out. We slapped our butts where we felt bites. “Aaah! Aaah!”
We were slapping our butts, brushing our bodies, and dancing around in our underwear in Sally’s yard when she came back out wearing different clothes. She giggled and yelled, “I see Paris. I see France. I see your two underpants!”
Len and I shook our clothes once more, yanked them on, and rode our bikes outta there. We twitched as we pedaled and slapped ourselves because some ants were still biting us. We heard Sally laughing as we rode away.
The ants settled quickly in their new home, digging tunnels everywhere. Our super ant farm looked really cool with ant tunnels in all four walls and the floor. Len’s dad made a screen cover for it just to be sure they couldn’t escape. The pet parade was only three days away and we were all set.
Len and I removed the screen cover and took turns putting our heads inside the aquarium to admire the tunnels on all four sides and the bottom. It was like being in outer space of a dirt universe. I was feeling quite satisfied, but then Len squinted his eyes and tilted his head.
“It would be cool to put a fish in the aquarium,” he said.
“Yeah. Just a goldfish. I bet no goldfish has seen ant tunnels before.”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “Or any ants seen a goldfish before, either. Let’s do it.”
“Okay. I’ll ask Mom to get us a goldfish.”
“Great! We’ll call it Goldie.”
“Goldie? Naw. Every goldfish is named Goldie.”
“Well, what should we call it, then?”
Len squinted his eyes and tilted his head. He held that pose for a few seconds. Then he opened his eyes wide and smiled. “I got it.”
“You know how in the olden days people tried to turn lead into gold?”
“Well, we got the gold… a goldfish. We can turn it into lead, sort of. We can name it Lead.”
I laughed. “Yeah! We’ll turn gold into lead! Lead’s a great name!”
Len’s mom got us the fish and his dad helped us set up the aquarium filters and stuff for when Lead was at home. Lead swam around and looked at the toys and aquarium plants we put in for him. He seemed curious about the ants, but they ignored him.
Even with Lead in them, our aquariums were not only aquariums. They formed a giant ant farm, too. We couldn’t call it just an ant farm or just an aquarium. We decided to call it an antaquarium and were pleased at how clever we were. The parade was the next day.
Everybody in town lined the parade route. The parade started at the empty lot near the west end of Main Street. That’s where the judges met everyone and their pets. The parade ended at the city park on Adams. A Boy Scout troop was at the head of the parade. Len and I traded off pulling our wagon with our antaquarium. We walked with Sally who carried Snowball. Up ahead of us a few entries was Fiftysix with Moby, and behind us a few entries was Joey with Godfrey. As we walked down the street, we smiled and waved at our friends and neighbors. They clapped and cheered. The junior high marching band and some baton twirlers were near the middle of the parade just ahead of Fiftysix and Moby.
The band played and the baton twirlers strutted their stuff. One twirler tossed hers high into the air. It spun around and around, its end ribbons flashing and sparkling like fireworks. But when she went to catch it, the sun was directly in her eyes, and she had to look away. She missed her catch, and the baton bounced on the pavement.
Moby bolted from Fiftysix and ran for the baton. The twirler snatched it away just as Moby arrived. Suddenly Moby found there was no stick to fetch and he was free. He looked around. He saw Snowball in Sally’s arms, woofed, and bounded over to her. Snowball jumped off our antaquarium cover and ran across the street to a nearby tree. Moby bounded after her and jumped over our antaquarium, bumping it hard and knocking it into the street. Ants, dirt, and water splashed onto the pavement, trapping the ants in dark mud. Lead flopped around trying to find deep water.
Godfrey’s eyes lit up in his mask and he jerked free from Joey. He grabbed Lead and ran to a nearby lawn where a small sprinkler was on. He crouched in the sprinkler, washing Lead and, just as Joey and his dad grabbed his leash, swallowed him in one gulp. Godfrey walked back obediently with them. When he passed me he appeared to be grinning. When they all got back to Joey’s mom, Godfrey shook himself like a dog, spraying water everywhere. Joey’s mom turned away, yelling, “Eww! God’s all wet!” People nearby looked at her with stern expressions.
It took Sally a little while to coax Snowball out of the tree after Fiftysix took Moby away. We waited for her as the parade continued on to the park.
Len and I didn’t feel sad about losing Lead and the ants. We hadn’t gotten attached to them. When Snowball came back down, the three of us and Snowball went to the party with our empty antaquarium.
It looked like the whole town was there, not just the kids in the parade. There was a clown making balloon animals, and a juggler, and a magician making small things appear and disappear. There was ice cream, cake, popcorn and punch for everyone. The junior high band even played a few songs before they quit and joined the party.
Then the mayor announced the prizes. There were prizes for “Cutest Cat” (ten ties), “Handsomest Dog” (six ties), “Prettiest Bird” (four ties),”Cuddliest Looking” (four ties) and on and on. There were a lot of categories and each one had a lot of ties. Each pet got a ribbon award as best something. Each pet except Len’s and mine. But we didn’t expect any prizes. We were just glad to be at the party, having a good time with our friends and their pets.
And then the mayor called out our names. The crowd got quiet and looked at us. Len and I looked at each other, puzzled. How could our pets win a prize? Not only were they not pet-like, they didn’t even make it to the end of the parade alive. The mayor smiled and announced that our pets didn’t win any prizes. However, WE had won first place in the new category of “Most Pets.” There were no ties. Everyone clapped. Len and I smiled wide smiles.