HIS NAME WAS COWBOY, AND he was big and hairy, with mean, dark eyes. He wasn’t likable; he made people nervous, and they kept their distance. But something about him kept their attention too: his inhuman stillness, maybe, coupled with an unnerving sense of watchfulness. His only endearing quality was that he was decidedly bowlegged, which is how he got his name, as he wasn’t really a cowboy at all. He was our pet tarantula.
Although I’m hazy on the details of where we acquired Cowboy (somewhere in the Panhandle, on one of our meandering Sunday drives), I do have a memory of laughing hysterically with my mother and siblings as, safely ensconced inside the station wagon, we watched my father try to coax Cowboy into a coffee can, only to jump into the air every time the spider sprang in his direction. Why my father had decided to corral Cowboy I don’t know; I suspect my little brother, Bill, had begged him to catch what was, even for a tarantula, a hefty specimen. At any rate, we kept Cowboy for a long time in a terrarium in the family room, where he seemed content and where we used to gaze at him for hours. (He was a “pet” only in the noun sense of the word; Lord knows we never touched him.) My sisters and I used to try to convince Bill, the baby of the family, that gosh, no, he wouldn’t get in trouble if the terrarium cover were somehow left ajar and Cowboy crawled into the living room during Mother’s bridge club meeting.
My family had plenty of traditional pets when I was growing up—dogs, cats, parakeets—but they were never quite as exciting as those we