Hello, everyone! Well, it’s been a BIT of whirlwind lately. The ONCE AND FOR ALL tour is done (and it’s number four on the NYT list this week, thank you for that!) and I was SO honored to receive the Margaret Edwards Award at ALA in Chicago. I’ve been home for ten days, basically reading, watching Bravo and sleeping. (The cure for all that ails me, always.) I also have been helping out with my husband’s lizard breeding business, Steadfast Lizards, which this weekend meant pitching in at the Repticon Raleigh show. It was QUITE a scene, and reminded me of the first show I went to with him when he was just beginning to be into this hobby, many years ago. I wrote a story about it, which ended up winning second prize in a local paper’s short story contest about a zillion years ago. (I think it was 1995? I was digging through MANY boxes today trying to confirm, but with no luck.) Anyway, just for fun, I thought I would post it. I used to write short stories, believe it or not! I actually have quite a few. Maybe I should do something with them…..
My brother Richard is always being left by women. The morning I arrive to drive him to the reptile conference the latest defector is Suzanne, who is nowhere to be found when I knock on the door seven times before pushing it open. All the signs are there; large square empty spots on the walls, a shade lighter than the space around them, several empty boxes left behind, unneeded, a conspicuous lack of seating. The couch belonged to Suzanne.
“Richard?” I call out in the quietness of the house, and his voice answers me from behind a wall.
It’s the last door on the left, at the end of the hallway. When I open it I immediately begin to sweat; the heaters are going full blast, the one window fogged up with a thick wet mist. He is in front of the big cage, stroking the chin of his biggest one, Liza. She was named after another lost girlfriend, who left many years ago with the dog and the washing machine and the only ring Richard ever bought for any woman. The engagement was assumed to be off when she surfaced in Idaho with a potato farmer, sending a curt postcard that listed Richard’s faults, one by one, like an inventory list.
“Where’s Suzanne?” I say, but I know. We go through this each time.
He is still scratching the lizard’s chin, a rough raspy sound as she turns one eye to glare at me. Liza does not like other women. Harriet, the dancer girlfriend, once found her loose and chased her around the house with oven mitts on and the broom in hand, attempting to catch her. Richard came home to find Harriet, oven mitts and all, weeping on the front porch and Liza sitting triumphant on the bed, keeping even the cat at bay. He says to me slowly, “She left yesterday. I came home and she was packing.”
I liked Suzanne, but I like most of them. She was a teacher, kindergarten, with the kind of long brown hair that little hands love to grasp and a chirpy voice that always made her sound happy, even when she wasn’t. She liked to mother Richard, making him tea and bleaching his T-shirts. She was too sweet for Richard, to simple to understand his utter lack of commitment to anything. They all think they can change him, calling my mother and coming to Christmas dinner to take their place at the table as though they are permanent. We smile at them and let them think this, envisioning all the others that came before them to other Christmases in other outfits with other baked goods.
“I’m sorry,” I say, taking off my jacket as the heat of the lizard room is overcoming me. “She was a nice girl.”
He says nothing, only reaches his hand around the thick green core of Liza’s body and lifting her off her stick while her feet wave madly in the air, reaching to grasp something. She has her own cage now, having dwarfed the growth of any other iguana put in with her; she is a bully, climbing over all the others, her feet splayed across their eyes as she clambers over them en route to the food dish. They would go in healthy and within days be losing weight, shrinking in front of your very eyes. He lost a few that way.
I watch Richard load her into a big carrier, the kind they use for cats or small yelping dogs. He has a few other things he’s taking as well, all stored in little Tupperware containers with holes pricked in their auto-seal lids. He sees me watching and says, “It’s okay. It’s the best way to transport them. Really.”
“Whatever you say.” I am going on this trip in protest, recruited at the last minute because my father sprained his ankle playing croquet the day before and could not drive Richard as promised. Richmond is only two and half hours away and I have been assured I can come back by evening. Besides, my mother told me as she pressed gas money in my hand on the way out the door, Richard and I have never spent much quality time together, at least not since I went off to college. I am on winter break after exams and do not want quality time with my brother, really. We are not close but look alike, with the same blue eyes and round cheeks, and though I know very little about my brother I am always amazed at how much I resemble him, and he me. It seems a contradiction of sorts.
I open the back door and watch Richard load in the carrier and the Tupperware containers, distributing them on the back seat so that they are level. I can see the little ones moving around in their plastic homes, lifting their heads as if perplexed at the sudden blue interior of my Toyota. I follow Richard back in to see if he needs any help, but he is only shutting off heaters in the lizard room and turning off lights. All the cages are empty now.
We get in the car and Richard immediately turns on the heat full blast and directs all vents between us to the back seat. I pull out of the driveway and head up the street, towards I-85 and Richmond.
After we stop for coffee and donuts and a final check of Liza, who is slapping her tail against the side of the carrier and creating loud rustling noises that are making me nervous, we are officially on the road. After a few miles of her banging around I say, “She can’t get out, can she?”
He turns back, checking again, and says, “Oh, no. She just hates that carrier. Usually I let her just crawl around the backseat, or I did when we had the truck. She loved that. But Suzanne took the truck.”
I realize about twenty miles down the road, when the billboards and interesting scenery have given way to the long rows of trees that are the only thing to look at until Charlottesville that I have very little to say to my brother. Normally I would ask about Suzanne—this gets me through most family gatherings, the stock girlfriend questions—but now I am at a loss and I turn to the only other topic I know Richard responds to.
“So are you buying stuff at this lizard conference?”
“It’s a reptile conference,” he corrects me gently. He shrugs. “I don’t know, really. It depends on how much I get for the little guys back there.” He gestures to the Tupperware lizards in the back seat. “I’m hoping to make enough to get a blue tongue, but I’m not sure if it’ll happen.”
“A blue tongue.” I say.
“It’s a kind of skink,” he explains. “From Australia. They have bright blue tongues. But they’re expensive, so I don’t know.”
“Oh.” I say, pretending this is interesting, nodding as we pass a minivan full of kids all up against the back window, waving at us madly. We wave back, my brother and I, in transit.
The Greater Richmond Reptile Conference is being held at a Holiday Inn. It has a big lobby full of plants and fountains, with people mingling around bringing in boxes and carriers. Many of them are wearing lizard T-shirts, although some have frogs. The woman in front of us is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a bright purple frog in a pork pie hat, a souvenir from another conference, in Florida. Apparently, there is a big underground market in lizards and frogs of which the ordinary layman like myself is completely unaware.
Once registered we get on our nametags and proceed to the main conference room, where there are tables set up and lots of people milling around checking out each other’s goods. There are tables showcasing reptile health care, speciality cages, even a lizard magazine that promises a reptile centerfold every month. The girl at that booth is my age, obviously a moonlighting college student, who doesn’t seem to realize how strange it is to see her holding the magazine open, Playboy style, to display a lizard lounging languidly across a rock. I smile and move on, with Richard giggling behind me.
There are terrarium displays, tablefuls of snakes and lizards and frogs, most of which are contained in smaller packages than Richard’s tupperware. He has his own table reserved, even with his small amount of wares. It is in the corner, number 41, and we arrange his stuff on it the best we can and sit down to wait for browsers. We are only a few tables down from the centerfold girl, whose spiel we hear again and again.
There’s a strange mix of people. Huge men in leather with biker tattoos, snakes wrapped around their necks. Short pocket protector types with tucked in T-shirts and glasses (“Frog types,” Richard scoffs as they come by, glance at our table, and move on). Mothers with their young sons, hoping this is just a phase. I feel lost here at the Holiday Inn, forced among hobbyists of something I know nothing about. Even the language seems foreign, all this talk of sphagnum and calcium supplements and the Latin names; eublepharis macularius, chamaeleo dilepis, amphibolurus barbatus, uromastyx hardwicki. Richard, who dropped out of college his sophomore year to work at the DMV, knows all of them.
After an hour or so I go to find us something to drink, hitting up a Pepsi machine outside the main conference room. Behind me a woman and her husband are counting their money, huddled together seeing if they have enough for some creature I can only discern is over three feet long but a vegetarian. I make a note to ask Richard what that could be, later.
When I get back to the table Richard has a prospective buyer deep in negotiations over one of the lizards in the Tupperware. The man considering the purchase is my father’s age, wearing a Marines baseball hat with a bubble of a gut hanging over the waistband of his Wrangler jeans.
“You hatched these yourself?” he asks Richard, peering in close to be eye to eye with the tiny lizard, which hisses at him.
Richard grins. “They’re meanest when they’re young,” he explains both to me and the man, who has stepped back a few paces but is trying not to look surprised. There’s a lot of machismo involved with reptiles, or so I’m noticing.
“Well,” the man says, “I’d be interesting in a little trade, if you’re up for it. I’ve got a good batch of anoles, all healthy, over at my table. I’d give you three for that little guy.”
“Hmmmm.” Richard clicks his tongue. “I don’t think so. I’m not big on anoles.”
“Okay, then,” the man says, obviously a bit offended at being so neatly dismissed. “Well, too bad then.”
“Yeah,” Richard says, depositing the lizard back into its plastic dome. “Thanks anyway.”
The man moves on and Richard takes his seat again. “Anoles,” he scoffs to me. “Like I want a bunch of crappy anoles.”
“Are they bad?” I ask.
“Just boring.” He sips his drink. “And they die in no time flat. Not a good trade.”
I nod, as if I understand all this. We have a few more nibbles in the next hour and sell one leopard gecko baby to a eleven year old boy and his mother, the latter of which stands off to the side biting her cuticle and rolling her eyes and Richard explains how to feed it mealworms, preferably the giant kind. Richard had been asking thirty five, but he gives it to the kid for ten dollars cheaper, Tupperware included. The kid goes off grinning, his mother wincing along behind him.
“That was nice of you,” I say. “Giving the kid a break.”
“Well, his mother didn’t want him to have it, so I figured it was worth it.” He leans over the carrier, checking on Liza, whose eye I can see glaring at me from the back slats. Suddenly he says, “Remember that time Mom found my skink and made me let it loose in the back yard?”
I think back. “Yeah. I remember her screaming.”
“God, she could never deal with lizards. Or even worms or spiders or anything.” He laughs. “She won’t even look in the door of the lizard room, even now. If I show her a picture of Liza she starts to hyperventilate.”
“Mom likes fluffy animals,” I say, thinking of our long line of powderpuff dogs, small and yappy and easily fit into a lap. They blur in my mind with Richard’s girlfriends, almost like binary pairs in math. “You scared the hell out of her when you started bringing that stuff home.”
“Well, it was the freezer thing that did it,” he says, suddenly solemn. “She kicked me out of the house over that.”
“Which freezer thing?”
“You were already off at school,” he says. “I had this chameleon–they’re real hard to keep alive, not hearty at all—and he was dying and suffering, so I had to put him out of his misery. The most humane thing the books all say to do is to put them in the freezer, because then their body temperature drops and they just get unconscious and die, but it’s not painful or anything. So I slipped him into a ziplock one afternoon, put him in the freezer, and figured I’d take him out an hour later long before Mom got home from work and bury him in the back yard.”
“Richard,” I say. “Honestly.”
“No, she wasn’t even going to know, I swear it. But when I went back an hour later and took him out I started to think what if he wasn’t dead, what if he was still conscious a little bit and I buried him alive. I mean, that’s a horrible thing to consider. Horrible. And since I had to get to work I just tucked him back behind the ice trays and figured by the next day he’d be dead for sure and I could bury him then. Without worrying.”
I already knew what was coming.
“But of course she found it,” he says. “She was defrosting the freezer the next morning and moved the ice trays and there it was, all frozen in its little Ziplock bag and she just started screaming, really screaming, and Dad came running down in his underwear and all the neighbors were suddenly up and out in their yards, waiting for the fire trucks and disaster team to arrive and I’m just lying upstairs listening to everything and thinking, man, this kind of thing always happens to me.”
I laugh, seeing my mother with a frozen lizard in her hand, there in her own kitchen. It does not surprise me I have never heard this story. It is not the kind of thing I can imagine her allowing to be repeated.
Richard is laughing too, remembering. “Man, was I in trouble. It was only a week later that Dad sat me down and gave me the Don’t-you-think-it’s-time-you-got-out-on-your-own-Richard talk. So I moved out and in with Marie. Who didn’t like the lizards either.”
He peers back in at Liza, reaching through the bars to scratch her cheek. She leans her head into his hand, craning her neck. I watch him for awhile before I ask, “Why did Suzanne leave?”
He keeps scratching, concentrating. “She wasn’t happy. She wanted to get married and have babies.”
“Lizards weren’t enough for her.” I realize too late this is probably too close to be joking about.
“No. None of them have ever really liked the lizards.” He sits back and Liza sits watching him, ever vigilant. “But they never leave just because of that. There’s always some other, big reason. You know.”
I nod, but I don’t know. Richard is cryptic when it comes to his vanishing girlfriends. My mother uses phrases like lack of commitment, refusal to grow up, unable to face reality, letting the good ones just slip through his fingers. My mother has a phrase for everything, and Richard has always been the one she sighs over her coffee about. He is the kind of person that needs taking care of, or appears to. He draws women in, women who want to lay on hands and make him whole, but end up drained and packing boxes and leaving spaces on the wall where pictures of landscapes used to be.
The reptile magazine centerfold girl comes by on her break, peering in at Liza and lifting the Tupperware to look at the little ones. “I’ve never been any place like this before,” she says to Richard. She is thin with pink lipstick. “It’s so wild.”
Richard smiles back and makes conversation. I watch this girl flirting with my brother, her exaggerated head shakes, hip jutted out, leaning into his hand as he holds the same tiny leopard gecko, then leaping back with an feminine shriek as it hisses at her. As she leaves she tells him to stop by her booth, batting her eyelashes. Love at the lizard show.
“Well,” I say after she is gone, hips swinging, “there you go.”
“She’s young,” Richard says to me quietly. “And I’m tired of watching people pack.”
We sit for another hour and all the little lizards are sold. One to a family, the father listening intently to Richard’s suggestions while the kids giggle at the hissing baby. One to an older woman in a snake T-shirt with a tattoo on her arm and a gruff, cigarette heavy voice. And one to the anole man, who returns with forty dollars and a stack of plastic containers full of anoles, unpurchased. We are left with only Liza, who I fully expect to be packed back into the car with us until a skinny guy in a Motorhead T-shirt comes up, glances into the carrier, and says, “This one for sale?”
“Yeah,” Richard says, and I look at him but he is concentrating on the guy, or on not looking at me. “She’s not cheap, though.”
“Can I take her out?” The guy starts to fiddle with the latch, but Richard reaches across and does it himself.
“Let me.” He opens the door and pulls Liza out, her claws dragging along the plastic bottom of the carrier. She is nervous and climbs up his arm, scratching the skin. She perches on his shoulder, her long tail dragging over his shirt.
“Man, she is enormous.” The guy really wants to hold her, I can tell, and Richard starts to pry her from his shirt but she holds on, as if sensing some kind of danger. Finally Richard hands her over and the guy takes her, only to be scratched immediately. “Does she eat mice and shit like that?”
“No, just vegetables,” Richard says as Liza moves up the guy’s arm, exploring his body. “She likes strawberries the best.”
“Why you getting rid of her?” The guy asks, suddenly suspicious. “She sick or something?”
“No. I just need to find her a good home.”
“Richard.” He won’t look at me.
The guy is trying to pick her up and holding her all wrong, even I can tell. He yanks on the tail and Richard says, “Be careful. She can drop that tail right off if she gets too scared.”
“No way,” the guy says. “Gross.”
“She’ll need a big cage,” Richard says, “and a stick to sit on. You have any other lizards?”
“Just an anole,” the guy says, and I shake my head. As if sensing this he adds defensively, “But he’s real big for an anole.”
Liza is climbing all over the guy now, her tail slapping his face as he tries to pry her off. Richard says, “She’s a good lizard. But she needs a lot of attention. And it’s time consuming.”
“I got time,” the guy says. “How much?”
Richard looks down at the table. “Well, she’s three and I raised her from a baby, so I guess….”
“Man, I’ll just let her run loose in the house, right? Like a dog, right?”
“Well, that’s not a good idea, actually,” Richard says. “She needs to be in a cage, with a heat lamp. She’ll get sick if she isn’t in the proper environment. She needs light and calcium, too. I can write it all down for you, if you want.”
“Nah, I’ll figure it out. How much?”
I stand looking at Richard, my brother, as he watches Liza perch on this man’s shoulder. She stares back at him, head cocked to the side, intent. It seems like a long time passes. A few tables down the centerfold girl is packing up her goods, stacking magazine on magazine into a neat, vertical pile.
“I changed my mind,” Richard says suddenly, and I am surprised at the relief I feel, the charge that goes through me. “I don’t think I’m going to sell her. Not now.”
“Oh, come on.” The guy puts his hand on his hip. “You can’t do that. I’ll pay what you want for her.”
“No, sorry. I shouldn’t have even brought her.” Richard goes around the table and quickly reaches for Liza, who goes willingly onto his arm, her tail dangling down. “Sorry.”
The guy just stares at Richard. “Whatever, man.” He walks off, grumbling under his breath. I want to shout after him that there are probably still anoles available, somewhere.
Liza is returned to her cage and Richard and I don’t talk as we pack up our empty Tupperware and the carrier and head out to the car. I don’t want to ask him for his reasons and he doesn’t want to explain, and that’s okay. It’s late afternoon now, so close to Christmas, and we have a long drive ahead. As we get into the car I turn up the heat, full blast, and my brother and I head back to the highway with Liza behind us and I can feel her eyes on me, boring into my back, as she watches the road ahead.
Copyright Sarah Dessen, 2017.