So, we had a houseguest for two weeks. We have a small house and the floor space is limited so it's not a place for extended company but he was a remarkably easy guest. He stayed in his room, was very quiet, didn’t object to my watching “Sons of Anarchy.” He even brought his own food though, in truth, I could have done without a fortnight of opening my fridge to a plastic jar of “Meal Worms.”
It began, as everything modern does, with an email. “Can Cyril stay with you?” My friend and her family were heading out of town for two weeks and their lizard-sitter dropped out at the last minute. Perhaps he'd received a more glamorous offer, maybe something involving a gila-monster. In any case, I gladly offered my home and a half-hour later, Cyril arrived. He had a large rectangular terrarium, a water bowl, a food bowl, a big stick for lizarding on and under, a mesh lid to keep out interlopers (such as cats) and a heating lamp. We placed him in the laundry room, the room with the largest unused table. I was given the meal worm jar and told to feed him every three days or so. “If you forget to feed him for a couple of days,” my friend explained, adjusting his light over his lizarding stick, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. He’ll just bite you when you put in his worms. But he doesn’t have any teeth.”
Daughter, having been excited at the idea of a new pet, grew instantly indifferent when confronted with food that wriggled as live worms tend to do and the plausible threat of punitive lizard biting, however toothless. Cyril sat on his lizarding stick and squinted at me. I made a silent vow not to let it get that far.
Over the next few days, I learned how little effort it requires to micromanage a reptile. I’d look into his cage and notice he had kicked some sand into his water so I’d carefully clean the bowl and freshen the water. Ten minutes later the water was a sand-colored slurry just like before. I would clean out rice-sized extrusions of lizard dung but an hour later, I'd walk by and notice a poop exactly where I had removed the last one. It seems that: a) Cyril knew exactly how he wanted things to be, and b) I was actively ruining his chances to be on the cover of Lizard Living Monthly
. What most amazed me was how he completed all his domestic chores without me once ever catching him moving. Every time I checked in on him, he was either on the lizarding stick, under the lizarding stick, or sitting next to the lizarding stick, practicing his insouciant glance into the middle distance. Every third day, I’d pick out the fattest meal worms and deliver his supper. Every fourth day, the meal worms would be gone and the lizard would be exactly where I had seen him last, on his stick, nowhere near the food or the carefully situated, rice-sized poop. He was mystifying without actually being interesting.
Day six, I came into the laundry room and discovered our cat, Anne, sitting on the top of the cage. She stared in rapt, tiger-like fascination down at the lizard. Cyril, showing more interest in her than he ever showed in me, his housekeeper, stared back up at her, equally motionless. The mesh which was meant to separate them bowed ominously. I shrieked, dashed in and removed the cat from the room. But the bell had been rung. The ingénues
now knew there was something in the house which was very, very interesting. It awakened some part of their brains which told them, You know, food doesn’t always come from the impossible-to-open storage bin next to the dryer. Sometimes food is a wonderful game
. First, I tried to keep them out of the laundry room altogether but that was their turf, they knew all the secret portals in and out. Then I tried putting a towel over the cage to help them forget. No dice. Unless I wanted to spend the next fifteen days as a reptilian bodyguard, I needed to find Cyril a safer place to live.
[I must confess, adding to my resume the phrase: Reptilian Bodyguard, 2010. References available on request,
sounds very appealing right now.]
I moved Cyril into the garage. The cats never went out there so he’d be safe. The only down side, the reason I kept having to move foster cats out of there
, was that it gets pretty hot in the garage. But Cyril was a creature who traveled with his own heat lamp, so I guessed spending two weeks in a garage for a lizard would be like me spending two weeks in a caramel factory which also manufactured feather beds, Vanity Fair
magazines and the occasional gin and tonic. Cyril would be warm and I wouldn’t be required to tell a wonderful friend that my cat ate her lizard. All would be well.
I don’t know how much meteorology you follow but a couple of weeks ago we had a real heat wave out here.
[Completely unrelated note: Daughter got it into her head one day that she wanted dim sum for lunch. She swore she’d practice her Chinese on the waitstaff if I took her for dim sum so I took her for dim sum. She used all six of her words. When we walked from the car to the restaurant in Chinatown, I thought to myself “This might be the most unpleasant day I’ve ever experienced in Los Angeles.” Turns out, I was right. That was the day the temperature hit 116 degrees in downtown Los Angeles. We were in downtown Los Angeles. Think of 116 degrees. Now add the smells of exhaust, alley urine and fried pork. To this add the fact that I don’t especially like dim sum. We were two of four people in the entire restaurant because even if you do like dim sum it’s ungodly to eat dim sum when it’s 116 degrees outside. Whatever epic flaws I have as a mother, I did that.]
For the several days of the heat wave, Cyril certainly didn’t need his heat lamp. Every hour or so, I checked his cage thermometer; if it was over 100 degrees, I’d open the garage door and hang out with him until it was under 100 degrees again. I added an ice cube to his dish, to create cool fresh water. He sat on his lizarding stick and tried his best to pretend he was alone, never so much as glancing at me. I now have some sense of what it will be like to take Daughter to the mall when she’s fifteen.
Finally, the heat broke. And then it broke further, and then a little further still. A week to the day after 116 degrees, it was 60 degrees and raining. We won’t even discuss my wardrobe issues. Now I had a lizard that needed his cage to stay 80 degrees living in an outbuilding with no heat and no insulation. What had been trips the garage to make sure he wasn’t turning into a raisin now became trips to the garage to make sure he wasn’t turning into a lizardsicle. I kept the heating lamp on all the time now, but worried that leaving it on at night would generate insufficient warmth and turn Cyril's cage into a reptilian version of Abu Ghraib. One afternoon, I brought the cage back into the laundry room but within minutes I found a cat curling around the cage staring in fascination at the new, blinking chew toy. Out Cyril went again, back to the garage. On went the light. I whispered, “I’m so sorry” to the lizard that huddled under his lizarding stick and gazed at me phlegmatically. I obsessed about whether lizards experienced a REM cycle and what quality of life they'd have if deprived of it.
This Thursday morning, my friend’s husband called. They were back from their trip and would swing by in about an hour to pick up Cyril. I pranced out to the garage to let Cyril know his family was coming to get him and stopped in alarm. The heat lamp was off. Then I remembered that it had been hot in the garage the day before and I decided to give him a couple of hours of semi-darkness before turning it back on for the night. Only I had never remembered to come back out and turn it on. Fearfully, I tip-toed to the cage. Cyril was under the lizarding stick, unresponsive. This wasn’t surprising, as I had never actually seen Cyril in a state I’d call responsive
, but this seemed less responsive than usual. I opened the lid and poked him, then I prodded him. Then I tipped him over, his little legs locked in an imitation of the lizarding stick. He had all the animation of a paperweight. Great. I had taken good care of Cyril for two weeks and managed to kill him in the final eight hours
Then, my favorite medical saying came to mind: “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.”
I lugged Cyril's cage and heat lamp back into the laundry room and whispered to him. Not that I wanted a warm dead lizard in my house but if children can fall into freezing-cold rivers, be without a pulse for an hour and be reanimated without neurological damage, I was going to bake myself a lizard and hope for the best. I turned the heat lamp on and wrapped the cage in a towel, to hold in the heat and dissuade the cats. After ten minutes, I unwrapped the towel; he was still on his back, but his legs looked less rigid. Another twenty minutes, another towel unwrapping; he was on his feet again. Ten minutes after that, he was at the top of his lizarding stick, getting as close to the heat lamp as he could. I might quibble that it would have been nice to see him actually move, but I’d accept he had the lizard-movement version of a shy bladder just so long as he wasn’t, you know, dead.
My friend's husband arrived a few minutes later with the kids. We collected the terrarium from the laundry room and the meal worms from the fridge. Having sworn I wasn’t going to say anything, of course I promptly whispered the entire story to the father as the children threatened each other with meal worms. “Would have been fine by me,” he said, looking bleakly at Cyril, “Robin, too. We never thought he’d last this long. I'm sure Jack (their youngest) would have been upset, so it worked out for the best. I guess.” Then he smiled, thinking I'm sure of a lizard-free lifestyle. " Of course, we just would have blamed it on you."
They thanked me sincerely for caring for Cyril. I thanked Cyril for somehow surviving my care. They drove off. I went to have a small lie-down on my lizarding stick.