My Mother, Killing A Lizard
Dottie was chasing a male fence lizard with a machete. I knew it was male because it’d flipped onto its back while running away, revealing its jewel-like blue belly.
“They’re like rats,” she said. “Kill them all or they’ll take over.” The lizard scurried further into the kitchen, not bothering to hide under the fridge. It paused like a dare in the open doorway. “You wouldn’t understand.”
My mother got knocked up in New York City, 1960, and never let me forget it: how she’d sweat standing still, her belly swollen and sore; how the rats would taunt her, perched on the stovetop, finding crumbs to eat no matter how well she cleaned. She soon learned not to bother. She moved to Florida before I could form memory. I never got around to moving myself. By thirty, I knew I wasn’t one for change; by fifty, it was best I stay to help out.
Dottie lunged around the room in spasms, white hair pulsing under the ceiling fan. Her energy regressed each year, and by that I mean increased. Sometimes I wondered if I had dementia and she was the daughter—that’s how fast she could run when the mood struck.
By thirty, I knew I wasn’t one for change; by fifty, it was best I stay to help out.
I had no clue where she got a machete but I wasn’t so worried. My mother could handle a weapon. Dottie: delicate as a brick thrown through a window. She kept a hammer on her nightstand my entire life, ready to fight off intruders.
I asked where she found the knife. “Oh, it was out in the grass,” she said as she swung the blade down. It cleaved into the hardwood with a satisfying heft. The lizard, all but its tail, ran outside. Dottie tried but couldn’t pull the blade out of the floor. She gave up, shrugging.
Somewhere in the backyard the lizard ran about, bleeding among the years and years of unattended fallen leaves, of piled, rain-swollen copies of Osceola Daily News. We would never find its body; even the bones would dry to dust in the sun.
My mother knifed a pat of butter into a wok. She watched it melt, a puddle thinning. She looked capable, interested. A doctor told me—Dottie sent to wait outside the exam room—that my mother could no longer work a stove alone. He said I should hide the kitchen knives, store the pans out of reach. I shook the doctor’s latex-covered hand on the way out the door. His fingers squeezed like hot sausages bursting their casing. “Good thing I don’t get a second to myself,” said my mother. Dottie: capable of expanding her hearing when threatened.
I had no clue where she got a machete but I wasn’t so worried.
My mother ignored health warnings as best she could. She still drank gin at sundown, though lately she’d been asking for warm milk in a baby voice straight from a horror film. I didn’t dare heat milk; 80 degrees in the house, with all the fans going. Mother always smiled when it turned out to be her G&T. I’d never deny her those smiles.
“Lizard,” she said, holding the tail in front of her face. “Can’t be worse for you than a hot dog.” Mother, in fact, subsisted on hot dogs and Ensure; balance, she’d say, grinning, one in each hand. I’d begun buying turkey dogs, placing them, cold and slimy, into Tupperware, hiding the labels deep under other trash.
Dottie dropped the tail into the pan. Butter sprayed across the stove, layering fresh yellow grease over older stains, engulfing coffee grinds into something like amber.
I wondered if fence lizards were poisonous, and if that’d be such a bad end. If she were merely expanding her diet—nutrients without nitrates; lizard as fresh, local food.
“Oh! It’s just a shriveled little thing,” she said. “Sort of cute, like an umbilical cord or beef jerky.”
She pulled a bun from the bag in the fridge.
“Ma,” I said. “No.”
She added the blackened tail to the bun.
“How about Red Lobster?” I asked.
She re-opened the fridge, bending at the waist, her entire body nearly fitting inside. “No ketchup,” she said, standing. Her frown was so deep cut I froze, a look like she might tell the doctor I force-fed her lizard. She threw the bun back toward the wok, missing it. “I have your umbilical cord around here somewhere, sweetheart.”
“Lizard,” she said, holding the tail in front of her face. “Can’t be worse for you than a hot dog.”
“Okay, Mom, you’ll have to show me sometime.” I’d seen it, of course, shriveled like a pinky without a bone, or—she was right—a severed tail. I’d seen the sandy curls from my first haircut in 1964. All of my milk teeth jangling in a plastic bag. My mother kept no art projects or report cards, no photographs—just what I’d shed from my body in case I’d need it back.
She let me lead her to the front porch, our drinks sweating in my palms. “You don’t understand those rats,” she said. She looked at me, growing nervous, trying to find the trail of a former conversation. “Besides,” she said, hands waving, “lizards are ugly as sin.”
We sat quietly in our rocking chairs. We forgot mother had removed the batteries from the smoke detector for the remote control. We didn’t smell the hot dog bun burning on the stove. When black smoke began to pour from the windows, we walked across the street. The melting vinyl siding hung like Spanish moss off the trees. Firemen rushed to the house. The house, to the ground. Shingles peppered the driveway. “Ma,” I said, pointing to where we’d always lived, “you got all the lizards.” She put her hands on my shoulders, her head to my chest. We both smiled. We started dancing when the house burned down.