The Embarrassment of Anoles

I’ve mentioned elsewhere on Goat Waters that I was involved, during my youth, in a pet smuggling ring.  Really, it was only a ring if I held my own hands and danced in a circle, though if I want to think expansively it could be argued that my father was involved in the plot, my brother was the ringer, and mom kept her mouth shut, fretting and abetting as we passed through security.

“Smuggling Anoles” could have been the title for this entire blog.  It’s not that much more obscure than “Goat Waters,” but at least three problems attended it as a potential blog title.  First, although I’ve eaten many goats, I’ve only smuggled lizards once, so the smuggling is a retrospective highlight, not a cyclically recurring event, a moveable feast on my calendar of quasi-religious pilgrimages to the Caribbean.  Goat vittles are my moveable feast.  Second, put ‘smuggling’ in a blog title and, sure as the sun rises, some thick headed goon with a badge and a gun will try to justify their salary seeking to shut down the blog or worse for promoting illegality or environmental atrocities, when in fact it’s merely an old tale about a boy, obsessed with lizards, who needed a vacation project so his folks could find some moments of peace and quiet.  Thirdly, everyone I’ve met knows what a goat is, but an anole?

Slyly lean over towards a co-worker and whisper, in the voice of conspiracy, “There’s an anole dangling from my calf.”  Or, “Yesterday I caught my son playing with his anole – again – after I begged him not to.”  Trust me, most folks, after they reckon you as an unusual bird, will think you possess a young farm animal with a pendulant anomaly, or a child who is less than discreet in matters where discretion matters most.  As it turns out, to my parents’ eternal chagrin, I was rarely discreet with my anoles, even when I tried to be.

This is the moment of concern when I ask myself, “What is the statute of limitations on smuggling anoles?”  I considered the relative safety of embracing a Hunter S. Thompson-esque masquerade, going gonzo as a thin veil to shroud my light-fingered herpetological admissions.  I could argue that my little brother was an angel from Hell, that my mother, but for conceiving us, was an innocent lass leary of any embarrassment, and that my hulking father stood stead as a giant Samoan man, aiding and abetting because, why not?  I do fear penal colonies, but not so much as I loathe dissembling.  For my children, for my readers, I must embrace the shame of my outlaw past.  Whether or not I was an ass remains to be debated, but let no man claim I was not a lizard mule.

I was ten or thereabouts.  During the year of the lizards, I know we were in the new house on Stillwater because it was there in my mother’s patch of herbs and marigolds that I eventually released the surviving embarrassment of anoles.  My father was an executive with his father’s firm at that time.  More and more often, he became the face and the voice of the company.  He was being groomed to inherit the presidency.  Nepotism rules.  Certainly his roles entailed a lot of work – too much – we rarely saw the man except on his working vacations.  We moved from a rural neighborhood, where dad mowed the lawn in cut-off jean shorts with the top half of his hirsute girth naked as a newborn, to the yuppitiest neighborhood in reach of his office, “for the good schools.”  At least there was a river in the backyard, wider than the creek we’d left behind.  The other benefit of pops movin’ on up was the annual travel benefits.  We got to fly!

Dad was sent to represent the company at national industry conventions, which always seemed to be held in island resorts outside the continental United States.  The first year we attended, it was the Bahamas.  I seem to recall spending a fair bit of time in the hotel room reading and doing Mad Libs if mom & dad jointly attended a corporate dinner, or spending the day in the sand and the water with mom watching over us while dad attended meetings.  One day dad took the whole family to a Bahamian market and bought my brother and I maracas from the fattest, most gaudily dressed black woman I’d ever seen; I can still see flashes of her smile as the most vivid memory of that trip.  A year later we were headed to Puerto Rico.

During that time between islands, probably on account of having seen lizards in the Bahamas, I became a devotee of Anolis Carolinensis and all their color shifting brethren and sistren.   Truth is, the chameleons I first saw in the Bahamas weren’t chameleons at all, and, though they were anoles, they wouldn’t have been Carolina Anoles.  Still, the pet shop out at Park City, our first generation mall with Sears, Gimbals, and Watt & Shand, as three of the four anchors, had a swarming aquarium filled with American Chameleons, and I needed some.  The shop was owned and operated by the father of a school acquaintance, Harry.  I thought he was the luckiest kid in the world.  He’d mentioned that he spent a lot of time cleaning poop out of cages on the weekends and after school.  Small price to pay for hosting thousands of animals.

Before embarking on any new venture, I read up as much as possible.  I needed a terrarium, sun, shelter, water, plus a supply of crickets and mealworms.  Next I weeded my grandmother’s flower beds because cash was essential.  The aquarium I may have bought at a yard sale for a dollar, but it’s just as likely that I scrounged one from the attic, leftover from my dad’s attempts to keep tropical fish when I was in second or third grade, back when he had time for a hobby.  I badgered my dad into making a tight screen top for the aquarium, and promised I’d keep that hatch battened down with at least two bricks.  We’d already experienced the dismay – a fit of horror, actually – when my mother had lifted a throw rug to sweep beneath it and discovered my missing newt, mummified.

Once the lodging was arranged, all I had to do was wait for mom to go shopping at the mall.  I volunteered to keep her company.  What normal boy wants to go dress shopping?  But she was a little naive and that worked to my benefit.  We parked, entered the Gimbal’s wing, trekked to some boutique or other in one of the radiating hallways.  I smiled, sat in a chair near the dressing rooms while she hunted out several dresses to try on.  Then she stepped into the dressing room.  I silently slapped my book shut, left it on the chair to save my seat, then before she could emerge from the dressing room, I bolted to the pet shop.  I assured the owner that mom had brought me to the mall for Chameleons, but they bored her, so she decided to dress shop while I picked out the right ones.  I was a regular face in his store.  It was a sale.  Why argue?  Five minutes later I was back, sitting quietly, reading my book, as mom stepped forth with an armful of discards and one perfect dress for an upcoming cocktail party.  There I was, sweet son, with a little brown bag by my side, unnoticed.  Innocent as you please.  In the bag: a box.  In the box: a male anole, and a female.  I wanted to have babies.

“What’s in the bag, Rusty?”  Drat, she noticed.

“Ummmm, Chameleons…they can change colors.  That’s really cool, right?”

“You bought lizards?  When?”

“You took for-ev-er trying on dresses; I finished my book, decided to visit the pet store, and they were on sale.”

“On sale, or for sale?”

“Probably.  Harry’s dad was really nice.  He totally understood that you were busy dress shopping, so he let me get them.”

“Wasn’t that thoughtful of him.  Did you get food for these things?”

“No.  I didn’t have enough money, but I figure I can catch bugs in the yard.”

“Let’s go see Harry’s dad one more time.  I’ll buy the crickets and mealworms.”

Mom, frazzled as I kept her, was always helpful, and it seemed, now and then, like she must have paid attention to my incessant rambling, even when I thought she was tuning me out.  How else could she have known what little lizards eat?

Over the next many months, I became the resident expert on anoles.  And catching anoles.  Anoles are exceptionally good at escaping.  They escape even more easily if you take the lid off the cage, hoping to get them out of the cage so you can play with them.  There were frequently anoles on the loose, and I was always hunting them down, pinning them to the window with an aquarium net, or swinging much larger butterfly nets at them as I jumped from my bed, trying to scrape them, safely, from the ceiling and back into my control in the moment before I thumped to the floor.  If the lizards were lower, in reach, I perfected the slow approach, the stalking hand, and the lightening capture.  If I could position myself well, I discovered it was possible to distract an anole’s attention by gently wiggling a finger of my left hand while the right hand moved in from behind.  Rarely did I snap a tail, I never, that I know, did I hurt a rib or a leg.  This was swift, tender, seizure.

When dad announced, “They company is sending us to Puerto Rico for a week,” I was trained and ready, and hopeful that Puerto Rico was infested with lizards.

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To be continued….