There were always lizards on the terrace in the long hot summers. He always thought of them as being like quicksilver, liquid lines racing from one spot to another. They sat and watched each other sometimes, the man and the lizards. He’d sit back in his padded recliner, a gift from the steelworks when he had left, and look at them through his old, grey eyes as they scurried around snatching unwary insects and chewing them to chitinous bits in their little jaws. They, in their turn, would stand on the edges of the flagstones and stare at him unblinking with their beady little eyes, doing that strange thing they did with their spindly legs, tapping at the hot stone. He always put a bowl of cold water out for them in the morning, replacing it diligently whenever it evaporated away into the hot savanna air, unused by its intended recipients. They always watched him put it out with an air of curiosity in their tilted heads before studiously ignoring it for the rest of the day. He didn’t begrudge it though. It was a token gesture on his part, a little habit to keep him in some sort of routine now his working life had finished, and all he had to do was sit on the veranda and watch the world go by. They were there in the morning, at ten o’clock when he first emerged from the little yellow-brick built house, scattered over the slabs, basking in the first warming rays of the sun, and they were there late into the night, when the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, and the scorching heat of the day began to fade away into the cool of night.
His housemaid hadn’t liked them. ‘Plagas’, she used to call them, as she swept at them with her broom. She never managed to hit them, they were far too fast for her. She didn’t come around any more. “Things had changed”, was all she had said when she came for the last time, tears in her eyes and her clothes rumpled before she had returned to the car that had brought her and been driven off downtown towards the police station. The car had had some sort of official label on the side, but standing on the front door step he couldn’t make out what it said, so he watched her drive off into the shimmering heat and returned to the terrace, to the small brown lines that lay sprawled, basking in the midday sun. They were unusually still that day. It was as if some great melancholy had settled over them, which they were powerless to alter. He was grateful for their company. It was undeniably better than some of the company he’d known, and infinitely better than having no companionship at all.
He had never been lonely before. In his youth and middle-age he had had his wife, and when she died, the neighbours had always looked out for him, occasionally popping round to join him for a quick drink and a talk on the terrace, perhaps bringing him some new recipe they’d tried, asking his opinion. Occasionally, both sets of neighbours came round at once, and they’d have a proper get together. Sarah and Mike would bring round some comforting home cooking and Helena and Sam would bring a succulent dessert and they would all while away the small hours talking until, after one final bourbon, they would traipse home, leaving him to clean the dishes and retire to bed. He always took the dishes back round the next morning, making his way to each house in turn. They’d always invite him in for a quick drink. He’d always accept, it would be rude not to. Sitting on the terrace he tried to work out how long it had been since they’d last come together properly. It was about a year and a half by his reckoning. They were both still there, sometimes he’d see them from the front window getting into their cars and going off to work. They used to go out at the same time, calling ‘hellos’ at each other across his driveway, but they didn’t seem to do that any more, instead leaving at different times and climbing into their cars with sad looks on their faces. He’d noticed that Sarah and John had put up the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole in their front garden. Occasionally they still came round, but it was only ever individually, never together, not any more. Their conversation had changed too. The updates on how their children were doing, and how the plants in the back garden were growing had stopped, replaced by awkward half conversations of little consequence. Sarah and Mike would talk triumphantly about politics and Helena and Sam would talk about the sermons at church, or the extra expenses that had started to creep into their lives.
He’d stopped going to church now, the rhetoric had changed too much. He’d always gone to a different church than his neighbours, the old Presbyterian one across town. Even after he’d had to sell his car, he still slowly walked across town, down Main Street and round the corner by the 7/11. The minister had always been very kind to him, especially after his wife had died, but every week it seemed like more effort to trek all the way, and after a few months of only doing the journey a couple of times a month, eventually he stopped going all together. The minister had told him not to worry. “God,” he had said “was in all things, you must worship him as you are able,” before patting him on the shoulder and saying “He doesn’t want you killing yourself, just to come to His house.” So he had returned to his house and gone out onto the terrace with a bourbon. Since then he had considered the lizards as his fathers confessor. It had started a bit of a tongue-in-cheek, but as time passed he found himself taking it more seriously. With the lack of church, and the neighbours’ visits getting further and further apart, it sometimes felt like they understood him better than most.
To provide some noise to fill the lonely hours, he began taking the old radio that had sat unused in the corner of the kitchen since his wife had died out with him. It was so old it only picked up four stations, two of them local, one an old national music station and the other NPR. The voices that came over the radio were the only ones he heard whilst he was outside. He no longer heard the voices of the children kicking balls around in the street, or playing tag. Even when he was standing at the front window pouring himself a cool drink to take outside with him, people no longer lingered outside their houses, no more would they stay to chat with friends, or wave and smile at the mailman. They just hurried between their cars and their front doors, locking them firmly behind them.
The sunlight was fading and the lizards were beginning to get sluggish. The crackly radio was playing an old public radio documentary about blues musicians, the dulcet tones of the announcer broken occasionally by an old tune drifting out from the speakers into the heat of the evening. He tapped along with the rhythm, his foot rocking gently back and forth as he tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. It bought a smile to his face to hear the old tunes playing. The lizards seemed unfazed by the interruption to their silence, not even raising their heads to listen. He watched them as they lay about, like black ink marks on clean paper, unmoving and lazy, taking the last warmth from the stones as day turned into night. He felt much the same as he watched them lying about, before they picked themselves up and disappeared into cracks and crevasses to await the renewed heat of the following day. When the last one had abandoned its resting place, he turned off the radio, picked up his glass and retired for the night.
The following day, there was a documentary on the radio about reptiles. He learnt that they were some of the oldest creatures on earth, and that the ones in his garden were probably common lizards. The radio told him that they would breed in October, so he duly interrupted his rest and wrote it in on the calendar, so he would remember to look out for them. When he came out again the program had finished and he settled back into his chair to wait for the lizards to return from the hidey-holes they had fled to when his movement disturbed them. It didn’t take long, and soon they crept out again, the narrow forms sliding out to drape themselves in their usual positions over the paving and the steps, taking advantage of the hottest spots.
When he got back from the convenience store the next day, he packed his groceries away, poured himself a cool drink from the fridge, and went out to the terrace, settling down into his chair and tuning the radio quietly to the local news. It faded into the background as he looked out over the scrubby grass and bushes in the garden. The advantage of the hot weather was that the lawns wouldn’t need mowing, a blessed relief now he was beginning to struggle to do the job. In the spring, he had tried to find someone to do it for him. He remembered some of the local boys used to do similar things for a few dollars, he’d even noted some of them down two summers ago after his wife had died, on the suggestion of Sarah next-door. He dug out the old notebook from the drawer in the phone stand and rang around a few of the numbers. The first one said her son had gone off to college, the second picked up and then immediately slammed down the phone when he spoke, and the third spoke in a kindly tone, but told him that she no longer let her son go off on his own to help people, unless she knew them personally. She apologised and he hung up, a little dejected. Perhaps Sam or Mike might help him with it, if he asked. He returned to his seat and looking out over the yellowed grass, withering beneath the boiling light, sipping at his drink until he was lulled to sleep by the heat of the day, letting his hat fall down to shade his eyes. When he woke up with a start, the lizards lying around him on the hot planes of stone scattered. He recalled through the drowsy haze occupying his mind an image from an old textbook, a physics one he thought, one of the ones his wife had used to bring home for her classroom planning. The picture was a small dot in the middle of the page, with lines of different lengths emanating from it. For a second he imagined himself as the dot, with the line-like lizards fleeing away from him. As he came round a bit more, he tried to remember what the picture had depicted. After a few minutes he gave up. He had never been good with academics.
The news report he listened to the next day was full of reports of marches and counter-marches, protests in DC and around the country. He settled down into his chair and fiddled with the dial until NPR came back on. One of the lizards was watching him with its back and tail arched upwards, pointing into the air. He watched it and wondered what it meant until it got bored and scuttled off into the brush in pursuit of a cricket. He had noticed that they hadn’t been eating as much lately. It was getting rare to see one of them with something in its mouth. He was beginning to get worried. They had started picking off stragglers from the ant trail that crossed the terrace, taking unenthusiastic tiny half-mouthfuls of the black dots that meandered in a broken line across the white plain. He watched them and wondered if they were afraid to take more in case the nest turned on them. For a moment the old kindergartener question about whether you’d prefer to fight one horse-sized duck, or twenty duck-sized horses swam across his mind. He would have helped them with food, but he didn’t know what they would want, so he retired early for the night.
The following morning he woke early and made his way into town to the library to find a book about lizards. The closest one he could find was an outdated book on pet care which had a section covering reptiles. It said that whilst they were most happy with insects, they would be satisfied with small tid-bits of meat, so after he left the library he stopped by the convenience store to pick up some mincemeat. His usual store, Mr Hussein’s was shut, so he continued down the block to the next one, bought the meat and began making his way through the rising sun back home. With the meat put in the fridge, he poured himself a soda, and retired out back to resume his usual vigil on the patio. There had been rumours of brush fires out of town, so he was especially vigilant. The lizards lay out in the sun, ignoring everything.
The next day, try as he might, he couldn’t find the NPR station. It wasn’t in its usual place on the dial, and he tuned around to find it, but found only the two local stations and the music station, which was playing some disagreeable music. He dialed back to the local station to listen to the news, whilst the lizards lay about watching him fiddle with the noisy box. The news was preceded by a segment from the owners of the radio station, calling for listeners to trust them in light of the current mistrust of the media. The news reported tales of fights and aggression downtown. He decided to avoid downtown for a few days, not that he would have left the house anyway. He watched one of the lizards chase another one into the bushes, tails raised high. One of the others had lost its tail, a short stumpy regrowth all that was left. He thought back to the programme on the radio, it had mentioned that most lizards could shed their tails if attacked, but that they would grow back given time. He pulled himself heavily up from his chair and trudged through the sliding doors to the kitchen where he picked out a handful of mince from the box he had bought the previous day. He dropped it in a small pile about a metre away from his chair and went to wash his hands on the small tap that he used to water the garden with, but only drips emerged from it. A sigh escaped from his dry lips. Must be hotter than he thought. The kitchen tap was better, cool water springing forth to clean his hands. It felt so good that he poured some into a glass and carried it back outside with him. The lizards were tumbling over one another around the mince, already browning in the hot sunlight, snatching at it and chewing it up. He watched them squabbling and scrapping over it. It reminded him of the old days, when he used to watch over the neighbours’ kids and they used to argue about which toy they should play with. The thought of it brought a smile to his old cracked lips. He reached up and adjusted his hat to better protect his eyes, settling down and slipping off to sleep, to the sound of a new news report discussing the encroachment of another horde of immigrants.
He didn’t wake again that day until after the sun had gone down and the moonless sky was speckled with stars. The lizards were all gone, and the night was cool on his face. The radio faded in and out, old batteries giving the last they had, until the sounds became unintelligible and the dominant sounds became the rhythmic grating of crickets in the parched grass. He lifted himself out of his chair, noticing before he returned inside to find his rest properly for the night, that one final lizard did in fact remain, braving the cool air, the tailless one from earlier. It had climbed to the top of the small wall that marked the border between the terrace and the lawn. As he watched, standing with one foot inside the house, and the other over the thin threshold on the terrace, the lizard made a leap for a small moth fluttering past, its tiny snapping jaws closing just a little too late as it fell out of sight into the brush. The old man shook his head and stepped inside, a smile on his lips. As the lights went out in the little house, on the front lawn of next door, the Stars and Stripes flew, bright colours dulled under the dark sky. The lizards did not return, not the next day, or the one after that. Every day, he would go out and wait for them, sitting in quiet vigil to wait for the return of their neat little shapes, lying like pen-strokes on paper forms. Eventually he would have a form of his own, all that remained black lines on a page, no shadow left by them, no memory of the dying days. The dead radio stopped reporting, stopped entertaining, silent of truth and joy. And still, above it all flew the flag, waving tattered bars until daylight.
Stephen JA Hill,