El Rey de Lizards by Esteban Rodríguez
Another lizard died. The second one this morning. Bobby’s father felt bad for the first family. The little girl took the lizard out of her small purse and showed it to us as though she had just committed a crime, as though we’d be the ones to hand down her punishment. Bobby’s father took the lizard from the girl’s palm, sighed, and said to both the girl and the girl’s mother standing behind her that death happens way too soon for many of God’s creatures. No, he said, too soon for the creatures of the earth. No… he said death happens, or was it shit happens… No, not in front of the girl. Bobby’s father said something about death and the girl wiped the tears from her eyes and Bobby handed the girl a new lizard, fit with one of those little cloth vests Bobby, Luis, and I had spent part of our morning making. The little girl smiled, hugged the small lizard way too tight, and she and her mother left without even the faintest memory of the lizard that had just died. Bobby’s father handed me the dead lizard, said the heat was too strong this morning.
He asked me to throw it away. I nodded, looked at the lizard and wondered if I should say a prayer. But what would a few words accomplish? What could I say that would honor this animal that didn’t live more than a few weeks and that was—from what I gathered between the little girl’s mother and Bobby’s father—left in the little girl’s purse, shut away without the slightest crack of air? Even if the purse was open, it would have been too hot in there anyways, and although I knew the body temperatures of reptiles differed greatly from ours, the south Texas heat was equally unkind to everyone and everything.
I grabbed a napkin from the table, covered the lizard in it, and placed the lizard inside the trash can beside the other table with the two waterless aquariums that held the lizards we were selling.
We also had mice, a few garden snakes, a boxful of crickets, frogs, snails, rabbits, and a creature that squealed and shook the medium-sized and scissor-punctured box it was confined to. Bobby’s father didn’t tell us what it was, but he said we should not handle the box ourselves and if we did, there was a good chance we would have to learn to love what nine or eight fingers we still had left. There was no price on that box, but there were on all the rest, and perhaps because the small green lizards were one of the cheapest, they were selling, giving Bobby’s father hope that the pet store he was planning on opening would put him on the map. Moreno’s—the only pet store in town—would be second to his, Chubby’s, and what better way to spread the word than by selling at the pulga.
This was the largest pulga in the mid-Valley, perhaps the only one, and when I was a boy, my mother and grandmother would drag me along to this one on Sunday mornings. My grandmother would go for fruit, or sometimes just to browse the booths and try to haggle down the price of a random car part or blanket or light decorations, spending ten or fifteen minutes going back and forth, back and forth, all so she could wave her hand at the man or woman behind the booth and walk away. My mother merely went to immerse herself in my grandmother’s gossip that seemed, by the way they were loudly speaking, to have become more dramatic since the previous week.
Ten years later, and nothing about the pulga seemed to have changed. I was sure I recognized the man in the booth next to us from my weekends here as a boy, and perhaps most people who were selling had indeed been selling for years. We received a few glances, long stares, the occasional just-checking- the-lay-of-the-land stroll by our tables, hoping to figure out what we were all about. But as people began to arrive, and the sun unleashed its ancient burden on our skins, we became a part of the pulga, and no one had time to focus on these newcomers. Business had to go on.
For us, business was slow at first, but after one family stopped and bought a lizard, and another and another, we found ourselves with a long line and families desperate for these lizards in little vests we made from neon-colored cloth and tied with plastic lacing string for a leash, each neon-colored as well. Word had spread across the pulga, and there were so many people crowding our tables that Bobby, Luis, and I had to speak with the customers. I spoke Spanish the way a study abroad student spoke Spanish after living a semester in South America, confident in theory, but bad in execution, and the customers could tell. They nodded politely as I strung together “cuesta cuatro dólares” with “dejame ver” and “un momento, necesito verificar.” The mothers and fathers could deal with my bad Spanish if it meant getting the right lizard for their son or daughter, if they could see a smile on their faces as I grabbed the lizard, stumbled to put the vest on its front legs without feeling as though I was breaking the lizard’s bones, and then placing this helpless creature into the hands of a child who knew full well that unlike a puppy, maintenance would be minimal.
I remember Bobby’s father saying he had never had an animal die under his watch, so when the second family with a dead lizard came, after our little rush, he thought it might have been something more than just the heat.
“Did you put on the vest too tight?” Bobby’s father asked Luis.
“No, sir,” said Luis. “I don’t even think I sold that lizard to them.” Luis went back to tying the end of the string leash to the vest in his hands.
“What about you, Stevie?”
“No,” I said.
Bobby’s father turned to the father, mother, and the little boy whose slumped shoulders and tilted head conveyed absolutely no interest in getting another lizard. He probably didn’t even want the first. He looked at the ground, then at Bobby’s father, who ignored him completely and asked the father, “¿Está seguro que lo compraste aquí?” Bobby’s father was positive that there were no other pet vendors at the pulga, but how sure can anyone be about anything?
“Sí, claro. El me lo vendió,” the father said, pointing at me. I did sell the first lizard to him, and I recalled that when I made that transaction, the father didn’t hand over the lizard to the boy, but instead kept it in his palms, looked at its scared lizard face the way relatives look at babies when they see that bundle of joy for the first time. At that moment, I couldn’t help but speculate that in his childhood he was given a dog that died almost immediately under his care, that it was full of worms or had some canine disease that ended its life in a few short days, and that he was left with his first real confrontation with death. Perhaps that’s why he wanted the lizard more than his son.
“Pues, cuando entramos en el carro, se murió,” the father said.
“¿Murió cuando ustedes entraron?” Bobby’s father asked.
“Sí,” said the father. His son looked at the ground, then turned his head and looked at the crowd, wishing, it seemed, that he was among those strangers.
“¿Está seguro?” asked Bobby’s father. The man stared at him as though he wanted to take offense, but he knew that if he did, the lie he was clearly hoping would work would be out in the open for Bobby’s father to deny him another lizard. The father looked over at me again, desperate for my help, and Bobby, somewhere close behind me, whispered mockingly, “El rey.”
Right before the morning rush, as Bobby, Luis, and I were moving from one table to another, we mused on making bets over who could sell the most lizards. The winner would get a third of the cash that the others were paid that day—something that would amount to thirty some dollars in total—and bragging rights would continue until we returned next Sunday.
“It’s gonna be me,” said Luis, “I obviously speak more Spanish than you all.”
“But you’re the ugliest,” said Bobby.
“Have you seen yourself?” asked Luis. “There is a reason Stevie and I are the only ones who have had girlfriends.”
“You ain’t gonna win,” Bobby managed to utter, hurt by the girlfriend remark. Bobby had had flings, crushes. He liked girls from a distance.
“You know I am,” said Luis.
“What the fuck,” I said. “I can win. I can sell the most. I can be el rey de li—lang—”
Luis started chuckling at my attempt to find the Spanish word for lizard.
“El rey de lizards. I can be el rey of all the lizards,” I said, tossing my hands in the air.
Luis continued laughing. “You can be whatever rey you want, but it’s the businessman that makes things happen.”
“What the hell’s the Spanish word for lizard?” asked Bobby, aware that he was going to have to use the word soon.
“Lagartija,” said Luis. “It’s lagartija.”
The rush came, and I can’t remember saying “lagartija” to any of the families. I merely pointed at the selection of lizards and the little boys and girls shouted, “Ese! That’s the one I want!”
I turned around and looked at Bobby. His smile was ugly, and I wanted to shove him for saying anything at all to me. I turned back toward Bobby’s father, ready to explain that I had done everything correctly, that I put the vest gently on the lizard and gave it a few drops of water from my water bottle before I handed it to that eager father. I had left that helpless reptile in good hands and while my expertise in lizard health and behavior was only a few hours old—lizards didn’t like loud noises; lizards were susceptible to sudden hand movements—I was confident that every one that I held was healthy.
Bobby’s father wasn’t naive, but he was sympathetic, too much actually, and looking back on all of this, that’s perhaps the reason why Chubby’s never had a successful run. He had the vision but not the stamina for hard decisions. Bobby’s father set the prices too low, allowed for returns without a receipt, bought dogs from owners that had long ceased to control their undisciplined beasts, thinking that he could break them and sell the newer version he trained them to be to parents who wanted their sons or daughters to learn responsibility. He was a name, not an institution, and any sense of loyalty he had hoped to build would take too long to see through.
Bobby’s father forced a smile. “El calor hace eso.”
The father smiled back. The world made sense again, and he could quickly forget what Bobby’s father and I knew: he had left the first lizard in the car, thought that it would be fine because it was still morning and the heat wouldn’t kill it while he and his family continued their shopping at the pulga.
“Stevie, please grab a new one,” Bobby’s father instructed.
I moved toward the box, and although Bobby and Luis were partly paying attention, I could already hear them after we had closed for the day saying that I was el rey de freebies, that it was because of me that Bobby’s father posted a loss of profits for the day, that everything I touched was one step closer to death.
I grabbed a lizard from the box, the one that looked the strongest. I tugged its arms through the vest. I could have sworn it smiled at me.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (Word West Press 2022) and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He currently lives in south Texas.