A Lament for a Lizard

We’ve owned our house in Tucson for the past fifteen years.  That may be a misstatement.  It’s more likely the house has owned us.

It was a project when we bought it—a mid-century-not-so-modern—that had been remodeled badly, several times, most recently by someone who had zero understanding of the term “load-bearing walls” and who had cut through them with wild abandon.  The electrical service was a mess with 220 live wires twisted together without so much as a wire nut in sight.   The house, was in fact, one Bill Schilb away from the wrecking ball.  We tackled the infrastructure first—replacing the non-working AC system, cleaning the never-before-cleaned ductwork (Broke the duct cleaning guy’s vacuum machine.  He had to drag the first one away and come back with another!), and getting rid of the rooms’ worth of incredibly filthy and decades old shag carpeting.

Once that initial bout of frenzied rehab ended, we lived with the house as is for the better part of two years before gearing up to do a six-month live-in remodel.  I can tell you with the voice of experience, that live-in remodels are hell.  During that time, we stripped the place down to the studs, re-engineered walls to make them load-bearing again, replaced the electrical service, fixed knotty plumbing issues, and brought a 1940s-vintage kitchen into the 21st century.  Whew!

By the time we got to the kitchen part of the rehab, we were running out of remodeling time and money, so we made a few compromises.  Natural gas was roughed in for the stove-top, but no gas cooktop was available right when it was needed.  Instead, we ended up installing an electric infrared glass cooktop and pretty much hated it from day one.  As for the granite slab countertops we’d planned on?  We were totally out of time by then, so we ended up laying granite tile on the countertops instead.

During all this flurry of activity, the outside of the house needed lots of work, too, but it remained much as it was when we started. Gradually we began upgrading the small enclosed yard at the back of the house. We laid tile over the patio’s damaged concrete that was hell to walk on in bare feet.  We replaced the pool heater, fixed the pool deck and hot tub, and extracted a jungle’s worth of lantana from the pool yard.  When we first moved in, one the side of the lot opened on a major east/west thoroughfare while the other opened on a utility easement.  Lots of dazed and confused people came wandering through that back backyard and those visitors brought with them more than their fair share of left-behind beer cans and bottles along with all kinds of general trash.  One day while driving through town, we spotted a pickup truck with a sign that said, the Irish Setter.  We actually followed him to a stop light to get his phone number.  He was a bricklayer who hailed from Ireland.  We hired him almost on the spot.  He and his crew built a five-foot tall block wall around the entire perimeter of the lot.

Next up, we discovered that our lot came with water rights which we either had to use or lose.  We hired a guy to dig the well, but it turned out he wasn’t particularly good at it.  That meant we had to hire someone else to drill a second well, one that actually works.  We added landscaping here and there, including a wonderful Texas ruby grapefruit which we’ve been enjoying for breakfast every day since we’ve been here.  We had a huge adventure moving a palm tree that was close to the house and cutting down a seventy-five foot tall rotted palo verde that could easily have taken out our newly remodeled kitchen

When a stranger came wandering through our house in the middle of the night a few years later, we immediately installed security shutters over all the patio sliders.  Last year we replaced the roof and installed security screens (You may have seen the commercial.  They’re the ones that can’t be broken by a guy wielding a crowbar or bat) on all windows not covered by shutters.  We also replaced the single pane windows with triple pane.  You’d be amazed how much quieter it is inside the house these days.

But the real problem with having two houses is that once we get to one or the other, there’s usually a very long list of “honey do’s” lying in wait for us.  This time around the pump on the well had failed and had to be pulled.  And our thirteen year old fridge suddenly decided to be a two-door freezer.  (Frozen grape tomatoes and frozen lettuce just aren’t my idea of wonderful.)  As of Thursday we’ll be getting a replacement fridge and FINALLY the gas stovetop.  Oh, and we’re putting a gas log fireplace in the wood-burning fireplace–a gaping hole in the living room wall that hasn’t had a fire in it for as long as we’ve lived here.

By now, you’re probably wondering, “Hey, wait a minute.  Didn’t she say something about a lizard?”  I did, but please remember I’m a novelist.  My husband, the nice one, says that with me there are never any short stories—only long ones.

Here’s the deal, between the small fenced backyard next to the house and the far block wall on the edge of the property there exists a vast desert wasteland, and not a beautiful desert wasteland, either.  For as long as we’ve been here it contained some scraggly mesquite, a deformed palo verde or two, some barrel cactus and prickly pear as well as a tangled forest of cholla.  (People unfamiliar with the desert may look at “cholla” and think it’s pronounced Chol lah.  Those folks would be wrong.  Cholla is actually pronounced Choi Yah.  Got it?)  There were a few rock-strewn paths back there, but they were very rough, full of ankle-turning gopher holes, and yes, more cholla.  Whenever I went walking in the cactus garden, using the term loosely, I was always worried about snakes.  And because I usually wore sandals, I was forever getting stickers and/or gravel stuck in the soles of my feet.  Now that I wear Sketchers most of the time, gravel and stickers no longer pose much of a problem, but I still worry about snakes.  Just because we haven’ seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

But this year, for our major project, we decided it was time to take in hand the part of the yard we call the “back back.”.  For three weeks now we’ve had a two- to three-man crew working two days a week, trimming trees, dragging out dead cactus, and tearing away at that wicked forest of cholla.  People don’t call it the “Jumping Cactus” for nothing.

It turns out, however, that when you’re disturbing that much flora, you’re bound to disturb some fauna as well.

On Sunday afternoon, Jojo, all 8.8 pounds of her, went streaking across the back yard and tore full speed into a bush in the far corner.  In a flap of feathers and wings, a red-tailed hawk—close to the same size as the miniature dachshund—went pounding into the air from behind the same bush.  An hour or so later, when Bill went outside to do his steps, he found the body of a recently deceased foot-long gecko lying just on the far side of the backyard fence.  In his haste to flee the charging dog, the hawk lost his prize.  As geckos go, this one was a beauty—iridescent green and blue in color.  I suspect that he had probably spent decades living in what must have seemed to him a backyard paradise.  Unfortunately our removal of all that cactus, robbed him of some of his cover and left him vulnerable to predators. I’m sorry about that—truly sorry.

The trees eventually will be better off for having been pruned.  Once the paths are redefined and graveled, we’ll be bringing in more cactus and making the place more inviting to humans if not to lizards—even ones hunkered down and minding their own business.

But there is one piece of good news in all this.  The HAWK got the lizard.  It wasn’t Jojo or Bella.  Having a prize-winning, bleeding corpse of a lizard land on my pillow that probably would have sent me completely ’round the bend, and that would never do.

Especially not when I’m supposed to be finishing a book.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Lizard.  Sorry we never really knew you.

14 thoughts on “A Lament for a Lizard

  1. Geckos in the house are great for controlling the cockroach problem. Just ask anyone in Hawaii. (And NO, having cockroaches has nothing to do with being a good or bad housekeeper-They just ARE.)

  2. When we lived in California we had a house with a back yard and a back back yard. The neighborhood kids all loved the back back yard with the scraggly tree to climb and the weeds to play hide n seek in.

  3. I have two sisters who moved to Tucson quite a few years ago. One is out in the country and the other, now deceased, lived in the U of A area where she had the high fence in her back yard. I understood that you are required to have that 8′ high fence if you had a pool in your backyard. She didn’t have a pool, but it was nice to have the privacy.

    A friend of mine, who retired to Sun City, wrote on FB recently that robbers jumped the fence across the street and tried to get into the house thru the patio door. The owner was able to scare them away. Altho your dogs are small I think they would make plenty of noise, but keep those patio doors locked.

  4. There are TWO pieces of good news. Not only did the HAWK get the gecko, he also dropped it on the OTHER SIDE of the fence! If it had been on Jojo’s side, one of two things would have happened. #1 The aforementioned lizard might well have wound up on your pillow. Or, just as likely, #2 Jojo (and maybe Bella, also) would have decided to eat the plunder and then presented you with the regurgitated version at what we call “zero dark thirty”. You have an advantage in having the dogs crated at night. Ours aren’t crated and have free run through the doggy door. We’ve had our hounds catch birds – usually starlings – and bring them into the bedroom where we are awakened to the sounds of their feasting. Wresting such a “prize” from a determined dachshund when you were sound asleep only moments before, is a challenge, to say the least.

    RIP Mr. Gecko.

    PS Keep an eye out for that hawk to return. He may decide to come back and revenge the loss of his dinner. Many dachshunds have had dangerous encounters with hawks, especially little ones like Jojo. Some of them are lucky to survive.

  5. Ah yes, the pet door. I was so excited to put one in for my cat, an indoor/outdoor type. I came home several days to birds of various sizes flapping around wanting out. I like birds just fine and even have feeders for them but NOT uncaged in my house. Yes, I got woke up to the dreaded middle of the night crunchy noises. Mental note to put my glasses on before I got out of bed in the morning as I wrapped my pillow around my head to muffle said crunching. The final straw was this. I heard the flap as I went to change clothes for work. Not five minutes later I headed up the hall and said cat passed me heading towards my office floor with a dead squirrel in his mouth. Thanks be it was dead, I could not imagine the ruckus of trying to catch a live angry one in my house! That is when the flap got locked never to be used again!

  6. I can totally relate. People always think that having two homes means Vacation,when on the contrary you just work twice as hard. I won’t go into details, I’ll just say:
    RIP Mr. Lizzard.

  7. So far, one small snake and a couple of Geckos have travelled inside my dwelling. I stepped on the snake, bare-footed, and in the dark, before picking him up and tossing him outside. I never caught the Geckos, but it’s always a shock to be sitting quietly, reading the latest Jance offering, and look up to see one of them making their way across the living room wall. These are Tucson happenings.

  8. My daughter had to close her cat door after she found raccoons in the kitchem eating the cat food. The cats watched them from across the room, but there was no fighting.

    • Zero strange cats thru the cat door?
      My aunt, years ago she had a visit from a strange cat indoors.
      Their Dalmatian went after that cat and said: Out of our house!
      After that they blocked the cat door from being accessible from outdoors.
      Or so they thought.
      One of the current cats can get it open from outside and get in anyway.
      “I am not sure if it is a 2-Way or a 4-Way Locking Cat Flap”

      RIP @ Gecko.

      J.A.J, I suspect most of your readers love your “short” stories 🙂
      I certainly do!
      Thank You, for being who you are 🙂

  9. Remodels–oh my. Thanks for the funny tale. We’re about to undertake a complete remodel of our 1956 kitchen, which means no kitchen for seven weeks. I don’t know how I’ll cope, but I’m looking forward to the final results–and to your next book.

  10. Here in Texas we have wall geckos. Last summer, the three adults had four babies. They aren’t as pretty as yours, being tan to match the bricks of our place, but they do eat bugs! I’m sorry the hawk got one of yours, but I’m sure there are plenty more. I hope some evening you get to see them frolic in your back, back yard.

    P.S. Yep, no short stories for you. LOL

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