My aunt’s tiny farmhouse in west Texas always smelled faintly of dust, but then dust was a west Texas specialty. It probably didn’t help that we boys slept on the floor during our infrequent visits, huddled in the room’s center to avoid things creeping from their lairs at dusk. There were scorpions, mostly the smaller, more poisonous kind, and behind the house foot-long poisonous centipedes that sometimes found their way indoors. Spiders were ubiquitous, including black widows, which we knew to avoid. But the most terrifying nightcrawler of all, the one we could hear rustling around the baseboards and clicking across the wooden floors, was the dreaded vinegarroon.
Also known as whip-scorpions, vinegarroons are nonpoisonous but capable of producing painful pinches. What separates them from their more dangerous cousins is their size: the Latin name for the trans-Pecos variety is “giganteus,” a word requiring no translation. Hearing them scuttling about in the dark was an exercise in the mind’s unlimited potential for imagining the worst; seeing them was proof that reality often trumps imagination.
I was a typical boy interested in typical boy things: guns, hunting, the outdoors, reptiles. I was, in fact, something of a master lizard catcher. My collection varied over the years but usually included horned lizards (horny toads, as we called them, but not the sharp-pronged, irascible Mexican species), bluetails and collared lizards. The latter were my favorite, but much harder to catch.
Every outdoorsman has a one-that-got-away story. Mine was a particularly large collared lizard that ran my older brother, my father and I ragged over a large dusty patch of Texas near my aunt’s house. The thing must have been close to 20 inches long (caution: these tales get taller with age), and when alarmed, as it most certainly was, it took to its hind legs and cruised off like a miniature T-Rex. We bolted after it, flanking it, trying to hem it in, scrambling from creosote to mesquite and back, and might have caught it in the end if not for the biggest, baddest, meanest, most dense clump of catclaw ever invented. The lizard dashed inside and dared us to follow with a reptilian look of unadulterated smugness.
Our failure to capture it was a blow Freud would diagnose as an unrecoverable loss. Afterward, the mere sight of a collared lizard triggered an irrepressible motivation to pursue, regardless of what I was doing at the time. When on vacation with my parents in southern New Mexico a collared lizard dashed across the road in front of us, without thinking I slammed on the brakes and ejected myself from the vehicle before it fully stopped rolling. The lizard quickly eluded me; it took hours for my family to recover.
For two glorious summers I had a pet collared lizard about 14 inches in length. We went everywhere together, even on walks after I fashioned a small leash for it. People would stare unbelieving at us as it tagged along on its hind legs, its long tail following in long sweeps. We were best of friends, or so I like to think.
Age distances us from our past. In some matters it’s more a matter of losing ability than in losing interest. Shortly after moving to Kansas a decade ago we were hiking at Konza Prairie south of Manhattan when I saw a collared lizard streak past. Besides the obvious shock of seeing what I considered a southwestern speciality on the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest, there was a split second where time seemed to gel and wallow to a stop as my brain sorted through the implications. And then I was off like a shot, gloating for a brief interlude that here at last were no mesquite or catclaw with their razored thorns, no Spanish dagger or jumping cholla to rend and tear, only an endless expanse of grass.
Several embarrassing minutes later I clutched my chest and collapsed in a sweaty heap. All I’d managed to do was to provide a little entertainment for the lizard and to frighten my wife, who questioned my sanity and my ability to breathe. The air was so thick and soupy I felt I was drowning.
“My days of catching lizards are over,” I gasped, a lamentation utterly unfathomable to my wife.
But if I thought that was the last word on the subject, I was wrong. While reorganizing our patio this week I came across several creatures of interest, from fledgling praying mantises to a gray tree frog which I relocated from a trashcan to a mulberry. Most surprising was a small collared lizard that had fallen into a plastic tub. The rim was too high for it to escape so it sat there in the brutal heat without food or water. Without giving it much thought I scooped it up and set it in the grass, where it zipped off into the flower garden.
Holding it, even momentarily, brought a surge of memories. A little of the magic had returned, a touch of confidence that I still had it in me—disregarding the fact that the lizard was trapped in an enclosed space, that is.
And then an odd thing happened. Whenever I went outside the little lizard seemed to pop up out of nowhere. It followed me around utterly without fear, letting me approach within inches before shying away. I began to sense it was watching for me. For all I knew it might think I’m its mother.
One afternoon it was perched on the edge of the top step, so I sat down beside it. After studying me for a few minutes its eyes closed in what appeared to be contentment. I slowly reached out one finger to touch it, holding my breath, making no sound, but when my finger was an inch from its back the lizard opened its eyes and leaped back.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “No touching.”
But I could have had it. I could have.