The following is another one of The Unpublishables. This story is mostly true and has mutated back and forth in size anywhere between 500 and 5,000 words. It rests here at 2,200. Dedicated to my former best friend, Basil.
Basil vs. The Gecko
by Michael Frissore
Jack lifted the dumpster lid slowly, with his elbow, car keys in his lifting hand, and dropped the plastic bag of cat feces into the dumpster with his other hand. He turned around to see one of his neighbors, a young blond girl, a college student no doubt, with a bag of her own to throw away. Probably not of cat poo. Surely college things, like empty beer cases and boxes of Top Ramen. They each said, "Hi," and Jack then speed walked to his Mazda 3.
Jack moved to Tucson from Massachusetts after losing his human resources job at a healthcare company due to a series of lay-offs. His parents had retired there a few years earlier, and he decided giving up cold New England winters was just what he needed. Thirty-two years old and unmarried, there were no job or relationship prospects for Jack back in Massachusetts. So why not? He had visited his parents since their move. Tucson was a beautiful city. Nothing like grilling outside in December and putting Christmas lights on the cactus in your front yard
So Jack took his two cats, Basil and Tandy, and made the move out to Tucson, renting a nice little place with no lawn to mow or leaves to rake. And he could throw his snow shovel away. Wouldn't need that. On nice Arizona winter days he could sit and read, look for work, and admire the cactus, or saguaro, in his backyard. Jack picked the right time of year to move. December. The local newspapers didn't start scaring readers about preparing for the scorpions, snakes, bees and spiders until March. The dry heat everyone talks about wouldn't be around for a few months. He'd have Christmas with his parents. And these students would all be history come summer. Everything would be great. His parents had even explained to him the names of the various types of cactus and saguaro in his backyard; though, he would never remember what was what. Names like prickly pear, beaver tail, and bunny ear cactus were cute, but he would soon forget them. There was also this one tall saguaro Jack kept staring at. It didn't have arms like so many of the ones he had seen in photos. It was just a tall, straight line. His mother told him it took 70 to 100 years for a saguaro to grow arms. Every morning Jack would make himself some coffee, grab his newspaper, and step outside, occasionally sneaking glances at his unarmed saguaro.
"Seventy to 100 years, eh?" he would say, and continue reading.
It went on like this for a few weeks. No jobs in the paper. No arms on the cactus. Was it too much to expect a cactus with arms? If a man can't find a job in this city, can't he at least have a saguaro with arms? Even if they're just short, stubby dwarf arms and not the ones that point way up like they're saying hello. He would have taken that. Jack finally got so angry he stood up and actually spat at his disappointment of a saguaro.
"Grow arms!" he shouted. "What the hell kind of fucking cactus are you?"
He didn't even stop to think what he was doing. He just kept screaming.
"Grow some fucking arms!"
And this became the relationship between Jack and his saguaro. Maybe it was being jobless or the getting used to a new home, but Jack took it out on the cactus. It just stood there, unable to move or defend itself, while Jack berated it day after frustrating day. The cats would observe from behind the screen door. The other, smaller cactus could only sit idly by, never standing up for their much taller brother. Jack was making himself crazy from screaming. What would his neighbors think? It got so that he started driving up the street to Reid Park and doing his newspaper reading there. The saguaro there, with or without arms, would be of no concern to him.
Those first few weeks Jack would rarely venture out to Oro Valley, where his parents lived. They were about a half hour north. He liked the space this gave him, and he kept his visits to a minimum, no matter how often they asked him up. As long as he knew they were nearby. No need to see them all the time. His parents had gone into early retirement, and, having taken several family trips to Arizona in years past, they fell in love with the place. So they moved, and, over the next five years, casually tempted the rest of the family to move there. Their other son, Steve, was not nearly as amorous. He was a New England boy through and through. That's where his children would grow up. In fact, due to Steve and his wife's work schedules, they had yet to visit his parents.
Jack was a different case entirely. He felt displaced being in Massachusetts without the guiding force of his mom and dad. Despite his lack of visits thus far, he needed to know they were around. He didn't have a family of his own like Steve. And, when he lost his job, he didn't know what else to do. So he prepared to face something he was never a fan of: change. There were fears, of course. Getting a job, meeting people, skin cancer. Everyone told him if you're going to walk around Tucson in the summer, wear a hat and suntan lotion, and carry a bottle of water. Always. This city was one big tanning bed for at least a quarter of the year.
Of no less danger were the desert critters. He hated snakes. There was nothing he feared more. And Africanized bees, once a silly and racist idea, were now a concern. There were also the lizards, from the cute little ones to the dreaded Gila monsters. Jack was not prepared for any of them. These critters he had heard and read about were scarce those first few weeks. It was mostly just Jack and his saguaro. He continued to scold this plant like a drug-addicted teenage son. He didn't even necessarily know why. Maybe it was to match his neighbors, a Mexican couple, the masculine of which kept referring to his mate as a "puta," which Jack recognized as Spanish for "whore."
Maybe Jack regretted his move. He hadn't quite known what he was getting himself into, being all alone in this desert town. Yelling at this cactus was the only stress relief Jack had been enjoying. But he kept telling himself he was better off. It would take some getting used to. It was Jack and his cats against that saguaro, and all of Tucson. But he was ready for the challenge. He wasn't quitting.
One afternoon Jack got the excitement he needed. While sitting in his living room, watching television and eating Dots and a Banquet frozen chicken fried rice and egg roll dinner, both of which he had somehow become addicted to, he noticed something moving by the front door. For a second he thought it might be someone or something outside, but then he saw that it was indeed inside the house. It was a gecko. A tiny little gecko had made its way into Jack's abode. He tried to shoo the lizard out the door, but this was a stubborn creature. After slithering away from him, the gecko stood still, as did Jack. It was like a showdown from an old spaghetti western. Jack was Clint Eastwood trying to win his first duel with one of Arizona's many pests.
Jack thought he would try to trap the thing. He had an old container that had once housed some Christmas cookies. But the gecko had placed itself right beside the cats' scratching post. So he wouldn't be able to trap him perfectly, as one side of the container would be upon the feline toy. Damn, this was one smart reptile. Finally he decided if it was going to be done, it should be done quickly. He moved towards the gecko and tried to place the container over it anyway, but the creature kept moving. It was like a demented shell game, Jack trying to trap him, but always coming up short. Soon it was gone, hidden underneath the couch. Jack cried out some curse words then sat down to think for a second. Maybe he needed to take a drive, get out of the house for a while. He felt like the saguaro outside was taunting him. The whole city was taunting him. So Jack went out to buy some gecko poison.
When he returned, after learning that, even in Arizona, they didn't sell lizard poison, Jack concocted a plan in placing a piece of cheddar cheese doused in Drano on a Tupperware container lid. He had to be careful that his cats didn't get at it. But the unwelcome guest was not falling for the trap. Jack was getting nowhere. He dropped the Drano and the cheese into the garbage disposal and began thinking of another plan.
A couple of hours later, Jack finally spotted the gecko hiding amid the shoe pile by the front door. It was right on the end of the rug, thinking itself invisible. Jack moved quickly, snatching up all the shoes and placing them on the couch. He grabbed the little shoe rug, preparing to rid himself of Gary, as he began calling it, with the ole rug-cleaning-on-the-front-porch move, or sort of as a magician removing a tablecloth with full dinner placings. As he did so, Gary the Gecko hung onto that piece of carpet like Harold Lloyd onto a giant clock. Jack turned around to see that the gecko hadn't landed outside as he planned, but rather was flying through the air behind him, almost in slow motion, landing on its back on the floor. The agile Gary then flipped himself over and crawled back under the couch.
It was then that Jack began berating his cats. The anger they had seen thrown at the big, funny-looking tree outside was now directed at them. What good were they? "Earn your keep!" Jack scolded them. "Be mousers!" But they just sat around licking themselves obsessively. They were thus far oblivious to the new arrival, simply scratching and eating like there wasn't a Code Red in the house at that moment.
Jack went to bed with Gary still in the house, as far as he knew. He spent the night wondering if the visitor would stay under the couch or journey into his bedroom. He did not want to wake up to a creepy, crawly thing all over him. There were other questions. Would Gary eat the cats' food? Would the nocturnal boys kill Gary overnight? He thought about waking up in the morning and frantically moving the couch to catch it. He did not want any gecko poo in his home. Or worse. Gecko eggs.
The next morning Jack went about his business, all but forgetting about Gary. He wondered if maybe the gecko had found its way out the way it found its way in. Basil and Tandy went about the house as they always did - still no signs of knowing there's a creature among them
That afternoon, as Jack was eating lunch, he noticed Basil swatting at something by the front door. It was Gary. Jack got excited and began clearing the way again after Gary crawled back near the shoes. He, again, put the shoes on the couch, and rolled up the rug, giving Basil a clear shot at him. Jack was ecstatic, shouting, "Finish him!" at his beloved pet. He felt so proud, like a father, watching this lopsided battle. When Basil lost sight of Gary, Jack positioned the cat and pointed. "Right there, Basil," he said. The little bastard would get away, only to have Basil smash him again. He saw Gary struggling, and could hear Basil's claws scraping the door. He knew the gecko was feeling some of that. At this point, Jack had mixed feelings. He could see Basil was having fun, and he didn't want to end that. However, Jack was worried about poor Gary, what after naming him and all. And he didn't want Basil playing so much that Gary would get away. He knew the cat would tire of his new toy and just walk away, leaving Jack where he started. The priority was to get Gary out of the house.
So while Gary was hiding underneath the front door, Jack opened the door and pushed the gecko outside with a magazine. Gary was gone, and Jack felt like a bad daddy. For the rest of the day Basil stood looking around the door for his play thing. But he didn't have Gary to worry about anymore. When it all was over, Tandy strutted in like a cavalry showing up way too late. Jack gave Basil some special cat treats for his bravery. After seeing Basil take on a gecko, Jack was suddenly ready to graduate to something much more life-threatening, like a scorpion. Jack awaited a Basil vs. Scorpion showdown like he did a Tyson fight when he was a kid. He may even have to arrange a battle, like with a cockfight. Invite all the neighbors. Basil had given Jack a sort of renewed life. He hadn't even been yelling at the saguaro lately. For the first time since he arrived, Jack was excited.