Exotic Pets

By CAL SHOOK

 

The first time Ellis saw the girl, she was sitting on the front stoop of his building. She had a mop in one hand and a broom in the other, like she was using them to guard the place. The packages of Charmin stacked beside her looked like they were at attention too. She can’t be more than five or six, thought Ellis. And instead of climbing the stairs and passing her to let himself inside, he stopped, took off his Yankees cap, and with a smile said, Hiya. Hey kid. Hello there.

The girl did as he expected and gaped at the wine-spill of a birthmark on the left half of his face. She sniffed her runny nose up and blinked through her too-long bangs. Her mouth made a little frown and she said, Hi. My mom forgot the Windex.

Ellis looked down the block, toward the corner store, then back at the girl on the steps.

I’m always forgetting something, he said.

The M15 pulled up and noisily swapped passengers from the bus stop. A teenager walked by with a pit bull on a leash and another smaller dog under his arm. The girl, mop and broom at attention, started tapping random rhythms with her feet.

I’m Ellis, said Ellis. I live here.

She knew she shouldn’t, he could tell that, but then she said, I’m Romy. We’re going to live here too now.

Ah, he said. Welcome home then. He tipped his hat to her as he settled it back on his head. In just his peripheral, Ellis saw a woman moving fast down the block. She clutched a pack of paper towels, and the cleaning supplies in her shopping bag kept smacking her knees as she ran. She reached the stoop out of breath, sweating under a too-heavy coat for the weather.

Nice kid, said Ellis, nodding toward Romy.

But her mother didn’t reply, she just rushed toward the girl and started gathering up their things. Ellis took out his keys so he could help them inside.

 

The apartment above his had long been empty, but that afternoon Ellis heard footsteps all across the ceiling. He heard the roll of what sounded like suitcase wheels, and more than once the thud of some small thing being dropped on the floor. Standing in his kitchen, he could hear them above him, in theirs. And as he rinsed his plate after dinner it occurred to him there hadn’t been a moving van by, or even a mattress carried in as far as he knew.

Later, in bed, Ellis heard a steady flow of water. Every ten minutes or so it came back on, just briefly. To warm her long bath, he realized after a while. The mother—soaking off the day while the girl sleeps. The faucet upstairs ran again, he closed his eyes, and the next thing he knew it was morning, the hour he always awoke, before dawn. He had worked the early shift for so many years that his sleep schedule was fixed, even with the Key Foods now closed and no work to get up for.

All morning the new neighbors were quiet. But when he left to get a sandwich from the deli midday, Ellis found Romy in the hallway outside his apartment. She was crouched down to peer beneath the radiator cover, and when Ellis stepped out she looked up.

I lost my ball, she said. I was bouncing it down the steps.

Okay, Ellis said. That’s okay.

He got on his hands and knees beside the radiator, and he bent his head to the floor to see the underside. He slid his hand toward the rubber ball, a small orange swirl, then straightened up to give it back to Romy. In his palm, he held it out to her. But when Romy lifted her hand, it wasn’t to take back the ball. She reached for his face and touched the splotched half. He nearly flinched, but forced himself to stay still as she skimmed her fingertips across his cheek and traced his jaw. Then she plucked her ball from his hand and ran upstairs.

That night the sound of shouting drifted down to his place. He couldn’t make out the language, something close to Russian he thought, but the voice was Romy’s mother he assumed. In an argument with someone over the phone. Even after it stopped, he had a hard time sleeping. Laying on his side, he watched the old couple across the street whose apartment windows were level with his. The wife scrubbed and then dried a big stew pot, while the husband moved around the family photos stuck with magnets to their fridge.

 

When Ellis saw the girl next, two days later, she’d been left at the building alone again, this time on the inside stairs and not out front. She was grinning into a plastic aquarium that sat on the step beside her.

What do you have there? he asked.

Mariachi! she shouted. My new iguana!

The cage looked to have nothing inside it but a jumble of foliage. Ellis had to crouch to spot the reptile, nearly a foot long, and with an elegant tail that looped back against its brilliant green body.

My goodness, he said. Mariachi?

Yup.

How’d you come up with that?

They told it to us at the store.

The name struck Ellis as vaguely insulting. Insensitive at least. He thought of all the pet shop iguanas out there, sent home with names like Poncho probably, or Guacamole.

Hmmm, he said. What about Chi Chi?

Romy narrowed her eyes. Then she asked, You mean instead?

Ellis nodded. She sucked in her bottom lip and chewed it for a moment while she looked the creature over. Then, still serious, she turned to him and said, Yeah. Okay. He looks more like a Chi Chi anyway.

Ellis asked what iguanas liked to eat, and Romy admitted they hadn’t remembered to find out at the store. But apparently her mother, as a child, had a chameleon. The simple fact of this gave Romy confidence she’d know exactly what to do when the lizard got hungry.

Well if not, said Ellis, we can always look it up.

I bet it’s bugs, Romy added. It’s always bugs.

Ellis laughed and sat down on the step just below her. I had a turtle once, he said. What he really liked were sour cream and onion chips. But bugs too, come to think of it.

This made Romy laugh, and she ran her hands along the vented top of the cage as if petting the lizard. Then she jumped to her feet and said, Look what I can do! before throwing herself into a kind of dance spin. She stumbled at the end and nearly fell into the lobby’s mailbox wall. I can do it better, she said. Look again.

When her mother walked through the door, Romy was starting on her sixth or seventh Look again spin. Ellis had begun offering tips, and had forgotten the iguana completely.

Hello, said Romy’s mother, breathless as the last time they met.

Between the pet lizard and Ellis and the girl, she didn’t seem to know where to look. She reached for Romy, pulling her by the shoulder, closer in.

She’s very determined, Ellis smiled. Your daughter.

Romy looked up at her mother, awaiting some reply. When after a long moment none came, Ellis stood and said, Well then. He picked up the lizard’s cage, and handed it to them.

Good luck with him, he said to Romy.

He let them go up first and stayed behind to check the mail, all junk except for a card from his mother. His birthday had been last week, but she tended to get only the month right, not the day. This one was a March of Dimes freebie, with a note in his mother’s shaky scrawl that said, Fifty years my baby.

 

Upstairs, after a banana and a ginger ale, Ellis typed Iguanas in a Google search. Then he typed Iguana Pets for the right kind of pages to come up. The first pair of sentences on the first page he clicked read like a warning. Iguanas can grow quite large, it said. They can live a long time, and can be difficult to tame.

Like kids, thought Ellis, laughing as he scanned ahead for what to feed them. Iguanas are herbivores, he read. And as he went down the list of recommended vegetables—really anything, but ideally leafy greens—he automatically pictured the spot in the produce section, at the store, where he used to stock each one: swiss chard between the spinach and the collard greens, bell peppers stacked by color above the string beans and carrots. But the main thing, according to the website, was to chop the food into small bits the lizard could swallow. This seemed important to remember, so Ellis jotted it down for the next time he saw Romy.

These pets are not for everyone, the site declared. And after a disclaimer on how iguanas are known to resist human affection, and prone to escape, there was a detailed discussion of how to build your growing lizard a proper home. Heating lamps were recommended. Specs were shared for a suitable enclosure, which due to the Iguana’s arboreal nature, was as tall as it was long, and why anyone would want such a thing in their New York apartment Ellis could hardly imagine. Nonetheless, he typed Iguana Enclosures into the search. What came up were images of elaborately constructed habitats, complete with hammocks and live trees, and he passed the better part of his afternoon scrolling through them.

That evening, when there was shouting from upstairs again, Ellis went out for a walk. He strolled up First Avenue a while, and at 117th Street he turned West. The spring had warmed enough to keep people out on their stoops after dark. Young people, with hip-hop spilling out to them through open windows. And older ones who squalled over dominoes, in folding chairs that took over the sidewalk. Then he spotted Wayne on the corner at Lexington. For years Wayne asked for change outside the Key Foods, he’d clearly found a new zone, and when he caught sight of Ellis, instead of his usual line he said, Hey man, how you been?

 

It rained all the next morning, steady sheets. Ellis put a second pot of coffee on, and as he poured himself a cup there was a knock on the door. Through the blurry peephole, a small distorted Romy looked straight up toward him. Her mother, holding the lizard tank, stood behind.

Well well, Ellis said, once he’d opened the door and they were all face to face. Romy rocked excitedly from foot to foot, and she glanced to her mother for an okay before speaking.

I need to stay with someone, she said. While my mom goes out.

Oh, said Ellis. Her mother’s stony expression from yesterday had changed; she now looked at him with a sheepish sort of smile.

So could it be you? asked Romy. We were wondering if, um—so could it be you?

Only little while, her mother added softly.

Ellis hadn’t taken her stiffness for a language barrier before. He felt dense for having missed it. Of course, he said, nodding to each of them, back and forth.

Of course. I’m not up to anything much.

Romy jumped up and down. Her mother held out the cage.

Mariachi, said Ellis. We meet again.

Romy received a few stern words from her mother in their language—be good and behave probably, though for all he knew she was telling her to run if Ellis turned out to be a creep—and then came right inside. She took off her boots, and as she looked around, he tried to think of when he last had anyone inside his place. Rhonda, it must have been, from the store. But she’d only come over because he told her about the pills, a low he couldn’t bear to even think about with Romy in the room. He took the cage to the kitchen and placed it on the table.

It’s plants, Romy said from behind him.

Plants? he asked.

That’s what he eats.

Is that right? he said, feigning surprise.

Yeah, it is right. We fed him the lettuce and tomato off my mom’s sandwich from Subway yesterday, and I really really think he liked it.

Terrific, said Ellis. He felt genuinely pleased. And he opened his refrigerator, saying to Romy, I’ve got plants. Shall we see what else he likes?

The greenest thing in his fridge drawer was parsley, but there was also a sweet potato. And some apples. He chopped them up, while Romy debated whether to mix the foods or present them to Chi Chi in three separate piles. They decided on piles, and after laying a towel across the table, food on top, Ellis reached his hand in the cage to pull him out.

The lizard went stiff, like a plastic toy. Except for its tail, which it vigorously whipped until it was belly-down again, on the towel. Romy ran her hand along the spines on its back, and Ellis stroked the scaly landscape of its side. Isn’t he pretty? beamed Romy.

Her pet bobbed its head up and down, its nose near the parsley. And as they waited for it to sample some, Ellis told Romy about the iguana enclosures he had seen online. How some of them took up entire rooms, how some had misting systems, set to a timer, to simulate the humid climate an iguana prefers. Almost all of them, he told her, had a hammock or a swing of some kind, which from the pictures looked to be a lizard’s favorite spot.

Romy was completely enchanted. We need one, she exhaled.

Ellis snorted a laugh. He felt a fondness for Romy rise up with such force that if he weren’t a stranger, he’d have wrapped her little person in his arms.

We could draw one, he offered. If you want to.

This plan agreed with her, and she followed him to his desk to gather up paper, a ruler, two pencils, and the single marker he had that was not too dried out. They started simple, the basic structure, with a ramp, but while Chi Chi worked steadily through the piles, they spiffed up their plans with entertainments, and tropical flowers, a waterfall mural and an actual pond. Romy kept saying, He’ll love it, he’ll feel like he’s free! as Ellis drew new features and she colored them all in. After a while she said she was hungry, so Ellis made peanut butter and jelly, sliced an apple, and poured them each glasses of milk.

When her mother arrived, clammy with rain, Ellis showed her to the couch. The girl had fallen asleep after lunch. He’d put on PBS for her, some show with a mouse ballerina, of which she’d barely watched a minute before dozing. Her mother leaned over her. She stroked her hair. She touched her cheek. Then she hoisted her into her arms, smoothly, quite effortlessly Ellis thought, given how petite she was. Romy made a groan but didn’t stir, Ellis went right to the door to hold it open, and Romy’s mother mouthed Thank you to him as she passed through.

 

A few hours later he was talking to the lizard, still on the kitchen table in its cage. She’ll be down for you soon, he said. Who knows why, but she thinks the world of you. The lizard did nothing more than blink. Looking it over, Ellis wondered if it was alright.

There had been something on one of the websites, a ludicrous fact about iguanas needing hot temperatures, at least eighty-five degrees, to digest their food. Ellis brought his desk lamp in, craned the neck over the cage so the heat from the bulb would reach Chi Chi, and placed his hands on the tank’s plastic sides until they warmed somewhat. He felt his heart clench at the thought of all the poor exotic pets in the world. How they must suffer, in silence, without the proper conditions for their kind.

With no word all evening from upstairs, Ellis decided he would return the iguana in the morning. As he brushed his teeth, he looked out his bedroom window and watched the couple across the street again, using a step ladder. The husband held it securely in place while the wife stood on the top step, reaching toward the ceiling in a colorful robe. To change a lightbulb more than likely, or to quiet the chirp of a fire alarm. Then, for the first time in all the years he’d had this nighttime view, Ellis noticed that the window next to theirs was also lit.

The shade had always been down, the room always dark, and Ellis had assumed without consciously thinking it that the apartment was vacant. But tonight there was a warm light on. There was a music stand dead center in the window, and after a moment there was also a musician. Playing a flute. His eyes were closed. He swayed with his own sound, and leaned ardently over the music stand, then bowed fluidly away; the music pulling him one direction, only to slide him somewhere else as he played. He had slim graceful arms, and a strong focused brow. His skin was deep brown, and in the lamplight of the room he glowed beautifully. He did everything beautifully. The flute player, there was just no other word for it, was beautiful.

Ellis placed his toothbrush on the bedside table, and with a shirtsleeve wiped the toothpaste from his mouth. He watched as the flute player checked his sheet music through a pair of glasses he had picked up from the stand. He held his instrument in one hand, and used the other to trace with his finger some passage of notes on the page. Then he took off his glasses and again lifted the flute to his lips. Ellis held his breath.

 

Startled awake, Ellis saw that it was already bright out. He’d been deep in a dream when some sound—In the hall? Someone knocking?—snapped him upright. He rubbed his face and got out of bed. Then more knocks came, a series, insistent and loud, so he quickly pulled a sweater on and yesterday’s pants.

Romy and her mother were turning for the stairs when he opened the door. Romy seemed smaller than yesterday, with her coat on, and puffy eyes that looked like she’d been crying.

We have to take a trip, she said.

Short trip, her mother chimed in.

Can Chi Chi stay with you? Romy asked, a trembly voice.

Oh my, said Ellis. Please don’t cry.

He placed his hand on her head, and like the day before he nodded back and forth, mother to daughter.

He’ll be alright with me, Ellis said. Until you’re back.

Short trip, Romy’s mother repeated, though it was unclear who she meant to reassure the second time. He felt disoriented, as if he should say or ask something more, but oversleeping made him muddy, he was slow. Just a minute, he told them. He went to the bedroom and brought back his phone.

I can text you, he said. So you’ll know how he is.

He offered the phone to Romy’s mother, who took it cautiously, then typed her number in and gave it back. Ellis smiled, hoping Romy would too.

After they’d gone he checked the iguana, still under the lamp. It was straining up the side its cage, propped up by its tail, as though it would have liked to prod open the top for an escape. Hey now, said Ellis. You stay put.

The lizard rolled its shiny eyes around, but didn’t move. Ellis took the drawing he and Romy had made, and taped it to the wall over the table. He thought of that moment in the hallway, when her fingers had traced his marked cheek. Then he thought of how quick he’d been last night, to switch off the light in his room. How much he hadn’t wanted his face to be seen, if the flute player happened to look out.

The flute player! That’s what he’d dreamed of, who he’d dreamed of, before the knocking. And it was suddenly vivid, at lease the parts that came back to him. Ellis was cooking, five or six courses, an extravagant lunch, while music poured in from the other room—his own living room—where the flute player was practicing. But if they ate in the dream, he couldn’t remember that. What he remembered was putting away the dishes afterward, how things got put back in all the wrong places. And how Ellis, in the dream, liked them better there.

Chi Chi gave up and slid to the floor of his cage. He found the slice of sweet potato Romy had dropped in, and nibbled it. Ellis took a photo with his phone, zoomed in on the lizard’s head. The photo caught the very moment Chi Chi’s tongue came out to guide a tiny bite into his mouth, and when Ellis saw how perfect it was he wanted to send it to Romy.

Her mother had simply called her own phone from his, and he now pulled her number up to text them. The photo first, and then a message: Look who’s doing just fine! But as he typed, the photo showed up undeliverable. Confused, Ellis sent the text again. Undeliverable.

Without taking time to put shoes on, he ran from the apartment. He didn’t want Romy to leave without a way to reach her, and if they were still at the bus stop, or at the corner hailing a taxi, he might still be able to catch them. He flew down the stairs and out the building. He paused at the stoop to look down the street, then kept running, barefoot, down the sidewalk. The M15 had just pulled up. Ellis scanned the people boarding, all the faces through the windows, but Romy and her mother weren’t there. He kept on to the end of the block, thinking if he got lucky they might be at the store, or stepping out to the curb, arms raised up.

They weren’t, though. He stood at the intersection, checking all four corners again and again just in case. Squinting down the avenue, no sign of the girl, he kept craning his head in search until all at once the events of the morning caught up to him, and he realized—beyond not having shoes on—what a fool he was.

 

Back at the building, he didn’t stop at his floor. He climbed the extra flight and he stood outside the door to their place. They had left it ajar, the deadbolt turned to keep the latch from closing, and Ellis nudged it open. He stepped inside.

The apartment was empty, swept completely clean. It was identical to his unit, slightly sunnier, though it may have only looked that way because it was bare. All that Romy and her mother had left behind were the broom and the mop, leaning in the corner at the far side of the room. The keys to the apartment had also been left, on the windowsill.

He felt so sorry—for whatever it was, the stormy circumstance that made them leave—and for himself too; he had nowhere to go. He crossed to the window and peered out. It was only one floor higher, a matter of maybe ten feet, but the view felt odd to him. It looked different upstairs. The people walking by more distant, the passing cars all quieter somehow. His eyes landed on the window across the street where the flute player, so luminous, had played the night before. Where the tired shade was now pulled down again.

 

Back in his own apartment, Chi Chi was bobbing his head up and down. His scales looked spectacularly green in the slice of sun that shone into the kitchen, and Ellis told him so. Your scales look spectacularly green. And then he said, Don’t think Romy will be back.

The lizard bobbed its head, and kept bobbing. The behavior had been mentioned on one of the sites he read, but Ellis couldn’t remember if he was meant to interpret it as something good or something bad. Over time, he supposed, he would learn.

He detached the lid from the cage, and he slowly reached both his hands in to lift the iguana out. As soon as he was holding it, the creature started flailing about, lashing at him with its hardy tail. It struggled and thrashed, and its claws began to leave red scratches on Ellis’ arm. It was making him angry and he shouted out, Stop! Take it easy, he said. Chi Chi, please. He had read that these pets would resist human touch, but the more thrashing he endured the more determined he became to hold the thing. His mind went to all the images he’d scrolled, of placid reptiles, hung in hammocks, sprawled in swings, each one soothed by a habitat just right for them. And without planning to, Ellis pulled Chi Chi against him, cradling the lizard in his forearm as he rocked himself side to side.

It took only a few seconds for the struggle to wane. The whipping tail slowed to a loose sort of wag, and Ellis could feel the long lizard toes on his arm going soft. He kept his sway steady, found a rhythm he could rock to, and knew that as long as he could, he’d keep going.

 

Cal Shook is a recipient of the 2022 PEN Dau Short Story Prize, and her debut story was published in The Virginia Quarterly Review. She is an MFA graduate of NYU, and a fiction editor at MAYDAY magazine. Cal lives in New York City, and is completing a collection of short stories.

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