My slithering live-in

The shriek, as best I could determine upon being awakened from a deep sleep at 3 in the morning, came from the bathroom. My mother was a houseguest, and while nocturnal wanderings gave no cause for alarm, my mother is not the "shriek" type. I thought I'd better investigate.

She heard me coming and met me at the bathroom door. "God back to bed," she said, "it was only a lizard. I wasn't expecting him to dive at the clothes hamper from the top of the shower door. That's all."

Lionel is the lizard's name (a chameleon, actually), and he can be very athletic at times.

"Did he hurt himself?"

"Apparently not. It seems he's climbing up the shower door to try again."

We watched a streak of pale green plunge toward the clothes hamper and alight on the magazine rack. "He could stand some practice," I told her, and we both went back to bed.

Since he moved in, Lionel has had the run of the house. I've never invaded his privacy, so I'm not sure how he makes his entrances and exits. I suspect he comes down the chimney, except in winter. Occasionally, he suns himself on the front porch railing or in the driveway shrub near the spot where I park my car. I see him mainly in the evenings, stretched out atop the fire screen, when I'm watching television. Most shows put him to sleep.

If I'm quietly curled on the couch with a book, Lionel treks up and down the curtain behind the reading lamp, occasionally leaping onto the metal window blinds with a clatter just to watch me jump. I suppose it's the only way he knows if I'm alert or dozing.

When Lionel first took up residence with me I worried about him considerably. I caught him and set him on the porch railing, deeming that a more appropriate lounging spot for a lizard than the fireplace screen. For five days I put him back on the railing. That was before I realized his goal in life was to be a house-lizard.

The next week, as I reached for a volume in the bookcase, Lionel, perched upon "A Tale of Two Cities," reared up and puffed out his pink throat at me. I'm not certain what that gesture might mean to another lizard, but I saw it as a wave of the "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Besides, I could not bring myself to evict a fellow Dickens buff.

Over the years I have cared for dogs, parakeets -- even a pair of eccentric gerbils who challenged each other to marathon races in their exercise wheel about 2 every morning -- so, naturally, I felt concerned about Lionel's welfare.

In the beginning, I would pinch off a hunk of salad lettuce as I sat down to the dinner table and place it on the hearth beside a jar lid of water. Lionel came down from the fire screen, inspected the repast, and quickly retired to his perch. After a week of this, I assumed he preferred to choose his own menus. I granted that freedom.

Over one of his athletic ventures, however, I have taken firm action -- no rides on the car hood! My car is green; so is Lionel. Invariably when I was late for an appointment, I would back the car out of the drive and be a block down the street before I notice Lionel hanging onto a windshield wiper, occasionally lifting his head to enjoy the breeze. It was from this experience I learned that people who have been kept waiting tend to discredit the excuse: "Well, uh, I would have been here on time, but I was putting a lizard back in a shrub."

Everyone who arrives at the front door is introduced to Lionel -- by name and description, if not in the flesh -- and warned to watch his or her step. Many callers seem suddenly inclined to complete their visit through the door screen while standing on the porch. Those who venture inside develop the odd habits of sitting near the edge of a chair and interrupting conversation periodically to study the floor, or perhaps a curtain that appears to move of its own volition.

Despite my introduction, one incautious friend almost fainted one afternoon because of Lionel. She was standing at the fireplace, her hand on the fire screen, when -- with no apparent provocation and no music -- she commenced a lively gavotte about the living room. Her hand had been covering Lionel's "stretch space," and he merely let her know.

My mother is more understanding of wildlife, even in a bathroom in the middle of the night. Her youth was spent nearer the country, as was mine, and a lizard rehearsing his diving technique is nothing compared with a rattlesnake under the back stairs. Not all my houseguests, however, are as sympathetic to a "wild creature" (however great at athletics or small in body) in an urban dwelling.

Even the nonshriek types have given me a start or two. One quiet winter's evening by the fireside, sipping hot chocolate while conversing with a visitor who was bobbing contentedly to and fro in the rocking chair, I myself panicked. I interrupted the guest in midsentence as he evaluated the genius of Mozart with a shriek of "DON'T MOVE!"* Lionel had sauntered out of concealment for his evening stroll and was meandering under the left rocker.

"Sorry," I explained, "but lizards have the right of way. Now, what were you saying about "Cosi Fan Tutte?"

Alas, the interrupted thought was never completed. However, the dissertation on Mozart was. Right then and there.

Lionel and I have become real pals. We tolerate each other very well (although I do wish he would not rattle the window blinds with quite such fervor), but each of us has a pet peeve where others are concerned. Lionel's is children who want to hold the "cute little dragon" while cooing and cuddling. As for me, I'm not sure what I'll do if one more guest, upon meeting Lionel, exclaims, "You actually live in the same house with that thing? Leaping lizards!"

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