Post Road Magazine #29

Chameleon

Phil Hearn

It starts with the alligator in the basement. Anne sees it in the corner of her eye and spills some of the citrus Tide dust on her jeans. She leaves the washer half full and the basket half empty and runs up the stairs, snagging her right sock on a splinter. In twenty minutes the exterminator pulls up in his green van and goes down through the outside cellar door with nothing but a flashlight. The November cold nips at her bare arms while she waits. He comes back up five minutes later with a grin on his face and assures her that there's nothing in her basement and that there aren't any alligators in Pennsylvania.

            Next is the doberman, a seven or eight year old rescue. The house had felt empty—too many bedrooms for one person. She tells her daughter Cheryl that Rambo is for protection and that he's also a sweetheart who loves a good tummy rub. The family's on board with her having a companion since Dad passed. Anne hosts Christmas dinner again this year as if nothing is different. Her children, Rick Jr. and Cheryl, and her son-in-law Nathan have all conspired to keep the conversation light. Richard's place at the head of the table now houses the turkey platter. She tells them about the alligator and laughs along with them. Rambo steals a turkey leg and bumps into the coffee table, leaving a pile of peanuts and a wide splotch of zinfandel stained on the beige carpet. Anne lures Rambo into the spare bedroom with a bowl of biscuits and mashed potatoes and quarantines him while Cheryl presses on the carpet with a paper towel. Soon Nathan tells Cheryl he has work in the morning. After everyone's gone home Anne opens the bedroom door and Rambo gallops around her and down the stairs. The bowl is empty and there's a fresh turd stinking up the corner. She shuts the door to trap the smell and follows the doberman downstairs to mix herself another gin and tonic.

            The alarm remains set. Anne retired as soon as Richard made partner, three years ago now, so the alarm clock had become his alone and aligned with his superstitions, buzzing at 6:28 every morning. No odd numbers or factors of ten. Richard's business trip to San Francisco and the collision with the redwood happened back in August, but the alarm still goes off every morning. Anne hits snooze right away, like Richard used to, so that she can turn it off after the second round of buzzing at 6:38. But the rest of the routine is gone—the creak of the mattress springs under his shifting weight, the hiss of shower water, the distinct sound of his coughs echoing in the bathroom. Silence, except for Rambo snoring on the floor. She presses her face into her pillow and tries to go back to sleep instead of crying at the sunrise.

            The dog keeps getting fatter. When Cheryl visits with lunch from Subway, Anne eats half her Italian and gives the rest to Rambo. Rambo follows Anne's every step. He waits outside the powder room while Cheryl gathers the dirty napkins and foil into a wad and tosses it in the trash. Cheryl hears the toilet flush and gazes out the kitchen window to where the pool cover has sunken in under a thin layer of snow. Dad was the last one to ever swim in it. Anne exits the bathroom, greets Rambo with a delighted squeal and vigorously rubs him under both his ears, kneeling down and staring into his large dark pupils. She tells him he's the most loyal dog in the world and he's Mommy's good boy. Cheryl says Mom he only follows you like that because you feed him so much. Anne laughs and kisses Rambo's wet nose and tells him he's in perfect shape, he's Mommy's healthy boy.

            Cheryl is the closest one. Just a forty-five minute drive from Bethlehem. She calls her only sibling Rick Jr. once a week to let him know how Mom's holding up. She tells him Mom's not quite her old self—the old enthusiasm is harder to come by. She misses Dad. She doesn't laugh at the M.A.S.H. reruns like she used to, but the TV's always on. The iPod Rick Jr. bought her for Christmas last year is in the junk drawer because she can't even listen to The Beatles without thinking of Dad. Rick laughs and says I got blisters on me fingers, in the perfect over-the-top British accent Dad used to belt out every time he heard any track from the White Album. Cheryl laughs and can't think of anything else to say. Rick asks how does Mom spend her days then. Cheryl mentions her repeated suggestions that Mom apply for a job at the Garden Center on Haverford Rd., just for something to do, and Mom's predictable response of turning her attention to the dog, tossing the tennis ball across the living room and slapping Rambo's ass to go get it. Rambo waddles more than runs.

            The lights are never off. Anne calls Rambo's name and walks around the empty house every night with him to check the bulbs. She sees the blackness out the windows, windows on every side of the colonial house, in every room, and she gasps. The house is constricted by blackness. She burns her thumb unscrewing the lit bulb from the mosaic desk lamp in Richard's den. It would go out any day now, might as well replace it. The old bulb rattles like a bug in a jar and Rambo's head follows it to the wastebasket. Upstairs she changes out of her sweats and swishes three caps of Listerine and turns on the Tonight Show. Rambo curls next to her and she rests her hand on his scalp. Through the window behind the TV Anne still sees the blackness of the surrounding woods. Suddenly Rambo isn't enough. She grabs the bedside phone and dials Cheryl's number. Her husband Nathan answers Hullo and Anne hangs up. She pulls Rambo downstairs with her to get the bottle of Tanqueray.

            Anne keeps a canister of mace on her keychain. She drives to the grocery store with one hand on the wheel and the other on the thin cylinder hanging from the ignition. She knows it works because she tested it on Rambo. Just one spray, more in his general vicinity than his face, but enough to make him hide under the bed and whine. She felt bad about it afterward and gave him an extra couple biscuits. She alternates between Giant and Safeway so that her pattern doesn't become too predictable. The short way there and the long way back. Driving home she notices that a black Cadillac has been behind her for a while now. She pulls into the 7-11 and strikes up a conversation with the teenager behind the row of rotating hot dogs. He's trying to get into Notre Dame next year. He can be a witness if the Cadillac comes back. The whole time she talks to him she's clutching the canister and her hand is shaking, causing her keys to jangle. Before she leaves she buys another half gallon of chocolate ice cream because the one in the trunk she'd just bought from Safeway has surely melted by now.

            The electricity bill skyrockets. Cheryl sifts through the pile of mail on the cluttered dining room table and flinches when she sees the number. She calls her mother into the room. Anne walks in holding a steaming coffee mug, with Rambo in tow. Cheryl says the PECO bill has doubled even though the weather hasn't been any colder than January. Anne starts saying something about Obama and energy prices but then something scalding drips onto her hand and she screams and the coffee mug shatters on the carpet. Cheryl flies to her mother's side and makes sure she's not burned. Her hand is just a little red, and quivering. When Cheryl returns from the kitchen with a roll of paper towels and the dustpan Rambo is lapping at the coffee-soaked carpet with his long pink tongue. Anne runs her hand under cold water until the whole thing is numb. She realizes this and starts to laugh. Richard had once spooned her so tightly before falling asleep that he couldn't feel his right arm in the morning, and she had to help him brush his teeth because he was worthless with his left hand. In the dining room Cheryl is reminded of a sumo wrestler as she pushes Rambo's chunky body away from the ring of coffee. The doberman leers at her before sauntering into the kitchen to lick the coffee splatter off of Anne's sweatpants.

The black Cadillac starts to drive past the house at least once a day. Anne can just make out its shape from her window. Usually it glides past at a slow pace, taking in the details of her yard. Sometimes it zips by twice in a row, really fast, so that she wonders how it made the loop so quickly. Her keys jangle in her hand as she sits in the armchair by the window waiting for the next sighting. Rambo lies flat on the hardwood floor, his ears flinching at the sound of the keys, but not interested enough to lift up his head. After it drives past again at a hearse-like pace, Anne's shaking gets harder and she loses her breath. She stands up and stumbles into the kitchen, kneeling on the tiles next to Rambo's bowl and sucking in thick air. The kitchen smells moldy down on the floor. Anne starts to feel sick. She pulls herself up to the counter and hangs her head over the sink. She heaves but nothing comes out, just the noise of her sharp gags. Rambo follows the sound into the kitchen and starts wagging his stub of a tail. After a few minutes the sweat on Anne's forehead finally feels cool and her stomach settles. She returns to her seat at the living room window and watches, but the Cadillac doesn't come back today.

Anne talks to Rambo while she cooks. She narrates to him what she's doing—cracking the eggs, scrambling them up, buttering the pan. He sits at her feet, his nose glistening, his salivating tongue hanging between sharp white teeth. While she waits for the eggs to curdle over the stove she tells him about other things—the emptiness in her gut, the darkness of the woods at night, the mechanical malice of round headlights. Sometimes she accidentally calls him Richard. Rambo's head tilts to the right while he listens. She tells him that when she got the call from the hospital in California and they said dead on impact that, before she processed that he was gone, all she could picture was the redwood getting closer and closer until it was all he could see, and she wondered how long that picture of the tree lasted in Richard's mind before it went black. What if you keep seeing the last thing you see forever. She says I've missed you and pats Rambo's firm head. Then she smells the eggs starting to burn and feels the mist of hot grease popping onto her apron and without an ounce of haste she scoops the blackened eggs onto a plate and tosses the pan into the sink beneath the running faucet, sending a shrieking white hiss of steam into the air.

            This time it's a chameleon. It runs across the south wall and behind the hot water heater just as she throws the fabric softener into the dryer. Rambo doesn't seem to notice it; he's eyeing the box of dryer sheets. Anne isn't afraid with the dog down there—surely the creature would scurry away at the sight of Rambo's massive jaws. She picks up the empty laundry basket and turns it upside down, ready to trap the beast, and starts creeping between the storage boxes and dusty armoires and Richard's enormous tool chest and still cluttered workbench. Her heart is pumping. But soon the laundry basket starts vibrating in her hands, a deep tremor, and she can feel the chameleon's monstrous presence sucking the rest of the basement, ready for her. She can't do this, she needs to drop the basket and get out of there. Rambo is already halfway up before she reaches the stairs. She finds the number for animal control and describes the monster: about the size of a surfboard, low to the ground, quick, with a sort of wiggle as it walks. She tells them it's the same creature that she had called Terminix about before. She admits she had misidentified it, which is why it disappears so quickly—it can adapt to its surroundings, change color, become invisible. She muses into the phone that the Terminix guy must have thought she was crazy when she said alligator. The buzzy male voice on the other end laughs politely and says You'd be surprised how far up north those things can get. It takes forty-five minutes for the brown pickup truck to roll up the driveway carrying a tiny tan man with a cloudy black net and a stick. He spends more time in the basement than the first man had and he makes more noise down there, clanging against the support beams and knocking on the cement walls with what Anne imagines has to be the stick. But his net is empty when he climbs the cellar stairs. He shrugs and says Sometimes the mind can play tricks on you. Anne shivers and hugs herself as the truck putters away. Chameleons are functionally invisible, conforming to whatever is behind them. It could be right in front of her, climbing up from the cellar with its dinosaur hands, black and red, and she wouldn't see it. She turns her head from the open cellar door to the living room windows, every interior detail crystal clear beneath her abundant yellow lighting. Anybody standing outside could see every movement she makes in there.

            All the drapes are drawn. On her mother's sixty-first birthday Cheryl carries a pink gift bag with a bottle of Tanqueray Reserve from the driveway to the front door and can only see slivers of light peeking out from the thin fissures between curtains. She rings the doorbell and nothing happens. Behind the door is silence, though the light from the windows illuminates the front walk. From afar the house looks like a series of small lanterns in the woods. Cheryl uses the brass knocker, three solid clangs. Rambo starts barking from what sounds like the back side of the house. Then from the foyer window right next to the door Cheryl hears her mother's harsh whisper saying Who is it. When she says Cheryl, her mother's voice says Prove it. Cheryl says her full maiden name—Cheryl Louise Benjamin. Her mother says What was your favorite stuffed animal growing up. Cheryl says Mom for Christ sake it's me. Her mother says Answer the question. Cheryl sighs and folds her arms. She knows her mother can see her. Through the slit in the drapes Anne does see a woman that looks like her daughter. She needs to make sure. She says I'm waiting. Cheryl's stomach sinks. She wonders if she has the wrong house after all, if that whisper from behind a window is somebody else's mother who's losing it. Then she says Bugs Bunny and a second later the front door opens.

            The next week Cheryl takes her mother to a psychiatrist. He makes her lie down on his black leather couch and asks Anne about how she feels, how Richard's death has weighed on her, whether she's lonely in the house by herself. Anne tells him she's never by herself. She has Rambo. He asks her if she ever feels afraid. She tells him not as long as she has Rambo. The man is fat and balding and takes notes in strokes like he's using a paintbrush instead of a pen. Anne wonders what he could possibly be writing. She's already said too much. When he asks her if she ever misses Richard, she starts humming The Star Spangled Banner and covers her ears with the cups of her palms. For the rest of the hour she can only see his floppy mouth moving, his skin reddening, his sweaty face contorting until he throws down his pad and fetches Cheryl from the waiting room.

He refers them to a neurologist. Anne doesn't trust the neurologist because he's tall and thin like a signal tower but his name is Dr. Short. Dr. Short takes Anne's blood pressure and shines a light into her eyes and pokes the popsicle stick in her mouth and she does what he tells her. Then he asks her to describe what she sees every day. He asks her how long she's had the tremors. Anne makes things up to throw him off course, says that she sees rainbows and leprechauns dancing around her yard. Cheryl's hand is over her mouth as she listens to her mother's responses. Dr. Short orders a blood test and an MRI and says aside to Cheryl that her mother is exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson's and paranoid schizophrenia. Cheryl starts to cry and wraps her arms around her mother. Anne pulls her daughter's head into her shoulder and holds her, not quite understanding the sobs. She uses the opportunity to covertly scan Dr. Short's pocket pens for possible surveillance equipment, or the keys to a Cadillac.

            This week's call is one-sided. Cheryl tells Rick Jr. about the doctor visits and the way Mom's been acting, that the MRI might clear things up but she's terrified they'll find a tumor or a bruise or a parasite. She wonders aloud whether she should stay at Mom's until they know what's wrong, keep an eye on her. Leave Nathan to have some much-needed bachelor time. Rick says Let's not jump to conclusions, you know how Mom can be. He tells Cheryl about the time last year when Mom warned him not to wear a button-down shirt to the airport because the TSA is more likely to pat you down. Mini cameras, or detonators, they might suspect. She insisted on no buttons. He was at the door with his luggage and his thick winter jacket when she forced him to strip and put on a plain red t-shirt. Rick laughs and tells his sister that sometimes quirks are just quirks. Cheryl tells him he's right. Rick says Just hang tight, and besides, she's got that dog to keep her company. Cheryl laughs and says You're right. You're right.

            The day before the scheduled MRI, Rambo's heart stops at the top of the stairs and he rolls to the bottom. Anne has just filled his bowl with leftover spaghetti when she hears a quick high-pitched yelp followed by the thumping. She runs from the kitchen and she screams when she sees the lump of his body motionless in the foyer, his left front limb twisted backwards. She cries Help me, as if someone is there to hear her. She kneels down and shakes him to wake up. She lowers her head to his heart and hears nothing. His tongue is rolled out from mouth to the floor like a red carpet from a black car. Anne starts to weep. During the day the foyer is remarkably dark with all the drapes closed. She wants to call Cheryl but it's a Tuesday and she doesn't remember her work number. It might be written down somewhere but she can't even think of where to look. She rushes back to the kitchen, her eyesight blurred through fresh tears, and snatches the phone from the wall. She dials 911 and says her dog isn't breathing. The operator says I can't understand what you're saying, speak clearly. She hangs up and fills a glass of warm water from the tap and returns to Rambo, who hasn't moved. She pours some water onto his drying tongue and waits for him to lap it up. A small puddle forms around his snout. She throws the glass against the wall and it shatters and leaves a dark wet spot on the pale wallpaper. Anne collapses on her back among the shards and stares at the blank ceiling, every ounce of energy drained in a tumult of sobs, the only sounds in the whole of the empty house.

            Then it clicks. She isn't alone at all. She knows what did this. She grabs Rambo's twisted front limbs and drags him across the floor, heaving with all her strength to pull him around the corner of the kitchen, her arms aching. When she exhausts herself pulling backwards, she spins and drags him behind her. His body across the linoleum makes the frictioned sound of moving heavy furniture. Anne reaches the door to the basement, pulls it open and flicks on the lightswitch. Then she steps behind Rambo's body, bends over and pushes him with both hands and the power of her legs. The noise she makes is somewhere between crying and grunting. If Richard were there she'd be safe, she wouldn't have to do this. Rambo's body meets the threshold of the basement stairs and then he tips and rolls, a black and brown blur pounding against each wooden step until he's just a dim figure on the dusty basement floor. Anne stares down at him for a moment, unable to believe it's come to this. Then she hears a car sailing up her driveway. She runs to the front window and creates a crack in the drapes. The black Cadillac, glacially working its way to the top of her hill. Her vision begins to fog and she thinks she might faint from terror. But she shakes it, empowers herself with a primal moan and walks with steady purpose through the kitchen to the basement, closing the door behind her and descending the stairs. With the last of her stamina she heaves Rambo into the shadow of the hot water heater, the last place she saw it. The stale dust makes her sneeze. Through the ceiling she hears a rapping on the front door and a loud masculine voice saying Police. Anne isn't falling for it. The creature is down here somewhere. She calls out for it across the basement, the words she wants to say congealing into a dull wail. Rambo's still fur pricks her bare ankles. The tears start to come back and she waits. The knocking upstairs has become a pounding. Then she sees across the dim basement that some long, low form against the wall is fading into existence, changing from the uniform color of cement to the auburn of tree bark, redwood, and soon it's in full view, turning its dark head and slouching toward her.



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