"You know how, like, if a lizard surrenders its tail it'll grow a new one? Well it works both ways."
I laughed. "If a tail surrenders its lizard?"
"No, of course not. If a tail … How could that happen? Shut up and listen a minute."
Jimmy left a pause to see if I would fill it. When I didn't and he was sure he had my fullest attention, he said, "The lizard grows a new one in, like, five days or something. Well, the tail grows a new lizard."
"Well I said …"
"So if an animal, like that cat, attacks and forces the lizard to surrender its tail, it actually makes two lizards. If the cat doesn't eat the tail or scratch it up or anything."
There wasn't a thing about roaches and snakes and spiders and lizards and all that kind of thing that Jimmy didn't think he knew all about.
We were standing over the desk in his room looking down at the lizard tail that wasn't moving anymore. I had found it in a deserted lot just five minutes ago, the cat who always hung out there standing next to it and looking — I think, though Jimmy says I must be mental — sheepish and slightly peeved about losing out on a snack. The tail was grey and not so long, only four inches or so, but it had caught my eye because it had been moving so violently. At first I had thought it was a worm, but on closer examination it clearly wasn't. So I had picked it up and ran to Jimmy's place to show him. I could feel it wiggling in the bowl I had made from my hands, but the dancing was slowing, winding down. I really wanted Jimmy to see it moving, otherwise he would say something like, "Mickey, you're full of it. Dancing." Jimmy always did that when he didn't believe you, repeat something you said in that tone. Dancing.
But Jimmy had believed it, said he'd seen it before himself and had kept it, but his mother had thrown it out.
We were still looking down at it. I said, "It looks in pretty good shape to me. I don't think the cat bothered with it much."
"Maybe. That cat's a lazy little B."
Jimmy was always saying that – B. He said it was cooler than using the full word. I knew it was because his mother would wallop him one if she heard him cussing.
I said, "I saw him catch a mouse once, a big one."
"Yeah, fat and slow," Jimmy said.
We both watched the lizard tail for a while, but it didn't twitch again.
I said, "So let's keep it and grow a lizard."
"So then, when it's a fully grown lizard," I was thinking as I went along here, "we can scare it into releasing its tail, then grow another one, then we'll have two."
"What'a we need two lizards for, Mickey, you dumb B?"
"Then we can scare them and get four lizards, then eight, then sixteen …"
"What, you want a lizard army? Give them little helmets and boots and stuff? Then eight, then sixteen."
"No, no. But I bet we can sell them at school. Right? I don't know how much, but I bet we can."
Jimmy looked down at his shoes and thought about it. He always looked down at his shoes when he had to think about something, as if he had the answers written on them. I looked — he didn't. I don't know what he did when he wasn't wearing any.
"Okay," he said, "let's do it. But at your house. We'll never get away with it here."
We put the tail in a yogurt pot Jimmy's mother had cleaned out and left by the sink to dry before she added it to the others she kept under the sink and would someday find a use for. Then we took it to my house and my room. My mother had me on a kind of honour system where I could pretty much do what I wanted within reason, but would risk virtual imprisonment if I screwed up too bad. Breeding lizards had never been discussed at family meetings, so I decided it was a grey area and she would probably never know about it anyway if I put the tail in the gap between my bed and desk, hidden from the doorway.
I saw an empty glass on the desk and said, "Do you think we should give it water or something? Some food?"
Jimmy looked at me with his brows knitted. "Is it going to eat with its backside? When it grows a backside. Food. But maybe some water, though. With this kind of thing, you always have to think of nature. Like, if this tail was out in nature and not in your house, would it get water?"
"Depends on the season. In winter a lot, in summer …"
"Exactly. But lizards are summer creatures, right? So just pour a little water on it, like every two or three days. Just a little. That should do it."
And so we were all ready to grow a lizard. We spent a long time — about ten minutes or so — watching the tail, but it failed to grow in that time so we went outside to hunt for more lizards without success. Then my mother came home, then Jimmy's mother called my house to get Jimmy to go home and I was left with the tail in a yogurt pot on my floor.
The summer holiday stretched out in front of Jimmy and me like it always does at the beginning. The best feeling in the world. Days and days of essential nothingness with a few day trips and mandatory family visits thrown in. We killed most of those few weeks — they seem so short now — enjoying ourselves by simply being free. No school or homework and none of the politics of the school ground. Of course, every day started and ended with a measuring of the tail. We made up a chart to plot its progress and ensure we watered it regularly, twice a week. Every day we measured it and every day nothing had happened but the tail had turned a duller shade of grey. Even when we increased the watering it had still dried out by the next time we checked on it again.
On the last day that we had the tail disappointment had reached the peak that only a young child can know. It was the weekend and Jimmy's mother was visiting mine and the tail had actually shrunk. Five weeks had passed. In the kitchen, we could hear our mothers chattering away about nothing of anything — or so it always seemed to us — and we were stood over the desk, the tail now hard and leathery, starting to curl. We had a ruler laid out and the tail positioned along it, curling back into its shape after I had straightened it.
I said to Jimmy, "I thought you said it would only take five days. Didn't you say that?"
"No, actually, if you remember, I said it took the lizard five days to grow back its tail, not the tail five days to grow back its lizard. You got it the wrong way around."
"Still, it's shrinking, Jimmy. It's never been smaller."
"It takes time is all."
"You don't know what you're talking about is all."
"Shut up, Mickey. You're the one doesn't know anything about anything. Dumb B."
"You always make out like you know everything about everything, but this lizard thing is stupid. It's not going to grow. It's dead."
"Stupid. Stupid, says the guy who's had it next to his bed for the whole summer. If I'm so stupid then why did you keep it?"
Our voices were getting loud now. I made a conscious decision to cool it down before our mothers came in. I said, "Just throw it out, Jimmy. It's not going to grow."
"S'your house and your tail, the way I see it. You throw it out."
I picked up the tail and started over to the open window, ready to throw the thing down into the bushes. Jimmy's hand on my shoulder stopped me and he said, "You don't know it's not gonna grow. Put it back."
I pulled away from him, the tail held out in front of me, not even swinging as I went it was so stiff. Then Jimmy was on me, his hands gripping into my arms and pulling me back. I pulled one arm free and spun round and pushed into him, all my disappointment fermented into that consuming red rage you can get when you're a kid. We were both pushing away at each other and Jimmy feinted and rammed his shoulder into my chest, sending me down to the floor, momentum carrying him after me. He landed heavily on me and I was suddenly aware that I didn't have the tail anymore, didn't even know where it was.
Jimmy was trying to pin my arms down with his knees and I was trying to outmaneuver him. I saw his face for the first time since this stupid fight began and I saw that he was as angry and red raged as I was. It came as a shock and I still don't know if it was because he was a mirror to my own ugly rage or the fact that, being a kid, I had never really understood that other people had the same feelings and urges and impulses that I had, that I wasn't totally special and unique and the center of everything. I think I grew up a year or two right then.
He had my right arm pinned at the wrist now and the pain just gave me all the more strength to swing with my left, catching him in the gut as I yelled, "Get off me, you stupid bastard!"
Jimmy rolled off and froze for a second, that word, in its entirety, throwing him off. Then he was clutching his stomach with one hand and steadying himself on the floor with the other as he kicked at me, getting in a few good shots, too.
All I could hear was my own panting breath, and somewhere, a million miles away, Jimmy's. But then there was an almighty crashing sound and we both froze and looked up. My mother and Jimmy's mother were standing in the doorway, my mother with her hand on the door knob that she had just used to swing my door all the way open so it banged my desk. Her other hand was at her side, making a fist. Jimmy's mother was going for the more traditional hands on hips look.
All four of us were frozen for a time, the parents staring at their child with that cold kind of burning every mother perfects at some kind of school or something; and both us kids staring back at our respective parent with that rabbity look where you're wondering just how mad she is.
Then all of a sudden a burst of movement — both parents lurching forward and grabbing their child and Jimmy and I trying to stand our ground (and failing) to save face.
Then came the volley of words as the mothers started in with their obligatory What do you think you're playing at? and You say sorry right now. Funny how mothers always make their child take the blame. Kind of backwards when you think about it. As a child you're always thinking of things like that.
I heard Jimmy say, "He called me a stupid bastard!" And I saw his mother clip him round the ear as she said, "How many times have I told you not to say that word?"
For my part, I was telling my mother how Jimmy had started it and how I had had my back turned and about just how stupid he was.
The mothers looked at each other, silent communication passed between them — another thing they must have learned at that school — and they nodded. Then Jimmy's mother was dragging him by one arm out of the room, Jimmy barely able to keep up while trying to face me to give me one of the scowls he was so proud of. When we made eye contact, I stuck my tongue out at him, and he cried, "He stuck his tongue out at me!" His mother pulled even harder and he nearly flew as I pulled myself away enough from my own mother to hold his eye with my tongue out. He did it back and I shouted, "Don't stick your tongue out at me!" Jimmy's mother gave him another one round the ear and they were gone. I heard the front door slam and then there was silence.
My mother broke it, shouting at me some more, but I don't remember any of it because I was looking at the tail on the floor. When she had exhausted her stock of reprimands — and she was amply stocked — she told me I was to stay in my room for the rest of the day with no supper and maybe that would teach me how to treat guests. Once she had left and slammed the door as the final exclamation point on her disappointment, I bent over for the tail. Finding my stomach too sore, I bent at the knees, picked it up and put it back in the yogurt pot. Then I put the pot back in the gap between my bed and the desk and dropped a few drops of water onto it from my fingers.
I spent the last week of the summer holiday mostly on my own or with my mother. By the morning after the fight she had mostly forgiven me, but she had that kind of forced normality where you know there is another shouting-at just waiting for the chance to jump out at you.
For the first couple of days I managed to hold onto my anger at Jimmy, but by the third it was hard to maintain and I found myself bored and wishing I wasn't alone. Life was never boring with Jimmy. When the doorbell chimed or the phone rang I was on my feet to answer, but it was always a salesman or one of my mother's friends or something else of no interest at all to a young boy.
I spent a good deal of time watching the lizard tail, though I knew I was wasting my time. I guess I just wanted to be sure I had been justified in calling Jimmy a stupid bastard. Those were strong words to just be throwing around without good cause and I wanted to assure myself that I was the one in the right. No doubt Jimmy was doing the same thing.
The summer holidays ended and it was back to school; that awful feeling when you wake up and realize and for just a moment you're able to cling onto the hope that it's all a dream, until the sun creeping around your curtains and your mother standing over your bed, yanking your blanket away, makes horrible reality crash home.
I walked alone to school, keeping an eye out for Jimmy — we usually walked together — unsure what I would do should I see him. I decided on a plan of catching up to him and just carrying on as normal, as if there were no lizard tails or bad words in the world. But I didn't see him. I did see some other kids from my class, but didn't go up to them. I didn't really know them.
When I got to school and into the classroom, Jimmy was already there at his seat. My seat was at the next table (Teacher had separated us long ago) and I took it, making a show of ignoring Jimmy when I realized that that was what he was doing to me. Jimmy had a temper on him like I've never known. That boy could hold a grudge for his whole life.
I could see him muttering with the boy seated next to him, George, and felt a horrible feeling when George looked up at me and laughed before returning to his huddle with Jimmy. Jimmy was good with other kids, for a while anyway. It wouldn't take long for his bossiness and that tone of voice he used to ostracise him. I was never good at making friends — I was always so conscious of saying the right thing that I said the wrong thing, or the right thing but all wrong, with the wrong tone and inflection.
Soon all the kids were in their seats and Teacher came in and quieted the post-summer hum of What did you do's and You'll never believe what I saw's. School was back. And then I noticed all the other kids had pieces of paper and notebooks in front of them and I had that horrible sinking feeling — homework was back, too, and I hadn't done it. I had put it off until the last minute like I always did, and had been so caught up in the whole lizard thing and the fight with Jimmy that I had forgotten all about it.
Teacher went around collecting up the work as I frantically looked around for someone else with nothing in front of them and that cold, panicked look on their face. And I found it — George looking around like I was, hoping to see someone else in the same boat as he was. I heard a familiar voice: "I forgot. You had all summer. I was busy." Followed by a short and sharp, "Shut up, Jimmy."
Teacher came to my table and took up everyone's work and held her hand out at me. She could see I didn't have it. The mean old witch just wanted to make me say it in front of everyone. I did and she acted surprised and disappointed, making a real show of it. She said, "Mr. Parker, you've had all summer to do your report. Everyone else has done it, so I don't see why you should be the exception. Go on, to Mr. Johnson's office with you."
I saw it coming and was glad when it did. Being sent to Mr. Johnson was far better than having to spend any more time with Teacher. You're supposed to be scared of going to the big man's office, it's like they're training you for when you have to get a job, but Mr. Johnson was one of those that didn't subscribe to the whole shouting business. Instead he would always ask you why you didn't do your homework, or why you pushed that other kid, and then he would explain why it was wrong and then quiz you. As long as you looked regretful and gave back more or less the same words he had given to you in his explanation, you were fine with Mr. Johnson. Being sent to him also meant having to sit down outside his office, in the corridor next to his secretary's office, and wait. And waiting meant not being in class.
I got up and pushed my chair in to avoid a ticking off from Teacher, then walked out of the classroom, feeling everyone's eyes on me and hearing the little titters from the girls that you always get when someone is being punished. I could never understand the girls in my class — what was so funny about everything? Why all the whispering?
I went into see Ms. Chamberlain, the secretary, in her office, and reported why I was there. She gave me that thin-lipped look she always gave no matter why you were there and told me to sit on one of the chairs. Soon, George came along and spoke to Ms. Chamberlain. He said, "I'm here because Mrs. Banks said I look sick, I need a note for my mother."
I always wondered what would happen if you lied. I never tried it. Turns out Ms. Chamberlain had somehow learned some of the same powers that mothers have. She said, "Don't you even try that with me, George Smith. It won't wash here. First day back and already I'm dealing with you. Take a seat and wait your turn."
George sat next to me and scowled back at Ms. Chamberlain who was already busy with some papers. We sat there in silence for a moment or two. George turned to me and said, sotto voce, "Jimmy told me he told you that lizard tails grow new lizards."
I didn't know what to say so I said nothing and looked at my shoes.
"And he said that you said you believed him and wanted to make a lizard army. Or something like that."
I looked at George and he was smiling, not a nice and friendly smile, more like the smile a boy gets when he's taunting another, almost a giddy anticipation of cruelties to come.
"He said your new name should be Lizard Boy."
"That's not true," I said. "Jimmy believed that, too."
"So you did believe it then, Lizard Boy?"
That wasn't my name so I ignored the comment and just then I was called in, anyway. Mr. Johnson did his usual pause-filled question and answer session and sent me on my way once I had convinced him of just how sorry I was. He really was a pushover. Walking back into the classroom, I once again felt all the stares of my peers, but this time I thought I could hear something whispered by one of the girls, followed by the usual giggles. I could have sworn I heard Lizard Boy.
By lunchtime it had gotten worse. As I stood in the queue, David Kenneth and his little gang, and Robert Johnson and his rival gang, and Jane Dennis and her boy-hating gang, all called "Lizard Boy" to me. I saw Jimmy off in a corner with his new best friend, George, smiling. I wasn't that hungry anyway, so I decided to skip lunch and go straight outside to sit under the big tree out there, out of the sun, and just watch the world go by until the bell.
I was the first kid out so I had that great feeling you get when you have a whole place to yourself. Soon, though, others started to come out and that ruined my reverie. I saw Jimmy come out, George with him, acting like a lizard. Jimmy seemed to think he was pretty funny, but George was looking a little irritated already.
As I sat there, nice and cool in the shade, a couple of girls came over with their skip rope. When they saw me they whispered between themselves, then one of them stage-shrieked and pointed. "Ah! A lizard, oh no!" Then they both fell into giggles and ran away as if I were chasing them, looking over their shoulders. I never understood girls at all.
That sort of thing happened a couple of times. I tried to ignore it all, but it did start to get to me. There's nothing more frustrating to a kid than suffering injustice and lies. How often do kids say, "That's not fair"?
Jimmy and George were watching me, waiting for another kid or two to approach me with some new witticism. After a while — and because I ignored it, I am now old enough to understand — it got old and kids got back to kicking balls around and chasing each other and exchanging cards. That's when George grabbed hold of Jimmy's shirtsleeve and yanked him up. They both walked over to me.
George said, "Hey, anyone seen any lizards? You gotta be careful of those lizards. We will fight them in the parks, we will fight them in the school ground …" He couldn't go on for laughter. They were both killing themselves. I was staring hard at Jimmy. Mr. Traitor was avoiding my gaze.
When they had calmed down, I said, "Jimmy told me about it. I believed him because I thought he knew what he was talking about."
Jimmy said, "I fooled you is all, and you fell for it."
"You're a liar."
"You're a liar. You would say that, wouldn't you?"
George butted in: "Course he would."
"You're lying and you know it. You're trying to make me look stupid so you won't feel stupid. But you are."
George said to Jimmy, "You can't let him get away with that, Jimmy. You gotta …"
"You were afraid I'd tell everyone about it, so you thought you'd get there first and make out like it was all my fault. But it wasn't, it was yours. You're a liar."
George again: "You gotta sort that out, Jimmy."
Jimmy swallowed, looking at me, then turned to George. "What are you, a gangster? You gotta sort that out."
George stared at Jimmy hard, then pushed him at me. Jimmy fell into me and I threw out a punch on instinct. I'm not proud of it. It wasn't very hard and it glanced off his shoulder, but Jimmy threw one back anyway, almost as half-baked as my own. It hit me in the stomach and the shock of it made me hit again, hard this time and connecting with his thigh. It was real and serious now, my very first fight, and it was with my best friend. Jimmy had always said that he'd been in loads of fights and won them all, but I never believed him. George was shouting now — "Fight, fight, fight!" — in that primal way that kids do, and others were running over to watch and circle us, all of them taking up the same refrain. "Fight, fight, fight!"
Me and Jimmy were wrestling on the dusty ground, neither of us able to get a good hold of the other as we rolled and skidded around. The sound of the other kids' shouting was ringing in my ears and gave it all an otherworldly feel. I wished it wasn't true. Even as I was there, in the heat of it, I wished that.
Then a voice rose out above the chanting: "Teacher!"
And that simply the circle broke up. I caught a glimpse towards the school and saw a teacher — I couldn't be sure which one — strolling over, confident of the power her presence held and letting it do all the work for her before she was even on the scene. I was suddenly rolled off Jimmy as he shifted his weight and then we were both lying on our backs, our necks craned back so we could see towards the school, the approaching teacher upside down.
I didn't even feel any worry or anything — I was too tired. Then I felt a nudge at my arm and turned to see Jimmy almost smiling at me. He nodded towards the fence. There, on a post, perched a lizard, darting its tongue in and out as lizards will. I swear to God it was staring right at us. I stared at it and chanced a glimpse to see that Jimmy was too — you always have to watch things like lizards or they'll disappear on you. Then, and I swear this is true, the lizard darted out its tongue and held it there, sticking it out at us. The teacher's footsteps could be heard now and we both broke our stares to see how close she was — nearly on us. Then we looked back at the lizard. It was gone. I looked at Jimmy and he was smiling and then I was and then we were both laughing until it hurt, lying there in the dirt, the teacher standing over us now and trying to suppress her confusion to maintain her cold gaze. She failed.
Mr. Johnson said he had never had a student in his office twice in one day. He drilled Jimmy and I on proper behavior and we passed the test so he let us go without too much of a telling-off.
Walking home together, we didn't even talk about the lizard thing. We just talked about how old Mrs. Chamberlain had stared at us and how easy Johnson was. Easy stuff to ease us back into normality.
Then Jimmy stopped in his tracks and looked down at the floor. I followed his gaze and there on the floor was a dried up strip of snakeskin.
Jimmy looked up at me and said, "You know, snakes shed their skin all the time."
"That's the word for it. Shed." He bent down and picked it up, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger and letting it swing down. "They grow new stuff underneath and then the old stuff falls off."
Jimmy looked at me like I was missing something very obvious. "So, snakeskin is valuable. My mother's got this bag made of it she's always taking out with her when she's got somewhere special to go. But what's special about bingo? Anyway, if we catch a snake we can collect its skin and sell it."
I shook my head a little, "Sell it," I said. "It would take us a year just to get enough to make a purse. Sell it."
Jimmy shrugged, dropped the skin, and we walked off home. Jimmy talked about snakeskin the whole way.