By Dean Zach
Ernest was taking a walk on Emerald Sunset Lane when he saw the iguana. It was a perfect day in early April—blue and cloudless, not too humid, a soft northerly wind. He had gotten up unusually late that morning, at around half-past eleven, just in time to watch the governor of New York deliver his daily briefing. Cases, hospitalizations, deaths were on the rise; the usual slides with the usual upward-sloping blue bar charts paraded across the screen. New testing sites were being opened in the outer boroughs. Plans were in the works to turn the city’s largest cathedral into an emergency field hospital. Yes, the governor was working with the federal government to provide more ventilators. Yes, the governor was concerned about rising case counts in nursing homes. No, the governor did not have more data on surface vs. airborne transmission of the virus. No, the governor was not confident in the federal government’s ability to take responsibility. Soon the briefing ended, and the governor exited stage left. Ernest turned off the TV, ate breakfast—cornflakes, milk, and the leftover frozen pizza from the night before—then, as he had gotten used to doing, he called the nursing home, Autumn Pines Senior Living Facility. He held and listened to the tinny elevator music for a few minutes. Then the lady answered.
How are they? he asked. They’re doing well, the lady said cheerfully. They miss you! Can I speak to them? he asked. I’m afraid not since they’re napping at the moment, she said. But you can call back. Okay, he said. Have there been any cases reported in the home? No, we’re still under a strict quarantine, so we have zero cases thus far, she said. But are you doing surveillance testing? he asked. We’re working on that, she said. Any other questions? Any idea when you’ll start allowing visitors? he asked. We’re working on that too, she said. Hopefully sometime soon. Anything else? Is it true there was an ambulance out front yesterday? Ernest asked. Yes, but these things happen all the time. Our residents are well taken care of, but they often unfortunately still suffer medical emergencies. Anything else? No, Ernest said, that’ll be all for today. Thank you. She hung up.
Next, he checked the Department of Labor’s unemployment claims webpage. It was still crashed. He checked the Texas Workforce Commission’s website. Crashed. He checked LinkedIn and Monster and Indeed, and, after fifteen minutes, asked himself what the point was. He checked Nextdoor, the app that his neighbors used to voice complaints about barking dogs, package thieves on porches, or suspicious people in hoodies. At one, he got up to put dog food in Brewster’s bowl, but then he remembered he didn’t have to do that anymore, so he sat back down. At two, he was inexplicably hungry again, so he ate a sandwich and stared out the window. At around three, the Fort Bend County Department of Health usually posted its daily stats, so he waited around for those, perused through them when they came, and found nothing surprising in them. He tidied up the living room, rearranged trophies on the mantelpiece and family photos on the walls. Soon he ran out of things to do, save for staring at the walls, staring at his phone, or starting a piece of entertainment and not finishing it, so he went for a walk.
He opened his front door and walked out onto his driveway, and made his way onto the sidewalk, no particular destination in mind. He walked straight on his street for a while, turned the corner at Sunrise Meadows Court, walked straight for a while on Goldenrod Ridge Road, turned right onto Forest Cove Drive, and then, as if following some predetermined route, turned left onto Emerald Sunset. Sunning there on the sidewalk on the left side of the road near a sewer drain, the iguana noticed him just as he noticed it. And then it started crawling across the street.
Instinctively, Ernest knew what to do next. Flight response triggered, he wheeled around and sprinted back the way he came, running faster than he ever had before, hoping that the iguana would abandon the chase, hoping that it had its eye on something else, something behind him. But he looked back and the iguana was there—green, bearded, beady-eyed—scampering along at his side, matching his speed. After a while, Ernest started to flag, his breathing rapid and wheezy. He looked at the iguana and realized that this was ridiculous, so his footfalls slowed, and he came to a stop. But, to Ernest’s relief, the iguana did not stop alongside him. Instead, it blew past him, and even accelerated, scampering off into the distance until it was merely a green dot against the blisteringly bright concrete. Soon, it was gone. For a while Ernest stood there in the middle of the street, making sure. Eventually, he lurched to a start again and slowly walked back home, his legs overcome with a wave of entirely unexpected fatigue.
When he got back to his house, his street looked exactly like he had left it—deserted, no one outside, not a sound save for the wind and a rustling plastic bag stuck in the sewer drain. Ernest walked up the driveway and then looked at his door. It was ajar; the dark of the inside spilled out into the light of the late afternoon. Shit. Had he left the door open? He had left the door open. But that was okay, no one except him was outside anyway, and the doorbell camera would have captured any intruders. It would be fine, he would be fine, everything would be fine. But what about the iguana? He thought about it for a moment, and then he chuckled to himself. My god, was he being ridiculous. The iguana was an iguana. They liked light, freedom, trees. They did not like dark caves filled with dirty dishes, stale pizza crusts, books, boxes, old trophies.
Emboldened, Ernest yanked the door open, stepped inside, and shut the door behind him. As he expected, there was nothing really out of the ordinary. There was just a little green blur in the corner of the hallway for a few moments, but that was obviously just because his eyes had been in the sun for a while. His vision swam with faded colors in the dark. He took off his shoes, limped to the living room, leaned over the top of the couch from behind, fell over onto his back, and lay there as if he was lying on a therapist’s couch, wishing he was lying on a therapist’s couch. There he drifted off to sleep, exhausted from the day’s work.
Later, he woke with a start. It was half past eight—completely dark except for the soft blue light from the kitchen microwave, completely quiet except for the low humming of the refrigerator. He had no memory of dreams. He felt a dull pain in his right calf, and then it all came crashing back to him. He groaned, sat up, and got off the couch to go confirm what he already knew to be true.
A kitchen, a bathroom, a laundry room, and a bedroom later, Ernest found it. It was lying in the extra storage room—the room that had been his parents’ bedroom ages ago, back before he shipped them off to the virus incubation facility. It had burrowed itself into one of the dozens of dust-blanketed cardboard boxes that were scattered haphazardly across the room. When Ernest turned on the light and peered down into the box, the iguana didn’t bother to move. It was peacefully nestled among the random figurines and other tchotchkes that had lined the shelves of Ernest’s childhood. Ernest sighed, wondered why these things had to happen to him, and walked out, closing the door behind him.
Back on the couch, Ernest stared at the ceiling, massaged his temples, and wrestled with what to do next. Option One, Ernest thought, was appeasement: welcome the iguana with open arms; give it a bed and food; nurture it and care for it, just like his parents had cared for him, just like he had tried to care for his parents before he had them rehomed. After all, Ernest reasoned, he had successfully cared for Brewster for twelve years—feeding him, walking him, reluctantly allowing him into his bed—until he got blood cancer last year and caring was no longer an option. And, after all, it was only an iguana, Ernest thought. It seemed like a pretty low maintenance species, probably just a matter of getting a terrarium, decorating it, putting the iguana in it, and giving it food. Option Two was crowdsourcing—asking his subdivision on Nextdoor if anyone had a rogue pet iguana, and if not, abandoning the iguana in front of a PetSmart like an orphaned baby in front of a nunnery. Finally, Option Three was immediate eviction—getting ahold of the iguana somehow, throwing it out, and immediately closing the door behind him.
After much deliberation, Ernest opted for Option One. He went back to his parents’ bedroom, opened the door, and saw a green blur dash out. Before he knew it, the iguana was scampering into the hallway, and then it was in the living room, and then it was on the mantel, perched right next to Brewster’s urn.
Ernest swallowed, then spoke. “Iguana! Come here.”
The iguana stayed, motionless.
“Iguana! Here,” Ernest said, pointing at the ground in front of him.
He tried a few clicking noises, he tried whistling, he tried waving, pointing, all of his old tricks, but nothing worked.
“Do you want food? What do you like to eat?”
“I’ve got lettuce, a couple carrots, apples…”
He stared at the iguana. The iguana stared at him, unblinking. He imagined the scene before him as a painting: Still Life on Mantel with Iguana and Dead Dog.
Ernest sighed. “You think it’s my fault? You think it’s my fault they’re gone? Is that it?” he asked the iguana.
The iguana blinked.
Ernest let out a shriek, ran into the living room, and tried to grab the iguana, but it had already jumped onto the couch. Ernest dove onto the couch, but the iguana was back on the floor, so Ernest dove onto the floor, but then the iguana was on the wall, so Ernest rammed the wall, knocking down all the old family photos. Then the iguana was on the floor again, so Ernest grabbed his dad’s old fishing trophy from the mantel and threw it at the iguana. But the iguana dodged easily, and the trophy went through the old doggy door and into the dark backyard. Seeing an opening, the iguana fled. Ernest yanked open the door. The iguana was already on the fence, just about to climb out. It stopped dead in its tracks, its right eye fixed on Ernest.
“Go ahead, leave,” Ernest said.
But the iguana remained.
Ernest waved his arm wildly in a motion away from the house. “Go on, get on with it.”
“Go on, leave, just like they all did.”
Silence. For a moment, time stopped as Ernest and the iguana remained there, frozen in the empty backyard. And then, without warning, the iguana disappeared over the fence, into the darkness, and it was gone.
Inside the house it was silent. Ernest retreated through the chaos of the living room back to the kitchen, got out a bottle of liquor from the cabinet where his parents had tried to hide it, and drank, and drank, and drank, and sat there in silence. Eventually, he slumped over in his chair and collapsed head first onto the uncleaned white linoleum, where he remained for a while.
Sometime later, Ernest woke up. He had no memory of dreams. Why was he on the floor? And why did his head hurt? Things were making sense even less than usual. Eventually, he got up, went to the bathroom, applied an ice pack to his head, watched the daily briefing, had breakfast, called the nursing home, checked the daily case counts, checked the news, checked Nextdoor, checked the job websites for any offers, found nothing. Soon he was hungry again, and he cleaned off the table and chewed a sandwich while looking through the kitchen window. Nice day, Ernest thought: blue, cloudless, a soft northerly wind. Feeling restless and wanting to clear his head, he decided to go for a walk around the suburb. He left his house at around noon, walked out onto his driveway, wandered straight on his street for a while, then turned the corner, then walked straight, then turned right, then turned left. He couldn’t for the life of him recall what street he was on, though he knew he was coming up on Willow Point. He looked at the street name sign: Emerald Sunset Lane. And then he saw the iguana.