He looked like anyone else. The man was inconspicuous amid a crowd and nobody noticed him. It wasn’t exactly what he would have wanted for himself before arriving there with visions of standing out, but so much of what we do is beyond our control. The larger swallows the smaller.
Moving to the Big City hadn’t changed him much on the surface. Without having to conform to an employer’s dress code or don a uniform, in that regard he was free to be himself. However, years of wearing camo and drab army green in the field had taught him about blending-in. Maintaining a low profile was survival strategy. In an oblique way, it made for an easy transition to civvies. He quickly saw how few of the teeming mass had boldness enough to risk display the way male anole chameleons did in flashing their brilliantly colored dewlaps to draw attention to themselves. Unless a person was crazy or very wealthy, it created an unnecessary risk, and he was neither.
The former first-class private concealed his secret identity in his throat. These were his thoughts. His name was Leon, Leon the chameLEON in those thoughts. He rarely offered up his given name since no one inquired. Like most of the anonymous crowd, he rarely said a thing anyone could hold against him. People preferred it that way.
The faceless building he moved into with his military discharge payout declared no name above its archway. Few of its residents probably knew that name, and it was generally described as the tan building catty-corner from the trestle. The chameLEON did not know for certain whether any of the occupants knew the name either, because in his few feeble attempts at small talk while washing his bland clothing in the obligatory and dingy basement laundromat, he had been universally given the cold shoulder.
Leon was shy and reserved. People preferred it that way. It gave them more time to concentrate on the private fantasies they entertained without his distracting them. As they did this, Leon stared blankly at the porthole and watched his clothing spin, listening to the variation the machine expressed. In this whole wide world his neighbors held in hand, flash in the pan celebrities and information providers catered to their masters’ whims like genies summoned by small swipes. For other nobodies, selfish games kept them preoccupied with their crotches. It was enough for them to sit detached while herded closely in a row of plastic scoop chairs all asses alike conformed to. People preferred it that way.
Upstairs Leon listened to mainstream music and popular videos same as the rest, but did not know that for certain. Nobody told him either way. One of the tenants in the impersonal building rented a unit with a memorable number, all three numerals the same by Leon’s calculations. Leon sometimes brushed against the startled man when headed in opposite directions. He tried to break the ice with the neighbor, but the stranger never returned any warmth to him. Leon’s approaches must have rubbed the man above from him the wrong way. His ceiling was the man’s floor.
Living for many years in the barracks with many other men worked against the chameLEON in the Big City. Here, people, he soon found, above everything valued their personal space. To break his sense of isolation, he aimlessly rode numbered busses and train routes for countless hours some days without a destination in mind, switching impulsively to expand his small world’s boundaries. Often, the rides were diverting, but it never went any further than that. More infrequently, he took mass transit to conduct business in person for the sake of a glimmer of human connection. It was business he could have transacted remotely the way rails of trains conduct electricity which direct contact with is deadly. For him it was the same. The merchants and clerks he met wanted nothing to do with him but to expedite the process. They were only interested in taking numbers from a plastic card or denominations of currency from his wallet to transfer it into their own pockets or corporate accounts, and these meetings left him feeling empty.
When anonymous bill collectors called his number, giving him the treasured opportunity to converse with a live voice after the robot voice was bored with him, it provided Leon with real joy. He owed many much, and these collectors of arrears phoned frequently early in his tenancy. The way in which he reacted to these callers was inadvertently the cleverest tactic anyone could devise to dissuade them. In his unrestrained excitement of hearing an amiable voice, he’d naively gush, “I’m so glad to hear from you! I have been so lonely,” after which he’d launch into describing his bleak existence. Time is money. Without a handy script to respond to this, the bewildered call center workers always cut their losses. Within the briefest time, the curtailed calls stopped coming. This is not what Leon wanted.
Leon the chameLEON tried dating sites and chat rooms. These represented people. It was not dissimilar to what the very loneliest of humanity’s lonely did with mannequins replacing flesh and blood companions. He had read about the early 20th century European artist, Kokoschka, who lived and danced with one he had custom-made after a lost love. It made him think of Norman Bates. Inevitably, he found these contacts to be false friends with invented gender identities and crafted backgrounds and assumed names, fantasists all. They only wanted to dominate the conversations and flash their dewlaps from a safe distance to pump themselves up or to jeer at him. Seeing this a dead end, and not wanting to join this class of compulsive liars, he discontinued the activity.
There seemed to be a pattern to this chosen isolation in the Big City. None of the nobodies made sustained eye contact with other nobodies because to do so would place them on the same level as the crowd they wanted to rise above. Whenever during his solitary jaunts Leon made accidental physical contact with another nonentity, “Sorry,” was all any of them said. It only reinforced his sense of worthlessness. It was a lonely existence, nil for null. He wished he hadn’t made the realization that People preferred it this way.
In the lobby of the unnamed building where a numbered metal mailbox he never claimed by name set in a wall among a bank of them, only bills arrived to remind Leon that he existed with one. There, one morning, was a tall plant in a pot. It was a common thing covered with dust, underpotted and left as trash for the janitor. The stiff upright leaves like dull green flames with uniform chevrons banded across them reminded Leon of the military. He rescued it upstairs to his domicile to keep him company. His careful repotting and attentive care revitalized the thing, but it did not communicate except when thirsty, and his sense of isolation only grew.
Citing health and nuisance standards, no pets were permitted in the faded building. Leon wanted a spark of life in his bleak kingdom. He wanted an inconspicuous pet companion none of his aloof neighbors might suspect existed. Only a furtive and silent animal would do, no chirping bird or yapping dog or mewing cat. It was to be a covert operation. At the box store in a formulaic shopping center, he purchased a lizard. It had two arms, two legs, and a head, just like a human action figure. He assigned a name to it.
It might have been a stroke of good luck that the first lizard species the chameLEON acquired was a common green iguana. They were known to be strictly vegetarian basking lizards which spent many hours in arboreal petrification. These were good traits for apartment life because the animal would be easy to feed and move little like most of the residents. The small animal had not developed the sexually dimorphic qualities of an adult, and there was no simple way of determining what gender it was at the time of purchase. Leon had seen the armored males in 1950’s dinosaur movies, their horns and warts impressively primeval. He’d read cautionary information that the males became aggressive during their mating season, and while he hoped for the lizard to be armed to the gills, he feared it lashing out with its rough powerful tail and possibly injuring him should it turn out to be a male. It was a small animal, barely 9” long, inclusive of the tail, so there was plenty of time yet to establish a truce or confine it.
Poisoning the animal was not the best way to train the beast. This was inadvertently done with a live pothos plant for its consumption. The ornamental plant had been sprayed with toxic chemicals that Leon hadn’t factored in as potentially dangerous to his new ward. Within minutes of beginning on its repast, green foamy bubbles engulfed the reptile’s mouth as it gasped for fresh air. This ordeal went on for several hours and gradually subsided, but it took a couple of days before the animal’s health was restored. It was a one-time mistake that could have gone either way, but it alerted Leon to the fragility of pet lizards. The living action figure behaved with only a small amount of friendliness towards the chameLEON, but even the little he received from the thing inspired him to want more dumb acceptance, yet, knowing that lizards are not extremely demonstrative with their favors, the solution was to buy more reptile friends to improve on a good thing.
The second lizard that caught Leon’s attention was widely known to be little more than a visual novelty since it was intolerant of regular human contact. He knew that going into the deal, but it was intended to be nothing more than a distraction from his isolation, not a solution. Furthermore, the delicate captive demanded specific conditions to thrive, an aerated and misty habitat and specialized food. It was a three-horned Old World chameleon, a miniature triceratops from the mountains of East Africa. It was a smallish creature with a downturned ogre mouth, the body flat and like a leaf’s as was the resting coloration. Excited by fear or anger, the green skin mottled brown. Its prehensile tail, curled like a watch spring when at rest, was able to unwind and function as an extra hand to help it grasp twigs in its native habitat. The animal would only eat live insects and arthropods, Leon was informed, and these were not only costly, but a pain to maintain, to say nothing of the putrid smell they released. One of the two food items he bought was giant (a relative term) mealworms. It was remarkable to watch the lizard focus on its prey, the bulging turrets with tiny lens in their centers wobbling independently until they focused to release the retracted tongue, which, much like another tail, uncurled to adhere to the wiggling larvae and at blinding speed pull it into the wide mouth, whereupon it chomped slowly.
Leon realized, one morning, that the Jackson’s chameleon had been off-feed for a couple of days and appeared ill, its color paling. It seems that one of the consumed giant mealworms hadn’t been thoroughly masticated, and surviving inside the lizard’s gut, it managed to eat its way not only through the stomach lining, but the layers of bumpy hide, much like an apple maggot making its way from the fruit’s flesh and emerging as a fully-formed fly. The poor animal was lying on its flank like a downed horse, a hole where the mealworm had gnawed through and popped in and out teasingly. The animal was dying, beyond saving, so Leon the chameLEON did what he could to ease the chameleon’s suffering, by euthanizing the cold-blooded creature in the manner described.
It was a terrible loss. The only consolation to him was the creature’s frozen body in his freezer compartment where it had been eased into gentle death, kept like a memento not from cruelty or a sense of attachment, but because Leon saw some use to the grotesque form. Alive, the chameleon had been a flat-bodied animal, and dead, empty of expansive air and thinner yet, with its coiled tail extended in death like an eager-to-fight dog’s, the ice-encrusted thing resembled a ghoulish licorice-lime ice cream pop. Leon smiled when he thought of presenting this monstrosity to a woman, any potential lover, sitting on the floral-print sofa with her and pretending the frozen gargoyle with the horrid frown was a flavorsome treat he was about to slurp on before attempting a clumsy kiss with her. It would be friendly awkward gesture, the chameLEON imagined, but unlikely to happen with a real person.
After the dismal failure with the unsociable reptilian confection, Leon more thoroughly researched the habits of various species to determine their suitability for living instead of dying under his roof, or ceiling as it was. The sense of isolation and confinement that he, himself, was experiencing might prove most detrimental to an active lizard kept in solitude, and only colonial species had the potential to be companions, which eliminated most from consideration. Leon stood a better chance of establishing rapport with an animal already geared to fraternization rather than trying to convert a solitary animal such as citified human beings towards his friendship.
The next prospect after the demise of the Old World chameleon was a Malian uromastyx, a chunky spiny-tailed lizard suitably omnivorous, primarily vegetarian; favoring colonial burrows; and of a generally gentle disposition, easily handled. The species he desired was black-bodied with bright yellow mottling on its upper surface, a flamboyant toxin mimicry ploy. A pet store on Long Island had an available pair, supposed captive breeders. They were available only as a pair. The chameLEON took a long train ride from the city to examine them first-hand.
The purported couple was established in a very large tank with a sediment of 6” of sharp sand, into which a single burrow had been dug, a tight squeeze for pudgy lizards nearly two feet in total length. Leon watched the animals interact with one another after they were bribed to leave their underground lair with yellow dandelion flowers. They graciously shared with one another as human couples are supposed to do but generally do not. Their gentleness was endearing. The shop owner was deeply concerned whether the chameLEON was sincere in maintaining these beautiful animals for the long-term or whether it was a phase the potential buyer was going through. The reluctant seller forced to liquidate much of his stock by a sudden and severe increase in rent was concerned about the long-term welfare of the animals he’d known for years. In testing Leon’s resolve, the dedicated animal aficionado informed the chameLEON of the need for additional heating and UV lighting, a much larger tank than the one they were housed in for the establishment of the breeding colony Leon described in wanting. A kiddie pool with deeper sand would be ideal, retaining some moisture at the bottom to keep the burrow intact for the pair of agamid lizards. The high price of the reptiles was no deterrent for someone rich, hence, the reluctance to sell them to the first potentially undedicated buyer. Leon was obviously not rich, and so when he balked at the steep price, but agreed to sacrifice in the animals’ behalf, the shop owner lowered the price on them a little, knowing this quiet little man would make every effort to provide the cherished animals with the best care. Inwardly, he smiled because he saw a physical resemblance between the man and the animals. It was the best purchase that Leon could have made.
In a nearby anchor mega-store in the same shopping center where the pet store was situated, Leon bought a large kiddie pool which he lugged back into the City by train and then bus, along with a small ventilated box which held his new housemates. How he worried about their hardiness with the low temperatures of early winter! It was tough going for Leon with his hands full in the crowded public transportation cars, but he managed, more proof of his dedication. When suddenly released into the empty pool that Leon positioned beneath his living room window, the pair scurried wildly across the slippery black plastic. Leon realized his mistake in not setting up their habitat prior to taking possession of them. For the time being, though, the agamids were unable to scale the empty pool with their long recurved claws. It eased Leon’s mind to watch the two munch on organic broccoli and shredded carrot. While they were occupied and less frenetic, he walked to a nearby builder’s supply store and returned with a 100 pound sack of sharp sand, which he wetted and layered, leaving the top of it dry. The animals started digging down almost immediately. Because the 10” layer of sand raised the surface level of the enclosure, it was possible that with determination the couple could escape, so, while the lizards excavated below the substrata, Leon returned to the nearby supply house and bought mesh screening he manually bent to shape to restrain them from exploring unconfined. Despite their bulkiness, these reptiles were surprisingly fast.
Within several weeks of nervous monitoring, the chameLEON felt as comfortable with the animals’ successful adjustment as they did in their new home. They readily came to the surface whenever Leon honked a small horn to announce feeding time, and both sat on his open palm when he fed them. He was not yet sufficiently assured of their domesticity to allow them supervised runs in his living room, fearing possible escape into some narrow variance behind the dishwasher or beneath the refrigerator or their hiding in a closet if they made their way out one of the room. Escape was a natural urge. Both of the ornate reptiles expressed their friendliness to the chameLEON whenever one clambered up his shoulder to lick his face with its humanoid tongue, usually the bolder male. Leon wondered whether the purpose of this was merely to take in his salts, but he soon found after washing any traces of perspiration away, that they persisted in identifying him as one of their tribe. The man who sold these pricey lizards had informed Leon that they were hand-reared in captivity, and had an affinity for people although they needed to be infrequently handled so as to not disrupt their potential as breeding partners. He accepted this as true, and complied. They were charming animals, hard to resist, but whenever Leon had the urge to overdo his friendly gestures, he trained his favors on the generally immobile iguana, now over 2’ in total length and identifiable as a male. By comparison to the more social species, it was devoid of personality, dull.
An attractive single mother lived a couple of floors above Leon in the older building. On a couple of occasions she permitted him to accompany her to her front door after he insisted on helping the smallish woman and her infant son from the lobby with the heavy packages of groceries she fumbled with. She hadn’t offered her name to him, but more surprisingly, was her giving him a slight kiss on the lips after he assisted her one evening. He smelled a hint of wine on her breath and was very aroused by her forwardness. He sprang to life from the one encounter. The anonymous neighbor was an exotic Puertoriqueña, very sexy, more attractive than any reptile. Leon frequently daydreamed about her, envisioning her seated on the sofa of his domicile as he beguiled her with the shtick of frozen lizard on a stick. He pictured her in his bed, too, languid and satisfied from the pleasure he had given. The fantasy gave him hope, and he kept himself alerted for her comings and goings on the stairs or in the lobby, determined to finagle some private time with her. Leon was a simple pure-hearted man. It had never dawned on him that he could have bought her favors as others routinely did, and she would never give away what she could sell. He thought of the prostitute with angelic naiveté. She regarded Leon, whose name she did not know, either, in the same light because of the respectful demeanor expressed to the modestly dressed single mother. For the briefest time, she was tempted to invite him inside her place upstairs from his to give him a freebie. The conflict was not only in its setting a bad precedent, but its changing the way in which her neighbor perceived her afterward. She enjoyed the moments of his ignorant courtesy, something rarely accorded to someone in her line of work, and her making him a charity case would be self-defeating. After their several superficial encounters, the little lady sometimes thought of him tenderly as if he was a caring uncle back on the island. Leon was an undistinguished quiet man. People preferred it that way.
His military payout gave Leon some financial stability. It was not financial urgency which forced him to seek immediate employment, but boredom which compelled him more compulsively. He had good mechanical training applicable to many arenas, and it was in this diverse field he applied for jobs. The quick hiring notification made him happy. Leon was a quiet and invisible person who blended in perfectly as an HVAC specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in upper Manhattan. Most of the work was in off-hours when there were few employees present other than a large custodial staff who kept the venerated building immaculate. Even with there being no crowds, the atmosphere was eerily quiet out of respect for the treasures, as if contemporary raucousness might insult the intense concentration of the masters. As the chameLEON ended his shifts and sauntered through the employee doors of the mausoleum-quiet building, the pounding flurry of streaming commuters headed to their day-time jobs was intensely jolting to him rather than invigorating. It was only natural for Leon to prefer the relative quietude of his apartment sandwiched between two others as opposed to the heavily trafficked common areas he dealt with as he made his way back to Queens. It was at these early hours when he generally arrived home that the uromastyx couple ventured from belowground to explore the open expanse of their world as the morning sun migrated across the window glass while warming the sandy surface. The fat lizards’ overt friendliness filled Leon with joy. Soon after having greeted the upright giant, eaten and basked beneath the fixtures suspended over the sand, the UV and heat lamps, the pair soon enough routinely returned for seclusion inside their burrow.
The lizards were little different from the wage-earners let out from work in the City center who rushed back to the seclusion of their own boroughs to immerse themselves in vacuous screens and the silent desperation Thoreau described. For Leon, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a refreshing oasis in an impassionate desert. It was here that a cavalcade of humanity revealed the outlooks of past centuries to anyone willing to take a break from frivolity to extract meaning from these artistic depictions. Some smattering of mythology and history were all a person needed to walk away enriched. The themes Leon cherished had eternal appeal, both religious and secular representations. The narratives from these inanimate pieces declared truths to Leon in those quiet and barely lit hours, profound truths that the blank faces which avoided eye contact rarely shared with those around them while they lugged heavy false personas like unnecessary umbrellas throughout the dreary days of their lives which only accumulated like data into charts of unremarkable and mostly unmemorable years.
Leon had read shocking statistical data recently, the population percentage who voluntarily submitted to an anti-depressant regimen. If one factored in those who neutralize their emotional outbursts with illicit self-medication or others who douse their misery with alcohol, then the figure was more astounding. The participant share of female zombies was markedly higher than the % in the male population. This anomaly might be attributable to the Sleeping Beauty complex, but it seemed that stressful striving in the competitive business world took a greater toll on the women. There were escape routes from the unrelenting morass of spinning the exercise wheel in the hamster cage, but rather than change their situations, these residents stayed put and changed themselves. It was gutless, but people preferred it that way.
After reading about the outrageous incidence of voluntary self-lobotomy, Leon found himself unable to avert his eyes from the pervasive evasive others. He searched for listless tell-tale signs of impairment in their eyes on the streets, among his co-workers, whenever he took public transportation. He had read that these anti-depressant drugs, also known as psychotropic drugs, caused considerable weight gain, and as he examined the portly bodies filling the tight public spaces around him, he wondered if this might be the real cause of our society becoming morbidly obese in the last couple of decades, the stresses of modern life and the intake of these pills. Sometimes, as he hung from the straps of rattling subway cars, with rickety pulsations tweaking his flesh and lower body, trembling his genitalia, Leon became aroused as he peered into the empty souls of some of the female passengers like a spy in plain sight. These permissive case studies did not evade his stare, but allowed him lodging there because they were the most extreme cases of obliteration, entirely devoid of caring. They challenged him to violate the code of aloofness.
On two occasions, the chameLEON bedded such living dead in hotels, but they were dead meat, deadened by drugs and the cost of living. Relieved of their nagging lust, neither showed the slightest interest in Leon, and because impersonal intercourse was unsatisfying to him, he felt the same about them. The absence of connection made him think about the beautiful available Puerto Rican who lived upstairs from him. Nothing made much sense to him in the metropolis, why people bothered with one another anymore except in token familiarity until he accepted the predominant truth that genuine intimacy was out of vogue in the here and now.
“Hola, pretty woman. Can I help you upstairs with your packages?”
“No es necessaría. Mi compañero ayudame, por favor.”
From behind Leon’s dainty neighbor, as she entered the poorly lit recesses of the catty-corner building’s vestibule, a middle-aged black man took charge of her. One wide hand was firmly placed on the quilted fabric covering the woman’s lower back as he brusquely hustled her upstairs without speaking, the same arm cradling several packages himself in the huge sleeves of his puffy winter coat. The large man flashed an intimidating look at the little chameLEON. It cautioned, “Fuck off. When I’m done with her, not now,” after which the bulky guide flagrantly draped his other padded arm around her short slender neck to demonstrate his mastery of the whore. It was only then Leon made the realization that the virtuous woman he romantically longed for was despoiled property and this was no other than her pimp gratuitously helping himself to her goody box tonight. Leon felt conflicted because this altered the way he regarded her. Moralistic as he was, the sordidness should have repulsed him, yet, paradoxically, it only incited his lust for her more in knowing her availability to him was like candy, chips, or soda conveniently available from the vending dispenser only a couple of floors above him if he should choose to forgo emotional involvement and take what comfort the Latina might provide him with, that and that alone. In a small sense, though, the retired soldier felt betrayed by her leading him on and never intimating her profession.
It was a surprise then, altogether perplexing to the chameLEON to see the same aggressive man joyfully beaming in front of the widely opened curtains of the little Latina’s living room a couple of days later on the weekend, infant in his upraised hands, after the object of his desire opened the door to his tentative knuckle rapping. It was readily apparent that this man was no other than the sire of the child, not the pimp Leon’s cynicism relegated him to be. This forced him to revise, once again, the way he had been thinking about the upstairs neighbor.
“Hello, Hola. You have come at a bad time, Jaime’s playtime. I expected you long before this.” The nameless neighbor was full of contradictions this day when Leon mustered up enough nerve to visit. “Luisa; that is my nombre. You? Name is what it means, not number. Leon? Good name, my uncle’s name. My ex-husband. What did you think?” The sexy woman whispered conspiratorially to him, releasing the hand she had loosely grasped to ease his nervousness, “After 7. He will be gone by then, and we can talk,” before she quickly shut the door to keep the escalating sounds of the pursuant argument inside her place. Leon distinctly heard the woman addressed by the deep-voiced man with another name or nombre as it was. The confusion increased his discomfort.
When Leon knocked at her front door with greater confidence this time, having listened for indicators of her having company and assured there were no strangers there to deal with, Luisa opened the door with a big smile plastered across her face. She was intoxicated. There were no signs of the baby.
“My ex has my son for the rest of… of the weekend. Please. Come in. Sit down.” Leon sensed something wrong with his revised perceptions by the mannered behavior of the young mother, her heavier-than-usual makeup, her wearing a provocative hard-edged modern graphic dress, little more than a slip, and high boots in her domestic hours. It was inappropriate, that and her impairment in the early evening hours.
“I never work out of here. Today is different. I like you. What would you like from me? For $200 you can spend the entire night an’ I will do anything you want. That is very very cheap.” This twisted Leon around again. He had expected some sublimated amatory interest finally expressed from her before taking the blow from this unsettling proposal. He had projected that her unrequited love given free rein to blossom would do so, but this is not what he was offered. He was put on the spot to pay for trifles, to accept dregs or slink down the dirty stairs empty-handed. During an entire night of shared pleasure, he rationalized, even with her working it professionally, he might be able to sway the chiquita to realize the foibles in her reducing intimacy to a numerical value and endear her to him with his decency. He tinkered with the outcome of her changed perspective of our sullied world in need of renewal and cleansing into something noble. It was worth a try.
It was a long night. Intercourse, of course, was permissible while the more familiar intimacies of kissing and caressing were not. The disappointment Leon initially felt in her bed after a pendulum of highs and lows before his arriving there settled into a stasis of resolute dispassion. Leon the chameleon mimicked Luisa’s remoteness. She was a consummately skillful lover, or sex-provider, and she moaned unabashedly and loudly throughout the long sexual congress in which Leon assured himself of getting his money’s worth and imprinting himself on the neighbor with intermittent jackhammer thrusts which tested the limits of her physical durability and receptivity to both pain and pleasure. The whore’s convulsive reactions were undoubtedly genuine. Leon watched her when she thought he was not looking while inside her bathroom with the door cracked open as she swallowed a couple of pills late in the session. Not long afterward, she was giddier and more limber, nearly comatose as he fornicated with her again until the break of day, covered with sweat while she laid there, flaccid and spent after the busy night. It was then that Leon recognized the ocular tell-tale signs of her voluntary enslavement to chemical detachment. Leon did not say goodbye. He left her money, put on his clothing, and stumbled downstairs to sleep off the memory of expired lust and his disappointment with himself for succumbing to Big City ways.
The next day was today, a Sunday, with Leon scheduled to work graveyard shift. He was relaxing, recuperating from a sleepless night, playing with the lizards and glimpsing snippets of sports activities on TV, groggy and grumpy when rapid knocking at his door broke his daze. It was Luisa, looking downwardly at her slippers, dressed in a heavy terrycloth bathrobe.
“I didn’t hear you leave, Leon. Would you like to come upstairs and join me for breakfast? We will be alone.”
Leon made the sudden realization that the little whore was offering herself to him for free this time, and not as a mercy fuck. She must have a preference for black men, maybe the reason she focused on him when they first crossed paths, he mused, but it was the overflow of her psyche beyond its banks that brought her to his front door this morning. In his rejection of her advance, something rarely experienced by her professionally and casually, Leon appealed to Luisa’s insecurities and fostered more bothersome carnal entreaties after slowly shutting his front door to her. It was not what he intended. But he was a quiet undemanding man, and people preferred it that way.
During the warmer months Leon bumped into the little woman more often, sometimes with her growing son as she made her way in either direction upon the airless stairway. Warding off her unwelcomed flirtation was slightly uncomfortable to him, particularly since she physically aroused him, and her public displays of interest in the lobby were flattering, too, particularly because there were plenty of witnesses to them, those who would have obliged her in a second flat. But these neighboring tenants had no awareness that this was an unwholesome situation which Leon did not want to turn into a relationship, and consequently, they regarded Leon as a lame dullard scared off by the approaches of a beautiful woman, earning him disrespect instead of admiration. It was something the retired private should never have begun. Only once after the first tryst did Leon take her up on the free offer of her charms. It was another bad move because the second go-round only inflamed her lust further, and the neighbor began to stalk him with ever-increasing frequency and aggressiveness, going so far as to propose during that last performance that he could act as her pimp. She was excited by the prospect of his regular availability to her in the same way Leon considered her earlier as a pleasure vending machine situated directly above him. It was edifying to hear from the whore that the large man, her ex-husband, had no idea how Luisa supported herself because she lied to him about working as a hostess in a swank night club. Leon had a job.
“HELP!! HELP US!! HELP! LEON! LEON, HELP! MY BABY! CATCH THE BABY! LEON!!”
Flame shot over the bannister Luisa held her baby above and over. It singed her extended arms as she tossed the child to Leon from the edge of the stairwell a floor above from where the fire originated during the night. Smoke sank downward like smothering mist. Horrifying wails and shrieks filled the air as the inferno raged against combustible wood and flesh, so loud a tumult amidst the panic on the floors below her, it benumbed hearing. Leon clearly saw his neighbor and her baby, too, but he was preoccupied with saving the lives of his only real friends, his lizard friends. The uromastyx lizards in a carrier were all he cared about at the moment. So focused was he on them, that when Luisa perilously released her son for him to catch, she doomed the baby. After the wailing child blurred past him to smack the rigid landing with a resounding THUD, Leon stepped over the crumpled obstruction as if a bothersome puddle of water, its oversize head split wide open, blood pooling. All the while he kept a tight hold on the cardboard box he chose not to set down. Horrified onlookers were mortified by this stranger’s callousness. It wasn’t the chameLEON’s fault a baby was dead during a calamity with time of the essence. He needed to deposit his only living friends safely away from the inferno before he could rush into his smoke-filled apartment to wrangle the terrified iguana from wherever it hid from the chaos.
As Leon made his way back towards the lobby of the nameless burning building, a crowd congregated outside. Witnesses to his failure to act in saving a baby’s life cursed him out and jostled him. Despite his every effort to pass, he was punched in the face several times, spat on and held for his contemptible apathy for human life. Even while being roughed up, Leon’s sole thought was upstairs in the apartment now ablaze, and he cried, not from guilt or the horror of a bloodied baby’s body he rushed past, not from physical pain, but only for the loss of a single green iguana that never returned affection to the lonely man before becoming charred black wrinkled leather and bone. Leon was crying when the Police assisted him with his grief by taking him into protective custody. There are no enforceable laws in the U.S. requiring a stranger to make the slightest effort to save the life of another person. That is the legal value of human life. Duty to Rescue, an adjunctive clause of the Good Samaritan Act, has no meaning outside of tort law, and even there, it is rarely upheld. Your value to strangers is nothing because people prefer it that way.
After the statutes were scanned for a formal charge Leon might have to answer to, and coming up empty with a legitimate basis to punish him, the retired soldier was transferred to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital for observation. His persistence in inquiring about the welfare of his lizards and his unconcern about the dead baby boy who had lived a couple of floors above him, to say nothing of the mother who perished, too, premised the confinement of the meek man. He maintained his stance of sanity, and it was unfortunate, the authorities felt, that military records reinforced Leon’s claim.
Details of Leon’s egregious conduct flooded the internet and stirred worldwide controversy about the value of human life on an overpopulated (by humans) planet. One editorial cartoon depicted Leon tenderly clutching lizards to his breast while trampling on a baby’s head, while in another, Leon cradled a smiling lizard he bottle-fed while a starving child reaches up to him for aid, ignored. “No value to human life,” declares Lizardman read one article’s opener. Another site blared “People don’t matter!” neither of which Leon declared aloud. Sobbing as he did about his loss during the conflagration, issuing such infuriating statements would have been impossible. Little did Leon know at the time he was hospitalized, a reptilian subject worthy of study, that his beloved agamid couple died on the busy streets when some pedestrian stumbled across the box that their scratching clued the finder to delve into. It was lamentable, a true tragedy, two dead lizards.
A board of psychiatrists adjudged Leon sane, and he was reinstituted at his HVAC position at the Museum. It was a unionized job. With the hubbub dead as a skink in a doorway, Leon more readily drew the attentions of other City dwellers. Although, facially undistinguished, and certainly not photogenic, many of the people he encountered while traveling back-and-forth to-and-from his new apartment in another borough, having seen his picture many times over but unable to place the face, became friendlier to the familiar figure they hadn’t yet met in real life. Consequentially, it was the media exposure that facilitated Leon meeting a raving beauty who subliminally gravitated towards him as he made his way home from work one morning, the woman he eventually wed. An undisclosed out-of-court settlement Leon got from the NYPD for violating his civil rights with wrongful arrest that his attorneys attributed to their acceding to mob rule which violated Leon’s legal justification for his favoring the lizards he knew as opposed to the baby he didn’t was what paid for his lavish honeymoon. I do not know whether Leon the Chameleon cares for lizards anymore. I do not know his current address.