The Lizard Man of Lee County
Mason Jennings Jr. had been resigned to his fate for most of his adult life, but he was still overcome with sadness when what he’d been waiting for finally came. He was not sad because his life, as he’d known it, was surely over, but sad for his son, Mason III, who would grow up barely remembering his own father. At least he, Mason Jr., had the benefit of his own old man for nearly twenty years. But his father had been an early bloomer, married and with a son at the age when he might have been sent off to Vietnam if he hadn’t lost, by some stroke of good fortune, his left eye to a BB pistol when he was a child. Mason Jr., on the other hand, had drank his entire twenties and most of his thirties away before he gave himself a reason to quit by quite accidentally knocking up Marie, whom he’d quickly married before she was able to come to her senses and resist.
Mason Sr. had gone missing twenty years before, around the same time the first sightings of the Lizard Man were reported. Everyone had assumed that Mason Sr. was just off on a drunk, something he did about once a year after he’d found Jesus and mostly quit drinking not long after Mason Jr. was born. What a bender that must have been, people thought, figuring his body was in the belly of a gator in Lynches River, where he liked to pretend to fish when he drank.
Mason Jr. had gone to the tree house in the woods, the creepy abandoned one he’d found when he was a little boy, just to think about his missing daddy the night he saw the Lizard Man. He crawled up into the tree house, shocked to find that it was smaller inside than he’d remembered now that he was grown. He’d fallen asleep there with the smell of the rotting boards thick in his nostrils. He dreamed that he was a boy again, walking in the woods with his daddy. In the dream, he stopped to pick at the bark on a hickory tree, which peeled off in one big piece like a snake skin, leaving the wood exposed, crawling with black ants and fat, white beetle grubs.
When he awakened, it was almost dark, and he’d shimmied down the tree, the ancient rungs nailed to the trunk having rotted away to almost nothing, and his daddy had been standing there at the base of the tree in a little pool of moonlight. Except it wasn’t his daddy at all, but the Lizard Man, daddy-shaped, short and squat and round-bellied, his usual ruddy complexion turned rough green. By that time his daddy was too far gone for words, but he’d made a mournful sound somewhere between a yodel and a hiss and gestured with his misshapen hands. Somehow Mason Jr. knew that the Lizard Man who’d terrorized a gaggle of church ladies and ran off a group of migrant workers picking watermelons was none other than his very own father, rendered monstrous by a change that had been building his entire life. He watched as his daddy scurried away into the shadows, and he knew that he would never see him, or want to, again.
And now it was happening to him, to Mason Jr. That morning when he’d gone to the bathroom to take a leak, the skin of his pecker had sloughed off in his fingers, revealing supple copper-green scales underneath. Suddenly he’d started to itch all over, and he clawed another patch of skin off of his arm before he’d even realized it. He opened his mouth to call out to his wife, still sleeping in the room she’d moved into when he started drinking again, not because it made him forget the painful things in his life—his missing father, the already-faded love of his marriage—but because it made him remember, and only a hoarse croak came out. He felt something dangling on his chest and nearly threw up when he looked in the mirror to see that it was his tongue, pink as raw meat and forked, hanging from between his lips.
Slowly he retracted it and tried to choke down the dueling urges inside him. One part of him was desperate for the warmth and wetness of the swamp that bordered his backyard and ran all the way to the river. Another part of him was flooded with sadness and wanted only to crawl into bed beside his gently snoring wife and apologize for every wrong thing he’d ever done, every cross word, every sinful thought, every sip of whiskey he’d ever taken. But of course she would only recoil from him in horror.
He went into Mason III’s bedroom and looked in on him. He touched the sleeping boy’s back to feel the reassuring rhythm of his breath and saw his hands were changing, too, the skin hanging off in loose strips, the fingers stretching. He pictured the tendons and bones liquefying, elongating, and he hoped that he had not passed on whatever it was that made this happen to the Jennings men. A boy living without his daddy suddenly seemed the saddest thing imaginable, and it welled up inside him until the tears ran salty down his face. Then he scurried down the hall and out into the yard, where the sun was just rising, and ran away to hide himself in the swamp.