“The Lizard Queen,” by Linnea Cooley

Dec 30th, 2020 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

When I was in the fourth grade, I became obsessed with lizards. Anoles, geckos, skinks, iguanas, and even Komodo dragons captured my attention. On the outside, I looked like the other little girls with my blonde pigtails and Disney Princess lunch box. On the inside, I had a reptile obsession. While other kids my age read chapter books and played soccer, I checked out every reptile book in my elementary school library and memorized hundreds of fun facts about lizards.

As my lizard obsession progressed, I realized that I wanted a pet lizard. “Wanted” is the wrong term, I needed a pet lizard. I begged my mother to let me have one, but she was strongly opposed to the idea. Like most suburban moms, she was disgusted by all categories of reptile. I interrupted her one morning as she sat at the kitchen table, shredding the holiday cards from friends she was no longer fond of.

“Mom, I need a lizard,” I said. “I’ve never wanted anything so much in my entire life. I yearn for a lizard.”

“Can’t you yearn for a fluffy pet?” my mother asked. “A bunny? Or a little hamster? Ooh! Little hamsters are so cute!” my mother’s eyes brightened. The family across the street had twin girls my age who were “normal”, and they had a pet hamster named Cupcake My mother never failed to bring up Becky and Suzy and their conventional, lizard-free lives. I hated it.

Our family had seen Cupcake once when we went over to Becky and Suzy’s house for a barbecue. “Do you remember how he squeaked when we gave him a piece of carrot?” my mother asked. “And how he stored it in his adorable little cheek?”

“Did you know that some lizards can detach and regenerate their tails?,” I responded. “I don’t think hamsters can do that.” My mother frowned. “Hamsters have those cute little noses, and we could get a hamster wheel!” she said. “Please reconsider hamsters, Linnea. They are a much more suitable pet.”

“Well, if you let me get a bearded dragon, I can feed it hamsters,” I said.

My mother shuddered. “Don’t be gruesome.”


After the kitchen table conversation, my mother clearly hoped that I would forget about pet lizards. This was a foolish plan. I did not forget. If anything, I became even more crazed. Determined to get my pet lizard, I crafted an oral presentation, which I sprung upon the family after dinner one evening.

“Imagine, a pet with the ability to shed its skin,” I began. I rambled on for ten minutes about the unique benefits of pet lizards before ending with a desperate plea. “Please, please let me get a pet lizard. I will be the happiest girl in all of Massachusetts.” In an uncharacteristic moment of weakness, my mother finally caved.  There is only so much a parent can do to prevent her daughter from becoming a weird lizard girl, and she had done her best. “Okay, I’m sick of the complaining.” she snapped. “You can get a pet lizard.” I was overcome with joy. Finally! My dreams of reptile ownership were coming true.

The following Saturday, with obvious reluctance, my family piled into the minivan and drove forty minutes to “Jungle Joe’s Lizard Palace” in Framingham, Massachusetts. As one would imagine from the name, Jungle Joe’s Lizard palace was in a strip mall along the highway. It was a small, dingy building, squeezed between a Nail Salon and a Chinese restaurant. My mother clutched her purse as we crossed the parking lot, although we were clearly the only ones around. Inside, the store was dimly lit by a single strip of fluorescent lighting and the glow of heat lamps. The walls were lined with tanks and tanks of lizards. Geckos, anoles, bearded dragons, and chameleons stared curiously at my family through the glass.

As we walked through the store, we were approached by the sole employee, a man wearing a tie-dye shirt and khaki pants. From his name tag, I realized that this was Jungle Joe himself !  As I stood face to face with a celebrity, I could barely contain my excitement. Luckily, my mother kept her cool. “We want the smallest lizard you have,” she said firmly. “One that doesn’t jump, scurry, hiss, leap, or bite.”

Jungle Joe had the stubbly beginnings of a beard, and he scratched his face as he thought. “Well,” he said, running through his mental directory of lizards. “I believe the lizard for you is a leopard gecko.”

With Jungle Joe’s guidance, I picked out an adorable leopard gecko from a tank at the front of the store. I was elated. Finally, a lizard of my very own! Contrary to my mother’s claims, my gecko was a delightful pet. He had big green eyes, and a charming habit of licking his eyeballs with his tongue. Every afternoon after school I let him out of his cage and watched him scurry around my room. I decided to name him “Spike”.

For eight years, Spike was the perfect pet, and we shared many happy memories together. I was in college when I finally received news that Spike had passed away.  I got a call from home, and when I picked up it was my brother Theo. “Theo, what are you doing home?” I asked. “Aren’t Mom and Dad on vacation?”

“Yeah, I’m house sitting for them,” he answered in his teenage drawl.

“Oh, okay. I thought I heard people in the background, do you have someone over?” I said. Theo paused. “Well, if you must know Linnea, I’m sort of throwing a house party, for a couple of my friends…” In the background I could hear the raucous din of a dozen tipsy high-school seniors.

“Jesus, Theo. Don’t break anything,” I said.  Secretly, I hoped that he would break something. Many things. Every misstep Theo took further cemented my place as the good child. I still craved parental approval at my age, and it had been shockingly difficult to shake off my reputation as the weird lizard child.

“Anyway, Linnea.” Theo said. “I am calling with some sad news. Spike has passed away.”

“Oh my god!” I gasped. I started crying into the phone.  “This is terrible! When did he die, Theo?”

Theo sighed. “Uhh… I’m not sure. Last night I think. I went in to feed him some crickets and I saw he was dead.”

“Oh no!” I wailed. “Spike! My lizard!” I pictured his tiny little lizard body, lying motionless on the floor of his cage.

“Yes… it’s very sad,” I could tell that Theo was itching to get back to his party. “Uhhh… what do you want me to do with him?”  he asked. I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my sweater. “Well Theo, you will have to bury him in the backyard, but I know that you are busy with your party right now. Put his body in the freezer for tonight and then bury him tomorrow morning.” I sniffled. “Bury him somewhere nice Theo, by the little grove of pine trees in the backyard, or the bird feeder.”

“Okay Sis, I’m really sorry about his death” Theo sighed. “He was a really good lizard”.

“He was!” I sobbed. “The best lizard.” As soon as Theo hung up, I dialed my parents so that I could continue to cry over the phone. When my mother picked up, I could tell that she was on the beach.

“Well, that sure is a bummer!” my mother said, after I described Spike’s untimely passing. “But he lived a pretty long life for a lizard. Far longer than I had hoped. Now can we get you a hamster?”

“Mom! I replied This is not the time. I’m grieving!”


I would be grieving for a long, long time. Though years passed, I never truly got over the death of my lizard. He was my first and only pet, my silent copilot on the tumultuous journey through adolescence. Four years later, I was home for the holidays when I saw the perfect opportunity to further lament his death during dinner.

“Do you remember how Spike used to lick his eyeballs?” I asked my family. “And do you remember that time he bit the babysitter? That was so cute.” My mother and father grudgingly admitted that they remembered. I turned to Theo, who was sitting at the end of the table. He was wearing his college sweatshirt and was tearing into his meatloaf with the hunger of a still growing, man-child.  “Where did you end up burying Spike, Theo? I’d like to visit his grave some time to pay my respects.”

Theo glanced up at me with a strange look in his eyes. “I’m…. not sure,” he stuttered. He stared at me from the end of the table, his face turning pale underneath his stubble. “What is it?” My mother asked. “Did you forget where you buried him?” Theo just looked at her.  “Oh my god!” I screeched. “Did you forget to bury him? You got so wrapped up in your stupid house party that you forgot about Spike!”

“What party?” my father interrupted. His puritanical mind had filtered through the conversation and settled on the underage drinking. “Dad!” I snapped. “This is not the time. Where is my lizard, Theo?”

“I… I don’t really know” Theo stammered. “I woke up the next day pretty hungover, and… I kind of forgot about the whole thing.”

The family dinner table fell silent, and everyone looked down at their plates. We all knew where my lizard was. With heavy hearts, we left the dinner table and filed one by one down the basement steps to the freezer. We stood somberly in front of it, afraid of the truth that lay within.

“Well, Theo,” my father said finally. “Why don’t you take a look.” Theo shuddered, and opened the freezer door. A few ice cubes tumbled out and settled on the basement floor. Theo stuck his hand in the freezer and rustled around, moving aside the frozen meals and forgotten ice cream bars. Searching, with the methodical solemnness of a convicted man. Then, we saw it. Nestled behind the frozen peas and the cookie dough from Christmases’ past, a plastic bag containing a small parcel wrapped in paper towels. Labeled in my brother’s unmistakable scrawl: “Spike”. Theo pulled the frozen bag out of the freezer. It was layered with four years of freezer frost. “Well.” He said. “Here he is.”

As I clutched the frozen bag with Spike’s tiny body, my eyes welled with tears. So much of my childhood had been spent watching my little lizard amble around his cage and gobble down crickets. He had been such a good lizard. The best lizard that a little girl could ask for.

My mother gave me a pat on my shoulder. I looked up and saw that her eyes were watering as well.

“It’s okay Linnea, he’s in lizard heaven now. The Jungle Joe’s Lizard Palace in the sky.”


Linnea Cooley is a humor writer and essayist. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, The Weekly Humorist, and Slackjaw, among other publications. More of her work can be seen on her website, linnecooley.weebly.com




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