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Still Lizard Loony after all These Years

Sketch by John Shramenko.

For seven years in the early 70s, I wrote stories under four different bylines, too unsure of my scribbling ability to affix my own name to them. This was the first story that I ever wrote as “Steve Van Beek”. It appeared in Sawasdee around 1978. I recall that after struggling with it for several weeks, inspiration hit while I was standing on a traffic island on a hot afternoon, waiting for the traffic to slow so I could finish crossing Rajdamnern Avenue. I squatted down with cars whizzing past me, and wrote it long-hand, oblivious to the honking around me. For those not as dated as me, the title was a play on the Paul Simon song title, “Still Crazy After All These Years”.

My friends think I’m batty when I mention it. So I seldom do. But, the truth be known, I…well…I feed jingjoks.

Jinjoks? They’re the tiny mottled lizards whose chirps are as much a part of a Thai house as mosquitoes and fluorescent tubes.

Not geckoes, the ones who onomatopoeic names in a wide number of languages (dtoo-kay in Thai) echo their cry. Ten times the jinjoks’ size, geckoes’ temperament ranks them as the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the modern lizard family. Nasty dispositions. Close a window shutter for the night and be startled by the huge hissing iridescent orange and blue-spotted, off-green toad-like thing that, moments before, was hiding behind it. If you’re unlucky enough to be within range, he’ll clamp down on a handy piece of anatomy with a bulldog bite that nothing short of death (his, not yours) will relax. No, definitely not geckoes.

No, I’m talking about the little ones about the size of your two thumbs stuck end to end. The unobtrusive ones; very well-behaved; those are the ones. To a Thai, a house without jinjoks is a house without luck. And, yes, I feed them.

I began my career as a jinjok keeper quite innocently. I was sitting at the breakfast table enjoying a quiet piece of toast when, across from me, up popped a pair of beady eyes, followed in a flash by a quartet of legs and a long-lumpish tail. Skittering across the Formica, he made a beeline for a bread crumb near my plate, paused long enough to stab it with his sticky tongue, then did a quick U-turn and slithered back over the precipice leaving me sitting mouth agape at the little scamp’s audacity.

But he wasn’t through. Up he came again, this time from the left side of the table. Squirreling across on a diagonal, he seized another crumb and headed for the sidelines.

The third time, I was ready for him. As he zeroed in on another speck of toast, I swiped at him. In mid-stride, he veered off to the perpendicular and disappeared, once again, over the brink.

It was several seconds before he poked his head over the edge again and this time he was a bit more cautious. He merely hung there, one splay-toed foot and his head up, eyeing me as though it was the first time he had noticed my presence. And it probably was, too. I was later to find that if I moved slowly, he couldn’t see me but if I even twitched, he picked up on movement and took evasive action. As I said, he had startled me the first and second times and out of pure astonishment I probably hadn’t budged an inch.

After hanging suspended for a few moments, he decided to come topside. He just sat there, gauging which of us was faster. But the lure of a tiny chunk of bread is a Lorelei to a jinjok and, throwing caution to the winds, he zipped across the white table surface to snatch another piece of my breakfast.

But by now, I was intrigued by his persistence. I ceased trying to stop him — a fruitless exercise anyway — and instead watched how he went about his business. It didn’t take him long to figure out that I was no longer a danger and instead of eating and running, he stuck around after each bite, searching for another one to devour. Finally sated, he skittered over the table edge and that’s the last I saw of him for the morning. I assume he slunk off to a nice dark place to sleep off his feast.

The next morning, he crested the table top the minute he heard my coffee mug thump the table. As I’d used my toast to sop up the egg in my plate, there weren’t many crumbs to offer him. So I got out another piece of bread, toasted it, and with my knife, scraped off a cascade of crumbs. As you can see, my jinjok madness was already getting out of control.

For the jinjok, the snowstorm was manna from heaven. He responded greedily, devouring twice the amount he had the morning before.

Thus began a routine that went on every sunrise for the next few weeks. I found him (I assume it was a “him”) fascinating to watch.

He was undaunted by size. No matter the proximity of a crumb — it could be so close he could stick out his tongue and lap it up — he always went for the biggest piece on the table, even when it was obvious he’d never get it down in one gulp. It might be the size of his head. No problem. He’d rise as high as his front legs would allow and clamp his alligator mouth bang into the middle of it. He’d then worry it like a puppy latched onto the corner of a carpet, shaking his head back and forth furiously until he managed to break off and swallow a mouth-sized piece. Then he’d attack the remainder of the chunk, whittling it bit by bit down to a fly speck. Having snapped that up, he’d move on to the next biggest morsel.

As he scrambled from piece to piece I began to see that Nature hadn’t built the jinjok for grace and sinuosity. In fact, he was downright clumsy. A lizard’s nervous system is primitive, forcing him to move in jerks and starts. His head never makes a smooth arc, it traverses the distance in three or four quick twitches.

He had been my breakfast companion for several weeks when the inevitable happened: friends got word of the buffet. Or perhaps it was his relatives. They fought at the drop of a hat — or the appearance of a crumb — so they could have been either.

They didn’t all appear at once. First there was one, then two other freeloaders and finally, after a few days, a total of seven. Within days my eyes had become practiced at discerning tiny differences in body structure and personality. Some telltale marks were obvious; one old battler had lost his tail and grown a new one.

Among the darker ones was one I swore was a female. There was no way of checking because the little devils were still too quick for me (still are). She was just lighter on her feet than the rest and had a more delicately-featured face.

A fawn-colored, fat one, seemed to be old but he held his own when challenged for a crumb. Yet another ran with a limp, the souvenir of an ancient fight, no doubt.

The personalities of the others could be determined by watching them in relation their mates. There was a definite pecking order and it was no problem to tell which one was at the bottom of the pile. Size didn’t seem to be the determining factor; one or two of the smaller ones had the surprising Napoleonic bluster and feistiness often displayed by short humans.

Though he was in the midst of the pack, I could always spot my pioneer friend. He was the one who didn’t move if I moved; the rest of them hadn’t figure out that I was a toothless tiger and scurried for cover at the slightest disturbance. They soon cottoned on, of course, and then the fun began.

It quickly became apparent that jinjoks are not communal creatures. Despite an overabundance of crumbs, each — like a lot of humans — wanted all or nothing. Thus, the dominant lizard could be chest-deep in an ocean of crumbs and yet spend all his time keeping the table clear of competitors. He could be chewing a mouthful with obvious contentment, but if he spotted a competitor so much as sticking a foreleg over the edge or poking a head from behind a sugar jar, he would drop whatever he was eating and dash off to rout his adversary.

It soon developed into a war of nerves. While he was chasing an interloper in one direction, another would sneak out and grab a bite before he was seem. And when he became the pursued, another would dart in to snatch a crumb. Among the four or five, they could keep Number One running and in the process clear off a large expanse of tabletop without his ever getting a bite. In the end, they would have eaten their fill and gone off to rest before he got down to doing what he should have concentrated on doing in the first place: filling his own stomach from a by now much-depleted feedlot.

Because there was a pecking order and because little jinjoks grew into bigger jinjoks, there was the occasional challenge for higher ranking. When that happened, the combatants would square off for a donnybrook. Normally their bodies and tails lay plump on the table and their churning legs dragged their weight to their destination. But for a fight, they went up on all fours, lifting their bodies clear of the table in an effort to out-height or strike down on their opponent. At the same time, their tails would lash back and forth. A wagging dog tail signifies a kindly disposition. When a jinjok flicks its tail, it means war.

There is much blustering and posturing before fighting actually breaks out. They hiss and chirp, each trying to intimidate the other. Only after much energy has been expended will one lunge to nip his opponent in the leg or head. The furious action ends when the loser, the victim of a painful bite, heads for home. Most often, triumph isn’t enough for the winner. Instead, he follows up his victory by pursuing the hapless one down the table leg where they can be heard screeching and hollering. Meanwhile, the spectators use the interlude to slink about and gobble up everything they can. The winner often returns to an empty victory banquet table.

I’ve been watching my “family” for five years now. Maybe not having a television has something to do with it but I’ve not yet tired of their antics. Most of the originals have died and been replaced by youngsters who, in perfect emulation of their ancestors back to the dinosaurs, still fuss and feud every breakfast time. They show up promptly at the bang of a fork, even on mornings after I’ve been away and, horror or horrors, they’ve had to work for their sustenance by catching mosquitoes.

And my friends still think I’m batty. But what a show they miss every morning.


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