By Bill McCarron
"I know it's the first time you've seen your grandchildren, Phil," Shreese Robbins said to her stepfather at the dinner table. "When my father died three years ago, Chejuana and William were devastated. Their grandfather was gone forever. You married my mother six months ago. I've never seen her so happy, Phil. You have turned her life around."
"Thanks, Shreese. I'd say the reverse is also true. Erica has tamed this old bachelor war horse and made a new man of him. I love your kids; but, not having been a father or a grandfather until now, well, I don't quite know how to reach out to them."
Phil Davidson rubbed his forehead and stroked his gray, curling hair. "They watch different movies and have their own friends. I'm 57. Chejuana is 11, and William is 9. Now that's a generation gap and more."
Shreese arose and started clearing away the dinner dishes. "Here, let me help with those," Davidson offered.
"Thanks. I'll rinse, and you can put them in the dishwasher," Shreese said.
As they were finishing up, Shreese Robbins added, "As for Chejuana and William, let them reach out to you. I've already seen the stash of presents you bought them for Christmas. Chejuana's portable CD player and the clothes! She'll think she is Vanessa Williams, Junior. And a Dallas Mavericks basketball uniform and two pairs of Nikes. William will think he's Derek Harper."
"You can thank Erica for most of it. I just gave advice and bought the basketball. By the way, her plane is due at 10 a.m. tomorrow. Sure you don't want me to go with you to the airport?"
"Nope. We've got some mother-and-daughter things to discuss now that my divorce is final. Plus, I need the rest of the day for Christmas shopping. I'm way behind."
"Okay. I'll stick to the game plan. I've gone over the route to the Desert Museum. West on Speedway, across Gates Pass, and follow the signs," Davidson repeated like the retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant he was.
"The children love the place. They'll give you a guided tour," she said, pecking her stepfather on the cheek.
"What'll it be? Burger King or McDonald's?" Phil Davidson asked his grandchildren as he negotiated his Chevrolet, extended-cab pickup through Tucson rush-hour traffic the next morning.
"I want an Egg McMuffin at McDonald's," Chejuana said.
"I want those French toast sticks from Burger King," William countered.
"They are right across the street from each other," Davidson noted. "We'll go through both drive-throughs."
"Thanks, Phil," Chejuana said 15 minutes later as the pickup began leaving Tucson traffic in its rear-view mirror. "Mom will only go to one drive-through."
"How about my putting on some Christmas music?" the tall, graying man asked. "Here is a box of cassettes. You can each pick one you would like to hear."
"Do you know they have African-American Santa Clauses at the malls?" William asked between songs.
"I don't like black Santa Clauses. They remind me of Daddy," Chejuana said as the Chevy pickup headed into the Museum parking lot. "He took all the stuff mom had bought for him over the years and left mom for another woman."
Davidson, surprised at the young girl's frankness, secretly vowed to buy extra presents and never to leave his new family.
Both children ran from the parked truck to the lizard exhibit near the ticket booths.
"There's the gila monster," William shouted, pointing at a rock.
"There's the chuckwalla," Chejuana boasted. "Under the Prickly Pear Cactus, dummy!" she said to her younger brother.
Whistling a few bars from "The Little Drummer Boy," Phil Davidson went to a vacant ticket window and purchased three admissions.
"Where to first, guys?" Davidson asked. "Do we follow the arrows or do I follow you?"
"I wanna see Cat Canyon first," Chejuana said sternly.
"I wanna go see the mountain lions," William returned.
Davidson reached into his pocket and drew out a quarter. "Heads, we go to Cat Canyon. Tails, we go to the mountain lions. I'll flip. Chejuana, you call heads or tails. William, you tell me which it is." Davidson flipped the silver coin skyward and watched its sparkling descent to the ground.
By noon, they had done the cats, coyotes, otters, beavers, and much more. Both children tore into burgers and fries and slurped cokes in the Museum restaurant. Davidson chomped down on the first of two hot dogs covered with mustard and relish.
"I wanna see the bird aviary next," Chejuana cried when she was finished.
"I wanna see the snakes," William hissed.
Davidson waved another shiny quarter between thumb and index finger.
Inside the aviary, Phil Davidson pointed out a gilded flicker, Chejuana's favorite bird. "And William," he added, "I believe there's a large rat snake over near the edge of the net. Just don't get too close. That there snake is blacker and meaner than I am."
Davidson told them to meet him at the Cottonwood Ramada in 30 minutes. He lit and smoked three surreptitious cigarettes, then purchased three cherry snow cones as his grandchildren arrived. "Cherry has always been my favorite," he said. "Thought you might like it, too. If not, select another flavor. He handed each of them two dollars."
"Mmm, this is good, Phil," William said.
"I agree. I like cherry better than the lemon I usually get," Chejuana said.
"Well, the reptiles and invertebrates house is next," Davidson said. "Lead on, William."
There were ridge-nosed rattlesnakes, hairy scorpions, and a myriad of bugs, insects, and spiders. The children went eagerly from one glassed-in display to the next, looking at the insects and animals and reading the printed descriptions aloud. Both children pronounced the names of each species in English and in Spanish. `Shreese has them well on their way to a good education,' Davidson noted to himself.
At one far corner, Davidson paused in front of a glassed-in exhibit. His eyes focused on a name: Banded Gecko/Geco Rayado. He had not seen a gecko for a quarter century.
He lifted his index finger and slowly placed it on the glass exterior. The four- inch long lizard responded by stretching its entire length against the inside glass so that finger and lizard coincided perfectly.
Tears welled up in Davidson's eyes, and his mind flashed back to a lonely room in a distant country where geckos, his best friends, had enacted their nightly rituals along walls and ceilings, their vocal chords emitting feint squeaks when their tongues captured mosquitoes.
A single tear ran down Davidson's black cheek. A young docent approached. "Sir, are you feeling all right? Can I help you?"
"It's okay, Anne-Marie. I understand what's happening." The voice belonged to Armando Gomez, the keeper of the exhibit. "This glass gecko casing is our version of the shiny black wall in Washington, D.C."
"Why were you crying, Phil?" Chejuana asked as the Chevy pickup exited the parking lot.
"Yeah, I was worried about you," William echoed.
"It was a war many years ago," Davidson answered, his voice just above a whisper.
"The Persian Gulf War, I bet," William guessed.
"No. A long time before that. Twenty years before that." Davidson's jaw was set, and he stared straight ahead.
"It was the Vietnam War, wasn't it," Chejuana said. "There is a page about it in our history book, and our teacher's husband once fought there."
"I was there," Davidson went on, as if his granddaughter's remark had untied his tongue. "I was among the last group of Americans stationed there to help the South Vietnamese Air Force maintain their helicopters. I worked the day shift. My roommate worked the night shift. It was a terrible time. Mortars would be fired at us by the Viet Cong. I'd role off my bed into a bunker below and hope a round didn't come through the roof with my number on it. A gecko would always be there to comfort me."
Davidson explained how he would go outside in the heat of the day and capture several of the small lizards and place them along the cement walls and ceiling of his partially screened-in living quarters. "One particular gecko--I named him Steady Sam--slept on the side of my pillow for a month."
Neither child interrupted.
"At Christmas, I found one gecko climbing my foot-high artificial tree. His body glowed red and green against the background of the bulbs."
The interior of the Chevy pickup was quiet for a long time. In the gathering dusk, red and green lights flashed in store windows along Speedway Boulevard. A traffic light turned yellow, then red as Davidson eased his truck into the turning lane leading to the street where his grandchildren lived. He waited for the green arrow.
"Geckos...geckos. Those little lizards were my Christmas presents each night for a year."
Both children rushed into the kitchen where their mother was stirring a crock-pot of homemade chili.
"Mom," Chejuana said. "We had a great time. Grand-, er, Phil bought us books and statues of our favorite animals. Here, look."
"Yeah. Grandpa told us a great story about geckos and Vietnam on the way home," William said.
"We're going out to lunch tomorrow and a movie, too," Chejuana said.
"C'mon, Chejuana, let's shoot some hoops before supper. I'll give you two shots to my one," William said, grabbing a weathered basketball from a shelf near the door leading to the carport.
Erica Davidson, who had been standing in the doorway listening, entered the kitchen.
"Good trip from Dallas?" Davidson asked his wife after she'd kissed him.
"J.C. Penney signed a contract for our fall line of women's clothes. I couldn't be happier. And you, Hon? I heard what the kids just said."
"Sounds like you were a big hit, Grandpa," Shreese said, leaning over the chili.
Davidson shrugged his shoulders. "I'll tell you what, ladies. Those two kids have nearly worn me out."
Erica Davidson poured a glass of red wine and handed it to her husband.
Shreese looked at her stepfather. "A gecko is a small lizard, isn't it? Yes, I think it is."
Davidson nodded. "Best mosquito hunters on the planet. I used to have them in my hootch in Vietnam back in `71. It seems like such a long time ago." Davidson paused, stroking the stubble on his chin.
"Well, tell me all about them, Dad," Shreese said with a wink of her eye. "We've got all the time in the world."