The Chameleon


People who walked the long journey from the edge of Market Street at Castro with its colored flags all the way down to the green waters of the Embarcadero knew the chameleon well. They saw him early in the morning hours when the produce trucks zigzagged across the trolley tracks and the fog dusted the tops of tall buildings. He was a striking man, towering with quiet electricity, a burning inferno against the pale grey light.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was not himself during those early morning walks up and down Market Street but who he was no one knew. Once he was regal and careful like a king, once swaying like a drunk, once blurry-eyed like a dreamer. He spoke softly in riddles, hoisting his strong hands slowly to his face as if they were weighed down too heavily with pain. People passing him only heard a thread of his conversations with himself. Words that could have poisonous meanings in context reached them: chaos, passion, mendacity, mendacity, mendacity. The last seemed to be his favorite word.

No one ever questioned whether he was a madman or an artist or simply balanced on the seesaw in between the two. No one ever questioned whether he was really dangerous, though plenty of steely types roamed the neighborhoods of San Francisco at just those early morning hours of which he could easily have belonged. What was clear was that he wanted to make contact.

No one knew very much about him and none inquired too deeply as was the custom of the big city. A few believed he had been born in San Francisco. One saw the shadow of a bashful child in his eyes, haunted by some unspeakable tragedy. His hypnotic eyes drew their attention, the eyes of a wounded man, heavy with a blackness that told of having wept for the world. Compassion radiated from them even as he looked at no one in particular, seeming only to follow some invisible phantom walking ahead of him.

A few people claimed he was a magician and insisted they had seen him on the stage. There was the countenance of the illusionist in his man-child face and his pleasant smile, something that could touch the other side of the mirror. Once he passed a shop with knick-knacks for the tourists near Pine Street and was caught by the shine of Chinese balls in the sunlight. They lay in the window, embedded in their velvet box, two silver balls, perfect in their mercury gloss. He entered the shop and as the shopkeeper approached to ask if he needed any help, he suddenly took the box and spilled its contents on the floor. The silver balls rolled around, releasing the bells embedded inside of them like the melody of a lost love. The shopkeeper later claimed that just as she was about to recapture them and put them back in place, the chameleon’s hypnotic eyes fell upon them, his face turned waxy and his hands clasped in tight fists. The shopkeeper was willing to swear on the Bible that the balls came rolling back on their own, stopping like attentive cats at his feet.

What his observers did not know was that the chameleon’s fixed gaze was fixated not on the sidewalk in front of him still dark with the impeding dawn but on the phantom rainbow that lay ahead with its promises. What the rainbow promised, he had spent much of his life trying to find out.

One early morning, as the produce truck with the words of Goethe scrawled across it stood at the corner of Van Ness, people saw the chameleon walking his inexhaustible journey as usual. He was Uria Heep this time in his starched suit and bow tie, his hands pressed together with humble longing. A woman stepped into his path. She was tiny and dark, not young but with a face that showed the frost of aging that could not move forward or back. She stared up at him like a wild flower on a redwood, her eyes luminous to his wounded ones. Something in her innocent gaze, like that of a child who had faced her fears early on in life, touched him.

He unclasped his hands and took each of hers. He wanted to feed her but she would not eat. He wanted to buy her a drink but she chose water. He took her to his apartment but as soon as his lips touched hers, he knew that anything more would be a violation. She lay against his heart, tapping her fingers on his chest to its rhythm.

The next morning she was gone. As he stared out the window at the powdered fog, he called out his own name. No one answered.