Every morning, Cynthia arose early so she could see the fox run across her rear lawn. Her yard backed into a small grove of pines, where, she assumed, the fox found a refuge. It returned there just after dawn, each day. By then, Cynthia had made her coffee and started on the newspaper crossword puzzle while listening to NPR on the radio. She sat at the kitchen table and starred out the window, waiting for the fox.
It was a red fox, but it’s fur was closer to burnt orange. It was about the size of a small dog. When it turned its head in her direction, she could see its sharp snout and perky ears. On the whole, it looked well-nourished. The pickings of wildlife must have been good in her neighborhood. To have a red fox so close by seemed like an omen. For what she did not know.
Then, the day came that the fox did not appear. Carrying her coffee mug, Cynthia went outside in her white terrycloth bathrobe and slippers, taken from her last hotel stay, and looked around. There on the west side of her house, near the garbage cans, she found the carcass. It was an awful sight. The disemboweled remains of bone and fur were a bloody mess. The eyes in the head stared at her.
One day you will know what it’s like.…
Horrified, Cynthia backed away, spilling the coffee on her robe. She ran back into the house. Quickly, she drank water before she could vomit. She did not know what to do. How would she ever be able to take the garbage cans to the curb the next day, as was required by the city? She did not think she could bear to see the fox carcass again.
Cynthia had lived alone ever since the divorce. She won the house in the settlement. If she were still married, she could have asked Dale to take care of the fox remains. For two seconds, she considered phoning him.
With a brusque shake of her head, she decided against it. The next morning, she would simply use the garden shovel to move the remains into the garbage can. However disturbing, she would manage. Foolishly, she had allowed herself to become captivated by the fox. She had forgotten that nature has its ugly side. Eat or be eaten. Survival of the fittest. The fox ate mice and rabbits. And probably a coyote ate the fox. Maybe a mountain lion would eat the coyote. And a human might shoot the lion. That is what the natural world was like. A chain of ruthless horrors with a mask of beauty.
It reminded her of work. Cynthias was a manager of a medical records department in a large hospital. It was only an efficient hub because she allowed herself to be used by those above her and disliked by those beneath her. Cynthia knew she could be more popular if she did not demand eight hours work from those paid for eight hours. She expected the records to meet a certain standard demanded by her superiors. She was not one to tolerate laziness or sloppiness. Let the girls show each other photos of their babies and their puppies on their own time, not on hospital time.
After work, Cynthia ate a simple supper of cheese, crackers, and wine. She did not care to cook. Then she watched documentaries on PBS. No longer did she have to share the remote with Dale, who favored dumb crime shows.
“I’m just an ordinary guy. Not smart like you,” he used to say. Excuses!
At ten, she went to bed. Now that Dale was gone, she could commandeer the center. She loved having the whole expanse of the bed for herself. No more cramming herself to one side or having to make sure she did not take more than her share of the blankets. She was soon asleep.
But then a noise awoke her. She looked at the clock. It was not even midnight. The noise sounded like weeping. It was high pitched, as if a child were crying. It seemed to be coming from just outside. She could almost believe it was coming from the back yard, where she had seen the red fox so often. But more likely it was from a neighbor’s house. Or it was an owl. Cynthia fell back to sleep. After what seemed like just a few minutes, the alarm was buzzing.
Putting on another robe—not the splattered white one—she went to the garage to get the shovel. Taking a couple of deep breaths to work up her nerve, she opened the side door bit by bit and sidled out. There were the two garbage cans. Now that Dale was gone, only one was half filled. The other was empty, missing its top. Cautiously, she worked her way around the cans. But there was nothing there. She uprighted the shovel and leaned on it. Nothing. Not even a stain on the pavement. Had she dreamed the carcass up?
Was it possible that Dale knew it was there and came in the night to dispose of it for her? That was a crazy thought, she knew. The Oxy knocked him out for ten hours, from 8 p.m.until 6 a.m. He would have been too sedated to drive over. Unless he had forgotten to get his pills and had careened into one of his agitated spells.
When she met Dale, he was thirty-five years old and already in bad shape. He worked in the Maintenance Department at the hospital. He was losing his muscular good looks as he gained weight from the Lexapro. His back was messed up from high school football and the army. Sciatica pain shot down his leg. His knees, ankles and wrists hurt. Only opioids gave him the relief he needed to be able to work. He had an Oxy prescription for awhile, until the VA doctor refused to renew it, and then he had to buy it on the street.
After they married and began living together, Cynthia thought that Dale exaggerated his suffering. He was still gaining weight. Maybe he just wanted to drink beer and play games on his phone. Maybe his medical condition was just a way for him to wind up on Disability and lie around all day high from Oxy. By their first anniversary, she had lost all patience with him. He depended on her for everything. She did the finances, the cooking, the shopping, the housework. It was a good deal for him! Maybe she could get sick and let someone else do everything for her. As if!
When she told him she did not love him anymore and wanted a divorce, he wept. Then he took a double dose of whatever it was he had from the streets. Promptly, he fell asleep on the couch. She knew he would sleep on and off for the next twenty-four hours, missing work. She took the day off and used the time to rent a furnished apartment and move all of his belongings into it. When he was awake but still groggy, she drove him there, handed him the key, and left in disgust.
Whatever had gotten into her that made her choose a man who was not only ill, but also almost ten years younger than her? She had fooled herself into thinking that their age difference and state of health would not matter. Nearing her mid-forties, she already had streaks of gray in her hair and crinkles around her eyes. A small roll of fat had developed around her waist even though she kept strict control of her weight. Dale had been looking for a mother. She, who had never wanted children, had resisted that role. He had never given up trying to get her to take it.
Cynthia had already been a caretaker. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer when Cynthia was fifteen. She would die ten years later. Halfway though her illness, the new painkiller Oxycontin became available. It greatly reduced her mother’s suffering. Toward the end, on a high dosage of the drug, her mother would stare at her with dilated eyes.
One day you will know what it’s like…
Cynthia would shudder. Despite this, she was complimented by the Hospice nurse for her dedication and competence in seeing to her mother’s needs. But during the last weeks of her mother’s life, she developed an itchy rash. Her skin was hardening. She had to get a special ointment from a dermatologist to control it. From that point on, she wore long sleeves and modest clothing so that her red, scaly eczema, mostly on her arms, would not be seen.
Dale was not bothered by it. If he put his hand on her rash, she could not feel his touch.
After the mangling of the fox, the rash worsened. Cynthia had to use extra ointment. It required intense discipline for her not to scratch. To distract herself, she decided to deep clean the house. After work and on weekends, she laundered curtains and tablecloths, dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed, and polished. When she had finished the entire house, she began the process again. It was the way a house should be cleaned. Not just once in awhile, but repeatedly.
Her sleep was still being interrupted by what sounded like weeping. It was no longer like the noise a baby or child would make. The sound had deepened and become more adult-like. Still, Cynthia thought, it was probably an animal. A beagle or a coyote howling.
Despite herself, it made her wonder how Dale was doing. There had been occasions he had wept with pain, especially when the VA refused to give him any more effective medications. At the time, she had been glad she did not have to tell the nurse or doctor that he abused the narcotics, taking them more often that he should. Until he found another source for Oxy, Dale drank more. He was probably an alcoholic as well as an addict.
Looking around at her gleaming, uncluttered home, she could imagine the state of the apartment she had rented for Dale. She knew he would not care if he were high.
The itching was worse. When it was unbearable, she scratched and bled. Finally, she had to admit feeling guilty about Dale. What if he had ODed? How long would it be before his body was discovered? It was not her business. They were divorced. Dale would have to take care of himself. If he died, so be it. The newspapers were full of reports on the opioid epidemic. Addicts were taking drugs laced with high doses of fentanyl. Many overdosed. Dale could become one of the statistics.
She paced from room to room, running her fingers over dust-free surfaces. The itching made her agitated. The blood from her scratching was seeping through her sleeves in patches, ruining her shirt. She understood that she would not have any peace from the rash if she did not check on her ex-husband. Somehow, his condition and the eczema were connected..
She drove to his apartment. Using a second key she had made when she rented it, she opened the door. The sight that greeted her was what she expected. Disarray, untidiness. Beer cans heaped on furniture. Dishes piled in the sink. A stale smell. Dale was stretched out on the bed. His eyes were closed. He was not dead. She could see his chest moving.
The itching was terrible. She pushed up her sleeves and dug her fingernails into the rash. Blood ran down her arms.
Unexpectedly, she had sobbed his name.
His eyes opened half-way. He looks at her fuzzily, as if he had trouble placing her.
“Dale,” she said, continuing to weep. “Please. Give me an Oxy.”