Photo by Pawel Ryszawa
I heard the wail outside my open bedroom window and knew what I would see if I pulled aside the curtain. Under the full moon, a flash of escaped sundown would probably be speeding across the yard, heading from the thicket on the right to the woods on the left, where the fox kept her home.
A month ago, I would have nudged Karen and asked if she heard it–which she probably did. Karen heard everything, including things that weren’t there. That’s why I was sleeping alone now. She’d taken off one night a month ago back to her mom’s after she’d heard I was seeing someone on the side. I wasn’t, but I had about a year before. It was all a big mistake. My stepping out and then her believing what she heard, this time from her sister.
I kicked off the covers and crept to the window anyway.
“What the hell,” I thought. “Might as well get a gander at the Wild Kingdom while I still have a house from which to see and hear it.” I parted the curtains about an inch and peered out back. Sure enough, there was the metallic sheen of the fox, some fuzzy small-plate entrée hanging from those super-sharp teeth.
It was Karen’s idea to move out here, get away from the city, from her family.
“Let’s get our own place, Billy,” she said one night in our old apartment. Actually it was my old apartment, the one she moved into when we got together three years before. It was the same place that was our honeymoon love nest after she got pregnant and we were married.
After little Will was born, we both knew the place was too small, still too “male.” She needed her own nest, I figured. Something not her mom’s and something certainly not mine. So we moved out to the ‘burbs into a townhouse butting up against the woods and fields I’ve since come to like.
It wasn’t all that easy, what with the baby and all. And Karen and I were both real city kids. The first night, or what sure still felt like night, the robins woke me. They went off pre-dawn, like feathered versions of the trash collector-bumped car alarms in the city. Only louder and more persistent. Another time I had to shut the bedroom window to the screams of some unknown animal in the jaws of a nocturnal predator or maybe in the paws of furry rapture. Either way, its plaintive cries set Karen’s teeth on edge and my thoughts to R-rated dismemberment.
It happened again the next night. And I decided to see what the hell was screwing with my pre-commute rest. That was the first time I saw the fox. Karen was less than impressed.
“Shut that damn window,” she whispered. “I swear, Billy, if those birds or that whatever-it-is right now wakes Will, I’ll kill YOU. Why do you have to sleep with the goddamn window open anyway?”
“I kind of like the sounds to fall asleep to,” I said. “The toads or frogs sounded like chimes last night, didn’t they?”
“Shut. The. Window,” Karen said, her voice carrying a short-fuse tone I’d heard her mother use on her old man.
But before I closed it, I looked outside. There she was. I’m assuming she was a she. The only other time I’d seen that color on a male was that actor, David Caruso. He was forgettable. She wasn’t She was as I’ll always remember, never forget, gleaming, moving like nothing I’d seen before.
Karen never did get the hang of suburban living. I’m not entirely sure she got the hang of the wife-and-mother thing either. When Will was about six months old, I fell from grace and had a one-week fling with an attorney from the firm down the hall from my office. It was my stupid over-reaction to postpartum depression and–in legal parlance–withholding of affection on Karen’s part.
“I’m tired, Billy, please…” she said whenever I would touch her in bed.
“Karrie, it’s been months since we’ve…”
“Billy, you don’t have to take care of a little one all day. It’s exhausting and I’m very, very tired. Maybe this weekend,” she said and rolled over to face away from me.
That weekend sex didn’t come until after Karen’s sister saw me in a joint downtown with the attorney chick after work one night. Karen and I had a big blowup. I was wrong, I know. I also felt incredibly contrite. I loved Karen and adore Will. Together they made my life so much fuller, worth all the hard work I put in to afford our home.
And then I had to go get impatient and greedy.
So I suggested we see a counselor. It was the counselor who advised us how to give and take a little more.
The first time we had sex after our counselor had set up our “working agreement” as Karen called it, I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. Blind horny as I was, I could tell. The fact that the frogs were chiming and the breeze was whooshing the maple leaves around out our bedroom window made it seem very natural and sort of Adam and Eve sweet. Then came another howl from below. Not Will. He was in the nursery next to our room.
I was pretty sure it was the coyotes I’d heard my neighbor say had been seen roaming around.
“Will you please shut that fucking window,” Karen said, tensing her body and waking the little fellow in the crib next door. And, other than the nights of counseling sessions and my birthday, that was that for our love life.
One afternoon, right after I got home from work, I took Will out back and put him in his play “corral,” as I started grilling up some steaks for dinner. Karen was inside watching through the patio doors, on the phone with her mom. They talked a lot more those days.
It was then I heard her scream, “Will!”
I turned and saw out the corner of my eye this flash of reddish-orange bounding across the yard. The low-setting sun made her shine like an arrogant alloy of cat and dog. I was transfixed. Not from fear or drink, but from the sheer beauty and audacity of her appearance in daylight in a space occupied by humans.
Karen came screaming out of the house to grab Will from his playpen as I waved my arms and shooed the fox toward the woods. As soon as the fox entered the shadows, she stopped, turned and looked right at me. This disembodied face hanging there in the dark, seemingly smiling at me. “What are you gonna do, man?” her expression read.
Karen never did stop screaming for another hour. She went from fear to outrage at me for not paying attention to Will (guilty as charged, I guess) and for being such a lousy husband. The ribeyes weren’t the only things burned that evening. Karen torched some bridges, too.
The next afternoon I was walking Will in his stroller when I ran into Old Man Gage, who built all the houses in the development. I told him about the fox encounter and he said he’d been hearing a lot of it.
“She feared nothing, Mr. Gage. Not even me.”
“That’s because she doesn’t perceive any true rival for her territory, not even those damn coyotes come down from the eastern hills,” he said. “You notice we ain’t seen so many rabbits and chipmunks lately?”
“Umm.. I guess you’re right,” I said.
“Foxes been cleaning up. Now they gotta move a little farther afield for their food. Probably even across the County Road up to where the coyotes are scrounging around,” Gage said. “Fox won’t bother you less it’s rabid. And we ain’t had any reports of rabies ’round here since that skunk thing two years ago. It’ll be pretty quiet over the winter. Come spring, kits on the way, it’ll pick up again.”
“Uh huh,” I said, looking like such a dope. That’s when Will began to whine and get a little fractious, so we headed back to the house. Karen was on the phone with her mom.
I wish our winter was as quiet as it was in the woods behind the house. Karen seemed always angry at me.
“This place is a dump,” she said. “Why can’t you do things around the house like my brother-in-law does for Sharon?”
I was not the handiest guy around tools. My mitts consisted of eight thumbs and two index fingers, which I used for typing and picking my nose. And my typing was pretty suspect.
It escalated from there and she eventually told me she was leaving me to go back to her mom and she was taking Will with her. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew the marriage was broken and I had proven worse at fixing that than I was at putting in a new laminate floor.
When I was served with the divorce papers, I saw she was requesting full custody of our son. I was crushed. But my attorney friend–not the woman who had smashed the champagne bottle across the bow of this sunken ship of a marriage–said it would take a lot of dough and a better lawyer than he to fight it.
The papers also said she was pregnant. So much for regaining a joyous foothold in our marital bed.
So, here I was, alone in the suburbs, missing my little boy, depressed and angry and defeated. Unable to sleep. My life feeling picked clean. That’s when I heard the fox, saw her coming from the direction of the County Road headed for the woods. She stirred something in me. Some visceral need. Wasn’t sure of what it was until today.
On my morning run along the County Road, an oncoming car veered across the yellow line toward me. It whizzed by, sucking the air out of me, leaving behind a taste of exhaust and despair.
As I turned back to my run, I caught a glint of copper across the road by the shoulder about thirty yards ahead of me. A chill ran through me because I knew what I had just seen and I really didn’t want to see much more. But my way home took me past the spot where she lay, still in harm’s way.
I crossed the road and saw her, the victim of a rival she never expected, really. Her eyes were vacant and glassy. I’m sure mine were moist and manic. It was then I saw another four-wheeled predator headed toward where we were planted on the road.
I’m not sure what possessed me. She well-past saving and it was a bigger deal right now that I get back to the house and shower for another soulless commute. But I grasped her forepaws and dragged her to the weeds just off the shoulder, as the next car and the one behind it blew past us in oblivious whoosh-whoosh succession.
It was then I noticed it, the rolling, almost bubbling shift of the skin of her taut round belly. I left her body there and walked, outright weeping, mind flashing, all the way back to the house.
What was I to do, you know? I called in sick and found a new attorney.
This wasn’t the most striking memory I’ll always carry of her, though it still shares the same space in my dreams, my reveries, my nightmares. No, I’ll always want to remember her when we met, her gleaming, a flash of escaped sundown.
This story is in response to the Day 26 prompt of Story a Day May 2016: eliciting certain emotions in the reader. I think if there’s any emotion I tend to write more about, maybe better than others, it’s despair. The just-the-way-it-is despair that can overtake our daily lives, so intimate, so close, we don’t even know what it is right in front of our eyes. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I write better of hope, the hope we can beak the chain of despair. I’ll leave the choice to you. This story began as one of my poems and grew into the 1,900-word beast I hope (there’s that word again) you just read.