By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Longtime readers of The Sun reading the following essay may be reminded of another essay of mine, “Sharing History with Rufus,” published in 1983. A part of that essay dealt with the relationship between my dog Rufus and my neighbor Cynthia. Over the years I’ve come to realize that the act of fitting Cynthia into that essay — in a role that was largely comic — did something of a disservice to the complex woman I had known. Hopefully this essay gives back to Cynthia something that was taken away.
I have been asked over the years why my female dog was named Rufus. All I can say is that I inherited her from a couple of potheads who thought naming their female puppy Rufus was the height of hilarity.
— John Rosenthal
Cynthia Robin was a large woman with wild, curly blond hair and sky blue eyes and a little mouth that rarely frowned, even though she had a lot to frown about. Back in the midseventies, she was my neighbor at the end of Pine Bluff Trail in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Cynthia lived steadily, or so it appeared, on the edge of a restless gaiety. Quick thinkers have an easy word to describe people like her — manic — but I’d rather think of her as someone who simply didn’t know how to act properly, how to join the everyday world of portents and continuities and sorrow and shared melodrama. It’s also possible that Cynthia, who didn’t have any brothers or sisters, had never been taught the art of being serious. Whenever I would talk to her about things I considered important — the war in Vietnam or the Nazi concentration camps — her eyes would grow round with dismay and her mouth would open slightly, as if she were hearing bad news for the very first time.
Cynthia’s been dead almost twenty-five years, but when I find myself on that unpaved, tilted street with its three or four dusty houses, I can still see her walking toward me in all her damaged flamboyance, a small group of dogs trailing behind her. Why is it that some people manage to brighten up the daily load of our dim and ordinary lives? Does their vividness suggest that they represent something more — not just beauty, which is always bright enough, but lunacy, dignity, passion, or even some large, stunning mediocrity?
Most people thought Cynthia was crazy — and perhaps she was. Isn’t it crazy to park your car (a black 1958 Oldsmobile with a large, garish strawberry painted on the passenger door) anywhere you want to: on curbs, lawns, sidewalks? To sleep three hours a night and eat a stick of butter for dinner? She also suffered from undisclosed ailments that had something to do with swollen ankles, but the very idea of doctors and hospitals made her queasy. Cynthia, who could neither understand nor control her own eccentricity, believed that if she ever stepped into the clean, brightly lit world of a hospital, with its fixed rules and efficiency and bewildering terminology, her imperfections would be discovered and she might never get out.
I don’t know how she got by. She didn’t have a steady job — that wouldn’t have been possible. I suppose her parents, who were quite old and lived in Florida, sent her money. What else could you do with a grown child like Cynthia except send money? For a couple of years she delivered telephone directories. Mostly, though, she spent her afternoons walking around Chapel Hill accompanied by a pack of dogs who were desperately in love with her.
Because of her Raggedy Ann appearance and her odd behavior, Cynthia was also occasionally followed by a pack of hooting and taunting adolescent girls. They assumed she was an easy target, and for the most part, she was — but not always. Once, I saw her turn around, eyes flashing and face still merry, and perfectly mimic their cruel, high-pitched, foolish voices: “Hooo-wheee, girl! What’chu walkin’ with those dogs for? What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy, girl! You motherfuckin’ crazy!” The girls looked shocked as they heard what they sounded like: mean little lunatic birds. And they fluttered off, chirping angrily.
Cynthia was firmly enthroned as the fairy godmother of all the dogs in the neighborhood. Late each afternoon they would arrive at her house, where she would hold court. The dogs would patiently sit in a circle around her, closely observing her every move and wagging their tails as Cynthia began the daily ritual of unpacking a grocery bag that contained animal treats: crackers for everybody, perhaps a bow tie for one dog or a little bell for another. Later on, after everything had been distributed and order re-established among the feuding parties, Cynthia would paint her visitors’ claws with red or silver nail polish. (Dennis Z. on Coolidge Street was terribly annoyed when his magnificent husky, Max, strolled home one afternoon dolled up like a tart, a pink velvet collar around his neck and scarlet polish on his toenails.)
The dogs adored Cynthia. She was the only human they had ever encountered who didn’t live according to the mysterious rules by which they were normally entangled. She didn’t care about clean floors, or hair on her bed, and she didn’t care if they chewed things up. Nor did she mind barking, unless it was a cheap ploy to get attention. She found slobber acceptable and spoke seriously to them about their conduct around cats and occasionally took a few bites of dog food. She was like a creature herself, though at the time I preferred to think of her as being “natural” — a convenient word that neutralized the possibility that she was gradually slipping into darkness. Whereas I wouldn’t ask a “demented” person to baby-sit my two-year-old, I had no trouble asking a “free spirit” like Cynthia.
My dog, Rufus, was a devoted member of Cynthia’s retinue. A “true believer” might be more exact. Until she met Cynthia — and, believe me, it was love at first sight — Rufus was content to stay close to home, making only occasional forays to the university campus, where she would run with a pack of friendly mutts. Now, however, when I’d let her out in the morning, she would immediately lower her nose to the ground and begin tracking Cynthia’s whereabouts — running at full speed down Pine Bluff Trail, heading for downtown. “No, Rufus, no!” I’d shout, but Rufus, who had always been an obedient dog, wouldn’t even pause in her flight. That’s what love does to you. You run from dullards.
This all took place just as Chapel Hill was beginning to transform itself (with the help of some enterprising developers) from an odd and affably regulated college town into an upper-middle-class suburb — a “lifestyle” community that occasionally described itself as “a great place to live for those who want it all.” Everywhere you looked, there were signs of change. The aging hippie street peddlers who sold leather sandals and sticks of incense were mysteriously denied permission to vend their wares on Franklin Street. The flower ladies, with their tin cans full of snapdragons and pansies and sunflowers, were banished to a side alley. And new leash laws, designed to safeguard the integrity of lawns, were approved. Small changes, meant to tidy things up.
The first time Rufus was picked up by the dogcatcher, she had been sleeping beneath a large oak tree on West Franklin Street while Cynthia was rummaging around in a consignment shop a few yards away. When Cynthia told me what had happened, I drove to the pound and spoke to the dogcatcher, an efficient and humorless young man who carried himself like a state trooper and didn’t seem to blink. He said that the next time Rufus was picked up, the fine would be twenty-five dollars. I told him that was a lot of money to pay for a sleeping dog. He said if she was picked up a second time, it would be fifty dollars. I said, “Rufus follows my neighbor into town every morning. She’s been doing it for years. They’re a kind of fixture in Chapel Hill. Everyone knows Cynthia and Rufus.” He said the third time it would be a hundred, and after that my dog would be “confiscated.” Checkmate.
A few weeks later Rufus was hauled in again, and I paid the twenty-five-dollar fine. The next morning I chained Rufus to a tree in my front yard. She whined awhile and then collapsed into a gentle depression, legs splayed and chin flat against the earth. When Cynthia returned home that afternoon, a couple of dogs circling about her, Rufus snapped out of it and began to bark. Liberation. Cynthia, her voice filled with shocked commiseration, let Rufus off her chain and fed her half a Mounds bar. Then woman and all three dogs disappeared down the worn little path to Cynthia’s apartment. An hour later, when I called Rufus home, her toenails were polished a sexy ruby red.
There were five of us at the end of Pine Bluff Trail, and we all knew something was going wrong with Cynthia. Some days her ankles would be so swollen she could scarcely walk. On bitterly cold winter nights, I’d go over to check on her, and she’d be sitting on her bed in a long T-shirt, drawing on a pad of paper and eating a stick of butter, the door to her apartment wide open, the air in the room below freezing. These were bad signs, very bad signs, but I didn’t read them. None of us did. Were we blind? Blinded? By what?
Cynthia never paid much attention to food until the last night of her life. By then her ankles were so swollen she couldn’t walk, but she managed to drag herself from her apartment to the woods beside my house, where she clung to a tree and yelled. She yelled for me to make her a sandwich. She begged me to make her a sandwich. She was only a few feet away from my window, but I never heard her. I was stoned that night and listening for the tenth time to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris sing “Return of the Grievous Angel,” a song I had fallen in love with. It seemed truly wonderful to me that the singer had finally come home, leaving behind him the cowboy angels and the good saloons in every town, and I was moved to tears. I had earphones on.
While I was listening to music, one of my neighbors called an ambulance. The next morning Cynthia died in a hallway in the hospital, waiting for someone to wheel her into Intensive Care. A medical report said she’d died of malnutrition. Malnutrition.
I ’m not sure there’s much else to say except this: Cynthia’s death was a shadow that fell over the lives of all of us who hadn’t been paying attention. It’s not easy to overlook a neighbor who is dying in plain view. You have to work at it. But intervention isn’t easy either, and it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. In America the right to privacy cannot be breached gracefully — and this was particularly true for middle-class young people in the 1970s who spoke protectively of their “personal space.”
Cynthia was a heartbreaking clown whose mysterious eccentricity surrounded her like a stage and turned the rest of us into an audience that didn’t know how to take her seriously. But then, what did we take seriously? I’m not sure anymore. My neighbors and I were all young, disengaged, and in love with music. The moment of intervention never revealed itself. We whispered among ourselves and watched, as if through a haze, the slow-motion spectacle of her going down. Now, years after the event, when it is entirely too late, we have attained something resembling wisdom, and it’s useless.