The Fox by (4 Stories)

Prompted By My First Apartment

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It must have been the absurdity of the situation at hand that started me looking back on the summer as a whole. The situation at hand was a raw chicken leg. I was smearing it across a portion of every other step on the way up to my apartment. Slowly advancing up the five flights, I hoped no one would catch me in the act. But it was 11:30 on a weeknight in a working-class apartment building, so the odds were in my favor.

We welcomed a sexy teen to stay with us.

Earlier, a red fox had shot out of the apartment between my legs, down the stairs and out into the dark. I whirled around in time to see his elegant tail. I should have been more careful. I should have known the fox would be waiting behind the door. After all, it was a fox, and though not full-grown he was probably at his peak of adolescent craftiness. I can picture him as he heard my tired footsteps coming up the stairs — sleek, healthy, poised like a coiled spring with his nose to the door.

It wasn’t my fox. It was Susie’s fox. Susie was a fox of a different species, from Westchester County. She was a runaway. For the past three weeks, she had been living with us in Washington, D.C. She said she was 17. She was slim and lean. You know what I mean, as Lennon sang.

Usually, Susie would stay out until the early hours of the morning with friends unknown to us. She would come back only when the friends, who lived with their parents in the nearby suburbs, had to go home. She would sleep until at least 2 in the afternoon, while my roommate Jack was surveying fields that would soon be shopping malls and I was writing obituaries in the newsroom of a decrepit tabloid called The Washington Daily News. Often, she would be gone before we got home from work.

A brief digression about the newsroom in which I worked that summer of 1970: Looking back now, I see clearly that it was, as reporters love to say, “the end of an era.” There were no computers yet, just typewriters. One of my duties as an intern reporter/copyboy was to bring coffee and/or a scrambled-egg sandwich to the city editor (who always wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up) whenever he raised his arm straight up, like a kid in class who was certain of the answer but kept his head down to keep reading. Another duty was to make sure the teletype machines never ran out of paper. They were in a soundproof room, for good reason. They used those big rolls of yellow copy paper, doubled, with an endless sheet of carbon paper between them — the rolls Jack Kerouac used to type his stream of consciousness. The newsroom itself was institutional gray, with decades of grime on the floors, walls, and ceilings. The desktops were dark gray linoleum crimped with steel borders. The stacks of books on the desk of the obese, nocturnal book reviewer gave him plenty of cover to take a swig from the bourbon bottle he kept in his bottom drawer.

Jack and I would have liked to see more of Susie. When Jack’s younger sister had introduced us and asked if Susie, whom she had met on the street in Georgetown only the night before, could “crash” with us for awhile, it was all Jack and I could do to suppress testosterone-induced leers.

“Sure, I guess so,” we said almost in unison, glancing at each other with casual smiles that were not really casual.

Susie was attractive. Her clothes were the best brands, even if they were a bit wrinkled from being stuffed into her two top-of-the-line Samsonite suitcases along with an impressive collection of perfumes and cosmetics. Together with her big eyes and softly layered blond “shag” haircut, those cosmetics somehow made her look vulnerable yet streetwise. Her lips always looked wet. She didn’t need to smile. Now imagine her with a young fox in her lap, stroking it as she told us it had been a gift from a boyfriend.

As it turned out, Susie and her pet both kept their distance from Jack and me. She slept on a mattress on the living-room floor, with her suitcases beside her and the fox at her feet. Susie was most aloof when she spent the whole evening at home. We read and respected her signals, but that didn’t stop the fantasies.

As I recall, Susie said she had left her home that spring, after a massive, houseplant-throwing battle with her mother over something to do with that boyfriend, but the details, if I ever knew them, have escaped me. My spring had been eventful too. In May had been the killings at Kent State. Not that Susie cared. Jack and I cared. We had nearly come to blows with an ROTC instructor at college that week, farther south. We were on strike, along with the rest of the student body and even the faculty. It was glorious, and Jack and I had lowered the campus flag to half-mast. The four big crosses on the campus commons must have been hard enough for the Army sergeant to take, because when we lowered the flag, which happened to be in front of the ROTC headquarters, he rushed out, screaming at the top of his lungs about his service in Vietnam. I remember how red his face was. After some more shouting on both sides, we left, and the sergeant ran the flag back up.

The strike lasted so long that final exams were optional that spring. Jack and I decided to defer most of ours until the fall. Though we had both lined up summer jobs, we still figured we had the whole summer to study. Then we decided not to spend another summer with our parents.

I thought about those exams as I rubbed chicken fat over the whole second landing. It was the third week in August, and I hadn’t “cracked a book,” as my mother would say. Neither had Jack. Passing the dreaded exams was necessary for me to begin my senior year. After a fruitless half-hour of looking under cars, whistling into storm drains, and kicking hedges, I knew that the chicken grease, invisible yet aromatic, was my last chance to lure the fox back upstairs to the apartment. By the time I made it to the next landing, my prospects for success in the trapping trade looked as bleak as my future in academia.

I began to dawdle, applying a different olfactory design to each step — a greasy triangle was followed by a greasy circle, then a square, then a spiral. I thought maybe I would hit on some primeval pattern of fox totems that just might…

My atavistic scheming was interrupted by a noise below. Looking down the steel bannister, I saw hair that was reddish, but much too dark for the fox. It was on top of Jack’s head, bobbing up the stairs on top of Jack. Turning at the landing, he saw me, and I explained my project in a whisper, so as not to wake our neighbors. Jack’s mouth, a relatively large one surrounded by a reddish beard and mustache, flew open wide, and his eyes opened their widest, chasing eyebrows northward. It was his well-loved look of mock-horror.

We speculated on the repercussions of losing Susie’s fox.

“Do you think she’ll cry?” I asked.

“I was just wondering if she’s going to hit you,” said Jack. “And where.”

It was my turn to flash the mock-horror look. It was our look that summer — the sure-fire laugh-getter between us. Marijuana helped.

“Could you grab another piece of chicken out of the freezer and help me finish up?”

“Nope. Good luck.” He was already on his way up the stairs. I didn’t have to hear his chuckle to feel it.

The fox, whose name I’ve forgotten, was never heard from again. Susie, who had come in very late the night of the great escape, was nevertheless up and dressed at 7 the next morning, demanding an explanation. At the time, I thought she took it rather well. She even laughed when I got to the drumstick scene. I called the local animal shelter, but nobody had turned in a fox. They started asking if the fox had been licensed by the Board of Health and if it had its shots and what was my address. It all was starting to get much too bureaucratic for a missing fox that could be loping smugly through the Maryland woods by now, up the C & O Canal and under the Cabin John bridge and outward, ever outward, into the wilderness toward Harper’s Ferry. Or maybe he was just a bloody patch on the Beltway. I said as much to the woman at the animal shelter. Just when I thought I would end the call neatly by hanging up on her, she beat me to it.

Pretending I was hanging up first, I put down the receiver and turned to Susie.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

“When?”

“Tomorrow. I met a guy who says he can get me into public-relations work if I come back with him to New York.”

I wished her well and said I hoped she would be home for dinner tonight, her last night in the apartment. Behind her, in the kitchen, Jack was smirking into his scrambled eggs with ketchup.

“How can you stand ketchup on eggs,” I asked, for the thirty-seventh time that summer.

“Fuck you,” he said.

“Sodium may clog your veins, but words will never hurt me,” I chanted, heading out the door to car and work. On the way downtown I mulled over the public-relations opportunities open to a teenage girl in New York.

Driving home that evening, my thoughts were still on Susie. Jack pulled up on his motorcycle as I was getting out of my faithful VW bug. On the way up the stairs we traded obscene jokes about Susie’s last night with us, but up in the apartment there was no Susie. Her suitcases were gone, and Jack said he had thought it strange that she had already started to pack when he left for work that morning. Only the fox’s leash had been left behind, draped over a chair.

Jack shrugged his shoulders and went down the hall to roll a joint. We had a pleasant ritual of getting stoned before fixing dinner, which was inevitably chili, baked chicken, spaghetti, or hamburgers. We did have a wok, which was used for special dinners. A special dinner was a counter-cultural mixture of stir-fried vegetables, nuts, and seeds with brown rice. The subconscious goal was to give guests the impression that our daily fare was a diet appropriate to the quest for spiritual enlightenment. After all, it was the meal most of our friends served when we were their guest for dinner.

We had told Susie she could have anything in the kitchen, but she hardly ever ate with us. We wondered where, or if, she ate at all. Her slim body was almost skinny. I had been looking forward to eating with her on her last night, and perhaps giving her a little advice before she left us.

From the bedroom, Jack called, “Have you seen the dope can?” He meant the pipe-tobacco tin in which we kept our marijuana, which we never called marijuana. The tin had originally contained MacBaren’s Golden Extra, a sweet, fine cut. Jack used to smoke that too, rolled in the same papers we used for joints,

It’s in my top drawer,” I called back. I had put it there the night before. After leaving our apartment door open at the top end of my chicken-fat trail, I had sat back for a few tokes while hoping against hope for the return of the fox.

“No it’s not,” called Jack.

I didn’t think he had really looked. I had even seen it there under my socks that morning. I went to prove him wrong. But he was right. In an instant we thought of Susie. A quick inventory of the apartment revealed four other missing items — my Nikon camera, Jack’s clock-radio, and two checks — one from his checkbook, one from mine.

“So much for faith in humanity,” I said, feasting on the drama.

“Bummer,” said Jack. “Is there any beer?”

When we went to our bank, I learned that my check had been cashed at a bar in Alexandria, for 50 dollars. Jack’s was made out for 80 dollars, to a grocery store four blocks from our apartment. To our surprise, the teller told us the bank would absorb the losses.

I’ll never know what was going through Susie’s mind as she put my camera in her suitcase. For years I thought I would run into her and be able to ask, but now I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize her. I still wonder if she ever saw the photos of my girlfriend Alice; they were in the camera, undeveloped. Perhaps that’s where they are still, in a pawnshop somewhere.

Was she mad about the fox? Her feelings were always a mystery. She was either naively flighty or resolutely grim. If she was really as old as 17, she was just four years younger than I, yet she was somehow already part of another generation. Before she came, Jack and I had thought of ourselves as rebellious hedonists, but to our surprise she saw us as fuddy-duddies, locked into the 40-hour workweek. What a strange casserole of emotions she cooked up within us — lust, self-doubt, paternalism.

Jack thought Susie’s parting thefts had nothing to do with my losing the fox. He was probably right; it could have been because of heroin. That was the other big reason for the gulf between us and our summer roommate. Susie was usually still in bed when we got up for work, but sometimes she had her eyes open, staring at the ceiling. Rushing around to get our breakfast, we usually left her alone, but if we asked her something we knew the answer wouldn’t be longer than one syllable. Late one sticky night, kept awake by the heat, Jack’s snoring, and sexual fantasies about Susie down the hall, I heard her rustling around, lighting a match. I knew she thought I was asleep, and I thought she was just lighting a cigarette or joint. At 3 in the morning? Maybe. The next morning, she was still asleep when Jack noticed a syringe and spoon in her open suitcase. When he bent over to make sure he had seen what he thought he had seen, the fox growled.

I guess you could say Jack and I were afraid of heroin. We had both experimented with other recreational substances but had drawn the line at heroin. The knowledge that Susie had dared to cross that line left us worried, but the way we dealt with it reminds me now of the way all those non-violent anti-war marchers, myself included, flowed around Jack the previous fall after he threw a rock through a shop window. Sure, it was partly to keep him from throwing another, but it was mostly to protect him from the police.

We talked about doing something, having a “talk” with her or something, but the last thing we wanted to do in those heady days was to criticize another young person. We had no firsthand experience with heroin, and we knew many of our rockstar heroes had tried it, so who were we to judge? Judging would have made us like our parents. So we did nothing. The last thing we wanted was to be like our parents.

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Profile photo of Ben McKelway Ben McKelway


Tags: Humor, lust, camaraderie, college, drugs, lessons
Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Thanx Ben for taking us back to that 1970 summer in your first apartment, your nubile houseguest and her pet fox!

    Looking forward to hearing more of your early journalist career and your life since those heady days!

  2. Suzy says:

    Ben, this is a fascinating story that could have worked on many different prompts. I’m wondering why you chose My First Apartment – was this, in fact, your first apartment? It would help to know that, IMO. I love your “brief digression” about the newsroom, which would have made a good story on its own. Also love your description of Susie (my alter ego?) and of course, the fox. Looking forward to more stories.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    A pet fox, a slinky, underage, heroin-using house-guest; this is quite the summer tale of first apartment adventure, Ben. It almost has the vague whiff of Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (though of course that takes place in LA and a year earlier; but feels like a similar era with the mysterious, under-age, slightly dangerous waif wandering through).

    Great sense of time and place, you take us along for the ride.

  4. One of my favorite Retrospect lines ever: “On the way downtown I mulled over the public-relations opportunities open to a teenage girl in New York.’ Yeah, sure you did!” Another really expressive line I liked, and a more honest one, was about the “strange casserole of emotions she cooked up within us — lust, self-doubt, paternalism.” An especially apt metaphor in light of the way you use menu preparation as symbolic of who you and your buddy were in those days. Speaking of which, the part about serving the brown rice with wok veggies was spot-on. I was served numerous meals like that and it never crossed my mind that they didn’t eat like that every night!

    Oh, yes, great title too.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    I was right there with you—you captured the time so well, and I know the DC area so all the references resonated.. Great story-telling and memory!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    You really captured a snapshot in time. Beautifully written and evocative of the times. Being a bit older, I was already a married lady (LOL) at that time, but my younger brothers have no clear memories of the summer of 1970. Too bad you lost both foxes.

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