At work, I started telling this fox story around the water cooler. It was me and Roxanne, Phil and Debra. I’ve known Roxanne forever, since I was a kid, and Phil comes in later, so hold on. Debra doesn’t matter, so we’re skipping her. Roxanne’s kind of my best friend, at least at work. She stands out, partly because her tan is so deep, you’d think she’s made out of beef jerky. She spends all her weekends at the pool, all of them, since like the beginning of time. She’s been lying there on a reflective silver mat since I was a girl at least, her body slick with baby oil, even now, like she’s never heard of skin cancer, like she’s immune. I’m nearly thirty-five, and Roxanne has to be at least sixty and maybe more like a hundred, but she looks exactly the same as she did when I was ten. I wonder sometimes if she is alive.
“Really, Mattie,” Roxanne said, “It’s just a damn fox,” and she shrugged her shoulders, like a fox was nothing.
Roxanne dumped the rest of her diet Pepsi into her cup and stuck a straw in, stirring it like it a cocktail. “Just get rid of the thing. Or keep it, it’ll take care of rabbits.” She turned around and swished her tiny butt out the door, no doubt to have her 10 o’clock Virginia Slim. Easy for her to say, she could tell her husband and poof, gone.
I filled my water glass at the cooler, and when I turned around to head back to my desk, I nearly spilled the whole glass on Sandra. She’d snuck up on me when I had my back turned. Sandra doesn’t look dirty, necessarily, but she carries a particular scent, something like sweat and spearmint gum, not all that bad, but distinct. She has short curly hair that stands out like a pubic halo around her head, pale skin, and dish-plate blue eyes. She’s worked as a file clerk for as long as I’d been at the bank. People say her family is part of the MIA, which is some religious group. I think any group that uses initials makes people think of guerillas or terrorists, like the PLO or FARC, so people keep their distance. When she bumped into me, I’m not sure anyone in the office had ever actually been that close to her before.
“Shit,” I said, cold water jumping from my cup onto my new leather sandals.
Sandra froze and stared at the empty wall behind the water cooler. When she didn’t move, I sidestepped around her, just barely clearing her huge orange clogs.
“All yours,” I said and gestured at the water cooler. Sandra drummed her fingers against her thigh, but didn’t make any move to get a drink.
On the way back to my office, I turned around once, and she was still standing there, staring at the wall. This is her general look, but today that blank stare seemed to be the entire office’s reaction to my fox story, which made me kind of furious at Sandra, even though she hadn’t even been around for my story.
Someone at the bank, I don’t know who, once tried to bring Sandra a birthday cake. Sandra’d had this look of terror on her face, like candles and icing were the stuff of Satan. She sort of gazed up at the ceiling, almost like she couldn’t see the cake, or hear the office singing “Happy Birthday.” Her mouth was slightly open, spacing out, her stock expression. Sometimes I think it’s like a kind of meditation, and she’s thinking zilch. Maybe that’s the point, to disappear, which makes me kind of jealous that she can make herself disappear, except that it’s not like anyone really wants to disappear. I think it’s more like we all want to be seen, not like a spectacle, but like a truth, like something you see and you go, Oh, I get it. I get you. You and I, we see each other. But on her birthday, it was more like a spectacle kind of thing. I’d heard her family never allowed her to celebrate her birthday, so this was supposed to be something nice, but it really wasn’t, even Sandra could see that, and so she mostly zilched out. She eventually snapped out of it long enough to blow out the candles, but Roxanne had to help her. Both of them together, Roxanne with her smoker’s gasp and Sandra with her spaced-out blowing, I thought the candles were going to melt all the way down into the cake. I felt a little bad for her that day, but I wished I could walk up and shake her by the shoulders, her great round head nodding back and forth until red Xs appeared over her eyes.
I know it was a little unreasonable to be so pissed that no one cared about my fox story, and I’m not the sort of person who goes crazy over animals. I don’t have a beanie baby on my dashboard. I’ve never owned a cat. Ever. I know that surprises you, a woman living alone without cats. I’m a fur person, or at least I have a jacket with a fur collar. This fox had this fat orange tail, kind of like my fur collar. There it was—a flash of color weaving across my backyard. It cast some spell on me. Seriously, I’ve had this weird dizziness ever since. Can you be possessed by a fox? I felt possessed, and it bugged me that no one seemed to care.
So here’s the story, and I’m going to tell it all the way through. I don’t care.
I was at home sitting alone on the sofa in front of the sliding glass door when I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. I did a double take, dismissed it, some hallucination caused by too many diet sodas. But there he was, crouching about fifteen feet away from the sliding glass door, paused in mid-step with his paw raised. He kind of wagged his tail, real slowly wagged it, not like a dog, but like he was trying to say he wasn’t in any hurry. He wasn’t afraid. “Fox,” I said it out loud even though no one was there. It was that kind of thing.
When I stood up and slid back the door, he darted off and disappeared so fast I kind of wondered again if he’d ever really been there or not. I’d never seen a fox before, not in the six months I’d owned this house, a family-sized house, but that’s about the only kind of house there is around here. I got tired of living in an apartment, saving coins for the washing machine, listening to the neighbors. Plus, I like to spread out, and working at the bank, I knew where to find a steal. Now here was this fox, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do about it. So I just looked for him, pushing back the red buckeyes I’d planted near the shed.
Next door, the neighbor woman Barb was stooped over with her rump in the air, pulling crab grass out by hand. You should see her yard. She had people come out and roll it with this big machine until it was perfectly flat. Every week, sometimes twice, she mows it so short it shines like an emerald. It is the most ridiculous thing.
In between the buckeyes, behind a loose fence board, I found a slick, smoth pile of mud and underneath that a hole so perfectly concave I considered sliding in under the shed on my belly too, but instead I peered in, half expecting his dark eyes to glint back, but instead I saw a perfect paw print. It was proof a fox was living with there. The funny thing was, I liked the way it made me feel, the dizziness.
Incidentally, Roxanne had been right—the rabbits weren’t in my tomatoes anymore. I didn’t know how long the fox had been living there without me noticing, but when I went over to see if the tomatoes had reddened all the way yet, half-expecting to find them eaten by rabbits, which usually happens if I don’t pick them before they’re ripe, there they were, full and heavy. I picked one and bounced it lightly in my hand, not hardly believing my luck.
Barb had moved on from pulling crab grass to spreading hay in one corner of her yard. I couldn’t believe she was going to mess up the perfectly green surface, like a golf course, but it was some kind of 4th of July display that seemed to involve little men in top hats dancing on top of hay. The smell of hay, even when it’s clean, always makes me smell horseshit. When she saw me, she dropped Uncle Sam in a big pile of hay and began walking over, her head down, like she was thinking of something unpleasant. She jammed a thumb under her elastic waistband of her brown shorts and scratched. Her face was bright red, like my tomato, but rougher.
“See you got some tomatoes, finally,” she said. Barb had had tomatoes since May.
“Yeah, well, July’s a good month for tomatoes,” I said and extended one, a peace offering. “I have a fox.”
Barb was reaching for the tomato, but she stopped and put her hand on her hip.
“Well, you better get rid of it. We can’t have a fox in this neighborhood.” She looked back at her house. Her shitty little dog Milton stood on the back of the couch biting at the window. His teeth stuttered against the glass in a fog of breath and snot. “If that fox goes after Milton, I’ll kill you,” she said.
“You heard me.” Barb said and stomped across the yard. “There are children here!” She yelled, as if alerting the neighbors, “Children.”
“I know,” I said, and stretched my T-shirt out, making a little basket to tuck my tomatoes inside.
At work, this is about the point in the story where I had to stop. It was later in the day, and I sat on the edge of Roxanne’s desk when the phone rang. I didn’t quite get to the part about Barb saying she was going to kill me, so I waited for Roxanne to get the client off the phone.
“Bob, you’re loan’s in trouble,” she said. “I’m sorry Roger was shot, but I just thought you should know we’re closing units.”
Roxanne made duck bills with her fingers and clapped them together, mouthing “yap, yap,” and wagging her foot.
“When you’re ready to work it out, give me a call,” she said, and hung up. “Geez.”
I sat up straight, ready to fill her in, but Roxanne started before I could open my mouth.
“So you know Phil in receiving, right?” Roxanne said.
“Phil. With the short haircut, you can see his scalp?” I said.
“That’s the one,” she said.
I hoped she wasn’t going to suggest I should date him.
“We want to fix him up with Sandra,” Roxanne smiled, raised her eyebrows, and then bit her bottom lip, a naughty glint in her eye.
“Do you know she lives with her mother? Her parents had some split, and her mother makes her live there and take care of her. Her mom is crazy, always sick, says she’s sick anyway.”
“Why doesn’t she just go to the doctor then?”
“Refuses. Because of her ‘religion.'” Roxanne used her hands to make the quotes.
“You’re telling me. We’re going to get them together at the company picnic. See if we can get them to slow dance,” Roxanne smirked, like that was likely.
I didn’t say anything else about my fox. I don’t know why I ever bothered. It’s not like Roxanne is a nature lover or anything. I just get tired of being the one to listen, everyone always standing around the water cooler, bragging about their kids on the honor roll, or complaining about the kids who stole their cars at night and were stupid enough to leave beer cans for them to find in the morning. Their stories don’t make me wish I had kids or anything, but I do wish I had something to say sometimes, something they’ll listen to.
The picnic was Saturday. I wore a blue skirt with a new off-the-shoulder white shirt and painted my nails red for the occasion. I looked like a sexy American flag. I stood in my driveway on one leg, balancing a casserole dish on my thigh, and struggled to unlock the car.
Next door, Barb was outside again arranging her hay. She stood up when she saw me, a pitchfork in her hand.
“Hi Barb,” I shouted and put my keys in my teeth so I could wave.
“You still got that fox?” Barb shouted back.
I ignored her, ducked down into my steaming car and fumbled to unroll the windows before I died. In the rearview mirror, I could see the other neighbor from across the street, Joe Harbeck, heading for his mailbox. Barb stalked over to him, her hands on her hips, talking fast enough that spit flew from her mouth. Joe looked over at my car as I backed up and then drove past them, the two of them stopped talking long enough to glower at me. I waved, and I know Joe saw me, but he didn’t wave back.
Our bank rents out the VFW every year, and when I pulled into the parking lot, Roxanne was just getting out of her car. Behind her, I could see the white tents set up near the VFW building and those scary plastic inflatable houses children like to jump around in. I walked over where Roxanne was waiting from me, the plastic thump of 80s music blaring from the party vibrating through my hair. Roxanne sucked up the last of her cigarette and passed me a canteen of whiskey. I wiped her lipstick off the top before I took a drink, and then I took another one before I handed it back to her. By the time we made it over to the party, I was beginning to feel more patriotic. I started to forget about my neighbors and to think about Phil and Sandra instead. “Yeah, let’s fix them up,” I said.
Roxanne nodded and smiled, clearly pleased to have a partner in this, and she flicked the end of another cigarette into the dry grass. She pulled a couple of dum-dums from the bank out of her purse, and handed me one—question mark, my favorite.
We walked around and talked to people for about ten minutes and then Roxanne made a beeline to Phil, who looked all right that day, really. He had on a red and white plaid shirt, buttoned up too high, but the red was nice with his dark hair, and he looked like maybe he’d lost a little weight since I’d seen him last. He had this funny little smile like he was embarrassed and excited to have Roxanne tugging on his arm and patting his belly. She threaded her skinny arm through his pudgy one and began to escort him towards Sandra.
Sandra was sitting in a folding chair right smack in the middle of a scorching block of sunshine. Her chair was cockeyed on the grass, and she looked like she might tip over any second. I made sure I walked faster than Phil and Roxanne, so I could pass them and set my chair up next to Sandra before they got over there. Of course she didn’t say anything to me, so I watched everyone else talking to each other, and wished Sandra’d had the sense to set her chair up in the shade. She had a paper plate in her lap with an ear of corn and baked beans, no meat, I noticed. The beans had leaked an orange stain onto her khaki pants.
“Do you not eat meat? Because you’re religious?” I asked.
I didn’t think she’d answer me, but she said, “I’m not religious, not anymore. I just don’t like meat.”
I was so stunned she answered that all I could do was stare at the stain on her pants. I couldn’t let her sit there like that, especially with Phil and Roxanne making their way over, so I found a wet wipe in my bag and pointed to the spot, but Sandra was staring at the ground, her brow furrowed, like she was trying to think of something to say, or trying to imagine herself somewhere else.
I grabbed her hand. It was the least I could do. I pressed the wet wipe into it, pointing again to the baked bean stain that was spreading on her pants.
She looked at me, and then a shadow fell over us. I looked up just as Roxanne nudged Phil. She stepped back like a bomb was going to explode.
“Hi,” he said, looking at me, and I realized he expected me to hug him like we hadn’t just seen each other two minutes ago. I stood up, but instead of giving me a hug, he kissed me on both cheeks, like we were European or something.
Roxanne widened her eyes, mouthing “weird”.
The two of them set their chairs next to us, and I noticed Sandra had finally begun to rub at the spot with the wet wipe, which wasn’t so much taking care of the baked bean stain as making little white flecks from the napkin stick all over it.
Near the dance floor and the DJ, our boss Miles was breaking through the crowd and walking toward us. I’d been dating Miles on and off ever since I began working at the bank two years ago. I called it dating.
“Ladies,” Miles said and nodded his head at us. “Phil?”
The way Phil looked at Miles, I thought he was going to stand up and kiss him for a minute. I started to giggle, the kind of laugh that’s all snorty and out of control, like you get at church.
Roxanne and Miles stared at me. I coughed and choked. Sandra actually looked me in the eyes for a minute. Like I said, she had these giant, round blue eyes, so when they locked I mine, it was something to remember. She handed me the wet wipe.
“Thanks,” I managed, and blew my nose.
Miles sort of shook his head, like I’d grossed him out or something, and then made a little gesture with his hand, a half wave, and kept walking past, like he hadn’t been coming over to talk to us at all. Roxanne gave me a look, like what the fuck?
Phil said to Sandra, “You know, I really like those pants. Not many khaki pants out there that look good on a woman, you know? But those,” he shook his head, obviously impressed. “They really look good.”
Sandra didn’t have the wet wipe anymore, but she was still rubbing lightly at the spot with her hand. When she didn’t say anything, Phil didn’t seem to know what to do next, so he began to sort of bob back and forth in this chair to the song playing near the dance floor. There were a few people dancing. I could make out Craig from Marketing, and Rachel, the teller, who kicked off their shoes and began grinding to “Rebel, Rebel.”
“I love this song,” Phil said. “I love Billy Joel. You like Billy Joel, Sandra?”
He put his hand on her thigh, leaning too close to her face, like he was checking to see if she was in there. She must have been about to puke from his hot dog breath. I could smell it from where I was sitting. Extra-loud, he said, “You weren’t allowed to listen to music I bet, huh? Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he looked around at us, like he was teaching us all something, and spoke slowly, “aren’t allowed to listen to music.”
“Is that right?” Roxanne said.
Sandra was fixated on the hand he’d placed on her thigh. She stopped rubbing at the spot on her pants and just stared at his hand on her leg. His fingers curled around her thigh, gripping it, like no big thing. I imagined that she would like to rip his mouth off. She tucked her chin into her chest.
“Right?” Phil shouted.
She didn’t answer. She just spaced out, like she does.
Phil shouted again, “You couldn’t listen to music?”
Sandra shook her head this time and said, “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” he said and reeled his head back, letting loose a huge guffaw. Roxanne laughed too. Sandra and I waited while the two of them laughed their asses off for a minute.
“You like Billy Joel?” he asked Sandra.
I just couldn’t sit there anymore. I just couldn’t listen to it anymore.
“‘Rebel, Rebel’ is fucking David Bowie,” I said. “And she’s not a Jehovah’s Witness.”
Nobody thought that was funny. Phil looked alarmed for a second and took his hand off Sandra’s thigh. As soon as his hand was off of her, she raised her chin just slightly.
I said, “She used to be MIA, but she’s nothing now, all right?”
Phil looked at Roxanne, who was pretending she hadn’t heard a thing, picking at her teeth with the dum-dum stick and fixating her eyes on the dance floor.
“What?” Phil said, leaning forward on his knees and staring at me with a half smile on his face, like he’s wondering if I’m still in on the joke.
I said, “This is David Bowie, not Billy Joel. He’s the fucking Piano Man.”
“Oh, that’s right. Piano Man, I love that song,” and he slapped his leg, like him being stupid was all part of the plan.
I looked at Sandra, but she was still staring where Phil’s hand had been. I wanted her to look Phil in the eye and say she would rather die a virgin. She’d pass on the pity fuck, thanks anyway. Phil began to turn back to her, his hand starting to float back over to her thigh, but before he could touch her again I grabbed his hand and pulled his fat ass out of the folding chair.
“Let’s dance,” I said.
It’s funny how sleeping with a man makes you sure you’ll never want to live with one.
At work Monday, Roxanne smiled every time she walked by my office windows, but she wasn’t smiling at me, like she used to. She didn’t even come in to tell me what an idiot everyone thought I was, so I didn’t go to her office either. I imagined Phil was filling everyone in through the office chat feature. I noticed he changed his Facebook status to “in a relationship.” Every time I left my office, people either snickered or winked at me, and so I decided to play solitaire for six hours and twenty-three minutes.
It was almost five when I saw Sandra taking her jacket from the peg outside my door, and I followed her to the parking lot.
“Hey,” I said.
She looked me in the eye for two seconds.
“Did you know I have a fox?”
She shook her head.
“Do you want to see it?”
I gestured to my car, and she walked over and opened the passenger side door. I was a little surprised she took me up on my offer since ordinarily she took the bus home, or her mom picked her up. You might think I took her home with me because I felt sorry for her, but I didn’t anymore, maybe she decided to go because she felt sorry for me. Who knows? All I know is that we drove the whole way in silence, but it wasn’t the awkward kind of silence. It was the kind that feels fine, like a warm blanket or something.
When we pulled in my driveway, the fox bolted across the lawn and slid under the shed, right on cue, his usual streak-and-vanish act, which was starting to get on my nerves.
“I saw him,” Sandra said. She put both of her hands on the window and pressed her nose against the glass.
“I have these awful neighbors,” I said.
Sandra was staring at the shed, waiting in case the fox decided to come back out. I could tell she wanted to get out of the car and peer underneath, like I’d done, but she was waiting for me to say, Let’s go. “Let’s get out, and I’ll show you where he lives.” When she reached for the door handle, I said, “They hate my fox.”
Sandra turned and looked at me like she could never imagine anyone hating a fox. “Who”?
“The neighbors,” I said and nodded towards Barb’s yard. Sandra followed my gaze and squinted at Barb’s bright green lawn, George Washington doing a handstand in bale of hay.
“I want to get back at them,” I said. “Do you see her yard? I want to stick forks all over it.” And I did, I really did.
“Will you help me?” When she didn’t say anything, I went on, saying it before I really meant it. “I think you should move out of your mom’s house and live here with me.”
Her eyes got even bigger and then she crumpled into the seat like I’d liquefied her bones.
“I know you’re scared, but you can’t be scared forever. You’re going to die someday, maybe sooner than later,” I said. “Plus, I can’t live here alone with these people.”
We could call her mom, so she wouldn’t worry, but Sandra would hang up before her mom could say anything. I’d tell Sandra she shouldn’t go back there, not at first, at least not until Christmas. They don’t have Christmas, so maybe there would never be a reason to go back. I’d give Sandra some of my clothes, and we’d buy her some shoes so she could get rid of those orange clogs. We’d work out a chore schedule. I could picture it–the boxes and boxes of cheap aluminum forks we would buy over the Internet, the two of us sneaking across the yard in the middle of the night, Barb waking up to the silver glitter of our aluminum forks all over her perfect emerald lawn. Maybe then she’d finally shut up about the goddamned fox.