Foxes or Red Foxes

Fiction by Bud Smith
Silent Stares, by Scott Michael Ackerman. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.



What you should be reading right now is the final published version of the best story I ever wrote called “Foxes” which I have not been able to find and complete and which is lost forever.

Lost on my computer, or what’s left of my house, or lost and unrecoverable in the nebulous wreckage of what was my life.

“Foxes,” or “Red Foxes” as it might have been called, was about a couple who had recently gotten a bitter divorce but during their last happy days together made a reservation at a legendary restaurant so good it took five years to get a table.

The legendary restaurant had no phone and notified diners by mail, six weeks before their table was ready; and most importantly, allowed no changes to reservations whatsoever.

The story (“Foxes” or “Red Foxes”) opened with an unnamed couple arguing as they drove on a busy highway, then on a road flanked by strip malls, and then, finally—all argued-out— easing down a narrow ocean lane, less and less trees, more and more sky.

I didn’t give the legendary restaurant a name in any early draft of the story (a handwritten first draft, little more than a sketch [still, that sketch more developed than what you’re sadly getting here]; a retyped second draft fleshing out characters and place; a third retyped draft, deepening theme, and sharpening language, a critical rise and release; and, had I the ability to do a fourth draft, the story would have become a masterpiece, my only masterpiece).

Now gone forever.

It doesn’t matter. I never gave the restaurant a name then and am certainly not going to now, even as the unnamed couple steps out of the car, and walks with smiles (in case any of the restaurant’s staff happens to be looking) and hands held, also for show, and the ocean’s dull roar on the other side of a series of silvergrassed dunes.

For the first time in years the couple is excited, hearing the screwy cry of the gulls riding a sideways wind mixed with the strains of what must be the restaurant’s renowned (and also nameless) piano player.

Tears in their eyes.

An incredible sunset just beginning.

The piano playing growing louder and suddenly sounding wrong, discordant, as they pass over a dune into the wide open and see the restaurant is gone.

I mean gone completely.

A crater in the earth where the legendary restaurant once stood.

Now just gnarled, charred pilings, and scattered debris. There in the center of that disaster, a sign reads:

RED FOX HABITAT
DO NOT ENTER

What’s even more sad is what they see next. What has happened to the piano player. A hundred feet away, his head and face wrapped in bandages, wearing what is left of a singed tuxedo, the visible skin of arms and neck rippled and raw. He plays a Casio keyboard run through a cheap speaker. Though his black-nailed fingers are still quite nimble. He too has a sign:

LOST MY GRAND
PIANO IN EXPLOSION
ANYTHING HELPS

They put money in his bucket as he completes a crescendo that might have been enchanting in the legendary restaurant but out here is just plain eerie.

After the final note fades, and the unnamed couple fails to applaud, the burned piano player looks up woefully.

“Any requests?”

“No,” they say, and walk on, dazed.

There isn’t exactly much of the boardwalk left, but they see a slanted shack outlined against the pink belly of the sky and begin to walk towards it, but that crab shack is closed.

A sign beside it reads:

DO NOT FEED FOX
$1500 FINE

The piano player begins anew, his playing even more chaotic and jarring.

Down on the beach something sprints past in the periphery, dives into a low, hidden den.

And the sunset gets wicked and now that I think of it I should have written in someone near the shack doing an oil painting of it all.

A painter who could tell the secrets of the land, or the meaning of life, and love.

But back then I was basing this story on a series of events that happened in real life to my first wife and I while visiting Seaside Park, NJ, combined with details from a vacation in Miami.

Though I imagine the masterpiece, had I completed it, would have been set on an obscure coastal stretch of Rhode Island or Delaware, because no one writes about those places.

Instead of this painter, in my story, I sent a strange Australian woman, who in reality, we really did meet. She came walking up with a sheepdog. It was clear the way we were dressed that we were looking for a fine place that no longer existed.

Her pale eyes gleaming.

“All because of those red foxes,” she says to the unnamed couple in my story.

The dog sniffs the unnamed couple’s ankles looking for the stick to retrieve, which the Australian woman holds firmly, and will not, ever, toss.

“Can’t rebuild either,” she says. “Gone just like that.” She demonstrates with her hands. Up and away. Something like a mushroom cloud. “They blew it up just like that.”

“Who?”

For a moment the unnamed couple thinks ‘mafia,’ but then remembers the world has changed and the mafia has switched to white collar crime, phishing data, sending spam emails. The mafia used to settle important scores with the universe. Now all they have are cubicles.

The unnamed couple in the story then reconsiders and thinks the Australian woman is referring to conservationists, who commit eco-terrorism for the sake of restoring the natural world. But no, the Australian woman says, “The authorities say it was a lighting strike, but I know the truth. It was the red foxes who did it, they blew it up themselves.”

She says the foxes broke a gas line, and started a fire with their tricky little claws and again her hand demonstration, poof, everything ka-bloo-ey.

“Even that poor sucker.” She motions to the piano player in the distance. “Yet he still does his best to drive the foxes bonkers with his noise, he does, he does, he does.” She says it is a miracle he’s still alive. Miracle they didn’t kill him then, and miracle they don’t come up here and kill him now.

He was the only one in the restaurant, changing a broken string, after-hours, thrown into the sea by the explosion, and saved by nightfishermen’s nets.

“One of the nightfishermen was my ex-husband.”

She demanded of him half the piano player, her legal right, and didn’t even get a laugh.

She has seen stranger things happen in her day, she says. She is sure she will see stranger things before the end of her days.

These are the kinds of things characters mention offhandedly in certain short masterpieces.

But in reality, this Australian woman said things I will not type up here, vile things I have softened into little red foxes, little toothless fictions that can’t hurt anyone.

My first wife and I, we had to flee this woman.

Our going was slow on account of a broken foot and a kneeling scooter jammed with sand. We struggled down a ramp and struggled onto a street full of broken glass that wasn’t any easier. We struggled everywhere. To struggle together was our mode those days. One thing I’ll admit, that vacation sealed our fate. We returned home, defeated, and it got no easier, so we went to see the judge who ordered us to split all our possessions down the middle. Everything.

I’ve lost track of what went where.

To whom.

I remember something else I wrote about the unnamed couple in “Foxes,” or “Red Foxes,” something about how they felt equally defeated. How they went another hundred yards and turned back toward the distant shapes of the woman and her sheepdog, who seemed to disappear into a portal but, in actuality, had just stepped up a side path.

Soon the piano player’s music sounded twice as chaotic and they could hear him howling out some vengeful grand finale.

“How do you like that, you bastards,” he screamed and they imagined he meant the red foxes, and in fact he did.

Two EMTs arrived, stoned and biting lollipops. They helped the man carry his instrument and bucket to an ambulance waiting in the gravel lot.

“He’ll be back early tomorrow,” one EMT said to the unnamed couple, presumed fans.

“The salt air sure is good for him,” the other EMT said.

The unnamed couple stood silent.

“He sleeps in a brine tank.”

“The hell I do,” the burned piano player said from the back as the ambulance wheeled off and then the couple found their car would not start.

No power. An animal (a fox, I suspect) had eaten through (unseen) critical wires routed behind the dash.

The unnamed couple was stranded.

It would be a warm night and there was nobody coming unless they made them come. They popped the trunk and took two bottles of wine from their old supply, cans of Italian Wedding soup, an EZ start fire log, and walked together down the dangerous wooden staircase, structurally unsound, itself a kind of adventure they used to have for the sake of romance.

And their fire now grew from a wee one to a respectable bonfire and it wasn’t seen by human eyes, though it glowed and roared as they dug lumber from the wreckage of the once legendary restaurant, and tossed this onto the blaze, and talked for a while about how maybe it was good the restaurant was gone and they’d never gotten to go to it, it could stay in their minds as this incredible place, and they would never be let down.

Here’s some more about the story you are never going to get to read:

I’ve looked in the filing cabinet in my office and the office in the room where she used to work and there is no sign of the handwritten drafts or either two of the typewritten drafts. All that remains is the vague memory of what the story was, useless plot details and the certain feeling of what it could have been.

What you are getting here is still great.

Just a great disservice.

I’ve been mistaken about many things but I refuse to be mistaken in recalling the inexplicable magic of that nearly finished story, “Foxes,” or “Red Foxes” as I might have called it. The perfect words, in the perfect order, (and if you don’t believe me, just ask my first wife how openly she wept through the last draft I read out loud to her on our penultimate night together) especially as the story came to its conclusion on the beach late that night.

The unnamed couple’s signal fire drew no rescue crew to save them, not that one was needed, really.

The unnamed couple drew together, rolling on a quilt and drinking their wine and, in agreement that getting divorced was another great decision they had made, got undressed, and lovelessly fucked.

Fucked without emotion, incredibly.

Feeling nothing for the other person, incredibly, not even as a friend, under a moonless sky, and with no human onlookers, they fucked and fucked with dead eyes. Oh well.

No one watching like they would have liked.

No crazy Aussie and her sheep dog, and not the local hick cops either. No one looking, and the act so unfulfilling, they stopped screwing and finished themselves off and slept dreamlessly.

And then in the quiet blue hours with the fire just lonely coals and the smoke drifting through the darkness, they stirred, feeling sick, and shivering, a sense of unease, something finally watching them in the dark.

They both shot up awake and stared down the beach and, as their eyes adjusted, they saw things dashing down to the tide line and then up into the dunes, and other low ominous forms, shadows with holographic eyes, began to trot toward them. “What is that?”

Five. Ten. Something closer to twenty and now closing in and making to surround them.

“Jesus.”

“Get. Get.” They beat the sand with their clothes and swung the wine bottles as the creatures set in close and, whether it was only their imaginations or not, hard to tell really, the creatures began to lunge and snap their jaws at them.

The unnamed couple were frightened to their feet and, screaming, were pitifully driven into the sea where they bobbed there, drifting, swept out farther and farther until they could not touch bottom, and in the struggle to get closer to shore they grew tired and then panicked and began to call for help, seawater filling their mouths.

I adored the way I handled all this.

Here’s what I did next.

I drowned them together.

Fantastic.

Glug glug glug.

Nothing ambiguous about it, which by the way is something I just can’t stand in any kind of story, let alone a masterpiece, which that third draft nearly was. Wish you could have heard my first wife weeping.

But then again, what we have here, what I present now, my recollections and remembrances of said masterpiece that never was—well, now I’m a different artist.

Now I suppose on second thought, if I had had the chance to finish the story I would have had the unnamed couple live and get their second chance together. If I could complete the story now, I’d surely give them this second chance, I know it.

Bobbing there a while and maybe swept away deep and feet not touching for drama, but then swimming in, working together, and both of them acknowledging how stupid it was to be scared of some little itty bitty foxes, then powering through the breakers, charging naked up the sand and kicking, and scaring away all those poor football-sized red freaks.

And then naked, I’d have these victorious ex-love birds standing up in the gravel lot, living! The rising sun shining on them, as they wait for that day’s ambulance to come.

Wouldn’t win any awards or anything but who cares.

To no avail I dug through my hard drive and the backups I keep. I typed keywords into all pertinent accounts, searched text messages and notes kept on phone, even the app with scanned emergency PDFs.

Nowhere did I find “Foxes” or “Red Foxes” or any mention of an Australian woman, or a burned piano player, or the aforementioned wild little creatures themselves, which my wife had never seen in real life either, until that dark night when they surrounded us on that beach, and she who for the first thirty-five years of her life had been coming there and had always seen the signs warning ‘FOX CROSSING’ and ‘DO NOT FEED THE RED FOXES.’

Though I did see, in different phases of my digital searches, the repeated appearance of a file for a different story I wrote around that same time called “Chipper,” which in fact has a character named Fox.

There was one interesting text message I unearthed, something I’d written to my editor when I was stuck down in Florida, in the worst way.

The text message read:

“Yesterday we couldn’t get down into that beautiful ocean because of the broken foot, so we were just fighting, yes, but also just sitting there watching the jet skiers and the banana boat riders and the pelicans and we were at our lowest, our most pathetically combative, then, you’ll never believe this, and then out of the surf came an elderly man on crutches.

“Yes, I said, on crutches. Out of the raging surf.

“He crutched himself out of the raging surf and he crutched himself smiling all the way like it was nothing and he crutched up the beach right past us.

“I mean, incredible, yes, but still, we aren’t doing that, we aren’t going for an incredible swim to dfy (sic) the universe. We’re going to sit right here and drink to our mortal injuries till we’re numb and convince ourselves we’re healed.

“But you know what I am gonna do?

“Of course you do.

“I’ll put the man on crutches coming out of the ocean at the end of a story.

“I’m a few drafts into this story, about how hard everything is but how there’s also no hope either. It’s called ‘Foxes.’ It’ll be my best story, I’m sure of it. I’ll send it your way when I get it right.”

Bud Smith

Bud Smith works heavy construction and lives in Jersey City, NJ. He is the author of Teenager (Vintage, 2022), Double Bird (Maudlin House, 2018), Dust Bunny City (Disorder Press, 2017), among others. His fiction has been published in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Baffler, and The Nervous Breakdown, and many others. He is also a creative writing teacher and editor.

Scott Michael Ackerman

Scott Michael Ackerman is a self-taught artist from upstate New York. Working at times within the traditions of Folk and Outsider art, Ackerman frequently utilizes unorthodox materials and found objects in his practice. As a self-taught artist he considers his approach as primitive and unconventional, rejecting the boundaries of traditional culture. He explains his process is driven by intuition and instinct, using acrylic, pencil and spray paint for their immediacy: “When I sit down to work, I typically don’t know what I’m going to paint. I use mediums that dry quickly in order for me to get as much down on the surface while it’s still fresh in my head”. Titles are carefully chosen and he uses text within the works to point towards a “telling” of the story as he imaged it. The viewer is presented with a starting point for their own interpretation. The influence of Folk art can be seen in Ackerman’s expressive mark making, the use of varied and bright colors, repetitive patterns, and symbolic imagery. His style can be decorative at times, especially is his rendition of natural elements.

Currently living in Kingston, New York, Scott Michael Ackerman resides in an old church with his wife and daughter that also serves as his studio/gallery space.