The Red Fox
Billy had a bad temper anyway, so when I wrecked his car, I knew what I was in for. I’d still be putting up with his crap if it hadn’t been for the cute red fox.
OK, I give him credit for trying to teach me. My old man had so many DUIs, we couldn’t have a car around or he’d get in it and drive off. Thing is, Billy was teaching me so I could drive him to work at his daddy’s foundry north of town. Billy lost his license for too many speeding tickets. No saint, him either.
His Mustang had a stick shift. That means a clutch. He was swearing at me even before I pulled into the road. “Chrissake, don’t pop the clutch!”
I couldn’t help it. The car lurched, then died. Several times like that. He was getting really pissed and about ready to call it quits, when finally I didn’t pop his clutch and we started moving.
Then it was the stupid steering. I tried aiming it straight down the road, but the car wanted to go left or right like it had a mind of its own. Every now and then Billy straightened me up, and together we made it to the freeway heading out of town.
After a few miles, I started getting the knack of it. For a ways he let me go only 50, but I could tell going slow was killing him. “A little faster,” he said.
“Both hands. Don’t gawk around.”
The roadside became a blur. My heart started thumping faster. I’d have shrieked like the girls in movies if Billy had a convertible. So I whistled.
Some hotshot blew past us in a great big car. “Take it up to 65,” Billy said.
“You getting how to do it?”
“I’m a natural, don’t you think?”
Billy had me take an exit. I braked OK when I reached the stop sign, but I popped the clutch twice getting going again. “Jesus, you’re going to ruin it!”
But I crossed under a bridge and slick as silver zipped up the opposite ramp and headed back to town. The speed limit said 70.
“Can I go 70?”
A farm truck was putzing along like 50. “Can I pass?”
“Take it slow. Be careful.”
I eased into the passing lane, crept forward real careful just like Billy wanted, and left that farmer in my dust. I was almost to 60—
Something jumped out of the road ditch right in my way. Billy never prepared me for that. What do you do when something jumps out in front of you? You turn the wheel so you don’t hit it, of course.
But damned if I didn’t skid sideways and slide into the center road ditch. I think I was still steering and didn’t see the guard rail coming up on Billy’s side of the car. God it was an awful noise, that car smacking the railing. His Mustang kind of just fell apart. Billy and I had airbags in our faces. The air stunk. I looked to see if Billy was alive. He was clawing at the airbag. “Shit! Shit, shit, shit!”
I knew I was in trouble. My door was hanging open. I undid my seat belt, squeezed past the airbag onto the ground, and tried to stand. Billy was crawling over the stick shift toward my open door. “Damn, damn, damn!”
I wanted to hide. Or wake up. But just a few feet ahead in the grass, all stretched out, was a red fox. Its hair was just like Emma Stone’s. I didn’t see any blood. Its sides were heaving up and down.
I took a step backward. It was so sleek and beautiful. I saw a back leg twitch. Then the other back leg. All of a sudden its front legs came to life, and up sprung that fox, staring at me.
“Leave him. Run.” I heard it plain as day, then the fox moved slowly up the ditch bank and trotted across the road.
I couldn’t run. My feet wouldn’t move. People were shouting. Cars honked. I woke up in the hospital the next day, my head bandaged, my clutch-popping foot in a cast.
Billy came to the hospital but not to see how I was. He warned me to play this right, or we’d both be sorry. As if his family had any reputation to speak of.
“Leave him!” I heard it. That fox saw right into my eyes.
That’s not so strange. Growing up, I had a dog named Tollie. When my old man got liquored up and started trashing things, Tollie would give me the same look, eye to eye. Then I’d take off and hide.
© Darrell Petska
Darrell Petska‘s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Frontier, Bird’s Thumb, Right Hand Pointing, Boston Literary Magazine and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (seven years a grandfather), and a half century as a husband, Petska lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.