by Jan Stinchcomb
WE HAVE TEA EVERY MORNING, THE FOX AND I.
Kolya is of Russian origin. A scientist in Novosibirsk wanted to breed a fox that would be friendly to humans, and our neighborhood got roped into the testing period. My husband and I were the first to volunteer. Well, Chris wasn’t at the meeting, but I raised my hand and gave our names, and in no time I was dusting off my old blue and white tea set from when I was a foreign exchange student in Moscow. I knew I was right to hang on to those sturdy little dishes. We’ve given our fox Katherine’s old room, where he sleeps on the tiny velvet chaise that used to be a doll bed.
It’s true that foxes are curious creatures. Playful. Kolya has explored every inch of our household. I find him in the strangest places, from the woodpile to the breadbox. Kolya likes to sleep on our desks. At first Chris tried to protect his files, but he couldn’t stay awake all night. And guess who’s nocturnal? The same creature who took to the keyboard like a Kelly Girl, typing all night, though I can never find his notes. The fox assures me I can call him Kolya or just plain Fox; it does not matter. He will move on to another family soon and I will forget he was ever here.
But how could I forget? I’m back to black tea, black bread and salty black caviar. I’m deep in my most exotic, hopeful memories of undergraduate life. A better world. Perestroika. Glasnost. Me, vodka-happy, talking about music and theater. Me, trying to explain capitalism. Me, safely American, with a return ticket.
When I talk on the landline these days, I can hear that telltale clicking my Russian friends warned me about. Someone’s listening in. Someone thinks I’m worth listening to.
Kolya?, I ask. Do you know what’s going on with the phone?
He scratches his red head and gives me a big fox smile. He tells me a bowl of milk would be nice, although, he adds with a wink, he is not a cat.
Chris frowns when I pour cream into a bowl with a raised chicken pattern on the edge.
I plead my case: It’s not like this is going to last forever. Besides, Kolya is a good fox. I don’t see any reason why he would be bad.
Jenny, you can’t honestly believe that. You’ve lived in Russia. You read spy novels. Come on now.
I look over at Kolya, lapping up his cream like a kitten. I gaze at our quiet, unassailable house. Prove it, I tell Chris. Prove to me that Kolya is bad.
Like so many arguments, this one is never resolved. Our words settle like dust. Kolya continues to delight me. Chris moves his workspace to the attic.
I pick up the phone one afternoon to check for old messages. There is no dial tone. A man’s voice comes on the line and tells me that foxes were never meant to be a substitute for dogs. Or children.
Of course not, I agree. They’re nothing like dogs. Or children.
You can’t exactly order them around, the man says. He has the slightest Russian accent. He tells me I should give my fox more to do around the household, or in the surrounding city, so that he won’t get bored. So that he won’t move on, like a child would.
Then he hangs up.
I find Kolya in the yard, sunning himself on the roof of the greenhouse. I ask him what he would most like to do.
Let’s take a drive to the utility company.
The utility company?
Kolya stretches and acts like he didn’t hear my question.
I don’t see why that would interest you, Kolya. Why don’t we take a walk in the woods? Or let’s go inside and read some fables. I can show you yourself.
He complies at first, with a grin that hovers between polite and sly. But I can tell he is bored, and before long, he runs to fetch my black gloves. And my black boots. Now we can be twins. He knows I can’t resist him. Then he trots off and hops into the car, where he displays a saint-like patience.
Soon I am too hot in my gloves and boots. It would be easy to go outside and take a ride with Kolya, who is such a good fox. I could take him into town. We could stop at a playground. See a show. Get ice cream. Pretty soon the phone starts ringing, and it makes perfect sense to exchange that shrill noise for all the beauty that lies right outside my door.
For the rest of the afternoon I am the lady with the fox. I am the one who volunteered for the good of science. I am open-minded and have lived in Russia.
I have an ice cream date.
We spend our time in the village, and as the sun sets we get in the car and head back to the main road. We reach a major intersection, the only one with a traffic light, where we can turn right into the wooded development Chris and I chose years ago, or left into the city, to run my fox’s mysterious errand. Kolya puts one black paw on my gloved hand. It feels like a baby’s, as light as air. You know, he says, there’s still time.