“Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.”
- Song of Solomon 2:15
A full moon sauntered across the sky.
She was out there somewhere, this cold night. The Red Fox.
They called her a star, with night between her teeth. Beneath veils of streetlight, the nocturnal vagrants said she stood far above the average street siren; they said men cast diamonds at her feet, all along her route. They said her eyes were the green of a forest where the leaves never stopped falling. They said her hair glimmered gold and fiery, like the sun, and she wore her years with grace – strung around her neck like pearls.
The hunters gathered in The Stardust Hotel, pacing away beneath the weight of inflaming skin rashes, anxiously awaiting the shot that would set them loose into the streets.
A full moon sauntered across the sky, and somewhere out there, The Red Fox was awaiting her would-be captor. This night, the hunt was on.
The Stardust Hotel was a tall, ramshackle building – a brothel standing ten floors tall. Large glass doors sealed in the heavy-breathing drunken sounds of the occupants inside. Dim and daunting, its ten bellies were hopelessly infected with worms and faceless women.
In the bar downstairs, Ronnie James sat at the counter with his back to the room. The array of cheap brothel aromas clung to his hair and clothing just as the worms clung to the bosoms of their whores upstairs, grinding and humping away the final remnants of their lives and listening to the clock tick down every cent they owned.
Wind-worn women fell fast down crooked stairs to the chime of the cash register. Some nights, he sat watching quietly from the corner of the bar, listening to the jukebox music and the cascading-coin noises coming from the slot machines in the corner. Above all, the sounds of flesh slapping into flesh, chorusing down the prickly halls, grew louder and louder as the night progressed.
Ronnie James was cut from wild cloth. A person of that nature slotted right in at The Stardust Hotel. He was one of the people, and there was something about the people, drifting about amidst the stale cigarette smoke and the cheap perfume like wretched shells of men.
Sucked, plucked, robbed and swindled. Eyes watering from all the smoke. Eyes like scarlet kaleidoscopes – reflecting nothing but pink neon and the flicker of a faulty television screen in the top corner.
Ronnie tossed back the final dregs of beer and slammed the mug down onto the counter. Around here, they called him the Drunken Socrates. After about eight beers – he became one of those people who wouldn’t shut up about the meaning of life. He became one of those people who held your hand a little too long after shaking it.
He got into these moods some nights, they struck him once in a while from the bottom of a bottle – these metaphysical, deep-thinking, perplexing-as-all-hell moods where he felt the inexplicable need to share some netherworldy secrets with anybody drunk or willing enough to listen.
He turned to the old man seated beside him at the bar.
“Kid,” he muttered, fixing the old man with a bottomless glare. “Why do we keep coming to this awful place?”
The Kid sighed and took a sip of his whiskey.
“I’m not sure,” he mumbled. “I suppose, life will have its way with your pride, either way.”
Nobody knew for sure why they even called the wrinkly old bastard The Kid, but Ronnie had overheard him rambling to a group of girls one morose night about icons of the screen and how nostalgia always seemed to get better with age.
Perhaps the name had been a by-product of a different era and a different time, adopted from some dirty, dusty Paul Newman western like Billy The Kid. While he had often wondered, Ronnie had simply never asked. The old man stared at him now, bemused.
“We’re all lost here,” said Ronnie, brimming with philosophical drivel. “Good and damn proper. Drifting about, like seekers lost in a world of searchers.”
He waved his hand about aimlessly.
The harlots who lived here, they hung around the bar like vultures, with discharge weeping from all the raw places and carpet-burns on their knees. With bruised, flickering eyes the men in their crosshairs shuffled by across the filthy carpets and clung to one another, stinking of sweat and booze and sex.
The stink of The Stardust Hotel was something one would never acclimatize to.
Drifting, or drowning, it didn’t matter. The shadows moving across the walls were dimming. In this roaring sea of tits and cheap liquor – everybody drowns in the end. That’s what comes of swimming in an ocean of debauchery.
They were all drowning, in the magnificent and frightening sea that was The Stardust Hotel. You could plunge the depths of her oceans, and perhaps find yourself, or recover your soul, somewhere in the smoke and stink and darkness. Or you could scale the heights of her ten, dirty floors and lose yourself forever in the great blurry deluge of discount prostitution and addled drug feasting.
Ronnie stared into the smudged, murky mirror across the bar counter, hanging crooked upon the wall. In its foggy reflection he barely recognized himself anymore.
“It’s almost time,” said The Kid.
“Is it?” asked Ronnie, still staring straight ahead.
“Whoever catches The Red Fox gets to have her, all to himself, all night.”
The Red Fox was The Stardust’s only redeeming quality. A woman of such unspeakable beauty – a woman no man could afford… But once a month… Well…
Behind them, a man with eyes like rainclouds and large, pink hands shuffled by, selling flowers to the customers. Guilt-tripped men bought roses for the ladies by the thorny fistful.
“I’m not joining,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of hunting down a woman.”
“The fox is in the hole,” said one of the locals. He looked like his nose had been broken a few times and never got around to healing properly.
“When you find her, you have to go up to her and say; ‘The fox is in the hole’ – nothing else.”
“And if you don’t?” asked Ronnie. “What about hello?”
The local shook his head and took a drag from his cigarette.
“Nothing else. Only those exact words. If it’s her, she’s yours, all yours. Say anything else and she’ll up and vanish – some other place.”
The Kid said he’d seen The Red Fox once, only once, a long time ago in a bar across town. He said she was like a ghost to him now – her beauty haunted every waking moment of his life.
“How would you know it’s her?”
The local shrugged.
“She always wears a red dress.”
“Oh, she’s a real vixen, that one,” said The Kid. “Crafty, clever – hard to catch.”
“Has she ever been caught?” asked Ronnie.
“Once or twice,” answered the old man. “She picks a bar, somewhere in the city, sits down and orders a drink.”
“In a red dress.”
The Kid nodded.
“Yes, always a red dress. Always a frozen margarita – with salt.”
The click clack echoes of cheap stilettos upon warped wooden stairs preceded the entrance of another Stardust employee. She entered the bar room. Her eyes were lined thick and black as old motor oil. She was one, crafted by abandonment and abuse, who looked as if she’d been trying a long time to find a way back to herself.
She pulled down at her short, scarlet skirt. Her stockings had holes running all the way up the inside of her thighs like gaping cigarette burns. She had the slightest pink rash upon her cheek – where some stranger’s rough stubble had rubbed up against her face. There were bruises upon her pale arms, matching her eyeshadow.
The heels on her stilettos were worn, Ronnie noticed. She must have been well acquainted with the street corners, where she swayed to men who passed, hoping to tickle their weaknesses.
She smiled at him. She had some lipstick on her teeth and a forked tongue.
Forked tongue. Lipstick teeth. He wondered if she shed her skin between clients. If she fucked the way rattlesnakes do. If she danced like a cobra.
Contrary to popular belief, fishing, and not prostitution, was the world’s oldest profession. Only the bait had changed.
Ronnie looked away, turning back toward the old man beside him.
“What then?” he asked.
“Well, then she waits,” said The Kid. “For some lucky guy to follow her drag, to come in and say those magic words.”
“And if they say anything else?”
The Kid sighed.
“She gets up and leaves, to another bar.”
“I heard she killed a man once,” said another local, seated at a nearby table. He had a woman in his lap with her thin arms around his neck. His face and throat were covered in dark-red lipstick kisses – perverted jaguar markings, the commonly-spotted Stardust pervert.
“Heard she fucked him right to death,” he said.
“I heard she has seven extra muscles in her vagina,” said another local.
“I heard she’s old,” said the drowsy girl in the pervert’s lap. “Like really old. Like seventy years old.”
“You’ve never seen her?” asked Ronnie. “You work with her, don’t you?”
“Nobody knows who’s been with her and who hasn’t. Those guys just vanish. She might not exist at all.”
“She’s real,” answered the girl lazily, her head rolling back, painted eyelids heavy and battering like wounded butterfly wings. “You just won’t find her here. She never comes here – she’s way too good for a place like this. They say she lives alone out there in the hills somewhere. They say she’s got the neon’s disease – only comes out when the nightlights are on.”
They said The Red Fox moved the way dead leaves scattered in the wind. They said, in her arms, between her thighs, a man could receive a grace in oblivion that he had never been given in life, and they whispered that she was the barely living daughter of a world barely surviving.
They said a lot of bullshit, but Ronnie wasn’t really listening.
The girl with the forked tongue was licking her lips, staring at him.
The Kid smacked him across the back.
“Don’t settle for any of these women, my boy,” he grumbled, glaring about the place disapprovingly. “Not tonight. Join the hunt!”
Ronnie had begun to object between mouthfuls of beer when the old man interrupted.
“You don’t throw a diamond away because you’re distracted by glitter.”
Ronnie swallowed hard.
He had begun to drift in and out of conversation with these locals surrounding him at the bar, closing in, tighter and tighter like the muscles of a python. With every exhale – the I’ve-Heard’s and Did-You-Knows concerning the elusive Red Fox were choking more and more life out of him.
This place made his soul feel sick.
At the other end of the bar, Ronnie had begun to eavesdrop on the conversations between the Bar Manager and a group of dead-eyed Stardust girls.
The phone on the counter kept ringing; the Manager kept answering and then slamming the receiver back down into the cradle.
“There’s a guy in 201 who wants his diaper changed,” he’d say.
He’d say, “There’s a woman in 609 who is lubricated past the point of discretion. She wants to go ass-to-ass with another woman up there, using a double-sided dildo.”
“In Room 102, there is a man being fucked by another man in a bear costume. They’d like a fresh ice bucket and a roll of duct-tape.”
“The guy in 905 keeps calling, he’s still waiting for his black girl. He’s got the white girl, he says, but the Top Deck won’t be Top Deck at all without the dark chocolate.”
He turns to a young redhead, pressing the palm of his hand into the mouthpiece of the phone and says, “The sucker in 303 wants the Red Fox. Willing to pay an arm and a leg. Yes, yes, I’m well aware you’re not the Red Fox, but get your ass into a red dress and get the fuck up there anyway.”
This place made his soul feel sick.
The English country gentleman galloping after the fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. Oscar Wilde said that.
“I’ve heard she’s completely shaved from the eyebrows down.”
Ronnie couldn’t quite decide which he disagreed with more, or what it really was about the hunt which disgusted him so. Was it the impact of this deranged pursuit, the objective, or just the overall opinions or perceptions of those taking part.
“I’ve heard William had a shot at her. You know the guy – quiet fella who comes in here now and then. I heard the thought alone – of having her naked, mind, right in front of him – produced such anxiety in the poor man that, shall we say, he experienced a few performance malfunctions. Poor lad.”
“I’ve heard they call him Wee-Willy-Winky now. Nobody has seen him in ages.”
“I’ve heard that sex with the Fox drove him mad. Snapped his sanity, they say, smacked him right back into the cognitive abilities of a toddler.”
These arrogant, unpleasant hunters with their drool and their piggish eyes. They rubbed absent-mindedly at their rosacea thread-veined drinker’s noses and lugged their swollen livers about the place making eyes at anything with tits. Ronnie empathized with any woman who found herself on her back beneath one of these people, harlot or not.
Everything about it seemed abhorrently cruel.
“They say there’s a sex position named after her. They call it the kneeling fox.”
Perhaps he didn’t hate them all so much for their cruelty. Perhaps it was more a matter of thinking them cruel because of how he hated them so wholly – these feverish men, in his face, prodding at him with beer-sodden fingers, bad-breathed, bad-backed, bad-natured, so desperate in their every thought and movement.
A young girl meandered by them, olive in complexion, Kalamata eyes peeping out from smudged, running mascara, and every head turned toward her. “Tally-ho!” cried one of the drunkards. “Methinks I’ve spied the next fox, boys!”
They called the young girl Grace.
“I’ve heard she’s only fifteen years old.”
All over this city, hundreds of young girls were being forced to work as prostitutes at truck stops all across the country. The Stardust took a few of them in, just to get them off the streets.
“The filthy pigs,” said The Kid quietly into Ronnie’s ear, referring to men. “They prefer the young girls these days. They think the younger they are, the less chances they have of catching something nasty.”
Her name was Grace, and she’d been fond of cartoons and volleyball until her parents were killed two years ago and she’d been sold on the cheap into a life of bartered flesh. Ronnie wondered at how afraid she must have been. How she must have cried, often. He wondered if they ever told her, “Just do it, and don’t cause any problems.”
“They say a little abuse keeps the joints loose.”
“They say the Red Fox leaves a secret mark upon the inside of every married man’s collar. Bright red lipstick, right there for the bastard’s wife to find when he gets home.”
All Ronnie wanted was some peace, some time spent away from the broken things and the monsters and the bad memories, so that he could live out the remainder of his life with an ounce of grace. But all peace is, really, is the brief moment where everybody stands around reloading, not lasting sunlight, but rather just a break in the clouds, and grace was just the name of a girl with a dirty face.
They called the old man the Master of the Hounds. Fat bastard, the Chief Pervert and organizer of this horrific thing. He stood now in the dimly lit Stardust lobby, calling the hunters to attention. The hunt was about to begin – and three sips into his new drink, Ronnie James made up his mind to get the fuck out of that awful place.
“Join the hunt, why don’t you,” said The Kid. “It’s a harmless bit of fun.”
The smooth-talking sign of the end-times.
Ronnie shook his head, finishing the drink off with several messy gulps. He wiped his mouth off with the sleeve of his shirt. He retrieved a few crumpled notes from his pocket and tossed them down onto the counter with utter nonchalance.
“Not tonight,” he said with a grim smile. He patted the old man upon the back, only once, and made for the door.
The Kid dismissed him with a wave of the hand and turned back to his whiskey.
Glancing back over his shoulder, Ronnie really could imagine the old man as some kind of wizened Billy The Kid cowboy who had just strolled into The Stardust to forsake the golden wild lands for the splendours of flesh and drink.
Sitting there in the corner of the bar, time had etched away at him and left naught but wrinkles and greyness, and he had become nothing more than just a clever part of the cheap décor.
Pushing through the sweaty crowds in the lobby, Ronnie reached the large glass doors of the Stardust Hotel and pulled them open. Behind him, men delirious with lust were chanting “The fox is in the hole! The fox is in the hole!” with the wickedest kind of gleam he’d ever seen dance upon a human being’s eyes. A gust of fresh air met him as he strode out into the cold night air. The door swung shut behind him. He smelt petrichor on the night. Fresh. Earthy. A far cry from the foul odors haunting this building in his wake.
The stink of the Stardust Hotel was something one would never acclimatize to.
His knees always ached when it rained. It felt like thunderstorms down there.
The clouds closed in like wolves, swallowing the moon, and split their silver seams far above him. Imbriferous skies quaked and poured. The wind howled, lightning flashed its white-hot fangs across the night sky at the crack of a whip. For too long, this city had been dry, the sky naked and emotionless.
Ronnie walked home in the rain, watching the empty street before him unfold in shivers and short-tempered ripples. Running water rushed down the gutters on either side. The sidewalk seemed as glass in the suffocating moonlight, gleaming and melting into the road. Trees and streetlights cast twisting shadows upon the vibrating pools. Upon store windows, water droplets collided like silver meteors and slithered down to their very own rhythms.
As the downpour gained pace, so did Ronnie, skipping down the polished night street, leaping potholes filled with rain water and mud until every falling drop began to hurt. He walked through the spindrift – the icy pinprick of the heavy rain turning his face raw. Splashes of mud freckled his pink cheeks. The rain flogged every roof or street sign to a monotonous rhythm. Thunder rolled on like a rock avalanche into a mountain creek. Flashes of light across the sky smelt like sulphur. The earth a deafening drone, continuous, never-ending, and in that drone he marched on, contemplating the many failures of the human race.
Were the hunters to blame? Or had The Red Fox wished all this foul attention on herself? Something in our moral compass seemed off. When somebody suffers, the onlookers shrug and mutter; “Well, it’s a fair world, and bad things wouldn’t happen to somebody in a fair world unless they did something to deserve it.”
We diminish the suffering of others so that we may sleep at night.
In this unyielding rain on this frigid night, Ronnie James was beginning to wonder if being a cute little fox was all it took to bring the hounds down upon you. If being so painfully attractive just made people want to destroy you all the more. If this was all the reason anybody ever needed. He was beginning to wonder these dark, unfriendly wonderings when he turned the corner – following the undulating yellow lines of the street – and spotted beyond the downpour a single glowing light in a row of darkened buildings.
There were cars parked in shabby lines outside along the sidewalk, and music fought through the din of the rain to reach his ears.
It was a pub, one he’d never been to before.
The warm glow of the windows beckoned seductively.
Palls of grey smoke billowed from the rooftop, curling, shredding apart into the stormy night sky.
He made his way down the gushing streets toward the smoke and the light and the music, hoping the little place would have a fireplace where he could warm his feet and enjoy a drink in relative peace.
But of course, no real peace could be found here, he realized, stopping in front of the pub’s festive little window.
Inside, people were dancing, twisting to Chuck Berry’s “You never can tell” with unparalleled fervor and drunkenness. Inside, the beer flowed on tap and the flames danced too – yellows and oranges and blues licking at the fireplace walls – waltzing upon blackening pinecones. Inside, too, sat a woman by the bar with her back to the room, golden hair cascading down across her shoulders.
In front of her, upon the counter, stood a frozen margarita – with salt.
And of course, she wore a red dress.
Jason Mykl Snyman
<Inserts pretentious crap about myself here, in the third person>