The Fox and the Walrus
By Keith Bloomfield
(An excerpt from the novel: "A Guest at the Table")
Larry's parents had meticulously planned out his life for him. A midwest prep school that looked the other way as long as the student's name did not sound too Jewish or the student did not look too Jewish would be his stepping stone. So Lawrence Fox and his mother and father suddenly became the Renard family and Larry was on his way to fulfilling his parents' dreams.
Larry enrolled at the Eton Hall Academy as soon as he was old enough to be accepted. His parents told him that they were doing it for him and he said that he understood, but it was so very difficult to believe them when they drove past the homes of his friends and he could plainly see them playing basketball or baseball or skating along the sidewalk while their families looked on. Larry hardened his heart to the homesickness and the loneliness and buried himself in his studies. He lived like a Marrano a secret Jew, not even telling his roommates the truth and avoiding all conversations about religion or what he and his family did during the holidays especially Easter and Christmas.
The first year, he ignored Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Luckily, Chanukah and Christmas fell concurrently and he could go home for the holidays and no one knew any better. In the spring, Pesach and Easter were nearly a month apart. He avoided eating chumatz by telling his friends that he had stomach virus. On Easter Sunday, he chose not to go to Mass and said that he had the "runs." They agreed that it was best for him to stay back in the dorm. Larry's life had become a dichotomy that would take its toll in more ways than he could imagine.
Dr. Angus Tuttle was the Head Master at Eton Hall. Dr. Tuttle was a rosy cheeked man whose huge red moustache framed his mouth in a thick furry outline. The students called him "Angus the Walrus" because the moustache resembled a pair of red tusks. Tuttle knew about the nickname and wore it proudly. His deep belly laugh sounded like the roar of a walrus and when he was angry, he would stand behind his desk and glare down at a student over the top of his eyeglasses with his fingers interlocked around his suspenders. No one wanted to be placed in that position and luckily, Larry never was. So in the waning days of Larry's first year, when "Angus the Walrus" told his dorm's Head Proctor that he wanted to see him, Larry was unconcerned.
"Now you're in for it Renard," cautioned the uppclassman in front of Larry and his two roommates James and Tim. Angus the Walrus doesn't call a first year student to his office just to ask him the time of day. You must have done something. Something really stupid to get an invitation from him. Be there at 2:00," announced the Proctor as he closed the door to the room. Then he quickly opened the door and thrust his head into the narrow oppening, " And I'll check-in later to see if you're still a student!"
"What do you think you did?" asked one roommate.
"I bet it has to do with you missing Mass on Easter."
"But I was sick," said Larry.
"Mass is Mass and the Walrus doesn't care," chided Tim.
Larry had done a terrific job of keeping his secret. Or so he thought. What if that really was the reason for the visit. What if Larry tried to explain and he let it slip out that he was Jewish. Could he be expelled? All through his classes that day, Larry could not take his eyes off the clock. He could not resist counting down the hours until his meeting with "Angus the Walrus" and worrying about his fate.
Larry had nothing to fear. His grades were excellent the first year; as good as any student in the long history of the Academy. Perhaps as good as Tuttle's, when he was a student at Eton Hall.
Larry could feel a slimy bead of sweat running down the back of his neck as he approached the Head Master's office. "Just stay calm," he repeated to himself. "It's probably nothing."
Large black letters on the office door spelled out Dr. Tuttle's name and title. Larry knocked on the heavy wooden door and waited for someone to admit him. Larry could hear the voice of Dr. Tuttle's assistant tell him to "Enter." He took a deep breath, turned the shiny brass doorknob and slowly pushed open the heavy wooden door.
"Have a seat, Dr. Tuttle will be with you in a minute Mr. Renard," without even looking up from her work, his assistant pointed at a lone wooden chair parked next to the door of the Head Master's private office. He quickly surveyed the walls of the tiny office. The walls were covered with framed diplomas, plaques, and other distinctions and each one bore Dr. Tuttle's name. Then there were the framed photographs covering the remaining space. Each one showed the Head Master with another instantly recognizable celebrity from entertainment, government, or sports. Larry never suspected how many people the Walrus knew and how many knew him. Larry took slow measured paces around the room to the plain wooden chair. He sat down, but he did not have to wait long.
Dr. Tuttle suddenly bustled out of his office and dropped a thick pile of student files on his assistant's desk. He pivoted around on one heel to return to his office and saw Larry. "Ah, young Renard. You're here," he looked up at a clock on the paneled wall, "and right on time. I like that! Follow me." Larry slid off the chair and followed Dr. Tuttle into his private office.
Dr. Tuttle walked behind his desk and dropped into his thick leather chair. "Be so good as to close the door behind you and have a seat right here," he gestured with one pudgy finger attached to an even pudgier freckled hand. "I am sure you have no idea why I called you in today."
Larry took a deep breath. "Actually sir, I think I do."
"You dooo," cooed Tuttle, peering down over his glasses at the quaking first year student. Larry nodded. "Then pray tell, why are you here?" Tuttle enunciated each word as though it was a sentence unto itself.
"Your stomach!" Dr. Tuttle leaped to his feet, pulled aside the lapels of his dark blue suit and looped his fingers around his bright red suspenders. "What do you mean your stomach?" he querried, peering down at Larry over the top of the frames of his eyeglasses.
"I don't exactly mean my stomach."
"What do you mean?"
Larry stood up. A huge drop of sweat formed at the base of his neck and began a slow descent between his shoulder blades and on down his spine. He fitgeted in place. "Well, because of my stomach, there are certain foods I say I can't eat and I blamed my stomach for not going to Mass on Easter Sunday. But it never really was because of my stomach, Dr. Tuttle."
"Please sit down Mr. Fox," said Dr. Tuttle with composure.
"He knew," thought Larry. "I thought it was a secret. I thought no one knew."
"Mr. Fox, Eton Hall knows much more about you than you could ever imagine. Of course we know that your family's name is really Fox and that your parents changed it so that you would, well, fit in. That's what it's really about, isn't it Mr. Fox? It's about not standing out. Not being too different. Being a member of a team. You couldn't eat those foods or go to Mass because you're of the Jewish persuasion. We know that too, Mr. Fox. Maybe you're taking being Jewish a little bit too seriously. Virginia ham with a nice slice of pineapple and a glass of milk with your meatloaf certainly won't hurt you. And listening to the choir and watching the pomp and pagentry of the Mass is no different than seeing a stage show. The Lord was right. You are a stiff necked people."
As fearful as he was, Larry knew that Tuttle's comments were an insult to him and to his heritage. He sat and listened.
"Actually Mr. Renard, I called you in for a totally different reason. Your grades have been excellent. You lead your class in every subject and I was going to offer you the privilege of skipping a grade at the start of the next term. However," Tuttle paused and began slowly circling the room and stopping directly behind the thick leather chair that Larry sat upon. He placed his pudgy hands firmly on the boy's shoulders and bent over to speak softly in his ear. "I now have second thoughts as to whether or not you have the . . . maturity to skip a grade."
Larry reached for his shoulders and pushed Tuttle's hands away. "I take being Jewish very seriously. More seriously than you take being Head Master at Eton Hall. And when I leave Eton Hall, I will still be Jewish, but when you leave, you'll just be the former Head Master."
Tuttle abruptly straightened up and walked around in front of the boy. He cleared a space on his broad mahogany desk and sat down with his arms crossed challengingly in front of his chest. "Maybe I was wrong about you Mr. Renard. I rarely read a young man incorrectly, but maybe you're different."
Larry slammed his fists down on the padded leather arm rests of Tuttle's chair. "You bet I'm different!" he screamed at the Head Master and pushed the chair out from under him. Larry took long steps as he rushed to the office door.
"I think you're making a mistake, Mr. Renard. You could have a great future here at Eton Hall. Leave now and you leave forever."
Larry opened the door and stood in the doorway. The light through the window of Tuttle's outside office shown through the door and gave Larry an erie glow. "The name is Fox, Dr. Tuttle. And the only mistake I made, was trying to be someone I wasn't. I can assure you that I will spend the rest of my life correcting that error."
That was Larry's last day at Eton Hall and the last he saw Tuttle or any of his "so called friends," until graduate school.
"Hey, Larry Renard! Is that you," a familiar, if somewhat deeper voice called out to him from the end of a long corridor.
Larry turned and saw his old Eton Hall roommate, Tim Egan, sprinting down the hall toward him. "I thought that was you. How the hell are you? You know when we came back to the room, you and all of your stuff was gone and people behaved as though you never existed. What the hell happened Renard?"
"First of all it's Fox: Larry Fox."
"Why the hell did you change your name?
"Actually, it was always Fox. My parents changed it so I wouldn't stick out at Eton Hall."
"That explains a lot," pondered Tim. "It's good to see you anyway," he said, thrusting out his hand for Larry to shake. Larry accepted the gesture and pumped his arm. "When did you arrive?" asked Tim.
"I just got here."
"Then you don't know."
"You're never going to believe who's here." Larry's eyes opened wide and Tim could tell by his expression that he knew. "You got it roomy, Dr. Angus Tuttle is the Assistant Dean of Students and every new student gets to meet with him to review his schedule. Looks like you're going to have a nice reunion with the old Walrus."
Larry received word of his appointment the next morning. Tuttle's office was located in the basement of the Student Activities Building. The building's austre stone fascade yielded to a dingy hallway at the foot of a winding stairway. A long wooden bench outside Tuttle's office was crowded with other students. Larry took a seat and waited. One by one, the students entered the office and quickly emerged. When it was his turn, he entered the tiny room and surveyed Tuttle's office. There was no outer office presided over by a gatekeeper of a secretary. The only window was located near the ceiling and a bare flourescent tube illuminated the pale green walls devoid of plaques, certificates and citations. One lone photograph of Tuttle's graduating class at Eton Hall Academy punctuated the expanse of chipped paint and cracked plaster. Tuttle sat behind a dented metal desk not mahogany. There was no credenza for his awards, only a small set of bookshelves, loaded with boxes of file folders and reams of multicolored paper. "How the mighty have fallen," he thought to himself.
"Name," barked Tuttle, without looking up at his newest visitor.
"Lawrence Fox," he replied.
"Have a seat Fox. I remember looking at your file," said Tuttle, rummaging through a tall stack of folders on the brink of toppling off the desk. He found Fox's file and poured over it.
The chair opposite Tuttle's desk was metal as well. The cushion sagged from the many bottoms that had preceeded his. Tuttle still sported the mustache, but the top of his head could be seen through his thinning hair and his large wirerimmed glasses had worn a permanent indentation on the bridge of his nose.
He looked up from the folder and stared at Larry for a fleeting moment. Larry was certain that Tuttle recognized him, but he would never let on to it.
"I knew a Lawrence Fox once, a very long time ago," said Tuttle, as though he was actually reaching back in time for a moment long lost. "I owe a great deal to him. He taught me about conviction. Something that I had forgotten about. At the time, I thought that he was a young fool, but I soon realized that he was wise far beyond his years. I never had the chance to thank him for the lesson he taught me. It's strange how good people come into your life and how quckly they slip away. He had a wonderful future ahead of him. Your credentials are very impressive too, Mr. Fox. I hope you do half as well as I am sure your namesake will do. Here is a copy of your schedule. If you have any questions, my number is at the bottom. I hope you have a very successful semester and please don't hesitate to stop by. My office hours are on the door."
Larry stood up to leave. He was very disappointed. He had expected more from old Tuttle. As he turned his back on his former Head Master, Tuttle suddenly shot out a question: "Do you speak French?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I was just wondering if you knew what the word fox was in French."
"Sorry," said Larry. "I can't help you."
"It's Renard," noted Tuttle. "In French, your name would be Renard. I just thought you would like to know that."
Silently, Larry left Tuttle's tiny cloister, never to see him again.
from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine