Fiction · 12/14/2016

The Fence Maker

The Fence Maker began to punch up the tall fences before 1980, we are plenty sure. The fences stood twelve feet tall. The height was as regular as a regulation. At the end of a sunlight day, the wood cast such long shadows that the roads turned dark long before dusk. The first house with a tall fence was a remodeled Victorian owned by former hippies. That is the phrase the townspeople used in describing the beginning of the fences: “former hippie”. And yet, is there anything such as a former hippie? Can a person become a former Anarchist? In their seventies, we told ourselves, the former hippies still liked to sunbath in nude in their backyard. We thought this, even though there hadn’t been a confirmed visit to the former hippie backyard since 1978. The Fence Maker built the fence of unpainted wood with posts that rose to 15 feet like the ribs on a comb. Each post was capped with an unpainted clay figurehead the former hippies had made in their backyard kiln. Their fence still stands. You can still see the silvered fence, the somewhat mossy figures: cats, crows, cows, goats, and so on. All of them have human mouths that are open as if they are drawing in air or are in the middle of speaking or are rudely eating with their maw open. The first fence silvered over the years and became one of the many fences in the town. Within a few years of the hippie fence, the Fence Maker struck up tall fences around the houses of the Fence Maker’s neighbors, up the block, across town, through the subdivisions, along the busy streets. The Fence Maker had a booming business, and raised his two sons as well-heeled fence makers themselves. The fences sloped nearly imperceptibly from the sidewalk outward to cup a slightly larger amount of airspace around the encircled yards. Fence making thrived. Privacy thrived. The citizens became accustomed to living their private and secret lives in backyards that were like an adjacent room to their houses with grass for carpet and sky for ceiling.

No one painted their fence. They all capped their fence posts with clay post caps. These animals sold in the local swap meets. The idea that the fences made for good neighbors wasn’t mentioned because we were such good neighbors we hardly talked to one another. Our rumors and trading sessions were contained in civic meetings and the after church potlucks. It was impossible to gossip over the fence unless you purchased two tall ladders, one for each side of the fence. That sort of coordination was impossible because of the fences. We were happy in our private wooden boxes.

The town was under the flight path of the airport. The planes had an easement right to the roofs of the houses, and so everyone in the neighborhood already lived with a relationship to the sky. They kept their eyes on the planes coming down. Everyone wondered at some point if a plane would just keep falling down. The planes were massive and seemed to float in slow motion as they approached the airport several miles away. Or as the plains left, they lurched skyward leaving a wake of lumbering agitation in the trees and air.

In the late 1980s, the Fence Maker built nearly everywhere in town and spread into the suburbs. To travel through town was like traveling through a weathered, shiny maze. In the winter, a rim of hoarfrost grew where the sun didn’t hit at the inward slope of the outer fence. Some of the fences displayed burnished areas where graffiti had been sprayed and then pressure washed off, which was the preferred method. The Fence Maker family took up this business as well: to clean and care for the fences and remove graffiti. Although the Fence Maker donated large sums of money to the town sheriff, who in turn maintained an officer full time to pass out citations, it was also rumored that the black sheep of the Fence Maker family, a troubled aerosol-huffing teenager, was the one responsible for the tags.

In the troubled 1990s, the town grocery store closed down. And the townspeople realized that many of the houses had become abandoned behind their fences. Newcomers gradually filled the houses and kept up the fences. There wasn’t an ordinance requiring the fences, but if the fences needed repair work, neighbors would knock on the door. “When you are going to repair your fence?”

The silent privacy that had descended on the town was just the way people were by the early 00s. The world of open yards and visible back yard parties was long gone. You could easily not mow your lawn, for example, and no one would know. Blackberries could grow until your house was buried under thorns. A BBQ at someone’s house didn’t include a view, but instead included the little world of their back yard and the perpetual silvered wall that the locals tuned out as thoroughly as they tuned out the rhythm of jets falling and rising along the flight path. And so it was for many years until the great windstorm of November 2013 when many of the fences were blown down, and in fact, so many were blown down that the neighbors came from their houses and looked at their windswept yards, with leaves from across the street, leaves that had, in a generation, never made it because of the fences.

The Fence Maker had died in the 1990s, and his three sons were tired of working on the fences of the proscribed height of twelve feet. One became a music teacher at the middle school. Another began to drive a truck and longed for the freeway open to the wind from across the grasslands. The troubled graffiti artist had cleaned up his life and worked in a hardware store and spent his weekends playing video games and live action role playing games. He was the only one who could tell you about the time of the fences, but all he knew of those decades was there was a lot of wood to spray. The townsfolk could not afford to replace the fences, but by then the fences had gone inside, and they didn’t need the fences to maintain their privacy.

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Matt Briggs is the author of eight works of fiction including The Remains of River Names and Virility Rituals of North American Teenage Boys. His first novel, Shoot the Buffalo, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award and won the 2006 American Book Award. The Italian edition of The Remains of River Names was released this year by ad est dell’ equator (Napoli), and a new collection of prose will be released by Dr. Cicero Books in 2017. His stories have appeared in The Chicago Review, Word Riot, BULL, Opium Magazine, ZYZYYVA, and elsewhere. His fiction has won a number of prizes including The CityArtist Award from the City of Seattle, The Nelson Bentley Prize in Fiction from The Seattle Review and The Stranger Genius Award. He has an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and lives near Seattle. You can find him online at: http://www.suburgian.com