The Fence

“We’d set out to build a fence, and now we were building one, and it felt, for a minute, like we were a force in the universe, willing fences into existence, sinking nails with eight swings.”


Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by Hallie Bateman

We rebuilt Graham and Marsha’s fence on a Saturday in April, a few days after the Home Owners Association left a threatening notice taped to their front door, a few months after the storm blew their fence flat, leaving their backyard exposed, and, apparently, breaking a number of neighborhood bylaws. If they didn’t fix the fence, the Home Owners Association would fix it for them, would pass along the bill, would not shop around for a deal. If they didn’t fix the fence, people would start getting upset.

Only a small section of the fence had blown down. The pickets were weak and rotting. The posts were old. When the 40-mile-an-hour winds came, the fence bent backwards like hot plastic. Now you could see from Graham and Marsha’s kitchen window to the concrete path behind. When people walked by, they stopped to inspect the damage. Graham and Marsha’s backyard had gone spilling out into the rest of the world, and, without a fence to stop it, there was no way of knowing where it ended. They had become, briefly, owners of the entire planet.

The day we fixed the fence I wore jeans and a t-shirt and a brand new pair of Chuck Taylors. I bought $2 work gloves from Home Depot, gloves that, immediately after leaving the store, began fraying at the edges.

The day we fixed the fence was a perfect day in April: bright and beautiful and tall.

While we worked, neighbors stopped to ask us questions and give us tips. The fence drawing neighbors in, the fence keeping neighbors out. “Nails?” one man said. “No, no, you want screws.” He was walking his dog and his dog was sniffing our jeans. The man was eighty years old. He wore thick plastic sunglasses, the kind you buy at pharmacy checkouts, and we rubbed his dog’s ears and patted his dog’s back.

“Shoulda used a nail gun,” another man said, and then walked away.

But still, the fence was coming together. First the crossbeams and then the slats. First the big nails, then the small ones. The posts had been installed professionally the night before. The cement was still wet. When Graham wasn’t looking I wrote my initials, but then rubbed them out, embarrassed.

We bet who could sink a nail with the fewest swings.

At work, at the advertising agency where I work, we design soda cans. At our best, we make trash. So this fence: this fence wasn’t something that was going to last forever, wasn’t something that was going to stand the test of time, but compared to my day-to-day, compared to a soda can, we were working in the realm of the eternal.

I liked the aching in my knuckles and the pain in my wrists: impact injuries from the semi-permanent. This is what it feels like to make something real.

Chris sank a nail with fourteen swings. I sank a nail with twelve. Graham sank a nail with eleven. And Gary, Graham’s dad, Gary sank a nail with eight By lunch we’d built half the fence, and we sat in the kitchen eating blackberries and pizza, clenching our fists and rubbing our forearms.

“The blackberries have antioxidants,” Marsha said. “They’ll keep you from getting sore.”

So I stopped eating blackberries because feeling sore was half the point.

“The next time you guys don’t get mauled by a bobcat, you’ll have this fence to thank,” Chris said.

“It’s already working,” Gary said. “I can’t see your neighbors at all.”

And the thing about this new fence was just how much it was looking like a fence, just how fence-y it was. We’d set out to build a fence, and now we were building one, and it felt, for a minute, like we were a force in the universe, willing fences into existence, sinking nails with eight swings. Nail gun? We needed only the power in our own arms. We didn’t need anything. We could build a fence and keep out the world.

They say the fence evolved along with society, the most basic form of private property. Rousseau: “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.” Numa, the second king of Rome, in the 7th century B.C., demanded each citizen mark off his land with stones. It’s hard to know, though, if these fences were meant to keep people out or just to keep track of whose stuff was where. But then, of course, there were always castles, walls, moats. If you wanted to keep people out, you could keep people out. During a siege, a city closed itself up like a shell. The Egyptian siege of Megiddo in the 15th century B.C. lasted seven months. First the citizens ate their pets, then their clothing, and then, finally, each other. In later sieges, cities pushed unnecessary citizens over the walls to preserve resources.

A few weeks ago, before we rebuilt the fence, Graham and Marsha found a bike in their backyard, leaning against their house. Someone had been coming and going.

We were running out of nails. We were counting ahead, taking into account all the nails we were going to ruin, which was at least half, and we were figuring we didn’t have enough nails to finish the job. We were hitting knots in the wood and bending nails over at right angles. Once you bend a nail at a right angle, there’s no saving it. You have to start over.

Graham went to the hardware store and we lay in the grass with our hands folded over our chests. My shoulder hurt and my forearm felt thick as an oak, thick and throbbing and virile. This is what it feels like to make something real. The clear day was turning grey and I wondered if it might rain. I could feel the weather changing in my teeth. When Graham came back from the store, we filled our pockets with nails and hammered until dark, until his backyard was sealed and contained and, once again, his very own. I kicked against it with my Chuck Taylors and left a footprint in mud.

When we got home, my clothes were stained with sweat and sawdust and my bones were vibrating like a tuning fork. Janessa asked if I wanted ibuprofen, but I didn’t want ibuprofen. She asked if I wanted a beer, and yes, I did want a beer, thank you, and a television and a couch and a bag of chili cheese Fritos. I wanted to sit around for the next five hours, buzzing. I’d earned this, I was owed this, and we must claim what is ours — Mark your land with stones! — the very foundation of society. I imagined the fence keeping out bears, keeping out elephants, keeping out armies. I imagined Graham and Marsha’s daughter — the daughter who was on the way — playing safe and sound behind this fence, unaware of the barbarian siege massing at the gate. They would never break though. They would never overcome our pickets, our crossbeams, our nails sunk with eight swings. They would press and press until they got tired.

A few nights later, another storm blew through, and I texted Graham to make sure the fence was okay. Still standing, he said. This fence is mighty. So then, we had built something mighty. Something that could withstand the wind. Something that could withstand time. But already the aching in my bones was gone. Already the swelling in my knuckles had gone down. I had affected the eternal but the eternal had not affected me. Nothing ever does. I bend like hot plastic. I wipe my name from cement.

Michael Nagel is a writer and editor. He and his wife live in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter.