The news reminded me of a short tale I wrote nearly twenty years ago about a dispute over a fence. I only wish I’d thought of a bulldozer rampage myself. I share the story below nonetheless.
“Guess yer almost done, eh, Bob?”
“Mmm, guess so, Frank,” I mumbled through the nails held between my teeth. One of them slipped out and I silently cursed. I had a hammer in one hand and was trying to hold a six foot cedar plank in place with the other. I leaned forward so I could pull a nail out of my mouth with the hand holding the plank. Graceful as a pig on stilts. How do carpenters do it?
“So what’s next, Bob?”
You go home, Frank, I thought. I positioned the nail on the plank and promptly whacked the hell out of my index finger with the hammer. As I yelped the rest of the nails fell to the ground. The plank slipped out of place and toppled over. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to own tools.
“This fence sure has been taking you a long time, Bob.”
I sucked air and glared at him. “Why don’t you help me then? Make yourself useful and hold this plank.”
“Geez, who died and left you Grumpy Grape?”
“Sorry,” I muttered, realizing I probably shouldn’t be taking my frustration out on Frank. I sucked on my finger while Frank re-positioned the board.
“Don’t hit my hand, Bob.”
“Don’t give me any ideas.” Not that I had much say over the matter, or the hammer. Still, I managed to drive the nail without crushing Frank’s paw. With his help, I actually got the last few boards nailed into place with minimal fuss and no broken bones. Guess that’s how carpenters do it.
“This fence meet code, Bob?”
“Of course it does.” I started gathering up nails from the grass along the fence line. “Checked everything out with the city before I started. It’s fine.”
“Why’s it so tall?”
“I like my privacy.”
Frank chewed on that. “What are you planning on doing in there that you need so much privacy?”
“Sleep naked in the grass, if I want to.”
He nodded thoughtfully, perhaps contemplating that image. I picked up the rest of the tools—the level and chalk line and so forth, juggled them with the hammer in both hands. “I gotta go, Frank.”
He shrugged. “Well, I’d say I’d see ya around, but I guess that ain’t likely to be the case so much anymore. Enjoy yer privacy.”
He eyed the fence one last time, something of a sour expression on his face. Then he crossed the street to his own house, didn’t even stop to look both ways. Taking a chance on that. People drive like maniacs up and down our street—half the reason I built the fence, to cut the noise and have a place for my dog or my kids to run loose without having to worry about a close encounter with Speed Racer. Theoretically, the kids are smarter than the dog when it comes to running into the street, but you never know.
I went down into the basement to put away the tools until the next project—ideally some time after the Millennium. Then I went up through the back door and into the yard.
Didn’t seem possible. My fence was complete, a glorious six foot Palisade of Privacy. At last, I could sit and read the paper without having every random passerby gawk at me or try to strike up a conversation. I could barbecue without having some hippie lecture me about agricultural degradation and protein equivalency units—drink a Bud Light without having Frank over there fill me in on the alleged virtues of overpriced microbrews. Hell, I really could sleep naked in the grass. What a hoot.
I walked the entire fence, noted the spots where my workmanship could have been better. Compared to driving nails, I’m better at pounding sand. But no way was I going to pay some fence company too damn much money to put the fence up for me. I bought the materials—all-cedar planks and galvanized brackets and nails—and built it myself. Yeah, some of the nails went through at funny angles, and not all the brackets lined up right. So what? Someone be sure to come complain to me about it. If you can get past the fence.
Just for the hell of it, I laid down in the grass and spread my arms and legs out like I was making a snow angel, except it was summer and about eighty degrees. Probably looked like a damn fool, if anyone had been able to see.
The sun was warm, high over head and creeping past noon. The fence had taken me nine working days, spread out over five weekends, plus a lot of evenings after work. I have to admit I was beat. I guess I dozed off. Dreamed of pounding sounds, as though I was still nailing fence boards in my sleep, working so hard my wrists and ankles started to ache.
When I woke up, still sprawled out, my mouth felt like it was stuffed full of dry rags. I tried to raise my hands to rub my crusty eyes, but they wouldn’t budge. Something passed between me and the sun and a shadow fell across my eyes. I blinked a couple of times and stared up at a hovering grocery bag.
I blinked again. It was a grocery bag, with two holes cut out like eyes. Below the bag, a black-clad figure straddled me, half-crouched down, hands on his hips. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t move. My feet and legs seemed stuck to the ground.
“That’s right, bud,” said a voice muffled by the sack. “You can’t move. I got you staked down. Used some of the scrap wood you had left over from building your fence. Had to bring my own rope though. ’Sokay. A perfessional always brings his tools.”
“Whhhhh?” I tried to say. But the dry rag feeling in my mouth got in the way.
“Sorry. I gagged you too. Can’t move, can’t talk. Can’t yell. And no one outside will know. Here we are, safe and sound. Just you and me.” I could almost feel him grinning at me. “Yep,” he continued. “Gonna spend a little quality time together, by ourselves inside your privacy fence.”
“Whhhhh rrrrr uuuu?” I attempted. Not much got past the gag.
Nonetheless, the sack bobbed. “I’m the Privacy Fence Bandit. What do you think of that?”
Let me loose and I’ll let you know what I think. I strained at the ropes, but I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Actually, you’re pretty lucky,” he said. “You know why?”
I didn’t bother trying to answer. I tried glaring at him, hoping that eventually he’d get the point.
“You’re lucky,” he said, “because I could be the Privacy Fence Killer!”
If he wanted some kind of reaction, I’m afraid I had to disappoint him. Not much you can do when you’re staked to the ground with a gag in your mouth.
He started to pace, straight-legged and proud, hands clasped behind his back. “No, I’m not the Privacy Fence Killer. I wouldn’t care to meet him myself, even though, as you might guess, we have a lot in common—privacy fence-wise. No, I’m just the Privacy Fence Bandit. That means you get to live.”
Glad to hear it.
“Part of the reason I’m able to do that is I wear this bag over my head. You know, so’s you can’t later say to the police, ‘Just so happens that the Privacy Fence Bandit is—’” He stopped pacing and turned the bag toward me. “I bet you thought I was about to say my name, eh, Bob? Well, not this Privacy Fence Bandit, no wa—”
“Oood uuu utt uu iii aaa?” I grunted.
The bag tilted to one side. “What’s that?”
“Ah ed, ood uuu utt uu iii aaa aa-eddy?!”
“Sorry, bud. Can’t make out a word. No matter, though. You see, I’m the one with the power here. I’m the—”
The Privacy Fence Bandit, I echoed in my mind. Shut up with that already. He didn’t appear capable of making out my thoughts any better than my words.
“Lemme tell you what I’m here for,” he continued. “You might think I’m here to rob you, but in many ways, that’s the least of my intentions.” He nodded thoughtfully. “You see, I don’t care for privacy fences. Big and ugly and anonymous. They wreck the ambience of a nice neighborhood. Anti-social things, really. . .”
He went on, but I couldn’t really follow his discourse. The thought of merely being robbed started to sound pretty good compared to listening to him yammer. I tried closing my eyes, but Sackhead was having none of that. “Hey, wake up!” he said, nudging me with his foot.
“Ahh awaa,” I sighed, opening my eyes again. The sun shone in my eyes.
“Don’t doze off while I’m lecturing you. Here I am, performing a public service, and you go and doz—”
“Gi ah wi ii!” I rumbled. I heaved at the ropes to punctuate my frustration.
“You see, that’s your problem. You’re not social.” His voice suddenly took on an edge I hadn’t heard before, almost shrill. “Look at this fence. If you just built a regular fence, one of your neighbors might already be calling the police. Right now, if your back door was locked, I could pick at it for hours, and no one would see.” He slapped his hands on his thighs, and, evidently having come to some decision, suddenly stalked out of my view.
I closed my eyes for a moment, laid there helplessly with the sun on my face. Probably gonna burn, I thought, pretty sure the Privacy Fence Bandit hadn’t bothered to smear me with sun screen after he tied me up. I suppose he went into my house to rob me. I couldn’t see the back door from where I lay. I could see the fence, though. Somehow, at that moment, I didn’t really care to look at it.
At some point the cat came and sat on my chest, fell asleep. I strained on the ropes again and tried to shoo him off, but the bandit had done his work too well. The cat compressed my lungs and breathed hot air into the my face until Kathy and the kids appeared, an eternity later, home at last from a movie and the park. Then the ruckus started. Crying children, frantic wife, stern yet quietly amused cops.
Nothing was missing from the house. The only evidence that anyone had been there was a Polaroid photo stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet. It was a shot of my yard, taken from the back door. You could see the fence clearly, with the flower beds along its base, nasturtiums in bloom, patio to one side. There in the middle of the yard was me, staked to the ground like a cowboy in an old movie. I guess I was lucky fire ants didn’t come. The cat was bad enough.
The cops dusted for fingerprints, asked a lot of questions I didn’t know the answers to. They talked to a few neighbors, but nobody saw anything. After taking a few Polaroids of their own, they left, promising not much of anything. Nor did I expect them too. It didn’t really matter anyway. I had a pretty good idea who the Privacy Fence Bandit was. I just couldn’t decide what to do about it.
That evening I stood on my front porch, outside the bounds of the fence, and stared down at the street. My wrists and ankles were still a little sore from the ropes, but I hardly noticed. It was a nice summer night, bugs humming around the porch light, twilight still bright enough you could only see stars in the far east. At some point Kathy brought me a Bud Light.
“Feeling better?” she asked.
“Mmm. . .Just watching Frank over there.” I swigged my beer. He was on his porch, chatting with an older couple on the sidewalk. Talking about building something, it sounded like. Frank was always free with advice. Decent carpenter, really. He could’ve helped a lot with the fence, if I’d bothered to ask. After a little while the couple waved and moved on. Frank sat down on his steps and picked up a newspaper.
“He’s a good neighbor,” Kathy said.
“Yeah. I guess.”
“I think you hurt his feelings with that fence of yours.”
“That fence of mine? You wanted it too.”
She shook her head. “I’d have been happy with an ordinary picket fence. Something to keep the kids and the dog out of the street. You insisted on the Fortress of Solitude.” She gazed across the street at Frank and his newspaper. “It’s kind of nice to visit with people as they walk by. Look at Frank over there.”
I did. Reading his newspaper, nodding to passersby, or saying hello and striking up a conversation. Kathy left me alone with my brooding thoughts. The fence ran along the sidewalk beside the house for twenty feet before making its turn to enclose the side and back yards. Frank would see it every time he came out his front door. I looked at the stark expanse of the fence, then back at Frank. Easy-going Frank. Could the fence really have hurt his feelings? It sounded almost crazy, but. . .
Maybe Kathy was right.
I set my beer on the porch rail and went down the steps. Paused to gaze at the fence from the sidewalk. I crossed the street, careful to check both ways first. Trotted up Frank’s front walk.
“Hey, Frank, how you doing?”
He jumped before looking up. “Doing fine, Bob. What brings you out from behind the ol’ barricade there?” He set the paper on the porch behind him.
“Well, been thinking, since what happened this afternoon. I wanted to ask you something. Coupla things, really.”
He nodded, his face screwed up and serious. “Sure thing, Bob.”
“When you go to the grocery store, are you a paper man, or plastic?”
“I’m not following you there, Bob.”
“When you get your groceries bagged, do you get paper or plastic?”
He didn’t say anything. I didn’t really expect him to, though Frank isn’t the kind of guy to find himself at a loss for words. “I bet you’re a paper man, Frank. Not that it means anything, mind you. Just a thought.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Well, Bob, you know, that’s not something—”
I waved him off. “No matter, Frank. But one other thing. You ever hear anything about this Privacy Fence Bandit before today? Read it in the newspaper or something?”
He kept his face screwed up. “Ummm, can’t say as I—”
“You own a Polaroid?”
“Ummm—” His voice trailed off. I tried to imagine what he’d sound like from inside a paper sack.
I smiled, put a friendly hand on shoulder. “Frank, I need a little help. That fence, I think I oughta cut it down to a more reasonable size. Say three, three-and-a-half feet—still gotta keep the dog from running off. Can you help me do that?”
I widened my smile, not something I’m used to. “I’m just so clumsy with tools, and that fence, well, maybe it is just a tad too high. Kind of big and ugly and anonymous. Wrecks the ambience of our neighborhood, wouldn’t you say?”
“I, uh, might put it that way, I guess—” He looked both ways up and down the street, then tried a smile. “I guess I’d be glad to help you with your fence there. Start next weekend, if you want. Always a pleasure to help out a neighbor.”
“Thanks.” I started to turn away, then stopped. “And, Frank, maybe when we’re done we can share a couple of them microbrews you’re always on about.”
(Originally published in the Portland, Oregon Southeast Examiner, 1995)