It’s a funny thing about fences. We build `em to keep things in and keep things out. We build them to separate us from our neighbors, to keep our kids from wandering too far and the neighbors’ kids from coming too close. We build `em to secure our manicured yards from the weeds next door or the street out front. We build them to divide.
But for me and my sister, fences didn’t divide. We grew up in a small town in Nash County, NC, called Battleboro – population: Mama and Daddy; the two of us; our neighbor, Mrs. Alston and her little dog, Skipper; the nice lady at the post office; and our Aunt Thelma and cousin Nellie who lived across the railroad tracks five minutes away by foot. Oh, there were others there I’m sure, but our world was pretty small.
Our house was a little wooden frame house. It sat on an eighth of an acre at most, and on a good day, our little house might have been 400 square feet. It had a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. There was no central heat and air back then. Instead, we had window fans in the summer and a gas stove in the living room to heat the whole house in winter. When the hot water didn’t work so good, which was most of the time, Mama would heat a big pan of water on the living room stove and bathe us there before sending us off to school, usually in clothes she made for us from a Simplicity pattern she picked up at the local J.C. Penney.
I don’t remember having a TV in the house. But we did have an enormous stereo cabinet that took up a whole wall of the tiny living room. It was brown, with two burlap-looking speakers on either end and a record player and it was full of Porter Wagner and Loretta Lynn records that Daddy loved.
At the back of our house was a screened porch. It seemed huge back then, but I’m sure it was tiny. Just off the porch, down the steps, was the backyard. Mrs. Alston’s house was just next door to the left, close enough to spit and hit it. Her little dog, Skipper, would come flying out her back door like a bullet to play with us. To the right of our porch was a huge old maple tree where we played and swung. Just beyond that, two houses down, was the volunteer fire station, full of huge red trucks and the site of many a mouthwatering fish fry. Behind it was the pride of our street, an enormous silver water tower that seemed a thousand feet tall. Up the side of the tower was a steel ladder that must have had a hundred rungs. My sister and I used to climb up to the top where there was a big round open hole in the side of the water tower. If you shouted into it, the sound rang and rang. We’d scurry up there fearlessly and shout at the top of our lungs into the water tower:
“Help, murder, police. My wife fell in the grease. I laughed so hard I fell in the lard. Help, murder, police.”
To this day, neither of us knows where we learned that little ditty or ever met anyone else who knew it. Maybe we made it up. Life was a little slow in Battleboro.
At the back of our little yard was a really tall chain-link fence. Beyond it were rows and rows of tractors, combines and hay balers. Some new, waiting to be sold. Some old and rusted, put out to pasture. And some waiting to be fixed by Daddy. Daddy worked for the Allis-Chalmers garage in town, which serviced farmers from three counties. He could fix anything, and every farmer around wanted him when the combine broke down during wheat season or the hay baler stalled in the middle of a hot summer field. Many’s the time our party-line phone rang before dawn on cold winter nights or boiling summer Saturdays and off went Daddy to fix someone else’s farm equipment.
In the summers when we were out of school, that little backyard was our universe. Every day, once or twice, we’d look up from playing and see Daddy coming through the rows of tractors, sidling up to that tall fence, covered in grease smudges from his balding head to the bottom of his green mechanic’s overalls. He’d stick his greasy fingers through the fence and grab our eager little hands and say in his meanest voice, “Now you young `uns better mind Aunt Annie or I’ll whip you when I get home.”
Aunt Annie was our housekeeper. She must have been a hundred years old when I was seven and my sister was nine. But she loved us and we loved her. Mama worked in Rocky Mount, eight miles away, as a bookkeeper for an office equipment company, and every day Aunt Annie left her own babies to come raise Mama’s.
One day Aunt Annie ran to the phone in our little house and called Mama at work. “Miss Elsie,” she screamed, “you gotta come home right now. Robin done killed Kenneth. She done closed his head in the car trunk, and he’s bleedin’ to death.” It was true; somehow I and my sister got into the trunk of our old Chevy Impala with the big tail fins and were tussling over a coloring book we found back there while Aunt Annie hung clothes on the clothesline. Neither of us really wanted that coloring book; we just didn’t want the other one to have it. Somehow, I’m sure by accident, my sister slammed the trunk lid on my head. There ain’t much meat on a seven-year-old shaved head, so I bled like there was no tomorrow. Turned out, I was fine, but I don’t think Aunt Annie ever really recovered from the fright.
That was 1964. I was seven and my sister nine. We eventually left the little white frame house and moved to a nicer brick house Mama and Daddy built for us, where we lived until we grew up and moved away. After that, I mainly remember waiting for the day I could leave Battleboro and hit the big city. I eventually did. But Daddy used to take me with him to the wheat fields to fix a tractor or combine and he’d say, “Son, you cain’t wait to leave now but the day will come when you wanna’ feel Nash County soil between your toes.”
Like in most things, Daddy was right. Last year, I went back to Battleboro. I’d moved away first to Raleigh, then to Washington, DC, and then San Francisco. Then I came back to Nash County, a 50-something man.
I went to the old house, not the new brick one they built for us, but the old white frame house by the water tower. Standing on the road in front of where we used to live, I realized how small that little plot of land was. The old house was long gone, like the other houses on our street. The volunteer fire department had become the town hall and was later abandoned after the big city of Rocky Mount annexed our little town.
As I walked across the spot where our little house used to stand and stopped where the screened-in back porch used to be, I saw that the old maple tree was still there. It was about the only thing left. Off to the right, the silver water tower, not nearly as big as I remembered, still stood.
I suppose we all have those moments when memory and nostalgia sweep over us like a tidal wave, and I had one of those moments. So I closed my eyes and gave in to it completely. I could hear Skipper racing out of Mrs. Alston’s house barking like crazy. I saw my sister off to the right swinging under the old maple tree, her auburn curls blowing in the wind and the dress Mama made her hitched up around her waist.
Behind me, through the screen door on the back porch, I heard Mama coming in from a long day’s work, starting her second full-time job: taking care of us. I smelled chicken frying in the old black cast iron skillet and heard Mama setting our cheap plastic plates on the white-and-red-speckled table with the big aluminum rim all around the sides. I saw our old dog, Woman (Lord knows why we named her that), arthritis and all, ambling up to the porch, waiting for the table scraps that would come her way after supper. Woman lived outside through rain, snow, hot and cold because Mama didn’t like animals in her clean house. Everybody knew old Woman. She lived so long and got so old that all the neighbors on our street would stop their cars while she ambled across the street to our house. I loved that old dog.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that the old, tall chain-link fence at the back of the yard was still there. All the tractors, combines and hay balers were gone. The old Allis-Chalmers garage had long since disappeared, like most other things in the town, replaced by a coin-operated laundry. Daddy was buried about a mile away in the Battleboro cemetery in the highest-elevation plot we could buy, not far from Aunt Thelma. He always said, “Don’t bury me where water can get in my face.” Mama moved to Rocky Mount, remarried and was now 75 years old. My sister lived in Atlanta and became a minister. Our younger sister, born after we left that old house, lived with me in Raleigh.
As I closed my eyes again and smelled Mama’s fried chicken cooking through the screen door on the back porch and heard old Woman whimpering for some supper, I swear I saw two greasy fingers poke through that old, tall chain-link fence. Behind those fingers were rows of shiny new tractors, combines and hay balers, and some old ones put out to pasture, and some waiting for Daddy to fix them. And I felt myself running with my sister to that old fence to grab those greasy fingers. I felt him grab my little hand, and my sister’s, and say in his meanest voice, “Now, you young`uns better mind your Mama or I’ll spank you when I get home.”
I saw him walk back through the rows of tractors to tackle another hard, greasy job as the sun set behind him. I heard Mama calling us to supper, a plate for Daddy stuck in the oven for whenever he could finally get home.
It’s a funny thing about fences. We build `em to keep us apart, but I happen to love fences.