It was dark when we pulled into the driveway on the night in question. The car’s headlights illuminated the brilliant, white fence that marks the property line between the driveway and an alley. The alley is long, traveling around a blind corner, and leads to the parking lot of a multi-family housing unit—an old Italianate coal baron’s mansion that’s subdivided into nine apartments.
The fence gleamed white in the headlights. It was a beautiful fence, relatively brand new, a style known as ranch rail, four-feet tall and eighty-feet long, constructed of vinyl posts and slats. The new fence had replaced an ancient wooden split rail fence with posts rotted free of the ground. The new fence was expensive and supposedly maintenance-free, never in need of paint or water-proofing, sturdy plastic guaranteed not to decompose for at least a hundred years.
But the new fence wasn’t indestructible. We could see slats detached from the posts and swaying mid-air; we could see two posts cracked and broken. When we inspected the damage, it became obvious a car traveling down the alley had crashed into the fence’s rear anchor post. The night was calm, clear, with an almost-full moon and unseasonably warm for January. The alley was empty; the driver hadn’t left a note. It was a property damage hit-and-run.
The next morning, we examined the scene more thoroughly, and it was worse than we thought. The car had hit the anchor post so hard that all the slats along the fence’s eighty-foot length were pushed forward in a chain reaction. The ones closest to impact were dangling, while a few slats held onto posts by centimeters. We examined the impact point for signs of paint to determine the color of the guilty car, but the results were inconclusive. All we could identify were black tire marks and smears of dirt.
I felt bewildered and annoyed. Was the incident worth reporting to the police, who no doubt had bigger crimes to investigate? Was the damage worth reporting to our State Farm agent, Jay Puccio, and what was my deductible, anyway? Would it be possible to repair the vinyl fence? It had been an expensive investment; would the whole thing need to be replaced? Beneath it all was the question: did I really need the fence anyway?
I had contemplated living without a fence when the old wooden split rail was rotting away. In one respect, the fence was ornamental, an eighty-foot length of fence that kept nothing “out” or “in.” The purpose of the fence was simply to decorate the property line; foot traffic, like the postal carrier, a woman named Amanda, navigated its length freely. On the other hand, the fence’s existence marked the boundary between the alley and our driveway. If the fence hadn’t been there, the car that crashed into the anchor post might have struck our gently-used Mitsubishi, not that the vinyl fence would have stopped a car if it were accelerating. The fence was more a visual reminder for drivers to stay in their lane.
I was annoyed that dealing with the damaged fence was going to waste my time. I wanted to feel furious with whoever crashed their car into my relatively new fence and drove away without leaving a note, but anger is difficult for me. Because maybe the driver was too broke to be honest; morality is a middle-class privilege. Maybe the driver was afraid because they didn’t have car insurance, or they had an outstanding ticket and wanted to avoid the police. Maybe the driver had a medical emergency or was distracted by terrible news. In the larger scheme of catastrophic events happening at this moment in the world, schadenfreude told me my damaged fence was merely an inconvenience. Maybe the damaged fence was even karma for my own transgressions, if you believe in that sort of thing. I have given offense, blundered, fouled things up a few times along the way. It’s not easy to muster outrage at this point.
After we examined the fence, we had breakfast, and then went about the rest of our day, until the afternoon when Greg, my partner, suggested we take a look in the parking lot next to the old coal baron’s mansion. I don’t know why we didn’t think of that first. We found the guilty car right away. It was a silver Jeep with a busted bumper streaked with slashes of white. Given our discovery, I called police dispatch, and an officer arrived within the hour. He traced the plates on the Jeep. It belonged to one of the apartment’s residents and, surprisingly, we knew the young man.
We waited in the parking lot while the officer went to see if David (not his real name) was home. The officer had to wake him up, and David wasn’t in good shape. He looked like he’d been ridden hard and put away wet: hair standing on end, eyes dull, knuckles busted and his hand bloody, dressed in clothes that were layered rags. I knew some of David’s story. He was a former university student, and before that a soldier who did a tour of duty in Iraq. Sometimes he hosted barbecues and had friends over to the apartment, and we could hear them playing music, laughing, and throwing a frisbee around. It was obvious he drank too much, and I felt for his suffering.
David admitted to hitting the fence and apologized profusely. He said he had recently lost his job and his license was suspended, but his car insurance was still in effect. He explained to the officer that he hadn’t really been driving, only running his car up and down the alley to circulate the fluids. While I doubt anyone believed the story, the officer declined to issue a ticket because the alley and the fence were private property. The officer waited until insurance information was exchanged and then advised me to contact State Farm. David apologized again and walked back to his apartment. The mystery had been solved.
Knowing how the fence got damaged and knowing an insurance claim would fix it felt like relief and led me to think about fences. I remembered Frost’s “old-stone savage” who says, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and how the poem’s speaker feels superior to the “savage.” The speaker asserts that fences are chiefly useful to keep cows contained and implies that enlightened humans don’t need fences; a fence is an architectural incivility.
I would offer that a fence is a line in the sand, daring itself to be breached. Maybe that’s the beauty of a fence; it marks a boundary and challenges us to consider where and why we build a fence. Not every fence is universally beneficial. A fence can be climbed like a ladder. A child, a girl, can spread wire strands to slip through a barbed-wire fence on a summer day in Oklahoma if there are blackberries on the other side. Sometimes boundaries are meant to be broken. Other times, a fence does its job and protects, whether it’s children or pets or a gently-used Mitsubishi. A fence can go both ways.