The Fence

written by Belinda Frisch

    The farm wasn’t always like this, subdivided and ready for development. Looking out the bedroom window from his mother’s old rocker, John thought of the shame his father would have felt about losing the family land; the shame that he felt now that the money was spent and that he had sold out to someone like Tim Marshall.
    He looked at the alarm clock and closed his eyes. Four a.m. His body was heavy with exhaustion, his breath wheezing under his considerable weight as he waited for Beth to come out of the bathroom. He listened to her heave and then choke and then gasp for breath. This last round of treatments hit her the hardest, like systemic napalm and neither the pain pills nor the anti-emetics helped. She was down to a frail ninety-six pounds and the tumor was winning. He clutched his hand over the tightness in his chest and prayed for God to heal her, jumping when a car horn blasted outside.
    In the six months since Tim moved next door, they’d had more than a dozen verbal exchanges about the ongoing and excessive noise, about its effect on Beth, and not even the police had been able to curb it.
    Insensitive prick!
    John turned off the bedroom light and watched the run of traffic in and out of Tim’s house—drug traffic—thugs and girls meandering down the driveway in a drunken stupor; the pounding bass of the music getting louder by the hour—a single song, repeating, unending, rattling the old farmhouse’s single-pane windows until it seemed they would shatter in. It had wakened Beth, restarting her suffering after she’d finally fallen asleep and he felt desperately out of control. A bigger man would have protected her, would have protected their assets, and would have the money to keep people like Tim Marshall away instead of moving them in. His father would have.
    He wiped his calloused hands over his face and sighed. The bathroom door opened and Beth teetered out, walking as if on sea legs. A few strands of blonde hair fell out from under the cap that hid her patchwork baldness and she smiled half-heartedly as she climbed between the clean, but mismatched bed sheets.
    “I’m sorry,” she said weakly. “I didn’t mean for you to have to change everything.” The tumor affecting her bladder made her almost nightly incontinent.
    “No reason to be sorry,” John said and tucked the blankets around her ravaged body.
    He kissed the top of her head and thought about the surgery he couldn’t afford, of how accepting she’d been when the clinic doctor laid out the poor prognosis. No insurance; just another way he had failed her.
    She rolled onto her side and pulled a pillow over her head to block out the noisy vibrations.
    John lifted the pillow’s edge and whispered, “Anything I can do?” He could see her holding back tears.
    “Another pillow, maybe?” She leaned up, dry-swallowed two more sedatives, and closed her eyes.
    He picked up the bottle from the bedside table, poured it out in his hand, and counted what was left. She’d more than doubled the prescribed amount in the last two days and he was afraid of an overdose. He paced the unfinished hardwood floors, thinking about Tim—lean, tough, and irreverent—about how many times he’d asked him to keep the noise down and he gnashed his teeth until his jaw ached. The building permit for the fence stared back from the weathered armoire.
    The fence, he thought, it’s the only way.
    He lay next to Beth—restless, waiting, rubbing her back and listening to her breathing until the last car left Tim’s driveway.
    5:00 a.m. Finally.
    He crept out of bed and downstairs, locking the front door behind him. The mud-caked work boots sanded his bare feet raw as he forced them inside and tucked in the laces.
    Here goes nothing.
    He grabbed the flashlight off the wood pile and headed next door.
    Thud, thud, thud.
    The music pulsated like a second heartbeat in his chest.
    The house was dark except for the glowing purple haze of a black light and the neon posters on the wall. The smell of burning marijuana wafting through the front window screen brought back unwelcome memories Vietnam.
    “Open up!” he said knocking hard. “Open UP!”
    Tim answered the door, his ripped jeans unbuttoned and low on his hips, plaid boxers spilling over the top. His eyes were two tiny slits beneath a mop of cascading blonde hair. His cheeks were ruddy and his breath reeked of alcohol and smoke.
    “What’s up?” He leaned against the door jamb and crossed his arms over his chest.
    “What’s up is my wife because of your goddamned music!”
    “She’s on her last leg…”
    John thrust the heel of his hand into Tim’s chest and knocked the breath out of him. “You insolent piece of shit!”
    The door blew shut behind them and everything went dark.

    Oh God.
    John’s vision cleared and his pulse steadied. Tim was limp beneath him; his knees were pressed into his chest and his hands were sore like he’d been digging or squeezing—or choking.
    Shit! Oh Shit!
    His shaking hand searched for a pulse.
    No. No. I didn’t mean this. Call 9-1-1. And tell them what? I accidentally strangled this guy to death? He rubbed his temples, ran his hands over his fleshy scalp, and looked up at the banner: We’ll miss you.
    It was a going away party.
    Call the cops! You have to call. Rationally, he knew this. No shot, John. Call them and you’re sunk. No one will miss him. Not for a while. Take the chance. Get rid of him! He’s predatory, scumbag trash. Dump him!
    John stood up and pulled his plaid flannel sleeves over his hands. Don’t touch anything. A Tin Man stiffness settled into his aged bones. We’ll miss you. He read the banner again and made his way to the bedroom. The suitcase was already packed and waiting, the plane ticket and his car keys on the nightstand. Almost too easy. Don’t worry about the car. He could’ve taken a cab to the airport, that’s what the cops will say. He thought of dumping Tim in the pond, but that lot was for sale. What if they drain it? Don’t be stupid. Corpses always float. He recalled every forensics show he ever watched and calmed himself. If you’re frantic, John, you’ll screw this up. Don’t miss anything.
    He took anything one would need for a trip—everything “they’d” look for—and went out the back door.
    The sun was rising and his breaths were puffs of smoke as he lugged the bags toward the tilled square of garden where he’d run down the dead plants for fertilizer at the end of the growing season. Frosted grass crunched under his steps and he thought about Beth, hoping she was still asleep, thankful that their road was neither a through road nor a destination and there would be no traffic. That there would be no witnesses.
    He grabbed an old manure shovel from the side of the shed and sunk it through the superficial frost. Another three weeks and digging would have been impossible. He ignored the aches and pains and stiffness and dug until his arms shook. He dropped in the suitcase, the keys, a cell phone, the plane ticket, and doused them with a tin of charcoal lighting fluid. The smell burned his runny nose as he dropped a match in and let everything burn.
    What to do with Tim? With bones? Can’t burn him. Can’t bury him. Can’t sink him in the pond.
    He looked at the stack of fencing materials. You can do this, man. Push through.
    He continued the fence mapping he’d already started. The property line was staked and ready. He fastened the post hole auger to the Bobcat and drove it to line that separated his lot from Tim’s. He measured, leveled, and ran a string line, spraying paint x’s where posts should be.
    He thought of Tim’s body on the living room floor in front of the door. Not smart, John. Get it out of there. Button the house up. He drove the old red wheel barrow and a tarp to the back door and pulled on a pair of leather work gloves. UGH! He grunted, lifting Tim’s limp body over his broad shoulder and lumbering toward the door. He unloaded the weight like a sack of potatoes and Tim’s head rang the metal like a bell—a single reverberating ‘dong’ sound. This is it, John; last chance. What do you have to do here, at the house? He laid the tarp over the body and went inside. Lock the front door. Check. This place is a mess. Tim wouldn’t have cleaned it. Leave it. He drained the water from the dishes in the kitchen sink and unmade the bed. He took anything from the bathroom that might have been used as part of Tim’s morning routine and deposited it in a black leather shaving kit. One last look around. Locked up. No sign of struggle. On a trip. We’ll miss you.

    He locked the back door from the inside and pulled it shut. Hurry, before the sun thaws the grass—before wheel barrow tracks sink between the houses. No evidence, John. The load was off balance, straining his left arm and Tim’s bare feet dangled between the wheel barrow handles. He kicked them aside twice and went into the shed. This is going to be a mess. He draped painter’s plastic over every possible inch, walls and floor, taped the seams, and readied for dispatch. Just like a deer, John, or a cow. You’ve butchered before. He unsheathed his hunting knife and went to work on the flesh. A saw ate through the bone. Chewing. Grinding. Blood everywhere.
    He rinsed off with the garden hose, his hands stiffening in the cold, and snuck into the garage where a change of dirty work clothes hung on the wall. He stepped into the stiff pants, pants that had been soaked when he hung them, and buttoned the muddy flannel shirt. He threw the blood clothes into the burning hole and set to work with the auger, digging the first six holes. Two by two he hauled the bags of quick drying concrete and ran the hose to them. He stripped the first six posts—hollow plastic posts that could either cover a wooden post or be a post on its own—and sunk them into the ground. Stand it up, fill the hole with concrete, add water, repeat. Beth had wanted the white fence; had said it would be low maintenance as he got older. “He” got older, not “they”. It was an enormous difference. He tried not to fixate. Must hurry. The concrete dried as quickly as its name implied, steadying the hollow posts. He felt a million miles away—disconnected—and swapped the work gloves for elbow-length plastic cleaning gloves. Tim had already begun to smell. He wheeled the body in three trips, climbing a ladder and dumping pieces in the hollow fence posts. The pulpy flesh splashed when it hit ground-level and the bone fragments rattled on their way down. He funneled a dry concrete covering over top of the corporeal mash and set it with hose water, rinsing the posts in the process. PVC glue secured a post cap on each and all that was left was clean up. Burn the evidence, bleach what blood touched, and bury the ashes.
    He was right. The fence was the only way.