Arnold knocks on my door and asks me to turn down the music. His face is red, but his face has been red since I was a child. Arnold doesn’t raise his voice. He stands sweating and straining against his wet white dress shirt until he’s satisfied with the decibels. Only then does he leave, puttering down my flagstone path toward the road, avoiding the lawn that is an inch or two longer than he prefers.
“You know you can always just text me, Dad,” I yell to him as he hits the sidewalk. He waves me off and then begins climbing the steps back into his formerly immaculate house next door. “It’s not that hard, I promise.”
He shuts the door firmly behind him. I wander through my bungalow with the music off. I try dusting the empty bookshelves with a sock on my hand. I try watching a strapping man catch terrifying river monsters from around the world on TV. They all look like regular fish with teeth from other animals shoved into their mouths. A horse fish. A lion fish. A fish with a human smile, refusing to grin for the camera. I dust the TV with the other sock while this man struggles to pull a massive catfish to shore. As darkness spreads outside, I can hear Arnold in the backyard. He is building a bigger fence between our houses. I hear him shuffling back and forth with plywood and chunks of aluminum siding. I hear the saw. I hear him catch his thumb in the zip of the measuring tape. He doesn’t curse, he just keeps going. He will be out there all night. He doesn’t have a job anymore. Arnold only has one focus. He’s up to twelve feet this week. He never liked fishing.
The first date I went on when I moved back was at a chain restaurant by the highway. I kept my phone out the entire time and primarily made eye contact with the TV above the bar. The blonde woman across from me suggested I delete the dating app, the one where she found me attempting a grin in an unwashed bathroom mirror. I wasn’t wearing a shirt in the photo. She got up to leave before our food even arrived at the table, so I told her about the fence to keep her there. The one my father started building around all four sides of his property when I moved back here. I told her that it was more than just a fence. It was like a living collection, a way to measure time, sort of like an archeological dig in reverse. I told her about the first level of stones and the early portions he painted brown back when I was a kid. I told her it was growing again. It was alive.
You should talk to him, she said when we hugged in the parking lot before saying goodbye.
We talk all the time, I told her.
And we do. About the weather. About the length of the grass. About the maple tree rotting on my front lawn, so dead it has no leaves in summer. We talk about the crack in the sidewalk in front of the Jameson house and how loud the Rajakumar kids are behind his property. They should have never bought a trampoline. We talk about everything except the fence. I don’t push it. We talk about how loud my music is and why I should have bought a bigger house. There is no discussion about why I bought this house, this small bungalow next door. There is no mention of my mother.
It would be easy to blame the development of the fence on her death, but that was twenty years ago. The impression it left can be found in the décor I can no longer see inside, the pastels she used to decorate bathrooms and bedrooms I haven’t used in five years. I imagine the fridge is still the same. I imagine my soccer magnets are still there. Photos of me with braces, kneeling on a ball that I could never get inside the net. You do something long enough, you expect to get good at it, but I know that isn’t true. You can spend your whole life flailing at an empty net.
Arnold mourned, but he didn’t retreat. He continued to work for the city’s accounting department, continued to wear three-piece suits even when the office switched to business casual. Arnold is a man of habit and routine. My mother passing only made the habits solidify until that was all he was, and when I left, his metamorphosis was complete. He achieved his final form, only rolling up his shirt sleeves when the humidity went over ninety percent.
There’s a small crowd in my living room this morning.
“I don’t think you understand what you father is doing, Leo,” Brandi Nolan says. She is sitting in my living room with Dora Jameson and a couple other people who I try not to know anymore. I recognize some faces, the children of neighbours, the cousins of friends from band camp or my old gas station job. Brandi went to high school with me. She keeps records on everyone who moves in on the street. This isn’t the first time they’ve come to talk to me about Arnold.
“He’s just building a fence,” I reply.
“He’s driving down property values,” Brandi says. “That’s what he’s doing.”
Part of why I bought this house was due to decline of the neighbourhood. Arnold is a part of that. His grass is immaculate, but he hasn’t painted the garage doors in years. The front windows are all blacked out with towels and sleeping bags. I recognize the Aladdin one from when I was a kid. It was supposed to be a magic carpet.
“It’s not just property values,” Dora says. “It’s safety. It’s pests. It’s all the dangerous things he could be hiding in there. I know none of us really know Arnold, but you do, Leo. And you should be able to tell him this needs to stop. Can’t you do that?”
“I don’t want to involve the city,” Brandi says. “I don’t want to, but I will.”
The others nod solemnly. The neighbourhood has decided. The fence has reached sixteen feet. It cannot be allowed to rise any higher. I agree with them. I want to do the right thing.
“I will talk to him,” I say, smiling. “Now get the fuck out of my house.”
My second date was with a woman named Krane. I remember her name because I never met a woman named Krane before or since. I took her to a dive bar in the old downtown, the kind of place that does not have locks on the bathroom stalls because the doors have been kicked in so many times. I explained to her that I used to be a debt collector. I explained to her that this was the worst job I could imagine, and that I was good at it, very good, so good my bosses gave me bonuses that let me buy a boat, and when I confronted those facts in the mirror one winter morning I shattered it with my forehead and wound up hospitalized for three weeks.
She asked me what I did after that, her tongue pushing a straw around her double gin and tonic. I told her I started buying old properties to renovate them. Houses I wanted to flip. I even bought the house next to my father’s. A bungalow some old lady ruined with smoke over the course of forty years. The walls bled yellow when I washed them. They bled yellow while I slept. She asked what he thought about that and I told her the truth. We didn’t talk about it.
Krane said it was her time to share. She explained how her neck was broken when she jumped out of a treehouse with a skipping rope. The skipping rope that quickly became a noose on her way down. She showed me where it bit into her neck, explained that she was barely conscious during the entire episode. She shook like a rag doll until someone finally got a knife to cut her down. I asked how old she was when it happened, and she told me twenty-three.
You are never too old for a treehouse, she said. We made out in the parking lot, until she told me that she felt like this was a bad pattern for her. Her life was too cyclical. I was part of that. I did not call her again, but I should have, just to tell her what I know—I am not a pattern.
“Arnold, you home?”
I am not like Arnold. I step inside his house and it is how I left it. The walls are still light shades of pink and purple. I imagine the powder room is still a vibrant teal. There are paintings on the walls, paintings of farm animals my mother collected. I stop when I reach living room and see the television set with its screen smashed and gutted. I see little bits of glass on the floor.
“Arnold, we need to talk. Come on. You didn’t even lock the door.”
For one thing, I’m more detail-oriented than him. I made sure to track down every case that showed up on my sheet when I was collecting. I was never loud on the phone, never militant. I was consistent. I gave clear instructions. I didn’t waver. People like to be told what to do, as long as you do it gently, as long as you tell them it will all work out in the end. They just need to transfer the money.
I wouldn’t have left glass on the floor like this. Or a cup of orange juice, still full on the kitchen table. I can see Arnold’s shape in the backyard now that the sun is setting. I step outside the screen door and into his new realm. There is no grass back here, only stone and wood and metal. He’s been harvesting sheds for parts. He’s building something even bigger than a fence.
“You don’t get to come in here, Leo,” Arnold says. He is still wearing slacks and his shirt is buttoned all the way up to the collar. He has a heavy-duty ladder set up beside the fence.
“But I did.”
Arnold snorts and grabs a new piece of siding. His power saw is out of battery.
“You have to stop this. Right now. They are going to call the city on you.”
Arnold snorts again. “I know the police. I know all of them.”
“They’re going to take you away if you aren’t careful, alright? You are going to be in a mess and I am going to have to bail you out again.”
“You wouldn’t give me a glass of water if I was drowning.”
I don’t try to correct him. There are stacks of books back here, military histories and thrillers mixed with different variations on the Bible. He has written psalms in black ink on the lower levels of the fence. This is a land he is protecting. There will be no negotiations.
“I know what a drone is, Leo. Do you? I am prepared. I know what I have the right to do.”
Arnold was like this when I was young, but in the smaller ways you barely recognize. The rage over a parking spot snatched by another driver without morals. The anger that propelled him through crowds whenever we went into the city, a force that carried me in its unsteady wake. The fury at men leaning in doorways, barely contained within his polite excuse me on the way out. The seeds were always there, dormant. I thought they would mellow with time.
“They will come after you, it’s what they do, Arnold.”
“I know,” he says, refusing to look at me. “I know you know that. That’s what you do. They hire you to take. That’s what you do.”
When I leave, I take the fridge magnets with me. A pattern of my face in different uniforms, attempting to change the outcome every time with a new palette, a new team sponsor. I don’t sweep up the glass in the living room. I close the front door gently. The fence continues to grow.
I take my third date to a fry stand down by the lake. Draymond’s has been here forever, which means as long as I have been alive. Forever is flexible, like space. You make it fit your reality, you stretch it to give yourself a frame of reference. Draymond’s makes its fries with lard and has those huge barrel-shaped ketchup dispensers to ensure you never run out.
“Thank god for the nozzle. Ketchup packets depress me.”
“Those are some strong words,” Sylvia says. She is a dental hygienist. Her teeth are unremarkable. She doesn’t talk about being a dental hygienist, that’s just what she does. Grains of sand are caught in her red hair. “A condiment shouldn’t have the power to depress you.”
“It’s more the delivery system,” I say. We watch people run in and out of the water, chasing frisbees as the sun descends behind them. “Like eating popcorn kernels individually.”
“So now you’re policing my snack consumption,” she says, without looking at me.
“Only when it needs to be done.”
“I’ll let you know,” Sylvia says.
We talk about the origins of French fries. Sylvia tells me the Belgians are still pissed about it, that they really should be the ones getting credit. We debate the merits of mayo with fries. We debate the merits of mayo in general. We come to a consensus on chipotle mayo. It is serviceable. Brandi texts my phone, letting me know she’s filed paperwork with the city, phoned the by-law officers, and slipped a note under Arnold’s door. I send her back a thumbs-up.
“You always on your phone during a date?”
“Just doing my duty as the neighbourhood watch, I promise.”
I don’t tell her what I used to do, what desperate people sound like on the phone, how the snivelling eventually turns into a snarl, but reverts again into a whimper if you learn to stick it out. I don’t tell her about my father’s strange belief in his own manifest destiny, in a history of one, in a culture he believes is rotting from the inside out. I don’t tell her he’s just using words he finds in old books to build a version of the world he can recognize. Instead, I tell her I don’t want to sleep alone tonight, that I don’t want to wake up all by myself inside that yellow house.
“You don’t have to say it twice,” she says, shaking the sand out of her hair. The world behind her flickers like it’s barely made of the same stuff.
“I know I don’t,” I say. The sky is dark above us. The beach is empty. “But I want to.”
Sleeping means dreaming. I don’t remember my dreams. I wake up cold and wet. The sweat pools around me. Sylvia is in the bed beside me. She didn’t say anything about the smell of smoke when we came back here. The house will always smell like cigarettes, but there is a new smell in the air. A campfire wafting through the window. Lying there, trying to trace the smell, I hear a fist beat against my front door. I stumble down the hall to throw it open.
“The asshole really did it!” Brandi shouts in my face. “He’s in there!”
Sylvia stumbles into the hall behind me. I step outside and see flames sprouting in Arnold’s backyard. The fence is taller than his house now and a tin roof covers much of the yard. Smoke and flame seep from its edges. People stagger out onto their lawns. The sky above us is drenched in smoke. Brandi’s face is wet and her phone is bleeping, shrieking with updates.
“I didn’t know he’d react like this!” Brandi says. “I didn’t know he was going to freak!”
Sirens in the distance, the yawning wail drawing closer. Back into the house, running down the hall now. Sylvia follows me into the kitchen with a comforter wrapped around her like a cloak. She doesn’t say anything. I rush into the backyard, grabbing the hose from its perch. The knob scrapes my hand, drawing blood, and I yank it until the water begins to flow. I raise the nozzle above my head, hosing down the walls of my little home and the fences of my neighbours. I spray up and down each plank of wood and up onto the shingles of my roof. The Jamesons stumble outside next door, yelling at each other in high voices. I can hear the Rajakumar kids screaming from the other side of the fence in joy or fear. Sirens drown them out.
The towering fence writhes and shakes, attempting to contain the flames. Its tin cap trembles and coughs up cinders onto the dead grass. I know Arnold is in there, alone with his creations, with his histories, with his decomposing version of the world. He doesn’t say anything I can hear. He doesn’t scream. Arnold lets the bonfire speak for him. With my hose, I stand in the darkness, lit only by flames, trying to prevent him from spreading to the rest of us.