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a belief in magic
july 19, 2003
Mary and I spent last Saturday and Sunday with our next door neighbor, Jim, replacing a section of privacy fence on the front side of our home.
Privacy fences are extremely popular in Texas. Almost every house has one.
The fences consist of wooden slats about six feet tall, six inches wide, nailed tightly against each other, all around one's backyard (front yards are left open).
The section we replaced, on the front side of our house next to Jim's property, included a six-foot tall gate in the center.
The contractor put up the fence in 1991, when we had the house built. Back then, it was the blonde hue of new wood, but over the years it's aged to a beautiful gray, like the gray of ocean piers. I prefer the aged color, but unfortunately, we have termites in Texas, so occasionally individual slats would tip forward from their rusted nails, giving the fence a missing teeth appearance. Every once in a while I'd pull the tipped slats off, their wood by then crumbling in my gloves, lots of grooves inside where the termites traveled, and nail up fresh wood. After a season or two of rain the replacement slats would blend into the uniform gray of the rest of the fence.
Jim and Peggy, who are on our east side, are the perfect neighbors.
We wave to them when we see them, about once a week; stand in their driveway for a prolonged talk, catching up on our side-by-side lives, about once a month. When Mary was in the hospital following her stroke, they visited, and when they got home, mowed our front lawn for me. When we had to go to West Palm Beach, Florida, several years ago because I was being "honored" by the company I then worked for with a half-week of free food and entertainment, they fed our cats each night.
We agreed we'd meet out front that Saturday at eight o'clock in the morning, before it got too hot, although really, this time of year in Texas, it's always too hot, and sure enough, at eight o'clock, there was Jim.
Jim's a native Texan, in his late fifties. He had a stroke a few years back, although not as devastating as Mary's. He was at work when his boss noticed he was having trouble talking. Jim himself was only vaguely aware he was having problems finding the right words to finish his sentences, but he did realize, talking to his boss, his side had gone numb.
The three of us drove in Jim's blue pick-up, Mary in back, to the local Home Depot, where I selected sixty cedar pickets for the fence, examining each one, because quite a few of them, wood being wood, had significant imperfections.
The way a privacy fence works is, you've got thick posts rising six feet out of the ground every ten feet, then two-by-fours nailed horizontally from post to post at the top, middle, and bottom of each post. The pickets gets screwed vertically to each of the three horizontal two-by-fours.
We bought pressure-treated wood for the two-by-fours, to keep the termites from getting into the fence. Termites live in the ground. They look like translucent larvae, the size of white rice. They spend most of their lives lifting their front ends up, waving around, looking for dead wood above them. If they find wood, they chew up into it, lay eggs, then all the hatched termites chew deeper into the wood, lay more eggs. Pressure-treated wood is too hard for them to chew into, like eating steel.
Once we got back home, I unloaded the pick-up while Jim lifted his garage door high enough to duck under, emerging ten minutes later with power tools.
While Jim was getting the electric cords set up, Mary and I took hammers to our existing fence, smacking hammer heads against the slats, popping them off the horizontal supports, tossing the gray wood into a topsy-turvy pile on the bright green grass. That sounds like it would be fun, but under the intense heat from the big Texas sun, even at this early hour, it was miserable work. By the time we were finished, we were both drenched. I kept raising my biceps to wipe my short sleeve shirt against my eyes, which were stinging from my sweat's salt.
Once all the old gray wood was off, except for the vertical posts themselves, which because of their thickness could be reused, you could see into our side garden, which actually looked really nice, yellow, white and red lantana, and petunias, periwinkles, and daisies growing on the dark-mulched slope. Mary stood back. "This looks good. Let's stop."
Jim and I measured for the horizontal two-by-fours, then screwed them in place. By now, my face and forearms were sunburned, giving me the "Texas tan" you see around here a lot, face, throat and forearms deep brown, chest and biceps pale.
We took a break under the live oak in Jim's front yard, unfolding our chairs in its black shade. It was noticeably cooler than working against the brick side of our home, almost as if air-conditioned (the temperature that day was ninety-seven degrees. I had always thought the expression, "Ninety-seven (for example) in the shade" was meant as a joke, but in fact, that is how temperature is measured. The official thermometer is placed in the shade, because otherwise, if placed in direct sunlight, the heat conductivity of the thermometer materials (glass, metal), would inflate the reading. The actual temperature where we were working was probably one hundred and ten).
Mary, myself and Jim sat back in our chairs, tilting two bottles' worth of water up to our lips before we got around to talking. Jim said he just bought, "You know, that thing you put on a wall?"
"The thing that goes on a wall?" I was mopping my face with paper towels Mary brought out.
He got a little agitated. "That red thing? You know. It sprays everywhere?"
"Oh. A fire extinguisher."
He ducked his head forward. "I coulda drawn you a sketch of it, but if my life depended on it, I couldn't come up with the word itself."
So we talked a little about strokes, then we talked about Alzheimer's. My mother had it, Jim's dad.
Jim told us how he first found out his dad had Alzheimer's. "We were eatin' in this restaurant down in south Texas, near the coast, and I said to him, You better hurry up and finish, we got to meet Mom. And he said, Who are we meeting? And I said, Mom. And he just looked at me like he didn't have any idea what I was talking about."
"Were you frightened?"
"I was, a little bit. So I said to him, We have to meet with your wife. And he says, Who? And I say, Your wife. Then I say to him, Your wife is my mother. Do you know what that makes me to you? And he didn't know. And I said, that makes me your son." Jim imitated his dad rearing his head back in absolute amazement. "And he just reared his head back, looking at me like I had just told him the most incredible piece of news in the world."
We worked until one o'clock in the afternoon, five hours, lifting wood and screwing in slats, at which point we stopped. Jim had to go to church the next morning, so we decided we'd meet in front again at eleven, and finish the job.
I got inside, every muscle in my body aching, face hot like I had sunstroke. I started peeling my clothes off, having to struggle to get each inch off my limbs, as if my clothes were made of rubber, that's how sweat-soaked they were. I tossed them in a soggy pile in the middle of our master bathroom, whereupon the kittens immediately stalked over to the flat clothes, sniffing, tails up, then flopped on their backs atop the pile, joyously rubbing their fur in the smell, while I side-stepped into the shower, running the water as cold as I could.
We dressed in pajamas, picked up the phone, ordered a pizza.
The next morning, early, Mary and I screwed the rest of the slats into place, so we only had the gate to worry about.
True to his word, Jim came out at eleven, and between the two of us we created the gate, with a Z-strut behind it for support, in about two hours. After that, Mary, myself and Jim cut all the old slats in half (the garbage men require that fence slats to be thrown out be in three-foot long bundles).
We were finished about two o'clock in the afternoon. I swung a big right hand out to Jim's, thanking him, telling him we'd help him put up his gate, and the privacy fence separating our properties on the east side, whenever he wanted.
Mary and I went inside, stripped. By this point, you could bounce quarters off our forearms. Another long shower, this time together, then we ate the rest of the pizza.
I've added two new restaurant reviews to my Dallas Restaurant Reviews page, for Salt Grass Steak House and Pei Mei, both of which received a "Between Fair and Good" rating.
Mary and I had lunch with my friend Dave yesterday, July 18.
As it happened, we got to Oak Cliff a little early, so drove around the area, killing time.
Rumbling down one narrow street, Mary told me to stop and back up. "Look at that!"
We parked a few quiet driveways away, got out of our car, walked back.
To me, the house is a perfect example of what happens when you let one of those fancy-talking artificial sunflower salesmen inside.
You'd think they would have learned their lesson when the artificial doe guy came by.
But there is something beautiful to me about the fakeness. A belief in magic.