The fish-fry came a day early.
Friday, according to the weather icon on my digital assistant, was destined to be only partly sunny – or was that partly cloudy? I’ve never really understood or trusted the difference. If a meteorologist could assure me that I am less likely to get wet on a PC day than a PS day, I would be grateful. But one way or another, fish day looked to be iffy. Thursday was another story: Its weather was represented by a pure yellow ball blazing with such intensity from the PDA’s little screen that all room for “if” had been burned away. It was going to be hot. If I were to host a fish fry – an outdoor affair necessitated by the greasy nature of the beast – the Friday tradition, as well as the sensibilities of my catholic guests, would have to bow to mother nature. Sunny days here in the northwest are too rare to squander at the whim of superstition.
So on Monday, with sizzling cod and the company of friends on my mind, it was clear that the gorgeous day looming just three days ahead could not be forsaken. Thursday it would be.
I got the word out then got to work; this would be the first soiree on my grounds since October and I wanted the place to look good. After suffering a winter’s wear and tear on the lawn, shrubs, flower beds and our extensive gopher village, there was plenty to do. But by some cognitive malfunction developed in my brain during the long dark winter – fungus perhaps – I foolishly added removing the pasture fence to the “do” list. The fence wasn’t much good to me now anyhow, but in the distant past had contained milk goats, cattle, a pig or two, several congenial ponies and one regrettably psychopathic saddle horse that sent several hapless children to the emergency room before being retired to the rendering company.
Those careless, back-to-the-land days have faded like old tie-dye, and with some reluctance I have lately realized it’s high time to move on. For too long the little barn/milking shed I lovingly crafted has suffered under my growing disinterest, steadily decaying until last fall, when, while I was out of town, my wife took it upon herself to wipe all traces of the eyesore’s existence from the land. It was a good call, one that of nostalgia I might never have made. Several years before her intervention, the beautiful pasture gate – one of my finest examples of skill-saw woodcraft – was robbed for duty in another’s fence. Without a barn, a gate, or the motivation to build another, the fence which once partitioned off a third of our property, was rendered useless – forever to be without a population of four-legged prisoners.
So it was last week, about the time that I envisioned frying fish for my gang of gentrified friends, that I concluded the fence had to go. Its utility in the service of a whole-earth catalog agricultural dream had passed. Now, rather than picturing the mugs of herbivores happily chewing their cud, I pictured soothing expanses of lawn unbroken by strands of barbed wire, field mesh, posts and animal feces…er, manure. My vision for the land has matured. Where I once saw hungry animals gathering to feed at the hands of a winsome young wife, I now see a green canvas upon which might be placed artfully arranged groupings of rock, designer grasses or shrubs…or anything that doesn’t poop or require hay, straw, grain, vaccinations, combing, shearing, shoeing, milking or assisted birthing.
The dream, the young woman…all are gone now, only the fence remains. For the time being, it persists straight, true and taught, its posts plumb – held fast in the abandoned pasture’s soil like the teeth in a twenty year-old’s jaw. When not cursing the fence as a hazard and a nuisance for harboring weeds and blackberry shoots from the maw of my lawn tractor, I have admired it. After all, I built it. That it yet stands so true is a measure of me – of the energy and care I put into its construction, and of the durability of the vision I pursued when in cut-offs and a peasant shirt, I first dug the holes, manhandled the posts, and ratcheted the wire into winter tension. But as I resolved to complete its removal before Thursday’s fish-fry, I never guessed my creation would put up such a fight. I should have known. The memory of my eyes stinging with the potent sweat of a young man heaving on the come-along to jack every possible joule of life into the fence should have been a clue. Like a healthy young soldier, the fence wouldn’t die easily.
I was moved by vanity, too, I suppose. I wanted to show off the property’s new look. I wanted to demonstrate to my friends that I was free of out-dated ideals – that I was ready to move on. Clearly, the fence had other ideas.
As predicted, the temperature continued rising through the week. By Wednesday morning when I tackled the fence the sun was already warm by Oregon standards. I began by prying the fencing staples loose from the anchor posts to free the barbed wire on one end, then worked my way down the line. It was simple work: pulling staples from wooden posts and bending open the clips that held the wire fast to the metal stakes. If a person is bent on tidy, respectful deconstruction, they will remove and discard one wire at a time to avoid the maddening tangle formed by several lively strands, each seeking the memory of a coil latent in their molecules – a memory still fresh thirty-four years after the tug of the fence builder’s arm and exposure to all manner of weather.
My mind wandered easily as I worked my way along each wire. The fence was seven strands tall, twenty posts long; this would take a while. As benign and tedious as the task was, rivulets of sweat began to creep from my brow. I fell into a hypnotic routine: staple, staple, clip, clip…staple, and with it I began to slip back in time, to the days I worked to do what I now sought to undo. My nine-year-old daughter skipped happily down from the house to check the progress of the fence that would finally permit her – our – adoption of a friend’s forsaken horse (God forsaken as it turned out). As the sun beat down on my shoulders, I looked up from post number 9 at the sound of a voice, the faint accent of my ex-wife, calling me in for lunch: curried rice with egg.
At post number 16 I struggled to unravel a section of crudely bound wire I had spliced together to repair a break where a cottonwood branch had fallen the night before – the night of December 8, 1980. How could I forget? I remember shooing back the goats and mending the fence the following gloomy morning. It had been difficult to summon enthusiasm knowing that the person, who along with his three mates, was singularly most accountable for raising our spirits after JFK had been slain.
My thoughts were still on the pain of losing John Lennon, when upon releasing one of the staples so sloppily driven that bleak morning, the newly released wire sprung from its post into a scorpion-like form and stung me angrily on the side of my neck. I cursed and grabbed at the threatening wire…I couldn’t blame my fence for its defiance. Only four hours remained till the fish-fry aficionados would begin arriving. I left the fence – now only a line of perfectly aligned naked posts – and shuffled, sweaty, bloodied and punctured, back to the house to begin marinating the fish. The kitchen was quiet…not a trace of curry.
With five pounds of fish soaking up lemon and dry vermouth I returned to the demolition site where I faced 20 defiant fence posts. With the aid of a pickup truck, I struggled to remove nineteen and pile them in the pasture. After two hours only a single post remained: an 8” diameter corner behemoth I had sunk nearly 40” into the ground. Time was tight now. It would be reasonable to return on another day, a rainy one perhaps when the soil had softened its grip. But I was stubborn, there would be no stopping until the fence was history. Of course, I should have know that the fence wouldn’t let me proceed with my gathering without putting up one final defensive rally.
I maneuvered the truck into position and bumped the post this way and that. The wheels spun steam up from the thick May grass. Eventually it appeared to give and I approached the recalcitrant post on foot and put my shoulder to it. I nudged it along the points of the compass, I twisted the stubborn thing in its hole, I placed my shoulder beneath a great spike that once supported a horizontal brace, and lifted with all my strength against the treated cedar. No mere rivulets of sweat glistened as I wrapped my thighs and arms around the obstacle, and with every muscle heaved against the very force that young man had hammered into the post. I found myself drenched in a deep, toxic sweat.
Splinters prickled my arms. Snippets of wire tacked to the posts tore my shirt and lacerated my chest and thighs. The battle against myself was on and I refused to lose. I strained up beneath the spike, pushing with the muscles in my legs and back against whatever friction still help the post to mother earth. I could feel my back beginning to give when the post finally yielded to its maker. Once it was free of the ground, its dead weight pulled me to my knees. I collected myself and dragged the post, like a carcass, to my pile. I turned back to the house for a shower and to whip up a savory batch of batter – beaten up but not defeated.
My wife had just returned from work when I arrived at the door. Her eyes widened at the sight of the blood. I waved her off: “Just prepping the fish, sweetheart.”
In an hour the party was under way. No first beer has ever tasted as good. When everyone was assembled, I fired up two pans of oil on a makeshift table. After drenching the fish in a buttermilk batter and rolling it in a bed of crushed crackers, voila…the fry was on. In the intensity of managing fish for 15 friends, I had forgotten my battle in the pasture; and against the heat of the afternoon had rolled up my sleeves to work magic with the cod and rockfish. As always happens when the cooking becomes animated and the odors irresistible, the party gravitates to the kitchen. In this case the kitchen was a sheet of plywood I had laid across two saw horses, located where the oil could safely fly, and where the chef maintained a view of the proceedings on the patio, the beautiful little creek and a peek through the cottonwoods out into the pasture – a view that without the distracting old fence was pristine.
Sure enough, I found myself cooking for an audience. The conversation on this first warm evening of the year was carefree, broken with laughter at almost anything. I listened as I worked – tossing in a word now and again to appear connected. I chuckled when I overheard my friend Steven telling another guest how he, with the assistance of Arturo and a six thousand dollar investment, had just completed a new fence…for his dogs.
I looked up, “Six grand to keep your dogs in?”
Steven grinned over his wine glass. “No, six thousand bucks so I don’t get into a gunfight with my neighbor.” I think he was serious.
Another friend, Monique, chimed in from the fish-fry gallery. “Don, what in hell’s name happened to your arms?”
Only then did I realize the cuts and bruises from my tussle with post number 20 had matured into impressive red and purple bruises and extensive abrasions up my exposed arms. It looked like I had taken a hit of buckshot from twenty yards.
“Well, I tore down the pasture fence today.” I waved the spatula at the point across the creek where the battle had played out – where the fence had been. The slope from the creek out to the pasture, now uninterrupted by rectilinear human intrusion, flowed like a smooth green river. I sensed pride in my voice.
“Fence? You had a pasture out there?” Monique looked puzzled.
I stared at Monique blankly. She is a psychologist, and I shouldn’t have expected her to be tuned to evidence of my agrarian pursuits, be they current or relics. I shrugged and turned my attention to the pile of posts and coiled wire. The lower ends of the cedar posts were still damp, like blood on a good tooth lost in a fight. They still had years left in them.
I looked again. The fence was pissed!