Excerpt from “Building Fences”

March 13, 2013
Courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/susivinh/

Courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/susivinh/

It was sweltering.  The heat soaked into the ground, until waves shimmered above it, creating a mirage of sorts.  Every summer in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, we are burdened with a few consecutive weeks of heat so stifling it sends the thermometer well into the triple digits.  During the annual heat wave, when most residents are hidden in their air conditioned houses, or up to their noses in the Merced River, we were building fences.  Fences that consisted of metal stakes, and barbed wire; all things that absorb even attract the heat.  The fence stretched on for miles behind us, and the old one for miles ahead of us.  Two hundred acres doesn’t seem that grand until you are counting the perimeter fence posts.  At that point two hundred acres seems an unholy amount of land to own.
The heat waves mesmerized me.  They distorted my vision as I tried to count the fence posts, causing me to lose count again and again.  My throat was parched, my summer skin previously brown, now tinged with red, and tender to the touch.

I can’t recall why we were replacing miles of fencing in the dead of summer.  Why we had waited until the ground had become a hard impenetrable force to reckon with.  Nor why we hadn’t tackled this job the previous spring, when the soil was dark and soft with rain.  Maybe my dad had shoulder surgery that winter or perhaps his ankle surgery.  Maybe he picked up a lot of overtime at the Fire Station the months before.  There had to be a reason for this ill-timed project, but if I demanded an explanation the answer has escaped me.
A freshman in high school, I was more than able to help my Dad with these projects.  It may have been anti-feminist to long for brothers on days like this, being that I was more than capable of doing the work.  But I wished very much that I had them, and that I could stay at home to escape projects such as these.
The heat, the metal, and my Dad’s face the color of a ripe tomato.  Maybe it was the Italian blood that caused his face to turn this shade of red; which stood out in stark contrast to the dark handlebar mustache, beneath the wide brim cowboy hat.  Maybe it was the heat. Or the stream of curse words he muttered in between breaths as he raised the post pounder above his head and slammed in down again. Driving the stake another fraction into the ground.

A post pounder was a tool that seemed to be more trouble than efficient in my mind.  I could barely lift the steel cylinder with the handles on either side.  It was placed over the top of a post, covering the upper two feet.  The handles were grasped on either side, allowing you to raise the cylinder and slam it down on the post.  The weight and force driving the post further into the ground.
But the deafening ring of steel on steel that came in rhythmic sequences was rattling to my nerves.  The cursing red face caused a slow knotting in my stomach to commence.  The oppressive heat wore me out, and made me irritable.  The memory of this day is clear, and vibrant.  Not because of the work, or the heat – there were a lot of days like this growing up on the ranch.  But because of Dylan Shea, my sister four years my junior….

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