It came to me yesterday, when I was hanging my clothes up to dry. I was just standing there in the backyard, fumbling with the clothespins and sweating in the triple-digit weather, when I noticed a couple of Nerf balls (or somesuch) up against the shed. This isn't an uncommon sight; the neighbors' kids are forever throwing baseballs and tennis balls and handballs over the wall. The kids have long ago stopped asking for them - I throw them over when I notice them, but I rarely go out back as it is, and my parents' attitude is that it belongs to them once it touches their property - so they tend to pile up. And yet this time, seeing them struck a chord, and I remembered someone I haven't thought of in a long time. She was The Girl Behind The Fence.
We lived on the east side of Mesa back then, in a neighborhood which, while not rife with crime and poverty, was still rather poor. Our house was a cheaply-built mobile home - the kind you'll see half of strapped to a Mack truck going 30 on the highway, with "oversized load" warnings on the back that the driver has clearly forgotten about himself. The company that made it was, oddly enough, the reason we moved to Arizona; Dad was an electrician, and they had offered him a job. When we got here, my folks discovered there had been a "misunderstanding" - no job after all. Whoops.
When I think about the old house, there are three main memories. I remember the "chicken tree", so named because the woman who lived on the corner raised a number of hens, and for some reason they all chose to stay up in this old tree that, as I recall, was nearly leafless. I remember all the various fruits my parents grew on our meager land - trees full of plums, oranges, apricots, apples and nectarines, a small plot of soil for strawberries; even a pomegranate tree (which rarely grew fruit, probably due to the climate). And I remember my father working on building a ramada, and falling at least ten feet flat on his back onto solid concrete, and simply getting up without having any serious injury.
What I don't remember - at least not often - is The Girl Behind The Fence.
I cannot, for instance, remember her name.
This isn't a story of jilted romance. In case I forgot to mention it, this was the mid-80s, and I was only four or five years old at the time. I don't need to explain that love was the furthest thing from my mind at that age.
What I may need to explain is that in this neighborhood, there were no walls. Even the poorest neighborhoods today seem to all have walls (or at least wooden fences) between lots, but all we had was chainlink. There was no more privacy in your backyard than in your front, and it was just as easy to talk to someone through the fence as face to face.
And that's how I met her, when her family moved in to the house south of mine - through the chainlink. Children become fast friends when they have noone else. She was new to the city, and I was as unpopular as I've always been, so friends we were. And we talked, and laughed, and played --
But always, always from behind the fence.
You may wonder how two children can play when they're separated by chainlink. Well, there's always make believe. And I remember playing a sort of volleyball with one of those super-bouncy balls you can get at Wal-mart or Target for a dollar and some change. And one time in particular, I remember that one of the chicken tree's hens got herself stuck between the two fences (one owned by my family, the other by my friend's, standing side-by-side with less than a foot of distance between them), and we chased it back and forth as it ran in terror, desperately trying to get out from between the fences (and away from my dog, who was running along with us).
But I do find it strange, and somewhat striking, that in all that time our friendship existed with that barrier. I'm not sure if it simply never occurred to us that we could go out front or that one of us could come to the other side, or if one of our parents for some reason forbade it (my own parents have always been stiflingly overprotective), or what. I don't recall ever seeing her at school - perhaps she went to a private school, or more likely, was home-schooled.
In fact, the only time I ever recall being within reach of her was at her birthday party. The only thing I remember about the whole affair is that her mother gave me a gumdrop, and I, not knowing what it was, swallowed it just as any other candy. (The discomfort caused by this incident left me in mortal fear of chewing any gum for years to come.)
I suppose I could come up with some grand metaphor about how this is all tied in with the crumbling of community, or the breakdown of society, or the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. But that would be making it something it isn't. This is just a story about a friend who I knew from afar, one of hundreds of people who've passed in and out of my life. We all have people like that in our past - half-remembered shadows lacking forms, lacking faces. Forgotten as they may be, those people had an effect on our lives; they are part of our history.
I can't remember the sound of her voice. I have only the barest recollection of what she looked like. I can't recall a single word she ever said to me. And yet, right at this moment, I would give much to know what became of The Girl Behind The Fence.