Sherman Alexie
Sherman a Alexie’s Substack Audio
Good Fences - First Draft

Good Fences - First Draft

Short fiction

The next door neighbors, a young unmarried couple, had let their blackberry bushes overgrow their fence like lazy sentinels and drop pounds of fruit onto Jennifer’s lawn.

The berries rotted and drew aggressive yellowjackets. During college, Jennifer had been wasp-stung on the lip at an English Department picnic and ended up in the ER with respiratory distress and a face so swollen that her skin threatened to split.

"I'm allergic to bee and wasp venom,” Jennifer had politely said multiple times to her next door neighbors, Marilyn and Charles. And they, seemingly chagrined, had always promised to take care of the problem. They were friendly, good for a driveway wave or hello. They weren’t the kind of neighbors who safeguarded an emergency pair of Jennifer’s house keys. But they were courteous enough to notify the neighborhood when they were going to host larger parties that might get a little loud—they had an extensive and enviable backyard and deck. Jennifer had never attended one of their parties. The crowd, like Marilyn and Charles, seemed to all be young and unmarried. Not Jennifer’s demographic. So she wouldn’t have been comfortable anyway. As homeowners, the next door neighbors were diligent about upkeep. Their house and lawn were in great shape except for those goddamn blackberry bushes. Jennifer was respectful each time she asked them to trim back the branches. But nothing changed. She had never been confrontational—her secular parents had nonetheless insisted on a perpetual and cloistered silence in her childhood home—so Jennifer could only fume silently.

She’d thought to enlist the help of other people on the block. After all, there were five or six surrounding houses that were also besieged by the yellowjackets. But Jennifer was white and her careless next door neighbors were a Native American couple. Charles and Marilyn were from the local tribes. Coastal Salish. Orca and salmon people. Like everybody else in the country, Jennifer had seen the viral videos of white women harassing people of color. So how could she organize any neighborhood action without being seen as a racist? Without being filmed and then tried and convicted before the juries and hanging judges of Twitter? How could she make demands? And she absolutely couldn’t call anybody official to intercede. There was no such thing anymore as an ordinary dispute. Each current conflict, no matter how small, contained the weight of every previous conflict in American history. So Jennifer decided that the only safe thing to do was stay out of her dangerous backyard and wait for winter.

But, on a Saturday September morning, Jennifer’s anger grew as she stood at her kitchen window and counted seventeen yellowjackets feasting on the fallen berries. She also drank six glasses of wine. Her house was clean. Three bedrooms and two baths. Her divorce was almost final. She’d left her husband for a man who’d then abandoned her after a few months. She counted two, three, four more yellowjackets. Then she put on two sweaters, a rain jacket, two pairs of jeans and gloves, and snow boots. Duct-taped her pants tight around her ankles and her sleeves around her wrists. She covered her head with a ski mask and goggles. She looked like a Knight of the Yard Sale. In the garage, she grabbed a shovel and bucket. Then she waddled out to those wild blackberry bushes.

She quickly scooped up three shovelfuls of berries, along with soil and grass, and dumped them into the bucket. She’d fully expected to be stung at least once. Her mobile phone and EpiPen was sitting in plain sight on the kitchen table. She’d left the backdoor open. If needed, she was ready to run back into the house, inject the life-saving Epinephrine into her thigh, and dial 911.

But she didn’t get stung and she took that as a sign from God. Or the Devil. Or whatever deity was in charge of vengeance. Or maybe, she thought, the yellowjackets themselves approved of her mission.

Jennifer dropped the shovel and carried the bucket over to her neighbor’s house. She walked up their front steps and hurled the blackberry sludge against their front door. Then she jabbed the doorbell five, six, eight times.

An irritated Marilyn opened the door.

“What do you—“

She saw the blackberry mess, look at Jennifer, and immediately understood what had happened.

“What the fuck, Jennifer,” she said. “What is wrong with you?”

Jennifer had wanted to issue some great proclamation or deliver some Shakespearean monologue about social obligations. But she could only repeat her most basic demand.

“Take care of your blackberry bushes! Take care of your blackberry bushes! Take care of your blackberry bushes!”

“Are you crazy?” Marilyn asked.

“Am I crazy? Am I crazy? Maybe I am. Maybe I am, Marilyn. Are you gonna film me now and put me on the fucking Internet? Are you gonna call me a racist?”

“What are you talking about?” Marilyn asked. “I’m not gonna film you. I don’t think you’re racist. I think you’re a goddamn asshole.”

"I get stung and I could fucking die!" Jennifer said. "Do you want me to fucking die?"

"You weren't fucking worried about stings when you picked up those goddamn berries, were you?"

Marilyn slammed the door shut. Jennifer roared back to her house. Over the next few hours, as she sobered up, Jennifer’s shame grew suicidally large.

At some point, Marilyn and Charles cleaned their front door. And they left a handwritten bill for the cleaning supplies tucked beneath Jennifer’s welcome mat. She crumpled the bill into a ball and threw it toward the street. Over the next few weeks, Jennifer’s shame and anger became fraternal twins.

Then, one month after the blackberry confrontation, Jennifer opened her mailbox to find a padded envelope addressed to the neighbors. A mistake by the mailman. She hesitated for a moment but then opened the misdelivered package to find a new wedding ring.

Jesus, Marilyn and Charles, she thought. Who buys their wedding ring through the mail?

Late that night, she took a ladder, leaned it against her fence, climbed up, and slid the wedding ring onto the tallest blackberry branch.

There, Jennifer thought. If you cut the branches then you'll find your ring.

Back in her house, she scrubbed her hands hard. She felt sticky from touching the blackberries and branches. She could still feel the weight of the blackberry bucket. She still felt like somebody was filming her.

Jennifer wondered if she’d ever feel clean again.

Sherman Alexie
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