THE STONE FENCE
The fence was about half done and it aggravated her. Mildred hadn’t wanted Charlie to build it at all. The fence didn’t hold anything in or anything out. Their house was on a hill off of Highway K in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. You couldn’t see the house or the fence from the road so the fence couldn’t be called decorative either. At some point Charlie had been watching DIY and they showed you how to build a stone fence. He liked the idea. Charlie picked a ridge that flowed away from the house so you couldn’t really see it from the house either. You had to almost stumble over it to even know it was there.
Mildred would watch him work from the east kitchen window as she sipped her coffee. She couldn’t see the fence, but every ten minutes or so he would come back to the pile of rock that you could see, grab a rock and head off back to the fence.
That Sunday Charlie and Mildred had gotten out of bed as usual about six a.m. Mildred made the coffee and as always tried to engage Charlie in conversation. They were sitting at the kitchen table. Him with his Sunday paper clenched in his hands, his knuckles white ,with the paper open and blocking his entire body except for the two bony hands.
“Charlie,” she started, “I talked with Jen and Billy yesterday.” She paused and waited for a response. To Mildred its seemed that Charlie talked less and less as the years went on. The newspaper slowly crumpled to the table before him. He didn’t say a word but looked at her expectantly.
“Well they went to the IMAX theatre in Milwaukee for the first time. You know how they hate going downtown. It was about the story of the Nile, a big river in Egypt. Jen said that they make the camera work so realistic like your flying in a real small plane right down the river! Well, she says it was so real that she got dizzy and sick to her stomach.”
Charlie didn’t comment and Mildred kept talking. She knew that this wasn’t like a real conversation like she had with the kids where all the parties talked. At least she got to hear her own voice. She got up and poured them both some more coffee and then continued.
“Billy says to Jenny that he feels the same way. So then Billy says to Jenny, I wonder what it’s like, you know for sick people. They feel that way all the time. I was just thinking about that Billy says.”
Charlie folded up his newspaper and set it aside before taking a cautious sip of his coffee.
“What I mean is, Billy says, what if there was a disease that caused you to feel this way like twenty four hours a day? Well, you know our Jenny and that mouth. She says jeez Billy you can’t get a little dizzy at the IMAX theatre and then come up with some made up disease that is afflicting the whole country.”
Charlie sat and sipped his coffee without a response.
“Do you have anything to say Charlie,” she asked?
There were a few moments of silence and then Charlie said, “Well, maybe Billy was just trying to ask a what if kind of question. Simple curiosity.”
Mildred raised her eyebrows and looked at him as she took a sip of her own coffee. “Well, Charlie, Jen is our daughter and Billy is about as smart as a nail, if that. You would think that you would take your own daughters side on this.”
She got up and walked out of the room. Charlie watched her walk out and then slowly picked up his paper and started reading again.
When he finished reading the paper Charlie went to the fridge and began to poke around for something to take with him for lunch. There was roast beef left from supper on Saturday. He smiled and sawed off a huge chunk of the dry beef. He salted it liberally and wrapped it in tin foil. He dug around some more and found the colby cheese he broke off a big piece of that, and wrapped it in tin foil, as well. Then he grabbed two Pepsi’s out of the side door and added it all to a small cooler.
He worked the fence all day long and by the time he came back in to the house and had cleaned up Mildred had already gone to bed. He sat at the kitchen table for about an hour drinking coffee and then went to bed himself.
Monday Charlie came down alone. Mildred had gotten into the habit of sleeping in. He ate a light breakfast packed a lunch that consisted of the same ingredients he had eaten for lunch by the fence on Sunday. He grabbed his lunch and headed for his pick-up truck, got in it and drove off.
Mildred was up, however. She crept downstairs and watched from the kitchen window, the curtain carefully held aside just far enough to let her watch him drive away. He pulled out of the driveway his Ford 150 bumping along the cratered driveway.
Charlie was a building inspector for the village of Menomonee Falls. It was a 30 to 45 minute drive to work depending on the traffic and weather conditions. He enjoyed his job, which consisted of inspecting new commercial construction in the city. Charlie had a new strip mall to inspect that morning and he drove directly to the site.
He arrived early and pulled into the parking lot. It was on a frontage rode bordering highway 41/45 that ran north to Green Bay and beyond. The construction site was not paved and as he drove his pick up truck through he kicked up swirls of dust that were quickly grabbed by the wind and sent scuttling towards the highway. He parked by the strip mall that was working its way out of the ground and turned the truck off. Charlie opened his glove box and pulled out a small tablet that had a pen wedged in the spiral binding. He opened his thermos and poured himself a cup of coffee. The smell of the fresh coffee spread through the cab of the truck and Charlie smiled. Should of picked up a glazed donuts at the Citgo on the way in he thought.
Charlie opened the notebook and carefully turned it to the first page. “Talking points for Mildred.”
He sipped his coffee and thought about it. First and foremost the talking points can’t be controversial, he thought. Half the page was filled with scratched out ideas. The other half was blank. He thought some more and sipped his coffee. Finally he scratched the number one in the first open space and then wrote the word, gambling after it. He knew that she liked to gamble. She went twice a year to Vegas with her girl friends and once or twice by bus to Patowatomi. He noted that he had written this one down before and scratched it off. He had actually tried that talking point, but somehow she felt it was an attack on her gambling habit, and had become very defensive and stormed off.
His idea this time was to suggest that they go to Vegas together. He couldn’t see how she could misconstrue his attentions if he took that approach. He carefully put a dash after the word and wrote, “suggest trip to Vegas.”
His next idea had been written down before and scratched out, as well. He carefully wrote down the number two and scratched in the word cats. He had brought up the subject of her three cats before and she had thought he wanted her to get rid of the cats. That wasn’t the case he had just wanted to start a conversation about cats.
This time he would suggest that they get another cat, because Bella, the tabby was getting old. There was no way that she could think he wanted to get rid of the cats if he suggested they get another one. He was very happy with these two ideas and then wrote down the number three. After the number three he wrote the word children. This had also been a talking point, but he had decided to think out of the box and really change up his approach.
Jen, was their daughter and Mildred’s clear favorite. They talked at least two or three times a day and nothing happened in the other ones life without the other knowing about it. It didn’t matter how personal it was, or for that matter, whether it was accurate or not. They shared it all. When he had brought Jen up as a positive talking point, Mildred had become more defensive than ever.
So once again he tried to figure out a way to change his approach. Ask her if Jen and Billy could come to Vegas with them and leave their son Jimmy’s name out of it. Their son Jimmy thought his mother and Jen flighty and didn’t pay them much attention. Of course, Mildred and Jenny didn’t like that and pretty much had written him and his wife Ellie off. Besides Jimmy and Ellie lived in Seattle. Out of site, out of mind. Charlie talked with Jimmy at least a couple times a month, and Jimmy still did come home for Christmas. That was something. Mildred thought that Charlie put Jimmy above Jen, and pointed it out whenever they talked about Jen.
Charlie folded up his note book and shoved the pen back in the binding. He was happy with his thought process and viewed it as a break through. He took his other notebook, the work schedule off the passenger seat and thumbed it open. He turned to the page with today’s work schedule. The only thing written in the space was the job he was on now. Check compliance at the Beldon Realty strip mall on Q and highway forty one. After that, nothing. He took a pen from the folder pocket. He thought awhile and then wrote in office time after the mall inspection entry.
About six months earlier the head of the building inspection department had retired. They had hired a kid right out of college to replace him and then the economy had crashed. It wasn’t a normal crash. It was a crash that landed right in Charlie’s back yard. Real estate. Everyone was losing their houses and not building new ones. Commercial real estate was just as bad. In the years before the crash there had been so much growth in the city that the department had grown to four. The manager and three inspectors. Charlie was the senior inspector and only had about five years until retirement.
The problem for Charlie was that there wasn’t much to do. He really didn’t even need to be here. He came every morning and was more in the way than anything else and they all knew it. The construction crew was just happy to have the work and they were following all the codes to a T. Charlie didn’t need to be there but had no where else to go. From Charlie’s perspective, he had to do something.
The construction workers were just starting to arrive. They looked so carefree to Charlie. They carried their lunch buckets and chewed on the ends of lit cigarettes as they laughed and punched each other playfully on the shoulders. He saw Justin, the job foreman driving his big Silverado and pulling into the parking lot. Charlie got out of his truck to go meet him.
When Charlie got to the truck he noticed that Justin was on the phone so he stood and pushed the gravel around with his work boot. As he passed the time for some reason he thought of Mittens. The grey cat had a habit of following him up to the fence and watching him. He pulled out the small notebook and opened in, under number two, “tell her about mittens and the stone fence”
“Well, Charlie, here again, eh” Justin asked as he got out of the truck and slammed the door?
“Yeah, I just thought there were a few more things I ought to check,” Charlie returned as he carefully folded up the note book and slipped it back into his pocket.
“Charlie, you’re an okay guy and all,” Justin started.
Charlie noticed for the first time how terribly young Justin was. The early morning sun was behind him and glancing eagerly off his shiny grey Silverado. He looked like a twelve year old Charlie thought.
“But,” Justin continued said and snapped Charlie out of his musings. “You’ve been hear everyday since we started Charlie. My other sites. Well, I see the building inspector the first day, and then only when we finish a big thing.”
“Well, I understand Justin,” he said softly, “but here in Menominee Falls we do things a little different. I won’t be in the way. Just take an hour or so of your time.”
“I don’t know if you know this, I’m sure you don’t,” Justine said, “but I graduated from U.W. with your new boss Keith.”
“I didn’t know that Justin, but either way if we get started, well then I’ll just be out of your way sooner and you can get back to work.”
“That’s the thing. See I talked to Keith last night.”
“Oh, about what?”
“Why don’t you give him a call before we get started.”
“Well, I could do that. Did he want me to call him?”
Charlie stood there for a minute in the morning sun. Justine was watching his men begin their days work and Charlie shuffled his feet in the dust.
“Well, I’m going to get to work,” Justine said and without making eye contact with Charlie and he walked quickly away.
Charlie turned and watched him walk away “I’ll make that call and be right with you,” he said just loudly enough to be heard.
Justin just kept walking and Charlie turned and walked back to his own pick-up truck. He sat inside turned the radio to WTMJ and poured himself another cup of coffee. He carefully sipped it, the steam fluttering around his mouth. He picked up his cell phone and dialed Keith’s number.
“Yeah, hey, this is Charlie is Keith in?”
“Sure, I’ll wait.” Charlie took another sip of his coffee and took his small notebook out and set it on the passengers seat.
“Sure, oh, I would say I could be there in 15 minutes or less. Sure easily.”
“Okay, sure. What’s this about Keith?”
“Okay, sure. It can wait until I get there.”
“Okay sure, yeah I’ll wait. See you then.”
Charlie sat and sipped his coffee. When he had finished he looked at the construction site. He loved to watch as the workers crawled all over the structure and in fits and starts it continued to rise further and further from the ground. He backed his truck out and headed to the City offices.
He was waiting outside Keith’s office for about 45 minutes when finally the secretary came over and told him Keith was ready to see him. She was usually friendly but today was very somber as she led Charlie to the office. Charlie went in and Keith indicated a chair with a nod of his head. Charlie sat down.
He noticed for the first time that Keith, not unlike Justin was very young. He looks like he could still be in high school Charlie thought.
“Sorry to keep you waiting Charlie. I’ve been with the mayor off and on, well it seems like mostly on if you get my drift.”
“I do,” Charlie said, “I mean to say, I do get your drift. Crazy times, right?”
“Yeah, that’s and understatement.”
“So what can I do for you Keith,” Charlie asked?
“Well, if it was me sitting there I wouldn’t want anyone to mince words with me,” he began. “So here it is Charlie, we’re letting you go. The mayor is cutting every department. No money and no work.”
Charlie just sat there and stared out the window behind Keith’s desk. “I’ve only got five years to go till retirement and my pension.”
“Yeah, that’s a tough break.”
“A tough break?”
Keith drummed his fingers on the desk. “Anything else Charlie. Any questions I can answer?”
“Is there a last day. Do I get a severance? What about health insurance?”
“Talk to personnel. I should have said that, but basically it goes back to no money. We don’t want to have to do this. Charlie no ones building anything and we have no money. Charlie, there’s just nothing left to inspect. No hard feelings. Good luck,” he said and looked down at his desk and started doing some paperwork.
Charlie sat there for a minute and then slowly got up and left Keith’s office.
Mildred had watched from the kitchen window as Charlie had pulled out of the driveway and headed to work that morning. She waited another five or ten minutes to make sure he wasn’t coming back around because he had forgotten something Then she went out the kitchen door that exited to their garage. She got in her new Chrysler 300 and pulled out of the garage. She flew down the county road all the way to the freeway and then straight to Brookfield, just a little west of Milwaukee and headed towards their bank.
Once at the bank she wrote a check for five hundred dollars, cashed it and got back in her car. By the time she was back on the free way she was just bumping into the last of Milwaukee’s tame rush hour. Mildred took the sixth street bridge and followed the curve down to the large Indian Casino hunched in the valley. She parked in the ramp and went into the casino. She walked directly past the bar and the entrance to the buffet to her favorite slot machine. It was a twelve times five dollar machine and it was almost always open no mater how crowded the rest of the place was. Not many were willing to chance the five dollar machines.
She walked up to the machine and sat down. Mildred never played anything but the maximum. When she had first started gambling she had been playing only one dollar in a three dollar machine and won the jackpot. It didn’t pay out because you would have had to be playing the maximum to win. Since then, always the max bet.
She slipped two five dollar tokens into the machine and lightly ran her fingers over the numbers on the screen for luck then she pushed the spin button. She played steadily, oblivious to what was going on around her.
She never stayed past three p.m. because she wanted a cushion to make sure that she was always home long before Charlie. After about twenty minutes she was down to about twenty five dollars and was already planning on getting out her debit card. Suddenly a twelve times stopped on the first line then a three bar, and another on the third line. “Bing, bing, bing went the machine and the lights started to roll up and down the sides and from the top. The lady beside her clenched her smoldering cigarette in her teeth and mumbled.
“Good for you. It’s good to see somebody win.”
“Wow, thanks,” Mildred stammered. It wasn’t the first time she had won a jackpot but it never failed to exhilarate her. “I have no idea how much it is,” she said as the machine continued to tally the win.
“Look,” said her neighbor, “$2800. I can’t believe it.”
Mildred pulled out the winning ticket and tilted her chair against the machine. “Watch my machine for me, will you?”
“Be glad to,” she replied.
Mildred walked to the nearest cashier and cashed in the ticket. She carefully put all but five hundred into the bottom of her purse and headed back to her machine.
Charlie was sitting in his pick up truck in their driveway just outside the garage thinking over the days events when his daughter Jen’s car pulled in. Her husband Billy was in the car with her and they both got out and stood there looking at him sitting in his truck while the dust settled around their feet.
“What do you suppose he’s doing in there,” Jen asked Billy.
“Well, he can’t help but see us and he’s not getting out of his truck.”
“Shouldn’t he be at work anyway?”
“Well, yeah,” Billy responded, “I don’t know of your dad ever missing a days work.”
“I guess he must be sick,” she conjectured, “that’s it I bet he came home sick.”
They walked over to the truck and opened the door.
“Dad, it’s me Jen and I got Billy here. What are you doing? Are you home sick? Why are you sitting there in your truck?”
He looked at them for a long time and then slowly got out of his truck. He brushed at the dust still lingering to his jeans from the construction site on highway 41.
“What are you kids doing here in the middle of the day?” he asked. “Hi Billy,” he added.
“I took the day off, ah Jen said I should. Did you want some help on the fence this weekend?”
“Maybe Billy, I’ll let you know.”
“We’re here to talk with mom.”
“I don’t see that she’s home. The car is gone and she left the garage door open again.”
“I guess she can’t have gone far. She never goes anywhere. If she isn’t at our house she’s at the store.”
They stood there and looked back and forth at each other and then Charlie reached in and took the keys from his truck and grabbed what was left of his lunch.
“Well, do you want to sit on the porch? I could make some coffee,” Charlie asked?
“Well, Billy, I say we might as well tell dad the whole story,” she said as she looked back at Billy standing dutifully behind her
“He needs to know,” Billy agreed.
They all walked together up to the house and Jen and Billy sat on the front porch while Charlie went in to make the coffee. He came out a few minutes later carrying the pot and three cups. They all had cups with their names on it. That had been Jen’s idea.
“Dad, we have something to tell you,” Billy started.
“Billy you let me handle this,” Jen said as she put her hand on Billy’s chest.
Charlie just looked at them and carefully sipped his hot coffee.
“This ain’t easy to tell you dad, but,” she started and then stopped and just stared at him. He didn’t say a word. He was looking up towards the fence and the dwindling pile of unused rock.
“Do you remember our Disney Land vacation fund?”
He looked back at her.
“We’ve been saving for three years to take the kids to Disney Land. We kept it in a big jar that we hid under the sink behind the brillow pads.” She paused and looked back at Billy. He nodded and she continued.
“You and mom have contributed to it. Just last Christmas we got something like two fifty from you guys. Anyway mom stole it all!”
Charlie looked at her and arched his eyebrows then looked back up towards the ridge.
“So what happened is that we hadn’t added any money to it in a week or two. Then Billy had ten dollars to put in there and he went to do it,” she continued. “It was totally empty, and there sitting next to the brillow pad box was mom’s kerchief. You know the one she carries with her all the time? It had her lip stick on it. The bright red. Then we started thinking. Mom sat the kids about two weeks ago. Just after the last time we put money in.”
Charlie looked at her for a long time and then said, “That really doesn’t prove a thing. She could have dropped that kerchief when she was going after the brillow pads to clean up after lunch.”
“Dad,” she said, “mom clean up?”
“ Now, I don’t disagree with you about the kerchief and neither does Billy,” she said, “right Billy?”
Billy didn’t reply and Jen went on, “So we asked the kids if they had seen anything going on with our Disney fund. I didn’t say did you see something going on when Grama was here. I just asked did you see something going on at any time? You understand what I mean dad?”
He looked back up towards the ridge and sighed heavily.
“So I asked Billy Jr.” she said, “I know he’s only eight. So anyway, I ask Billy Jr. Have you seen anyone under the sink where we keep our Disney money?”
Charlie looked back towards the fence then back to his daughter.
“So Billy Jr. says, just like this dad, as clear as a bell. Yeah, grandma took the money. He really didn’t think nothing of it. He saw her but she didn’t see him. He said she took one of our cloth grocery bags. Dad, we had five of them from Pick and Save and one from Piggly Wiggly. Remember Billy we got the Piggly Wiggly one when they gave em out free with each ham you bought? She took a grocery bag, dumped all the money in it and took it to her car.”
Charlie still had nothing to say and looked back at Jen as she continued.
“So Billy goes to look at the bags. There’s five Pick and Save bags but no Piggly Wiggly bag. So there you have it,” she finished.
Charlie had no response.
“You got nothing to say,” she asked?
He didn’t. They sat there in silence for about thirty minutes. Jen got up and refilled their cups at appropriate intervals. Finally she looked at her dad.
“That money was very important to us,” she said. Jen started to cry and Billy rubbed her shoulder and told her it would be okay.
“It’s not okay,” Jen said. “Do you want to be the ones to tell them kids that they can’t go to Disney World cause their very own Grandma stole the vacation money. Dad I’m talking to you. Don’t sit there like a damn stump up by that stupid fence!”
There was another long silence and then Charlie asked, “How much was it?”
Jen looked at Billy and smiled. “Well dad it was upwards of three thousand dollars.”
“Upward to,” Charlie asked?
She didn’t reply just looked over at Billy as Charlie stood and walked into the house. He went through the house out the back door and to the little shed where he kept all his tools. He pulled his chop saw over and got down on his knees and moved a floor board out of its place. He pulled out a metal box and opened it. The box was full of money. Charlie counted out three thousand dollars and put the rest back in the box and carefully returned the box to his hidey hole.
After taking the money, Jen and Billy couldn’t thank Charlie enough. They were talking back and forth when the wrecker came careening up the driveway and stopped next to Jen and Billy’s car in a cloud of dust.
Two large men jumped out of the truck and emerged from the cloud they had kicked up and they walked towards the porch.
“We’re looking for a Chrysler 300. Is it here,” they asked?
“Well, mom has a Chrysler 300, but she’s not here,” Jen said when it became apparent that Charlie was not going to offer a reply.
“We’ll wait. We’re here for that car.” The two men turned and walked briskly back towards the truck. Halfway there the biggest one of the two turned and pointed his finger up at them and said, “And we don’t want no trouble, ya here?”
“No trouble, no, no trouble,” Jen mumbled. She stood. “Come on Billy. Let’s get outa here. We got to get back to the kids. She turned her back to the men in the tow truck and stuffed the three thousand dollars into her purse. She marched off the porch and towards their car. Billy sat there and looked at Charlie.
“Is there anything I can do to help,” Billy asked?
Before Charlie had a chance to answer Jen’s yelling for him drew him away like to much gravity.
“Billy, didn’t I say were getten out of here,” she asked? “What part of that didn’t you understand Billy?”
Billy looked at Charlie and nodded then headed quickly off the porch and joined Jen. They got in the car and sped away.
Charlie sat on the porch. After about two hours the men in the tow truck left. Charlie watched the heavy truck buck and heave as it bumped its way down the driveway. Charlie thought about how he would have to level that driveway once the fence was done.
At about ten p.m. Mildred pulled in. It had taken her that long to lose all her winnings and more. The cloud of inevitable dust from the dry dirt road caught up with the car seconds after it came to a stop.
“I’ve got nothing to say to you Charlie,” she said as she breezed by him into the house. Charlie sat there all night.
In the morning Charlie got up and stretched. He was stiff and sore and made his way carefully into the kitchen. He went to fridge and smiled to himself when he found one last chunk of the roast beef. He packed his lunch in to the small cooler and headed back towards the front porch.
The tow truck was back and they were hurrying to hook up the 300. It looked like a TV reality show Charlie thought as he made his way up the hill. Charlie worked on the fence slowly. He stopped periodically to study the line he was following and to make sure everything was level. At noon he sat down to eat his lunch. He took a small bite out of the hunk of Colby cheese and then a small bite out of the beef. There was something about the taste of both of them together.
He was facing the house sitting on the unfinished end of the fence when Mildred walked around the corner. She stood in front of him.
“I gambled it all away,” she said, the tears spilling into her wrinkled hands she held to her head.. “I haven’t paid the house payment, well hell, I haven’t paid any payments in months. I borrowed some money from the kids. I see they took my car.”
He didn’t say a thing for the longest time. She stood there in the noon sun the tears drying on her fat cheeks.
Charlie looked down the length of the fence and saw Mittens sitting on the other end.
“What do you think about getting another cat,” he asked?
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