The Man on the Fence by Joel Streicker

The man on the fence appeared out of nowhere one night. One night he wasn’t there, and the next night he was. But how did I know that that collection of grass and feathers and sticks and assorted pieces of junk woven through the chain-link fence was a man and not a woman—or an orangutan, for that matter? Just like a snowman is a man, or a computer programmer is a man, the man on the fence could be nothing but a man. And its maker could be nothing but a man.


I stood under the street light and pondered its man-ness. I detected certain characteristics of the brogrammers in my group: Brandon’s smug smile, William’s scrawny legs, Ken’s thick waist, Bobby’s shock of blond hair standing on end. Could the creator be someone from my office, given to composite portraiture or caricature? Maybe one of the aforementioned? I suddenly felt like I was being watched, and backed out of the circle of light, eyes scanning the darkness without moving my head—I wouldn’t give the bastard the satisfaction of thinking he’d spooked me (a bastard is always a he, isn’t he?)—as I crossed to the other side of the very deserted street.


I looked up at the sky. Lately, the constellations have been rearranging themselves. I can see more stars than ever before, and this greater penetration of the firmament shows me patterns that no one else can see with the naked eye. There’s a burning bush—ablaze but never consumed—and a whale and a celestial tower and many, many snakes, with snaky eyes that bulge and pop and beckon.


The blazing stars gave the illusion of movement, like the neon lights of a marquee, or like a pitch blue blanket plucked from the washer in a dark laundry room, full of the crackle of static electricity. They seemed to tell me that it was time to go home.


Home. A tiny room off the kitchen in an old house at the foot of the hill. Maybe it had been the pantry, or a servant’s room, or the place where the lady of the house locked herself in when she felt like screaming, which is what I feel like doing so often lately. I can feel the anxiety like a tide of needles rising, prickling my belly, my chest, my throat, my head, and then I have to flee the house. I walk the streets until dawn, I converse with the homeless, I comfort the ill, I commune with the entire nocturnal animal kingdom, I search for the secrets hidden in the glare of day that are manifest only at night and only with those with eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell.


Or I return to work and solve problems and create new ones because, after all, that’s what we humans do, we solve problems, and every solution brings with it new problems, and if it doesn’t I create them because, after all, that’s what we do.


My housemates are silly girls, I see that now, but I didn’t see that when I moved in last year. They are in marketing and graphic design and HR. Their dreams begin with Sunday brunch mimosas at a crowded outside table at Barnaby’s, each dish and selfie Instagrammed, and end with a bigger job and a bigger salary and moving in with a boyfriend who has a condo in a building new and shiny and dull and big as an ocean liner.


My boyfriend is a programmer. After work he plays video games and people watch him via the camera on his screen. I have lately been turning up unannounced to interrupt his sessions. At first he complained it hurt his earnings because he didn’t get to finish the game right then and his viewers were disappointed and deserted him and he earned less in ads, but then I came in one night and took my shirt off behind him and was unhooking my bra when he realized what was going on and since then he’s got more viewers especially after he told me to come in and take off my shirt but stop before taking off my bra. I like the idea of faceless masses of men in cyberspace drooling over me and I think we should just do our shit right there, on camera, but he won’t let us, he gets all red-faced when I talk about it, but it doesn’t really matter to me that much just as long as he’s where he should be and as hard as he should be when I need him to be and I need him to be hard more and more lately, and he likes it and he doesn’t, because right afterwards I’m up and dressed and out on the streets again, or back at the office.


The next night the man on the fence has a new head. It’s a purple stuffed dog’s head and, because it was severed from its body straight across the neck and attached flush against the fence, the head faces down, as if the man/dog had lost his keys and were looking for them on the sidewalk. I squat underneath the man/dog and gaze up into his face, which looks surprised, as if he expected to see his keys and not some random woman’s face. But I’m not a random woman, and this isn’t a random man/dog. It’s like the night sky, or the shattered words of the homeless, or the rhythms of my own heart that I can hear right through the muscle and fat and bone—there is a meaning, there is a purpose for those who can stop, for those who can open themselves to the universe.


And I do stop and I do open myself. The man/dog is exhausted, the man/dog is in pain. I want to alleviate his suffering but a voice tells me that this isn’t the moment, that something’s happening on the periphery of my mind’s eye and that it just needs time and it needs space and the voice is in my pocket and not in my pocket and I can’t quite make out the sense of it until I stick my hand in my pocket and pull out my bandana. It’s black with that white swirly pattern of leaves and stars and protozoa and teardrops that is on every bandana on earth, and I fold it carefully and wrap it around the man/dog’s head thinking it might relieve the pain that I sense coursing through his body.


When I come back the next day, the bandana has been unfolded and draped around the man/dog’s hips. I am shocked that I hadn’t realized the man/dog’s private parts were exposed and of course he was looking at them and straining to cover them but his arms are outstretched, pinned against the fence by green twist-ties knotted together end to end.


The other night my boyfriend told me I should text before coming over and that maybe I should think about giving him back the key to his place because he doesn’t like getting woken up at 4:30 am in the freakin’ morning by me even if he gets woken up because his dick is in my mouth. He says he needs his sleep and since when did I become such a nymphomaniac and I tell him maybe one morning he’ll wake up with his dick in my mouth but unattached to the rest of his body and he says some things just aren’t funny and I say some people just aren’t fun, but I don’t give him back the key and he doesn’t insist. Can you just tone it down, dial it back a notch, you know, chill, he asks, but there’s nothing cold about me and no way do I want to cool off my hot hand, my hot head, my hot crotch, especially now when I feel like I’m close to a big breakthrough that I can’t even describe.


My coworkers are impossible. I can make allowances for their little-boy behavior—up to a point—but I cut them no slack for their little boy brains that can’t keep up with me. They say I’m talking too fast, they say they can’t understand what I’m saying, they say I’m not making sense, but if I slow down what I’m saying I can’t keep up with what I’m thinking and if I have to dumb down my ideas so they can understand them then how can all these brilliant ideas I’m having become reality? It’s like I’m explaining how to grab a star and bring it down to earth for lighting and heating, for delighting and astonishing and for a million other uses we haven’t yet dreamed of but which we will certainly dream once we put our minds to it except that their minds are so yoked to the plodding ox of their work assignments and the box that this job puts them in and they’re too pathetic to even look outside the box, let alone think outside the box.


After work, I stop to look at the man/dog on the fence. Someone has placed a ring of barbed wire on his head, pushing the little barbs through his soft purple skin and into his fluffy brain inside. A bouquet of weeds and flowers lies at his feet. Blood drips from the man/dog’s head and onto his feet, darkening the sidewalk, watering the bouquet, which springs to life and plants itself in the pavement at the man/dog’s feet. I can feel eyes on me, but I don’t care. I squat and twist to look into the man/dog’s glassy eyes, which refuse to make contact with me but have a gentleness that I hadn’t noticed before, and a wave of goodwill passes through me and I kneel down in front of the man/dog and I bow my head. My eyes are open and the pattern of the blood on the sidewalk looks familiar and I raise my head and it’s the same pattern as the stars, which is the same pattern as the swirls in the bandana, and I hear a noise behind me and when I get up I see a small man in tight black leather pants and a black t-shirt standing in the middle of the street—a street by the bay, in an industrial neighborhood that will, two years from now, be filled with tech office buildings like mine, but until then is mostly empty during the day, totally empty at night except for the homeless, singly and in bands and tribes, pushing shopping carts to their secret sleeping quarters in the lee of buildings, shipping containers, fences, in empty lots and on abandoned piers and at the foot of shipping docks.


The man’s glasses glint under the street light. His arms are folded across his chest, hands jammed under his armpits, rocking back and forth on black boots. I see you’re a follower of the son of dog, he smiles, approaching. He’s skinny but strong, the veins on his arms popping. There’s no truth to the rumor that this is Marmaduke, he says, his voice gravelly, who was, after all, a Great Dane, and the son of dog is clearly not of Danish heritage, nor is he Marduk, because there’s nothing Babylonian about him and he’s purely good, not both good and evil, which is more than you can say about Murdoch, Rupert.


But I haven’t introduced myself, he says, and bows deeply, his hair is long and stringy and sparse, barely covering the top of his skull, and when he looks at me again he’s grinning. I hold out my hand and he takes it in his, which is filthy black, and he kisses it. He doesn’t mention his name.


He gives me back my hand and I feel it tingle. The man looks about my dad’s age, maybe older. Maybe I say this out loud or he’s reading my mind because he tells me his own father was a bastard literally and figuratively. I only learned this when my grandfather died, he says, and I found his marriage certificate and I figured out that my grandmother was pregnant with dear old Dad when she married Grandfather. In those days, what they did was a horrible sin; I doubt they told the priest or anyone else. Which may explain why Grandfather spent his anniversaries at the bar and why my father howled with rage when I told him the truth about his birth.


This makes me think about my own father, a petty man, a man of petty affairs, the Minister of Petty Affairs, a man who would never have an affair because he’s too petty, my mom must have picked him at peak ripeness and from that moment he began shriveling up until he became the desiccated half-living carcass my sister and I have always known, harping about the lights left on in empty rooms and toothpaste tubes thrown away still containing a toothbrush-head’s worth of toothpaste and a million other inconsequential things upon which he has built himself a throne of superiority from which to look down on us unworthy mortals and the man says, Yes, yes, I know, I know all about it, and I can see his eyes glowing orange and they begin to pop and sparkle like the stars and his forearms are bands of muscle slithering toward me like snakes and then I’m halfway down the dark street, running, running.


When I pass by the man/dog the next night I see a dark mass hanging on the fence next to him. I approach, touch it. It’s a wig, the fake hair black and silky and thin under my fingertips. It is a sign: It is not good that the man/dog should be alone. I cast about frantically for materials to bring to life a companion for the man/dog. I scour the streets, reconnoiter empty lots, root through garbage cans and recycling bins until I’ve gathered all I need. By the time the sun drags itself above the hills on the other side of the bay the woman has taken the shape I’ve given her. Plastic bottles and bits of cloth and a pair of cast-off high-heeled shoes and a handbag and the remains of unidentifiable machines and electronica. Under her wig a doll’s head lolls, at her core a plastic bag full of dirt scraped from an empty lot. I look upon my work and I know it’s fucking awesome.


I stay late at work that night. I’ve been on a roll all day, everything I touch turns to gold, silver, sparklers light my way to the bathroom, to the conference room, I’m so full of ideas that I feel them coming out my fingertips like beams of light. When I finally leave, the wind whips my hair around my face as if lashing me and I love it because it’s how my soul feels, storm-tossed, wild, capricious.


When I get to the fence there’s confusion. The woman is draped over the man/dog. She clasps his outstretched hands in her own, her baby face gazes saucily over her shoulder at me. The man emerges from the darkness behind me and walks slowly into the cone of light under the lamppost, chanting softly, melodically, hypnotically, in a language that might be Latin or Sumerian or Martian, and he takes my hand in his and places the other around my waist and we begin to sway slowly together, two stars waltzing around a single fixed point that doesn’t remain fixed but meanders up and down the street in front of the man/dog and the woman, who applaud appreciatively, and above us the stars careen down their ancient paths and I feel a sudden updraft and then we are there, up above, among them, home.



Joel Streicker is a writer and literary translator living in San Francisco. His fiction has been published in Hanging Loose, The Opiate, Great Lakes Review, Burningword, Kestrel, New Flash Fiction Review, Gravel, and Futures Trading. His English-language poetry has appeared in the California Quarterly, and his Spanish-language poetry has been featured in El otro páramo (Bogotá, Colombia). His book of Spanish-language poetry, El amor en los tiempos de Belisario, was published by Común Presencia (also located in Bogotá) in 2014. In 2011, he won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his work with Argentine writer (and Man Booker International Prize nominee) Samanta Schweblin, and in 2012 he was awarded a residency at Omi Translation Lab to work with Schweblin. His translations of Latin American fiction of such writers as Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and Tomás González have appeared in numerous journals, including A Public Space, McSweeney’s, and Words Without Borders.